Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State

Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State

by Jordan T. Camp

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The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate of any country: one in thirty-five adults are in jail, prison, immigrant detention, or on parole or probation. Over the last four decades, structural unemployment, concentrated urban poverty, and mass homelessness have also become permanent features of the political economy. These developments are without historical precedent, but not without historical explanation. In this searing critique, Jordan T. Camp traces the roots of this explosive carceral crisis through a series of turning points in U.S. history including the Watts insurrection in 1965, the Detroit rebellion in 1967, the Attica uprising in 1971, the Los Angeles revolt in 1992, and post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005. Incarcerating the Crisis argues that these dramatic events coincided with the emergence of neoliberal capitalism and the state’s attempts to crush radical social movements. Through an examination of poetic visions of social movements—including those by James Baldwin, Marvin Gaye, June Jordan, Jose Ramirez, and Sunni Patterson—it also suggests that alternative outcomes have been and continue to be possible. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520281820
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/18/2016
Series: American Crossroads , #43
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 889,892
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jordan T. Camp is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America (CSREA) and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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Incarcerating the Crisis

Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State

By Jordan T. Camp


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95768-8


The Explosion in Watts

The Second Reconstruction and the Cold War Roots of the Carceral State

The explosion in Watts reminded us all that the northern ghettos are the prisons of forgotten men.

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., New York, September 18, 1965

In August 1965, the California Highway Patrol stopped an unemployed resident of South Central Los Angeles named Marquette Frye and proceeded to beat him. Frye's assault ignited the fury of the Black working class in Watts. Many took up burning and looting as their form of protest against this particular episode and the more general epidemic of police violence. Over the next five days the masses were on the move. The uprising — popularly known as the Watts rebellion or insurrection — occurred within days of the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act in 1965. National and international attention was drawn to the events, especially as they appeared to contradict the dominant national narrative of appeasement and racial overcoming. Moved by the events, Martin Luther King Jr. was compelled to visit Los Angeles. Against the counsel of advisors who recommended that King denounce the rebellion and the conditions that produced it, King met with the participants of the then–largest urban uprising in U.S. history. In a press conference shortly after the meeting he stated that the rebellion "was a class revolt of underprivileged against privileged." While King celebrated the political victories of the freedom movement, he framed the Watts insurrection as the outcome of class anger among those who found their material conditions, despite the new legislation, unchanged.

In the wake of this encounter, King and his colleagues increasingly worked to articulate alternatives to the race and class inequality they witnessed in Watts. King came to the ethical position that "something is wrong with capitalism. ... There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism." This realization transformed King as he sided with working people in the struggle against racism, militarism, and poverty. King thus affirmed the insurgent impulse of the urban uprisings, as he well understood the material conditions that had produced them. In his estimation, the struggle of the urban multiracial poor was the decisive factor in elevating the crisis of racism and poverty to the national political stage.

King sought to rebuild an alliance between civil rights and labor movements to confront the crisis politically. As part of this effort, he located the origins of the rebellion in the automation and deindustrialization in the period. This focus resonated as the intersecting crises of racism, urban poverty, unemployment, and police violence disproportionately impacted the African American and Mexican American working class in the city. In his speeches he increasingly highlighted the social forces producing concentrated unemployment and poverty among the racialized poor. He therefore provided a critique of the changing geography of U.S. racial capitalism. He inspired a radical return in the freedom movement to materialist analysis and class questions that had been marked as outside the bounds of tolerable discourse during the Cold War.

That is not to say that visions of redistribution had not been central to the freedom movement well before Watts. They had played a powerful role in connecting labor and civil rights movements for decades. Taking a long view of the civil rights movement, this chapter traces the rise of what activists, artists, and intellectuals in the Black freedom movement called the Second Reconstruction during the 1930s. It explores how they formed a popular alliance with radical labor and socialist movements against Jim Crow capitalism. It shows how they offered a materialist analysis of racialization, and critiqued policing and prisons as political expressions of the systemic inequalities of capitalism. It also explores how their critique was silenced as "subversion" during the post–World War II Red Scare amid the broader criminalization of antiracist freedom struggles. It demonstrates that this reaction created a political vacuum in which the logic of the carceral state would come to flourish.

As the Cold War took hold after 1948, incarceration rates expanded. African American workers were members of the reserve army of labor. They were the last hired, first fired, and also increasingly subjected to surveillance, arrest, and incarceration. Prisons began to fill with people who were young and working class — groups who also made up the social basis for the labor and civil rights struggles of the postwar era. This was particularly true in California, where the dispossessed had been forced to migrate from the South in search of waged work during World War II. Indeed, while the incarceration rate for the United States as a whole remained relatively steady in the two and half decades after the war, as the journalist Min S. Yee observed, the California prison population by contrast grew from about five thousand in 1944 to more than twenty-eight thousand by 1968. This shift coincided with a transformation in the racial demographics of the prison. The California prison population went from 68 percent white and 17 percent Black in the 1940s to 54 percent white and 28 percent Black in the 1960s, even while the percentage of Black people in California remained between 5 and 6 percent of the population throughout the period. This seemingly exceptional form of carceral control requires explanation, especially as it became the dominant strategy of racialized crisis management in the long late twentieth century.

This chapter shows how carceral policies were developed in response to the most radical political and economic demands of the long civil rights movement. It argues that the national security state's attempts to silence materialist critiques of racism produced the political and ideological conditions of existence for the Watts insurrection in 1965. In turn, it suggests that the state's response to the revolt and the rise of Ronald Reagan during the late 1960s in California created the political foundation for the making of a neoliberal carceral state. By analyzing the speeches and writings of figures such as King and James Baldwin, I seek to demonstrate that the rebellion was a turning point in the history and future of freedom struggles. I argue that the Watts insurrection represented an organic crisis of Jim Crow racial regimes, one that presented the opportunity to form a broad alliance against racism, militarism, and poverty. I conclude by focusing on the dialectical struggle between the prose of counterinsurgency and the poetry of social movements over the meaning of this moment, illustrating how it marked a turning point in the development of the carceral state.


Many people thought that the radical thirties could be the Second Reconstruction. The language was certainly there: sharecropping as the new slavery, the CIO as the new abolitionists, class struggle between working people and capitalists as the new Civil War.

— Toni Cade Bambara, "A Second Reconstruction? 1934–1948," in W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices, 1995

Reconstruction presents an opportunity to study inductively the Marxian theory of the state.

— W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1935

The Black freedom struggle in the mid-twentieth century, referred to as the Second Reconstruction, took root in the radical 1930s. The publication of W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America in 1935 represented a turning point in the history of the struggle against U.S. racial capitalism. During the economic crisis of the 1930s, and amid an emergent insurgent multiracial labor movement, Du Bois devoted his scholarly energies to a study of the race and class struggles of the post–Civil War Reconstruction period. Black Reconstruction in America described how the First Reconstruction (1868–76) represented an unusually successful interracial working-class movement. In Du Bois's explanation, Black workers had won their own freedom by creating a "general strike" in the fields, and in turn were guided by a vision of "abolition democracy." He was also driven by the idea that these workers had created a multiracial class alliance with poor whites that led to the formation of the Reconstruction government. This government opened the ballot to poor whites, who had been denied rights due to their lack of access to property. It abolished the whipping post, the stocks, and other forms of barbaric punishment. It pursued equal accommodation in public spaces and implemented civil rights. In short, the movement was able to transform a racial contradiction into a class confrontation. These efforts to combine political and economic rights, Du Bois argued, represented a model for confronting Jim Crow during the global crisis of capitalism in the 1930s.

Drawing on Black radical historiography, Marxist theory, and the alternative archives of expressive culture, Du Bois claimed that Reconstruction represented one of the "most extraordinary experiments in Marxism that the world, before the Russian Revolution, had ever seen." He demonstrated how racial and labor regimes, centuries in the making, had worn thin in the face of democratic insurgencies among the poor and working class in the 1860s and 1870s. These antiracist and class struggles had created a radical rupture in the U.S. social formation. In reconfiguring the goals and capacities of the state, Black workers and their radical allies had raised the fundamental question as to "whom this wealth was to belong to and for whose interests laborers were to work" — a question that continued to burn at the height of the Great Depression, a period that marked the rise of the Second Reconstruction. Against the advance of socialist democracy, the overthrow of the First Reconstruction gave rise to Jim Crow in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In turn, Jim Crow served as the primary instrument of social control for capital and the state, as it ensured a largely segregated labor movement on a mass scale between the 1890s and the 1930s.

At the time Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America, there was evidence that the racial and labor regime was fraying. With the book's publication, militant labor and civil rights activists in the radical 1930s were increasingly able to draw on a collective memory of the unfinished business of abolition democracy to press for its completion. In the decade after this signal intervention, radical Black freedom movement activists and intellectuals built a historic bloc with the multiracial Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and communist and socialist organizations to confront U.S. Jim Crow capitalism. Between 1929 and 1948, five hundred thousand Black workers gained access to unionized industrial jobs, a large scale experiment in unionization for industrial workers for the first time in U.S. history. In turn, Black industrial workers and organic intellectuals provided moral and ethical leadership in the class struggles of the postwar era.

