In recent weeks, the nominally progressive media outlet The Young Turks has tripled down on its fear-mongering crusade regarding crime and the purported evils of cash-bail reform. Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, co-hosts of TYT’s flagship news program, have run multiple segments and engaged in dubious Twitter battles focusing on the supposed out-of-control crime wave gripping blue states, and on the failure of the left to “grapple with this reality.”
Taken together, Uygur and Kasparian have lent their influential voices to a panicked, tough-on-crime media chorus that has been growing louder over the past two years and is helping to undermine hard-fought bail reforms in cities and towns across the country. Both of these figures have large platforms, and they are wielding their influence at the exact moment the left should be (1) defending bail reform and other decarceration measures against a tidal wave of fear mongering, and (2) offering real solutions to the social problems caused by poverty—namely, social supports, in the form of universal programs.
Let’s begin with Uygur and Kasparian’s rant against homeless encampments in the summer of 2021, in which they called on police to “clean up” encampments in Los Angeles, lending support to an ordinance making its way through the City Council at the time that aimed to outlaw sitting, loitering, or camping outdoors in what activist says amounts to roughly 20 percent of the city. (This ordinance has since passed.)
“I do believe there are progressives… in places like California who have made terrible decisions,” Kasparian says in the 2021 segment. “One of those terrible decisions is essentially doing away with anti-camping laws…, allowing people to camp out wherever they want whenever they want.” She then goes on to say, “We have a homeless problem in California” and proceeds—with a sneering tone—to pin that problem on unhoused people refusing public housing because they “don’t want” said housing, “don’t want to follow the rules in the public housing,” and would “rather camp out.”
For starters, the premise that the unhoused reject long-term, safe, and secure housing is absurd on its face. Kasparian appears, like many in the right-wing media, to be conflating shelters with permanent housing. Yet these are not at all the same thing. Shelters are often substandard, loaded with impossible-to-navigate conditions for would-be occupants, and rife with abuse. Moreover, the tone of the rant is gross, cruel, and without any context—moral or otherwise. This segment, understandably, led to a lot of backlash. In response, Kasparian has pivoted to not directly bashing homeless campers as such, but homing in on extreme cases of violence to achieve the same policy ends: the repeal of bail reform; the recall or removal of so-called progressive prosecutors and reformist district attorneys; and doubling down on giving police more funding.
Cut to June 2022: The Young Turks are increasingly turning out segments insisting that crime is out of control and Black Lives Matter-era criminal legal reforms are largely to blame.
In a segment on Jacobin Radio with Jen Pan entitled “Did the Media Manufacture a Crime Panic?,” guest (and former host of the Jacobin show Weekends) Ana Kasparian answers the titular question with an emphatic “No.” In fact, Kasparian indicates that the media was actually covering up an increase in crime despite the statistics saying otherwise. Statistics, she insists without evidence, are misleading and not reflective of reality, and she buttresses that claim by relying on a popular (and totally unverifiable) trope that crime is down only nominally because reporting is down, since police won’t do anything about theft and break-ins.
“Strategically speaking, the broader left is engaging in… a losing strategy by minimizing what it’s like to be the victim of those types of property crimes,” Kasparian argues. She then, citing two random tweets, accuses “the left” of saying “property crimes are no big deal” and tells listeners that reform advocates are “erasing the broader Asian community” in San Francisco. After that, Kasparian cites Noah Smith, self-identified and noted opponent of a higher minimum wage and Medicare for All, to further dig at reform District Attorney Chesa Boudin for being weak on crime and ignoring the wants of The Working Man. With socialists like these, who needs corporate neoliberal media outlets?
To his credit, co-panelist Nando Vila punts on the question, insisting that fears of crime have very much to do with Visible Poverty, which is a point I argued as well a few weeks ago. As she has done elsewhere, Kasparian devotes time in the interview to discussing her own personal experience being harassed by an apparently homeless man. One can understand why this experience animates, at least in part, her embrace of a reactionary approach to poverty and crime. Some critics have noted that there may be a financial incentive as well, pointing to The Young Turks receiving a $20 million investment from billionaire media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who personally (and successfully) pushed for the recent “ban” (read: criminalization) of homeless camps in Los Angeles. It’s impossible to know for sure—and, in many ways, it doesn’t really matter. Someone with this large of a platform, regardless of motive, ought not to be putting a left-wing face on rehashed negative stereotypes of the unhoused, let alone pretending that well-worn and destructive carceral approaches to poverty and mental illness are somehow new or progressive.
