Episode 142: The Summer of Anti-BLM Backlash and How Concepts of “Crime” Were Shaped By the Propertied Class
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: Yes, we are excited to get back. We’re taking a short summer break, which is something that we have to do to maintain our creative juices and our work-life balance, which — believe it or not — this is work, it’s a lot of work. So we appreciate you coming back. We’re coming back in September. We can’t thank you enough for another great season, season four. We’re very humble and very thankful for the listeners and people who can and do support us on Patreon. Without that support, obviously there’s no show. So on behalf of the whole Citations team, we are very very grateful for your support from both patrons and listeners, it makes the show possible and gives us an opportunity to live normal functioning semi-healthy lives. So we really do appreciate that and we very much look forward to a strong season five. We are going to open up with some serious bangers, so definitely looking forward to coming back in September.
Nima: “Concerns rising inside White House over surge in violent crime,” says CNN. “America’s Crime Surge: Why Violence Is Rising, And Solutions To Fix It,” proclaims NPR. “Officials worry the rise in violent crime portends a bloody summer,” reports the Washington Post.
Adam: Over and over this summer we have heard — and will no doubt continue to hear — the scourge of rising crime is the most urgent issue on voters’ minds. Setting aside the way media coverage itself shape public opinion, the rising murder rates in urban areas is indeed very real and its victims disproportionately Black and Latino.
Nima: In response, like clockwork, Democrats and Democrat-aligned media have allied with conservatives and right-wing media to rehash the same tired responses: more police, longer sentences, and tougher laws. But this time, they assure us it will be different, it won’t be racist and overly punitive, instead, in addition to the return of 1990s tough-on-crime formula, we will get enough nebulous reforms and anti-bias training that it will somehow be enlightened and consistent with the demands of Black Lives Matter.
Adam: But everything we know about the past 50 years tells us this won’t be true. Indeed, if more policing and prisons solved crime, the United States would be the safest country on Earth, but, of course, it is not. According to the The American Journal of Medicine compared to 22 other high-income nations, the United States’ gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher despite imprisoning people at a rate of 5–10 times than other rich nations do.
Nima: So why do lawmakers and the media always reach for the same so-called “solutions” when it comes to crime? What are the assumptions that inform how we respond to an increase in homicides and other violence? How can the wealthiest nation in the world throw billions of dollars, more police, longer sentences, and tougher prosecutors at our high murder rates only to continue to wildly outpace the rest of the so-called “developed world,” on this, the most urgent of metrics?
Adam: On this week’s episode we will explore the origins of quote-unquote “crime”, what crimes we consider noteworthy and which are ignored, how property rights and white supremacy informed the crime we center in our media, how the crimes of poverty, environmental destruction, wage theft, and discrimination are relegated to the areas of tort, with its gentle fines and drawn out civil lawsuits, while petty theft and drug use results in long prison sentences. We’ll study how these bifurcations inform both media accounts of crime and how we respond with more police and longer sentences the second we are faced with so-called “crime waves.”
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps. Previously, Alec was a civil rights lawyer and public defender in the District of Columbia and the State of Alabama and co-founder of the organization Equal Justice Under Law. He is the author of the book Usual Cruelty and you can follow him on Twitter at @equalityAlec.
Alec Karakatsanis: Of the things that are criminalized, the police only search for those crimes in some places some of the time, and the way they make decisions over where to look for those crimes is actually even more important. So, for example, wage theft is a crime. Wage theft costs about 450 to $100 billion a year, but who commits wage theft? It’s wealthy, large employers, corporations. It’s almost never enforced by any police department or prosecutor’s office in the country, even though by conservative estimates, it costs as much money in damage by about a factor of five as all robbery, burglary, larceny, shoplifting, all property crimes combined.
Nima: We’ll also speak with sociologist, writer, editor, and data artist Dr. Tamara K. Nopper. An affiliate at the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, whose research focuses on the intersection of economic, racial, and gender inequality, she is also editor of Mariame Kaba’s book We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, and wrote several data stories recently for Colin Kaepernick’s Abolition for the People series.
Tamara K. Nopper: People’s beliefs about crime, and people’s fear of crime, have not always been useful for us to kind of gauge what is the reality of crime. There’s that. To me, the abolitionist project should be about when there is harm or there is violence, whatever we call it, we’re trying to figure out how to build a society that would decrease the risk of harm or violence, and then work to try to repair and help people to heal from that violence when it is real and when it does happen.
Adam: So we want to begin by saying that we’ve talked about abolition, defund a lot on the show, I think it’s clear for anyone who listens where our political leanings, which direction they go — I think that’s probably fair to say, Nima — I know that there’s been a recent wave of crime stories, crime this, crime that, crime that and then one of the things we do on the show is we sort of dissect words and concepts. We try not to be dorm room about it or frivolous about it. I know these things are very high stakes for a lot of people, very real questions to be asked. One thing we wanted to do with this episode was to interrogate what we think is a very kind of narrow, capital-focused, and fairly recent notion of crime, how we sort of document crime, how we keep crime, how we store it, and to talk about how these narrow definitions inform how the media covers it, because the media takes its cues and its definitions from the police themselves, who of course, have a historical continuity to maintain a certain order, which we will argue is not necessarily organic and democratic in nature.
Nima: Well, yeah, you know, I mean, I think so often, the crime waves that we hear about are actually waves of crime media reporting, right? That’s going to actually dictate what we understand as crime data, crime metrics, spreading through the population, and then informing public opinion, which then, potentially, can inform political policies, budgets and new laws. Sometimes those budgets and laws actually come before the public opinion shifts, and then public opinion kind of is meant to follow those things, but I think so much, you know, of what we know as crime reporting really just informs what we understand about crime itself, the nature of crime, what is deemed to be a crime.
Adam: Yeah, bear with us. There’s the old Onion article we’ve referenced before where it’s a white guy with a bong and it says, ‘Hippie is going to tell you what the real crime is.’ We are literally doing that in this episode, so bear with us, because we actually do think it’s a question worth interrogating, isn’t just for hippies with bongs — not that there is anything wrong with being a hippie with a bong.
Nima: That’s right. Hold on to your values, everybody.
Adam: We don’t want to alienate our bong and/or hippie listeners.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: Not anti-bong.
Nima: Yeah, we’re going through the looking glass. Okay, so much of the popular media framed understanding of quote-unquote “crime” in the United States can be traced back to European laws in the 14th to 16th centuries. Now, those laws were shaped by elites and industry largely to secure property and cheap labor. For instance, English vagrancy laws from the 14th century restricted movement in order to force and discipline labor workers. The first official English vagrancy ordinance, the Ordinance of Labourers it was called, was passed in 1349, followed by the Statute of Labourers two years later in 1351. Now this was at the apex of the Black Death — yes, the bubonic plague, the 14th century pandemic that killed between 75 and 200 million people — when capital became concerned that the ensuing labor shortage would give workers too much leverage over them, they enacted these laws. Together, albeit with varying degrees of success, the ordinance and the following statute worked on behalf of the wealthy. They both froze wages to pre plague levels and outlawed the giving of alms to the poor. According to sociologist William Chambliss, quote:
[T]here is little question that these statutes were designed for one express purpose: to force labourers (whether personally free or unfree) to accept employment at a low wage in order to ensure the landowner an adequate supply of labour at a price he could afford to pay.
Now, in the first half of the 16th century, additional vagrancy statutes were introduced that would allow arrests of people without proof, and just on suspicion that they’d committed an offense. A report by the Southern Africa Litigation Center has stated that, quote:
The ability to make arrests without proof of the actual commission of an offence was a blunt response by lawmakers to the need to protect the interests of emerging industries, which were producing a significant flow of valuable goods throughout England. Sentences were severe and reflected an increased emphasis on imprisonment.
Adam: Around the same time, Italy, during the early Renaissance in Venice, was the progenitor of imprisonment as a form of punishment and the widespread adoption of incarceration. This was the first time we really saw this in the quote-unquote “Western world.” Before the 14th century laws of Venice were a patchwork, they were often contradictory, and that ability successfully lobbied to have a law streamlined and applied to the lower classes, notably with the commissioning of the — and forgive me if I mispronounce this — the Promissione Male-fi-corum, which codified what was considered a crime by the powers in Venice. Property crime, specifically robbery, was far and away the biggest concern — which are you noticing a pattern, yet? A 1978 article in the Journal of Law and Criminology, by Guido Ruggiero notes that, quote, “Penalties for robbery were carefully prescribed, but assault that drew blood was left to the discretion of the judging body.” Ruggiero wrote, quote:
For a merchant elite the social defense system was especially important for protecting the monopoly of power and for providing a climate of peace and stability essential for trade. In the fourteenth century this system was considerably enlarged and strengthened with police patrols eventually reaching a proportion of one patroller to every 250 inhabitants.
The severity of punishments was directly related to social class, with the working class far more likely to receive jail sentences than nobles for the same offense.
Nima: Shocking. (Laughs.) How things have changed.
Adam: Ruggiero would go on to say, quote,
…is instructive for understanding the economic and social distinctions involved in social control. In rape cases, among the eighty-four nobles successfully prosecuted thirty-seven received fines (44%); fourteen received jail sentences (17%); and thirty three received a combination of both jail sentences and fines (39%). Workers, in 173 rape cases, received fines in only twenty-four cases (14%); jail sentences in eighty-nine cases (51%); and a combination of jail sentence and fine in sixty cases (35%).
So here we have an example where 44 percent of nobilities received to fine for rape, whereas only 14 percent of workers received to fine for rape. So from the get go, even in the 14th century, you see the disparities which track very much, it’s actually probably worse today than it was in the 14th century, which isn’t saying a lot, but still a lot of inequities. He would go on to say, quote, “The role of fines and jail sentences was reversed for the two classes, with jail sentences predominating for workers, who were less able to pay fines.” Because then those with an inability to pay a fine would then lead to more jail sentences, which is just like our current bail system.
Nima: Well, right, exactly. It’s already setting up a system where incarceration is connected with wealth. So, if you do not have the money to pay, if you’re not going to pay a fine, then you’re going to be imprisoned, and even if you are led to pay the fine, and you’re unable to — guess what? — also prison. Now, this property-centric, socially stratified understanding of crime informs the development of criminal law in the United States, particularly as it applied to enslaved people. The 13th Amendment, of course, which is popularly understood to have outlawed slavery in the US, includes the specific caveat, quote, “except as a punishment for crime,” end quote. After the passage of the amendment, the Black Codes replaced the laws governing slavery upholding a de facto form of slavery via the criminalization of vagrancy, again, to restrict movement and force labor. Black Codes after reconstruction, included activities like Black people walking on grass or the wrong side of the street or selling crops without specific written permission from a white person. Now, according to the Library of Congress, quote:
Arrests were often made by professional crime hunters who were paid for each ‘criminal’ arrested, and apprehensions often escalated during times of increased labor needs. Even those who were declared innocent in the courts were often placed in this system when they could not pay their court fees.
Also after the Civil War, states, primarily southern states, began a process of what was known as “convict leasing,” wherein companies and individuals paid leasing fees to state county and local governments in exchange for the labor of prisoners in farms, mines, lumber yards, break yards, manufacturing facilities, factories, railroads and road construction. Now, these fees generated substantial amounts of revenue for southern state, county and local budgets and lasted through World War Two. One of the largest beneficiaries of convict leasing was the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, one of the original 12 companies listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Index.
