Alice Green: We Who Believe in Freedom

Teenaged Alice and her best friend got summer jobs at an Adirondack resort, looking forward to bunking together. The friend was shown a lovely room in the main house. Then Alice was led to a bare cot in a barn. When the girls protested they wanted to be together, the woman running the place said “Impossible.” This was the 1950s. And Alice was Black.

So begins Dr. Alice Green’s memoir, We Who Believe in Freedom: Activism and the Struggle for Social Justice. Activism has been her whole life. Since 1985, she’s headed her creation, Albany’s Center for Law and Justice — providing “community education on civil and criminal justice, legal guidance and advocacy, crisis intervention, and community planning and organizing around criminal justice, civil rights and civil liberties issues of particular concern to poor communities and those of color.” (Alice is an acquaintance who lives on my street.)

It’s inspiring to read of efforts like hers to make a better and fairer world. Yet also depressing and dismaying to plow through such an endless litany of all they’re up against. Some was already familiar to me, indeed chronicled in my own book about Albany’s political machine. Written 49 years ago! There’s been progress since. Some (including me) would say not enough. However, though I am an optimist, I’m not a fantasist expecting progress being easy or quick. And there’s been a big setback in the last five years.

As a white person, my understanding has grown about how different it is being non-white in this country. Sticking with me is a documentary about chemist Percy Julian, whose race dogged every step of his life and career. Green’s book too conveys similar pictures. It’s hard to wrap my head around how that must feel. And surprising that resentment isn’t greater. Another activist, Kimberly Jones, has said whites are lucky Blacks seek only equality — not revenge. Indeed, many whites are more antagonized over imagined discrimination against them. But maybe Blacks are better people.

Also sticking with me is a middle-aged Black Chicago woman, when Obama’s election was announced, jumping up and down shouting “God bless America! God bless America!” Still chokes me up. I didn’t vote for Obama — yet could resonate what she felt. There has been progress. But not enough. And indeed, we didn’t realize in 2008 how strong the backlash would be.

So Green’s is not exactly a beach book. Story after story of bad stuff to be fought. One concerned prison inmates punished by being fed foul-tasting bread. Green decided to give the media a sample. Getting the recipe was a challenge; the one she finally got was for 50 loaves. But recalibrating the ingredients for just a couple, she miscalculated. Didn’t taste the result herself until the media event, and discovered it was delicious! So she pretended to grimace in disgust while chewing, but let no one else partake.

As noted, Green’s focus is on policing and criminal justice. Much to the fore nowadays, with fallout from George Floyd’s murder, and the slogan “Defund the police” (the dumbest ever?), while crime spikes. Though actually police budgets, on average, are rising, and crime rates remain far below levels decades ago. But Republicans cynically stoke fears about crime (with a racial subtext) — thus making hay about New York’s bail reform — banging their “law and order” drum. Which rings awfully hollow when public safety is so undermined by rampant gun violence, America being awash with guns — thanks to Republicans blocking any and all sensible gun regulation. “Law and order?” One’s brain explodes.

Republicans are also supposed to be against big intrusive government, impinging on our freedoms. So why do they so love the police? After all, cops are agents of the governmentarmed, no less — going around beating on folks, bossing them, dragging them off to jail. Shouldn’t conservatives scream when police overstep their authority and violate people’s rights? Well, not when they’re Black. (Republicans didn’t love the police on January 6 — who were up against white folks. Law and order?)

Alice Green has been called a radical, for wanting armed police on a tight leash of accountability to the people they’re supposed to serve. Most cops do serve nobly; but unfortunately a job enabling one to swagger with weaponry too often attracts the wrong sort. A small fraction of police cause most of the problems. And accountability is greatly lacking; impunity is more like it, with powerful unions protecting their own. Is it radical to want police answerable to citizenry? I call it conservative.

But many whites do see police as a bulwark against Blacks — and the crime they associate with Blacks. Both evidencing racist attitudes and feeding them. As if Blacks are, like, genetically more prone to lawlessness. But as Green has argued endlessly, what really accounts for crime is not skin color but living in crappy circumstances.

That is the main reason why Blacks are disproportionately involved with police and the criminal justice system. But another reason is their seeing (and thus treating) Blacks differently. We all know this is true. It isn’t necessarily overt or conscious racial animus; just that many tend to view people of color in certain ways and make unconscious assumptions.

Thus “driving while Black” is a crime. Doing almost anything while Black can be. I run every day; run in airports. Never been stopped. When I crashed into two cars, cops didn’t even ask me to get out of mine. Duh, I’m white. And certainly gun rights don’t apply to Blacks. You could ask Philando Castile. Or Amir Locke. (If they weren’t dead.)

A big part of the picture is the insane war on drugs. Waged far more aggressively against Blacks than whites. But treating drugs as a criminal rather than a public health matter is nuts. The harm to millions of human beings, to society, defies calculating, vastly dwarfing any harm drugs themselves could ever do. Slowly some enlightenment is dawning here too. (Helped by the opiate crisis being a mostly white problem.)

But the drug war remains a key reason why America’s prison population — with Blacks greatly overrepresented — is far and away the world’s largest, both in absolute numbers and in relation to population. America has a mania for incarcerating people.

Now, I do believe there are some badasses deserving harsh punishment. But those are only a small fraction of prisoners. And while we label it the “correction” system — as if fixing what’s wrong with people — very little such rehabilitation occurs. Instead it’s mainly punishment for punishment’s sake. Rejecting the very humanity of inmates. Who often come out of prison worse than they went in. A lot of good that does for society.

We need more Alice Greens.


4 Responses to “Alice Green: We Who Believe in Freedom”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    You have a talent for provoking miseria lectoralis, yet we devotees of Masoch keep reading. Whites fear the revenge of those they hate & suppress [thus gun-mania]. The practical answer is heterosis via Thaylered copulation or black choice of CRISPRed chroma & physiognomy. Absent race-merger, Mars will be at risk of disorder.

  2. David Lettau Says:

    The sheer meanness and cruelty of most white people toward black people is a constant of our nation’s history. In my former profession ( In corrections) I daily witnessed the unequal and unjust treatment of black convicts versus white. It was apparent to me even back in the 80’s that the whole system was Jim Crow disguised as a justice system. While I was able to do some good= a G.E.D. program, greatly enlarging the library, getting A.A. and drug rehabilitation meetings into the facility,I eventually came to the belief that I was a part of the machinery of injustice. I did the best I could,but as Frank notes, most come out worse than before they went in. Dostoyevsky wrote that you could learn about a society by walking into it’s prison’s.What do our prison’s say about us? Our institutional racism ? Or the fact that their are over 400 million firearms in private hands?

  3. Don Bronkema Says:

    Respondent is tempted to crank in his 158,410 pp of commentary on grievous injustice & related. This country is a failed experiment. As for H. unsapiens, oblivion or ecodise?

  4. March rambling: Believe in Freedom – Ramblin’ with Roger Says:

    […] Alice Green: We Who Believe In Freedom […]

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