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Tag: Criminal Justice

Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives

Two weeks to the day since police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an African American man, in the streets of Minneapolis, and after massive nation-wide protests, rioting, hideously aggressive police tactics, and the deployment of the National Guard in more than twenty states, protests against police brutality and in defense of Black lives continue across America and around the world. Here in Austin, Texas, protesters have been in the streets since late May, targeting the Capitol building, the Austin Police Department HQ, and the highly-trafficked Interstate Highway 35, which cuts directly through the center of the city. There has been violence, most notably by police who have critically injured several people,1 yet there has also been a tremendous display of nonviolent outrage against the over-policing of Black communities and the white supremacy that justifies this system.

The largest protest occurred Sunday afternoon, when the Austin Justice Coalition held a nonviolent march from Huston-Tillotson University, Austin’s only HBCU, to the Austin State Capitol, which is currently occupied by the Texas Army National Guard. Billed as the Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives, this Black centered yet multiracial event drew thousands to the streets to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of systemic racism, especially as it operates in the criminal justice system. I was humbled to march with them, and I came away from the protest deeply moved by what I saw and heard there.

The first thing I should note is that the sheer size of the protest was astonishing. It is difficult to estimate how many people were in attendance, but on two occasions I climbed up small embankments along the side of the road, and I was unable to see the end of the crowd as it stretched both before and behind me. I know crowd sizes can be deceiving when so many people are gathered in such close proximity, and being in the middle of a mass of people makes estimating its size all the more difficult, but my impression was that many thousands were in the streets. After so many days of protests, a crowd of this size is impressive and suggests that this movement has real staying power. I was also encouraged by the demographic makeup of the protest. There were a large number of African American Austinites in attendance, and they took the lead in speaking and marching to the Capitol, but the crowd was very diverse, both in terms of race/ethnicity and age. It was heartening to see such a diverse cross section of the Austin community come together to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of racist police practices.

I should also note that the crowd’s mood was both solemn and positive, odd as that mix may seem. The solemnity came from listening to members of the African American community speak about the pain of living in a racist society, but also from hearing them call on white people to do the hard work of dismantling racism within their own hearts, as well as within the larger culture. It was also difficult to listen to Brenda Ramos, mother of Mike Ramos, who was Black and Latinx, speak about her unarmed son being shot to death by the Austin police.2 Yet despite these heavier moments, people seemed energized and positive—sharing water and snacks, distributing masks and hand sanitizer, playing drums and chanting together—and there was a palpable sense of solidarity as we marched to the Capitol.

But what touched me most deeply about the day’s events were the comments delivered by Chas Moore, founder of Austin Justice Coalition, at Huston-Tillotson University before the march officially began. He spoke directly to Black people, affirming their value and reminding them that they are not the problem. But he also spoke directly to white people such as myself, challenging us to look deep within our hearts and ask: What are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve racial justice in America? Are we willing to be honest with ourselves and recognize that we are the ones who have built and maintained a system of white supremacy that benefits us while causing so much harm to our neighbors? Do we have the courage to fight from within ourselves and our communities to dismantle this system, even if that means relinquishing power? These are challenging questions that penetrate directly to the root of the problem, questions that carry with them the clear moral imperative to act against racial injustice.

Moore is right when he says that marching for racial justice means very little if we are unwilling to first transform ourselves and then fight for practical measures that will lead to true equality. Better than marching is demanding just redistributive measures, even if those measures come at your own expense. Better than chanting slogans is supporting affordable housing, even if doing so depresses your own property value. Better than posting a black square to Instagram is sending your children to public schools, even if you have the means to pay tuition at a fancy private school. And perhaps those of us with PhDs who are struggling with the current academic job market should be getting certified to teach in the public schools rather than looking to private academies as an alternative to colleges and universities. I wish I felt more confident that a majority of white Americans have the courage and love of justice to do these things—and much, much more—but listening to Moore call for such courage was deeply stirring nonetheless.