Adam: So I know that some of the general contours of this argument, the continuity from slavery to neoslavery to the current prison system is popularly known by quite a few people. If you want richer, more informative reading, I really recommend Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II that came out in 2008, and one year prior, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, both books, I know for me personally were very constructive to my thinking, because I think sometimes people think, ‘Oh, there was slavery, then there was those weird black and white days and people protested in front of lunch counters, and now everything’s good.’
Nima: Exactly. I mean, you should also read W.E.B. Du Bois, who will actually lay out how backlash against Reconstruction really set the stage for what we see today.
Adam: There’s a ton of different reading we can give you, but as examples that sort of show that the continuity between the systems I think those are very good, one of the things that people oftentimes say, ‘Well, you know, modern policing emerged from slave patrols,’ and then again, one of our arch nemeses, one of the people criticizing the show, Matt Yglesias, will glibly be like, ‘Oh, well, every society has police,’ and then about 15 different historians have to correct him, yes, but the very nature, scope and method and sheer size of our police and prison system is wildly different than other cultures and other countries and that’s because of slavery, and, of course, there are plenty of societies with police officers, there are plenty of examples.
Nima: Right. We were already talking about police officers in 14th century Venice.
Adam: Those exist in different cultural contexts, in different societies, which is why when people talk about when you have a prison system that incarcerates people at 10 times the rate of other countries, five times the rate of the global mean, has 25 percent of the world’s prison population despite having 5 percent of the population, there is something unique there, and that is where the continuity with slavery comes in. Obviously there are police officers in Tibet and in Argentina and China and Spain, and I mean, there are police officers everywhere, but they have a totally different charge and a different funding, different scope, different budgets, different racial context. So we just want to sort of talk about that, because I know that that’s become sort of popular point is to mock the kind of Black Lives Matter argument that these things are a part of a continuity of racism, because they very much are specifically uniquely American, and very much have a continuity of racism, anti-indigenous, again, anti- queer, anti-Black, we can sort of go on and on, anti-Mexican, anti-indigenous Mexican, specifically, all these things exist within a certain continuity of settler colonialism and slavery. So I think that’s where it’s kind of mentioning because I think sometimes that can be dismissed, and this continuity is very important.
Nima: Right. So fast forward to the foundation of US criminal law and incarceration that really has resonated throughout the 20th, and now 21st centuries, reinforced periodically through a series of what are known as crime bills and tough on crime initiatives, bolstered by uncritical and fear stoking media. Now, in January of 1965, on the heels of the 1964 uprisings in Harlem, then President Lyndon B. Johnson, declared in his State of the Union address, quote, “every citizen has the right to feel secure in his home and on the streets of his community,” end quote. Shortly thereafter, The Nation magazine stated that, quote, “Violence in the streets has become so much a part of the American way of life that most of our citizens are personally alarmed.” End quote. Now, just a couple months later, in March of ’65, Johnson effectively declared a “War on Crime” in what was known as a “Special Message on Law Enforcement” that he delivered to Congress. In it he said this, quote:
No right is more elemental to our society than the right to personal security and no right needs more urgent protection. Crime will not wait while we pull it up by the roots. We must arrest and reverse the trend toward lawlessness.
Now, of course, remember, this is in the mid ’60s, when the Civil Rights Movement, already well over a decade old, you know, had been nearly 10 years since the Alabama Bus Boycott, and now we hear about a war on crime. There is momentum toward civil rights, there is momentum toward justice, there are popular Black and brown led movements — and what happens? — all of a sudden, we need a war on crime.
Adam: And the historical parallel is noteworthy, which is both in the ’60s and the early ’90s, and then of course, I think, over 2020 and now 2021, you have a simultaneous increase in crime, we’ll table the contemporary argument, but in the ’60s and early ’90s, there was a lot of crime, there was an increase in crime, that were parallel with and consistent with racial uprisings or anti-racist uprisings in this country, the rebellions in various cities, the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Movement, and then in the ’90s, of course, LA Riots, a lot of the Black activism around that, and so you see these dual things happening, right? You have the George Floyd protests that emerge in a summer where people were left to die, you had 15 percent unemployment, you had social services cut, you had rents being lost, there was some aid, but it wasn’t very adequate and didn’t cover a lot of people, you have these two things happening together, and so the reaction is not to say, maybe they’re features of the same face, maybe they’re stemming from the same social ills of inequity and poverty, maybe the crime rates that we see are resulting from the same thing that causes these anti-elite uprisings what have you, in the ’60s, ’90s or today, their response is not to say maybe their symptoms of the same disease that we’ve never really dealt with the fundamental problem of slavery in this country, we haven’t dealt with inequities, the police abuse that manifests itself, that the crime is caused by the social unrest, that the Black Lives Matter, George Floyd protests, they demoralize the police, and this emboldens criminals, and that it’s not as if the George Floyd protest was resulting from the same social fissures, the same problems that cause the crime, that they are, in fact, the reason for the crime. So the causality is completely backwards and has been since the 1960s.
Nima: The late ’60s, of course, saw even more tough on crime rhetoric, especially during the presidential election of 1968, where Richard Nixon was squaring off against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. Now, during that presidential campaign, Nixon put out this campaign ad entitled: Crime.
Richard Nixon: In recent years, crime in this country has grown nine times as fast as population. At the current rate, the crimes of violence in America will double by 1972. We cannot accept that kind of future for America. We owe it to the decent and law-abiding citizens of America to take the offensive against the criminal forces that threaten their peace and their security and to rebuild respect for law across this country. I pledge to you, the wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future in America.
Adam: So then we had a wave of crime bills. We had a Washington Crime Bill at the federal government. This is the Rocky Mountain Telegram, April 1970:
It is amazing, the number of diehards in Congress who are bitterly-fighting President Nixon’s tough anti-crime bill for Washington, D.C. Just why such opposition should mushroom over this much-needed bill, when crime is becoming more rampant across the country and especially in the nation’s capital, mystifies thoughtful people in Washington.
That was an editorial. The Moberly Monitor-Index & Evening Democrat, May 1, 1970, “District of Columbia Crime Bill Could Become National Model.” Quote:
Why all the fuss about President Nixon’s tough anti-crime bill for Washington, D.C.?
How could a local bill for the District of Columbia be of such interest to people in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas? Or Nevada, California and Washington, and even distant Hawaii?
The fact is that if the bill proves successful, it would well become a model for the nation.
Which indeed it was, it served as a blueprint for subsequent quote-unquote “tough on crime” bills of the ’80s and ’90s. Of course, Joe Biden’s crime bill in 1994 severely increased criminal penalties, increased the scope of what was and what wasn’t a crime. There’s debate as to whether or not it’s a driver of mass incarceration. I know John Pfaff argues it isn’t really because it’s mostly a state thing. I think that what Richard Nixon did in 1970, Reagan, and then Bill Clinton in the ’90s provided a cultural cover for states to incarcerate more people. I think that you can’t really divorce the two, again, we can debate that, but there was a broader culture of mass incarceration that permeated for roughly 30 years, 30 to 40 years, never really went away as a matter of policy, the reforms over the last five to 10 years have been fairly minor. And of course, all this goes without saying that for years, tough on crime, soft on crime, were used interchangeably with policing more police. The way you anted up into the poker game of serious people, that you showed you were serious about crime, the way you showed that you’re serious about granny getting mugged, or Black kids getting shot in Baltimore, the way you showed that, the currency with which you expressed your sentimentality, and your seriousness, and your heartfelt sadness, was to advocate for more policing, longer sentences, more prisons, more jails, tougher sentences, crueler jails as well, and that there really was no other way of kind of showing you cared about crime, which is, again, the whole sort of point.
Nima: Right. If you had care and concern, the answer was cops.
Adam: Sort of like the way you show you’re serious on foreign policy is to support more military spending and more meddling in other countries. There’s no other way of thinking about the problem.
Nima: I’m very deeply engaged in foreign policy, which is why more bombing and missile attacks is what I always prefer.
Adam: Because that’s the way you show you’re serious.
Nima: Right, exactly.
Adam: This limited constrained definition of crime that developed by decree from property classes over centuries, specifically in the context of the United States since Reconstruction, very conveniently omitted certain things that were not crimes. As our guest Alec Karakatsanis wrote it best in Current Affairs last year when he said, quote:
What constitutes a ‘crime’ in the United States is divorced from what causes harm. The standard narrative of police as central to ‘public safety’ rings hollow when one considers actual causes of injury and death. For example, tobacco kills 480,000 people every year in the United States, including 41,000 from second-hand smoke alone. This dwarfs police-reported data on deaths from the drugs that police call ‘crimes.’ The same is true of water pollution, air pollution, and fraudulent home foreclosures, all of which are linked to astronomical mortality rates, and are perpetrated by large corporations and the wealthy people who own them. Wage theft by employers is almost never investigated by police or prosecuted, and yet it costs low-wage workers an estimated $50 billion per year, dwarfing the cost of all police-reported robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts combined. But this narrative of what constitutes ‘crime’ is how local news can declare that crime is “soaring” after a month with a few dozen more car burglaries and how a newspaper can declare that a city became ‘safer’ because there were 34 fewer homicides one year without considering how many people there died preventable deaths due to unstable housing, lack of access to health insurance, race-based pollution, or malnutrition.
Again, this is something we’ve talked about on the show before, but I think it bears emphasis, which is that when you look at crime in a very limited way — sort of like the episode we had on corruption, right?
Nima: It’s all about setting the boundaries of the definition, and then you get to tell whatever story you want to tell.
Adam: It’s not as if transparency of international corruption isn’t a real problem. It’s not as if corruption in the Global South isn’t a real problem. It is a significant barrier to democracy and accountability. It’s that we’ve narrowed the definition to this 3 percent of what corruption is while emitting the 97 percent, and that therefore limits our solutions, it limits our prescriptions, and just the same, it is not as if robbery and larceny and murder that was reported on the nightly news — ABC 7 — it’s not as if that isn’t crime. Here is where we tell you what the real crime is, it is that we limit the definition of harm to a very specific capital-centered definition of crime, and that when you limit the definition, you limit the solutions, you limit how we can approach this problem, because if you want to stop this definition of crime as such, then you’re going to naturally come to the conclusion of we just need to throw more people in prison and throw more cops at the problem.
Nima: Not addressing our climate crisis is itself a crime, right? And the fallout from that is incredibly lethal. It exacts a tremendous amount of violence, and yet, that of course, is not going to be covered in the same way. Now, of course, recently, news media have really ramped up the fear mongering about crime waves, kind of the story of the summer, especially emerging now a year after the George Floyd inspired calls to defund the police and the uprisings around the country, indeed, around the globe that followed, and so now, just in the past few months, you see headlines and articles like this. For instance, in The New York Times, May 11, 2021, quote, “Shootings and Subway Attacks Put Crime at Center of N.Y.C. Mayor’s Race,” end quote. Two weeks later, The New York Times was back, May 23, 2021, with this quote, “A Year After George Floyd: Pressure to Add Police Amid Rising Crime.” And then just a couple days later, May 25, 2021, CNN had this, quote, “Defund the police encounters resistance as violent crime spikes.” The next month, June 24, 2021, you had Reuters with, “Defying ‘defund police’ calls, Democrat Adams leads NYC mayor’s race.” And on July 10, 2021, The Washington Post ran an opinion piece by Professor Raymond J. La Raja with the headline, “The New York mayoral primary is a reminder that Black and Latino voters are pragmatic.” In it it talks about the quote-unquote “coalition” that Democratic primary front-runner for the New York mayoralty, Eric Adams, had assembled, which it called reminiscent of, quote, “old school outer borough alliances.” The article kind of makes the faux populist claim that so-called real and quote-unquote “less-educated” people actually want tough on crime policy, unlike the, of course, “hippie dippie,” quote-unquote, progressive left and the article says this about democratic New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams, says Adams, quote:
…reminded us that less educated voters who make up most of the party have different priorities than the progressive left — notably on crime, a major issue in the race. A pre-election poll of likely New York Democratic primary voters showed that fear of crime weighed much more heavily on the minds of less-educated voters.
