Toppling Prisons, Healing Culture – Studying the New Jim Crow

“Imagine you are Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty-year-old, single African-American mother of two who was arrested as part of a drug sweep in Hearne, Texas. All but one of the people arrested were African American. You are innocent. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation…You are now branded a drug felon. You are no longer eligible for food stamps; you may be discriminated against in employment; you cannot vote for at least twelve years; and you are about to be evicted from public housing. Once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.
A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire sweep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.”

— Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

I want to use this space for a monthly meeting. A study group. Each month, I want to discuss a chapter of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

I want us to invoke the Power To Know.

There is a call to start a movement to help overturn the devastation of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration through the Prison Industrial Complex. But before we start a movement, we have to know what we are up against.

The prison industrial complex and the war on drugs have infiltrated every community in the U.S. They have changed our thinking, and how we build culture. Our assumptions are as unchallenged as the water we drink or the air we breathe. We barely notice they’ve become toxic.

I am a Pagan and a Magic Worker. In my experience, everything in life and magic, every act of honoring the Gods or Goddesses, every encounter with our planet’s moon, or an apple tree has this in common: we are called into relationship. Our religious and spiritual practices ask us to deepen these relationships. To re-connect. To re-member.

Some relationships we try to ignore.

Some relationships are tearing us asunder. Osiris is continuously ripped apart.

Acting from a place of love will put us back together.

But to be in right relationship, and to re-member our communities and ourselves, we have to first see the ways in which we have been torn apart.

Love is necessary, but so is knowledge.

Before we shift a relationship, we have to know its terms and boundaries, its secrets and hopes, its strengths and weaknesses.

Before we gather the ingredients to make magic, we need to know what we are making magic for.

We cannot set an intention toward right action – we cannot effectively invoke the Power to Will – without information, the Power to Know.

Across the United States, churches and other groups are gathering and studying this book. I would like to use this blog as our gathering space, our grove, our temple hall. Let us study together.

There is a demon in our midst. We have conjured it together. It rages out of control in our streets in the increased militarization of our police forces, in Stop and Frisk, in shoot first, ask later. It seeps into our minds and hearts through unchallenged assumptions and misinformation. Through news footage of black drug offenders. Through fear mongering. Through a glorification of violence.

We take back our power from this force. We can learn its ways. We can remind it that we built it and gave it power, and now we have a different job for it to do. We can transform it from a system of oppression toward one of love, equity, and justice.

This will take time. It is a long arc of ritual and magic.

But every relationship starts in a moment. Every relationship changes over time. Let us take this moment, now, to invoke change.

We can learn to conjure healthier things, built from our love and not our fear.



The study group:

To start off our study group, I encourage you to listen to the whole interview with Michelle Alexander on CSpan. Below is a 9 minute excerpt:

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David from Fields Books has offered to stock the title for us: order here. 

We will start discussing the Introduction and Chapter One in May. Posts will go up the fourth Wednesday of each month. I encourage you to subscribe to stay part of the conversation. Only comments by those who are reading the text will be accepted, so please try to order a book and read in advance.

Toward Love and Justice!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    The book is on its way to me now…
    I’m pretty busy (as usual!), but THIS is really important…and, it will be useful in my actual day-to-day career as well, since I teach history, and this quarter we’re doing U.S. History III, which covers from 1920-2010, so this is fully within that orbit.
    Thank you for doing this! I look forward to it!

    • T Thorn Coyle

      I’m very glad you’ll be joining in!

  • Soli

    Some of my burdens are lightening and I might be able to join in. I already have a copy of the book. Last academic year, the school where I work had a program of all students reading the book, and even paid for all their copies. Since I’m staff I didn’t have a chance to participate in the reading or discussion so it will be good to engage in this one.

    • T Thorn Coyle


  • Crystal Blanton

    i have my copy already and will be joining in to the discussion. I am looking forward to this.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      I’m glad

  • Bob_Knows

    The so-called “war on drugs” attacks and destroys Americans of all colors. There is no need to invoke racism into opposition of the government’s war on the people.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Hi Bob,
      thanks for your comment. While I agree that the Drug War is a scourge on us all, I disagree that it affects people of all colors proportionately.

      Stop and Frisk and arrests for drugs predominantly affect black and brown men in the United States. Though statistically speaking, white people use and deal drugs at higher rates than African Americans, it is Black people who are largely incarcerated for minor offenses and therefore, unable to get jobs, housing etc.

      I encourage you to listen to Michelle Alexander and to read the book, or do some other research.

      blessings – Thorn

      • T Thorn Coyle

        An afterthought for us all – Bob’s comment is a great illustration of why Alexander’s book is subtitled “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. We like to think that since we try to not be personally bigoted, that systemic racism doesn’t exist. It does. And it does terrible things to our society.

  • An Elder Apprentice

    Looking very much forward to this discussion. I just ordered the book.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      I’m so glad.

  • Michael Brazell

    Just got my copy of the book in the mail today. Looking forward to this discussion.

    • T Thorn Coyle


  • Crafter Yearly

    Thanks for starting this important study group! I’m currently putting together a course on the politics of punishment for the university that I teach at and am looking forward to discussing this book as I work on that project.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Great! It will be good to have you on board.

  • Elizabeth Dale

    I’m so glad to see the Pagan community pick up on this book. It happens to be last year’s Unitarian Universalist “Common Read”… A single book that the UUA picks out every year that UUs are encouraged to read. This year’s book is “Behind the Kitchen Door”. I love the idea of a “Common Read” I hope other religious liberals will join in!

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Elizabeth, I heard the author of Behind the Kitchen Door speak last year. Really good work being done there.

      I was also able to hear Michelle Alexander speak, which knocked me out. I hope you are able to join us, since you’ve studied the material already!

  • Dominique Leslie

    I’m ordering the book tonight and will be joining in. I am currently working for the San Francisco Department of Probation in Reentry services…..Housing.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Glad to have such experienced people joining the conversation!

  • Herleena Hunt

    I am getting the book tomorrow. I work at a mens prison as a substance abuse counselor. There is currently a push to lower the population due to over crowding, and so more programs are being put in place, with short term fixes. I see the ages of these men getting younger and younger. I feel the focus should be how do they get here in the 1st place, and how this can be prevented.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Herleena, I’ll be happy to have your experience to help us with the conversation. My hope is that through our study, we can come up with a course of action or greater involvement whether in our home communities or nationally. I am in the very beginning stages of doing this work in my own county.

  • Vanesa Eff

    I’m in! I’ve said, “I’ll do that later” for too long. Thank you for this, it’s time to know! Also- how do I subscribe?

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Vanesa, there is an rss feed icon near the top right of this page. If you click that, you should be able to easily subscribe. Thanks for joining.

  • zabuar

    excited to join the conversation!

  • maggiebea

    I’m in. Already have the book, but haven’t read it yet. Concurrently I’m in a book group working with Soul Work, by Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones. Ought to be interesting to read them together.

    –Maggie NorthLight

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  • Madelon Wise

    I want to join this discussion on a topic near and dear to me. I have the book. I am reading it. I have subscribed, but I’m a bit confused about where the discussion takes place. Here? Thank you.

  • Madelon Wise

    Thank you. This conversation is so crucial.