A Critical Look at VICE's Story on Mass Imprisonment With Obama and Holder
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I'm Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
In a recent edition of the news magazine Vice, audiences are treated to a look in mass incarceration as a national concern. But in key parts the prospective of the piece is of the two most prominent guests: President Barack Obama and now-former Attorney General Eric Holder.
SPEAKER: Is the American criminal justice system today broken?
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Well, people in various communities, and especially communities of color, poor communities, see a criminal justice system that they perceive to be unfair, and in fact is in many ways unfair.
SPEAKER: Is the criminal justice system in America racist?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think the criminal justice system interacts with broader patterns in society in a way that results in injustice and unfairness.
BALL: But what is the potential impact of this perspective, and of course, what is missing in it? To address this in this edition of the Ford Report is Glen Ford, founder and executive editor of BlackAgendaReport.com. Welcome back to the Real News, Glen.
GLEN FORD, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thanks for the opportunity, Jared.
BALL: So having had a chance to look at at least some of this Vice documentary and the comments made by President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder, what do you think of what they've had to say? And I'll even ask initially, why do you think that they were even there visiting this prison and taking these interviews with Vice?
FORD: Well, there's no question that Eric Holder and President Obama have taken a higher-profile stance and posture relating to the criminal justice system in recent years. Now, to treat that duo as Vice does, as if they've been somehow in the vanguard of criminal justice reform, or in the second or third or even fourth guard of reform, that is absolutely untrue. President Obama came into office behaving just as cautiously as any other Democrat, in fact, any other president would, in terms of being reluctant to challenge the status quo?
But two things have changed that made this president and his attorney general adopt a higher profile with regard to criminal justice. And one, of course, was the very real threat of the emergence of a mass grassroots movement against police abuse, and maybe against the whole system of mass black incarceration. And that threat began with the murder of Trayvon Martin back in 2012. And then it caught fire again in Ferguson.
So of course there was a response to this mass kind of upswelling of emotion by the president. Remember, in fact, that back in 1992 George Bush I was forced to respond to the rebellion in LA by ordering a federal prosecution of the cops that beat up Rodney King, something that Barack Obama did not do. So that's reason number one for him to adopt a more forthright stance on criminal justice. The other reason I think, and I think it's just as important, that this is a kind of, this posturing around criminal justice, is a kind of response or maybe more like a non-response to Eric Holder's articulation of the doctrine of big corporations, especially banks, being too big to fail. That was a terrible, terrible public relations flop for the Obama administration. And so by acting as if, with very little substance behind it, the administration is behind the little guys who get the big, long sentence for drug convictions and such, the administration is able to soften the impact of the reality that nobody with money goes to jail under this administration.
BALL: You know, but Glen, didn't Barack Obama at least reduce the disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine from what was it, 100:1 to 18:1?
FORD: No, he did not. And he wasn't even a great initiator of that. This had been in the works for a very long time. It had a bipartisan support from Republicans in Congress. It was basically a Democratic position to repeal the 100:1 penalties as it applied to essentially the whole rest of the party. No, he was not that aggressive. But I will tell you what he did do.
Once the legislation was passed he sent Eric Holder to the Supreme Court to fight against allowing the retroactive application of the new law, which drastically reduced those 100:1 penalties, Eric Holder went to the Supreme Court arguing that this should not be retroactive, and by doing so--and he won the case--by doing so he kept 6,000 people who had been convicted under the 100:1 penalty in jail. So that's how he exerted his energies, to keep mostly black folks in jail, not as being somebody who was on point to get rid of this 100:1 penalty.
BALL: Now, in the interview, President Obama does acknowledge, as he describes it, the history of the war on drugs leading to this increase in incarceration, that the idea to jail people was, as he said, something like a simple and easy recipe for a response to the drug war. And both he and Holder spoke in some kind of--somewhat oblique ways to the unfairness and the bias, the institutional bias in the system. But when asked point blank is the system racist he would not directly answer the question. As I said, he sort of talked about it in terms of more vague injustice and unfairness, and institutional bias.
But as I asked you off the air, I'm wondering, in what is supposed to be the lame duck moment of his second term, shouldn't this nominally--and what many assume to be a progressive, even radical president--have been more clear and direct in his response as to why this mass incarceration issue is so severe, particularly for black and brown people?
FORD: Well, if the question is being a lame duck can't he now afford to tell the truth, I don't know if Barack Obama knows what the truth is or cares what the truth is. I think he has behaved as a totally cynical person who does what is politically expedient. And seeming to have a set position on criminal justice reform is now expedient for him.
In terms of his inability to say the term racism, that goes back a long time. Remember, this is the guy who said that racism has never been endemic to the United States. So this is of course not surprising. But the whole conversation they've been having about the, the advent of this mass black incarceration regime, which they don't call that, as somehow being a product of the war on drugs, that's really not the case. It gets it backward. The mass black incarceration regime was a response to the rebellions and the intensive political organizing by black people in the '60s. It was a response to the defeat of apartheid, which meant that black folks no longer had that traditional enforced place in society, and so the white power structure, and it was pretty damn unanimous, decided that there would have to be a place created for them, and that was prisons. And that's what we can date the mass incarceration regime to, about 1970.
And as Michelle Alexander pointed out in her book, The New Jim Crow, the war on drugs was simply a device to ensnare more black folks, as many people as possible, in the criminal justice system. It was not an outgrowth of the war on drugs. The war on drugs was an outgrowth of the political policy that was mass black incarceration. And until that political policy is reversed, and certainly Barack Obama's not the man to do it, we will still have a system in which there is a political will on the part of all of the state governments to put as many black people in jail as possible, except maybe considerations of cost inhibiting that flow.
BALL: Well Glen Ford, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News Network.
FORD: Thank you.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. And for all involved, again, I'm Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you're willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we'll catch you in the whirlwind.