In My Backyard. . . Poverty in D.C.

The following is an assignment we had to write for class. We were to think about poverty in the neighborhoods that we come from and write a loose three pages on it.

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The current situation of the Black population in the United States is a dire one. Black people in this country constitute one of the most impoverished and oppressed sections of the society, it has been the story since their inception into this country as exploited labor used to build the foundation of the world power. Over 400 years later the status of Blacks representing a large source of free labor still remains the same. The only difference is that in the present situation the brutal system of slavery has been replaced with the prison industrial complex, of which Black people, men in particular, make up between 43 -50%. Many may assert reasons, such as a “criminal culture”, as to why this staggering statistic is in existence but most fail to satisfy logic. Blacks make up 12% of the United States population, and thus for there to be such a clear disproportionate amount of African Americans behind bars seems unexplainable to most until they take into account the other factors that govern the lives of African Americans, such as their positioning in the society. Blacks, due to a specific historical development which includes tremendous racism supporting capitalist exploitation, make up an overwhelming part of the excess labor in this country. This means that Black Americans find themselves more vulnerable to the repressive arm of the state for a number of factors, including but not limited to participation in the informal economy, and police racism. The governing body’s neglect is also blatant and serves to continue to impoverish and demobilize the Black community of D.C. No where is this more visibly seen than in Washington D.C, which has been deemed by many Black leftists as “A Piece of South Africa on the Potomac”. Washington D.C. is a microcosm of the plight facing Blacks in the inner cities of the United States.

The city of Washington D.C. is plagued with many problems all due to a lack of concern and attention shown by the governing body of the area. This all contributes to the criminalization of Blacks, especially youth and their often oppressive encounters with the state. In order to properly talk about the issue of state violence and imprisonment one must first start with some of the reasons why the African American population come into contact with the courts and police in the first place. This leads us to the education system. In D.C, 51% of the adult Black population holds high school diplomas and 2% of the school age population is truant, which is a high percentage. This may be jarring to those who remember that D.C. spends 11,269$ per pupil, among the highest in the nation.  However, the notoriously lax enforcement of truancy laws, rapid closing of public schools and changes in the personal lives of lower income students, due to various reasons for unstable households, leads to a rather significant truancy rate. We know, based on the research done on “tracking”, those children who are less successful in school on average have the spectre of the prison industrial complex looming in their future. However, school is not the sole factor in the increasing tensions and clashes of the Black population, which makes up 52%, of D.C. and the city’s law enforcement.

D.C. is also a city, like most in the country, which is undergoing a large amount of gentrification, meaning that a lot of public housing is being removed and the land is being sold to private contractors. In many cases, these spaces are filled by expensive condominiums. This translates to the rapid removal of the vibrant, predominantly Black, working class of D.C. Often times these new settlements of young, mostly middle class whites, professionals come through the collaboration between government and business. Adrian Fenty, recently ousted mayor, approved  100 million dollars in city contracts without the approval of the city council. This was in addition to the Housing Authority making a 6 million dollar deal with Banneker Ventures which is owned by Omar Karim, a fraternity brother of Fenty. This is all relevant when you look at the severe number of Blacks moved out of the city, about 2500 per year by last estimate. This all has an adverse effect on the lives of African Americans in the district, especially youth, whose lives are in a state of chaos. Couple this with the rising unemployment rates, of which Blacks make up 51%, and you have a perfect storm brewing. Alienated and ousted, many Black youth don’t find themselves with the opportunity to be able to fit into the romantic image of the teen with a steady job on their way to becoming a decent citizen.

In large, the Black citizens of D.C. make up a surplus of labor, meaning that many Black people are not working to reproduce profit for the corporations or city and cannot work because they find themselves out of the pool of eligibility, either through qualifications, or racism. This makes them more vulnerable to the one place that can extract profit from them; the prison system. The criminalization of the Black residents of Washington D.C. is something that is constant. One thing that most Black youth in D.C. can count on is the fact that they will encounter the police at least once in their adolescent lives, with the encounter usually being negative. The D.C. police department, which led the nation in the 90’s in murders of residents, has a long history of abuse. Most recently, police chief, Cathy Lanier, led the department on into direct confrontation with the community through the “All Hands on Deck” program. This program had nearly the entire 4,000 person department on the streets serving warrants, questioning residents, and patrolling the streets. To those unfamiliar with the long history of violence done to the Black community at the hands of the police, this may seem like a great idea to curve seemingly random, unreasonable violence. However, the antagonisms between the predominately foreign, in the geographical sense- most of the police serving in the D.C. area are from neighboring states, white officers and the oppressed Black populations have often spilled over into more senseless violence. Recently, the parents of 27yr old Kellen White have filed suit against the DCPD for shooting Kellen 12 times at a traffic stop, parents allege that he was unarmed. This incident highlights the common phenomenon of police brutality. For those who do leave these encounters with their lives, the court system is the next stop.

