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Opinion | Violent Crime Is Spiking. Do Liberals Have an Answer?


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ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

So I want to talk today about one of the really scary trends we’re seeing across cities all over the country right now, which is that violent crime is spiking. This depends a bit on what estimate used, but in 2020, homicides were up anywhere from 25 percent to almost 40 percent nationally relative to 2019. So that is the single largest one year increase since 1960. This isn’t just an outlier city here. Murders are up across the board in basically every major city in the US. And if you look at the early numbers of 2021, there’s no reason to think that’s slowing down. You cannot overstate the damage this kind of violence does to people in their communities. There’s the direct cost of the violence, of course. There’s loss of life, of safety, grieving families, bullet wounds that don’t end in death, but they do end in lifelong paralysis or brain damage. There is the child who sees someone shot right in front of her and carries that trauma forever. But there’s also the less direct cost, when violence is present, public spaces empty, businesses closed or refuse to move in. Parks and playgrounds are abandoned. People remain indoors. Children remain indoors. Children, in particular bear this for their lives. They’re more likely develop attention disorders and problems with impulse control. Academic performance plummets. Families are far less likely to escape poverty. Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey makes this important point where he says that crime is, in part, generated by inequality when you have communities that have suffered from economic inequality for a long time. They tend to have more crime. But crime also amplifies inequality. It makes inequality worse through all the dynamics I just mentioned. It leaves no aspect of life untouched. But violence is also damaging, then, in this other way. When violence arises, the result is this politics of fear, of punitiveness, of scapegoating. You don’t have to look further than the U.S.‘s own response to the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s. The mass incarceration and warrior style policing that emerged out of that era had terrible, terrible costs. And it did not make people that much safer. And it’s left many communities terrified of and traumatized by the very people they’re supposed to trust to protect them. That is a horrible politics. That is politics failing people in the most profound way. Crime is not just a wicked problem. It creates a wicked politics. Street violence creates state violence. And state violence often creates street violence. And voters are least likely to take the long view when there is blood in their community and fear in their lives right now. So far, with the rise in violence still pretty early, the politics are moving in different directions. On the one hand, Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney Larry Krasner, who’s been a symbol of the move against mass incarceration and against warrior policing, he fended off a primary challenge this week. But in other places, we’re seeing different reactions, cities like Minneapolis and Atlanta, which, at one point, were centers of the Defund the Police movement, they recently announced plans to invest millions towards hiring more police officers. An April poll found that crime and violence were the second most important issue — the second most important issue — for likely Democratic primary voters in New York’s mayoral election. It is behind only COVID-19 and, again, ahead of affordable housing and racial injustice in New York City. And just a few weeks ago, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was facing multiple political challengers attacking her for being too soft on crime, announced she would not seek re-election in the fall. So we don’t know exactly how the politics of his crime wave will play out in cities across the country or nationally. What I am sure of is that politics does not get better in the presence of extended periods of rising violent crime. And what I’m also sure of is that the substance here is important even beyond the politics. Everyone wants safety. And they deserve safety. They deserve safety, both from crime and they deserve safety from state violence. And so that’s the question. How do we build a policy agenda and a politics that takes safety in all of its forms seriously? And how do we build one fast enough to respond to the violent crimes happening right now? This can’t be just a 10 or 20-year project. It has to work now soon, like this year. James Forman, Jr. is the J. Skelly Wright professor of law at the Yale Law School and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Locking Up Our Own, Crime and Punishment in Black America,” just an essential book for this moment. In it, Forman uses Washington, DC, as a case study to explore the political dynamics in Black communities that rising crime produces. So he has this historical grounding in the conversation that I think is absolutely necessary and a humanity that is also absolutely necessary. As always, my email is theezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. Here’s James Forman, Jr. [MUSIC PLAYING] What was it like to live in a major city like Washington, DC, or New York during the crime wave of the 1970s and ‘80s?

james forman, jr.

Yeah, when you’re in it, you don’t necessarily experience it in quite the same way as maybe you can see it looking back. But I was a kid in New York in the late 1970s. And I was mugged a number of times, had my bike stolen by groups of other kids. And it wasn’t something that I personally felt as being especially awful. It was a little bit how life was. But certainly by the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when what has come to be known as the crack years and associated violence, you really start to see the body count rise. And the Black press in the 1980s in particular starts to talk about crack as the worst thing that’s hit us since slavery. You see these repeated references to the idea that it’s never been this bad. You have Eric Holder in the early 1990s telling Black people that they are suffering a kind of restraint on their liberty unknown since Jim Crow. In Jim Crow, it was white violence and segregation. And today, it’s criminality on the streets that’s keeping people locked in their homes. You have pastor after pastor, guest speaker after guest speaker at the Martin Luther King Day sermons that mark Black America’s honoring of his birthday, talking about, well, what would King do if he were alive today? And over and over again, you get, he would be appalled by the levels of crime and violence. He would be fearful. He would be asking, what are we doing to ourselves, and calling upon us to do new things to save ourselves. So it really was a distinctive, awful period of time. And I think a lot of people of that generation and leaders of that generation have been scarred and traumatized by it.

ezra klein

I want to hold on that comment from Eric Holder, that it’s a restraint on liberty. You have some really powerful statistics on this in the book. You mentioned an Urban League poll, where 2/3 of respondents from low income areas said they were afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods. There’s a commission in DC that found 20 percent of men and 45 percent of women said they never, never went out alone at night. What does it do to people’s lives to live under that kind of fear and restraint and particularly, in the neighborhoods where it’s endemic, where you can’t not walk down the street because you may live on that street?

james forman, jr.

