There must be a pattern here, somewhere. I’m sure we can find it… oh, wait…
Great gif by Pew:
There must be a pattern here, somewhere. I’m sure we can find it… oh, wait…
Great gif by Pew:
This is Todd’s turf more than mine but check out this dataviz from the New York Times:
The big question is how and why considering that crime rates are not exactly exploding right now, and it’s not like US law enforcement is fighting the Sinaloa cartel.
Well, first, there is supply to be dumped, according to the article:
“As President Obama ushers in the end of what he called America’s “long season of war,” the former tools of combat — M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers and more — are ending up in local police departments, often with little public notice.
During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.”
And in a very bureaucratic and Weberian fashion, once the tools are there, they will be used. And sure enough:
“The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs.Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of “barbering without a license.””
And so you end up with a militarized police force even though the crime statistics do not justify it. In addition, the use of militarized gear changes the way police forces approach situations, i.e., they do so more aggressively since the balance of force is more in their favor. And since the equipment is free or would be scrapped if unused, it is easy to see why police chiefs would get stuff that, really, they don’t need. But once they have it, the equipment acquisition has to be rationalized. So, you get jewels like these:
In the Indianapolis suburbs, officers said they needed a mine-resistant vehicle to protect against a possible attack by veterans returning from war.
“You have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build I.E.D.’s and to defeat law enforcement techniques,” Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department told the local Fox affiliate, referring to improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs. Sergeant Downing did not return a message seeking comment.
Some officials are reconsidering their eagerness to take the gear. Last year, the sheriff’s office in Oxford County, Maine, told county officials that it wanted a mine-resistant vehicle because Maine’s western foothills “face a previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities.””
What it does though, is turn police officers into soldiers in occupied territories where all civilians are potential enemies and neighborhoods into potential war zones. And we all know which neighborhoods will face militarized police forces, of course, because we already know who bears the brunt of heavy policing.
Pro Publica (a very worthwhile news organization that you should all read) has published a very nice data visualization regarding imports and exports of guns by states (and nationwide) based on tracing done after criminal activity. You can go state by state and look at where guns came from and where they went across state lines.
So, first, the national map:
Ok, I decided to pick Illinois since this is where I am located and in, every discussion on guns, someone will claim to have the decisive argument that Chicago is not murder-free despite a gun ban. So, let’s look at Illinois imports:
About half of the guns traced by the authorities came from out of state. Who would have thought that somehow, things, like guns, would make their way to Chicago and that somehow, Chicago does not live under a dome, Stephen-King style.
For the most part, these imported guns came from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Mississippi. The dataviz also has these imports (and exports) broken down by state.
Anyhoo, Illinois also exports guns to other states:
But check out New York state:
So, close to 70% of guns traced in NY state came from out of state, and you can see that, for the most part, they came from other East Coast states.
But compare that to Texas:
Only 18% of the traced guns came from out of state.
No big surprise here. If a state has strict gun laws, one can expect more imports. But if a state has fewer restrictions on guns, then, by definition, imports will be less necessary.
Get check out the whole thing.
With the recent shootings at UCSB, there has been a lot of talk about the gendered nature of homicides, where the gender of shooters is almost invariably male, and the gender of the victims is largely male but also female.
I would like to pursue the point that, indeed, homicide is a gendered social fact. So, first, check out this visualization of the proportion of homicide by gender:
Let me note that ratio is not the appropriate term here. The map actually represents the proportion of males in the sum of homicides in a country. For instance, if you take Zambia, about 78% of murder victims are men, hence the dark blue color.
Now, you can notice that any country in red, orange, or yellow would be a country where the proportion of women victims of homicide is higher than that of men. The light yellow color would represent rough equality in the gender of victims (between 45 and 55%). So, congratulations, Iceland, on being the only country where 100% of murder victims were women. Anyone care to guess the murder rate in Iceland? The most recently published data show 1 murder in the last year (2012). I presume the unfortunate victim was a woman.
Similarly, you will notice rough equality in Germany and a couple of Scandinavian countries (Finland and Norway), and a couple of smaller European countries, Japan and South Korea. These are all countries with low murder rates.
Otherwise, the rest of the map is solidly blue, that is, there are more men victims of homicides than women, sometimes, dramatically so. And these darker blue countries are also countries where the murder rate is higher. Let me explore that a bit further with some more UNODC data I have used before.
Let’s look at where the homicides are, compared to population size, so we can get a rough sense of over/under:
Clearly, Africa and the Americas are the continents where homicides are a major issue. No surprise here. But when one adds the gender aspect of this, we see two different dynamics at work:
Women are more likely to be killed by a spouse (or ex), a relative, or an acquaintance. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be killed by someone they do not know (a rival gang member, for instance) or an acquaintance. For women, victimization is an intimate thing. Not so for men.
Let’s add another layer to this:
As you can see, high-homicide rate countries have more men victims, and the murders are more likely to take place in public places. On the other hand, in low-homicide rate countries, the proportion of women victims increases and these homicides become privatized, taking place at home.
This goes to the larger context: countries where homicide rates are high are countries where governments have a hard time exercising legitimacy and authority, and therefore, obtaining and retaining a monopoly over the use of force (see; Weber). So, such a country might have a very big gang / drug cartels / paramilitary groups problem. These groups are composed largely young men, who might end up killing each other. And the internal culture of these organizations is very much hegemonically masculine. Moreover, when a group like the Zetas engage in mass murder, they do not just as a tactical matter, but also as a public statement of power (hence the gruesome stagings). These killings are a form of “public policy” for these groups.
On the other hand, in countries with low homicide rates, governments tend to be stable and able to exercise their authority over their entire territory. As such, there is less public violence and less challenging of governmental authority. Therefore, murders become more private matters and women are more likely to be the victims.
Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of The Wealth Gap is not technically a sociology book, but it is an important piece of reporting on a topic that, I think, is central to the discipline as a whole. After all, sociologist have been harping about increasing inequality and its consequences long before it was cool (that is, long before Occupy, and Picketty-mania).
Overall, the book is organized along a “compare and contrast” format, alternating chapters of the way “the system”, and especially the social structures of social control deal with the powerful and wealthy v. the powerless and poor or near-poor.
For people who follow the news, none of what is in the book will be entirely surprising, but the contrasting structure of gentle handling of the powerful by their regulatory agencies compared to the kafkaesque nightmares of stop-and-frisk, and border policies, and welfare present a powerful picture of grotesque inequalities at the individual level.
And quite frankly, even cynical me was horrified at the ways these structures used by, or imposed upon, the poor and powerless actually work (or don’t work). In effect, these chapters are a perfect reflection of what Frances Fox Pivens depicted decades ago regarding the welfare system: a system designed to NOT provide its prescribed services, and that would crumble if it had to (exposing the real levels of social precarity). In addition, what all three systems have in common, whether it’s stop-and-frisk, the border / private prison system, or the welfare system is that they are designed to discipline the poor and minorities, more than anything else (paging Foucault).
Of course, it is neither innocent nor coincidental that each of these systems deal with minorities: African Americans, undocumented migrants, and single mothers. By contrast, the chapters on the powerful deal with massive scale mismanagement and fraud, including on public money, committed by powerful, white, men, who almost never see any kind of accountability.
Taibbi’s main issue is this:
“We’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.” (Loc. 80)
And how we got to this point. These are both cultural and structural issues:
“Finding the answer to some of this turns out to be easy, just simple math. Big companies have big lawyers, most street criminals do not, and prosecutors dread waging long wars against bottomless-pocketed megabanks when they can score win after easy win against common drug dealers, car thieves, and the like. After winning enough of these blowout victories, the justice bureaucracy starts drifting inexorably toward the no-sweat ten-second convictions and away from the expensive years-long battles of courtroom attrition.
Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.
It’s come around to that point of view at the end of a long evolutionary process, in which the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.” (Loc. 141)
And that is the point, for Taibbi, is that one cannot understand what is going on in the United States without both sides of that picture: more than ever, and to an even greater extent, the rich do get richer, and the poor get prison (the 10th edition!).
“We’re creating a dystopia, where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail. It isn’t just that some clever crook on Wall Street can steal a billion dollars and never see the inside of a courtroom; it’s that, plus the fact that some black teenager a few miles away can go to jail just for standing on a street corner, that makes the whole picture complete.” (Loc. 316)
This, for Taibbi, is a perfect illustration of the state of inequality in the US. And as we all know, what we witness today, and is described at length by Taibbi, is the culmination of trends that started in the 80s and led us to the 2008 recession. It is a combination of deregulation that let companies grow bigger and stronger, and therefore harder to prosecute, dismantling of the regulatory tools (Glass-Steagall), globalization and technological innovation that gave us stateless corporations.
And there is also a change in attitude towards prosecuting the corporate powerful that is encapsulated by the 1999 “collateral damage” memo penned by Eric Holder that started the idea that prosecuting corporations might lead to the collateral damage of job loss and community damages, and that these collateral damages should figure in prosecuting decisions. Funny how we never asked the question of collateral damages when government drafted the War on Drugs legislation that would devastate entire communities through the massive incarceration of young African-American men.
“From abandoning criminal prosecutions in favor of deferred prosecutions and nonprosecution agreements, the state now began to emphasize fines as a new means of settling with white-collar criminals.” (29)
And gloating about the imposition of what looks like heavy fines to us mortals, but are mere pennies to the corporations that have to pay them.
This change also has to do with a mechanism that C. Wright Mill would have recognized very-well: the power elite revolving door:
“The same process was now about to transform the federal law enforcement system, thanks in large part to new president Obama, who ushered in a herd of Ivy Leaguers and high-powered corporate defense lawyers to be his top crime-fighting officials. This new crowd of bookish lawyers was headlined by the Columbia University/Covington & Burling duo of Holder as attorney general and Lanny Breuer as head of Justice’s Criminal Division, essentially the top crime-fighting job in the country.” (31)
And indeed, Taibbi devotes a few chapters explaining how the recession of 2008 was neither a technical screw-up, or a few bad apples, or reckless borrowers, but corporate crime on a massive scale:
“Not mere technical violations, mind you, not just a thumb on a scale here and there, but crime, real crime, the kind of thing people once went to jail for. Specifically, this was a massive criminal fraud scheme, something akin to a giant counterfeiting operation, in which banks mass-produced extremely risky, low-quality subprime mortgages and with lightning-quick efficiency sold them off to institutional sucker-investors as highly rated AAA bonds. The hot potato game targeted unions, pension funds, and government-backed mortgage companies like Fannie Mae on the secondary market.” (38)
Time and time again, the evidence is there for law enforcement to see and yet, nothing happens. Part of the reason is collateral damage (a version of Davis / Moore explanation for stratification: some people are just more functionally necessary than others): just a whiff of possible job loss is enough to make prosecutors back off. But there is also the fact that large banks and corporations can marshall armies of well-paid, private attorneys to drag their cases for years, at great costs to underfunded government agencies that do not have the manpower to deal with such complicated cases, and with the risk of losing in the end. It’s better just to slap a fine that will look big to the public and will spare everybody else. And as the quote above notes, most of Obama’s top Justice department officials come from corporate law firms. There is a certain amount of empathy and thinking that, really, these are not “real” crimes.
But go to the other end of the social ladder and one can observe the legacy of another awesome gift from the 80s: the broken windows theory of law enforcement. This is a version of the slippery slope trope: if you let petty crime go unpunished (broken windows), then, you open the door to more serious criminality. So, the solution is to crack down on petty crime to prevent said slippery slope. Stop-and-frisk is an avatar of that idea, with extra dose of racism on top.
“These were programs like the infamous CompStat system and other lesser-known outgrowths of the celebrated “broken windows” urban policing strategies, programs whose effectiveness depended upon massive numbers of low-level arrests for minor violations.
All over America, indigents or the merely poor were being hauled in in ridiculous numbers, often detained even if just for a short time, given tickets, and searched. These cast-a-wide-net street-policing strategies were ostensibly designed to snag illegal guns or serious criminals with outstanding warrants, but they didn’t always work out that way. At exactly the time Holder was penning his famous memo in the late 1990s, the abjectly purposeless arrest was becoming more and more common, even as, perversely, the numbers of actual violent crimes committed had begun to drop precipitously.
And as every individual who’s ever been charged with a crime knows, anyone facing criminal arrest can expect collateral consequences. A single drug charge can ruin a person’s chances for obtaining a student loan or a government job. It can nix his or her chances of getting housing aid or a whole range of services—even innocent members of your family may lose access to government benefits. You can lose your right to vote and your access to financial aid. You can even have your children taken away.
But no police anywhere were officially asked to weigh the collateral consequences of arrests for prostitution, stealing cars, assault, selling weed, jumping turnstiles, even the simple offense of being homeless. There’s no memo in the Justice Department that wonders aloud what happens to the families of those sorts of arrestees. Instead, the new trend in policing is and has been to aggressively no longer care about any of it.” (52)
An additional consequences of the application of this kind of criminology (if you can call it that), in addition to its failure, is that it shatters any kind of legitimacy the police might have in poor and minority neighborhoods
And, so, for Taibbi, the divide in the United States today is between the arrestable and nonarrestable classes. The arrestable classes are the poor, the minorities, the single mothers, the undocumented migrants, for such crimes as standing on the street (if you don’t believe that black men are being arrested for standing on the sidewalk and talking to people – loitering – you need to get out more).
The chapter that Taibbi devotes to stop-and-frisk is a kafkaesque nightmare where black men can be arrested 50, 60 times for just being there, not charged, but detained for days (hello, job loss), then having to deal with the court system (having to show up multiple times, whether it works with one’s job or not or be convicted in absentia), being represented by overburdened public defenders (when they’re not incompetent), and finally, being pushed to accept a deal that might leave one free, but with a criminal record. Don’t even think about fighting back against baseless charges. Justice by attrition.
Of course, the mechanism is well-known: after having pushed countless African-American men to agree to plea agreements, the criminal justice system then uses these aggregated masses of conviction to declare African-Americans as a criminal class to be subjected to more law enforcement, and the cycle repeats itself.
The power of Taibbi’s book is in these stories: of being arrested while coming home from work and not being able to show up for work the next day because one has not yet been processed, being caught in a dragnet where what matters is the stats (can anyone say “big data”?), and they have to be big. And the people caught in this nightmarish “logic” do not have the armies of well-paid private attorneys to fight back against it. So, they agree to plea just so they can go home and not have to show up for court again, but now, they have a record. And then, they get arrested again, and again, and again… and now they have a record.
“There are two important concepts here that work hand in hand. One, there’s the idea that failure to follow a police order, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is cause for an arrest or a summons. The second idea is that the prosecutor can essentially turn any misdemeanor case against almost anyone into a de facto conviction, simply by filing charges and following through long enough with pretrial pressure to wrest a plea out of the accused.
These two concepts operating together have resulted in a new policing method, one that relies upon thousands of arrests for trivial offenses, real and imagined.” (130)
On the other hand, when it comes to corporate crime, it’s all different.
