On March 1st, 2018 Michelle Alexander gave a Keynote Lecture at Marist College Nelly Goletti Theatre in Poughkeepsie New York, on the subject of mass incarceration of people of color in the United States.
The Lecture was moderated by Dr. Tia Sheree Gaynor Assistant Professor of Public Administration and Dr. Joycelyn Smith-Lee Assistant Professor, of Psychology both African-Americans.
I had the privilege of attending the lecture with my wife Cheryl and meeting Michelle Alexander a woman whose work I have admired. It was interesting to hear Ms. Alexander speak to her fears at the prospect of not being taken seriously in her advocacy. Michelle Alexander is a writer, civil rights advocate, and a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary.
She is best known for her 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Ms. Alexander spoke to her misgivings at the start of her social activism around the time then Illinois Senator Barack Obama was running to be President of the United States and the attendant feeling of euphoria which abounded at the time, particularly in the African-American community.
Professor Alexander mused that before Obama was elected she thought to herself that if Obama was elected no one would listen to her griping about the broken racial system in America.
She spoke about how difficult it was to get anyone to listen to her when she first broached the subject.
Ms. Alexander talked about the beginning of her social activism at ACLU, there as an Attorney, she represented victims of racial bias. It is at this juncture of her life she revealed, that she had an awakening.
She talked about whilst there she was constantly suing Police Departments in the State of California in the late 1990s for racial profiling or (DWB) driving while black a term which was not well known at the time.
DWB was said to be a figment of people’s imagination according to Police and their supporters she quipped.
According to her, a hotline was set up so that victims of police abuse could report their encounters. The system crashed as a result of the volume of calls.
One young black man had gone to great lengths to document the multiple times he was stopped by police, searched, roughed-up, made to lie spread-eagled on the sidewalk, and otherwise abused. His documentation including date and time, badge numbers of the offices involved in stacks and stacks of paper against the Oakland Police. Ms. Aleaxnder spoke to her sense of excitement at the prospect of representing this particular young man.
And then he revealed that he was a felon.
She contemplated how the narrative would be framed, how the police and media would frame the talking points around the vigilance of the police doing their jobs effectively by keeping tabs on a convicted drug felon.
Who would care about her advocacy on this issue? The young man was enraged when she told him that she could not represent him.
“I was framed they planted drugs on me I was forced to take a plea despite my innocence or risk going to prison for years”.“You are no different than the police he accused”, he tore up the sheets of detailed data he had documented and stormed out.
According to Ms. Alexander seven months later a media report broke a news story naming the very same officer as having planted drugs on innocent young black and brown men. Michelle Alexander spoke at length on the state of justice in America, arguing that the Portugees model works better than the one we have here at home.
Present at the lecture were individuals who did serious prison time as a result of America’s war on drugs and are now picking up the pieces of their lives in an effort to move on.
Ms. Alexander bemoaned the way the crack epidemic was viewed as a punishment of criminals unworthy of empathy while the opioid epidemic is now viewed as a public health issue. The difference of course between the two being race.
After the lecture, Ms. Alexander signed copies of her book the new Jim crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, for those who brought their copies of her 2010 book to the lecture as well as for those who purchased copies of her book in the hallway.
My wife and I stood in the long snaking line for what seemed an eternity before we finally got to her. She smiled and chatted with us as she did with everyone else. She was extremely gracious with her time even though it was well into the night.