Sonia Sotomayor: ‘No One Can Breathe In This Atmosphere’

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor provided an elegant dissent recently to the ruling in Utah v. Strieff, which revolved on the matter of “reasonable suspicion” in a police stop.

“This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes, supra, at 8, many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner. See M. Gottschalk, Caught 119–138 (2015). But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow 95–136 (2010). For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk”— instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them. See, e.g., W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); J. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963); T. Coates, Between the World and Me (2015).

By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274–283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but. I dissent.”—Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-1373_83i7.pdf)

Video: Living While Black and Michael Brown

More at The Real News

In 1917, white mobs attacked a black neighborhood in East St. Louis. The memory remains. Michael Brown’s murder happens in a context of 40 years of a mass incarceration strategy. (Here is a good primer and bible study on Mass Incarceration and the New Jim Crow by Correctional Ministries and Chaplains Association in 2013. It’s perfect for a traditional Christian or evangelical audience.)

The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released a report on police brutality against African Americans and extrajudicial killings called Operation Ghetto Storm. Read this report while holding it in one hand and Lamentations 3 in the other.

I have been hunted like a bird
by those who were my enemies without cause;
they flung me alive into the pit
and cast stones on me;
water closed over my head;
I said, ‘I am lost.’
I called on thy name, O Lord,
from the depths of the pit;
thou didst hear my plea, ‘Do not close
thine ear to my cry for help!’[c]
Thou didst come near when I called on thee;
thou didst say, ‘Do not fear!’

‘I Was a Prisoner and You Visited Me’: Summer Camp Behind Bars

In May 2010, I was honored to serve as resident humanities scholar for an inmate writing program initiated by Hope House DC. I spent a week at two prisons in Maryland facilitating writing workshops on Ernest Gaines’ classic A Lesson Before Dying.

The writing program was all part of a year-long preparation for summer camp behind bars – where the men finally get to spend a week with their kids. For many it’s the only time all year they get to see each other.

Below is great article on Hope House‘s summer camp at the North Branch maximum security prison. Also check out the news video.

CUMBERLAND, MD – A group of kids spent the week at a summer camp behind bars at the North Branch Correctional Institution. They get to spend precious time with their dads, who are inmates.

11-year-old Shawn Harris’s dad is his hero. That’s what he drew in the mural they made together.

“We’re superheros, standing on top of buildings, looking for crime,” explains Shawn.

Kids doing arts and crafts, telling jokes and singing songs. These kids are making typical summer memories with their dads, but this camp isn’t typical, because all of the dads are serving time behind bars.

“It helps me out a lot because I worry about him a lot,” says his dad, Juvon Harris. “A lot of things I want to tell him and show him and teach him.”

It’s a one-week camp organized by the nonprofit Hope House. They bring kids from across the state to visit their parents behind bars. Shawn lives in Baltimore and this is the one time he sees his dad each year.

“He’s grown a lot in size and maturity,” says his father. “Last year he was here, we had to have a big talk. So he stepped up his game in school.”

“I think it’s tough a lot of times at the end of the week,” says North Branch case manager Gary Sindy. “But I think it can only be beneficial and hopefully it works for the future.”

Support Hope House.

Read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander to learn about the effect mass incarceration has upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, Alexander reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration.