What Comes Next: The Change Within

If you do not quite grasp how the occupied zone in downtown Seattle, known as CHOP — formerly known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) — relates to George Floyd’s death, social media calls to “defund the police“, HBO’s decision to pull “Gone with the Wind” and recent flashpoints around historic statues and monuments, you are not alone.

The denizens of CHOP not only wish to dispense with law enforcement but prisons and even courts. Objectives include drug decriminalization, disbandment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), dismantling of immigration courts, and the legalization of undocumented migration (“open borders“). Media has grappled with how to cover this latest chapter. Some reporters have described CHOP as a “commune“, others as a “street festival” — both of which have drawn the ire of participants, many of whom identify as activists.

Mainstream media has been slow — reluctant, even — to connect the dots between academia, social justice advocacy, legal system reformers and street activism. The backstory is long — decades long — and controversial. Broadly put, the scenes unfolding on our streets reflect less the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach to Civil Rights — although his actions have since been interpreted through an “anti-Capitalist” lens — and more the revolutionary roots of Black Liberation.*

Liberationists’ embrace a Marxist view of Abolition, a key goal of which is to tie America’s “original sin” of slavery to capitalism.

“The new history of slavery seeks to obliterate the economic and moral distinction between slavery and capitalism, and between the South and the North, by showing them to have been all part of a single system”, Nicholas Lemann for The New Yorker writes, in “Is Capitalism Racist?“.

Criminal justice reform is, perhaps, the most widely recognized facet of contemporary Abolitionism. Proponents of “defund the police” do not merely wish to redirect law enforcement funds into community programs. To them, law enforcement is a manifestation of white supremacy — irrevocably illegitimate.

Prof. Willem De Haan, a University of Amsterdam criminologist, writes “Abolitionism emerged as an anti-prison movement when, at the end of the 1960s, a destructuring impulse took hold of thinking about the social control of deviance and crime…. Crime’ is a social construction, to be analysed as a myth…. As a myth, crime serves to maintain political power relations … Abolitionists do not share the current belief in the criminal law’s capacity for crime control. They radically deny the utility of punishment and claim that there can be no valid justification for it…. They discard criminal justice as an absurd idea.”

While it may be tempting to dismiss modern Abolitionism as a product of a radical fringe, it is anything but.  Its analytical framework rests upon Critical Race Theory, which explicitly promotes activism as a goal. CRT has made inroads into numerous fields of study within academia over the past two decades: criminal justice, feminism, African American studies, critical whiteness studies, political science, economics and American studies, among others. CRT, in a nutshell, evaluates the world through a hierarchal lens comprised of white oppressors and non-white victims. On the heels of Black Lives Matter, which was founded in 2013 to counter police brutality, activists within various movements have found common cause. To cite one of the better known examples, philanthropists and presidents, alike, have called for an end to mass incarceration in recent years.

“The broadening bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform offers promise to build on this trend, and we intend to exploit it” [p. 31],  documents a U.S. Programs board meeting of the Open Society Foundation, a George Soros-backed nonprofit that supports many similarly-aligned interests. “The path to ending mass incarceration requires fundamentally changing laws that inappropriately criminalize certain conduct …. We believe continued support of a group of key partners working nationally is essential to maintain the broad call for substantial reform, but recognize that most reform activity must take place at the state level. … Our strategy includes efforts to […] correct the public perception of crime survivors … and shift the culture of prosecution” [p.32]. Crime victims, the board wrote in 2015, have a “disproportionate influence” on criminal justice [p.33].

“This is what we have been waiting for”, says Angela Davis, author, activist, self-described Communist, onetime prisoner and longtime University of California Santa Cruz college professor, of Black Lives Matter. “All of this is connected and I think that is a moment when there is so much promise, so much potential. Of course we never know what the outcome is going to be, we can never predict the consequences of the work that we do. But as I always like to say, we have to act as if it is possible to build a revolution and to radically transform the world.”

If we can right the wrongs of oppressors past by radically transforming our present legal, political and economic systems, some would argue not only that the benefit outweighs the risk — but that it is a moral imperative.

What is less clear to the Abolitionist occupiers of CHOP, and their ideological luminaries in academia and activism, is this: What comes next?

