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The New Politics of Crime

Those who command state power have honed their craft over the ages. The smart ones learn the tricks of their trade by studying the "science" of politics whereby they can benefit from the accumulated knowledge of centuries. One of the tricks that rulers employ is that of creating the bogeyman. The masses need someone or something other than the state at which to vent their anger and frustration when they get restless.  Those leaders who fail to employ the technique of creating a bogeyman for the masses often find themselves at the short end of a revolution!

It's important as an aside to understand that those who command state power are not one and the same as those who wield it. The form of Democracy practiced in this country (and in all of the "free" world for that matter) is one in which elected officials wield state power but the wealthy and corporate class commands it.

America became the rich and powerful country it is through a unique set circumstances. In the beginning we existed only on the margins of a "new" continent (not "new" to the millions of humans who lived here when Columbus pulled up!).  As America grew it had a vast wealth of "unexploited" natural resources to tap. There was the minor problem of Native Americans who often stood in the way of  "progress" by laying claim to those resources. But that was nothing a little genocide couldn't fix.  Native Americans then. served in the role of "bogeyman" for the Nineteenth century.

By the latter part of the century, most Native resistance had effectively been crushed. The rush to sweep across the continent and garner the spoils of conquest was accelerated by technological advances in transportation (the railway) and communication (the telegraph).  It was then that business in America could begin in earnest.  Though much of this country's wealth was initially created through the exploitation of slave labor, the unrestrained growth of business in the post Civil War era was fueled by an inexhaustible supply of "cheap foreign labor"--immigrants.  Those who were once slaves in the literal sense became wage slaves. when jobs were available to them at all, that is. The Thirteenth amendment abolished "involuntary servitude" except for prisoners. Slavery thrived though slaves had to be arrested and jailed rather than purchased at auction. This combination of cheap labor and vast natural resources then was what fueled America's incredible wealth.

The beginning of this century found unrestrained capitalism in full flower in America but the working class was showing signs malcontent.  The ruling class found itself in the awkward position of being the focus of the anger and frustration of the "restless beast" of the working masses.  They could no longer deflect attention away from themselves by redirecting it to "the Indian problem."  An organized labor movement began to form.

This was truly a time of crisis for the ruling class in America. In response they created a new bogeyman -- communism. Just as Native Americans had threatened their interests by laying claim to their land (and its vast richness of "unexploited" natural resources), now communism presented a dire threat to business interests because of its claim that profits from the production of goods and services rightly belong to the workers who create those profits. The propaganda machine of the wealthy class -- who by now had ownership of virtually all the major media --began the task of shaping this new bogeyman in the minds of the working class.  It was a tough sell.  On the face of it, it would seem an impossible task.  How do you convince the working masses that a political system based on their economic interests was a threat to their freedom? But through decades of unrelenting propaganda against international organized labor movements, political repression of domestic labor, and xenophobic anti-immigration laws, this new bogeyman began to take shape in the minds of masses. By the end of the 1940's the transformation was complete. "International Communism" was a force to be feared and reviled by all. The propaganda was so thoroughly ingrained in American culture that a schoolyard taunt of, "Your mommy is a commie!" might actually result in a bloody lip.

Crime as a political issue was first exploited to good effect by Richard Nixon who used it as a "wedge issue" in the 1968 Presidential elections. John Erlichman wrote that in 1969 when the Nixon administration looked out from the White House and saw 300,000 anti-war demonstrators, they felt like the Revolution was imminent. The state responded by stepping up domestic counter-insurgency operations. Using "crime" as its excuse, the Nixon administration stepped up repression (even while being investigated for "crimes" of their own.) Nixon's success at the polls helped to propel the crime issue to use as a political propaganda tool in every campaign since, usually a thinly veiled form of racism.

With the fall of the iron curtain and the Soviet collapse, the effectiveness of communism as a state bogeyman also began to decline. That's when "crime" stepped to the forefront. If the ruling class media and state bureaucracy were able to convince the restless masses that communism was a threat to working people, why not now convince them that their interests are threatened by poor people?  Again, on the face, it seems like a ludicrous proposition.

The Congressional Budget Office disclosed in 1992 that a staggering 77 percent of the before tax income growth of U.S. families between 1977-89 went to the top one percent. In the years 1977-92, after-tax income of the bottom 80 percent of the population (adjusted for inflation) fell 2.2 percent, after-tax income of the top 1/5th, rose 28.1 percent, and the after-tax income of the top 1 percent soared 102.2 percent! How is it possible then, to convince the restless masses that the new bogeyman on the block is the "poor"?  Crime !   Put the fear of crime into them. Splash crime on the front page of every newspaper. Make it the lead in every news broadcast. Make sure that most of the images of "criminals" are minorities, and you propel the myth faster, by riding the undercurrent of racism that still runs strong in America. Portray poor people  as filthy, drunken, violent brutes on television shows like Cops, and the restless masses are more inclined to view poor people with fear and revulsion. Feed the masses an unrelenting diet of crime, crime, crime, and they'll soon see who the new bogeyman is.

The propaganda machine of the American corporate class has become more sophisticated since it took on the task of creating the commie bogeyman ninety years ago. It took nearly fifty years to put the fear of communism into every American heart. It has taken less than two decades to instill an irrational fear of "Crime" into the American masses. And now poor people, women and children, immigrants (making a return appearance) and prisoners are the targets of anger and frustration.

Prisoners make an especially easy target for attracting the fear and loathing of the American public. Prisoners have no economic or political power whatsoever. There is little social stigma to stand in the way of openly reviling prisoners. They make the perfect scapegoat. As such, the new politics of post-Soviet bogeymanism have struck prisoners particularly hard. Here is a synopsis of various anti-crime voter initiatives passed in 1994 that effect prisoners.

California passed Prop 184--the Three Strikes Initiative--by a 71.9 percent to 28.1 percent margin. A California citizen convicted of any felony who has one prior "violent" conviction will serve a sentence twice as long as otherwise mandated by law, and will be sentenced to state prison. A Court cannot grant that person probation or place them in an alternative program such as drug treatment. Any who are convicted of any felony and who have at least two prior "violent" convictions will serve a state prison sentence of three times the normal or 25 years, whichever is greater--and at the court's discretion, they may be sentenced to life.

Georgia passed a "two strikes" law which will impose a life without parole sentence for conviction of a second violent crime. A similar law was passed by the Georgia legislature a year before, but was struck down as unconstitutional because the state constitution gave the Board of Pardons and Paroles exclusive authority in such matters. A constitutional amendment to allow implementation of "two strikes" was approved by 81 percent of the voters.

Maryland passed a new constitutional amendment with approval from 92 percent of the voters that allows crime victims to make a statement in court about how the crime has affected his or her life. In the past, judges could allow such statements at their discretion.

Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment limiting criminal appeals. The measure prohibits a criminal defendant who pleads guilty or no contest from appealing a conviction without the express permission of the trial court. This is kind of like requiring plane crash victims to obtain the permission of the airline before they can sue! The amendment passed by a 73.5 percent to 26.4 percent margin.

Oregon adopted three anti-crime voter initiatives by wide margins. All state prisoners are now required by law to work full-time jobs under measure 17, which passed 71 percent to 29 percent. Measure 11 prescribes stiffer mandatory sentences for specific felonies. It passed 65 percent to 35 percent. And under measure 10, a  2/3rd's vote in each house is necessary for the state Legislature to reduce voter-approved criminal sentences. It passed 65 percent to 35 percent.

Vermont voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitutional amendment that gives judges the authority to deny bail to any arrestee if the "evidence of guilt is great"or if the person poses a thereat to society.

This is a summary of voter initiatives. The actions of various state legislatures will be summarized in a future PLN article. It is plain to see, though, that American politics has emerged from the Cold War era and has embarked on a new war against the poor. When will working Americans wake up from the nightmare of inequality and economic oppression and look under their beds to see there really is no "bogeyman" there? When will the Second American Revolution begin, and what shape will it take?

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