It’s traumatic. It’s life changing. It’s life restricting. I worked at an alternative high school in DC that I helped to start for kids from the juvenile justice system. And we would talk to our students about the violence that they were facing. And we would ask them questions about has something happened to you? I remember we tried to do a survey. We were asking people, has something happened to you? And we were talking about being a victim of crime or knowing somebody who was a victim of crime in the last year. And everybody would raise their hand. And then, you’d get to the last month, and almost everybody would raise their hand. And you’d get to the last week, and a bunch of kids would raise their hands. And it limits people’s sense of themselves. It limits people’s sense of their opportunity. It leads to depression. It’s foundational in a way that I think that people who have never grown up in that context — and I myself did not directly experience it in the way that my kids did. So mine was secondary. But if you haven’t lived it, I think you just cannot understand the level of restraint and devastation that it imposes on you.

ezra klein

So then let me go to the place, I think, your book, is, which is, what does that level of endemic local constant violence do to people’s politics?

james forman, jr.

Well, it makes people desperate. And it makes people willing to try anything. And it makes people willing to consider things that, even as they’re considering them, they know are short-term solutions, they know might not have the long-term impact that they would want to have. But the need is so immediate, it’s so urgent, it’s right there in front of you. And I think it makes people angry. Because a lot of people even — and this is a really, really, really crucial point. But in the highest crime neighborhood that you will ever encounter, the majority of people there are not themselves committing crime and certainly not committing acts of violence. And so there’s a level of anger and frustration. I’m living in this, too. And I’m not doing that. And so, how dare you? So people are both fearful, they’re scared, they’re angry. And we know. We know what fear and anger lead to in politics. This isn’t limited to crime. And it’s not limited to Black America. You can look at this across history and across peoples. It makes them want to be punitive. And it makes them want to lash out at those that are scaring them, at those that are harming them, at those that are causing them fear. Now this does have particular bite in the Black community in the sense that on top of everything that I just said, on top of all of that, you have the additional fact that Black people are constantly living in a world, Black people are well aware that we are always living in a world where we are being judged by the larger world. We are being stereotyped by the larger world. So now on top of everything that I just said, you have people who look at those that are breaking the rules, that are breaking the law, that are perceived as breaking the rules or breaking the law, and on top of all of those things, they are bringing shame and scorn onto the rest of the Black community. Because they are playing into the stereotype, the same stereotype that has been used to keep us down, now you’re playing into it. So now you add the anger, the fear, the punitiveness, the shame, the desire to cast out those that are harming your own community. And it becomes a toxic mix that produced some of the support that we saw in the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s for some of the worst excesses of the war on crime and the tough on crime era.

ezra klein

Tell me about that support. What were the politics of being a Black lawmaker in DC in that period? What position were you expected to take on crime and on punishment?

james forman, jr.

I wouldn’t say that there was an expected position. And there wasn’t one position. This is important. Every single one of the things that I’m describing right now was contested. Not everybody believed the things that we’re talking about. And there are activists from the NAACP, and there are local organizers, even in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, who are trying to resist what we’re talking about. So with that said, right, let’s talk about some of the different positions that people were taking that led them to contribute, in some ways, to the tough on crime agenda. It’s not a term I like, but we’ll use it for shorthand for now. So, a number of folks in leadership positions had themselves been in the civil rights movement, right? So you have people like a City Council member, Washington, DC, named John Ray. And he becomes a City Council member at a time when late 1970s, when heroin and the violence that was associated at that time with the heroin trade, but also just the overdose and the addiction and the addicts who are congregating in public space feel to a lot of people like they’re taking over the city. And it seems like in the beginning, early on in his career, he’s not really sure what to do about it, right? He sort of tries different things, and he’s open to thinking about long-term investments in school and jobs programs. But he has this immediate problem that he’s facing, which is that his constituents are constantly writing, constantly calling, constantly complaining about heroin and the impact that it’s having on the city. And so, what does he decide to do? He decides to push for mandatory minimums, mandatory minimum offenses, the idea that if you’re convicted of this crime, no matter what, you will get this certain amount of time in prison. And at the time that he does it — it’s pretty hard to believe this now, looking back. But at the time that he does it, he sees it as a form of racial equality because he’s aware of these statistics that show, in the death penalty context, that people who kill white people are more likely to be executed than people who kill Black people. And he thinks, OK, well, mandatory minimums will be the equalizer. They’ll make sure that everybody, Black and white alike, who is convicted of these drug crimes will get the same punishment. So, in some ways, I talk about him because he shows the complexity of a Black politician in that era. He’s angry about the drugs. And he’s being pestered by his constituency to do something about them. And he has this racial justice orientation, which mistakenly — but he wasn’t the only one who thought that mandatory minimums would have this impact. But mistakenly, he thinks that mandatory minimums will help eliminate racial disparity in the system. And those two motivations together, he runs with. And he’s able to get on the ballot in the city in the early 1980s, 1981, citywide referendum supporting mandatory minimums for drug and certain gun offenses.

ezra klein

I really appreciate the point you made about the diversity of opinion, particularly among leaders and activists and politicians. One of the forces, though, that I do want to center in this, because I think you do a really good job centering it in the book, is public opinion and what living with a lot of violent crime does to public opinion. So you look at that period, and you have Jesse Jackson saying, he’s the general in the war to fight drugs. And you have the Congressional Black Caucus, or much of it, ending up supporting the crime bill, even though, now, people look back on many of that bill’s provisions as a pretty profound mistake. There was also a push from voters. And there’s this work by the political scientist Peter Enns. And what he shows is that the public’s desire for punitive policy attracts crime rates scarily well. One thing he finds out, I think is really interesting, is that public support for being, to your point, so-called tough on crime, it rose before Congress turned their attention to the issue. They were responding to the public, not leading the public. Does that track with the basic dynamics of the book? I mean, to what degree are politicians here actually somewhat boxed in by voters when they’re living with the fear of violent threat all the time begin demanding an immediate and punitive and aggressive response?

james forman, jr.

