From Fetus to Felon: The Criminalization of Melanin

 

I was in prison for ten months. When I was finally released from prison, I was put under house arrest in Jerusalem for another 5 months. I missed my family. I thought about them every hour of every day. No words can describe how harrowing that experience was, to have your freedom taken away, to live without dignity and without rights.” — Sana’a Mohammed Hussein El-Hafi, Palestinian prisoner

“Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars – caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.” — Malcolm X, excerpt from the Autobiography of Malcolm X

 

Marked by the giggles of infectious laughter and the swing of knees soaring high on the playground, our childhood is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for whimsical fantasies, innocent mistakes, and molding the most intricate and unique aspects of our personality. We gleefully bask in our freedom to disobey authority and play until the sun’s light is long gone, because we know that no matter what, we are worthy of unconditional love. Yet for kids lacking the sheen of milky cheeks, forgiveness and understanding is nonexistent. Black and brown children across the world are stripped of their humanity and held to the unattainable standard of perfection: One wrong move, one expressive outbursts of emotion, one sliver of weakness, and they are thrown into the pile of “bad seeds.” While those with access to whiteness are granted the mercy of innocence and the privilege of making mistakes, black and brown individuals are outstandingly criminalized. 

Time and time again, black and brown communities are forced to develop strategies of hyper vigilance in order to avoid unjust profiling by the law.Through monitoring dialect, tone, and body language, black and brown folks must shrink themselves into society’s demanding and cramped sphere of acceptance. Yet sometimes, this is not enough. As exemplified in a multitude of cases, the criminal justice system continues to clearly prosecute black and brown individuals with more severe sentences than their white counterparts–no matter how small the offense may be.  Seen in the wrongful conviction of the Central Park 5, five black boys between the ages of 14 and 16 were easily stripped of their youth for a crime they didn’t even commit, spending a total time of almost 34 years behind bars. Despite the forceful coercion of their confessions under torturous interrogations and a clear lack of evidence, the group was only recently exonerated. Concurrently, despite extensive criminal evidence and record, former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner was given a sentence of six months for the rape of an incapacitated woman. While appearing as two seemingly similar cases, one party was forced to spend a quarter of their life in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, while another party spent a mere half of a  year for an offense they had clearly executed. The only difference? The color of their skin. Similarly, when 16 year old Osama Hajahejh was attending a funeral, he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and shot twice in the legs  by the Israeli Defense Force. As Hajaheji struggled with the risk of imminent death and possibly never walking again,  the Israeli Defense Force claimed the incident was justified due to the alleged crime of “rock throwing,” and none of the officers responsible were persecuted. Built to protect the very people who need it the most, the criminal justice system in both countries has allowed actual criminals to roam freely, while convicting individuals on the basis of their background.

Despite occupying two very different regions of the Northern Hemisphere, the United States and Israel share a common factor: a dramatic increase and abundance of black and brown folks incarcerated lacking fair representation and the opportunity for a trial, over extended periods of time. Convicted for demanding the right to basic freedoms and equality, both settler colonial states criminalize and stigmatize black and brown communities as a way of silencing their requests for liberation. Through blatantly discriminatory legal systems and provisions, these powers are successful in painting their victims as the perpetrators of crime, harming the very people they claim to be afraid of.  

 In discussing solidarity and the analysis of movements for liberation globally, it is important to recognize that black people in America have been the pioneers of resistance and struggled for basic human rights for centuries. Recognizing the dehumanization and injustice from similar practices of white supremacy allows for the unity of liberation, while ensuring that the pain and trauma of both contexts are not equated to each other.  

The racial bias of the U.S. legal system ensures the restriction and stigmatization of melanin, and has continued to induce the rapid incarceration of black and brown communities through blatantly discriminatory laws. The commemoration of Juneteenth and the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865 symbolized the emancipation and long overdue abolishment of slavery across the U.S, from the inner cities of the Union to the deeply divided regions of the Confederacy. Yet as waves of jubilation and joy swept the nation at the first concrete realization of freedom for enslaved people, justice was not, and still has not been served. After forcing black people into centuries of enslavement, torture, and disenfranchement on all levels, white supremacists could not accept the notion of racial parity. Rapidly, racist lawmakers turned to the one sector of society that would offer punitive and crippling sanctions: the criminal justice system. Created in 1865, immediately after the abolishment of slavery, the Black Codes served as a revised edition of the Slave Codes, and cruelly regulated the actions and behavior of now free black individuals. Although the 13th Amendment explicitly states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States,” free and empanicated black folks could still be forced back into slavery and bondage as “…a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall be duly convicted…” Relying on this legal exception, states revised a multitude of alleged “crimes” and concurrent sentences that would inherently limit blacks’ ability to survive and function as a member of society. 

