Trump’s oversimplification of crime in America’s inner cities is reminiscent of the Republican Party’s calls for law and order in the 1960s during Richard Nixon’s successful bid for president. It’s also a reminder of how social justice advocates can fight back.
Trump is treating American citizens like a military enemy.
When the United States bombed Baghdad in early 2003, Pentagon leaders described their tactic of brute, bewildering, and overwhelming force as one that would inflict “shock and awe” on the Iraqi military. The Trump administration seems to be adopting this military strategy against its own American citizens.
In just the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, we saw a white supremacist engineer federal policy, Trump threaten the health coverage of millions of Americans through executive order, wide scale protests unlike any since the 1960s, bans against Muslims at our nation’s airports, petty CEO snitching, and your favorite woke auntie, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, reading everyone on the wrong side of history. With this flurry of activity, it was easy to miss Trump’s declaration to send federal troops to Chicago and his doubling down on this threat in an interview with ABC News last month.
Donald Trump can pander to a handful of Black celebrities all he wants, but his dangerous generalizations and falsehoods about crime have the potential to damage the Black community as a whole. On Tuesday, while speaking at a meeting of county sheriffs from around the country, he said that murder is at the highest rate it’s been in about 47 years, a blatant lie.
In fact, while crime spiked upwards between 2014 to 2015, crime is among the lowest it’s ever been.
Trump’s oversimplification of crime in America’s inner cities, which he believes can be fixed merely by enhancing a police state that aggressively targets Black people, is reminiscent of the Republican Party’s calls for law and order in the 1960s during Richard Nixon’s successful bid for president. It’s also a reminder of how social justice advocates can fight back.
Through campaign speeches and ads during Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, the candidate depicted America in the throes of lawlessness and disorder. Under the guise of promoting a more peaceful country, Nixon empowered federal enforcement agencies to undermine the civil and human rights gains that activists had won and were fighting to maintain. Certainly, violent crime was among its highest during that period, the reasons for which are still debated by social scientists. But instead of exploring the reasons for this crime spike and addressing the problem at its source, Nixon capitalized on the fears of White moderates and conservatives and made Black people and left activists the target.
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This strategy, like many Republican campaigns to follow, won him the presidency. It also proved disastrous for Black American communities for decades to come. The FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program and Nixon’s drug war, through which he established the Drug Enforcement Agency, worked in overdrive, and Black incarceration rates went through the roof. This was by design, as John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s then domestic policy adviser, makes astonishingly clear in a 2016 interview:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Like his conservative predecessors, Trump traffics in chaos and confusion as a means of protecting White supremacy. But unlike in the 1960s, crime in the 2010s has reached historic lows. So Trump’s insistence that America is suffering from “carnage” is not only wildly inaccurate, but they make conditions ripe for further repression of civil rights activists and oppression of people of color, who are more often painted as criminal perpetrators.
When America’s federal public policy unjustly targets its own residents, what options do people have? Mobilizing around whatever issue Trump’s puppet master, Steve Bannon, throws at the American public may be useful and cathartic, but coupling marches and protests with a sustained and organized electoral strategy may be more effective. Black leadership that organized in the midst of Nixon’s repressive regime is one such example.
In 1972, heading into Nixon’s second term as president, 8,000 people descended upon Gary, Indiana for the National Black Political Convention, nearly half of whom were delegates prepared to vote on a national Black agenda. Through arduous caucusing and compromise, the delegates, an unusual mix of Black elected officials and Black nationalists, agreed on a national platform. Published on Malcolm X’s birthday, the agenda featured social policies that transcended race, such as a guaranteed basic income and universal healthcare, and those specific to the Black community, like the establishment of a Black United Fund. After the convention, as highlighted in the Eyes on the Prize documentary series, "[P]eople went back home, rolled up their sleeves and ran for public office in a way that blacks had never thought about running for public office before. And within ten years, the number of black elected officials in the United States jumped from 2,264 to more than 5,000.”
Merely having more people of color in elected office won’t fix the tyranny and oppression that a Trump administration promises. However, arming potential candidates from Black and brown communities with progressive and radical ideologies and providing a strategy for them to win seats at the local level can mitigate some of Trump’s extreme measures. Across the country, local officials are relying on their constitutional rights to defy Trump’s illegal orders. By committing to public education, affordable health coverage, and the protection of immigrants, elected officials in liberal cities like New York City and Los Angeles are setting their own agenda. District attorneys and judges, who often work at the behest of police officers and regularly fail to prosecute the most abusive of them, often rely on being voted into office. But they can be replaced by those who prioritize justice over personal political gain.
Creating and maintaining these policies requires consistent activism. It requires understanding legislation and lobbying state and city officials so that they draft and enact policies that further economic and social equality. It requires canvassing, fundraising, and activism at the grassroots to support campaigns of justice-oriented candidates. This is not a one-off proposition. A better world will not materialize from thin air.
We must build it, brick by brick. And there is no better time than now to pull out the shovels.