We are trapped in an abusive relationship. When we finally have enough, our abuser comes after us with flowers and apologies, promising never to do it again.
Police take the knee. NASCAR and the U.S. Marine Corps ban the display of the Confederate flag. Nancy Pelosi uses a kente scarf as a political prop. Joe Biden, one of the driving forces behind militarized police, the massive expansion of mass incarceration and the doubling and tripling of sentences, speaks at George Floyd’s funeral. The National Football League apologizes for its insensitivity to racism, although no teams appear to be negotiating with Colin Kaepernick.
The mayor of Washington D.C., Muriel Bower, had the words “Black Lives Matter” painted in 35-foot-tall letters on a street near the White House but has also proposed a $45 million increase in the police budget and the construction of a $500 million new jail. The press, which does not confront corporate power and rarely covers the poor, rendering them and their communities invisible, engages in circular firing squads, sacking or admonishing editors and journalists for racially insensitive thoughtcrimes, to advertise its commitment to people of color.
“The public displays of solidarity are, as in the past, smoke and mirrors, a pantomime of faux anguish and empathy by bankrupt ruling elites.”
Once again, we see proposed legislation to mandate police reform—more body cameras, consent decrees, revised use-of-force policies, banning chokeholds, civilian review boards, requiring officers to intervene when they see misconduct, banning no-knock search warrants, more training in de-escalation tactics, a requirement by law enforcement agencies to report use-of-force data, nationally enforced standards for police training and greater diversity—proposals made, and in several cases adopted in the wake of numerous other police murders, including those of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Philando Castile. The Minneapolis Police Department, for example, established a duty to intervene requirement by police officers after the 2014 killing of Brown in Ferguson. This requirement did not save Floyd.
Police unions, often little more than white hate groups, continue to have the unassailable power to brush aside would-be reformers, including community review boards, mayors and police chiefs. These unions generously bankroll the campaigns of elected officials, including public prosecutors, who do their bidding. Police unions and associations have contributed $7 million to candidates running for office in New York state alone, including $600,000 to Andrew Cuomo during his gubernatorial campaigns.
It is, as Yogi Berra said, “déjà vu all over again.”
The public displays of solidarity are, as in the past, smoke and mirrors, a pantomime of faux anguish and empathy by bankrupt ruling elites, including most Black politicians groomed by the Democratic Party and out of touch with the daily humiliation, stress of economic misery and suffering that defines the lives of many of the protesters.
These elites have no intention of instituting anything more than cosmetic change. They refuse to ask the questions that matter because they do not want to hear the answers. They are systems managers. They use these symbolic gestures to gaslight the public and leave our failed democracy, from which they and their corporate benefactors benefit, untouched. What we are watching in this outpouring of televised solidarity with the victims of police violence is an example of what Bertram Gross calls “friendly fascism,” the “nice-guy mask” used to disguise the despotism of the ultra-rich and our corporate overseers. Whatever you think about Donald Trump, he is at least open about his racism, lust for state violence and commitment to white supremacy.
“The problem is an economic and political system that has by design created a nation of serfs and obscenely rich masters.”
The crisis we face is not, as the ruling elites want us to believe, limited to police violence. It is a class and generational revolt. It will not be solved with new police reforms, which always result, as Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa points out in her book “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,” in less accountable, larger and more lethal police forces.
The problem is an economic and political system that has by design created a nation of serfs and obscenely rich masters. The problem is deindustrialization, offshoring of manufacturing, automation and austerity programs that allow families to be priced out of our for-profit healthcare system and see nearly one in five children 12 and younger without enough to eat.
The problem is an electoral system that is legalized bribery designed to serve a tiny, unaccountable cabal of oligarchs that engage in legalized tax boycotts, deregulation, theft and financial fraud. The problem is that at least half of the working class and working poor, a figure growing exponentially as the pandemic swells the ranks of the unemployed, have been cast aside as human refuse and are being sacrificed on the altar of profit as the country reopens for business and the pandemic crashes in wave after wave on front line workers.
The problem is the diversion of state resources, including over half all federal discretionary spending, to an unaccountable military machine that wages endless and futile wars overseas, the savage face of white supremacy beyond our border. This military machine perfects its brutal tactics and tools for control on people of color in the Middle East, as it did in other eras in Vietnam, Latin America and the Philippines. It passes on this knowledge, along with its surplus equipment, including sophisticated equipment for wholesale surveillance, drones, heavily armed SWAT teams, grenade launchers and armored vehicles, to police at home. Smashing down a door and terrorizing a family in a night police raid in Detroit looks no different from a night raid carried out against an Afghan family by Army Rangers in Kandahar.
Empires eventually consume themselves. Thucydides wrote of the Athenian empire that the tyranny it imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.
The entrenched racism in America has always meant that poor people of color are the first cast aside in society and disproportionately suffer from the most brutal forms of social control meted out by the police and the prison system. But there will not be, as Martin Luther King pointed out, racial justice until there is economic justice. And there will not be economic justice until we wrest power back from the hands of our corporate masters.
