by Alexander Quaresma
It was mere hours after another disastrous day for Trump's conservative Republican controlled Senate that the president appeared at the Brentwood Suffolk Co. CC campus to give the nation a speech. His appearance in Suffolk Co., the backyard, so to speak, of el presidente's native Queens Co., was a highly calculated one. With his administration crumbling amid the flames of corruption, collusion and compromise Trump's appearance and speech was seemingly whipped up as a means to get back to what it was that got him thirty to thirty-five percent of the electorate: to single out and scapegoat immigrants.
As all demagogues love to do, the president spoke before a wall of people he's meant to be championing. They all stood behind him. In this case it was members of the Suffolk Co. PD, all of whom were dressed in their best, appearing stone-faced and vigilant. It was all part of the dog and pony show that this speech was, all designed to give an air of solidarity between the police and the new president. After all, the Suffolk Co. hamlets of Brentwood and Bay Shore on Long Island have indeed undergone spates of MS-13 gang-related violence in recent months. There has been a number of murders involving young teens at the hands of the gang, this is cannot be denied. So the police officers who work these neighborhoods do have reason to appear vigilant. As for Trump, these events seemed to represent nothing more than an opportunity to get back to doing what he does best, making a fool of himself and the people in bed with him.
The speech turned into an empty grandstand by a wannabe strongman to advocate police brutality. Unfortunately, his thirty to thirty-five percent love these kinds of things, they eat it up in fact, and the president knows it. And for anyone who hasn't been paying attention, Trump needs that thirty to thirty-five percent base right now. He needs them in a big way.
As for me, as someone who has spent time in Suffolk Co.'s Brentwood-Bay Shore area, I do understand the problem that the MS-13 gang has been in the past and continues to be in the present. They're certainly not something that should go unaddressed. However, it should also be understood that MS-13 has always been there. It's not as if this group suddenly popped up in the middle of the night seemingly out of nowhere. They've been there at least as far back as the mid to late eighties, which only makes sense considering that this is the same time the Salvadoran Civil War was being waged. I'll return to that war in a bit. Before I do, a few other things have to be stated for the record.
For starters, Long Island is a far cry from the Mad Max-esque "blood-stained" apocalyptic "killing field" Trump sought to describe it as. In actual fact, Long Island is a network of beach-going bedroom communities. The taxes are too high. The traffic can be frustrating depending on where you're going, how you're getting there, and what time of day it is. All in all though, Long Island is actually a beautiful place to live if one has the chance to do so. It's a short train trip away from the biggest cultural center on either American continent to the west, and its scenic drive through some of the most picturesque rural townships on the coast to the east. But there are certain sectors of that Brentwood-Bay Shore region on the south shore which definitely have some issues stemming from gang-related crime.
With that said, there is something else which should be pointed out - the Brentwood-Bay Shore hamlet in the greater town of Islip is not a ghetto, in case anyone got that impression. It's not some hellish urban landscape. It's an ethnically diverse suburb that developed over decades out of a utopian farming community. Not only do Salvadorans call it home, but so do Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Irish, Dominicans, Jews, Portuguese, Polish, and Indians, all of whom get along and provide an example as to how small communities which serve as melting pots can function successfully. And in spite of the picture the president painted it is a relatively decent neighborhood to live in. Granted, some areas are nicer than others, but someone could do a lot worse than Brentwood-Bay Shore when it came to picking out a place to live. But yes, MS-13 is a problem, that much the president got correct.
Perhaps Trump didn't mean to endorse police brutality. Perhaps all he was trying to say is that he has no sympathy for violent gang members. Okay, that's fine. I'm all for eradicating violent gangs as well. Any sane rationally minded person would be. That all having been said, as an authority figure such as Trump is, you cannot go out there and advocate that the state's law enforcement apparatus - police departments - start ignoring laws they're meant to protect in a speech. To do so is advocating a paradox; i.e., advocating chaos. It kind of leads to an ultimate end result which would see the unraveling of everything we pay policemen to protect in the first place. We need police forces. We need the police to deal with MS-13. But we also need our police forces to be lawful, because if they are not, they then run the risk of turning into nothing more than just another gang themselves. Just look at what's going on in Baltimore.
