† 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, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Who Counts in 2017
by nancy a heitzeg
Usually as one year ends, we look forward with hope for the new. This year, the long grind of 2016 leaves us without relief, but dread. As the Trump Regime slouches closer to full realization, it is clear that the monstrous obligations of the Office of POTUS will have no tempering effect on the future occupant. Instead, all indications are are full on fascism with a long list of proposed appointees that are both evil and incompetent : climate deniers, oil executives, CT promoting generals, white nationalist, misogynists, hedge fund managers, WWE executives, fast food CEOs, billionaire hockey team owners, and to a person, privateers..
Aside from this mess, a fully GOP-controlled Congress led by anti-government nihilists such as Paul Ryan ensure that the decimation of Federal agencies designed to protect the public on multiple fronts — civil and legal rights, access to education and health care, climate justice, wages, and the social safety net — will be readily facilitated with budget cuts. Expect multiple tools to be used to subvert agency functions: reduced funding, policy shifts and flawed/fraudulent collection and reporting of data. Already current employees of key agencies are at work copying data in the fear that it will be destroyed.
This fallout will be pervasive and will impact public life on every front. Just on matters of criminal justice alone — multiple question have already arisen: What will be the fate of so-called criminal justice “reform”? How will the new administration influence incarceration rates? the use of private prisons? the school-to-prison pipeline? burgeoning efforts to address police “reform” and accountability for civilian deaths?
CI will explore all these questions in the the year ahead, but for now, let’s take a look at the Department of Justice and efforts to count police killings.
The Attorney General and the Department of Justice
Whatever their shortcomings, the tenures of Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch have been marked by some efforts to ensure civil rights, voting rights, sentencing reform, attention to racial discrimination in criminal justice and the school-to-prison pipeline, and some measure of police accountability. Those days are over.
Trump’s “law and order” platform and the announcement of Jeff Sessions as his choice for Attorney General signals a dramatic sea change. His record is long, but Henry Giroux sums it up quite succinctly:
Under Sessions, a racist militarism is set to serve as an organizing principle to legitimate ultranationalist endeavors to create a society strongly shaped by white nationalists…Sessions made his racist principles clear while appearing on the Matt & Aunie talk radio show on WAPI.
Sessions has praised Trump’s stance on capital punishment by pointing to Trump’s “1989 newspaper ads advocating the death penalty for five young men of color accused of raping a jogger in Central Park.” Sessions made these comments knowing full well that the Central Park Five were not only exonerated by DNA evidence after serving many years in jail, but were also awarded a wrongful conviction settlement, which ran into millions of dollars. Moreover, Sessions was aware that Trump had later criticized the settlement calling it a disgrace, while suggesting that the Central Park Five were guilty of a crime for which they should not have been acquitted in spite of the testimony of Matias Reyes, who confessed to raping and attacking the victim.
Sessions’ racism was on full display when he stated in the interview that Trump “believes in law and order and he has the strength and will to make this country safer.” He then added: “The biggest benefits from that, really, are poor people in the neighborhoods that are most dangerous, where most of the crime is occurring.” Trump’s tweets falsely alleging voter fraud in order to defend the ludicrous claim that he won the popular vote is ominous because they suggest that in the future he could allow Sessions to make it more difficult for poor minorities to vote.
Sessions’ history on matters of civil rights and his pro-punishment approach suggest that the DoJ will abandon many current initiatives for his hard-line stances on immigration, terrorism, crime, drugs and guns. The policy shifts will be complicated further by the fact that the DoJ controls and reports crime and arrest data,, and there is rightful concern over the extent to which this data may now be even more flawed than at present.
It can not be forgotten that nearly all Federal criminal justice data relies on reporting from the state and local levels, and the Federal tone shapes the likelihood of compliance as well as enforcement priorities. Add to the concern too, the propensity of Trump and company to ignore actual data and rely on fact-free emotional appeals. From The Truth is Evaporating before our Eyes:
More recently, Newt Gingrich, among others, has been informing us that facts and statistics no longer count so much as feelings, suspicions, prejudices and anecdotal evidence. The fact that violent crime is down, Gingrich explained on CNN, is of less import than the fact that “people feel more threatened. Liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right but are not how human beings are. As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with theoreticians.” As a consequence, we have begun to hear that we are living in a post-truth era, a period in which (to paraphrase Gingrich) those in power get to decide what is true and what isn’t.
In lieu of any current mandated recording, the Guardian launched an interactive crowd-sourced database of police killings that records what government officials will not: The Counted. It represents the most comprehensive data source to date on the stories and statistics, the demography and geography of “any deaths arising directly from encounters with law enforcement”, including people who were shot, tasered and struck by police vehicles as well those who died in police custody.
This report already notes the difficulty of getting all states o comply with data requests, and this, under a Department of Justice that has exerted pressure towards compliance. It is not a stretch to imagine that under a Sessions’ DoJ, this new program will be scuttled, or if kept for window-dressing, will be far from a Department priority. Any numbers on the police killings of civilians will again, be woefully incomplete or suspect. Certainly they will be stripped of indicators documenting racial discrimination, and at worst, we will be presented with fact-free arguments the real danger is to police officers as they are “targeted” by protest. It is possible too, in this climate and the vortex of missing data, that police killings of civilians may actually escalate.
To complicate matters, The Guardian has announced an end to The Counted data base, so we are left in the pre-2012 dark ages of data on matters of racialized police killings. Ask them if you would to continue and offer them $$ in support – follow the links.
We are headed in to new and dangerous terrain. Whatever the frustrations of the last 8 years, there was at least breathing room for movement. No more. Already we have seen all oxygen sucked away from public discourse on police killings — we have moved in a millisecond from #BlackLivesMatter to #BlueLivesMatter.
This is but one example of the new climate for criminal injustice, which will include too enhanced suppression and criminalization of protest. This is not to spark despair, but rather readiness.
This will be a time to resist but with the utmost of strategy, it will be a time too to refuse normalization. concilliation and any suggestion any longer that this system can be “reformed.
And we will be be here for that in 2017.