Examining the Conservative Defense of Police Shootings

Is most police behavior fine, dandy, and racism-free? And what does it mean if it is?

As horror over police shootings has grown nationwide over the past year, some sympathy for the goals of Black Lives Matter protesters has come from the right as well as the left. Jeb Bush gave the issue minor lip service in August, and Mr. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has voiced outrage over the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland. In fact, it is understandable why the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police might worry conservatives: their ostensible principles of limited government and individual rights are somewhat undermined by a state of affairs in which the government can shoot a person to death for no reason at all.

But according to Mr. David French of the National Review, the true conservative position on this is that the problems cited by black citizens are not problems at all. Police are doing their jobs well overall, and a mountain is being made out of a molehill. Thus a clear-eyed examination of the facts “should defuse national tensions,” but unfortunately a “false narrative” is fueling a misguided social movement.

First, it is important to understand what this position assumes: that the majority of blacks who do not have confidence in the police cannot hold their beliefs because of their own experiences. Instead they are being, as French puts it, “taught to hate and fear law enforcement, fed on a steady diet of lies about their own country.” The 3 out of 5 black people who report that they have personally been treated unfairly by police must not understand that they were, in fact, treated fairly. Anyone who wishes to argue that there is no widespread race problem in policing must necessarily discount everything said by most black people about the behavior they have witnessed firsthand.

But perhaps it is true that millions of black people are simply being tricked into believing that they have had bad experiences with police. Mr. French believes that the statistics, properly examined, reveal that this must be the case. As he explains, the evidence will show that while policing may have its occasional deadly mishaps and whoops-a-daisies, on the whole it is not worthy of serious complaint:

The conservative response is clear: While no one believes the police are perfect, on the whole they tend to use force appropriately to protect their own lives and the lives of others. 

Now, first, the limits of French’s contention should be carefully noted. It is easy to let a sentence like the above go by without observing the tiny sleight-of-hand buried within. Here, we should notice something quite important: the proposition French will attempt to defend is not, in fact, inconsistent with the case made by Black Lives Matter. French says conservatives believe police “tend” to use force appropriately. But this verb should raise an enormous skeptical eyebrow. For police could indeed tend to use force appropriately, while nevertheless using force inappropriately at very high rates. If I say “I tend to follow the law,” I might still disregard the law about 30% of the time. What if I say of someone “Oh, don’t worry, he tends not to murder people”? Should you be concerned about being murdered by this person?

This is terribly important. It goes beyond the simple choice of particular verbs; it is something to watch out for whenever a statistical argument is being made, and it matters especially where we are assessing the taking of life. For if I say “95% of police use of force is justified,” that sounds like an excellent record. But even if we know that number to be accurate, it is nevertheless not nearly as definitive as it appears to be. For what about the remaining 5%? Five percent is one-in-twenty. If the five percent was murder, the fact that 95% of police activities were not murder wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. It would be as if a serial killer defended himself by saying “Well, it’s a bit unfair for you to point out all the murders I have committed, without paying any attention whatsoever to the many I haven’t committed. 95% of the women I meet, I don’t try to kill, and only a minuscule fraction of my day is devoted to murdering. When you look at my life’s activities on the whole, I really do tend not to murder people much at all.” (Incidentally, this is what Planned Parenthood’s “our activities are only 3% abortion” sounds like to conservative ears, which is why it’s a silly defense to make.)

But Mr. French strongly believes that by showing that most police shootings are not cold-blooded murders of unarmed black men, he has proven something. As he says, the police are “generally responsible,” and

[t]he kinds of shootings that launched the Black Lives Matter movement — white police officers killing unarmed black men — represent “less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings.”

Mr. French says that the Washington Post has been trying to “hype the racial injustice of this statistic” by pointing out that unarmed black men are much more likely to get shot than members of other demographic groups. This is where he gives us the thrust of his defense: to the extent that racial disparities exist, they exist because black people commit more crimes than white people do. He argues that black people only get shot so much because they commit so many crimes. If they committed fewer crimes, then perhaps they’d get shot less.

But this assumes something utterly unwarranted, namely that the people who have been killed were criminals. In support of this, French cites evidence that 564 out of the 965 people killed by police in 2015 were “armed with a gun.” But the entire meaning of the Second Amendment is that having a gun is no crime. One can stroll down the street with one’s AR-15 if one so pleases, and that is simply the beauty of freedom. Thanks to the Constitution, saying the victim was “armed with a gun” is no different to saying the victim was “wearing a hat.” Perfectly lawful, the relevant question is whether the police had good reason to believe the person was posing a threat.

Of course, this also leaves us with several hundred killings of unarmed people. But here, again, Mr. French tells us that crime rates resolve the question. It’s a bizarre way to defend killing, though. It assumes that if someone has committed a crime, it is acceptable to put them to death without trial. In fact, it is worth asking: what if the unarmed black men being killed are often criminals? (in the non-technical sense, since legally they are innocent until proven guilty) They can be killed, even if they pose no threat? The “conservative case” made by Mr. French does away with every single requirement of due process.

In fact, we know many of those who are killed are criminals. Eric Garner, who was choked to death in New York, was a criminal: he had sold loose cigarettes without paying his taxes. Statistically, blacks probably do this more often than whites do (partially because selling cigarettes on the street is something done mostly by poorer people, and black people are disproportionately poorer than white people), thus more black people will be choked to death. Have we justified anything by proving this?

The same is true with Walter Scott, the South Carolina man shot in the back as he ran from police. He was committing a crime as he was shot: he fled arrest! But if flight warranted death, Affluenza-boy could simply have had a bullet put in him the moment he was pulled from a Mexican apartment block.

So of course a lot of the victims are going to have committed crimes. When police shot a 19-year-old man and a 55-year-old mother in Chicago last weekend, they were aiming to shoot a criminal: the teenager had been having a violent tantrum, and that was the entire reason the police were called. So, too, Lacquan McDonald, who had slashed a police car’s tires and allegedly committed burglary. And Tamir Rice shouldn’t have been waving an AirSoft gun in the direction of people! The entire point here is that these shootings are disproportionate to whatever has gone on and whatever crime might have been committed.

“Ah,” French might say, “but you have conceded my case. There’s no racism here! If, say, police murder 1% of all those suspected of committing crimes, and 70% of those who commit crimes are black, then there will of course be racial disparities in the underlying numbers.”

But the argument is pitiful: “It might be true that police murder quite a few unarmed black men, but this is acceptable because these unarmed black men were thought to have engaged in crimes. And they were murdered because of that, rather than their race.” We can call this the “Hey, I may be a murderer, but I’m no racist” defense. All it suggests is that police brutality as a whole is deeper than simply being racism. A Marxist might say something similar.

There’s something worth appreciating about the theory that the violence is more widespread than race alone would tell us. Being accused of a crime is a highly relevant factor: when police beat (white) homeless man Kelly Thomas to death, they apparently thought he had been vandalizing cars. When police intentionally had (white) Jared Lemay mauled by a dog, he had been violating his probation. It may indeed be that where violence is concerned, police simply dish it out mercilessly to whoever they are after, and they happen to be after black men more.

But it’s also true that the statistics don’t disprove the existence of a racist criminal justice system. After all, one can only prove that a person has committed a crime (and thus measure the race of criminals) if the person is convicted of a crime. But if black people are more likely to be arrested for committing the same crime as a white person, and then more likely to be convicted, then we are not factoring unconvicted white criminals into our crime rate analysis. Pointing out that black people are convicted more than white people in addition to being shot more is completely consistent with a theory that every part of the criminal justice system is shot through with racism. Mr. French apparently hasn’t had a look at The New Jim Crow, and doesn’t realize that reformers’ entire argument is that black people are being convicted of crimes in outrageous numbers, while ordinary criminals such as congresspeople get neither shot nor convicted!

That’s not to dispute that homicides by and against black people are higher than those by and against white people. Black people know this better than anyone and are constantly attempting to draw attention to it, not that the National Review cares much about these things when they’re not trying to score a point against protesters. But instead of seeing this as a social problem in need of repair, Mr. French sees it as warrant for the police to kill the alleged perpetrators before they even go to trial.

The “conservative case” against Black Lives Matter, then, is founded on multiple ignorant premises. The first is that somehow, by showing that most police behavior is acceptable, we have proven that shootings are not occurring at unacceptable rates. This is a hideous irrational non sequitur that in a just world would result in the revocation of Mr. French’s bar license. The second is that it’s acceptable to murder unarmed black people so long as the rate of killing increases in direct proportion with the number of crimes they commit. The third is that the people being killed are criminals, which they aren’t, since dead men don’t go to trial. The fourth is that once someone is a criminal, any level of force whatsoever is acceptable to be used against them. The fifth is that the Second Amendment doesn’t exist. The sixth is that racism doesn’t affect the number of criminal convictions. And the seventh is that black people are totally delusional about their own first-person memories.

The conservative case on Black Lives Matter ought to be that if small government means anything, it means not being shot in the head by the government, without so much as an arraignment. But for David French, as for many others, the definition of “conservatism” often simply amounts to a defense of the use of violence by the powerful, with all the highfalutin rights-talk being mostly a sham. If Mr. French’s argument is the conservative case, black people should be fearful indeed of conservative justice.

The Limits of “Black Lives Matter” as Slogan & Movement

The “Where Do We Go From Here” moment has arrived. Is there a way the movement can bring real pressure, or is it destined for a dead end?

As a slogan/hashtag/rallying cry, Black Lives Matter has been extraordinarily successful in unifying people and putting a lot of focus on the crimes of the police. Even though the pace of murders by police does not appear to have slowed, it’s at least encouraging that names are finally being named, and there are some prosecutions occurring that would not have occurred in the absence of the movement. The “Black Lives Matter” phrase itself has a lot of rhetorical force, and its spread has generally been tremendous. But it seems as if the movement is spinning its wheels a bit, uncertain of how to proceed in order to reach its goals, which also remain undefined. It has turned to somewhat bizarre tactics, like regularly protesting Bernie Sanders rallies. And it has produced a powerful public rememberance and grieving process for victims of police, but so far we don’t know how to actually reduce the number of victims. I don’t want to trivialize the movement’s gains or tell it how to run itself, but I want to observe a couple of core weaknesses that limit the likelihood of its success.

First, if we analyze what it means to protest that “Black Lives Matter,” I think it ironically concedes too much power to white people. Black lives obviously matter to people with black lives, and obviously do not matter much to the police. The demand here is that the police recognize the fact that black people are correct in insisting that their lives matter, and for the police to begin to behave as if this is so.

The difference between multiple meanings of “matter” makes this a bit confusing, since “matter” can refer to both personal dignity and empirical social significance. Dignity is self-created and cannot be taken or given. Significance measures my worth according to the opinions of others. “I matter” and “I matter” can have two different connotations, one true and one false, even given the same set of facts. I do not matter (because I am insignificant and powerless in my society) but I matter (because I nevertheless have dignity.) The Black Lives Matter slogan attempts to imply both the dignity meaning (Black people have dignity no matter what) and the significance meaning (Black people ought to be treated as having significance), one being descriptive and one being aspirational.

Yet in both these respects, the Black Lives Matter slogan itself becomes a demand for recognition from white people. Dignity should be measured personally and not by the opinions of others. And significance should not be asked for, but built, since asking for an increase in significance reaffirms and legitimizes the power of those who  claim the right to determine social significance. But a Black Lives Matter protest requests these things. “I matter, and I demand you acknowledge that I matter, which you currently do not do.” That kind if demand requires the demander to have strong interest in the opinion of the demandee. The Black Lives Matter slogan isn’t being directed at black people, who already know that fact. It’s a demand that someone else affirm the dignity and worth of black people. It seems to be begging the state/white people/the police.

A protest demanding recognition of dignity is somewhat odd. If I am, say, abused and demeaned by someone, who treats me as if I have no worth, is the best way to assert my worth to stand outside of his house with a sign saying “I have worth”? Most would probably admit that this implies the abuser is the one with the power to determine my worth, when my worth exists independent of what my abuser thinks. Of course, it will be replied that “Black Lives Matter” intends precisely to insist that worth exists independent of the opinions of power; it is saying that “black lives matter whether you like it or not.” But if that is the case, who are the signs and hashtags directed at convincing?

(By the way, I feel the same about the wearing of Sunday clothing and the holding of “I Am A Man” signs during the first civil rights movement. The natty suits were supposed to persuade white people that black people were clean, dignified Americans. I don’t want to say the tactic shouldn’t have been used, since the struggle was an urgent one and effectiveness was important. But there was something to Malcolm X’s critique of the civil rights struggle, that it was asking instead of taking.)

Instead of a humble request for white people to admit black dignity, then, it might be better to orient a movement around exactly what its real demands are. In the case of Black Lives Matter, I take that to be more along the lines of “End Racist Police Violence.” That doesn’t demand any kind of recognition, because recognition is (1) merely symbolic and (2) not even a desirable symbolic concession. Ending racist police violence is very specific. Success cannot be faked. With Black Lives Matter, those in power can say “I hereby declare that black lives now matter.” Have you therefore won? If we all sing a song together about how much we believe one another matters, will we have changed the situation that first brought this all about? Absolutely not.

Among liberal and left-wing activists, there’s sometimes a suspicion of creating demands. This tendency seems to have solidified during the “demandless” Occupy movement, but it has its roots in the 1960’s, like the “Demand the Impossible” graffiti of the French May ’68 student movement. The suspicion comes from the same impulse Malcolm X had: if you demand something, you’re acknowledging that someone else is the one who has the power to give it to you. You are, to use a fashionable meaningless academic verb, “reifying” their power.

As I’ve indicated, there’s something valuable in this impulse. Practically speaking, however, it can be suicide, especially when you’re not actually building something instead. If you want to reject the ability of the “power structure” to decide whether you win, then you have to be building some alternative form of power, or else you will simply be resigning yourself to being crushed. This was the civil rights movement’s response to Malcolm: Okay then, how are you going to build black political power? And it was Malcolm’s weakness that he didn’t have a good answer. His own political organizations foundered; rhetoric about self-defense will only carry you so far. That’s not completely fair, since if Malcolm had lived, he might have managed to create something meaningful. And in fact, the Black Panthers can be seen to have embodied what Malcolm advocated: a self-defense organization that provides aid to communities (medical and childcare), keeps people safe by resisting the police, and terrifies the establishment. But the Black Panthers were destroyed, in large part due to government infiltration and suppression, though also partly because of inherent weaknesses in their philosophy, poor organization, and self-defeating acts. You have to be very good at what you’re doing in order to shun the entire process of making demands.

In the case of Black Lives Matter, though, a “no demands” defense of their current direction does not really work. As I pointed out, they’ve already indicated their willingness to make demands. The whole movement is built on a demand, a demand for black lives to matter. So it might as well make its demands concrete, and insisting on meaningful differences in the real world.

Thinking of things that can be asked for is not difficult. Halve the prison population within five years. Drastic changes to the sentencing structure to reduce future sentences for all crimes. Decriminalize all drugs, massive new funding for diversion and treatment programs.The end of law enforcement officers’ qualified immunity from lawsuits. A nationwide ban on criminal record questions on job applications. The extensive redistribution of wealth by race, so that white households no longer have an average net worth 13 times that of black households. Nationwide debt forgiveness for poor people. A basic income. Guaranteed parity of school funding. Citizen oversight committees for every local police force, with the power to fire officers.

“If BLM is about black people, it needs to expand beyond policing, and if it’s about policing, it needs to expand beyond black people.”

In fact, just end the police. Break up police forces into their component functions, so that they are no longer an enormous violent Leviathan. Give the investigative functions to courts, have a traffic agency handle traffic offenses, let trained professionals deal with the mentally ill so that the police don’t end up putting bullets in them. The cops with the badges and the guns should be a tiny group, used only in true violent emergencies. Stop having cops show up where medics or social workers are what’s necessary.

Demand some of these. None of them. Any of them. But if the movement reorients itself around pushes for some actual goals, it will at least have the chance of accomplishing something, and won’t lose steam. Demanding that a long-shot socialist Democrat start tweeting the slogan might be achievable, and might also even be helpful. (I understand why the left should demand that the left-wing candidate have a good race platform, though excessive disproportionate, hostile attention to Bernie seems like it will do nobody any good.) But even assuming the maximum level of possible impact for that tactic, it is still many steps removed from any actual underlying improvement in the society.

If the movement is focused on policing, it also needs to move beyond Black Lives Matter to include a wider swath of victims. I understand why BLM has reacted with visceral hostility to anyone who replies that “All Lives Matter.” After all, during a protest about the fact that black people are being discounted, it must be infuriating to see white people immediately expand the group under discussion to include themselves. Nevertheless, it does need expanding, perhaps to “all oppressed lives.” Otherwise, where are Native American lives? Disabled people’s lives? What about police victimization of the homeless, like the death of Kelly Thomas? The police have many targets, and while black people might suffer disproportionately, it is important to find a way to incorporate the death of Robert Saylor, the man with Down’s syndrome whom police attacked and killed in a movie theater. (I explained this point more here.)

It’s also acceptable to say that Black Lives Matter is not a policing protest, but a protest about the lives of black people. I think at the moment it tries to be both. But if it’s specifically about black people, then there are other issues than policing it needs to address. The wealth gap is an important one of these. So is the continuation of job and housing discrimination. So is unequal access to healthcare and groceries.

So, if BLM is about black people, it needs to expand beyond policing, and if it’s about policing, it needs to expand beyond black people. Of course, my own preference is for it to be both of these things and more, to integrate itself into a broad left-wing movement that pushes for the elimination racist violence by the state and the radical rearrangement of the economy to eliminate the hideous excesses of the rich and make sure that people of nonwhite races are not disproportionately consigned to struggle and debt.

Let me emphasize again that I do not want to chastize or instruct Black Lives Matter. I only want to make a prediction, which is that simply mobilizing a large number of people under the banner, rallying them regularly in American cities and chanting the slogan, will not produce useful outcomes. It will be tempting to believe that the movement is winning, because more people are paying attention and Hillary is meeting with them and Bernie has put up a good web page. But paying attention towards what? Meeting towards what? If a plan is formulated, if a vision of the ideal world is articulated, then we might begin to take small steps in its direction. Otherwise, it will be difficult to sustain momentum indefinitely. How many deaths will be stomached before the chant for dignity morphs into a demand to finally end the police?

Can Jeremy Corbyn Change British Politics?

Is the rumpled, bearded left-winger doomed to failure and irrelevance, or can he build something befitting his ambitions?

Since the United Kingdom’s Labour party unexpectedly elected far-left socialist Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in September, British politics have been in utter disarray. Nobody quite knows what to make of the bearded vegetarian MP, who spent a forty-year political career in quiet obscurity before being suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the mainstream. After multiple decades during which the Labour party was led by business-friendly centrists, there has been widespread bafflement and surprise at the election of a hard-left anticapitalist who sports a Leninesque flat cap. Even Corbyn himself was shocked to find himself suddenly in charge of the party; he had originally only even put his name in the race because he thought there ought to be at least one far-left candidate.

But the election result itself makes a reasonable amount of sense. There has been widespread disillusionment among Labour party members for many years, with many having the sense that the party has ceased to provide meaningful opposition to Conservative party rule. The 90’s New Labour strategy, developed by Tony Blair, had been for the party to move its politics to the right, on the theory that English people would not tolerate left-wing radicalism as indicated through their repeated reelection of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Blair therefore totally remade the Labour party, chucking out most of its socialist commitments. Before, the party constitution had promised to: “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

Roughly, this amounted to a full endorsement of the principles of Karl Marx. Blair made sure the the language was changed to say instead that the party “believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential.”

One would struggle to come up with an airier, more equivocal mission statement. But under Blair, incorporation of the principles of the public relations industry became central to the party’s identity. Its actual policy suggestions were fewer and fewer, its politicians’ words were hollower and hollower. And as happened with Barack Obama, once the electorate discovered that uplifting rhetoric could not pay their rent, they began to sour on the deal. In 2010, they put the Conservatives in power, the Labor party has been shriveling ever since.

So the party was in a fairly inauspicious state when Jeremy Corbyn arrived on the scene. But that’s precisely what enabled his victory. Corbyn ran against three other candidates, all of whom were the very definition of the Oxbridge political establishment, stuffed shirts whom the public had a great deal of difficulty telling apart.

Against them, Corbyn stood out as something previously unseen among the political class: a human. His fashion sense tended toward rumpled beige sport coats and sweaters knitted for him by his mum. He was soft-spoken but warm and conversational, described as a wholly decent chap even by his ex-wives. And he seemed to offer something genuinely different from conventional Labour policy: full-blooded, uncompromising socialism.

In ordinary times, this would be a completely disqualifying characteristic. The whole point of Blair’s revisions had been premised on the public’s allergy to the word socialism, which they associate with all the world’s evils from welfare to gulags. But we don’t exactly live in ordinary times. Just as in the U.S., the financial crisis fueled the British public’s anger toward wealth and privilege, and David Cameron’s merciless austerity program had been cutting many of people’s most relied-upon government services. The existing Labour party had done very little to oppose this. Thus there were two choices for traditional Labour voters: total, permanent disillusionment or intra-party revolution.

Fortunately, a generation of young Labour supporters chose the latter, crossing the country to campaign for their unshaven leftist hero. The Corbyn campaign steadily picked up steam over the summer, and what had once been a 200-1 long shot suddenly seemed like a guaranteed victory. When election day came, Corbyn won in a massive landslide, earning nearly 60% of the vote. His closest competitor received only 19%.

Corbyn’s election threw Britain into turmoil, since it was so completely without precedent. Corbyn is a serious left-winger; he makes Bernie Sanders look like Ted Cruz. He proposed nationalizing the railways, printing new money to finance public investment, and massively increasing corporate taxes. He spoke in an entirely different rhetoric from previous Labour leaders, insisting on a “kinder” form of politics that prioritized the needs of the poor and the oppressed. The oppressed! Not a word typically used in conventional liberal politics.

Of course, every single politician since the humankind’s earliest days has promised a “new kind of politics.” If the quality of an officeholder were to be judged by the amount they insist they are fresh and different, every last Congressman would be a consummate statesman. The serious question is not what they say, for hot air is the currency of governance. It is what they actually end up doing.

Corbyn’s first week as leader did not go especially smoothly. Almost immediately, the press deluged him with accusations of sexism after he gave all four “top” posts in his shadow cabinet to men, though his cabinet overall was the first ever to be more than 50% female. Suzannah Moore of The Guardian said that Corbyn heralded a “new brocialism,” calling Corbyn “tone deaf” and “daft” on women’s issues.

Then there was the anthem. At a commemoration ceremony for the Battle of Britain, Corbyn stood in solemn silence as the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” was played, while others around him sang it. A monsoon of press coverage accused Corbyn of unpatriotic behavior, insisting that true Brits do not merely stand for the anthem, but bellow it out with fulsome exuberance.

A series of comparable mini-scandals followed. When Corbyn indicated he would consider kneeling before the Queen at a required ceremony, he was ribbed for compromising his anti-monarchist principles. When he stated that he would never consider using nuclear weapons, he was denounced for being too uncompromising of his anti-nuclear principles. With the press, Corbyn simply couldn’t win. The Telegraph went furthest across the absurdity threshold when it accused Corbyn of riding a “Chairman Mao-style bicycle.” Buzzfeed UK parodied Corbyn’s futile situation with a “choose-your-own-adventure” guide to being the new Labour leader, in which every decision one makes brings on denunciation from the media, no matter which side one chooses.

Yet after a few days, once the press had run out of fresh ways to call Corbyn a traitor and a communist, the dust began moderately to settle. Corbyn made his first appearance on the floor of Parliament, engaging in the traditional “Questions” session in which the leader of the opposition confronts the Prime Minister and asks him to answer for his various misdeeds. Usually it is a noisy ritual, with Members of Parliament booing and shouting at their opponents, and the Speaker of the House exasperatedly trying to maintain a semblance of decorum and exhorting his colleagues to please calm down and let each other speak.

But Corbyn’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions was atypical. He announced at the outset that he wished to do it “somewhat differently,” as he felt the public had become weary of the spectacle of garrulous MPs making animal noises at one another instead of engaging in sober-minded discussion of the issues of the day. This unexpected announcement somewhat hushed the Conservative side of the room, which had come fully prepared to pelt Corbyn with more than the usual hisses and cackles.

His glasses halfway down his nose, Corbyn calmly told the House of Commons that Prime Minister’s Question Time was henceforth going to be genuine and reasonable, and that he took his duty as the people’s representative seriously. In that spirit, instead of asking the Prime Minister questions of his own devising, Corbyn took out a list of crowdsourced inquiries from members of the public. Instead of Cameron having to argue against the shaggy socialist Jeremy Corbyn, he would have to argue against “Marie,” “Stephen,” “Paul,” “Gail,” and “Angela.” Marie, Corbyn said, would like to know “what the Government intends to do about the chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords in this country?”

The tactic worked. Corbyn caught the Prime Minister off-guard, and the Conservatives were unable to give Corbyn the public humiliation they had hoped for. By speaking in the people’s voice, rather than his own, Corbyn staked out the moral high ground and put the Tories on the defensive.

The negative press did not ebb much after the first Prime Minister’s Questions, but Corbyn had bought himself at least a modicum of legitimacy. He still had record disapproval ratings for a new Labour leader, and a large portion of the populace barely knew who he was or thought him a threat to the country’s wellbeing (or barely knew who he was except for knowing that he was a threat to the country’s wellbeing..) Yet the coverage became increasingly difficult to take seriously. It was almost universally acknowledged that Corbyn had done well at the PMQ session, thus pundits had to engage in impossible rhetorical contortions in order to spin the event negatively. “Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs wasn’t a disaster, which is why it will destroy him,” ran the Telegraph’s headline. Their argument was that “by setting low expectations then meeting them, [Corbyn] will blind his party to his terrible flaws.”

In the time since that first parliamentary session, Corbyn has managed to do a bit more to build public confidence. He has turned out to be an unusually good television interview subject, explaining his socialistic principles in warm and intelligible terms, with a good-natured sense of humor. Attempts to ruffle him on television have failed, despite one interviewer asking him questions like “You’re a religious leader, aren’t you?” and “Why don’t you just admit you hate the Tories?” The low-key style led The Guardian so far as to suggest that Corbyn has “changed the art of political interviewing.” And when Corbyn gave his first major extended interview, with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, The Independent reported that “people loved it,” and that “even Mr Corbyn’s strongest New Labour critics had to admit he gave a strong performance on the show.”

The change in interview and questioning style is notable, first, because it has somewhat dashed the hopes of Corbyn’s detractors that he would immediately crash and burn, and second because it may signal that he is, in fact, serious when he says that he is trying to do politics differently.

Naturally, it’s difficult to say from the early days of his leadership whether Corbyn is actually capable of being “transformative.” But he appears serious about an inclusive politics; he still holds regular public “advice sessions” at which people with issues concerning “housing, immigration or benefits” can come and ask him for help. His first action as leader was to visit a protest in support of refugees. He hasn’t backed down on any of his key commitments, from absolute opposition to nuclear weapons to a skepticism of military interventions abroad. Tens of thousands of new members have joined the Labour party, inspired by Corbyn’s optimism and humility, as well as his promise for the revivification of an authentic radical left-wing politics.

But Corbyn will inevitably face the problem that all idealists face when they achieve power: compromise is inevitable, and once you compromise on one thing, it’s a few small steps to complete capitulation. It’s very difficult to remain true to onself and simultaneously negotiate a morally murky set of political necessities.

One encouraging thing, though, has been that Corbyn seems policy-minded. He has decades of experience in the House of Commons (albeit in the very back of the back benches), and thus is likely to have few illusions about the task ahead of him as Labour leader. He has offered specific proposals for what he would do if Labour was in government, including giving an outline and timeline for how he would like to accomplish railway renationalization, and thus has set real goals that can be measured by their success or failure. Promisingly, he has now taken on an economic team including “rockstar” economist Thomas Piketty and Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, who will hopefully help him formulate an effective left-wing economic agenda, which can give Labour something to offer the British people.

Specificity of the proposals is crucial if Corbyn is going to succeed. If the entire reason people were disillusioned with Labour is that they did not know what they stood for, Corbyn must have a list of concrete things for which Labour does stand, that go beyond feel-good rhetoric about kindness, community, and honest politics.

Thus far, it looks as if he’s serious. Bernie Sanders could stand to take note of this; he himself has a tendency toward grandiose anti-inequality rhetoric, with the underlying proposals remaining cloudy.

But Corbyn has to be serious, has to be genuinely different if he wants his ideas to have a chance. After all, a significant portion of his party’s elected officials hate his guts, and think his election was a suicidal disaster. (Before the election, Tony Blair issued a desperate plea: “Even if you hate me, please don’t take Labour over the cliff edge” by voting for Corbyn, he wrote.) No matter how large his grassroots support may be among young people, unifying the party and defeating the Conservatives is a gargantuan task, and it won’t be accomplished with speeches alone; Corbyn has to build a real, serious base of power.

