A personal choice
From her couch, Beverly again looks out the window. She says the image of a rock rolling down a hill comes to her mind. “It is just like [with] each roll the problem gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” she says with a loud clap of her hand. “More and more families are being affected, I mean even the distinguished black families in the community are being touched [by mass incarceration].”
Beverly’s eyes move back up to her wall of memories and they express the sadness and helplessness at what has happened to her family.
“I watched my mother die praying for God to let her live to see a drug and alcohol free generation that would not be going in and out of jails and prisons. Needless to say, it did not happen. So then I took up her prayer, while I’m 64-years-old now so. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I don’t think I’m going to live to see it either,” she says.
After observing her community for so long, Beverly senses that there is something more happening and that it’s more than a “generational curse.” What she has not been fully able to pinpoint is the reason that her family and community have felt the impact of the criminal justice system so intensely. Perkinson writes that mass incarceration has little to do with crime prevention and is actually rooted in America’s historical racial conflict. “State punishment has consistently served purposes beyond crime control. Indeed, the strong-arm of the law has been regularly deployed not only to protect public safety but to preserve privilege, bolster political fortunes, and, most of all, to discipline those on the social margins, especially African Americans,” he wrote.
She believes that a person has to want to change and that the blame for the poor state of the black community in East Austin should fall on the individuals who live there. It has not been easy. Trying to keep her family together has been stressful for Beverly and it has created some resentful feelings toward her brothers and children, especially the men. “One thing that I have to deal with on a regular basis is that to a degree, I stay mad at them. Because I don’t understand why they can’t want for themselves what I want for them so bad,” Beverly says.
Beverly disagrees with the “blame the white man” explanation for the state of East Austin’s African-American community. She acknowledges the negative impact of the War on Drugs,, but she also believes that the community should develop its solutions and not rely on others to fix the problems. “I don’t even look at it as being about black and white. It’s about what we are doing to ourselves and of course nobody’s going to try to stop us,” she says. But it is not that simple in Beverly’s mind. “From a certain point you have to believe that they pick who they want to arrest,” she says.
Last year Beverly’s brother John was released from prison after 15 years. John, who had lost access to medication for a bi-polar disorder after being released, was in trouble again four weeks later. “To me they shouldn’t have just turned him loose. The whole world was different. He didn’t have a job or a driver’s license. He didn’t have nothing,” she stresses. Now he is facing a 10-year term for robbery. “I know that there are things that wasn’t offered to him that if he lived on the other side of town he would have gotten,” she says.
Alexander presents a more nuanced view of personal responsibility and mass incarceration. She says that the belief held by many people, including the Browns, is that African Americans choose to be criminals and that the War on Drugs did not turn them into criminals the same way that slavery and Jim Crow turned blacks into second class citizens.
“The myth of choice here is seductive, but it should be resisted. African- Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct,” she wrote.
Beverly points at a photograph on her wall that holds special significance. A row of black people wearing suits and dresses stare out from this old and fading black and white photograph. “Those are the some of the original members who started my church,” she says.
Beverly has attended Rock Quarry Missionary Baptist Church all of her life. Her great-grandfather, William McKinnely Walker, a freed slave, help found the church 135 years ago. Members of her family have attended ever since. In Rock Quarry’s auxiliary building, a group gathered to share a holiday dinner.
Four generations of women from Beverly’s family, Bebe, Marquis, and Raven, 9, talk over a table covered in a red plaid-patterned tablecloth. Marquis hands Beverly an iPod ear bud and they listen to music together. Volunteers prepare full plates of brisket, ribs, baked beans and potato salad, in the kitchen area. Before the food is served everyone bows their heads for prayer.
Three times, Beverly had tried unsuccessfully to break her addiction to drugs. “You can’t do it alone,” her mother told her. Rock Quarry’s Missionary society helped her when she was in need. The group was made up of older Christian women from her church. Whenever she needed emotional support, Beverly could call them anytime of day. Her church and her faith have played a central role in her life and remain one of the primary reasons she was successful in breaking her addiction to drugs.