Yeah, I think that’s a really, really hard question. And I’m familiar with Enns’s research that you’re making reference to. There are people who disagree who would point to elected officials as more kind of pushing the narrative there. Katherine Becket’s research comes to mind. But I can’t resolve some of those disagreements. I do know this, though. When John Ray, along with Burtell Jefferson, who is not insignificantly the first Black police chief in Washington, DC, when they get the mandatory minimum legislation before the voters so that people can go to the polls and vote on it, it passes overwhelmingly. And it passes in every precinct in the city, all but one. So what is that a story of, right? They got it on the ballot, but at the same time, people had to decide. And there was strong opposition, which is maybe supporting the way you frame the question, because there was strong and vocal opposition against mandatory minimums. The civil rights community rallied. They rallied in opposition. They said, look, Ray might think this is going to equalize things, but it’s not. They recognized early on, this is going to put more power in the hands of prosecutors. They said it’s going to lead to overincarceration and overpunishment. It’s going to lead to circumstances where you have young Black men and young Black women who judges would want to give probation and are not going to be allowed to do it. And they put that before the voters. And Black, white, wealthy, poor voters said no. So your point, Enns’s point, the punitive instinct in response to rising crime was too strong. But I do think one thing that’s really crucial, one lesson that has to be learned from that period, is, it was an up or down vote on mandatory minimums. So that civil rights community, they didn’t have another option on the ballot. It was, are you for mandatory minimums in response to this crime crisis, or are you against them? And not giving people another option when they’re scared, that’s absolutely going to be a cause for failure for those of us who would want to resist these punitive measures. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

One of my observations, from just being a political reporter for years, is that the threat of violence always and almost everywhere creates terrible politics. Think of America in the post 9/11 moment. Our politics were, in many cases, grotesque. When you have countries that are under threat from an outside player, politics often gets much worse. You have martial law. You have tremendous obligations of civil liberties. You had in America the internment of Japanese during World War II. And there is a lot of social science research, how it activates authoritarian personalities and fear responses. The more afraid people are personally, the simpler and more punitive and more strong mannish their politics get. And one thing that applies to me is that you really, if you want to see better solutions here, you actually have to take very seriously stopping crime from getting too high before it starts. When it’s not that high, there’s actually a lot of policy space. But the higher it gets, the more the policy space narrows. But so I think that actually brings us to what begins to happen next, which is that in the ‘90s through the mid 2010s, crime rates plummet. I mean, across the country, they fall by roughly half. I mean, in some places like DC and New York and LA and San Francisco, you have falls that are at 70 percent or 80 percent for violent crime. So was this a success for this punitive, tough on crime approach, or how do you explain the crime drop?

james forman, jr.

It’s such an important question. And when I was doing my research, I interviewed a bunch of different criminologists. And there was nothing close to consensus. In fact, one of them said to me, look, if there’s 10 of us in the room, you’re going to get 10 different reasons for why crime goes up and why it goes down, and when it goes up and when it goes down. And none of the reasons are going to be — they’re all going to contradict and undermine one another. So there are theories about lead and reduction of lead in paint and in water and in the air because of automobiles. There are some people who think it has to do with the number of young people, right? Young people disproportionately are more likely to commit crimes. And so, when you have sort of age cohorts moving through the system, that can have an impact as well. I think there’s pretty strong evidence that the end of that sort of open air drug markets in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and the way in which drug distribution in more recent years has moved because of the internet and otherwise has moved more behind doors and doesn’t have that fight over turf that you see so well documented in the wire. And certainly, I think there’s no question that most people, even people who are opposed to longer sentences and heavier police presence, nonetheless say that the sort of mass incarceration approach of locking more people up for longer played some role. But how much, that’s where the disagreement begins. Because what we know is that from 2000 to 2020, 2019, we have about 15 states that reduced their prison populations and reduced crime. We know that in New York City, famously, when the stop and frisk era was ended, which the defenders said, at the time, is going to lead to chaos, and, in fact, crime continued to go down. So there’s evidence, I think, going in lots of different directions. I personally myself, I don’t have an answer. I don’t have a, well, among all these different criminologists, here’s where I come down. I do think it is most likely to be some combination of those factors. And I’m not, honestly, that persuaded that this is one of these things that criminologists are ever going to figure out.

ezra klein

One of the things that always influences me on this is this idea that crime has contagion dynamics. It’s actually sort of like viruses, right? I think people are now pretty — or at least, more used to thinking in terms of exponential growth and exponential decay because of coronavirus and how that creates very weird patterns. And that’s true for violence, too. I mean, this is something the economist John Pfaff makes a point of saying, but that you know there’s research showing that the average shooting produces three shootings in response. Some can produce up to 60 or 70 shootings afterwards. So it’s one of these things where if you start having crime, it can go into exponential increases really rapidly, as you have reprisal crime. But then if you’re able to begin interrupting it, it can also go into exponential decay. So I don’t think that really can explain why we had nationwide drops, or rises, frankly, all at the same time. But if you assume that we got somewhat better policing and some other issues fell out of the system, and there were changes in the generational cohort and lead, it begins to make sense why things can happen, feed on itself going up or feed on itself going down. But the essential mystery of it is frustrating. But I do want to note that I think if it were true that overpolicing or the super aggressive policing we saw and mass incarceration was a success, if it had been that, that would be pretty clear on the data. Because you have very, very clear experimental mechanisms there, where a city does it at this point, the state does it at another. You can see differences in them. Some states begin to reduce their prison population, and we don’t really see that. So I’m pretty persuaded. And I do just want to make this point for the rest — because I think it’s important — for the rest of the conversation. I just don’t think the evidence is there that it is the kind of mass incarceration and aggressive sentencing we saw that did the trick. It might have helped somewhat at some points in some places, but the patterns aren’t there for it to be the answer.

james forman, jr.

