The Trouble with Our Criminal Justice System

The New Jim Crow and Muslim Americans

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African-American father of six, was killed by a police chokehold and nearly a year later, New York City settled a lawsuit by his family for $5.9 million. Over the past year, protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri; New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and numerous other cities where black people have been brutalized by police. Live tweets, live streams and pictures highlighted the militarization of law enforcement. The outrage against police brutality has galvanized activists, community leaders and concerned citizens across the country, and has spurred Muslim coalitions such as Muslims for Ferguson and Muslims Make It Plain. Activists Carmen Perez,  Linda Sarsour, and Tamika Mallory, along with 100 protesters completed a nine-day  #March2Justice from New York to Washington, D.C., in April to highlight the problem of police oppression.  But their long journey reflects the difficult challenge that we, as Americans in general and as Muslims in particular, have in addressing the real problems of policing in this country.

samantha grace lewis/flickr cc
samantha grace lewis/flickr cc

If the Muslim community is going to truly deal with policing, then we must address the criminal justice system as a whole. We must delve deep into the issue and make abuse and oppression in our criminal justice system our issue. We must allow our faith to inform us into peaceful action by engaging with others and calling for action and reform where it is needed.

Certainly, Muslim-American communities have made inroads into conversations about these abuses. However, stumbling blocks remain. Often Muslims will argue that law enforcement is getting a bad rap. In one news story, a relative of a Muslim woman, who was rescued by police after an arson, argued that police officers have the worst job in the world. He said, it was because “people hate you, but when they get in trouble you’re the first person they call.”

In one off-the-record meeting at a Muslim community center with the FBI, a non-black Muslim community leader compared law enforcement with Muslims, saying that both are stereotyped because of the actions of a few.  Many Muslim national organizations and advocacy groups have issued statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter protesters. When the Islamic Society of North America issued a statement about the escalation of violence during the Baltimore uprising, activists and organizations pointed out that ISNA’s focusing on the destruction of property downplayed the role of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

The controversy over ISNA’s statement about Baltimore demonstrates how social media has helped to shape conversations about police brutality and the justice system. Muslim media platforms and national organizations are beginning to engage when previously, only a few urban-based organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America and Inner City Muslim Action Network, addressed the justice system and programs for the formerly incarcerated. But times are changing.

For example, the 15-year-old murder conviction of Adnan Syed, which was detailed in a podcast “Serial,” has sparked the imagination of people across the country, as well as South Asian and Arab Muslims. These same Muslims  raised over $100,000 to support his appeal. Syed’s narrative of being a child of immigrants, a model minority youth wrongfully convicted with thin evidence because of Islamophobia continues to captivate the country. Many people, who follow this story often fail to link Syed’s fate with that of many Latino and black people, who have also been wrongfully convicted.

The Innocence Project has exonerated numerous men, who served decades in prison, and some of them only getting their names cleared long after their executions. Yet, some people still believe that justice is blind and support a kind of Muslim exceptionalism when it comes to how members of the Muslim community are treated by the criminal justice system.  In contrast, when a black Muslim is accused of a crime, many Muslims will distance themselves from the case.

For black Muslims, systemic racism and Islamophobia intersect in the most powerful ways in state surveillance, law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Some recent cases highlight this reality, such as the killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah, who was shot 20 times by federal agents during a raid at a warehouse in 2009; the case of Usaamah Rahim, who was killed by police while waiting at a bus stop in June; the case of Marcus Dwayne Robertson, who was arrested and jailed on tax fraud and illegal gun possession and about to be accused of terrorism based on his e-book collection but eventually set free for time served for previous charges. These men were all black and Muslim. Yet most Muslim leaders and organizations didn’t give these cases the full court attention afforded to non-black Muslims affected by law enforcement or the prison system. This implicitly extends such mainstream racism well into the Muslim community.

The same implicit bias that causes officers to be more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than a white person also leads to racial disparities in the viewing, prosecution and sentencing of cases. Studies have shown that race also factors into the severity of the punishment, and even skin color and phenotype play a factor, considering that dark-skinned people receive longer and harsher sentences.  Such a stark reality is also underscored by the fact that Dylann Roof, a white man who murdered nine African-Americans attending church in Charleston, South Carolina, was later apprehended alive and then taken to Burger King; while African-American Usaamah Rahim was shot to death at a bus stop without having committed any crime.

Moving beyond the headlines and the latest hot spots, the Muslim community must address police misconduct as part of a larger broken system. This entails addressing policies and practices.   In the book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander demonstrates how communities of color are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, and activists such as Mariame Kaba have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about racial injustice in the criminal justice system.  The prison industrial complex  (PIC) is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry to use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Prison abolition activists argue that the PIC perpetuates the flawed belief that imprisonment is the solution to social problems such as substance abuse, homelessness, illiteracy and mental illness.   Further, the “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push low-income children out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Schools are more likely to punish young black boys and girls more severely, charging them with crimes and sending them into the juvenile court system than their white counterparts for the same offenses. Our society is more apt to invest in prisons rather than education or preventative measures, such as substance abuse or rehabilitation programs.

The Sentencing Project estimates there are 2.2 million people in American prisons. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. Over the past three decades, the population has increased over 500%. Many people are in prison for nonviolent offenses. More people are coming to see these policies as costly and ineffective. Reflecting this changing tide, on July 13, President Barack Obama cut the sentences of 46 drug offenders.  In his speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Obama said, “We spend $80 billion to keep people in prison.”

For more than 20 years, I have heard Muslims cite the Hadith, “Feed the hungry, visit the sick and set free the captives.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Hadith 552) America’s incarcerated community is held captive, and former offenders often suffer from a lifetime of stigma and discrimination.

Our communities, however, are often hands-off when it comes to prison populations. They limit support to distributing prison dawah (proselytizing) while leaving rehabilitation and reentry programs cash strapped.   The Muslim community, as a whole, has done little to advocate for progressive reform of the criminal justice system.

There are exceptions. We can look to local efforts as models and amplify their work. For example, the Latino Muslim Association of America (LALMA) and Islah LA worked with faith-based community organizers, LA Voice, to help pass Proposition 47,  which reduced nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors in California.

Our national Muslim advocacy organizations and lay people across the country should support current criminal justice reform efforts. One place to start is by supporting the Ban the Box campaign, which seeks fair employment for people with past convictions. As individuals, we can donate our time or resources to help build capacity for organizations working on police brutality and the criminal justice system by taking part in faith-based organizing, joining multiethnic coalitions or supporting organizations doing grassroots work.

Muslim Americans, as a community, cannot allow for injustice to fester in our justice system and expect to receive justice for ourselves. Whether calling for criminal justice reform, supporting prisoners’ rights or advocating for changes in policing, our faith must inform our actions.

TIM Summer 2015 Cover thumbThis article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

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  • About the autor
    Margari Aziza Hill

    Margari Aziza Hill is a co-founder and Programming Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. She holds a masters from Stanford University. She is currently researching colorism in Muslim education.

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