Racist Vendetta Against Homeless Mother
On February 22, Tanya McDowell, a black homeless mother, was sentenced to prison by a Connecticut judge for “stealing” education for her son. McDowell had used her babysitter’s address in a Norwalk housing project to register her son for kindergarten, but officials in that town deemed her a resident of Bridgeport. So last year they unleashed vicious cop-judicial retribution. First McDowell was arrested for “grand larceny” for trying to get her son out of the decrepit Bridgeport schools. Then, after her case attracted national sympathy, police busted her for selling drugs to an undercover cop. McDowell’s lawyer protested that she had been entrapped by police in retaliation for the uproar over her initial arrest. Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, which has backed McDowell’s case, said that local authorities “were going to look for anything” to nab her. “It could have been jaywalking.”
Facing the threat of well over 15 years in prison if convicted at trial, McDowell pleaded guilty to both the grand larceny and drug charges, mandating a minimum of five years in prison and a commitment to pay up to $6,200 in “restitution” to Norwalk. Such coercive plea-bargaining is standard operating procedure in the mass incarceration of black people in capitalist America. Under the U.S. system of “justice,” nearly all cases never go to trial, with prosecutors piling on charges to pressure defendants to plead guilty to lesser ones.
McDowell was victimized for doing what countless parents do to try to get access to quality schools. This impoverished single mother bravely told the sentencing judge, “Who would have thought that wanting a good education for my son would put me in this predicament?” The stark fact is that under this decaying capitalist system, McDowell’s case harks back to the laws of the Old South, where it was a crime to teach slaves to read and write.
The persecution of Tanya McDowell is shot through with class privilege and racist contempt. The coastal region of Connecticut from Bridgeport to the Norwalk area has the highest level of income disparity in the entire country. Norwalk is part of a cluster of towns centered on Greenwich, home to many fabulously wealthy households. While downtown Norwalk sports hip restaurants and luxury boutiques, Bridgeport is the corpse of a former industrial center with block after block of deserted factories, its desperate population scraping by on less than half the per capita income of Norwalk’s residents.
While blacks and Latinos make up nearly a quarter of Connecticut’s population, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in run-down areas like Bridgeport, which is over 70 percent black and Latino. Residency requirements and the fact that education funding is based on local property taxes are integral to the class divide and segregated reality of public schools. As we wrote in our previous article on McDowell’s case, “This is the real crime in the eyes of the bourgeois Norwalk city fathers: Tanya McDowell and her son actually tried to get out of Bridgeport’s rotten schools instead of staying ‘in their place’” (“Homeless Mom Faces 20 Years for Putting Kid in Good School,” WV No. 980, 13 May 2011).
Last June 7, hundreds rallied in support of McDowell at an “Equal Education for All” protest called by the NAACP in front of the Norwalk elementary school where her son had been enrolled. That support largely dissipated following her arrest on drug charges. The call to free Tanya McDowell should be taken up by all opponents of racist injustice, all opponents of the capitalists’ war on labor and the poor. McDowell’s victimization in the racist “war on drugs” is commonly the fate of minority women as well as men. In 2010, black women were incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of white women. We call for the decriminalization of drugs as part of our opposition to all laws against “crimes without victims”—such as drug use, prostitution, gambling and pornography—which are at bottom designed to maintain social control.
Although the “war on drugs” was launched by Republican president Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, it was a bipartisan campaign. Among its most vociferous supporters were black Democrats like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who made common cause with the police—the biggest purveyors of racist terror in the ghettos and barrios. Last year, Sharpton showed up at the June 7 rally for McDowell, only to throw her under the bus. Sharpton told ABC News (13 June) that her son “should be treated like any other kid if their parent didn’t live in the district,” contemptuously adding that Tanya McDowell might be “unfit to be a mother.”
The Democrats and Republicans are but dual parties of a capitalist system that has consigned Tanya McDowell and countless others to the scrap heap. The depth of racist oppression in this country is expressed in astronomical unemployment rates for black people, especially youth, decrepit ghetto housing and schools, rampant police terror and the consignment of over 1.6 million blacks and Latinos to America’s hellhole prisons. That nightmarish reality is an essential feature of U.S. capitalism—a system that must be swept away root and branch through workers socialist revolution.