What is crime? Today I am considering this question. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines crime as: 1. an illegal act for which someone can be punished by the government 2. a grave offense especially against morality 3. criminal activity 4. something reprehensible, foolish, or disgraceful.
While I do not address the crimes that have been and continue to be waged against Indigenous people in this piece, we know this story starts there.
This post ties back to a piece I published in 2017 entitled, “When our babies use bullets.” In it, I wrote about the ways the crimes of systemic racism, including and since urban renewal, have created conditions that increase the likelihood for interpersonal violence between young Black men in our community.
While I hear politicians, police, and the media talk about “crime” in the neighborhoods run by the Asheville Housing Authority of the City of Asheville (HACA), which are majority Black, I still do not hear enough about how the ongoing oppression and neglect of the residents of these neighborhoods was and is fundamentally violent.
The substandard conditions of public housing, and the barriers that currently exist for residents, are directly connected to the land theft that happened during urban renewal, as many of the Black families who were displaced during that time were moved into HACA housing – where some still are, generations later. Generations of renters prevented from building generational wealth.
Since the uprisings last year, there has been more and more truth telling about the devastation of urban renewal, such as this powerful story which came out on ABC News in September:
A new, robust tool to unpack some of the damage done during urban renewal in Asheville, is the recently launched urbanrenewalimpact.org, which includes an interactive map with photos and details on the properties acquired and destroyed in the Southside neighborhood. This powerful section of the full website launch video, has project leader Pricilla Robinson (who is also featured in the story above) sharing her memories of Southside using the map:
As we discuss what was stolen from and lost by Black residents during urban renewal, we must also examine the profit and gain that has happened for the white owning class and local government since that time in terms of equity and property taxes.
To be sure we desegregate this sordid story.
Call to Action
Completely related, the latest call to action from the Racial Justice Coalition is for us to “reach out to the City Manager’s office today and ask them to stand behind the original plan to allow Black community members to choose their own representatives [for the Reparations Commission]. We have an email template you can use here.”
When I think about owning class crime, in addition to gains from ill-begotten or easier to access real estate, another example is wage theft.
While, to me, not paying a living wage should be considered wage theft, there is also rampant theft from employees of their less than living wage. A quick internet search pulled up this research from the Economic Policy Institute, “Employers steal billions from workers’ paychecks each year.” Excerpt:
“For the past four decades, the majority of American workers have been shortchanged by economic policymaking that has suppressed the growth of hourly wages and prevented greater improvements in living standards. Achieving a secure, middle-class lifestyle has become increasingly difficult as hourly pay for most workers has either stagnated or declined. For millions of the country’s lowest-paid workers, financial security is even more fleeting because of unscrupulous employers stealing a portion of their paychecks.
Wage theft, the practice of employers failing to pay workers the full wages to which they are legally entitled, is a widespread and deep-rooted problem that directly harms millions of U.S. workers each year. Employers refusing to pay promised wages, paying less than legally mandated minimums, failing to pay for all hours worked, or not paying overtime premiums deprives working people of billions of dollars annually. It also leaves hundreds of thousands of affected workers and their families in poverty.”
The EPI report provides a range of data on these issues, as well as policy suggestions.
Of particular relevance to Asheville and Buncombe County is the fact that the service industry is one of the largest perpetrators of wage theft.
This compelling post from Natural Investments (a shorter read than the above), “Turning Back the Tide of Inequity,” lays out key facts around wage stagnation and the pay ratio gaps, and ways to turn the tide from an investors’ standpoint. Excerpt:
“The US is in the midst of a Second Gilded Age, the stark inequities of which are becoming difficult to hide. Waiting for the government to enforce better tax structures, stronger labor policies, and measures to foster local economies is not a reasonable expectation.
As socially responsible investors, we understand the importance of where and how we invest. Supporting cooperative businesses is perhaps one of the most effective means of building a wage-equitable economy. A cooperative structure signifies the entity is owned by the members, who will share in the profits and losses.”
“While it’s true that we could reduce conflict and violence by resolving issues of poverty, the idea that crime only exists among the poor is false. The wealthiest people are committing crime on a daily basis but face no consequences for it. We should eradicate poverty because poverty itself is a condition of injustice and oppression. But it’s not that poor people are the source of ‘crime,’ it’s that poor people are criminalized in ways the wealthy simply aren’t for engaging in the same behaviors. That’s why claims that the political establishment is concerned about ‘crime’ are bogus.
Crime is an industry, especially the more organized it is. People make money off of crime *and* off of the ‘criminal justice system.’ Locking people up for low level offenses is profitable…and it’s also profitable to look the other way as money from high level crime is funneled through the financial institutions, policing agencies and political campaign funds. We need to abolish poverty and end the criminalization of the poor.” – from a twitter thread by Bree Newsome, July 20, 2021
On the road to abolition, a group of businesses and nonprofits recently submitted this letter to the Mountain Xpress, “Business owners, nonprofit leaders support alternatives to policing.”
Excerpt: “From housing shortages to drug overdoses, Asheville’s crises stem from deep dysfunctions and injustices. For too long, our city has overinvested in punishment and underinvested in equity — reliance on policing is not the solution, it is the problem.³ …Defenders of the status quo will tell us that only police are capable of addressing our short-term need for health and safety, but we know this is untrue. If we want to live in a just Asheville, we must practice justice on our journey.
³The city of Asheville’s proposed budget for 2021-22 includes $29.3 million for policing — equivalent to the expenditure on Equity and Inclusion, Transportation, Parks and Recreation, and Public Works combined.”
There is much more we can include in our conversations about this topic. Let’s keep talking with each other, and turning understandings into action.
To close, I’ll share this quote from Miriame Kaba, “Abolition necessitates that we change everything. While reform requires us to affirm the current system and surrender our imagination to the carcel state, abolition requires us to use our best thinking, but also our creativity, to build another world here and now. “
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