If one were to judge by the reactions of the Tories to Corbyn’s election, he just might stand a chance. Of course, all of them insist that he is unelectable, and that the Labour party has thoroughly discredited itself or committed electoral suicide. The U.S. National Review insisted that the Labour party had “set itself on fire” and the U.K. Daily Express said he “spells disaster for Labour.”

Yet in the same breath as they insist Corbyn is a ludicrous nonentity who has consigned his party to insignificance, Conservatives warn of the terrible threat he poses. When Corbyn was elected, Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that “Labour are now a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s security.” Surely a bit of an overstatement of the risks posed by an ineffectual nobody.

Now that Corbyn is picking up a bit of steam, and shaking off the attacks, Conservatives’ warnings about the threat he poses increase in intensity. Each of their prophecies of doom should give the rest of us a little bit of hope.

The Case Against Deporting Criminal Aliens

Liberals and conservatives alike speak in favor of deporting criminals. But all that means is wishing crime on other countries. 

After Kathryn Steinle was killed in San Francisco on July 1st, her death took on a potent role in the American immigration debate. Steinle was killed by an unauthorized immigrant, Francisco Sanchez, who had been deported five times previously and had seven felony convictions. Despite his criminal background and unlawful immigration status, the San Francisco sheriff’s office released him in April, in accordance with their longstanding practice of refusing to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

Because Sanchez had been deported so many times, and because he was a felon, Steinle’s death was portrayed as a strong indictment of the San Francisco “sanctuary city” policy. Conservatives argued that this was a perfect example of what lax immigration enforcement leads to: as a direct result of the city’s actions, an innocent 32-year-old woman is dead.

The Steinle case is an uncomfortable one for liberals. After all, they’re met with a fearsome challenge: how can Sanchez’s release be defended given his subsequent actions? And if they do not believe Sanchez ought to have been released, then why do they continue to promote sanctuary city policies? With Steinle’s grieving family begging for the policies to be changed, those who support sanctuary cities have a hard time answering questions about the potentially deadly human consequences.

Attempts on the left to answer these questions have been extremely weak. The ACLU’s Hector Villagra, in the Los Angeles Timessaid that while the killing was tragic, to deport Sanchez would have required violating the Fourth Amendment. Jose Vargas said on FOX News that ICE should have issued a warrant for Sanchez’s arrest.

These arguments won’t persuade many. Conservatives will reply that if the ACLU’s theory of the Fourth Amendment precludes deporting criminals, it’s time to for the ACLU to start interpreting the Constitution like an originalist would. And FOX host Megyn Kelly reduced Vargas to stutters when she pointed out that San Francisco’s policy was specifically designed to flout federal law.

One reason that both Vargas and Villagra have trouble defending their policy positions is that they both nominally accept the legitimacy of current federal immigration law, and do not dispute the premise that dangerous criminal aliens ought to be deported. The wisdom of deporting criminals has been accepted by almost all parties in the immigration debate, even those who support massively easing present-day restrictions and allowing new paths to legalization. Immigration reformers consistently pitch their proposals as being oriented toward hardworking migrants who seek the American Dream; hence the DREAM Act, and the “deport felons not families” rhetoric. Thus, these reformers are in a tough spot when speaking in favor of sanctuary cities, which are naturally in tension with the goal of deporting felons.

But the argument for deporting criminals needs to be re-examined to begin with, since it is not as rock-solid as the consensus makes it appear. In fact, it is based on some deeply ugly premises.

It’s important to remember, first, that deported individuals do not simply disappear into nonexistence. They are sent to another country, often one to which they now have little connection and in which they face a fight for survival. This means that in the case of someone dangerous who poses harm to others, deportation does nothing to prevent crime. Instead, it simply shifts it someplace else. Deportation advocates may believe they are saving lives, but they’re doing nothing of the kind. They’re simply attempting to have residents of other countries be the victims. Saying we wish Francisco Sanchez had been deported is simply tantamount to saying we wish he had killed someone in Mexico instead. It would indeed be extremely difficult to look Steinle’s devastated family in the eye and say that Sanchez deserved to stay. But there’s another family out there: the family of the individual Sanchez might have killed had he returned to Mexico. It would be equally difficult to tell them why their daughter ought to have died instead. Sending Steinle’s killer to Mexico would have saved her, but at someone else’s expense.

This isn’t simply theoretical. Sending wave after wave of criminals to Mexican border cities wreaks violent havoc on them, and makes the precarious task of local governance even more difficult. In fact, deporting criminals may lead to even higher ultimate costs in human lives and suffering than allowing them to stay: those who are sent to cities they know nothing of, sometimes without even capable Spanish speaking skills, may well turn to crime. Furthermore, the U.S. criminal justice system is almost certainly better-equipped than the struggling Mexican government to deal with acts of violence. No matter how little sympathy there may be for criminal wrongdoing, the harm to victims of criminal deportees should be assessed before we congratulate ourselves for having made anything safer.

There is another problem with the consensus on deporting “dangerous” aliens. It is very easy, in retrospect, to see Sanchez as a risky individual who should not have been walking the streets. But as far as we know, Sanchez had served his full sentence for his previous criminal convictions. ICE wished to deport him because he was here illegally and had a criminal record, not because they had notice of a particular ongoing threat he posed. But having a criminal record isn’t the same as being a wanted criminal. People who have served their sentences are supposed to be free, because that’s the entire purpose of a limited-duration criminal sentence. As much as we might wish to imprison killers before they kill, introducing Minority Report-style anticipatory prosecution would be both impossible and terrifying. People must be held accountable for acts they have committed or attempted to commit, not simply acts they may be statistically more likely to commit based on their demographic characteristics.

Conservative critics have a response to this argument. They believe that immigrating illegally should itself be a more heavily-penalized crime, regardless of the individual criminal history of aliens. Claiming to be honoring Steinle’s memory, Bill O’Reilly began pushing for the adoption of what he calls “Kate’s Law,” a mandatory five-year prison sentence for anyone who returns illegally to the U.S. after being deported.

But those advocating this kind of response concede that they are more interested in punishing immigration violations than in protecting public safety. Even the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that immigrant crime rates are well below that of native-born Americans, citing research from the Immigration Policy Center which concluded that “for every ethnic group without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants,” a statistic that “holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population.” If O’Reilly is truly interested in stopping crime, imprisoning immigrants for immigrating is a disastrously wrongheaded tactic. In fact, given the crime rate disparity, it would be more effective to imprison all U.S.-born citizens; after all, large numbers of crimes are committed by citizens every day.

Criminals already account for a very large percentage of President Obama’s deportations. After the killing of Steinle, pressure is likely to mount to deport more of them. Democratic presidential contender Martin O’Malley has said that the death proves ICE needs to “step up its game” and make sure that “threats to public safety” are removed. And the USA Today editorial board called for eliminating sanctuary city policies altogether, in order to better facilitate ICE enforcement.

The left/right consensus on the deportation of criminals is understandable. After all, nobody wants to support the idea of letting dangerous strangers wander freely, especially not after a tragedy. But deportation is not a remedy. It is a classic example of a solution that appears to solve a problem, without actually solving it. Exporting crime to Mexico is only a safety measure so long as we can keep the victims out of mind. Furthermore, deporting those who have served their sentences as “risky” involves accepting the totalitarian logic of punishing future crimes. If we accepted such a theory of justice, there would plenty of citizens who ought to be imprisoned long before we started on unauthorized aliens.

Ultimately, it is criminal law, not immigration law, that should determine what the sentence is for a criminal act. If Sanchez served his sentence on his felony charges, he was entitled to be a free man. That truth isn’t comforting. Conservatives have no tolerance for criminal immigrants, and liberals would like to prove that sanctuary city policies will not result in the safe harbor of people who go on to commit crimes. But crimes are often committed by people who are perfectly entitled to be free, and that fact will not change without both accepting the nightmarish logic of jailing future criminals and embracing deportation’s role in creating new victims of violence in Mexico.

Eduardo Galeano’s Evolution

The writer didn’t turn right-wing; he developed a radical understanding of the world’s complexities.

Last spring, when the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano made some rueful comments about his classic anti-globalization, anti-imperialist history Open Veins of Latin America (1971), the Economist was delighted. At last there could be agreement that “capitalism is the only route to development in Latin America,” the magazine crowed. Galeano’s recantation could hardly have been more significant: “it was almost as if Jesus’s disciples had admitted that the New Testament was a big misunderstanding.”

Indeed, in the forty years since its publication Open Veins had achieved semi-mythic status. Uncompromising and accusatory, the book told of a centuries-long capitalist plunder operation, in which fruit companies, oil drillers, slave traders, and conquistadors collaborated to despoil the Americas. That story, containing more than a little truth, resonated with populist movements. The book became an international bestseller and the scourge of right-wing governments. It may have reached the height of its notoriety when Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a copy at the Summit of the Americas in 2009.

Hence the shockwaves when Galeano publicly recanted the work. Open Veins, he said, was badly dated. He found his leftist prose unreadable. The New York Times reported that Galeano’s disavowal “set off a vigorous regional debate, with the right doing some ‘we told you so’ gloating, and the left clinging to a dogged defensiveness.” Monthly Review’s Michael Yates dismissed Galeano as just another writer gone conservative in old age.

On April 13, Galeano died at the age of seventy-four. Already his legacy is crystallizing inobituaries that portray him as no more than a once-brash post-colonialist who lost his political fire and recently produced some fine writing on soccer. But this narrative is mistaken. It omits Galeano’s most important literary-political achievements: the beautiful new form of writing he crafted and the revealing lens through which he came to view human affairs.

