Safe States: Safe for Whom?

It’s Halloween. And the political climate is terrifying. Democrats try to assuage their increasing anxieties over Matt Stoller’s, David Sirota’s, and even Lawrence O’Donnell’s challenge (brief as it ever was) to the Democratic voting hegemony.  It’s hard to know how many liberals have noticed Margaret Kimberley’s, Bruce Dixon’s or Glen Ford’s numerous challenges.  And I keep hearing the term “safe state” bandied about. Apparently, the term “safe” is a code for “blue”…or “most people are voting for Democrats, so the rest of you can do whatever you want.”

News flash: Apparently, the term “safe” is not meant to be ironic.

The “safe” state in which liberals have taken refuge induces another soul-searching moment for me. What does it mean to wake up and feel that one is in a safe state?

I don’t mean “my house has 17 locks and multiple metal gates” safe. Or “Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are only horror movies” safe.  I mean “Those who are anxious to vote for a Democrat and his party who are committed to an extensive top-secret kill list of countless names of people deemed threatening without public evidence,” safe.  What–who–is safe in a state—any state—that has already fallen in line with Fusion Centers—those regional data-gathering centers that record just about everything and anything that is traceable about you? These are the same data warehouses that have enabled the current Administration to decide whose disposition is a threat to the state.  That would be the same “disposition matrix” that the Administration is so excited to use in its never-ending war on random brown people that they don’t like, especially since it justifies the use of pre-emptive policing, decreasing privacy safeguards that used to require warrants, subpoenas and evidence before persons and possessions were spied on, surveilled, searched. Of course, decreasing privacy safeguards for you and me is inversely correlated with increasing privacy and immunity for the state, to protect it from having to share its evidence—with the defense, with the courts, or the public. Not that any of that influenced last week’s findings by a Senate Investigative committee, despite its conclusion that Fusion Centers were an enormous waste of money. Apparently, the upending of privacy was not so much an issue; it was fairly low on the list of objections to the program.

Many of the same folks who rush to vote for Democrats at the national level, and accuse various folks of “racism” and white privilege are conspicuously indifferent about the fact that our liberal Massachusetts Democratic governor Deval Patrick just signed into law a MANDATORY MINIMUM Sentencing law—18 (EIGHTEEN) years after Big Dem Bill Clinton signed it into law. 18 years later, with countless stories about the increasing harassment of many black men and women for “felony” convictions for crimes like having stolen a slice of pizza, and after an increasing drug war–the good people of my “safe” state have barely noticed. As early as 2001–11 years ago–the ACLU issued a statement showing the horrific implications of mandatory sentencing:

“Restrictive sentencing guidelines and statutory mandatory minimum sentences have taken away the discretion of judges to tailor sentences to fit the individual circumstances of particular crimes and offenders. Thus the traditional requirement mandated by the Eighth Amendment that punishment maintain some proportion to the crime committed has been abandoned in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’
 
The result is the sentencing of many non-violent drug offenders to unjustly harsh prison terms where they crowd prisons already filled above capacity….Adding to this problem is the fact that mandatory minimums, designed with the noble intention of reducing the racial inequalities too often resulting from judicial sentencing discretion, in practice simply shifts discretion from the judge to the prosecutor. Prosecutors retain the power to plea bargain by offering defendants plea agreements that avoid the mandatory penalty. Studies have shown that this discretion results in a disparity in sentencing outcomes based largely on race and quality of defense attorney….
 
These harsher sentencing guidelines, and the billions of dollars poured into enforcement efforts, the incarceration of offenders, and the building of new prisons each year, have failed to curb drug use, which is still on the rise.”
 

Eight years later–in 2009, the American Bar Association objected to mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders and pointed to some of the severe ramifications: length of sentences has increased three-fold. The US incarceration rate is 5 to 8 times higher than Europe. 25% of the world’s population was incarcerated in US prisons (this number most likely excludes prisoners in “detention centers” like immigrants and “suspected terrorists,” who haven’t been charged with any crimes).  As well, people of color were disproportionately targeted under mandatory sentencing for drug laws—noting that crack was the only drug that induces it.

And yet, the outcry against the MA legislature’s passing of this bill this year—in 2012– was muted. Mostly silence even after our Democratic MA governor signed it. And yet, we’re worried that racism and misogyny only occurs under Republicans?  What about the increasing state-led targeting of people of color in one of the most “liberal” states of the Union?  Feeling safe? I’m betting they aren’t.

In addition to fusion centers and mandatory sentencing laws, we also have a “Secure Communities” (S.Comm) program to profile and cross-check the immigration status of anyone—ANYONE (so clearly it must be race-neutral, right? Um, that was sarcasm) who attracts the notice of law enforcement in the course of their duties: migrant women who might be in situations of domestic violence, migrants who have information about crime in someone’s neighborhood, a brown person who’s stopped for a traffic violation. Terrifying undocumented migrants into NOT reporting to the police only facilitates the break-up of communities. The destruction of trust between neighbors. The increased sense of danger among residents.  To his credit, Gov. Deval Patrick tried to resist the implementation of this policy in Massachusetts, only to be strong-armed into a mandatory enforcement by ICE commissioner Janet Napolitano, who works for…a Democratic President under whose watch a more stringent policy resulted in the deportation of 1.4 million migrants in the last 3.5 years. More—MANY—more than under the combined terms of the Bush Administration. Having to compromise with Republicans was the problem, I’m told. News flash #2: ICE deportation policy is independent of Repubican wishes. It is, however, decided in conjunction with POTUS and WH.

Upshot: Latinos and dark-skinned Muslims–especially if they appear remotely suspicious–should expect to have their residences, existence, morality questioned legally. Constantly. Daily. And white people? No worries. Just go on. Get your double skinny latte and be careful not to spill it on the leather seats of your Lexus SUV on your way to work.

Here’s another example of the “safety” of Massachusetts: We are “safe” from the crazy free speech terrorist Tarek Mehanna. Mehanna is a Pakistani-American. YES, he is a US citizen, born and bred. Educated in the US public schools, Mehanna was a pharmacist.  Charged with terrorism, Mehanna was alleged to have trained with a terrorist camp in Yemen for 2 weeks. On his return from Yemen, he began posting writings and fairly critical dissent online. The ONLY thing we have as proof of his terrorist leanings are evidence of his writings and dissent. And those were deemed threatening enough to lose first Amendment protections.  Apparently the first Amendment applies only to people who write things that the US state likes, like swooning propaganda about POTUS’ kill list and uncritical journalism (I’m tempted to put about 20 links. But I’ll resist).

How about Rezwan Ferdaus? Another Massachusetts resident, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi descent, who was convicted of terrorism by making IED detonators per request of undercover FBI agents. He pled—i.e. there was NO trial and so NO public evidence—to charges of attempting to destroy a federal building and “attempts to provide material support” to terrorists.” He was also a drummer in a rock band “Goosepimp Orchestra,” and went by the name “Bollywood.” Until 2010—when he was 25 years old—not 16, 18, or 20—he suddenly evinced an urge to kill Americans—at the prompting of undercover FBI agents. Really? At the age of 25, he undergoes a shift from drummer to terrorist? Clearly, young South Asian musicians need to watch out—they might find themselves overwhelmed by “terrorist leanings.”  Prior to 2010, Ferdaus’ only evidence of “terrorist” behavior was a high school prank—pouring cement on the doors of his high school as a senior, and smoking pot. Yes—such evidence of “terrorist behavior…just imagine. By this rubric, every male white high school senior is well on his way to being a terrorist. Wait. Except of course that they’re white. And Ferdaus is not.

This—notion of skin-color—of race—is not random or shrill. It’s not just a distinction of fact. It is a key conceptual distinction. Of a long-standing cultural-racial bias, which has been long-directed against men with black and brown skins. The assumption of guilt, of evil, of terror, of sexual violence has been a ubiquitous, historically evidenced, implicit charge directed against Black men. As Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis, among others have discussed, these assumptions are among the causes behind the shackling, whipping, and close oversight of thousands of young Black men under slavery—to protect the “virtue” of white women. It was the source of the lynching of thousands of men post-slavery, under Jim Crow.  The source of incarceration of thousands of Black men.

It was extended to thousands of brown men—Latino—and now Muslim: Young Muslim men are assumed to be beholden to the culture of terrorism. The argument is basically as follows: young Muslim men, in places like Palestine, Saudi, Egypt—are raised to understand “terror” as a valid form of expression. “Experts” never bother to illustrate how exactly a “culture” of terror always seems to be associated with brown men raised in Muslim or Arab (and Muslim-American) households, but never in white households like those of Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Terri Nichols, James Holmes or myriad of other perpetrators of mass violence.

