Sen. Kamala Harris compared ICE, the federal deportation agency, to the Ku Klux Klan Thursday, drawing a fierce retort from the agency’s acting director who said there is no equivalence between patriotic officers enforcing the law, and a racist mob bent on violence and intimidation.
Richard Daley and the mob of uniformed thugs he set loose on protesters in Chicago in 1968 were also patriotic officers enforcing the laws. On Wednesday evening, August 28, Chicago police officers stunned the nation with their patriotism. Not one of them thought they did anything wrong.
When Senator Abraham Ribicoff referred to ‘Gestapo tactics’ in the streets of Chicago, Mayor Daley patriotically shouted from the convention floor: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch!” Throughout the week, Daley made clear he wanted more aggressive action from his forces on the ground, until a full scale police riot broke out on Wednesday.
So it is with ICE. They don’t generally use batons to open up people’s heads. They take children away from their families instead. Isn’t that against the law? Law enforcement officers cannot possibly break the law, in their view. It is a contradiction in terms. In fact, law enforcement agencies that have too much power and too much discretion, with no need to account for their behavior readily fall into habits of corruption that make them likely sources of illegal activity. You can find these qualities in any government agency, of course, but law enforcement agencies seem most unable to regulate themselves.
Members of the KKK a hundred years ago considered themselves patriotic. Donald Trump and his followers consider themselves patriotic. People who remove children from their parents to lock them in holding pens consider themselves patriotic. All the people in my neighborhood, and all of my friends consider themelves patriotic. So what? Patriotism does not answer for immoral behavior. If you treat people cruelly, who cares if you’re a patriot? Nobody cares.
The KKK also decided they do not like laws that give black people equal rights. The Department of Justice decided they do not like laws that allow people from other countries to seek asylum in our country. When you make decisions like that, you give yourself a lot of freedom. You think about preventive measures that you believe will work. That’s how criminal gangs think, too. What means of intimidation will make people behave the way we want them to behave?
Kamala Harris made the nature of her comparison clear. She referred to perceptions that both the KKK and ICE use intimidation and fear to cow particular groups. It’s a non-controversial point, and obviously true. Yet RNC chair Ronna McDaniel said Harris’s comparison was ‘absolutely disgusting.’ Naturally McDaniel did not argue why. You don’t need to explain anything in the current environment. Daley could say “Fuck you!” to a senator at the convention podium, and people would argue later that he didn’t actually say that. Who cares what people say? Nobody cares.
I’ve been interested to see the reaction to Harris’s comparison, or insinuation if comparison seems too kind.
I’ve been interested to see the reaction to Harris’s comparison, or insinuation if comparison seems too kind. Jon Solomon in The Hill compared Harris to Joe McCarthy, which was kind of fun, since the author plainly did exactly what he accused Harris of doing: insinuate. Insinuate, by the way, means to ‘suggest or hint (something bad or reprehensible) in an indirect and unpleasant way.’ Neither McCarthy nor Harris would ever drop a hint and leave it at that, but it’s a good word to communicate bad intent.
Perhaps a better descriptor for Harris’s comparison is a cheap shot. Cheap shots are not true or false, nor are they morally deplorable. They’re just cheap, in that they come to you pretty easily if you have a little imagination. Here in the United States, you can’t make comparisons to Nazis – I’m not sure why – so you have to think of another bad group to tar someone. The KKK will do, as it has not yet reached the untouchable status of the Nazis.
Of course, whenever a person on the left mentions the KKK, a person on the right will remind all of us that the KKK came to us in the first place via the Democratic party. You might even see a reference to Woodrow Wilson’s sympathies for the Klan. For those of us in the bleachers, brief responses come to mind for this kind of back-and-forth: “Noted.” is a good one, as are “So what?” or “What else are you going to say?” We live in a political culture where almost everything is a cheap shot now, so who cares? Nobody cares.
When I say “Nobody cares,” I don’t actually mean nobody cares, of course. A lot people in the tribes still care. I must care, or I would not write this post. I see articles that other people write, too, and they seem to care. What I want to say is that our political culture encourages a weary reaction. It’s like combat fatigue in during the Great War. Officers order one infantry charge after another, bayonets fixed, whereupon machine guns mow your men down until a few of them reach the enemy line. The soldiers think, “This is pointless.” They’re right.
Fortunately, Harris does not order us to die in the mud, nor do her detractors mow her supporters down. You have to add, though, that she is right about ICE and the way they behave. You cannot compare our police state enforcers to Nazis – only Ribicoff’s reference to the Gestapo would likely have elicited an anti-Semitic “you Jew son of a bitch!” from Richard Daley. Like the SS, members of the KKK wore scary uniforms. Also like the SS, members of their own community generally knew who they were.
The Klan’s victims did not know who the hooded cross-burners were. The same goes for immigrants who reach our border. They see aggressive, forbidding people with weapons who plan to process them into so-called detention centers. Zero tolerance means zero kindness or courtesy, and zero human rights. As Attorney General Sessions said, we want people who seek asylum to know that we will take your children, put you in prison, and prosecute you. The police state expends a lot of resources. When you have a Wall, you do not have to process people any more. They never reach your side of the border.
In a world of cheap shots, then, Harris’s is not such a poor one. I do not agree with her politics in general, but she is on the right side of the immigration question. People do not lose their human rights because they come from another country, or because they come to our country for help. When apologists say, “ICE just enforces the law,” try to find a statute enacted in Congress that requires family separation at the border to deter immigration. Of course you will find no such requirement. ICE replies that nothing in current law prohibits family separation. That is how the police state makes laws nowadays. If Congress does not expressly forbid it, the cruelty is permissible. That’s how the CIA defended waterboarding, too.
We may as well end with a problem Harris introduces. Her comparison suggests that all ICE agents are racists, or white supremacists. That is obviously not the case. They sign up to do a job, like everyone else does, and the job requires them to process people from south of our border who come to us for help.
Harris is right that ICE agents use fear and intimidation as part of their toolkit. They represent an immigration bureaucracy that wants to manage its workload. Officials in the bureaucracy believe cruelty may persuade potential immigrants not to arrive at our border. After years of detention, deportation, and family separation, immigrants have proven their belief wrong. Zero tolerance and all the cruelty that implies does not reduce the flow of people who seek help.
Yet these policies and procedures do not make bureaucrats racists or white supremacists. Police states have one common quality at their core: people in authority who do not care for human rights. That is what we see at the border. The KKK operates differently. Its leaders see people who are not white, and they wonder where they might obtain a thick rope. When you hang one person from a tree limb, word gets around. The KKK is not a bureaucracy. ICE is not a white supremacist organization. Whatever your means, thick rope or family separation, cruelty has its advocates. When you talk about use of cruelty to instill fear, the KKK and ICE have a good deal in common.