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Jared Kushner is sort of like Donald Trump’s less savvy version of Don Corleone’s consigliere. But did he make the Russians an offer they couldn’t refuse? This week on Intercepted: The scandal spotlight shines on Trump’s influential (and strangely quiet) son-in-law as questions abound over Kushner’s alleged meetings with Russian officials to establish secret back channel communications. We talk to amateur punk rocker turned national security correspondent Spencer Ackerman of The Daily Beast. Organizer and scholar Mariame Kaba offers a people’s history of prisons in the U.S. and the politicians — both Democrats and Republicans — who have made them what they are today. And we hear an incredible rendition of “The Partisan” from composers and musicians Leo Heiblum of Mexico and Tenzin Choegyal of Tibet. They met this week at the home of legendary composer Philip Glass and perform for the first time together on Intercepted.

 

“Son in Law” Trailer: From Hollywood Pictures. It was a quiet, peaceful town, where nothing ever changed.

Pauly Shore: Middle America.

“Son in Law” Trailer: Until a stranger from the city arrived.

PS: (Howling and laughing)

Newscaster: Jared Kushner.

Newscaster: Jared Kushner.

Newscaster: Jared Kushner.

Newscaster: Jared Kushner.

Newscaster: Jared Kushner.

Newscaster: The President’s son-in-law and senior advisor.

PS: Show me love!

Newscaster: What he lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in trust and loyalty.

PS: It’s a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires allegiance and devotion.

Newscaster: And he’s also tasked with brokering peace in the Middle East.

PS: Why are you making me do this?

Newscaster: “Jared is doing a great job for the country. I have total confidence in him.”

PS: I don’t know. I never killed anything before.

President Donald J. Trump: If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.

“Son in Law” Trailer: Son-in-Law, rated PG13. Sneak preview, Sunday, June 20th. Check newspaper for show times.

Senator John McCain: My view of it is, I don’t like it.

PS: You have got charisma!

[Music interlude]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 17 of Intercepted.

DJT: Stronger we’re getting. Have you feeling it? Are you feeling it? [Crowd cheers] All that new equipment is coming in. You saw what we did with our military budget — way up. Took a little heat on that one, but it’s okay with me.

JS: What a strange world we all inhabit. Donald Trump attacks traditional U.S. allies from his Twitter account, and German chancellor Angela Merkel hits back from a Bavarian beer hall.

Chancellor Angela Merkel: (Speaking German) We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands —

JS: The brief hiatus Trump took from Twitter aggression while he was abroad, loving on the Saudis and Israelis, hating on the Europeans and NATO, that’s come to a screeching halt, and Trump is back to his tweeting and to his old ways. The scandals that plagued Trump, however, have not abated. If anything, they’re intensifying. The spotlight right now — and it’s an ever-shifting spotlight — seems to have moved a bit from General Michael Flynn, the former National Security Advisor, and landed on Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And the focus is on reports that Kushner secretly commiserated with Russian officials to set up some sort of a back channel that would evade the snooping ears and eyes of even U.S. intelligence. We’re gonna dig into all of that in a moment. But first, I just wanted to say a word about Trump and NATO.

This public kerfuffle between Trump and Merkel and other European NATO powers — in the media, it’s centered around Trump sort of sticking his thumb in the eyes of European allies and lashing out at them for not paying enough money to support NATO, not contributing enough forces to be used in various wars. The cable networks love to show the reaction of other world leaders to Trump’s theatrics. And I’ll admit, some of it was pretty damn funny.

Bruce Johnson (WUSA 9): Video from the NATO summit in Belgium. President Trump appears to shove aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro to get to the front of the group. Talk about putting America first.

JS: But what gets lost in all of this, and this is true of the way Trump is covered in general, is that NATO is not just some, like, benevolent force in the world. NATO is often, when you want to boil it down to it, a militaristic arm of U.S. hegemony. It’s used at times to circumvent United Nations authorities to conduct legally dubious military actions. NATO has been used for regime change and for offensive wars. NATO is an alliance, for the most part, of powerful white Western countries, and their leader, and their governments, defending their so-called free market economic policies. There should be a debate about NATO. There should be a debate about NATO, the U.S., and Europe. But not the one that Trump and Merkel and the other European leaders are having. And that’s sort of indicative of the moment that we’re in. Whatever stupid shit Trump says or does, the latest gaffe or embarrassment that consumes so much media attention — that and the various palace intrigues and the Russia investigation. Take a step back and consider who benefits from all of this chicanery. Among the chief beneficiaries is without a doubt the national security state in this country. Trump doesn’t want to bother himself with the detailed intel briefings. He wants pictures. He wants his name written into each sentence so that he pays attention to it. But Trump has told the CIA that they get everything that they want, everything that they need.

DJT: I want to just let you know, I am so behind you. And I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted. And you’re gonna get so much backing. Maybe you’re gonna say, “Please don’t give us so much backing.” [Crowd laughs] “Mr. President, please, we don’t need that much backing.”

JS: The CIA is an agency that thrives when there is no meaningful oversight. In a way, Trump and his kind of lazy approach to intelligence and oversight — Trump’s taking the CIA back to the glory days before the Church Commission, and the U.S. military, too. It’s not operating with far less restraint and rules than existed under President Obama, who gave the military quite a bit of latitude in his own right.

Amy Robach (ABC News): Just moments ago, there was another new round of airstrikes in Yemen overnight, following that January raid that killed Navy Seal —

Maryam Nemazee (Al Jazeera): Activists say at least 106 people have been killed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the Syrian province —

Barbara Starr (CNN): Force dropped a 21,000-pound bomb in Eastern Afghanistan, the first use ever of this weapon in combat.

JS: When it comes to military operations under President Donald Trump, the generals are calling the shots. And they are pushing the envelope.

John Dickerson (CBS): What keeps you awake at night?

Secretary of Defense James Mattis: Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.

JS: You now have boots on the ground, raids happening in Yemen, huge numbers of civilians being killed as the U.S. intensifies its operations in Syria and Iraq. Now, there’s going to be another surge inside of Afghanistan. These institutions, the CIA, the military — they fiercely defend their turf. And they’re not gonna want to give back an inch when whoever succeeds Trump gets into office —just something to consider as we chase the rabbit in all of these Trump scandals. But we do have to chase the rabbit to a degree. We have to cover these stories. Why? Because these are the things, the Russia stuff, the emoluments, what deals Trump has made in secret — those are the things that may actually end this presidency if he doesn’t die or quit. Or at least, they could end the tenure of some very high profile advisors and associates of Trump. Kushner, Jared Kushner, who is sort of — he’s like Trump’s less savvy Tom Hagen — you know, the consigliore to Don Corleone.

Tom Hagen (The Godfather): I have a special practice. I handle one client. Now, you have my number. I’ll wait for your call.

JS: He’s a rich kid who married another rich kid whose dad became president. And Jared Kushner, the little rich kid who married the other rich kid — he’s now making decisions that impact the lives of hundreds of millions, potentially billions, of people around the world. Well, young Jared is now facing scrutiny and potential serious investigation over allegations that he tried to set up this secret communication pipeline with the Russians. To defend Kushner, over the weekend, the Trump administration wheeled out Homeland Security Secretary General John Kelly.

General John Kelly: I think any time you can open lines of communication with anyone, whether they’re good friends or not so good friends, is a smart thing to do.

JS: Now, depending on what we learn about Jared’s actual conversations regarding this secret channel, General Kelly may live to regret his defense of this kid. And now we also understand that Jared was one of the key people urging President Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey. And that raises a whole other set of issues. Why did Jared push for that? Is there an innocent explanation, or did they know part of what was coming? Well, Jared is now lawyered up. Trump is lawyering up. There’s now an independent investigator in the form of former FBI Director Robert Mueller. To talk about all of this, I’m joined now by Spencer Ackerman. He was, of course, part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at The Guardian newspaper that covered the initial Edward Snowden revelations — of course, Glenn Greenwald, one of our co-founders, also a part of that. Spencer is now the senior national security correspondent at the Daily Beast. Spencer, welcome to Intercepted.

Spencer Ackerman: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.

JS: Let’s start with the most recent news about Jared Kushner, and the reports that he opened or sought to open a secret line of communication with Moscow before Trump actually became president. The story goes it would have involved going into the Russian embassy and communicating with them. The White House now says that the point of that had to do with coordinating Syria policy. What’s your analysis of what’s happening right now with Jared Kushner?

SA: It strikes me that Kushner would have no idea that his interactions with Russian officials would be monitored — that this would be one of the premiere intelligence collection targets in the United States. That whatever the Russians would have, whether it’s Kislyak talking back to his superiors or through a different channel, be highly attractive for interception. Would require no legal pretext. It’s already, you know, baked into the pie there. So, if anyone was going to do this, it strikes me that Kushner is the plausible candidate to do this. You know, with someone like Mike Flynn, it becomes harder to understand how someone who, you know, spent his career in the bowels of this system could have been that reckless. I guess we have to say allegedly that reckless. But with Kushner, particularly given depth of experience in international business deals, of being part of the Trump entourage, as well as on his own, that he would have probably thought he could just have this sort of freedom of movement, this ease of communication.

The really shocking thing is that if the story is true — and, you know, it’s going to be heavily investigated in the months, if not years, to come — you know, the salient part isn’t the back channel itself. It’s making sure that there wouldn’t be any record of it going back to the U.S. intelligence agencies and other formal channels. When back channels are typically set up, the way they work is that those people inside the intelligence community are precisely the ones who actually do know that this is going on, that the most salient distinction between previous back channels and whatever this turns out to be, what’s being discussed here with Kushner is that he wants to make sure that the U.S. side, including those aspects of the U.S. intelligence community — that, particularly at the point in time at which this is supposed to have occurred, are really spun up about counterintelligence risks — don’t know that it’s happening.

JS: How unusual are all of the things that we’re hearing about in the Trump administration: The calls that Flynn had, the possibility that Jared Kushner was trying to set up this back channel, the Russians showing up at the RNC and meeting with all of these people that ended up either in the White House or being very close to Trump?

SA: The Russians showing up at the RNC is probably the most, for lack of a better term, normal aspect of everything that you just mentioned. Again, the really significant part of this Kushner story is that precisely the people who were supposed to know about this so that it doesn’t appear, on its face to be, you know, frankly, the Russians flipping someone, or someone — if you or I were to walk into a Russian embassy, if we were to walk into a Russian-aligned intelligence facility, if we were to walk into a Russian restaurant where we knew that there were several different layers of contact protected through plausible deniability, and said, “I want to set up a mechanism of communication. I want to make sure that, you know, people who might be interested in it on the American side don’t know about it. And by the way, I’m connected to the most powerful person in the world by marriage.” In intelligence circles, that’s typically understood as a walk-in. That’s typically understood as someone deciding that they want to play ball with a hostile, or at least foreign, intelligence service, which would, kind of under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, get you in kind of like the bright line territory of probable cause to get your communications intercepted, even outside of this particular arrangement.

So, when we hear reports that the President’s son-in-law is trying to make sure that there is a communications channel that U.S. intelligence doesn’t know about: that’s highly, highly suspect to those inside the intelligence agencies, and sets off a process that would be probably charitably described as a debate about whether there is a policy aspect to it, or whether this becomes something much more clandestine and, for lack of a better term, sinister, or at least suspect.

JS: In the time we have left, I wanted to also ask you what you think is going to come of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. election. And do you think there will be indictments of Trump circle people? I mean, is Flynn gonna get indicted? Do they have enough goods on him?

SA: I mean, I really don’t know. I’m as fascinated by this question as you are and as everyone else is. I wish I could say that I had the visibility into this investigation in which to sort of speak confidently on it —

JS: What’s the most damning thing that you’ve seen of all of this? You know, we talk about, you know, the difference between smoke and fire. But what is the most damning path that you could go down in terms of a “there” there with Trump or his people?

SA: I think straight up, on – just on its face, whatever it is that you think about Jim Comey — and I don’t think Comey could ever read my reporting and say that I’m a fan of Jim Comey — the moment that he has an active investigation into the President of the United States and the President of the United States’ allies, and the President fires the FBI director: that’s just on its face obstruction of justice. Now, with this Kushner story, it also looks on the face of it that a contributing factor to Trump trying to get Comey to stifle this investigation is to protect the President’s son-in-law. Trump seems to have, no matter what, an affinity for Mike Flynn.

DJT: General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media. As I call it, the fake media, in many cases.

SA: You know, to be maximally charitable, Flynn was a guy who gave Trump military credibility at a time when he had none. Nevertheless, he keeps on going back and back and back to Flynn. We know he visited Russian intelligence. He was at a really weird RT dinner with Vladimir Putin. Something’s going on. Something is just there. Whatever it is, there are too many data points for it to seem like this is all, you know, fake news. So, now that we hear about this off the books Kushner backchannel, one of the things that — I think it was the Washington Post that noted, a few short weeks after this supposed backchannel conversation gets entered into between Kushner and Kislyak, your old buddy Erik Prince actually acts as a Trump backchannel. How paranoid should we be? How paranoid should I be that someone with such extensive experience in running a paramilitary private company is kind of a go-to Trump guy? At my most paranoid, I’m asking, like, is this Trump’s contingency plan? Are we gonna see, like, you know, whatever in the world Trump’s, you know, current company is called now, you know.

JS: You mean Prince’s or Trump’s?

SA: I’m sorry, Prince’s.

JS: Trump’s is called the United States.

SA: Trump’s is called Trump. Trump’s is called the United States, and it’s definitely called Trump. The best I’ve ever been owned on Twitter, by the way, is someone who once referred to me as an off-brand Scahill.

JS: Ooh, ouch.

SA: I spent like about a minute trying to figure out if I was offended by that or if it’s just fundamentally fact, so.

JS: People can call you an off-brand Scahill. I also give you major props for keeping it real with the 3rd Bass haircut.

SA: [Laughs]

JS: You definitely have the MC Serch thing going on.

SA: This has been a thing with you for years.

JS: I know, because I you think you — you’re the only person — you’re the only white guy I’ve ever seen that can master the high top fade.

SA: [Laughs]

JS: All right, Spencer Ackerman, it’s been awesome having you on Intercepted. Thanks for joining us.

SA: Thank you, Jeremy.

JS: Spencer Ackerman is the senior national security correspondent at the Daily Beast. He’s on Twitter at @attackerman.

[Music interlude]

JS: Now, for those of you who have listened to this show from the beginning, you know that early on in the life of this podcast, we said that we were going to include the words and the music and the ideas of artists. And we’ve been really blessed with some amazing contributors and contributions. Part of the reason why we made that a component of this show is because people who advocate fascist policies, who run wars on immigrants, and women, and the poor, and people of color — historically, they don’t want vibrant culture or artistic expression. Because music is really what — it keeps us going. It provides anthems for struggles and for change. This week, my friend, Leo Heiblum, is visiting New York. Leo is originally from Mexico, and he is an incredible musician and composer. He and I got to know each other several years ago when Leo was working with the actor Gael García Bernal on a documentary film about a undocumented immigrant who makes a journey through Central America and ends up in the United States, and then is found dead in the Arizona desert. That film was called “Who is Dayani Cristal?” It’s a great film. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. Well, Leo did the score and the music for that excellent film. And then this other musical artist, singer/composer Tenzin Choegyal, who is a Tibetan living in exile — they met each other just the other night. And then they came into our studio to perform together, and — well, I’ll just shut up, and I’ll let them introduce themselves and the song that they’re gonna share with us.

Leo Heiblum: My name is Leo Heiblum, and I’m from Mexico City — “Chilango” from Mexico.

Tenzin Choegyal: I’m Tenzin Choegyal, a Tibetan in exile and now living in Australia.

LH: I am staying at Philip Glass’ house here in New York, which is where I usually stay, and that’s a great place to meet friends and musicians. And I was just there with my instrument and playing the tabla, and Tenzin came, and we just started jamming. And now we’re playing together.

TC: I derive my musical image from Tibetan nomadic tradition, but then I improvise it into an experimental sound. And then for me, it’s like a drifting cloud without having to be bothered about the geographical boundaries that are created by the human beings.

LH: I have a grandfather from Poland, and my grandmother from Egypt. My parents are from Mexico, but I was born in Mexico. But I was never — I never felt as a Mexican because everywhere, people would talk to me in English. I’ve been looking for music everywhere all my life. I spent a long time in India in a place where Tenzin also spent a lot of time. And there, I studied the tabla, and then I found this amazing traditional Mexican instrument about ten years ago, the jarana. And I’ve been going to the communities. And the jarana and the son jarocho is an amazing place to find music that is alive and that is really changing the dynamics of the community. It’s so wonderful. I was in a car with Gael going to the Morelia Film Festival, and we were listening to Leonard Cohen. And he was like, “Man, we should do a song by Leonard Cohen in a traditional Mexican style.” And we were doing this film called “Who is Dayani Cristal?” And we just came up on “The Partisan” and we were listening to the lyrics, and it’s about immigration. And it’s — then we did our research, and then we found out that it wasn’t a Leonard Cohen song, that it was actually a much older song.

TC: It was — and it’s really related to still now, like the situations that we are now in the political factors that are dividing the countries, dividing human beings. And, you know, like the division of people against people.

LH: There’s a particular paragraph that we were talking about this morning that says, “I have changed my name so often. I have lost my wife and children, but I have many friends, and some of them are with me.” And that’s a Mexican migrant, that’s a Tibetan migrant, that’s like —

TC: So many oftentimes, we have changed our names, and to suit the situations.

[“The Partisan,” Leo Heiblum and Tenzin Choegyal]

JS: Leo Heiblum is a musician and a composer from Mexico, and Tenzin Choegyal is a composer and musician in exile from Tibet. They’re both gonna be performing on Friday, June 2nd in New York City. If you are in town, you should check it out. It’s a benefit concert at Tibet House. Information on all of that is at tibethouse.us.

[Music interlude]

Jeremy Scahill: Coming up on the show, we’re gonna talk with a truly brilliant activist and scholar, Mariame Kaba. She’s gonna give us a people’s history of prisons in the U.S., and the politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, who have made them what they are today. This is Intercepted. Stay with us.

[Music interlude]

JS: Okay, we are back here at Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill. In the current media climate in this country, and with Donald Trump being Donald Trump, there are so many vital issues and important stories that get little to no attention. The civilians killed in U.S. wars, the plight of the truly poor in this country, the struggles of working people. The climate. The campaign. The moves to attack women’s healthcare. The efforts to kick millions of people off of any kind of healthcare. Racism is sometimes discussed in the media in this country, but these days, it’s often through the lens of some Trump associate, or in the context of covering the so-called alt-right phenomenon. Politicians in this country, Democrats and Republicans, always seem to jockey for position, particularly at election time, for who’s the strongest law and order candidate. You know, the Hillary Clinton “superpredator” comment that she made in the 1990s resurfaced during the presidential race last year. Less discussed, though, were the policies that her husband enacted as president that she helped advocate as First Lady. But when it came to, you know, law and order, at least on a rhetorical level, like, Trump took the spiel to new heights.

DJT: I am the law and order candidate!

JS: While both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tried and at times fumbled to address to growing Black Lives Matter movement, which of course is a decentralized movement — it arose in protest of the police killings of black people in this country — Trump didn’t even pretend that it was a serious issue, that it was a real issue. In fact, Trump often mocked it. He did not take the issue seriously. Beyond the rhetoric, Trump put a proven racist, Jeff Sessions, in charge of the Justice Department as attorney general.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Unfortunately, in recent years, law enforcement as a whole has too often been unfairly maligned and blamed for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few in their ranks. Amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, morale has gone down, while the murder of police officers killed in the line of duty has gone up.

DJT: Stocks in private prisons skyrocketed in the aftermath of Trump’s election. We really learned the David Clark, the Milwaukee County sheriff, was going to be getting a top post at the Department of Homeland Security.

Sheriff David Clarke: Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make something very clear. Blue lives matter in America!

