† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Justice As Theft: Into the Twilight Zone
by Kay Whitlock
In 2011, Tonya McDowell, a homeless woman from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was charged with first degree (felony) larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny for enrolling her 6-year-old son in Brookside Elementary School in the community of Norwalk. Because McDowell and her son did not legally reside in Norwalk, the rationale for the charges was theft of $15,686 in educational costs from the Norwalk public school system. She faced a possible sentence of 20 years in prison. Moreover, McDowell’s babysitter was evicted from public housing because she apparently assisted by providing false documents necessary for enrolling the young boy.
McDowell and her son are black; the Norwalk public school system is predominantly white – and therefore better funded than the Bridgeport system, in which people of color predominate. Essentially, she was charged with “stealing” a good public education for her son, who is entitled to public education, but not, presumably, a good one.
This prosecution was outrageous, right? Yes – by any reasonable standard of human decency, anyway. But we live in a societal Twilight Zone in which the often-subterranean currents of the dominant U.S. public imagination respond to virtually all claims to social and economic justice as some form of theft, with all of the dissonance, danger, anxiety, emotional vulnerability, defensiveness, and fury associated with its evocation.
Theft as an Underlying, Unifying, and Interdependent Political Alarm
We should pay close attention to the unacknowledged deployment of theft as a frame – that is, a conceptual path for channeling and shaping thinking about an issue – with tremendous psychic energy. This energy is archetypal in nature. This means it has the potential to evoke collective (not necessarily universal) cultural patterns, meanings, and warnings; to stir in us feelings and responses of which we are not always consciously aware. Repeated or alluded to over and over again, the repetitive resonance of theft, or any other frame, can powerfully influence how people think.
This energy is obvious at times – as in the McDowell arrest and prosecution – but more often is covert and unconscious, called forth through myriad symbols, images, catch phrases, and narratives. It cuts across specific issues and runs through virtually every conservative/right political and economic agenda. Its cultural, psychological, moral, and sometimes theological vigor translates directly into political utility. And where it does not stop change outright, this energy contains it, ensures that the potential for deep, structural change is much less than it could or should be. The constant archetypal evocation of theft serves to reinforce timidity even within individuals and organizations working for social and economic justice, lest we appear to be unreasonable and asking for/demanding “too much.”
When we fail to pay attention to the many obvious and coded ways in which claims to justice (racial/gender/disability/citizenship status/economic/sexuality) are framed as theft, our strategies for change will fall short of what is needed to produce structural justice. Even victories won will not hold firm, have not held firm, because later on, they can be undermined, even gutted, by framing these claims to justice as theft. The frame of theft, with its accompanying resentments, drives right-leaning wedge politics and buttresses the polarizing strategies of Karl Rove (pdf link) and other masters of dirty political tricks. Finally, while this frame always pushes public conversation further to the right, it also permits racism and antipathy/indifference toward poor people to influence even purportedly “liberal” discussions and policy proposals.
Most of the time, politicians and groups somewhere along the liberal/left continuum end up trying to counter accusations and implications of theft with vapid, reactive, and ineffective versions of “No, it’s not!” and “No, you are the real thieves!” ( The Democratic Party largely rests on a shaky foundation of “At Least We’re Not the Republicans.”) The framework itself remains intact; in fact, it is strengthened every time we remain caught in hydraulic reactivity. We end up trying to minimize thievery instead of boldly declaring for deep forms of structural social and economic justice.
Many of us imagine, of course, that the antidote to this will be found in the dissemination of facts, the enactment of public policy reforms, legal declarations of equality, and legal challenges to injustice. But while each of these may be an important component of deeper change, these strategies alone can never blunt deeper currents of resistance to social and economic change. That’s because we’re not just dealing with “issues. We’re dealing with public consciousness, with the Twilight Zone where facts, hopes, fears, and longstanding supremacist ideologies and beliefs collide in both conscious and unconscious ways. And right now, theft frames, channels, and restricts most political debate. It has for a long, long time. It’s not the only unifying frame used by the right – and often embraced, at least to some degree, by neoliberals and libertarians – but it’s one of the most powerful.
