On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2012, community activists launched a community awareness campaign using an “interruptible” theatrical technique. They performed a brief skit on the floor of the New York State Convention Center during the State’s Annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration, then later, in the auditorium of the Hackett Middle School during the 14th Annual MLK Labor Celebration. Using the element of surprise, the purpose of the skit, consisting of folks dressed as 19th Century slaves and modern-day prisoners in jumpsuits, is to draw community attention, in dramatic fashion, to a serious crisis long ignored in urban American communities. The crisis is centered around the policy of mass incarceration and the resulting formal an informal legal discrimination. The policy, which adversely and disproportionately affects people of color, has created a caste system reminiscent of that which existed during chattel slavery and the Jim Crow Era of the 20th Century. It is widely believed that such discrimination ended in 1865 and again following The Civil Rights movement of the 60s.
Shockingly, more African Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850. Discrimination in housing, education, employment, and voting rights, is now perfectly legal against anyone labeled a “felon.” Since more people of color than whites are made felons by the entire system of mass incarceration, racial discrimination remains as powerful as it was under slavery or under post-slavery era of Jim Crow segregation.
Michelle Alexander, in her highly acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, clearly tracks the development of our American caste system and argues that nothing short of a major social movement can end it. In response, a campaign to end the new Jim Crow has begun across the country. Locally, The Upstate Campaign to End the New Jim Crow is organizing to educate communities and enlist all people interested in ending the U.S. policy that puts more people in cages than any other country. We have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. It bears reminding that more than 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote in a democratic country that prides itself on universal suffrage. Get Involved!