Peanut Butter, Dime Bags, and the Rape of the World
Driving home from my weekly visit to the women's prison in CT, I tuned into a discussion on NPR about the VW "scandal". Funny how people talk about white-collar crime, or should we say, crime committed by wealthy white people. The host spoke about scandal, tough times, and poor decisions. Communication breakdowns. Strange, I thought the words for lying, hurting things, and stealing were conspiracy, aggravated assault, and larceny. As you know, I am not a big fan of prison, but if we are in the business of sending people to prison for breaking the law, seems like the senior executives at VW would qualify.
In CT's York Correctional Institute, there are some women serving time for murder and manslaughter and many more confined for bad checks, drug sales, embezzlement, and sex work. A restorative justice model of sentencing, where the perpetrator has an opportunity to enter into dialogue about what went wrong and how she might make amends with her victims, is rarely offered to this group. But let's set up a commission to discuss how those dirty engines passed the emissions test.
The radio program's concerned discussion about the mis-steps and oversights at VW included reflection on the recent sentencing of a peanut butter executive. This wealthy white man got 28 years for knowingly shipping his poisonous product onto the market - a move that resulted in the death of 9 people. If the product had been inadvertently brought to school by a Muslim high school student in Texas, he probably would have been sent to Guantanamo on terrorism charges, no questions asked, but the host insinuated that the executive's sentence might be overdone. He could very well die in prison, the commentator reflected. Indeed. Older people are one of the fastest growing populations in prison as people convicted under the harsh drug laws of the 1980s and 1990s serve out their very long sentences on the inside. Many of them will die in prison.
Still, even if folks are feeling a tinge of regret and sadness, the peanut butter executive's sentence (until it gets overturned) does suggest that our criminal justice system is beginning to recognize that corporate crime is crime. So why haven't the VW executives already been arrested? Probably because their physical assault was not on a person, per se, but the earth itself.
Once I get started on the powerful insight and knowledge shared in Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me, I may not be able to stop. So let me just raise two of his points here. First, which came first: race or racism? Go think about that for 15 minutes. But more to the point of this essay (rant?), are his thoughts on how the gentle content of much of our country's discussion about race doesn't do us any good. Forums about race in America often take the form of conversations about privilege, old photos of drinking fountains, and brave baseball players. Can we center what racism really is? A dead man bleeding out on the street with a bullet in his back. A child sleeping in a room with peeling paint and roaches kept warm by a gas stove. No food in the cupboard. Let's not sugar coat the violence of social inequity.
Which brings me to Tracy Chapman, the love of my life, and one of her most powerful pieces: Rape of the World, about our complacency in the face of environmental violence. What are the images of environmental justice in this country? Swirling arrows on a green trash can. People biking to work. Maybe a lonely polar bear on a small chunk of ice. OK, but what we are really talking about is the rape of the world. Blasted, ravaged, choked.
My son wrote an essay this week about The Earth God who became so disgusted with what humans had done with his creation that he imploded into a thousand pieces that attached to the sky and become the light that shines down, watching us, as we push ourselves into extinction. Similarly, the Pope has said that God will judge us by how we treat the Earth. Perhaps there are Gods who will judge us for polluting the earth and selling dime bags. I would be definitely interested in discussing a move to a correctional system that allows the spirits to hold us accountable. Let your conscience be your guide. But if we are locking up mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends for stealing wrenches from Home Depot and selling marijuana, then we should most certainly be locking up the bad guys who Rape. The. World.