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The Purpose Of This Website

This is the post excerpt.

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(Website in progress. Please excuse the sparse layout.)

My name is Eli Massey. I am an independent journalist, editor, and researcher.

I will compile my writing, editorial work, and research here. In addition, I will periodically post exclusive articles.

The Problem With Our Criminal Justice System

Here’s a startling fact: If the United States released every single black and Hispanic person from prison tomorrow, we’d still be one of the leading incarcerators in the world.

The Black Lives Matter movement and other tireless advocates for racial justice deserve immense credit. They jump-started a national conversation on the dysfunctions of the American criminal justice system, mobilizing large numbers of people to work towards its improvement and leading to tangible reforms around the country. Their analysis, drawing from the prior work of thinkers like Angela Davis, has tended to highlight racially disparate outcomes within the justice system which they explain are the result of systemic racism. For example, while people of all races use and sell illicit drugs at comparable rates, blacks and Latinos make up ¾ of all people imprisoned for drug offenses. The various mechanisms that perpetuate these racially disparate outcomes are numerous: over-policing of communities of color, stop and frisk, mandatory minimums, and so on. To actually remedy the ills of the criminal justice system, they argue, it’s necessary to recognize the ways in which the system produces racist outcomes. Their analysis is, to a significant extent, right.

It’s also true that a purely racial analysis obscures certain facets of the problem. As the startling fact cited at the beginning of this piece makes clear, mass incarceration is more than solely a problem of racism. That’s true of other facets of the criminal justice system too. We’ve all seen the myriad, and deeply disturbing, videos of police officers wielding excessive force against African Americans, whether it’s a chokehold, a beating, tasing, or shower of bullets. These videos have brought widespread attention to the scourge of police brutality, vividly illustrating the racism that so often seems to animate these encounters. Nonetheless, racism is an inadequate explanation in fully understanding why police brutality happens. While police kill African Americans at a disproportionate rate, they also kill more white people than black. Granted this is likely because there are more white people than black in this country, but consider what this means: Though the criminal justice system produces racially disparate outcomes in many ways, the problem itself is not racial disparity. The end goal should not be egalitarian, racially proportional police brutality. In other words, the problem with police brutality is not that African Americans are the disproportionate victims of such violence, though that is a problem. The problem is police brutality.

To be clear, this isn’t to deny racism as a significant contributing factor to the dysfunctions of the criminal justice system or that racism is even one of the fundamental causes of these dysfunctions. If one actually wants to remedy these problems, one must pay attention to the ways in which racism impacts them. With that said, racism is not the only problem with the criminal justice system. Its pathologies are copious.

Take capital punishment, for example. Common arguments made against the death penalty tend to focus on factors like racial disparity, human fallibility which leads to executing innocent people, cost, and the ineffectiveness of a particular method of execution. But none of these arguments are actual arguments against the death penalty, just its application. It’s at least conceivable that we could develop an effective, racially proportionate, inexpensive, infallible capital punishment. Yet it would still be justifiable to oppose the death penalty on the grounds that execution is immoral. Similarly, in reforming our criminal justice system it’s essential that our criticisms be grounded in opposition to a given policy, not just the application. (The argument that mass incarceration, for instance, is bad because it is expensive could just as easily be an argument for cheaper mass incarceration.) And after concluding one is against the death penalty, prisons, and police for everyone, one ought to support alternatives.  

Michelle Alexander, in the concluding pages of her book The New Jim Crow, warns against embracing colorblind “solutions” to the problems of the criminal justice system. After all, the policies and practices that maintain the New Jim Crow are often colorblind, Alexander observes. Punitive and dehumanizing treatment of people convicted of committing a crime, she writes, is tolerated only because our society has come to associate people of color, and African Americans in particular, with criminality. Alexander, however, is reluctant to spell out too specifically what remedies to the troubles of our criminal justice system would look like. It’s possible the color-conscious solutions we decide to embrace don’t work and we end up with a criminal justice system stripped of its racism, as the mechanisms of mass incarceration continue apace. That’s not an argument against efforts to extricate racism from the criminal justice system, just an observation about a potential risk of fixating solely on the racism.

Historic marginalization is ample reason to focus on improving the situation for a particular group, especially considering that improving the situation for them could in theory improve the situation for everyone. At the same time, it’s necessary to consider the ways in which such a focus might blind one to the full realities of a particular problem. So, in developing alternatives, we ought be clear that the problem is not exclusively how the system functions but the system itself.

Michelle Alexander, members of the BLM movement, and many other people fighting for racial justice understand that mass incarceration, capital punishment, and police brutality are problems because they are immoral. In the midst of the ongoing conversation around criminal justice reform, which rightly focuses on racism, it’s easy to forget the problem with the system is its sheer savagery and cruelty. Locking people up in cages, brutalizing and executing them will always be unjust, even if we get the racial proportions “right.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter Denounces Obama’s Prosecution of Whistleblowers

“What I want to do is I want to fucking kill all the leakers,” Anthony Scaramucci, the Trump administration’s short-lived communications director, confided to the New Yorker. Now Scaramucci swims among the fishes. But his comment succinctly captures the Trump administration’s attitude towards leakers.