Adam: Yeah, and so you have this narrative that is cemented it in a matter of months that not only was there was an uptick in murders — Vox and New York Times argue 25 percent — well, except for the purposes of the show, that that showed that the defund movement and the bail reform movement, as Chris Cuomo and The New York Times and others insist, is that this is sort of a backlash against them. The Eric Adams candidacy is a backlash against defund. They go defund, defund, defund, defund, defund, defund. Now, there’s one major problem with that, which is that there is zero evidence that there is any correlation between murder rate and the budgets of police, whether they went up or down in 2020 and 2021. February 20 article in Salon by Igor Derysh details why the argument against defund doesn’t make any sense. Quote:
Few cities have actually cut their police budgets to any significant degree. The Minneapolis City Council vowed to abolish the city’s police force amid the protests, but ultimately cut just $8 million from the budget while leaving the same number of cops on the street. Despite non-stop fear-mongering from the New York police union after Mayor Bill de Blasio touted what he described as a $1 billion police budget cut, the move was largely criticized by activists for moving certain departments from the NYPD to other agencies. Only about a dozen of the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. had reduced their police budgets by the fall. And many of the cities that did cut police budgets blamed revenue shortfalls caused by the coronavirus pandemic rather than demands from demonstrators.
Adam: So when you compare the modest and, I mean, very modest, like less than 1 percent budget cuts of certain police departments, with those that increase police departments, there is zero correlation, just as there’s zero correlation between whether or not the mayor is Republican or Democrat. So obviously, the idea that criticism of defined or anti-defund or anti-defund backlash is a result of somehow defund winning or meaningfully reducing prisons is a total —
Nima: Right. Remember how there was no police anymore, Adam, after last summer, and now crime went up?
Adam: Yeah, it’s a total fiction, and indeed, the departments that increase the police budget, which was most of them, by the way, that increased the total number of police officers as NYPD did, those, of course all an increase in murder as well. So there is absolutely no connection between those two things at all. The only connection they can really make, which is what the Manhattan Institute has been pushing, is this like, nebulous, demoralizing among police, that the protesters gave them grief and then they decided not to pursue criminals.
Nima: ‘I’m going to quit.’
Adam: Yeah, sort of sat in their car and ate doughnuts instead, because they can’t show any connection, so they had to come up with this very this kind of mystical woo-woo-ish explanation that they just felt bad or sad.
Nima: They canceled the TV show Cops, so now actual cops have been canceled. So they’re leaving the force in droves.
Adam: Yeah and so this is very sort of typical of the argument, and so you what you had is you had a very brief moment last year, where people really fundamentally reconsidered what public safety would look like, what healthy communities would look like, what crime prevention rather than throwing police at crime, what that would look like, we had a bit of a broke of the kind of ideological hegemony of the tough on crime, more cops more prosecutors logic for like five minutes. Uber, Nike, CNN, everyone sort of, Time Warner, the NBA, everyone’s suddenly decided they cared about racism for about — what? a week? — and then it was sort of, ‘Okay, let’s just kind of reduce all this to these bullshit charity programs, education funding, which of course has nothing to do with why black people are poor.’
Nima: Making sure that Black Lives Matter is painted across the streets.
Adam: Some fucking bizarre reason I guess we wanted to make sure the aliens could see the the slogan.
Nima: Once the mural quotient was hit, they went back to not really caring.
Adam: Right and then everyone, including de Blasio, just gave 1,200 more police to the NYPD, and everyone sort of moved on, and we said, ‘Oh, no, we can have reform but we’re not gonna actually do anything meaningfully to reduce the police. We’re gonna have better bias training. We’re gonna sort of gesture towards reform,’ right? As Eric Adams, to his credit, Eric Adams, his appeal was similar to Trump’s in that he sort of would say contradictory things all the time. So, but there’s a reason why he got The New York Post endorsement, because he basically signaled that he would let the cops do whatever the fuck they wanted to do.
Adam: And so now you have this murder rate going up, Democrats need someone to blame. They can’t really blame high murder rates in Democratic controlled cities on Republicans so they’re going after this boogeyman of Black Lives Matter defund the police, as sort of going too far, they’ve gone too far, and Eric Adam shows , never mind that Philadelphia reelected progressive prosecutor Larry Krasner, and never mind that Buffalo elected a socialist mayor, forget all that, this one election proves that the Democrats, that the Black voters, they love cops all of a sudden, and of course, again, depends how you phrase the poll — sometimes that’s true — and there are lots of African Americans and Latinos who do like cops, who do want cops, again, for the reasons we lay out or because they have no other option for the social conditions that they’ve been forced into, but the narrative cemented itself in a matter of weeks that there was an uptick in murder, that this was any of the defund, any of the Black Lives Matter was stuff with substance rather than the sort of hashtag, that was all dead in the water, it was over, they had gone too far, but this is a classic example of, they never had any power. I mean, this is just like they did this with a lot of Bernie stuff. Bernie would campaign on Medicare for All, and then he would lose, or they would lose the primary and say, ‘This is evidence that that doesn’t work for Democrats,’ and it’s like that never was policy, they never won anything. It was purely theoretical.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: Defund was purely theoretical. They never won an election, they never had any power.
Nima: Socialism failed because we sanction to death every moderately socialist country in the Global South. Proof that it does not work.
Adam: Yeah, exactly, exactly, and they’re never given a chance to work, they never get a chance to sort of show alternative systems, all these nascent defund movements were snuffed out in their infancy or given sort of, again, clever accounting, which is what de Blasio did in New York. Not really any substantive reconsidered public safety, there are some measures, there’s some people who are doing social work and healthcare workers instead of police for certain things, and that’s good, but for the most part, we’re exactly where we were in 2019, and there’s zero correlation between any kind of bail reform or defund on any mass, on any meaningful scale, zero is going to bail reform, of course, that murder rates are up in cities without any bail reform, which is the vast majority of cities. I cannot stress this enough. But they need to go after these modest reforms because they need to scapegoat them, not only for their own failures to just sort of justify why they’re still in charge these cities and the murder rate goes up, they need to nip it in the bud, as Josmar told us on the News Brief we had him on. They need to nip any kind of reform movement in the bud they see an opportunity with the increased murder rates to demagogue, to smear, again, they have an ally in the White House who constantly talks about how much more he funds police, give $500 million more to the police than Obama did, that is the Nancy Pelosi line, the official line for the DCCC moving forward in 2022 is going to be, ‘We’re the tough on crime party, we’re not pro-defund.’ Oh, they blamed, by the way, congressional losses in 2020 on the defund movement.
Nima: Oh, right. Of course.
Adam: Even though that had none of the people, there was no correlation there. It’s a narrative, it has to be true, doesn’t matter what the fucking data says, this has to be the narrative moving forward this summer, and we want to talk to our guests about why that’s not the case and why these movements are still worth defending, even though it’s become unpopular to do so.
Nima: We will now be joined by Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps. Alec was a civil rights lawyer and public defender for years in the District of Columbia and the State of Alabama and co-founder of the organization Equal Justice Under Law. He is the author of the book Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System and you can follow him on Twitter at @equalityAlec. He’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Alec Karakatsanis. Alec, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Alec Karakatsanis: Thank you all for having me.
Adam: So we would have begin the discussion, as we’ve been talking about earlier on the show, with the somewhat abstract question of how quote-unquote “crime” is broadly understood, you’ve obviously attempted to problematize, to use the grad school term, to problematize this concept before, but specifically I want to talk about how it’s sort of done in a pop way, both in terms of how the police do it, and therefore the media, right? The sort of media definition of crime follows from what the police and FBI definition is. Before we begin, I kind of want to talk about how we sort of generally understand that concept, you wrote in Current Affairs last year, quote:
The data and reporting about crime comes from police themselves. Police are not some objective body neutrality enforcing the law, not only do they choose to look for some crimes committed by some people in some neighborhoods some of the time, but they have political incentives to manipulate the data they collect, and not to collect other data at all.
Vice’s Motherboard just published an article on July 26, 2021, that very clearly laid out cop shot, which is a technology used by police allegedly to hear police gunshots, has been used in hundreds of convictions, and turns out that there’s widespread fraud where they will make up or act like something’s a gunshot, to satisfy the needs of police. So somewhat topically, that news came out today. I want to talk about our concept of crime, where the crime data comes from, specifically and how we kind of broadly understand that term when we hear crime surges, crime this crime that.
Alec Karakatsanis: I think it is absolutely essential, and it’s a great place to start. I mean, the very notion of what constitutes quote-unquote “crime” is determined by powerful people. People who have power in societies across the world and throughout our own history here in this country have always changed the definition of what is criminal to suit their own interests. A classic example is that it didn’t used to be criminal to possess marijuana. The marijuana plant was not criminalized until it became useful for very powerful people to give police more discretion to arrest people and that was associated with a desire by powerful people to give police more tools to track down, cage, arrest and potentially deport Mexican American immigrants. The same is true with opium. Powerful people decided to give police the discretion to arrest people for possessing the opium substance to give them more power over Chinese American immigrants. The same is true with cocaine and Black Americans powerful decided to make that criminal, it didn’t used to be criminal, it was decided to be made criminal precisely so they could give police more discretion to surveil and track and arrest and cage and then profit off the labor of Black Americans after the Civil War. The same concept is true across the concept of crime. So for example, wagering in the streets over dice is a crime. Who wagers in the streets over dice? Mostly poor people, but wagering over international currencies or the global supply of wheat: not a crime. In fact, people who wager on those things make billions of dollars and have their names on the wings of hospitals and museums. Or housing discrimination, it’s not seen as a crime or sexual harassment at work, these are things that cause a lot of harm, but that our society has chosen to deal with in a civil context and not a criminal context. Another example might be campaign contributions. Some countries, and indeed at different times in this country’s history, you might consider the current political funding system as bribery, the crime of bribery, we have legalized it in this country. Invading foreign countries, drone strikes, refusing to offer medicine to people or insulin to people who need it, those could all be considered crimes and at different times and places in our country’s history different things have been crimes like refusing to give someone an abortion or giving someone an abortion or refusing to join a union or joining a union. I guess the first point I want to make is that so much of what we think of as criminal is actually just political choices made by people in power. I think a second topic we should talk about, though, is that of the things that are criminalized, the police only search for those crimes in some places, some of the time, and the way they make decisions over where to look for those crimes is actually even more important. So for example, wage theft is a crime. Wage theft costs about $50 to $100 billion a year, but who commits wage theft? It’s wealthy, large employers, corporations, it’s almost never enforced by any police department or prosecutor’s office in the country, even though by conservative estimates, it costs as much money in damage by about a factor of five as all robbery, burglary, larceny, shoplifting, all property crimes combined, and then tax evasion cost about a trillion dollars a year. This is a crime that’s committed by wealthy people. It’s 20 times the damage of wage theft, and about 100 times the damage of all other property crimes combined, almost never enforced. Sexual assault laws are almost never enforced while police gorge themselves on drug arrests, et cetera, constantly all over the country they left hundreds of thousands of rape kits untested. I could go on and on. Fights in private schools, environmental pollution, there are several million environmental crimes committed every single year by companies and wealthy people in this country. They’re never enforced. So I think we have to understand that background context before we have a conversation about crime.
