Former Alabama senator and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed local law enforcement in Memphis Thursday, praising the benefits and tougher sentencing policies as the remedy for America’s violent ails. Photo by Micaela Watts

Less than two weeks after name-dropping Memphis in a speech calling for adherence to stricter charging and sentencing guidelines, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions paid a visit to the Bluff City.

While a crowd of 60 or more protesters gathered outside of City Hall Thursday, the nation’s attorney general sat down to breakfast with some of the city’s key decision-makers including Mayor Jim Strickland, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, and Memphis Shelby Crime Commission CEO Bill Gibbons.

By the time Sessions took to the podium and addressed the majority law-enforcement crowd in the federal courthouse’s jury selection room, protesters had migrated to the west side of the building, planting themselves in position to greet the armored car that would exit with Sessions in it.

Within hours of the announcement of Session’s visit, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) organized the protest that drew more than 60 people. Photo by Micaela Watts for MLK50.

As Black Lives Matter signs were hoisted in the air, Sessions began his remarks that pushed for tougher charging and sentencing policies — policies that have historically and disproportionately devastated low-income black communities.

Predictably, Sessions’ address painted harsher sentencing as the primary solution to violent crime, and was sprinkled with anecdotes of Memphians affected by gun violence. Absent from his speech, delivered in a soft Alabama drawl, were any suggestions at curbing major contributors to crime such as poverty or the lack of good jobs with fair wages.

Here’s a quick takeaway of what the attorney general said and what he failed to mention.

What he said:

  1. Homicide rates are up.
    “As you have experienced right here in Memphis, violent crime is on the rise in America. The murder rate has surged 11 percent nationwide — the largest increase since 1968. Last year, this city experienced a 43 percent increase in homicides and ended up with the highest number of murders ever.”
  2. Trump’s administration is a pro-law enforcement administration.
    “We must act to reverse this surge in violent crime and keep our country and every single community safe. Under President Trump’s direction, this Department of Justice is committed to doing its part.”
  3. Drugs begat crime.
    “We know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand. Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.”
  4. Build the wall, stop the drug dealers
    “To turn back the rising tide of violent crime and confront America’s opioid crisis, we must also secure our border. Most of the heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs that kill our fellow citizens and drive so much violent crime enter America through our porous southern border. 
    “Under President Trump’s leadership, our nation is finally getting serious about securing our border. And we are seeing results, with illegal border crossings falling to their lowest monthly figure in at least 17 years.”
  5. Society has a role to play in violent crime reduction
    “We need people of goodwill to take on the problems and heal the wounds that are beyond the long arm of the law — the wounds of despair and addiction; of broken homes and missing fathers. I look forward to meeting later today with religious leaders from the Memphis area who are doing this kind of good work.”

What he missed:

  1. Poverty
    The link between poverty and crime is undeniable, and supported by hoards of data. Sessions made no mention of that link though, or that Memphis is one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the country, with a wide income disparity between people of color and white people.
  2. Gun control
    Though the attorney general made repeated mention of the gun violence that spurred his visit, nary a sentence was uttered about practical solutions for keeping guns off of the streets — besides arresting people with guns.
  3. Equal access to high quality education
    As with poverty, access to education is a major contributor to income and health. Memphis has one of the highest rates of disconnected youth — 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school or working — in the country.
  4. Police brutality/ community policing
    Sessions gets partial credit here, as he briefly touched on the need to increase police training and community policing. But the moment was over as soon as it started.
  5. Access to substance abuse and mental health treatment
    Drug use and trafficking comprised the majority of Sessions’ explanation for the increase in violent crime, but aside from a micro-mention of preventing drug addiction, the former Alabama Senator made no mention of historic cuts in funding to mental health centers that also provided addiction treatment.
    Like across the rest of the country, opioid overdose deaths in Memphis have skyrocketed in the past five years — by 800 percent, according to Sessions — yet the city has only two treatment centers, with fewer than 60 beds combined, available to low-income citizens.

Support work like this with a tax-deductible donation to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong reporting project on economic justice. Donate here.