Cultural revolutions, historically, come not just with ideals but bloodshed. Even if reform prevails over revolution, social upheaval is all but assured. The evidence is mounting: Take, as an example, the rising momentum in favor of pretrial release, cashless bail and sentencing reform. If the rate at which our legal system changes is faster than the rate at which alternatives are in place — mental health services, diversionary programs, drug treatment and similar — it is all but inevitable that intractable social problems, once largely papered over by our overcrowded prisons, will accumulate, instead, on American streets. Already, this trend is evident. Early release from prison, to untreated, decriminalized drug addiction and/or few job prospects, can serve to increase homelessness, which in turn lends itself to public health crisis. The ensuing blight precipitates a vicious cycle of declining property values, “white flight” (re-segregation), falling tax revenues, waning economic development and, ultimately, shortchanged public schools. A hasty attempt to empty the prison system, in this manner, is all but certain to set in motion a death spiral that will make it that much more difficult to advance the cause of social justice and racial equality in the years to come.

Good intentions are not enough. We cannot afford to underestimate the downstream impacts of top-down change.

Perhaps the most tragic of these unintended downstream consequences is the loss of morale suffered by communities into which repeat offenders are released. A recent New York City incident provides a foreshadowing: while passing on the street, a man cold-cocks a 92-year-old women, causing her to tumble to the ground where she strikes her head on a fire hydrant. The assailant is alleged to have committed 103 prior offenses, some of which were sexual offenses, with only a “desk ticket” (citation) to show for his latest run-ins with police.

While the notion that prisons are ill suited to deal with institutional racism, class disadvantage, drug addiction and mental health issues is true, replacing one broken system with another — to the extent our best solutions hinge upon a patchwork of unproven or underfunded alternatives — may backfire. A rough transition is bound to temper enthusiasm for reform, which may give rise to public calls in the years to come for a return to “tough on crime” policing.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Altering the criminal justice side of the “coin” faster than we implement broad and effective community services for at-risk populations, on the flip side of the coin, is the gotcha of Abolitionism. Redistribution of wealth, another goal of Abolition, is presumably the means by which these thorny problems are solved, but — beyond the fact that a shift from capitalism to revolutionary socialism faces steep resistance — activists’ “no pain, no gain” approach may very well define an entire generation of youth, who are condemned to grow up in communities thrust into turmoil for the sake of an unassailable ideal — a pretext to a messy, if not narcissistic, social experiment.

Abolitionists have no answer to a cruel paradox: Because we have failed to come far enough in pursuit of a more perfect union, things must get worse before they get better — if they get better.

The desire for social change must be weighed against its real-world consequences. No matter how many felony offenses are reclassified as misdemeanors for the sake of reducing incarceration rates or improving on-the-books crime statistics, violence is still violence and crime victims are still crime victims. The philanthropist-backed ACLU goal to reduce prison populations by 50 percent threatens to reverse over 25 years of reductions in violent crime, induce employers, large and small, to vacate blighted, less profitable communities, erode job prospects — which is itself a risk factor for rising crime — and, perhaps most ironically, undermine efforts to redistribute dwindling tax-revenues to social services, jobs programs and healthcare. This is why the “What comes next?” question must be answered — not after every conceivable historic American figure is scrubbed from our public spaces but before — in a manner that non-authoritarian political adherents of any stripe should embrace: openly, honestly and collectively.

Rather than place our hopes in an army of nonprofits — or hold out for a ne’re-to-be-realized Marxist-socialist nirvana! — activists would be better served to petition their billionaire benefactors, who collectively own more wealth than 4.6 billion of earth’s ~7 billion citizens, for direct investment into under-served communities by which to achieve the greatest amount of good with the least amount of harm in the shortest period of time!

Righting the wrongs of structural inequality and institutionalized racism is a righteous goal. And yet its success will be limited by the fallout: people who should be in jail, instead return to the streets, speeding up the rate not only with which they are free to re-offend but to encounter police — in sometimes deadly ways. Abolitionism in recent years has begun to see more success than anything by which to replace the function of the criminal justice system as we know it, however broken that system may indeed be.

