Bought, Sold, & Jailed
Dr. Walter Greason
15 April 2015
For the first time in American history, the public has recognized the constant threat of execution that African Americans face on a daily basis. Some lament the fact that this situation has come into question, but most recoil from the reality that the core assumptions of law enforcement as a profession involve the degradation of black citizens. Police-involved killings have a long, and largely untold, history. Too much of the nation’s mythology, especially in the waning moments of broadcast television’s dominance through programming like Law & Order, relies on simple stereotypes of trustworthy, white authorities controlling dangerous, unstable communities of color.
In suburban Philadelphia, these stories play in constant repetition on the street, in the courthouses, and in the municipal halls. Norristown has suffered sustained disinvestment by private companies and the state legislature as a result of these assumptions. However, no relationship illustrates the contradictions of local governance for families of different backgrounds that a comparison of regional malls and local jails. The King of Prussia Mall is a multi-billion dollar complex that symbolizes the affluence often associated with suburban growth. Anchored by global brands like Neiman Marcus, General Electric, and Sears, millions of visitors spend countless hours living lives of unlimited consumption with no thought of its consequences – or its fragility. Less than 10 miles away, hidden from most residents, the Montgomery County Correctional Facility controls the region’s criminals, an expanding segment of the local population with over 4500 bench warrants currently pending. Demographically, black and Chicano people are overrepresented at the jail, and underrepresented at the mall. American society neglects and ignores too many people of color in order to artificially maintain a racial sense of prosperity in prosperous, suburban locations like malls.
As suburbs spread to dominate the landscape in New Jersey, similar patterns of social segregation and racial control occur. Seaview Square, Monmouth, and Freehold Raceway malls have all expanded over the last twenty years to serve an exploding population of middle class families. In ways that malls around the world have duplicated, these places rely on the architectural use of the “panopticon” – a structure where observation and response can unfold rapidly across multiple, complex geographies. Acute observers note that the malls obscure some hallways and doors to hidden chambers, while highlighting shops and food courts. The panopticon originated as a way for guards to better manage prisons. So when suburban malls adopt these structures to oversee and control their shoppers, they increasingly become similar to a jail like the impressive new complex for the Monmouth County (NJ) Sheriff’s Department. In both the language and architecture of consumerism and criminal justice, control has extended beyond people of color in the United States. It is now an ongoing commitment in most metropolitan areas that affects every working and middle class family.
Take a few minutes to consider the increasing investment in sites like Graterford SCI or East Jersey State Prison. Then, examine the exciting new commercial developments in Providence Town Center or the Mall at Short Hills. While these places lack the visual drama of the graphic killings seen over the last few years, their co-existence and unspoken connections reflect the evolving values of social inclusion and exclusion. They are the local government’s manifestations of the “carrot” and the “stick” for the twenty-first century. It is even more important that leaders and activists seek equal justice in these contexts. Do not wait for the next shocking video.
Dr. Walter Greason is available on LinkedIn, Twitter (@worldprofessor1/@icmgrowth), Facebook, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).