The court system in Washington D.C., which by default is a federal court system with appointed judges and prosecutors due to D.C.’s lack of statehood, prosecutes hundreds of Black residents a day. Most of these people are here because of non violent drug offenses. Many of these lives fall forfeit to the will of the court which more often than not shows little to no mercy to them. Many Black lives are lost to the prison industrial complex. Once inside the belly of the beast, many Black inmates still find themselves fighting for survival. D.C. inmate deaths usually double the normal average of those in the nation with the national average being 145 deaths per every 100,000 prisoners. D.C. inmate deaths usually average around 315 deaths per every 100,000 prisoners. Even more disturbing is the fact that these inmates mostly die from illnesses such as HIV/Aids. In 2008, Washington D.C. reported to have some 15,120 residents living with the virus and of that number 81% were African American. One can assume this number is so tremendously high because of inadequate education, social stigma around homosexuality and a lack of accessibility of medicine. Thus for many, these prisons also serve as a final stop.

We have seen in epic fashion the failure of non-profit organizations when it comes to organizing serious class resistance in the face of severe state oppression. As crisis deepens and the Black population in D.C, both employed and not, see new levels of exploitation and gentrification, the old workings of the non-profits seem all too irrelevant. This is not to say that the non-profits at work in the District are waste. Quite the contrary, in lieu of strong revolutionary organizations that are capable of supporting the people’s needs, the non-profits do good work for the people. The limitation comes in the funding and theoretical base of the organizations. By their very nature non-profits are instruments of the state because they depend on the state to exist and are thus used by the state in times of crisis to pacify the population and feed children bourgeois dreams. In Oakland California, many have criticized the non profits, in the area, of stagnating youth militancy and criminalizing the elements of the Oakland youth who seek channels of struggle that go beyond one day rallies and speak outs about the very real fact that they are being murdered in the streets by the dogs of the state; the OPD (Oakland Police Dept.). In D.C. the rhetoric of being a “good citizen” is dogmatically applied by the mostly after school program based non-profits. Images of youth Black children with “kept” hair (meaning no afros and if you’re boys no hair at all) in suits permeate every flyer or glossy poster, directly attacking the self worth and value Black youth have in their natural appearance and their neighborhoods. This intersection of race based and class oppression hit home and serves to begin the self-demonization of the Black child.

At first look, the sheer amount of obstacles that stand in the way of the oppressed, in the task of creating for them a better existence, seem to be too much to surmount.  However it is necessary to know and understand your conditions before you can make any attempt to change them. When looking at the issues that plague the Black community of Washington D.C. one thing becomes all too clear; organizing to combat these issues cannot come through the same oppressive state apparatus that oppresses the organizers. It is necessary for the people to build their own independent organizations that are committed to education and action. There are plenty of examples of communities organizing independent of the state in order to affect change. Two shining examples that come to mind are the Young Lords from New York and the Black Panther Party based in Oakland, California. Both groups worked with and in the communities they came from to build dual power structures that could challenge the oppressive politicians and businessmen. In addition to that, not all of the Black population of D.C. is completely removed from the working class. There is still a solid base of Black workers in the city that can effect further change through workplace action. Walk offs and strikes have proven to be amongst the strongest tools in the arsenal of working people.

For many African Americans in Washington D.C. the governing body and police force represent manifestations of oppression and exploitation. The population is rendered politically helpless by the lack of political power within the Black community. Blacks in D.C, like many other places in the United States represent a large part of the population that is excess labor and thus, under capitalism, an obstacle to the functioning of the machine both because of the lack of profit being generated and the time this section has to sit and reflect on their positioning and grow more militantly discontent. This is where the violent arm of the state comes in through incarceration. We exist in a profit driven world where the accumulation of capital comes first and people second. However, there is hope in the fact that people can and will always organize against the oppression they face daily.

One thought on “In My Backyard. . . Poverty in D.C.

  1. Thank you for posting this. Working class/poor people of color being pushed out of major cities is very evident here in the bay area as well as in seattle and It’s important that people are calling attention to this. My question is: why do you believe that conditions are so bad for blacks in DC in comparison to other parts of the country. Your statistics illuminated that the death tolls are higher in the jails/penn’s out there as well as really high amounts of people not graduating HS. What role do you think segregation plays in this? I hear that DC is more segregated racially than here, not sure if that’s true tho b/c I have never lived there. My family used to live in Baltimore for a minute tho and, although, I was real young at the time, I remember my parents speakin about how segregated it was in comparison to the west coast. I would really like to go back some day and explore the city now that I’m older…

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