Joe Biden’s Criminal Justice plan is a band aid on an open wound he helped inflict, particularly on poor Black and brown communities. Kamau Franklin and Jacqueline Luqman take a closer look at the contradiction
JACQUELINE LUQMAN This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
Welcome to the second segment in this week’s Trending Topics discussion. In the first segment, we began talking about Joe Biden’s criminal justice plan that he has recently announced. And as bad as the first section of that plan is, it actually only gets worse. If you don’t believe me, listen to what Cory Booker— of all people— has to say about it.
SENATOR CORY BOOKER I’m disappointed that it’s taken Joe Biden years and years until he was running for president to actually say that he made a mistake, that there were things in that bill that were extraordinarily bad. Legislation like that that has destroyed communities, that has turned — put mass incarceration on steroids. And now that he’s unrolled this — unveiled his crime bill, for a guy who helped to be an architect of mass incarceration, this is an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country. That we have 5% of the globe’s population, but 25% of the globe’s prison population.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Continuing the discussion, [laughs] which can get very interesting about Joe Biden’s criminal justice plan in this week’s segment is Kamau Franklin. Kamau is an attorney, the founder of Community Movement Builders, Inc., a grassroots organizing group, and a co-host of Renegade Culture, a podcast that covers news and culture in the black community. Thank you for joining me again, Kamau.
KAMAU FRANKLIN Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Okay. We’re both laughing, so let’s hear what you have to say about Cory Booker’s comments about Joe Biden’s criminal justice plan.
KAMAU FRANKLIN Let me just say, I’ve never seen Cory look blacker. [JACQUELINE laughs] Cory is—[laughs] I need to go to where Cory is getting his fans at because Cory has through his politics, his rhetoric, his tone, his demeanor, his interests in certain issues, has really over the last three or four years or maybe even four or five months since he decided to run for president, really decide to shift to become a black person— let me just say that— in a way. Because when Cory was the Mayor of Newark, one of the things in which he ran on was more police, stopping crime, a more favorable atmosphere for business matters or business in Newark. He turned over the school system as much as he could in terms of working with the Republican Governor to Facebook and corporate interests.
So to see Cory on the progressive side of issues, it’s really, again, a telltale sign of where we’re at in terms of how important in part— and maybe a serious part— how important the black constituency has become to the Democratic Party in the primary, at the very least. Now, whether or not these folks shift later on in whoever gets to go to the actual main election is different, but in the primary it’s important to note how the rhetoric of the Democratic Party is starting to shift of concern around what they think black constituents would like to hear.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And that is a very important point that you brought up that these issues that black constituents have been concerned about for literally decades because mass incarceration has disproportionately affected black and Latino and particularly poor communities. And we’ve been talking about these issues for a long time and the Democratic Party has not listened. Now, in all fairness, neither has the Republican Party, but we’re just talking about the Democrats right now and candidates such as Cory Booker. It is interesting that he’s actually right about Biden’s legislative history and his contribution to the increase in mass incarceration. Now, I think it’s important that we look at how we got here not just in terms of Joe Biden, but in terms of the history— the over 30-year history— of legislation that created this mass incarceration machine that we have now.
I think PBS NewsHour represents the rise of mass incarceration in three distinct waves displayed over three decades. And they describe them according to the policies that defined each wave. So the first wave, according to PBS NewsHour, happened in the 70s where Congress began to lengthen sentences. That culminated in the 1984 Comprehensive Crime and Control Act that established minimum mandatory minimum sentences. That’s where they started. Then from ’85 to ’92, state, federal and local legislators began to lengthen those sentences. Then that led to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which imposed more mandatory minimum sentences. Then we have the disparities that were introduced between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. So I think it’s important that we make it clear that that wasn’t Joe Biden’s idea, and he didn’t start that with the ’94 crime bill, but he expounded on it.
