Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The curious way in which #BlackLivesMatter to Mitch

On Tuesday this week we learned, as we expected to learn, that the police convicted of the Danziger Bridge shooting and cover-up will be granted a new trial because the US Attorney's office happened to have been run by NOLA.com commenters for a while during the past decade.  The circumstances that allowed this to be so are their own strange and complicated sideshow. Sadly, it is less strange to us that justice in a case of police violence against young black men would prove to be this elusive for any reason. In fact, it's almost to be expected.

The Black Lives Matter movement grew out of protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the murder of a young black man by police. Over the past year, the movement has grown as it continually shines a light on the regularity with which such horrifying violence is committed by police all across the country.
The British newspaper The Guardian, combining traditional reporting with "verified crowdsourced information," has counted 704 people killed by police in the United States this year, including 150 that the newspaper classified as unarmed.

Among The Guardian's other findings was that blacks have been killed by police this year at a rate two and a half times that of whites.
This is a protest movement against structural racism and its ugliest expression in the form of habitual murder of black people by police. In response to this outcry, conservative pundits and other racists have reflexively pointed fingers directly back at the victims.
For every unarmed black man, woman or child killed by unrestrained police officers, there’s an intellectually impoverished response when black people get visibly upset about it: What about black-on-black crime?

There was a time, in another surreal reality not so long ago, when conservative pundits reflexively grimaced at even the mention of it—and, oh, that whole notion that black people were unjustly shackled or slaughtered in advanced Western societies.

Now black-on-black crime is a thing, with famous heavy-right rags embracing it as frequently as they knock the black president. It’s a fresh, new, nasty, stick-your-tongue-out retort to shut down any justifiable complaints from grieving black communities.

Which means, sure, we can talk days on end about being black ... so long as it pertains to black people hurting other black people. Others have signed on, too, including some prominent black celebrities and half-intelligentsia feeling ignored or irrelevant as the #BlackLivesMatter banner passes them by.
"But what about black on black crime?"  You hear it every time someone wants to deflect blame away from systemic racism.  It is a disingenuous, innumerate, bullyingmisleading and imperious way to engage with a direct cry for justice.

It's also Mitch Landrieu's go-to. This recent Atlantic puff piece about the courage of his "risky" defiance of oppressive "liberal" convention attests.
It is politically (and intellectually) risky to attribute the weaknesses of a historically besieged group to the shortcomings of its culture. In the years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was an assistant secretary in the Labor Department, released his seminal report on the fragile state of black families in 1965, many conservatives came to argue that what would save African Americans was not government programs but rather the development of a culture of self-sufficiency and self-improvement. Some liberals, in contrast, came to believe that the near-exclusive conservative focus on bootstrapping (something also emphasized periodically by prominent African Americans, including President Obama and—now notoriously—Bill Cosby) was a way to absolve the country’s white majority of responsibility for the conditions that led to hardship in the first place. “Landrieu is a liberal making a conservative argument that was once a liberal argument—he’s trying to reappropriate it,” says Daryl Scott, a professor of African American history at Howard University. “He’s arguing for structural reforms and personal reforms all at the same time.”
It is "risky" to shout down at the poor and desperate that they need to fix their "culture" and be more "self-sufficient."  What a bold position Mitch has staked out for himself  It takes a real trailblazing visionary to stand up and proudly march urban social policy right back to 1994.

Paternalistic Democrats like the Landrieus and the Clintons have been at this game for decades. It's only this year, as Hillary anticipates criticism from Black Lives Matter activists, that Bill Clinton has begun to acknowledge the damage his wrongheaded "tough on crime" policies wrought on the generation who lived with their consequences.
Even Bill Clinton now says it's time to revisit those laws and policies. In the foreward to a new book on criminal justice reform, the former president concedes that " ... plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long — we have overshot the mark."

Bill Clinton was still able to win reelection with the strong support of black voters. Virginia Sapiro and David Canon, in their book “Race, Gender and the Clinton Presidency,” cite the former president’s cultural fluency with African Americans, as well as his having appointed a record number of black cabinet members and vocally defending affirmative action, for his ability to keep that important bloc of Democratic voters. They also said that he counted on “structural dependence” – the notion that black voters were unlikely to vote for the GOP candidate anyway, to allow him leeway to take positions that would signal to white voters that he could stand up to black leaders. One such instance was his condemnation of the rapper Sister Souljah over comments she made two months after the L.A. riots that seemed to dismiss the slayings of some white people during the six days of violence.
If Clinton has begun to reconsider the choices he made out of political expediency during the 90s, it's worth noting that he's mostly doing so because that is politically expedient for Hillary now. Mitch, on the other hand, is still having his "Sister Souljah moment." 
Landrieu told me he understands that he would be on safer ground if he limited his analysis to, say, the impact of discriminatory housing policies born out of white-supremacist ideology. “You know what? The culture developed out of a particular history. But I can’t reverse history. I can work on the problem right in front of me. So what I’m saying is, if I knock you off a chair, that’s on me. If you’re still on the ground a week later, that’s on you.”
That's on you, says Mitch.  Why aren't you bootstrapping yourself up, welftard? Please stop whining to me about history and fancy "intellectual" concepts like structural racism and get back up on that chair I knocked you off of.

Last month, the New York Times' resident personification of white privilege, David Brooks, wrote a widely rebuked response to Ta-Nehisi Coates's book, Between the World and Me in which Brooks chastises Coates for "distorting history" and abandoning the "American Dream." 
This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.
Astonishing. Brooks asserts that it is not so much the centuries of struggle and injustice that "trap generations" in a cycle of destitution but rather Coates's "excessive realism" in addressing those circumstances. In other words, "If you're still on the ground, that's on you."

