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Of Predators and Radicals: King's Hearings and the Political Economy of Criminalization

[The witness table at Peter King's first [The witness table at Peter King's first "radicalization" hearing on March 10, 2011. Image from AFP]

To understand Congressman Peter King’s (R-NY) hearings on the “extent of radicalization” of U.S. Muslims before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, one need not go so far back as the McCarthy era or Japanese interment (At the same time Congressman Mike Honda of California’s public stance connecting the King hearings to internment is worth noting here – and a powerful statement). Listening to the few, highly-orchestrated testimonies King assembled, I was brought back to a much more recent historical moment, growing up in early 1990s Los Angeles. In those (quite recent) days, a national discourse – marked, overall, by hysteria – emerged over what do with the “problem” of urban youth violence, with the communities in question overwhelmingly in abstentia. The process they signified offer an apt point of reference to examine the continued institutionalization of Islamophobia. Some twenty years after similar hearings on youth violence became commonplace on the Hill, we have only gained a brutal juvenile incarceration system, a continual disdain towards questions of educational and socio-economic access, and a massive security industry that makes state violence the only solution to social questions.

Ultimately, these 1990s hearings on youth violence – and the national furor they helped sustain - did little but produce an industry that at the least costs states $5.7 billion annually to incarcerate youth while nurturing a broader racialized political economy of fear that entwines media, police, military, prisons, urban “entrepreneurs,” and security/crime “experts” towards the solidification of the neoliberal punitive state. Cities, regions, state and federal governments and a slew of corporations came to benefit from one of the few industries – carceral governance – that thrived under massive economic restructuring and a defunded state apparatus. Sound familiar?

From Super Predator to Predator Drone

Despite the more visible acts of drive-bys, stabbings, in-school fights, and other realities, violence in the 1990s was not the sole domain of youth in urban working class communities like the one I grew up in – neither solely a “youth” phenomenon nor merely an “urban” question. But were one to listen in the hearings put forward by the U.S. Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary in November 1991, one would think that young people had brought the United States to the brink of civil war. The discourse of a “war time emergency” in urban centers such as Los Angeles and Chicago placed youth gangs on one end and a hapless civilian population on the other, under threat of an ethos where “all non [gang] members are considered rivals.” The problem was simple: “Today’s victim is tomorrow’s offender.” The solution: massive federal police intervention to assure the total and complete “removal” of gangs, brought to life through “a coordinated approach linking law and order to community intervention.”

In the midst of these hearings, as Mike Davis describes, all you had to do was look at the lines outside of skid row’s Fred Jordan Mission – packed with 20,000 plus people at Christmastime– to understand the social context undergirding Los Angeles’ crisis. In a few short months, areas of Los Angeles described as blighted with “filth” in the 1991 hearings exploded in rioting, justifying the intervention of the National Guard and the installation of martial law. Youth continued to act as the (most vulnerable) target of a crackdown that often posed as urban “renewal” and drove working families in California’s exurbs (which, as the latest Census numbers demonstrate, now hold larger-than-ever concentrations of low-income people of color). L.A. was not the only site to witness the growth of what Neil Smith called the revanchist city – gentrification armed with a public and private security apparatus – that has coincided with a variety of legal structures, such as gang injunctions, that criminalize the mere presence of groups of youth.

By the mid-1990s, the racialized criminalization of young people synthesized around the ideal-type of the “Youth Super Predator” that swept everything from pop-academia to the mainstream press to the halls of Congress. This image, perpetuated by Brookings Institute’s John DiIulio, posited that urban youth were "fatherless, godless and without conscience," ticking time-bombs who from the youngest age were ready to become terrors to society. DiIulio made no attempts to hide the racialized assumptions undergirding this imaginary, writing in the National Review that “All that's left of the black community in some pockets of urban America is deviant, delinquent and criminal adults surrounded by severely abused and neglected children, virtually all of whom were born out of wedlock.” This violence threatened not only middle class, white suburban lives, but more broadly, American culture, which was being infected via gangsta rap, baggy clothes and ghetto-spawned drugs.