In March 2022, Kasparian hosted a particularly leading and showy interview with reform DA Chesa Boudin prior to his eventual recall, unironically referring to Boudin’s policies as “soft on crime” and hitting him with a series of tedious, loaded questions.
Despite beginning her segments with vague pro-reform lip service, Kasparian frequently scolds prosecutors for not tacking on years of prison time for “illegal gun possession.” Tacking on years to prison sentences for mere possession of guns is a major driver of mass incarceration, which disproportionately targets African Americans. (32 percent of Americans own a gun—which are “illegal” and which are “legal” is largely a product of the racial demographics of a particular area.) One cannot be serious about criminal justice reform while scolding DAs for not adding five, 10 years to prison sentences for poor Black kids for mere possession of a weapon. Kasparian’s defenders insist she only wants to throw the book at “violent criminals,” but it’s important to note that gun possession is not a violent crime in any meaningful sense of the word “violent,” because possession is not in itself violent. And yet, here she is using a “progressive” platform to lobby lawmakers to add years to sentences and to expand our practice of mass human caging for gun possession.
In another episode, Kasparian and Uygur responded to recent criticism from reporter Tana Ganeva by insisting, in effect, that Ganeva was a soulless asshole who simply didn’t Care About The Victims—unlike them, who have presumably been deputized to speak on the victims’ behalf.
Ignoring for a second that surveys show victims of crime align more with Ganeva’s worldview than Kasparian’s and Uygur’s, this type of smarmy demagoguery is copied and pasted straight from the right-wing playbook. If someone, anyone, is advocating for a policy that isn’t “Lock ‘em all up,” critics can point to the most extreme and salacious outlier caused by their supposed “soft on crime” stance and insist the person in question is either responsible for, or doesn’t care about, the harm inflicted on the victim.
If this tactic looks familiar, that’s because it was popularized by the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign ran against Bush’s Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis:
Horton-esque attacks from the right were also popular during the late Obama years, particularly after José Inez García Zárate, an undocumented immigrant, killed Kate Steinle with a stray bullet in San Fransisco after having been deported five times previously:
✔ “Let go multiple times by the system” framing
✔ Vulgar appeal to emotion
✔ Using an anecdotal, emotionally-charged case to push for harsher Tough On Crime policies
✔ dehumanizing an entire population of people
Notice the parallels?
In the clip above, does it seem like Bill O’Reilly is interested in having a rational, sober conversation about the societal tradeoffs of different approaches to immigration policy? That he’s genuinely concerned with Steinle’s case? Or does it seem more like Steinle’s death is a cheap bludgeon wielded to make a broader condemnatory case against liberal policies as such? Whether the subject be immigration or cash bail, the tactic is the same, the grossness of the tactic is the same, and both ought to be rejected by anyone calling themselves progressive.
Another hallmark of this rhetorical strategy: The whole framing is positioned—like all left-punching rhetoric since the beginning of ideological gatekeeping—as Realism, as Practical Political Advice. Kasparian draws on this framing often. I’m here to tell you, she insists, some uncomfortable truths: Progressives won’t win if they “deny” the “reality” of “crime” (read: if they deny that the solution to said crime is gutting reforms and criminalizing homelessness). This, of course, is a total strawman. Reformers and abolitionists take the victims of violence very seriously—certainly more seriously than the police, who very often ignore and compound traumas—and have long advocated policies that have been empirically shown to reduce the likelihood of violent outcomes.
But, at base, such a posture—the “I’m just being Realistic” mugging—is a widespread, tried and true mode of left punching employed by those to whom the hard real of the status quo becomes a virtue in and of itself. Bernie Sanders running on Medicare for All? It’s a loser, see, it polls at 37 percent. Opposing the Iraq War? That’s a loser, 72 percent of Americans back it. The vast majority of voters hate the word “socialist”—why would you use it? Give in, concede, throw this or that cause under the bus so we can win over Joe Blow voter in the next midterm or presidential election. Sound familiar? It’s the same argument corporate liberals make every time they want to sell out the activist base and lower the expectations of what’s possible.
Clearly, there are genuine tensions within the working class over issues of crime and Visible Poverty. A lot of working-class people support more police, mostly because this is all the “order-giving” class has ever offered them to combat the real threats of gun violence or other violent crimes in their communities. Never mind that data shows neighborhoods with the most gun violence are most likely to support reform DAs—this isn’t even really the point, because understanding and serving the wants of the working class isn’t really what the hosts of The Young Turks are after here. Political expediency is. The posture of Left Pragmatism and ventriloquizing of What the Working Class Truly Wants is a pretense.