Mitch had already addressed this remark to Coates himself, in fact. Here is the video of a remarkable conversation between the two this summer at Mitch's second home, The Aspen Ideas Conference.

Here is a pretty good write-up of the exchange by Gambit's Alex Woodward.
The audience and Coates questioned Landrieu about the chair analogy — which was interpreted as Landrieu pointing the finger at African-Americans for cultural violence and oppression. Landrieu clarified, "If all you do is sit on the floor and you do nothing and you stay there waiting for the person to come back and pick you up, and nothing changes, the laws of nature are that you're going to wind up staying there. You've go to do something to get up."

"I don't think that's actually what's happening," Coates later said. "Black people are struggling mightily in a situation that was put upon them. ... The people who have lapsed, in terms of their debt to African-Americans as citizens, is us as a society and as a government. There's no history of a lack of responsibility among black folks."

"I did not say nor did I try to intimate that the black community is sitting on the ground doing nothing," Landrieu said. "Let's say together as a country that we want to save the lives of young African-American men and figure out how to do it, and how to talk in a way that gets us into a positive place so that we can find specific things that all of us can do on the ground."
Mitch and the crowd go around in circles like that a few times. Mitch says a thing. The audience asks, "Hey what did you mean when you said that thing?" Mitch responds, "I did not say nor did I try to intimate" that thing. He then says the thing over again.  The audience gets upset again. Mitch concludes, blah blah "both sides" need to be positive. It's fascinating to watch.

It's also incredibly frustrating to watch in the knowledge that this behavior is what is winning Mitch Landrieu applause from elites across the country for his innovative expertise in crime fighting.  Especially when his most serious initiatives in that regard are the dubious slush fund of patronage known as NOLA for Life and the even more dubious scheme to hand law enforcement duties in the French Quarter over to a quasi-private police force run by an eccentric millionaire.
Landrieu conceded, though, that Torres was the ‘‘impetus’’ that led to many of the current measures falling into place. ‘‘We have a way here of reaching out to the private sector in everything that’s happening in the city,’’ explained Landrieu, who has accepted on his city’s behalf more private grants than any mayor in the nation, including $4.2 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2011. Noting similar arrangements in areas like the city’s sewage department and its recreation programs, he said, ‘‘It’s a new government model that’s emblematic of what the rest of the country should be doing.’’
If you want to know what makes a meathead like Mitch a celebrity on the national neoliberal circuit it's in that paragraph. Mitch's enthusiasm for talking about even the most vile notion of libertarian dystopia such as a privatized police force like it's a triumph of reason is what's going to punch his ticket to post-mayoral success. Or so he thinks.

Mitch has a few options available after 2018, perhaps in tourism promotion or in Aspen making speeches on "resilience" for the next 20 years. But an even nicer plum might come in the form of a federal appointment by, say, a future President Clinton, as some sort of "urban crime czar."  But for that to be a possibility a lot of other things need to happen first.

For one thing, Hillary needs to become President which is no simple matter. For another, the city of New Orleans has to maintain the illusion that it serves as an example of law enforcement progress rather than.. well...  
By now, most New Orleanians know the broad strokes of what happened the Sunday after Hurricane Katrina when those police officers – who wrongly believed officers had been shot at the bridge – killed two innocent people, wounded four innocent people and immediately went into cover-up mode.

But it's the finer details provided by Associated Press journalist Ronnie Green – a tightly-knit family's hunt for nourishment for an ailing diabetic, two buddies horsing around and racing, the police stomping the camera of a hotel maintenance worker caught photographing the bloody bridge scene, JJ's mother growing sick with worry over his unexplained absence – that give power to Green's new book: "Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-up in the Wake of Katrina." Published by Beacon Press, the book goes on sale, Tuesday, Aug. 18.
Not only is there a new book out this week about Danziger, but also we now know for certain that the cops convicted in the case will be granted a new trial.

Hours before this ruling was announced, Mitch Landrieu was in Washington D.C. "thanking America" for helping to rebuild New Orleans and, of course, talking about his work crusading against the "culture of violence." Notice the rhetorical flourish he's added to his act. 
The Democratic mayor said crime and racial divisions remain, not only in New Orleans but other communities, too, and that America needs to find a way to talk about those challenges.

"This year, unfortunately across, the nation and in New Orleans murder is ticking up," Landrieu said. "And with nearly 15,000 Americans lost every year to murder in this nation, a disproportionate number young African-American men; it is clear that this crisis goes well beyond New Orleans. It is a national disgrace and stopping murder should be a national priority. Black lives matter."

That line brought the mayor applause from the several hundred people at the luncheon
A full year into this national protest movement against racially motivated police violence, what Mitch Landrieu has learned is that if he appropriates the words ‪"Black Lives Matter" and uses them to talk about the murder rate in general, then a room full of Washington political and media elites will applaud.

Mitch is literally answering "Black Lives Matter" with, "Well, actually, it's about black on black crime." Conservative pundits like David Brooks are regularly excoriated for this precise dick move. But Mitch does it here... and he actually is doing something worse by twisting the words of the protest itself in such a way that they blunt its purpose.  And the important people applaud him for it.

Mitch Landrieu's star is rising among the important people. And why shouldn't it? There aren't many establishment white politicians who can willfully sanitize "Black Lives Matter" and get away with it in the current environment.  At the moment, in fact, I can name only one.

No comments: