This week’s Extra! Extra! takes a look at the latest criminal justice news in the wake of more police brutality and the Chauvin ruling, more perspectives on capitalist exploitations after the failed Bessemer union vote, LGBTQ+ news and, of course, the pandemic.
Natalie: This headline really obscures the most jaw-dropping fact from the CDC’s report: 62 percent of black trans women surveyed tested positive for HIV. Sixty-two percent?! While the study specifically targeted communities with an elevated HIV risk — and thus, not being wholly reflective of the black trans community — those numbers do suggest that there’s a big (underreported) problem in our midst and more needs to be done to combat it.
What’s particularly demoralizing about these numbers is that they coincide with a period where we’re not just failing to provide trans-inclusive health care, some states are outright prohibiting it. The mayors in these cities, in particular, should develop a system of direct outreach into trans communities and provide targeted funding for HIV prevention: from things as simple as providing free condoms to needle exchange programs to making PrEP more accessible (as they’ve done in California).
Natalie: It’s hard for me to support anything that Cyrus Vance does, given his history, but even broken clocks are right two times a day and this is one of those times for the Manhattan DA. Laws that criminalize sex work only succeed at making the work more dangerous.
Criminal Justice News
Himani: There’s a lot of things that have been said and written about this week’s verdict in the Chauvin trial and the news of ongoing police brutality with murders in Chicago, Minneapolis and Columbus, OH making national headlines though we all know that there are countless other instances that are happening everyday and not making that kind of news. I appreciated this op-ed for the way that Joel Anderson connects this week’s ruling to what has happened and continues to happen. As a side note, I will say, though, that his focus on police violence committed against Black men (“After years of covering police killings of Black men, I can’t help but feel that “guilty” is only better than the alternative.”) is very obviously limited given the many, many instances of violence and brutality committed against Black women and trans people generally.
Rachel: This piece on why the well-intentioned push for stronger hate crime legislation after acts of violence is misguided is excellent, and really worth reading, both for its thorough exploration of this issue and for a case study in the kind of analytical lens it’s helpful to bring to conversations around ‘reform,’ to help identify, as Mariame Kaba puts it, “reforms you should always oppose.” The reasoning here is solid: the ways in which marginalized people experience violence are often too nuanced and layered to be meaningfully addressed by these laws; a flawed justice system doesn’t enforce laws equally, meaning marginalized people are more likely to be targeted by these laws than protected by them; the infrastructure for those laws funnels more money to police departments to enforce them, which they can then use to harm criminalized people. I want to really point out though one aspect they discuss: these laws are premised on the idea that “the prospect of additional punishment might serve as a deterrent. This is a dubious proposition.”
This is such a key point! As Mother Jones source Leo Ferguson of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice puts it, “Nobody says, ‘I’m not going to do this, because I know if I get charged with a Class B whatever, it’s going to get escalated… That is not in the mindset of the people who are committing those kinds of crimes.” (Think of the assault on the Capitol; obviously those participating were aware it was a serious crime, and still felt comfortable telling random matches on Bumble about it.)
This idea also has broad applications, however, to our current criminal justice system that I think it’s important to pay attention to. We talk about the problem with punitive justice in terms of prison sentences, as we should; I think we also need to examine that logic in our legislative system in general, which is in many cases predicated on the idea that we can control or at least disincentivize behaviors by attaching punishments to them – mandatory minimum sentencing laws, zero tolerance policies, etc. Put frankly, is there any evidence that line of thinking works? Has it ever shown results? I’m thinking here of the urgent need to push mask wearing adherence almost overnight; we know now with the benefit of hindsight that, ideology aside, the initiatives that worked better were giving people free masks and lots of education, resources and support around them; punishing people when they didn’t wear masks, not so much. Of course, the latter costs less and fits with a Puritan moral system. Looking at hate crime legislation, I do think we have to apply what we increasingly know for certain about virtually every type of crime or harm; punishing it is not only causing more harm, but just doesn’t work in terms of preventing or discouraging future harm. The only thing that works is addressing the root cause. In terms of hate crime legislation, we have to accept that not only does it not discourage racist people from violence, but it does not make them un-racist; we have to tackle that ourselves.
Himani: I agree with everything that Rachel has said above and really appreciate this article for how thoroughly it looks at the issue. One thing that’s been on my mind recently, for a variety of reasons, is: how actionable are the meaningful alternatives in situations where community-based solutions break down? To be clear, I am by no means advocating for a continuation of the police state because literally everyday is a testament to how utterly violent that system is. But one of the things raised in this article is community-based alternatives to handling hate crimes. As part of this reporting, journalists from MotherJones spoke with Jeannine Bell, an academic who has studied community-based solutions, including mediation — an approach I’ve often seen discussed in restorative justice more generally. In her interview, Bell says: “Victim-offender programs, mediations in hate crime cases—you know what? It’s a fundamental tenet of mediation that you need to have equality among mediating partners. So you have a bigot and their target. Where is the equality there?” I think this and similar questions are really important ones to really grapple with.
Himani: What’s both horrifying and extraordinary to me — but again, this isn’t really “news” — is the disparity in sentencing? So this child was traumatized and abused for years, lost access to mental health medication, continued to be abused and then stabbed his abuser and killed him. He was sentenced to life without parole and the ultra-conservative majority on the Supreme Court upheld that verdict. Chauvin, on the other hand, likely faces anywhere from 12.5 to 30 years in prison for murdering a man in cold blood with no justification whatsoever. I know that this has to do with different state laws, different violations and so on and I’m not here to advocate for lengthy or long prison terms — in fact the opposite. This ruling from SCOTUS is a reminder of how inhumanely we treat victims of abuse.
Rachel: This story has really haunted me this week, and I’m trying to parse out why — part of it is that I’m from Boston, and any story from there (especially featuring child abuse, a specific hometown nightmare) will hit home, but I think there’s also something more here connected to larger criminal justice issues. To sum up, at least six families credibly accused this cop of long-term child sexual abuse over the course of years; it was revealed criminal complaints against him for the same crime dated back as far as 1995. “He was allowed to stay on the force, and was often sent to respond to cases involving children;” Rose was also at one point president of the Boston Patrolmen’s Association. As a nation we’ve been talking a lot about how much effort police departments put into covering up, defending, and/or quietly reassigning police with excessive use of force complaints (as we should!) and it’s important to also recognize that that phenomenon isn’t limited to on-the-job police violence. Police are statistically an incredibly violent group in general, including high rates of domestic violence off the job, sexual assault, and in this case child abuse. All these (criminal!) forms of violence are covered up and actively enabled by police department infrastructure. Individual police reform policy efforts, like bodycams or increased oversight, seem to me to be totally ineffectual against the scale of police violence because they fundamentally imagine it as a workplace behavioral issue, when it isn’t at all — it’s a function of unchecked power and control, as are these other forms of violence.
(As an aside, also from a Boston perspective, I’m struck by the similarities between this story and the stories of children abused by priests over the course of years and the Church’s cover-up that rocked the area in the 90s. I’m also struck by the difference in reaction; there was a major outcry and demand for change in the Church scandal, with many people’s relationship to the church irreparably damaged. The stories of police behaving similarly seem to be largely tolerated by white Americans as acceptable losses. Are white Americans even more religiously devoted to the institution of policing than a bunch of devout white Irish Catholics are to the Church?)
Natalie: Rachel hit the nail on the head with that last question: “Are white Americans even more religiously devoted to the institution of policing than a bunch of devout white Irish Catholics are to the Church?” Whew.
I carried this story around with me all week trying to grapple with it alongside the outcome in the Chauvin trial, the murder of Andrew Brown in Elizabeth City, NC and the attack by police on Isaiah Brown in Virginia and Ma’Khia Bryant in Ohio, both of whom had called them for help. It was a lot. And I think, as I try to deal with all of this, I wondered — echoing what Trevor Noah said on The Daily Show — where the good apples are.
“If we’re meant to believe that the police system in America, the system of policing itself is not fundamentally broken, then we would need to see good apples,” Noah said.
I thought about Cariol Horne. She was a “good apple.” Horne was a cop who stepped in to stop a white officer from using what she saw as excessive force and was fired for her efforts. Fifteen years after her dismissal, a judge just undid that firing and awarded Horne back-pay and benefits. It took 15 years for the system to recognize her as a “good apple.”
Noah continues, “The system in policing is doing exactly what it’s meant to do in America, and that is to keep poor people in their place.”
It is fundamentally flawed and it must be dismantled.
Natalie: I wish this headline surprised me at all. Nor was I surprised that a Norfolk, Virginia police officer that contributed Rittenhouse’s legal defense fund wasn’t immediately fired but only reassigned.
