I recently wrote that the state and capitalism had a significant role in James Boulware’s armored van assault on the Dallas Police Department building. Boulware had stated that he “lost everything,” that he was on his “last dime,” and that he could not find employment due to his criminal record. This was a significant factor that motivated Boulware to attack the police. Now I would like to illustrate this phenomenon further with the recent example of Quante Wright.
Quante Wright is a former “gang member” who was associated with the Brighton Brigade. He was arrested under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Here are some court records explaining the charges. Quante was sentenced to 105 months in prison with five years supervised release.
According to court documents, all of the crimes Quante was accused of were committed between the ages of 14 and 18.
When Marnie Eisenstadt of Syracuse.com wrote that Quante had graduated and found employment after his release, Quante was promptly fired by his boss. The story erupted in the media and Quante was offered his job back. But too late – Quante was sent back to jail the same day he was fired.
Let’s consider a few elements of Quante’s story. The initial Eisenstadt article was about Congressman John Katko’s speech at a Bryant and Stratton College graduation. Katko hailed Quante by name and said he was “very proud.”
Katko, congressman, was formerly the federal prosecutor responsible for putting Quante in jail.
The story was intended to be a feel-good, reconciliation-type narrative. The very first thing we should ask, however – right there in the first few sentences – is how former federal prosecutors become congressmen. It’s a perfect example of the United States as an authoritarian police state. If your former job was putting people in jail this qualifies you to rule. American laws reflect this. The American prison population also reflects this. When your politicians are former prosecutors, you should expect the outcome to reflect their authoritarian biases.
But that’s not the story. No one in the media is asking how the people directly responsible for the world’s largest prison population manage to secure positions of even greater power.
Eisenstadt deserves some credit. She wrote, “Wright’s success is fragile. His life is an example of how moving on after a felony conviction isn’t as simple as trying hard and living mostly right. Wright is on probation until at least 2017. He’s been charged with violating three times since 2012.” Indeed, Wright’s success is so fragile that the very article Eisenstadt wrote ended up causing him to be fired and sent back to jail. We can’t blame her entirely for this, but we can’t absolve her either. The media has a significant role in perpetuating the exclusion of individuals with criminal convictions from social and economic participation.
At least she did direct the narrative as a critique of the criminal justice system. Eisenstadt pointed out that almost half of all persons released from prison return, and that a full 80% of those persons return not due to committing new crimes but merely for breaking the procedural rules of conditional release. Incidentally, that’s also why Quante went back to jail. He was late to his halfway house after he was fired from his job due to Eisenstadt’s article.
Steve Spector, the manager of Lowery Brothers Chrysler Jeep, fired Quante one day after Eisenstadt wrote about him. Steve said that he didn’t ask Quante about his criminal past, although Quante checked the box on his application form that asked if he had criminal convictions. Quante also wrote on the form what he had been convicted for.
The existence of the criminal history check box and its implications should also be questioned. The media isn’t going here, either. This practice is ubiquitous. Even “basic” forms of employment ask individuals to affirm or deny criminal history. The process is streamlined on employment applications so that employers can easily discriminate against those that do have criminal records. It has to be, because so many people in the United States have been convicted of crimes. It needs its own special spot on employment forms.
In fact, that’s probably part of why Steve overlooked Quante’s criminal past on the application. Half of all black males younger than 23 have been arrested. In a police state if you dismiss every person who has a criminal past you end up finding it hard to employ people. It’s probably also why Steve didn’t question Quante during an interview on a potential criminal history. He may not have actually cared.
But capitalism will ensure that he cares. When Quante’s story was made public and Lowery Brothers was associated with a “convicted felon,” it brought the hatchet down. You see, capitalism is about maximizing profits. And any risk to profits – such as daring to employ one of the unemployable – has to be nipped in the bud. Quante’s wellbeing, his “benefit to society,” his rehabilitation, or however we wish to frame it, is subordinated to the economic rationale – profits – of capitalism.
Capitalism also explains why Quante got his job back, even if a bit too late. You see, Quante was lucky to have his story picked up by social media. The American public loves the “reformed con” myth. This myth is necessary, in fact, to justify the fully dysfunctional criminal justice system. But it is a myth – there are no real second chances. And when Quante was fired it exposed the myth. People were upset.
Gary Lowery, the owner of Lowery Brothers Chrysler Jeep, had to respond. Profits were threatened for a second time. Lowery said that he “feels very badly” and that he “wants to be a part of the resolution.” And that’s all well and good for Quante. Quante may still be sent back to prison for being a few hours late. The US criminal justice system views tardiness as proportional to incarceration. But the publicity has ensured Quante will be able to find employment in the future.
The rest of America’s millions of “felons” will not be so lucky.
Take a moment to read the comments on the articles Eisenstadt wrote. There are people who are supportive, yes. There are also far too many people who stated, flat out, that Quante should not be employed. As in, not employed at all. They’re saying he should have remained in prison, or that they will refuse to patronize Lowery Brothers. There’s a comment that says “convicted felons” should never be equal to other citizens. (Don’t worry – they’re already unequal.) And there is one that says that jobs should go to people without criminal records first.
We’ve already got a system that marginalizes these individuals. The system does so by design. At the moment of arrest the media publicizes names. This ensures that persons accused of crimes can be discriminated against even if they are not convicted, or if charges are dropped. The state then further publicizes criminal conviction records. The state does not have to, of course. These records are not necessarily public in other Western nations. But the state does, specifically because people like former-federal-prosecutor Katko, who I mentioned at the beginning, end up becoming politicians. Finally, the capitalist private sector streamlines discrimination in hiring. Employers also don’t have to do this – there is no law that demands it – they choose to do it. And rightly so, from the capitalist perspective, because a failure to discriminate against persons tainted with a record, even the most trustworthy or productive of individuals, is controversial and thus a risk to the bottom line.
It’s a recipe for perpetuating crime.
We’re taking the individuals most likely to commit crime (we know they are the most likely because they’ve been caught committing crimes), the people with criminal experience, and systematically excluding them from legal alternatives. Quante was formerly a successful crack cocaine dealer. That was how he made a living. It was one of the only viable options for him to make a living. And that is still true for the untold hundreds of thousands of people convicted of drug related crime.
Does the state create incentives for legal behavior, then, to provide alternatives to drug dealing? No, the state does the opposite. The state ensures that it is significantly harder for people who already found it hard to find legal employment. It’s because the criminal justice system, policing, and the prison-industrial complex were never designed to end crime. They were designed to perpetuate crime and generate revenue for public employees and the associated private sector.
This also benefits capitalists. By excluding a significant portion of the population from employment the labor pool is altered. These persons, if they wish to participate in legal work, must accept what they can get. Further, the state usually mandates they find employment as a condition of release. They’re quite literally forced into industries that cater specifically to persons with criminal histories who cannot find employment elsewhere.
This is not sustainable. A society cannot subject millions of its members to a subservient and second class life. We’ve tried that in the past – it was called slavery. This resulted in rebellions. Slaves cut their masters throats while masters slept. Empires were destabilized. Uprisings and revolts left thousands dead. More than half a million people died in at least one civil war.
If we don’t abolish these modern forms of slavery then history is going to repeat itself.