Mass protests continue to rage in cities across the U.S. after grand juries neglected to indict the police officers responsible for the killings of unarmed men Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in Ferguson, MO and New York city, respectively. But it remains to be seen if the outrage and demands for justice and accountability will coalesce into something truly resembling a sustained social movement. The protests, which remain largely peaceful, have been rightfully focused on the extra-judicial killings of unarmed black men by police. But what if this issue, and many others that have surfaced recently in the American psyche, are symptomatic of a larger problem? An economic problem.
Poverty; the elephant in the room. Certainly race and poverty are closely interlinked. In a society where people of color have historically been marginalized time and again, at every turn, it makes sense that the poor will disproportionately be the non-whites. Therefore, wouldn’t it stand to reason that non-whites are also disproportionately victimized in a society which has left its poor behind? While the inherent racism in the structure of our society is a major factor, all who are excluded from the miniscule ranks of the extremely wealthy are at risk as the gap between poor and rich continues to widen. Injustice and exploitation are not simply racial issues. They are the manifestations of an unjust and vicious economic reality. They are human issues.
The utter impunity granted to police in these extrajudicial killings, only two of a myriad in 2014 alone, is symptomatic of a larger systemic problem. At a Dec. 4 summit of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, hosted in the unlikely choice of Monroe Township, a relatively affluent Middlesex County municipality known for its open space holdings and agricultural roots, speakers repeatedly cautioned that “poverty in a nation of plenty degrades everyone.” Georgian Court Professor Katsuri Dasgupta sought to hammer that idea home as she delivered a scathing critique of American society’s apparent inability or total unwillingness to address the structural underpinnings of poverty. Without true reforms to the institutions that perpetuate social inequality, she told the crowd of more than 200 attendees, even a tidal wave of government services, non-profit and grassroots efforts to eradicate poverty could only amount to spitting into the wind,
“The problem of poverty and inequality is ultimately a problem of insufficient jobs. Not just any jobs, but jobs that pay adequately so that people can live with dignity and their well-being intact. But the system of Capitalism is not in the business of providing jobs; at least, not the kind of jobs which allow people to realize their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not because Capitalism has necessarily failed, but because it simply cannot.
… Capitalism is an economic system which has to continuously increase its profit margin if it is to survive; if it is to compete; if it is to drive its competitors out of market. Wages and salaries drain the profit margin more than anything. In its simple-minded drive to garner increasing levels of profit; finding cheap regions of labor, mechanizing work, diverting more and more capital to financial speculation; [Capitalism will do] anything that minimizes labor costs –and even eliminates the need for labor … But that leaves people and communities empty handed. People need work to survive; to flourish; to get ahead in life.” – Dasgupta, Dec. 4
According to a 2013 report from the non-partisan Pew Research Center, income inequality in the U.S. is at its highest levels since 1928, right before the stock market crash that lead to the Great Depression. Since the early 1970s, income has overwhelmingly gone to the top one percent of American earners. Shocking, I know. Well recently, Fortune reported that wealth inequality, or the actual value of all assets owned, is ten times worse than income inequality. Meanwhile, U.S. household debt has continued to increase, and national student debt easily sailed past the $1 trillion mark in 2013. It’s hardly a stretch to say that minorities have borne the brunt of this consolidation of wealth, but middle class Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds have suffered from this trend. And they stand to suffer more.
Police are not immune to any of this. Their pensions are (like many public employees) also being shifted to Wall-Street hedge funds by the leaders of state and local governments across the country. Here in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has shifted hundreds of millions of dollars to hedge funds managed by his political contributors. And then, despite previously promising to pay those pensions in full, he opted to only disburse 30 percent of what was owed due to a massive hole that his administration left in the state’s budget. That isn’t some abstract government agency that was depending on those taxpayer’s dollars – it was actual taxpayers; your neighbors, or maybe even you. And police are at risk just like the rest of us. The people giving the orders are not truly in their corner. But their communities, by and large, are. And those that aren’t now soon would be, if the departments began acting in the public’s best interests instead of corrupt officials’. It is important to differentiate between the institutions and the individuals which comprise them. The individual officer is not the enemy, but the institutions that perpetuate inequality and oppression are.
Still, there must be some way to address these sorts of issues before things get even further out of control. Professor Dasgupta asserts that overhauling a slew of policies is the answer. And in a democracy like the U.S., that shouldn’t be so difficult, right?
“Instead, a government overrun by conservatives and timid liberals has facilitated a process of deepening inequality. Deregulating financial activities, legislating trade treaties which make it easier to outsource jobs, and sculpting an increasingly non-progressive tax code in which the middle class American pays the same tax rate as the richest; continued intransigence in raising the minimum wage and regularly subverting attempts to bolster the transfer of payments through sequester and other crafty devices; in all these ways, the government has strengthened the forces that have intensified economic inequality …
… Observers of the American political process have warned that American democracy is descending toward an oligarchy, or rule of a few, where decisions reflect the interests of the top one percent. Americans are absent in this process either by choice or under duress. In the so-called citadel of democracy — a government by the people, of the people and for the people — the people are missing. Disengaged, disinterested, discouraged, disillusioned; either because they believe government matters little in their lives or because the choices the election campaigns provide are considered increasingly inadequate.” – Dasgupta, Dec. 4
Among the many efforts to constrain the efficacy of our votes is the recent phenomenon of Super PACs, the dastardly spawn of a by-now notorious 2010 Supreme Court Decision known as Citizens United. Since the decision, total spending on election campaigns, much of which is undisclosed, has skyrocketed each election cycle. Money flowing from mysterious millionaires overwhelmingly influences the issues candidates campaign on and determines the policies they would seek to implement. The Huffington Post found “that 140 donors who gave more than $500,000 each to super PACs accounted for $365.5 million in super PAC donations as of Oct. 15 — 61 percent of all super PAC contributions in the 2014 cycle.” And Oct. 15 was just the deadline for filing; many spenders deliberately waited until after that date to donate contributions, just to add an extra level of secrecy to the mix. 140 people provided 61 percent of the campaign donations that candidates reaped from super PACs. Does anyone really believe a politician wouldn’t be more eager to please those 140 people than the general population? Doesn’t it make sense that all of this money (and the implicit promise of employment when one’s time in political office concludes) would be given in exchange for the implementation of policies which assures the donors’ wealth is protected in posterity? Include the long-maintained threat of losing the party’s (take your pick) support if the candidate should stray too far from the mainstream discourse and you’ve got yourself the ingredients for a neutered system of subservient dweebs.
In fact, even as our democracy fails us, the government has continued to construct a global surveillance network, in total secret, that is nothing short of an affront to the founding principles of our nation. This network includes the well-publicized NSA programs, some nasty bits of behavior from the torture-prone CIA, and a robust set of programs employed by the FBI, like complex biometric systems that can track your facial pattern, voice, and even recognize your gait. The Department of Homeland Security (which remember, has only been in existence for the past decade and a half) was even exposed as having monitored protest organizers’ cell phones using a tricky bit of tech called Stingray. Supposedly authorized under legislation passed in the terrified frenzy that followed 9/11, these systems of surveillance include American citizens and U.S. allies. Unpopular and costly wars continue to be fought in the name of the American people even as the costs of education and healthcare continue to rise to unprecedented, unsustainable and unbearable levels. From the removal of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi, which left the country in the throes of Islamic extremism, to the rampant drone-strikes in Yemen and airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, plenty of military action continues across the Middle East under the broadly interpreted authority of the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force. Much of this is done in the name of counter-terrorism, but extra-judicial police killings are year after year more of a risk to American citizens in the U.S. than terrorism attacks. Regardless, the federal government continues to dole out assault rifles, gear and military vehicles to police, even as our supposedly sacred civil rights have been sacrificed against the much-touted threat of terrorism. I would suggest the motivation is not terrorism, but politics. Power.
So if our democracy is being subverted, where is the light? Which direction is the way to the end of the tunnel? And how do we know a train won’t come careening down the tracks before we make it out? Well I suppose we will never be too sure of that last bit, but sitting still is clearly not an option. Harnessing the momentum of these reactive protests and directing the energy into a peaceful, unified demand for an all-around more equitable society and a government that serves the public instead of Wall Street, big banks, and multination corporations who have no allegiances except to profit. If unarmed Americans can be killed by their own police force with zero accountability, even in the face of irrefutable video evidence, while at the same time big banks like J.P. Morgan and HSBC are continually granted slap-on-the-wrist reprieves in lieu of criminal charges for heinous allegations then it is clear the process has failed. We should not, as a nation, continue to place our faith in the system to self-correct as we are drained of more and more of the meager financial stability we’ve enjoyed and are stripped of the civil liberties that made America great. The time has come to give direct action, the mobilization of a new social movement on par with that of the 1960s, a fair shot. Movements look like people in the streets, and I’ve seen more of that in the past few months than I have in my entire life. The embryonic push for a more just society, both in racial, economic and ecological terms, may have just been sparked.
But if it’s going to mature, and that’s the biggest if that’s ever been typed in 12-point font, then it must be inclusive, wise and above all, peaceful.