By Marcos Breton
Speaking ill of the deceased is frowned upon, particularly in the state capital, when the subject is a former governor who held forth in Sacramento for many years and who supposedly reminded people of good old days when politicians drank together and worked together. Blah, blah, blah.
Yeah, sorry, I’m not in the Capitol clique. The good old days – in this case, the 1970s and 1980s – were not that good and neither was former Governor George Deukmejian, whose memory was celebrated with verbal and written roses after he died on May 8 at 89.
To those who knew him, loved him and worked for him, flowery testimonials were appropriate. But for the people who were on the wrong end of Deukmejian’s particular brand of leadership during his eight years as governor from 1983 to 1991, well, all they got were the thorns.
This man that a largely white Capitol press corps showered with praise last week was a key player in the transformation of California into a prison industrial complex where the cost of incarcerating state inmates eventually outstripped the cost of educating young people in state universities. He was responsible for signing odious legislation that targeted brown and black men, who were rounded up, rousted, beaten and busted by city cops and county sheriffs empowered to act like occupying armies in California’s more humble neighborhoods.
His idea of “law-and-order” policies and “tough-on-crime laws” was an undeniable precursor for the civic unrest we see in California cities today. Why would an African American man in Sacramento, when approached by a cop because his car was idling, freak out and whip out his phone as the cop approached? Because poor black men and brown men in California have had decades’ worth of good reasons to fear cops approaching for the most innocuous reasons.
Is that all Deukmejian’s fault? Of course not. Were there plenty of other factors and actors feeding into public hysteria that prompted unfair, racist sentencing practices, police practices and legislation during Deukmejian’s time? Of course. We know now that Ronald Reagan’s 1980s “War on Drugs” harshly penalized minority communities. We know now that Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act brought “three strikes” mandatory life sentences and billions to erect prisons. We know now that criminologists such as John DiIulio, a Princeton professor, coined the phrase “superpredators,” seized upon by opportunistic politicians, including Hillary Clinton. In 1995, DiIulio predicted that the number of incarcerated juveniles would triple. People believed him. Black and brown youths were rounded up, prosecuted as adults, and what happened? DiIulio was completely wrong. The “superpredator” is now a discredited myth that caused white people to fear dark people and gave cover to sentencing practices that targeted black and brown youths for lifetimes in prison.
The list goes on and on, and includes co-conspirators, such as generations of Democrats like the Clintons who talked tough on crime to get votes. Or the Democrats who had lock jaw and allowed draconian law-and-order policies to destroy communities. Or California voters who, time and again in past elections, approved harsh initiatives that targeted brown and black men.
California is experiencing a reckoning for this shameful legacy today.
If you don’t get the multitude of reasons why people are so angry about the killing of Stephon Clark by Sacramento Police, then you don’t know your California history.
So why pick on Deukmejian? Because “law and order” was his legacy as Governor of California and his time in office was not that long ago. Because, by the time he left office in 1991, the damage to minority communities had been done. Because he was not a private citizen, but a public figure who sought and retained the highest office in the state and wielded power that affected many people in a negative way. That public life and hurtful use of power demands assessments that go a little bit deeper than whether Deukmejian was a nice guy.
Governors and presidents and leaders of vast swaths of people are not elected or judged on whether they are “good guys.” They are judged by what they did and what they said.
In 1988, Deukmejian signed the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, which targeted gang members and added stiff sentencing enhancements. The STEP Act gave rise to California gang database that collected “intelligence” on reputed gang members that was so flawed, it was blasted by state auditors in 2016.
“The CalGang database, which includes the names of more than 150,000 suspected gang members and affiliates, contains questionable information that may violate the privacy rights of many individuals, according to the audit, ” wrote the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “The database is overwhelmingly male – some 93.1% – and disproportionately minority – 64.9% Latino and 20.5% black.”
The STEP Act resulted in racial profiling in the name of gang suppression. It resulted in ridiculous sentences for “gang enhancements.” The list is long, but one that stands out is the 2014 sentencing of Brandon Spencer, a 21-year-old African American man from Los Angeles. He is serving a 40-year prison sentence for shooting at a rival gang member. Spencer didn’t kill anyone. But the minimum sentence for a gang member using a gun is 40 years so 40 years is what he got. Did Spencer deserve to go to prison? Yes. Could he have killed somebody? Yes. Did he? No. Tough luck for him. He’s doing 40 years for not killing while other folks with fairer complexions do less time for killing. The same day Spencer was sentenced, the LA Times ran a story about a Florida man facing 10 years for smothering his son.
Deukmejian more than doubled the size of California’s prison system. In 1990, his last year in office, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reported this: “One out of every three African American males between 20 and 29 is under the control of the criminal justice system. This represents 32 percent of the population bracket.” One of every 11 Latinos between 20 and 29 were incarcerated, which made up nearly 10 percent. And one of 19 whites between 20 and 29 were incarcerated, which made up 5.4 percent of the state prison population. Does that sound right?
In 1992, the same Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that San Francisco’s jail population exploded in the late 1980s. The center called that study, “Localizing apartheid.”
Chet Hewitt, who now runs the Sierra Health Foundation, was an author of that 1992 study. “We’re still experiencing the effects of those bad decisions today,” he said. “California became the fifth largest economy with the highest child poverty rate. We chose the most pernicious form of human intervention.”
On his way out the door, Deukmejian asserted that his tough policies resulted in drops in crime. But 27 years later, we know that data do not prove this claim. A 2015 study by the New York University School of Law found that socioeconomic factors such as growth in income and an aging population played a bigger role in huge drops in crime in the last 20 years.
So what was Deukmejian’s legacy about? It would not be surprising if history ultimately judged him as an alarmist protector of the status quo in a state that was scared in the 1970s and ’80s as its population grew more diverse. Deukemejian rode that fear and lent his weight to the effort that eventually drove out the first woman Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court and the first Latino justice.
I was undergraduate in college when this happened in 1986. I was confused by the vehemence and fervor that caused Chief Justice Rose Bird, associate Justice Cruz Reynoso and a third justice to be removed by voters. That fervor would return in 1994, when Deukmejian’s successor – Pete Wilson – rode the anti-immigrant tidal wave to re-election while backing Proposition 187, the voter approved/court-blocked initiative that targeted undocumented immigrants.
That kind of vehemence, rooted in fear of “the other,” is what sped Donald Trump to the White House. It’s being promoted by the two Republicans running for governor today.
But wasn’t Deukmejian a nice guy?
Well, this is what Dan Walters – one of the longest serving Capitol press corps members – wrote in late 1990: “Newspapers whose writers have offended the governor at some point in his career are being denied end-of-career interviews while those not on his personal blacklist are being granted interviews. That’s certainly consistent. But it’s awfully petty.”
Hmmm, does that behavior remind you of anyone today?