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If black lives matter, end the War on Crime

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | December 8, 2014

From the perspective of tens of thousands of protesters around the nation this week, the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island reflected an unfathomable decision by white police officers to kill unarmed black men engaged in trivial criminal (if any) behavior. To thousands of police officers (and their families), these deaths fit in a different narrative, one where very large and powerful men responded to lawful police efforts to complete a stop (in Brown’s case) or an arrest (in Garner’s) with violent resistance.

From the first perspective, these are cases of outright murder, and the failure of grand jurors in Missouri and New York to indict them, evidence of clear racism. From the second perspective, these cases are work accidents, tragedies that might have been avoided with better technique but hardly felonies.

The gulf seems wide indeed. No wonder President Obama and Mayor Bill DeBlasio wring their hands, utter somber statements about bridging the gap between police and community, and suggest more training. But the gap between police and the black community has always been wide (it’s ironic that yesterday was the 45th anniversary of the execution-style police killing of Chicago civil rights leader and Black Panther Fred Hampton in 1969 — an event that made this then-10-year-old wannabe political activist permanently afraid of the police), and today’s police have never been better trained and equipped (especially the much vaunted NYPD).

The problem, I believe, is not the people or the police, it’s the political “war on crime” that simultaneously valorizes cops as warriors in an existential struggle with violent crime and compels them to engage in a necessarily brutal campaign to clear the streets of those widely perceived — not just by police but by the majority culture and their politicians — as a threat to public safety, i.e., young men of color.

The war on crime may be a metaphor, but as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Metaphors We Live By) taught us long ago, metaphors are a political DNA that reorganize institutions and lives. Wars are about three things: territory, populations, and security.

The goal in war is to dominate a territory by eliminating or repressing resistance, pacifying the population, and establishing a regime of security that maintains both states of affairs (just pay some attention to the Israel/Palestine conflict if you need a refresher on what that looks like in its explicit form).

America’s war on crime, declared by top political leaders of both parties in the face of the high violent crime rates, and political polarization of the 1960s (see chapters 1 and 2 of my book, Governing through Crime), has made local police forces the front-line troops of a relentless campaign to clear urban areas of those perceived to be a threat to public safety. Whether dubbed “STRESS” (as it was in Detroit in the 1970s), “Broken Windows” (the 1980s) or “Zero Tolerance” policing (1990s), this war strategy has required police officers (sometimes with powerful workplace disciplinary techniques) to confront young men of color on a daily basis, and to use the opportunity of minor criminal violations to both clear the streets of them and create a security regime in which they choose to avoid public spaces.

This war on crime descended on American policing at a moment when it was only beginning to address the culture of ethnic and racial hierarchy that dominated mid-20th century police forces, leaving much of this culture intact and carrying it over into the greatly expanded (and much more diverse) forces of the 21st century.

If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s time to stop focusing on individual cops like Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo and whether or not they get indicted (does anyone here in Oakland really feel that much better because Oscar Grant’s killer was prosecuted, convicted, and went to prison?).

Instead we need to place responsibility at the top, where leaders in the White House, Governor’s mansions and Mayor’s offices have glorified the war on crime as a patriotic American mission. It’s time President Obama and other leaders to come forward and formally declare this war over. The damage it is has done to our society through mass incarceration, militarized policing, and wartime judicial retreats on human rights is already immense.

Just as important, the context has changed enormously. Violent crime is down to historic lows (and neither prisons or policing have made more than a partial contribution to that) and many of the sociological processes that drove high crime in the period 1965-1995 (deindustrialization, suburbanization, mass addiction to novel drugs) have run their course. As Bill DeBlasio’s campaign for mayor demonstrated, voters today are increasingly repelled by the war on crime and believe that the city and nation face other challenges.

A formal declaration of an end to the war on crime should include several key elements:

1. Recognition that the war on crime was an undeclared state of emergency that severely comprised the legal and political rights of Americans.

2. Instruction to law enforcement agencies that this state of emergency is over and they are to return to maximum fidelity to the principles of our constitution including respect for the dignity, liberty, and equality of every person.

