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Issue Date: February 9, 2003

Criminal Justice

Manning Marable, 52
Van Jones, 34

With 2.4 million African Americans either incarcerated, on parole or on probation, the criminal justice system continues to play an increasing role in the black experience. Yet very little research has been done on the effects of massive incarceration -- and even less on strategies for turning the trend around. In response to this crisis, last year Manning Marable, director of African-American studies at Columbia University, launched the Africana Criminal Justice Project, a component of which is a resource base for "the development of civic capacity building and leadership training among former prisoners." Van Jones, a Yale Law graduate and youth organizer, founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco in 1996 to find policies for reducing black imprisonment. We spoke with the two scholar-activists about changing the system.

Marable: When I first heard about the Baker Center, it resonated profoundly with me. I wrote a book, Black Leadership, in 1998 that describes charismatic black politics. It's top-down politics, where you have an individual -- Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph -- who led through oratory and political acumen but did not cultivate the grass-roots leadership necessary to make real changes from below. A critic of that was Ella Baker, the godmother of the modern black freedom movement. She wrote an essay in 1960 saying the problem we have in our movement is the lack of group-centered leaders -- in other words, leadership that is catalytic, that has the capacity to encourage citizens to be empowered around issues that impact their daily lives.

Jones: We've been applying a concept borrowed from South Africa: "Govern from below." We take high school students and college-age people who've decided they don't care about anything and put them through workshops and educational programs so they can become advocates for themselves. We have a reputation for showing up with several dozen young people at city government meetings and turning the mic over to these young people, who then use hip-hop and poetry to describe the conditions they'd like to see changed in their community.

Marable: What's the general reaction?

Jones: Policymakers are usually blown away by the passion and creativity, but also by the pain these young people are speaking about. We've shown we can win reform, not because I have a law degree, but because dozens of young people have truth on their side and can speak it.

Marable: A lot of this is about mass disfranchisement. Anywhere from one-third to half of all adults who are black are not even in the paid labor force. In communities like Harlem, the largest employer is the fast-food industry. The older civil rights leadership, with a few notable exceptions such as Julian Bond, has not yet effectively spoken to new realities that are destroying an entire generation of young black women and men. Not fully and not effectively. That's why I'm so hopeful about this new generation emerging, like Jeff Johnson of the youth division of NAACP. It's this kind of leadership we desperately need to solve the new problems of the neo-political liberal age.

Jones: Amen. When we talk about neo-liberalism, essentially we have a system where there are no rules for the rich and no rights for the poor. Politics of liberation in the new century that [exists] in terms of integration vs. segregation is anachronistic. It has little to do with what's happening today. So we raise new slogans: "schools, not jails"; "books, not bars"; "jobs, not jails." Whereas people in the '60s were protesting on campuses, we have a generation of blacks and Latinos protesting for their rights to get on campuses and have the opportunity to learn. The dynamic is very different. The people we see on a daily basis, when they go to high school the police cars are already there, because they are stationed there. If they get into a push-and-shove match in the hallway, they don't go to the principal's office, they go to the precinct in handcuffs. That's the reality were dealing with: over-policing, overincarceration. Our job is to say, 'Look, we want safe communities.' And the safest communities are not the ones with the most police. The safest communities are the ones with the best jobs and education. We want what works in the suburbs. We want that for our communities. It's a very different fight. At the same time it's a continuation of the fight that started years ago.

Marable: That's right. Every generation must find its own voice and use culture in creative ways to speak to the new realities. In the 1960s you had the Freedom Singers of SNCC. You had [anthemic] songs such as "We Shall Overcome", and now the 21st-century hip-hop generation increasingly uses the most progressive currents as a way of interrogating and challenging the prison-industrial complex, and structural racism, discrimination based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation. [I understand you have] developed a record label, Freedom Fighter Music.

Jones: Yes, we've had one for a little more than a year. Our second CD is coming out this year.

Marable: Fantastic. Then we need to hook up, because one of the things we're doing in the Africana Criminal Justice Project in New York is we're collecting material from dozens of former prisoners and constructing a black theory of justice based upon the writings, speeches and art of thousands of brilliant African Americans who find themselves enmeshed in this prison industrial complex. One of the best and most effective ways to reach this hip-hop generation is through arts education.

Jones: I don't have a problem with the U.S. being a world leader. But I do have a problem with the direction we're leading the world in now. Let's stop leading the world in incarceration, pollution and militarism, and start leading in investing in young people and human rights and a green economy. Then I don't think we'll have the resentment we have around the world.

Moderated by David Thigpen

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