Former vice president Biden has a sordid history of opposing progressive criminal justice legislation, spearheading draconian police and immigration measures, and playing a central role in waging America’s failed war on drugs.
In an increasingly angry and bad faith campaign, Donald Trump and his team are presenting Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as an anti-police radical controlled by the far left. Last week, the Trump campaign sent a text message to supporters warning them that Antifa would raid their homes if Biden wins in November. “They’ll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home and invite MS-13 to live next door,” warned Florida congressman Matt Gaetz.
The reality, however, is that the 77-year-old former vice president has a long history of opposing progressive legislation and spearheading increasingly more draconian police, immigration, and criminal justice measures. Biden first shot to prominence in the 1970s, when, as a freshman senator, he became a leading voice against bussing, the practice of desegregating schools via public transport (something his now-running mate Kamala Harris grilled him on during the debates). He also maintained a close relationship with arch segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, who left the Democratic party and became a Republican due to his vehement opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He even read the eulogy at Thurmond’s funeral, around the time of which it came out that Thurmond had fathered a child with a 15-16-year-old black servant girl working for him.
“Hang People for Jaywalking”
But Biden’s problematic history with race goes much further; the Delawarian has been one of the chief architects of the racist prison system we live under today. For decades, he pushed for more cops, more jails, more arrests, and more convictions, even criticizing the notorious Ronald Reagan for not locking enough people up.
Throughout the 1980s, he and Thurmond worked on a number of bills that radically reshaped the criminal justice system, including the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act which limited parole and cut sentence reductions for good behavior. Biden continued to attack Republican George H.W. Bush from the right on crime, in 1989, condemning his draconian proposals as not going far enough. “In a nutshell, the President’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time,” he said, later demanding to know why Bush hadn’t executed more drug dealers like he wanted.
Despite Bush pushing through substantial increases to the prison industrial system, Biden continually demanded more, publishing his own plans that included billions more in funding for increased numbers of police, FBI, and DEA agents.
This all culminated in what in 2007 he called his “greatest accomplishment” in politics: the controversial 1994 Crime Bill. Often labeled the “Biden Crime Bill” because of its author and chief promoter, the bill laid the basis for an ever-increasing prison population, introducing the death penalty for dozens of new offenses and spent billions on hundreds of thousands of extra police and prison cells. Just as Bill Clinton was making a point of returning to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a mentally handicapped black man, Biden was staking out his position as a new leader of the new, “tough on crime” Democrats, boasting that his bill meant that “we do everything but hang people for jaywalking.” As his biographer Branko Marcetic wrote, Biden makes Hillary Clinton look like [civil rights advocate] Michelle Alexander.
The effects of the increase in mass incarceration are relatively well known but are still shocking nonetheless. From less than 200,000 in 1970, the prison population exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, increasing to 740,000 in 1990 and 1.33 million by 2000, where it continued to grow to the point where nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners are American. African Americans — who Biden and Hillary Clinton described as “thugs” and “superpredators” — are incarcerated at over five times the rate of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1. One in three black men will be incarcerated during their lifetimes. The United States locks up a higher proportion of its citizens than any other country in the world. More people are serving life in 2020 than were serving at all in 1970.
Much of the spike in numbers can be attributed to Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, now often understood as a political project to criminalize his two major political enemies: black people and the antiwar left. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” one of Nixon’s aides admitted to Harper’s Magazine.
Biden continued to support the drug war, hyping up the threat, and even championing the notorious 100-to-1 sentencing disparity in crack versus powder cocaine. Crack was rampant in poor black communities, while the more expensive powder was synonymous with Wall Street traders. Throughout this time, his son Hunter struggled with addiction, even buying crack himself. But even his son’s problems did not soften his hardline approach.
Yet the destruction and devastation caused by policies Biden proposed or supported pales into comparison with the consequences of the U.S. drug war in Latin America, most notoriously of all, Plan Colombia.
Plan Colombia was originally conceived as a peace and development proposal by then-Colombia President Andres Pastrana in 1999. However, in the Clinton administration’s hands, it was radically altered into a massive militarization of Colombian society, Biden successfully lobbying for 80 percent of the $7.5 billion total to go to the Colombian military (with much of the weaponry finding its way into the hands of far-right death squads linked to the government). In the era of 9/11, narco-traffickers were rebranded “narco-terrorists” as a flimsy justification for U.S. interference. Biden was among its key architects, telling the Des Moines Register in January that “I’m the guy who put together Plan Colombia,” adding that it “straightened that government out for a long while.”
Joe Biden brags
"I'm the guy who put together Plan Colombia".#PlanColombia used murderous, failed drug war policies as cover to destabilize democracy in South America, arming right wing death squads so openly that Congress had to force it to stop with an amendment. pic.twitter.com/8qtLhirf1P
— CPD Action (@CPDAction) January 17, 2020
When the bill came to the Senate floor, Biden worked with Republicans to push for a hardline strategy, declaring that, “What is at stake is whether or not Colombia becomes a narcostate or not,” warning that if the bill was not passed, the hemisphere would turn into a haven for terrorists and drug dealers.
What was billed as a huge anti-drug push turned into a war against the population, with the government carrying out a massive chemical defoliation regime, forcing huge numbers of people off the land and clearing it for multinational corporations. The plan also ended up giving the government and associated far-right paramilitaries carte blanche to massacre whom it liked under the premise that anyone opposing them were drug smugglers. Over 10,000 innocent civilians were murdered, the government dressing them up as narco-terrorists, their numbers being used to trigger more funding from the U.S. on the grounds that dead bodies equaled progress in the fight against drugs. Under Plan Colombia, the country became the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist, according to Amnesty International, with more unionist murders happening inside Colombia than in all other countries combined. The United Nations estimates that 7.4 million Colombians are internally displaced to this day because of the ongoing civil war and Plan Colombia, with millions more leaving the country altogether.
