Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country 53206, a heavily African American neighborhood north of downtown Milwaukee, suffers from all manner of ills—not least of which are the myths of criminality that continue to surround it.
Robinson’s family came to Milwaukee from Chicago in the 1980s because, as Robinson put it, “Chicago was getting out of pocket.” With crime rising and jobs disappearing in the Windy City, she told me, “my mom wanted a better place for us to live.” But Robinson’s mother could never have anticipated the crucibles awaiting her daughter in Wisconsin—the array of social and political deficits associated with the five numbers that came at the end of her listed address: 53206, now notoriously known as the most incarcerated zip code in the country.
The neighborhood’s rectangular outline sits like a brick just north of the Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in downtown Milwaukee, where the 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held next summer. In addition to its high incarceration rates, 53206, a heavily African American district, suffers from every manner of social ill, from socioeconomic stagnation to poor health. The Democratic primary field is teeming with proposals to address these ingrained injustices, and the party’s eventual candidate will also have a personal incentive to pay attention to what is happening in 53206: Its residents, among others in Milwaukee, may well prove to be the key to Democrats’ hopes of winning the battleground state of Wisconsin and unseating Donald Trump in the presidential election.
As long as those residents can gain access to the ballot, that is.African Americans represent nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, but their political clout has been diminished by laws that suppress the black vote. There is also the problem of African Americans choosing not to vote: Black turnout in Wisconsin dropped nearly 19 percent between the 2012 to the 2016 elections—a clear sign that, despite their historic need to mobilize black voters, Democrats haven’t been meeting the challenge especially well of late.
“It’s no secret that the U.S. incarcerates a shocking number of its own people, primarily the poor and people of color. With 2.3 million Americans currently being held in prisons, the country has the largest prison population in the world. But even as awareness of mass incarceration grows, two crucial questions remain at the heart of the debate on prison reform: Why does the U.S. imprison so many people, and how do we change our toxic approach?
These are the issues Tony Platt, author of “Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States,” and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer discuss in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.”“When I started writing this book,” says Platt, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. “I was trying to answer the question: Why is it so difficult to make any kind of fundamental, decent, humane change in criminal justice institutions? Why are [our leaders] so resistant to this?”
” . . . the report’s authors said the local government should be doing more to support those who are justice-involved, including those who are formerly incarcerated and those with parole, probation, and community supervision.These individuals and their families struggle with access to housing, employment, educational opportunities, and meeting health and mental health needs and experience a patchwork of services that are under-resourced and not targeted to meet the complex challenges that come before, during, and after justice involvement, FPWA officials said.The result is a continuing cycle of poverty and incarceration that has a devastating impact on families for generations, they said.“If we are serious about ending mass incarceration, if we want to disrupt systems that criminalize the poor, we must better utilize and resource the organizations that are already providing critical services in these communities,” Jennifer Jones Austin, FPWA CEO and Executive Director, said in a news release.“Systemic racism drives both poverty and the mass incarceration of low-income people, especially people of color. This cycle of poverty and criminal justice involvement feeds on itself and creates herculean barriers to achieving economic and social advancement, for those who have been justice involved and for their loved ones,” Jones said.“There are proven ways to support communities experiencing high levels of poverty, income insecurity and incarceration. Human services organizations are a key part of those solutions,” she said.”
I never fully realized the monumental role that massive numbers of children played in civil rights protests. Law enforcement arrested and jailed children by the thousands for days, and sometimes months, and their involvement helped to enable one of the greatest legal and social assaults on racism in the 20th century—the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Leesburg Stockade Girls are an incredible example of these courageous, young freedom fighters.You may ask, “Who were the Leesburg Stockade Girls?” In July of 1963 in Americus, Georgia, fifteen girls were jailed for challenging segregation laws. Ages 12 to 15, these girls had marched from Friendship Baptist Church to the Martin Theater on Forsyth Street. Instead of forming a line to enter from the back alley as was customary, the marchers attempted to purchase tickets at the front entrance. Law enforcement soon arrived and viciously attacked and arrested the girls. Never formally charged, they were jailed in squalid conditions for forty-five days in the Leesburg Stockade, a Civil War era structure situated in the back woods of Leesburg, Georgia. Only twenty miles away, parents had no knowledge of where authorities were holding their children. Nor were parents aware of their inhumane treatment.