Adam: All that’s true. I think some listening may say, ‘Okay, you’ve proved your point Citations, we’ve been talking about crime as a social construct for the better part of an hour now, you’ve proved your point, you’re all a bunch of pie-in-the-sky sort of far left types, but murder is rather binary, you are either dead or alive,’ for the most part, I suppose we can debate that, and that murder is not something, murder across cultures is typically been frowned upon, you know, it’s in the 10 commandments, it’s code, whatever, murder is a thing that is universally seen as bad, and that murder is up and murder is up a lot, and that this spike of some say 25 percent — we can debate that — that this is fueling a or rather it’s I think it’s fair to say it is it is the fuel of a pre existing narrative that’s been around for years. But now there’s a sort of statistical reference point they can claim, to push back against George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the defund movement, the abolish movement within the Democratic Party, which is something we’ve been speaking about, it’s pretty much the premise of this episode. Now, people getting shot in Chicago or Parkland, Florida, that is not a social construct, that is an objective reality. I’m going to sort of talk about this new liberal hand wringing about blaming the rise in murders not on a once in 100 year pandemic, which seems like if you looked at the X Factor here, that would be one of the X factors, but for the most part, New York Times, Vox, CNN, they’re blaming it on modest bail reform, despite as we talked about it to beginning the show, there not being any sort of evidence for that, but I want to talk about murder and the rise of murder, and what people are blaming that rise on and how we’ve immediately skipped past the messiness of debating how we can deal with that to just asserting that police are better, that your arch nemesis Matt Yglesias says police are better, German Lopez, police are better, Eric Levitz, police are better. I want to talk about that assumption and the current reactionary pushback fueled by murder to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Alec Karakatsanis: Well, I first have to dispute that he’s my arch nemesis. I feel like that word nemesis conveys that he’s coming at me with some kind of actual substance and that I’m having trouble.
Nima: That he’s an actual threat.
Alec Karakatsanis: Yeah, he’s such a nonsense thinker and so much of what he does is just so pathetic. I would hope he wouldn’t be a nemesis.
Adam: Wow. Not even worth your time. This is like the Raul Julia speech from Street Fighter. He’s not even, to you it was a Tuesday, but go ahead.
Alec Karakatsanis: He’s very much worth our time, though. But I don’t want to be too flippant. I mean, he communicates to millions of people every single day and he —
Adam: And supposedly shapes the Biden administration’s agenda, according to Politico. But go ahead. Yes.
Alec Karakatsanis: Exactly. He’s out there spewing just total fabrications and nonsense, and a lot of people listen to him because he is really skirting the line between conventional wisdom and police propaganda very effectively. But I think this is this question about murder is so important. First, let me just say we have a violent society, we have to acknowledge that there’s a lot of violence in our society every single day, not just murder, but our society is full of people harming each other. It’s full of structural violence that leads to extraordinary and preventable death every single day, and the reason I do this work, and the reason I care about this topic we’re talking about right now, is I think our society’s response to this harm is fundamentally flawed in exactly the way you suggest with your question. So let me just first say, if policing made us safer, if policing prevented murder, we would be the safest country in the world. No society in modern recorded world history has ever spent so much money on policing and cages and prosecutors and judges and courts. It doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t prevent murder. In fact, there’s not a single shred of evidence that increased expenditures on police prevent murder. The other thing that I want to suggest is that we should care about violence and death much more broadly than the narrow definition of murder that police are concerned with. First of all, police don’t, when they were doing the murder stats, they don’t count deaths in prison. They don’t count deaths by police. They don’t include those in the murder rates. And they also don’t include all of the people that die from lack of healthcare, from environmental pollution, from home foreclosures. So when a bank fraudulently forecloses on a home or a landlord illegally kicks people out, we know that that actually is associated with huge increases in death, deaths that actually dwarf the murder statistics that police rely on, and if we have a little bit of an expanded definition of preventable death, rather than the sort of very constrained definition of homicide that police departments report, I think we’d actually start to see a really different discussion about what are some of the solutions to that problem. But make no mistake, there has been an increase this year in the number of police reported homicides, and I think it’s important that we on the left actually talk about this issue and talk about why things like poverty and mental healthcare and gun sales and alienation in general from the things that connect us to other human beings and lack of access to art and music and theatre and poetry and sort of ways of youth connecting to each other, these are the things that the evidence shows are actually connected to violence, and they’re precisely not the things that our society is actually spending billions and billions of dollars on in every single city around the country when we talk about the way that police spend their time. Keep in mind, police only spend 4 percent of all of their time on what they themselves call violent crime, it’s even less on murder. Police have almost nothing to do with that issue
Adam: When Eric Levitz and Matt Yglesias say the criminology or the sociology is settled, because they don’t just say it’s like a contested thing, I mean, Eric Levitz literally says this is not a contestable point, that more police reduces crime, by extension, I think they infer murder. What are they citing? What is that study and why is it bullshit? Because this is like now kind of taken for granted and a lot of circles, and I really want to kind of explain why it shouldn’t be.
Alec Karakatsanis: I debunked this stuff last year in my piece in Current Affairs called “Why Crime Isn’t the Question and Police Aren’t the Answer,” but there are just a few basic points. I mean, number one, they’re using terrible data. Number two, the studies are actually quite weak and don’t actually support the assertions that Levitz and Yglesias make about them. Number three, and this is probably most important, none of the studies that they cite, which are all flawed and weak even sort of methodologically, none of them actually measure whether, so most of the studies are actually like very short term studies about flooding a particular area with police and then looking at what the very short term effect of crime was, right?
Alec Karakatsanis: So what they don’t measure actually is, hey, when you flood a neighborhood with police and arrest people and cage them and send them to prison and then separate them from their children, their children go up without a parent, what are the long term criminogenic effects on crime. So they don’t even look at that. Whereas some of the other broader literature actually tracks whether incarceration leads to more crime in the future and concludes that it does. But the short term place-based studies don’t even compare police to other alternatives. So these would be totally consistent with these studies to flood a neighborhood with poets or artists or priests. They don’t question whether the people flooding these neighborhoods need to have guns and need to be police officers, right? It could be after school programs et cetera, and when you look at the other literature on the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs, community-based violence interruption, poetry, theater, music, art, athletic programs for kids, these all have extremely high effectiveness rates even on a long term basis. So there’s nothing particularly about the police in any of these studies, and then I think the most disingenuous kind of fraudulent thing that they do is they use these points to argue for larger police budgets, and to argue against reducing the size and power of police. They actually use this to argue against replacing police with mental health, first responders, and things like that. But in fact, because only 4 percent of police time is spent on violent crime, 96 percent of the time is not, you could actually reduce police budgets by 90 percent, and still double the time and attention police give to these very particular strategies that Yglesias and Levitz and others rely on, the so-called hot spot policing or emergency responder policing, stuff that they contend from these studies actually reduces crime. So what’s fascinating is that even the studies that they rely on are entirely consistent with massively defunding the extremely large and wasteful and kind of fraudulent police bureaucracy, we could double the amount of police time and attention spent on the tactics that they think score well in their studies, and still reduce police by 90 percent.
Nima: So in this summer of fear that I think we’re seeing, you know, definitely a reactionary push back to last year’s uprisings, other related defund and abolitionist movements, the narrative is going to win, right? We can cite all the data we want, but there is a perception and that perception helped along, of course, by the media’s obsession with When It Bleeds It Leads, is doing all of this kind of narrative work, and so this pushback, this backlash, really, against movements for justice, movements for less policing, movements for alternatives, movements for funding, education and employment and the arts, things like that, that is really, I think, the media narrative, also the political narrative, largely of the summer of 2021. What do you think, Alec, is a good way to kind of combat that? Yes, of course, we can point to data, we can say, okay, police actually don’t do shit about the stuff that you think you’re scared of that probably isn’t even out your front door, but you know, down the cul de sac, and then across town and then across the highway, et cetera, et cetera, but that perception is definitely leading what we’re hearing in this pushback. What would you say to kind of help along a more positive, less reactionary, weaponized narrative?
Alec Karakatsanis: That’s such a difficult question. I mean, I think there are a couple of components. There’s a reason that people like Yglesias and Matt Taibbi more recently, and Greenwald and Lee Fang and Eric Levitz and all these Substack writers, they never talk about the costs of policing, and I think what we saw last summer was an organic uprising, or sort of mass set of thousands of uprisings all over the country, because people saw very viscerally, right in front of their faces in the way they couldn’t ignore the incredible, extraordinary costs of the way that this country polices, and so there’s a reason that those writers don’t talk about the cost of policing like surveillance, beatings, stabbings, family separation, sexual assault and domestic violence by police officers, which by the way, the police don’t even keep track of and if they kept track of sexual assaults by police, it would totally change the crime rates in every major American city. That’s how prevalent physical and sexual assaults are by police. Police don’t even report those when they give crime statistics. So these would entirely reverse the trends. I think we have to do a better job of getting people to understand the extraordinary costs of policing. Another of the big costs, perhaps the biggest in my mind, is that the more you fund police and give them surveillance technology and weaponry, you enable police to do what they have done for the last 140 years, which is to crush every movement for social and racial and gender justice that has ever occurred in this country. Every struggle for labor rights, every struggle for immigrant rights, every struggle for working class people and people who sort of want to make a better life in a more equal society, it’s been the police that has infiltrated and brutally suppressed those movements. That is what police do, that is actually their primary function for the ruling class, and when you fund them more, you make it harder and harder to achieve all the progressive social changes that even people like Taibbi and Iglesias and Fang claim that they want, what they don’t understand is that the police have always been the tool that the ruling class uses to crush organizing by tenants, by workers, by women for many, many years by people who are struggling in various formations in the queer movements, these are people who understand very, very deeply what the police are and if we can change that narrative and get more and more people to understand, that’s why I thought, for example, the videos last year of the NYPD crushing brutally the union picket line of the fruit and vegetable workers in New York City asking for $1 a day extra during a pandemic to make sure people in New York had the fruit and vegetables they needed for their families stay healthy, and NYPD crushed that revolt, and if you look back through our history, in every decade of the 20th century, the police have brutally crushed labor organizing. So I think that one really important narrative for us to push back on is to give people a more clear understanding of what the police do. Let’s look at how they spend their time. How much of their time is spent arresting people for being homeless, for low level crimes like disorderly conduct, or disobeying an order? One of the most common police arrests in this country is arresting people for driving on a suspended license when there are 11 million people who don’t have licenses just because they’re poor, because they can’t pay fees and fines, not because they’re bad drivers, that’s actually the leading arrest in many jurisdictions in this country. So I think we need to give people a better sense of what police do.