If there's one brave new fact that the twenty-first century has made abundantly clear it's that cameras are everywhere. Free market forces compel technology manufacturers to produce such gadgets because it's what the consuming public wants. We all love our magical time capturing wonder toys. With all of this surveillance, however, our police forces are dealing with a variable no other generation of policemen has ever had to deal with before: their behavior and methods are being observed, recorded, and distributed.
Certain elements in certain police forces are already being exposed as being poorly trained at best and excessively violent and thuggish at worst. We've been told this for generations by people living in the poor impoverished neighborhoods of the country they patrol. There may have been a few films that have dealt with such matters, and a few celebrities speak out here and there, but by and large it's been something that was always swept under the rug rather easily. Even after the entire Rodney King saga, it was still pretty much always the people's word against the police's. And it's always been easy to take the police's side in such disputes. After all, they're the ones we call when we need help. And they're the ones who are out there risking life and limb. A strong argument can be made that in spite of all of the stories and accompanying videos displaying unprofessional police behavior, that it's all a byproduct of this camera-saturated society we're living in now; and that these are incidents which comprise exceptions rather than the general rule of police behavior. That for every unprofessional poorly trained police officer, there are ninety-nine who are unbiased and execute what is expected of them as ethical paid law enforcement officials.
On the other hand, there's the side that says, "No, this has always been the rule, you are all just able to see it with your own eyes now thanks to technology." With each and every new instance of unproffesional actions by the police recorded and uploaded, this argument holds just a little more water than it previously held before. The scale of peception is teetering in the wrong direction. What's scary about that is that it's doing so not without just cause in many instances. It's a dangerous trend, one which the president seems oblivious to. Sadly, this is not a surprise.
With this in mind there is a point which that cannot be overlooked. With all of the- let's call it "bad publicity," for lack of a better term at the moment, that the police have been getting as of late, the last thing they need is a wannabe strongman dictator giving them the green light to abuse prisoners, even immigrant gang members. Police brutality is never something a free society should condone. To see an American president openly endorse police-state tactics is chilling. Then there is the other matter, the practical matter: these abuses will find their way onto YouTube and LiveLeak and Facebook and all the rest. When there's a fire you want to put out, you don't put it out by pouring more gasoline onto it.
Such tactics Trump advocated would do more harm than good. It would seem that President Trump is taking a page out of the playbook from another sociopathic wannabe strongman. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte - someone Trump has already expressed admiration for publicly - endorses such tactics (among other things) by his police forces. In so doing Duterte has turned his country into a proto-fascist police state, one where vigilantes are condoned and threats of bombing political rivals, including those in schools, are openly discussed.
This is all justified under the cover of a "war on drugs" and keeping the people "safe." For any American who's been paying attention the past forty years, this should sound eerily familiar. In reality, Duterte's war is a war against people who would oppose him politically. Drug dealers are simply the collateral damage necessary in order to provide the illusion that Duterte and his tactics are necessary. With Duterte doing what he's doing in the Philippines any cynic such as myself might just see the very small and rusty wheels turning in Trump's head when he gives a speech like the one he gave at Suffolk Co. CC's Brentwood campus.
What's happening in the Philippines is something which bears further paying attention to. Trump does not want to exterminate the Jews and usher in the Fourth Reich, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to turn the US into a Filipino police state either. Incidentally, the same day Trump was giving his speech on Long Island, the rightist Duterte told the world that "Oxford is for stupid people." Again, sound familiar?
As for gang violence in America, the solution is not brutalizing suspects. But there are solutions. The redistribution of concentrated capital seems to be a no-brainer. There needs to be funding for more schools, more teachers, more community centers, more academic scholarships, and affordable college tuition. There is no long term solution for what ails downtrodden societies at the local level quite like education. When people are educated the chances for more people to win in a society increases to one degree or another. When more people are doing well in society, or even if they just have a chance to do well in the society, it can be expected that the people will be more apt to do what they can to keep that society healthy. When people don't have the opportunities afforded to those who are adequately educated it would seem then that there's a lot of people who lose. And it's not just the people who've been left behind who lose, but the innocent people who end up being victimized by those left behind who turn to criminal behavior as well who end up on the short end of the stick. And this is what almost always happens. It would appear to be a social inevitability, much like gravity is a physical one. A redistribution of concentrated capital - particularly that which peculiarly lies stashed away in convenient offshore accounts - is certainly one such way as to how such an initiative can be accomplished.
This may seem like idealized wishful thinking, true enough, but such proposals only constitute a beginning. Just pouring money into impoverished communities in the hopes that revamped educational systems will cure social maladies is not enough. Particularly when you consider that this is more so a long term solution rather than something that would show results in the short team. Meanwhile, there are day-to-day issues concerning gang-related violence that need to be addressed as soon as possible, the president is correct about that. In which case, after matters such as the education issue, which desperately needs to be addressed, at last finally is, it would be community leaders at local levels who need to be consulted with, the people who know what is specifically necessary for these communities to get back on track and succeed. There are people living in these communities that know just what needs to be done, only there is nobody is listening. This is assuming we want communities like Brentwood and Bay Shore to succeed, because I'm not sold on the idea that all of us do. What the solution is not is hiring 10,000 more ICE agents - doing so is a waste, another bureaucratic money pit - and it certainly is not brutalizing suspects.
Yes, we need the police to do their jobs, but it's a far more involved process. Bashing heads in produces no net results of a positive nature. There has to be more opportunities for the people living in these communities, or any community for that matter - but these communities in particular. At the present time, there's not much happening in middle America which resembles opportunity. Not any that aren't chained to horrific debt at least. In fact, it's barely middle America anymore. Forty years of class warfare tends to do that.
All these middle class communities see anymore is the slow creep of austerity measures at each and every turn. The schools aren't just improperly funded, but public assistance is continuously defunded as well - because of course all of our problems is the fault of the poor, right?. Meanwhile, people can't afford their devalued homes. Taxes keep going up. The price of food keeps going up - and thanks to Trump's banjaxing of the US's relationship with Mexico it is bound to go up again more after Mexico's duty-free corn deals are finalized with its South American allies. It's been a long sad process of middle class marginalization.
It's the short-sighted neoliberal policies such as "wars on drugs," "wars on leftists," "wars on terror," "wars on this," "wars on that," which has contributed to many problems, including the gang epidemics we see presently when and where it's being seen. Brentwood, Long Island, New York is one of those places. These so-called "wars" play right into their hands. Consider how much better our communities would do over the long term if only one-third of the resources used in the so-called "wars on drugs" were to be reallocated for education? How much better if it were two-thirds?
In poorer areas, younger demographics in immigrant populations are going to turn to gang life because there's very little alternative for them. Young men want to feel they are a part of some kind of order, an order that they can fall back on when. The kids in MS-13 are proverbial strangers in a strange unwelcoming land in which they're trying to get by in. They're going to seek a group that fights for them, because they see nothing in the way of anyone or anything else that would do so in its place.
A right-wing nationalist might not care about the problems in poor neighborhoods, poor immigrant neighborhoods in particular. "Fuck them all!" might be the operative term they'd throw out. And that same right-wing nationalist would be extremely upset if he or she were to be carjacked at gunpoint one day by a criminal. Such an event would not enlighten their sentiments. In fact, it would very likely cause such a person to ramp up their rhetoric from "Fuck them all!" to "Kill them all!" And that's when things can spiral out of control. All the while the fact would remain that the theoretical carjacking, or any other crime perpetrated by a gang member against their person or a loved one, is something that didn't have to happen. These crimes can be prevented. But ignoring the problems on the pain of police brutality and mass incarceration will not do so. Ten thousand more ICE agents will not prevent the decay of the middle class. Because the day is coming when it's not poor hoods who are commiting crime, it will be your neighbor's neighbor kids or the kids of your co-worker. Crime is not inherent to race and nationality. Violence is not inherent to race and nationality. The side-effects of poverty are no inherent to race and nationaity. These things manifest when landscapes are left to rot. What the immigrant MS-13 gang members are doing now will be the same thing that everyone being left behind in the present will potentially do in the future. With the ailments of forty years of neo-liberal policy snowballing, the violence and crime to be committed by future generations actually has the potential to be worse. It's a wonder that more people don't know the history of the French Revolution in the United States.
But this is not a call to let MS-13 off the hook. Violent criminals should not be left to roam the streets simply because they didn't get a fair shake, so to speak, when it came to social injustices. Injustice occurs everywhere all of the time, it's no excuse for the crimes that certain MS-13 gang members have been accused of. Violent criminals should be apprehended, arrested, and imprisoned after their day in court. In some instances deportation may even be necessary.
Incidentally - speaking of neoliberal wars on leftists - I would be remiss if I did not bring up the white elephant in the room when it comes to MS-13 and Salvadoran immigrants. I said I'd be touching on the Salvadoran Civil War again, well, here it is: Salvadorans came to the United States, bringing MS-13 with them, fleeing their little nation state as the result of a brutal thirteen-year long civil war that American neoliberal foreign policy funded simply as a means of keeping El Salvador from falling to Marxist rebels a la Cuba. The US spent billions funding this fight; all while propping up a right-wing butcher who'd go on to kill 75,000 of his own people. So much for the notion of the idea that people have the right to live free from living under fear, specifically the fear of a despotic ruler, as per the accords written in the Atlantic Charter. It's almost hard not to see the inevitable seeding of the MS-13 gang on American soil and the violence they've wrought as something that might constitute a sick and sad manifestation of karma at play.
For every gang member you brutalize - or even kill - in the name of policing our streets, you run the high risk of creating at least two more. It's the same principle behind the reason why the "war on terrorism," and how we go about fighting it, is a losing scenario. Ultimately these "wars" are nothing more than money pits for taxpayers.
As for the weapons manufacturers and defense and security contractors, Trump's police state America would be like Christmas for them every day if we started green lighting such tactics; sure. But these groups don't care about the country, they don't care about constitutional rights, state rights, or the welfare of the people who reside in them. If the country fell into chaos, or just flat out fell as in it ceased to be, it would make no difference to them. All they do with their surplus value in the form of capital earned each quarter is they horde it; offshore preferably. They care about their business. At most they'll reinvest some of that wealth in their business, but that's all. They'd let everyone in the country who doesn't consume their commodity or service suffer so long as their quarterly statement looks good. And if militarizing police forces is going to help certain privateers out, then, well, the free market has spoken! And that's what this all leads up to.
Once police start taking the law into their own hands against the people - even bad people - the people blow back. We're already seeing the beginnings of that, but it can get a whole lot worse; a whole lot. And when the population blows back, then the police blow back harder. But this time they don't come looking like your friendly community law enforcement officers of the peace, they come dressed and acting like they're fighting in a war zone. But they're not, nor have they ever been. I can hear the 2011 words of USMC Sgt. Shamar Thomas ringing in my ears now. So the biggest and most blatant reason why encouraging police brutality against the people who live in any given region is a calamitous mistake - even the evil bad violent gang members - is it engenders police forces to adapt those same tactics and methods against people who are not affiliated with any such gangs. As for the MS-13 in Brentwood situation specifically: It starts with brutalizing the gang members, then it spreads to anyone who speaks Spanish in the area, then it spreads to people who speak Spanish anywhere in Suffolk Co., and from there it then spreads to everyone and anyone. As the old adage goes, give someone a hammer and then things all start looking like nails.
To the Suffolk Co. PD's credit, and many other individual police enforcement officers on social media, they essentially publicly renounced Trump's statements. But only because the Suffolk Co. PD is smart enough to know that they have to. They don't have the luxury of sounding like a buffoon as Trump has. When it comes to this matter, it's not Trump who will be scrutinized when shit starts hitting the fan over police brutality. Whether or not the police will abide by their public statements is another matter. One would hope that they do.
Brutalizing suspects, even known gang members, will not in any way solve these issues. Hiring 10,000 more ICE agents will not solve the issue. But it can result in the hazard of making things worse. I've discussed the long-term solution; the short-term solution is just as easy: good diligent police work by professionals. Easier said than done, I understand, but it's a process. The problem wasn't created overnight nor will it be solved overnight. But never let it be said that President Trump wasn't above the potential exploitation of police lives in order to deflect attention away from his own political crisis. What a terrible speech given by a terrible leader. Anyone who applauded it needs to take a long look in the mirror.