JS: Sheriff Clarke was a big hit at the Republican Convention, where he showed up looking like a military general, or at least he wanted to appear as one, with all of his little medallions on his police uniform. But back in Milwaukee County — and I’m from Milwaukee — Clarke faces very serious questions about a string of suspicious deaths that have taken place in holding cells, jails, that are under his control. But he’s apparently on his way to Washington. Now, when Trump and his administration talk about crime and imprisonment in the black community, they do it with no historical context. They feed what I would call a racist narrative in addressing some of these staggering statistics. More than 60 percent of people in prison today are people of color. Black men are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely. For black men in their 30s, one in every ten is in prison or jail on any given day. The rate of imprisonment for African American women is more than twice that of white women. Right now, the United States has more than two million people in prison. That’s a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. That’s the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Joining me now is the organizer and educator Mariame Kaba. She is the founder of Project NIA and a co-organizer of Survived and Punished. She’s also one of the sharpest people I know on Twitter, where her handle is @prisonculture. Mariame, welcome to Intercepted.

Mariame Kaba: Thanks for having me.

JS: Now, you refer to yourself as an abolitionist. What do you mean by that?

MK: Abolition for me is a long-term project, and also a practice around creating the conditions that would allow for the dismantling of prisons, policing, and surveillance, and the creation of new institutions that actually work to keep us safe, and are not fundamentally oppressive. What you need to make those conditions happen, you have to be for addressing environmental issues. You have to be for making sure people have a living wage economically. I think — I know for me, it’s important to be anti-capitalist. All those things feed into creating the conditions that would lead to the end of the things I want to see, and the bringing into being of the things I want to have.

JS: For people who don’t have a loved one that’s been to prison, haven’t been to prison themselves, who just sort of view prison as a place where people who commit crimes go —

MK: Right.

JS: Set a kind of context for people of the institution of imprisonment in the United States and what that looks like.

MK: Prison itself is a reform. I think that’s something that most people don’t think about, right? Prisons haven’t always existed. They came into being, especially in the United States, because people were trying to react against capital punishment and corporal punishment, which were seen at the time, by particularly Quakers, as incredibly inhumane. So, initially, the reform itself was not meant to be a brutalizing thing. But isolation itself is actually brutal. Over the years, prisons have been spaces where we’ve sent the people we don’t like, or the people we want to manage and control socially. Early before the Civil War, most people who were locked up were not actually black people, because almost every black person in the country was enslaved. Immediately after, you know, Emancipation, all of a sudden, the literally complexion of prisons change, and black people become kind of hyper targets of that system. And we create new laws, the black codes, other things like that. Convict lease system comes into being as a way to continue to exploit the labor of the people who are now newly free.

The reason to talk about that history is also to demystify for people how and why people ended up behind bars initially, that it wasn’t really about real crime, but it was about a perception of blacks as inherently criminal in order to continue to control blacks, who people thought after enslavement actually didn’t have a right to be free, that black people couldn’t manage freedom. And that was the story that got told. And so, the prison became a site for continuing to control blackness. And we have arrived in the late 1960s, when there was a rise in murder and in robberies particularly. So, kind of violent crimes are rising at the same time as the Black Power movement is also expanding. And these two things are being brought together.

Bobby Seale: Well, now, brother Martin King exhausted the means of nonviolence with his life being taken by some racist. What is being done to us is what we hate, and what happened to Martin Luther King is what we hate. You’re darn right we respect nonviolence. But to sit and watch ourselves be slaughtered like our brother? We must defend ourselves, as Malcolm X said, by any means necessary.

MK: The story that gets told is that, you know, it’s mainly Nixon who comes in and puts in the kind of War on Drugs, the beginning of the War on Drugs, and he was like the Republicans are to blame for how the carceral state got built more massively.

Richard Nixon: America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.

MK: Between 1825 until like the late 1960s, the prison population is stable. It’s pretty low. In the late 1960s, you’ve got all these scholars and activists talking about the end of prison. People are talking about the prison as being over. So, you have to think about like how we went from like the end of prison to all of a sudden, the largest jailer in the whole entire international sphere in the world becomes the United States. And that’s because of a set of policies that come into play. And those policies are bipartisan policies, but really take off with Johnson, where Johnson wants to fight the war on poverty, and he gives in on creating a war on crime arm of the war on poverty. And what do the Republicans do, which they always do so well? They want to defund the poverty angle, and they want to keep the war on crime.

JS: What was the motivation in your assessment of these politicians, both Democrats and Republicans?

MK: It was “the riots.” It was the images of those young black people in Watts, and 1964 in Harlem. And all these places where there were “urban disorder and urban unrest.” And the face of that were black young people.

Newscaster: Six days of rioting in the Negro section of Los Angeles left behind scenes reminiscent of war-torn cities. More than a hundred square blocks were decimated by fire and looters, and few buildings were left intact. Firemen were harassed by snipers and brick-throwing hoodlums as they attempted to control the fires, many of which were left to burn themselves out.

MK: This is why you can’t talk about incarceration, criminalization in this country without understanding the history of blackness and black people in this country, the ways in which the politicians have used us basically as the fuel to make things happen, that then bleed out to the rest of the population. So, we’re always the canaries in the coalmine. We go into Bill Clinton and what he does with the 1994 crime bill.

