There is something you must always remember about Jeff Sessions, the attorney general who—on Tuesday, the same day his boss, Donald Trump, fired the FBI director overseeing an investigation into whether Trump, Sessions and other associates broke the law and, maybe, sold out the United States to a kleptocratic dictator with imperial ambitions—announced that the federal Justice Department would reverse Obama-era criminal justice reforms and seek, instead, to imprison Americans for petty, nonviolent, low-level drug offenses.
Sessions has had a nearly 40-year career in public service, and nearly all of it has been spent in the employ of authoritarianism. This move, which, if left unchecked and dutifully carried out by the necessary collaborators in state and local government, as well as law enforcement, will disenfranchise and impoverish millions of Americans. And it is only the latest and grandest scheme to achieve this end.
This is not hyperbole.
The word itself means the concentration of power in a central authority, and the erosion and eventual disappearance of personal rights and freedoms. Let’s look at how the Republicans retook the South, a development that’s still less than 50 years old.
Central to Lee Atwater’s Southern strategy was stoking white Americans’ racist fears, while curtailing black Americans’ nascent political power, only just returning on the tide of the civil rights movement.
The drug war was only one method to achieve this end.
Jeff Sessions made his name as an obedient foot soldier marching under this banner, choosing to use his office as a local federal prosecutor in Alabama to interfere with political organizing and voter-registration efforts aimed at blacks. “Eliminated the political power of an already marginalized minority” is one of the first bullet points on Sessions’s resume. This was too rampant even for the Ronald Reagan era.
After Sessions lost his shot at a federal judgeship, he coped by lashing out by prosecuting two of the African-Americans who testified against him. One spent five years in prison. His office later filed charges against at least six Democratic politicians, often while they were running campaigns.
When you charge someone with a crime, however petty, however falsely, you disempower them.
If you successfully put them in prison, you remove their ability to vote and to work. If someone can’t work and can’t vote, they have no power whatsoever, even over themselves.
This is how authoritarianism works. This is how government works in failing states, in banana republics, in barely functional countries run by strongmen and military juntas using the thinnest of excuses to eliminate opposition by any means necessary.
Vladimir Putin runs Russia in this way, you know.
This is the context in which Sessions’s directive for his prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” This is barely disguised code for “drug charges.”
Thanks to decades of Congress passing stricter and stricter drug laws—something that could not have happened without willing and eager cooperation from Democrats, including Bill Clinton and Joe Biden—petty drug offenses carry mandatory minimums. Those are the cases Sessions says he wants.
If he’s successful, there will be another massive rollback of what measure of power is currently enjoyed by a segment of Americans—who, conveniently, comprise a vital part of the base of Sessions’s and Trump’s political opponents, like the Democratic lawmakers who rightly characterized Sessions’s ploy as a “dumb on crime” effort to create a prison planet.
And no one is denying it!
Sessions’s cheerleaders are gleeful when they realize that his new policy means many more “criminals,” many more prisons to house them and all the collateral implications, including political problems for the resistance.
The thing is, though, that this won’t work unless Sessions has help.
This is the formula. Consolidation of power by a central authority requires dutiful and diligent shock troops carrying out Sessions’s orders. Though Sessions has yet to appoint the very U.S. attorneys who will be tasked with fulfilling his mandate, he will—he’ll find people corruptible by the smell of authority.
What he will also need is faithful cooperation from the rest of us—from state and local authorities, from local cops, county sheriffs and the voters who hire, fire and fund them.
If voters don’t vote lawmakers who build jails and unleash police without any accountability, this won’t work. If sheriffs who help Sessions’s DOJ round up low-level meth users and crack smokers lose their elections, it won’t work.
Jeff Sessions’s life has led to this point, to where he is the man in charge, rather than the servant of power. He now needs footmen to repay the favor.
Don’t let him do it. For now at least, he can be outmaneuvered and beat.
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