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The “Law and Order” Backlash to BLM

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The reasons for rises and falls in crime are complicated. But complicated is anathema to politics. And so, the brief moment after the murder of George Floyd and so many other young Black Americans by the cops has now been eclipsed by people freaking out over rising crime. All of that just plays straight into the hands of the cops. Those protests had tremendous value, but lots of Americans never wanted to listen to them anyway and now the cops are back and stronger than ever. The New Yorker had a deep dive into all of this, focusing on D.C. that is well worth your time.

For decades, Republicans have held up the District—a historically majority-Black city—as a place to be feared. Today, that dynamic has spread, in what Richard Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, calls a “war on cities.” Smaller governments, particularly those of liberal cities and counties in conservative states, have become more aggressive about protecting their bubbles, prompting a response from bigger governments, which warn that they are going too far.

It is hard to ignore the identity politics embedded in these battles. This year, the Black mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, duelled with the state’s legislature, which was seeking to take control of the city’s water supply and parts of the justice system. A transgender lawmaker in Montana was barred from a debate about gender-affirming care. There have been tussles between local and state governments regarding book bans, gun control, bathrooms. “Hot-button issues are now being sparked at all levels,” Schragger said. “When a North Carolina school opens up a bathroom to all sexes, the state comes in and says you can’t do that. States come in to try and override increases in living wages, plastic-bag bans, anti-discrimination laws, a number of employment protections.”

All of this was a sign, Schragger told me, that local debates have been warped by our national preoccupation with the culture wars. It takes only one spicy tweet or provocative cable-news segment for the nuances of a local issue to get obscured in the glare of the national spotlight. “The hyper-politicization and nationalization of these things—it is going to mean that good people who just want to put their hand up and take their turn serving their neighborhood don’t want to do it,” Allen said. “Politics is a contact sport. No one should kid themselves about that. But, at local levels, school-board seats, you kind of expect that you’re really just focussed on ‘Can somebody make good decisions?’ ”

In hindsight, Allen wishes that he had framed the narrative about code reform for a national audience. He could have emphasized the parts of the code in which sentences would have become harsher, such as for assaulting a police officer, possessing a firearm, or committing sexual abuse. “We really argued around the fairness,” Allen said. “Nationally, and to the members of Congress, they didn’t care. That’s not what worked. Give the Republicans credit—they’ve convinced you a quarter of a century of your life in a prison cell is light, it’s soft on crime.”

Park watched helplessly as the primary work of his adult life was swept away by political bluster. Not a single Republican in Congress reached out to him or anyone else on the commission to discuss the code revisions. Meanwhile, the G.O.P. transformed D.C.’s criminal code into a national campaign issue. The National Republican Congressional Committee has already spent tens of thousands of dollars buying ads to malign fifteen Democrats in swing districts who supported the reform. In Albuquerque, more than eighteen hundred miles away from D.C., a billboard in Gabe Vasquez’s district had him standing in front of a foreboding black background bisected by yellow police tape. It read “Voted for reduced sentences for violent crimes. Meanwhile, Albuquerque carjackings rose 11% in 2022.”

“There is a real opportunity from a political perspective,” Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the N.R.C.C., said. “In a political environment where voters already believe Democrats have permissive views on crime, these House Democrats are outside the mainstream even within the Democratic Party. It shows they are extreme.” Vasquez told me, “New Mexicans aren’t worried about D.C. politics.”

Summer Lee, a freshman congresswoman from the Pittsburgh area who was pummelled with soft-on-crime ads during her campaign, understood how labor-intensive it could be to defend against such lines of attack. Still, Lee, who became one of the most ardent supporters of the District on the Oversight Committee, felt that the debate over D.C.’s autonomy exposed her party’s inconsistent willingness to stand up for communities of color. It also reflected its short-term memory for some of the discussions that happened in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death—that investments in education, health care, and jobs are the best ways to lower crime. All that energy seemed to have faded.

“This isn’t new, right?” Lee said. “We’ve seen it, in the ’94 crime bill, in the eighties, and we saw it last year play out in elections all over the country. We have to choose whether or not we are going to play this game with Republicans, or whether we’re going to be honest and organize and put resources into telling the truth that more police and locking more people up won’t help us be safe. But it’s tough. It’s a tough thing to counter.”

It is indeed. And one of the key points that everyone has to realize is that the single most important thing to many people–whether they articulate this way or not–is personal security. More than Connor and Maddie’s schooling, more than property values, more than anything. Many of us in the U.S. (whites basically) don’t really have to worry about personal security on a daily basis. So the first moment that this seems under threat, a quick sprint to the right in panic happens. But this is also why you see the global popularity of El Salvador’s awful but effective president Nayib Bukele, who has declared total war on the cartels that have turned that nation into a violent cesspool. As the cartels expand globally, Bukele becomes a hero to those fearful of their personal security.

I happen to be in Ecuador this week. As you have probably heard, one of the presidential candidates was assassinated last night because of his outspoken stand against the influence of the cartels on the government, as this lovely little nation begins to spiral out of control because Americans want to sniff all the coke. The Times had a real deep dive into what’s happening here a month ago and one thing you see is people say, “what we need is a Bukele.” I can’t even blame people in El Salvador or Ecuador for this. If I thought I might be murdered by the cartels or my kids being forced to join them at the cost of their lives, I might want more personal security too. It’s just not a situation many Americans can understand. Of course, those who can understand this are mostly poor Black urban residents. They want personal security too but they also know what the cops can do. But given the complexities of these issues, the media then channels this into “Support the Cops!” and “Washington is a cesspool!” and whites just embrace this kind of thing, even many liberal ones. It is one of the reasons why it is so hard to create real criminal injustice reform in the United States.

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