by Joseph Heru Coo
It’s 9 a.m. and I’m anticipating this Tuesday’s morning discussion. I’ve been employed as a tutor/life coach for a year plus here at Green Bay Correctional Institution. My students are the mentally ill, men who belong in a mental asylum, not prison.
My supervisor-the teacher-is a middle aged Black man from the south named Bob Goynes. He’s been living and working at Green Bay Correctional Institution for the last 30-years.
Mr. Goynes usually chooses the subject for our Tuesday morning discussion, which ranges from personal hygiene, to the social implications of visual art, to racial politics.
With his eclectic interest and the students eccentric personalities, the discussion usually falls into one of these three styles: 1) A monologue: One person dominates the group with a rant or a ramble; 2) A dialogue: Well thought out ideas are exchanged with falsehoods sifted out and truths acknowledged, or 3) An argument: Two people fuss and cuss at each other.
We begin this morning by removing the desks from the classroom and positioning 20 chairs in a semicircle facing the chalkboard. On the chalkboard reads: “Each generation must find its purpose and once discovered, either fulfill or betray it.” Bob’s back is to the chalkboard and he is facing us. After he reads the quote out loud, his eyes meet mine, and I can tell that this will be between him and I. That is, his intention today is to see where I stand.
“It’s been said that this is the most selfish generation. That all you guys do is take, take, take! You take away from your family the benefit of having a son, a brother, a father
“You take away from your sisters even when they have children and little to give, you don’t give a damn, you take. Then you come to prison and you don’t take advantage of the free services they provide, or the time. You guys don’t even take advantage of the free time you have. You still come to prison and want to take away from each other.
“In reality, when a brother takes from another brother, he is only taking from himself. He’s only hurting himself. Back in the day, we knew what the deal was; we knew our obstacles and how to overcome them.”
Sensing his conclusion I eased in:
“Bob, your career choice took you away from the hood and many others who could have been role models. Not just role models, but human resources. Your dollars, your taxes, your presence would have all balanced out the poverty and lack of fathers that now dominates the hood. You personally benefited from the Civil Rights Movement by having opportunities open to you that would have otherwise been closed.”
“Cook, where are you going with this man?”
“Bob, after every great movement in America comes a great loss.”
The students are now zoning out, dozing off, becoming even sleepier and somber from last night and from this morning’s medicine.
Bob looks at me with a serious face, followed by a slyness as if he was playing the devil’s advocate, testing my insight and intelligence. I’m neither serious nor solemn, but spirited.
“Cook, ‘after every great movement in America comes a great loss?’ Break that down for me?” I replied:
“To understand the forces that shaped generations we have to understand history. Bob you are like the first generation after the Emancipation Proclamation.” Testing me, he says:
“What happened after the Emancipation Proclamation, and why is it important today?” I answered:
“Today is a continuum of history. History never dies; it stretches itself into the present day. After the slaves were freed throughout the South, the U.S. Government tried to make right on their promise of fairness by setting up the Freedman’s Bureau, which was designed to right the wrongs of slavery.
“For like 12-years after 1865, Black people in the South thrived; becoming senators, congressmen, industrious as well as intellectual. The Union soldiers were stationed throughout the South to protect Blacks from White harm.
“With an equal playing field, the Freedman’s Bureau, and with the Union soldiers on guard, Blacks had a short moment in the sun. However, eventually the Freedman’s Bureau collapsed. The Union soldiers moved west to hunt and harm Indians, and Blacks were left to the oversight of their former enslavers.
“The KKK (Klu Klux Klan) was organized to take back the land, position, and power. White racists become the police, lawyers, judges and juries. To strike fear in Blacks, a wave of hangings, rapes and brute force was displayed.
“To implement their economy, sharecropping became another name for slavery, and “Black codes” were designed to jail Blacks for the slightest offense; and once arrested, they were rented out to their former slave master. This White backlash always follows Black progress.”
Bob looks at me not in agreement or disagreement, more with an indifference followed with curiosity of my angle.
“This White backlash to Black progress never fails. It happens again with the Civil Rights Movement.”
“After the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and the national atmosphere of healing America’s systematic racist wounds by passing legislation and the “War on Poverty” was declared, White people became fearful, not only of going to school, work, and coexisting with Blacks in the same social institutions, but they thought Blacks would take over those institutions and America as a whole. This White backlash reached its height with the election of Ronald Reagan.”
Bob sits back seeing if I’m on to something, or just ranting about my plight as a prisoner.
“Bob, before crack was a part of the ghetto’s economy, Ronald Reagan declared his war on drugs. Crack hit the scene in the mid ‘80s, the war on drugs was declared in ’81. At this time, drugs were not a high priority on Americas list for things it should tackle.
“However, through Reagan’s national campaign that involved the media, drugs became a national issue, so when crack hit the seen around ’84-’85, the nation was prepared to respond with brute force and not in a well thought out manner.
“After all Bob, drugs and drugs addiction is more than a crime, it is an economic and health issue. If under Michelle Obama obesity is a health issue, under Nancy Reagan crack should have been a health issue. But America was hell-bent on changing the image of Blacks from agents of social change to gangstas’, thugs, and zombielike addicts.”
“Cook didn’t nobody tell y’all to sell crack. You did that with free will. You made a choice.”
Tempers flare as I feel he’s being narrow-minded and myopic, I’m sure he feels I’m being farfetched and denying personal responsibility.
“Let me finish Bob. When crack hit, years after the War on Drugs was declared, America was prepared to treat an economic and health issue purely as a criminal one. And even crack Bob, I think, was put in our communities on purpose.
“In 1998 the CIA admitted that the earnings of cocaine shipped from Nicaragua in the mid ‘ 80s into the ghettos of America was used to finance a war they were secretly involved in. They denied having a hand in these transactions. But it took 20 years until the U.S government admitted and apologized for using Black men in their experiments with syphilis that lasted for 30 years. I would not put it pass them.”
“As an older Black man, Bob’s relationship with America is, to quote comedian Chris Rock: ‘An uncle who paid your way through college, but raped you when you were young.’”
Bob is quiet, suggesting agreement and interest.
“Bob, you also have to look at the economy in the ‘80s. At a time when good paying factory jobs were leaving America for Asia and Mexico, Reagan was giving money to the top corporations with the idea being if you feed the top, it will trickle down to the bottom. But for most of America, the “top/down” approach never happened and communities–both Black and White–were changed. For Black America, there wasn’t a ‘stimulus package.’
“Okay Bob, say there are two 18-year-olds. One Black, one White. Both have a child on the way. Neither has academic ambitions, but just want to work 9-to-5 and live a stable life. Before the factories left both could be hired by a factory in their community and receive a mid-level income with benefits.
“Now in the ‘80s with deindustrialization, the Black 18-year-old had the crack economy as a substitute for the loss of well paying jobs, and the White 18-year-old had prison employment (a guard or warden) as a substitute.
“The thing is, one fed the other. Prison became an economic institution for both low-educated Whites and capitalists. It was like a cycle. Crack was dumped into our neighborhoods, crack dealers (who were Black) were dumped into prisons, and prisons fed low-educated Whites while capitalist lobbied state politicians like (former) Gov. (Tommy) Thompson to create tougher laws with stiff sentences for minor offenses. Not to decrease crime rates, but to insure their economic interest.
“’Truth-in-Sentencing’ is a prime example of a law that hasn’t worked and cost the state billions of dollars, but that money is providing jobs for Whites who would probably link forces with people of Color in their protest for a better America. The billions it cost the state is also going to Tommy Thompson and his cronies who sit on the broad of directors of these corporations that provide services to prisons.
“Look at Supermax (the Supermax in Boscobel) Bob. It cost the state 40 million to build and millions a year to keep operational. Boscobel is a prime example of a “stimulus package” to a small town and also reveals how lobbyists convinced Tommy Thompson to spear-head its construction, not out of an interest in reducing crime, but to earn capital.
“In Wisconsin, there are no notorious criminals or prisons. There was no need for a Supermax, but there was a need for money. First came Truth-in-Sentencing, and then came Supermax. Truth-in-Sentencing insured its population
Eventually the Supermax would be converted into a maximum prison facility when it’s realized its bed space wouldn’t be full with admission requirements based on the Supermax criteria because there aren’t enough super prisoners. Plus it opened the floodgates for vendors.
“So Bob, social policies like integration, affirmative action, or the War on Poverty, weren’t dominate shaping forces for my generation. However, the White backlash (to the positive social programs) was creating the ‘War on Drugs,’ which devastated a whole generation and, hell, probably saved another.”
“Listen to you Cook, you got it all figured out huh? You spoke about injustice and apathy from the government when it comes to Blacks. But how about the way you treat each other. You manipulate the weak when it’s to your advantage. Do you guys really care about justice, fairness, or just hate being victims of it?
“The same qualities these sick people you speak about have, you guys have them too, and use them– particularly on sisters. But when they are used on you, (all of the sudden) you care about justice now!
“But people don’t hear you or care. They don’t care about the plight of prisoners because you guys look and treated innocent people like the oppressor does. Unlike the past generations who were innocent, you guys might be getting the short end of justice, but the community doesn’t care. ‘Lock there a—up’ is how they feel because you hurt them. Your own people you hurt. Can you see where I’m coming from?”
“Yeah I agree.”
I look at bob acknowledging his truth in the same way he was looking at me acknowledging my truth.
“So which one is it Cook?.”
A heavy pause.
“Different sides of the same coin, Bob!”