Bill Clinton: When I sign this crime bill, we together are taking a big step toward bringing the laws of our land back into line with the values of our people, and beginning to restore the line between right and wrong.

MK: Which actually doesn’t have that much of an impact in terms of spiking the numbers even higher. What he does it give people more of an ideological basis to continue to do what they’ve been doing. He was one of the most destructive presidents for black people. And we’re still trying to recover from his reign, both in terms of what he put into place around immigration and immigrant detention. A lot of people don’t think about that as black, but the people who are most incarcerated within immigrant detention are disproportionately black immigrants.

JS: Well, and of course, you had this massive atrocity that happened at Guantanamo.

MK: Right.

JS: With Haitians —

MK: That’s right.

JS: Who were fleeing violence that the United States sponsored in the form of overthrowing Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

MK: Right.

JS: And then you had — I think a lot of people, particularly young people, don’t know this history. Before Guantanamo was the place where Bush stuck people extra-judicially in the so-called War on Terror, Clinton piled bodies inside of Guantanamo of the first independent black republic in the Western hemisphere, Haiti.

MK: That’s right. It came back to haunt Hillary Clinton in Miami with the Haitians that were there not voting for her, right? So, there’s — people have long memories. But welfare reform, or what we call welfare deform, had such a disproportionate impact, particularly on single black mothers. The ways in which the carceral state was kind of reinforced and made much more brutal through the three strikes laws, through the mandatory minimum sentences, which were up through his horrific behavior around rushing back to Arkansas during his election to go and put somebody who was mentally disabled to death, right? He really set in place the apparatus that we are still trying to dismantle today.

JS: Under Obama, you had several incendiary killings that happened. You had George Zimmerman murdering Trayvon Martin. You had the shooting of Mike Brown. And we can go down a whole list of people. I remember as a kid growing up in Milwaukee, the police shooting an unarmed black man named Ernest Lacy.

Newscaster: 1981. Ernest Lacy suffocated in the back of a police van after officers arrested him for a rape he didn’t commit.

JS: These kinds of killings have always happened in this country.

MK: Always, yeah.

JS: What was it about this string of incidents that seemed to rejuvenate a rebellious atmosphere in this country that was in large part led by young African Americans and other people of color across this country? And they weren’t being organized by Al Sharpton or some national network. It was a spontaneous response. Given that this has happened from the beginning of this republic to black people from white people in authority or people with a badge, what was it about that particular moment that seemed to spark this uprising?

MK: Almost every urban uprising that has occurred in the country’s history has police violence at its root. So, if you look at the 1935 Harlem “riots,” or Harlem uprising, at the core of it is a rumor that a young Puerto Rican boy is killed, but he wasn’t actually killed. And that sparks the conflagration. In 1943, that rebellion in Harlem, also at the root was Marjorie Polite and this young man, and the police basically being accused of having shot him. That’s a conflagration. 1964 is also a young black man who’s shot by the cops in New York City.

Male Speaker (1964): In the name of God, please go home and protect the dignity of our Harlem community!

Crowd chanting: Bring back Malcolm X! Bring back Malcolm X!

Acting Mayor Paul Screvane: I view these developments with the utmost seriousness, and have given approval to all necessary steps to ensure and maintain the rule of law and order in this as well as all other parts of the city to insure, for example, against the disorder by contagion.

MK: If you look at just the history of all the different uprisings, you can go back to the early 1900s, and all of those are cases that are sparked by police brutality. And the reason that that’s the case, and it’s always been the case in this country, is because it is the most clear example of being treated unjustly in the country. It’s the clearest way that almost every black person can see that they are second class. In other things, it’s diffuse, right? We know there are poor people. But if you yourself are not poor, in this country, you can pretend they don’t exist. And that includes black people. You can live in a way that, like, ignores the black poor people. Except that many, many black people are tied to poor people anyway, even if they left their communities. Most of — a lot of their family still is struggling. So, we see it in a different kind of way. But just not having the right to exist, to walk down the street without being harmed, that consistent knowledge of that is something that —

JS: By the people who taxpayers are financing to supposedly keep order and safety.

MK: Exactly.

JS: Yeah.

MK: The gatekeepers of the state are turning their — literally their guns on us. And so, it is a, like — it’s a sight that makes sense, where people feel a direct visceral sense that this is friggin’ unfair. What are they doing to us? And that’s been along the way. I think this most — that’s why it’s important to put the movement for black lives that’s currently been — that continues to happen right now in its proper context. It’s only part of a long freedom struggle that has gone on in this country for as long as lack people have been here

JS: Because I know you’re originally from New York, but you’ve spent the past years organizing and working in Chicago, where you also studied. And I’m curious about what your analysis is of the very high murder rate in Chicago, the proliferation of weapons on the streets, and what the kind of root cause of it is. You know, my family is from Chicago. My dad is from Hyde Park. My brother and sister live in Chicago. And we’ve seen a pretty radical change in the violence levels in Chicago, or at least the reporting on it. And Donald Trump harped on this constantly in the campaign.

