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For White America, It’s ‘Happy Days’ Again

Jeff Sessions rolls the clock back on civil rights enforcement.

Two recent news stories crossed like ships in the night, without much public discussion of how they were related.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all agreements between the Justice Department and local police departments around the country. Sessions wrote that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” and said the DOJ might “pull back” on federal oversight responsibilities under Donald Trump.

The news came after the revelation by the New York Daily News that Daniel Pantaleo – the officer who used a chokehold in the killing of Eric Garner – had repeatedly been disciplined by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) prior to the Garner case. New York City had fought like a tiger to keep this information out of the public eye, and when it finally was released, it was only through an anonymous leak.

The story about Pantaleo shows why the Sessions story is so unsettling.

People laughed when Donald Trump had to get Scott Baio to serve as an opening-day speaker at the Republican National Convention. But the Happy Days symbolism officially takes a darker turn with this Sessions news. What Sessions is suggesting means literally going back to a Fifties-era conception of the Justice Department’s role in preventing local police abuse.

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NY Daily News via Getty

If Sessions has his way, he will holster the most powerful weapon the government has in addressing tragedies like the Garner incident: federal civil rights laws.

The key statute is 18 USC 242, which gives the federal government the right to intervene if a person has been harmed by a “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution.”

An example of when this law comes into play would be a police murder in which the officer is acquitted in a sham trial by an unabashedly corrupt local government. The federal government is supposed to then use its powers to step in and file charges for civil rights violations, correcting the local wrong.

It took decades of hard-fought legal battles to get the government to actually use this tool.

Back in 1959, during the days that Donald Trump once recalled fondly to Michele Bachmann as the time when “even my Jews would say Merry Christmas,” a deputy attorney general named William Rogers wrote a memo very similar in tone to the one Sessions just wrote. He declared that the federal government should not intervene in local controversies and file civil rights charges absent “compelling circumstances.”

In practice, the Rogers memo meant that, provided there had been some kind of local due process, no matter how flawed, the feds wouldn’t step in and take a second whack at an offender in a race killing or a police brutality case.

This prohibition against “dual prosecutions” was the law of the land for nearly 20 years. It didn’t change until after an egregious incident involving an unarmed African-American man named Carnell Russ. In 1971, Russ was shot in the head by a policeman named Charles Lee Ratliff at point-blank range in Star City, Arkansas, after being pulled over for speeding.

Ratliff was acquitted in a joke of a trial in which an all-white jury in Star City took less than 15 minutes to deliberate. Years later, the NAACP sued the federal government – specifically the attorney general under Gerald Ford, Edward Levi – for failing to use its civil rights authority to investigate the obvious problems in the Russ case.

The case went before a Nixon-appointed judge named Barrington Parker, who would later become famous as the judge in the trial of would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley. Parker was African-American. He ruled in the NAACP’s favor. Although the federal government appealed, a deal was later struck between the NAACP and Jimmy Carter’s attorney general, Griffin Bell, whereupon the federal government would look at “each and every allegation of a violation of the civil rights laws … on its own merits.”

The 1977 Bell memo gave birth to the modern civil rights investigation. That means it took until the late Seventies, over 110 years after the Civil War, for the government to finally accept its responsibility to police local police. That the federal government still needs to use those powers is self-evident. Just look at the Garner case and countless others like it, where local governments routinely fail to investigate and/or secure indictments against brutal cops.

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Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty

After the Garner case, three out of four Americans believed there should be charges for Pantaleo. There were protests around the country, and the onslaught of high-profile brutality cases that followed – from Michael Brown in Ferguson to Tamir Rice in Cleveland to Walter Scott in North Charleston to Freddie Gray in Baltimore to Sandra Bland to Dajerria Becton, the 15 year-old girl in a bathing suit thrown to the ground by police in McKinney, Texas – led some people to hope that there would finally be some kind of national discussion on the issue that would result in positive changes.

With the Sessions news of last week, things have officially gone the other way. The Trump administration is pushing for steep cuts to the Justice Department budget, including the outright elimination of funding for the Legal Services Corporation and Violence Against Women grants, as well as slashing up to a third of the Civil Rights Division’s budget.

Sessions has already hinted that he will stop investigating local police departments. Coupled with the budget cuts, we can probably expect the feds to get out of the business of policing cops entirely. Add cuts to legal services, and what we get is a clear message from the people who elected Trump: Their response to all of these awful films of local police beating or strangling or shooting unarmed black people is to worry that there’s too much federal oversight of police, and too much advocacy for people who come in contact with police.

The facile conclusion to all of this is that white America wants to go back to the Fifties. But it’s worse, and weirder, than that.

Seventy years ago, affluent white people could huddle in the suburbs, watch Leave It to Beaver, and pretend that cops weren’t beating the crap out of people in East St. Louis or Watts or wherever the nearest black neighbourhood was. But these days, the whole country regularly gawks at brutal cases of police violence on the Internet. Nobody can pretend it’s not going on, but millions of people clearly don’t want to do anything about it – just the opposite, in fact. They want more. Is this a twisted country, or what?