Simply breaking off the other end of the “pipe” — the criminal justice system — in what sociologists call the school-to-prison pipeline, is to treat symptoms rather than causes.

Do we need prison population reductions? Yes. And yet mass incarceration is but a symptom. The “disease” is what goes on every day in our communities: schools that fail to produce students who are prepared for living-wage jobs and the administrators, politicians and disempowered parents who fail to hold them accountable. The nexus between racism, poverty, addiction and crime within urban America is an insidious one in which a parent, rather than science fairs and soccer practices, is instead resigned to gang violence and truancy. Above all, however, this illness is linked to fatherless homes, a leading risk factor for early encounters with the criminal justice system, particularly among males. Criminal justice system encounters make it difficult for individuals who have been incarcerated to turn their lives around, making it that much more difficult to find and keep jobs. As such, one might logically expect to see broad-based investments in better education, mental healthcare services and drug treatment programs, alongside job training and placement programs, for those who have been incarcerated. Instead, even as nonprofits turn out study after study on the barriers facing the incarcerated, the broader success of this effort thus far lies in legal system reform — success that outpaces effective community services and interventions.

The order in which social justice goals are pursued and achieved is paramount. Cart-before-the-horse transformation, which in practice lowers public safety, are certain to set the stage for public backlash. Success on the legal front, minus robust efforts to improve quality of life measures within disadvantaged communities, succeed, chiefly, in “burden-shifting” from prisons to communities.

There is no practical way around it: When “prison problems” are externalized, support for prison reform, let alone the more ambitious goals of Abolition, will wane. Burden-shifting threatens to accelerate social, psychological and economic harms — a knockout punch to public morale. An uncontrolled descent into lost community investment, poor economic development, declining property tax revenues, program cuts and underfunded schools threatens to conspire, if not by design by default, to oppress the next generation — in which case minority youth, and urban America more broadly, will disproportionately bear the brunt.

Noble intentions on the part of social justice advocates, Abolitionist or otherwise, are not enough. We cannot erase, burn, bargain, buy or lobby our way out of human suffering — be it physical, psychological or spiritual — any more than we can rewrite an unjust past. By now, the fallacy of a Big Philanthropy-meets-Big Activism “formula” for change should be clear: Top-down change is slow. It favors an endless parade of “middlemen” who staff think tanks and nonprofits in effort to parlay academic theory into “re-imagined” public policy. Such broadly-coordinated efforts are bound to engender public skepticism, if not opposition, on political grounds.

As conversations about race are conflated in the public mind with radical political agendas promoted by CRT proponents, Black Liberation adherents, Abolitionists and others, it places communities of color in a tough spot — one in which their struggles are appropriated for purposes they may not fully appreciate or endorse, yet are forced by the unseen hand of Big Philanthropy to “own” as a race-based political identity. This is why a simpler and more transparent version of change is called for: If we sincerely care about those who have the smallest voices, who are neither privileged nor criminal, the tangled web of political activist “causes” will be de-cluttered in favor direct-investment into disadvantaged communities — to change lives, not merely laws; to invest in opportunity today, not merely the public policies of tomorrow.

We cannot change our racial identities. We cannot change our history. We cannot change the reality that no matter what structural solution we may imagine, the results will only be as just as the people who pull the levers of power — no matter what we may call that system of policing or government. Governments, by their very definition, operate by imposing rules — and yet they have little influence upon whether hearts and minds will change to favor a more just and equitable world. When we sweep back the curtain on the Abolition debate, the reconciling we must do as a people is more spiritual than it is political. And so, in the midst of these emotionally-charged times, we must reclaim a simple truth: A good deed is apolitical. Do the right thing for yourself, your family, your neighbor, your community, your country. It may seem too small of an effort to count but it does: Change begins with us.

It is indeed time to demand a better world — this time from the inside out and the ground up.

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Resources

* “We are trained Marxists” | The Real News

Antifa violence is ethical? This author explains why | NBC News

The Price of Cheap: The Hidden Cost of E-Commerce

For years “energy independence” has been the catch-all solution promoted by politicians, talk radio hosts, newspaper columnists and others who point out that the U.S. is short on oil refining capacity. Nonetheless, petroleum production facilities are not only in the process of downsizing in response to a weak economy, but permanently so the Los Angeles Times reports in “Oil companies look at permanent refinery cutbacks” [March 11, 2010].