DJT: And then you look at Chicago. What’s going on in Chicago?

JS: Chicago became the kind of epic dog whistle for politicians who wanted to say, “the problem is when black people have guns.” And Chicago is basically, well — Spike Lee said “Chiraq,” but, you know, you had Lupe Fiasco the hip-hop artist say, “well, we need General Stanley McChrystal to come in here and take control of Chicago.” What is at the heart of the violence that we’re seeing right now in Chicago, in your view?

MK: In Chicago, you have to look at the whole history of what has happened. First and foremost, the last three years have been where we’ve seen homicide rates go up. But that preceded almost 15 years of it consistently going down. I think that you have to look at the disinvestment that has been going on in the last ten years. Things take time to catch up. I mean, and this is a city run by Democrats who — it’s a city that is the test case for neoliberal economics of all different sorts. The privatization of schools, the privatization of mental health clinics, the ways in which economic violence is being done to particular communities on the West and on the South sides of Chicago. Those are the places that are the most dangerous. There’s an inequality to violence in Chicago. You can be on the North side in downtown, living your life. It’s like you’re living in another country. So, I think that there are many, many reasons for why this is, and I think we’re gonna be in a moment where we’re gonna see whether or not we’re gonna revert back to the lock them up kind of way of the late 1980s and ‘90s, or that we’ve learned anything.

JS: When it became clear that Donald Trump was going to be president, to what did you attribute his victory?

MK: I think there are so many things. He ran against a terrible candidate, I still maintain. I don’t think that Hillary Clinton was good in terms of a contrast to him. So, I think that was real. I think the Electoral College and the way that relic from slavery that exists really to disempower majorities to actually put in who they want in office, I think you cannot discount just the completely xenophobic and racist and sexist forces and internalized oppressions that exist within this country. I said through the entire election, I said, “This is an election for white people arguing with other white people about how to deal with the rest of us.” I kept saying it before the election. I said — like, it just felt that way. Like, the arguments that were being had, Chicago as a trope, right? Like, not even a dog whistle, like a high C, you know, high key kind of yelling and primordial scream. I think that they just, you know — a lot of white poor people — and I just want to say this because I think this is important too. There’s too much emphasis being put on the white working class. And I don’t mean that in the sense that we shouldn’t be paying attention to them. But they’re not the — they’re being put as the scapegoat for why Trump came into office. His base is middle class people and rich white people. Like, rich white middle class people are the real base for the Republican Party. They’re the ones who put him in there.

White working class people vote at a low rate compared to middle class and rich people. Just sheer number-wise, there are not enough to have put him over the edge, right? But I find it interesting how white folks are so quick to throw poor white people under the bus, to blame them for why Trump came into being. No, no! 53 percent of white women voted for him. They weren’t all white working class women, right? So, I’m like, uh-uh. Don’t do that. You know, I think that we — like, think white working class people vote at a low rate, just like poor black people vote at a low rate. That’s been the case for time immemorial, if you look at like the statistics of voting. So, yes, while some poor white people have racial resentments and, you know, are animated by racism, this country is racist. And any appeals to “othering” other people at the benefit of white people are going to be seized. I think it is important to say that the majority of people didn’t even vote for him. He won because of the Electoral College, yes. And that’s the system. I’m not trying to overturn the current election. I just think that we should really look at what has happened and tell the truth.

JS: What’s the significant of Jeff Sessions being the attorney general?

MK: I think he’s a racist ideologue, clearly. I would not have wanted him to be the dogcatcher-in-chief. He should not be in office. He should not – it was good that he wasn’t a judge, you know? All those things are true. He is a racist ideologue who is overseeing a racist, classist, sexist, transphobic system. The criminal punishment system is — are those things, whether Jeff Sessions is the attorney general or not.

JS: Right. I mean, there’s a level — I mean, I agree with you, and I think there’s a level on which it’s kind of refreshing that the person who is the figurehead actually represents the legacy of the institution.

MK: He represents the actual institution. So, now, you’re gonna have to look at that system to understand that it isn’t one man, but it is the whole damn thing that has to go, right? People keep saying, you know, the system is guilty. The whole damn system has to go, and people are chanting. This is absolutely the case in this case.

JS: Yeah, but look at what’s happening in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey, the FBI director. There’s this lionization of the FBI.

MK: Sure.

JS: And the CIA, for that matter, by the Democrats. But on the Comey issue, it’s really is like, oh my god, Jim Comey was the last honest man in this country, and the FBI was keeping us safe and has all this integrity. What is your response to the dominant kind of liberal narrative now, white liberal narrative that the FBI is on our side, and they’re the good guys, and they’re the ones keeping us safe?