Adam: You bring up an excellent point, which is — forgive me, Lord, I cannot remember who said it on Twitter, and I’ve always feel bad, not crediting — but someone said something to the effect of, occupy showed that Black Lives Matter has to proceed Occupy in some ways because of the disruption, the clubbings, the beatings, the clearing out of the Zuccotti Park, et cetera, and I thought that was sort of a good point, and one piece of friction, I think, most urgently on that, not to steer from media criticism into political theory, is that I don’t see if you play the tape to the end, I don’t see any scenario where we have meaningful or urgent climate change or climate justice or climate justice mitigation, which is to say, to try to more evenly apply the inevitable harmful effects of climate change, I don’t see any scenario where that takes place without mass civil unrest by normal people, and I don’t see any way in which that civil unrest can be meaningful when you have a well funded, highly surveilled, Robocop-type police force, and that speaks to your point. That is such an essential point, because there’s basically no meaningful urgent social issue that is not snuffed out by police from the IWW to present day climate change to what have you, right? So in many ways, it’s kind of the hub of all these movements like you talked about. But what I wanted to ask you is this idea of crime existing on a ledger, and that when we talk about, which we discussed at the top of the show, when you talk about quote-unquote “crime” as this isolated thing that happens on the street, forget all the wage theft, environmental destruction, all the other examples you bring up, even even setting that aside, even if you sort of accept the very limited Matt Yglesias definition of crime, there’s still this other side of the ledger of harm that’s done with mass incarceration that no one ever fucking talks about, and this was one of the hardest things I did at The Appeal when I had a podcast is we’re talking about the kind of Willie Horton, moral hazard of crime coverage is that with the one exception of maybe When They See Us, I can’t think of very any pop culture depiction of the harm that that causes, the actual dehumanization, the violence of prison, the sexual assault, the beating, the years lost, the money lost, the fathers who are lost, the daughters who are lost, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There is absolutely zero pop understanding of what those stakes are, and we talk about over-policing and sending away the bad guys as if it exists in some vacuum, as if it’s this kind of anodyne thing. I want you to talk about that other side of the ledger that never ever, ever, ever gets talked about, right? If the local news let off every night with a story profiling a family that was broken up by someone in county, you know, one of the hundreds of thousands of people in county jail pre trial, whether or not they missed their son’s first softball game, or they didn’t pay rent and their family was evicted, whatever it is, they lost their job, they dropped out of school, we would have a totally different concept of what is crime. So I want you to talk about that side of the ledger, and how it’s completely erased, and that is a very loaded question, but go ahead.
Alec Karakatsanis: I think it’s one of the most important questions that we can ask, and I want to just stop for a second and remember a few years ago when Trump was, you know, separating families at the border, much of liberal America was outraged. They adopted this phrase “kids in cages,” and people were outraged, protesting all over the place, and one thing that a lot of people didn’t really fully appreciate at the time is that there are 3,163 local jails in this country where we separate children from their parents every single day, and the vast majority of people in those jails are separated from their children, only because their parents can’t pay a cash bail. That is how our legal system — police, prosecutors, judges — that is how our police that sort of bureaucracy decides who should be with their children at home, and who should be stuck in a cage of squalor and filth with no sunlight and exercise and fresh air and infectious disease and sexual assault. And so take something like the war on drugs. If you look at the costs of the war on drugs, not only has it been trillions of dollars over the last 40 years, but it caused over 50 million people to be caged, about 20 million people for marijuana possession alone. Tens of millions of children separated from their parents, hundreds of millions of police stopping and searching and probing people’s bodies, including millions of times that police probe people’s anuses and genitals for drugs. Not only did we cost tens of millions of people their education and their homes and their ability to make a living, we also caused tens of millions of square acres of pristine land throughout Latin America to be spray poisoned, we surveilled the communications of billions of people around the globe, we basically eradicated the privacy in the Fourth Amendment, I could keep going on, right? there’s many, many consequences, but maybe the most profound one is that we sent as human beings to hundreds of millions of years in cages, and at the end of the day, after all of that, 40 years into the war on drugs, drug usage rates are higher in much of the country, drug deaths are way higher than they used to be, children are using dangerous drugs at higher rates, and all of this mind you while we legalize tobacco, which kills 450,000 human beings every single year and alcohol, right? So there’s there’s very particular political choices being made. But we engage in this war on drugs with all of those costs, and for all of the policing and prosecution and human caging, we actually made things worse, and we fundamentally need to get people to understand that police and cages and coercion and child and family separation are never going to make us safer as a society. Ever.
Nima: You know, something we’ve seen lately in a number of different contexts, but I think the most recent one that I remember is a very, very localized poll that was conducted in Detroit as being touted as evidence to back the statement that communities suffering violence want more policing, they love cops, and they want more cops. This has been making the rounds, this idea that, sure, sure, last year, there was the whole George Floyd protests and defund and yada yada, but now that we see the stats rise on quote-unquote “crime,” and it’s reported on local news, it’s on people’s social media feeds, police are screaming about it, politicians are screaming about it, that actually when it comes down to it, that’s just a hippie dippie fantasy and really, the working class people who suffer from poverty and the violence caused by poverty, actually aren’t seeking alternatives, they just want more cops. What would you say to that?
Alec Karakatsanis: It’s total nonsense. These polls that are supposedly relied on for this proposition are obviously, like all political polling by wealthy powerful interests, the way that they ask the questions and the way they frame the answers are designed to get to the result that they want. That’s number one. Number two, you have to remember our population has been heavily propagandized for multiple generations. These are very politicized issues, and for the last 40 years, they have been being lied to about what the police do, how police spend their time, they’ve been lied to but how unequal our society is, the costs of policing that you just asked me about had been completely hidden from people. So this is an area that there has been a tremendous propagandistic focus on, and so it’s not surprising even that people’s initial views on police are misinformed in many respects. But I think there’s a deeper point, if you actually look at the polling, and you ask a different sort of question, what people are saying isn’t that they want police, what people are saying is that they want safe places to live, good jobs, resources for their kids after school, they want to be in a community that thrives and flourishes, they want healthcare, they want to be healthy, they don’t want to be poisoned, they don’t want their water poisoned with lead, they don’t want to be kicked out of their home by their landlord, they don’t want to have their home foreclosed on by a bank, they don’t want their wages stolen, and when you actually look at what people say they want, they want the things that the police are designed to prevent, and so what we need also is an organizing and political education that counters a lot of the propaganda that wealthy interests who own the media have spread through the last 40 years, and I think this is a very complicated, profound issue. One of the ways in which media sort of commonly does this is they ask very particular, very narrow, very specific polling questions, when if they ask a deeper sort of question, they would get really different answers about what people’s priorities are and what alternatives to policing people would actually prefer billions of dollars to be spent on then more people with guns and weapons and handcuffs.
Adam: Yeah, because I mean, look, if you’ve run a protection racket, and if it’s 1920s Chicago, and I have, you know, Al Capone defending my business from other mafias, and you asked me if I want to get rid of Al Capone, I’d say well, no, because what the fuck else is there? One of the things we’ve come across time and time again in this episode is we offer nothing else in return, to use an even hackier metaphor, someone’s drowning and you throw them a piece of barbed wire to grab onto, they’re going to grab onto it, they don’t have any other option. Police are the only option, the only way of adjudicating domestic violence, the only way of adjudicating car theft, the only way we have adjudicating any of this stuff in some limited way, right? There’s nothing else to appeal to. You call 311 they’re gonna send a cop no matter what. Now, some people are trying to provide alternatives. That’s changing, right? Mental health workers, social workers, et cetera, something that gets mocked. It appears that the current consensus now in the Democratic Party under the Biden administration, and under the auspices of electoral pragmatism, this is, you know, throw Black people under the bus is always the cleverest thing you can come up with when you’re trying to argue against any kind of left-wing reform, and so now you have this thing where Eric Adams was elected mayor in New York City that is now becoming the sort of counter narrative, Chris Cuomo and CNN said —
Nima: Will be elected mayor.
Adam: Will be elected, sorry. It’s a foregone conclusion but yes, it has not happened yet. Chris Cuomo, James Carville was on CNN saying this, The New York Times wrote a puff piece on Eric Adams. The headline was, “Why Top Democrats Are Listening to Eric Adams Right Now. Some Prominent Democrats Think Their Party’s Nominee for Mayor of New York Offers a Template for How to Address Issues of Public Safety.” Now, this article four different times refers to and I know this is going to get under your skin, this is exactly what we’re talking about, four different times on ironically refers to Eric Adams as the candidate of public safety. They refer to him as, quote, “The most public safety-minded candidate in this year’s mayoral primary,” unquote. Now, this idea that being pro police is interchangeable with public safety I want you to comment on that, I want you to comment on the kind of ‘Oh, look at Eric Adams, this is clearly showing that Black and working class voters and Black working class voters don’t want defund, they don’t want any kind of abolitionist hocus pocus, they want this nebulous reform that Eric Adams supposedly represents,’ but considering he was endorsed by the New York Post, we’re gonna go and assume that that’s all going to be bullshit. I want you to talk about the way Eric Adams has emerged as the kind of mascot for this carceral liberal reaction to George Floyd protesting and Black Lives Matter, I think it’s fair to say, because, again, because he’s Black, because he can sort of represent this pro cop minority that all these elites want to ventriloquize. I want to talk about that and talk about the broader narrative about public safety as being interchangeable with more policing.
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Alec Karakatsanis: I’m so glad you asked this question, because I meant in your earlier question about how we counter this, to say that one of the most important things we need to do is to take back this definition of what constitutes public safety. When The New York Times uses the term public safety, not only are they using a very narrow term that doesn’t include things like are people dying of preventable diseases? What does it mean to have a place to live or an apartment without mold? What does it mean to have my child get treatment for her asthma? There’s so much that is encompassed in the concept of safety that has been left out by the policing and punishment bureaucracy, they want to narrow in on the only thing they want to consider safety related arethe quote-unquote “crimes” committed by the poor. They don’t see anything else as connected to safety, and we need to take that back, because true, safe, thriving, flourishing lives are about so much more. But I think the other point is The New York Times, when it says public safety, whose safety is it talking about? Who is The New York Times actually concerned, you know, are they concerned about water poisoned with lead in poor communities? Are they concerned about the safety of people at Rikers Island, and the safety of people in prisons all across New York State, and the safety of children who have had their mom or dad ripped away from them? They’re not concerned with that, they have a very particular concept of safety, and it’s one that’s heavily determined by who owns The New York Times, who advertises in The New York Times, and the sort of social circles that New York Times reporters and editors hang out in, and this is a fundamental challenge for those of us who want to take on these media circles, because a lot of these reporters just have not ever really experienced all of the various harms that our society inflicts on the poorest people in our society, and it’s very hard to get them to see those things as safe and as connected to safety. So I personally think that these reporters are connecting policing to public safety, because of all of the ways to further public safety, you know, universal healthcare, massive investments in education, and after school programs, and theatre and music and art, and restorative justice, and violence interruption programs run by community members, of all of those ways, the only way to address safety that furthers the control and power of the ruling class is arming a bunch of people the ruling class controls with guns and cages and handcuffs, so they choose that option, and they connect that option with safety, not because it makes people safer in any kind of holistic sense of the word, but because it furthers other political goals that they have.
Nima: Well, right, because public safety is actually just, you know, well, who is constituting the quote-unquote “public” in that definition, and it is those monied interests or it is the friends of the reporters or it is those politicians that are trying to absolutely destroy whatever momentum there is toward justice or expanded civil rights and certainly a decrease in, say police funding, because there’s this direct correlation, I think, that’s made between safety equals money toward people with guns, who are wearing uniforms and work on behalf of the state. There’s this kind the idea, as you said, Alec, of expanding the definition of what public safety means. I think there’s just, unfortunately, so far to go in our kind of, you know, collective consciousness in the public imagination, because it has been so deliberately suppressed, that it kind of gets to the last thing that I want to ask you, which is what are you working on at Civil Rights Corps that really speaks to this and of course, the broader work that you are all doing, tell us a bit about Civil Rights Corps and how people can get involved.