3. Creation of new human-rights agencies to enforce point 2 and to identify the steps necessary to remediate point 1.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

Comments to “If black lives matter, end the War on Crime

  1. What a Crock. What is needed is to end the war on our values. In others words, lets return to valueing the family unit. Let’s return to honoring our law enforcement officers, rather than throwing them under the bus every time the execution of their duties results in a less than perfect outcome. Let’s teach our children right from wrong, make baby daddys stay with their children and become real fathers to them. These actions will result in a lower crime rate eventually, which will reduce the number of incidents like Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

    Many of the premises in this post are complete nonsense. Suburbanization drove crime rates? Are you kidding? Maybe you should study the history of Detroit and the term “White Flight”. Suburbanization did not drive the crime rate there. The crime rate drove suburbanization.

    The war on crime is not a “relentless campaign to clear urban areas of those PERCEIVED to be a threat to public safety”. It is the pursuit of those who HAVE committed crimes. The professors definition would lead us to believe that all cops are harrassing anyone they believe might turn out to be a criminal, and are all racially profiling.

    I continue to be appalled by the drivel nonsense being spewed by the professors at my Alma Mater.

    • I agree that we should stop the war on our values, which means reforming the criminal justice system so that it uses fairer procedures, closer to the ones the Framers envisioned:

      1. Overrule or limit Bordenkircher v. Hayes, which allows prosecutors to bully defendants into plea bargains.

      2. Apply stricter rules of evidence in sentencing proceedings and require that all uncharged “real offense” conduct be either admitted or proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt

      3. Greatly reduce the number of crimes, so that prosecutors cannot manipulate the charges to coerce questionable plea bargains.

      4. Ban appellate waivers beyond the effect of a guilty plea.

      5. Restructure the “acceptance of responsibility” and “substantial assistance” guidelines so that courts can rein in the informer-driven plea bargains (no informer had a long career as such correcting the government’s version of the facts).

      6. Allow grand juries, by explicit instruction, to refuse to return an indictment in cases of minor technical violations of criminal statutes, or in federal court refuse to return an indictment when there is no proof that the defendant himself engaged in interstate commerce (such as in drug possession cases).

  2. Here is how you avoid being shot by a policeman:

    1. Don’t rob a store and manhandle the owner – he will call the cops.
    2. Don’t walk down the middle of the street blocking traffic.
    3. Don’t disobey when a policeman tells you to get out of the middle of the street and stop blocking traffic.
    4. Don’t grab the policeman’s gun when he starts to get out of his car.
    5. Don’t run when the policeman tells you to stop.
    6. Don’t charge the policeman football style after doing all of the above.

    Is this so hard to understand?

  3. This is an ivory tower argument. Nothing about racial prejudice is unique to the ‘war on crime’ or ‘state of emergency.’ People have been racist way before anything the Bush administration did. Rodney King ring a bell?

    Listen to the streets, not some academic hooplah that most people don’t care about.

    • What we needed, 200 years ago and today is a NEW CONSTITUTION, with a proper due process article, with a clause network, which enacts superior review, for anti-ethical and criminal misconduct behaviors, to ground all criminal review, OR ALL REVIEW AND COURTS ARE UNDERMINED, which is why the pigs think they can kill, as soon as their gun crime makes material witnesses problematic, or hey, let’s just admit there is a war, on law and order, which is making race, into war media.

  4. I have been there at ground zero. None of the above incidents were the result of a person minding their own business walking down the street lawfully and then all of a sudden a white officer stops a black man. None.

    All of the cases the officer had justification to stop the person and have them stop the illegal activity or place them into custody.

    Most of those who babble about this war, such as this “professor” from Bezerkeley, have not been in the trenches or been a victim. Which is hard to believe if the professor actually lives in Berkeley because the Felony crime rate is outrageous. Think about that parents before you send your young impressionable kids off to school at UCB. Love the school, but the liberalism and crime rate is horrendous.

