Freedom and safety are both fragile, but it is curious to see how often they are treated as if one will break the other. The zero-sum goes like this: The more freedom we have, the more risk that we incur. To be safe, we have to curtail liberties. But what if you live in an America where both can be snatched away in an instant?
Many of us muddle through daily in a reality where both freedom and safety are contingent upon how a particular officer feels that day, or how he might respond to a gesture or a glance during a traffic stop. Or, as the hip-hop star Meek Mill recounted to Rolling Stone in a new interview, one’s freedom and safety can be whisked away by a sketchy police warrant, false testimony, or a judge he suspects of carrying out a vendetta against him. Meek’s plight is unique – and not just because he is famous. He is a victim of police violence, incessant judicial harassment and perhaps wrongful imprisonment. If our criminal justice system’s most glaring racial disproportions were all listed on a B-I-N-G-O sheet, he has hit the jackpot.
Not even Meek’s celebrity and remarkably unjust treatment, though, has helped keep police brutality and mass incarceration at the forefront of our minds in the Trump era. #FreeMeekMill has gotten a lot of publicity, and police officers haven’t stopped abusing or killing people – nearly 200 have died this year, as reporter and author Wesley Lowery noted last Tuesday in the Washington Post. Yet cops killing black people, in particular, is no longer front page or A-block breaking news nowadays for a number of reasons – most of which boil down to the words “Donald” and “Trump.” The president’s personal chaos dominates the media landscape, for sure. However, his utter lack of interest in criminal justice reform is just as significant. Lowery observed that Trump “has encouraged officers to rough up ‘thugs’ they take into custody, telling an audience of officers last year, ‘Don’t be too nice.’ His attorney general has openly heaped scorn on the legitimacy of his predecessors’ investigations into local police forces, ordering a review of each of those probes and declining to open new ones.”
Blaming Trump alone, though, lets us off too easy. We have seen the horrors of our criminal justice system manifest in packed prisons and murdered children, and cities explode with the frustrations of equal justice promised and long denied. And yet America has found other channels to watch. Those in power, perhaps following the cues of most of their constituents, have decided that we’re okay with this as long as no buildings are burning. Ultimately, that is the conclusion that Lowery reaches. “If we collectively care about an issue only when the streets are literally burning,” he writes, “it’s reasonable to wonder if we actually care at all.”
This renewed apathy has opened the door a bit wider, politically, for Trump to try to further exploit the inequities of our criminal justice system – and to toss in one verifiably insane idea while he’s at it.
Politico’s Dan Diamond reported that as soon as Monday, the president is expected to finally announce a list of policies intended to address the nation’s growing opioid disaster, one that kills as many as 50,000 per year. While the reported proposals include some steps long demanded by advocates fighting the epidemic – such as making naloxone, a medication used to treat opioid overdoses, more available to first responders – Trump’s plan also appears to be a recipe for metastasizing mass incarceration.
Surely it is a coincidence that ever since opioid addiction exploded and white people became the face of America’s drug calamity, there has been a new urgency in law enforcement to humanize addicts, opting for more merciful health-based remedies. Do not mistake me here – that is a good thing, especially since death knows no color in this particular crisis. Addiction, like gun violence, should be treated like a disease. The momentum toward curing, not jailing, folks suffering from opioid dependency is smart, but it would have been nice to see some of these law enforcement and other officials singing this song when crack was taking over predominantly black communities. That notwithstanding, Trump, being tone-deaf, now appears to want to go back to that War on Drugs playbook for opioids and place more emphasis on prosecution and punishment than on treatment.
There are subtle ways in which his proposals accomplish this, including pushing Congress to repeal a long-standing rule “meant to discourage mass institutionalization of people with mental illness,” per Diamond’s report. Then, there is the sledgehammer, if you will. Trump also plans to demand that drug dealers in some cases be put to death. Axios hinted at this particular lunacy in February, reporting that Trump was continually bringing up this specific idea in meetings – sometimes joking, sometimes not. One senior administration official told Jonathan Swan, “He often jokes about killing drug dealers… He’ll say, ‘You know the Chinese and Filipinos don’t have a drug problem. They just kill them.'” He likes Singapore’s policies, too. Ostensibly campaigning for failed Pennsylvania candidate Rick Saccone on March 10th, Trump claimed that he got the idea from Chinese president (for life) Xi Jinping, calling it “a discussion we have to start thinking about. I don’t know if this country’s ready for it.”
It isn’t surprising that someone like Trump, who exhibits a kind of poisoned masculinity in so many arenas, thinks that he can kill his way to appearing tough.
Rodrigo Duterte, the despot in the Philippines who has dispatched mass vigilante squads to murder thousands of suspected drug dealers and users, got a White House invitation last spring. He later turned it down, but that isn’t the point. Using state power to kill accused criminals has long been a fascination of Trump’s, as the Central Park Five can attest. It isn’t surprising that someone like Trump, who exhibits a kind of poisoned masculinity in so many arenas, thinks that he can kill his way to appearing tough. He might not even care all that much about containing the opioid outbreak, which he declared an “emergency” in October before doing next to nothing. This move seems more about placing him in the league of strongmen like Duterte and Xi.
The chances of America executing drug dealers on Trump’s say-so aren’t likely, because the Constitution. This is Trump tossing up a heat-check shot, trying to push all boundaries of decency and gauge just how authoritarian he can be. But it is worth noting how willing Trump has been to humanize drug dealers when he knows them. He supported two actual drug dealers in the past, both white men with whom he did business. Last Thursday, Michael Daly reported in the Daily Beast that Trump vouched for Joseph Weichselbaum, a kingpin in a mid-Eighties cocaine ring, telling the judge on the case in a letter that Weichselbaum, who lived in Manhattan’s Trump Plaza, was “a credit to the community.” The kingpin got three years in prison; his underlings got as many as 20. Trump later went to bat for Raoul Goldberger, who worked with him to develop a Trump Tower in Philadelphia before the financial crisis hit in 2008. During that time, Goldberger got a lenient four months of home detention for violating his probation on an earlier conviction for dealing ecstasy. Goldberger later went back to prison for selling opioids, of all things.
Of course, Trump isn’t talking now about killing people like his associates. Doctors who distribute this garbage illegally won’t be the focus, if he gets his way. The Sackler family, who has made billions off opioids as the drugs keep killing, won’t end up on the Most Wanted list, either. Save for his associate Weichselbaum, perhaps, Trump’s idea of what a criminal is and what should be done to him is stuck in the Reagan era. It’ll be the usual suspects, in the literal sense: It’ll be guys who look like Meek Mill – and me. A hemorrhaging opioid death toll has nothing on white resentment as far as political cudgels go. Even if the face of the crisis remains white, the face of America’s enforcement against it under this president will most assuredly have some color in it. This will encourage his nearly monochromatic voter base to feel both free and safe at the same time.
Same goes for the president himself. Trump never seems so liberated as when he is being sadistic. He never feels as secure as when he is scapegoating someone else. And Robert Mueller notwithstanding, the president’s choice between freedom and safety is easy because he is virtually assured of both. In fact, this administration, and the party that supports them, would have us believe that imprisoning our way to safety is freedom. “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed,” Michelle Alexander wrote in her essential 2010 book The New Jim Crow. “It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.” In Trump’s America, where we are becoming increasingly inured to the abuses of our criminal justice system even as it becomes more unequal and ineffective, such a dystopic message isn’t merely fodder for new policy. It may also be good marketing.