It is nonsensical to ascribe a culture of terrorism to any of these shooters–white or brown.* As philosopher Uma Narayan argues convincingly, “culture” is difficult to ascribe to anyone without overgeneralizing, without overdetermining. In fact, we are all very much enveloped in different forms of culture—patriarchal culture, political culture, telenovela culture, fast food culture, exercise culture, yoga culture, sports culture. We pick and choose pieces of it, and many of those pieces overlap with segments of other cultures.  And yet, culture—however we want to understand it—is often deployed to assign either guilt (or praise) by association to someone by virtue of their family/ethnic/religious background. The mainstream media love to discuss domestic violence by brown Muslim men as part of “Muslim culture” and “honor killings,” but I rarely—make that NEVER—hear them discussing rape and domestic violence as part of “patriarchal culture.” In fact, by the same logic, we could argue that beating women and killing men is part of “white culture.” Spurious aspersions, methinks.

Similarly, the FBI, the CIA, the NYPD, the US DOJ have no problems doing the fallacious—the unthinkable: ascribing the most racist, most heinous motives to young men by virtue of their race, religion, or ethnic backgrounds (Black, Brown, Muslim, Bangladeshi, Pakistani—the list is endless)—through the flimsiest associations. In large part, this is because the U.S. has legitimated this way of thinking by building it into the legalized, pre-emptive, hunt for terrorists. Into legal bills such as the USA Patriot Act. NSEERS. The Military Commissions Act. FISA. H.R. 347. NDAA. No-Fly lists. TSA search policies. NYPD Surveillance Operations.  All of these, while ostensibly having a different function–legalize, proceduralize, and reiterate guilt by association: If you look like a terrorist—how often have we heard that?–then there is reason to search you.

Safe state. Indeed.

We know how keen the FBI is to surveil and entrap young Muslim men. In fact, it’s their new talent: find young men, preferably somewhat lost and finding their way in the world—and by all means they should be black or brown and Muslim—and lure them into feeling self-important for a cause other—bigger–than themselves. Hell, when I was 20, radical feminists could have easily lured me into damaging Laura Ashley stores in the hopes of turning young women away from grotesque, high-necked, badly designed frocks.

Is there a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans? Perhaps so. For a very small subset of folks who are still “safe” and can vote “safely” for their Democrat in their “safe” state. That difference is nearly nonexistent and/or rapidly waning when it comes to the quotidian existence of the poor, migrants, and brown and black men and women in every state—who must wake every day to check and see which side of the law they are on—and whose side they must curry favor to, in order to avoid the wrath of the law. Safe states. Safe for whom? Certainly not for young black and brown and Muslim men and women and their families.

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*An older version of this post mistakenly had the following sentence: It is nonsensical to ascribe a culture of terrorism to any of these white shooters.

Amherst, MA Opts out of ICE’s Secure Communities Program

This post inaugurates my return to the blogosphere.  Many topics to discuss, coming soon: VAWA, the unsung heroes surrounding Chen Guancheng’s achievements, Tarek Mehanna’s conviction.

I spoke at Amherst Town Meeting last night in support of passing Article 29* to the Town Warrant of Amherst, MA. Article 29 resolves not to participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement, in particular, the Secure Communities program.  S.Comm, as it’s known, is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initiative, which directs local and state authorities to run the fingerprints of anyone with whom they come in contact in the course of their duties (to check on a complaint of theft, domestic abuse, a report of strange activity). They are directed to do so in order to check on the visa status of the complainant, the informer, the suspect–and then to inform the FBI, (who will then inform ICE), and to detain them for 48 hours (or long enough for ICE to move and transport them to detention facilities–where the chance to defend, challenge or ask for support is eliminated). ICE claims 2 things in its explanation: 1. “Absent special circumstances or aggravating factors, it is against ICE policy to initiate removal proceedings against an individual known to be the immediate victim or witness to a crime.”  2.  They direct ICE officers to “use discretion.” Discretion, as we know, is a dangerous thing. Discretion can be used to protect, or it can be used to enhance and aggravate an already ambiguous and incendiary circumstance.