It’s not hard to see the refashioning of moral panic in Peter King’s hearings. The names have changed but the theme is the same. There is a ticking-time bomb in America. “They” are young and brown (but this time, they are Muslim). Their presence is inimical to American values and their disease may infect our children. We cannot enlist “them” in the battle because they are the enemy; they only respond to brute police and military force. The names of the pseudo-intellectuals deployed have been changed, but Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer represent the same racism-as-expertise DiIulio and others touted so recently.

The testimonial of Melvin Bledsoe, father of a young Muslim convert accused of shooting an army private at an Arkansas station, perhaps best summarizes the underlying thesis of King’s production. One day, Bledsoe had a good American son. The next day, that son was tearing down posters of Martin Luther King, Jr., asking to pray at work, and headed to a training camp in Yemen. “We are losing American babies” to “radical extremists,” he notes solemnly. “Today it was an African American child. The next one could have blonde hair, blue eyes.” As his comment time expires, Bledsoe makes sure to add: “we” must stop these “invaders” from “raping the minds of American citizens.”

Simple Questions, Simple Answers

So what would Mr. Bledsoe, and King’s other “witnesses” - Abdirizak Bihi, “uncle of radicalized American Muslim youth,” or M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D., President and Founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy - have us do? The thesis of the King hearings appear refreshingly simple and echo those of the 1990s youth-crime hearings (almost eerily): actively fund increased, sophisticated police and federal security agency action – oh, and perhaps couple this with a few community prevention programs. The latter is considered at best as an afterthought and a worst a hindrance to truly stopping crime and/or homegrown terrorism. Here, King and his ilk rely upon good, ol’-fashioned racism or xenophobia to trump facts – just as youth incarceration champions have done over the last 20 years.

When faced with the reality that community programs have been shown, in the case of youth crime, to reduce recidivism by at least 22%, fans of the penal state labeled community programming cheap liberal sentiments. When confronted with the fact that Muslim Americans have helped stop 40% of domestic terror plots and showing the tangible benefits of community sensitivity training for police, King and his ilk simply refute reality and claim this to be the machinations of “multiculturalism,” political correctness and other classic New Right bogeymen. With no where better to direct their ire, they turn innocuous community-based groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) into global jihadists – a claim that the Obama administration has only fueled of late. 

Obviously, the Homeland Security subcommittee is not a fact-finding mission. And while these hearings are in fact wildly propagating misinformation and drumming up xenophobic hysteria, there are much more concrete realities at stake here. These hearings do not happen only to raise “alarm bells” that serve the Republican Party: they are meant to spur policy and materialize into legislation that benefits parties on both sides of the aisle - and far beyond the beltway. The aforementioned youth crime hearings led to tangible, concrete policy interventions, such as gang injunctions or the Violent Crime and Youth Predator Act of 1996, which re-direct funding towards the ever-expanding carceral security state. The slew of post 9-11 hearings surrounding terrorism facilitated the tangible reconfiguring of the U.S. intelligence system and the redirection of federal funding towards the national security apparatus – with at least $29 billion annually consumed by the Department of Justice, $29 billion towards allocated since 9/11 to the Department of Defense’s security efforts, and a completely undisclosed (“confidential”) amount of funding diverted to the National Intelligence Programs.  As obvious as it seems, the press seems to ignore the fact that Congressional hearings are an explicit part of the institutional mechanisms of policymaking. They are having hard results – and plenty of people are profiting.

If King’s parade of hysteria succeed in one aspect, it is bolstering an expansive political economy of security – from ever-burgeoning prisons to expanded capacities for police and specialized intelligence agencies to new disciplinary technologies. Where the war on gangs/drugs/youth and the war on radical Islam/terrorism converge is in the billions of dollars poured not only into the actual public policing and intelligence infrastructure, but also into the private corporations that produce technologies from metal detectors to security cameras to tasers, companies that happen to manage thousands of the prisons that have sprouted up across the country and command an army of “counter-terrorism”/security experts at the governments beck-and-call. Fear does not merely tip the ballot towards the right-wing; it ensures the continuation of one of America’s fastest-growing, homegrown industries – security – while providing the authoritarian hand needed to mitigate the destruction wrought by neoliberal capitalism.

