In October 2016 during a campaign speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, President Donald Trump first laid out his “urban renewal agenda”—his “new deal” for Black Americans.
He spoke of proposals to grant tax incentives encouraging inner-city investment; to increase infrastructure spending; and to reform social welfare programs (which I can only imagine means slashing them and making them unavailable to those in need).
He also spoke of the need to increase police presence.
Trump doesn’t have a clue about what goes on in Black communities. In his view, we are all utterly jobless; going to schools that are ill-equipped to educate us; and walking down so-called inner-city streets dodging bullets, risking a gunshot to the chest with every step that we take. As the self-announced “least racist person,” Donald Trump finds this state of affairs unacceptable. But Trump doesn’t appear to understand what an “inner city” even constitutes, aside from a place where all Black Americans live in abject poverty.
He has no idea of the terror overpolicing can inflict in Black communities—yet he continuously propagates myths about crime to justify that overpolicing.
During that rally in Charlotte last fall, he said in front of a crowd that it’s a lack of respect for police, and too few officers in urban areas, that has led to drugs and gun violence, according to UPI.com.
“I want every poor African-American child to be able to walk down the street in peace. Safety is a civil right,” Trump said.
“The problem is not the presence of police, but the absence of police. I will invest in training and funding both local and federal law enforcement operations to remove the gang members, drug dealers and criminal cartels from our neighborhoods. The reduction of crime is not merely a goal—but a necessity. We will get it done. The war on police urged on by my rival is reckless, and dangerous and puts African-American lives at risk. We must work with our police, not against them,” he continued.
Earlier this month, he made good on part of that promise by both swearing in Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III as attorney general of the United States and dropping three executive orders targeting this supposed urban crime wave.
One of the orders is intended to prevent “violence against federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement” (LEO Violence Order). A second enforces “federal law with respect to transnational criminal organizations” and prevents “international trafficking” (Criminal Enterprise Order). And the third creates a task force on “crime reduction and public safety” (Task Force Order).
Each of these orders seems innocuous enough. After all, reducing violence against law enforcement is a good idea, as is reducing the number of criminal organizations, drug cartels, and the like. And a task force? There’s nothing wrong with a task force dedicated to implementing strategies to reduce crime, right?
Except when you look beyond the language and read the orders in the context of Trump’s rhetoric—whether at his campaign or victory rallies, or in his late-night tweets—a picture of what’s really going on here begins to emerge.
And it’s not pretty.
The LEO Violence Order seems to be simply a smoke screen for Congress to pass a national “Blue Lives Matter” bill, likely modeled after the one that Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) signed into law in May of last year, which will offer hate crime protections to public safety workers. This is an entirely unnecessary move, considering that the Blue Lives Matter movement, such as it is, arose as an oppositional force to Black Lives Matter and not out of any real “war on cops”-style threat to the livelihood of public safety workers. It is also worth noting that violence against police is declining.
The Criminal Enterprise Order will likely re-up the War on Drugs, and we all know how well that turned out for Black people. (John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy adviser who launched said War on Drugs in 1971, admitted that the entire misadventure was intended to “disrupt” Black communities, along with the anti-war left.)
And the Task Force Order looks to me like carte blanche for Attorney General Sessions to do whatever he wants in the name of “law and order”—from the equivalent of storm troopers, to national stop-and-frisk practices, to who knows what else.
All in all, the executive orders in this “new deal” sound a lot like the old deal—the one that began during President Ronald Reagan’s “tough on crime” era, and which led to skyrocketing incarceration of Black people—but on steroids. And Trump has justified them with lies he’s continued to tell: namely, that the crime rates in this country are off the charts.
Just last week, Trump told a group of county sheriffs who met at the White House that “the murder rate is the highest it’s been in … 45 to 47 years.”
The most recent FBI data demonstrates that the murder rate in the United States is the lowest that it has been in decades.
If I were the sort of person to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, I would point out that Trump may simply be confused, and that his confusion may stem from the fact that from 2014 to 2015, there was an 11 percent increase in the murder rate—the biggest one-year jump since 1971.
