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Jail Is For Good Samaritans, Party Crashers, And Poor People

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People on my TV won't shut up about these two idiot party crashers. I know most of you have been trapped in the same room as your families for Thanksgiving, and probably have been forced to watch 24-hour news stations in lieu of interacting with distant cousins, so by now you probably know more details from this totally trumped-up story than you do about the ratification of the Constitution.

Nonetheless, a brief recap: Basically, two wannabe reality television nobodies wandered into President Obama's shindig, and now the media is inexplicably pursuing the story with bloodthirsty gusto.

There must be justice! The fact that these two hapless egomaniacs wandered into a party and posed for a few pictures with Rahm Emanuel (labeled "Ron Emanuel" on their Facebook page) is a "disgrace and symptomatic of lax standards at the Secret Service ever since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003," cries justice guardian Ronald Kessler of NY Daily News.

Sure, Tareq And Michaele Salahi were both very naughty, and the Secret Service needs to get its act together, but here is yet another example of our bizarro media, which whips itself into a frenzy over fluff stories, while real criminals get away with the crimes of the century.

If only the media has expressed this much interest in Iraq during the lead-up to invasion, or the economic bailout when America's oligarchy robbed taxpayers. Perhaps Americans would have shown the appropriate amount of interest in these really big stories if their excellent media handled huge events as enthusiastically as, say, the Jon and Kate break up.

Perhaps a stiff fine is in order for the party crashers, and maybe a good talking to. Certainly, there's no need to prosecute these two individuals to the "full extent of Federal LAW," as one commenter furiously demanded over at Anderson Cooper's blog. They're stupid fame-chashers, not international spies.

Where would we put two confused socialites, anyway? Our jails are already stretched to their limits with people who don't belong there. For example, in California this week, a 66-year-old man was jailed after being accused of illegally housing homeless people on his ranch in San Luis Obispo. Dan De Vaul was offered probation but refused the terms. He said, "I'm proud to go to jail for housing the homeless." (Side-note: De Vaul was recently released after Mary Partin, juror number five in his trial, put up $500 for his $5,000 bail. Partin voted guilty, but now says she caved to judicial pressure even though she thought De Vaul was innocent all along.)

Then there are all the poor people in jail. America has 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prisoners. More than 1 in 100 American adults were incarcerated at the start of 2008. One in every 31 American adults, or 7.3 million Americans, are in prison, on parole or probation. Approximately one in every 18 men in the United States is behind bars or being monitored.

So who goes to jail? Believe it or not, most aren't party crashers. Many are poor men of color who sold some drugs to survive.

One in 11 African-Americans, or 9.2 percent, are under correctional control, compared with one in 27 Latinos (3.7 percent) and one in 45 whites (2.2 percent). Only one out of 89 women is behind bars or monitored, compared with one out of 18 men.

The prison population first exploded in the 1990s when President Clinton's harsher drug sentencing laws began to take effect.

These included a 1986 federal law (since revised) mandating prison terms for crack cocaine offenses that were up to eight times as long as for those involving powder cocaine. In the 1990s, many states adopted "three-strikes-you're-out" laws and curtailed the powers of parole boards.

[snip]

Because of these policy shifts, the nationwide prison population swelled by about 80 percent from 1990 to 2000, increasing by as much as 86,000 a year. By contrast, from 2007 to 2008, that population increased by 25,000, a 2 percent rise.

New drug courts, state-level efforts to find alternatives to incarceration, and other back door ways to decriminalize drugs, have resulted in the number of African-Americans incarcerated for drug offenses in state prisons declining more than 20 percent for the first time in a quarter century. Of course, the number of white imprisoned drug offenders has increased more than 40 percent.

"There have been some modest shifts," says Robert Gangi, of the New York Correctional Association. "But people of color still make up a disproportionately large percentage."

That's led some analysts to argue that the racial shift in national incarceration rates does not reflect changing police and prosecution practices within states so much as the increase in methamphetamine use in many Western and Midwestern states.

It makes sense. During alcohol prohibition, people tried all kinds of crazy ways to get wasted, and died in the process. According to Richard Erdoes in 1000 Remarkable Facts about Booze, some desperate people falsely believed that the alcohol in antifreeze could be made safe and drinkable by filtering it through a loaf of bread. Many were seriously injured or killed as a result.