The third wave of mass incarceration hit in the early 90s and this involved not only longer sentences, but the three strikes laws. And that’s where the ’94 crime bill comes into play. And the ’94 crime bill, the official title is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which includes the three strikes provisions and the notorious 100 to 1 disparity between crack and powdered cocaine. So this is the legacy that Joe Biden has participated in. He didn’t just co-author the ’94 crime bill, he also had some involvement in earlier legislation that created and exacerbated this mass incarceration machine. But interestingly, this is Joe Biden’s response in defense of his involvement in this legislation.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN You know, the significant portion of the incarceration occurred before the crime bill was written. I introduced a crime bill that I challenge him or anyone else to tell me how he has a better plan than I have for moving from here. And, you know, it’s about the future.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So Kamau, how do we talk about the crime bill that Biden is introducing “is about the future” when he doesn’t seem to even be honest about his participation in the past?
KAMAU FRANKLIN Well, again, this brings up the most honest moment that Joe Biden has had when he talked lovingly about his past ability to cooperate with Southern segregationists in Congress. And so again, we are talking about a history, particularly talking about the 70s and 80s where there was a shift. And looking at the overall political history, a shift of the participation of black constituents towards the Democratic Party through the 50s, 60s, and 70s was almost complete, but again, not in numbers enough where the white Democrats had any fear of that black constituency either leaving the Democratic Party or having an outcome on the effect of a national race. Where they took the concerns of the black community seriously enough to not use racialized rhetoric, stereotypical rhetoric and policies which were damaging to the black community on a social level, economic level, and obviously in terms of criminal justice. Something that we’re still dealing with the effects of.
In fact, I would actually add that the only reason we’ve seen a decrease— whatever that decrease is— in the prison population had more to do with the recession that we just came out of about ten years ago, than it had to do with any ideological shift by Republicans or Democrats. When the economy broke down is when it was decided that we could no longer hold this many people in prison because we could no longer afford it. And it’s only during this current time period that we’re in, again with some demographic shifts that are happening, and more pronounced particularly in the primaries, which I think the second Obama run and the first run in the primaries showed that a black candidate who at least presented black and talked somewhat about black issues could help win certain primary states. And you again now have in the Democratic primary these candidates moving their rhetoric, some of their ideas, but not to the extent that we can erase not only their history, but have a lot of— let’s say— a lot of expectations in terms of what the implementation of any future policy will look like.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And erasing history is very important in this discussion because there is a specific aspect of the history of the lead-up to what we live with now in regard to mass incarceration that Joe Biden certainly doesn’t admit to, but almost no Democratic politician or any politician really has an honest conversation about. And that is the history of black people advocating for what they knew they needed in their communities during the time that this legislation was written. Because while Cory Booker can come out now and challenge Joe Biden accurately on his involvement in ramping up mass incarceration, and Joe Biden disingenuously says that he responded to the demands of the time and the things that people wanted at the time, what’s really true and what people are not paying attention to and almost no one brings up is the history of black community activists, black leaders, even black politicians, the Congressional Black Caucus of all people who, yes, wanted something to be done to address violent crime, but they also wanted other measures that didn’t come out of this ’94 crime bill or any other legislation before it.
But there is an interesting article that highlights this overlooked history in the story of mass incarceration that was published as an op-ed in The New York Times and it points out—And this is directly from the op-ed. I’m going to read this and I want to hear your thoughts on this, Kamau. The op-ed says that, “While supporting the idea of addressing crime, members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized the bill” — the ’94 crime bill — “itself and introduced an alternative bill that included investments in prevention and alternatives to incarceration, devoted $2 billion more to drug treatment and $3 billion more to early intervention programs. The caucus also put forward the Racial Justice Act, which would have made it possible to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge death sentences. Given the history of selective hearing, what followed was no surprise.” Black support for anti-crime measures were played up, but black resistance to problems with the legislation and the alternatives we presented were dismissed.
When we’re talking about the history, especially of Joe Biden and his justifications for what was presented with the ’94 crime bill, and we’re also talking about even black politicians now campaigning on Biden’s record and how bad his current policies are, how important is it that no one is being honest about this part of this history? And what does this mean when Joe Biden can repackage what black people were always asking for, into what he says is a criminal justice plan that he challenges anyone to produce a better solution for?