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By the time Galeano published Open Veins in 1971, he had already gained some notoriety as a leftist journalist. But his signature style would come later. Beginning with 1978’s Days and Nights of Love and War, he developed an inimitable collage technique that he would deploy for the rest of his life.

The Galeano technique is difficult to precisely describe, but it is easy enough to read. The word most often applied is “fragmentary,” though the fragments are carefully arranged into unified wholes. Such works consist, usually, of brief stories, never much more than a page, each a snapshot of some moment in the life of a person, a country, the world. The subjects range from famous writers to dictators to nameless members of the underclass, all depicted in Galeano’s sparse, graceful prose. A sample from Mirrors (2009)

Reichstag, Berlin, May 1945.

Two soldiers raise the flag of the Soviet Union over the pinnacle of German power.

This photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei portrays the triumph of the nation that lost more sons in the war than any other.

The news agency TASS distributes the picture. But before doing so, it makes a correction.

The Russian soldier wearing two wristwatches now has only one. The warriors of the proletariat do not loot dead bodies.

The piece has all the hallmarks of Galeano’s late writing. He uses not a word more than necessary, yet the style feels poetic rather than skimpy. The sentences are terse, but emotional impact is never sacrificed for brevity. His former dogmatism has been displaced by a sense of the absurd that does not take predetermined sides. But his humanist sympathies are also clear. He views war as a colossal folly and expresses compassion for struggling people bound by circumstance.

Galeano collected thousands of these anecdotes, all poignant or ironic. He sifted the raw material of history, gathering not just the textbook turning points but also scores of ordinary human moments with something to convey. He lovingly escorts the reader through his vast gallery, a wise and captivating tour guide. The name of Scheherazade has understandably been invoked in describing Galeano; it is hard to think of anything in our time comparable to his magical trove of a thousand and one little tales.

Galeano’s greatest achievement is Memory of Fire (1982–86), a trilogy encompassing the entire history of the Americas, from creation myths to the publication of Memory of Fire itself. He wrote it out of his growing dissatisfaction with Open Veins. That book, he worried in 1983, “may reduce history to a single economic dimension” when life “sings with multiple voices.” Thus, over nearly a thousand pages, Galeano brings us not just the pillaging of mineral rights but a grand kaleidoscope of the Western Hemisphere.

He crosses the continents chronologically, drawing scenes from every sphere of life—high and low, transformative and quotidian. We visit Cuzco in 1523, Key West in 1895, Chile in 1973. With the Spanish colonist Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, we taste guavas, medlars, and pineapples. Among all the New World fruits, the pineapple is best: “Oviedo knows no words worthy of describing its virtues. It delights his eyes, his nose, his fingers, his tongue. This outdoes them all, as the feathers of the peacock outshine those of any bird.” In 1917 we stand on a hillside with Pancho Villa as he contemplates the retreat of General Pershing. Then it’s off to New Orleans to witness the invention of jazz.

Galeano reproduces classified ads selling slaves; vendors crying in the streets of Mexico City, 1840 (“Candies! Coconut candies! Merr-i-i-ingues!”); excerpts from revolutionary oratories; President William McKinley’s speech exhorting the United States to civilize the Philippines. The cast of characters is one of the grandest in all of literature, full of saints, devils, and rogues: José Martí, Augusto Pinochet, Simón Bolívar, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Pablo Neruda. Cantinflas and Leon Trotsky, Carmen Miranda and Eva Peron. Sergei Eisenstein shoots films in Mexico, and Enrique Santos Discépolo composes tangos in flea-ridden Argentine dressing rooms. We witness hurricanes, slave revolts, military coups, torture, bloodshed, romance, soccer. Occasionally, we find heroes. Bartolome de las Casas, champion of the Indians, tries to “halt the plunder that uses the cross as its excuse.” Far more common, though, are close-ups of the wars and abuses whose memories are so often buried with their victims. The Viceroy of New Spain watches as heretics are hanged in 1574; 380 years later, the CIA installs a repressive dictatorship in Guatemala.

Yet if Galeano focuses on memorializing suffering, he also depicts simple pleasures, as when Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin first perform together, in Limelight (1952). There are love affairs and dances and endless ordinary people fighting to preserve their dignity. Alongside folly, mishap, and travesty are painful beauty, coincidence, and wonder. Memory of Fire documents what it feels like to be alive at one’s moment in time.

In his subsequent books, Galeano continued to experiment with formats, concocting his singular brew of journalism, memoir, folktale, and history. Upside Down (1998) presents satirical lessons from a comically bizarre syllabus on the “inverted” world wrought by globalized capitalism. Quotes from Noam Chomsky join macabre woodcut drawings of skeletons, alligators, and aristocrats. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995) he applies his method to sports, producing an acclaimed and eclectic history of the game.

For their inventiveness alone, Galeano’s books would be a treasure. But to truly appreciate their significance one must understand their author’s evolution. He was a propagandist who became an artist. Galeano realized that all-explaining stories, such as the Marxist story and the capitalist story, fail to capture the chaotic mosaic of human existence. He decided that we should never see our realities through the filter of our politics, but our politics should emerge from our realities. Thus he came to detest those “dogmatic versions of Marxism that proclaim the Only Truth and that divorce man from nature and reason from emotion.” The lack of overarching moral narratives, the abandonment of linear storytelling, the shattering of the text into hundreds of tiny shards—all reflected the growing sophistication and humility of Galeano’s thought.

But as he changed, Galeano never renounced his leftist economic analysis. He was enriching his commitments rather than discarding them. His later works are still full of references to capitalist robbery and U.S. imperialism. But he layered new insights atop these. Economics was not life; life was also ideas, geographies, cultures. Sometimes corporate predation destroyed people, and sometimes bureaucracy destroyed them. Sometimes they destroyed themselves. The important thing was to always be with the victims against the victimizers, to show boundless compassion, and to bear witness.

Galeano sought to gather up the overlooked injustices of history, to ensure that, whatever their lessons, they would never be lost. He insisted he was not a historian but “a writer obsessed with remembering.” In his words, forgetting is “the only death that really kills.” His way of serving the people he loved was to keep as many of them alive in his work as he could.

This was not the project of Open Veins. As Galeano admitted, that book is marred by its Marxist materialism. The best parts of it—the sensitive storytelling, the sense of monumental historical sweep, the moral clarity—would be deepened in subsequent writing. The parts that didn’t work—the communist orthodoxy, the mono-causal trajectories, the leaden economics—would be ditched.

Open Veins took off because it gave readers what they most wanted: a straightforward explanation of why things are and how they came to be. Later, as Galeano’s sociological eye became more refined, he would realize that simple answers are cheap, that life takes forked paths, that the “thousand voices” of the earth are irreducible. Meaning, such as it can be found, cannot be imposed but must arise naturally from recurring patterns in the emergent composition. Galeano had once wanted to be a painter, and it was with a painter’s sensibility that he realized human beings were too intricate to be depicted in broad strokes.

There was a wry irony in Chavez’s gift to Obama. It could fit perfectly into one of Galeano’s collections of scraps: the story of one ruler giving another ruler a book opposing all rulers, a book neither of them would read. Those leaders didn’t understand Galeano, just as the Economist didn’t understand him, just as the Marxists who thought he had turned right wing didn’t understand him. Subtlety is unintelligible to the fanatical.

Through his evolution as an artist and a thinker, Galeano showed how to free oneself from the fanatics, how to remain radical in sympathy for the weak and hatred of tyranny while never sacrificing one’s integrity or independence of thought. He demonstrated not just a dynamic new way of writing, but also a way to form our ideas, to see ourselves in history, and, above all, to remember.

How Turkey Used ISIS as a Weapon Against Kurdish Activists

The survivors of an ISIS bombing tell how the Turkish government has finally declared war… on ISIS’s victims.

In the days and even hours before the bomb went off, the atmosphere among Turkey’s young leftists had been hopeful, even upbeat. The country’s Islamist government had just failed to win a parliamentary majority, and socialist feminists in Kurdistan were managing to simultaneously keep the Islamic State, or ISIS, at bay and experiment with a new kind of local direct democracy. While some had worried that a violent backlash by the conservative ruling party might be brewing, the usual repression and harassment had somewhat ebbed. For the country’s progressives, it felt as if the region might at last be ready for a politics of secularism, environmentalism, and women’s rights.

The hundreds of student activists arriving in the southern city of Suruc last month were therefore feeling jubilant and encouraged. Coming by the busload to the Syrian border, they intended to conduct a humanitarian mission to the city of Kobani, which was still struggling to rebuild after its destruction and attempted occupation by ISIS. Kurds in northern Syria have recently worked with the US military to beat back ISIS’s advance, and have formed the most formidable front against the Islamic State. American officials are careful to specify that they work with the Syrian Kurds of the YPG, but not the closely aligned Turkish Kurds of the PKK, whose organization is banned in Turkey. Kobani’s resistance has been a major source of inspiration for the Turkish left, with autonomous municipalities in the Rojava region embodying the dual ideals of anti-Islamism and anti-capitalism. For young Turks weary of their country’s religious and autocratic leadership, Kurdistan’s experiments in self-governance were a promising realization of left-wing values.

On the morning of the trip, July 20, the group gathered in the garden of a cultural center in Suruc, and prepared to cross the border into Syria. They brought piles of boxes, filled with toys and baby care supplies for Kobani’s children, plus materials to construct a kindergarten and plant a forest. They milled about happily, drinking tea, singing songs, and making sure all of the paperwork for the trip was in order. People were raising a banner and taking pictures. In conversation, they spoke to each other of a new phase, in which Turks and Kurds would finally unite in democratic peace. On that warm Monday morning, it almost felt possible.

The bomb, however, would change everything.

