Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Crime Is Real
Paul Pelosi, subway murder, and the divide
A man broke into the palatial Pelosi home recently, smashing the 82-year-old husband of the House speaker with a hammer. Paul Pelosi suffered a skull fracture as the intruder shouted “where’s Nancy?” The horrific attack, intended for one of the most famous and powerful politicians in America, drew national attention and outrage. Reaction, inevitably, sorted along partisan lines. Democrats were universally horrified. Donald Trump called the attack a “terrible thing” but his son made a joke about it. Bizarre conspiracy theories abounded. The left took up a familiar cause: environment determined the nature of the attack, the violence of the far-right’s rhetoric inevitably seeding a new generation of gullible fanatics. “It took place in a time scarred by the January 6 insurrection, which established that in a festering political atmosphere cultivated and incited by Trump, individuals can be inspired to carry out acts of violence,” intoned CNN’s Stephen Collison. Naturally, neither the left nor right was willing to confront the far more muddled—and genuinely darker—reality. A drug-addled local with severe mental illness had attempted a murder. David DePape was a man who, according to his longtime partner, thought that “he was Jesus for a year” and had “never been able to hold a job.”
“He has been homeless. This person really does suffer from mental illness and that is probably why he was there at 2 a.m.,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. Though DePape’s politics had been all over the place, from protesting the Iraq War to railing against public nudity laws, he began in recent weeks to post right-wing conspiracy theories onto personal websites with no apparent audience. His partner, who is in prison herself, called DePape a “broken child in an adult body with serious mental problems.”
Political polarization flattens such a reality. The right-wing, inevitably, cannot acknowledge that it’s also awful that victims of crime can be their political enemies. At least there was no braying about a violent assault happening under the watch of a progressive San Francisco district attorney—he was ousted in June—as conservatives had to accept, quietly this time, that prosecutors can’t wave magic wands to make all the ickiness of life disappear. The left-wing, depending on the faction, rushed straight to the well of Jan. 6 or shed performative tears while ignoring. once more, the truth that the mentally ill can inflict violence and misery on themselves and others. There was little talk, in left-liberal media, of getting those experiencing psychotic breaks into treatment facilities where they can be properly medicated and ultimately, with dignity, housed. It was far more convenient to imagine DePape as a fully-functioning foot soldier of the alt-right, one more symptom of a zero-sum political discourse, just as it’s been far more convenient to imagine a pop star spouting wildly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories who is not mentally-ill.
The era is muddy. Most are, but this one is particularly so, with battle lines both defined and blurry, cause and effect blotted out by various partisan fairy tales. The right-wing daily inveighs against the elevated levels of crime in big cities. By nature of their politics, they will do this, and it turns out they are mostly correct for this moment in time. I roll my eyes still, just slightly, because I lived in New York City in the mid-2010s when there was a year when 292 people were killed—the lowest number ever recorded in city history—and conservative media was still frothing, blaming Bill de Blasio, the feckless liberal, for failing to contain mythical crime surges. On neither the left nor right is there room for talk of progress. The identarian left is crusading for a new preamble to the New York City charter that would effectively declare, among other things, the five boroughs are merely the sum of its racist parts, imprisoned by its sin. The right cannot recognize that, in America’s largest city, murders and shootings have declined significantly from a year ago, even as other crimes like burglary and grand larceny have increased. The right has no use for an accurate historical context. We are backsliding to the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s, even if thefts and murders are nowhere near those heights.
But the left cannot comfort the victims of crime with talk of the dangerous 1980s, and how today is nothing like yesterday. For liberals, there was far more howling on social media about Paul Pelosi than about the 78-year-old who was just punched out on the subway after he asked someone to lower the volume on their music. Or the 58-year-old who tried to ignore another a man attempting to argue with him on a subway platform and was stabbed in the upper back when he didn’t respond. These incidents, unlike the Pelosi assault, must be quickly explained away or disregarded altogether. They are isolated, they can only matter so much, look, please, at the bigger picture. These random attacks, simply, aren’t a problem to solve. But a multimillionaire husband of a House speaker is a victim of political violence—or seems to be a victim of political violence—and must be held up as a symbol of a nation at the brink. Meaning can be ascribed to the Pelosi attack, even if the meaning is misleading or outright false.