As you may know, there is no automatic judicial review for anyone who is perceived to be an “illegal” migrant–nor even for those who are U.S. citizens (3500 citizens have already been deported). This means that any brush with local authorities for yellow, brown, or black people–regardless of citizenship status OR innocence–eliminates the ability to challenge the authorities’ decision to detain, move you to unknown territory, or let your family know, or arrange to have someone care for your children. Among other restrictions.

As of May 15, 2012, despite the explicit refusal of Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York to opt out of S.Comm, the federal government has insisted that S.Comm must be enforced. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, despite his initial resolution, has conceded to the demands of the Department of Homeland Security.

S.Comm, contrary to the claims of Janet Napolitano and ICE, will not make the Homeland a more secure place. The statistics given by reliable sources suggest that 79% of people deported under Secure Communities had no criminal records or had been picked up for low-level offenses, like traffic violations and juvenile mischief. Of the approximately 47,000 people deported in that period only about 20 percent had been charged with or convicted of serious “Level 1” crimes, like assault and drug dealing. 3500 of the persons deported under S.Comm were US citizens.

The national average of Secure Communities deportees with no criminal records was about 26 percent, but that figure also varied wildly around the country. It was 54 percent in Maricopa County, Ariz., whose sheriff is notorious for staging indiscriminate immigration raids. In Travis County, Tex., it was 82 percent. Here is what Secure Communities program will do: its purpose is to enable a a greater scope of action to arrest, detain, and direct the movements of migrants and non-whites (by holding them for ICE to scoop them up and take them to holding facilities, lose their children in the foster system, leave them without access to lawyers, family, or community). S.Comm enables greater police authority with little, if any, accountability, checks or balances on municipal, state, or federal.authorities when it comes to the treatment of people of color–citizens, residents, migrants:  It is one in which at any moment one is at the mercy of an authority—not because she has done something wrong, but because she is facing an authority.

S.Comm brings the rest of the nation much closer to the racial profiling laws of Alabama and Arizona, contrary to the claims of Eric Holder and Obama Administration in the Supreme Court’s review of SB 1070 several weeks ago.  Here are some features as they pertain to the S.Comm program:

*It does not ask for habeas corpus, or the charges of wrongdoing that are to be leveled against migrants.

*It does not ask for judicial review of the crimes in question before starting, finishing deportation proceedings.

*It does not recognize due process, or human rights protections.

Those 3 things belong to states that are based on political rights, on human rights, on constitutions, but they have been eliminated for folks of color and migrants in Arizona and Alabama racial profiling laws.

As I said last night, S.Comm is not designed to make us feel secure. It is designed to make those of us who are visibly “not of here,” fear any interactions with the law. It is designed to make those of us who appear to be “of here” to mistakenly believe that undocumented migrants are automatically criminals—that not filing paperwork or moving without filing paperwork (an illegal act) is somehow akin to a crime. That driving without a license deserves a cross-check with ICE, rather than just being charged with driving without a license and summoned to court to explain/defend oneself or deal with the traditional penalties that go with such a charge.  S.Comm is designed to deceive citizens into believing that poverty, crime, and unemployment are caused by migrants, undocumented or otherwise, and that by removing those migrants, the Federal Government is doing something about it by forcing local and state police authorities to report and cross-check the suspects—really—the yellow and brown and black suspects whom they’ve arrested.

Amherst Town Meeting voted morally–and nearly unanimously–to insist that Amherst Police Department cooperate minimally if at all “with federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement…” Here is the last paragraph of the resolution.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Town of Amherst and its officials and employees, to the extent permissible by law, shall not participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement, including but not limited to, Secure Communities, and cooperative agreements with the federal government under which town personnel participate in the enforcement of immigration laws, such as those authorized by Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Should the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enter into an agreement or Memorandum of Agreement regarding Secure Communities, the Town of Amherst shall opt out if legally and practically permissible. To the extent permissible by law, immigration detainer requests will not be honored by the Amherst Police Department. Municipal employees of the Town of Amherst, including law enforcement employees, shall not monitor, stop, detain, question, interrogate, or search a person for the purpose of determining that individual’s immigration status. Officers shall not inquire about the immigration status of any crime victim, witness, or suspect, unless such information is directly relevant to the investigation, nor shall they refer such information to federal immigration enforcement authorities unless that information developed is directly relevant. The use of a criminal investigation or arrest shall not be used as a basis to ascertain information about an individual’s immigration status unless directly relevant to the offenses charged.
 