This attitude didn’t begin with the Mooch, however. It didn’t even begin with this administration.

On Saturday, July 29, I attended a day-long symposium on free speech hosted by the Chicago Humanities Festival. The event consisted of three panels, a brief speech from the University of Chicago president, and extensive Q&A, all of which grappled with the day’s theme of “Speech and Privilege.”

One panel, moderated by University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, (a critic of Edward Snowden), included ACLU National Legal Director David Cole, and Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter.

The panel was a free-wheeling discussion on the fate of free speech in America, touching on Citizens United, whether robust speech rights (including the right to what some may call “hate speech”) hurts American democracy, and the ways in which women are often denied the same speech privileges as men.

Once the panel was opened up for the Q&A, yours truly was lucky enough to get in the first question. It took all my will power to not inquire about Obama’s blundering Libya policy, of which Slaughter was a full-throated supporter. Instead, I asked her about the Obama administration’s record on free speech. I’ve transcribed the exchange below and here’s a recording:

Eli Massey: Hi, thanks very much for the panel. My question is for Anne-Marie Slaughter. I have to say, your comments ring a little bit hollow. How can you claim to be—

Geoffrey Stone: That’s hate speech. I don’t know about this.

[Laughter, applause]

EM: Yeah. How can you claim to be a proponent of free speech and a free press when you served in an administration, the Obama administration, that prosecuted more whistleblowers than all past presidents combined, times three? To borrow a headline from New York Times journalist James Risen, who was targeted by the Obama administration, “If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama.” Thank you.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Well, let’s see. I served in the Obama administration and I disagreed with them vehemently on quite a number of things including their entire Syria policy. So the fact that I served in an administration that did some things that I disagree with I don’t think disqualifies me. I do actually—I don’t agree with the Obama administration’s persecu—prosecution, some people would say persecution of leakers. Allison Stanger is in the audience and her next book is on exactly the protection of whistleblowers. I do think that certainly in a number of cases that to me was chilling on our democracy and I’d say you see the same thing with Donald Trump wanting to go after leakers. But part of, you know, part of free speech and vigorous debate is not to presume that somebody automatically stands with everything that one party or other does on both sides. So that just because I was serving in the Obama administration, everything they did was great and everything this administration does is wrong. No, we are all individuals and we all take our points of view, and we reason with each other. And we put our principles before our party, and our country with our principles.

Notice how keen Slaughter is on emphasizing that people serving in an administration don’t agree on everything. Apparently she can therefore have served in an administration that seriously undermined press freedom while simultaneously trumpeting her great support for press freedom. That’s a reasonable point, but it’d be a bit like serving in the Bush administration and claiming to be a great opponent of torture.

I was very glad that Slaughter was willing to condemn the Obama administration’s prosecutions of whistleblowers so unequivocally, and I was even heartened that she furthermore seemed to concede that Donald Trump is building upon Obama’s legacy.

The real question, however, was why hadn’t she stood up and loudly decried the “chilling on our democracy” as it was happening under Obama?

I can, with great bravery, denounce the atrocities perpetrated by Genghis Khan. But since they’re long over, it’s a totally meaningless gesture. Slaughter’s comments are, to be fair, not a totally meaningless gesture, though they have less value than if she had made them while Obama was still in office.

Donald Trump’s assault on free speech and the press are only just beginning. But given that Slaughter was not, as far as I can tell, an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers at the time, she comes off as partisan rather than as someone truly committed to the principle of free expression.

There is one exception of which I’m aware. To her credit, Slaughter previously tweeted her support for granting Edward Snowden clemency, a position which many in the administration, including the president, disagreed.

It’s possible there are other exceptions, but, given her huge following, it’s a shame that Slaughter didn’t choose to more vociferously defend the right that Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said “all other liberties and rights flow from.”

It’s perfectly true that Donald Trump is unhinged and hardly needed political precedent to go after press freedom in the way that he has. He’s proposed that the FBI should consider imprisoning journalists, hurled an impressive array of epithets at the media, suggested our libel laws should be “open[ed] up” to make it easier to sue, and arguably incited violence against the press.

Other members of the administration have been equally aggressive. CIA Director Mike Pompeo has said Edward Snowden deserves to be executed. A journalist was arrested for asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question. Under the auspices of Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department investigations of leaks have tripled from the number that were open when Obama left office. And Sessions has made clear his intention to prosecute Julian Assange, a move that, no matter how you feel about Wikileaks and Assange, will render all journalistic outlets vulnerable to government prosecution for publishing classified materials.

These are just some of the alarming developments under this administration. But the Trump administration’s war on whistleblowers is hardly coming out of left field.

They’re building on history.

Rightly or wrongly, we expect Democrats to condemn Republicans, and we expect Republicans to do the inverse. It’s a nice idea that politicians would do as Slaughter suggests and put their principles before their party and their country with their principles, but it so rarely happens.