Until that happens, we will go through cycle after cycle of brutal police murders and cycle after cycle of the profuse apologies and promises of reform. We are trapped in an abusive relationship. When we finally have enough, when we cry out in pain and walk out, our abuser comes after us with flowers and apologies and promises to change. Back we go for more.
My hope is that this time around the gaslighting will not work. The protestors that have taken to the streets in some 750 cities are young, diverse, angry and savvy. Many were betrayed by the Democratic Party hierarchy who once again ganged up on Bernie Sanders to shove a corporate stooge down our throats, the calculation by the ruling elites being that as awful as Biden is, we will vote for him because he is not Trump. That this tactic failed in 2016 doesn’t seem to faze the oligarchs.
“By defunding or abolishing the police, or by paying prison workers fair wages, the primary bulwark used to keep a subjugated population in check will be removed, or in the case of prisons make the system of neo-slavery financially unsustainable.”
Many of those in the streets can’t find meaningful work, are often burdened by large sums of student debt and have realized that in this world of serfs and masters they don’t have much of a future. They understand that if these protests are to succeed, they must be led by people of color, those who suffer disproportionally from the inequities and violence meted out by the occupying forces of the corporate state. And they also know that social inequality is at the root of the evil we must vanquish.
The ruling elites will never willingly defund or abolish the police, which cost taxpayers $100 billion annually and often eat up half of city budgets, for the same reason they will never pay a minimum wage to the 2.3 million prisoners who work in our ever-expanding gulag. By defunding or abolishing the police, or by paying prison workers fair wages, the primary bulwark used to keep a subjugated population in check will be removed, or in the case of prisons make the system of neo-slavery financially unsustainable.
Rather, the elites, while assuring us that they feel our pain, will insist, as Biden is doing, that by throwing even more money at the police, and increasing police numbers on the streets of our cities, police will be accountable. This is true. But the police will be accountable not to us but the ruling class.
In 1994, then Senator Biden pushed through the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act. It was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, evidence of the growing disconnect between black political elites and those they should protect. The caucus has, in the face of the current crisis, once again called for the tired and toothless reforms that got us into this mess. “Black elected officials have become adept at mobilizing the tropes of Black identity without any of its political content,” notes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in the New York Times.
The bill authorized $30.2 billion over six years for police and prisons. Biden boasted that he “added back into the Federal statutes over 50 death penalties—50 circumstances in which, if a person is convicted of a crime at a Federal level, they are eligible for the death penalty.” The bill, he bragged, authorized “over 70 increased—70, seven zero—70 increased penalties in new offenses covering violent crimes, drug trafficking, and gun crimes.” It also established the Community Oriented Policing Services or COPS Program that has handed more than $14 billion to state and local governments, most of the money used to hire more police. COPS also provided $1 billion to place police in schools, accelerating the criminalization of children.
The 1994 bill more than doubled the prison population. The United States now has 25 percent of the world’s prison population, although we are 4 percent of the world’s population. Half of the 2.3 million people in our prisons have never been charged with physically harming another person and 94 percent never had a jury trial, coerced to plea out in our dysfunctional judicial system.
Biden proudly said in 1994 he represented a new Democratic Party that was tough on law and order. “Let me define the liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” he said at the time. “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties. That is what is in this bill. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties, and my friend from California, Senator Diane Feinstein, outlined every one of them. I gave her a list today. She asked what is in there to every one of them. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the democratic Party is for 125,000 new State prison cells.”
There is only one way to defeat these forces of occupation and the ruling elites they protect. It is not through voting. It will come from the streets, where tens of thousands of courageous men and women, facing arrest, indiscriminate police violence, economic despair and the threat of Covid-19, are fighting for not only an end to racism, but for freedom.
The Russian journalist Ivan Golunov is still trying to grasp what happened to him. Some things are clear enough: on Thursday, June 6th, Golunov, on his way to lunch in central Moscow, was stopped by the police, who took him into custody, beat him, planted drugs in his backpack, and then took him to his own apartment and planted drugs there, until he was finally arraigned on drug-trafficking charges. As shocking an experience as this was for Golunov, it was easy enough to understand: people are framed on drug charges in Russia all the time, and Golunov, who is an investigative journalist, had made many powerful people unhappy. What followed the arrest, however, was nearly unfathomable: Russian journalists, including those who are loyal to the Kremlin, mobilized to defend him. People protested in the streets, in print, and even, eventually, on the air. The case against Golunov was dropped. Five days after his arrest, Golunov emerged a free man—and a sudden, unlikely celebrity.
“I’m not used to people coming up to me in the street and saying thank you,” Golunov told me on the phone on Sunday. “I tell them that I should be the one giving thanks: I was just on my way to lunch, and everything else is what other people did. This is a difficult point for me,” he said. “Every time I talk about the people who helped me, I start crying.” The first footage of Golunov that emerged after his arrest—late in the evening on June 8th—was of him in a steel cage in a Moscow courtroom, crying, saying, “Thank you. I never thought I’d get a chance to be present at my own wake.”
