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Stop the Musick Jail Expansion or Repeat Our Racist History
(c) Gianni Castellanos
Stop the Musick Jail Expansion or Repeat Our Racist History

In Irvine, nestled in the heart of wealthy Orange County, California, hidden within a technology business park replete with vibrant, meticulously manicured landscaping, sits an empty jail. The unnecessary James A. Musick Facility, operated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, a department known for scandal, violence, and negligence, is slated for expansion. Rather than putting much-needed resources toward communities struggling during the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, the Orange County Board of Supervisors has voted to spend $261 million dollars to construct what they proudly and painfully proclaim to be a “Mental health jail.” This policy malfeasance is sadly to be expected. Racism is part of the fabric of Orange County. Racism is foundational to the history of the United States. 

Racism is about power and exploitation. 

Racism is ideas and beliefs that justify actions and policies that advantage and empower some while taking from and harming others. 

In 1640, John Punch, James Gregory, and a man named Victor, all indentured servants for Hugh Gwynn’s farm, attempted to escape their incarceration in Virginia. 

Hugh Gwynn took the land from the Powhatan, Pocahontas’ people, by claiming it for the King in 1634. Gwynn was the sheriff of the Charles River Jamestown shire, and hunted John, James, and Victor with his deputies when they fled servitude. 

John, James, and Victor were captured, tried, and sentenced for their crime of escaping incarceration. The judge sentenced them all to whippings and ordered four more years of service for James and Victor. John was sentenced to life in service. 

James and Victor were White. John was Black. John is one of the first people known to be enslaved for life on the basis of race. 

Racism is about power and exploitation. 

The first sheriff in the United States is believed to be William Stone, appointed in 1634 in the Jamestown’s shire of Northampton. The first elected sheriff was William Waters in 1652 in the same shire. “Shires” later became known as counties. 

In 1704, formal slave patrols were established in South Carolina and spread throughout the colonies. Slave patrols, also known as paddy rollers, comprised groups of armed White men, were employed to patrol enslaved people, especially those that were defiant or had escaped. Previously, many rich White landowners, fearing the loss of their wealth, attempted to incentivize the cooperation of poor Whites by offering them money or tobacco to return escaped enslaved people. When that failed, they formed slave patrols, empowering militia members with weapons and authority to stop, interrogate, capture, and kill anyone suspected as a runaway. In sum, wealthy elites gave slave patrols the power to police Black people and protect White property. 

During Reconstruction, many sheriffs played the role previously held by slave patrols, enforcing segregation and disenfranchising emancipated people. Still to this day, our police employ Paddy Wagons. Still to this day, patrol cars in many places are called rollers. Still to this day, police profile, prosecute, and persecute Black and Brown people, and protect White people, no matter what race an officer is. 

Racism is about power and exploitation. 

Our jails and prisons are filled with Black and Brown people; they are filled with those experiencing poverty, substance use issues, and mental and physical health diagnoses. Poverty, substance use, and health issues disproportionately affect communities of color. We are discriminated against in our employment. We are discriminated against at the doctor’s office. We receive disproportionate sentencing. We disproportionately die while in government custody. We are disproportionately murdered by police

Like John Punch, our existence is criminalized. We are blamed for the trauma we face. Blamed for the poverty and health issues we experience. We are pathologized as if our desire for equality and care is a disease inherent to our nature. As if we don’t deserve this care. As if we do not matter. But we do matter. Our communities matter. 

But racism is about power and exploitation. 

We’ve heard the half-hearted, politically motivated pledges from police departments, from the Orange County Sheriff, from the Orange County Board of Supervisors, saying they believe in equality, decrying racism. OC Sheriff Don Barnes has published a statement decrying George Floyd’s “death”. He, along with Irvine police chief Mike Hamel, marched with faith leaders at a demonstration organized by the Christ Our Redeemer AME Church for “Unity.” After that event, the sheriff continued boasting his supposed commitment to racial justice, tweeting, “We held a united front against hate, racism and violence. We promoted working as one to ensure equality, freedom and justice for all.” 

But OC Sheriff Don Barnes still preaches from the racist framing of law and order, still fosters fear in the community about the “possibility” of increased crime and violence if he and his department receive less funding. He continues to aid ICE as they roll armored vehicles into BIPOC communities, kidnapping mothers and children and ripping families apart. 

The Board of Supervisors has claimed it recognizes the necessity for racial justice but spends copious amounts of time praising and thanking the Sheriff, increasing funding to his department and other law enforcement agencies, and won’t, as a body, formally support Black Lives Matter. This racist attitude extends to the only Democrat on the Board who proudly proclaimed “I hear about Black lives mattering. Indeed they do. But blue lives too. In fact, all lives matter.” “Blue lives”, “all lives”… these phrases are synonymous with white supremacy, with the dismissing and diverting of conversation away from the historical and continuing horrors of anti-Black racism against Black communities in the United States and beyond. 

