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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

Billion-dollar robbery

(January 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘All forms of serious crime dropped during the first six months of 1992’

In late November liberals and conservatives in Congress united to pass an anti-crime bill more right wing than anything Reagan or Bush ever achieved. All told, it adds up to a sixfold increase in government spending on law enforcement. The bill will add 100,000 new police and more high security prisons nationwide. It allows the president to declare a ‘drug emergency area’ in which he could ‘take all necessary actions to save lives and protect property,’ including ordering any federal agency to send in troops. It makes 47 categories of crimes punishable by death, up from one. It will severely curtail the right of appeal for death row prisoners.

The bill’s price tag, initially $4.5 billion, quickly swelled to $22 billion as Republicans and Democrats fell over each other adding new amendments, each more severe than the last. One amendment, passed unanimously, allows for secret deportation trials of alleged ‘alien terrorists’. Another provision requires that any person convicted of three felony level crimes automatically receives life in prison without parole, regardless of the crimes. Republican Senator Bob Dole tagged on an amendment making simple membership in a street gang a federal offence. Not to be outdone, liberal Democratic Senator Carol Mosely Braun added a provision allowing children to be tried as adults for a range of federal crimes.

An anti-crime panic, with its typical racist undercurrent, built steadily during the months since Clinton first unveiled the crime proposal last summer. In August, a Time magazine cover on crime featured a caricature of a sneering black hoodlum. The story inside claimed hysterically, ‘From coast to coast, people are sealing off their homes and neighbourhoods with iron gates, razor ribbon wire and iron spikes.’ December Business Week depicted a society in which crime lurks behind every corner: ‘Americans are scared. The fear of crime permeates their lives. They worry about being mugged or raped in a parking lot or while walking home from work. They’re afraid of being robbed at a highway rest stop or having their children kidnapped at a suburban mall. They put bars on their windows, alarms in their cars, and cans of tear gas in their pockets.’

The panic mongers didn’t even pause when new FBI crime statistics released in early December showed that all forms of serious crime dropped during the first six months of 1992. Even violent crime fell by 3 percent, continuing a downward trend which has lasted more than a decade. Even the biggest US cities experienced a 6 percent drop in violent crime in 1992 compared with the year before.

But another crime statistic rarely gets mentioned. Blacks, who make up just 12 percent of the US population, make up over 60 percent of victims of racist ‘hate crimes’. Amidst all the anti-crime hysteria, even the vicious beating of Rodney Glen King by four white cops – whose initial acquittal sparked the Los Angeles rebellion in 1991 – has faded from view. In fact, the judge barred any mention of the King beating during the recent sentencing hearing for Damian Williams, the black youth convicted of beating white truck driver Reginald Denny during the rebellion.

When Williams’ lawyer spoke of blacks’ anger after the King beating, the judge interrupted, saying, ‘There were thousands of people involved in the riots, and each of them may have had many different reasons for participating. I don’t know and I don’t care.’ When the time came for Williams’ sentencing, however, the judge found race to be a permissible argument. As he dished out the maximum sentence of ten years, he asserted, ‘It is intolerable in this society to attack people because of their race.’

Clinton has attempted to cloak his crime programme with liberal imagery. He lent his backing to a five-day waiting period for hand gun purchases, long supported by liberals. They, in turn, were only too happy to support Clinton’s other proposals. Clinton also managed to use the rhetoric of the civil rights movement to blame blacks for the rise in violence and crime. He chose as the setting for his speech the Memphis church where Martin Luther King delivered his last sermon on the eve of his assassination. Clinton asked, ‘How would we explain that we gave people the freedom to succeed and we created the conditions in which millions abuse that freedom to destroy the things that make life worth living and life itself?’

He went on to speculate on what King would say if he were alive today. He might say, Clinton argued, ‘I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandon, nor for the freedom of children to have children and the fathers of children to walk away from them and abandon them, as if they don’t amount to anything!’ Clinton’s speech drew cheers from the audience of black ministers and praise from other black middle class leaders, indicating just how far rightward they have shifted.

Jesse Jackson recently told reporters, ‘I am rather convinced that the premier civil rights issue of this day is youth violence in general and black-on-black crime in particular ... More young black people kill each other annually than the sum total of lynchings in our history.’ Meanwhile, Sharon Pratt Kelly, the black mayor of Washington DC, recently asked for the right to call out National Guard troops against crime.

Rather than focusing on imagined increases in violent crime, political leaders – both white and black – would do well to focus on a real trend: sky rocketing poverty. A recent United Nations report showed that the US has the highest rate of children living in poverty of all advanced industrial nations today. With one child in five living in poverty, the US rate is double that of the industrialised world and four times that of Western Europe. Washington DC itself has black infant mortality rates higher than much of the Third World. In some cities, black youth face unemployment rates of 50 percent or more.

The US is still the richest economy in the world. Yet those same government leaders who just committed $22 billion to law enforcement continued to cut social spending for the poorest people last year. Clinton recently withdrew his campaign promise to raise the minimum wage by $1 an hour, even though it is worth 23 percent less than in 1981. Martin Luther King clearly recognised the connection between poverty and violence in US society. In a speech in April 1967 King said he was often asked to condemn violence in the ghetto. But instead he denounced ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.’

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