The mass incarceration state was built to lock up as many Black people as possible and discussion of even modest reforms is shut down. Such was the case in New York where the mayor and police commissioner smeared Manhattan's district attorney, forcing him to backtrack on his campaign promise of reducing the number of prison sentences. The Black face rises to the high place because of adherence to white supremacist ideology.
The term “black on black crime” is a particularly pernicious trope. It is a ruse used to absolve the systemic racism which kills Black people in a plethora of ways. It invalidates Black people’s suffering and gives license to law enforcement and its many acts of brutality.
Ironically, it also describes what is happening among a group of Black officials in New York City. The new mayor and his police commissioner committed a brazen political mugging of the Manhattan District Attorney.
New York City mayor Eric Adams personifies the political imperative to perpetuate an unjust system. Adams was a police officer himself before he went into politics. He has promised to give the police everything they want, including those things that Black people do not want. His mayoralty is a classic case of the dangers of Black faces being in high and inherently corrupt places.
Adams uses fear of crime to gain support for stop and frisk procedures and bringing back the plain clothes units which killed men like Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo. New Yorkers are propagandized by the media into thinking that a police presence makes them safer and that criminal justice rules should never be questioned. Those who don’t believe in police state impunity are intimidated into changing their minds.
Alvin Bragg is Manhattan’s District Attorney and he quite rightly campaigned on a promise of seeking jail time less frequently. Shortly after taking office he issued a memo giving guidance to his prosecutors which detailed what crimes should be charged by his office and when incarceration should be requested. Bragg proposed no prosecution for sex work, misdemeanors, or non-payment of transit fares. Despite what his detractors claim, none of his proposals gave license to commit violent crimes. He seeks to help the mentally ill and unhoused and give them access to assistance instead of to a jail cell. But he was immediately attacked despite making sensible proposals to reduce incarceration in a way that would not endanger the public.
The Adams administration police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, made clear that there would be no justice allowed while she and her boss are in office. She very publicly undercut Bragg with an email sent to every NYPD officer claiming that Bragg made them less safe. “I have studied these policies and I am very concerned about the implications to your safety as police officers, the safety of the public and justice for the victims.”
Bragg’s biggest offense was proposing the end of charging for resisting arrest, unless there is also a felony charge. Resisting arrest is a catch all charge meant to intimidate or to ensure jail time. It is often used to defend against police brutality. The person who ends up hospitalized or dead after a police encounter is nearly always said to have resisted arrest. Sewell and others have lied about Bragg and what he clearly states.
Bragg also had the misfortune of issuing his recommendations shortly before two NYPD officers were killed. None of the particulars in that case were related to his positions on jail time, but his enemies made the most of a tragedy. The two officers were funeralized with great pomp at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with a phalanx of thousands of police in attendance. The copaganda was thick and Bragg became a target. One of the widows condemned Bragg in the eulogy to her husband, “This system continues to fail us. We are not safe anymore, not even the members of the service. I know you were tired of these laws, especially the ones from the new DA.”
While Bragg was being labeled as soft on crime, Joe Biden visited New York to echo the tough on crime mantra. Of course Biden’s failure to do what voters want and his dismal performance with the ongoing covid pandemic have made him very unpopular. Coming to New York in the wake of police funerals and claiming he'll get guns off the streets by giving the police millions of dollars was a political win for him. He diverted attention away from his shortcomings and returned to his days in the senate where he championed the crime bill which devastated Black communities.
Bragg succumbed to the pressure and undercut himself by meeting with Sewell, and then giving a mea culpa of clarifications that were not needed. He has gone from scorn to approval because he now says he will act like other prosecutors and put Black people in jail as often as possible.
Adams and Sewell have the media and other politicians behind them. Bragg has popular support from the people who voted for him but they do not act in the cohesive way that he needed. If there were a movement dedicated to fighting police state brutality in all of its forms, Bragg would have been protected. Instead political expediency, lies, racism, and cynicism won the day. If an elected district attorney can be bullied into submission, what are the odds for the average person? The odds aren’t good if individuals act alone. A vocal and organized movement is what Black people need all over the country to end the scourge of mass incarceration and the political power that ensures its continuation.
Margaret Kimberley’ is the author of Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents . Her work can also be found at patreon.com/margaretkimberley and on Twitter @freedomrideblog. Ms. Kimberley can be reached via email at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.