I might also point out that the Brennan Center for Justice analyzed crime data from the 30 largest cities and projected the 2016 murder rate to increase 14 percent from 2015, and that the murder rate in Chicago—a particular obsession of Trump’s—accounts for 43.7 percent of the total increase in murders. (Experts say that the data is too recent to tell whether this is indicative of an upswing.) As for violent crime in general, the Brennan Center predicts a slight increase, but the rate is still at the bottom of a 30-year downward trend.
But I’m not the sort of person to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, because Trump has a long history of being wildly wrong and racist when it comes to law enforcement and Black communities.
Just this past October, Trump doubled down on the guilt of the Central Park Five—one Latino and four Black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of brutally raping and beating a jogger in 1989—when DNA evidence and a confession from a convicted murderer and rapist exonerated them of the crime. Even after New York City paid a $41 million settlement to the Central Park Five, Trump continued to rail against the young men, using alarmist and racist rhetoric. At the time the crime occurred, Trump published an ad in the New York Daily News calling for the state to kill the five teenagers, whom police coerced into confessing to the assault. The ad is an illuminating look into the mind of Trump and his views about law enforcement.
Rather than call for civic healing, Trump’s ad called for blood. Indulging in a classic myth about law enforcement and ignoring the more systemic causes of crime, Trump wrote that “if the punishment is strong, the attacks on innocent people will stop.” Calling for enhanced police powers, he then scoffed at the idea that compassion should be shown toward youth in urban areas who commit offenses. “I no longer want to understand their anger,” his ad reads. “I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.” Articulated for today’s white-nationalist fervor, that could substitute as Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. And it’s also the kind of talk that, in the heads of the wrong cop or wrong Good Guy With a Gun, could turn a young black person into a hashtag.
Attorney General Sessions, meanwhile, also believes in Trump’s incendiary vision of “American carnage,” as Trump called it in his inaugural address.
Moments after he was sworn in as attorney general, Sessions claimed that the uptick in crime was a “dangerous permanent trend.”
“We have a crime problem,” Sessions said to reporters in the Oval Office, according to the Guardian. “I wish the rise that we’re seeing in crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip. My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk,” he added.
Again, none of this is true. As the Guardian noted, leading crime experts have said that according to available data, it is too soon “to call the increase in murders a trend at all, much less a permanent one.”
Trump’s promises of law and order, combined with Sessions’ ability to sanction any action the president takes with respect to his promise to “make America great again,” does not bode well for Black people in this country. Supplementing local law enforcement with National Guard or federal law enforcement agents; conducting urban sweeps and mass arrests for crimes, irrespective of whether or not those crimes are violent; broken-windows policing, which seeks to maintain order by policing low-level offenses but simply leads to mass incarceration of people of color for nonviolent crimes; mandatory minimum sentences; and harsher police tactics are all on the table during the Trump/Sessions era of law enforcement. And they will inevitably further inflame relations between overpoliced communities and law enforcement.
Certainly any headway that the Holder and Lynch Departments of Justice made over the last eight years in terms of reducing police misconduct in Black communities will be eviscerated. We are unlikely to see any consent decree agreements between the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and cities that are embroiled in allegations of police misconduct.
And, by the way, it’s not just “liberal snowflakes” who are concerned about Trump’s obsession with “law and order.” Prominent police chiefs and prosecutors are concerned that Trump’s approach is the wrong, as the New York Times reported last week:
President Trump’s approach to crime, which began to take shape in a series of moves last week, generated swift criticism from liberals and civil rights groups.
But it also stirred dissent from another quarter: prominent police chiefs and prosecutors who fear that the new administration is out of step with evidence that public safety depends on building trust, increasing mental health and drug addiction treatment, and using alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.
But facts don’t matter. Facts are whatever Trump says they are, and the rest is so-called fake news. And it is this dynamic that is going to lead to the real American carnage as police clash with communities of color over the next four years.