When marijuana was outlawed, people, who have been known to go to great lengths to escape their shitty lives, started mixing chemicals to get high. Ironically, in their attempt to outlaw a drug that isn't dangerous, law enforcement created a new monster: a highly addictive drug that makes individuals hyper-sexual, aggressive, psychotic, and eventually depressed and suicidal.

All the while, the mainstream media refused to state the obvious: the War on Drugs isn't working. Drugs continue to enter the country, and the federal government has made locking up poor people of color, who have resorted to using and selling drugs, a full-time business. Instead of pointing out this very clear reality, the media ran stories about dogs in funny costumes, the occasional missing blonde girl, and celebrity stories.

Occasionally, a solo criminal story (like the party crashers) pops up, but larger injustice goes unexamined.

I have no idea why America loves to hate the little criminal, while the big criminal gets away. Maybe it's because Americans can easily imagine Tareq or Michaele, the smug crashers, waltzing into the White House like they own the place. It's fun to hate party crashers, or a Bernie Madoff, or a Martha Stewart because it's like rooting against the villain in a soap opera. It's easy to picture their face, or their single crime, and then watch as that one person gets put through the wringer.

Think: rubberneckers. Everyone wants to see the cop chew out the speeder on the side of the highway. Why? Because it's not me. It's not my shitty life for a few seconds. It's their shitty life. But it's scary and intimidating to think that the whole system is rotten, and it's not just a few bad apples who broke the law.

It's considerably more difficult to comprehend the hundreds of billions of dollars shelled out to the banks during Obama's TARP program, or picture the faces and back-stories of the 7.3 million American adults in prison, on parole or probation. It's hard to understand what 87,215 dead Iraqis look like. It's impossible to know what 87,215 violent deaths does to a country, and of course, these are the sterile and modest numbers. Many more have died and millions are suffering, but again, imagining such horror is demanding.

It's much simpler to envision a smug gent and a rail-thin blonde walking into a party they were not invited to. It's fun to hate the miserable bastard steering the Ponzi scheme that was called "the largest investment fraud in Wall Street history," while ignoring that America's whole version of Capitalism is a Ponzi scheme, and the oligarchy was raiding the Treasury while the media salivated over the paparazzi footage of Bernie dodging the cameras.

The media, as usual, distracts instead of educates. The people that drop bombs and steal taxpayer money can only get away with their crimes if the media collaborates among itself to provide the cover of silence to these epic heists.

After the failure of the WMDs-that-never-were, the media crossed itself and collectively swore "Never Again." Yet, here we are, with the media jangling a new set of shiny keys in front of us even while it was recently revealed that Blackwater is secretly at war with a third country, Pakistan, which is -- I know I don't have to tell you smart people -- kind of a big fucking deal.

But back to Planet Media. I don't think the party crashers should go to jail. Yes, they're insufferable idiots, but there are worse criminals in the world. For example: The Bush administration and Goldman Sachs executives. There's Blackwater CEO, Erik Prince. There's the fleet of business card-wielding assholes that sunk the economy, costing millions of people their jobs and homes. There are thousands of war profiteers, war criminals, corporate jackals, and Wall Street crooks running around killing people with bombs, resource privatization, and short-selling. Where is their 24-hour news shaming?

Of course, I really doubt Tareq or Michaele are going to prison. He's a polo-playing winemaker, and she's way too blonde to ever see the inside of a jail cell. Our jails are full of men like Dan De Vaul and millions of other poor men and women, who just don't have the time and privilege to pursue Oenology.

A savvy media viewer can always find the real story behind the media's superficial coverage by observing what isn't reported. A Black Friday news story will never examine the motives of desperate shoppers -- some who may be trying to find bargains because they're newly unemployed, or simply nickel and dimed by the minimum wage. A soup kitchen holiday fluff piece will rarely feature the biographies of the homeless, many of who may be war veterans and ex-convicts, who can't find work or proper medical care.

And that's just the most obvious negations. The media is always not teaching us in all kinds of ways.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.