Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Leave No Crime Victim Votes Behind: Willy Horton's Shadow

Anyone who believes that crime and the fear of crime no longer "rules" American society and politics, better keep your eye on the "change" candidate, and what stays the same. The Supreme Court, by a one vote 5-4 majority, maintained a thirty-one year old barrier against expanding the death penalty to crimes where the victim is not killed. The decision, Kennedy v. Louisiana, overturned laws in several states that make capital punishment an option for the rape of a child. Among its first critics were state legislators in several states that have expanded capital punishment to child rape, and Democratic Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama (read the Washington Post coverage of Obama's statement). That's right, Obama, who saw Illinois fatally flawed death penalty up close, thinks murder is just too narrow a category for this worthy exercise of popular sovereignty. Here are the candidates words hot from the pander:

"I have said repeatedly I think the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances, for the most egregious of crimes," said the Illinois senator, speaking to reporters at a hometown press conference. But he added, "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well defined circumstances, the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that does not violate our Constitution."

I'm still voting for Barack, but let's be clear, no part of our political system has been more transformed by the malignant war on crime than the office of president. No contemporary president will lead us out of the valley of governing through crime. Only a popular uprising against this flawed model of governance will lead Barack Obama or John McCain down the path they both know is correct (McCain knows a little something about the flaws of punishment).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Explaining the Dem's Collapse on Surveillance Bill: The Law of Fear

As Dan Eggen and Paul Kane reported in yesterday's Washington Post, Democrats have handed Bush yet another victory in legitimating his approach to the war on terror.

House and Senate leaders agreed yesterday on surveillance legislation that could shield telecommunications companies from privacy lawsuits, handing President Bush one of the last major legislative victories he is likely to achieve.

The agreement extends the government's ability to eavesdrop on espionage and terrorism suspects while effectively providing a legal escape hatch for AT&T, Verizon Communications and other telecom firms. They face more than 40 lawsuits that allege they violated customers' privacy rights by helping the government conduct a warrantless spying program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

How can this be? The President is down to his historic low of 26% approval rating. The Supreme Court has just handed the administration its fourth or fifth consecutive loss concerning the Guantanamo side of its war on terror. Barack Obama has won the right to his party's nomination in August by speaking out forcefully against being "governed by fear" and has managed to move ahead by 15 points over McCain the latest Newsweek poll.

So what is it?

1) The Dems are constitutionally spineless

2) They can't stand to jinx their good luck

3) They really believe an inspector general and one more "report" will deter future Presidents from ordering major corporations to betray their custormers (and having them comply).

Sadly, I conclude, its none of the above, but something worst because even harder to change. Its a continuation of the pattern laid down during the 40 year long war on crime. As I explain in chapter 3 of the book version of Governing through Crime, law makers have long come to understand themselves as representing above all crime victims, who as the idealized citizen subjects of our time define the governable interests of the people. As demonstrated in decades of biannual crime bills, Congress in this mode cannot resist the aggressive exertions of the executive so long as they are directed to protecting the people as crime victims against those motivated wrongdoers who seek to victimize them.

While the Bush administration has cynically exploited the idea that the war on terror is not about crime control to confuse the public, they have actually extended the exact same logic as executives of both parties have during the war on crime. So long as we act in the name of preventing violent victimization of the innocent, we can trample on the liberties of the people and any resistance in the name of freedom is simply identification with the wrongdoers.

The other common theme is the ability of the executive to represent judicial functions (the lawsuits here, the criminal trials of the war on crime) as creating conditions that expose Americans to more risk of violence.

If there is hope (and a logic to Barack deciding not to fight this from the floor of the Senate), it lies in the ability of an executive to help break up this circuit of power. As President, Barack Obama could directly terminate this cycle of declining freedom and begin to a agenda of governing that help break Congress out of its representational dead end as the brainless ciphers of crime victims

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Thats what they called the four most right wing justices of the Supreme Court during the depths of the Great Depression who continued to overturn FDR's economic recovery measures with the help of the swing voter, Justice Roberts. Today's four hard right justices, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, deserve that appellation fully after signing onto Justice Scalia's intemperate dissent in yesterday's 5-4 Guantanamo decision BOUMEDIENE v. BUSH. The difference today is that Justice Kennedy, facing no FDR, has proved himself to have a stronger internal rudder of morality and justice.

Justice Scalia, nakedly invoking the murder victim identity that stands at the heart of governing through crime in America, depicts the five majority Justices as direct threats to the biological survival of their fellow citizens.