“What’s happened now, in this new era of settlements and nonprosecutions, is that the state has formally surrendered to its own excuses. It has decided just to punt from the start and take the money, which doesn’t become really wrong until it turns around the next day and decides to double down on the less-defended, flooring it all the way to trial against a welfare mom or some joker who sold a brick of dope in the projects.
That’s what nobody gets, that the two approaches to justice may individually make a kind of sense, but side by side they’re a dystopia, where common city courts become factories for turning poor people into prisoners, while federal prosecutors on the white-collar beat turn into overpriced garbage men, who behind closed doors quietly dispose of the sins of the rich for a fee.” (84)
Emphasis mine. This quote is quintessential Taibbi.
Taibbi then moves on to re-telling the story of the Lehman Brothers collapse but the point is the opposite as with stop-and-frisk: high crime, committed by people in high places, no criminal accountability. Taibbi is pretty good at explaining the complex machinations involved with securitization. That could be a tedious topic but it is not. But actually, prosecutors do count on the fact that this stuff is boring and complicated so, the public will not be clamoring for prosecution, especially when the party line on the media is that what happens might be unethical (it is) but not illegal (though it is). Taibbi does a good job of explaining the illegal nature of it all.
Taibbi then turns to his second case of the powerless getting the book thrown at them when the powerful get off scots-free: Gainesville, Florida:
“A ferocious federal immigration rule called 287(g) that essentially deputizes any and all state and local law enforcement officials to arrest undocumented aliens on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Today every local official with a badge—every cop, sheriff, ranger, or even game warden—has the power to instantly separate children from mothers, husbands from wives. All America, from the smallest town on up, has become a dragnet.” (199)
And here again, people arrested are thrown into a bureaucratic mess that also now involves private prisons, that Taibbi describes as such:
“A giant legal purgatory in which detainees don’t have any real rights or enjoy any real due process. People disappear into it, hundreds of thousands a year, and become less like prisoners with rights than like objects or packages to be crated and shipped out like cargo. ICE even has a UPS-style tracking system that allows immigrant families to punch in a number and see where their deported relative is in his or her serpentine journey through the detention system. In the real justice system, you get habeas corpus; in the shadow system, you get a tracking number to see where your familial “package” is. (201)
Similarly, the power of this is in the individual stories of people actually caught up in this system. The ICE system is described in gruesome details, with immigration judges that are actually employees of the Department of Homeland security, the pushing of stipulations (the ICE equivalent of plea bargains whereby migrants get deported fast, before they get to see an attorney), etc.
And there is a class divide here as well:
“There’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.” (206)
And with private prisons in the mix, as Taibbi puts it, migrants are the new cash crop. And the consequences are also far-reaching. Basically, the whole arrest / deportation system puts its victims in the hands of cartels in Mexico as this is who meets them when they get thrown across the border. And this is all very profitable:
“Overall, the corrections industry is one of the soundest stock/equity bets in the world, with soaring revenues—the industry as a whole pulled in more than $5 billion in America in 2011.
The jailing-Hispanics business is the perfect mix of politics and profit. Companies like CCA donate generously to politicians everywhere, particularly at the state level. The firm has spent as much as $3.4 million lobbying in a single year and on average spends between $1 million and $2 million a year.
Local police forces go along because the federal government compensates them for their detention of immigrants. A program called the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) pays local police forces out of the federal kitty for any detained immigrants who meet certain criteria (they’re undocumented, they stayed for at least four days, and they’ve been convicted of at least two misdemeanors). According to the GAO, states received about $1.6 billion annually in SCAAP payments through the end of the 2000s, and the numbers are likely to rise in this decade.” (215)
And this where this connects to corporate crimes of massive scale:
“In many states across the country still, immigrants from south of the border have to take taxis and bicycles everywhere they go, because the law enforcement presence is so massive that traveling any other way is a huge risk. Capture can mean the loss of everything, from never seeing a spouse again to being kidnapped, in addition to being thrust into debt for years. And this is for crimes that are essentially administrative in nature, immigrating in a proscribed way, trying to live without the right papers.
But on the flip side, there are certain kinds of crimes a native-born American can commit without any risk of arrest at all. It turns out that we prosecute administrative/political violations like serious crimes, and serious crimes like administrative violations. ” (241)
Probably because he could not resist, Taibbi also includes in the book the story of a Canadian company, Fairfax, to illustrate that not only were Wall Street people criminals, but also insane and malevolent and yet, get away with it.
Finally, Taibbi gets to its 3rd case of the way the powerless are handled by governmental bureaucratic systems: the welfare system. Here again, the stories are powerful. The amount of humiliation and degradation one has to endure to get measly benefits in the US, or, as is shown in the book, in California, is enormous. And here as well, that system is a nightmare:
“Today, every single person who applies for aid and is accepted has to be preemptively searched. These people are almost all nonwhite. And while in L.A. in the late 1980s, the person visiting the home of someone like Maria Espinosa was just a social worker from the local welfare office, the state has since upgraded. In San Diego now it’s a law enforcement official, a representative of the district attorney’s office, who comes in to look through your underwear drawer.” (316)
Because, you see, one has to be sure that the sluts are not living with a man as that would automatically be considered fraud. So, you apply for welfare, and then, you have to sit at home, sometimes for weeks, waiting for some guy to show up and go through all your stuff, while he insults you throughout the entire ordeal. These guys really seem to get off on that power. Too bad if you have a job though or if you need to go to the doctor. If you are not home when the official shows up, no benefits. The idea is that if you request aid, then, you have to be willing to endure all kinds of abuse without protesting.
“In those tens of thousands of searches over the years, P100 investigators have looked in every nook and cranny, finding sins everywhere. They rejected an applicant who shared an apartment with a roommate for failing to properly label her food in the refrigerator—how could the state be sure, after all, that the applicant wasn’t illegally sharing food with her roommate? They rejected a woman for having a Victoria’s Secret bra (“How can you afford this?” the investigator asked, again holding up the item with the favored pencil eraser end), for having too big a jacket in the closet (it must be a man’s!), for having a teenage son whose pants were too ghetto (too baggy—again, it must be a man’s clothes). Searchers looked in dresser drawers, in bathrooms, in freezers and refrigerators, under and behind couches, everywhere.” (317)
And so, if you need public assistance, your basic rights are forfeit. Protection against illegal search and seizure? You have to give that up. Oh, and never mind the bureaucratic mistakes that are made within the system and leave people without benefits. These are practically impossible to correct. And the way the system works, you never get to talk to the same caseworker twice. Every call or every visit to a welfare office will land you a different person that has to start from scratch and may have a different opinion on your case (that’s of course, after the several weeks it takes to get into the system in the first place).
“The entire world becomes a legal minefield. If you’re poor and on public assistance, just about anything you do that defines you as a living human being can turn into the basis of a fraud case. Getting laid can be fraud. Getting sick can be fraud. Putting your kids in day care can be fraud. Not “sounding poor” can be fraud.
I spent a year following a few people in different parts of the country and watched as they tried to receive their benefits on the one hand and avoid being prosecuted for fraud on the other. Both activities turn out to be essentially full-time jobs.” (329)
And in this case, it all started with Bill Clinton and welfare reform. As banks and corporations became more and more deregulated, the lives of the poor and minority became more and more regulated. Corporate fraud is massive, but it is welfare fraud that is massively investigated.
Oh, and here’s the kicker:
“For instance, in 2011, the state of Ohio—the same state that lost tens of millions in the early 2000s when its pension fund bought severely overpriced mortgage-backed securities from a Lehman Brothers banker named John Kasich, who would later become governor—tried to recoup some of its losses by sending out 22,000 notices to Ohioans seeking “overpayments” in either welfare or food stamps. Many if not most of these “overpayments” were actually the state’s own errors, but they went as far back as 1986 anyway, seeking checks as small as $78.” (341)
Taibbi’s chapter on robosigning and the epidemic of illegal foreclosures is also horrifying regarding the way deregulation led to rampant criminality. And the pity the poor whistle-blower who ends up living in a trailer for her conscience.
For credit card debt, the game is even more rigged:
“Once a bank like Chase “serves” its delinquent customer, there are just three paths on the flowchart of outcomes. They are:
The customer doesn’t show up in court and loses by default judgment.
The customer answers the summons and settles with the bank.
The customer answers the summons and contests the case.
In the first two cases—and this is a crucial part of this entire scheme, and the key reason that Linda’s bosses were so unconcerned about the absence of good paperwork in the debt sale—the collector typically does not come into court with any supporting documentary evidence. “They almost never have [evidence] on the first appearance,” says Straniere. All the collectors have, typically, is a complaint and the assertion of an owed balance. But in the vast majority of cases, that’s enough. Two-thirds of the time, the defendant doesn’t show and loses automatically.” (374)
And defendants don’t show up because collectors only have to say they delivered the summons, no signature or receipt needed. Too bad if you changed address and the summons never reached you. But if the defendant shows up and contests the case, collectors usually simply drop the case.
But the bottom line is this:
“What all this means is that the bulk of the credit card collection business is conducted without any supporting documentation showing up or being seen by human eyes at any part of the process. The meat of the business is collecting unopposed default judgments from defendants who either never receive a summons or receive one and never appear in court.
For debt buyers like DebtOne, the whole game is a bluff. If they buy a pile of open accounts or already-won judgments, what they’re banking on is collecting from delinquent customers who don’t fight back.” (376).
So, what does this amount to? None of this is dysfunctional or a system of justice gone wrong. It is all by design and the designers might even convince themselves that this is the way things should be.
“There’s a concrete difference between how we treat an individual who commits fraud within the structure of a giant multinational company with a lot of settlement money lying around, and how we treat, say, an ordinary broke person who commits welfare or unemployment fraud.
If you choose to take the money over and over again from the Wall Street crowd while the welfare moms keep getting jail and community service, now suddenly you’ve institutionalized the imbalance. From there, it’s not long before the tail starts wagging the dog. A massive, unconscious tendency toward reverse profiling occurs. Because, thanks to all these various factors, executives from giant multinationals simply don’t end up in the prison population, law enforcement soon starts to operate on the reverse principle, that those huge companies are not the places where jailable crimes take place. So even white-collar investigators start to look for targets elsewhere, like at smaller businesses.” (408)
Again, emphasis mine.
So, obviously, this is a very rich, well-researched, detailed book, but very well-written narratives and stories that will make your blood boil more than once.
A while back, Dave Mayeda posted a great series of posts applying sociological theories of deviance to the TV show The Wire. So, I just thought I’d list them all here so you can all go read them as they were really great.
I bumped into this article from Ioan Grillo in the New York Times today (I read his book a while back. It was very informative but I don’t really like disjointed narratives, I’m more of a linear thinker):
“As we enter 2014, we are in the midst of a fundamental shift in thinking on drug policy across the Americas. It’s the biggest change in direction since the region started down the road to prohibition with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. That U.S. law kickstarted the Latin American drug trade in the form of traffickers smuggling opium poppies north from Mexico’s Sierra Madre.
As the American drug market grew through the hippie Summer of Love and the cocaine disco generation, the U.S. war on drugs became more intense, as did the pressure on Latin American governments to fight supply. Subsequent generations of cartels became ever more violent; we went from talking about a war on drugs to drug wars, culminating in Mexico’s bloodbath, which is perhaps the most costly drug war in world history.
But the discussions on the issue are shifting course at breakneck speed. For decades, any talk of drug legalization was viewed by politicians across the hemisphere as a toxic vote-loser, pooh-poohed by pundits as a nonstarter. Now, active or former presidents of Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico are all calling for a rethink of prohibitionist policies.”
Which may have to do with this (from an earlier article):
“The International Centre for Science in Drug Policy said its report suggested the war on drugs had failed.
The report, published in the British Medical Journal Open, looked at data from seven international government-funded drug surveillance systems.
Its researchers said it was time to consider drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.
The seven drug surveillance systems the study looked at had at least 10 years of information on the price and purity of cannabis, cocaine and opiates, including heroin.
The report said street prices of drugs had fallen in real terms between 1990 and 2010, while their purity and potency had increased.”
The report is here. Some of their results below.
I find it interesting that there is an uptick in price right when the recession started in the US.
And as I discussed a while back, Portugal seems to be leading the way in terms of decriminalization (unless imposed austerity messes it all up).
And for the deleterious social effects of the war on drugs, see this older post as well.
Now, as I always tell my students, when a public policy seems to be a failure and yet, discussing this failure and potential policy changes is out of bounds, ask yourselves, who benefits. Who were the main beneficiaries of the war on drugs (and still are), and if one finds groups with big political clout, this is the answer to why failing policies are not changed or repealed. In this case, the beneficiaries are rather obvious: the prison-industrial complex (especially private prisons), various law enforcement agencies (which is reminiscent of the way these same agencies went from enforcing prohibition to creating a moral panic about marijuana, including, the awesomely awful old film, Reefer Madness), politicians (both federal and state), as well as anyone whose job is connected to the enforcement of the war on drugs, such as probation officers, etc.
But it is certainly interesting to see an ever-so-subtle tide changing.
Simon Hallsworth’s The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds is as much a study on gangs in the context of street informal organizations and of critical criminology. Come to think of it, it reads like a “how-to” and “how-not-to” study gangs.
The focus of the book is on the UK context but some of critiques and prescriptions are more broadly applicable (especially considering the apparent fondness of US “gang experts” in the UK policy-making circles). Overall, the book does not pull punches when it comes to the current state of the field of gang research and policy-making, and advocates for a different way of analyzing gangs.
In a sense, what Hallsworth advocates is a return to Durkheim’s original prescription for social research: do not accept commonsense categories as the unquestioned starting point for analysis. These categories are not neutral. They are the product of history and power relations within given field (to rope in Bourdieu). And so, to accept these categories without subjecting them to analysis is to commit an elementary mistake and therefore contribute to the reproduction of the power relations that gave rise to these categories in the first place.
For Hallsworth, this applies especially to categories such as “gangs”, “gang culture”, or “gang problem” which are then used to deploy a whole field of experts, policies, and prescriptions dedicated to dealing with the “gang problem”. The contestation of this deployment is the central theme of the book:
“Where do I situate my analysis? To begin with, it marks my response to the position staked out by John Pitts and his followers who see gangs today as the new face of youth crime and who, by and large, appear happy to blame them for everything. As will become clear, I have no time whatsoever for this position. I do not accept that gangs are the new face of youth crime; I do not accept that gangs today are large and corporate, and nor do I hold with other widely-held gang ‘truths’ as exemplified in claims to the effect that they coercively recruit members or are habitual rapists. The book is, then, in one respect at least, a wholesale challenge to contemporary gang orthodoxy that prevails today in that confused state called the UK.” (13)
And so, Hallsworth proceeds to debunk the current myths (used and taken as true, though) regarding gangs:
For Hallsworth, the bottom line to all these myths is that they are variants of “kids, these days”. They assume the complete novelty of drugs and violence rather than a permanent, and long-standing feature of street life in the UK, especially in working class areas. There are many continuities between past street life features and present, such as
But then, if these continuities were acknowledged, where would the moral entrepreneurs du jour find their moral panic?
