Divest From Prisons, Invest in People—What Justice for Black Lives Really Looks Like

Instead of addressing the roots of drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty, we’ve come to accept policing and incarceration as catch-all solutions. It’s time for a change.
BLM-Divest.gif

Photo by Fabiana Zonca / Flickr. 

This article is the second part of a series of conversations with contributors to the demands of the Movement for Black Lives. Part One was on reparations.  

In July 2015, more than 2,000 members of The Movement for Black Lives—a group composed of more than 50 racial justice organizations—convened in Cleveland to recognize the violence committed against Black people in this country and around the world. At the assembly, participants decided the Movement needed to form a coalition that articulated concrete ways to build a more equitable society. Six legislative platforms emerged that covered issues like economic justice, reparations, political empowerment, and divestment from policing and incarceration. In their Invest-Divest platform, the authors called instead for investment in programming, like restorative justice initiatives, that would decrease incarceration and strengthen communities.

We’ve come to accept policing and incarceration as catch-all solutions.

According to the Brookings Institution, White Americans are equally likely to use and more likely to deal drugs, while African Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced harshly. For U.S. residents born in 2001, the Bureau of Justice Statistics predicts that 1 in 111 White women will go to prison in her lifetime, while 1 in 18 Black women will. For White men, the likelihood is 1 in 17; for Black men, 1 in 3.

“At the heart of the Invest-Divest demand is the recognition that our city, state, and federal budgets reflect the dehumanization, and the degradation of Black life through lack of investment in anything besides Black incarceration or surveillance,” says Marbre Stahly-Butts, co-author of demands from the Invest-Divest platform that call for reallocating government funds from law enforcement to long-term safety, and decriminalizing drug and prostitution crimes.

Stahly-Butts, a facilitator of the Cleveland convening and deputy director of racial justice at the Center for Popular Democracy, explains that our current criminal justice system is based on a premise of comfort, rather than of safety: Instead of addressing the roots of uncomfortable issues such as drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty, we’ve come to accept policing and incarceration as catch-all solutions. This disproportionally affects African Americans.

Here she discusses why divestment from the prison and military industries is as critical to a just future as investment in public institutions.

The following interview has been lightly edited.

Liza Bayless: How does the Invest-Divest platform play into the Movement for Black Lives?

Marbre Stahly-Butts: The call for Invest-Divest has been at the center of organizing and activism work for at least the last decade, if not more. Since slavery, but especially in the age of mass incarceration in the last 30 or so years, [there has been an] incredible increase in the amount of spending that goes to police departments—to cages, prisons and jails, corrections offices, military equipment, and surveillance equipment. At the same time, [there has been] divestment from the social safety net, from social services and education to affordable housing.

What makes our communities safe is not more guns, more police, or more cages.

What makes our communities safe is not more guns, more police, or more cages, but employment opportunities, safe housing, jobs, education, restorative justice. To live in the world we’re envisioning requires a real investment—both by private parties, but also by public dollars. 

Bayless: In August, the Department of Justice announced it would end use of private prisons. How significant is this step? 

Stahly-Butts: It’s an important step and in many ways a symbolic step, but I think it’s essential that states follow suit. The caging of our people actually happens on a local level, and so the same week that the Department of Justice made that announcement, I believe in Florida they decided to continue contracts with local prisons and, in fact, expand them.

Most of our people are kept in public facilities, so there’s a real need to decarcerate and not just de-profitize. It would matter a lot if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did it, because that’s, in fact, where most of the [prison] beds are.

A month [after the announcement], the Department of Justice released guidelines around its increased funding of police officers and officers in schools. So it’s important to realize that the criminalization—and the incarceration—of our people really is something that the government has not divested from, and in some ways has actively continued.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but I was pleased about implications of ending those contracts.

Bayless: Usually we hear from organizations about investment more than divestment. What makes the concept of divestment so important to this platform?

Stahly-Butts: I think that we see a general narrative on the left around the need to increase infrastructure and investment. Obama, Clinton, and other progressives constantly affirm their commitment to investment strategies, whether it’s health care, job programs, or educational funding. But the divestment piece is essential to a conversation around the livelihood, wealth, health, and survival of Black, brown, and poor communities.

There has to be a conversation about real solutions to incarceration.

If we continue to lock up and put one of every three Black men under police control; if we continue to incarcerate Black women at the highest-growing rates; and continue surveillance and denying people [driver’s] licenses and housing opportunities when they are out of incarceration, [then] we’re undermining our investments if we’re not also divesting from these systems that have led to this mass criminalization of folks for behaviors that often have nothing to do with public safety.  

Bayless: The topic of mass incarceration has been at the forefront of the country’s conversations about racial injustice. Is there something missing from that discussion?

Stahly-Butts: It’s essential that we talk about the entire purview of things that don’t belong under the criminal code, from the way poverty is criminalized to the ways homelessness is criminalized. Even in Florida, wearing saggy pants [has been criminalized]. 

There has to be a conversation about real solutions to incarceration, and not just changing the practices of putting people in cages, but also changing the entire orientation for communities that criminalize them en masse, that have police in schools, that believe that the only answer to mental health and other issues is cages and handcuffs. There’s a real need for cultural change and a social conversation about the roots of the system, and other ways to deal with these issues that is not state violence.

Bayless: By focusing on decriminalization of certain crimes—in this case, nonviolent ones such as drug and prostitution crimes—as fundamentally different from “violent” crimes, is there a risk people convicted of the latter could end up with harsher sentences? 

Stahly-Butts: There’s a false dichotomy between violent and nonviolent crimes. We often talk about it as if there’s some fine line, but in fact every state, every city defines that differently. Whether we’re talking about crimes that hurt people or impact property, or crimes that are about mental health or drug addiction, the idea of investment is key to all of them.

Folks are working locally to realize what it means to build alternative structures to criminal justice.

If we use the money that we’re currently using to cage people, and take the literally trillions of dollars to invest in the well-being of our people—in jobs, education, trauma-informed services, restorative justice—we would see a real addressing of all sorts of social issues, including the ones that make people less safe. 

Bayless: Anything else you’d like to add about this platform? 

Stahly-Butts: Folks are working locally to realize what it means to build alternative structures to criminal justice, to divest from policing and invest in communities. Despite the past two years—where we’ve seen literally dozens of Black folks be killed on video, and uprisings in communities from Baltimore to Ferguson—we’ve seen incredible movement and energy. 

Note: To learn about local Invest-Divest efforts, check out the following groups: BYP 100 (Chicago), Ella Baker Center (Oakland, California), Dignity and Power Now (Los Angeles), Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (Minneapolis), Color of Change (U.S.)Concerned Citizens for Justice (Chattanooga, Tennessee), Safety Beyond Policing (New York City) and Communities United for Police Reform (New York City).