Beginning at age 16, Kaleif Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, one of the most notoriously brutal prisons in the nation. Of that three years, he spent almost two years in solitary confinement. His crime was being accused of stealing a backpack. A crime he had an alibi for charges against him were dropped after his three years of incarceration, due to lack of evidence. If you’re not familiar, read Jennifer Gonnerman’s obituary. Jennifer was the first journalist to reveal Khalief’s story. Kalief’s death may end up being seen as the catalyst for what is a growing movement for bail reform, as across the country, the ability to pay a cash bail seems to be more related to ones incarceration than their guilt or innocence, and his name has become a battle cry for activists seeking to end the practice. He’ll never know that though, as his experience in Rikers and with our “justice system” induced mental illness and ultimately his suicide.
Kaleif maintained his innocence on the charges that put him in Rikers, until the day of his death. Given the experience of Rikers, it’s questionable that should he even have been proven guilty, theft of a backpack would have been a crime warranting anything in the realm of that punishment. The Jay Z produced documentary Time: The Kalief Browder Story details the nature of that experience through security footage, inmate and guard testimonies. It’s a brutality of disturbing proportions.
It was Kalief’s story which jumped to mind, along with Matt Taibbi’s book, “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” as I thumbed through social media last week, seeing the headlines and reactions to John McCain’s funeral. Stories like Kalief Browder’s are presented as “collateral damage.” They’re presented as the mistakes we make on the way to “progress” and “getting it right.” This might be more plausible if we didn’t just consistently shift how we’re getting it wrong by the minimal number of possible degrees when these wrongs are brought to light.
What can or needs to be said about McCain as an individual and his legacy has been said, by many others, more eloquently than I can. There’s nothing left to it.
There is something I haven’t seen expressed about his funeral, that may or may not be important. It’s something though, that is profoundly heartbreaking, and not so much cynical, but reveals a key to what it is I think we’re struggling with. I could be wrong, but it occurred to me that it revealed the thing that is likely to be our final undoing, and it was a feeling of deep loss, sadness, and pity for all of us as a result.
There have been editorials and social media posts by journalists, luminaries, speeches by politicians and everyone else, ad infinitum, regaling the spirit of both resistance to Trump and of the pageantry of civility, the “bipartisanship”, the ability for those who had often disagreed to be civil and respectful of one another.
Reading and looking at these, Kaleif Browder came to mind, as the pictures of Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney repeatedly passed. The fawning over GW giving Michelle Obama a cough drop. Henry Kissinger being presented without comment. Dick Cheney, existing, free and alive.
Those three men alone, responsible for the deaths of millions in wars of opportunity. Not necessity, but opportunity. Pacifists, philosophers and activists have long attempted to create a direct line of understanding between the horrors we’ll allow in our names in the course of war, and the inhumanity we commit at home, and it was made so unflinchingly clear during this past week. No Rikers for them. No solitary confinement. Just the inclusion in Americans giving themselves a big ole pat on the back for how magnanimous we really want to believe we are.
Kissinger, Bush and Cheney, alone, are responsible for millions of needless deaths. Kissinger used Vietnam, it’s people and ours… Cambodia? Laos? Bush and Cheney… Iraq? Yemen? Katrina? Even as many of these same people, be they journalists, politicians or every day citizens excoriate the current occupant of The White House for doing basically nothing as Puerto Rico languishes, they’re praising the men who created the blueprint for that neglect in Katrina. They’re unwittingly showing the current malfeasant in the Oval Office the how and why of the dead are people of no consequence, and therefore, these crimes create no consequences. Child abductions (there are 500 who have yet to be returned to their parents, and who knows how many were put into the foster system prior to the revelations) and the abuses related to it are new, but the echoes of Guantanamo Bay, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and indefinite detainment are hard to ignore.
It’s in this singular thing that all of it really lies. The desire to be able to see ourselves as a principled people, a republic built on ideas, rule of law and civility, at all costs, when the costs are so, so very real and devastating that we sacrifice principle, law and actual civility in order to maintain the illusion. How this is some kind of resistance to the pervasive inhumanity in the current administration? It’s hard for me to see. If anything, it would seem the thing at issue is the nakedness with which it employs the necessary dehumanization to carry out these acts of inhumanity. It is, the next logical step, if it’s even much of a step at all.
Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Yemen, Abu Ghraib, Katrina, Puerto Rico, Kalief Browder, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Flint Michigan, victims of the opioid crisis, and on and on… all people of no consequence. Everyone who is not part of the grand illusion of civility, of “principled” power or whose existence in some ways challenges that illusion is of no consequence. More than a Constitution or some other legal framework, this is the real foundation of American governance and politics. We’re learning now, just how fungible something like a Constitution is, and that essentially, it’s no more real than what people believe about the nation its supposed to give form to.
