“The heir to a cruel tradition”: on the US attorney general Jeff Sessions’ plan to combat urban crime

Jeff Sessions. Image: Getty.

Donald Trump is a lousy authoritarian.

From his total lack of interest in seizing the reins of state power, to his losing legislative record despite his party controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Trump has failed spectacularly at turning his strongman political performance into actual political dominance.

Yet we shouldn’t allow Trump’s shining impotence to push us into the arms of false comfort. For starters, he and his clique of racist gargoyles are working hard to make life more perilous for women, people of colour, and immigrants in ways obvious to anyone who bothers to look.

And, importantly, Trump’s strongman theatrics are pointless to begin with. Not because America’s institutions are bulletproof to such an attack, but because those institutions are already effortlessly mobilised in the service of human misfortune.
As political science professor Corey Robin explains, America’s most terrible assaults on human dignity have never been carried out in defiance of the country’s institutions, but through them.

History is bloated with examples. The enslavement of millions of black bodies, followed by a century long campaign of terror waged against their descendants. The violent suppression of organised labour. The internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans. The normalisation of torture and sabotage of democracy across the globe. A highlight reel of domestic and international brutality, all carried out, as Robin lays bare, “not by shredding the constitution but by writing and interpreting and executing the constitution”.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a master of the trade. And his recently announced plan to combat violent crime in 12 mostly black, mostly poor cities is his latest tribute to the cause.

Modeled after an Obama era crime reduction program, the National Public Safety Partnership is a misty, but still useful, window into Sessions’ criminal justice priorities for the nation’s most vilified communities.

Basically, cities targeted under the program will work closely with DOJ officials ― through a tangled web of consultants, liaisons and agency administrators ― to enhance their crime reduction efforts. According to the website, this model enables the DOJ “to provide American cities of different sizes and diverse needs with data-driven, evidence-based strategies tailored to [their] unique local needs.”

Sounds harmless enough. But behind this thick fog of stiff, technocratic language lurks Sessions’ actual vision. From life-devouring prison sentences, to outfitting police with weapons of war and the erosion of any means to hold them accountable, the Sessions DOJ is set to unleash an avalanche of the most destructive forces in criminal justice policy. It’s a lifeline, of sorts, to an era many hoped we might soon escape. An era when politicians and law enforcement officials built careers on the promise to punish the hell out of poor black and brown people, and then proceeded to make good on that promise.

It is, no doubt, impossible to know what the future holds. But Sessions has made plain his belief that recent talk of pivoting away from a tough-on-crime approach to law enforcement is a recipe for social ruin. The likeliest outcome, then, is that the program will act as an adhesive, bringing federal and local law enforcement efforts into closer harmony around the heavy-handed tactics that dominated the last half-century of criminal justice policy. Indeed, it is foolish, and borders on the lethally irresponsible, to imagine that a program under the direction of one Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III would serve as anything but another weapon in the service of that vision.

A vision, it bears mentioning, which is heir to a cruel tradition in American politics. Since at least the time of Reconstruction, the country’s Wise Men have looked out on America’s black cities and seen lands of smoldering chaos, threatening to spread that ruin outward unless blocked by more responsible forces. Along the way, America’s institutions have often served as the major thoroughfare for their crusade.

It was, after all, the country’s deliberative bodies which passed the Fugitive Slave Act, strengthening the right to property in human flesh. Not long after, the highest court in the land extinguished Dred Scott’s hopes for freedom – not to mention those of untold others – by ruling that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”.

Two decades later, following the collapse of the Southern slave empire, a body of law in the form of Jim Crow launched a century of black social, political, and often physical, death. And it was public policy, executed at every level of government, that walled generations of black people into the ghetto and plundered them blind, cementing their economic ruin. Once popular movements began to splinter those walls: it was the bipartisan work of Democrats and Republicans that ushered in an era of criminal justice barbarism unmatched in the modern world.

The crusaders themselves, confronted with the horror they’d unleashed, would shrug and say what’s done is done: ancient history with no clear connection to present suffering. And in the world’s most painfully boring rerun, black misery is explained away as either the work of mysticism or a people’s peculiar urge to make life unbearable for themselves.

Attorney General Sessions believes some version of this to be true, and is presently skulking around every corner of the country’s institutions, looking for byways to bring hell to America’s most despised communities. In this, Sessions does not represent a rupture with the world we knew. He is a reminder that we have failed, as Hannah Arendt wrote, to break the spell of tradition.

And perhaps that’s it. Those who know these traditions best know that it isn’t enough to harden the country’s immune system to Trump’s weak strain of authoritarianism. The problem for the country is this. Acknowledging this would be to acknowledge that a deeper rot lurks at the heart of the American project ― beginning with the country’s most celebrated institutions, and those who lead them.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.