The Disposability of “Violent Criminals”
Crime is an issue that gets a lot of attention on local corporate news media, and from politicians, particularly on election years. The declaration of the War on Drugs in the early 1970’s ushered in the use of rhetoric that deployed seemingly race neutral policy discourse to advance racist policy objectives. For instance, drug use and distribution was heavily criminalized and Black communities were targeted by law enforcement using the caricature of the violent Black drug dealer as the justification for disproportionate police presence in Black communities. Unfortunately, the War on Drugs agenda was supported by Democrats, including Black elected officials. Congressman Bobby Rush during the 2016 presidential election, apologized on national television for voting for policies early on in his career that exacerbated mass incarceration. The willingness of Black elected officials to support these kinds of policies illuminates the way in which poor and working class Black people are deemed disposable.
Many of the most visible images and representations of poor and working class Black people are mired in pathology. The internalization of notions of Black inferiority among Black people make us particularly susceptible to seeing our own people as subhuman. There is a well documented dynamic amongst Black people where the solution to violent behavior amongst Black people is to do more political, social and economic violence. The most politically salient proposals to address violence amongst Black people usually involve tougher punishment and public shaming. Black people who engage in violent behavior are often represented as heartless savages who need to be quarantined from civilized society. Sylvia Wynter in an article she wrote called “No Humans Involved” describes how the Los Angeles Police Department would describe an incident that involved a breach of young Black men’s rights as “No Human Involved.” She goes on to describe the anti-Black male mythologies that serve the purpose of justifying the racist violence against Black people at the hand of police.
Over the past 15 years or so, there has been a growing acknowledgement of the damage that has been done by the war on drugs. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” has become a widely read and cited text that provides very important context for the impact that the war on drugs has had on Black people. She describes the fight against mass incarceration as the Civil Rights issue of our time. In her book she highlights the ways in which the Black political class in the 1980’s and 90’s would strongly advocate on racial issues that are most beneficial to middle class Black people. Issues related to things like affirmative action and Black people’s admissions to prestigious white universities were the kinds of political fights that Black elected officials took on. In many ways this can be understood as a set of political fights that are more palatable to white society than trying to help people who are perceived as dangerous drug dealers that are prone to violence. What is clear is that tailoring our political advocacy to our sense of what is palatable to white society has resulted in the destruction of the lives of millions of Black people through the policies of the war on drug, mass incarceration and police brutality.
The growing acknowledgment of the impact of mass incarceration has had a meaningful impact on the political landscape. Democrats and Republicans have initiated efforts directed at pursuing criminal justice reform. In 2015, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which was legislation that was aimed at reducing the prison population in Maryland. This bill is understood by many as maryland’s attempt at bi-partisan criminal justice reform. The language that has been fettered all throughout the conversation on criminal justice reform is “non-violent drug offenders.” The focus on decriminalizing drug use has been good for attaining some helpful remedies for those who were criminalized merely for being causal drug users or for being addicted to drugs. While this is helpful in addressing some of the damage that has been done to Black people due to the war on drugs, some advocates and politicians have used their support of these measures (which is now politically safe to do) to justify bad policy in other context, particularly as it relates to the high rate of homicides that occur in the Black community.
The emphasis on non-violent drug offenses has created an environment where people engaged in “violent crime” have all the most pathological and racist caricatures projected onto them. Unfortunately, many of the policy makers who will endeavor to legislate solutions to gun violence have very little familiarity with the social and cultural dynamics that create the high rates of homicides. These legislators are likely to create policies that will make things worse. Later on I will provide some policy recommendations that will actually address homicide in the Black community, but there is some context that is important to set before delving into those policy recommendations.
One of the most disgusting aspects of the political conversation about gun violence and homicide is that this becomes a hot button issues as a matter of political convenience, not as a genuine concern for human life. In 2017 the mayor of Baltimore and the City Council passed a piece of so-called gun violence legislation. It was initially a bill that would create a new 1 year mandatory minimum sentence for people who possessed an illegal firearm in public. There was a lot of pushback from advocacy organizations that forced the council to amend this bill so that the 1 year mandatory minimum would apply to a person using an illegal firearm in the commission of a violent crime. This was a victory for community activists in the sense that mere possession wouldn’t trigger a mandatory minimum. What is even more interesting is that Maryland state law already had a law on the books that made the use of an illegal firearm in the commission of a violent crime a 5 year mandatory minimum. This means that the amended bill went in the opposite direction of what its proponents were pushing for. What is clear in this situation is that this council legislation was merely a PR move designed to give the appearance of being tough on crime, without actually doing anything that would address the issue.