The main issue is much bigger than this and cuts to the core of what it means to be activist media, rather than just another gatekeeper and partisan functionary. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign slogan was: “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?” It was a beautiful sentiment, and I thought it genuinely captured the essence of what it means to be a socialist, if not just a progressive. Will you stand in solidarity with people—the least of us, the forgotten, the expendable?
Our carceral system is the largest in the world by five times the global mean. Despite comprising less than five percent of the global population, the United States holds 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. 2.3 million people are languishing behind bars right now, over 400,000 in county and local jails before they’ve even seen a jury—much less been found guilty.
And yet, poverty and crime persist. And yet, we are told by the likes of Uygur and Kasparian that the solution is to bump these numbers up even further. Yes, they’ll pay obligatory lip service to the mythical “in jail for two joints” guy, but guess what? By and large, such individuals do not make up the lion’s share of human beings swallowed up by our system of mass incarceration. The majority of those human beings were locked up to serve out the kind of anodyne-sounding 5-10 year sentences for crimes like gun possession that Kasparian casually insists we should not only bring back but make harsher.
Talk to any public defender and they’ll tell you the same thing: Our system is a meat-grinder. An hour sitting in any courthouse in this country will tell you that. On any given day, dozens of lives are ruined forever with the casual pound of a gavel. Two years, five years, 10 years. It’s banal, it’s routine, and despite modest reforms, it’s still very much the status quo. To look around at the abject failure of the liberal state—under the aegis of a capitalist economy—to provide housing, good jobs, mental health services, and substance treatment, and to conclude that the problem is we don’t arrest enough people or put them in prison long enough is the definition of irrationality. The systemic and widespread use of caging to cure public harms is the most American of pastimes. Kasparian insisting we aren’t doing enough of it is like getting mad because Paula Deen isn’t using enough butter.
The Uygurs and Kasparians of the world want you to be debating these one-off tales of someone out on bail committing a crime, because they can’t have a holistic conversation that actually accounts for all the harms a real, humane solution must address, that puts the US criminal system in context, and that talks about the reality of 99.99 percent of cash bail cases looking nothing like those enshrined in New York Post headlines. Because this would reveal that the thing Uygurs and Kasparians are lobbying for is what the US already does to the tune of 5 times the global mean and has for decades––with only modest tweaks in a handful of counties.
“Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?” The unhoused, whom Kasparian insists are rejecting housing due to some moral failing or narcissism or love of drugs, are who we should—as socialists, progressives, liberals—be recruiting and be fighting for. Instead of telling viewers how they can provide mutual aid or defend the homeless against police raids, instead of recruiting the unhoused into a broader social project that would address the societal conditions contributing to their systematic dehumanization, Kasparian—after gesturing towards a vague need for more social programs—decides to tattle on them to the District Attorney.
Showing a crime-weary public how mass incarceration doesn’t help stop crime or make them safer isn’t an easy task—it requires undoing decades of social programming. But a message born from solidarity that explains why the workers tired of seeing homeless people have more in common with them than with the property owners driving both of them out of their cities with high rents is a cause worth fighting for. Rejecting the false promises of incarceration and over-policing takes time, patience, and a rewiring of how people view public safety. But it’s a project—in a country with an unparalleled jail and prison population—worth fighting for.
Left principles are often unpopular at first, but this isn’t a reason to abandon them the second crime ticks up and things become politically inconvenient. It’s time to remember that the great socialists and union efforts of the past—from the Socialist Party to the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations—drew their ranks from the unhoused, the unorganized, and the unwanted. Those who fought to create out of darkness the light that we honor and carry forward today didn’t run to the manager and demand undesirables be arrested in the hopes that it would somehow make them more appealing to a nebulous voter bloc. The key part of “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?” is the fight part. It’s a fight of ideas, a fight for a science-based approach to crime reduction, a fight to reimagine public safety and what we demand from our elected leaders. Demading that we lock up even more people and use police to further criminalize homeless encampments is not a new, unique, pragmatic position to take, and it sure as hell isn’t a leftist or progressive one; it’s the same tired, inhumane, ineffective Tough on Crime approach that liberals and the rightwing have employed for decades..