Paul Pelosi and the stabbed man on the subway—or the punched out man, or the two random commuters knifed to death—have more in common than most partisans would like to acknowledge. They are all, most likely, victims of crime perpetrated by those who only have a glancing relationship with reality, individuals deep in the void of psychosis. Social justice rhetoric is useless for them, as is the usual bust-their-skulls jeers from the right flank. Lee Zeldin, a sycophantic Donald Trump supporter, has a very outside shot of being elected governor of New York because random and petty crimes have risen high enough to put voters on edge. The left has no effective counter-narrative to offer, no ready comfort for the afflicted. The right has answers: cash bail forever and put more cops on the subway, in the streets, everywhere. But what if the people knifing out the innocent on subway platforms or shoving them in front of trains don’t care about the police? What if they aren’t afraid at all? What if the voices they hear in their heads are so loud, so persistent, that no cop can convince them not to murder someone? Not all criminals are this way, but enough of them are. They are David DePapes, long abandoned by a ludicrous and failed mental health system, left alone with their darkest fantasies. They aren’t thinking hard about what crimes are eligible for cash bail and what aren’t.
America of the 2020s is still grappling with one of the great policy failures of the last century: deinstitutionalization. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, an enormous number of state psychiatric facilities were shuttered, the result of a well-meaning crusade against the mistreatment of the mentally ill and the misunderstood. This was the era of straightjackets and forced lobotomies, and many of these facilities were, as portrayed in novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, either inadequate or abusive. But state and federal governments offered little to replace them. Rather than reform mental health hospitals or aggressively expand community facilities, politicians signed legislation and washed their hands of the debate altogether. The people were free to go. What more did they want? Instead of getting warehoused in psychiatric hospitals, many patients simply ended up in prison. The mass decline of state hospital beds almost perfectly tracked with the nation’s startling incarceration surge. Naturally, the byzantine and deeply unaffordable American healthcare system only worsened the problem, as those unable to pay for adequate treatment found themselves rotting in prison cells. To this day, psychiatric treatment is largely a privilege for the wealthy. (National health insurance or a single-payer healthcare system could fix this.) More than half of American psychiatrists do not accept Medicaid payments. Almost as many don’t take conventional health insurance. For those in desperate need of mental healthcare, it usually comes only at the time of an immediate psychiatric emergency, when police or EMTs intervene. Imagine treating heart disease this way, one heart attack at a time.
Conventional political binaries fail against such facts. Increasing the use of psychiatric beds has nothing to do with defunding the police or unleashing a thousand new cops on subway platforms. Dispatching social workers instead of police in certain situations or pairing mental health professionals with police is an ameliorative policy but will not suddenly help a person afford their psychiatric medication or even take it in the first place. The ACLU has long been against Kendra’s Law, which grants judges the authority to issue orders that require people who meet certain criteria to regularly undergo psychiatric treatment. But what should take its place? What’s the answer, if some people may not have the ability or willingness to seek the treatment that could save their own lives and keep others from dying? Kendra’s Law itself, of course, is not the only answer. The New York law does not fund new psychiatric beds or pay for a person’s medication. It does not make all mental health professionals take Medicaid.
Republicans cannot lower the crime rate if they take charge tomorrow. Since it’s an election year, they intentionally fail to understand that many Democratic leaders are doing much of what conservatives demand. Police departments are getting funded. Joe Biden is plowing federal funds into the police. Kathy Hochul and Eric Adams keep announcing news plans to add them to the subway system. More eyes on the beat, more patrols, more guns. Police departments have struggled to retain recruits, hamstrung by low starting pay, and there is a discussion to be had about paying a rookie more than $50,000 or $60,000 while finding a way to limit the abuse of overtime. If the right-wing perpetually demagogues on crime, fear of it remains bipartisan and multiracial, and the working-class must contend with more random violence than the affluent, forever cloistered in safer zip codes. It is a year of something must be done and the electorate will punish the Democrats. For a certain slice of the country, catharsis will be achieved. And then the hard part will begin anew—of what to do and how to do it. What may be most frightening of all is a reversion to the tactics of the past, a new age of incarceration to rival the obsession of the last century.
A young politician who wants to impress a crowd understands that fast answers are more important, politically, than correct answers. At a debate, the candidate who mulls or hesitates—who appears to be turning thoughts over—will lose to the opponent who has an answer ready to be shot out without hesitation. Fast answers, in this moment, are coming from the Republican Party. They play offense on crime, even when they are wrong. Playing offense is action. Playing offense is winning. The paradigm is favorable to the GOP, especially when it’s the party of left-leaning America that’s most animated over the suffering of the House speaker’s wealthy husband. Republicans, meanwhile, get to be the party of the subway victim, to momentarily claim that they, in fact, have the interests of the worker in mind, the beleaguered parent who just wants to get home to their kids without getting stabbed to death. Each side races to the barricades, their narratives safely sketched in advance. The pantomime must go on.
Political Currents by Ross Barkan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.