“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.

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.