Rachel: Agree completely with Natalie, and also would add how sick it makes me feel to think that my taxpayer dollars are going toward the paychecks of those cops to make those donations; the contrived overtime they rake in doing unnecessary intimidation, harassment and self-serving arrests specifically to rack up hours goes toward this as well. (Manufactured overtime is so lucrative and such a mainstay of police life there are rackets around selling your overtime shifts.)Minneapolis just spent $6.4 million to hire MORE cops after talking about defunding them; NYC spent $115 in police overtime paying police to beat, kettle and arrest protesters last summer. When cops donate money to white supremacists and Nazis, they’re spending money taken from our paychecks, that was then given to them as compensation for violating our human rights. Really makes you think!
On Capitalism and Exploitation
Himani: This was a really sobering read about the Amazon union vote from a couple weeks ago. I don’t know much about organizing, but it became clear, reading this, that there was a lot that went wrong with how that campaign was run. Of course Amazon has its share of blame in using union busting tactics. But the fact that the organizers underestimated the number of warehouse workers by upwards of 4,000 is simply staggering. It also re-emphasizes the point that big social media campaigns with strong external support bear little on local politics.
As journalist Jane McAlevey writes, “The media, especially the genre of media called the labor media, should have never overhyped this campaign. … The impending defeat was evident everywhere. When media folks prioritize clicks and followers over reality, it doesn’t help workers, and probably hurts them. The coverage heaped a mountain of unwarranted attention that might serve the media narrative behind the PRO Act, but overhyped campaigns also leave people feeling defeated. Sometimes, in fact, they feel so defeated that they withdraw and give up forever. This campaign likely should not have been run once the organizers realized how off their assessment was of how many workers were actually in the warehouse. There’s no justification for putting workers on what organizers call a ‘death march.'”
And that last point is one to really think about. I have no doubt that Amazon will find some means or other of retaliating against those who voted for unionizing. I’m also not really convinced that all this media attention is going to really help the PRO Act pass since, since you know, bills still need 60 votes to pass in the Senate and not all Democratic senators have even signed onto the legislation.
In some ways, this feels a little deja vu of the 2020 Senate races. There was a lot around Democrats riding a “blue wave” but at the end of it all we got a razor thin margin, largely thanks to the tireless and yearslong effort of organizers in Georgia. My takeaway from that and, after reading this article, from this Amazon union vote is that in a game that is so, so deeply rigged, the only hope of making any change is through dedicated, on the ground effort. Or as McAlevey puts it: “What workers trying to form unions against immoral employers do deserve is the kind of effort that stands a chance of winning. There’s plenty of evidence of what works. Social media and shortcut digital approaches don’t work when fear and division is the central weapon.”
Natalie: I grew up and live in a “right to work” state so my understanding of union organizing — which strikes me as very different from the political organizing that I’ve done — is, admittedly limited. I was really intrigued by this post-mortem to learn what happened in Alabama…just as an opportunity to learn more.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the growing prominence of police unions and how for an entire generation of folks who live in right to work states, they’ll be the framework by which they come to know what a union is. I worry about what that means for the expansion of the labor movement in the United States. Jane McAlevey’s piece only gives me more cause to worry.
Himani: This is an incredibly disturbing but critical read. The sheer breadth of the exploitation is staggering. There’s the effects on the community: as one resident interviewed in the Vox article put it, “There are a lot of days where I don’t go outside, because it stinks enough to make you vomit.”). There’s also the havoc these factory farms wreak on the environment, which again affects the community; as per Vox reporting, “61 percent of Iowa’s rivers and streams and 67 percent of its lakes and reservoirs do not meet basic water quality standards.” There’s also the horrifying questions around the treatment of animals.
One of the things I appreciated about this article is that it tackles the question some people like to raise that, despite all these issues, here is an employer providing much-needed jobs in a depressed economy (an argument that people make about Amazon as well). Per an economist interviewed for this article, the massive hog farms (referred to as confinements) are not actually helping the economy: “There’s no evidence that [confinements] have slowed population drain in my opinion. They’re actually one of the key mechanisms for driving people out of rural areas, despite the claims to the contrary.”
What ties this article to the one about the Bessemer vote in my mind is not just the inhumane conditions that workers are subject to, but also the local activism at play in making any changes. Again, it’s a steep, uphill, hugely stacked battle — with industry executives lining the pockets of local politicians. But in the face of all of that, people continue to fight for their community and their rights.
Natalie: I read this piece with interest because I think it overlaps with what we’ve seen happen in North Carolina with Smithfield Foods.