Prior to the 2018 General Assembly, Maryland State Senator Bobby Zirkin convened a hearing in Annapolis (Maryland’s state capital) to talk about solutions to violence in Baltimore. Sen. Zirkin represents a majority white suburban community in Baltimore County and has no previous track record of involving himself in grassroots anti-violence efforts in Baltimore City. Zirkin then sponsored the so-called “Comprehensive Crime Bill of 2018” which included enhanced sentences for violent gun offenses. To a person who is uninformed about the nature of violence in our communities, Zirkin’s approach seemed reasonable. There are some important things to understand about what is actually happening in poor and working class Black communities that will illustrate why Sen. Zirkin’s approach was so problematic.
Black people in poor and working class communities do not want violence in their community. Black people in Sandtown, or Park Heights, or Belair-Edison are not born with an inherent desire to kill people. There are people who are merely trying to survive in a society organized to negate their humanity. Young people are attending schools in which most adults would not willingly spend one hour. Black people are being targeted, harassed and brutalized by police officers. Black people are being trafficked, sexually abused and without access to necessary services to address the harm that is being done to them. These are the kinds of things that a community experiences when they are marginalized and oppressed. What I want to be clear about is that these conditions are not an excuse for anyone taking someone’s life. Identifying these conditions are just important in helping to humanize the people who are the subjects of policies that are suppose to be designed to reduce violence.
The policy response to violence has been to increase investment in policing and to impose tougher sentences on those convicted of violent crime. Over the past 40 years there have been billions of dollars invested in law enforcement, while simultaneously establishing tougher sentences for violent crime. Rates of homicide has gone up and down over the past 40 years, demonstrating that investments in law enforcement and tougher sentences does not equal lower rates of violence. Last year, Baltimore City allocated $500 Million in public safety, and the Maryland General Assembly passed a piece of legislation in 2018 enhancing sentences on gun crimes. Even though many elected officials will profess to be enlightened on the limitation of over policing and mass incarceration in making communities safer, this is the approach that remain the go to policies today.
If you are a person that truly understands the nature of how gun violence happens in poor and working class Black communities you know a few things. First, you know that there are many shootings that are the result of misunderstanding between people who have not been provided with effective alternatives to resolving their conflicts. Generally, police officers are not trusted in the community amongst those proximate to gun violence (and for good reason). This means that they do not have the ability to be effective at preventing these kinds of shootings. There are programs like Safe Streets in Baltimore that employs people who were former participants in violent activity and trains them to be violence interrupters who can stop shooting incidents before they even happen.
Most of the homicides are perpetrated by a small group of people. These people are usually referred to as “repeat violent offenders.” The question that should be raised in light of this is that if there is only a small group of people who are perpetrating a majority of the violent crime, why can’t the police get to them and arrest them? There are politicians and prosecutors who would have you believe that the problem is that prosecutors need “more tools” to prosecute those who commit homicide. This is an attempt to obfuscate the actual problem here which is the level of corruption and incompetence of the police department. The Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) was a unit within the police department that was engaged in selling drugs, stealing drugs, robbing people, planting contraband and many other things that caused harm to the community. Even though the revelations that came through the trial of the officers who participated in the GTTF was news to some people, many people in the community already knew that police officers were engaged in these crimes. What sense does it make to expect a person to call the police to help put a person who murdered someone behind bars if the police themselves engage in criminal behavior?
Some police officers say that it is impossible to get witnesses to testify against perpetrators of homicide because they fear for their safety. This is a reasonable concern, and if I would ever have to pick an area to allocate more money regarding law enforcement, I would allocate money to more robust and effective witness protection. This will allow people to testify against those handful of people who are committing homicide. This is something that I have suggested to legislators as an area of policy to advocate for, but many of them have said to me that this is not a viable demand. We should ask ourselves the question why investing in more police officers and putting more people in jail are solutions that are politically viable, but investing in witness protection for those who would help the police and state’s attorney address homicide in a meaningful way is not political viable.
If police officers are not able to get witnesses to testify against perpetrators of homicide, then what good is it to invest more money into law enforcement, or to impose tougher sentences on people convicted of violent crime? The combination of corrupt police officers within a police force that has no accountability to the community, the lack of sufficient resources to provide support for conflict resolution, and the ineffectiveness of tough sentences from deterring violent crime create a context where the approach of investing money into law enforcement and enhancing sentences for the those convicted of violent crime is asinine.