Alec Karakatsanis: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about our work. I mean, I think, at a very high level, for the last few years, we’ve been working on things like the cash bail system, the incredible network of pretrial human caging all over this country, we cage human beings pre trial at a rate that no society in recorded history of the modern world has ever done. We’ve got 500,000 human beings in jail cells every single night in this country just because they can’t pay cash bail, or are otherwise detained prior to their trial. We’ve also been doing a lot of work on the criminalization of poverty and the way in which much of the criminal punishment bureaucracy, actually the vast bulk of the cases that are processed by police and prosecutors and judges are actually very low level cases designed to generate revenue and designed to control people in their lives. So all over the country we have lawsuits challenging caging people just because they can’t make payments, challenging the privatization of debt collection, challenging the taking away of people’s driver’s licenses just because they can’t pay, challenging, as I mentioned, people being caged pretrial, because they can’t pay money bail. At a very high narrative level, to sort of loop it back to this discussion, I think we’re doing some really subversive stuff. So we’re saying the people did you know that the way that these quote-unquote” law enforcement,” I use that term in quotes because they only enforce some laws against some people some of the time, but did you know that that law enforcement the way they decide who is in a cage and who is separated from their families, who has access to enough cash, and people are shocked by that ordinary people all over the country, they’ve never really thought about the bail system before, but once they learn about it, I think it subverts their sense that the system has any integrity, because if it’s making that important decision about whether a child should be home with her mom and able to hug her mom on the basis of how much cash the mom has, how can they trust anything else this system is telling them? How do they trust all the myths the system is giving them if the system is doing that? And the same is true with the criminalization of poverty. If people are being jailed for profit, just because they can’t pay fines, how can we trust all of the other decisions that these people, these bureaucrats are telling us are done for our own safety? Because the vast bulk of what they’re doing has no conceivable relation to safety at all. So I think our work in some respects, all over the country, in local communities where we have partners, everywhere we go we try, you know, we’re not as good at this as we would like, but we try to work with local organizers and activists and people who are directly impacted, to try in some way to change these narratives, to challenge them to offer different voices and to tell the stories of the cost of the system so that people can have a really different understanding from what they’re told in the mainstream media every single day.
Nima: Well, I think that is a wonderful place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps. Previously, Alec was a civil rights lawyer and public defender in the District of Columbia and the State of Alabama and co-founder of the organization Equal Justice Under Law. He is the author of Usual Cruelty and you can follow him on Twitter at @equalityAlec. Alec, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Alec Karakatsanis: Thank you so much. It was so fun.
Adam: Yeah, and when we say the media shapes these perceptions of crime and hypes crime, again, regardless of what the data says, before this recent alleged murder spike, crime spike, what have you, in media criticism you rarely get data that shows that there is manipulation going on in such a stark way as you do with perceptions of crime versus actual crime. According to Pew, in 20 of the 24 Gallup surveys conducted between the year 1993 and 2020, at least 60 percent of US adults have said there’s more crime nationally than there was the year before, despite the general downward trend in national violent and property crime rates during most of that period. According to data from the FBI, which is incomplete and if anything inflates crime rates, the violent crime rate fell 49 percent between ’93 and 2019 with large decreases in the rate of robbery 68 percent, murder and non negligent manslaughter 47 percent, in aggravated assault 43 percent, but over every poll people think crime is up from the year before. But that, of course, is impossible. Between 1984 and 2004, the Survey of Economic Expectations found that respondents placed their chances of being robbed at 15 percent when the actual rate of robbery is 1.2 percent.
Nima: Yeah, this idea, this incredibly inflated sense of threat can’t be traced solely to people’s lived experience. It’s not about walking down the street back to your house, and sensing this looming shadow behind you, hearing footsteps and being terrified, or even hearing about real life tales of violence committed, muggings, house thefts, murders, et cetera, it can’t be connected to that, because the data simply doesn’t bear that out. The perceptions have to do with the stories that we are constantly told in our politics, in our press, about crime. Doesn’t mean there isn’t crime, of course there is crime, but the perception, so outweighs the reality that has to be traced back somewhere, it is not solely the result of what people actually are experiencing, and so I think this work that we do, Adam, doing media criticism, talking about how the politics are shaped by the stories that we are told, and this perception really has to come from somewhere. So with that, I’m actually excited to bring on our second guest. We are now going to speak with Dr. Tamara K. Nopper, sociologist, writer, editor, and data artist. She’s an affiliate at the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, and her research focuses on the intersection of economic, racial, and gender inequality. She is also editor of Mariame Kaba’s new book We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, and recently wrote several data stories for Colin Kaepernick’s Abolition for the People series.. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Dr. Tamara K. Nopper. Tamara, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Tamara K. Nopper: Oh, thank you for having me. I’m really excited to talk to both of you so thank you.
Adam: We want to ambush you here with a really really large question to begin with. Please forgive us. One thing we’re trying to do in this episode, one thing your writing does well is try to unpack the nature of how we define crime itself. Now obviously, we don’t want to be too navel gazing about this, crime is a social construct, but as Lenin said, so is tank formation.
Tamara K. Nopper: Okay. (Laughs.) Remember you’re talking to a sociologist, we just love calling everything a social construction.
Adam: Yeah, the second you say something’s a social construct, I feel like we lose about half our audience, I want to be clear that we understand that robbery and murder are real things. Okay.
Tamara K. Nopper: Yes.
Adam: There is, of course, a finite amount of moral outrage and resources that society dedicates to caring about certain things and other things. There are limited resources, we can’t care about everything all at once, and what we focus on when we talk about crime, as we discussed in the top of the show, has a very specific and as you’ve talked about, has a very specific historical current with a specific focus on certain things and an omission of other things. Now contesting this space is not new. You wrote that Ida B. Wells and W.E.B Du Bois were critics of how crime stats were compiled and circulated and created some of their own data sources, which I know is something that you focus a lot on, which is data and data journalism, I want to begin by asking, everyone’s referencing the same findings CNN, New York Times, referencing Jeff Asher’s work, which is a combination of accounts on criminal justice in the preliminary FBI data, that crime in general is basically static, but murder is surged.
Tamara K. Nopper: Yeah.
Adam: And of course, there are sociological explanations for that that are not just, I don’t know, the narrative is that it’s bail reform, but as we showed at the top of the show, there’s no evidence at all that bail reform correlates at all with murder rates. Murder rates are up whether it’s bail reform or not, whether it’s a Republican, Democrat mayor doesn’t matter. Do you think that’s a number that we should accept or do you think that’s contestable?
Tamara K. Nopper: I mean, this is what I would say, I haven’t looked closely at the data, I’ve read several pieces that Jeff Asher wrote, and he has gotten quite the platform, for example, in The New York Times, and so forth, and his pieces or co author pieces are the ones that are getting recited, and one of the things I think is interesting about his work is that he cautions around some of these interpretations are coming out. The thing around bail reform, I mean, what’s interesting is when you read some of these articles, they’ll usually use as evidence, like a quote from somebody saying, ‘Bail reform probably played a big role, and we’re just laying these people out.’ But one of the things I find interesting about the bail reform argument is that people are so trapped in the criminal justice system, so this idea of bail reform or releasing, you know, they’re also trying to blame releasing people out of prisons due to COVID restrictions, or to COVID concerns, that this is also part of what’s driving the surge. People who have been put through the criminal justice system are some of the most heavily tracked people, right? So this idea that if you really wanted to measure that, you likely could probably measure some of this stuff. I’m not advocating for these people to be measured about, are you the ones resulting in higher homicide data, and so forth, but I’m just saying, like, what you see in a lot of these stories is just like, ‘Oh, it’s bail reform, or it’s releasing people for’ and then it just has like a quote from a police officer or somebody who’s pro law enforcement saying, ‘We’re letting these people out and this is what is happening.’ So there’s that. But also, you know, one thing that’s always interesting is the crime data sources, if you look at the Uniform Crime report website that everybody is linking to, with the Excel spreadsheet for, you know, the preliminary data that was released, even they say that this is sociological data, they use that phrase, they say that, and that it should be compared with caution, right? And one of the things though, they’re not necessarily suggesting it should be compared with caution out of a concern about defund the police, you know, they’re not doing it because they’re like, ‘We want critics,’ they say it should not be interpreted as the efficacy of policing, because part of the history of the Uniform Crime Report and of the National Victimization Survey is these were UCR data was originally pushed for by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1929, is when it started publishing this information, and two years before that, they had established a committee to research uniform reporting of crime statistics, and part of it is who’s demanding data. So you have a history of law enforcement demanding more data, and part of it is to make a case for their funding, for their organization, for their job or to claim that they’re doing data driven work. So part of it is when the Uniform Crime Report is cautioning us against making too many comparisons, they’re not necessarily cautioning us because they care about defund the police or because they care about abolition, they’re doing it because they’re saying, ‘Don’t judge police by it.’ And part of the history of crime data is about police trying to have crime data work for them, and sometimes it’s worked against them, and sometimes this worked for them, but this is one of the issues that I think abolitionists are also facing right now is we have also sometimes — some of us, I should say — have sometimes tried to rely too heavily on crime data. So if you look at abolitionists discourse, many abolitionists have said things, and organizations have said things like, ‘We’re building all these prisons, when violent crime has actually gone down.’ We’ve relied on some of the same data to try to make our case for abolition. I don’t think that’s actually useful for us to do, because the reality is if you want abolition you want abolition, regardless of what the crime data says.
Adam: Yeah, it’s, you know, that’s the funny thing with data is it’s, I think, it can be useful as a rejoinder where someone says, like, ‘Oh, well, crime is up,’ you say, ‘Well, no, crime is down.’
Nima: But that’s not actually the point, and then you actually talked about your point.
Adam: Right, but the extent to which you’re countering a fault, for example, if someone says, ‘I support Medicare for All,’ and someone says, well, ‘Medicare for all isn’t popular,’ and you say, ‘Well, this poll says it is, but that’s irrelevant, because I support it regardless of whether or not it’s popular.’ But it’s sort of useful only insofar that it’s a rejoinder.
Tamara K. Nopper: Well, and so one of the things that’s happening right now is the increase in the homicide data, and I keep saying that, because homicide also gets measured in different ways. But also the increase in homicide, if it is real, I don’t think we should shy away from that, and I don’t think we have to also depend on the homicide rate going up or down to try to make our case. That’s the challenge for abolitionists is, what is our relationship to how we use data or make sense of data? But don’t think we should be bound to the data to try to make our case, and this has been a concern of mine, so I see a lot of this before this recent data came out in the commentary about this surge in homicides, people say, ‘We built these prisons and why are we when violent crime has gone down?’ So this idea that we should be building prisons just because there isn’t violent crime, we kind of lose the plot, I would say. In part of how we lose the plot, and this does go into some of the social construction stuff, is that people’s fear of crime, our politics shouldn’t be based upon does people’s fear of crime grew up or down, because a lot of research shows people tend to overestimate crime, people also tend to be driven by fear of crime, Data For Progress and Vox actually just had a report out recently about people’s fear of crime and so forth. What type of media do they watch and conservative media and what role does that play? And so part of it is people’s beliefs about crime and people’s fear of crime have not always been useful for us to kind of gauge what is the reality of crime. There’s that. But two ,the reality of crime, to me, the abolitionist project should be about when there is harm, or there is violence, whatever we call it, we’re trying to figure out how to build a society that would decrease the risk of harm or violence, and then work to try to repair and help people to heal from that violence when it is real and when it does happen. And so I don’t think we should be making arguments based upon whether the crime rate went up or down, because right now, what’s happening is we’ve benefited symbolically, some of these think pieces are suggesting we benefited from in reality, and I want to talk about what I mean by that. We might have benefited symbolically by saying, by being able to make this argument, you know, oh, the crime rate, violent crime is actually down so why are we building all these prisons? That might have been a good talking point? I don’t know if that is actually, what people are trying to do now is say, we benefited and the reasons why we were able to get these reforms, is because violent crime went down, and because of that, we’ve been able to do that, but now that violent crime is back up in terms of homicides, we have to reckon with that.
