Thursday, May 27, 2021

Fascism Unsheathed: Let's be very clear about what just happened at the #txlege

For many years, your correspondent has sought to work in a bipartisan fashion at the Texas Legislature on criminal-justice reform, and I've taken a lot of crap from folks on the left for working closely with Republicans who are sometimes, shall we say, less than ardently committed to the project. 

Beyond the simple math of needing Republican votes in a red state to pass bills, my response has been that more moderate, pro-social elements in the GOP needed to be affirmed and bolstered. The GOP base in Texas includes totalitarian, racist elements which lately have been swirling in a near-policy-free furor of anger and resentment. By engaging with libertarian factions and more compassionate elements in the religious wing of the party, I've argued in innumerable trainings and funder conversations, the criminal-justice reform movement in Texas was attempting to "blunt the spear tip of American fascism."

In 2021, the spear tip was unsheathed and thrust deep into the body politic: A combination of the pandemic, President Trump's defeat, and the January 6th insurrection seem to have finally awakened the beast. This was the year the far-right wing of the party finally got its wish list they'd been denied in the 20 years since Republicans took power in Texas: The entire legislative session was about abortion, guns, jingoism, and "backing the blue." Compassionate conservatism and non-gun-themed libertarianism were more or less banned from the building, or at least the eastern wing.

The Texas House, with a larger, more ideologically diverse membership, retains a broader array of Republicans that still includes some "small government" and/or "compassionate" types. They managed to pass several significant criminal justice reform bills, but virtually nothing of consequence made it through the senate. Reforms with overwhelmingly positive, bipartisan polling numbers like reducing marijuana penalties and ending arrest/jail for Class C non-jailable traffic offenses could never even get committee hearings on the eastern side of the building. Instead Sen. Joan Huffman wasted weeks on a failed effort to gerrymander appellate courts to rescind recent Democratic gains.

Some of this lurch toward totalitarianism was overt and ham-handed, perhaps most notably legislation to require sports teams to play the Star Spangled Banner. More insidious were attempts to control historical narratives about race and slavery in Texas schools and museums. These efforts were as shameful as they were transparently authoritarian. We're just a step or two away from parading historians through the streets in dunce caps. 

Perhaps the most subtly fascist influence radiating out of this session was HB 1900, ostensibly punishing cities that "defund police." Large cities and counties henceforth must prioritize spending on law enforcement, leaving roads, parks, social services, or any other traditional municipal functions to wither in a time of massive urban growth. 

Grits believes the purpose here is both political and dystopian: Texas' large cities are now almost all (but Fort Worth) run by Democrats. So the Governor and his allies aim to make cities un-manageable, then blame Democrats for mismanaging them. Given the state's largely lapdog political press, I understand why he thinks he'll be able to control that narrative and redirect blame. He's probably right.

It's a valid and effective political strategy, even if it's nonsensical bordering on asinine as public policy.*

If HB 1900 is enforced, it will be incredibly harmful: All large Texas cities have for years already prioritized police spending over other municipal functions which have languished and at this point require investment this bill will prevent. 

Now, new spending must go first to the cops, and with municipal revenue caps installed last session, that pretty much precludes spending on anything else. This exacerbates the problem of which police chiefs have complained for years: that they're being tasked to solve social problems for which they're ill equipped. Nowhere is that dynamic more clear than in the statewide homeless ban, which criminalizes cooking or sleeping outside under a blanket. Poor people evicted from their homes? Send police. Mental illness untreated? Send police. Veterans with addiction and/or PTSD who can't hold a job and end up on the streets? Send police. Elderly people forced to live in tents because inadequate social security checks won't cover escalating rents? Send police. I can't think of a clearer definition of authoritarianism. 

Not only does the legislation criminalize poverty and punish it with unreasonable penalties (fining homeless people is a fool's errand and jailing them for sleeping accomplishes nothing), it begins the process of de-linking law enforcement from civilian control. HB 1925 prevents cities from setting policies for police departments' enforcement priorities regarding homelessness, making them over time both ever-more extravagantly funded (thanks to HB 1900) and increasingly unaccountable to the cities paying their bills.

Who knows how far we'll head down that path? But history generally views with disapprobation those periods when the armed agents of the state are left free to abandon the public weal and act in their own interests. The Roman legions, for example, were prone to deposing emperors who asked them to pound swords into ploughshares. Law enforcement interests in Texas behave the same way, which is why Emperor Abbott panders to them so incessantly.

Grits see this as a camel's nose under the tent, mandating cities fund police departments to the exclusion of other priorities while eviscerating cities' policy-setting role and leaving the cops as independent actors. Well-funded, unaccountable law enforcement acting as independent agents outside of civilian control is the sort of situation that makes me use a harsh term like "fascist." The net sum of all these policies taken together aims Texas' largest jurisdictions squarely in that direction.

Indeed, this year it became evident that police reform of even the smallest sort cannot occur in Texas while Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick remain in office. Both of them defer almost completely to police-union interests on criminal-justice policy. Even the "Sunset" bill for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement could not pass. Legislators wanted to create a "blue-ribbon commission" to study reforming the police licensing agency, but police unions don't want reforms proposed and so killed the bill outright. 