In 1946 in Columbia, South Carolina, Du Bois delivered a speech on a program with Paul Robeson and Howard Fast at the meetings of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a Communist organization based in Birmingham, Alabama (a place also known as "America's Johannesburg"). Esther Jackson introduced the lecture before an integrated audience at Benedict College in the Jim Crow South. In poetic prose, Du Bois's address "Behold the Land" predicted that the region would become an epicenter for antiracist and class struggles. Du Bois observed, "The working people of the South, white and black, must come to remember that their emancipation depends upon their mutual cooperation." The speech illuminated the ways in which Jim Crow segregation produced Black workers as a source of cheap labor power. It explored how this racial regime served to control the working class as a whole. It declared that this system of social relations reached far beyond the geographical boundaries of the U.S. South, having been exported around the planet through U.S. racial capitalism and imperialism. As part of an effort to articulate an ethical alternative to this political economy, Du Bois argued for the formation of a historical bloc made up of Black freedom, anti-imperialist, labor, and socialist movements. Such a bloc would press for human rights and an augmented social wage — one that included equitable housing, education, and transportation for all workers — especially workers of color who had been excluded from the New Deal. In this, Du Bois was perhaps the most prominent radical historian and social theorist during this formative moment of the age of the civil rights movement.

During this period, Du Bois observed that an ever-increasing number of poor people "stagger out of prison doors embittered, vengeful, hopeless, ruined." Of this "army of the wronged," as he called them, the proportion of Black people was "frightful." Du Bois penned these observations during his persecution for the antiwar activism he conducted with the Stockholm-based Peace Information Center. In a clear use of Red Scare tactics, he was labeled a "foreign agent" and the Soviet Union was named as the "foreign principal" by the prosecution. As a result, the senior scholar-activist of the Black freedom movement faced an extended trial in federal court in 1951 and was forced to fight for his right to pursue radical alternatives to the Jim Crow police state. It took a national and international campaign to save him from being incarcerated. The ordeal of the trial gave him some new perspective. In reflecting on the experience, he observed the ways in which criminalization migrated from the persecution of radical intellectuals to the "great mass" of the Black poor and working class.

Du Bois's urgent words offered a radical challenge to the violent exclusion of "the army of the wronged" in carceral spaces. They dramatize the deleterious effects of prisons as modes of social control. In his writings Du Bois sought to help audiences interpret and resist coercive methods for securing consent to U.S. hegemony. Specifically, he invited readers to consider how the national security state emerged in continuity with earlier forms of social control, and how racism, capitalism, and the state were connected in the early Cold War. In doing so, Du Bois articulated a materialist critique of the carceral apparatus during the rise of postwar U.S. globalism. His intervention reveals the relationship between consent and coercion during this distinct historical conjuncture.


This bill of particulars, We Charge Genocide, is the documented story of the frame-up of thousands of innocent Negroes; of the attempt to stamp the brand of criminality on Negro youth; of packed lily-white juries; of the intimidation of lawyers and witnesses; of police brutality and murder, legal lynching, Ku Klux Klan and mob violence; of racist laws enforced by city, state and Federal officials and courts; of denial of the vote, Jim-Crow in employment, the ghetto system, premature death and malnutrition and preventable diseases ... and of Jim-Crow.

— William L. Patterson, "We Charge Genocide!" Political Affairs, 1951

Like Du Bois, William L. Patterson of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) engaged in a struggle to confront the criminalization of the Black working class. He noted that there had been a "conscious attempt to place the brand of criminality" upon the Black working class, whom he defined as victims of the Jim Crow police state. This analysis informed the CRC's effort to provide political, ethical, and moral leadership in the struggle to prevent young working-class people of color from being criminalized. The group also organized civil liberties campaigns to support imprisoned communists — both those who were card-carrying members of the Communist Party and those fellow travelers indicted by Cold War hysteria. The Los Angeles CRC was influential. It organized against the police violence experienced by African American and Mexican American working-class residents in particular. The organization worked in partnership with groups such as El Congreso del Pueblo de Habla Español and the Asociación Nacional México Americana. For working-class communities of color throughout the city, the group provided political education about the historical and material roots of racism and police violence in the political economy of capitalism during a critical moment in the history of the long civil rights movement.


Excerpted from Incarcerating the Crisis by Jordan T. Camp. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: An Old World Is Dying,
1. The Explosion in Watts: The Second Reconstruction and the Cold War Roots of the Carceral State,
2. Finally Got the News: Urban Insurgency, Counterinsurgency, and the Crisis of Hegemony in Detroit,
3. The Sound Before the Fury: Attica, Racialized State Violence and the Neoliberal Turn,
4. Reading the Writing on the Wall: The Los Angeles Uprising and the Carceral City,
5. What's Going On? Moral Panics and Militarization in Post-Katrina New Orleans,
6. Shut 'Em Down: Social Movements Confront Mass Homelessness and Mass Incarceration in Los Angeles,
Epilogue: The Poetry of the Future,

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