MK: But white liberals love the cops. I don’t know what to tell you. Like, they always have loved the cops. I don’t know that this is new, you know? Like, the cops are in all of our heads and hearts, but they’re very much in liberals’. You know, think about how the conversation is framed around cops and policing. Think about Obama. The whole — his whole entire conversation of policing has been a few bad apples. But most of the cops are great. No real drilling down on, no, policing as a system itself is corrupt. No. People are — you know, my uncle Johnny is a cop, and he’s great. And I’m like, I don’t care about your uncle Johnny being a nice man. Policing itself is corrupt. So, somebody putting somebody within a corrupt system corrupts them. Whether Johnny’s nice or good, he cannot fight against that system of that, like the blue wall of silence. The ways in which you are forced into being silent when horrible things are happening. I know cops. I’ve had to interact with them my — almost my entire adult life in various ways, right? In terms of, you know, either advocating for young people who are being harassed, or being in a space where I’ve actually had to interact with them in rooms where there’s been policy debates and things like that. And they’ll be the first to tell you that it is really impossible to get rid of bad cops. And so, that means it’s a systemic issue, not that it’s a personal issue.
So, I feel like the lionization — and I don’t even know if it’s that. I just think like, putting the FBI on a pedestal is just an extension of the love of police in this country. And you see it with the way how unpopular in so many quarters Black Lives Matter is, and how uncomfortable white liberals are in dealing with the actual central tenet of white — of Black Lives Matter saying it is the whole system. It’s like, I can deal with the, you know, Darren Wilson being horrible. But you’re talking about, like, ending police? What? That doesn’t even make sense. It doesn’t compute. What I saw with what happened with Comey is that people were — there was a bifurcation. At least what I saw online were people were still pissed off at him for putting that letter out against Clinton. So, the Clinton support folks are still like, he, we’re not like — they’re not really defending Comey. But they are defending the institution of the FBI, and they want somebody on top that they want to see as a nonpolitical figure, as though anything in this country’s nonpolitical. Every friggin’ decision that gets made is political because all politics is is about power, to redistribute resources to the people who want to keep it versus the people who need it. That’s what politics is. That’s why I engage in politics, you know.

JS: What can ordinary people who are living their lives do to contribute to the work that you’re doing or the issues that you are hammering on day in and day out in your work?

MK: I say the first thing people can do is find out who their prosecutor is in your local county. Who is the person with the discretion to lock up people? If you don’t know that person’s name, then it’s your civic duty to find out immediately, to find out what they actually have been doing. Go visit them. They’re down the street from your house. You have the right to go down here and say to them, “Hm, so I’m interested in knowing, like, are you tough on crime? Because if you are, you need to go. The next election, I’m gonna be there with my friends, my 2-7 — you know, my friends from bridge or whatever from the church, and we are gonna vote you out.” You have to talk at your local level. Criminal punishment decisions are made at the local level. I mean, at the county level often, right? And your jails are at the county level. So, pay attention to that. That’s like one thing you can do. It matters who you’ve elected as your district attorney. Find out who the judges are on the ballots that you get when you go and vote for like your senator and your congresspeople, and that’s the only thing you check off, that’s a dereliction of duty. Find out who the hell the judges are. Bar associations and other people always put out lists. Look and see who is going — you know, who is being recommended and why, and start voting against those people. As soon as they notice that the public is no longer down for stuff, trust me, they change. They’re politicians. They respond to pressure, you know?

So, I think that would be my second suggestion. And my third suggestion is, listen. It is really, really important not to allow people to demagogue you. Stop assuming that “safety” means imprisonment. It means more punishment. Start like getting the punishment mindset shifted in your mind so that when you see somebody who is other than you, that your fear factor that is like conditioned by all the messages you’ve gotten your entire life about who to be afraid of, like challenge that within yourself for real, and stop being at every point demagogued into locking up people, putting up walls, creating new borders. End that within yourself, and try to change people in your own circles’ ideas about who should — and stop — especially if you’re liberal and progressive — stop calling for people to be locked up every day. Oh, so-and-so’s a war criminal and they should go to prison! Listen. Everybody shouldn’t be going to prison. That’s the point. Stop playing into those ideas that every time something happens, your first inclination is to think about the prosecution and court system as the way to solve that problem. We all do it instinctively. I don’t, because I’ve like literally trained myself out of that over many, many years. But I see it all the time with friends of mine. The first thing that happens, jail the bankers. Really? You think that jailing some Goldman Sachs guys is what is gonna end capitalism? No, it’s not! And by the way, I don’t want Darren Wilson even locked up. Like, you know, like that’s hard for people to like fathom, because like, this is a killer cop. Of course he should go to jail. No, not even him.

So, I think we have to like reframe our thinking and get out of the criminal, like the punishment mindset that we have. It infects everything. It’s not just the criminal punishment system. It’s the way we treat our children. It’s the way we treat our community friends. It’s the way we look at young people in the streets and immediately assume that they’re doing something negative because they’re hanging out on the corner. It infects everything. So, I want people to change that, to, you know, change their mindset and think about people as — build new relationships with each other in order to be able to keep ourselves safe.

JS: Mariame Kaba, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.

MK: Thanks for having me.

JS: Mariame Kaba is the founder of Project NIA, and a co-organizer of Survived and Punished. She’s on Twitter at @prisonculture.

[Leo Heiblum singing “La Guacamaya”]

JS: Special thanks to the Mexican musician/composer/artist Leo Heiblum for sharing his music with us today on Intercepted.

[Music interlude]

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Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Bryan Pugh mixed the show today. We had production assistance from Elise Swain. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.