1. Governance
July 21, 2017updated 31 Mar 2023 1:53pm

“The heir to a cruel tradition”: on the US attorney general Jeff Sessions’ plan to combat urban crime

By Eli Day

Donald Trump is a lousy authoritarian.

From his total lack of interest in seizing the reins of state power, to his losing legislative record despite his party controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Trump has failed spectacularly at turning his strongman political performance into actual political dominance.

Yet we shouldn’t allow Trump’s shining impotence to push us into the arms of false comfort. For starters, he and his clique of racist gargoyles are working hard to make life more perilous for women, people of colour, and immigrants in ways obvious to anyone who bothers to look.

And, importantly, Trump’s strongman theatrics are pointless to begin with. Not because America’s institutions are bulletproof to such an attack, but because those institutions are already effortlessly mobilised in the service of human misfortune.
As political science professor Corey Robin explains, America’s most terrible assaults on human dignity have never been carried out in defiance of the country’s institutions, but through them.

History is bloated with examples. The enslavement of millions of black bodies, followed by a century long campaign of terror waged against their descendants. The violent suppression of organised labour. The internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans. The normalisation of torture and sabotage of democracy across the globe. A highlight reel of domestic and international brutality, all carried out, as Robin lays bare, “not by shredding the constitution but by writing and interpreting and executing the constitution”.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a master of the trade. And his recently announced plan to combat violent crime in 12 mostly black, mostly poor cities is his latest tribute to the cause.

Modeled after an Obama era crime reduction program, the National Public Safety Partnership is a misty, but still useful, window into Sessions’ criminal justice priorities for the nation’s most vilified communities.

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Basically, cities targeted under the program will work closely with DOJ officials ― through a tangled web of consultants, liaisons and agency administrators ― to enhance their crime reduction efforts. According to the website, this model enables the DOJ “to provide American cities of different sizes and diverse needs with data-driven, evidence-based strategies tailored to [their] unique local needs.”

Sounds harmless enough. But behind this thick fog of stiff, technocratic language lurks Sessions’ actual vision. From life-devouring prison sentences, to outfitting police with weapons of war and the erosion of any means to hold them accountable, the Sessions DOJ is set to unleash an avalanche of the most destructive forces in criminal justice policy. It’s a lifeline, of sorts, to an era many hoped we might soon escape. An era when politicians and law enforcement officials built careers on the promise to punish the hell out of poor black and brown people, and then proceeded to make good on that promise.

It is, no doubt, impossible to know what the future holds. But Sessions has made plain his belief that recent talk of pivoting away from a tough-on-crime approach to law enforcement is a recipe for social ruin. The likeliest outcome, then, is that the program will act as an adhesive, bringing federal and local law enforcement efforts into closer harmony around the heavy-handed tactics that dominated the last half-century of criminal justice policy. Indeed, it is foolish, and borders on the lethally irresponsible, to imagine that a program under the direction of one Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III would serve as anything but another weapon in the service of that vision.

A vision, it bears mentioning, which is heir to a cruel tradition in American politics. Since at least the time of Reconstruction, the country’s Wise Men have looked out on America’s black cities and seen lands of smoldering chaos, threatening to spread that ruin outward unless blocked by more responsible forces. Along the way, America’s institutions have often served as the major thoroughfare for their crusade.

It was, after all, the country’s deliberative bodies which passed the Fugitive Slave Act, strengthening the right to property in human flesh. Not long after, the highest court in the land extinguished Dred Scott’s hopes for freedom – not to mention those of untold others – by ruling that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”.

Two decades later, following the collapse of the Southern slave empire, a body of law in the form of Jim Crow launched a century of black social, political, and often physical, death. And it was public policy, executed at every level of government, that walled generations of black people into the ghetto and plundered them blind, cementing their economic ruin. Once popular movements began to splinter those walls: it was the bipartisan work of Democrats and Republicans that ushered in an era of criminal justice barbarism unmatched in the modern world.

The crusaders themselves, confronted with the horror they’d unleashed, would shrug and say what’s done is done: ancient history with no clear connection to present suffering. And in the world’s most painfully boring rerun, black misery is explained away as either the work of mysticism or a people’s peculiar urge to make life unbearable for themselves.

Attorney General Sessions believes some version of this to be true, and is presently skulking around every corner of the country’s institutions, looking for byways to bring hell to America’s most despised communities. In this, Sessions does not represent a rupture with the world we knew. He is a reminder that we have failed, as Hannah Arendt wrote, to break the spell of tradition.

And perhaps that’s it. Those who know these traditions best know that it isn’t enough to harden the country’s immune system to Trump’s weak strain of authoritarianism. The problem for the country is this. Acknowledging this would be to acknowledge that a deeper rot lurks at the heart of the American project ― beginning with the country’s most celebrated institutions, and those who lead them.

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