Jazz, Jail, and the New Jim Crow


In Harlem, 1948, a five-year-old Joseph “Jazz” Hayden attended his first day of school. There, he read Dick and Jane in a snap, having practiced by reading ads on subways and trolley cars as he accompanied his mother to her jobs as a domestic worker. Jazz was so proud of his reading accomplishments that he asked his teacher if he could take the book home to read to his mother. The teacher said yes, but that he had to wait until the end of the week. When Friday came and class was over, Jazz began walking out of the classroom, book in hand. The regular teacher was out that day, and a substitute was there in her place, so she asked Jazz where he was going with the book. Jazz explained that his teacher gave him permission to take the book home to read to his mother, but the substitute said he could not take it. He tried to pass her with the book, and she snatched it from him. He tried to grab it back, and she pushed him. He was taken to the 32nd Precinct.

Since his first encounter with police 65 years ago, Jazz has emerged as a prominent community activist in Harlem. He has earned four university degrees, participated in the lead-up to the 1971 Attica Rebellion in New York, and led a class-action lawsuit against New York State to end its practice of disenfranchising prisoners and parolees. At 71 years old, Jazz continues to organize, and has become one of the leaders of the fight against stop-and frisk.  If you see video footage or a still of stop-and-frisk in the news, it’s most likely the work of his grassroots media company, All Things Harlem, which reports on day-to-day happenings in Harlem. Just this year, he faced up to 14 years in prison for videotaping the police conducting stop-and-frisk searches in Harlem’s precincts.

Jazz believes that the system of criminal injustice has various tendrils: the school-to-prison pipeline, stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration, and the prison-industrial complex that has arisen from the use of private prison companies. Jazz argues that each is a variation on a common theme of social control, “a way of controlling the unemployed, the unemployable, the working class, the underclass, and essentially the surplus labor and surplus population,” according to Jazz. However, he also believes that community solutions can stem the tide of criminal injustice.

Through his local activism, Jazz draws attention to systemic inefficiencies not only in Harlem, but also nationwide. According to Jazz, “The United States has the most prisoners in the history of humankind…we’re talking 2.5 million human beings in cages, and 5 million more on leashes.” A disproportionately large percentage of these individuals are people of color, a phenomenon known as the “New Jim Crow.”

A study published in 2005 by The Sentencing Project found little evidence that increasing incarceration rates decreases crime. In 1972, the United States incarcerated approximately 330,000 people. From 1970 to 1994, the American crime rate remained relatively consistent. Since 1994, the United States has continued to expand its prison population, not because crime has increased, but because of longer sentences, harsher penalties, and increasingly heavy policing. In the last 40 years, the US prison population has increased 700 percent.

This historic boom in the prison population could not have happened without an unprecedented increase in policing outside prison walls. Today, police officers have broad discretion to stop, frisk, curse out, rough up, cavity search, beat, and arrest citizens. Since Michael Bloomberg became mayor, stop-and-frisks in New York City have gone up 600 percent. The New York Police Department (NYPD) now stops around three-quarters of a million people every year, and almost 90 percent of them are innocent of any crime, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). A disproportionate number of the people stopped are African-American and Latino – around 85 percent – and during these stops, people of color face violent force at the hands of police six to eight times more frequently than whites. Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly justify stop-and-frisk as a way to recover guns and reduce crime, but police find guns in fewer than 2 percent of stops.

Most arrests during stop-and-frisk are for possession of marijuana. Over 1.5 million people are arrested annually not for violent crimes, but for non-violent drug charges – 750,000 are for nothing more than possession of marijuana. Black people are arrested for drugs at 13 times the rate of whites, despite the open secret confirmed in studies for at least a decade that whites sell and use drugs at higher rates than Blacks and Latinos. The 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health is just one of many studies that proves this trend. But whites make up six times more of the American population than Blacks; therefore, if the system were colorblind, whites would be arrested at least six times as often as Blacks, or 69 times as often as they are being arrested today. According to Jazz, “This just goes to show that drug policy is not a war on drugs; it’s a war on poor people of color. People in this country use drugs in proportion to their percentage of the population…But whites aren’t targeted.”

Walking across the border from the Upper West Side to Harlem, one sees the difference in the way the communities are treated. Police stand on every other corner, cops check IDs in subway stations, and mobile watchtowers rise two to four stories high over people’s heads at the corners where people shop, eat, and live. Originally developed for hunting animals and then perfected for the United States’ invasion in Iraq, these watchtowers are advertised as a powerful crime deterrent due to their bulletproof windows, infrared cameras, high-powered spotlights, and M16-ready gun ports.

Every morning hundreds of people – predominantly Blacks and Latinos – line up outside the courts in New York City and the rest of the country. “[T]here are lines of people all around the corner. Several lines, going into the same building,” according to Jazz, but almost none of them will ever face a jury.

