Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Media, the Mayor, the Iron Fist: Its How Governing through Crime Gets Done

-- A San Francisco court's ruling that a 14-year-old drug suspect from Honduras should be considered an abandoned youth - entitled to shelter rather than deportation - was thwarted Wednesday when the city turned him over to federal immigration authorities.

In SFChron, Jaxon Van Derbeken covers the City's new juvenile deportation practice, a change in policy Van Derbeken helped drive with a series of alarmest stories that pilloried the City for having applied its "sanctuary" policy to undocumented juvenile delinquents.

His first stories picked up federal complaints that San Francisco was privately flying undocumented juvenile delinquents back to their countries to avoid detention and deportation by ICE the federal Immigration Control and Enforcement Agency, as well as sending such juveniles to unlocked private juvenile rehabilitation facilities from which some had escaped by walking a way.

Subsequent stories turned up that one of these juveniles that benefited from the sanctuary policy now stands accused of a horrendous murder of a father and two sons.

Facing a possible gubernatorial run in 2010, SF Mayor Gavin Newsom beat a quick retreat on the policy after Van Derbeken's stories appeared. Newsom ordered the city's juvenile probation office to cooperate with federal authorities in deporting all such juveniles.

The resulting practice, now "covered" as news by Van Derbeken, is pure governing through crime. Agents of the executive (who appears as the champion of the people in their identity as potential crime victims), flouts the lawful orders of a court and the individual details of a vulnerable young person's life, handing over a 14 year old to ICE detention practices that have regularly resulted in deaths, and ultimately to being forced on an airplane and taken to a country in which he has no responsible family.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fear of Crime

I'm reading Richard Perlstein's mammoth book, Nixonland, on how defeated Nixon in 1962 won a landslide second term to the Presidency a decade later and the political transformations of the American public that coincided with that rise (a review will have to wait time to complete the more than 700 page tome). A big component emphasized by Perlstein was the perception that violent crime in America's large cities was galloping out of control.

It is hard not to feel political chills picking up the morning paper in 2008 to read of the East Bay's continuing series of armed robberies of restaurants and the growing public and political response. In the SFChron staff writers Henry K. Lee,Tyche Hendricks summarize the recent developments to include the pistol whipping of employees at a nail salon in North Oakland and 5:15 in the afternoon, robberies at a seafood restaurant Sunday night, and a pizzeria Saturday, a protest in affluent Rockridge after the robbery last week of a pasta restaurant especially popular with families, and the fact that the City of Oakland has openly asked the retro vigilante organization, the Guardian Angels, to help patrol the city.

Holy Cow Batman, is it 1968?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

August '68

The sounds of August 1968 were on the radio this morning during a segment of NPR's Morning Edition on the demonstrations at the Democratic convention in Chicago that summer, and next week's convention in Denver. The segment includes some snippets of original broadcast coverage as well as an interview with protest leader and later California State Senator, Tom Hayden.

The emphasis of the story was on the violence that week in Chicago and its impact on protest movements, but the scarier memories it brought back were about the police. First, consider the scale. According to Hayden, the much publicized call for protesters to come to Chicago netted something fewer then 1,000 visitors. At various points they were swelled to 10,000 by Chicago's large progressive community (my parents, then in their late thirties, and my older brother, then 16, among them). Mayor Daley in contrast had amassed a force of nearly 24,000 men, 12,000 police, 6,000 National Guard reserve soldiers, and astoundingly, 6,000 US Army troops.

What I remember, and what comes across in the snippets of broadcast tape in the NPR story, was the incredible sense of malice behind this unprecedented and probably unconstitutional force of state power. There was an anger toward the demonstrators, and toward the left-wing of the Democratic Party that anticipated the more lethal violence to come in America (Attica, Kent State, and Georgia State) and internationally (Argentina's dirty war).

