Saturday, November 26, 2011

The US Gang "Intelligence" Agency?

Just when you thought defining Juggalos as gangs and FBI hyperbolic exaggerations couldn't get worse, voilĂ ,   here comes the  US Gang Intelligence Agency!  With understandably muted fanfare,  the creation of a new entity to investigate gangs and "domestic terrorism" was recently announced.  

Why not front page in the New York Times?  Maybe there was a bit of embarrassment.   To get some sense of how serious this agency is, the initial press release explains that  the USGIA is concerned with more than gangs and recently investigated a spat between police agencies. In what might be called "interfecine" warfare,  one officer splattered sh*t on the car of another over the arrest of a Miami cop by Florida State Patrol! Things "escalated" from there. Ugh!  This in their initial press release. Really.   Read about it for yourself.  Now,  no easy jokes about what this agency is probably full of.

Despite the official looking seal, the USGIA ("G"not "C", get it?) is a private company dedicated to "assist local, state and federal law enforcement agencies identify, analyze, confirm and respond to what they call Mass Victim Related Acts ("MVRA")."   For a hefty fee, no doubt.   Their absurd press release is hardly noteworthy except for its easy the equating of gangs and terrorists.  What needs to be noted is how the "frame" of terrorism is being extended to areas far from what you might think.   For example, the USA Patriot Act  defines "domestic terrorism as 

... an act ""dangerous to human life"" that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to:  (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.  

This can cover almost any crime and the label "terrorist" can be easily directed against street gangs. Many states have adopted terrorist language in their anti-gang bills like The Illinois Street Gang Terrorist Omnibus Prevention Act.  What we are witnessing is the acceptance of a frame that merges young people acting out destructively with organized terrorist conspiracies, real or imagined.

A few years ago I consulted with attorneys in the Narseal Batiste trial. Batiste was accused of plotting with al Queda to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower.  Actually the plot was concocted by an FBI undercover agent posing as an al Queda operative in what the defense argued — and I concur —  was a clear case of entrapment.  After two mistrials and tens of millions of dollars spent,  in a third trial the US Attorney argued that not only was Batiste a dupe of Osama and al Queda, but he was a dupe of Jeff Fort and the Blackstone Rangers as well!  Terrorist and gang member to boot put the jury over the top.  Batiste's questionable conviction is now on appeal.

The American Prosecutors Research Institute (APRI) manual for prosecuting gang cases states:

While they don’t call themselves terrorists, the effect is just the same—every day, innocent people are killed in the streets, often in broad daylight. Just like terrorists, gang members thrive on fear. The more fear they can instill in the communities and their enemies, the greater the freedom they enjoy while dealing in their dirty business of guns, drugs, and extortion. That fear is implanted by taking credit for the violence they

Hey, lets reduce the world to "them" and "us," no shades of difference, no subtlety,  no mixed loyalties, nothing but enemies we need to wipe out before they wipe us out.  Gangs, terrorists, communists, Juggalos,  what's the difference? After all,  since we cannot reason or compromise with pure evil, we can only destroy it for the sake of "homeland security."

US Justice Department policy toward gangs is an example of what Robert Entman calls "cognitive shortcuts." This means we simplify complex and diverse matters into a single, uncomplicated mantra.  Life is reduced to a simple-minded narrative of good vs. evil.   When this psychological process becomes the underpinnings of policy, we should indeed be be wary.  Think about  it: do we really want to take "shortcuts" to justice?  Silly organizations like the USGIA just underscore the dangerous frames of our country's policy towards gangs.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Gangs, Juggalos, and the FBI's Crooked Frames

There it is, right in the FBI's list of Haitian and Somalian and other scary gangs,  the "Juggalos!" Yeah, the Insane Clown Posse's groupie group has made the FBIs most dangerous gangs list. You gotta be kidding. 

But lets leave to one side too-easy-to-make comments about FBI paranoia or tactics to scare lawmakers and get more funding.  Rather, let's look more carefully at what the FBI says about the overall US gang problem.  How are gangs being "framed" by the nation's most powerful law enforcement agency?