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Accused = Guilty; Or, How to Write about Terrorism in a Country with a 99% Conviction Rate

A few weeks ago, the website Literary Hub published a brief overview of Chinese crime writing under the title “Shanghai Noir: How to Write Crime Fiction in a City with a 100% Conviction Rate.” Written by British journalist and true crime author Paul French, the survey touches on how difficult it can be to write about crime in a society that denies crime’s existence and/or cultivates the myth of a flawless judicial system. French notes that in nations such as China, where the conviction rate for murder stands at 99.9%, and where maintaining such a rate is crucial to the state’s political project, one’s ability to write about crime critically and honestly is fundamentally compromised. He writes: “The truth is crime in China is a problematic genre—it all too often raises tricky political issues, when it appears the censors [sic.] axe falls swiftly; local politicians are powerful and prickly. Crime shows on TV are no better—showing valiant and incorruptible policemen and women in a cardboard cut-out way that would have been laughed at in America in the 1950s!”

I haven’t been able to shake this statistic—a 99.9% conviction rate. It seems to me that this statistic cuts two ways. First, it contributes to the appearance of social harmony underwritten by a diligent and expert police state. The appearance of peace and security is key here, for it offers the peace-of-mind that things are exactly as they should be. Everything is under control. This is one reason why authoritarian regimes suppress crime statistics while so radically inflating conviction rates. But this peace-of-mind is only available to those who are unlikely to be accused. This leads us to the second way in which the statistic cuts: For those who belong to one of the groups that find themselves subject to routine scapegoating—one group French mentions as falling within this category is Shanghai’s “population of migrant workers”—a 99.9% conviction rate no doubt compounds a difficult and pervasive sense of insecurity. When no statistical difference exists between being accused and convicted, the only statistic that matters is the rate of accusation.

Authoritarian societies are not the only places where crime statistics are skewed by outside social and political forces. One need look no further than America’s failed “War on Drugs,” which has led to wildly disproportionate numbers of African American citizens being convicted of drug-related charges, even as drug use among white citizens continues unabated. But perhaps the most striking example of politically skewed crime statistics in a developed democracy can be found in the United States’ near-perfect conviction rate of those who stand accused of terrorism-related offenses. According to a very informative database published earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged 802 people with terrorism-related offenses since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of the 802 people charged, only two have been acquitted, with three having had their charges dropped. In other words, when it comes to terrorism prosecutions, the United States convicts 99.4% of defendants—just shy of China’s clearly skewed (and terrifying) conviction rate for murder.

It seems to me that much of what French says about crime in China can be applied to terrorism in the United States. As with crime in China, terrorism in America is politically sensitive, and there are powerful interests invested in shaping—often through overt scapegoating—how Americans view both terrorism and terrorists. Unfortunately, those interests have been remarkably successful. Perhaps French is right when he says that 1950s America would have laughed at contemporary Chinese television depictions of “valiant and incorruptible policemen and women,” but 21st century America isn’t laughing at the absurdity of valiant and incorruptible federal prosecutors who always get their man.

A 99.4% terrorism conviction rate lays bare the political dimension of American counter-terrorism efforts, and the message is clear: The counter-terrorism police state exists to protect you. It is doing its job. You have nothing to fear.

Tweeted on June 4, 2017, shortly after a terrorist attack in London that left seven dead and dozens wounded.

How can American writers write critically, or even interestingly, about terrorism under such conditions? The closest anyone has come, to my knowledge at least, is Ben Fountain’s outstanding novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which presents a scathing portrayal of America’s post-9/11 mentality. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also quite good, and Kent Johnson’s Doggerel for the Masses comes to mind, but I can’t think of many other literary or pop-cultural examples that succeed in cutting through the absurdity of America’s response to 9/11. (If there are examples I’m missing, let me know; I want to read them.) This is a failure not only of imagination, but also of social and political courage to grapple with the complexities of current affairs. We need writers, filmmakers, artists, and critics to do this work, and we need them to do it sooner rather than later. Their success may very well prove crucial to the success of a larger project for an honest reckoning with the contemporary world.

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