Listening this morning, I found the voice of a network correspondent describing the police moving in on demonstrators outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel (where many delegates and much of the press was staying) nothing short of terrifying as it was to me as a 9 year old boy. Like something out of Night of the Living Dead, the correspondent describes the Chicago Police wading into the crowd of unarmed and hapless young people and bashing them repeatedly with their heavy wooden batons, "he won't be getting up again," the audibly shocked reporter says.

At the time the actions of Mayor Daley and LBJ were denounced by many, including Senator Abraham Ribicoff who analogized the police to the Gestapo on the floor of the convention. A national commission ultimately laid much of the blame on the police. But as the NPR focus on the demonstrators suggests, the stigma ended up largely on the protesters not the "forces of order".

Friday, August 22, 2008

Notes from Italy (2)

By Alessandro De Giorgi,
Professor of Justice Studies,
San Jose State University
Special Correspondent to GTC

Another significant step toward a reduction of rights and liberties has been taken in Italy last week. In fact, following the “security package” approved by the Berlusconi III government, among other unconstitutional measures to be used in the ongoing war against “illegal” immigrants and their supposed dangerousness, a new directive has been issued by the Ministry of Interior (08/05/2008), providing city mayors with increased discretionary powers in matters of public safety and urban safety.
In Italy, public order has always been a prerogative of the Polizia (the civilian police controlled by the Ministry of Interior), and the Carabinieri (the military police controlled by the Ministry of Defense).
However, locally each town has its own municipal police – traditionally an unarmed and “friendly” force, in charge of traffic regulation and other minor tasks – whose deployment and rules of engagement are decided by mayors and by local police chiefs, within the limits defined by the State’s law.

Berlusconi III’s “security package” has widely extended those limits, providing that mayors have the power and duty to deploy their (now armed) local police forces against:
a) Conditions of urban decay which are known to contribute to the emergence of street crimes, such as alcohol abuse, drug dealing and “aggressive” begging;
b) Situations in which the general quality of life has deteriorated as a consequence of vandalism (i.e., graffiti) or damage to public buildings and infrastructure;
c) Illegal occupation of abandoned buildings;
d) Unlawful street-selling activities;
e) Behaviors which offend public morality (such as street prostitution) or endanger safe access to (and use of) public spaces such as streets, parks, etc.
Mayors – both from the right and the left – have been quick to make immediate use of these increased powers, issuing citywide ordinances such as the following ones:
1) in Novara (Northern Italy) it is forbidden for groups of 3 or more people to be in public parks after 11pm;
2) in Venice, it is forbidden to carry bags containing goods for sale (a measure against unauthorized street-sellers – in 99% of cases, immigrants);
3) in Rome, it is forbidden to search for food or recyclable items in garbage cans;
4) in Florence, it is forbidden to wash windshields at street corners;
5) in several Northern Italian towns, call-centers – obviously used almost only by immigrants to call home – must now have two restrooms and a private parking lot in order to be legal (of course, none of this applies to restaurants, boutiques, or other “locally owned” activities).

A very “soft” critique of these measures – which target exclusively the immigrant population – has been expressed by the Democratic Party – the only parliamentary opposition left after the crisis of the left in Italy. Once again, the most surprising aspect is the degree of support these measures seem to receive from an emerging silent majority.

In the last two decades or so, many (post)-critical criminologists in Europe have been arguing – often under ambiguous labels such as “situational crime prevention”, “community policing”, “safe-cities”, etc. – for a shift from the national to the local level in matters of urban security and crime control: the idea was that more “democratic” and “grassroots” strategies of crime prevention and conflict resolution could emerge from the local level, where citizens would express their needs and concerns (i.e. fear of crime) directly to local administrators who would take those concerns seriously, but less constrained by the dangerous temptations of symbolic politics than national politicians.

