Above photo: From KMBC on Youtube.
Clearing the FOG co-hosts Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese interviewed Jacqueline Luqman of Coffe, Current Events and Politics in Luqman Nation about the Department of Justice’s new Operation Relentless Pursuit. The initial phase of the program, which costs $71 million, targets seven cities, four of them majority black, with more money, police equipment, and federal law enforcement to supposedly combat crime. Luqman explains what the impact of the program will be on poor and black communities and what would be a more effective approach to crime. Listen to the full interview plus recent news and analysis, including what the corporate media isn’t telling you about Iran and Iraq, on Clearing the FOG.
Margaret Flowers (MF): Our guest is Jacqueline Luqman. Jacqueline is the editor-in-chief and co-host of Coffee, Current Events and Politics in Luqman Nation. She’s also a host and producer at the Real News Network and a longtime activist in Washington DC.
Kevin Zeese (KZ): Can you tell us what Operation Relentless Pursuit is?
Jacqueline Luqman (JL): Operation Relentless Pursuit is a DOJ, Department of Justice, federal law enforcement initiative that is supposed to be targeted at seven of the country’s “most violent cities”, the seven cities that are going through levels of violent crime that are higher than the national average. Right now, they’re targeting this effort at Albuquerque, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Memphis and Milwaukee.
What they claim they are doing is to combine the resources of the ATF, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, and US Marshals to provide additional manpower. They are providing seventy-one million dollars to hire more officers at the local level for law enforcement in these seven cities.
The Department of Justice under William Barr announced this operation as and somewhere down in the weeds of this announcement, they said that this will be just an initial effort. So if in their estimation whatever they do is successful, and we don’t know how they intend to measure success, then they will expand this and unleash it on other cities in the country. It’s really kind of frightening.
MF: They are using military terminology as if the people they’re targeting are enemies. Four out of the seven cities are majority-black cities. What do you think about this military approach to what the police are doing?
JL: Being someone who lived through the increase in police presence in predominantly black and predominantly poor neighborhoods that were hardest hit by the crack epidemic, it really terrifies me. It really scares me what is about to happen to the communities that are the targets of this effort. This is not going to be an effort where the federal government is going in to help anybody.
The federal government is unleashing federal law enforcement agencies, expanding the reach of several federal agencies, merging them pretty much into one effort, providing material support to already problematic local law enforcement agencies in the these cities and giving them more hardware, more money, and more cover to ramp up abuse of an already abused and marginalized population of black, largely native and largely poor people. We’ve seen what comes of this. It feeds into the surge in mass incarceration of those groups of people. It continues to perpetuate the destabilization of communities. It rips families apart. It criminalizes low-level nonviolent activity among people who are really just trying to survive in a society that’s already decided that it’s not going to invest any resources to provide jobs, decent housing, equitably-funded and quality education, health care that people need including substance abuse and other community resources.
This government knows these are required to support a stable and thriving community. The government doesn’t want to provide funds for those things, but it can surge 71 million dollars to hire more cops and to pay overtime to basically terrorize these communities. That’s what I’m very afraid is going to happen.
KZ: I’ve worked in this area of mass incarceration, racially unfair policing, and the drug war since 1980 when I got out of law school. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. It’s an election-year gimmick we’ve seen in the Reagan Era, under the first Bush, and under Clinton. If you were in charge, what would be an approach that you would recommend as opposed to this law enforcement approach?
JL: The interesting thing about this whole issue of crime in these predominantly black neighborhoods is that unfortunately, some people feel like they need more police because people are afraid. People are legitimately afraid of some of the criminal elements in these neighborhoods. I don’t want to dismiss the fact that yes, there is a problem with crime in some of these neighborhoods.
First, I would say that crime exists in every neighborhood. So if the federal government is going to surge resources to combat violent crime in most of these cities that are predominantly black, then I would counter with okay, so where are the federal resources that are being surged to combat human trafficking of sex slaves that are being imported from places in Asia and Europe? There’s no massive rollout of a surge of law enforcement and resources to combat that. There is no surge against communities where white-collar crime, identity theft, and insider trading exist because those crimes are not seen as dangerous to the fabric of society.
History has shown us that decent-paying jobs that people can support their families on, quality housing, access to healthcare, quality education that prepares children to be able to participate in society so they can get a job are the things combat crime. The reason why people largely commit crimes is that they have to feed themselves and they can’t find a legitimate way to make money.
