“Let’s Get Stupid on Crime”
For Latinos and African Americans, it seems like we’re living in the surreal world of the Racism Mambo: one step forward, two steps back. Politicians and pundits seem to want to take us back to the ill-conceived, devastating days of “Let’s just get tough on crime.” We can see what that led to over the last thirty years or so. (And having built on a long and lasting legacy of racism-fueled pendejadas.) Mass incarcerations of Black and Brown people. Patterns of persistent police abuse. All of which perpetuate the pigheaded folly of our so-called criminal justice system. The “let’s get tough on crime” montra of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t make us safer. It nurtured racism and created new levels of injustice. Latinos and Blacks suffered the most. Today some people want to go back to those policies.
A couple of years ago, with the revulsion we all felt from witnessing the murder of George Floyd, it seemed that we as a society were beginning to come to our senses. We began to confront the institutional racism in a bold and courageous way. Hundreds of thousands of us – Black, Brown and White—marched and demanded substantial reform. We were fed up with the police as little more than extensions of slave-era oppressive enforcement. We didn’t want to get rid of police; we wanted to dramatically and positively change how police departments function. After all, history reminds us that’s how and why police departments were created and institutionalized in the first place.
During the slave era police departments and sheriff’s offices in the Deep South were established as storm trooper-like units with the sole purpose of hunting down escaped enslaved persons and returning them to slave owners. (Police forces in the North were frequently established to keep working class folks in line, often working as strike-breakers against unions.) Membership and tactics in the South were frequently courtesy of the Klan. The oppressive attitudes and tactics of those early “police forces” are at the core of today’s cops.
After the Civil War these police and sheriff’s departments served to arrest formerly enslaved people and then relegate them to prison labor. A kind of slavery by another name. As Michelle Alexander explains it so succinctly in “The New Jim Crow” the Klan stepped in to essentially continue the restrictions of slavery, but just in another guise. She writes, “A wave of white terror was hurled at those who supported the dismantling of Jim Crow. The Ku Klux Klan reasserted itself as a powerful terrorist organization, committing castrations, killings, and bombings of black homes and churches.”
The cops and the Klan were often one and the same.
That dynamic, to one degree or another, has been sustained since the end of the Civil War and the demise of Reconstruction. The cops are a more streamlined, presumably sophisticated institution nowadays. But are they, really? Technology has improved their effectiveness. Political and social awareness have restrained their brutality to a degree. Enhanced awareness and public scrutiny have curbed some of their brazen brutality. But the required fundamental changes have still not been implemented.
In the aftermath of the handwringing and reckoning brought forth by the George Floyd era, certain earnest efforts were made to reign in the brutality of the cops and the flagrantly unfair structures of the so-called justice department. Thank goodness for little favors. Some of those changes had roots in activism from even before the murder of George Floyd. And Breonna Taylor. And Daunte Wright. And Michael Brown. And Tamir Rice. And not only Black folks, but Latinos as well: Carlos Ingram López, Brandon López, Andres Guardado. These Latinos were killed by cops during the pandemic. But the historical context of murder by cop is revealing.
And while we’re on the subject of the murder of Latinos by law enforcement, let’s take an historical detour. This involves los rinches, the infamous Texas Rangers. What the Klan is to Black folks, the Texas Rangers are to lots of Chicanos. Here’s a thumbnail history lesson about a particular, emblematic incident.
About a hundred years ago (1918 to be precise) there was a horrific incident of brutality against young Mexicans. This was in the tiny town of Porvenir, Texas. Texas Rangers rode into town (as if in a bad cowboy movie) and abducted 15 mexicanos. (It’s a regrettable aside that “porvenir” means “the future.”) The Rangers and their civilian allies dragged them to a spot overlooking the river. Then they shot them at nearly point-blank range. They killed all 15 of them. Then, for good measure, they burned down the town in order to cover their tracks. John Ford and John Wayne would probably have cheered. Sure, it was a long time ago, but it accurately reflects the attitudes of cops toward mexicanos. And those attitudes persist today.