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Oğuz Yüzgeç appears an unlikely candidate to help lead the movement of pro-Kurdish leftists in Turkey. He is a clean-shaven, bespectacled 23-year-old journalism student, warm and polite. He is not Kurdish himself, nor does he have any special personal connection to the cause. Oğuz says he became politicized at 14, when a government push to privatize schools caused him to think about youth issues and “made me feel as if the state was stealing our future.” At the same time, Oğuz says, as he gradually realized the extent of his government’s oppression of minorities, he committed himself to the struggle for democracy. Now, he co-chairs the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), which organized the aid mission to Kobani.

The SGDF’s goal is “freedom for the young,” and they describe themselves as ecological and anti-fascist in orientation. Oğuz strongly emphasizes the centrality of feminism to their mission, and a subdivision called the Red Stick Women organizes defense training against sexual harassment and rape. The SGDF has also dedicated itself to creating memorials for the victims of forgotten atrocities. The group recently built a memorial museum in remembrance of the 2011 Roboski airstrike, in which at least 34 Kurdish villagers were killed by a Turkish fighter jet dispatched to attack the PKK.

Being a leftist in Turkey has never been easy. Oğuz calls Turkey a country with a “history of its own war against its own people, a history of massacres,” with dissidents and minorities always heavily persecuted. Leftist groups, he says, face arrests, bans, and occasional killings. Indeed, in the lead-up to the Kobani trip, the police conducted raids on SGDF members’ homes, and smashed the stalls from which they hand out literature.

Activists also carry strong memories of Gezi Park. In 2013, when the government announced that a park in Istanbul would be turned into a shopping center, a small protest by environmentalists blossomed into a country-wide outpouring of dissent. In a remarkable act of rebellion, millions of people turned out to protest the authoritarian rule of Erdoğan. The Gezi Park uprising was met with a swift and violent backlash, during which multiple activists were killed, countless more were tear-gassed, and scores were arrested, including a number of SGDF members.

Yet up until a month ago, the usual grim situation for leftists had somewhat abated. The legacy of Gezi Park had helped to spur political opposition. Rallies for worker rights that would once have attracted dozens of people now attracted thousands. Gezi had been a debacle for the government, and outside of his ardent base of supporters, Erdoğan’s image was badly damaged. The post-Gezi political surge reached a high point in June, with an election in which the leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP party produced massive gains. AKP, the conservative ruling party, was unable to form a government.

The other exciting development for the left was Rojava, in Syria. A small region of Kurdistan along the Turkish-Syrian border, Rojava has been on the front lines of the Kurds’ battles with ISIS. But even as the Syrian Kurdish militia (the YPG) fought desperately to maintain control of the city of Kobani, the area was trying out a new form of vaguely socialist local governance. A visiting delegation of academics praised their “popular assemblies and democratic councils,” where “women participate on an equal footing with men at every level and also organize in autonomous councils, assemblies, and committees to address their specific concerns.” The anthropologist David Graeber called Rojava a “remarkable democratic experiment,” and an example to the left that needed defending.

Despite the signs of light, however, there were also ominous signs of escalating repression. In Istanbul, the annual gay-pride parade, which had proceeded unimpeded for 13 straight years, was immediately broken up by police, using tear gas and rubber bullets. “At the smallest demand for liberation or freedom, the state moves with massacres and attacks,” laments Oğuz.­­ Soon after the march, anti-gay posters began appearing in the capital city of Ankara, using Islamist language and giving an instruction to kill all homosexuals on sight. And with President Erdoğan eager to regain power in the next round of elections, and tensions building with the Kurds after their strong showing in June, there was a sense that conflict was on the horizon.

In the meantime, the city of Kobani was still in desperate need of support. Kobani’s infrastructure had been decimated by the ISIS occupation, and it was in need of both supplies and assistance in rebuilding. Seeing an opportunity, the SGDF began to organize a relief mission, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Kurdish control of Kobani. They held meetings in multiple cities, coordinated with authorities in Kobani, arranged buses and accommodation, and launched a massive publicity campaign.

The organizing effort was extraordinarily successful; hundreds of people volunteered. Sercan (who asked to be identified by his first name to protect his safety), a 28-year-old sociology PhD student, saw the event on Facebook and felt he had to go. “When I learned about the situation of Kobani and the Rojava Revolution,” he says, “I saw it as a very positive development and I thought it should be supported on a humanitarian and political basis…. I found it meaningful to go there.” Oğuz Yüzgeç himself was with a group from Istanbul, which took an 18-hour bus ride to Suruc, featuring periodic stops for dancing.

Also traveling to Suruc were Christopher Wohlers and Claire Keating, the sole Americans who would be present at the bombing. They had been visiting from Los Angeles, where she teaches high school and he is a physics tutor and an incoming radiation oncology student at Loma Linda University. Neither of them is either Turkish or Kurdish. But Christopher says he was compelled by a “region where people are experimenting with direct democracy, experimenting with socialist economy, with feminism.” While studying abroad at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, he was introduced to the young left in Turkey, and it energized him. When he saw the experiments in Rojava, he wanted to go back. Christopher calls the region the “bright spot of the results of the Arab spring,” and the closest existing embodiment of his libertarian socialist politics.

Christopher and Claire spent several weeks in Turkey before ending up in Suruc. Driving around the country in a rented sedan, they visited LGBT centers and a socialist bookstore. There was an atmosphere of tension among the young activists they met. “Everyone was waiting to see if the government would push the country to war,” says Christopher. But for leftists, fresh off the electoral victory, there was also a great deal of optimism and a sense of unified purpose. Claire describes meeting people from HDP, labor activists in Istanbul, LGBT activists in Ankara, social ecologists who were doing work around the reconstruction in Kobani. All of these groups finally felt as if they were part of the same enterprise, she says, making it “an incredibly hopeful political moment to be in Turkey. Political space was opening up that hadn’t existed before.” Traveling around, they saw a flurry of left-wing political activity, and in each city they visited, there were flyers promoting the trip to Kobani.

Arriving at the Suruc cultural center on the night before the Kobani trip, the two found what Claire describes as a “massive street celebration.” Their fellow activists were celebrating the Rojava anniversary with singing and line-dancing. The attendees were diverse, from Istanbul anarchists to Syrian refugee workers. One man had traveled from France, and a family with young children drove all the way from Switzerland, a distance of over 2,000 miles. Christopher and Claire enjoyed the fireworks and excitement for a while, then finished the evening in a café, where they tried some lung and spleen kebabs, and the owner told them with pride that Suruc was a city of the PKK.

The next morning, as the group gathered again at the cultural center to await the border crossing, the suicide bomb exploded. It killed 33 young activists and injured many others, and set off a chain of events that would destroy much of the Turkish left’s tentative political progress. The bombing was carried out by ISIS to send a message to those who would assist the Kurds in Kobani. But in its effects, the massacre benefited the ruling AKP party just as much as it did ISIS, creating a state of war in which the leftist victims of the bombing would be targeted a second time by the government.

Christopher, Claire, and Sercan escaped the blast through a fortunate inconvenience. Christopher and Claire had decided not to actually cross into Kobani, for fear the Turkish government might not let them back in once they had left. But Sercan was still going, and realized he ought to bring toilet paper, in case the war-torn city was in short supply. The three were leaving for the shop precisely at the moment of the explosion.

The garden of the cultural center, which had so recently been full of song and celebration, instantly became a scene of horrific carnage, with blood, limbs, and tattered SGDF flags scattered across the ground. The joyful rebuilding of Kobani was not to occur.

The immediate aftermath of the bombing was predictably gruesome and tragic. But one especially shocking aspect of it was the bizarre response of government forces. Within a few moments of the explosion, heavily armed police and tanks surrounded the cultural center. Yet instead of aiding the victims, they immediately aimed their weapons at the devastated survivors.

“They just pointed guns at people, but didn’t do anything at all,” says Sercan. As people tried to give first aid to the wounded, and carry them out of the cultural center, the police formed a blockade of armored vehicles at the exit, pointing machine guns at the crowd. The police, wearing full riot gear, closed rank and tried to keep anyone from leaving the area.

With hundreds of injured and traumatized bombing victims, the priority was to get as many people to hospital as fast as possible. But the officers stood motionless, their barricade keeping people from taking the victims to safety. Claire Keating says she was shocked to find herself suddenly confronted with hostile militarized police, many of whom stayed motionless in their vehicles. “You couldn’t even see their faces,” she says. “Nobody could communicate with them…. They were not emerging from the vehicles to help.” The police blocked off the road in front of the cultural center so nothing could get through, including the cars full of victims that people were attempting to drive to the hospital.

Instead, police began to fire tear gas at the victims. “People were trying to remove the injured and the dead,” says Oğuz, “but instead they were faced with police water cannons and gas bombs.” Claire says “it was clear that in their minds, we were the guilty ones.” Eventually, some of the survivors were allowed to take the wounded away, and ambulances showed up. But, Oğuz says, “the first reaction of the state was an indication of what was to come.”

The almost instantaneous appearance of the police directly after the attack, combined with their total eerie absence in the hours before (unusual for any kind of leftist demonstration), has raised some questions over whether the government had foreknowledge of the plot. The Suruc survivors insist there was no way for the Turkish government not to have had prior intelligence about ISIS’s intent. Oğuz says it is certain “that this attack took place with the knowledge of government forces,” since the surveillance levels in Suruc had been incredibly high. The government had known all of the names of people who were going on the trip, and the families of some SGDF members had received phone calls before the Kobani trip, warning them that their children were attempting to “join the terrorists” and risked arrest. Given the government’s tight control on social media, and the heavy presence of security around Suruc, it would have taken colossal oversight for the state not to have somehow been alerted to the risk.