One of the main critiques that Hallsworth deploys is against what he calls gang-talk and gang-talkers. Gang-talk is the commonsense narrative (constructed and repeatedly used by gang-talkers – the “experts” on gangs – and conveniently propagated by the media and politicians), repeating most of the myths listed above: that the gang threat is new, unprecedented, growing, more dangerous than ever, because the gangs are now structured like corporations (except criminal) and recruit younger and younger members who can never leave the gang once in.
“‘Gang talk’ has come to provide the interpretive grid by and through which divergent social problems are rendered legible, even when the events in question are by no means solely or even remotely gang-related.
Gang talk, I will argue, constitutes a free-floating discourse that can operate wholly independently of gang realities as these unfold in any street context” (68-9)
As Hallsworth puts it, gang talk is a language game (a la Wittgenstein), with its own vocabulary, rules of composition, and structure. Therefore, gang-talk propagates a series of tropes about gangs, that are then accepted and repeated without examination, but that are supposed to expose the “truth” of the gangs. This is all performative logic: the more the tropes of gang talk are uncritically repeated across media, the more they are taken as accurate description of the reality of the gangs. Conversely, any alternative perspective on gangs will be met with resistance and skepticism, and ultimately silenced as not fitting the tropes of gang talk. As dominant discourse, then, gang talk becomes the only plausible narrative as it becomes embedded in commonsense.
Gang talk, however, is neither neutral nor benign. It is a discourse of power:
“By ‘gang talk’, I mean to designate a discourse about gangs that has wide currency. It is a discourse that operates to make meaningful the world of gangs both to those who produce this discourse and to others who are receptors of it. By and large, the producers of gang talk (hereafter ‘gang-talkers’) are those with a vested interest in gangs (of some sort) but who are not of the world of gangs they talk about. They may be journalists looking for a good story about them, enforcement agencies that want to suppress them, practitioners on the hunt for gang suppression money, the public who are scared of them, academics wanting to study them, or policy-makers who have been given the mission of developing anti-gang strategies.” (70)
Again, this sounds a lot like Becker’s moral entrepreneurs and it is not surprising that gang members themselves adopt the tropes of gang talk along the way, as dominant cultural discourse. Nevertheless, gang talk is a fantasized representation rather than objective description but it is treated as such.
As conspiracy discourse, gang has the following elements:
[Sorry but those are the concepts used by Hallsworth.]
Out of these generic ideas, gang-talkers can extract gang membership checklists (Hallsworth provides a full one) and they read like the old Reefer Madness and include such things “dropping out of positive activities”, whatever the heck that means. Such items of gang membership are convenient because they can depict pretty much everybody, and so, if one goes looking for gang members, then, one is guaranteed to find them.
But again, gang talk is neither neutral nor benign:
“But there is also an ideological function to gang talk that needs to be acknowledged. In the post-welfare, neoliberal state where penal-fare as opposed to welfare increasingly defines the way in which poverty is managed (Wacquant 2009); gang talk helps establish the terms in and by which the global precariat, the losers in the neoliberal, winner-takes-all society, are now defined. Together with underclass thinking more generally, it reconstructs the lives of the urban poor as feral outsiders; as a population to whom pain dispensation appears necessary and not least just. It constructs them in Neil Christie’s terms as a suitable enemy at the same time it establishes the included society as a suitable victim.” (83)
And it accomplishes this through othering those designated as gang members as part of logic of the moral panic involving the usual components of exaggeration, distortion, prediction, and symbolization.
In addition to his critique of gang talk and gang-talkers, Hallsworth provides a counterpoint to a specific trope of gang talk, namely, the idea that gangs are not structured like corporations and formal organizations. According to this trope, the gang now resembles a typical Weberian bureaucracy, with its hierarchy, impersonality, rules and regulations, top-down governance, and division of labor, etc.
Hallsworth describes this mode of thinking (the gang as bureaucracy) as arborealism and describes it as shown below (sorry, bad picture from page 117):
Hallsworth argues that gangs are informal organizations with a rhizomatic structure (see Deleuze and Guattari), as depicted below:
This structure is very much akin to a flexible network, with nodes, clusters, and links, always in a state of reconfiguration based on the demands of the situation and the structural constraints under which the gang operates. Nodes move in and out of the network and are loosely connected to it (as opposed to the “military” model of recruitment promoted by gang-talkers). A rhizomatic structure is decentered and non-hierarchical and the intersections between nodes are not as predictable as those of bureaucratic structures. And where a tree-like bureaucracy is heavily territorialized, a rhizomatic structure is deterritorialized.
Now, Hallsworth does not argue for an “either/or” typology here. Gangs may follow hybrid structures as well but it is misleading and inappropriate to use the corporate structure as model for the gang, as this would lead to a Gilbert Ryle-type of category mistake. How could gangs be bureaucratic when relationships are based on kinship and clientelism and violence is valued. Gangs are also not impersonal organizations. Quite the opposite, actually, as relationships are highly personal. Moreover, because of the larger social context and the illegal activities that gang members engage in, reality is highly unpredictable and cannot be made more certain just by wishing it or issuing a few memos and new regulations. Most of gang actions are situational and contextual, and ever-changing. And if there is a business logic at work sometimes, it is complicated personal and emotional factors that can lead to violence and deaths, and sometimes, for stupid reasons. Because gang life is inherently unstable, so is its structuring. And it is this instability that make it almost impossible for gang to structure bureaucratically and territorialize. In this sense, gangs are assemblages more than formal organizations.
And when gangs do end up territorialized, it has more to do with discriminatory practices that “lock them up” in ghettos (or estates) than with anything else. Those are usually deprived environments where the legitimate economy is poorly represented and therefore where the informal one is more likely to take roots with the corresponding informal organizations. And so then territorial borders are not as hard and fast as gang-talkers make them to be as gang members are not just tied to the gang but also to family members and relatives living in the same projects or estates.
Regarding the drug and violence aspects, Hallsworth identifies three main imperatives of street life (but not exclusive to it): the search for pleasure, the search for money, and the search for respect. On this, in a very Mertonian fashion (see: strain theory), Hallsworth argues that drugs and violence play a part in all three imperative in a deprived context. And all three imperatives are fulfilled in a context of hegemonic masculinity (see: Connell) that is not new to young working-class men. In this sense, a lot of the violence that is attributed to gangs is actually part of the larger context of street life for the working class. That is the appropriate framework and context to understand it.
These three imperatives are fulfilled young working class men in the context of their exclusion from upward mobility:
But this is also in the context of their inclusion into the larger consumer culture.
And so, they innovate, as, again, mode of adaptation to the strain, as Robert Merton conceptualized it. The persistent presence of these men on the street, hanging out, reflects their waiting for opportunities and figuring out where the action is, for pleasure, money or respect.
Finally, Hallsworth connects what is truly the novel aspect here: the rise of the precariat. This is the larger context for informal street life and informal street organizations. In the post-War period – the rise of the welfare state – violence and drugs were not unknown. However, there was greater local regulation of it. And as soon as young men left school for the factory, got jobs, got married, then, they left the informal organizations behind.
In the current neoliberal context, inaugurated by Thatcher, this trajectory no longer exists. Mass deindustrialization and precarization have destroyed the fairly linear path from basic education to factory work, from adolescence to adulthood. The normative context of regulation from within the working-class is gone. To be sure, part of this normative context was hegemonic masculinity, and that has not changed.
But again, what is truly new is the precarization of the working class and the structural violence unleashed by right-wing governance (yes, including New Labour). I do wish the concept of structural violence were used more as it provides a powerful explanation for self-destructive interpersonal violence at play now, in the context of stalled social mobility in the face of consumer culture. Paraphrasing Bauman, Hallsworth then call the members of street organizations the “flawed consumers” of late modernity.
