Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

When questioned pointedly on the June 7 episode of “Face the Nation,” about the decision to push a crowd of mostly peaceful protestors out of Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., Attorney General William Barr clung doggedly to the phrase “pushing back the perimeter.” His language did not address the human dimension of clashing bodies, pepper-sprayed faces, lunging riot gear-clad police, and screaming people. In Barr’s statement, all of that was reduced to a “perimeter,” an impersonal dimensional zone defined as space regardless of who may be occupying it. 

This kind of thinking exemplifies the militarized approach our society has chosen to adopt when dealing with civil unrest, with crime, with drug abuse, and with a host of other social problems and conflicts. This reductionist thinking is symptomatic of the greater issue of dehumanization not just in the U.S., but in several developed societies around the world, which is why the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd have gone global. 

Ultimately, racism or the imposition of a caste system is at play and the police, the courts and the prisons in one way or another become the tools of repression. This is certainly nothing new. What is new is how human beings have learned to couch their repressive impulses in politically correct language and rhetoric: “public safety,”  “crowd control,” “protected-speech zone,” etc.

But just what is this “perimeter,” this “safe area,” this buffer from the forces of evil and destruction that we so desperately need? Why do the affluent and powerful in modern societies require security teams, gated communities and guarded buildings? Who is this rabble that must be kept on the other side of the barricades, of the castle moat, who must be warehoused in concrete cell blocks? 

How have the multitudes of hungry and unwashed poor, the drug addicts, the psychologically challenged, the misguidedly libidinous and countless others been declared unrepentantly criminal, deserving of social obliteration and banishment? We allow talking heads like Nancy Grace define for us how we should react to crime and the suspicion of crime and then we’re shocked when police and law enforcement become no more accountable than attack dogs set loose on unwitting suspects or offenders. We allow zealots like John Walsh to write laws and we wonder why police are out of control. We let fear and hysteria dominate our public discourse and are then shocked when chanting crowds take to the streets to demand social justice.

At some point we need to understand that we are the perimeter.

Rather than ‘push on a perimeter’ to facilitate a photo op we should be expanding inclusion, paving over the moat we’ve built around the castle, dropping drawbridges and engaging in real-time dialogue about real-world problems that involve all of us.

The rules we make can either protect us or put us in a deadly stranglehold from which we will not escape. We need to make a real effort to get past our amnesia as a society, our pitifully inadequate attention spans, our obsession with an economy built mostly on mindless consumption. It could be that the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly reminded us that we are vulnerable, that no moat is wide or deep enough to guarantee perfect public safety and that our safety is contingent not on the thousands of laws we keep passing, or the thousands of cops we keep militarizing, or the myriad ways we keep streamlining our court system until constitutional restraints become irrelevant, but on the quality of our intelligence, our humanity and compassion. How and why contemporary societies have become more violent and less tolerant, more prone to rely on catchphrases and sound bites, more attuned to jingles and slogans than to long-standing moral truths, should be the core of our national and international preoccupation. 

Rather than ‘push on a perimeter’ to facilitate a photo op we should be expanding inclusion, paving over the moat we’ve built around the castle, dropping drawbridges and engaging in real-time dialogue about real-world problems that involve all of us. We should analyze and question the efficacy of locking up non-violent offenders in prison for decades, indeed questioning what we define as violent behavior. We should take into account the human and economic costs of this witless unsustainable system and our national obsession with crime, an obsession that now dominates large swaths of television programming. 

True crime shows, even entire channels (most famously Oxygen or ID) constantly highlight and focus on a statistically infinitesimal number of truly horrendous offenses and generate a widespread sense of morbid suspicion and distrust. American society seems unduly attracted to the spectre of the viciously uninhibited criminal and to the capture, indictment and proper disposal of such crude violators. We see justice through this childish prism, the wrongdoer as an unrepentant self-absorbed demon that must be hunted down and caged or eliminated. And then we cast ALL offenders into that exaggerated mold, a fantasy we’ve been offered by these simplistic televised docudramas and reality shows. All offenders become Jeffrey Dahmers, Ted Bundys, John Wayne Gayces and Scott Petersons. One size fits all and all must be dealt American Justice.

As we push deeper into “the perimeter,” we begin to unleash the primal homicidal urges and irrational fears in all of us — the need to control, to cage up, to repress, to intimidate, to belittle, to exterminate. Other societies have gone fully in those directions. They’ve crashed and burned and lost everything. We’ve come to a crucial crossroads, propelled here by social and natural crises and events. How we extricate ourselves from these conflicts, how we find our way through or around the perimeter will define us as a society for the remainder of the 21st century.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Fernando Rivas Martinez

Fernando Rivas Martinez is writer and prison reform advocate incarcerated in Texas. He is a 1977 Juilliard graduate and award winning composer of film and television music. In 2016, while incarcerated, he received an honorable mention from the PEN America prison writing program for his poem ‘300 Min.’ In 2019 he won the American Short Fiction Insider’s Prize award and an honorable mention on the Texas Observer short story contest.