Do you want to call out privilege, or do you want to fight the police state?

As you know, I’m part of a nascent but growing movement within the left to question the efficacy of current left political and rhetorical tactics, particularly concerning the privilege frame that now frequently seems to be the only discourse we take part in. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe privilege is real; it certainly is, and it has many harmful effects on our society, and deepens racial and gender and related inequalities. But the privilege frame is a deeply limited way to look at the world, and at times it leads to perverse consequences. To see the way in which they can really screw up political analysis, check out this Daily Kos piece by Shaun King.

Let’s set aside the actual racial demographics of the incident, which involved at least one black gang member and at least three dozen Hispanic gang members. King styles himself a criminal justice reform advocate; he’s part of a movement to put scrutiny on the police and prosecutors, in an effort to reduce police aggression, prosecutorial overreach, and mass incarceration. And yet here he’s engaged in a white-wash of police misconduct! There is abundant reason to believe that the police directly and significantly escalated the violence. Conor Friedersdorf had a good rundown of the deeply troubling evidence of bad police behavior in this case. King glosses over the fact that while everyone has been released, many of them have been released pending trial, and there’s nothing stopping prosecutors from adding additional charges later. King complains that no one has been charged with murder, but it’s unclear if any of the victims were killed by anybody but the police! And the legal case has obviously been affected by the police’s complicity in the violence. Friedersdorf quotes a law professor who says “Any time a prosecutor’s office does not want people talking about something, one should raise a red flag. They may say it is to protect the investigation, but they are protecting themselves from whatever it is that they don’t want us to see or know about.” That’s a facet of the petty corruption of the criminal justice system, the corruption that I thought King was interested in fighting. I guarantee you that part of the reason the prosecutor’s office has been lenient is because they know there is evidence of significant police misconduct and that pressing these cases too strongly would open the cops up to legal repercussions.

Does it seem right to you that an activist who has been made famous by his association with a movement against police violence has gone out of his way to ignore the outrageous violence of the police in this incident?

I see this happening all of the time. It happens, certainly, in carceral feminism and the way people seem to think that you can fight the police state while simultaneously enabling it. It happens when people fail to distinguish between privilege that we want to end and that which we want to spread. Awhile back someone I’m Facebook friends with posted a video of a white kid mouthing off to a cop, and complained about the kid’s white privilege. Many of his friends commented on it to explicitly wish the kid had gotten arrested. Certainly, it is a white privilege to be able to be belligerent with the police in that way and avoid police violence, but it’s a privilege we’re trying to spread, not end. When liberals on social media call for harsh legal punishment for the UConn mac and cheese kid, they’re doing the police state’s work for them.

When progressive people insist that leagues like the NFL never again employ a professional athlete like Greg Hardy, who is indeed a bad person but who has finished his legal obligations, they’re directly cutting against the goals of the criminal justice reform they are simultaneously calling for. Reducing the employment prospects of released criminals simply encourages recidivism. And after all, meaningfully reducing the prison population will necessarily entail releasing people with criminal histories like Hardy’s — people with charges of domestic violence, or assault, or gun possession, or making threats, or the like. Only releasing nonviolent offenders is not enough. Yes, releasing many from prison will release some who are there for minor or nonviolent crimes, and some who were unjustly arrested and convicted. But to reach the scale we want, it will also entail releasing a lot of people that actually did genuinely violent and immoral things. That’s just reality.

The question for people like King, and for progressives in general, is whether or not they really want to oppose mass incarceration and our current police state. Because that edifice is so powerful, and so deeply embedded into our system, that it will take a genuinely unified front to oppose it. That means not siding with the police against white and Hispanic bikers who were, indeed, up to no good and are probably not very good people. What’s the priority? Scoring the purely rhetorical point of identifying privilege? Or actually transforming the system that hurts so many poor people and people of color?