But whether the government had direct knowledge or not, many still blame it for the attack, saying the President Erdoğan has turned a blind eye towards the Islamic State from the beginning. Erdoğan has consistently talked of ISIS and the PKK in the same breath, suggesting the real threat in the region is not the Islamic State but Kurdish autonomy. While the government has vowed to stop “terror” in all its forms, it is no secret that “terror” largely refers to the Kurdish movement rather than ISIS, and that Erdoğan is, as The New York Times puts it, “less interested in fighting the Islamic State than suppressing the Kurds.”

After the bombing, the fragile peace unraveled very quickly. A retaliatory attack by the PKK, which killed two Turkish police officers, ostensibly for supporting ISIS, came two days after the bombing. Since then, the government has operated in a state of quasi-war, violent clashes with the PKK intensifying, and a harsh domestic crackdown targeting anyone suspected of being aligned with “terror.”

The change was felt immediately. In the few days after the bombing, after Christopher and Claire left Suruc, they found that the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır had instantly been heavily fortified. Undercover officers were monitoring a small vigil there, and when Christopher attempted to take photographs of the gathering, police seized his phone. A peace march they attended in Istanbul was violently broken up by police. Claire found the experience bewildering. “It was very confusing to try to understand how this could possibly be the response of the government to an ISIS attack, to go in and treat the Kurdish community, which itself had been the target of this attack, as the criminals.”

For left-wing activists, this has meant an extraordinary new state of fear. Sercan says that “huge operations against leftists” have been occurring, and that while the government claims to have arrested hundreds of ISIS and PKK terror suspects, the vast majority of the arrested are pro-Kurdish leftists rather than Islamists. In the city where Sercan heads a local chapter of the HDP, 18 members of his party have been arrested. Oğuz says that numbers of home raids have sharply increased, targeting members of socialist groups, and that SGDF members have been rounded up and arrested. “Even the most legal and democratic actions can be deemed criminal activity,” Oğuz says, “and one can end up being detained or arrested.” Membership of SGDF or HDP can be deemed a terrorist activity.

“The state is using ISIS as an excuse for this, but doing nothing to arrest ISIS members,” he says angrily. This is not strictly true, since Turkey has arrested a number of suspected ISIS members in the last month. But it is the case that while suspected Kurdish militants are often fully prosecuted, ISIS members have a tendency to be released. Likewise, while much was made of Turkey launching its first strikes against ISIS on July 24, the country’s new supposed anti-ISIS resolve last only a single day. Since then, the country’s bombing campaigns have been entirely directed at the PKK instead of ISIS. This failure to adequately pursue ISIS infuriates Oğuz not just because the left is being targeted instead, but because the SGDF despises ISIS’s values, and sees it as an existential threat to the promise of Rojava. Oğuz calls them a “fascist gang” who are “at war with all humanitarian values,” and cites their heinous treatment of women as the direct enemy of his group’s feminist socialism.

But the opinions of those attacked in Suruc matter little to the Turkish government, which made clear its level of regard for the victims. The very day of the bombing, police tear gassed a protest in Istanbul held to condemn the government’s tacit support of ISIS. Then the government refused to declare a national day of mourning in honor of the victims, despite having declared three such days after the death of Saudi King Abdullah. The victims themselves have been offered no financial support or state recognition, and Oğuz says that a number of the victims’ families were refused access to their loved one’s bodies and permission to hold funerals, seemingly out of concern that the memorials would fuel opposition politics.

The belief that Erdoğan is escalating the conflict for political gain, attempting to build nationalist fervor to salvage his electoral position, especially angers them. Devrim Gündüz, a 19-year old physics student who was badly injured in the attack, and remains in hospital, is furious that the AKP government “dragged the country and our peoples to this situation just for its political gain.” After seeing so many of his friends killed, Devrim resents the fact that their deaths are being used to excuse the destruction of the cause they fought for.

In fact, politically speaking, the targeting of the SGDF by ISIS was extremely shrewd. A group of young Turkish socialists may have seemed an odd target for the group, which had been refraining from carrying out attacks within Turkey, but the consequences favored the Islamic State’s interests. The Turkish left’s attempt to build bridges with the Kurds received a heavy blow, and the Turkish government was given an excuse to escalate its assault on IS’s Kurdish enemies.

It is a tragic irony that the massacre of pro-Kurdish socialists could lead to further government repression of pro-Kurdish socialists, and that it is the victims of the bombing, rather than the perpetrators, who are now on the run. But in the eyes of the government, the leftists who were drawn to Rojava, and who were killed there in the dozens, are little more than terrorist sympathizers.

Yet anyone who speaks with these activists firsthand will find the description strange. They are radicals, to be sure, but radicals who detest all forms of oppression whether from ISIS, Turkey, or the United States. They praise revolution, but call fervently for peace. Sercan, though a self-described anarchist, is skeptical of the effectiveness of small armed attacks like those on the Turkish policemen, and believes the electoral victories are heartening.

For being socialists, their rhetoric is not particularly Marxist, perhaps because the tangles of the conflict are too intricate for the usual materialist dogmas. Rather, they talk of democracy and the liberation of women. They praise localism and community participation, often sounding more like ancient Athenians than turn-of-the-century Bolsheviks. Even the PKK itself has mellowed in recent years, its philosophy evolving from hardline communism to a more gentle kind of local democracy inspired by the Vermont “libertarian municipalist” thinker Murray Bookchin.

The survivors of Suruc are hopeful that these values will someday find a place in the world. “The general rule here,” Oğuz says slyly, “is that wherever the state attacks, that area or that group gets stronger,” and he boasts that SGDF membership has grown. Asked what outcome he ultimately wishes for, he replies that “in an ideal situation, different peoples in this region would live equally together in peace, where youths and women are free…and where capitalism doesn’t damage the environment.” Sercan says he believes “the Kurdish movement’s ideas will eventually go beyond the Kurdish population,” and notes the uniqueness of a national liberation movement that is also critical of the idea of the nation and the state. Finally, Devrim Gündüz, the hospitalized 19-year-old physics student, speaks for many when he insists that the bombing is not the end:

“My friend who was beside me before the explosion was hurled away, [and] was lying down 3-4 meters away. I could not feel my feet…. I did not know what to do…. I panicked, [but] I noticed something at that moment. [My friend] was only smiling…. smiling and hope and light was bursting out of his eyes…. [In the time since] the explosion, I have had numerous operations. My femur is broken in five places, I can’t walk, there is damage in my ankle, it gives me trouble, I lost one of my kidneys and spleen, [and] most importantly I lost my close comrades, but I have not lost one thing…I have not lost hope…. That bomb only had a physical impact, it has not affected our smiles, our resistance, or our dedication to our struggle.”

Cops Who Let Their Unarmed Victims Die Should Be Punished, Too

Just as bad as the shootings themselves is the failure to administer medical attention.

The police killing of Eric Courtney Harris, who was shot to death in Tulsa by a 73-year-old “reserve deputy” who had meant to tase him, raises several baffling questions. Why was Robert Bates, an elderly insurance executive who served one year as a police officer back in the 1960s, involved in a dangerous sting operation? Why are amateurs apparently allowed to buy their way into the Tulsa force? Why was this pseudo-deputy allowed to carry a gun? And how could he confuse it with a Taser?

To be sure, these questions require answers. But the video of the killing, which was recorded by an officer’s body camera, raises an equally important question that applies to a number of high-profile police killings of late: Why didn’t the cops help Harris after he was shot?

In the video, Harris is shown talking to police about the gun sale they’ve arranged. When he realizes that he’s being ambushed, Harris runs, and from the officer’s body-cam we see him taken to the ground. Bates announces he is going to tase Harris. We hear a gunshot, and then Bates, realizing that he has just executed an unarmed man, apologizes: “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.”

Harris is incredulous. “He shot me!” he says. “Oh my God!” But the officers, instead of suddenly springing into action to help the dying man, begin to swear at him. “You fucking ran!” shouts a cop. “Shut the fuck up!” Harris moans that he is losing his breath, to which an officer replies: “Fuck your breath.”

“Fuck your breath” is a telling reply to the “I Can’t Breathe” slogan adopted in the wake of Eric Garner’s chokehold killing by a New York cop. It reflects a hideous indifference to lives wrongly taken, and it’s not just a lone officer in Tulsa: after the Garner protests, NYPD officers counter-protested with “I can breathe” hoodies.

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That indifference is reflected not just in their words, but their actions. In several recent videos of police killings, officers fail to provide medical attention to the victims they’ve wounded. Instead of switching from crime-stoppers to caregivers the moment a suspect is injured and harmless, as any compassionate human being would do, officers often either berate the suspect or stand idly by as the victim dies.

After Cleveland police officers shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, they spent their timehandcuffing his terrified sister. (This type of neglect is apparently not uncommon for Cleveland police; they have been the subject of dozens of civilian complaints for instances in which they made injuries worse or refused to let the injured go to hospitals.) The Garner video drags on for minutes after his final “I can’t breathe,” the officers standing around while Garner lies motionless on the ground. And Michael Slager, the South Carolina officer who shot Walter Scott in the back, handcuffs the dying man instead of trying to help him.

There may be a temptation to blame these incidents on rogue or incompetent police officers. After Slager was charged with murder, the North Charleston police union said it wouldn’t tolerate officers who “tarnish the badge,” and Mayor Keith Summey said, “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”

But the more of these videos that emerge, the less believable the rogue theory becomes. After all, consider the behavior of the actual cops surrounding Robert Bates, the Tulsa reserve deputy, after his fatal mistake. He’s facing a manslaughter charge, and surely he deserves to be punished. What his colleagues did, though, was far more cold and intentional. Those who shoot the unarmed may be negligent killers or murderers, but those who stand idly by while the victims die might as well be accessories after the fact.

This article originally appeared at the New Republic.

The Roots of the American Criminal Justice Crisis Run Deeper than Race

We need to account for police mistreatment of the disabled and homeless.