While the Board of Supervisors continues to resist any measures to alleviate systemic racism, their supposed commitment to law and order, public safety, and Black and Blue lives retreat in the face of White privilege. The Board seems to support the anti-maskers, who are predominantly White and has not opposed OC Sheriff Don Barnes’ policy of not enforcing the governor’s mask order. The Board rushed ahead with re-opening businesses, which are predominantly owned by White people. As a result, we now are seeing a huge increase in coronavirus cases in Orange County, especially in cities and neighborhoods housing essential worker populations. 

Essential workers are hardest hit across the nation by the virus. Exploited Black and Brown people are often essential workers. In the same vein as the 17th-century slave patrols, people in power threaten the lives of Black and Brown people to protect the property interests of White people. 

Because racism is about power and exploitation. 

During the pandemic, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted, without public debate, to put more than $350 million into expanding the empty James A. Musick jail facility, giving more money to the violent, negligent Orange County Sheriff’s Department, rather than giving that money to the community for food, education, housing, and healthcare. 

The James A. Musick facility was built in the 1960s during Jim Musick’s time as sheriff. It was originally named the Orange County Industrial Farm. The Musick facility is still called “The Farm” today. Until the State of California outlawed cooperation with ICE in 2017, the Musick facility was contracted as a for-profit immigrant concentration camp. 

In the 1960s under Jim Musick, the headquarters for the central jail compound and the Theo Lacy facility were also built. In 1892, Mexican farmworker, Francisco Torres, was accused of murdering his White ranch foreman, William McKelvey, over a racist and unconstitutional weekly $2.50 poll tax stolen from Torres’ pay. Torres fled, was captured by the San Diego Sheriff, and turned over to Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy. Torres’ attorney sought a change of court venue to Los Angeles, fearing for his client, but county administrators and Theo Lacy failed to do so. 

On an early August morning, a mob of masked men pulled Francisco from his cell at the brick courthouse in Santa Ana, yelling racial slurs, and hung him at the corner of Fourth and Sycamore with a note attached to his body reading, “Change of Venue.” The coroner ruled the death “Strangulation at the hands of parties unknown,” and the mob was called a “home guard” by local papers. In opposition to what could have easily been a forced confession of guilt, Francisco’s family claimed to have evidence proving Francisco’s innocence. A case was never brought to court. 

In 1971, still during Musick’s reign, the county coroner’s office became a part of the sheriff’s department. The Sheriff continues to investigate in-custody deaths and to have the final word on a determination of a cause of death, to this day. 

In the late 1960s, in response to the Civil Rights movement, Musick formed the Emergency Action Group Law Enforcement, a paramilitary riot police unit, much like the horribly violent and racist militarized units we see today tear-gassing and shooting peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters across the country. The unit disbanded a few years after it was formed, but a platoon went on to become the Sheriff’s SWAT team. Local law enforcement agencies across the country now employ SWAT teams to effectuate aggressive and deadly “no-knock” warrants against mostly Black and Brown populations believed to be associated with drug-related crimes. Recently, police in Louisville carried out one of these raids and murdered Breonna Taylor in her own bed in the process. 

In spite of all of this horrible history, despite all the buildings and streets still named for people who have committed horrendous acts of racial oppression and violence, the Board continues the tradition of racism, billing the Musick project as an opportunity to build a “mental health jail.” 

Because racism is about power and exploitation. 

In 1851, a White doctor named Samual A Cartwright, attempting to explain why enslaved Black people wished to be free, posited that Black people wishing for freedom suffered from a disease, a mental illness. He called it Drapetomania. He believed the diagnosis was a consequence of masters who “made themselves too familiar with [enslaved people], treating them as equals.” 

If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night — separated into families, each family having its own house — not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbors, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed — more so than any other people in the world. If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away…

If the white man attempts to oppose [God’s] will, by trying to make [Black people] anything else than “the submissive knee-bender” (which the Almighty declared he should be), by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with [Black people]; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, [Black people] will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his bearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, [Black people are] spell-bound, and cannot run away.

The cure for Drapetomania was to return free Black people to submission. The cure was enslavement. The cure was to return them to the plantation, to “The Farm,” and keep them there. 

Because racism is about power and exploitation. 

If the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is truly committed to racial justice as they say, then the course of action is to cancel the expansion of the James A. Musick Facility. The course of action is to close the jail altogether. The course of action is to close Theo Lacy and the other jails, defund the Sheriff, and establish new services and resources within the community that do not stand on a foundation of systemic racism, oppression, and violence. 

The course of action, instead of separating people from their families and communities, putting people in harmful and ineffective incarceration, is to give everyone, regardless of who they are, equal access to care, compassion, and help. 

The course of action is to provide for people’s needs, to treat all people as equal, with understanding, and give all people freedom, autonomy, community, and care, not cages. 

 

Gianni Catellanos is a queer BIPOC activist and local organizer in Orange County. They are a founding member of Transforming Justice Orange County, a grassroots organization that works to combat the carceral system in Orange County. For more information about TJOC, visit their website. To learn more about Gianni, visit their blog.

 

Suggested Citation: Gianni Castellanos, Stop the Musick Jail Expansion or Repeat Our Racist History, JURIST – Professional Commentary, July 24, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/gianni-castellanos-musick-jail-expansion/.


This article was prepared for publication by Brianna Bell, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org.


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