It was the kind of thing that made you want to call the cops as soon as you saw it. Here was the head of a heavily armed group with some 13,000 members, making a credible threat against the mayor of America’s largest city — a vow that his forces “are declaring war on you,” insisting that New York City’s leader had become a tool of “vile creatures.”
Except you couldn’t call the police because these were the police. Last Sunday’s incendiary tweet came from the keyboard of Edward D. Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, one of New York’s major police unions. His declaration of a “war” on Mayor Bill de Blasio came on an emotional weekend — a gunman had wounded a city police officer in an assassination attempt and separately fired shots into a Bronx station house — but most public officials were quick to condemn the overheated rhetoric.
Except, of course, for one.
By the end of the day, President Trump was tweeting his agreement that police officers are “under assault” these days, blaming de Blasio as well as one of the president’s many political enemies, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Then, a few days later, a new tweet revealed that the biggest consequence Mullins received for his Twitter threat against a prominent elected official was ... a coveted invitation to the White House.
Mullins’ White House visit didn’t happen in a vacuum. Indeed, in an election year, Trump and his minions are dramatically stepping up their war on the criminal justice reform movement, urban prosecutors — like DA Larry Krasner here in Philadelphia —and anyone else with the crazy idea that America’s having the world’s highest prison population and treating lower-income neighborhoods like occupation zones are bad for society.
Attorney General William Barr (heh, more on him in a minute) spoke to a sheriffs’ group and, amid a flurry of cherry-picked and misleading stats and claims, insisted that “[t]hese self-styled ‘social justice’ reformers are refusing to enforce entire categories of law, including laws against resisting police officers.” (Two months ago, Barr had even questioned whether such communities “deserve police protection.”)
Not to be outdone, Trump and Barr’s man in Philadelphia, U.S. Attorney William McSwain, took the rhetoric on Wednesday to a level that was unfathomable in more than one sense of the word. He delivered a Lincoln’s Birthday speech that charged that Krasner, Mayor Kenney, and their support of a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants would have “absolutely thrilled Southern slave owners, a sanctuary from federal law where they can continue their practice of human bondage.”
What the likes of Trump, Barr, McSwain — as well as Mullins and scores of other cop unions like his — really want is a police state here in America, where neighborhoods with large black or immigrant populations are meant to feel palpable fear from the boot of authority. They’ve been building toward this for more than three years, not just with rash statements — such as Trump famously telling an arena full of cops in 2017 “don’t be too nice” with criminal suspects — but actual policies like ending consent decrees to curb police brutality in the worst-rated departments to bringing back the federal death penalty.
Last week at the White House — just a week removed from Trump’s own acquittal on impeachment charges that he’d abused his presidential power to cheat in the 2020 election — the president laid down his views on “law and order”... for some people. “I don’t know that our country is ready for that," he said, “but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty — death penalty — with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem.”
Not all of America is ready for that authoritarian vision (though many are). But even fewer are ready for the flip side of King Draco’s gold coin of American justice — making ridiculous any real claim to “law and order” by shattering the rule of law and its surrounding norms, to win leniency for the president’s close friends, criminal associates, and peers.
The irony — Trump hosting his cop buddies and calling for public executions on what was actually the worst week for justice in America since the Dred Scott decision — felt like a slap across the face. The news Tuesday that top Justice Department officials — including, apparently, Barr — had intervened to overrule career prosecutors on the proposed sentence for longtime Trump friend and associate Roger Stone, just hours after Trump lashed out at those prosecutors’ recommendation in a tweet, was a stunning assault on democracy. One prosecutor resigned from the Justice Department and three others quit the case.
The stunning move came amid a broader campaign of Trumpian retribution against his political enemies and people he considers, in his paranoia, “the deep state” that reminded folks of the infamous “Layla”/bodies-on-meat-hooks-and-in-trash-trucks montage in Goodfellas. In Barr, the president has clearly found “my Roy Cohn” who is willing to at least investigate his political rivals and those who’ve investigated him (James Comey, Hillary Clinton) while ensuring leniency — with a possibility of pardons looming — for his pals like Stone or Michael Flynn.
There are two law books in Donald Trump’s America, separate and unequal — a draconian one for the poor and the marginalized, and one bookmarked with a get-out-of-jail-free card for the politically connected. There’s even more to this, though, than people realize. If you’re a wealthy white-collar criminal, you don’t even have to know the president to get a break from his Justice Department.
In a major investigative piece that got buried in the rubble of Trump’s assault on democracy and the New Hampshire primary, the Huffington Post’s Michael Hobbes found that punishment of white-collar crime has plummeted to unthinkable depths during the current administration.
Hobbes found that such prosecutions are at their lowest since tracking began in 1998 and that criminal penalties imposed by the Justice Department plummeted from $3.6 billion in 2015 to a paltry $110 million last year, with a similar slump from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that regulates Wall Street. The piece also notes: “In 2018, a year when nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at firms with more than 50 employees.”
Trump, under the whirring helicopters on the White House lawn, is often asked about the legal and ethical problems of the rich and famous, and he always responds that “he” — it’s always a “he” — “is being treated very unfairly.” In a way, the president is right. America’s coddling of the rich and the connected is appallingly unfair.
That speaks to why so many Americans are so mad in the 21st century, and why the average voter is turning to unconventional candidates like Bernie Sanders, who has been surging in the Democratic primary. Most of the nation’s ills come back to the same idea: a fundamental, baked-in unfairness. That’s not just in a courtroom, but it’s in applying to colleges where all the slots seem reserved for legacy admissions, or watching the government bail out the big banks even while they’re foreclosing on your tiny house.