First, all sorts of gangs are lumped together in their report "2011 National Gang Threat Assessment." Fair enough, the FBI is charged with investigating "threats," as in the mafia, communists, terrorists, gangs, or now, eeek!,  Juggalos.  The "frame" provided by their report means some aspects — gangs as threats — are given more prominence than others.  As in a picture frame: you are directed to look inside the frame and end up not looking outside it.  

Gangs as threats may be a justified target of the FBI,  but aren't gangs more than threats?  We may not like it, but gangs, for example,  provide emotional support for troubled kids.  They are signs that not all is right with our schools and become a refuge for drop outs.  [note: according to a recent report only 47% of high school age black males actually graduated].  They provide jobs, even if from vice industries, for youth in minority neighborhoods where unemployment is staggeringly high.  They bring money into poor minority neighborhoods when gangs sell drugs to a richer white clientele  [evenso, white kids are more likely to use and sell drugs than black kids].  Yes, gangs do more harm than good, but we need to recognize that gangs (including Juggalos) are more than one thing.  Come to think of it,  just like the FBI, as those who've had experience with their investigations will attest

But FBI "framing," double entendre intended, is not on the up and up.  Let's look at what their report did not say or what we can find buried in their text.  For example, their report claims there are now 1.4 million gang members, a "40 percent increase from 2009."  Huh? Forty percent, actually a reported 500,000 more gang members over 2 years?  How did they arrive at this number ?  Read the small print: 

Better reporting and collection has contributed greatly to the increased documentation and reporting of gang members and gang trends. 

Uh, huh. They got these numbers by asking law enforcement agencies to estimate how many gang members in their jurisdiction and this year there was "better reporting" meaning the cops found more gangs. Do locales have a common methodology in estimating gang membership? Nope. Any checks on validity? Nope. Any reason to think a jurisdiction might exaggerate their findings? Well, if you got a bigger gang problem you will certainly need more funds to fight them. How many local estimates did the FBI reject because they were suspect? We don't know but I'll take a guess: None. So how do they know how many gangs and gang members there are? Do they count them? Nah, they ask the local cops to do what amounts to a "guess-timate."  So why do the FBI think this massive increase occurred?  Read and weep:

Law enforcement in several jurisdictions also attribute the increase in gang membership in their region to the gangster rap culture, the facilitation of communication and recruitment through the Internet and social media, the proliferation of generational gang members, and a shortage of resources to combat gangs.

Ah,  gangsta rap and Facebook are to blame. Really.  But there is more.  In 2010 the FBI tells us 

Gangs are becoming more violent.....

But Director Mueller, we have a problem here. USA Today reported that in 2010.  

Across the nation, homicide rates have dropped to their lowest levels in nearly a generation. And overall violent crime has sunk to its lowest level since 1973, Justice Department statistics show.

In fact, the murder rate in 2010 of 4.8 per 100,000 was less than HALF that in 1991 (9.8) or 1980 (10.2).  In fact, the absolute number of homicides in 2010 (14,748) is almost exactly the same as 1969 (14,760) when there were 100,000,000 fewer people in the US!   Rape, robbery, and assault are also all sharply down.

The report goes on to say other silly things, for example linking gangs to the computer game Second Life, because gang members "could potentially use Second Life to recruit, spread propaganda, commit other crimes such as drug trafficking, and receive training for real-world criminal organizations." "Potentially?" Is this a feeler for the FBI to investigate the 21.3 million Second Life accounts registered in 2010?

Now the problem with such "crooked frames" is that there is a real threat from gangs, but it becomes lost in rhetoric that doesn't hold up to scrutiny. In many cities gangs are not becoming more sophisticated and organized but fragmented with fewer controls from powerful city leaders. This has both good and bad aspects. Less organization often means more violence.  At the same time, the reach of Mexican cartels and prison gangs has influenced gangs in many areas, and this deserves more than cursory attention. We also are not informed of increasing penetration of Latino gangs into politics, following the well trod Irish and Italian paths.  Gangs and politics have always been closely knit, but the FBI apparently doesn't think corruption is a threat worth mentioning.  I wonder why?  FBI gang reports like this are meant for cheap headlines and little else. 

Now I have to admit that I have mingled with Juggalos and watched the Insane Clown Posse perform in person. They are outrageous. But no more so than the FBI's "Threat Assessment."