New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is once again at the center of online debates, as left and right battle over an Instagram livestream where she described her experience during the latest riot at the U.S. Capitol by telling her audience, “I thought I was going to die.”
The right argued that Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t actually in any danger. Rioters that day never breached the office building she was in; Capitol Police made sure she was never harmed. The left, meanwhile, insisted that nobody has any right to tell her how she should feel about what she lived through; we should “stop invalidating” her experiences.
There can be no doubt that the riot at the Capitol was a terrible event. More than 100 police officers were injured, and one, Brian Sicknick, gave his life defending Congress; several rioters were killed in the melee, including one who was shot dead. Although some of Ocasio-Cortez’s claims afterward about what transpired are flatly false — Ted Cruz did not try to have her murdered, as she claimed in an inflammatory Tweet — you can hardly blame her for being fearful that day.
But our leaders’ response to the event is revealing about whose fear matters and whose doesn’t. Immediately after the riot, the Capitol was transformed into a sort of Fort Knox, with substantial fencing erected around the building. National Guard troops are expected to remain in the capital for months. As deadly as the Jan. 6 unruly mob ended up being, it is worth noting that even in this gun-loving country none of the rioters used firearms on anyone; yet today the Capitol is reinforced and guarded as if it is prepared to repel an actual militarized army.
The rest of the country is not so lucky. Our governing elites, Ocasio-Cortez among them, have spent the past month testifying about their own emotional pain from the violence on Capitol Hill that day. Yet they have barely noticed the violence that has been happening in their own districts.
In some of the biggest cities in America, homicides rose 30 percent last year, an increase that researchers have said has “no modern precedent.” In St. Louis, the homicide rate in 2020 was the highest in 50 years. Other cities, like Cincinnati, had a record high number of homicides.
New York City, a portion of which is represented by Ocasio-Cortez, recorded 462 murders last year, an increase of almost 45 percent from the 319 murders in 2019. Meanwhile, the city had 1,531 shootings, 97 percent more than the 777 that occurred in the previous year.
Ocasio-Cortez’s only response to this surge of homicides is to argue about the need to reduce poverty. There are many good reasons to reduce poverty, but it’s worth noting that violence can go up or down independent of crimes that are more closely tied to the economy. For instance, property and drug crimes actually fell last year — the only crimes that increased so sharply nationwide were shootings and killings.
It is much too early to decisively conclude what is driving this wave of violence. Criminologists will likely argue over this question for years. But the best research shows us that sudden reductions in proactive policing are associated with huge spikes in homicide.
There is at least some evidence that similar police pullback started to occur last year, as a harshly anti-police climate started to take hold. And whether they’d like to admit it or not, the Democrats who run the federal government now are tacitly admitting the value of policing in protecting the innocent and reducing crime with what they’ve done to secure the Capitol.
But whatever you think about what’s causing all of the violence in America’s cities, we certainly can’t do anything about it if we barely acknowledge it’s even happening. Members of Congress should be holding hearings and drawing up legislation, actively examining what they can do to save lives.
It’s perfectly fine for Ocasio-Cortez to recount how scared she was on Jan. 6, but don’t her constituents who have the misfortune of living in such unsafe neighborhoods deserve the same attention? What about the hundreds of police officers who were injured during riots in her city in 2020?
She could use her substantial media platform to highlight, for instance, the Voices of Black Mothers United, an organization that brings together women who lost their children to violence. She could also interview one of the many police officers who was badly injured by rioters over the past year.
I’m not trying to pick on Ocasio-Cortez. She is one of many politicians who have adopted a mindset that says we should only care about victims of violence if we believe they are useful for our political narrative.
We know, for instance, that around 96 percent of people shot in New York City last year were African-American or Latino. If these people were shot by white nationalists, or Trump supporters, or any other category that aligns with the Democratic political agenda, Ocasio-Cortez would be talking about it every single day and demanding a swift law enforcement response. Similarly, if they were victims of the Islamic State or MS-13, some conservative talking heads would be using these shootings to promote their own political agendas.
I don’t think either side is doing this cynically. I think they’re so plugged into their worldviews that they really do believe violence by their political opponents is what is most important for the country to address. But people’s lives should matter no matter who it was who took them, and everyday Americans deserve to live without the fear of being shot or murdered just as much as members of Congress do.