However, the recent developments in Italy have shown once again that local crusades for urban security can be as exclusionary and discriminatory as the ones launched nationally, and that sometimes, contrary to some assumptions of self-proclaimed realist criminologists, public fears should be contested and deconstructed, rather than being “taken seriously”…

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dazed and Confused: Broke California faces an 8 Billion Dollar Prison Hang Over

I can understand the pain and shock that many Californian's felt this morning as they perused headlines in their local paper and took in the number 8 Billion, as in an 8 Billion dollar court order to pay that the state, currently in full budget crisis mode, may have to pay immediately (read Mathew Yi's reporting in the SFChron).

Its like reading the fine print on your credit card website as you try to comprehend a massive change in the interest rate being charged on your huge balance. Only times millions.

The state's revenues, flush during the long real estate boom, are now as dry as the creeks here at mid-summer. Even the most insulated public institutions, like the UC system, are taking a 10 percent "haircut" on their budgets.

For decades now prison spending has expanded regardless of where the state was in the economic cycle. The 88 prisoners in the state for every 100 thousand free people, when I moved here to attend college at Cal in 1977, had grown by more then six-fold when I moved back to teach at that college (for the best account of how the real estate surpluses fed the prison boom, see Ruth Gilmore's Golden Golden Gulag: Prisons Surplus, Crisis, Opposition, in Globalizing California). But during most of those years the pains of that growth were smoothed by budget surpluses in the good times and bonds in the bad, readily agreed upon by elected officials who mostly agreed that prison spending was good for Californians, sort of eating your vegetables, very very expensive vegetables.

But now a huge amount of money is being called due, not by smiling politicians who claim to have our back, but by a law professor who answers to a federal judge, who answers to the Constitution. Nobody's claiming this will make us safer (the usual spoon full of sugar) but instead, legal, even moral obligations that we haven't been told to worry about for a long time. Welcome Guantanamo, California style.

The money, which will pay for some eight new prison hospitals, and a dental facility, as well as massive remodeling of existing prison medical facilities, is a testament not only to the length and depth of this prison boom but to the total disregard for anything other then locking people up as cheaply and rapidly as possible. Governor George Deukmeijian, (1983-1991) used to quip that it was better for the state to have worry about how to house criminals, than for citizens to find criminals in their houses. That sounded like common sense, and it may be true (at least for the minority of prisoners who were burglars on the outside), but now that so many of our houses are in foreclosure, and the state's fiscal house is in full crisis, we must look at this commonsense with new eyes.

Start with what a loss this will be. The 8 billion which would have paid a substantial portion of the cost for bringing health insurance to all Californian's will pay for facilities that will only be used by prisoners and which will become mostly useless if we can ever succeed in shrinking the base of our massive prison population to something even remotely reasonable.

In the short term, that massive economic signal to medical professionals everywhere to come join the ranks of the prison health system, will raise the costs of health care for every single Californian and probably all but dry it up in the poorer corner of the state.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Symbol of Liberty? Prison-like plan for World Trade Center

It was supposed to be a symbol of how liberty arises from its ashes, a restoration of a real street grid and living neighborhood (which ironically the original WTC design eviscerated). But while the new tower may symbolize liberty from afar, its street level design is a palladium of security with even the terminology of prisons:

According to the reporting of Charles V. Bagli, in the NYTimes:

the entire area would be placed within a security zone, in which only specially screened taxis, limousines and cars would be allowed through ‘’sally ports,'’ or barriers staffed by police officers, constructed at each of five entry points.

The proposal threatens to reopen a bitter debate that many had thought was settled four years ago.

Landlords, company executives, public officials and some urban planners acknowledged the need for security at ground zero, but worried that the procedures would undermine the effort to reweave the trade center site into the city’s fabric. They fear that the proposed traffic restrictions could create tie-ups in a congested neighborhood and discourage corporate tenants from renting space, or shoppers from visiting the stores in the area.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mess with Texas

The state of Texas executed Jose Medellin yesterday in defiance of international treaties signed by the United States and over the objection of the death penalty friendly Bush Administration. Medellin was part of a horrible gang rape and strangulation murder of two teenage girls fifteen years ago. The only member of the gang to be executed so far (two others remain under sentences of death while two others were sentenced to death but were commuted to life in prison). Medellin was 19 at the time (a year younger and he could no longer face execution).