Of roughly eight different bills making up the Texas George Floyd Act package, only one (banning chokeholds) made it through in anything close to the original, filed version. Another, the "duties" to intervene and render aid, passed in a form that will almost certainly guarantee no interventions and very little aid. 

Two years ago, I wrote that 2019 was a "killing field" for criminal-justice reform bills; this year was worse. This time, law enforcement wasn't just killing off reform proposals, they were ascendant, insisting their interests be prioritized above all other public-policy goals or community values. And Texas state leadership all but fell over themselves giving them everything they wanted.

This blog and Just Liberty, the group I work for, focus a lot on wonky minutiae in order to identify narrow reforms both parties can support. But we can't wonk our way out of this political moment: What's at stake is nothing less than the soul of the state and arguably, given national implications of Texas' role in the GOP and the electoral college, the future of the American political experiment.

Texans of good will: Today, you're living through the American equivalent of the Weimar Republic and history has placed us at the epicenter of far-right-wing ascendance in American politics. Behave accordingly. We may not get another chance.

*More than asinine, to channel Stephen A. Smith, this is assi-ten, ass-eleven ...


Unknown said...

I agree. So what do we do??? I've block-walked, registered voters, signed petitions, sent postcards. And when our representatives are not representing it's hard to know what tools we have.

I am so grateful that you are spreading the word!

Gadfly said...

Well, Strangeabbott (think 1964) and Goeb's almost complete deference to the police unions and lobbyists of course stops when gunz is involved, where there's even higher deference. "Back the Blue" always yields to "Back the Brown(ing).

Anonymous said...

I’ll vote for Abbott again.

Bad Wolf said...

The Left needs to get some lawyers to think creatively and find loopholes, ways to "give" money to the police, while then earmarking it for other areas. For example have the police budget pay for a new park, or put the budget for all new PCs in their budget. I am virtually certain some legal eagles can work out how to remain within the letter of the law, while evading the spirit.

There is a real lack of imagination on the Left that doesn't exist on the Right.

Anonymous said...

Well nothing like enjoying my morning coffee and witnessing a complete liberal meltdown! LOL! Scott, you can always move to California. I hear lots of people are wanting to move to that bastion of liberal utopianism. Oh, wait....

Leslie J. Smith said...

Agencies within the criminal justice system are structured independently, often operate within silos, have divergent cultures, and develop piecemeal solutions. Now is time to bring together respected academics, practitioners, policymakers, and community representatives to debate new responses to community health, crime, and violence, and social justice-related issues. The sole reliance on the criminal justice system to address these issues is one dimensional and ineffective. Community Justice Councils are the solution. Leslie J. Smith

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:11, much of what happened this session wasn't "conservative" in any meaningful sense of that term. E.g., I'm old enough to remember when conservatives opposed perpetual spending increases by local government; now they want to mandate them.

The Texas Legislature has essentially ceased governing the state in any meaningful way: Huge problems like CPS, degraded transportation infrastructure, ancient dams and rural wastewater systems that are failing one by one, and of course, the electric grid can't handle a snowstorm ... but if you were writing the story of this legislative session, it'd come off as the Wild West meets The Handmaid's Tale, as managed by Yosemite Sam. They're just looking at primary polls and basing their policy on that, the actual needs of the state this session were utterly abandoned.

You may call that a "meltdown." Seems to me more like an "observation."

Anonymous said...

Had the Democrat establishment forcefully renounced the "defund the police" movement, none of this would have happened. But the liberals in Austin City government kowtowed to the left wing crazies to show how woke they were. Virtue signalling at its best! Even though we're not REALLY defunding the police, let's make sure everyone thinks we are! We can dupe both sides! Allow camping anywhere?'s for the movement, ya know... Wait! An election?? Apparently the dumb citizenry is insufficiently woke; re-education is in order! With any luck, your cry of fascism will take hold and be the next rallying cry of the left. It won't help much here; the Dems are already emasculated. But it might catch on elsewhere!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Name a Democrat besides Greg Casar who didn't "renounce" the "defund" message?! They all did! And you're right, Austin didn't defund its police. The only people who said so were the governor and his allies, mainly the police unions, who used their bully pulpit to spread lies and the state's political reporters all (except Jolie McCullough at the Texas Tribune) just repeated them ad nauseum without correction. I'm surprised, though, you can both a) realize that's a lie and b) think Austin citizens should suffer because of that mendacity.

Austin cut it's police budget, for one year, by 4.6%, or roughly what the Legislature slashed from the DPS budget in 2017. That was mainly because the police academy was broken and the curriculum had to be revamped. (They still haven't finished that project, but all the pressure made them start again, anyway). Putting off new hires at APD let them hire 67 new EMTs and pay for three new ambulances, which last I checked also contribute to public safety. HB 1900 will likely require firing some or all of those EMTs to comply, but you're welcome to pretend that's somehow beneficial if you want. I'm certainly not buying it.

It's hardly a "cry" of fascism. Again, more of an observation.