It speaks to the fact that what’s genuinely at issue between the current president and the political establishment has been the illusion, because the illusion has always been the elixir we imbibe to wipe away the cruelty and inhumanity. What the reaction to this gathering of power and the nonchalant inclusion of people who through either incompetence or genuine sense of imperialistic superiority have caused the deaths of millions of people says is that those deaths do not matter when weighed against the importance of that illusion. Those deaths are of no consequence, and by extension, neither are the lives of the people who lived them, the families who lost them… essentially, anyone else.
Three men who’ve broken international law, resulting in the torture and incarceration of thousands, and the deaths of millions, walk free daily, living lives of privilege. Kalief Browder spent nearly two years in solitary confinement for being falsely accused of stealing a backpack.
We can’t see that it is that exact aspect of the illusion being wielded to great effect by the current fascist movement. It has no interest or need for the rule of law, but the illusion gives them cover enough, precedent even, and we can’t see that even as we argue and debate about whether a president can be indicted (something that say, three years ago, wouldn’t have been a question at all). It serves to protect them.
It also serves to allow them further inhumanities, further cruelty, without fear of repercussion more severe than some strongly worded op-eds or possibly a protest here or there, until they’ve pushed far enough, the cruelty and inhumanity so normalized, they don’t even have to accept those. Fascism is about power, and power without accountability is cruel. Holding up this illusion, the attempt to ignore or discount the cruelties already committed guarantees more in the future.
This illusion isn’t going to save us. In fact, it may be more responsible for where we are than anything else, and we are going to have to let it go. The rehabilitation of men like Kissinger, GW, Cheney, Rumsfeld should be offensive in a nation in which nearly half of us can’t meet our basic needs, when none us of can be claimed to have made anything like the “mistakes” or “errors in judgment” these men have. Instead, we’re servilely reimagining their legacies to omit the fact that we too are people of no consequence.
Somehow, to so much of the political establishment and chattering class, Kissinger, Cheney, and GW are immune. How this perspective is fundamentally different from MAGA set who seem incapable of admitting that the entire executive branch has become a grift of historic proportions, I can’t really tell. Both perspectives seems deeply invested in being extremely generous with the phrase, “they’ve made some mistakes,” as if they knocked over a grocery store display.
How many of us are languishing in jails right now, unable to afford bail, for some act of poor judgment that hasn’t resulted in millions, thousands, hundreds or even a single death? How many are serving sentences, acquired without the benefit of a trial because we accepted a plea deal that offered a significantly “reduced sentence” compared to what we were promised would be the result of an actual trial?
These are men who have never even been charged. They aren’t even held accountable enough to be disallowed from participation in “civil” politics and American pageantry. Our political class doesn’t even have the decency to tell them not to parade themselves around, because they know we will employ the illusion of civility to protect ourselves from these realities, despite the damage it has done historically, and is doing right now.
It was this understanding, crashing down as Kalief Browder’s story unrolled in my mind, with pictures, headlines and pithy comments papering over the reality of the stink and stain of murderous imperialism that the recent debate about “civility” came into clarity.
“The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” by Matt Taibbi takes a critical look at the difference between those accused of a crime while being poor, usually either victimless crime or a crime that is low impact, like stealing a backpack, and compares it to what happens when white collar crime that effects thousands or millions of people ends up in a court (it’s rare for it to ever even be prosecuted, and is much more likely to end up in a civil court), and the harm is high impact.
The short version of the story is that you can crash the world economy, purposefully bankrupt a company and put hundreds out of work, resulting in the loss of health care, retirement savings and life as they know it and face little more than the corporation you work for losing a days worth (in some cases, a few hours worth) of profit. You can actually use the legal departments of those companies to steal homes from people, and the consequence is the same. It’s not just that criminal cases are extremely unlikely but that, in many cases, the fines resulting from civil suits are actually part of the profit model.
A few civil cases have brought to light that the people engaged in these endeavors measure the fines levied in similar civil cases from the past, compare those to the expected level of profit, and if the profit after the expected fine is high enough, it’s acceptable. The idea that someone making these decisions might even be put in handcuffs, much less see the inside of a jail cell for a few hours (we’re talking about people who can put down millions in bail at the click of a cells lock) is not even considered, because that wouldn’t be a civil way to treat someone committing a “white collar” crime. Their position on the ladder of privilege is too high for anything as uncivil as handcuffs.
A war of opportunity has become the ultimate white collar crime, as the people who commit it aren’t even bound to civil restitution. More often than not, it just boosts their privileges in the form of wealth or status. Between large scale financial fraud and a war of opportunity, there is an entire ladder of offenses, resulting in real harm, to real human beings, but those victims are people of no consequence and the level of civility afforded them is in direct contrast to the civility afforded the perpetrators.