Oh, I think that’s absolutely right. And the best summary of the research on this that I’ve seen, people estimate that it has somewhere between 4 to 15, 1-5, percent of the decline might have been attributable to those factors. So, yes, I agree with you. And I think that’s an important addition to what I said. Whatever else we can say about it, we know it wasn’t mostly that. It was, at most, a very small contributor.

ezra klein

So then something really important happens that is present in your book, but then goes beyond its timeframe, which is that so crime does plummet, but policy lags, and policy also gets locked in. So policing gets much more intense, much more aggressive, particularly in Black communities. Crime is going or has gone down. Sentencing is much more intensive. You have mass incarceration. And so now you have a generation growing up without the crime emergency of the ‘70s, the ‘80s, early ‘90s, but with the incredibly intense form of policing and sentencing that comes out of it. How much of today’s politics do you think is shaped by this generation that’s had, I think in many cases, a truly horrible experience of being overpoliced?

james forman, jr.

A lot of it. I think about this all the time. And as a professor, one of the things that I love about my job is that I am constantly seeing new generations coming into my classroom. And when I try to teach this time period, my students just really look at me like I’ve arrived from Pluto. I teach Randy Kennedy’s “Race, Crime, and the Law” from the 1990s, right? Which is really — it’s a brilliant book. There’s lots in there to disagree with. But this is somebody who has a deep race consciousness, right, and a deep love of Black people. But you can tell that he’s writing in the period that we’re talking about, right? He’s living the horror that you and I just spent some time talking about. And it’s on the page. You can see it. And my students are repelled by it. And I think it’s exactly what you said. It is growing up with one of these problems, this aggressive and often brutal and overwhelming policing and prison system, but no consciousness. I mean, you might as well be talking about the Constitutional Convention or something for their consciousness of what it was like to be alive in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And you see it playing out again and again. It’s a generational point. We’ve seen it in the last two presidential campaigns. We saw it in 2016, and we saw it 2020 in the Democratic primary, right, both with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, who came up in these years and said and did things that we all look at now and say somewhere between, that was wrong, to, that was terrible. But those of us that are more familiar with the time period and maybe were alive then, were living through it, have some understanding and some appreciation for where that might have been coming from, in my case, still very much wanting to hear apologies, wanting to hear what you’re going to do differently now. But for my students, none of it. Forget about it.

ezra klein

I want to hold here because I want to speak to the person listening to this, who hears that about your students and says, oh, well, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Because I think it’s important to try to understand the experience of living under this kind of policing, where it’s not just crime threatening you, but every day aggression and humiliation and violence from the state. So talking about aggressive policing in the book, you write, quote, “For residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces.” That line really stuck with me — “a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces.” And to that point, you have a heartbreaking story in the book about the way the students at your charter school faced near daily humiliation at the hands of police. Can you tell me about what happened to them?

james forman, jr.

Yeah, absolutely. What led up to it was this kind of warrior policing. These are known in DC as the jump out squads. And the jump out squads, what they did was they would roll up on corners when they saw groups of young people, groups of young Black people, who they thought were at risk of either possessing drugs, selling drugs. They would tell you after the fact sometimes that they had a particular complaint or a particular incident. But the truth is they often couldn’t produce those in court. And a lot of times, it was just a form of, they would call it, in their own minds, prophylactic policing or preventive policing. For our young people in our school, it just felt like terror. And the important other point to say about the students that we’re talking about is, this was a school that had been started for kids from the juvenile justice system. So it wasn’t exclusively kids that had been arrested or kids locked up, but that was our core that we really tried to reach out to and create space for. And so we were opening ourselves up to young people who the city, in many ways, had given up on and also young people who were constantly being pulled every day, right, were being pulled in their neighborhoods by people who said, don’t bother. Don’t go to that school. Nothing’s going to ever become of you. And this is the trauma, right? We talked earlier about what it’s like to live in this level of violence. You start to tell yourself, why bother? Nothing’s going to come of me. I’m never going to escape. Right? But there they are, traipsing across town, taking two and three buses. DC doesn’t have school buses. You have to take the metro. They are getting themselves to school against the odds. And then, while on break, between classes, congregating in front of our school, they are attacked by police, who throw them up on the wall, who search them, who empty their pockets, who empty their purses, who empty their backpacks, looking for drugs, apparently, as far as we can tell. They never recover any. In one incident, an officer chased a student into the school and pulled a gun on the student in the school. You talk about the trauma of witnessing violence. Well, what about when it’s violence at the hands of the state? And this happens 8 or 10 times. And we finally, finally — because I’m a lawyer and the co-founder is a lawyer. And we start making calls. And eventually, we get somebody from the precinct, who is going to come and answer some questions. Most of the officers were Black, like all of our students were. We’re thinking maybe we can have some sort of conversation and really explain and convey to these officers the trauma and the pain that they are inflicting. And we get them to come. We actually have a meeting. Our students came forward. They told their stories. It was raw, man. It was emotional. And people were really putting it out there. And the response that we got, first, they were quiet. The officers were quiet at first. And then one officer spoke. He was a Black officer. And he stood up. And he said — and he wasn’t unfriendly. He was just matter of fact in that kind of law enforcement, matter of fact, kind of way. He said, look, your school is in a high crime neighborhood. It’s known for drug sales. Neighbors have been calling to complain about this corner. And we have no choice but to come and aggressively police this corner. And our students, Ezra, our students went crazy. They were yelling, we’re not selling drugs. Whatever you’re doing, don’t bother us. We are not the problem. And then the officer says — this was his big idea. He says this to the staff. He’s looking at us. He says, maybe you should have your students wear large IDs so that we could know who the kids from your school are and leave them alone. Well, whatever kind of calmness — and there wasn’t that much in the room — there had been, at that point, was gone. Because our students, they’ve been studying. They had studied apartheid, and they’d studied slavery. And they’d studied the past laws. And they knew in a way that the officer didn’t and couldn’t how wrong it was for him to suggest that, to suggest that they had to prove their innocence. And they said to the officer, and then they said to us later in reflection papers afterwards we had them process us, I remember one of them said, look, we’ve obeyed the law. We have worked hard. And the student was looking at me and said, you told us that society would give us a chance. You didn’t lie about there being discrimination, no, but you told us that if we did the right thing, we would have a chance. And these officers every day, by their actions, are telling us that that is a lie. And we lost faith, but that’s not really the point, because we could work to regain it. The point is that when the state does that, the state destroys the faith that people otherwise might, would have, could have in their potential, in the chance that one day, they might be treated not equally — fine — fine — but with some basic measure of dignity, and that’s what those officers were denying. You talked earlier about the idea of violence and violence both being a cause of, right, and creating additional crime and additional harm. But this is an example of how when the state does this to you as a citizen, it creates the very criminality that it purports to be attacking.