The harm that is done by imposing enhanced sentences is that it makes those people in neighborhoods that experience high levels of violence, who have illegal firearms to protect themselves more susceptible to spending time in jail. For all of the reasons mentioned above, the police department will not be able to put those who are the drivers of homicide behind bars, but will instead lock up people who are merely trying to protect themselves. The tough on crime approach does not get the people who are the drivers of homicide, but will scoop up those who are in proximity to environments where people have guns. This will lead to throwing people in jail that would be better served by having access to supportive services and opportunity, while leaving intact that small handful of people who are the drivers of violent crime. This approach may drive down numbers temporarily, but the people who are swept into the prison system will come out more prone to violence and will ultimately make the community less safe. In Baltimore over the past 10 years we have had ebbs and flows in the homicide rate in this city. The over policing approach is good for helping to sure up people’s political careers (ie Martin O’Malley) but it does not actually change the fundamental dynamics that lead to homicide.
Let’s be very clear. There have been many studies that have looked at the ineffectiveness of sentence enhancements for gun crimes on crime reduction. Particularly the extent to which increase sentences deter violent crime. Most studies have concluded that sentence enhancements do not have any meaningful impact on reducing crime. In fact, the one study conducted in 2010 by David Abrams of the University of Pennsylvania Law School that makes the case for sentence enhancements as a policy solution to gun violence, only found decreases in gun violence of only 5% over a 3 year period. The National Institute of Justice has published studies that have determined a few things that completely debunk the idea that sentence enhancements deter violent crime. Their study found that the certainty of getting caught is a more powerful deterrent to gun crimes than increasing the punishment. It also found that the severity of the punishment does little to deter crime. In the comprehensive crime bill of 2018 the proponents of this bill would talk about the importance of sentence enhancements in order to go after repeat offenders. The problem with this approach is that enhancing sentences has nothing to do with a prosecutor’s ability to get a conviction. If a person has been convicted of multiple gun crimes, that says more about the incompetence of the police department than it does the actual punishment levied upon conviction of a gun crime. There are already existing 5 year mandatory minimums sentences in Maryland for the use of a firearm in commission of a violent crime. Given all of the information that we have about the ineffectiveness of the tough on crime approach to addressing violence, in addition to the harm that these policies have done to a generation of Black people make the idea of a comprehensive crime bill that features sentence enhancements for gun crimes an exercise in racist public policy.
It seems abundantly clear to me that the nature of the policy response from mainstream political institutions and the Democratic Leadership in Maryland to the issue of gun violence and homicide in the Black community is mired in racism. On March 9th 2018 the Daily Record quoted the executive director of Goodwill Industries Chesapeake region as saying “I have employees who are afraid to come to work and don’t want to work downtown anymore.” What drove the impetus behind the 2018 Crime Bill in the Maryland General Assembly were white corporate interest (ie the Greater Baltimore Committee) and their base who feel unsafe. This base that has internalized the racist caricatures of Black people to support policies that have dehumanized Black people, those policies being tougher sentences and more money in a corrupt and unaccountable police department.
Policy solutions to the issue of homicide in the Black community are as follows:
- Significantly increase investment in community based anti-violence programs and initiatives.
- Develop robust mechanisms of community oversight of the police department.
- Significantly increase investment in witness protection services.
These recommendation seem fairly uncontroversial on its face. This begs the question why these policies are so politically difficult to achieve. The reason is simple, these solutions require investment in and giving power to poor and working class Black people. One of the ways that racism shows up in our society are the ways that notions of Black inferiority animate our collective consciousness. The pathological representations of Black people that are seared into the American mind facilitate a dynamic where Black people are understood as problems to be fixed, instead of being the solution to our own problems.
To support community based anti-violence programs would mean investing in poor and working class Black people. Even when the Greater Baltimore Committee decided that it wanted to support anti-violence programs, it sought out an organization called ROCA, lead by a white woman out of Massachusetts instead of supporting the effort of scaling up the infrastructure of Black led community based anti-violence programs. Put more simply, the political establishment can not bring themselves to invest in Black people to solve our own problems. The development of community oversight of law enforcement would give poor and working class Black people power over the police department. There is not a single utterance from a representative of the political establishment about the importance of giving the community power over the police department as the solution to the problem of police corruption.
The high rates of homicide in the Black community are the outgrowth of what Amos Wilson once said is the “externalization of a suicidal impulse.” Black people have internalized societal notions of white supremacy that have bombarded us with images and representations of Black people as criminals, savages, stupid, and sub-human (hence “No Humans Involved). If Black people in poor and working class communities don’t love themselves because society tells them that they are worthless, then they are likely to perceive the life of those like them as having no value and worthy of death. In spite of this, there are many Black people in these communities that have a strong knowledge of ourselves and have the ability to reach our people who are killing each other. What is missing is investment in the smaller initiatives that are already working in our community and scaling them up to have a larger impact. If you are serious about addressing the problem of homicide in the Black community, advocate for what I have said above and invest in Black people. If you support tougher penalties, giving more money to the police department, and oppose community oversight of the police department, then you are a proponent of white supremacy.