Contradictions and Contracts

In this light, Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment today are much more than ideological constructs and not merely semiotic constructions, Orientalist musings, or even political expediencies by a desperate Republican (or Tea) Party. As Micaela di Leonardo succinctly states in New Landscapes of Inequality, “Our American culture of fear in response to terrorist attacks is part of a much broader phenomenon – the contradictory, simultaneous development of a less and less regulated economy and defunded social programs, with a yet more and more regulated private sphere. ” They are endemic to the larger restructuring of political-economic life that has made us dependent on punitive governance to mitigate the effects of over 30 years of stripping wages, worker’s rights, and a social safety net.

These underlying contradictions undergird some of the paradoxical localized realities surrounding Peter King’s hearings and the broader institutionalization of Islamophobia. The Arab and Muslim community in Los Angeles has repeatedly seen this “in action.” The community organizations in the Southland, such as Muslim Public Affairs Council and CAIR-LA are among the strongest in the country in terms of infrastructure and policy reach, and have made tremendous efforts to reach out to the FBI and local law enforcement to ensure clear lines of communication. Sherrif Lee Baca even went so far as to testify on behalf of the community in this regard at the King hearing, noting, “When I made critical outreach to the community after 9/11, I was overwhelmed by the number of Muslims who, while under threat from misinformed sources, were ready and willing to connect with law enforcement to help keep the peace.”

At the same time, Los Angeles has been marked by numerous highly-public incidents of surveillance, such as the plan leaked (and subsequently killed) in 2007 to map out and infiltrate mosques in Los Angeles utilize social service agencies. Despite continued opposition from community organizations, the police also launched a program conspicuously known as iWatch in 2009, which encourages local residents to spy and report on their neighbors for the slightest suspicious activity. The marketing of the program – and the subsequent false reports generated – makes it quite clear who is the target: Muslims and Arabs. This is not to begin to even talk about the marked incidences of Islamophobia and security-hysteria throughout Orange County – from charges of misdeameanor conspiracy against students at UC Irvine who protested the Israeli ambassador to the revelation of an FBI agent provocateur at the Islamic Center of Irvine and (the tracking device).

This contradictory reality cannot be reduced to the differential personalities managing varying city agencies. The fact is that while many figures within city hall, the LA Police Department, and other agencies realize the ineffectiveness of spying, infiltrating or even provoking the Muslim and Arab community in Los Angeles, there is money to be made in enforcement at a time when funds for urban areas are drying up by the day. While the neoliberalized federal government has bowed out of funding almost every form of social service, leaving city agencies to pick up the slack in everything from education to transportation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has dispensed over $31 billion in grants to local and state governments since 9/11. They have propped up programs – such as the regional Fusion Centers – that offer sizable grants for areas to bring together federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligence with privatized industries, such as data mining to develop “critical infrastructure” and coordination around law enforcement (of course, with almost-zero oversight).

As David Harvey noted, urban governance now relies on city officials acting as entrepreneurs and “selling” their city to private corporations and public agents to assure survival; the radical dislocations of late capitalism have meant that “investment increasingly takes the form of a negotiation between international finance capital and local powers doing the best they can to maximize the attractiveness of the local site as a lure for late capitalism.” Anti-terrorism activities, of course underpinned by Islamophobic hysteria, provide the perfect new “selling point” for cities. Such concessions involve cities showing they are at the greatest “risk” of terrorism – and are making efforts to securitize and police their environments at every level – to not only gain access to DHS pools such as the Urban Areas Security Initiative, but most likely to boost localized production of security-related services. To no surprise, the majority of these programs require public-private partnerships; the Secure the Cities initiative meant to install radiation detecting equipment infused funds into New York City agencies, from the NYPD to the Metroplitan Transporation Authority, but they also benefitted private contractors like Raytheon, Caberra and Thermo Electron responsible for researching and developing these new systems. (If some of these names sound familiar, yes, they are indeed among the cabal of corporations who received a slew of no-bid contracts to purportedly rebuild an Iraq that the U.S. destroyed.)