Tamara K. Nopper: To me, one of the things is, is that we have a history of tough on crime laws, regardless of what the data says.
Tamara K. Nopper: So there’s that, but two, one of the concerns I have about this violent crime discourse, is that part of the history of reforming in terms of incarceration, and mass incarceration, has been to distinguish the nonviolent offender from the violent offender. So this has been some of the tension with fighting against mandatory minimums because some of the critiques people have raised about fighting against mandatory minimums versus an abolitionist thing is the fight against mandatory minimums usually uses a more sympathetic figure, somebody who is seen as, ‘Oh, they shoplifted, or they just had some drug possession,’ but what has happened is, you’ve had this push for shorter sentences for the so-called non violent offender, which means that you are really isolating the so-called violent offenders, and they’re often getting longer sentences too. So part of it is this distinction between violent versus non violent, it’s never really worked for an abolitionist project, I would say, it’s only worked for a reformist project. So there’s that. But then it also becomes this thing where we have relied a lot as abolitionists on kind of erasing the violent offender. That’s what I’m trying to say. We have also played into that, even though we say, abolish prisons and not just do reforms, when we’re saying things like, well, violent crime is, you know, down so this is why we shouldn’t have prisons as much because we don’t need them, we’re reinforcing the idea that when there’s violent crimes we need prisons. Do you see what I’m saying?
Nima: Of course.
Tamara K. Nopper: So there’s a tension that abolitionists have with the discourse around violent crimes and attention, I would say, that has sometimes relied on the same crime data stuff, and now we’re in this weird situation, where people are saying, ‘Well, hold on a second, you claim to you know, say this about violent crime, and you supposedly built your case,’ I don’t know if that’s a totally untrue critique, is what I’m trying to say, and so then what happens is, you see, I think, abolitionists right now, trying their best to push back against the violent crime discourse, but in some ways, I would say, some abolitionists were actually promoting some of that discourse in a way that they might not have realized.
Nima: Well, right. There’s the whole idea of repeating the barrier back to those that you’re trying to sway or move or challenge, and you’re feeding them the counter argument, you know, and I think this also gets back to what you were talking about earlier, in terms of interpretation and perception, the idea that in a recent poll, it was found that there’s some huge, huge plurality of people who think that Chicago is the murder capital of the United States, which it’s not.
Tamara K. Nopper: Yeah, it was Jeff Asher’s poll.
Nima: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Right. So like, you know, that and so embedded in there is this idea, to your point, of don’t take the data necessarily and extrapolate the way police departments do, sheriff’s departments do, the prison industry does, and media amplifies, but rather have a different kind of interpretation, and yet we know the leading dominating narrative is such that these statistics are always weaponized. But something that we’ve also been talking about is how we’re really seeing not only the data weaponized in a certain way, but also this, you know, kind of full-blown reactionary pushback against last year’s uprisings, against Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives in general. Recently on the show, our guest Josmar Trujillo said that the rising murder rates, as reported, are effectively what he called Christmas morning for the tough on crime voices in US media, right? So like, now they can kind of latch on to something, but it’s really less about the data and more about pushing back on these movements that are really threatening to them. So what is your impression of the way that these, whether it’s data, whether it’s the talking points about bail reform or murder rates, or defunding police departments, which actually hasn’t even happened, and yet, somehow we hear that, ‘Oh, well, with all the police departments defunded, that’s why every crime is going up.’ None of it makes sense, but what is your impression of how these are being weaponized against movements for justice, and where do you think there are still successes to leverage, and what can really be done to counteract these really kind of harmful uses of these talking points, of these statistics to really stop what is a robust movement in its tracks?
Tamara K. Nopper: So, I’ve read a couple of the think pieces and so forth, it was interesting because, I read the Eric Levitz one, I looked at who he linked to, and no shade, and I know, Adam, he linked to a tweet thread of yours, and no shade, but like he was linking to mainly other people with platforms, right? He was linking to a lot of mainly white people with platforms who are kind of debating each other on Twitter. And so part of it is, this is not to say that people can’t be influenced by that discourse, or that discourse doesn’t make its way, and this isn’t to say that what happens on Twitter discourse isn’t found in other spaces, but one of the things I find weird is people say liberal and leftist or progressive, I’ve used those terms too in critiques, but they just become these nebulous terms. These are not terms that a lot of people use. A lot of people think liberal means good. Okay. They think the liberals are the antiracist social justice folks. These fights between liberals, leftists, and progressives sometimes are very insular, I would say, even though they can reflect bigger issues that are real. One of the things that happens is in these think pieces, they’re always, the language I was given was concern trolling, we’re concerned you’re hurting your cause, and it’s usually done in a couple ways. It’s either progressives are hurting their cause by not taking this seriously, okay. So then it just becomes progressives, and then I’m going to tag some people, and it’s usually people with platforms on Twitter, who did a thread, okay. They’re usually not talking about organizers, or people who are working in anti-violence work, who are organizing, who are maybe doing direct services, and also who are pro defund the police and abolitionist work, and so they often have this nebulous idea of like, you guys are not taking it seriously, and it really makes them visible all this political labor that people are doing, where they might be pro defund the police at least, and maybe abolitionist, and they could actually be doing more direct contact with organizing the communities that you claim people are losing politically. So there’s that. There’s also the difference between, you know, and then like, the one person I forget, who was it that you sent to me, Adam, the person who was saying, what about the poor minority? You know, I mean, it was kind of like the image of, you know, you’re not taking into account poor people of color minorities or Black people, right?
Adam: Well, yeah, so Eric Levitz’s pieces, which is, you know, again, I’m biased because he, there’s a reason why he wanted to elevate my thread. He wanted to paint abolitionist currents as a white progressive, bourgeois, which even says it’s largely white progressives, which of course is not true. The goal was just create a subtle dichotomy or binary between —
Tamara K. Nopper: Yes, out of tune with real people, right?
Adam: That the working-class people of color truly love cops is, which is basically the thrust of it. It’s the oldest trick in the book, right? So elevate, sort of, do a straw man by elevating your critics by showing that right, right, and then dismiss the people of color actually doing the work who don’t, who aren’t fucking Twitter celebrities like me, and then they’re sort of not important, which I, you know, I noted which again, I think gets to this question I have, which is this idea of the narrative now, and Levitz is not alone, this is something that many who are pushing for more police — his piece explicitly argues for more police citing Matt Yglesias of all people — that especially the election of Eric Adams as mayor of New York, which of course they look at in total isolation from the other reformist or abolitionist successes.
Tamara K. Nopper: Yeah, I think someone pointed out, you know, the district attorney that got, right?
Adam: Yeah, that they’re representing the true will of the people, the people of color, and that a bunch of egghead academics and Soros-funded, nonprofit types, that these guys are off on fucking Neptune, that we’re having this conversation on this podcast, and we’re just a bunch of navel gazing eggheads, who aren’t really down with the people. I want you to address that because I know this comes up a lot, I know that this is something that comes up a lot in people who are trying to get people to rethink the criminal justice mass incarceration, I want you to sort of address that, if the data bears that out, if maybe I’m just being thin-skinned and defensive. You tell me.
Tamara K. Nopper: When people kind of do this thing where they claim that, ‘I care about these people of color, and this is why I’m writing a thing for the police,’ I just don’t care. Meaning, I understand it’s a problem, but I don’t trust you. You know, people hide behind people all the time for their politics. People do it all the time. People will say things like, you know, ‘I’m going to do this on behalf of women and this is why I’m not doing.’ Oh, just say what the fuck you’re not doing. You’re just not gonna do it because you don’t want to fucking do it. Don’t hide behind, ‘I’m doing this because of communities of color.’
Adam: Yeah, that I’m ventriloquizing, right.
Tamara K. Nopper: Just don’t, you know, and this is what happens a lot of times, but in particular, people really weaponize, I would say communities of color, but specifically Black people’s suffering, they weaponize that quite a lot in their debates, regardless of what political position they take, and they don’t just sometimes say, ‘This is what I would like to see,’ or ‘I support the police.’ Instead, they’ll use like, I forgot the person from The Washington Post, it’ll be kind of like, ‘What are you going to tell this community who’s dealing with this?’ And so it becomes this thing of, ‘If you really cared about this community, you would support my politics.’ Well, anytime people use something saying, ‘If you really support this community, you would support the police,’ they’re already telling you, they really just care about the police. And what they’re doing, though, is they’re playing up on people’s sympathies that sometimes might be righteous sympathies, or ethical sympathies, but also there is the reality that some communities of color want policing, and this becomes part of that conversation I think abolitionists need to have. You have communities of color who want policing, part of it is we have a lot of work to do as abolitionists in communities of color. Is that something that needs to be dictated by some white think piece writer who claims that he cares about, you know, community color? No. That’s a separate project that needs to be done. There is a lot of work about defund the police and abolition in communities of color that I think abolitionists, particularly abolitionists of color, should take very seriously, right? And I think a lot of people are. I don’t think these think pieces, they’re doing concern trolling, really care about that, because in the end they don’t want abolition, so they don’t really want people to be, ‘Let me take seriously your concerns about the police, but let’s talk about abolition,’ they just don’t want you to talk about abolition.
Nima: I think this kind of gets to expanding possibilities, because when we talk about certain communities who actually based on the data, they say they do want policing, it’s like, okay, but what is the Overton window here? How is harm being understood? How is public safety being redefined or reimagined? Because if there’s only one option given, cops, either more or less cops, that’s it, more or less cops, if that’s the only kind of metric, as opposed to expanding the kind of alternatives, the possibilities of what something different could look like I think that’s kind of why we get stuck in this weird sort of circular discourse. As someone who has worked in this field, in these movements, studied them, been a part of them, what would you say about how to expand those conversations, those horizons, the possibilities of what could be in an effort to make the case for abolition?
Tamara K. Nopper: I mean, I think it requires a lot of working with what already exists. You know, Ruth Wilson Gilmore talks about this, and she talks about organizing with young people around environmental justice, and she talks a lot of times about abolition geographies, and building upon what’s already there. What’s already there might not be some people who are explicitly, ‘I’m abolitionists,’ but what might be there are people who are thinking critically about premature death and how they’re targeted with it because of the air they’re breathing or how crappy their neighborhood is treated, and so she talks about working with young people in this organizing thing around environmental justice, and how a lot of them were very open to thinking critically about policing in their lives, but also in terms of in relationship to environmental stuff. This is the type of slow, steady work that we should be focusing on. So it’s important for people to push back against these narratives because frankly, these narratives can gain traction, even with some of the insular conversations that happen. But a lot of people also, they’re looking for how to think about things, they’re looking for language, they’re looking for how to make sense of stuff, and they look at things like social media or think pieces or podcasts or, you know, webinars to do that. So I think that’s one part, the cultural front is important, but there’s also another cultural front that I think is much slower and steady regarding working closely with communities around their political literacy and these conversations that acknowledges and builds upon what is already happening. I think that a lot of organizations are thinking critically about abolition right now. I see this in Asian American spaces, some Asian American groups are starting to rethink positions they took five, 10 years ago around campaigns involving the police, and groups are doing some kind of deep work internally in their organizations thinking about their approaches to stuff. That’s very powerful stuff, but it’s not necessarily stuff that people are going to always write a think piece about.
