Criminal justice or criminal justice? This is the question posed, and answered, by American University professor Jeffrey Reiman in his monumental work, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. Far from the criminal justice system’s announced goal, to protect us and reduce crime, Reiman asks us to “look through the looking glass” and see a system that does not seek to protect us from the crimes people fear or to reduce crime; rather, the system seeks to maintain a stable, visible population of criminals in order to project a distorted image of those that threaten our societal well-being.
The debate is over: the drug war does nothing to curb the drug problem, it only enhances it. There are no attempts to reduce the serious sources of crime — notably poverty. Further, Reiman shows us that the soft, often non-existant, treatment of white-collar crime is unwarranted: it’s of comparable damage — and more — when compared to the crimes people fear using the most essential indicators (loss of life, injury, loss of property, etc.) Finally, America’s criminal justice system is full of class and racial bias from start to finish — from what gets designated as a “crime” to who gets stopped, arrested, indicted, charged, and sentenced.
The end result is a distorted image of crime: not only do we imprison five times as much of our population as the rest of the Western world, males born in 2001 are estimated to be five times as likely to end up in jail if they’re black rather than white — and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Reiman explains the presence of such a system, not through some sort of “conspiracy” amongst elites, but through mere arguments of “historic inertia:” Those with the power to change the system are under little pressure to do so — it’s something they can literally ignore. This is something we were out to change yesterday.
Last night’s (November 25th) protest in Houston’s Third Ward, part of a nationwide movement known as “#IndictAmerica”, was a real community effort: I estimate some 300-400 made it out to the event — but it’s a bit like the child’s game of estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar. Indict America was more than a name, it was the message — the indictment of a criminal justice system. People were protesting not just the tragic death of Michael Brown and the ongoing events of Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was shot six times in the street while unarmed, but of an entire system of injustice — a fact the mass media incessantly works to keep from the watchful eyes of the public.
The march began in MacGregor Park, just outside of the University of Houston (pictured above.) As I arrived, a little after 5 p.m., no less than three helicopters circled overhead; the sound of blades remained a backdrop throughout the night’s proceedings. Numerous news vehicles, representing various local news outlets, were gathered in the parking lot. This was no surprise: The night before a local N.B.C. affiliate broadcast news — time and location — of the event.
After gathering to exchange words of indignation, not incitations of violence, protestors immediately made a destination of a nearby intersection — Old Spanish Trail and, quite aptly, M.L.K. Boulevard. I skirted around and discovered a stack of signs in the pavilion — a girl told me they were provided by Rice students. The one I decided upon: “Don’t Shoot!” After shutting down the intersection — “Shut it down for Michael Brown!” — for a period of time, police moved in on foot and horseback to clear a lane; in the case of the horses, not before nearly running me over, walking past in two columns, inches on either side of me, when I wasn’t looking in their direction. As I looked for a vantage point, I began to notice the extreme volume of police that were actually sent to the demonstration: dozens of police cars, many forming a line almost as far as I could see down Old Spanish Trail.
After traversing all four corners of the intersection, we marched down M.L.K. to Wheeler, to Cullen, to Alabama — the University of Houston area. The sun had finally set. Still, I was becoming more cognizant of the group in the lighting of the university. We were well into the hundreds, and it was a very demographically diverse group: men, women, white, black, hispanic, asian, arab, the young, the old, etc. Earlier, at the first intersection, I even recognized a prominent University of Houston professor (once, a graduate student told me she thought this professor was a racist — so I had to smile at this encounter.) Many of the chants were started by those with microphones, others by simple shouting. “No Justice, No Peace!” “Black lives matter!” One man tried on several occasions to start a “death to the enemy” chant, but was joined by nobody and received many unmistakable “looks”. There were drummers, banners, and, of course, the ubiquitous police presence.
We made our way down Smith Street, turned, and entered the area surrounding Texas Southern University. Many of the bystanders on Smith, near T.S.U., and beyond were clearly happy to see our congregation. Some honked, others waived, and some shouted merrily. You could see it in their eyes: this was an exciting development, probably therapeutic — a reanimation of agency. After reaching the other side of T.S.U., we walked straight West for some time.
