Jacobin - June 12, 2020
The broadest protests in US history have literally brought leading Democrats to their knees in the last few days. But that’s probably about all we’re going to get from them.
A week or so ago, liberals expressed understandable fears of American fascism: armed white vigilantes were joining with police, backed up by the president, to squash constitutionally protected free speech and even kill at least eleven protesters. Luckily, mass protests in a hundred US cities have beaten back police riots and repressive curfews while winning majority public support. Some cities are now reluctantly considering cutting police budgets, and multiple mayors are facing significant pushback, even calls to resign for using curfews and police to crush peaceful protest.
Americans’ political consciousness has shifted thanks to a million angry protesters in the streets. In response, Democrats in Congress introduced a suite of reforms. Inspired by the #8cantwait campaign, Democrats’ proposals include a ban on chokeholds (something that wouldn’t have stopped the murder of Eric Garner, whose killer used an already banned chokehold), ending no-knock warrants in drug cases, and create a national registry for tracking police misconduct.
These measures would be useful, but they come nowhere close to addressing one of the primary causes of police violence which activists are calling attention to: the excessive militarization and ever-growing budgets of police and prisons at every level of government, at the expense of education, health care, and other services that would both improve lives and reduce crime.
Congressional Democrats’ proposals are cut from the same cloth as a raft of symbolic gestures by corporations, politicians, and police looking to align themselves with righteous but vague calls for justice and against racism. One day before Buffalo police knocked an elderly man unconscious in a sickening viral video, the same police kneeled with protesters for a photo op in the very same place. This tactic reached a comic level Monday when Pelosi, Schumer, and other Democrats kneeled for cameras before introducing their hollow reforms while wearing kente, a traditional Ghanaian textile.
Joe Biden gave an address Tuesday at George Floyd’s funeral calling for “racial justice” but offering nothing in the way of concrete reforms that would have saved George Floyd or countless others. On Wednesday Biden released a criminal justice platform, including lip service to addressing the root causes of crime but also, amazingly, a pledge to spend $300 millionmore on policing.
These gestures are worse than empty. When street protests start to die down (which they will have to eventually), corporate Democrats will try to convince people that the time for disruption is over, and, thanks to them, the problems will be solved. The only thing left for ordinary people to do is vote for Democrats come November.
But the Democratic Party itself bears enormous responsibility for these crises. After all, many Democratic mayors and governors have called in the police to brutalize and repress peaceful protests across the country. Just as importantly, for the last fifty years, Democrats like Joe Biden have partnered with Republicans in pushing the policies that have built and sustained the mass incarceration system at the root of much of the police violence today. And the injunction to vote our way out of this crisis aims to throw in the towel on mass protest and disruption and instead entrust the same political establishment that brought us to this crisis to pull us out of it.
Dems Helped to Build Mass Incarceration
In the 1960s Democrats supported some social-democratic reforms to address rising urban poverty and unemployment as part of the “Great Society.” But spending on the Vietnam War and the exodus of the middle class to highly segregated suburbs soon dried up funding for Great Society Programs and municipal budgets — just as a conservative, white reaction was growing against the Civil Rights Movement’s achievements. By the recessions of the 1970s, Democrats had mostly abandoned their commitments to redistributive reforms, and joined Republicans in a neoliberal assault on unions and social services. Poverty soared, and in cities, crime increased.
Without a strong labor movement or independent labor party, there was no significant social force pushing for higher taxes on the rich to fund social-democratic reforms. So instead of addressing the economic roots of urban crime, politicians in both parties whipped up racist “law and order” sentiment and turned to the cheaper alternative of police and prisons.
By the 1980s, punishment was also a more electorally popular way of dealing with poor, unemployed, people in cities, a large number of whom were black. Democrats were more than happy to be champions of this punitive turn and worked hard to brand themselves as the real “tough on crime” party. And champion they did: in the 1990s Bill Clinton pushed through crime and welfare reform legislation that expanded mass incarceration while further gutting programs for the poor. Hillary Clinton was selling this agenda when she made her infamous and racist 1996 “superpredators” comment which turned many young progressives against her twenty years later.
With poverty and inequality worsening and the police state growing, police murders under Barack Obama’s tenure sparked the Black Lives Matter protests. While a few activist district attorneys and judges have been elected, Democratic mayors from Houston to Minneapolis still oversee murderous and racist police departments.
Democrats’ anti-mass incarceration posturing will be even more absurd this year since their de facto leader until at least November will be Joe Biden, a mass incarceration zealot who, Branko Marcetic writes, “makes Hillary Clinton look like Michelle Alexander.” Biden was a key architect not only of the 1994 Crime Bill, which dramatically expanded police and punishment, but also headed up multiple similar efforts before and since.
For decades Biden went to great lengths to prove he was tougher on crime than Republicans, making “law and order” a central part of his political brand. In 1989, Biden criticized then-President George H.W. Bush’s crime legislation for not being “tough” or “bold” enough: “In a nutshell, the President’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.” ...
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