What Just Happened? A Weekly Roundup of Politics

02.22.2019 Arts & Culture
Ann Lewis
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This week saw a landmark Supreme Court case on civil forfeiture passed, the winding down of the war against ISIS in Syria, and all sorts of legal and political responses to Trump’s National Emergency Declaration.

Starting off with civil forfeiture… most people have no idea what this is or how wildly unconstitutional it is. Basically, if a cop arrests you, they can seize any of your property they deem was potentially used in a crime. You don’t have to be found guilty or even actually charged with anything for this to happen. Property can be cash, your car, your computer, even your house.

For example, take Ella Bromell, a 72-year-old South Carolina woman who is fighting with the state to keep her home after people sold drugs on her property while she was at work. She had nothing to do with it, but due to civil forfeiture, the government has been vying to take her home for years. In Timbs v. Indiana, the particular case that brought upon the Supreme Court decision, a man sold $225 worth of opioids out of his Land Rover to an undercover officer, and the state seized his car (which is worth more than four times the maximum fine for such an offense).

Interestingly enough, one of the significant principles of the Magna Carta, which inspired the Bill of Rights, was freedom from excessive fines — a concept that got wrapped up into our constitution in the 8th and 14th Amendments. After a unanimous 9-0 vote on the Timbs v. Indiana ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history. Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties [and] excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”

Excessive fines get funneled through the Department of Justice, but most goes back to the municipalities that seize it — problematic for all kinds of reasons. Many people have likened civil forfeiture to policing for profit. This runs in parallel with the conversations that many precincts require their officers to meet arrest and ticketing quotas. (Basically, a lot of what police do aside from arresting bad guys is seizing assets or fining people to guarantee that the police department stays in the black.)

Between 1986 and 2014 the Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund went from $93.7 million to $4.5 billion — that’s a 4667% increase, btw! During this time we also saw an outrageous rise in arrest rates with our prison populations ballooning. So the big question is, if civil forfeiture is now illegal, how are municipalities going to fund their forces?

The Syrian war which has been raging on for more than eight years seems to finally be coming to a slow, bitter, and bloody end. One last enclave of Islamic State (IS) fighters in the Syrian town of Baghuz is holed up on a tiny plot of land. Envoys of civilians are leaving the small village headed to refugee camps so that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — a mostly Kurdish force backed by western fighters — can launch an offensive attack and take out the last of the diehard IS soldiers left in the region. Backed against the Iraqi border their weakened state shows (recently captured SDF fighters were exchanged for food and supplies), however, special forces fear the small town may be boobytrapped with IEDs and suicide bombers.

While this may be the end of IS in the Syrian war, you can bet that many people who have lost family members and loved ones to the perpetual state of war in the Middle East will continue to want to fight back. IS might be on life support… but we all know we can never kill an idea.  

And speaking of ideas that never die… the border wall continues to be an ongoing drama that may actually happen regardless of the constitutionality of usurping National Emergency funds to build it. With 16 states filing lawsuits suing the Trump Administration for diverting emergency funds for the wall, we’re in for a long saga. The administration is going ahead with plans to build it without using the emergency defense fund… for now.

In an unsurprising twist of events, Trump is diverting funds from the Defense Department’s drug interdiction program and the Treasury Department’s asset forfeiture fund. It’s a massive sum that totals $3.1 billion. So while he gets everyone up in arms about National Emergency Funds, he’s already on to his next move. He’ll eventually use the National Emergency Funds if he gets them, but he’s found other money (money stolen from ordinary citizens by police forces all over the country) to build the wall.

Looking through a long list of National Emergencies from former presidents, many of them appear to be sanctions placed on people supporting unstable governments or narcotics dealers, transactions with terrorists, or prohibiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The range is vast, and Trump might actually have some legal standing, for once.  

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.

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