Following his court hearing, Golunov was placed under house arrest; two days later, all charges against him were dropped. He granted his first appearance to Ksenia Sobchak, one of the country’s biggest media personalities, who hosts a professionally produced talk show on her YouTube channel. In the interview, filmed in his apartment, Golunov showed how the police planted drugs during the search: officers stood on either side of a wardrobe, and one reached up and told the other one to look on top of the wardrobe—sure enough, a packet of what they said was cocaine and a plastic pharmacist’s scale were there. At this point, Golunov told me, he dissociated and stopped being scared. “I could no longer grasp that this was about me,” he said. This helped him act in a way that appeared almost calculated: whenever he knew that he was in view of security cameras, he tried to create as much of a commotion as possible, screaming and demanding that he be allowed to speak to his lawyer. The rest of the time he was calmer. “My answer to everything, though, was ‘in the presence of my lawyer,’ ” he said. “Like, they’d ask me if I wanted a drink of water, and I’d respond, ‘In the presence of my lawyer, I’ll want a drink of water.’ ” Only fifteen hours after Golunov was detained was he finally able to see a lawyer, he told me. In another couple of hours—early on Friday morning—the detective who had been questioning him started getting calls. One of the first came from Sobchak, followed by other Russian celebrities, officials, businessmen, and investigative journalists calling from as far away as Brazil.
At first, the people who called, wrote, or took to the streets to support Golunov could only imagine what was happening to him. They knew that he had been arrested and would face drug-trafficking charges, which carry a sentence of up to twenty years behind bars. Those who knew him personally feared what might happen to him as a gay man in a Russian prison, where violence and rape are common. Golunov said that the police used homophobic insults and made reference to the violence that awaited him behind bars, though, by then, he told me, the threats failed to elicit an emotional reaction in him. Meanwhile, the protests continued. In Moscow, hundreds came to police headquarters and to the courthouse where Golunov was arraigned. Golunov’s employer, the Latvia-based Russian-language online publication Meduza, called on other media to reprint his investigative reports, and dozens (and probably more) did. Three of Russia’s leading business dailies, all of which are generally loyal to the Kremlin, came out with a single front page with a giant headline that read, “I Am/We Are Ivan Golunov.” The Russian edition of Elle, among many others, called on its readers to join the protest.
The solidarity in the media was unprecedented, as was the resilience of the protesters who were willing to risk arrest to stand up for Golunov. In a country where public opinion has long seemed an outdated concept—there hasn’t been a public in years, and few people have dared to have opinions—a nationwide outcry was taking root. The system, which has been impervious to law, elections, international sanctions, and other known forms of pressure, suddenly seemed to cave, or at least to take a step back, in the apparent hope that the protests would abate. But people continued protesting—Golunov’s case became a symbol of uncounted similar cases. “The first thing I saw when I opened my computer [the day after charges were dropped] was an online live broadcast of the protest,” Golunov told me. He started getting ready to go there—it seemed to him that he had a duty to join—but his lawyers advised against it. The protesters didn’t have a permit and were claiming that they were simply taking a walk in central Moscow with hundreds of their friends. If Golunov showed up, his lawyers suggested, his appearance might cause something that would indisputably be an assembly—an illegal one, in the eyes of the regime. Golunov stayed home, and the police arrested more than five hundred people anyway.
As he struggles to process what has happened to him, Golunov has to contend with the competing truths that his predicament was entirely typical but that the outcome of his case was exceptional. The ordinary part, he feels, is what brought people together. “I think it was a cumulative effect,” he told me. “People want to be able to go about their lives, and here it turns out that they can plant drugs on anyone and put them away for twenty years.” Sure, Golunov was a journalist, but he was not famous, and he maintained decent relations even with many of the people he had written about. He suspects that his arrest was connected to his current project, an investigation into the connections between the Federal Security Service and the lucrative funeral business in Moscow. But, then again, for every person in Russia, there is someone more powerful who can decide to have them put away.
Golunov is now a witness in what was a criminal case against him. “The charges against me have been dropped, but the drugs remain,” he explained. “And drugs are illegal. So the police have to figure out where they came from.” He said that he feels a responsibility both to pursue the case—to expose the people who planted the drugs, and perhaps even those who ordered them to plant the drugs—and also to learn how drug laws are enforced in Russia. At the same time, he feels intensely uncomfortable in the role of an activist, a celebrity, and a witness in a high-profile case. He has a security detail but is reluctant to trouble its members, so he has found himself staying home more than he otherwise might. “I would just like to go back to the way things were before that Thursday,” he told me. “I’d like to write articles and ride the subway.”
One can hardly begrudge Golunov the desire to go back to life as it was. But his arrest gave Russia a glimpse of things that many young people there have only read about in books—solidarity, the power of collective action, and justice. What if, by some miracle, Russian society didn’t now return to the way things were before Thursday, June 6th? Russians would have a lot to thank Golunov for.
Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
The Post reports:
In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.
It may be a not-very-subtle sign of the frustration in the Army that the news leaked to the Post the same day that Semonite was called to the White House and Trump once again pressed him.*
Residents of the Syrian town devastated by a chemical-weapons attack earlier this week said that warplanes had returned to bomb them Saturday as Turkey described a retaliatory U.S. assault as “cosmetic” unless President Bashar al-Assad is removed from power.