The need for a social justice movement


By: Marlene Martin

In New York at the end of May, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, spoke to an audience of 800 people about the flaws of our criminal justice system and the need for a new social “human” rights movement to challenge and change them. She pointed to the misappropriation of funds –money spent on war and prisons instead of schools and social needs (see article on the New Jim Crow on pages 5 and 6). 

Michelle’s book has touched a raw nerve—hundreds of gatherings all across the country have brought out large audiences to hear her message and read her book. It is an encouraging sign that so many people are in agreement with her broad spirited call for a new “social justice movement.” 

For those of us working in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), we have always placed the fight for abolition within a broader social justice context. Other mainstream abolitionist organizations don’t share this outlook. They downplay the issue of race, for example—and they speak of draconian sentences like life without parole as “just.”

Organizations with a lot of funding and staff have become overly bureaucratic and inward-looking. So, for example, when fighting an execution, we’re told that we have to be on the same page in “crafting our message”—meaning we have to limit what we do in calling to stop an execution. This narrow orientation is stifling and strangles creativity, which is key to building a movement. It also shuts out new voices that may have lots of new ideas on how to “message” our fight.

These organizations have also continued to display a troubling shift toward a strategy that reaches out to forces which are not our allies: law enforcement, conservatives, prosecutors. While there certainly are some individuals here and there who may break ranks and oppose the death penalty, these groups are, by and large, opposed to Abolition. 

The mindset of the mainstream abolitionists is that if we hope to change the laws, we have to be “practical” in our approach. In other words, we have to make our fight palatable to those who may not agree with us because, “practically speaking,” it is Republicans and Democrats who ultimately write the laws. 

This is where Michelle’s new book and message are so refreshing and desperately needed. 

She is not speaking about the death penalty in particular, but about the need to change the entire criminal justice system and the way it functions—most specifically, how it targets and harms African Americans and Latinos. She speaks about the drug laws, harsh sentencing, three strikes laws, mandatory minimums and the death penalty. And she looks at all this with a broad lens that helps show how the outcome of these policies and laws is to push predominately poor people of color into a permanent second-class status, just like the old Jim Crow did. 

When we look at it this way and place our struggle in the context of a broader progressive fight back, then it seems silly to think of reaching out to law enforcement to join our struggle. As Mumia Abu-Jamal has said, this is like saying those fighting slavery should have reached out to slave owners to join the struggle to abolish slavery.

When we learn and understand how racism shapes our criminal justice system, and how this developed historically, then it becomes obvious why we need to speak out against racism—and not push the issue to the side because it may disturb some conservatives we are trying to “win over.”

We in the CEDP understand the heart of this struggle is the prisoners themselves, their families and social justice activists—all whom are like-minded in wanting to dismantle unjust laws. We need to build a new movement which has a mindset geared towards those affected by these laws and likeminded social justice seekers.

This kind of movement did smash the old Jim Crow laws—so in that sense, it is a “practical approach,” and one with a long history and tradition of success in the civil rights movement, anti-slavery fight and labor struggles. Martin Luther King once said, “There is nothing more powerful to dramatize an injustice than the tramp, tramp, of marching feet.” 

The buzz around the New Jim Crow book and Michelle’s speaking engagements is confirmation that this approach and strategy to build has a resonance. The CEDP welcomes this new phenomenon and wants to look for ways to build connections to those who are also encouraged and ready to fight with a broader outlook in mind. 

We will have much to discuss in our fall convention about the direction of our work—how to reach out to others who are inspired to join a wider fightback and what changes or initiatives we may want to put forward in light of this. Certainly these questions and discussions are promising developments.