The plan’s stated goal of drug reduction did not even work, as cocaine producers simply moved across the border to other Andean countries not affected by the war, returning when the violence subsided. By 2017, domestic coca production reached an all-time high, according to the U.N.
Since Trump took over the White House, American policy in Latin America has become more openly belligerent, with the president publicly supporting coups around the region. However, as Dr. Barry Cannon of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, told MintPress,
It’s important to keep in mind the continuities in the U.S.’ Americas policy with Trump in charge rather than the differences. U.S. policy, with Democrats or Republicans, has always been suspicious of any government in the region which can undermine U.S. power, be that political, economic, military, or cultural.”
The Biden Plan
The growing refugee and migrant crisis of people coming from Central America will be a key policing and criminal justice question of the next presidency. Unlike most Democratic presidential candidates, Biden favors retaining the policy of criminally prosecuting those crossing the border, even if they are fleeing violence or persecution elsewhere. He also rejects abolishing, or seriously defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a policy pushed heavily by the progressive wing of the Democratic party following the allegations of human rights abuses carried out by the organization and condemned widely by human rights groups. “We shouldn’t abolish ICE… ICE is not the problem,” he said in November.
Yet barely mentioned in the debate about the crisis is that people fleeing are doing so, in no small part, due to U.S. foreign policy, many of them masterminded by Biden in his role as vice president. In 2014, President Obama charged him with spearheading a Central American development plan that would attack the root cause of the wave of migration. Like Plan Colombia, his $750 million plan included privatizations and austerity measures that perpetuated the very economic and political conditions that led migrants to flee in the first place. Under Biden’s Plan, health services were gutted, teachers laid off, and utilities like electricity were privatized, driving prices skyward. Added to that were a number of environmentally destructive infrastructure projects that forced people from their land.
The North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and similar agreements devastated Central America, with peasant farmers now having to compete against massive, U.S.-government subsidized agribusiness, leading to an exodus from the countryside to ever-growing slums around the region’s largest cities. Biden voted for NAFTA, something that, of late, Trump has turned into a political weapon.
Worse still, the Obama administration supported a coup against democratically-elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, Hillary Clinton boasting that in her role as Secretary of State she worked with allied nations to “render the question of Zelaya moot.” Today, the country is ruled over by the American-backed Juan Orlando Hernandez, who came to power in a highly dubious election in 2017. After the coup, the country exploded in violence, becoming one of the most dangerous in the world. And despite “the Biden Plan,” as the U.S’ 2014 project was called, there has been no reduction in poverty since its implementation there.
Thus, the Obama-Biden administration’s actions have directly contributed to the growing migrant crisis. Yet they were treated with brutality once they arrived at the American border.
“We would not be where we are today without the devastating groundwork laid by the Biden Plan and the profitable, xenophobic border militarization schemes of the Deporter-in-Chief and his vice president,” Dr. Adrienne Pine, an anthropologist at the American University in Washington, D.C. told MintPress, adding that,
While ostensibly intended to fund development, anti-corruption efforts and security, the Biden Plan only increased narco-dictator Juan Orlando Hernandez’s power without doing anything to improve safety or security for Hondurans, who have since fled the country in droves — not despite the Biden Plan, but because of it.”
President Obama did indeed deport more individuals than all other presidents. And while many like to present the problem of ICE concentration camps as purely a Trump affair, Pine notes that those facilities were being built long before his ascension to power.
As part of his presidential bid, Biden has unveiled a new $4 billion plan to deal with Latin American refugees, but it is difficult to discern how it would be qualitatively different from Plan Colombia and the Biden Plan, especially as he still promotes the two as triumphs of legislation.
What would a Biden presidency mean for Latin America and the drug war? Dr. Cannon, an expert on Andean and Central American politics, was skeptical that there would be any major changes under Democratic leadership, stating,
I wouldn’t expect any great departures from Trump era policies. Colombia — which has a far worse human rights record than Venezuela, for example — is almost always supported by the U.S. under most circumstances, and now that it is a member of the OECD from most other developed countries as well…there may be a change in tone, with perhaps a greater level of engagement with the region, but the underlying U.S. objective of supporting its dominance in the region will remain as consistent as it has always been in recent decades.”
In recent months he has categorically opposed defunding the police or abolishing ICE, despite what pro-Trump media might say, and continues to shy away from marijuana legalization. As self-described “California’s top cop,” his running mate Kamala Harris oversaw 1,900 marijuana convictions in the San Francisco area, yet laughed about her own usage last year. Thus, it seems likely that in this era of self-reflection about systemic racism and police brutality, a Biden-Harris ticket would offer more of a continuation of, than a break from, the drug war, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of undocumented immigrants.
With only weeks to go before the election, and with Biden’s lead over Trump narrowing, things are beginning to feel worryingly like 2016 again, where the Democrats rejected an insurgent progressive candidate in favor of an established one with a troubling history on racial justice, drugs and immigration. And we all know what happened four years ago.
Feature photo | Vice President Joe Biden, left, his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, center, and Colombia’s Commander of the Armed Forces Alejandro Navas, stand for the Colombian national anthem in Bogota, Colombia, May 27, 2013. Fernando Vergara | AP
Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, Common Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.