How Our System Creates Criminals to Justify Deadly Force


“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That's a truth I learned (more than once) while teaching high school. This maxim was particularly driven home in the early 1990s, when I supported a new school policy designed to encourage our students to come to class each day prepared; specifically, by having done their homework.

I taught in the rural high school I had attended, a rules-based public school that brought to mind for many people the strictest Catholic school settings. Each year, students were compelled to take a handbook test, which they had to pass before they could begin their classes. We had a demerit system, and eventually, in-school suspension, including automatic demerits for being late to class, chewing gum and having to use the restroom during class.

Both as a student and then as a teacher, I found the climate of the school and the rules themselves unnecessarily harsh and counter-educational; therefore, once I was a teacher, I posted on my wall this reminder: 

“Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” – Henry David Thoreau

But despite the school’s rules-based culture, it was a relatively collaborative professional environment, in that the principal came to the department chairs and sought support and consensus for changes or major decisions. One of those changes was creating and implementing a “homework center.” If students failed to have homework completed for any class, teachers turned those students in (we had elaborate 3-carbon-copy forms for the task), requiring that students serve homework center for 30 minutes after school and present the required homework.

Of course, the intent of homework center was to encourage students to complete their homework.

However, not long after the practice was implemented, we discovered several key things: 1) the number of students assigned to homework center swelled quickly; 2) students began to embrace showing up for class without homework, openly declaring they would use homework center to complete the assignment; and 3) students attending homework center tended to be the same students over and over (similar to what we observed with in-school suspension), but not the same students typically in the discipline process.

I also discovered something else: once we instituted homework center, no matter how much evidence we had that it did not work—that it actually created new problems and new offenders—no one in authority was willing to end it.

In short, I learned that school rules and laws create the boundaries of what constitute infractions or crime, and who is considered delinquent or criminal. And those boundaries are frighteningly difficult to redefine.

Such arbitrary designations of criminal or delinquent behavior are not unique to the school house; our criminal justice system produces precisely the same effect.

As I have noted before, the Reagan administration provided fertile ground for both education reform and mass incarceration, increasing racial and class inequity in schools and society. And just as education experts David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle revealed the manufactured crisis of education reform nearly two decades ago, we must now face the fact that thanks to our criminal justice system, crime and criminals are being created in order to justify deadly force.

While we witness a cycle of young black males being shot and killed while unarmed (or holding something mostly harmless but appearing harmful), across the U.S., marijuana is being legalized. People—most of them white—can now build businesses around the once-illegal recreational drug that has been the cause of thousands upon thousands of people being labeled criminals—disproportionately, young black males who did not use or sell at higher rates than affluent whites, but who nonetheless suffered the greater weight of arrest, prosecution and sentencing.

This is no abstraction: One day marijuana possession makes you a criminal; the next day, an entrepreneur.

Too often in the U.S., crimes and the policing of those crimes are the mechanisms for determining who we demonize in order to justify the most extreme responses to created criminals. (Police claimed Tamir Rice looked 20, when the boy was 12; Darren Wilson claimed Michael Brown looked like a "demon.”) Often, no hard proof exists for what happened when a police officer charged with protecting the public shoots and kills a person later shown to be unarmed. But what if deadly force was automatically reviewed with complete transparency? And what if police officers in the U.S. were trained differently, as they appear to be in other countries where deadly shootings are rare or nearly non-existent?

Blacks and people in poverty are disproportionately innocent victims in a criminal justice system designed and implemented by the privileged. Like the rules in our schools, this system defines crimes, creates criminals and produces the powerless, who then behave in ways that work in the service of those in power. Leaders and the public then point to that behavior (protesting, for example) as justification for the very system that serves as a dead-end and frequently deadly trap for the powerless, while reaffirming the primacy of those in power.

This is not a new development: the U.S. was born out of lawlessness and countless crimes against the humanity of native and enslaved peoples. Instead of humility, political and educational leaders in the U.S. have adopted idealism and arrogance, and have failed in the exact way Thoreau predicted: foolish people with power, making foolish laws, creating crimes and criminals.

In “We Can Change the Country,” James Baldwin confronts among the most damning of those creations:

"It is the American Republic—repeat, the American Republic—which created something they call a 'nigger.' They created it out of necessities of their own. The nature of the crisis is that I am not a 'nigger'—I never was. I am a man….

"Now there are several concrete and dangerous things we must do to prevent the murder—and please remember there are several million ways to murder—of future children (by which I mean both black and white children). And one of them, and perhaps the most important, is to take a very hard look at our economic and our political institutions….

"We have to begin a massive campaign of civil disobedience. I mean nationwide. And this is no stage joke. Some laws should not be obeyed." —The Cross of Redemption

Whether we are considering school discipline or the state of our criminal justice system, it is time we rethink the impact of our policies on the lives of minorities and the poor. Because no matter our intentions, no matter how difficult the path to change may be, no child deserves a place on the road to hell.

A version of this essay originally appeared at The Becoming Radical.

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