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The New Jim Crow and the Mark of Cain

By Kevin Robinson

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“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of Black men who were born in the United States but were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises, the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by the Klan’s intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll tax and literacy test. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because like many Black men in the United States has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.” – Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

Kevin Lee Robinson, born and raised in Vallejo, CA, was arrested in 1983, at the age of 16, along with a slightly older teen. He was charged with eight counts of armed robbery. Kevin had never been in trouble in his young life, except on one occasion when he was thirteen years old and reprimanded by the Vallejo police department for trespassing on school grounds.

When he was arrested, the police interrogated him for 24 hours without his parents, a guardian, or an attorney present. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of robbery even though some of them he had not committed.

At a juvenile 707 (B) hearing, Kevin was found unfit to be rehabilitated by the juvenile judicial system, California Youth Authority (CYA), and handed over to be tried as an adult. His elementary school teacher and his high school teacher, Mrs. Doris Williams and Mrs. Karla Brown, both wrote letters to the court opposing its decision to try Kevin as an adult. Mrs. Williams stated that Kevin was identified as a special education student and that Kevin’s identification qualified him as a slow, non-sophisticated person who should be tried as a juvenile. Mrs. Brown wrote, “although Kevin’s sight word recognition skills are quite good, he was not able to respond satisfactorily to comprehensive questions dealing with reflective intuitive thought.”

Armed with this information, you would think that Kevin’s attorney (a public defender) had a slam dunk argument for trying Kevin as a minor (which, in any case, he was). At the age of 16, he was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to six years.

The long-term effects of these convictions have been detrimental to Kevin’s life prospects. He cannot vote, having lost that right before he had it. He cannot vote someone into office, even though it is one of the most important acts of citizenship. It is a right so important that African Americans marched, protested, demonstrated, and rallied in order to exercise it, all while facing the threat of murder, torture, assault, and intimidation. It has never been, in the past 400 years, in the interest of the government of the United States of America to preserve Kevin’s right to vote. From slavery, to Klan murders, to poll taxes and literacy tests, and finally to mass incarceration the common thread of the denial of civil rights has been woven through our system of government since the beginning of this great nation.

But the system has not only taken Kevin’s right to vote. The felony label is like an octopus with many tentacles. He can never serve on a jury to listen to the truth or lies of the accused, a peer in the community; can never obtain a liquor license or open a bar or nightclub; and can never get access to certain federal grants such as Pell grants.

I’m Kevin. Before my convictions, the state granted me the right to work, pay state and federal taxes, get a driver’s license, and own a car. But it has never allowed me to vote. If the legal voting age were 16, I may have been able to vote once.

I will never be able to vote at all unless California looks to the example of Maine and Vermont and restores voting rights to felons. Felon disenfranchisement only serves to punish incarcerated individuals like me further. It tells men like Kevin that they will forever wear the mark of Cain.