Here’s a brief glimpse at the scope of the theft frame and how it works.
Framing Struggles for Social & Economic Justice as Thievery
Theft, in this context means the purported theft by undeserving, unworthy, and morally inferior peoples of all that rightly belongs to the deserving, worthy, and moral peoples. The frame tells us we must establish a triage of human worthiness. What’s at stake, we are told, is the very future of society itself: all that we love, possess, and desire. Here are just a few examples of the framing. (Note: Some of the links are to conservative/right articles or websites; many are not.)
Crumbling Public School Infrastructure for Poor/People of Color Communities
Tonya McDowell – remember her? – pleaded guilty, receiving a 12-year sentence, suspended after 5 years are served, and 5 years’ probation. She must also pay the Norwalk school system $6200, the estimated actual cost of her son’s education while there. Some will say that’s not why she went to prison at all, that she was sentenced because she also pleaded guilty to selling drugs. McDowell’s attorney tried to get the educational larceny charges separated from drug charges, but the judge and prosecutor refused to do so. (She also was sentenced to 5 years on the drug charges, to run concurrently with her other sentence.) In brief: she was framed by law enforcement as a bad, pathological, black mom who stole an education for her child from a more affluent school district. (Society deals harshly with poor, black mothers, whom it regularly demonizes and imprisons.) She isn’t the only person who’s ever been charged with stealing a good public education for her child; it’s more pervasive than is realized. But rather than improve the funding for public schools in poor and predominantly people of color communities, the U.S. response has been to weaken them, close them, privatize them, and create – please don’t faint from shock – a for-profit industry to verify student (and employee) residences. The rationale? Teacher’s unions and collective bargaining agreements are accused of stealing public resources and draining education of its vitality.
Although no one can find statistically significant instances of voter fraud, that’s how Voter ID laws, intended to suppress the democratic participation of particular groups of voters – especially people of color and students – are sold.
Assaults on affirmative action have most commonly centered on the allegation that undeserving people of color are wrongfully stealing jobs and educational opportunities from more deserving white people.
Dismantling the Social Safety Net
Efforts to privatize Social Security, arguably the nation’s most effective anti-poverty program, are framed as generational theft, with greedy baby-boomers stealing from the pockets (and futures) of younger generations. Medicare is also implicated. Both the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid are regularly accused of being fraud-generators.
Food stamp assistance is similarly under attack as a fraud magnet and, along with other “safety net” programs, a major contributor to national debt. The right constantly promotes legislative attempts to further stigmatize and subject recipients of public assistance to drug tests and other invasive forms of surveillance
Immigrants of color are regularly accused of stealing jobs from “real Americans,” stealing public benefits, destroying the environment, and stealing what “should have been” a reliable, predominantly white demographic future.
Environment and Climate Change
Activists and communities seeking, say, to stop the Keystone Pipeline, or insist on environmental justice in the wake of large-scale environmental disasters are said to be stealing jobs and the job-generating abilities of corporations.
The landmark Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) hit a buzzsaw of opposition shortly after its passage in 1990; it continues today, with attacks primarily coming from institutional opponents and politicians like Rand Paul, who view it as “unfair” to business because it forces them to spend money they can’t afford, in effect robbing them by force. According to one libertarian think tank:
The ADA is objectionable on moral as well as economic grounds. In a free society the government should employ its coercive powers only to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens from aggression. Any attempt to enforce moral behavior, however noble or desirable, is beyond the proper scope of government. Even if one concedes a role for government in eliminating private discrimination, one must also acknowledge that discrimination against disabled individuals is different in kind from discrimination by reason of race, national origin, religion, or sex. The elimination of those familiar forms of discrimination should, in theory, entail either no or de minimis costs. In contrast, the ADA forces employers, state and local governments, and the owners of commercial enterprises to bear substantial costs to accommodate disabled individuals. Imposing such costs on innocent third parties is unjustified and morally objectionable. At the very least, strict limits should be adopted to minimize the costs imposed on the non- disabled. –Cato Institute
Rather than address the problem of homelessness, more and more cities are choosing to criminalize it. Homeless people are framed as robbing decent people and businesses of their right to be in spaces free of homeless people. Who cares what happens to the homeless people? Criminalizing measures range from unbelievable (but real) to hypocritical to appalling.