The oil industry, which as recently as 2007 broke so many profit records that allegations of collusion and price-gouging surfaced, is singing a different tune: Limiting supply to increase sagging profit margins is the solution, analysts say, for losses induced by everything from fuel efficient cars to retiring baby boomers who no longer commute to and from work.

And to think: Just a few years ago SUVs, with their paltry ~13 mpg, were the rage from Coast to Coast. Could it be that Cash for Clunkers, unintentionally so, was a little too effective — or are oil industry insiders selling Americans up the river when they can least afford it? Whatever the case may be, nothing says Green like fuel-efficient automobiles and the beginnings of an alternative energy infrastructure. Even so, the picture the LAT paints is far from complete. The Perfect Storm of tightening supply, increasing commodity prices, rising taxes and further job losses looms on the horizon.

Hang on to your hat! The price of life is going up.

Cutbacks and closures of community services nationwide are not cited as a reason for oil refinery cutbacks, but they are egging on these emergent economic norms: Sales tax revenues are down nationwide, and for an increasing number of locals that can only mean an unpalatable combination of higher taxes and limited services. The upshot? Even less incentive for our consumer-driven economy to spread the money around. Local and state governments from California to Michigan are banking on the hope that when the economy rebounds the Red Ink will stop flowing.

Will it?

Even if the demographic shifts associated with baby boomers retiring en masse were not inevitable, a grossly underestimated component to this trend looms larger by the day: e-commerce.

It’s no secret to Internet-savvy folks transversing state lines in search of tax-free online bargains that virtual shopping can be a real moneysaver — and a timesaver to boot. Amazon, for instance, is a leading go-to place for everything from books to home and garden products. Not only are purchases tax-free for many shoppers but free shipping offers often seal the deal.

Never before has the oft-repeated refrain “Shop locally!” encountered so many challengers.

Macintosh computers aren’t cheap now, but they were downright expensive when I purchased my first Apple computer nearly 20 years ago. Back then, it was not unusual to spend $4-10K on hardware alone (CPU, monitor, printer, scanner). The solution? Peruse ads in the back of nationally-distributed computer magazines. There I located a tax-free bargain on the opposite side of the country. Even with the cost of shipping factored in, I saved several hundred dollars foregoing traditional “brick & mortar” retailers. And it wasn’t for lack of local buying options, either: There were plenty of places vying for a slice of the personal computing revolution: Computer City, CompUSA, Circuit City, Fry’s Electronics and Best Buy, just to name a few. Notice what happened, however: All but the latter two succumbed to market forces. Is this because our collective appetite for new and improved technology has diminished? Absolutely not. Americans are more likely to own a personal computer hooked up to a high-speed Internet connection than ever before.

So what changed?

Competition amongst conventional retailers has diminished as more and more players drop out of the market. This makes comparison shopping on the Internet — where a greater number of competitors are in reach — more attractive by the day. Just as Big Box Retailers threatened mom & pop establishments, the Internet is the newest bull in the china shop. To cite just one example, antique stores in downtown areas nationwide have increasingly succumbed to online venues, and bars and restaurants — among the few types of businesses that rely on irreplaceable foot traffic — have sprung up in their wake.

Just how many bars and eateries can a local economy support?

The profound yet oddly imperceptible economic influences wrought by the Digital New Age are numerous: Even as more people embrace Internet shopping, surviving B&M retailers have responded by limiting their in-store selection in favor of just-in-time inventory, of which an increasing percentage is available exclusively online. Shopping at the click of a mouse is both novel and convenient, to be sure, but nonetheless a form of “special ordering” reminiscent of the old-time General Store method of awaiting out-of-town deliveries.

Except that most of us aren’t living in remote outposts.

The Green side of the coin is that fewer and fewer products for which there is inadequate demand are oversupplied to the market, thereby limiting the so-called carbon footprint associated with building and transporting more widgets than there are consumers willing to purchase them. But the environment is not the sole beneficiary. By limiting supply, prices and profit margins are maintained throughout the supply chains. What this means for the rest of us is that the “red tag sales” retailers offer to move an oversupply of product are likely to become increasingly few and far between. Prices between the remaining chain stores are generally pennies apart, and sales leaflets that would appear to advertise discounted deals are increasingly listing regular prices.

This trend presents both an irony and a threat to bargain hunters: B&M retailers that have grown in popularity as consequence of recession-induced thrift include Ross, TJ Maxx and Marshalls — retailers that specialize in discontinued, overstock and out-of-season merchandise offloaded by department stores and boutiques. As mainstream retailers par down inventory, the number and quality of inventory available to discount retailers and Internet shopping sites alike are likely to diminish for the foreseeable future. Consequently, just as demand for bargain bin deals heats up, supplies may be harder to come by. Similarly, as consumers become conditioned to shop for “everything else” online, the convenience, expediency and tax revenue benefits of shopping locally are lost. Eventually, the advantages of web-based commerce — what with United States Postal Service cutbacks, shipping cost increases and the inevitable legislative move to tax online shopping — suggests that this bargain hunters’ paradise may amount to little more than a tool of necessity in the years to come.

Even the Internet cannot overcome a fundamentally flawed economy.

So how do our novel new shopping habits dovetail with the news that oil refiners may permanently shutter facilities? For one, less incentive to drive to the mall. Or to go antiquing in a nearby community. And if you do? Fewer places to shop, fewer products and brands in stock, and fewer still mom & pop establishments. The list of nationally-recognized retailers to meet their demise in the Globalized Era is staggering: Broadway, Fedco, May Company, Woolworth’s, Best, Service Merchandise and Marshall Fields; Circuit City, Linens ‘N Things, The Sharper Image and The Good Guys — to name but a few.

To be clear, traditional retail in some shape or form will never be eliminated. But the trend of online shopping at the expense of local sustainability seems likely to accelerate as retailers respond by narrowing their shelf offerings to match lessening in-store demands. In the even longer term, conventional shopping may again become a destination — traveling long distances to reach large, diverse retail centers that are fewer and further between. The town-by-town, city-by-city retail landscape of today may become a thing of the past, not unlike the drive-in movie theater whose heyday has come and gone. Movie rental stores seem to be the next in the obsolescence line, edged out by inexpensive DVDs sold in discount stores, video-on-demand services and novel new competitors such as Netflix. How much more “local color” will fade from our towns, cities and communities until there are few signs of life outside the ‘net — but for the cookie-cutter ubiquity of fast food joints, liquor stores and dry cleaners?

Be careful what you wish for.

The shift in the way we shop not only impacts our gasoline consumption but just about everything we take for granted close to home: from schools, parks and public safety to the ability to find a suitable last-minute gift in a mass market environment increasingly lacking in diversity. This trend, in turn, suggests an increasing number of commercial real estate vacancies and even fewer sales tax revenues for local municipalities. As retail and warehouse job opportunities erode in much the same way manufacturing jobs did in the 1980s and 1990s, even low-skill service sector jobs are likely to dwindle — all of which adds up to a torrent of Red Ink.

Is it possible to become too good of a bargain hunter? Victims, if you will, of our own success?

As a “starving student” I never would have given it any thought, yet we do, indeed, have the power to harm our communities simply by making a habit of shopping online. It’s not that making a few online purchases here or there will topple the economy, but it is fundamentally shifting the game just as surely as the trend of paperless electronic bill paying has sent the USPS into a tailspin. More ironic still, online shopping — to the extent that it is powered by coal — isn’t much Greener than the conventional sort. According to a CNN report, the more energy efficient consumers perceive their electronics, products, services and transportation sources to be the more resources we consume.

Our entire landscape, physical and economic, is in the midst of gargantuan change. Whether such change represents the evolution of a new, Green economy remains to be seen. It could just as easily represent another largely unanticipated wrinkle in the lockstep march of globalization: Economic “desertification” wherein those who live adjacent to an oasis of innovative upstarts, manufacturing plants and retailers will thrive, whereas the vast majority of Americans, even those who live in highly populated areas, will find it increasingly necessary to shop online because it is no longer profitable for retailers to maintain local operations and/or no longer feasible — as gasoline supplies contract and crude prices increase — to transport durable goods great distances from port to shelf.

Perhaps we’ll save the planet. But will we save ourselves?

Economic experts would likely argue that this is the free market at its finest — and to point out, rightfully so, that such shakeups have occurred with every major technological advance. But such observations do not get at the crux of the question: Are we entering a time in this Globalized Era at which the rate and scope of change may exceed our ability to fully appreciate the ramifications? Will a collective deer-in-the-headlights reaction render legislatures unable or unwilling to craft economic policy conducive to a successful transition?

Put another way, we can’t predict where we are headed because we have never before been there. Consequently, our best attempts to plan for the future are likely to come up short — and all the more so when motivated by the desire not to shake fragile consumer confidence. Conventional wisdom, after all, views the phenomena known as market concentration — a diminishing number of viable businesses competing for our dollar under increasingly deregulated conditions — as the hallmark of “efficiency“. Prices are lower and demands are met so no harm, no foul the argument goes. But the more apt question, the one too few of us appear to be asking — not unlike the way in which financial firms and economists alike underestimated the phenomena of “irrational exuberance” prior to the Great Recession — is whether we’ll fumble the transition because we have failed to appreciate that it is possible to take a “good idea” too far.

Call it wrong and we not only risk a double-dip recession but a generational lifestyle realignment in which a college education, white picket fence, an automobile in the garage, a chicken in the pot, and 2.5 children in the home move increasingly out of reach.

By some counts, the time to have invested in an alternative economy is some 30+ years overdue. By a more conservative measure, we’re nearly 15 years behind the 8-ball both in terms of minimizing harm to human welfare and the climactic shifts associated with the over-use of fossil-fuels. By other accounts, the solutions proposed thus far are recklessly unworthy of widespread adoption.

And that’s why a benign practice so seemingly unrelated to the permanent loss of petroleum refining capacity — shopping online — may evolve into the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The desertification of our consumer-driven economy in the absence of a fully viable way to fill the economic vacuum may very well be a phenomena we do not come to appreciate until the list of “usual suspects” no longer explains a still-lagging outlook years from now.

Of course, there will be oases in this Brave New economic landscape. But the increasing concentration of those jobs in fewer areas of the country nonetheless portends harm to communities that rely upon traditional manufacturing and retail access. And that’s not the only casualty of our worship of all things economically efficient. The otherwise worthy aim of Greening the planet may lose its luster if it comes to mean the absence of opportunity: Restricted access to goods and services. Restricted markets. Restricted tax revenues. Restricted growth. Quite possibly even the best and most innovative entrepreneurial ventures will be forced to settle for a mediocre definition of success in the event that consumers, lacking in discretionary incomespurn new products and services in reaction to lost or stagnating wages.

Will we realize the “price of cheap” before the solution to state and local tax revenue losses shows up in the form of massive tax hikes? That is the question. None of this, of course, even begins to account for the tax hike incentives that exist as a result of a decade-plus worth of war-driven Federal deficits, TARP bailouts, unsustainable trade deficits, and the empty coffers long-predicted of Social Security, among other entitlements — just as baby boomers begin to draw them down.

Even as the storm clouds gather over a still-ailing economy, a recent TIME magazine article echos a common refrain: American innovation, writes Barbara Kiviat in “The Workforce: Where Will the New Jobs Come From?” [March 19, 2010], will offset job losses in time. Let’s hope the Green 21st Century jobs we’ve been told to bank on aren’t a case of too little, too late.

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Resources

All About: ‘Green’ Shopping | CNN

The Fight Over Who Sets Prices at the Online Mall | StarNewsOnline

The Death of Retail | The Entrepreneur Network

New Tack for Taxing Online Sales | Durango Herald News

Killing America’s Jobs Machine | Roanoke Times

The Recession could Reshape State Governments in Lasting Ways | Stateline.org

Comparing Online to “Brick and Mortar” Shopping | Buzzle.com

The Broken Society | New York Times

Customers Want it Cheap, Workers Pay Heavy Price | China Daily

The Price of Cheap Imports: What does America Make besides Policies? | WaterWorld

The Slippery Slope of Price Fixing | E-Commerce News

Sales Tax on the Internet: Who Pays, Who Doesn’t | Yahoo!