KAMAU FRANKLIN I mean, I think it’s part of the legacy of the unheard voice of the black community. And I think you hit on, and the article apparently hit on, some very important points. So yes, there’s always been splits either in black leadership or differences in opinion around how to tackle issues of so-called criminality in the black community, but you’re right. Usually even those who get designated as the leadership in the community, even if they have rhetoric which is harder on crime, it’s usually coupled with the rhetoric around what needs to happen to move us to a place where the community has sustainable infrastructure as the long-term solution to what’s happening on the ground in these communities.
And again, people will talk for years around black folks weren’t the ones who bought drugs into these communities, but are the ones who are paying the inordinate price— both on the level of the victim taking the drugs and/or the ones incarcerated. And I think what you would want is what we have happening now when you see the larger white community in the opioid crisis. So the response isn’t that we’re going to criminalize these folks, that we’re going to build more prisons for them, but there is compassionate rhetoric around alternatives, prevention, other means and mechanisms in which we can get these drugs off the streets, suing large drug companies so that they can pay for remedies for the situation which they are somewhat responsible for causing.
So there’s a collective attitude change because the victimization of white drug users has been different. And there’s a caring mechanism that’s brought in that’s almost a natural response when the victim is white over black. And that deals with a larger history of white supremacy and racism obviously within this country. So when you look at what’s happening historically and currently, you see the differences in how those things play out and how a black populace that’s been devastated by drug use gets treated and is used for purposes of winning elections, and again, how a white populace which is devastated by drug use gets played out and how they’re treated for the purposes of winning elections and making changes.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN You know, unfortunately, we are almost out of time again. But you brought up an incredibly salient point because a lot of the arguments around justifying the ’94 crime bill and the crime bills before it were centered around drug crime. And we all should know by now that black and Latino people in the United States of America receive harsher sentences for the same nonviolent drug possession crimes that white people commit, that black people are actually more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than white people are even likely to be approached. Black people and white people report using drugs at around the same rate, but black people are more likely to be sentenced, and are more likely to receive longer and harsher sentences.
So what is our response to the Joe Bidens, and not just the Joe Bidens for his honestly rather insulting plan, but to Cory Booker, to the Cory Bookers and the other Democratic politicians who are doing, as you say, who are playing on the racial stereotypes and the deep-seated white supremacist attitude in this country for political gain, but who aren’t actually solving the problems that those things still created? What do we do with this inadequate criminal justice plan, but this problem that we still face?
KAMAU FRANKLIN I think— adding on to what you said— and now the decriminalization of marijuana, which has opened up this whole new industry overwhelmingly for corporate business interests and overwhelmingly for white people who are interested in selling and distributing marijuana. Whereas black folks, black youth, both at a federal level and a state level are still incarcerated for not only these past crimes, but are still incarcerated at a higher rate than whites— again for what you said— similar usage. But to your second point, I think one thing that’s obvious is that we cannot buy the current day rhetoric of these candidates without looking into their past activities on these issues.
Most of these candidates have enough of a record that if we look at their own history of how they treated the same type of issues when they were running for state offices, when they were running for congressional offices, when they were running for city offices, when you look at their responses then and you measure them against what they’re saying now, you can tell that these candidates of the majority of them are in it for the political rhetoric of the day and have no sincere beliefs on how folks should be treated when it comes to the criminalization of communities. Which also, should lead us to believe that we cannot trust the words of these politicians or their surrogates because this is one big political game. And if we’re going to look at candidates, then we should look at candidates who have a consistent record on these issues. And if we don’t find those candidates, then we have to find another way to participate in the political system.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN As I said in the previous segment, there is so much more to delve into in this criminal justice plan that has been announced by Joe Biden. But we simply do not have time to continue digging into this endless pit of lack of substance. But I really want to thank you, Kamau Franklin, for joining me today to really just scratch the surface on how bad this criminal justice plan is.
KAMAU FRANKLIN Thank you for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And thank you all for watching. Join me again as we continue to examine the policies that the Democratic— and maybe every once in a while a Republican— candidate will put forth in this lead-up to 2020 every week in these Trending Topics panels. Thank you so much for watching. I’m Jacqueline Luqman and this is The Real News Network.