Processes of gentrification frame not only homeless people, but low-income residents and other “undesirable” people who may merely be walking/driving on public sidewalks and streets as presumptive criminals who rob not only people but reduce property values and stand in the way of greater profits for deserving people, businesses, and real-estate speculators. Gentrification also drives racial and other forms of police profiling.
Queer/Transgender/Gender Nonconformity Rights & Recognition
People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, and gender nonconforming are accused of stealing/ compromising safety and spiritual integrity by virtue of their very presence, and breaking/entering bastions of public morality, including schools*, faith communities, the institution of marriage, and ordinary community transactions and commerce.**
(*This link provides good information, but CI disagrees that anti-transgender campaigns and organizing are exclusively the work of extremists. **This link provides excellent information, but CI does not support conflating anti-LGBT so-called “religious liberty” laws with the history of anti-black Jim Crow laws. Both kinds of laws are abhorrent, but they are not historically the same.)
Overarching Themes in the Theft Frame
- Undeserving people (“them”) are being granted “special rights” at the expense of deserving people (“us”). These special rights constitute theft.
- Theft from decent, deserving people not only hurts more virtuous individuals, but is bankrupting society even as it produces more undeserving people.
- Rather than reward undeserving people, as is now the case, society should punish, cage, exclude, or otherwise render them incapable of stealing.
- This theft includes natural resources, ecologies, living things other than human beings, and the environment, over which decent, deserving people must exercise dominion.
- State’s Rights: The federal government is part of this theft/bankruptcy scheme, and its ability to create, fund, and impose programs, regulations, and regulatory oversight should be revoked.
- In order for public spaces to be safe, they should be privatized, and all undeserving people who attempt to navigate these spaces should be aggressively policed, displaced, and permanently excluded.
- Privatization, the shifting of public resources to private business interests, protects us from governmental excess even as it saves money, thus protecting decent, deserving individuals from being robbed.
- The free market,unfettered by pesky regulations, not government, can best protect society against theft.
Not coincidentally, those marked as undeserving and with the criminal taint of thievery are overwhelmingly poor and people of color, many of whom are also women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and queer/transgender/gender nonconforming people.
Toward a Shift in Public Consciousness
A shift in how masses of people understand issues and think about the best responses to pressing social and economic problems will not be achieved simply by a change in frames or focus-grouped “messaging.” No amount of messaging can work when there isn’t some bold vision of what we are working toward in a time when almost everyone but the wealthy is losing ground and people of color are being hit the hardest. And right now, liberal/progressive/left politicians and groups have no such bold vision. We tend to be a scattered network of issues, sometimes working at cross purposes, bound together only by the often compromised visions of major, well-funded, predominantly white advocacy organizations whose constituents have at least some reasonable degree of economic security. (By “compromised visions,” I mean agendas that do not reflect the voices of and fail to address the most pressing life-and-death needs of those who are most marginalized, exploited, and impoverished.)
What unifying, interdependent themes run through progressive/left agendas? Beyond “Stop Them” and “Equality,” I can’t think of any. These don’t exactly stir the deep emotions and inspire more of us to cross-issue organizing, particularly when wedge politics work and we’re sometimes at each others’ throats. Nor do they link the urgency and nature of our struggles in ways that center the lives and voices of those who bear the heaviest brunt of structural forms of violence.
In truth, new frames can’t be “invented” by one person, or even one deep-pocketed organization or political party. They emerge not only from analysis but from on-the-ground activism and cross-issue movement building. At some point, they are recognized and embraced because they carry the energy of collective agreement and resonate with the grassroots.
In the meantime, we’re still caught within the very effective framework of theft.
- Faith, Profit and Prisons
- Confidence Men & “Prison Reform”
- Con Artists, Profit and Community Corrections
- Smoke and Mirrors?
- The Promise/Peril of This Moment
- Conservative Criminal Justice Reform, A Look Through the Distorted Fun House Mirror
- Liberals Take the Bait and Switch: The Myth of “Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform
- Essential Data/Graphics from Prison Policy Initiative