Expected Consequences

There’s every reason for pessimism regarding both the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, and the likely eventual outcome of the nationwide uprising. Present circumstances on the one hand, and long histories of brutality and cynicism on the other give sound foundation to our despair. And yet, I’ve been encouraged to witness the rapid evolution of this movement in the streets (about the pandemic, I really can’t offer much encouragement at the moment beyond the potential sources of hope to which I’ve pointed in recent weeks). In addition to the wonted legal observers and volunteer street medics, the protests – no doubt through a combination of effort by their organizers and crowdsourced grassroots initiative – are now regularly characterized by distribution of free food and water; giveaways of masks, hand sanitizer, and even sunscreen; increasingly nuanced political education (and imploration to vote) in speeches from organizers; and robust digital and in-person efforts to share best practices to keep each other safe, maximize collective effectiveness, and avoid summary detention. Perhaps no one aspect of this praxis is new, but just as the scale and intensity of this nationwide explosion of anger are, in my lifetime, novel, so too the coordination and duration of the mass demonstrations in New York outstrip anything I’ve witnessed here or elsewhere (though, of course, as I wrote about yesterday, these new developments have roots in years and decades of work by organizers, activists, and thinkers).

Briefly on the pandemic, India’s apex body for biomedical research has now issued a study suggesting that the “Covid-19 peak in India may arrive [in] mid-November” and that “paucity of ICU beds [and] ventilators [is] likely”; so much for the blithe pronouncements of the Indian Government and the insane rumors and prognostications circulating on WhatsApp (which is, of course, owned by Facebook) that the pandemic would end in April, or May, or whenever based on the prediction of some godman or blessed child. Straight through the harsh, failed, devastating nationwide lockdown in India – and still – the number of new confirmed cases recorded continued to steadily accelerate, and November is still a long way off.

Here in the US, the lies and propaganda circulate, primarily, on Facebook proper (it’s the company’s business model), though the corporate media also does its fair share of the lie-telling. Case in point, as I’ve noted previously, there was a spate of reporting in major media outlets that on June 3rd in New York City, there were no confirmed COVID-19 deaths. The City’s official data portal now shows 37 confirmed deaths on June 3rd, which is a lot more than zero, and enough to make COVID-19 the second leading cause of death in the five boroughs that day (based on the average daily rate of death, with only heart disease killing more than 37 New Yorkers per day on average). Seems like a big mistake, and a big oversight not to go back and correct that mis-reportage, but such is the state of truth-telling and accountability-holding in the United States.

Good news, though, the New York Times has discovered Mariame Kaba! If it’s another sign of a true, lasting transformation being worked in our politics, all the better. Let’s hope.

Good piece in The Intercept today by David Segal and Astra Taylor entitled, “Police Budgets, Austerity, and Tax Cuts for the Rich Are Colliding in Democratic States and Cities” – the following stood out to me:

Unfortunately, even a wildly successful “divest/invest” approach alone won’t come close to filling the budget gaps so many states now face. To simply ensure that the current, and woefully insufficient, baseline of state investment in poorer communities and communities of color will even be maintained, we will need to do more. With many states facing deficits equal to around 10-25 percent of their budgets, we must demand a restructuring so that communities least burdened by the ongoing pandemic and recession — and by discriminatory and regressive state fiscal practices — pay more. […] In other words, we need to tax the rich […]

There’s been a lot of emphasis on the – admittedly staggering – almost $6 billion annual budget of the NYPD, and yet, contrary to many statements (which are no doubt valid regarding other cities) about police spending constituting a third or even a half of municipal budgets, the NYPD budget has, in recent years, accounted for ~6-7% of New York City’s annual outlays. Obviously, the pandemic has thrown many budget commitments and projections into doubt, but a glance at NYC’s Fiscal Year 2020 Budget (which was slated to be $92.5 billion before COVID-19 hit; go to page 2E for line item details) gives insight into some basic facts. Pre-pandemic, the NYPD budget for FY 2020 was slated to be ~$5.6 billion. That’s a lot. However, the Department of Education budget was slated to be ~$25.6 billion. That’s a lot more – like 4-5x more, in fact.

How do we reconcile the fact that even cutting the entire NYPD budget would only allow for a 20-25% increase in education spending (setting aside all of our other neglected social priorities – with NYCHA apparently in need of $30-40 billion in capital expenditures, the MTA in dire straits, our public health infrastructure obviously in a state of deep crisis, etc., etc.)? I’ve pointed previously to an excellent, long, paywalled piece in Catalyst, but I’ll point to it again: The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration. What Segal and Taylor point out above is evidence of a disconcerting truth: It is cheaper to pursue “organized abandonment” – in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, which they quote – while dumping money into militarized policing and the prison-industrial complex, than it is to actually fund generous social welfare programs and public goods. Defunding (or even, as Kaba and Gilmore call for, abolishing) the police won’t be sufficient to fill our budget gaps anymore than fully dismantling the carceral state will be. Social welfare, public goods, and world-class infrastructure simply cost a lot of money, in part because they are meant to serve and be used by all, whereas, even in the United States, only a small single-digit fraction of the population is in active contact with police or prison systems at any moment (although the threat embodied in those systems, like the thrumming of a helicopter overhead, is a constant, menacing presence).

Will we live by love or by terror? By affirming death, or affirming life?

I haven’t even mentioned climate crisis (that is, in considering the immense expenses involved in addressing social needs), and given that climate disruption is the defining issue or our times, and represents the convergence of more or less all threats and all opportunities in the realm of the social and political, I’ll point briefly to one of the only substantive references in the Regional Plan Association’s Third Regional Plan – full title: A Region at Risk: The Third Regional Plan; published in early 1996 – to climate crisis. The following image is drawn from page 102 of the Plan:


The politics of the RPA are neoliberal in the extreme, but for nearly a hundred years, the nonprofit has been engaged with a sort of systemic, region-wide consideration of the functioning and future of the Greater New York City metropolitan area. It’s been 24 years since this staid, corporatist body declared: “An expected consequence of global climate change is an increase in sea levels and in the frequency and severity of coastal storms,” and it will soon have been a decade since Superstorm Sandy wrought havoc all along the coastline of the US Northeast. What progress have we made? Not very much.

Defunding the police is an important, worthy, and monumental goal in its own right, but without a mass convergence towards a life-affirming politics, the redirection of the ~$6 billion in New York City, or the $100 billion odd spent nationwide on police forces will make only a very marginal contribution towards funding the transition towards a just, sane, and livable future on Earth. The merit of the former effort is not predicated on its contribution to the latter, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves about the character and scale of the various, interrelated tasks at hand.

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