Saturday, October 11, 2014

Liberation Criminology

By Biko Agozino

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, 'Black Women and the Criminal Justice System', some people thought that I was crazy for embracing abolitionism with special reference to the re-legalization (it used to be legal) of marijuana based on the fact that the majority of black women in British prisons were there for drugs offenses. I successfully defended the dissertation in July 1993 and looking back, I believe that I took huge risks but also got a lot of help with the dissertation as is always expected.

In January 1994, I started my first job at Liverpool John Moores University and found my colleagues, Professor Joe Sims, Professor Pete Gill, Professor Steve Tombs, Professor Nigel Evans, Professor George Mair, Dr. Alana Barton, Shirley Rawstone. Marion Price, Gill Hall and others sympathetic to my work as I made the corrections demanded by my external examiner, Professor Toni Jeffeerson of Keele University, and I resubmitted within the year. In 1995, I was finally awarded the doctorate and my work was validated in the same year when an international panel of judges chaired by Professor Ian Taylor selected an extract from the work as the winner of the Mike Brake Memorial Prize in Radical Social Policy and Social Work. 

Eventually, it took two years before I found publishers (Ashgate) willing to take a chance on a relatively unknown author and a topic that had attracted no other book before then. The bonus was that I was also appointed as the Series Editor of the Ashgate Publishers Interdisciplinary Research Series in Ethnic, Gender and Class Relations which was launched in 1997 with my book, Black Women and the Criminal Justice System: Towards the Decolonisation of Victimisation. I continue to edit the series and dozens of other authors have since been published in it.


In the work that a colleague, Dr. Ihekwoaba Onwudiwe now a Professor at Texas Southern University, credited with founding the 'decolonization perspective' in criminology, I recommended that we should join our popular musicians as activists and demand the legalization of marijuana so that our women and men can grow it, sell it, or use it responsibly as they see fit to care for their families without risking incarceration. Three years after the bold thesis was successfully defended in Edinburgh, the first states in the US authorized medical marijuana in 1996. Soon afterwards, I arrived in Pennsylvania in 1999, writing on arrival, writing for survival (apologies to Bob Marley) and I immediately marched to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and told the public inquiry on race and gender bias in the law to legalize the drugs that they were using as the main excuse for criminalizing black and minority or poor kids. In 2014, the city of Philadelphia decriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana - making it a civil offense like a driving or parking ticket. Dr. Shaun Gabbidon, a Distinguished Professor of Criminology at Penn State University, found Black Women and the Criminal Justice System to be among the top ten most frequently cited works by black criminologists and an anonymous author in Wikipedia claims that this is my most influential work but my follow-up book, Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason, appears even more influential if the number of rave reviews is anything to go by.

I relocated to the Caribbean in 2006 with the same message of liberation criminology but some Trinidadian colleagues pulled me aside and said that I should watch my back because the clergy were preaching sermons against me for saying something that was not expected from a professor. I returned to the US in 2009 but was invited back to Trinidad and Tobago in 2012 to present a plenary at the International Conference on Penal Abolitionism with a friendly warning to be ready because law-enforcement officers were preparing to challenge my talk, 'against control-freak criminology'. I told them to bring it on and my speech, which was chaired by the Chief Justice of the Caribbean Court of Justice, was reported in a national newspaper; prompting a popular talk-show radio host to interview me on air with most callers agreeing with me. In October 2014, Jamaica authorized medical marijuana as was recommended by the Dr. Barry Chevannes-led official government Ganja Commission in 1996 and I hope that the entire Caribbean and Africa will follow through with full legalization soon. 

In the US, I swung into action advocating against what the NAACP called the war on African Americans but my draft press release as the Chair of the Social Policy Committee for the Association of Black Sociologists (later published in their newsletter, The Griot, as a personal opinion) and for the National Council for Black Studies failed to be adopted officially. Only the African Criminology and Justice Association had the intellectual courage to adopt the statement, 'Against the War on African Americans', in 2011 and published it in their African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies which I founded and still edit for the association. 

Today, the Obama administration has already reduced the 100:1 disparity between the punishment for crack cocaine and powder cocaine to 18:1 and pushed through legal reforms to authorize the release of hundreds of non-violent drug offenders from prison. 35 states in the US  have either authorized medical marijuana or legalized it all together, just like the country of Uruguay that did so in 2012. That is a validation of my work as a contribution to what is known as Liberation Sociology, the influential book by Dr. Joe Feagin and colleagues which will highlight my work in the 3rd edition, as Feagin told the Southern Sociological Society during his plenary speech in 2013! 

