BCRW @ 50

1980s: The war on drugs, institutional amnesia, transitions from anti-prison to pro-security

In the 1980s, student discourse at Barnard around prisons began to change drastically. With the ebb and flow of new students entering Barnard, surrounded by different social and political contexts than graduates from the previous decade, and following what seemed to be a stagnation in popular anti-prison activism, anti-prison work was replaced by an investment in the carceral system. 

Whereas anti-prison articles made frequent appearances in the Barnard Bulletin and Barnard Alumnae magazine throughout the early 1970’s, anti-prison discourse among students in the 1980’s found a home almost only in Black student publications, such as the new Barnard-Columbia magazine by and for African American students, titled “Black Heights.” In an article from their 1982 edition, Columbia Student Kevin Matthews wrote:

Remember that we are still the sons and daughters of a people brought to this country, enslaved and then dubiously “set free” to inhabit the inner-city ghettos and rural slums, to become approximately 60% of the total prison population, to live in poverty existing from day to day with no hope of immediate advancement, and to have to sell our black souls in order to “make it” in this most barbaric of civilized worlds.

There is more to life than just existence and for black people today our purpose should be as clear as rain and needs to be emblazoned across our hearts and seared into our minds forever. 

Similar concerns about the abuses Black people faced at the hands of white America were echoed in the BCRW talk “Resistance and Women of Color,” given by AndreĆ© Nicola-McLaughlin at the 1984 S&F conference. In addition to addressing the incarceration and ghettoization of Black people in America, she stated, “Black men, women, and children can be killed at any point in any place in these United States by either civilians or those in uniform, without the murderer ever having to spend a night in jail or even to think of life in jail.” Additionally, she noted the widening income inequality between Black and white communities since the 1960s, the interconnections of racism and capitalism, and anti-Black racism as a founding pillar of the U.S., noting, “racism is as American as apple pie [....] When looking at the history of America, the survival of the African race within the boundaries of these United States is in [and] of itself a form of resistance.”

Yet, the abuses Black people and students faced were absent from Barnard’s primary student publications, which instead took on an aggressively punitive tone with the onset of Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” and the government’s flooding of Black communities with crack cocaine. A 1986 Barnard Bulletin article, “Fight Drug Abuse Now,” begins with the statement, “Drug dealers are a miserable bunch of human beings, and once convicted they should spend the rest of their lives in jail.” The article later goes on to state:

The immediate solution is to make drug dealing ‘cost’ more than it offers as a reward, and with the profit margin extremely large, the penalties for importing drugs to America must be severe. Dealers faced with the chances of spending the remainder of their lives in prison might equally consider a change in profession. Today, most arrested dealers serve very light sentences if serving any time at all. Congress has recently proposed tougher sentences for drug dealers, including the death penalty for some drug-related crimes, and they are to be commended for finally taking a stand.

A 1989 article, titled, “Fed Up? Join the Auxiliary Police,” took a similar — if not more overtly racist — tone, where a Columbia student writes, “NYC is a ‘zoo’” and “at best the New York City police can only keep us from experiencing absolute bedlam,” encouraging students to join the New York City Auxiliary Police Force. The article was a letter by a male Columbia student to the editor in response to a previous article written by four female Barnard and Columbia students who were pushed and called “white bitches” by three Black teenagers on College Walk. The four women prefaced the article, “Our intention in making the incident public was not to propagate racial tension or paranoia, but rather to dispel the false sense of security we have about our neighborhood.” They wrote, “Once the two of us who were pushed to the ground got back up, the incident was over. But for the boys who instigated the attack, their lives have been and continue to be a series of pushes to the ground.” This at first glance appears to be an example of the kind of forgiveness which might be present in alternative models of justice that do not rely on the criminal (in)justice system. However, the students followed this statement with the assurance that they did press charges, as well as:

made efforts to ensure that these fifteen-year-old boys don’t simply get the book thrown at them, but that they receive counseling as well as detention for the serious offense. Because, although we are concerned about the future of these boys, we have a responsibility to the Columbia community — especially the women — to set a precedent that violence within the Columbia gates will be addressed seriously and effectively.

Absent from their seemingly sympathetic analyses of violence within the Columbia gates are the ideas that the very existence of the Columbia gates and the exploitative institutions it protects are also violent and abusive to the Harlem community. 

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