Ever since Ferguson, it’s become fashionable for public figures to demonstrate their Serious Concern about criminal justice by decrying America’s plague of mass incarceration. In their response to the protests in Baltimore, however, they’re showing just how serious their concern actually is.
“The police have to do what they have to do, and I am very sympathetic to the plight of the police in this,” Senator Rand Paul told right-wing celebrity Laura Ingraham Tuesday.
That same day, President Barack Obama also applauded the government’s response. “It is entirely appropriate that the mayor of Baltimore, who I spoke to yesterday, and the governor, who I spoke to yesterday, work to stop that kind of senseless violence and destruction.”
Both politicans have positioned themselves as critics of mass incarceration and allies to its victims – largely poor black men. But right now, as Baltimore Police perpetrate a vicious and blatantly illegal campaign of violent detention against the black community, the most powerful critics of mass incarceration are rallying to defend it.
In the past week, the city of Baltimore has arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly. Apologists can try to justify this however they like, but they face an insurmountable problem: the cops themselves have admitted that most of these arrests can’t be justified. More than half of those arrested have already been released without charges. This is not the police making a voluntary decision to absolve people who were legitimately arrested, even as an emergency measure in the interest of public safety; this is an explicit admission that the arrests were never legitimate in the first place.
That’s what makes the hypocrisy of leaders like Rand and Obama — and anyone who claims skepticism of the police state while defending its response in Baltimore – so absolutely reprehensible.
Any meaningful challenge to the problem of mass incarceration is going to take a lot more courage, and demand a much deeper commitment to justice, than is required here. It’s going to mean overturning laws that shouldn’t exist – or breaking them. It’s going to mean standing up to cops even when the evidence is ambiguous. It’s going to mean giving up a lot of the privileges and entitlements that white people take for granted – or taking them. It’s going to be a terrible, desperate uphill battle, and make no mistake: even on the side of justice, careers will be destroyed, political ambitions will be wrecked, and lives will be lost.
Here, none of that is necessary. All the cops have to do is stop arresting people who aren’t committing crimes. All politicans have to do is defend powerful institutions like “the law” and popular principles like “habeus corpus.” All the public has to do is expect elected officials who voice concerns about criminal justice to follow through with them, and to be minimally skeptical of obviously insane statements like “Freddie Gray broke his own spine.”
And this isn’t even an unusual situation. For every difficult and complicated battle where our black brothers and sisters deserve our solidarity, there’s a gimme like this – an easy, simple fight where we just have to do the right thing. If Paul and Obama can’t even get this right, they aren’t allies, they aren’t misguided sympathizers, and they aren’t even neutral. They’re the enemy.
Photo courtesy Arash Azizzada / Flickr
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.