This semester, I am teaching a special topic class on Marijuana Legalization to explore how laws are made and how We The People change laws democratically. The class is designed as a Problem Based Learning class that requires students to volunteer for organizations that are active in the policy debate and write up their observations in favor or against the policy changes. Students in Communication Studies heard about the class and invited me to their first ever video-taped talk show to debate the pros and cons of legalization with the chairperson of the Young Americans for Freedom, the Republican youth wing on campus. I think that I succeeded in getting the young lady to agree that Young Americans for Freedom should be against the deprivation of freedom of fellow citizens by a nanny state just because they chose to consume a substance that is 1000 times safer than alcohol and much safer than tobacco. She later said that there are people in her group in favor of and against the ending of prohibition. Freedom is indeed a bipartisan issue and we can definitely use education to get young people to say no to all drugs while relying on public health to reduce harm but just say no to incarceration and say yes to those who need marijuana as the medication recommended by doctors. 

Looking back on my career, I could not have succeeded in making any intellectual contribution without the direct and indirect support of many others. Some fellow students negatively reinforced my approach by telling me that if they were my supervisors they would have flunked me but I was lucky to be working in the Law and Society interdisciplinary field that treasured theoretical innovation. My main supervisor, Dr. Peter Young, now a Professor and Dean of Social Science at Hull University, deserves a lot of credit for tolerating some of my bold assertions and for permitting me to go ahead and defend the dissertation. Professor David Garland (now at New York University) also advised me for a term while Dr. Young was on leave and I actually submitted my draft before he returned from leave in Australia. Dr. Beverley Brown was also helpful to me in the initial stages when she co-supervised me but she dropped out from my committee because she found me a bit 'stubborn' in sticking to my topic rather than take the advice to change to a less challenging topic. My family and friends were very supportive of me throughout. Dr. Colin Sumner, now a Professor in Ireland, supervised my Masters thesis in Cambridge University on the same topic and indirectly encouraged me by awarding me the highest grade in all the papers that I wrote at Cambridge but it was Dr. Allison Morris, now a Professor in New Zealand, who gave me the recommendation that I needed to continue my graduate studies at Edinburgh University.

At the University of Calabar in Nigeria where I started my graduate studies after graduating from the same institution with First Class Honours in Sociology, it was Professor Victor Chikezie Uchendu (now deceased) and Professor Stella Ogbuagu (later Deputy Vice Chancellor of Abia State University), Professor Joseph Ottong, Professor Abasiekong, Dr. J.C. Nwankwo, Dr. Ugal, and others  who mentored me in the classroom. Dr. Bene Madunagu, now a Professor of Botany and Director of Girl Power Initiative at Calabar; Professor Eskor Toyo, now Emeritus Professor of Economics; Professor Akpan Ekpo, later Vice Chancellor of the University of Uyo and currently Director of the West African Financial Institute at the Nigerian Central Bank; Dr. Princewill Alozie now a Professor of Philosophy at Lagos State University; Professor Yakubu Ochefu now a Vice Chancellor of a private university in Nigeria; and Bassey Ekpo Bassey (former Chairman of Calabar Municipal Government) who mentored me in community organizing and advocacy skills through the faculty union in which we were all active officials and through the Directorate For Literacy, an NGO which ran free literacy classes for the public. Ogbuagu and Madunagu were the co-chairs of the Calabar branch of Women In Nigeria and I was a member of the organization, WIN, through which women and men campaigned for women's rights as human rights. That was what prepared me to be sensitive to the over-incarceration of black women in the UK and I chose it as my research topic despite warnings that it would be challenging for a man to do research on women. I love challenges.

Professor Stuart Hall urged me on after I bumped into him along Kilburn Highroad, near the home of Len Bloom - a former lecturer in Calabar who kindly allowed me to stay in his London apartment and who read some of my early drafts with useful comments - during my fieldwork. Dr. Rosemary Galli, another Calabar former lecturer also read drafts and offered useful advice during my fieldwork. Hall invited me to his own nearby home and introduced me to the theory of race-class-gender articulation that continues to inform my research till today. Many thanks to all these mentors who supported me despite my risky research paradigm. Of course, all the errors are mine alone and all my mentors do not necessarily share my policy preferences.

I share this testimony as a tribute to my mentors and as a guide to graduate students who may be struggling with their own topics. I advise students to choose a topic that they are passionate about and to pursue their research with the goal of contributing to their disciplines and to the liberation of their fellow human beings rather than to the continuation of the repression of the innocent or to mere careerism. A survey of any field of study will show that there will always be colleagues who will disagree with your perspective and those who will agree with you but if you believe that your work could contribute to human freedom while making theoretical innovations, persevere and no one can keep a good scholar down.

Today, many people still find it difficult to believe that my far-sighted recommendation of marijuana penal abolitionism is gradually becoming mainstream in the US, though not yet in the UK where I did my research, nor in Africa where I grew up reading about the cruel brutalization of a law abiding patriot like Fela Kuti along with his numerous wives and his iconic patriotic mother. With more liberation criminologists contributing to the research and advocacy to advance social justice, we may yet witness the withering away of the control-freak state violence and excessive punitiveness along with the violence that prohibition and the death penalty breed in peace-loving communities around the world.

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