For those continually exasperated by the spate of white denials of racism in the face of blatantly racist police murders, the #CrimingWhileWhite stories on Twitter were a gratifying rebuttal.

By offering a mountain of testimony in the form of direct race-based compare-and-contrast stories, the meme undermined the country’s pernicious refusal to acknowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, it might be good to be in the upper caste. In making explicit what all secretly know to be true, an honest conversation seemed at last to be occurring.

But one thing remains puzzling about the picture being painted by #CrimingWhileWhite tweets: Who are all these people who have had such positive interactions with cops? Many poor white people might be surprised that “Criming While White” apparently gets one a free pass, and so would the large population of regularly-brutalized homeless people in my own hometown of Sarasota, Florida. The problem with the concept, then, is not that it gives priority to white voices, as some argued, but that it reinforces the myth that the police can have some trace of benevolence, that there is an ideal justice system in miniature lurking beneath the visible one. In doing so, it prevents a full reckoning with American criminal justice’s corrosive faults, and limits possibilities for altering it.

The fact is that a bloated, unaccountable police force victimizes a wide swath of people, and that being a member of a privileged race is not always protection. Certainly it wasn’t for Kelly Thomas, the homeless man murdered by Fullerton, California police officers. As the schizophrenic Thomas had the life beaten out of him behind the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen,he called out hopelessly for his father: “Dad…Dad…Dad.” Thomas didn’t fare any better than Eric Garner, except that his officers were put on trial– before being acquitted.

And so, as the #Criming tweeters painted their picture of an Andy Griffith world of policing, in which whiteness means the local sheriff laughs off your latest teen indiscretion and drops you at your parents’ doorstep, it didn’t quite ring true. The fact is that unless you are both white and wealthy, the police are a largely antagonistic force.

Of course, the level of mistreatment and violence against blacks is unparalleled. But if a theory is to hold, it must be able to deal with exceptional cases, such as the death of a mentally-ill white man at the hands of a Hispanic police officer. If the problem with the American criminal justice system is that it is racist, how can one explain such an incident except as an aberrational absurdity? But it is not an aberrational absurdity; it is a core reality of contemporary criminal justice.

Constitutional law professor James Forman has pointed this out in critiquing the concept of “The New Jim Crow.” As Forman puts it, “The Jim Crow claim is, at the end of the day, an appeal to the base—a metaphor with great potential to mobilize blacks and racial justice advocates to care about mass incarceration. But it comes at a cost—namely, the analogy does not encourage other racial groups to recognize that, on this issue, black interests coincide with their own.” Kelly Thomas didn’t have any better luck on account of his race, nor did Dillon Taylor, the unarmed white man gunned down by Salt Lake City police in August, or Robert Saylor, the man with Down’s syndrome asphyxiated by deputies when he refused to leave a movie theater. The homeless and mentally ill of either race, and many poor people generally, can report that life is no #CrimingWhileWhite picnic. The undesirable and excluded are universally subjected to the policeman’s billy club.

Not accepting this important nuance could have devastating consequences for a movement. If analysis begins and ends at “Black lives matter,” what becomes of the Muslim lives continually under police surveillance since 9/11? The homeless lives who are under daily harassment? The brown lives threatened by a ruthless deportation regime? The more than 200,000 women’s lives in America’s prisons?

Furthermore, if exorcising racism is taken to be the sole objective, campaigners might be at risk of getting exactly what they wish for: police will diversify their ranks and reduce the ugly racial statistical imbalance, yet ultimately will become not a shred less vindictive, violent, and unaccountable.

This same trap occurs in discussions of the American death penalty. We can say the death penalty is racist, which is true. But ending our diagnosis there means leaving open the possibility for the state to simply iron out the disparities: as long as people are being executed without regard to their race, there can be no problem. We lack a framework to deal with the case of Scott Panetti, the hideously mentally ill white man under threat of execution in Texas. The point that should be being made is that the death penalty is wrong because it is immoral, not wrong because it is racially disparate. Similarly, American policing must be condemned, not only because it continues Jim Crow, but because it is an uncontrollable, militarized, and yes, racist leviathan that tramples the vulnerable to death without consequence.

This does add a small amount of complexity to the post-Ferguson project. But it should not be difficult to simultaneously hold the twin beliefs that criminal justice is racial in nature and that there is an economic elite who enjoy advantages that the poor, no matter what their race, do not. Race-based and class-based analyses of power are not alternatives, they are complements. Each is a hierarchy, and they manifest in different, intricate ways. This is what the theory of “intersectionality” is supposed to be useful for: there are bigotries that a white homeless woman will face that a black male executive will not, and vice versa. But the strategy for success is solidarity among the weak against the strong.

Race is the central fact of American criminal justice. But race is not the only fact. Understanding this system, and dismantling it, requires understanding that the existence of racism doesn’t preclude the possibility of class domination. It requires affirming simultaneously that black lives matter, and that every oppressed life matters. And it requires that we be haunted not only by Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” but by Kelly Thomas’s “Dad…Dad…Dad…”

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By offering a mountain of testimony in the form of direct race-based compare-and-contrast stories, the meme undermined the country’s pernicious refusal to acknowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, it might be good to be in the upper caste. In making explicit what all secretly know to be true, an honest conversation seemed at last to be occurring.

But one thing remains puzzling about the picture being painted by #CrimingWhileWhite tweets: Who are all these people who have had such positive interactions with cops? Many poor white people might be surprised that “Criming While White” apparently gets one a free pass, and so would the large population of regularly-brutalized homeless people in my own hometown of Sarasota, Florida. The problem with the concept, then, is not that it gives priority to white voices, as some argued, but that it reinforces the myth that the police can have some trace of benevolence, that there is an ideal justice system in miniature lurking beneath the visible one. In doing so, it prevents a full reckoning with American criminal justice’s corrosive faults, and limits possibilities for altering it.

The fact is that a bloated, unaccountable police force victimizes a wide swath of people, and that being a member of a privileged race is not always protection. Certainly it wasn’t for Kelly Thomas, the homeless man murdered by Fullerton, California police officers. As the schizophrenic Thomas had the life beaten out of him behind the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen,he called out hopelessly for his father: “Dad…Dad…Dad.” Thomas didn’t fare any better than Eric Garner, except that his officers were put on trial– before being acquitted.

And so, as the #Criming tweeters painted their picture of an Andy Griffith world of policing, in which whiteness means the local sheriff laughs off your latest teen indiscretion and drops you at your parents’ doorstep, it didn’t quite ring true. The fact is that unless you are both white and wealthy, the police are a largely antagonistic force.

Of course, the level of mistreatment and violence against blacks is unparalleled. But if a theory is to hold, it must be able to deal with exceptional cases, such as the death of a mentally-ill white man at the hands of a Hispanic police officer. If the problem with the American criminal justice system is that it is racist, how can one explain such an incident except as an aberrational absurdity? But it is not an aberrational absurdity; it is a core reality of contemporary criminal justice.

Constitutional law professor James Forman has pointed this out in critiquing the concept of “The New Jim Crow.” As Forman puts it, “The Jim Crow claim is, at the end of the day, an appeal to the base—a metaphor with great potential to mobilize blacks and racial justice advocates to care about mass incarceration. But it comes at a cost—namely, the analogy does not encourage other racial groups to recognize that, on this issue, black interests coincide with their own.” Kelly Thomas didn’t have any better luck on account of his race, nor did Dillon Taylor, the unarmed white man gunned down by Salt Lake City police in August, or Robert Saylor, the man with Down’s syndrome asphyxiated by deputies when he refused to leave a movie theater. The homeless and mentally ill of either race, and many poor people generally, can report that life is no #CrimingWhileWhite picnic. The undesirable and excluded are universally subjected to the policeman’s billy club.

Not accepting this important nuance could have devastating consequences for a movement. If analysis begins and ends at “Black lives matter,” what becomes of the Muslim lives continually under police surveillance since 9/11? The homeless lives who are under daily harassment? The brown lives threatened by a ruthless deportation regime? The more than 200,000 women’s lives in America’s prisons?

Furthermore, if exorcising racism is taken to be the sole objective, campaigners might be at risk of getting exactly what they wish for: police will diversify their ranks and reduce the ugly racial statistical imbalance, yet ultimately will become not a shred less vindictive, violent, and unaccountable.

This same trap occurs in discussions of the American death penalty. We can say the death penalty is racist, which is true. But ending our diagnosis there means leaving open the possibility for the state to simply iron out the disparities: as long as people are being executed without regard to their race, there can be no problem. We lack a framework to deal with the case of Scott Panetti, the hideously mentally ill white man under threat of execution in Texas. The point that should be being made is that the death penalty is wrong because it is immoral, not wrong because it is racially disparate. Similarly, American policing must be condemned, not only because it continues Jim Crow, but because it is an uncontrollable, militarized, and yes, racist leviathan that tramples the vulnerable to death without consequence.

This does add a small amount of complexity to the post-Ferguson project. But it should not be difficult to simultaneously hold the twin beliefs that criminal justice is racial in nature and that there is an economic elite who enjoy advantages that the poor, no matter what their race, do not. Race-based and class-based analyses of power are not alternatives, they are complements. Each is a hierarchy, and they manifest in different, intricate ways. This is what the theory of “intersectionality” is supposed to be useful for: there are bigotries that a white homeless woman will face that a black male executive will not, and vice versa. But the strategy for success is solidarity among the weak against the strong.

Race is the central fact of American criminal justice. But race is not the only fact. Understanding this system, and dismantling it, requires understanding that the existence of racism doesn’t preclude the possibility of class domination. It requires affirming simultaneously that black lives matter, and that every oppressed life matters. And it requires that we be haunted not only by Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” but by Kelly Thomas’s “Dad…Dad…Dad…”