Crime is largely about commerce, black-market commerce. A lot of this crime is driven by illicit drug sales. So one of the things that I would absolutely do other than to provide the other things we talked about is to legalize a lot of the drugs that are sold on the street. If you take the criminal element out of the drug trade, then you reduce crime.
Other cities are looking at taking that approach. Chicago and Illinois, in general, are pursuing a pretty robust effort to not only legalize marijuana but also to ensure that the people who were previously criminalized through illegal marijuana sales are able to now benefit from the legal sale of marijuana. They are making sure that people in the communities hardest hit by the war on drugs are able to get licenses to open up their own dispensaries.
There are some pretty common-sense responses. Provide people jobs. Stop taking people’s homes. Make sure that people have affordable places to live. Increase the number of truly affordable housing and provide some type of tax benefit for working people so that they can keep their homes. Definitely invest in public schools. Provide resources and programs for kids and recreation centers. Restore the recreation centers that were closed especially in places, like Baltimore. Provide subsidized mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment for people who need it. If we do those things, crime will go down. And also pursue legalization or at least the decriminalization of nonviolent drug offenses and expunge people’s records so that they can get jobs even if they have been convicted of a crime. In this society, we continue to punish people who have been convicted of crimes even after they’ve served their sentences.
MF: Baltimore spends three times as much money on police as they do on the health department and twice as much as they spend on education. That shows you where the priorities are. Since the financial crash in 2008, nobody except a few low-level employees have been held accountable for that crash that devastated the economy and caused so many people to lose their homes, lose their pensions and their savings. It is structural policies that are discriminatory towards black and brown people that are partly responsible for the severe wealth divide between white people and black and brown people. Redlining began in Baltimore where banks refused to give loans to black people to keep them out of certain areas.
JL: It’s interesting that most of the people who live in the mostly poor neighborhoods in Baltimore and in other cities like that are renters. They rent their homes from someone else and most of those landlords are largely absent. They don’t live in the city and it’s hard to find out who those property owners are.
The property owner who’s an absent landlord and who’s usually a slumlord actually gets tax benefits and tax breaks that make them additional money on top of the rent that they make. The people who live in the properties and pay their rent every month, and usually have to also pay utilities, don’t get any kind of tax benefit or any other benefit other than they’re not homeless for paying their rent every month. That is incredibly unfair.
It is a system that outside of redlining still benefits a particular class of people who are largely non-black people in this country. Baltimore is a particularly saturated example of that but so is Washington DC and a lot of cities that have a high concentration of poor and black people. So there are some kinds of real estate and investment-focused problems that are modern in nature and that have happened since redlining that continue to exacerbate this problem. There is a small group of rich mostly white people who are benefiting from holding a bunch of largely poor black people hostage in these neighborhoods.
Renters are getting no benefits from the rent they’re paying. They’re not getting any benefits from their taxes. They’re not getting any benefit from their money going into the public schools to provide a decent education for their kids. They’re not getting support from the police because the police see them as the enemy largely and they treat them that way. They get no respect from the elected officials who may come around their neighborhoods every 4 or 2 years to take pictures and to make some promises. No one ever goes after the people who are literally taking advantage of these people every month because they need a place to live.
That’s another one of those issues that people don’t think about when they think about crime and white-collar crime. These crimes are a very large contributor to the problems that people in these neighborhoods face.
MF: A big part of the racial wealth divide is the difference in homeownership because for most people their homes are their major asset. That’s something that they build equity in and pass on to their children.
KZ: Obama’s response to the crash didn’t stop this massive transfer of wealth from poor mostly black and brown communities. People lost their homes in foreclosure while they bailed out the banks who caused the problem. It just keeps repeating itself over and over again.
I want to talk about the drug war. Last week, Atlanta announced it’s going to disband its drug squad and focus on real crimes. That’s a major change. The San Francisco District Attorney who was just elected announced he’s going to be putting forward a very different program than when Kamala Harris was DA. And the Philadelphia DA has stopped arresting marijuana offenders as has New York. This is a big transition.
In Baltimore, only 30% of murders are solved. Nationwide, it’s 50%. Back in 1965, the clearance rate for homicides was 90%. Today with all this new technology, with cameras everywhere in these neighborhoods, we’re down to 30 to 50% depending on the city in clearing murders. A lot of that could be attributed to the drug war.
The drug war essentially means police focus on the much easier enforcement of street drug sales and that usually means poor communities. In wealthy communities, white students do it in their college dorm or inside their homes. In poorer communities, people do it on the street, so it’s much easier for police to make those arrests.
The drug war leads to police corruption. It leads to violations of people’s rights against search and seizure, and the use of informants. There are so many aspects of drug enforcement that are undermining the quality of policing and are taking police resources. What do you think about this idea from Atlanta to disband the drug unit?
JL: I think that is a critical step toward solving violent crimes. Drug use is not about criminality. Drug sales are not about criminality. Aside from recreationally, people who are addicted to drugs use drugs to escape a reality that they can’t deal with. Nobody wakes up and decides I’m going to be an addict or I’m going to be a drug dealer. That’s not how that works.
Drug sales at the low street level are acts of economic desperation. If you want to call it a crime, okay fine. It’s a crime of opportunity. It is a crime of this is all I have left to do in order to make the money I need to survive. Police departments really need to get out of the business of the war on drugs because as Atlanta has seen, it’s not a business that’s been good for them. It’s a business that never ends.
Regardless of what this administration says about having the lowest unemployment among African-Americans that we’ve ever seen, unemployment among black people is still twice as high as the national average. That is because there are no jobs in neighborhoods where poor black people live. That’s why poor black people exist. And that’s a manufactured condition.
When you factor in unemployment, the lack of job opportunities, the lack of infrastructure to get people to jobs that might exist somewhere not close to where they live, the lack of educational opportunities and the lack of healthcare, people are despondent and depressed. Sometimes a substance to take someone out of their difficult reality is all people have. That’s a societal and a mental health issue. That’s not a criminal issue.
Some police departments are recognizing that and are wisely focusing on dealing with actual crimes. The problem is that the societal and mental health issues are still left unaddressed, but the police can’t do that. That’s not their job. And I don’t want the police to be responsible for looking out for people’s mental health or societal issues.
I do respect police departments that recognize they can’t continue to punish and criminalize people for problems that are not actually criminal. So what now has to happen in places like Atlanta and other jurisdictions that hopefully follow their lead, is that the local, state and federal response has to be toward addressing the societal and the mental health issues. It was the government, elected officials and policy that created those issues that led to those societal problems. The issues that predominantly poor, black and native communities face were done to us. Those were not things that we did. So somebody needs to step in and address those issues and it’s not the cops.
KZ: The Kerner Commission in the 1960s talked about the need for investment in inner-city neighborhoods. It’s gotten worse rather than better. Rather than taking the advice of Kerner, we fought the Vietnam war and that absorbed the resources rather than putting money into our urban areas.
On the drug issue, I want to throw out some ideas that cities should be considering. In addition to police not being able to solve the health and social problem of drug use, drug addiction and drug trafficking, which are economic and social issues, we need to put in place policies that confront the drug issue like a lot of the things you talked about. I’d also add some specifics on drug policy. Harm reduction has the goal of reducing harm from drug use, reducing overdose deaths and reducing the spread of disease. It includes programs like needle exchange, which have finally gotten more widespread in urban areas, and programs to allow a public space where there’s a health professional observing people using their drugs to prevent overdose and the spread of disease.
We need to go toward what’s known in Switzerland as heroin-assisted treatment. It started out as legal heroin for people who are addicted to heroin and who had failed on drug treatment because they wanted heroin. They were allowed to go to a government-controlled space, buy heroin at a legal price, which is about 10% of the illegal price, and use it at the site. They were put in touch with various counseling for education, housing, social services, and jobs.
What they found was a tremendous reduction in crime. There was a tremendous reduction in prostitution, trafficking and dealing because many people sell drugs to support their own drug use. But the big surprise was that people who were part of this program got tired of using heroin and they wanted to stop using it. They had been able to put back their life together. They had rebuilt relationships with family and friends. They didn’t need the crutch of heroin anymore and heroin became a burden for them. So in addition to the police not solving the problem, there are health and social programs that can. We should talk about community control of police but in addition to that, the issue is what else do you put in place?
JL: Last week, I did an interview with Brandon Walker who is an organizer with Ujima People’s Progress Party in Baltimore about the surge. We also talked about how Baltimore is now one of the most surveilled cities in the United States with this pilot program that is going to have drones surveil the city in order to combat crime. So, this Federal initiative from the DOJ is really not new because cities across the country have been trying what they call innovative measures to combat crime. What they really end up doing is catching a lot of people in low-level street drug sales and criminalizing people because they are suffering from the economic sanctions that have been placed on them and their communities by this government.
It is an ongoing battle for marginalized communities in this country to combat the marginalization that always finds a way, especially in this capitalist society, to not just maintain the marginalization and the oppression but to metastasize and grow into these different and new ways to continue to keep people who have already been pushed onto the margins in the margins. So issues like community control over the police are very important to people in these communities to reconnect them with their revolutionary spirit. It is also very important for them to advocate for themselves against that system of oppression where people recognize that not only does the police department not serve them but is also the law enforcement arm of the oppressive system.
Communities are now saying that instead of this system imposing upon us who polices us, we should control who is hired, fired and how discipline for offenses against the community is handled. Community members should control the police departments in our communities. That’s not something the city council should do and it’s certainly not something that police unions and the police departments should be in control over. The community should be control over who polices them.
Organizations like Ujima People’s Progress Party in Baltimore are focusing on that and other efforts. Black Alliance For Peace is doing that nationally and Pan African Community Action is focusing on that here in DC. I bet you every city that this Operation Relentless Pursuit is about to be unleashed in has an organization that’s focusing on something like community control over the police. Nationally, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression was just relaunched and control over the police is a focus of their national campaign.
This is a very important step in communities that have been marginalized through government policy and police abuse to advocate for control of one aspect of that equation. This is something that black organizations and radical organizations have been demanding for decades. But it’s especially important now that we have another push from the federal government to reassert a military-like control of law enforcement in these communities.
KZ: I want people to understand this is not community policing. This is community control of policing. We’ve covered this on Popular Resistance dot-org. There’s a detailed plan for this and Chicago is very advanced.
MF: Here in Baltimore, our police train with the Israeli Defense Forces. They use their techniques. They literally occupy neighborhoods. I remember an evening we had in Palestine in the village of Nabi Saleh where we were talking with Palestinian activists there about the whole idea of being a victim versus being someone who has agency, who takes action to change things. When you’re a victim, you feel stressed by that because you have no control. Occupation makes people feel like you’re being watched all the time. Anything you do could be the wrong thing and could lead to trouble. But if you actually have control over that situation, that’s a huge stress reducer for people. That in itself would have positive impacts on health. It feels like so much what we’re doing in this country is counterproductive and I’m glad that you’re bringing some sanity to what we should be doing instead.
JL: I appreciate that. I’m not sure if I’m bringing sanity to it, but I know that I am fascinated. I’m honored always in awe at the tireless work that a lot of people that I come in contact with are doing on so many different fronts because it does seem daunting.
We have the same issues here in DC with the police. The Metropolitan Police Department is trained by the IDF also in Israel, and they do the same tactics. If I walk out of my house right now and go up the street, I guarantee you there are at least two police cars from two jurisdictions posted up on opposite corners of one street. And if I go to the other end of the street, it’ll be the same thing.
It’s against that backdrop that there are those of us in these communities who are so incredibly defiant because we know that we have to keep fighting on so many different fronts for a lot of our people who are just tired and beaten down, but we cannot give up. When I talk to people on the Real News or on By Any Means Necessary or on our own platform or when I talk to you, I hope that when people hear it, if they were tired, they’re at least encouraged to try one more time. If that’s what comes from anything I say and anything I do, then as far as I’m concerned I’ve won.
KZ: Obviously you can be heard on The Real News Network where you have a regular show. Where else can people catch your work?
JL: My husband and I have our platform on Facebook and YouTube. It’s called “Coffee, Current Events and Politics in Luqman Nation” and we’re usually live every Sunday night at 7 p.m. I’m also on By Any Means Necessary on Sputnik Radio every weekday from 2 to 4 p.m. You can listen live to Sputnik Radio on the website SputnikNews.com, but you can also catch us live on Facebook at Sputnik on Facebook every day from 3:00 to 4:00. I’m also a member of Black Alliance For Peace, Pan-African Community Action and anywhere else that I can talk about these issues.