But gang-talkers have no interest in that socio-economic context. Hence, Hallsworth ends his book with a tongue-in-cheek list of lessons on how to develop a gang problem:
Now, this is a really interesting book. I could have done without the chapter on biographical ethnography. It did not add much to the overall thesis of the book. And as I was reading it, I could not help but think that the famous Gang Leader for A Day fell into all the traps that Hallsworth warns against, and constitutes a form of gang talk in itself (after all, it made its author quite famous for an academic).
I think this is a must-read for all criminal justice, criminology students and academics, as well as sociologists of deviance.
Yesterday, I looked at some data on homicide, worldwide, with a focus on regions, inequalities, presence of criminal organizations, guns, and weak governance.
[As usual, click on the images for larger views.]
Just as a quick recap:
Today, I want to look at some data from the other major aspects of the UNODC report, namely, gender and intimate violence in relation to homicide. I want to focus on this particular aspect of the report:
“Disparities not only exist in homicide typologies but also in their prevalence in different regions and countries, yet this study shows that intimate partner/family-related homicide is a chronic problem everywhere. Women murdered by their past or present male partner make up the vast majority of its victims worldwide, which explains why in many countries women are more likely to be murdered in the home than elsewhere.
Men, on the other hand, make up the vast majority of both victims and perpetrators of all types of crime, including homicide, and are more likely to be killed in the street. They are also more likely to be young, the street is more likely to be in a built up area and they are most likely to be killed with a gun.”
Let’s start with the gender of victims and relations to the perpetrators for European countries:
Clearly, women are more likely to be killed by a spouse or ex-spouse than men whereas men are more likely to be killed by someone unknown to them. Homicides by proximity are more likely to create female victims.
However, as the report noted extensively, men are overall more likely to be victims of homicide. This holds true worldwide:
Interestingly enough, it is in Europe that one finds the highest percentage of female victims (27%). Here is my humble explanation for this: Europe is the region where we found the strongest governments, the least organized criminality and gangs (although these last two factors are not completely absent, they are less prevalent and less destabilizing than in other regions). On the other hand, the type of homicide one finds in the Americas is more related to organized criminality and drug trafficking, these are masculine types of homicide where both perpetrators and victims are male.
Let’s add age to the mix:
The differences are especially striking when it comes to male victims: they are mostly located in the 15 – 44 age bracket, with a decrease after that. Again, this relates to the types of homicide to which men fall victims. On the other hand, age does not seem to be a major factor for women once they are past adolescence, since they are more likely to fall victims of someone more or less close (as opposed to unknown) to them.
Now, this is an interesting graph because it shows that as the overall homicide rate goes down, homicide become more privatized, and therefore, create more female victims. In the countries on the left-hand side of the graph, you find high levels of homicide, mostly related to organized criminality and drug trafficking. These last two do create these high levels of homicide in the first place, but these are homicide of a public nature, between individuals who might not know each other, and where the deed is done in public (weak governance).
As income and development improve, the overall homicide rate goes down, but homicide becomes a more private matter, taking place behind closed doors, out of sight of the public, generating more female victims as a result of intimate partner violence. But the overall proportion of female victims goes up (and that of men goes down) even in the context of low homicide rates overall (Australia and Norway).
This trend can also be seen in this scatterplot:
The relationship between the percentage of intimate partner / family-related homicides and the percentage of female victims is quite strong. As one goes up, so does the other.
The reverse holds true as well. Take a look at this scatterplot of male/male homicide:
No surprise here. One finds high levels of male on male homicidal violence in the Americas, also with an overall nice linear relationship. When men kill – worldwide and especially in the Americas, less so in Europe – they kill other men, largely in non-family-related contexts.
Take a look at Mexico.
Except for the 10-14 age group, there is definitely an uptick around 2006. But keeping in mind the y-axis scale, compare that to the same graph for male victims in Mexico:
Same here, the 10-14 age group is a flat line. There is the same uptick in 2006, but the scale is quite different, and higher. Many more men are killed in Mexico.
So there you have it. Homicide patterns worldwide.
[Click on all the images for larger views.]
For those of us interested in topics related to crime on a global scale, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime is a great source of global data. In a previous post on structural violence, I outlined some comparisons on homicide rates. The data for this post came from the 2011 Global Study on Homicide (Pdf). So, I thought I’d dive a bit more in the data from that report.
First of all, when doing global comparisons, it is useful to have some common definitions, so UNODC defines homicide as such: unlawful death purposefully inflicted on a person by another person. They selected this definition based on three considerations:
Visually, the defining process looks like this:
So, what is the overall global picture on homicide? As the summary notes:
“At one extreme, where homicide rates are high and firearms and organized crime in the form of drug trafficking play a substantial role, 1 in 50 men aged 20 will be murdered before they reach the age of 31. At the other, the probability of such an occurrence is up to 400 times lower.
There are many reasons for this but one of the links most clearly identified in this study is that homicide is much more common in countries with low levels of human development, high levels of income inequality and weak rule of law than in more equitable societies, where socio-economic stability seems to be something of an antidote to homicide.
Disparities not only exist in homicide typologies but also in their prevalence in different regions and countries, yet this study shows that intimate partner/family-related homicide is a chronic problem everywhere. Women murdered by their past or present male partner make up the vast majority of its victims worldwide, which explains why in many countries women are more likely to be murdered in the home than elsewhere.
Men, on the other hand, make up the vast majority of both victims and perpetrators of all types of crime, including homicide, and are more likely to be killed in the street. They are also more likely to be young, the street is more likely to be in a built up area and they are most likely to be killed with a gun.”
In this first post, we will look at the overall picture and focus on regional trends, as they relate to organized criminality, drug trafficking and inequalities. The next post will focus on the gender aspects.
Let’s take an overall look first:
It is easy to identify the high homicide areas: Central and South America, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, with the US as outlier for wealthy countries with low homicide rates.
Going in to more details, one can examine differences by regions. For instance, the Americas (a high area overall to start with):
This region seems to meet conditions for high homicide levels mentioned above: drugs, criminal organizations, weak governments, and guns. One can clearly identify the Mexican states where criminal cartels have been operative as well as the cocaine-producing places.
On the other hand, take a look at Europe, a low homicide continent:
Hello, former communist block, Turkey and Baltic countries. Anyone who has researched human trafficking knows that these places are main hubs to distribute trafficked humans throughout Europe. Human trafficking is high-profit and low-risk.
Time series are also interesting for regional comparisons. Europe again:
I am a bit puzzled by the 1990s spike in Southern Europe, here is what the report says:
“Despite some dramatic fluctuations such as those seen in Albania, which experienced an alarming rises in the homicide rate during the civil unrest following the collapse of a pyramid scheme in 1997, homicide rates have decreased or remained more or less stable in the vast majority of European countries since 1995, following the peaks of 1991-1993.” (26)
A pretty clear downward trend across the board. But look at the Americas:
This is the only region where there is a clear increase in homicide, especially in the Caribbean and Central America:
“Drug trafficking is both an important driver of homicide rates in Central America and one of the principal factors behind rising violence levels in the subregion, as are the illicit activities of organized crime in general and the legacy of political violence.” (25)
There is no doubt that the presence of criminal organizations and guns leads to higher rates of homicide:
Here again, we find the clear correlation with the Americas:
“Data on overall homicide rates—and homicide by firearm rates in particular—nonetheless confirm the greater involvement of gangs and organized crime in homicides in the Americas than in other regions (figure 3.10). The match between a high proportion of homicides by firearm in the Americas and a high proportion of gang/organized crime-related homicides suggests that in those countries where there is a higher homicide rate, the percentage of firearm homicides is also higher and is often associated with higher shares of homicides committed by organized crime/gangs,15 as reported by the police. However, this assumption cannot be extrapolated to Africa, where the lack of data prevents a proper study of different homicide typologies.” (49)
And, of course, there is the gun thing again:
“The relationship between overall homicide rates and the proportion of homicides committed by firearm is shown in figure 3.6 where the data again emphasize strong regional patterns. Countries in the Americas tend to show a strong correlation between homicide rates and the percentage of homicides by firearm. In contrast, in countries in Asia, Europe and Oceania there appears to be a looser relationship between homicide level and percentage of killings perpetrated with a gun: homicide rates tend to cluster at under 10 per 100,000 population but they show a broader distribution in terms of percentage of homicides by firearms, which ranges from values close to zero up to 70 per cent. (figure 3.6 does not include countries in Africa due to data availability limitations in this region).
It should be stressed that the percentage of homicides by firearm is the compound outcome of at least three aspects: availability of guns; preference of crime perpetrators to use guns in crime; and their willingness to inflict fatal injury.” (42-3)
And finally, there is the inequality thing:
The report claims a correlation between both human development (on the left) and inequalities (on the right), but I am not convinced by the one of the left.
So, that’s it for the first half of the data. More to follow.
David Neiwert has made a career of studying hard right-wing movements, mainly through his blog Orcinus, but also at Crooks and Liars and Alternet. In his latest book, And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing The Dark Side of The American Border, Neiwert explores the minutemen movement that gained popularity in right-wing circles, with media uncritical cooperation, back in the early 2000s, as he retraces the steps that led to the assassination of Junior Flores, a small-time marijuana dealer and his young daughter Brisenia, by minuteman leader Shawna Forde and her accomplices (one of which was never identified and remains at large).
The book opens with the chilling 911 call made by Brisenia’s mother, who was wounded during the attack but survived and was able to identify her attackers. From there, Neiwert follows several investigative threads that shape the narrative: (1) the border context, especially Arivaca, where the murders took place, with its mix of wealthy ranchers, and near-poor locals, like Flores (which is where the whole marijuana trafficking comes in); (2) the nativist movement latest incarnation with the minutemen; (3) the rise and fall of Shawna Forde within that movement.
I would not say that Neiwert is the best writer as there are quite a few stylistic repetitions but the narrative is indeed compelling and thoroughly sourced. It does a good job of weaving together local context, individual trajectories, and social movements and their convergence during that one night in Arivaca.
As Neiwert shows, there is nothing really original, in terms of social movement, regarding the minutemen:
“The Minuteman movement that grabbed national headlines in the first decade of the twenty-first century was not a spontaneous eruption of border nativism, as the media would often portray it. Rather, it was the direct offspring of the border militias of the 1990s, which were the stepchild of the Klan Border Watches of the 1980s, which in turn were modeled on a 1960s vigilante movement calling itself, ironically, the Minutemen.” (Loc 494-497)
And the underlying ideology for these movements is always the same as well: the United States is being invaded by hordes of non-White savages from the Third World, who commit all sorts of unspeakable crime and bring medieval disease to this country, and it is up to white men with guns to protect and reclaim it. These movements perfectly fit Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities as members of these movements are linked together through series of myths and made-up stories that reinforce the ideology and are now easily circulated through the Internet.
The fear of uncontrolled immigration has long been a topic of concern for militia, christian identity, white supremacist movements in the Pacific Northwest, and in the border states in the Southwest. These are the same people who believe in black helicopters, New World Order, and la Reconquista. they would fit Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality typology.
And their favorite tactic has been that of the lone wolf: the individual who acts on behalf of the movement but with enough distance from it so that the movement can deny its link to the individual when things go South: think Erik Rudolph or Timothy McVeigh, and now Shawna Forde.
The larger context, though, for these movements is as follows:
“The extremist right in America has always fed on real grievances that go either unaddressed or are mishandled by the mainstream system— by government, and in particular the federal government. In the 1980s and ’90s, they channeled discontent with badly malfunctioning federal farming and land-use policies in rural America into uprisings like the Posse Comitatus and Patriot/ militia movements and their various offshoots, such as the Montana Freemen. This led to armed standoffs with federal agents and varying waves of domestic terrorism, all of it emanating from the American heartland.
What these extremists always tell their audiences is that there are simple reasons for their current miseries— inevitably, it is a combination of a secret cabal of elite conspirators running society like a puppet show at the top, crushing the middle-class working man from above, while a parasitic underclass saps his strength from below. This usually plays out, in the world-view of right-wing extremists, as being part of a secret conspiracy to enslave ordinary working people and destroy America.
What gives them special traction, however, is their knack for finding unaddressed grievances and exploiting them as examples of this conspiracy, thus manipulating working-class people who have legitimate problems. Their agenda comes wrapped in an appeal telling people that they not only feel their pain but have the answers to end it. And their strategy works, time and again.
In the twenty-first century, right-wing extremists became focused on a similarly dysfunctional immigration system as a means to recruit believers, in part because nativism is part of the genetic structure of the racist American right, dating back to the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, and in part because it was such a ripe opportunity target. After all, American immigration policy in the past forty years and more has time and again proven a colossal bureaucratic bungle that no one has been able to untangle.” (Loc 893-908)
And then, there was something even more specific that triggered the rise of the minuteman movement:
“The big gorilla among these was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was negotiated by Bush Sr., Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1993, and then ratified with the active support of Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton. The treaty, which in creating a trilateral trade bloc opened up the ability of investment capital to cross borders freely, was sold to the American public as, among other things, an essential component in controlling immigration.
Cheap American corn put over a million Mexican farmers out of business, and that was just the beginning. With the economy collapsing around them, scores of manufacturers who specialized in clothing, toys, footwear, and leather goods all went out of business. The only upside to NAFTA for Mexico— the arrival of new manufacturing jobs, including auto-building plants, as they departed the United States for cheaper shores, and of a fresh wave of maquiladora, the plants where various manufacturers would outsource their labor to Mexico— proved illusory.
In the meantime, the American economy— riding along first on a technology bubble and then on a housing bubble— was bustling, creating in the process in excess of five hundred thousand unskilled-labor jobs every year, the vast majority of which American workers either would not or could not perform. Yet the antiquated American immigration system only issued five thousand green cards annually to cover them.
The result was a massive demand for immigrant labor in the United States and an eager supply in Mexico seeking work. At the border, where a rational transaction should have been taking place, there was instead a xenophobic crackdown aimed at keeping Mexican labor in Mexico, with predictably limited success.
Typically they would travel to one of the old border-crossing towns— Nogales or Ciudad Juarez— and there contract the services of a coyote, or guide, who would take them out into the countryside and across the border and hook them up with transit to wherever their destination might be. As the tide rose and the crackdown increased, the prices for these services started to rise as crossing the border became harder and harder work.
Much of this was happening on people’s private lands along the border or on federal lands leased out to ranchers who worked them. And so naturally those people were increasingly coming face to face with the brutal realities being created by American border policies— the dead and the dying and the desperate, all wandering through the desert in hopes of reaching the Promised Land. Most of these encounters were simply with people who wanted a drink of water, but some were not so benign, and these moments could be fraught with danger, at least in the minds of the ranchers if not in reality. The crossers also left trash in the desert that was a danger to livestock, and they frequently cut fences, meaning the loss of livestock.” (Loc 993-998)
That’s the larger context for the emergence of the latest version of the nativist movement. But this movement would never have taken off as it did if it had not been for the active, uncritical support of media figure Lou Dobbs (he of the immigrant plague fame) and Fox News. The leaders of the minutemen had almost open, non-stop access to the media that way and they used it skillfully to spread their made-up narrative of border atrocities. And so, if the government was not going to protect and secure the borders, then, real (white) Americans would take matters in their own hands and guns and do it themselves. Hence were born these border watches.
However, if you want to build a respectable right-wing movement that you hope to mainstream, and out of which you hope to make political careers, you need to be careful whom you attract. And so, right from the start, the leaders of the movement, mainly Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox, took pain to explain that their movement and its members were not trigger-happy racists, that all border watchers were vetted through background checks (none of which were true). But, of course, also right from the start, the movement attracted white supremacists of the Stormfront type.
What is another theme of the book is that most of mainstream media slept on the job when it came to examine the roots, realities, and membership in the movement, which made it complicit in it:
“In one important way, the Minuteman Project was indeed a success, but not for actually doing anything substantive to stop illegal immigration. Rather, it was eminently successful in mainstreaming and legitimizing extremist vigilantism. After all, not only was it eagerly embraced by a gullible press, but in short order it was given the blessing of a wide range of public officials and politicians.” (Loc 2645-2648)
And, so, the coverage of the border watches was mostly shallow, superficial, and positive. So that even the most basic claims made by movement leaders, that could easily have been verified, such as how many people actually showed up for border watches (hint: much less than reported by movement leaders) went unexamined.
However, it did not take long for discord to threaten the movement unity. According to Neiwert, that is neither new nor surprising;
“The Minutemen’s fractious behavior was in many ways a product of the combative personalities its core ideology attracted. The long history of nativist organizations in America is littered with the same story: gathered to fight the perceived immigrant threats of their respective times, and riding a wave of scapegoating and frequently eliminationist rhetoric, they all have in relatively short order scattered in disarray, usually amid claims of financial misfeasance and power grabbing. This was true of the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and all of their many shortlived descendants since then.” (Loc 2851-2855)
Neiwert goes into some details on the clashes of personalities that ended up breaking up the movement into separate organizations as well as turf wars over who gets to use the label “minutemen”, and the financial shenanigans within the different splinter groups. But it was the perfect context in which someone like Shawna Forde would thrive.
There is one book in the French comic Asterix, titled La Zizanie (discord, in English), and it follows a Roman agent who has a knack for starting conflict between people, while always pretending to be on the outside, with clean hands. He starts the discord, then, sits back and enjoys the strife that follows.
Based on Neiwert’s description of Shawna Forde, she was exactly like that. If Shawna Forde had not ended up being a cold-blooded killer (now sitting on death row), one would feel sorry for her miserable childhood: the abuse, the repeated abandonment, the complete absence of security and nurturing. No wonder she became a delinquent early in her life.
From that awful childhood, she turned into a manipulative sociopath, a constant liar, stirring up trouble and conflict without seeming to, then, watching the explosions and trying to benefit from them. And she probably tried to have one of her husbands murdered.
But it is this character who managed to work her way through the minuteman movement, awarding herself a variety of inflated titles, and, from ended up in Arizona, to coordinate border watches. But Shawna Forde loves money, so, she needed a way to get it. She came up with the plan of ripping off drug dealers. That is how she ended up leading the murders at the Flores home. Minutemen have since tried to make it look like Junior Flores was a kingpin, but Neiwert’s research reveals a more complicated reality (included the fact that the biggest drug deals in this story was one of Shawna’s accomplices, and former friend of the Flores family).
After the murders, of course, everybody in the minuteman movement was scrambling to distance themselves from Shawna Forde but there is no denying that she was deep into the movement, had access to its leaders, was well considered and promoted. But that is the point of the lone wolf tactic: to provide plausible deniability. Except, in this case, it was harder to accomplish. And so, the murders at the Flores home dealt an almost fatal blow to the movement.
But even with after the killings, the mainstream media continued to carry water for the movement:
“Much of the media calculus in its handling of the Flores murders appears to have been founded on two key narratives favored by media outlets: it ran directly counter to the long-running narrative depicting the Minuteman movement as a collection of friendly neighbors out watching the border in their lawn chairs, and most significantly, it was concluded by the people calling the news shots that because Junior Flores was in fact a marijuana smuggler, he had essentially asked for the fate that descended on his family. After all, weren’t drug-related murders a common occurrence on the border?
As Dan Shearer at the Green Valley News discovered when he began examining the facts on the ground, these kinds of crimes are decidedly not very common, even on the border, despite the media hype and the hysteria stirred up by Minutemen like Shawna Forde. She may have fully believed, as she told the Norwegian documentarians, that life is cheap on the border: “Shootings and deaths occur on a daily basis out here.” They do occur— but neither that frequently, nor are they greeted with a shrug.” (Loc 6191-6194)
However, in 2008, the economy collapsed and a new president got elected:
“They don’t call themselves Minutemen anymore, because of Shawna Forde— or more precisely, thanks to Gina Gonzalez and her will to fight. There are still border watchers out there, and the shells of the national Minuteman organization linger on in a zombielike half-life. But the Minutemen and their nativist supporters have gone on to greener, Tea Partying pastures now.” (Loc 5998-6001)
And when all was said and done, the minutemen did not have much to show for all their bluster and inflated claims. But none of that seemed to matter as Tea partyer had by then turned their attention to health care reform.
At the same time, there is something disturbing and pathological when it comes to the personalities attracted to these types of nativist movements (remember convergence theory of collective behavior?). Neiwert cites James Aho’s This Thing of Darkness – A Sociology of the Enemy, on this theme:
“Whether embodied in thing or in person, the enemy in essence represents putrefaction and death: either its instrumentality, its location (dirt, filth, garbage, excrement), its carriers (vermin, pests, bacilli), or all of these together. . . .
The enemy typically is experienced as issuing from the “dregs” of society, from its lower parts, the “bowels of the underworld.” It is sewage from the gutter, “trash” excreted as poison from society’s affairs— church, school, workplace, and family. The enemy’s visitation on our borders is tantamount to impending pestilence. . . .
The enemy’s presence in our midst is a pathology of the social organism serious enough to require the most far-reaching remedies: quarantine, political excision, or, to use a particularly revealing expression, liquidation and expulsion.” (Loc 6362-6370)
These rhetorical forms were clearly present in minutemen internal discourse. Of course, for the media, there was a wholly different rhetoric dedicated to refuting accusations of racism. However, what minutemen have achieved is the mainstreaming of the dehumanizing “illegal alien” label that is now commonly used in by media and politicians.
Add authoritarian personality types to the mix, and you get Neiwert’s not-very-optimistic conclusion:
“If nativist sentiments in America ever were to build beyond short-lived, self-destructive movements like the Minutemen, the potential for large-scale evil, as Staub defines it, would grow exponentially. When such movements remain small and naturally attract psychopathic elements by practicing a politics that sneers at empathy as weakness, the tragedies they produce will generally be on a small scale like the murder of Junior and Brisenia Flores or numerous other acts of violence against Latinos inspired by inflammatory nativist rhetoric. Translated to a larger scale as a mass movement, where those same antisocial personalities obtain real power, these propensities will produce tragedy on a much larger scale.” (Loc 6406-6410)
An important read that also has the secondary effect of explaining a lot about the Tea Party movement (which already seems to have fizzled the same way that the minutemen did), its rise, media uncritical reporting, inflated claims, imaginary narratives, etc. The very same elements are present and it is no surprise that they attracted the same crowd that needed a new home after Shawna Forde had trashed the place.