The more people your crime can effect because of the place you have in society, the level of privilege you’re granted, the more civility you’re afforded. That is criminal civility, not an honorable desire to treat each other with the spirit of good will based in the call to “be able to agreeably disagree” or “listen to what people you don’t agree with have to say.”
The “civility” we’ve been hearing about, that the McCain funeral was such a strong example of, isn’t actually civility, at least as the word would otherwise be defined in a dictionary. It’s about absolution and it’s reserved for those who already have the benefit of almost every privilege a society can grant. The more privilege one has been afforded or reached, the more civil this society will treat them. The less privilege that individual has, the better the chances they’re a person of no consequence, meaning there is no consequence for their treatment having no relation to that which would be recognized as being a member of a civil society.
Make no mistake, privilege is a ladder, and the number of rungs missing as you try to climb it is a good indication of whether or not you are a person of consequence. It would behoove those of us without a good deal of privilege to recognize what’s happening when those who have been granted great privilege in power, wealth, status or even access to the people who wield them, that if we don’t have them in combination and in great measure, we are people of no consequence. We are collateral damage. We are the unfortunate “unforeseen consequences” of this theater of privilege and civility, even as the threat of those consequences is warned of ahead of time. The consequences always fall on someone who is a person of no consequence. If the actions of those who deserve this “civility” irreparably damage our lives and/or health or even kill us, there is no consequence. A few months, a few years down the road, it will all be absolved by “civility.” There is nothing civil about it. It’s a caste system, rooted in brutality, costumed in principle. Kalief Browder was of no consequence. The majority of us are in a position of little comparative difference to Kalief’s when compared to those whose actions we bare the consequences of, though we will cling to any and all possible ways of believing differently.
We’ll cling to racial privilege, gender privilege, whatever we can, just so our ladder is missing one or two less rungs than our neighbors as we go about our day to day lives. What we won’t do is realize that when it comes down to it, there were plenty of people who believed the same things, dying from sickness, malnutrition and thirst when the waters of the Gulf swallowed New Orleans, and those whom we now lift up with cries of civility ignored it. Despite the rungs they clung to, the illusion didn’t prevent them from being collateral damage of no consequence. Puerto Rico has now proven this to be true and acceptable. The way has been paved. Iraq had it’s own sectarian divides, as did Yemen, and when the bombs started falling, sides were chosen based on who believed they were far enough up the ladder and those who knew better. A million Iraqis are dead. The country is still in the grips of violence, new ladders being erected and torn down constantly. Those responsible for this, now being lauded for their civility, have faced no consequences. Yemen is currently in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. 100,000 children, that’s just the number of children, died in the last two years, by bombing or the prevention of aid being sent. Entire nations, with only handfuls of people who’ve been deemed to be of consequence. Still, we cling to the rungs of the illusory ladder as if this isn’t the reality.
Those of us who are of no consequence should disabuse ourselves of this criminal civility and the ladder of its caste system. There doesn’t seem to be much hope we will though. This illusion serves each individual in being able to minimize the awareness of this cruelty enough to go about our daily lives. To acknowledge it directly and start to have to consider what may have to change, what actions may have to be taken is terrifying. It also serves to reinforce the distance between those who matter, and those who are of no consequence, those against whom this cruelty is perpetrated. What may we really lose, as the evidence of how little consequence our lives are continued to grow?
For all of our love of the rhetoric of responsibility, innovation, creativity, justice, and all that “Amerispeak”… we’re fundamentally unable to imagine what we might have to do, what our lives might have to be like in order to do away with this illusion and actually employ those same principles to create a civil society. That blank possibility, the civil society we’d actually have to create is terrifying in comparison to living with the illusion that we have something resembling a civil society today. The ladder is what we cling to, even as it guarantees we are of no consequence.
The terror of losing what little privilege we may have in this theater of cruelty is too much to look at. We dream of rungs on the ladder of privilege that aren’t there, and statistical evidence suggests are never going to be there. We’re afraid of losing the privilege that renders us people of no consequence, in a society where we are collateral damage. We cling to criminal civility, even when we are individually granted the least possible level of civility it can allow, and it’s the clinging to it that makes for it to be allowed.
Being one rung on the ladder above your neighbor doesn’t save you when your city floods, when there’s no drinking water, when the people of consequence decide another neighbor can only be effectively dealt with by carpet bombing your town, but it provides us enough comfort to get through each day, and also makes us complicit in a way we aren’t prepared to acknowledge. Ironically, the chances are better that it will actually be your neighbors, the people you’re struggling to be one or two rungs above that will provide life saving aid when the time comes, and what we need to face in all of this is what the oncoming disaster of climate change is going to guarantee. It won’t be the people demanding we adhere to this criminal civility helping us save ourselves or each other, because we are people of no consequence, and they understand that the ladders they climb reach a height where we will be unseen. This criminal civility will be reserved for them and them alone.