Angela Davis, writes in her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, “The Mississippi Black Codes, for example, declared vagrant anyone who was guilty of theft, had run away,…had neglected job or family, handled money carelessly, and…all other idle and disorderly persons.” Davis explains how vagrancy was interpreted as specifically a black crime, the punishment for which was imprisonment or forced labor on the very plantations owned by previous white slave masters. These laws not only excused white individuals from any form of penalty for committing these same ‘crimes’, but enforced the notion that the only way for black people to be accepted was to be impossibly perfect. If a black person dared to make a mistake, accidentally slipped out a curse word, or even arrived one minute late for work, they could be condemned to an indefinite sentence of incarceration and slave labor. Clearly benefiting the very lawmakers that created them, the Black Codes ensured that white landowners would continue to achieve upward economic mobility and profit off the work of slave laborers, while being able to claim that they had done nothing legally wrong. While black people were subjected to incarceration (or other unofficial forms of violent policing) for so much as giving someone a second look, white people were exempt from any consequences for their actions. Consequently, this enforced the notion that whiteness was superior and that blackness was “inherently criminal” and genetically deviant. 

Prior to the abolishment of slavery,black people were enslaved and forced into labor, while white people guilty of crime occupied penitentiaries. Mary Ellin Curtin writes about this in her book Black Prisoners and Their World, stating,  “…before the four hundred thousand black slaves in that state were set free, ninety nine percent of prisoners in Alabama’s penitentiaries were white.” She goes on to point out how only in a span of three years, from 1874-1877, the prison population of Alabama tripled, 90 percent of whom were black. By designing crimes in which only black people could be convicted, white lawmakers could ensure that prisons would be full of black convicts for labor and servitude. More importantly however, states could  point to the overwhelming homogeneity of the prison demographic and enforce the notion that black communities served as a threat to the security and safety of society. By this logic, melanin became the prime indicator of crime. 

If the majority of convicted persons were black, then black people must be a danger, right? The stigmatization and criminalization of blackness has evolved across decades, forcing black people to fit into stereotypes that successfully uphold white supremacy. Loose jeans and natural hair become profiled as characteristics of thugs, thieves, and gang members. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population,” and are “incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.” Despite being minors, black children represent over a third of all children arrested, a quarter of children held in detention centers, and over half of children whose cases are judicially waived and stripped of the protections of juvenile jurisdictions.  

Make one wrong move, and prison could become a probable reality–no matter the age or size. Simultaneously, the media broadcasts breaking news of heinous crimes alleviated only by the bravery of white police forces. This propaganda paints black communities with a prejudiced perception. As America continues to pride itself on values of equality and justice, it is crucial to recognize that the legislative design of our criminal justice system has been rigged to harm and penalize black and brown communities from the very beginning. 

Built on stolen land and the imminent destruction of Palestinian communities, the settler colonial state of Israel has continued to devise legislative policies that incarcerate the very people they want to expel. As witnessed globally, colonial forces brutally obliterate all  indigenous ways of living to satisfy their imperialist projects, which we see in the example of indigenous communities destroyed by European colonizers in the U.S. and Latin America. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Palestinians have been incarcerated, expelled, displaced, murdered, banned the right of return, and left with no means of survival. Despite the courageous efforts of Palestinian activists both in Palestine and the diaspora, the manufacturing of illegal settlements has persisted. As a result, Palestinians found guilty of protecting their homes and protesting the destruction of their communities are convicted and sentenced to endure unknown, often indefinite periods in detention. According to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, around 800,000 Palestinians from the Occupied Territories have faced imprisonment in Israeli prisons since the Six Day War of 1967. Moreover, according to prisoners’ rights group Addameer, there were an estimated 6,2000 Palestinian political prisoners as of May 2007. Often arrested without a warrant or any clear charge, Palestinians are tried in military courts that possess,  a “…conviction rate of more than 99%.” Yet the problem is not only the lack of legal assistance and representation, but the blatantly discriminatory judicial system. According to official legislation, individuals that reside in the West Bank, Israeli citizens of Israel, and foreign expats must be tried in the military court system if found guilty of a crime. However, this changed in the early 1980s when, as B’tselem reports, Israeli citizens began to be tried in Israeli civilian courts. As such, two individuals guilty of the same crime are tried under completely divergent laws and court systems– with the only difference being the identity of the defendant. Palestinian defendents recieve prison sentences under military orders, while Israeli defendants are convicted in less punitive civilian court systems. 