A month into their confinement, Danny Lyon, a twenty-one year old photographer for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), learned of the girls’ whereabouts and sneaked onto the stockade grounds to take pictures of the girls through barred windows. After SNCC published the photos in its newspaper The Student Voice, African American newspapers across the country printed the story, and the girls’ ordeal soon gained national attention.
On August 28, 1963, as Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, these children sat in their cell bolstering their courage with freedom songs in solidarity with the thousands of marchers listening to Dr. King’s indelible speech on the National Mall. Soon after the March on Washington, during the same week of the bombing of the five little girls at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, law enforcement released the Leesburg Stockade Girls and returned them to their families.
Their story was part of the broader Civil Rights effort that engaged children in a variety of nonviolent, direct actions. In Alabama, for example, thousands of youth participated in the 1963 Children’s Crusade, a controversial liberation tactic initiated by James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After careful deliberation about the merit of involving children in street protests and allowing them to be jailed, Dr. King decided that their participation would revive the waning desegregation campaign and would appeal to the moral conscience of the nation.
On May 2, 1963, in response to an invitation from Dr. King, roughly a thousand students—elementary through high school—gathered enthusiastically at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and joined a civil rights march throughout the streets of Birmingham. By day’s end, law enforcement had jailed over 600 children.
The next day the number of children doubled. However, the training classes provided by SCLC leaders could not have prepared the children for the violence they would encounter. The Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor directed the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on the children, and people in America and around the world witnessed this brutality. Authorities arrested nearly 2,000 children—one as young as four years old. These protests continued throughout the first week of May, with over 5,000 children being jailed.
Within days, SCLC and local officials reached an agreement, in which the city agreed to repeal the segregation ordinance and release all jailed protestors. Ultimately, the activism of thousands of African American children in 1963, including the Leesburg Stockade Girls, provided the momentum for the March on Washington and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year.
The history of children’s Civil Rights activism continues to be important to tell. The Leesburg Stockade Girls realize this importance, and they are documenting their story. In 2015, as the keynote speaker at a commemorative event for the Leesburg Stockade Girls at Georgia Southwestern State University, I engaged with ten of the surviving women, who shared recollections about the day of their arrest. Remarkably, these women still possess a collective spirit of resistance to social injustice, and they are beginning to embrace their place in history.
As we reflect on their story and the broader history of youth activism, let us consider: How might children today play an equally significant role in promoting racial equality in the United States? Written by Tulani Salahu-Din, Museum Specialist, National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Source: The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. It was established by Act of Congress in 2003, following decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African Americans. To date, the Museum has collected more than 36,000 artifacts and nearly 100,000 individuals have become members. The Museum opened to the public on September 24, 2016, as the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
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From Executive Producers DANNY GLOVER, JOHN LEGEND, BRAD PITT & RUSSELL SIMMONS
A FILM BYEUGENE JARECKI
As America remains embroiled in conflict overseas, a less visible war is taking place at home, costing countless lives, destroying families, and inflicting untold damage on future generations of Americans. Over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever before. Filmed in more than twenty states, The House I Live In captures heart-wrenching stories from individuals at all levels of America’s War on Drugs. From the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the senator, the inmate to the federal judge, the film offers a penetrating look inside America’s longest war, offering a definitive portrait and revealing its profound human rights implications.
While recognizing the seriousness of drug abuse as a matter of public health, the film investigates the tragic errors and shortcomings that have meant it is more often treated as a matter for law enforcement, creating a vast machine that feeds largely on America’s poor, and especially on minority communities. Beyond simple misguided policy, The House I Live In examines how political and economic corruption have fueled the war for forty years, despite persistent evidence of its moral, economic, and practical failures.
EVERY DAY MORE PEOPLE AGREE
THE WAR ON DRUGS HAS FAILED JOIN THEM AND MUST CHANGE
Comprehensive in scope, heart wrenching in its humanity, and brilliant in its thesis, Jarecki’s new film grabs viewers and shakes them to their core. The House I Live In is not only the definitive film on the failure of America’s drug war, but it is also a masterpiece filled with hope and the potential to effect change. This film is surely destined for the annals of documentary history.