ezra klein

I find that story so gutting. And I want to flesh out that idea of it creating the criminality. There’s a study — this is really, really disturbing — about how contact with law enforcement can itself be criminogenic. It seems to push towards crime for Black and Latino youth. And I’m going to read to you from the abstract here. It says contact with law enforcement predicts increases in Black and Latino adolescents’ self-reported criminal behaviors 6, 12, and 18 months later. These results are partially mediated by psychological distress. The younger boys are when they’re stopped for the first time, the stronger these relationships. I’m not going to go into how it controls for all this because, obviously, you have correlation causation issues. But it’s a pretty, I think, well done study. How do you think about or understand that finding? What does it do to a young boy’s relationship with the law to be treated like this?

james forman, jr.

I think that finding that you just shared is an empirical demonstration of the anecdote of the story that I told you. Because the way I make sense of it is very basic. The way in which you are treated by society, which includes the state, which includes government, law enforcement and schools are the most prominent government agencies in the lives of the young people that we’re talking about, Black and Brown young people. It shouldn’t be law enforcement. It should just be schools. But it is law enforcement, and it is schools. And the messages that they send, the lessons they teach about who you are, who you can be, what your future is or isn’t, those are lessons that are taught every day. I mean, think about the story that I told you before. One of, to me, the most kind of gutting pieces of it is, we have a student who was on the mouthier side, leader in student government, spoke up for himself in all the best ways. And in one of these instances, when the police left, he shouted back at the officers as they were leaving, once again, you didn’t find anything. Now what does the officer do in response to that? The officer looks back at him and says, not this time. So what does that mean? Just think about it. It means that this young man, because of his race, location, and age, had been so defined as criminal in the minds of the officer, that even the fact that he had done nothing wrong, that wasn’t enough for him to regain the presumption of innocence. He stayed guilty, right? He was born guilty, and he stayed guilty. He can’t ever get the presumption of innocence. And here’s the point about the study that you mentioned. People understand that. Our kids knew that’s how they were being judged, and that’s how they were being evaluated. They knew these searches weren’t happening across town. They knew that white kids weren’t being treated this way. And so, that message that you can only ever and forever be less than, we celebrate the people who resist it, right? We celebrate Malcolm X when he’s told by his teacher right in the face, you can’t be a lawyer. And he’s able to overcome that. We celebrate the Black excellence in the face of resistance and oppression. But the truth is, for a lot of people, being told you’re nothing just beats you down. And we never hear those stories. Those are never the people who write the books about the overcoming. But they’re the people that are represented in that study. And they’re much more common than those who are able to overcome. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

There was a recent Vox Data for Progress poll that I found really striking. And one question asked whether regular police patrols make people feel safer, more or less safe. And 65 percent of African-Americans said regular police patrols made them feel more safe. But then another question asked whether most police officers can be trusted. And an almost equal number of African-Americans said no. 63 percent said no. So here you have a poll. And it simultaneously says, yes, police patrols make me feel safer. No, the people doing those patrols cannot be trusted or are not trusted by me. How do you think about these results?

james forman, jr.

Yeah, I think a lot of it ties back to the conversation that we were having earlier when we talked about the legacy of crime and what that does to people and the way in which fear demands a response. And I think what you are seeing in those responses is a recognition that something is wrong with our police. Because it should be that they are trusted and they make people feel safe. So something is wrong, but at the same time, people don’t have other choices. When you’re asking, who’s going to help keep me safe, the option that’s on the table, overwhelmingly, is police. And so even if you don’t entirely trust these police officers, if you definitely don’t trust whoever’s committing crime, and so, you definitely want a response to that. So you are willing to accept a response even that is somewhat untrustworthy, even that, against other options, you might reject or say is unacceptable or at least has to be fixed. But you’re willing to accept it, given the choice set that you have in front of you. And I think in a lot of ways, when you look at the history that I outline in the book, you can really see that for 50 years, Black Americans, in polling across time and their elected officials in votes that you can see that people take, have had what I describe in the book what I think of as this all of the above strategy for fighting crime and violence, saying, we want more jobs. We want better healthcare. We want afterschool programs. We want addiction services. We want integrated housing. We want a whole lot of things. And we want police, and we want prisons, and we want prosecutors. We want all of that in response. And what they’ve gotten, what the Black community historically has gotten, is one of those things, right? The law enforcement side, the police and the prosecutor side. So those poll respondents are living up against that history. They know that history. They’ve either lived it themselves, or they’ve come to understand it in the way that we come to understand things in the world around us. And they’re told that what’s on offer is police. And even as imperfect as it is, they want it because it’s better than nothing.

ezra klein

One of the things that struck me about that poll was that there are a lot of issues where the polling tells you, go in one direction or the other. Do people want the government to provide more health insurance? Yes, they do. Do they want a higher minimum wage? Yes, they do. Do they want lower taxes? Yes, they do. Yes will outweigh no. And that gives you at least some clue as to where public opinion is here. And one of the things that struck me about this poll is that it suggests that both of the options people are often hearing, at least in the debate, are bad, right? There’s one side, the sort of Blue Lives Matter side, that says, well, do you want police or not? Do you want to have patrols or not? And there’s another side that can almost sometimes seem like the opposite of that. Do you want less police or not? And so, you need, it seems to me, much more of an agenda that is either going to change one side of this polling or that is going to somehow get out of this knot. And so, I think this is the key question right now. Crime is going up. I mean, homicide numbers have gone way up in 2020 by 25 percent to almost 40 percent, compared to 2019. It looks about as bad in 2021. What is an answer here that takes both fear of crime and the harms of overpolicing seriously?

james forman, jr.

