Review of “Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis”


In any society, police forces and other agents of organized repression do their work on behalf of that society’s ruling class. In capitalism, the police are the reserve army of capital, protecting bourgeois property and society from working people and others who must be confined to a submissive role to their economic dominance. Over recent decades, the US bourgeoisie has overseen an increased militarization of police forces, an elevation in its prison population and an all-out assault on black, Latinos and other traditionally oppressed peoples. From COINTELPRO to the recent raids on anti-war activists, the massacre of trade unionists at the beginning of the century to the murder of prominent figures in the Black Panther movement and other champions of civil rights, these forces have also been arrayed against organizations of the working class endeavoring to challenge oppression.

How is it that these modern mechanisms of repression came into being? What forces birthed this new order of militant police and crowded prisons to shackle and crush those inconvenient to capital? In his book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, Christian Parenti offers us a thorough backstory to the buildup of state repression, as well as insights as to the workings of the new “justice” system today to marginalize and oppress working people.

The History Behind the Modern Police State

Parenti’s expose begins with unraveling the history of the modern police state in analyzing Nixon’s narco policies, and how they were ultimately an instrument to be used against politically active blacks in the context of a losing war in Southeast Asia and growing dissent in the context of the civil rights movement. According to Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff, Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The Key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Through these efforts, a number of militant police organizations are created (in a fashion reminiscent to the Order Police mentioned in another review) eventually culminating in the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). These efforts at militarizing police forces, and allowing them new means to subvert the supposed civil liberties of working people through the liberalization of wire-taps, no-knock warrants and other measures aimed at increasing incarceration rates gained additional support during the Reagan era.

Reaction, Counter-Revolution and Repression

It is worth noting that throughout his detailing of these evolving mechanisms of repression, Parenti remains conscious of the specifically reactionary and and counterrevolutionary nature of this surge. Rather than mistakenly viewing it as an “excess” growing from “legitimate fears for personal safety and order” (as some liberals may be inclined to do) Parenti very frankly lays out the true motivations of this crypto-fascist surge for their racist, chauvinist and generally anti-working class purpose. It is refreshing to see a perspective on the injustice of the “justice” system divorced from the typical liberal paradigm.

Capitalism’s New Praetorian Guard

Moving on from his historical narrative on the construction of a new police state, Parenti focuses his gaze on the forces of repression themselves and the strategies and tactics they implement in reinforcing bourgeois rule. For instance, direct assaults on the urban poor via a “zero tolerance” policy on petty offenses, from the “broken windows” of the Wilson-Kelling thesis (which basically states that punishing people for petty offenses keeps communities “clean”) to public urination have become a mainstay of urban police. To summarize the origins of this situation:

“In the last decade the pressure to police effectively and secure urban space has become all the more important. For centuries “the urban” has been synonymous with filth, lawlessness and danger, but in recent years cities have also taken on renewed economic and cultural importance as sites of accumulation, speculation and innovative profit making. For cities to work as such they must be, or at least appear and feel, safe. If the economic restructuring of the eighties and nineties intensified urban poverty, it also created new, gilded spaces that are increasingly threatened by poverty. This polarization of urban space and social relations has in turn required a new layer of ground quarters of the postmodern metropolis from their flipsides of misery. This contradiction, between the danger of cities and their value, has spawned yet another revolution in American law enforcement: the rise of zero/tolerance/quality of life policing.” (Parenti 70)

In protecting the value of cities for the production schemes of the ruling class from those most alienated by these mechanisms, police have become a virtual Praetorian guard in cracking down on the urban poor.

The Assault on Blacks, Immigrants and Women

In his analysis of the workings of these new repressive mechanisms, Parenti demonstrates an understanding of how racial, gender and xenophobic chauvinism are manifested in the state’s war on the poor. In addition to describing how blacks in particular are made a target for arrest and incarceration at highly inflated levels, Parenti describes the impact of an “Apartheid by other means” on immigrant communities, with immigrant women often being hit hardest by this state of affairs.

“Whether by design or default, the state’s increasingly hostile stance towards immigrants is politically useful because it bolsters racial and class hierarchies. Also, border militarization and interior enforcement, like so much of the post-sixties criminal justice buildup, serve as a preemptive counter-insurgency. As was shown above, terrorizing migrant workers keeps wages low and that boosts profits. Terrorizing undocumented Latinos at the new border DMZ and with interior campaigns, helps to break cross-border family ties and demoralizes Latino communities in the US. As Roberto Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee put it, “People aren’t just scared of going north, thanks to these roadblocks boxing in San Diego County, they’re scared to go anywhere, especially back south… We get calls all the time from the barrios that women are too scared to leave their houses. I’m serious — this is a real crisis.” (Parenti 159)

Prisons: Persecution and the Profit Motive

Parenti concludes his book with an analysis of the modern prison system, from the lesser emphasis on notions of “reform” to prison becoming a highly profitable mechanism for persecuting offenders at all levels of offense emerging out of this system. Chapter Ten, entitled “Balkans in a Box: Rape, Race War and Other Forms of Management” is a noteworthy contribution into understanding the travesty of the modern prison system, detailing how the lowest forms of barbarism conceivable are allowed and even encouraged within the confines of these “human warehouses.” Following this stomach-turning reality, Parenti discusses the broader economic benefits that the ruling class is able to reap from such bastions of human suffering in his chapter “Big Bucks from the Big House: The Prison Industrial Complex and Beyond.” In it, Parenti produces many figures on the heavy subsidies private prisons are given to offer a lower standard of care to inmates, including one section on a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio, where it was discovered that:

“…80 percent of the CCA guards had no corrections experience; many of the guards were only eighteen or nineteen years old; prison medical records went unaccounted for while more than 200 chronically ill inmates were left untreated in general population; and almost no effort was made to separate violent psychos from peaceful convicts. Later inmate civil rights suits alleged that guards violated regulations by using tear gas inside; that prison tactical teams had dragged inmates naked and shackled across floors; and that during cell searches convicts were forced to strip, kneel, and were shocked with stun guns if they moved.” (Parenti 223)

Conclusion: An Invaluable Insight

The many insights brought forth by Parenti’s deep look into the modern police state cannot be done justice in a review such as this. His work demonstrates yet another invaluable contribution to our understanding of the workings of contemporary imperial capitalism. Like his father Michael Parenti, whose exposes on Tibet, the Hondouran Coup and other topics have done well to smash the myth of “democratic capitalism,” Christian Parenti has done the same with a “justice” system whose sole perogative is to defend the interests of the wealthy from the rest of society. We at the American Party of Labor highly recommend this book.



Categories: Books, Government, History, Imperialism, Media & Culture, Police Brutality, Prisons, U.S. News, United States History, Workers Struggle

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