The use of a real prison in on-location filming of blockbuster Netflix series Orange is the New Black must have inspired Barack Obama's own savvy media shop. The president himself now has a starring role in his very own prison-based special. He traveled all the way to the federal pen in El Reno, Oklahoma to play the part of celebrity chaplain-for-a-day.
It helps that Alyssa Mastromonaco, the new COO of VICE ( the media company filming the documentary) is former deputy chief of staff for strategy in the Obama administration. Barry didn't even have to audition for the part of earnest concern-trolling mentor to the incarcerated.
It's all part of his latest public relations gimmick -- feigning concern for mainly black, mainly male, inmates locked up in the War on Drugs. Out of more than 5,000 federal inmates currently serving long terms for non-violent, crack-cocaine drug convictions, Obama recently commuted the sentences of a mere 46 of them to show what a caring guy he is. (And what a coincidence that one of them just happens to be the mother of a millionaire star athlete.) The other 4,950 or so, sentenced before a 2010 change in the law forbade such draconian prison terms, will continue to rot in prison. As a matter of fact, the administration successfully appealed a federal court ruling that would have allowed those 4,950 to challenge their sentences. Obama continues to wage his "war on drugs" while he cynically bestows the very occasional symbolic favor for his own legacy-burnishing purposes.
It was only this past week, for instance, that the FBI raided a medical marijuana operation on Indian tribal land in California. Obama still means business.
That he chose Oklahoma as the venue of his star turn is all the more cynical, given that it was the recent botched executions in that same state which led to the failed Supreme Court challenge to the death penalty this year. Obama refused to get involved in that case, refused to budge from his longstanding support of capital punishment. When the Court ruled against the plaintiffs, who claimed that the use of untested tranquillizers for executions amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, the complicit mass media were mainly silent on Obama's own passive-aggressive role in the case.
It was last fall, also cynically enough, that the Obama Labor Department summarily shut down the Treasure Lake Job Corps training site in nearby Indiahoma. Job Corps, a direct offshoot of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps, exists for the express purpose of keeping young people out of places like El Reno. Obama has cut funding for Job Corps in each succeeding year of his tenure, thus greasing the skids for closures based on "inefficiencies" and "poor performance" that are the precise, planned results of his draconian cuts. As I wrote last year,
Obama has proposed a permanent reduction in the Job Corps' "slot capacity" in his 2015 budget. Translated from Orwellian Newspeak, this means that about 10,000 at-risk youths will be left with no place to go. Since Job Corps centers feed and house participants as well as train them for careers, this will mean 10,000 more at-risk youths on the streets in such dystopian locales as Chicago and Ferguson.The Labor Department report actually pointed to the need for at-risk youths to share the sacrifice in order to boost America's "global competitiveness." Apparently, one way that they can help American innovation is to move from Job Corps sites into privatized prisons, which by Congressional fiat must maintain a steady population of inmates in order to remain "competitive."
Thankfully, the medium security El Reno facility is not yet privatized and also doesn't (directly) kill people, as does the nearby state penitentiary in McAlester, site of the horrific makeshift executions.
After an off-label drug cocktail led to the prolonged agonizing deaths of three convicted murderers, Obama could have issued a moratorium on the federal death penalty as a signal of his disgust. He could have used his bully pulpit to inspire the 36 states currently grappling with their own capital punishment laws to repeal them and thus gain humanistic parity with the rest of the advanced world. He could have dispatched his solicitor general to the Supreme Court to argue on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case, perhaps influencing the decision.
But he preferred not to. The Drone President ("I'm really good at killing people") really likes the death penalty, even though a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners shows that two-thirds of Americans favor life in prison, with no possibility of parole, for convicted murderers.
Although Obama did order former Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an "investigation" of death penalty policies last fall, the administration later wimped out for the usual craven political reasons:
Advocates in particular worried that having Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder as the faces of the anti-death penalty movement would stoke conservative support for capital punishment at a time when some libertarian-minded Republicans, Christian conservatives and liberal Democrats appeared to be finding common ground in opposition to it.One of Obama's Harvard law professors opined that the president needs to be "pushed" into changing his tune on the death penalty, much as he was forced to evolve on marriage equality. So I guess only two thirds of the public not wanting to kill prisoners is still not enough for him.
Although whites on death row outnumber blacks, 55.5% to 34.7%, more than 75% of actual executions are performed on murderers of white people. Only 15% of executions carried out are for the murders of black people. This is despite the fact that 50% of murder victims are black. The racial identity of the victim is the determining factor in who gets put to death in America.
But these realities took a back seat in the media coverage, which concentrated heavily on the made-for-TV optics of a handful of Confederate flag-waving yahoos heckling Obama's armored motorcade as he arrived in Oklahoma for his combination Democratic fundraiser/prison gig. As his supporters go into outrage mode over the first African-American president being exposed to such ugly racist symbolism, Obama himself becomes magically exempt from his own complicity in the ever-burgeoning punishing/exterminating state. He is cosmetically and hypocritically able to establish solidarity with his own victims. He couldn't have asked for a better propaganda coup. The right-wing hate machine paradoxically advantages him, much as it has advantaged Bill and Hillary Clinton over the years. It tends to silence the legitimate criticism.
The VICE documentary in which he stars will no doubt be playing in an endless loop at his Chicago library shrine, virtually revising history as it paints Obama as a hero to the oppressed rather than the oppressor of such heroic prisoners as Chelsea Manning and other victims of his war on whistleblowers, and his war on poor people in general. Forty-six sentence commutations do not a criminal justice overhaul make. Not by a long shot.
This entry for the Obama library design contest unfortunately only got an honorable mention (it was judged distinguished, yet disturbing) probably because it adheres a little too closely to the president's real legacy: