The attorney general traveled to Memphis to roll out his "new" version of an old, failed, and racist Republican policy that has so often destroyed Black families and communities.
Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III, gave a speech to federal, state, and local law enforcement officials in Tennessee at the Memphis City Hall, touting his "new charging and sentencing policy for the Department of Justice."
The policy directs federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe possible sentencing in every case before them. But there is nothing "new" about this old, racist Republican strategy.
Over the past two decades, policies encouraging mass incarceration in the name of supposed law and order decimated Black families and communities.
Between 1980 and 2008, the number of people imprisoned in the United States more than quadrupled, from around 500,000 to 2.3 million people. With only 5 percent of the world's population, our nation has now 25 percent of its prisoners. And Black Americans bear the greatest portion of the brunt of that increase, with an incarceration rate nearly six times that of white Americans, and making up almost half of the prison population.
Deidre Malone, the president of the Memphis branch of the NAACP, observed that Sessions is "trying to turn back the times when it comes to mass incarceration — specifically of African-Americans."
Like his boss, Sessions easily lies in the service of his ideology. Like Trump, he asserts that "violent crime is on the rise in America" — which is, quite simply, false. In fact, from 1996 through 2014, violent crime in the U.S. declined sharply and steadily. More specifically, from 2006-2015 — encompassing the majority of President Barack Obama's time in office — the violent crime rate declined over 22 percent overall.
Yet, in his speech, Sessions claimed that the "murder rate has surged 10 percent nationwide." It is true that there was a 10 percent increase in murders from 2014 to 2015, with a total of 15,696 murders in 2015. However, when that figure is compared to the peak of 19,645 murders in 1996, it becomes clear that there is no evidence at this point of an upward trend in homicide — or other violent crime, for that matter.
Furthermore, Sessions ignored the glaring issue of poverty altogether, choosing instead to blame "broken homes and missing fathers" and drug abuse. While he professed great concern about the very real problem of drug abuse and deaths due to overdoses, Sessions voiced no support for treatment for those affected by addiction or social services to help their families and communities. Nor did he appear to recognize the connection between "missing fathers" and the failed policy of mass incarceration he is advocating.
But there were plenty of people ready and eager to call him out for his ignorance and dangerous ideas.
When Sessions arrived at City Hall, he was greeted by a protest organized by the Memphis affiliate of the grassroots organizing movement, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), in conjunction with the NAACP and other organizations:
— Annette Peagler (@Local24Annette) May 25, 2017
While demonstrating in front of the venue, the crowd of protesters engaged in call and response chants, including "Show us what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!" One of the organizers, London Lamar, spoke to local media about the relationship between poverty and violent crime:
Rally organizer London Lamar with TN Young dems says this is the cause of violent crime in Memphis...and mass incarceration doesn't help pic.twitter.com/g5zQjQ4ff8
— Annette Peagler (@Local24Annette) May 25, 2017
LAMAR: The city of Memphis has a 30 percent poverty rate. What that means is we don't need more police. We don't need more incarceration. What we need is some resources in our community to address the poverty needs. What that means is improving our educational system so that everybody has a right to a good public education, that can go off and get good jobs and bring that economic stability to their community. What we need is some good jobs.
For decades, Republican ideology with regard to law enforcement and lack of support for public welfare programs has rested on a foundation of flawed logic: criminals are poor, therefore poor people are criminals. As recently as this week, Trump's budget director said those receiving public assistance are committing "theft" and "larceny." And Sessions' remarks touting long-term mass incarceration as the answer to violent crime mistake a symptom as the disease itself.
If the slashes to social welfare programs contained within Trump's proposed budget are enacted, alongside Sessions' throw-em-all-in-jail policies, more people will be plunged into poverty, not fewer. More people will live in families with missing providers and in communities with no supportive services. More people will feel desperate and hopeless.
And it is desperation and hopelessness that are, in part, driving the current opioid epidemic, causing more people to abuse drugs, die from overdoses, and commit violent acts. Demand for drugs will increase, which means drug cartel activity will increase and competition among cartels will likely become more violent, not less.
If the attorney general himself is unwilling to recognize the role of poverty and stagnant and declining incomes, and is instead determined to go forward re-upping old, failed policies with new names, life in vulnerable communities could get much worse before it gets better.