Book Review: The Divide – American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (Matt Taibbi)

The following review is by Janos.nyc guest contributor Joe Mulkerin.

Matt Taibbi The DivideThe Divide: American Injustice in the age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi is really two separate books in one, told in alternating chapters. In the first, Taibbi explores how the most marginalized members of society are treated respectively by the police, judicial, welfare and immigration systems. In the second he offers a fairly persuasive explanation of why there have been almost no prosecutions of big banks in the wake of the financial collapse while chronicling a litany of other sleazy and criminal activities that Wall Street firms have trafficked in. Each of these topics presented individually would be eye opening, but woven together they present a harrowing and disturbing portrait of the degree to which a two-tiered justice system has emerged in twenty-first century America.

In the first narrative, Taibbi shows how brutally the powerless are treated in the criminal justice system. Beginning in the late 1990s under police commissioner Howard Safir, the NYPD began ratcheting up arrests for marijuana and other victimless crimes, referred to as “sub misdemeanor policing” largely as a means of gaining overtime in an age when the city was getting safer. As a result the police began Kafkaesque “sweeps” of entire neighborhoods, in which people could be arrested for virtually anything. Oftentimes several cops would ride in a van while another undercover officer referred to as a “ghost” would approach a group of people, and radio back to the van to swoop in and arrest them. Andrew Brown, who Taibbi interviews, describes being arrested on multiple occasions in his own neighborhood, in one instance for “obstructing traffic” simply because he was walking home on the street relatively close to the sidewalk. Later on he would be arrested multiple times under the vague charge of “disorderly conduct.” The fundamental effect of this type of policing has been heavily racial, as approximately 85 to 90 percent of those arrested have been black or Hispanic. That is why reading about the sheer degree of authoritarianism may be jarring to many wealthier white New Yorkers because, as Taibbi puts it, “The change took place almost completely outside the field of view of white professional New York. The big change was in poorer neighborhoods in places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, the change was profound.”

In the second narrative, Taibbi gives the reader a history of the “doctrine of collateral consequences,” which dates back to a 1999 memo written by Eric Holder during his tenure as deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration. The basic concept was that it was acceptable for prosecutors to consider the cost that might be inflicted on innocent employees whose jobs and livelihoods could be lost when deciding whether or not to press charges in white-collar crime cases. This memo was largely ignored for several years. In 2002 however there was a slew of bad press after the federal prosecution of Arthur Andersen led to the loss of 44,000 jobs. Following this and several other similar cases many attorneys became gun shy about prosecuting white-collar crime. Taibbi explains that lawyers will argue that leveling fines is a better way of compensating wronged parties even though many of these fines are a drop in the bucket, the cost of doing business, in contrast to trials, where the possibility of jail-time would serve as a real deterrent. Whether or not prosecutors should consider these “collateral consequences,” we have already learned elsewhere in The Divide that no such considerations are given for the collateral consequences that affect poor people in the criminal justice system. Taibbi gives numerous other examples of corporate malfeasance that starkly illustrate the sociopathic culture of Wall Street as he takes the reader through the seedy underbelly of collateralized debt obligations and short selling, an area he has mastered in his last book, Griftopia.

Unsurprisingly, much of The Divide’s action is set in New York City, the birthplace of authoritarian broken windows policing and Wall Street bankers’ crimes. The action often takes place (or doesn’t!) on Centre Street in Manhattan. Taibbi ends the book on a somewhat hopeful note, pointing out that Bill De Blasio made ending stop and frisk a centerpiece of his campaign. While this is a promise on which he has largely followed through, he has also reappointed Bill Bratton, the original architect of Broken Windows, as police commissioner. That has led to a marked increase in arrests for subway dancing, panhandling and other low-level misdemeanors. As the New York Times reported last March “arrests for violations, a category that includes drinking beer in public and riding a bike on the sidewalk has increased by more than 21 percent.” This increase in broken windows policing arguably led to Eric Garner’s death. During last winter’s protester/police tensions, it is ironic that the police “strike” featured a drastically decrease in arrests without an increase in crime, which actually strengthens the case against broken windows policing.

On the issue of financial crime the news has perhaps been somewhat more hopeful. Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan/Bronx) has aggressively prosecuted insider trading cases. He recently got SAC capital, one of the firms mentioned by Taibbi in the book to plead guilty to the largest settlement in history in response to multiple charges, including wire and securities fraud. He also impressively managed to bring charges against Bank of America for selling bad mortgages in the run-up to the financial collapse, eventually getting them to agree to a $1.2 billion penalty. Unfortunately, this was to this date the only prosecution of a bank associated with the 2008 collapse, and while the penalty was impressive, it still allowed the individuals responsible for wrongdoing to escape the possibility of actual jail time. Thus these small victories do not take away from Taibbi’s diagnosis.

Throughout The Divide Taibbi does an excellent job of providing the reader with an engaging, layman’s understanding of these complex and oftentimes obtuse subjects, a style that has become his specialty. It is a testament to his skill as a writer that he was able to construct a concise narrative out of such a diverse array of issues. The thing that really becomes undebatable after reading this book is that a historic gulf has emerged in the way the wealthiest and the poorest Americans are treated by the judicial arm of the state. As the title would suggest, one could conclude that there is a correlation between this gulf and a historic economic inequality that has emerged in this country over the past generation, and shows little signs of abating.

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Joe Mulkerin is a freelance journalist from Brooklyn.

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