The international law issue arose because the United States is party to a treaty that requires signatory nations to provide access to counselors from their home nation after being arrested. Medellin was never provided this counselor assistance. Since Mexico is strongly opposed to the death penalty, and advocates for its citizens caught up in the US justice system, and since obtaining good legal assistance as early as possible is the most crucial factor in any capital case, there is good reason to believe Medellin might not have been sentenced to death had Texas followed US law (treaties have superiority to any state law).

This counselor access treaty operates to protect Americans when they get arrested in a foreign nation, which is why the Bush Administration has sought repeatedly to get Texas to remove Medellin from death row. But protecting Americans is not a priority for the state of Texas which apparently puts its rituals of vengeance above any other consideration. Texas has long put itself apart from the rest of the nation in its practice of execution. With 26 executions in 2007 (down from as many as 50 per year in the 1990s), Texas executed more people then all the other states in the union combined.

There are a lot of good people in Texas, including some of my loved ones, and many of them despise the state's reputation as blood thirsty state. But as much as I'd miss the art and the barbecue in Houston, and the music in Austin, its time to face the truth. Texas belongs in some other union. So I'm personally appealing to Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Legislature to secede from the union.

As Phil Och's once wrote of Mississippi, "find yourself another country to be part of." I would suggest China, Iran, Nigeria, or some other country that better fits your moral values.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

From the World Series of Democracy to the Super Bowl of Security

In today's NYTimes David Johnston and Eric Schmitt provide a fascinating (and grim) look at police preparations for the upcoming national party conventions in Denver (Dems) and St. Paul (Reps) later this month and next. Its clear that what was once a kind of championship of partisan democracy, with floor fights and multi-ballot nominations contests, has turned into a Super-Bowl of security where federal and local law enforcement compete with each other to spy-on and manage citizens who might want to express their views before the assembled party leaders.

National political conventions are a chance for federal agencies to test their latest and most sophisticated technology, and this year is no different. There was a brief flare-up recently between the F.B.I. and the Secret Service, when each wanted to patrol the skies over the convention with their surveillance aircraft, packed with infrared cameras and other electronics. The issue was resolved in favor of the Secret Service, according to people briefed on the matter.

Both Denver and St. Paul, where the Republican National Convention will be held Sept. 1-4, are enlisting thousands of additional officers to help with security. Even so, their numbers will be only about a third of the 10,000 police officers that New York City fielded for the 2004 Republican convention, just three years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Denver Police Department will nearly double in size, according to federal officials involved in the planning. The city is bringing in nearly 1,500 police officers from communities throughout Colorado and beyond, even inviting an eight-person mounted unit from Cheyenne, Wyo. State lawmakers changed Colorado law to allow the out-of-state police officers to serve as peace officers in Denver.

I particularly like this quote from White House security adviser (and Boalt grad!) Kenneth L. Wainstein which suggests that since 9/11 no expression of liberty is too minor to escape security management.

“In the post-9/11 world, you have to prepare and plan for all contingencies,” Mr. Wainstein said. “That means preparing for everything from a minor disruption and an unruly individual to a broader terrorist event. We need to plan for everything no matter what the threat level is on any particular day.”

In addition to this year's historic significance of the first African-American major party nominee, officials are pointing to internet organizing efforts by protest groups with names like "Recreate 68" and "Tent State."

Organizers insist the groups are nonviolent, but to the authorities their names alone raise the specter of violent confrontations like those at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

Apparently lost is the irony that in both the '68 Chicago convention riot, and the Kent State killings, official investigations largely blamed the Chicago Police Department and the Ohio National Guard for the violent results.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Notes from Italy

A special report by GTC correspondent Alessandro di Giorgi, Professor of Justice Studies, San Jose State University, and author of Rethinking the Political Economy of Punishment.

