But I have a problem when you begin the clock with the violence on Tuesday. Because the fact of the matter is that the lives of black people in this city, the lives of black people in this country have been violent for a long time. Violence is how enslavement actually happened. People will think of enslavement as like a summer camp, where you just have to work, where you just go and someone gives you food and lodging, but enslavement is violence, it is torture. Torture is how it was made possible. You can’t imagine enslavement without stripping away people’s kids and putting them up for sale. And the way you did that was, you threatened people with violence. Jim Crow was enforced through violence. That was the way things that got done. You didn’t politely ask somebody not to show up and vote. You stood in front of voting booths with guns, that’s what you did. And the state backed this; it was state-backed violence.
Violence is not even in our past. Violence continues today. I was reading a stat that the neighborhood where the “riots” popped-off earlier this week is in fact the most incarcerated portion of the state of Maryland. And this is not surprising. We live in a country where the incarceration rate is 750 per 100,000. Our nearest competitor is allegedly undemocratic Russia at 400 or 500 per 100,000. China has roughly a billion more people than America; America incarcerates 800,000 more people than China. And as bad as that national incarceration rate is, the incarceration rate for black men is somewhere around 4,000 per 100,000. So if you think the incarceration rate for America is bad, for black America it’s somewhere where there is no real historical parallel.
And incarceration is, even in and of itself, a kind of euphemism, a very nice word, for what actually happens when they cart you off and take you to jail for long periods of time. Jails are violent. To survive, you use violence. To be incarcerated in this country is to be subjected to the possibility of sexual assault, is to be subjected to possibility of violence from fellow inmates, to be subjected to violence from guards. And the saddest part of this is that this mirrors the kind of violence that I saw in my neighborhood as a young man in West Baltimore.
There’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot recently by the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn has this great, great quote that I think about all the time: He says in his book The Gulag Archipelago, “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.” And I love this quote—it’s a beautifully written sentence—because it hints at, though it does not say, the human agency in law and what we call people. And so, certain things are violence, and certain things are not. Certain things are the acts committed by thugs, and certain things are the acts committed by the law. And in terms of rendering black people illegitimate, in terms of putting black people in certain boxes where things can be done to them, the vocabulary is very, very important—the law is very, very important—in terms of where we draw the line.