For American communities of color, the latest revelations about U.S. government surveillance, at home and abroad, has been met without much surprise and with a long memory of the injustice suffered by minority groups since our nation’s inception.
“We are a settler-colonial nation,” explained Fahd Ahmed. “Race and social control are central to the project.” As the legal and policy director for Desis Rising Up and Moving, an organization dedicated to organizing and amplifying the voice of immigrant workers, Ahmed has seen first-hand how the government isolates and targets vulnerable populations. In particular, he noted the targeting of Muslims by the NYPD under the supposition of anti-terrorism efforts, but was careful to emphasize the broader scope of the present danger. “These practices won’t be limited to one community,” he said. “After all, surveillance has a purpose – to exert the power of the state and control the potential for dissent.”
Other panelists reached similar conclusions. Surveillance is “not anything new” for people of color, observed Adwoa Masozi, a communications specialist and media activist. Recalling the COINTELPRO programs of the 1960s and 1970s, she named the major difference between then and now: “The government is just more open about it.”
Alfredo Lopez, the founder of May First/People Link, called the recent news an indication that “the ruling class is figuring out how to rule a society that is rapidly changing beneath it.”
Seema Sadanandan of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Capital Area Affiliate called the last few months a “tough time for white people,” whose relatively unchallenged faith in the Bill of Rights has been profoundly shaken.
Still, the next steps were harder to assess. For example, what role do lawyers and the law have in movements against this kind of surveillance? And how should activists interact, if at all, with the Internet and popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter?
The government shutdown has not resulted, so far, in the Supreme Court shuttering its doors and its 2013-2014 Term starts Oct. 7. The new Term might fairly be dubbed a stealth term, especially after two "blockbuster" ones that produced major rulings on health care reform, marriage equality, voting rights and affirmative action. But the new term, like many terms, carries the potential for significant change.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently tagged the Roberts Court as the most activist in terms of overturning acts of Congress. It's also a Court that has made it more difficult for many Americans to access the court system and produced win after win for business interests.
So let's look at a few of the cases that should be on everyone's radar. These cases should also remind us of the importance of judges who interpret the Constitution with a deep understanding of our challenges today and the ability to apply the Constitution's broad language and principles to them. For it makes little sense, as Erwin Chemerinsky notes in this ACSblog post, "to be governed in the 21st century by the intent of those in 1787 ...." For additional discussion of the forthcoming Term, see the annual preview hosted by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS).
Earlier this year, a little more than a month after mass shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, President Obama discussed the challenges of trying to implement gun safety measures and announced more than 20 executive orders, including an order for the Centers for Disease Control to study ways to reduce gun violence. The president’s call for Congress to take action and approve modest new measures flopped … in the Senate. And even if senators had approved new measures promoting gun safety it is hard to believe they would have been considered in the House of Representatives, where Republicans are bent on protecting the financial industry and defunding of the Affordable Care Act.
But executive orders alone are hardly going to reframe the debate let alone significantly curtail gun violence. Yet another study shows how obstinate refusal to even basic reforms of gun regulation is needlessly taking innocent lives yearly.
In an extensive piece forThe New York Times, Michael Luo and Mike McIntire reveal that accidental deaths of children because of guns are far higher than government statistics show, primarily because of the success of the gun lobby in defeating all kinds of efforts, including research to promote gun safety. The Times reported that a “review of hundreds of child firearm deaths found that accidental shootings occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate, because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by authorities. As a result, scores of accidental killings are not reflected in official statistics that have framed the debate over how to protect children from guns.”
That debate has largely been controlled by gun enthusiasts and their lobbyists, who frequently blast any regulation as an encroachment on Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms. For, example, The Times noted that the National Rifle Association cited the inaccurate numbers of accidental child firearm deaths in its campaign to scuttle laws requiring the safe storage of guns. State lawmakers ape the NRA’s talking points, often arguing that safe-storage laws would undermine adults’ efforts to protect themselves from intruders.
Moreover the newspaper noted that the gun lobby has remained successful at making sure firearms remain exempt from “regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.” As one expert lamented, “We know in the world of injury controls that designing safer products is often the most efficient way to reduce tragedies. Why, if we have childproof aspirin bottles, don’t we have childproof guns?”
The U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled in 2008 in D.C. v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms. That ruling greatly enhanced the gun lobby’s cudgel against any consideration of new gun safety measures, such as ones intended to encourage parents to keep firearms stored safely.
If you are in prison today, you are likely a minority and poor, as Southern Center for Human Rights leader Stephen Bright noted in an interview with ACSblog highlighted earlier this week.
Many are also imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. A report from the Brennan Center notes that nearly “half the people in state prisons are there for drug crimes. Almost half the people in federal prisons are there for drug crimes. Only 7.6 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions and 1.8 percent of federal crack cocaine prosecutions are for high level trafficking.”
While the Department of Justice recently announced that prosecutors should not seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, Professor Alex Kreit notes that there are “many moving parts” to the nation’s costly war on drugs, which have developed over several decades. The drug war and its impact will not be erased overnight.
In an interview with ACSblog, Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Foundations, takes note of the lengthy war on drugs and its devastating impact on minority communities.
Taifa said, “Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, by mass incarceration.” And even with some progress, such as the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act, the statistics “remain staggering.”
She continued, “It is daunting to know that one in three young black men are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system on any given day, at any given time; whether in prison, whether in jail, whether on probation, whether on parole.”
Taifa concluded that the situation has greatly harmed generations of minorities. “This absolutely must stop."
When Gil Kerlikowske took office as drug czar four years ago, he said he was going to retire the concept of the war on drugs. During Obama’s first term, however, his policies did not live up to the bold rhetoric. There were a handful of reforms -- perhaps most notably, a reduction (though not elimination) of the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. But at its core, federal drug policy remained almost entirely unchanged between 2009 and 2012.
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has turned its words into action by tackling one of the most significant and criticized features of the drug war: mandatory minimum sentencing.
Enacted in the 1980s, the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws were the embodiment of the “war on drugs” mentality. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another federal law or policy as closely linked to the drug war.
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy, instructing federal prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases that met certain criteria. With some of the criteria left open to interpretation, I wrote last month that only time would tell the policy’s true impact. Will the Department of Justice closely monitor local prosecutors to ensure compliance and consistent interpretation of the policy? Or, will federal prosecutors be given the leeway to circumvent or narrowly apply the new policy?
While it will take at least a few more months to know the answers to these questions, last week Attorney General Holder issued a second memo that provides reason for optimism. Holder’s most recent memo expands the new policy by applying it to defendants who have already been charged and encouraging prosecutors to follow the guidance even in cases where the defendant has already pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, where it is “legally and practically feasible.”
This development is a hopeful sign that the Department of Justice is serious about its new policy.