Climate Change News
Himani: It was quite literally just a year ago when we were reading all these articles about how air quality was better than it has been in years. And here we are, one year later, acting like we’ve moved on from the pandemic (more on that below) and turning back to — of all things — coal for energy. I can’t say I’m surprised, but I certainly am disappointed beyond words.
We Can’t Escape the Shadow of Trump
Natalie: Of course he did.
And the Pandemic Continues…
Natalie: I read another piece about the situation in India that said, “if the apocalypse had an image, it would be the hospitals of India.” This reporting from the BBC makes it even more stark (and heartbreaking):
Across hospitals in India, families are struggling to save their loved ones due to an acute lack of oxygen supply as the country is ravaged by a deadly second wave of Covid-19https://t.co/GVoaD9hgBq pic.twitter.com/pn2DegVPM3
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) April 22, 2021
The United States has a stockpile of 20 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine and it should be donated immediately to help fight the wave of infections in India. The FDA is still considering the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy — despite its use throughout Europe, clotting issues have been reported elsewhere and the vaccine has been linked to one death in Australia — and hasn’t yet granted the compassionate release for its use in the United States.
Himani: I think one of the things that’s so staggering about what’s happening in India is the population. 20 million doses is literally a drop in the bucket. Per Guardian reporting from over a week ago, even if India were to vaccinate 3 million people a day, it would take 21 months (!!) to achieve herd immunity! There are so many levels of problems here but the main one is — once again — a government that failed to do the politically unpopular thing of actually taking this pandemic seriously. After Modi’s disastrous shutdown of the country on (literally) four hours of notice that led to a mass migration on the scale of Partition, the state and national governments have been largely hesitant to impose any kind of restrictions. It’s sadly unsurprising that it’s come to this.
Natalie: Imagine having a Chancellor with a PhD in quantum chemistry and then not following her lead in a global pandemic.
Rachel: It’s incredibly infuriating and heartbreaking watching the deep vaccine inequity that’s becoming increasingly obvious worldwide, and to know that Americans’ ability to decide the pandemic is effectively over for them was literally bought at the expense of others, for whom it will last much longer as a result. It’s also frustrating to know that it’s the natural result of pharmaceutical capitalism, a vast and powerful system; it’s hard to know what to do as an individual to impact it. I can’t donate vaccines to a GoFundMe; it’s hard not to feel helpless.
Himani: It has been absolutely maddening to me to watch all the headlines and all the articles that are premised on the idea that we are somehow past this whole COVID thing and can start to resume our lives. Look, I am a single person, I live alone and the vast majority of my closest friends live a train ride or more away — believe me when I say, I understand how much it sucks to be stuck at home and cut off from your social network. I’m not trying to diminish that reality or that pain. But we are far from being out of the woods on this. In the U.S. — which per Rachel’s point, has been able to vaccinate in a way the majority of the world hasn’t been able to — only about a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated. A quarter! That’s a far fucking cry from herd immunity! The article above about Germany is a great example of how spectacularly everyone’s bold spring and summer plans are going to backfire. (Not like we haven’t already been through this in the U.S. but in case anyone needed yet another reminder.) And then there’s the very real issue of mutations, as we’ve seen in the U.K., Brazil and India, which increasingly put the efficacy of vaccines at risk.
Honestly, there are days where I just feel like humanity really did itself in with this one, and amazingly we have not learned a thing in the last year.
Foreign Policy News
Himani: This reporting is a reminder that there really is no simple solution to anything. I am all in favor of ending the war. But it will come at a very, very real cost.
Himani: This might be hard to believe but… this is probably one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read. The utter despair at the center of all of this is truly heartbreaking. But this article is also a sobering reminder of how much power international players have in national politics. It also provides another perspective on economic sanctions which, per Mother Jones’ reporting, a lot of activists in Myanmar are calling for. Last week, we shared perspectives on how Iranians are struggling under the weight of economic sanctions. I think this is just a reminder, once again, that there is no single, one-size-fits-all solution to so many issues. It requires a lot of understanding the situation on the ground and hearing from local activists about what they need. But, the fact that Burmese activists are calling for sanctions I think also puts into perspective just how bad the situation is. As Moe Sandar Myint, a union leader, put it, “We need to think about life under the military dictatorship and how cruel it is, and compare the hardship we’d face under sanctions to the hardship we face under the military. We don’t want military leaders.”