The Bundy fallacy liberals must reject: Why reforming our broken criminal justice system means less violence, not more

When the Bundy siege began in Oregon this month, many were calling for their heads. That's the wrong impulse

By Daniel Denvir
Published January 23, 2016 4:59PM (EST)
Ammon Bundy   (AP/Rick Bowmer)
Ammon Bundy (AP/Rick Bowmer)

It has been three weeks now since the federal government's cautious approach toward right-wing militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge sparked outrage on the left and the bigoted hashtag #YallQaeda (read: white trash). This is a reminder that when it comes to certain crimes, some on the left reserve the right to a law-and-order response.

At Slate, Jamelle Bouie observered:

“Why won’t they shoot at armed white fanatics isn’t just the wrong question; it’s a bad one. Not only does it hold lethal violence as a fair response to the Bundy militia, but it opens a path to legitimizing the same violence against more marginalized groups...If we’re outraged, it shouldn’t be because law enforcement isn’t rushing to violently confront Bundy and his group. We should be outraged because that restraint isn’t extended to all Americans.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn critical scrutiny to mass incarceration and abusive policing, and made the point that both impact black people in a grossly disproportionate manner. How disproportionate? ProPublica found that young black males were 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts in recent years. In 2014, black men were 7.6 times more likely to be imprisoned than white men, according to the Marshall Project.

Some have also, however, taken that argument a step further and asserted that police and the criminal justice system treat white criminals too kindly.

Last June, there was the internet firestorm in response to the news that “Police bought Dylann Storm Roof Burger King after arrest.” That same month, Mic displayed a photo of bikers checking their phones and hanging out after a shootout left nine dead in Waco, Texas as one of multiple “Stunning Images” that “Reveal the Racist Double Standard of Police Responses in America.” In reality, bikers present for that shootout have been subjected to one of the most indiscriminate mass prosecutions (177 people were arrested) in recent history.

Before that, in late 2014, the #crimingwhilewhite hashtag exploded.

ThinkProgress dubbed #CrimingWhileWhite “The Only Thing You Need To Read To Understand White Privilege.”

White people's confessions of getting away with crimes were intended to highlight the criminal justice system's racism. Some, like Jessica Valenti, criticized the e-movement for highlighting white people's experiences at a time when black suffering needed to be in sharp focus. What was most unfortunate about #CrimingWhileWhite, however, is that it came off like a bunch of affluent white people talking about experiences that poor white people might find entirely unrecognizable.

Controlling for class, there is still a major racial disparity in incarceration rates—but far less of one, according to a 2010 study published in Daedalus. The authors looked at men born between 1975 and 1979 and found that, over all, the black men were five times more likely than white counterparts to serve time in prison (27 versus 5 percent) by their early thirties. By contrast, black high school dropouts were two-and-a-half times more likely to enter prison than white dropouts (68 versus 28 percent).

Poor blacks are hit much the hardest: the hyperincarceration that governs life in extremely poor and highly segregated black neighborhoods is a unique phenomenon. But poor whites have it bad as well. The black members of the studied cohort with a high school education were less likely to enter prison than a white high school dropout, and far less likely if they had a college degree.

Affluent black people share aspects of racial discrimination and disadvantage with poor black people, and poor whites share some white privilege with rich whites. But poor blacks on the South Side of Chicago and poor whites in Appalachia also share an experience of economic marginalization, incarceration included, that is utterly foreign to most well-to-do people of any color.

* * *

Research suggests that when white people are confronted with evidence of the criminal justice systems's racist impact they are actually more likely to support punitive policies. This is because of racism, and because emphasizing racial disparity risks reinforcing racist stereotypes about black criminality. It's also because the American left lacks much in the way of a multiracial working class movement.