Yeah, I’m glad you asked that question because I do think, in a lot of ways, it’s the most important question. And in my opinion, there’s sort of, I guess, bad news and good news politically in terms of the response. The bad news is what you said, right? The bad news is rising crime and the rise in salience of crime as a political issue. There was, I think in New York City, there was a recent poll saying now that crime is second in importance only to COVID. And that’s among Democrats in New York, right? And I know I’ve spoken to activists in Atlanta and Chicago recently, who had been working to push progressive reforms in those cities. And they report that crime concerns and rising crime are absolutely hampering their ability to create change. So I agree with you. This is the risk. And the best time to really try to develop some of these alternatives and develop an approach that doesn’t rely overwhelmingly on police and prosecutors and prisons is when crime is low or declining. So that’s not good news. But I do think there are some optimistic pieces. So one thing that gives me optimism is that there really is now an entire generation of activists and organizers and writers and thinkers as well who have helped to open people’s minds to the idea that some of the problems that we currently rely on police to handle could be handled and should be handled by other community groups, other agencies in government that are not police. And the second piece of good news, I think, and maybe just as important, is that this country has indicated a growing willingness to spend money and invest in response to social problems. So, in my view, leading with what you’re taking away is not going to be sustainably popular in Black America, let alone probably not in any parts of America. But since we’ve been focusing on Black politics, ground it there. And I think it’s a mistake to lead with that claim. But what is popular and what can be popular and what will and can work, if we can build it, is entering the conversation by talking about the new world that we want to create and what it would look like and what its component parts will be. Because if you tell people, as we’ve said, police or nothing, they’re going to choose police. But if you start to expand that out — so I live in New Haven. And our city established a community crisis response team program, right, which the goal of which is to be a more holistic approach to service calls that don’t require police. So this is building a mobile crisis team, right, led by health professionals, by harm reduction specialists, by substance use specialists, by other social support specialists that are going to be dispatched in response to 911 calls. This is an approach, which says, yeah, police or nothing — people are always going to choose police. But police or social workers, police or mental health counselors? How should we make schools safe? Should we do it with police officers, or should we do it with counselors and restorative justice programs? How should we respond to people who are in mental health distress or substance abuse distress? We don’t need police to do nearly the role that we’ve given them. I just want to give you one kind of silly story, but in some ways, I feel like it highlights the way in which we collectively, as a nation, have decided that police are going to be the answer. So I don’t know if you’ve had Josie Duffy Rice on the podcast or not. But she’s an activist and a thinker and a writer in Atlanta. She’s somebody who’s done a lot of work to try to create a new fairer, more humane criminal system. And she tells a story about when she’s sitting in her living room, and this hawk flies in to the living room. She’s got a little baby in her house. And now all of a sudden, she has a hawk in her house. And she’s thinking, well, I better not call 911, right? I might have this instinct to call 911, but let me not call 911 because I’ve been telling this story about how we have to do something other than rely on police for everything. So fish and wildlife, I think, department, she calls. And she gets somebody on the phone, and she describes this hawk in her living room. And they say, well, you should call the police. And she says, but you’re fish and wildlife. Aren’t you aren’t you supposed to deal with this? And they say, well, we’re not really equipped to deal with this. You have to call the police. So then she calls the fire department because she doesn’t want to call the police. She calls the fire department. And they tell her to call the police. And so, what is this story illustrating? I think it’s illustrating, in my mind, that it’s not just changing our consciousness, but it’s also changing the opacity of all of these other actors to actually be able to and to believe it’s their mission to and to be staffed adequately to respond to real social problems. The hawk story is a silly story, but there are plenty of non-silly examples where, right now, we’ve asked police to do this thing, and nobody else has been funded to be able to do this thing of providing safety. And so, collectively, we have created this system where we only think to call the police, where police are the only people who are funded and trained to respond. Nobody else, none of these other agencies are open at 3 o’clock in the morning, at 4 o’clock in the morning. Nobody else understands it’s their capacity or their job to respond. And I’d like to talk more about some of the details of this and some of the particular areas. But in my mind, that’s the future. The progressive agenda, I believe, has to be about building the world, the set of responses with both government agencies and community-based programs that are going to respond to these things that have been exclusively the job of the police for so long.

ezra klein

So I’m incredibly supportive of that idea. We should have huge departments in every place in the nation where you can call for a problem that does not require a response backed by force. But the profound driver of the politics here is violent crime. We were talking about homicides earlier as having gone way up. All kinds of things that make people feel physical fear will change the politics of this and narrow the solution space way, way, way before we can have sort of a transformation of departments all across the country. And this is something that I’ve been struggling with myself, to be honest, which is, do liberal politicians right now have an answer on violent crime? If you say to them, what should we do about violent crime, do they have something they can say back?

james forman, jr.