    Most law abiding citizens when stopped by an officer do as asked and proceed without a problem. Strange that those who break the law don’t find it necessary to follow the law or listen the commands of the officer. I wonder where they learned that ????

    The officer in in Oscar Grant’s killing clearly made a mistake using the wrong tool. It was not an execution as so many of the libs might think. Who in their right mind would think that they could get away with this kind of act ? Be real. the outcome for the officer would have been the same if the suspect would have been white and had been killed.

    This war on crime certainly has not helped the 420 mostly black deaths in Chicago. An area our esteemed president come from but do you hear Mr. Obama or any of the Rev’s making a fuss up there ? While ever life is important, it would seem that you would get more for your money if you tried to stem the tide of 400 deaths than just one. Why no marching in Chicago ? Why no outrage at that number of deaths ? No money in it for you guys ?

    While we should always monitor police and their use of force to ensure they do not get out of hand as “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”, I would think that more energy should be focused around the country on the larger numbers of deaths. Again more bang for you buck. Is this not what we really want ? Less death ?

    Mr. professor, you might want to do a little more research into the crime statistics, where they come from, and how they are reported. And how do you collect statistics on non reported crime.

    Or is it better for your little minion students to block the highways of the East Bay and destroy other people’s property just because they can. You are not making friends for your cause.

    How about we figure out how to bring the country together rather than divide it. Thought Mr. Obama promised that but he has done the exact opposite. Let’s hope our next leader does a better job. One country, one people.

  5. Actually, the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, protests against the affirmative action ban the 1990s, and the campaign for affordable education in the 2000s were all started and mediated by students (and in the case of the FSM, professors as well). Therefore, it is wrong to say that “off-campus instigators” incite students to protest. It is certainly true that some members of the surrounding community have escalated certain protests, drawing conflict with law enforcement — which seems to have been the case in recent protests over the failure of officers to be indicted in NY and Cleveland–but it is likely that some students were involved as well.

  6. Reducto ad absurdum — the professor is presenting an argument where he assumes a claim, arrives at an absurd result, and then concludes the original assumption must have been wrong since it gives an absurd result.

    Instead, a wider “frame” view would recognize that any “war” must be properly executed with appropriate strategies and tactics … e.g. don’t present an argument that it is wrong to use a stick of dynamite to kill a mosquito and go on to the extreme and posit “End the war on mosquitoes” because dynamite is too destructive!

    The “War on Crime” frame in these recent cases in fact needs to be widened — isn’t it painfully obvious that several crimes were committed in NYC by city employees on paid duty milling around for 5+ minutes failing to even attempt to resuscitate Eric Garner? Aren’t city employees on paid duty compelled by law to render emergency medical assistance when the situation demands it?!

  7. So the low crime rates that NYC now enjoys have come about IN SPITE of efforts of law enforcement agencies and are not BECAUSE of efforts of law enforcement agencies? If all the members of all the law enforcement agencies in NYC were to march in unison out of the city, NYC would become the world’s largest killing ground in about 2 months time.

    You have not stumbled into utopia, you simply have the world’s most successful police state.

  8. Racism, it appears to be used and thrown about with free abandonment by black people who have been taught from an early age that they are victims. They have been victimized by there own race and they don’t even know it. That is the saddest part of this race debacle called racism.

    Berkley has always been radical since the ’60s. Off campus instigators generally are able to incite on campus students to participate in radical movements. They may not even know what the protest are about, they’re just part of the crowd going along for the excitement.

    The problem with culture crime is the culture where it resides. The family element is missing along with the morals, which keeps civilness upright. There is no responsibility for any actions they do; there is however, encouragement for bad behavior backed up by parent/parents and people like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Lou Farrakhon who exacerbates the problems along with the medias that enjoy the ratings. The culture is being held captive.

    The facts are all in the felony files of the justice depts. As long as the culture continues the behavior and those peoples that incite and manipulate, the diversity will continue.

    As a quoted proverb says, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Dr. Martin Luther King lead the people but the people didn’t accept or possibly understand what it was all about.

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