And what is of particular concern today is the idiotic movement by the right wing – and others – to undue the limited progressive reform that has occurred in the last couple of years, in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. (The cops involved have been convicted, by the way.) In California, for example, voters passed an initiative called Proposition 47. A good idea. It turned from “let’s get tough on crime” to “let’s get smart and reasonable on crime.” The measure re-assessed things. Its supporters realized that throwing more and more people into prison was not necessarily a good idea.
Its supporters understood that the dynamics of police/community confrontations inherently created often untenable circumstances. Its progressive supporters realized that, for example, mentally ill people on the streets shouldn’t be confronted – and battered – by cops with truncheons. Professionals with an understanding of mental health intricacies were better suited to confront and resolve such incidents. And supporters of Proposition 47 in California realized that reforms in the sentencing of people convicted of crimes were essential.
Certain crimes that were classified as felonies should be restructured as misdemeanors. The policies regarding cash bail would have to be re-evaluated. Why should someone languish in jail because he/she doesn’t have the dough to post bail. This is close to Charles Dickens’ descriptions of pernicious debtors’ prison in mid-nineteenth century London. Do you remember the descriptions in “Bleak House”?
These were positive moves in California. And there were similar reforms in other states in the country. Things were looking up. Then came the craziness of the pandemic.
A rash of crimes were splashed over newspapers and the evening newscasts. Oh my! People were smashing glass cases at jewelry shops in Beverly Hills and absconding with diamond bracelets. Ladies in San Francisco were seeing their luxury cars robbed. Oh my! (Meanwhile, elderly East Asian women were brutalized on the streets for the crime of being, well, Asian. But the smash-and-grab stories got more attention.)
Violence and theft ain’t a good thing. No matter what the context. It’s indefensible. Let me tell you about an anecdote that kinda brings it home. I have a neighbor – a sweet and kind woman. Her name is Anna. Recently she retired from a longstanding gig with the County of Los Angeles. She decided to take a part time gig. She works at a department store. She has regaled me and my wife with stories that, at first, seemed literally incredible. She went on to describe what she encountered.
Anna tells me people would actually show up at the store with bags and suitcases. Then they’d proceed to fill up the bags with merchandise. Stuff they had no intention of paying for. Then they simply waltz out the store. These brazen thefts went on and on. Other stores reported similar tales and local news outlets went crazy tripping over themselves to tell this bizarre story.
As a result, lots of folks – from cops to rookie politicians running for office – started squawking about “getting tough on crime.” Again. It’s like being transported back to the clueless 1970s when politicians thought the “solution” to crime was to lock everybody up and throw away the key. Latinos and African Americans are inevitably the targets and victims of such efforts. And here they go again, as one of my least favorite politicians once said in a different context.
Today rightwing pendejos are calling for a rejection of recent reforms, such as more reasonable bail policies, a reluctance to automatically charge minors as adults, the shift to reduce some nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and the like. Yeah, they want to “get tough on crime” again. Maybe next they’ll advocate trying infants as adults or re-establishing debtors’ prisons in the spirit of Victorian England. It’s foolish. And, as a practical matter, it’s counter-productive. There is a new organization of whackos foolishly claiming that the reforms of Proposition 47 are to blame for the recent flagrant examples of smash-and-grab crimes. That group is called Make America Sacred Again. I kid you not. They are of the same ilk as those misguided dupes who’ve been wearing red baseball caps for the last five years or so. And they are equally deluded.
And it’s not only in California where these wackos are pushing their venom. Texas and a dozen other states are at work on similar measures. That dovetails with their fervent efforts to essentially limit the voting strength of Latinos and African Americans. And that is consistent with harebrained proposed laws in Florida and elsewhere that are aimed at deflecting genuine discussion and analysis of racism and intolerance in this country.
In Florida they want to pass a law that essentially prohibits teachers from using the word “gay” in discussing gender roles. Remember Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign? Well, this is apparently a campaign of “Just Don’t Say the Word Gay.” Can you believe it? Believe it. Oh, and just to top it all off, Florida’s right wing wants a law that would ensure that nothing discussed in public schools would “make white people uncomfortable.” Insert your own joke here. (But the pity is that it’s no joke.) Que lástima. Hey, let’s not get stupid on crime.
Copyright 2023 by Luis R. Torres. To contact Luis write: firstname.lastname@example.org Make America Sacred and Proposition 47 image used under fair use proviso of the copyright law. All other images are in the public domain.