Remember that little legal document–the U.S. Constitution–which acknowledges that we human beings—whether people, or police, or judges, or politicians—can be fallible? It does so by establishing a procedure by which charges need to proven procedurally, and rights are accorded in order to safeguard against kneejerk assumptions about guilt and criminality. We can make mistakes and accuse people wrongly of crimes. That’s why rights—protections of the accused, judicial review: a hearing in front of a judge, and constitutional protections—those things that make us feel a little safer from the caprices and arbitrary dislikes of human beings—are so important.

The way to Safer Communities—not Secure Communities—but Safer Communities is to build trust. The way many of us build trust is to communicate, to talk, to know that our neighbors and we all think of our towns as communities, to know that we are on the same side.Trust is established when a migrant knows that by approaching someone to report a crime, or asking for help because some injustice was committed (like a rape, an assault, a theft), she will not be thrown in jail, or put in arbitrary detention where officials can treat her badly as they like with impunity, because there is no accountability, no review, no checks.

S. Comm has been imposed on us by the Department of Homeland Security, urged by the Obama Administration—groups that are supposed to represent us (fyi) and supposedly disagree with AZ’s SB 1070, GA’s HB 87, and AL’s HB 56, even though the intent is similar. It is a program that urges us to turn in neighbors who don’t quite look like us, who seem to be “different”, who seem to be from “away.” It is not a program that represents us. It is a program that urges us to turn on one another so that politicians can capitalize on fear and xenophobia to be continually re-elected to office.  Secure Communities, in fact, will lead to insecure, unsafe, antagonistic, violent, and hostile communities.  They will render them a virtual police state; certainly, this won’t be the case for all of us. However, for migrants, legal and illegal, S.Comm will enhance fear and distrust.

Bravo, Town of Amherst!

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*Full text of Article 29, as passed by Amherst Town Meeting on May 21, 2012:

WHEREAS the Town of Amherst has been enriched and built by generations of immigrants; and,
WHEREAS the program called “Secure Communities” (SComm), run by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, harms our communities by mandating the sharing of local law enforcement reporting with the Department of Homeland Security on individuals they detain or arrest, thus involving local law enforcement in federal immigration policy; and,
WHEREAS SComm is an unfunded mandate, meaning that the burden of incarceration, detention, and care for detained people falls upon the budget of local law enforcement and upon the Town of Amherst; and,
WHEREAS SComm rejects a community policing model, which is based upon trust between law enforcement and the population it is meant to protect and serve, and has already been shown to increase distrust and fear of local authorities, making many immigrants afraid to be witnesses and report crimes against themselves and others; and,
WHEREAS SComm violates the Town of Amherst Bylaws, including the Human Rights Bylaw (STM- November 8, 1999, Art. 16), as SComm explicitly promotes discrimination on the basis of nation of origin and implicitly promotes discrimination on the basis of race, color, and socio-economic status; and,
WHEREAS the Code of Federal Regulations, 28 C.F.R. §20.21(c)(3), provides that “[s]tates and local governments will determine the purposes for which dissemination of criminal history record information is authorized by State law, executive order, local ordinance, court rule, decision or order”; then
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Town of Amherst and its officials and employees, to the extent permissible by law, shall not participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement, including but not limited to, Secure Communities, and cooperative agreements with the federal government under which town personnel participate in the enforcement of immigration laws, such as those authorized by Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Should the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enter into an agreement or Memorandum of Agreement regarding Secure Communities, the Town of Amherst shall opt out if legally and practically permissible. To the extent permissible by law, immigration detainer requests will not be honored by the Amherst Police Department. Municipal employees of the Town of Amherst, including law enforcement employees, shall not monitor, stop, detain, question, interrogate, or search a person for the purpose of determining that individual’s immigration status. Officers shall not inquire about the immigration status of any crime victim, witness, or suspect, unless such information is directly relevant to the investigation, nor shall they refer such information to federal immigration enforcement authorities unless that information developed is directly relevant. The use of a criminal investigation or arrest shall not be used as a basis to ascertain information about an individual’s immigration status unless directly relevant to the offenses charged.”