Adam: No, they’re not.
Tamara K. Nopper: Or it’s not stuff that they’re going to come out until they’ve come to a better understanding of stuff, right? There’s a lot of things that happen with that.
Adam: You know, I get stuck on this moral horizon issue, because I think it is the key issue here, I think, for a lot of people who are initiated to these concepts, because again, I do think you can seem glib or disconnected from every, like, for example, I was walking on North Avenue in Chicago last week, to the day, and there was someone who clearly having some kind of mental crisis, I won’t try to prescribe what that is, and he tried to hit me, he missed, but he hit the next guy. Just walking down the street, totally random, sort of your quintessential viral video that the right-wing loves, and it occurred to me after that happened that, I was like, well, I know that the local DSA members of the city council in Chicago have been trying to set up a mental health hotline that isn’t the police.
Tamara K. Nopper: Yeah.
Adam: But that was shot down and it was called weak on crime, et cetera, et cetera, and then it occurred to me that your average person who sees this happen, has literally no other option but to call the police. And this is the thing, I think, that when it comes to abolition, even something like this, something sort of other communities have done very kind of low hanging fruit, which is like, why don’t we not have police be the first responders for mental health crises? Because clearly, they’re going to treat this guy like a criminal and act accordingly, right? And oftentimes, of course, that can end deadly results, but there was literally no other option. So it’s like, I’m not gonna go around blaming people who are uninitiated for wanting to call the police because it’s what they’ve been conditioned to do, and I think that when you talk about this deep work, it seems like you can even start from a place like that that’s a very lived experience, it’s very concrete, where you have literally no option but to call the police. And I think that’s the thing I find very bleak, because it seems so far from that that these, that Rossana and Carlos and these local DSA city council people who’ve been, who even just tried to come up with something like that last year got shot down. And again, you understand why people when you see polling say, ‘, we want more police,’ because they’ve never had —
Nima: There’s nothing else. There’s no other option.
Adam: It’s like the old thought experiment. We’ve kept them in a black and white room, and we’re asking them to explain, we’re trying to sell them on the color red. It’s something they’ve never even seen before.
Tamara K. Nopper: But one of the things to think about is, I wouldn’t see it as so bleak, in a certain way, and to get young people marching around in the city, as they have and the fact that people can, I think if I understand correctly, she has cited other cities that have models for, there’s a momentum that’s growing that I think is really powerful that on one hand, it can be frustrating, but the fact that you’ve gotten that on the agenda to even be rejected in that short amount of time, but also part of I think, my understanding of Rossana’s work is that — how to explain it — if you look at Fred Hampton, right? Fred Hampton talked about how part of the breakfast programs that you had people coming to them who would say things like ‘I don’t like communists, I don’t know if you’re communist but I just see you caring about people.’ So all these type of programming that Rossana and the other socialists, alder people do, to kind of also say, ‘We’re going to kind of try to provide models of different ways of relating to each other’s neighbors,’ or that, ‘You’re welcome to come into the space,’ or, ‘We will give you food if you’re needy.’ There’s all these ways that people are trying to build people’s consciousness around other ways of relating to people and of trying to encourage care as a political ethic. This is cultural work, that it’s slow and steady and is not drop the mic work like a think piece that you know really says something, right? And it’s quotable, but it’s that really important work. So think pieces are important. I’ve written them myself, so I’m not trying to like dog think pieces, right? Yay. Yay. Yay. We do need that debate right?
Adam: Hey, what are you trying to say? I feel attacked.
Tamara K. Nopper: You’re like, ‘I just read your bio, at the top of the show.’ (Laughs.) So you know, I think that cultural work is important, but also some of the cultural work that’s circulating that is really useful for people are things like, if you think about some of the videos where people are doing trainings about bystander intervention, talking about how to learn de escalation, these are things that people are putting on webinars about or trainings about, we need more people to train people. Skill building is a really important part of people being able to try to practice and get skills to practice. I think there are a lot of people who actually want to try out these ideas, but they don’t know how to do that, or they don’t have the skills, and so they might like it in philosophy, but they might feel unprepared in practice or in skills, and one of the things is we need a lot more abolitionists, and a lot of abolitionists are already doing this work, but we need a lot of people who are abolitionists or abolition interested or defund friendly, to be doing skill building. The analysis part is important. So thinking through that stuff, but skill building is actually a really important part of how we try to actually practice or actualize or rehearse some of these things. So on one hand, it can be frustrating, because people might say, ‘I see a situation happening, and I either, you know, this person either is going to potentially harm others or themselves, and I don’t know who else to call.’ Well, part of it is, what is the cultural and kind of skill building work that more of us could do to try to kind of make more resources available, where more people feel that they would have an idea of what they could do.
Nima: Right, and kind of have those tools at their disposal. Yeah.
Tamara K. Nopper: Yeah and I think that’s what’s happening, and, you know, some of what’s going on with these alder people, I think, it’s really a magnificent thing, and I would say the fact that even its not that it is getting shot down, but it’s building this momentum, and it’s building a conversation.
Tamara K. Nopper: And the fact that you have more people showing up to city council meetings talking about budgets and where they want, like part of it, I remember seeing someone from Chicago, it was part of that kind of socialist crowd — that sounds so funny, part of that socialist crowd.
Adam: Yeah. Well, there’s six of them now in city council, it’s actually, it’s a non trivial amount, right.
Tamara K. Nopper: But it was like, it wasn’t an alderperson, but they were talking about learning how to read city budgets, what an important skill that was for them to learn, so they could be more active in the stuff. And that’s an example of like, you could have people have more trainings around reading city budgets, but it’s part of the reason why I proposed this counting crime lecture, and it’s actually like a lecture, it’s gonna be like a classroom lecture. Obviously, it’s not gonna be as interactive as my actual classes, but it’s not me talking Foucaultian — no shade to Foucault, right? It’s just literally, kind of like, we’re gonna go through a lot of different stuff about what’s the Uniform Crime Report? How does crime get measured? You know what I mean, it’s really a skill building thing.
Nima: Yeah. I love your optimism here. I think it’s pretty anathema to what we usually do on the show. So it’s actually great to hear. Before we let you go, can you tell us and our listeners, what you’re working on lately, where folks can find your work, what to really look out for. Promote stuff.
Tamara K. Nopper: So I’ll be giving a lecture and it’s hosted by a whole bunch of organizations — Survived + Punished, Civil Rights Corps, 18 Million Rising, the Community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability, Interrupting Criminalization, which is a project that was co started by Mariame Kaba and Haymarket — and so you should be able to find that video of the lecture by the time this show airs on the Haymarket website. I’m also on Twitter @TamaraNopper all one word, and I have a Linktree and it’s TamaraNopper all one word, and that’s where I post a lot of my writings and so forth. I’m currently working on, I’m going to be faculty fellow for Data and Society, I’m a fellow at Data For Progress, but I’m a faculty fellow for Data and Society in the upcoming year, and I’m going to be doing work on credit scoring, and issues around surveillance, but also issues around kind of social control and credit scoring. So that’s been work that I’ve done before, that I want to expand on and kind of get a stronger grounding in that critique that I’m trying to develop of it.
Nima: Awesome. It has been so great to talk to you. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Tamara K. Nopper, sociologist, writer, editor, data artist and affiliate at the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies whose research focuses on the intersection of economic, racial and gender inequality. He’s also the editor of Mariame Kaba’s book We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice and wrote several data stories for Colin Kaepernick’s Abolition for the People series. Tamara, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Tamara K. Nopper: Thank you so much.
Adam: Yeah, I think this idea that she talks about about not changing the way we approach crime on the variations of certain statistics is I think useful, because ultimately, it shouldn’t really matter that much. I think that statistics are useful insofar as they can show that they’re being manipulated, or for political reasons, or they’re being distorted for political reasons, or that they don’t necessarily show what people say they show, I think, sort of argumentatively they can be valued to interrogate those. But yeah, generally speaking, like there’s there’s going to be ebbs and flows, there’s going to be mass social unrest, like I don’t know, again, once in 100 year pandemic is going to cause certain sort of nonlinear, difficult to measure social disruptions, and that our politics shouldn’t just go out the fucking window when that happens, and indeed, that kind of reinforces the point because like we talked about, it’s not as if the system changed.
Nima: If we had a more supportive society, then a lot of the problems would be mitigated against in vastly different ways.
Adam: And the Manhattan Institute and the Hudson Institute and the New York Post and all these guys are just working overtime to show that the pandemic is not the reason why murder rate is up. They are working overtime to show, they say, ‘Oh, you know, there’s high murder rates in El Salvador, and they had 50 percent unemployment, but their murder rates didn’t go up.’ And it’s like, well, there’s dozens of reasons why that would be. There are a torrent of reasons why that would be, but it seems like even if we have ambiguity in the data, which is what Dr. Nopper talked about, even if we have ambiguous data, incomplete data, it is very clear from anyone who pays attention that the Matt Yglegiases of the world, the Zaid Jilanis, the Lee Fangs, all these sort of tough on crime, pro police types, what they’re doing is, they’ve already decided that it has to be more police, they’ve already decided Black Lives Matter is one big —
Nima: It’s an ideology in search of data.
Adam: Right, that no matter what happens, that’s going to be what we mold it into, and that all the talk about social ills and social problems is a bunch of egghead, George Soros bullshit that doesn’t really apply to the quote-unquote “average person,” who they presumably are ventriloquizing, who they presumably represent.
Nima: Who they really know and understand.
Adam: They have their ear to the ground, they’re .
Nima: They’re outside the bubble, Adam.
Adam: On street corners, doing straw polls with construction workers, and public school teachers. But so and I think that’s the sort of useful point because these things are going to change, they’re going to go up, they’re gonna go down, and we have to broaden the scope of how we talk about not crime, but harm, social harm, the violence inflicted upon people through various vectors, and crime is one vector. It’s a serious vector. It’s something that I think we have to engage with seriously, but it is not the only vector. And right now we are limiting the conversation to a very specific, since Reconstruction, very narrow definition of crime that is necessarily going to give you, is going to vomit out the same solutions every time which is more cops, longer sentences, tougher prosecutors, despite the fact that we already have those and we never really got rid of those and yet here we are with the highest murder rate in the quote-unquote “developed world.”
Nima: So that will do it for this episode and indeed for this season of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for joining us. And of course, for supporting the show for this long, we, I don’t think, saw it going this way back in July of 2017, Adam. I don’t know. But it’s been amazing since, and this year, especially, just can’t thank you all enough for sticking with us. We know it’s been a tough one. This year we also welcomed two babies to the Citations Needed family so that was also exciting, and I know that everyone just needs a goddamn break.
Adam: Indeed, indeed. They do.
Nima: So with that we will end season four, take a little break. We will be back with new episodes of Citations Needed after Labor Day, but in the meantime, for our Patreon subscribers, we will of course not forget about you and so look out for News Briefs and some other fun stuff in the meantime, Of course you can also follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and please do consider becoming a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson, all your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. And extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Have a wonderful rest of the Summer, please do buy the book Testimony by Sarah Lazare and we will catch you in September. Take care.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.