Monday, January 30, 2017

Simple-Minded Solutions

One of the many things that drives me crazy about too much of our current political discourse, including almost anything said by the Dear Leader, is that it oversimplifies the complexity of how things actually work in government. One obvious example is his current failure to think of how a sudden ban on travelers and refugees would affect real people.

Another can be seen in one of the letters to the editor in today's Star Tribune. The writer, Lindsay Turner of Minneapolis, is addressing a piece of legislation introduced at our Capitol recently that would increase penalties for blocking a road or highway during a protest (among a lot of other vague threatening language):

Protests and Penalties:
Cracking down comes with its own consequences, you know
The Star Tribune Editorial Board recently implied that it’s sensible to lock up protesters for a year for blocking traffic, because it agrees with some legislators that a 90-day penalty is proving to be too ineffective a deterrent (“Take prudent steps to keep protests safe,” Jan. 26).

I write as a former public defender, and I don’t want to talk about the First Amendment. I want to talk about practicality.

First, this is a really high-cost proposition. A living wage would earn someone around $30,000 a year. Jailing someone for a year: at least that. And then you’ve got to think about the lost taxes back to the state and lost revenue circulating in the community, and the high cost of reintegrating people back into society after a whole year behind bars.

Second, deterrence works only if there are other options on the table. I’ve counseled thousands of people who have committed crimes about why they did what they did, and what could get them to make better choices. Out of those thousands of interviews, I can count on one hand the number of times clients said that they stopped themselves from doing worse because they feared incarceration.

People do what they think they need to do in the moment to survive, to maintain their status, to feed their kids. And look at why people are in the streets: to demand the cessation of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings of their community members, and for living wages and sick time for hourly workers. Americans everywhere agree that it’s abhorrent to put in an honest day’s work and fall further behind on bills, to lose your job because your kid got sick, to live in fear of the police. And Americans who are vulnerable to those problems, and the community of people that loves and supports them, are not going to stop asking for those basic rights.

So, what else is on the table: voting? Phone calls to representatives? Writing letters to the editor? If only those worked.
Ninety days in jail is plenty of deterrent if a deterrent could have any effect for folks who feel desperate enough to block a highway. This type of legislation is not intended to "keep protestors safe": it's meant to keep the roads open so most people can keep traveling in comfort without having to think about any of the issues Turner mentions.

Republican sponsors are out to get what they call the "professional protestor class." A separate bill has also been introduced to allow "cities or the sue protesters for public safety costs spent on responding to them if they are convicted of unlawful assembly or committing a public nuisance."

It's clear that that bill is meant to suppress protests of all kinds, not just ones that involve civil disobedience like blocking a road or highway. It's notable that none of these bills are introduced by legislators from the cities where the road blockages have happened; they're all from suburban legislators who feel more strongly about the privilege of driving than the right to protest.

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