The interrelated criminal justice boon throughout the 1990s is filled with parallel examples: as Ruthie Gilmore has meticulously documented, rural towns throughout the Central Valley of California reluctantly took up positions as homes for the emerging prison archipelago in order to manage the collapse of local agriculture and resource-mining industries wrought by the consolidation of corporatized late capitalism. These municipalities soon learned though that this “recession-proof industry” offered little in terms of real jobs or growth and only benefited a select few – who lived far from impoverished, rural California.

Where to Next?

Just how much King’s hearings may bolster the political-economy of security across the federal, state and local levels remains to be seen, of course. For Congressman Brian Higgins (D-NY), who represents the rustbelt area of Buffalo, NY, his and King’s presence on the House Homeland Security Committee “offers a unique opportunity to position the Western New York border community in the forefront of national discussions” while gaining funding to securitize the “Peace Bridge” into Canada and other “border operations.”  Representative Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York, is more cynical: she has lamented the possibility that King’s tenure at the head of the Homeland Security Committee may not reap further funding for New York’s police and security apparatus, given the current Republican narrative around deficit-reduction. 

But if the trends of the last 30 years of U.S. neoliberal policymaking hold, Rep. Clarke need not worry: security, military and intelligence are almost sacrosanct in federal budget negotiations. King has outlined one of his key priorities in the committee as “giving law enforcement and the intelligence community tools to identify and combat Islamic radicalization” – which of course will be facilitated in the wake of his recent hearings. And where else to best pilot such projects than in urban areas such as New York, crawling with America’s Muslim enemy?

For Muslim and Arab communities, the question of where-to-next looms. As organizations such as CAIR have made clear, local chapters have gone above and beyond to work with local, state and federal enforcement agencies, but they have only been met with a continued demonization and slaps-in-the-face such as domestic surveillance programs. The answer is not, of course, foregoing a push for community-based interventions and attacking the root questions surrounding vague terms such as “radicalization.” But looking back to the last 20 years of the punitive state, one of the bright spots has been the fact that young people came together in local, regional and state alliances throughout the country– not only to oppose incarceration policies but to demand new, viable opportunities and programs for all communities. Groups such as Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles, Fathers and Families of San Joaquin in the Central Valley, or the DC-based Justice for DC Youth looked for allies across lines of difference and worked to develop holistic platforms that the symptoms of the problem – but also sought to resolve wider systemic questions, such as health disparities, educational opportunities, and  job access.

Many of those alliances still exist or have been transformed, and many of those young people have emerged into community leaders who are already acting as allies for Muslim and Arab communities seeking to end criminalization. The work of Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) through the “I am Change” program to promote civic engagement from school boards to state senate bodies, or the leadership of local organizations in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities to join interfaith, inter-racial, inter-class alliances for a more equitable city, to call for immigration reform, and to confront other critical issues further points to the potential in such approaches. Islamophobia sells – but changing the terms of the deal, cutting off the punitive political-economy and undermining the market values that make “what is profitable” the only question at hand – means that in another decade, the U.S. won’t be looking for its next bogeyman. Maybe, we’ll be talking about new, real solutions that reshape our history and offer a real future for youth throughout the U.S.

2 comments for "Of Predators and Radicals: King's Hearings and the Political Economy of Criminalization"

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Excellent analysis!

Shukry Cattan wrote on March 14, 2011 at 01:33 PM
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It is just my opinion that most Americans are against these hearings and they are just another tool to instill fear into Americans so they can justify the police state that America is surely going to become. I never thought of the profits from fear-mongering and that makes sense as well. It's no secret the government wants to track ALL of their citizens, not just Muslims.

K L Fox wrote on March 15, 2011 at 06:24 PM

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