Jesse Jackson for president.
Absurdly late, I know, but his voice
is what has been missing in this campaign season.
I'm aware of the cynicism toward the man that resides in the media and
a part of the electorate. But after observing him in front of an audience
of inmates the other day at the Los Angeles County Jail in Castaic, I see
him as the one public figure still willing to address the great
intractable issue that we face: Race.
You had to be there! Jackson, in the company of the real life Rubin
"Hurricane" Carter, a former middleweight boxing contender who spent 20
years in prison for a murder he did not commit, at a jailhouse screening
of "The Hurricane" before a mostly black and brown audience whose future
prospects seemed as drab as their faded inmate uniforms.
But when Jackson stood before them, alongside the now free and still
vibrant 63-year-old Carter and led the prisoners in chanting, "Keep hope
alive," that overused phrase seemed as inspirational as the Sermon on the
Mount. They are words intended for the least among us, the forgotten and
discarded, and the Rev. Jackson extended the Almighty's hand.
The optimism of the movie's tale of survival, embodied in this man
Carter, who had endured for so many years to emerge strong and who bore a
message of self-improvement under the direst of circumstances, caught the
eyeballs and ears of guards and prisoners alike. Carter talked of the
guards being trapped in the same system and cautioned the inmates to
follow the rules and not to doubt "their authority to bop you."
But he also talked about using the jail as the only school they were
likely to enter at this point in their lives. "Don't let this be dead
time," he said, urging them to learn to read and recalling his own
immersion in the works of Dostoevsky and in the example of Nelson Mandela
during his long, tough prison time. At the end of the screening,
following a thunderous ovation, Carter pleaded with the men to "go
through the small door to the large room" and to "be in jail but not let
the jail be in you."
Jackson and Carter had taken this show to the Cook County Jail in
Chicago the week before, and once again they were screening this movie
about redemption to hundreds of the almost 2 million prisoners whom the
rest of society has doomed to the hell of more or less permanent
incarceration. Many in the audience were still in the early stages of
recycling through the prison system, America's answer to its failure to
deal with its legacy of racial oppression.
When Jackson asked those who were repeat offenders to stand, many rose
to their feet under the nervous watch of the suddenly alert guards lined
against the walls. When Carter said, "I was innocent, but don't jive me;
most of you did the crime," there were sad nods of agreement.
Jackson ticked off the dismal statistics of America's prison growth
industry: almost a third of young black men caught in the legal system
and more in jail than in universities, statistics so shocking in their
implications that they are barely comprehensible. We have 500,000 more
prisoners than China, which has four times our population, and yet we
complain about its human rights record.
Of the almost 2 million people in jail--as Jackson goes on in his
rhythmic indictment of a system created by politicians who have abandoned
any notion of rehabilitation--1.2 million are incarcerated for drug use
and other victimless crimes. These are the prisoners of the drug war
waged mostly in the ghettos. These are the people who need medical help,
psychiatric treatment, education, jobs--not endless prison time.
Jackson excoriated the inequities of a criminal justice system brought
vividly to life by Denzel Washington's brilliant performance in "The
Hurricane." Despite the nit-picking of critics, the movie reminds us that
it took a courageous federal judge to undo the woeful miscarriage of
justice condoned by the entire New Jersey political and judicial system.
This country has used a prison-based apartheid system as an
alternative to truly integrating its largest racial minorities into the
mainstream of educational and economic opportunity. While politicians
scramble to build more prisons than schools and pay guards more than
teachers, Jackson is the one political leader still willing to cry in
shame for the discarded young.
At moments like that, he is indeed The Reverend who uses religion to
unify rather than divide, and the justified inheritor of the mantle of
his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr.