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Crime Bill Biden Will Let Trump Walk

“In terms of saying, ‘I think the President violated the law. I think the President did this. Therefore go and prosecute,’ I will not do that.” -Joe Biden

“They are beyond the pale many of those people, beyond the pale. And it’s a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society.” —Joe Biden

When Joe Biden isn’t letting criminal Republicans off the hook he’s busy telling them they aren’t tough enough. Such was the case when he squared off with George H.W. Bush, with Biden contending that Bush didn’t go far enough on crime. Now as activists have forced Biden’s hand, he is offering criminal justice reforms but also ignoring the basic call by activists to defund the police.

Biden, like the supposedly radical Bernie Sanders wants more police funding so police can do a better job. This ignores the fundamental relationship of power the police have with poor communities, primarily of color. Joe Biden can act surprised when the police murder someone in cold blood but when this stuff is happening so often at some point we have to ask: is this how the system is designed to work?

Joe Biden says he wants to end hate crimes in America. He claims that he decided to run for President after Donald Trump’s dangerous rhetoric around white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. What Biden underestimates is the way white supremacy is synonymous with police departments and the law itself. Individual officers are by and large some of the most fringe white supremacists who go into the job for all the wrong reasons. There is a lot of talk about bad apples in police departments. People forget that the phrase goes “a bad apple spoils the bunch”, so you really are fucked with a bad apple. However there is also a way the bad apple idea washes over the politics of the majority of officers as well as the fact that no matter their politics they have too much power.

Again and again reforms have been tried and again and again people are surprised when the bloodshed continues. When police officers are given power, we simply are giving the wrong people power. When some people view the police as good guys and some people view the police as bad guys I would like to make the simple observation: people are seeing correctly. For people like Joe Biden, police are his friends and treat him like a citizen, for people like George Floyd, police treat him like an animal.

It’s pretty simple. Defund and prosecute the police. Demilitarize them. Take away their power somehow. Police have the guns and the legal impunity. Is there any way to express democracy when this is the case? Biden barely wants to count his own votes so it goes to show where democracy is on his agenda. Biden wants to hold their hands and guide them into playing roles of control that may in some ways he more invasive. Just as Biden acts like he can talk to Republicans across the aisle he acts like the police are good guys who are naive.

Let’s not underestimate the fascist moment or the fascist history. It’s not a time of reform when the politics of austerity and militarization continues. It’s the time to put money where one’s mouth and acknowledge that the project of the right is to overtake the state through a violent minority rule. Many people are on the liberal democratic side here, before we even get into Marxist critique. The police simply are on the wrong side.

I am going to ask a question the left may not want answered. What role do women play? I lately have been dialed in on the racist populism argument largely exposed by Louis Proyect. This idea that Democrats are losing the white working class by talking race is dangerous and blows right by the right wing policy shift of Democrats. I want to get into another dangerous myth that’s become pretty cool among lefties, the idea that women use the state as violence against men.

Most violence, state or otherwise is done by men, with a variety of victims. I want to expose this notion of Joe Biden as some sort of liberal feminist. Just as the Trump as working class is dangerous in contradictory ways I think the Biden as feminist argument both distorts the goals of feminism and Biden. I want to show how Biden has had to concede to the left at times but in no way has that been his goal.

The left never stops to wonder why it is losing women and instead blames women for going to the right. It would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to discredit the Violence Against Women Act because of the Crime Bill it was buried in. From 1993 to 2010 intimate partner dropped 64% according to the Department of Justice. Some on the left would like to say domestic violence is just the byproduct of poverty but this is the segment of the left I can’t stand who also tends to associate Trump with poverty. What about the victims of domestic violence, does their class matter?

In many ways police are the worst people to be dealing with domestic violence because they are the worst perpetrators of it but I don’t think the left really has taken a look at VAWA. The opponents of it are Republicans, and when politics is done often a variety of programs are thrown into one bill, as a result of political compromise. The stimulus relief packages are one obvious example of this. In exchange for relief for struggling families, bailouts are also given to the rich. That’s why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the Democrat opposed to the stimulus. It’s a mistake the left makes when they just say the VAWA is the same as the crime bill. It’s not like everyone voting for the bill wants the same thing.

One of the main things the VAWA does is provide grants. It also provides protection for immigrants who have been abused. It even provides a path to a Green Card although passage to a visa has been contested by Republicans. It protects housing rights including public housing, section 8, section 202 section 811 and section 236. Broadly it protects against eviction for those abused. How a section 8 voucher works in this case is if your lease hasn’t ended you can move as long as you have that voucher and are abused. The act addresses the backlog of rape kits as well. Stalking, including crossing state lines is addressed. Restraining orders are also expanded. All of this is connected, which I’ll get to.

The basic problem in abuse is space which is why the coronavirus pandemic has been so tough. The VAWA allows women to move across space whether that be moving to a new home, a new state or new country. In a just world there’s some economic rights as well as human rights for those on the run. The alternative is confining men within a space, behind bars. One could argue we need a lot more of the former and a lot less of the latter. Defund the police clearly deals with the desire to move funding away from policing and into more productive social programs. The problem with Biden’s agenda has is that it tries to achieve two contradictory goals at once: increase police funding but have them do the job of social workers with the same guns and same legal status. In short Biden wants to make society fair without changing the power structure.

I guess my main point here is that VAWA has saved a lot of lives and that it shouldn’t be linked to mass incarceration but more so as an example of the limits of changing the priorities of law enforcement without defunding them and providing alternatives. Priorities can be sharpened and lives can be saved but the ultimate goal of police to subvert the democratic demands of citizens will still be in place. What the left misses when it broadly condemns feminism as classist and incarcerating is that there is never a neutral ground. If there can’t be free movement within space for women than we have the alternative of a closed space for them which is even in this supposedly civilized country a violent space for at least a third of women in their lifetimes. How do we provide vulnerable children and women with the economic and legal protections should be our question. The wrong question, too often asked, is how does feminism enforce incarceration? I think if we can answer the former question then the latter question will he moot.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the “left” but just as I found the Trump as populist argument to be engaging I find the Biden as feminist argument to be engaging. I want to expose them as doubly wrong, which take a long time to do but may also provide a new framework that goes beyond alienation from power and towards an intersectionality that unites the left in an era of division. Furthermore I don’t like the idea of blaming the victims. We can’t blame poor people for class rule by Trump and we can’t blame women for living in a world of violent men. Joe Biden echoed this language of blaming the victim when he preached values of civility to people of color as he locked up millions. This isn’t just the old Joe Biden, focused on drugs and crime in a racial way, but the new Joe Biden who wastes as much time praising the racist police and slamming anti-racist activists as he does condemning Trump.

So who is Joe Biden? He’s not that complicated, but I want to examine his role. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both rose to power by being cops. They used this same tough moralizing rhetoric against Trump that they usually save for poor people of color. They had good practice with this language, so it may have worked. But I wonder what are they really against? Trumpism as they have been for a year or liberation as they have been for a career?

Joe Biden does openly condemn violence against women, something the class reductionist left has whiffed on again and again. It’s the same left who belongs Bernie Sanders taking on too much “cultural baggage” in 2020 as he switched advisors and finally began taking immigration and mass incarceration seriously. Just as Biden has taken a stand against abuse of women he has taken the same stance against White supremacist violence but here is where he is deeply compromised by his allegiance to power.

Joe Biden has buttered his bread on helping out Wall St. and credit card companies. Instead of confronting what Noam Chomsky rightly calls the most dangerous organization in human history (the Republican Party) Joe Biden wants to work with them. Does Joe Biden really think he can beat back Trumpism, about his only promise on the campaign trail, if he refuses to confront his fascist party and the corporate and police forces behind him?

Joe Biden has changed his tune on criminal justice, and this is thanks to work on the ground by activists. The left can be too cynical at times when it acts like every year politics are the same. Black Lives Matter is making a real impact on policy, but the question is: can this stage of neoliberalism adapt to the needs of the citizens? Joe Biden does have a series of reforms he wouldn’t have dreamed of a couple of decades ago. But they all go back to more funding of police.

In fact Biden’s plan means 300 million more dollars for police. While Biden’s plan is laced with many liberal reforms related to systematic racism we still have the problem of funding. Not once in Biden’s plan is the demilitarization of police brought up. While admirable reforms to bail, bias and mental health may be on the table the idea of disarming the state never comes up. It is here where Biden is swimming upstream, blindly investing in a broken system he believes in.

It is here where we have to wonder where Joe Biden’s passion really is. Is it for the liberalism he was thrust into in the age of Trump or for the cynical careerism he has embodied throughout his career? He will take credit for the VAWA but a look at Biden’s record indicates that the thrust of his energy was not defending women’s rights, as we see in his smearing of Anita Hill and Tara Reade, his diatribes on parenting or his anti-reproductive rights views. What becomes a clearer picture of Mr. Biden is when we dive into his career on crime.

Biden continuously pushed for the war on crime. In 1980 he was critical of Jimmy Carter who oversaw a brief decline in federal prison population. It was Ronald Reagan who had to veto Biden’s push for a drug czar. Biden took the reigns of the Senate as he wanted to make the Democrats, who would spend more than Republicans, the party who was toughest on crime. Biden was involved in a whole lot of legislation before the crime bill of 1994 including the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Look back at his statements and his priorities as well as the bills he pushed through and we see a consistent career project. Even if Biden would wake up one morning and decide on a radially left agenda he still would have ruined lives of generations of families.

If the left still remains skeptical of stopping violence against women look no further than Biden’s appeal to Storm Thurmond: “If you keep your right-wing guys from killing this bill, I’ll keep the liberals off the bill. And if you and I stand fast and agree on what we can agree on and just hold firm, we can pass this thing.” My main point is that Biden had a rather singular focus of incarceration and that he worked hard to make this digestible to both conservatives through an argument of safety and national security and liberals through an argument against guns and domestic violence.

There is no more obvious criminal than Donald Trump. Forget 3 strikes. Trump has had a thousand. He has set new standards for political corruption as he has explicitly used the office of the Presidency for personal enrichment, largely by cutting health and safety standards that endanger the lives of the American people. He has again and again abused the law and Democrats have failed to hold him unaccountable. Failing to do so sets a new precedent for how politicians can behave. Just as letting George W. Bush off the hook for war crimes has eroded the willingness of the US to follow international law, domestic policy will be eroded as Trump is given a pass to openly undermine government agencies. Letting Trump go is a painfully obvious humiliation that the Democrats, haunted by Trump, won’t recover from. Making fascism legal is yet another sign to Trump’s minority that the law is on their side.

Maybe now in his old age we are supposed to believe that Joe Biden has grown soft and lost his fastball. The more likely case is that Biden’s role has changed. When he could be unleashed on powerless young black people Biden was a vigorous predator. Now Biden faces the challenge of a fascist opposition party who refuses to count votes, hold even a civil conversation with Democrats or denounce extreme violence, Joe just isn’t up to the fight.

Biden was right to campaign on this moment being a crucial one for the country as democratic norms are done away with amidst a referendum on fascist government, environmental regulations are slashed amidst a climate catastrophe, health benefits are slashed amidst a pandemic and police funding is increased amidst a nationwide outrage over their brutality. But it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden will do other than delay the rapid erosion of society by Trumpism. Joe Biden was genuinely scared for society as he pursued the elimination of poor people of color from civilized life. The fact that Donald Trump, who Biden rightly criticizes for inspiring violence and division, isn’t seen as the same threat shows that Biden is like his predecessor in one, if not both of these ways: either he is coward who plays a tough guy on TV or he is too racist to see who the real terror is.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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