Why Erica Garner’s support for Sanders makes a difference

—Cid Martinez

[This piece originally appeared on CNN.]

Last week, Bernie Sanders’ campaign released a four-minute video ad featuring an endorsement from the daughter of Eric Garner, the New York man who was choked to death by New York City police officers. In the course of the ad, Erica Garner talked about her father’s death as unjust and its effect on her and her young daughter.

She is also campaigning this week on behalf of Sanders in the South Carolina primary.

Garner’s support comes at a key time in the election, as Sanders and Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, seek to rally support among African-American and Latino voters in the upcoming primaries.

The video raises the urgent issue of the broken criminal justice system and its effects on American society, a topic few liberals want to address through activism. How do we know it’s broken? According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western in his book “Punishment and Inequality in America,” the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, with more than 2.2 million people behind bars. Western notes that in the past 30 years, incarceration has increased sevenfold.

Police-involved shootings are another sign that the system has unraveled. Although there is not good data quantifying the number of police-involved shootings, since law enforcement does not collect this information, many criminologists would say there is a disproportionately higher number of police-involved shootings of blacks and Latinos.

The ad makes it clear that our broken criminal justice system should be at the center of civil rights discussions. It shows how Garner’s daughter has been transformed into a civil rights activist since her father’s death. Among critical scholars of criminology, the link between criminal justice and civil rights has long been acknowledged. The Black Lives Matter movement has received national attention in pushing for criminal justice reform, but candidates still are not discussing solutions comprehensively. Until recently, any discussion of the criminal justice system was viewed as being peripheral to progressive agendas.

Sanders‘ ad attempts to go further by demonstrating how the criminal justice system shapes the life chances of minorities and the need for a more comprehensive discussion. His ad taps into the fact that our criminal justice system targets social groups, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, not individuals. According to Western, one in four young African-American males are likely to go to jail. They are also more likely to go to jail than attend college or go to the military, which are considered important markers that shape the trajectory of one’s life.

The ad shows something else not noted by most Americans and political analysts: The criminal justice system affects not only those arrested and brutalized, but also their extended families. Sanders’ video illustrates how Garner’s daughter and granddaughter were deeply affected.

The negative effects of the criminal justice system damage future generations. This point is confirmed by Rutgers criminologist Todd Clear in his book “Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse.” His research shows that mass incarceration undermines communities, splitting apart families when fathers and mothers are locked up. Eventually, incarceration destroys communities.

This brings us to one of the ad’s most powerful messages: It is only through civic and political activism that a more just society for African-Americans, Latinos and American society in general can be achieved. History suggests that Sanders is on to something. In “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice,” Harvard legal scholar William Stuntz argues that urban American society went through two periods of mass migration: one by white European immigrants in the first third of the 20th century, and the other by African-Americans during the Great Migration, which roughly occurred in the last two-thirds of the 20th century.

The response to both migrations was strikingly different. For white Europeans, crime barely increased and incarceration decreased to record levels. In contrast, for African-Americans, crime increased and incarceration skyrocketed. What explains the difference?

Stuntz suggests the key difference was that Europeans had strong levels of civic participation in the appointment of judges and prosecutors and had stronger ties to police officers. In contrast, when African-Americans came to inhabit urban America, they did not have the same influence in local politics to shape the election of judges, prosecutors and other appointed officials of the criminal justice system.

More importantly, they became marginal players in the political landscape until the 1980s, when mass incarceration and heavy-handed police tactics were already in place. Stuntz’s point is that it was not the law that created a more just society for European ethnics and their offspring, but having access and being active in political and civic participation that shaped the criminal justice system.

By recognizing the new reality of civil rights, where criminal justice reform and political participation go hand in hand, Sanders is tapping into a powerful movement that has the potential to energize his campaign and enlist future generations to transform politics and a broken criminal justice system.

If Sanders’ campaign succeeds, this could be part of the political revolution he’s been talking about.

Cid Martinez is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego. He is author of The Neighborhood Has Its Own Rules: Latinos and African Americans in South Los Angeles (NYU Press, forthcoming July 2016).

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