Anyone who has spent time covering the criminal justice system, or spent time inside of it, is aware of countless stories of white (not to mention Latino) people unjustly jammed up. The majority of the victims of police brutality and unjust imprisonment that I've interviewed and written about, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, are black. But not all. The abusive cops and prison guards I've encountered, contrary to the media's insistent references to certain abusive officers being white, were both black and white. The system is fundamentally racist. But it is also a machine that destroys poor and working class people of all colors.

Take Sean Harrington, who I profiled in a Vice investigation last September. Harrington, a white heroin addict, is facing a murder charge and 15 years in prison for providing drugs to a friend who suffered a fatal overdose. North Carolina prosecutor Greg Newman's carceral instincts are mercilessly inclusive: “if you're going to be out peddling the drugs,” he told me, “you're going to have be accountable to what happens on the receiving end of those narcotics.”

Rico Moore, a black lawyer representing a poor white man in West Virginia facing similar charges, told me that the system uses the “same playbook” against poor people of all races.

"I think, of course, poor defendants get treated like lesser citizens the same as black defendants,” he said.

One case that got a bit of national attention was that of Zachary Hammond, a white teen shot dead by Seneca, South Carolina police as he tried to drive away from a drug sting. Most media attention focused on whether he was getting less media attention because he was white.

“If Zachary were black, the outpouring of protest and disappointment from the public and the press would be amazing,” Eric Bland, Hammond's lawyer, protested. “You wouldn’t be able to get a hotel room in upstate South Carolina.”

In reality, most of the people tweeting about #ZacharyHammond seem to be Black Lives Matters supporters — including after it was announce that the officer who executed the teen would not be charged. It's not the job of black activists to highlight white victims of mass incarceration and police abuse, though they do. The #alllivesmatter camp, to be sure, was not out marching in the street demanding justice for Zachary Hammond.

White privilege and white supremacy are very real. But it's also no wonder that white liberal arts graduates have an easier time understanding white privilege than an out of work white miner or factory worker: it's hard to ruminate about one's race advantage when you're getting hammered on the economic margins.

The debates pitting race against class are tired and counterproductive (and to poor black people, perhaps entirely ludicrous). More to the point would be a conversation that makes sense of people's different, difficult realities. You can't do that if you belittle poor white people as rednecks, and succumb to a vision of American politics as a cultural phenomenon reflected on Wolf Blitzer's color-coded election maps.

In the late 1960s, Black Panthers in Chicago were building a Rainbow Coalition with Puerto Rican Young Lords and Appalachian migrant Young Patriots to take on poverty, police brutality and Mayor Richard Daley before leader Fred Hampton was murdered by police at the age of 21.

"There's...people on welfare up here,” said Black Panther Bobby Lee, in a powerful meeting with militant Appalachians. “There's police brutality up here. There's rats and roaches. There's poverty up here. That's the first thing that we...can unite on."


Today, it is prisoners who may be leading us out of the rabbit hole of some of the less productive arguments about race and class. Three years ago in California, alleged leaders of rival race-based gangs—the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family, the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia—who had spent years locked inside Pelican Bay State Prison's dystopian solitary confinement unit, organized 30,000 prisoners statewide to go on hunger strike.

As Sitawa Jamaa, an alleged leader of the Black Guerrilla Family, put it: "We are a prisoner class now."

A failure to recognize the fact that mass incarceration poses a threat to Americans of all races misses an opportunity to build the only sort of broad-based coalition that can bring the system down. It also, if history is any lesson, poses a major risk. Liberal criticism of racial sentencing inequities helped pave the way for the 1984 law that created the sentencing guidelines that, alongside mandatory minimums, have helped drive the federal prison system's explosive growth. Sentences are still disparate. And they are much, much longer.

Demands that the criminal justice system solve our problems, and that it treat people equally, could once again result in more brutality across the board. The people goading the federal government into a bloodbath in Oregon should be mindful of this history. Black Lives Matter has cast an unprecedented spotlight on the criminal justice system. A rainbow coalition could learn a lot from the brutality they have illuminated.

Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bundy Siege Criminal Justice Criminal Justice Reform Mass Incarceration