Well, I don’t know what they say or what they feel like they can say. But I do think that there are things that they should be saying and that they have a more robust set of options than they had 20 years ago or 25 years ago. And some of this is because of work that organizations have been doing. I started by talking about mental health and addiction. But there is another set of organizations, of community groups. One of the things that I’m most excited about in the federal legislation right now, things that are in conversation — and there’s a lot to be excited about. But Biden is currently — and I don’t know whether — none of us knows what’s going to happen. But he has proposed massive investment in violence prevention programs. And so, let’s talk about that because it used to be that you talked about violence prevention. And then there was the, well, you have to go to root causes, right? You have to deal with the underlying conditions. You have to address poverty. And you have to address segregation. And you have to address school equality. And we’re drawn to those, right? Liberals and progressives and on the left, we understand systems and systemic issues. And we know there’s often not quick fixes to some of these problems. And so, we’re kind of resistant to things that have an immediacy. And we’re drawn to things that have a longer time horizon. And there’s a lot of truth to that, right? The research on early childhood education and universal pre-K is pretty good on a variety of dimensions, including for, at least some of the studies, the impact on crime over time. But your question is, what is the immediate response? And so, I think when we look at the universe of programs now, there are a bunch that a liberal politician can point to and can say, we need to invest in these right now because they’re not about a year from now, they’re not about a month from now, but they’re about people that can do the work today. So there’s a sort of a universe of programs that you could think of as kind of violence interrupter type programs. Cure Violence is probably the best known among them. But the basic idea is that these are programs that rely on community ties to prevent shootings. They mediate conflicts. They identify conflicts before they arise. They work at the neighborhood level, the community level, with individuals that are most at risk of being harmed or by harming others. They trade on their relationships and the fact that they have credibility. And again, we’ve talked about Maya Angelou earlier, so I’ll just give you an example from the school that I think is connected to the sort of underlying theory that motivates these violence interrupter type programs. But at Maya, when we started, we didn’t want to have metal detectors. And this was the ‘90s, when all schools had metal detectors. And we didn’t want to search backpacks. And people told us, well, you’re crazy. You can’t start a school for kids from the juvenile justice system and not have these things. But we made a very, very heavy investment in school counselors and in relationships. And what we found over time was that once kids understood that the goal of our response was mediation and restoration, and the goal of our response was about avoiding the harm and calming the situation, not turning to law enforcement for accountability or punishment after the fact, what we saw is that kids started to come to us. And they would say, listen, listen, don’t tell anybody that I was here, but there’s a beef that’s brewing. And I just want to let you know that something might pop off. And that idea, right, that you can learn from people, you can mediate conflict before it becomes a shooting, is really the core behind the violence interrupter model. It’s been studied. So, again, not perfect level of evaluations, but the studies that have been done suggest 50 percent reduction in shootings in the neighborhood in Chicago where they launched it, 30 percent reduction in Philadelphia, a similar reduction in New York. And again, these are small. These are in particular neighborhoods. But now is the time. This is what I like about the Biden proposal, is, I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point politically where we were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, right? Even with crime going up, there is still time, I believe, to make significant investment in programs like this one. And one other just example of a kind of program, there’s a hospital visiting type program that is related to these violence interrupter programs, right, where, when there has been an incident, people who are credible messengers who have relationships in neighborhoods, they actually go to visit the hospital. And their main goal in that moment is to make sure there’s no retaliation. Because — you mentioned this earlier — the first incident, the question is, does it lead to more? And it often does. But if you can stop the first incident from leading to retaliation, you can keep the numbers down quite significantly. But what do all these — and this is the last thing I’ll say about these programs for now — what do they all have in common? They all are small, grassroots, community-led, in many cases, very, very threadbare operations, right? They’re struggling for survival into the next budget year. They have trouble hiring staff and keeping staff because they never know if their funding is going to be reupped. And so, the proposal that’s on the table out of DC right now is to start putting millions and billions, right — these are big, big numbers — into programs that have been operating on the thousands. And so, I think there’s still time. I think that there is still time to build out this network of violence reduction programs, which are not about reducing violence a decade now. They’re not about a year from now. They’re not about a month from now. They’re about sending somebody this afternoon to help resolve a conflict before it becomes a neighborhood level beef.

ezra klein

Well, there’s time. There’s urgency, too. I mean, there’s a question here of whether or not liberal politicians decide to take on crime as an issue of theirs or leave it to others. I agree that it’s very encouraging Biden has $5 billion for these kinds of programs in the American Jobs Plan. And to just add some numbers to what you were saying, Sharkey’s research suggests that in a typical city with about 100,000 people, each additional nonprofit devoted to confronting violence led to a roughly one percentage point drop in the city’s murder rate, which is pretty big. So if you scaled that up in a really big way, I mean, I’m sure at some point, you get diminishing returns, but we’ve never tried to scale that up in a really big way. So it seems to me that what you can imagine there is an approach to public safety, where liberal politicians do take this up as an issue, right? They do say violent crime is an issue liberals are concerned about, right? It’s a core issue for urban governance, certainly. And for just all governance, and that you have different layers to it. Maybe you have police departments that are very well funded to deal with violent crime and, by the way, to try to solve murder cases, of which a horrifying number of them go unsolved and remain open. Solving murders is expensive. And you need a lot more people to do it well. Then you have a layer of violence interruption groups, a really big investment in this kind of civil layer in the stack. And then you would have new institutions that are actually big and funded, where there is somebody you could really call because there is an in-house person having a mental episode on your corner, or somebody else is maybe doing traffic stops. And that that could be a real vision. You’d have to want to spend money on it. I think it’s been very weird, as you were saying, that at a time when very little within the political conversation is taking place within an austerity framework, so much has been framed in terms of defunding here. But if you’re willing to spend — and I think, in general, Democrats are right now — you could really imagine a reason to spend on crime. And that really fits into every other part of the agenda — the inequality agenda, the equity agenda — for all the reasons we’ve discussed.

james forman, jr.

I agree. The last question you asked me before then was about, does a liberal politician have — what do they have to say about crime generally and about violence specifically? And I think what they would have to say, what I would say, what I would encourage them to say, is that what you just said. Now, there are pieces of that that are going to be more and less popular with different constituencies. So that’s where I think that politician might run into some trouble. Because some of the people who are going to be bought into the robust network of non-law enforcement government agencies that are really staffed up and really operating 24 hours a day and the investment in the community-based nonprofits that are responding to violence prevention and other issues at the grassroots level, some people are going to like that. But they’re not necessarily going to like as much to increase investment in the homicide branch, right, or the police departments who are investigating violent crime. I happen to think that everything that you’ve just laid out is the right sketch. And I think it’s very right on the policy. And I think it is politically absolutely kind of sellable. But it’s going to take some work.

ezra klein

For all the reasons we’ve talked about, I’m very sympathetic to the fury at the police, both for the things, as you are calling them, that are not news, and for the things that are news, right, like the murder of George Floyd. But I don’t know where the politics of having a lot of liberals really in opposition to the police are going to go. And I don’t know where the consequences of it are going to go. There was a study that came out recently that tracked more than 1,600 Black Lives Matter protests from 2014 to 2019. And it found — I think this part was encouraging — that the protests led to a 15 percent to 20 percent reduction in lethal force by officers in places where they occurred. And that meant roughly 300 fewer police killings. It also found a 10 percent increase in homicides in those areas, resulting in somewhere between 1,000 and 6,000 additional murders. So, on the one hand, I think sometimes people take this and blame the protesters, whereas I think if the police stopped doing their jobs in the aftermath of protests, that’s more on them. But at the same time, I do think there’s something to take seriously here, which is that, in a direct way, police are first responders to a lot of violent crime. And there is good research they prevent it. And I do worry about both the politics and the outcomes of the left and police sort of primarily seeing themselves in some kind of fight with each other.

james forman, jr.

I’m really worried about that. And maybe it’s just where I sit and who I know, but that might be the thing that I’m most worried about. We talked about a bunch of things that we’re not so worried about. We’ve got the ideas are there. The willingness to invest and to spend is there. There’s a knowledge base that exists now that didn’t exist 20 years ago. But the point that you just made about a fight between, at least, potential allies, or at least, a fight that is waged in such a way that allows for both kind of a wedge issue to be developed from the other side, which, again, I know this is debated, but I think there’s some evidence about how that played out in the last election cycle, or just people who are potential allies not, in fact, coming together, I think that is an enormous risk. And I don’t know how to solve it. And one of the ways that I see it and one of the ways that I see it manifesting itself is, again, I referenced my students earlier. But I do see a level of anger and a level of hostility towards any and all things policing. And when you dig deeper, this is one of the things that I found is, when you dig deeper with people and you really sit, and you start to have a conversation, and you try to pull apart, for example, as you did in your question, a distinction between patrol and investigations, right, and Jill Leovy’s book in Los Angeles is so powerful on this, showing the way that we’ve massively invested in patrol. And then she’s got homicide detectives that are taking their paperwork over to Kinko’s because the photocopier in the homicide branch is not working. And nobody has the money or the willingness to fix it. And of course, let’s be clear, right? There’s abuses on the investigation side as well. So I don’t want to suggest that the racism that’s throughout America and throughout policing doesn’t exist with investigators either. It does. But I think when we’re talking about what is bringing people to the streets right now, it really is patrol and the way in which patrol has been deployed. And that’s where this new vision that you and I talked about, right, it would necessarily require some reduction there. You just wouldn’t have as much need for those officers to be responding to calls because you’d have fewer calls to begin with. And those that you did would be handled by these other agencies that we’ve just described. So when you sit down with people and you try to have that conversation, I make progress, and I see progress. But the lead slogan, right, the lead demands, the lead claim to abolish or defund, it’s really an astonishing thing because it has this alienating quality to essential constituencies at the same time as it has this motivating quality and energizing quality to others. But the only solution that I see right now is to work as hard and as fast as we can and across every sector, from philanthropy to government, from city to county to state to federal, to build this new world that we have been describing that we want to take the place of, or at least substitute, for a portion of our existing world, to build it, to imagine it, to defend it, to fund it, to staff it, as fast and aggressively as we can, and hope that the politics end up following that on the ground reality. But I don’t know if that’s how it’s going to play out. It’s just that I don’t know another path forward.

ezra klein

I think that is a good place to end. So let me ask you what is always our final question here, which is, what are the three books you would recommend to the audience?

james forman, jr.

Absolutely. So I mentioned one of them, which is Jill Leovy’s book, “Ghettoside.” It’s about Los Angeles. And it probably, as well as any book that I’ve read in the past decade, really describes one of the topics that we’ve been thinking about, which is, what is it like to live with these levels of crime and violence? What does it do to you? And then, crucially, what can and should the police do in response? The second one that I’ll mention is a book by Susan Burton called “Becoming Ms. Burton.” Susan Burton was incarcerated a number of times. She was a victim of crime, including having her son run over and killed by a police officer in Los Angeles that didn’t even bother to acknowledge what had happened. She becomes addicted to drugs. She doesn’t find in the prison system, of course, any of the solutions. But after multiple, multiple incarcerations and reincarcerations and readdictions, she eventually comes out, is able to get into a program, is able to rebuild her life, and now has set up a whole network of homes for women just like her throughout Los Angeles and throughout the country. My wife attended a training that they ran. And she came home, and she said, you know, James? You’ve been talking about that book for years. But let me tell you, this organization and Susan Burton is the real deal. So that’s the second one. And the last book is a book called “Condemnation of Blackness” by Khalil Gibran Muhammad. And I don’t know that there’s a better book that goes across American history to persuasively make the argument that the stereotype of Blacks as criminals has been the most persistent and devastating stereotype that has driven through decades and driven across policy areas. And I find that it is a book that I turn to time and time again when I’m trying to understand the origins of this moment.

ezra klein

James Forman, Jr., your book is “Locking Up Our Own.” It is utterly essential reading. Thank you very much.

james forman, jr.

Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Jeff Geld, Roge Karma, and Annie Galvin; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; and mixing by Jeff Geld. [MUSIC PLAYING]



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