On September 11, 2001, the enemy brought the battle to American soil, killing 2,749 at the Twin Towers in New York City, 184 at the Pentagon in Washington, D. C., and 40 in Pennsylvania. See id., at 552, n. 9. It has threatened further attacks against our homeland; one need only walk about buttressed and barricaded Washington, or board a plane anywhere in the country, to know that the threat is a serious one. Our Armed Forces are now in the field against the enemy, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last week, 13 of our countrymen in arms were killed.

The game of bait-and-switch that today’s opinion plays upon the Nation’s Commander in Chief will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

After the Hype: Oakland Homicides Drop

Despite a year of increasingly alarmist talk about violent crime in the Bay Area, and in Oakland in particular, the FBI's latest homicide report shows Bay Area homicides down, led by Oakland which experienced a 19 percent drop from 145 homicides in 2006, to 118 homicides this year (read the AP Story). A series of high profile armed robberies has placed Bay Area politicians under pressure to engage in expensive and dramatic gestures against crime. Fortunately the major cities in the area are led by mayors and police chiefs who seemed ready to move beyond the failed tactics of the war on crime, but they have been under extraordinary pressure from an increasingly vigilante oriented media. May be the new numbers will give them the breathing room they need to introduce innovative alternatives.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Contemptuous Law?

The San Francisco Chronicle in an editorial this morning labels as "contemptuous law" California's law that allows a victim of domestic violence who refuses to testify against her abuser to be prosecuted.

It's hard to believe, but there it is, codified into California law: Should the plaintiff in a domestic violence case decide that he or she does not want to testify against the defendant, that plaintiff can be held in contempt of court - and incarcerated.

To put it more simply, someone who's already suffered domestic violence can be tossed into jail for refusing to testify against his or her batterer. The idea is mind-boggling - the state can use another form of mind control against someone who is already struggling to be free of violation and manipulation. Why in the world do we allow this?

There's absolutely no reason why we should, and that's why it's critical for the state Assembly's Public Safety Committee to pass SB1356 today, and send the bill on for a full vote on the floor. SB1356 has already passed the Senate, where author Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, was able to advocate for it. But it appears that opposition from the District Attorneys Association may stall it in the Assembly.

Its hard to believe that we codified such a harsh principal into law, only if you ignore the four decade long war on crime that has transformed almost every feature of our democracy. As a major element of this war, prosecutors have assumed enormous power in our criminal justice system and executives at all levels have claimed more unilateral power. Usually they do so in the name of the victim but only those victims who support their demands for security and harsh justice.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Young, Black, Male, and Ready to Govern through Crime

Carolyn Marshall of the The New York Times reports in the paper today about the bitter run-off campaign for Mayor of Sacramento (the low self esteem state capital of California). The race between former NBA start Kevin Johnson (an African American man brand new to politics) and the incumbent Heather Fargo (a white woman with a career of public service) which ended in a run off after California's primary last week has garnered national attention (not least because of its odd similarity to the Democratic nomination fight that just ended).

Less remarked upon in the national press is the fact that Johnson has made crime, and the need for a more aggressive law enforcement approach to it, a centerpiece of his campaign.

As reported last month in the Sacramento Bee:

To hear Kevin Johnson tell it, Sacramento is a violent place.

Mayor Heather Fargo's main challenger in the June 3 election has made public safety a primary focus of his campaign. He says Fargo is "out of touch" with the increasingly dangerous reality of life here. He has pledged to tap federal and state funds to put additional cops on the street.

"You're as likely to get murdered on the streets of Sacramento as the streets of L.A.; that doesn't sit well with people," Johnson said.

Fargo accuses Johnson of "fear mongering" to boost his mayoral bid. She says the city is employing groundbreaking methods to reduce crime and is doing everything within its power – and its budget – to address the issue.

"I'm not saying we don't have problems, but I don't think it's the job of the mayor to make people feel unsafe in their city," Fargo said Wednesday. "I want people to feel good about where they live."

Johnson said he decided to focus on crime after talking to residents in the weeks before he entered the mayor's race.

"I was out talking to people in the community, and that was their top concern," he said. "It was an issue that came up over and over and over again."

A poll conducted for The Bee and KXJZ News earlier this month confirmed that public safety is on voters' minds. It edged out the economy, the city budget, traffic and growth as the top concern of those polled.

Those who would view the war on crime as largely a reflection of white anxiety about race need to develop a theory of why successful Black politicians also govern through crime (think Michael Nutter in Philly or Ray Nagin in New Orleans).

