Let’s play a game: is the following quote attributable to (A) Mumia Abu-Jamal, former Black Panther and now political prisoner currently serving life without parole at State Correctional Institution–Mahanoy, or (B) sitting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Republican with a nasty reputation who is embroiled in a potentially career ending scandal?
We will end the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse. We will make drug treatment available to as many of our non-violent offenders as we can and we will partner with our citizens to create a society that understands this simple truth: every life has value and no life is disposable.
I’d forgive you if you got this one wrong. That’s an excerpt from Christie’s second inaugural address delivered after he was sworn in as governor again yesterday (January 21). It’s surprising on a few levels. Usually when Republicans are engaged in anti-drug war/incarceration rhetoric, it has more to do with a desire to reduce government spending, not any type of compassion for the people who are being thrown in these cages. It’s also genuinely shocking that a potential presidential candidate, of either major party, would think it wise (in a major speech, no less) to push back against the idea of incarceration as an answer to the so-called “drug problem.”
Now, it’s true, as Radley Balko points out in The Washington Post, “Christie is facing a major, career-threatening scandal right now. It’s entirely possible that this is an attempt at deflection.” That can’t be ignored. It also can’t be ignored that one of the country’s most visible politicians has provided an opening to talk about one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time.
Which brings me back to Mumia. The Feminist Wire is running a weeklong series centered around the issue of mass incarceration and including new works from Mumia Abu-Jamal. What Mumia did say about mass incarceration and the current model of our criminal justice system:
Social structures—courts, police, prisons, etc.—have within them a deep bias about what constitutes crime and what does not. Any social structure is a product of its previous historical, economic and social iterations, and these previous forms bear significant influence on later forms. The present system, in addition to being increasingly repressive, is the logical inheritance of its racist, hierarchical, exploitative past, and it is also a reactive formation to attempts to transform, democratize, and socialize it.