July 31, 2008

According to a recent opinion polls, 9 Italians out of 10 think that crime is rising in Italy (and 6 out of 10 hold the same point of view when asked about their own neighborhood); more than 50% identify immigration as the main cause of this increase; a majority of respondents say they would support “exceptional” measures to fight crime; 47% think that Gipsy camps should be cleared once and for all by the police – whether alternative housing for their occupants is made available or not.
However, this appears to be something more than just a matter of volatile opinions and floating views: when given the chance, some people have taken what they see as “justice” in their own hands against those whom they see as the immediate threat to their security and wellbeing. In the last few months – mainly in the poor and desolated peripheries of Rome and Naples, where most camps (and temporary housing for immigrants, more generally) have been established by the local authorities, in a clear attempt to make them invisible to decent citizens – racist attacks have multiplied.
Sometimes an over-amplified criminal episode has been taken as the pretext for these assaults, as in the case of Ponticelli near Naples, where last May hundreds of enraged residents almost managed to lynch a young gipsy girl accused of attempting to “steal” a baby from inside a house, and then set the nearby gipsy camp on fire destroying it entirely and forcing all its inhabitants to take refuge somewhere else. In other cases, the simple fact of being foreigner, black and poor has been enough to mobilize residents against immigrants, as in the case of Pianura – once again, near Naples – where this week 107 immigrants recently evacuated from a building they had illegally occupied, were prevented by enraged neighbors from moving into their newly assigned temporary housing (an abandoned school); at that point – in a desperate act of protest remindful of the 1995 sans-papier movement in France – the immigrants occupied a church in Naples, only to be attacked and dispersed by the police.

On the other hand, the Berlusconi III government is acting fast and furious against these internal enemies, promoting the idea that the fears of “exasperated” citizens must be taken seriously: after fingerprinting all the gypsies (and their children) – unleashing strong critiques from EU bodies, such as the European Commission, the Council of Europe and – most recently – the European committee on human rights – the Italian government has now adopted its “security package”: a comprehensive anti-(immigrant)crime legislation which, among other things, provides that:
1) Punishments for crimes committed by “illegal immigrants” are increased by up to 1/3
(a blatant violation of the principle of equality before the law, as established both by the Italian Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights);
2) Immigrants can be detained in “Identification and Expulsion Centers” for up to 18 months (formerly, the maximum period was 60 days);
3) European citizens can be deported from Italy whenever local authorities (e.g. majors, police chiefs) identify them as dangerous for public safety and public order (this measure had been already adopted by the former center-left government in order to be able to deport immigrants from countries recently admitted to the EU, such as Romania and Poland);
4) Almost 3000 soldiers will be deployed with public order responsibilities in several Italian cities (Rome, Naples, Milan; Palermo, etc.). Of them, 1000 will be assigned to “sensible targets” (foreign embassies, governmental buildings, etc.), 1000 will monitor immigration detention centers from outside (to prevent escapes), and the remaining 1000 will patrol cities (jointly with civilian police officers) with powers to identify and arrest suspects.

Finally, this is taking place without any significant parliamentary opposition to these measures – indeed, (due in part to an irrational electoral law), for the first time in the history of the Republic (1948-?), since the 2008 elections the left (green, socialist, social-democratic or post-communist) is not represented in the parliament – which means that any institutional resistance is now in the hands of the newly constituted (and very moderate) “Democratic Party”.
Meanwhile, the latest polls show that the popularity of the Berlusconi III government (and of Berlusconi himself as premier) is growing to levels (more than 60%) never touched by his predecessor Romano Prodi, nor by any recent government in Italy.
The question looming over critical observers of the punitive turn in Italy is not new: “democracy at work” or “authoritarian populism”?