Creating Crime, Criminals to Justify Deadly Force

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”—and this I learned while teaching high school (more than) once when I supported a new school policy designed to encourage our students to come to class each day prepared, specifically having done their homework.

Let me offer some context before explaining further.

I taught in the rural high school I had attended, and this was a rules-based public school, reminding many people of the strictest private schools.

Students took each year a handbook test, which they had to pass before they could begin their classes. We had a demerit system and, eventually, in-school suspension—including automatic demerits for being late to class, chewing gum, and having to use the restroom during class.

I found the climate of the school and the rules themselves to be unnecessarily harsh, counter-educational; therefore, I had posted on my wall instead of the required classroom rules, this:

“Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” – Henry David Thoreau

But we also were a relatively collaborative school in that the principal came to the department chairs and sought support and consensus for changes or major decisions. One of those changes was creating and implementing homework center.

If students failed to have homework completed for any class, teachers turned those students in (we had elaborate 3-carbon-copy forms for the task), requiring that students serve homework center for 30 minutes after school and present the required homework.

Of course, the intent of homework center was to encourage students to complete their homework.

However, not long after the practice was implemented, we discovered several key things: (i) the number of students assigned to homework center swelled quickly, (ii) students began to embrace showing up for class without homework, openly declaring they would use homework center to complete the assignment, and (iii) students attending homework center tended to be the same students over and over (similar to what we observed with in-school suspension), but not the same students typically in the discipline process.

I also learned a larger lesson: Once we instituted homework center, no matter how much evidence we had that it did not work—that it actually created new problems—no one in authority was willing to end it.

School rules and laws create the boundaries of what constitutes infractions or crime and who is a delinquent or a criminal.

Schooling as preparation for life, in its ugliest form, is how we determine what rules/laws count and who suffers the burdens of both.

As I have noted before, the Reagan administration provided fertile ground for education reform and mass incarceration, increasing racial and class inequity in schools and society.

And just as Berliner and Biddle recognized the manufactured crisis of education reform, we are now faced with the social realities in which crime and criminals are being created in order to justify deadly force.

While we witness a cycle of black young males being shot and killed while unarmed (or holding something mostly harmless but appearing harmful), across the U.S. marijuana is being legalized so that mostly white people can now build businesses around the once-illegal recreational drug that has been the cause of thousands upon thousands of people being labeled as criminals—disproportionately young black males who did not use or sell at higher rates than affluent whites, but suffered the greater weight of arrest, prosecution, and sentencing.

This is no abstraction: One day marijuana possession makes you a criminal; the next day, an entrepreneur.

Too often in the U.S. crimes and policing those crimes are the mechanisms for determining who we demonize (police claimed Tamir Rice looked 20, when the boy was 12; Darren Wilson claimed Michael Brown “look[ed] like a demon”) in order to justify the most extreme responses to created criminals.

Often we are left with no hard proof for what happened when a police officer charged with protecting the public shoots and kills a person later shown to be unarmed, innocent.

We are left then with seeking ways in which those realities are less tragic, and we must consider at least this: What if deadly force was automatically reviewed with complete transparency? And what if police officers in the U.S. were trained differently, as they appear to be in other countries where deadly shootings are rare or nearly non-existent?

Blacks and people in poverty are disproportionately innocent victims in the criminal justice system designed and implemented by the privileged.

That system creates crimes, creates criminals, and creates the powerless who then behave in ways that work in the service of those in power to point to those powerless taking any power they can as justification for the system, an often dead-end and deadly system for those powerless.

The U.S. was born out of lawlessness—and countless crimes against the humanity of native and enslaved peoples. Instead of humility, we have adopted idealism and arrogance, failed in the exact way Thoreau criticized: Too often foolish people with power making foolish laws, creating crimes and criminals.

In “We Can Change the Country,” James Baldwin confronts the most damning creation before us:

It is the American Republic—repeat, the American Republic—which created something they call a “nigger.” They created it out of necessities of their own. The nature of the crisis is that I am not a “nigger”—I never was. I am a man….

Now there are several concrete and dangerous things we must do to prevent the murder—and please remember there are several million ways to murder—of future children (by which I mean both black and white children). And one of them, and perhaps the most important, is to take a very hard look at our economic and our political institutions….

We have to begin a massive campaign of civil disobedience. I mean nationwide. And this is no stage joke. Some laws should not be obeyed. (The Cross of Redemption, pp. 60, 61)

Baldwin recognized that who controls laws creates crime and criminals, and he also recognized “a gesture can blow up a town”—although those left mostly unscathed are the ones making the rules leading to those gestures.

2 comments

  1. robthequiet

    But what is actually going to shift the underlying economic oppression? Is it creating funding for jobs? Is it re-tooling schools to give community support by feeding the unfed and sheltering the homeless? How do the politicians end up in a place where they face the greater shame of failure of conscience vs. the lesser shame of preserving the status quo of their “constituency?” How do we make these meet? I’m keeping my eyes on one project: http://daisycollective.com/

  2. Mary Turck

    Thanks – excellent analysis from schools to criminal justice system. I appreciate your extensive citations to James Baldwin in recent posts.

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