Friday, June 6, 2008


As noted in my last post, there is something deeply intuitive about the analogies drawn back and forth between animal predators and crime. Both invoke primal fears and strong responses that may have their origins in evolution.

In today's SFChron, columnist C.W.Nevius, who is usually writing about the need to get tough with the homeless and petty criminals, shares some worthy observations about how to handle the coyotes that are moving into some SF neighborhoods. Seeking to prevent human (and dog) encounters with the small wild predators, park officials have put up warning signs (torn down by some misguided persons) and closed off certain trails to humans and dogs. In response to several instances of aggressive coyotes crossing into nearby yards, hunters have been hired to kill the offending creatures.

Nevius points out that discouraging more human and dog activity in the areas now being ceded to the coyotes is a self defeating strategy:

In an attempt to cut down on coyote contact with humans and pets, the Presidio has closed many trails and some roads to dogs. Local residents, who may have moved to the neighborhood because they liked the idea of walking their house pets in the park, can only look glumly at the roped-off areas where they can no longer go.

"The coyotes won," one resident said. "We let them in, and now they've won."

The same logic does apply to crime. The more you can encourage law abiding people to assertively occupy the public streets, the less crime (and more importantly, fear of crime) there is. Strategies to encourage the public may mean more police, but that is an expensive solution. Subsidizing development, creating attractive parks and boulevards are all things we can do to fight crime that do not end up wasting resources in prisons and which we can all enjoy.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


It was the summer of 1975. I was a 16 year old pacing the steets of Hyde Park, on Chicago's south side. Crime rates had been high for a decade, and reports of violence (including police violence) were everywhere. But what scared me that summer 33 years ago was a finned predator attacking a Cape Code beach town in the mother of all block buster summer movies, Jaws. Crime couldn't stop me from walking the darkened streets of the neighborhood with my small dog in hopes of running into one of the girls in my class, but that imaginary great white kept me out of fresh water Lake Michigan (or from enjoying it when pursuit of those same girls required getting wet).

Reponses in the Mexican village of Ixtapa to a series of shark attacks this late spring, recall that movie, and remind us how primal and powerful that predator fear is in humans. As reported by Marc Lacey in the New York Times:

After the first attack, officials eased normally tight restrictions on shark fishing and sent an armada of fishermen out into the ocean to strike back. A number of sharks were brought back and hung as trophies, an effort to send a signal that the crisis was under control.

As a means of reducing shark attack risk, these measures are unlikely to work well and may actually increase fear of shark attacks, but they appear to mimic our response to violent crime (or is it in fact the original). Like the crime control response to the threat of violent crime, they have a powerful intuitive appeal. While it drives criminologists and apparently shark experts crazy, such responses seem to be repetitively embraced by humans facing the specter of a violent predatory attack (and not say a hurricane or a cancer).

Whether or not such responses have deep roots in our evolutionary heritage as the offspring of ancient relatives who got good at avoiding large predators they are clearly dysfunctional in their effects on crime rates or shark attacks. The key is to become conscious of the powerful appeals of these primal response and if possible develop tactics for slowing and moderating our irrational desire to attack tough and display the results.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"you don't deserve... another election that's governed by fear"

That's what Senator Obama said tonight in his speech observing his clinching of the 2008 Democratic Nomination in Minnesota. Hinting at the way in which the tactics of governing through crime have been present in electoral politics (at all levels of government), the presumptive Democrat nominee stated,

The other side will come here in September and offer a very different set of
policies and positions, and that is a good thing, that is a debate I look
forward to.
It is a debate the American people deserve on the
issues that will help determine the future of this country and the future of its
But what you don't deserve is another election that's
governed by fear, and innuendo, and division.
What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is
the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon
- that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to

Senator Obama also mentioned his work to reform criminal justice in Illinois, whose "criminal justice system... sent 13 innocent people to death row." Finally, he also emphasized unifying America into a people "united by common challenges and common hopes" rather than bifurcated by fear.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Take that Smokey!

Gun rights and gun control advocates are pretty competitive in their endless battle to keep scaring the wits out of Americans about crime. Score one for the NRA as they lobby Congress to allow National Park visitors to pack fire arms (along with their mosquito spray). According to Jim Robbins reporting in the NYTimes, the NRA claims that lifting the ban is necessary because:

“You read stories about people attacked by animals or who stumble upon meth labs or women who are raped in a national park.”