Inside the courtroom, young lawyers finger through stacks of manila folders. Cases are presented and closed in minutes. You can hardly hear the lawyers, the defendants, or even the judge, who sits under a bold engraving of “In God We Trust.” While other cases proceed, lawyers call out clients’ names from a list and meet for the first time. At the end of the day, almost every single person will take a plea deal, without a trial, often paying surcharges of $120. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times recently reported that 94 percent of cases at the state level and 97 percent of cases at the federal level end in plea deals.

“All they do is process these people, and at the end of the process, they send them to the cashier, the pay line. It’s all about income and revenue, surcharges, and fines,” says Jazz. An unending stream of poor people of color walk in and out of court, resupplied every day by structural economic marginalization and over-policing.

The increased police presence in public schools may also play a role in ushering in criminal cases. Although the term “school-to-prison pipeline” is relatively new, Jazz argues that what we see today is an escalation of the longstanding criminalization of poor students of color. As Jazz points out, in New York City schools where poor Black and Latino youth make up a large majority of students, school officials do not even have to call in police – they’re already there. Over 5,000 NYPD officers work exclusively in schools. “If they were an independent police force, they would be the fifth largest in the country,” says Jazz.

Jazz argues, “They essentially come into the schools with a law enforcement mindset. They don’t come in there with compassion and empathy for the children in those schools.”

Criminalizing the Classroom, a 2007 report by the NYCLU, documents the toll that the school-to-prison pipeline exacts on over 100,000 students in New York City and on millions of students across the country. Records indicate that police in schools verbally abuse, physically violate, and sexually harass students. The metal detectors used at school entrances cut into class time, and the city spends thousands of dollars less per student at these schools than they do at schools with lower percentages of people of color. African-American and Latino students also are suspended at higher rates than white students for the same “violations.”

The facts are damning, but Jazz has solutions. “One of the solutions is to get police out of these schools, and because the communities that the majority of the kids come from have the highest unemployment rates in the city, the most logical thing is to put conscious and committed community members into those jobs,” Jazz says. “The people that would more likely have that [compassion that the police lack] would be people from those communities.” Jazz’s plan would make schools safer and students more likely to graduate, and it would employ thousands from the hardest hit communities, where unemployment rates are double the national average.

An important component of Jazz’s efforts to confront the New Jim Crow is local community involvement. This past September, Jazz celebrated the one-year anniversary of the creation of The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, an organization that he and like-minded activists established to contribute to the dismantling of this system of social control. Celebrating this occasion, Jazz said at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, “The Campaign has chosen two objectives: that’s the smashing of this system of mass incarceration and the building of caring communities – communities that organize around their interests…and organize to protect their interests at every level of government. And we’re trying to make them understand that no one can solve the problems that impact the community but the community, an organized community.”

Jazz envisions communities that have control over housing, policing, and schools through tenants’ councils, block associations, and other democratic bodies of residents. In Jazz’s view, prisons are ineffective; they actually contribute to problems of the New Jim Crow. The trillions of dollars spent on incarceration and policing could be invested in education, job creation, housing, healthcare, and more, but instead they are spent on controlling the population.

Jazz’s aim is to build models of community control that can be shared and replicated around the country. “How can we bring about a national movement? And where can we start?” Jazz and thousands of others around New York City and the country are fighting for a future without stop-and-frisk, without the school-to-prison pipeline, without biased courts, and without prisons.

A world without prisons may seem a long way off, or even impossible, but logistically, it’s at our fingertips. It’s feasible today. Logically, it makes so much sense: It does not take the trillions spent on incarceration, the War on Drugs, stop-and-frisk, the school-to-prison pipeline, and so many other policies that are proven not only to be racially biased, but also ineffective at reducing crime. Instead, we could invest those trillions in education, housing, new jobs, healthcare, and other necessities that are also, not incidentally, proven methods of decreasing crime. Politically, however, it is clear that it will take a struggle – one in which Jazz has and will continue to engage.

“We have to expose the system – the way it operates – and how it doesn’t operate in their [prisoners’ and their community’s] interest,” says Jazz. “We have to let them know that they have the power to change things.”

Jazz’s life, actions, and philosophy offer a necessary perspective, especially because Jazz’s experiences at the hands of the criminal justice system are shared by millions of people across the country. His analyses, too, are shared by many, and evidence points to more people adopting them every day: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow continues to rank on the New York Times’ “Bestseller List” for ninth months in a row this past year.

Now the question before those who envision a society without the structures of social control is, “How do we move those millions of people who share Jazz’s experiences and analyses – and even those millions who don’t share them – to take up Jazz’s and other organizers’ actions?” Once people are aware of the injustices at play, the end of prisons and beginning of caring communities will be within reach.