It was at this point that the atmosphere suddenly changed. Up until this point, I was only vaguely aware of the decentralized nature of the march. Anybody was allowed to speak at our initial gathering, but I assumed we were tracing some sort of pre-planned path, albeit simply loosely. At the front of the march, many were signaling and began shouting: “Why are we following the police?!” Indeed, I could see a line of police horses walking ahead. “This way! They’re trying to divide us!” There was some brief confusion, and then everyone followed those at the front wanting to make a change of route — not following the police. This clearly flustered the police; there was frantic shuffling of officers in every direction. There was a new chant: “Slow down and tighten up!” We walked only a few blocks South before heading West again; I realized that we must be nearing State Highway 288.
We then came upon this (only half-pictured above.) The police had moved to block three directions of an intersection immediately ahead. There was a signal by many to go quiet, there was a yell to link arms, and we moved into the intersection.
We were stuck for the first time. The position of the horses directly in front suggested the intended obstruction was the path to Highway 288. There was a precedent: During Trayvon Martin protests, protestors did shut down a stretch of 288. The situation became slightly eerie: There was the ominous, unpredictable police, and there were unmistakable signs of confusion overhanging the group. Many began sitting in the center of the intersection; the majority stood defiantly before the police. After some time, a man with a microphone began asking for quiet amongst the crowd — presumably to regain a sense of unity and responsiveness to the march. We maintained this for a set time period, and then deliberation spread, yet again, across the crowd.
Finally, after a long freeze, in the moment it felt like forever, everyone began moving again through the recently blocked south, somehow…
A few blocks later, and we had come to a similar setting (pictured above.) This was an even longer freeze — which, in the moment, felt like forever. This time nobody sat down; most formed a line in front of police. I started counting police. The formation was that of a right triangle blocking two directions. Along a single side I counted well over 50 — there were over 100 near us and I could see an additional line of officers in the distance in case we were to pass the current one. Their demographics were somewhat diverse — some were women, some were black; but their was an obvious white male majority. There were police buses, vans, and many, many police cars parked in various locations. This entire time we were being followed closely by a certain helicopter, mistakable as a news copter at first, but clearly realizable as a police helicopter now. On frequent occasion a blinding light was cast over the crowd. They truly knew how to waste an immense amount of taxpayer resources.
Some began “chatting.” I noticed a girl talking to a jovial police officer on a horse. I began talking with a friend from college — we had discovered each other towards the beginning of the march. We reflected on the logic of the march. We might have made more progress had we initially kept straight on our path during the initial period of confusion and re-routing; however, switching directions certainly inconvenienced the occupying army. Assemblies like these are interesting. A portion wants to get up and re-route from police blockades — some presumably wanted to stay and face them. There seemed to be a clear choice: maintain the entire assembly and route to a more manageable objective, or maintain the course; obviously group separation could occur — but our group was one of solidarity. My friend wanted to leave, but I convinced him to give it more time. After a very long period, and a few unsuccessful attempts, we moved as a group, back in the direction of T.S.U.
As we marched away, towards T.S.U., we received close police “escort.” Up until this point, I have to admit, these were a police keen to protect their image; they were certainly “well-behaved.” But for some reason, at this moment the police were trying to bring a patrol car straight through the middle of the crowd. This was so odd that it caught my gaze. The police were impatient and somebody walked in front of the vehicle. Immediately, without any warning, an officer walking close to the car charged him from the back and violently removed him from their “path” — I was surprised he didn’t fall to the pavement. I was unsure what the officer might do, so I ran to get between them. The neighboring crowd yelled and moved in before I could, and next thing I knew the car was in front of the crowd and the man was walking normally again — unfazed and unsurprised.
Up ahead a car turned, and itself briefly joined our march, honking wildly; we were a popular bunch.
I noticed the relative affluence of the area — we were on the southern border of the Third Ward. At one point, a white man in what looked to be a more affluent household was visible standing in his doorway with his kids. He quickly scooped them up, ran inside, and closed the door. This was the only time I saw anything like that happen. He was either rushing for a camera, a protest sign, or he spends his life living the cliches of society. There should be no expectations of violence on his part.
Finally, we arrived at the center of T.S.U. We formed a circle (pictured above,) and everyone was allowed to speak. A black women spoke of the fear of police exhibited by her own children. A protest was scheduled for the following day. Everyone agreed: This was something great.
It was near nine o’clock. As I walked by myself, back to the University of Houston, several people stopped me and wanted to hear about the march (I was still carrying the sign by my side.) Some even took pictures with me and my sign — locals I wouldn’t “normally” encounter.
I questioned “normalcy.” This was something better. The world already felt different.