Jennifer Laurin said...

And so . . . now what?!

Anonymous said...

You can't have bipartisan solutions to these issues when one side is proposing things that are objectively insane, like disarming officers, sending unarmed social workers to resolve criminal issues, decriminalizing property crime or eliminating police entirely.

You can't have bipartisan solutions when one side is proposing policies like we have seen in big liberal cities on the west coast that have clearly led to a massive increase in violent crime and a near complete breakdown in basic public order. While we hear constant denials that the massive spike in violent crime has nothing to do with those stupid policies, nobody outside of the extremist police abolition circles believes it.

The Legislature won't stand for it, and Austin's clear failures are visible for anyone to see under every overpass and at every major intersection. If Austin continues to put forth crazy policies, it will continue to get those policies overridden by the lawmakers. Continue down this path, and the Governor will call special session after special session, and Austin will get stripped of more and more authority each time.

If you were really interested in bipartisan solutions, you would reign in some of the more insane folks on your own side and tone down the rhetoric, as well as cut loose the true outliers and condemn them. As it stands, the reform side does not hold the upper hand, and any policy alignments or areas of agreement are drowned out but the sheer insanity of many on the "defund/abolish" side.

You also have to be a bit more forthcoming about the actual effects of some these policies. Austin PD has had no real replacements for about two years and increased attrition on top of normal annual attrition, combined with the elimination of their overtime budget has led to very low manning levels and drastically increased response times. The people who live in Austin aren't going to stand for it much longer, either; look at Prop B. That is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

If you want real CJ reform, you are probably setting yourself back by decades right now. Drop the more egregious proposals and come back to common ground. Calling the people who oppose the breakdown of basic law and order "fascists" not only doesn't help but it is a clear symptom of why they have stopped listening to your side's ideas.

Anonymous said...

Respectfully (not actually) eat shit. You don't live in Austin I'm sure, but you want to diagnose all its ills from your armchair. Go find some information about crime statistics that isn't fed through a police union filter first, then apologize for looking so stupid in your post. Bipartisanship is not possible because the 'crazy left' as you call them suggested we fund crisis workers and public goods instead of hiring 50 more cops for a single year, and the right responded by passing permittless carry and REQUIRING cities to run their budgets according to the state's whims, so small government of them.

Sam said...

Grits says - “by 4.6%, or roughly what the Legislature slashed from the DPS budget in 2017.” Why do you continually use this same misguided statement? It is like a reflex reaction or so it seems. In 2017, the legislature CUT ALL state agencies. I’ll say it AGAIN - ALL STATE AGENCIES had their budgets cut in 2017, but you omit that key fact time and time again to fit a narrative.

Not sure if you noticed, but all Schedule C commissioned officers with the state are looking at a decent pay raise coming out of this legislative session.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 5/28/2021 02:08:00 PM

I'll ignore the insults. You kind of proved the point there; you can't expect bipartisan action when you are proposing wildly unrealistic and even stupid proposals, and also insulting the other party whose support you need to get anything accomplished at the state level. Of course those sorts of things are going to lead directly to them unravelling the policies you did enact.

What "filter" is there on the huge increase in violent crime, including murders since last year? What does a police union have to do with crime stats? Is that the group that releases them? Did they lie about the number of people murdered or shot? Those seem like hard numbers to fake. I think you just don't want to admit that the last year has been a massive failure of those awful and poorly conceived policies.

"Crisis workers" and "public goods?" Where are those things in the mandate for local government? Is it a "public good" when the city shuffles money to non-profits that are affiliated with extremist groups and/or campaign donors? What do these "crisis workers" do to stop murder and shootings? How many murders and shootings have they prevented? How many murderers and attempted murderers have they gotten off the streets?

The budget changes were NOT that they didn't hire 50 new cops; they halted the replacement of about 300 cops who would have retired or quit over the last couple years. Except that the attrition rate is much higher than that. And they eliminated the overtime to backfill those vacant positions. So patrol shifts go dangerously under strength. Does that enhance public safety?

If there was a violent crime happening in your part of town right now, how long would it take the police to get there? Its about 40% longer than last year. Or would you rather have a "crisis worker" respond? Your neighbors apparently don't want "crisis workers" handling public safety and the Legislature finds Austin's shirking of its duty to provide public safety to its residents to be unacceptable and is acting accordingly. That isn't a "whim," its a mandate for Austin to perform its basic duties as a home-rule municipality, or face state takeover. Expect the unraveling of this ill-conceived social experiment to continue.

Anonymous said...

Why be anonymous if you're proud of your stance?

kmerian said...

I grew up around Texas politics, and the old school pro-business, pro-local control, pro-small state government conservatives are few and far between. Now ideology reigns supreme, this legislature was a shock to me, I thought after George Floyd, the power crisis and the pandemic, that those three policies would be forefront. They were barely talked about.

To the person screaming about "crisis workers" and violent crime. Crisis workers do not respond to those, they free up police resources so actual peace officers can respond to those in LESS time. Crisis workers are responding to non-violent issues like people having a mental health crisis or noise complaints, etc.

quash said...