Matt Taibbi Talks About Criminalized Poverty and Why Wall St. Is Above the Law
It’s not exactly breaking news that the American criminal justice system is wildly unfair. Thewar on drugs sends thousands of black and Hispanic kids to prison for using the same illegal substances that their white peers can more often get away with smoking or snorting; meanwhile, the Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis get off with zero punishment and huge bonuses. These gross disparities in how the rich and poor are treated by the police and courts are the subject of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a book illustrated by VICE columnist Molly Crabapple and written by Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone investigative journalist who has made a career of lampooning our entitled upper class (and just left that magazine to start a new website about political corruption).
I called Taibbi to chat about how America got to this terrible, dystopian place and where we should go from here.
VICE: The core theme of the book is that we’ve seen two parallel, and very different, systems of criminal justice emerge in this country—one for the wealthy and powerful, another for the poor and brown. That concept in and of itself might not totally shock people, but the timeframe—just how novel that phenomenon is in our democracy—should, right? Matt Taibbi: Obviously it’s not a new story that the rich get off and poor people get screwed. I think that’s a narrative that probably couldn’t be more obvious, but there are some new developments that have made this situation worse. There are these parallel policy and political developments that happened in the early 90s that mirrored each other, with the Democrats coming over on the issue of welfare reform and also deciding to follow the Republicans in terms of courting money from the financial services and hopping on board with deregulation. I think what both of those decisions meant was that, basically, poor people no longer had a lobby in Washington consistently, and the very wealthy now had a consensus behind them. So we started to have this phenomenon of much more aggressive law enforcement against the poor. On the other side, it begins with deregulation of white-collar commerce, and then it kind of ends in non-enforcement of white-collar crime. That also seems to be a political consensus. It’s not just the same old story that has gone back to the beginning of time… This is also a new political development that has to do with the alignment of the two political parties in this country and how they’ve changed recently.
My tenth-grade American history teacher once told us that in the Civil War, twice as many men died of disease than died in combat.
That macabre Snapple fact is all I really remember from that class. It felt weighty, highlighting something that seemed revelatory because it was suddenly so goddamn obvious: War doesn’t exist in a vacuum. War exists in this world—this brutally unsexy place of sandwiches, video games, baseball, friends, soda, Walmart, foot cramps, allergies, and—of course—cold weather and disease. Maybe I was slow on the uptake, but this blew my little 15-year-old mind.
Now, ten years later, Magnum’s Peter van Agtmael plops his new book Disco Night Sept 11on my desk, and I’m suddenly having the revelation all over again, only this time with a more immediate relevance and bite.
The FBI Is Trying to Recruit Muslims As Snitches by Putting Them on No-Fly Lists
Dr Rahinah Ibrahim is not a national security threat.
The federal government even said so.
It took a lawsuit that has stretched for eight years for the feds to yield that admission. It is one answer in a case that opened up many more questions: How did an innocent Malaysian architectural scholar remain on a terrorism no fly-list—effectively branded a terrorist—for years after a FBI paperwork screw up put her there? The answer to that question, to paraphrase a particularly hawkish former Secretary of Defense, may be unknowable.
Last week, there was a depressing development in the case. A judge’s decision was made public and it revealed that the White House has created at least one “secret exception” to the legal standard that federal authorities use to place people on such lists. This should trouble anyone who cares about niggling things like legal due process or the US Constitution. No one is clear what the exception is, because it’s secret—duh—meaning government is basically placing people on terror watchlists that can ruin their lives without explaining why or how they landed on those lists in the first place.
This flies in the face of what the government has told Congress and the American public. Previously, federal officials said that in order to land on one of these terror watchlists, someone has to meet a “reasonable suspicion standard.” That means there have to be clear facts supporting the government’s assertion that the individual in question is, you know, doing some terrorist shit. Which seems like a good idea.
The look on the receptionist’s face told me I had said something wrong. It was a maternal expression, like that of an elderly woman who has found her grandkid outside in the cold with a runny nose but no jacket. There was genuine concern in her eyes, but her pursed lips suggested a certain annoyed disbelief: Just what were you thinking, if you were thinking at all?
“You don’t have a car?” she asked, accusingly.
“I don’t have a car,” I replied.
It was my first day at a new job, and I had taken the bus that morning. That bus took me to a subway—a futuristic train that goes underneath Los Angeles in order to get from one place to another—so I didn’t need a car, just like I didn’t need the people’s history of the local parking situation she had graciously given me. Seriously, the subway is, like, right over there.
She nodded her head and forced a smile the way tourists do when they don’t understand a word you are saying.
This happens almost daily: We, the car-less of Los Angeles, must confess our lack of an automobile as if it were a character defect on par with betting on dogfighting. You risk being judged not only at your workplace but at the supermarket, where the teenage bagger asks if you need any help carrying those boxes of generic cereal out to your four-wheeled expression of self. Having a car shows that you have the financial means to own a car. Not having a car makes people assume you live at home and have an unhealthy relationship with your mother—and as sexy local singles say, that’s a deal-breaker.
So it’s a bit heretical when I say I like not having a car. It’s actually rather nice to leave the driving to someone else and not have to worry about steering your personal air-conditioned death box at 70 miles an hour on a freeway full of idiots—and hundreds of thousands of people in the LA metro region agree with me on this. Sure, it takes a bit longer to get somewhere—30 minutes instead of 15—but you also don’t have to spend 20 minutes circling the block for parking whenever you go out. And there are buses and trains that go almost anywhere, and by taking them you free yourself from worry about car payments, parking tickets, and DUIs.
