Obama Releases 46 Prisoners

Obama the Emancipator? Please.

July 20, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


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U.S. prisons and jails right now hold 2.3 million people. This is the highest number of imprisoned people anywhere in the world.

On July 13 Barack Obama announced he was commuting the sentences of 46 drug offenders.

The next day, Obama went to the NAACP and proclaimed “the mass incarceration of the past two decades had gone too far and left many communities devastated.” But don’t worry—“the good news ... is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think we need to do something about this.”

And on July 16, Obama visited a cleaned up (and nearly vacant) prison cell block in Oklahoma and met with a few selected prisoners.

The New York Times described Obama as “intensifying a campaign to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system.”

A photo op at a prison?

Forty-six people released?


Meanwhile, more than two million people are still locked down in cages. Tens of thousands of people endure the torture of prolonged solitary confinement. Millions more live life on the run, hounded by pigs, in constant danger, and unable to get work or exercise the barest minimum of rights.

Meanwhile, we hear about a chokehold death by pigs in Mississippi, not even a year after the cold assassination of Eric Garner in New York. We watch the videos of 26 pigs viciously beating and stomping a Black man in Philly and three pigs shooting and killing a Latino man near LA—for nothing! For goddamn nothing!!

Oh, but wait! Obama just commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent prisoners! Just think—if he were to do that every single day for the rest of his term (which he obviously won’t), why that would mean that 25,000 people would be released. Which would be 1% of those now imprisoned. Which is another way of saying that 99% of the people in prison today would not be released.

Don’t be fooling yourselves. Don’t be telling yourself the plague is over. Don’t let yourself think that now the powers are going to suddenly grow a heart and change an agenda and a structure which is necessary to their functioning. This battle against mass incarceration will take a HUGE fight—and that fight has only just begun.

A Nation of Prisons

U.S. prisons and jails right now hold 2.3 million people. This is the highest number of imprisoned people anywhere in the world. It is also the highest rate of incarceration in history. The organization Solitary Watch reports that over 80,000 of these human beings are in the torture of solitary confinement every day. That figure of 80,000 does “not include prisoners in solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, immigrant detention centers, or local jails; if they did, the numbers would certainly be higher.”

Also, the “American Jail Association” (AJA) recently reported that over 80,000 young people are in juvenile detention “on any given day.” Plus, some 400,000 people a year go through the U.S.’s immigration detention system, before they are deported. The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that in one year between 12 and 13 million people are “processed through the approximately 3,100 jail facilities” in the U.S. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs locks up Native Americans on reservations. And the AJA concluded in its report, “Hundreds of thousands more individuals are also housed in halfway houses and police lockups; no one knows the exact number”.

This is a nation of prisons.

Obama also didn’t say a word about the brutality inflicted by cops on the streets and in prison. He didn’t speak about some of the more violent and murderous acts that came to light the very week he spoke. He didn’t mention the name of Jonathan Sanders, a 39-year-old Black man who was kept in a chokehold by a pig in Stonewall, Mississippi, until he died. He didn’t mention the video of the Black man in Philadelphia who was beaten and stomped by 26 cops. He said nothing of the video finally released after two years of suppression by the police of pigs in Gardena, California, savagely shooting down unarmed Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino; or the death in a Texas county jail of Sandra Bland after she was pulled over in a traffic stop.

But... he did reduce the sentences of 46 federal prisoners. (Note—these prisoners were not “pardoned”; their sentences were commuted. They remain convicted felons with federal drug convictions on their records.)

More than 30,000 federal prisoners have applied for clemency during the Obama years. The New York Times reported that in the next few weeks the total released by Obama’s actions will be about 80. Of the remaining applications, “a cumbersome review process has advanced only a small fraction of them. And just a small fraction of those have reached the president’s desk for a signature.”

This is the “progress” Obama says he’s making.

Maneuvering and Covering Their Asses While Incarcerating Millions

Obama and other ruling class figures are very concerned about the exposures of the brutal, racist, mass incarceration system they preside over. For one thing, the scandalous rate of mass incarceration gets in the way of the U.S. ruling class branding itself as the global champion of human rights. In his speech to the NAACP, Obama made a big deal about how the U.S. locks up people at four times the rate of China. As in—“this is making us look bad.” But not as in: this is WRONG and has to STOP NOW.

And within the U.S., mass incarceration, and the vicious white supremacy it enforces, has become the focus of important struggle with potential to call into question the legitimacy of the whole setup.

So now we have rhetoric and talk of prison reform—what Obama celebrates is a “bi-partisan” (meaning, among both Democrats and Republicans) consensus. Well, for one thing, when Obama brags that fascists like the Koch brothers and a bunch of other racist Republicans are with him on prison reform, that tells you something about what the “consensus” is about, and what it is NOT about. It is NOT about making any fundamental changes in a legal system built on and reinforcing a foundation of exploitation, enormous inequalities, and systematic oppression of Black and Latino people—enforced by violence, including vastly disproportionally locking up Black and Brown people and other minorities.

The Heartless Logic of Mass Incarceration and a Way Out

Here’s something the whole ruling class can see: Millions and millions of poor Black people in the inner cities who cannot be effectively exploited in the way Black people were when their literal slave labor provided a decisive basis for the great wealth and power commanded by the rulers of the United States. And that today, the lowest paying, most dangerous jobs in factories and mills where Black people were exploited in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Detroit have been moved around the world to places where workers can be even more viciously exploited. The rulers see the simmering anger and emerging defiance among Black people and others. And they see a threat to be stamped out.

A big part of the system’s answer is mass incarceration.

This is the heartless “logic” of calculating the value of people’s lives not by how they could contribute to building a better world, but by how they fit into, or get in the way of, the machinery of exploitation and dog-eat-dog competition for profit, and the structures and ideas that serve that.

But this is NOT the only way the world can be. The millions wasting away, degraded, and brutalized in prisons, can and should be overwhelmingly drawn into contributing to building a better world, as they transform themselves. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) spells out exactly how that would happen in a revolutionary society.

Right now, both to address a horrific outrage and as part of getting to that better world, the battle against mass incarceration requires a HUGE fight—and that fight has only just begun.




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