President Obama’s Commutations, Zeferino, Police Violence and the War on Drugs

On Monday, July 13th, President Obama announced he would commute the sentences of 46 persons in prison for drug charges, arguing that because sentencing requirements have been lessened in general since their sentencing, it is fair that they serve the sentences they would receive today. This is a fair argument, but it obscures the point that even the sentences being dolled out today are too severe in punishing individuals for systemic injustices. His actions just come down to the optics, not the justice of undoing their harsh punishments. Critics rightly pointed out after the announcement that without addressing the system that eats up drug “offenders” those 46 persons will be replaced immediately. To be fair to Obama, he did call on Congress in his announcement to take up reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

There seemed to have been cause for optimism in such reform with recent bi-partisan support inside and outside congress, including a republican congressman from Wisconsin (Sensenbrenner) co-sponsoring a bill with a democrat from Virginia (Bobby Scott) to reduce sentences, and liberal non-profits like ACLU coming together with Koch-funded groups, including FreedomWorks to lobby congress to take action. The shallowness of such unions came out after Obama’s commutations, when republican lawmakers, including Sensenbrenner, objected to Obama’s entirely constitutional use of executive power – revealing that their positions are all about the optics, not the people suffering by being locked up for years for participating in the only functioning economies in their communities.

Today should shatter any remaining optimism, with the release of cruiser dash-cam footage showing a downright execution of Ricardo Diaz Zeferino by LAPD. What good is reform of sentencing if we never make it to trial, if instead we are gunned down in the streets while we have our hands raised? Zeferino was compliant, and anyone watching the footage can see that when he puts his hands down for an instant he is merely pulling up his pants. An autopsy found methamphetamine in his system, and so he was likely tweeking a little, but he posed no threat whatsoever. He was out with his friends trying to find a bike that had been stolen from a friend – tragically, it would seem, supposedly the police were stopping them to inquire about the bike in question. That’s the police story of course, do not believe for one instant that the police were bothering looking for a bike reported stolen from outside a CVS in the middle of the night – it was a pretext for stopping and arresting minorities. In effect, the police murdered a man suffering from a health condition – substance abuse issues — trying to help out his friends. The police executed him in the street, were found to not have committed wrong-doing by their superiors and faced no punishment, and the footage was hidden away on the pretext that releasing it would cause social unrest and encourage police to not comply with monitoring technology. Writes the Guardian, “The city of Gardena said it resisted releasing the videos because they would create a “rush to judgment” about the officers’ actions. Police chiefs and officer groups around California supported the city, saying making such videos public would deter police from using such technology.” Read the article and see the footage here.

Monitoring police is not an end in itself, it’s a means to holding them accountable when they do wrong. The pro-police violence groups argue that we cannot hold officers accountable or we won’t be able to film them – but we’re only interesting in filming them to hold them accountable! This should make us pessimistic about police groups professing to be open to wearing body cameras. As long as they control whether the footage is released to the broader public, they will never be held fully accountable. Tellingly, pro-police groups that have supported the body-cam idea have maintained that as the enforcers of law and order officers can be entrusted to monitor themselves and keep the footage private until it is needed. But we know without question that they cannot be entrusted to monitor themselves – that Zeferino’s murders faced no discipline from the department says it all.

Until we address the underlying belief of the power elite that the lives of the poor and disenfranchised are worthless and that they are entirely disposable, no fewer poor people will be thrown in prison, or executed in the streets. We will continue to hear about the travesties experienced by Jonathan Sanders, an unarmed, unthreatening Mississippi man who was strangled to death by a police officer for what seems to be no other reason than that he was black, and who seems to have been stopped by the police for no reason other than being black.

Prison sentences might be shortened, but the arrest warrants generated by the debt that the poor go into when being processed in the system – charges ranging from court fees to board at prison – will ensure that they end up back in prison repeatedly. The stays might be shorter than they are now but cumulatively they will lose their lives all the same. The Princeton philosopher Sheldon Wolin points out that a true democracy is a system of government where the agency of the people determines the powers that the government possesses. We have a system of state power where persons are denied agency, and in that vacuum the state assumes powers that it was not given and cannot be given in such a vacuum. One rightly begins to wonder what sort of government we live under.


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