In 1989 I wrote an award-winning essay, “ABRACADABRA! Or Notes on the War on Crime.” In it I mentioned those magic words crimefighting politicians would utter as the solution to the “crime problem”: “more police, more prisons, longer prison terms.” (Thirty years later we know those were failed policies that exacted a heavy toll on communities of color and our society at large.)
A little more than 50 years ago, in 1968, when America’s cities were burning – “burn, baby, burn” – in the aftermath of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, presidential candidate Richard Nixon declared President Johnson’s Great Society “lawless.” The assassination of MLK, I argued, marked the end of the Civil Rights Era, and the beginning of the modern war on crime and what would become but incorrectly be termed “mass incarceration; (according to the sociologist and social anthropologist Loic Wacquant, “mass incarceration” is better described as “hyper incarceration,” since a specific group of people, Black and Brown men, and not the “masses,” are disproportionately imprisoned because they are targeted and processed different than white men accused of the same crime, specifically drug crimes, which was one of the greatest contributor to the exploding prison population). Since then, many politicians have used this sleight-of-hand and have taken this tactic out of Nixon’s playbook and uttered the mantra that seems to mesmerize Americans, “more police, more prisons, longer prison terms, Ronald Reagan, Bush I (think the infamous revolving prison door ad based on the crimes of Willie Horton, a Black man accused of attacking a white couple), and even William Jefferson Clinton. Clinton was the first Democrat in the era of the ABRACADABRA Crimefighting politics to steal the Grand Old Party’s thunder on crimefighting. In fact, to demonstrate his crimefighting toughness, while campaigning for the presidency, Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee an execution in his home state, Arkansas. Throughout his presidency Clinton continued to prove his “toughness” on crime, and would ultimately outdo the GOP (think the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and making federal block grants available to the states only if they passed legislation to hold more people in more prisons for long and longer periods of time).
Today, the Don…ald, who is looking to resurrect what I called back then the Anti-Crime Party – this administration I would call the Crime Party — is deep in the Crimefighter playbook, declaring, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, ex-Minneapolis police officer, the protests and looting – “burn, baby burn” – “I am your president of law and order.”
“Law & Order” is an American drama series….