You also don’t need to worry about getting mutilated in a horrific car accident. According to the US government, more than 2.3 million people were injured and 33,500 died on America’s roads in 2012. For people in the US between the ages of one and 44, motor vehicles are the leading cause of death. Avoid driving on a freeway and you significantly reduce your chance of being injured or killed on one.
Is America Finally Ready to Abandon the Electoral College and Embrace the Popular Vote
US presidential elections are frequently the butt of jokes worldwide, and deservedly so. Between the eye-popping fundraising totals, the awkward pandering to billionaires, and the shameless jockeying for the support of key interest groups in weird places like Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s a lot to hate.
Much of this can be blamed on the electoral college. Instead of simply counting votes nationwide and giving the Oval Office to the guy or gal with the most ballots, America holds 50 statewide elections, then awards points called “electors” to the winner of each election. It’s a confusing system that makes winning 51 percent of the votes in California more than ten times as valuable as winning 100 percent of the votes in Nebraska, and gives special status to the few swing states that could go either way. Standard practice nowadays is for candidates to camp out in the dozen or so of these key states, which enjoy special status because their cities are surrounded by dense, conservative suburbs that balance out the votes of liberal urbanites. This means millions of voters are effectively stuck on the margins of political life, and thanks to our system we risk disaster every four years.
George W. Bush’s incredible non-victory in 2000—which came, of course, thanks to an assist from his dad’s pals on the Supreme Court—may be the the most recent example, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the twisted intrigue that the electoral college has encouraged over the years. After the 1876 election saw the electors go one way and the popular vote the other, the “compromise” that was reached set the stage for a flood of Jim Crow laws and racial terrorism into the American South, as a key concession from the Republicans was to remove occupying federal troops that had been in the former Confederate states since the Civil War.
The Bundy Ranch Standoff Was Only the Beginning for America’s Right-Wing Militias
For two decades the US government has tried to get Cliven Bundy to remove his cows from federal land, and for two decades the Nevada rancher has steadfastly refused, defying court orders and attempts to negotiate a settlement for the $1.1 million he owes in federal grazing fees. Finally, last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took matters into its own hands and started seizing cattle that had been illegally grazing on government property. Things went downhill from there.
For right-wing militias and paramilitary groups founded around a collective paranoid belief that the federal government is just looking for an excuse to impose martial law, images of armed federal agents forcibly seizing cows basically means it’s DEFCON 1. By Saturday, as many as 1,000 anti-BLM protestors from as far away as Virginia, New Hampshire, and Georgia had set up camp in Bunkerville, an arid patch of land where the BLM was rounding up the Bundy cattle. Packing handguns and assault rifles, the protesters carried signs featuring slogans like “Tyranny Is Alive,” “Where’s the Justice?” and “Militia Sighn In [sic],” and many said they were prepared for a shoot-out with the federal government. The mood was such that even Glenn Beck was wary of the crowd, announcing on his show that “there’s about 10 or 15 percent of the people who are talking about this online that are truly frightening.”
“I wouldn’t kill another person myself—and to pay someone else to kill people in my name with my tax dollars, it’s essentially the same thing,” said David Hartsough, a Quaker peace activist in his 70s. “I don’t have to look at the blood, but the blood is on my hands.”
The fact that Sharpton dealt in the underworld 30 years ago isn’t really news. The value of the Smoking Gun report is mainly historic—it offers a glimpse into Sharpton’s past life, before Obama and MSNBC, Upper West Side apartments, and private cigar clubs. It takes us back to a time when Al Sharpton wore tracksuits, weighed 300 pounds, and incited riots. Which gets at the real question: Why are we still talking about Al Sharpton?
It’s Wednesday morning, the first day of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention, and D’Juan Collins is telling me how the state took his son and won’t give him back. A slight man in a linen button-down and a Bluetooth earpiece, Collins is passing out flyers with a baby photo of his son Isaiah and a plug for his site, www.SaveIsaiah.com. Isaiah, now seven, was put into foster care in 2007, when Collins was sent to prison. When I ask what he was sent in for, he demurs. The conviction was overturned last year, he says, but Brooklyn Family Court and the foster care agency have declined to return custody of his son.
He has come here, to Sharpton’s annual civil rights confab, to get help. “I’m all about networking,” Collins explains, “because I can’t do this alone.”
If the Reverend Al Sharpton has a nexus of power, it is here, in the sweaty third-floor ballroom of the Sheraton Times Square, where more than 6,000 activists have assembled to talk shop at panels with titles like “American Holsters: How the Gun Won,” “The Role of Media in Crafting the Social Narrative,” and “Truth to Power Revival.” Outwardly, the annual civil rights hoedown is an essentially political event, a display of the influence Sharpton has aggressively cultivated over three decades in the national spotlight. But the convention is also a yearly pilgrimage for people, like Collins, who have been beaten by the system, screwed by insidious and structural racism that has stacked the deck against them. Because Al Sharpton, in addition to being a syndicated radio host, prime-time MSNBC talking head, and personal friend of the president, is still the guy you call when your kid gets shot.
Everyone I meet on Wednesday has a story. One woman at the conference tells me she’s here for the first time this year because her nephew was killed in Harlem last week, and she wants to “talk to the reverend about gun control.” Another spends the morning passing out yard signs that read: “My Civil Rights Were Violated.”
In some circles, Sharpton is considered ridiculous—a 90s race-riot relic turned smug cable-news hack. It’s easy to forget that he is probably the most powerful civil rights leader in the country, and a political kingmaker whose influence is evidenced by the parade of liberal pols who drop by his conference every year to pay their respects. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was on hand Wednesday, as was Attorney General Eric Holder and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. President Obama is headlining Friday.