The conservative movement is committed to two mutually reinforcing policies: plutocratic giveaways that empower the ultra-wealthy, and law-and-order crackdowns that target the poor, people of color, immigrants and the working class.
President Trump’s agenda perfectly reflects this dystopian dynamic. His vast corporate tax handout is already filling the pockets of those that control our country’s economic system: On Saturday February 24, for instance, in his annual letter to shareholders, the billionaire Warren Buffet announced that his company Berkshire Hathaway had raked in more than $29 billion in gains thanks to the tax bill alone. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that roughly 100 US companies have announced that they will use the windfall from tax savings to finance more than $178 billion in stock buybacks—a practice that will primarily benefit their shareholders. The rich, in other words, are getting much richer.
At the same time, the Trump administration has made punishment its principal tool for managing those on the margins. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has enthusiastically reignited the war on drugs, rescinding in January a number of Obama-era policies that had directed federal prosecutors to avoid interfering with marijuana-friendly states. The Department of Homeland Security, for its part, continues its vicious crackdown on immigrant communities across the country. In 2017, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency arrested more than 155,000 undocumented immigrants, more than 30 percent of whom had no criminal record whatsoever. More than 2.2 million people, meanwhile, remain locked in prisons, and the Trump administration has shown no desire to shrink that abysmal figure.
Thankfully, there are better angels outside of the Beltway, and they’ve been busy this past month. From coast to coast, in places like Philadelphia, Columbus, Kansas City, and Oakland, legislators and officials and organizers have been working to overturn the failures of the federal drug war, to provide for those living in precarious conditions and to improve the health and well-being of their constituents and neighbors. Unlike their conservative counterparts, they want no part in policies that empower the already powerful and oppress the already oppressed.
A Promising Start for Philadelphia’s Progressive New DA
Larry Krasner—the long-time civil-rights attorney who was elected in a landslide in November to be Philadelphia’s district attorney—has made his mark in little more than a month in office. After a bold campaign that called for an end to mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and the death penalty, he is rapidly reforming his new office.
In mid-February, Krasner made his first significant move to roll back the city’s war-on-drugs law enforcement culture when he announced that his office would exercise its discretion and drop more than 50 misdemeanor marijuana possession charges.
“The stance going forward is that we will not be prosecuting small amounts of marijuana possession,” says Krasner spokesperson Ben Waxman. “It is pretty simple: Larry doesn’t believe it is a good use of resources to prosecute these kinds of cases when they are brought.”
Instead, Krasner will be using the resources of his office to tackle real problems. On February 15, Krasner announced that he had filed a civil lawsuit against a number of powerful opioid manufacturers and distributors, including Purdue, Allergan, and Johnson & Johnson. The lawsuit’s objective, according to Waxman, is to hold accountable the pharmaceutical companies that both caused and benefited from the opioid addiction epidemic that has ravaged cities like Philadelphia.
“We are going after the big fish, and seeking monetary damages for the role that Big Pharma has played in the opioid crisis,” says Waxman.
Another hopeful move? On February 21, Krasner’s office declared that it would end cash bail for a wide variety of low-level criminal offenses in the city.
“There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a flight risk, and is no threat to their neighbors and community, needs to sit in jail for days because they can’t post a small amount of bail,” Krasner said at the time of announcement.
The end of cash-bail requirements for low-level offenses, Waxman adds, is about racial and economic justice.
“Racism and classism are intertwined,” he says, “and cash bail policies have disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color.” Under Krasner, Philadelphia activists hope, those days are coming to an end.
“Ban the Box” Comes to Kansas City
Criminal-justice reform came to Missouri this month as well. On February 1, the City Council in Kansas City passed a “ban the box” ordinance that prohibits private businesses from asking prospective employees about their criminal record on initial job and housing applications. The city joins more than 150 other municipalities and counties across the country that have similar policies in place.
The ordinance was backed by faith and civil-rights groups in the city, and sponsored by council member Jermaine Reed.
“People with criminal records suffer from pervasive discrimination in many areas of their life, including employment, housing, and education,” says Reed. “I wanted to be on the front lines of this issue and help level the playing field.”
The new law passed with only one opposing vote and takes effect this summer.
As the Trump administration works to eviscerate federal funding for crucial social services, making life even more difficult for the poorest among us, creative local legislators are doing their best to keep basic human decency alive. In Columbus, Ohio, for instance, the City Council approved a funding package earlier this month to help create a new program that will offer rental assistance and other aid to pregnant women who have lost their homes or are at risk of losing them.
The program is meant to help tackle the city’s high infant-mortality rate: Columbus and surrounding Franklin County are marred by an infant death rate of 8.7 per 1,000 live births, well above the national average. The problem is exacerbated by the number of pregnant women who are homeless in the city. Last year, according to The Columbus Dispatch, there were at least 354 pregnant women living in city shelters.
The new $200,000 program will help 20 expecting mothers pay rent for 12 to 18 months, and legislators in Columbus hope to expand the initiative in years to come.
“There is enough stress and physical difficulty that goes along with pregnancy,” says Elizabeth Brown, the council member who pushed for the funding and who is an expecting mother herself. “But it is nothing near the level of stress a woman feels when she doesn’t know where she is going to lay her head at night or find her next meal.”
Brown says she believes the new program is unique to Columbus, and says the city will be closely monitoring its impact on public health. The program is also being supported by the Anthem Foundation and the Ohio governor’s office.
“Pregnant women need to have stable housing and a robust network of support, things like food, employment and social services,” she adds. “When one of the legs of that stool collapses, it has a detrimental effect on a woman’s well-being, on her stress level and on her fetus.”
A Solution for Oakland’s Homelessness Crisis?
Homelessness and housing insecurity, of course, are not limited to Columbus. At the far edge of the country, some 2,000 miles away, the Bay Area has seen its homeless population rise, and rise still more, as increasing rents, gentrification, and a dire affordable-housing crunch have pushed people out of their homes and neighborhoods. Now, however, Oakland City Council member Rebecca Kaplan has put forward an intriguing proposal that would provide the city with an influx of resources and help it more adequately grapple with its housing crisis.
The proposal would create a special tax on vacant properties in the city, and use the proceeds to fund a wide variety of homelessness services. Kaplan says the city could, for example, tax its 5,000 vacant properties at a rate upward of $4,000 a piece each year, and collect $20 million annually to help provide for those living on the streets and in shelters.
“My goal is to address this homelessness crisis from both directions,” says Kaplan. “The money from the new tax would be dedicated to funding solutions to homelessness. At the same time the tax would only apply to vacant properties and so it would encourage people to put their vacant properties back into use. It would make more housing available by encouraging people not to just sit on them and leave them vacant.”
Kaplan says the proposal, which will have to go before voters on the November 2018 ballot, is currently being reviewed by the city attorney’s office. If it passes, the new tax will be used to fund traditional programs like shelters as well as legal-aid programs for tenants and a “rapid rehousing initiative” that would provide rental assistance to the recently evicted. Kaplan also hopes the city will explore building a slew of small prefabricated homes, sometimes referred to as “box homes,” in order to help increase the housing stock.
“We have a huge homelessness problem in Oakland that has gone up dramatically in recent year,” Kaplan adds. “There are almost 3,000 people living on streets, and the funding for homelessness resources has not kept up.” Taxing vacant units, she believes, will do a great deal to fill the vacuum. She also says that other Bay Area cities, including Berkeley, have shown interest in creating similar programs of their own.
Meanwhile, all the way across the Atlantic, in the United Kingdom, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbin has offered up an even bolder vision for tackling homelessness, reminding progressives of just how big they can and should set their sights. In a BBC interview, during which he called homelessness “disgraceful” and “wholly unnecessary,” he vowed that, should a Labour government gain power, it would “immediately purchase 8,000 properties across the country to give immediate housing to those people who are currently homeless.”