We see a similar pattern in the dramatic increase of black  convicts after the revision of the Black Codes in the U.S. This alleged practice of “separate but equal” is maintained to uphold white supremacy and benefit the political and economic agendas of settler colonial powers. Consequently, the application of two different legal systems results in different definitions of which actions constitute a crime, as well as clearly contrasting lengths of punishment for the offense, depending on race, and in the case of Israel, religion. For Palestinians being tried in military courts, nonviolent protest, diverse expressions of cultural pride, and even minor traffic infractions can be considered as crimes, and even felonies.  Palestinians participating in peaceful marches and practicing political dissent–a crucial pillar and required freedom of democracy–can be shackled to the floor of a prison cell indefinitely.. Suddenly, holding a Palestinian flag or wearing cultural garments becomes a crime worthy of punishment under the provisions of military orders. While Israeli penal codes allow convicts to “…apply for probation after serving half of their sentence,…Palestinians must serve two-thirds of their sentence before applying.” Similarly, Israeli law allows the detention of Palestinians for 180 days, legally renewable, without any explicit charges.This practice of administrative detention results in Palestinians withstanding torturous interrogation, dehumanizing treatment, physical abuse, lack of food and medical care, and prolonged solitary confinement. 

Arbitrary detention can also apply to children as young as 16, as Israeli military courts consider teenagers of this age to be adults, and tried as such. According to the Middle East Monitor, as of April 2019, “Israel has detained 1,600 Palestinians in the first few months of 2019, including 230 children and 40 women.” Taken forcibly from their homes without the presence of family or legal assistance, these individuals are often coerced into producing false confessions, only to be chained behind bars for undetermined periods of time. As we see in the analogous example of black and brown incarceration in the U.S., the dramatically high rate of Palestinian convicts allows Israel to associate the indigeneity of the Palestinian identity with a fear of national security and crime. By maliciously utilizing the faces of Palestinian struggle for national liberation and the right to their homelands as the face of “domestic terrorism,” Israel can ensure that they will be portrayed as victims of a violent person. As international mainstream media lumps images of Palestinians engaging in nonviolent protests with images of terrorist groups across the nation, the idea is perpetuated that society is brainwashed into believing that black and brown calls for liberation are a threat to the wellbeing of the world. Despite being responsible for the demolition and theft of Palestinian land, Israel portrays itself  as the victim of crimes by Palestinians who refuse to give up the homes they have owned for generations. Once again, this rhetoric ensures that the victimizer becomes the victim and that the supremacy of white rule and settler colonialism remain intact.  

The American Sociological Association tells us that public opinion polls in the U.S. confirm the white perception of black tendencies to criminality, “…causing whites to be fearful of blacks–especially of young black males.” As observed in the increasing deaths of black individuals under the hands of police brutality, the criminalization of melanin is deeply entrenched in all sectors of society, ranging from our school systems to our judicial systems. 

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Laquan McDonald. Nia Wilson. Tasha Anderson. Gabriella Nevarez. Michelle Cuseaux. Dana Martin. The victims of heinous attacks, these are just a few of the black individuals murdered under the hands of white supremacy and racism. Murdered for walking home after buying a pack of Skittles, for resisting the chokehold of officers, waiting at a train station, for being black. While these individuals were brutally slain, and their families left to mourn, most of the white perpetrators of their murder were freed, left to walk without due conviction of their crime. 

Similarly, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, when asked if they believed  worldwide terror and Palestinian terror are fed by the same sources, 64 percent  of Israeli citizens of Israel answered yes, while 44.4 percent believed that their family was at risk of physical danger from Palestinians. Contrastingly,  reports show that, “87 percent of deaths [in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict] have been Palestinian and only 13 percent Israeli.” Despite the overwhelmingly high murder of Palestinians,  the State of Israel and the world continues to internalize the stigmatazation of indigenous Palestinian communities. 

Ahmad Alrantisi. Laila Anwar Al-Ghandoor. Motassem Abu Louley. Eman Ali Sadiq Al Sheikh. Arafat Suheil Tafash. Zeinab Bilal Abu Taqiyya. Aisha Atiyya. Jom’a Matar. Caught in the crossfire, these are only a small percentage of Palestinian victims killed by the greediness of settler colonialism. 

Devised to incarcerate and induce false stereotypes of black and brown folks, global legal systems are failing the very communities that need them the most. As more and more individuals are caught in the crossfire, society continues to partake in suggesting that if such individuals were not guilty of imperfection, they would still be alive. Labeled as “troublemakers,” “thieves,” “thugs,” and “terrorists,” society enforces the message that to be black or brown is to be criminal. As we are force fed images and warnings of encroaching black and brown threats, it is our responsibility to critically recognize the prejudiced injustices of our society, and utilize our various forms of privilege to call out the hatred of white supremacists and colonizers. Morality and equality can not be measured by the ideologies inherent in a country’s legal system, but by standards that encourage the liberation of all people, including that of black and brown folks across the globe.  

 

 

By Palestine Center Intern

 

Endnotes

Curtin, Mary Ellen. Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900. Charlottesville: 

University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete?: An Open Media Book. Xxx: ReadHowYouWant, 2010.

X, Malcolm, Alex Haley, and Sam Sloan. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ishi 

Press International, 2015.