John Oliver began Sunday’s Last Week Tonight by acknowledging the horrific timelessness of another monologue about police shootings in the US, after a week in which police killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, both unarmed.
“I can safely say this week has been a fucking nightmare,” said Oliver on Sunday evening, “from the news that [Wright] was pulled over for minor traffic violations, including having an air freshener hanging on his rearview mirror, to the 26-year veteran of the police force who killed him claiming it was somehow an accident, to the local police department flying a ‘thin blue line’ flag after the shooting, which is just corn-fed, deep-fried bullshit.”
The killing of Wright, just 10 miles from the courthouse where officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for the murder of George Floyd, launched what Oliver called a “depressingly familiar cycle” in which the president “insisted on ‘peaceful protest’, which is so often just another way to prioritize compliance over righteous dissent and to protect property over human lives”.
Oliver outlined his routine response to such tragedies – list statistics on racist policing, dunk on “appalling” responses from conservative figures, reiterate the moral wrongness of the entire situation. But he rejected the repetition this time, because “the fact is, we couldn’t even finish writing about what happened to Daunte Wright before the city of Chicago released video of one of their officers killing a 13-year-old unarmed child, Adam Toledo – footage which clearly contradicted the picture of an armed confrontation painted by the police and the mayor.”
Over the course of seven years on air, Last Week Tonight has done stories on police militarization, their overuse of municipal violations and raids, their lack of accountability, and how the history of American policing is intertwined with white supremacy. “I could make the same arguments to you again now,” Oliver said. “I could describe the problem to you, but I think you know what and who it is. I could offer solutions, but I think you know what they are. I could offer you anger, but if you’re a sentient human being alive right now and you are not already full of that, I honestly don’t know what to say to you.
“Because the fact is, Black people continue to be mowed down by the police that they pay for,” he concluded.
“It’s once again been made painfully clear that we – and when I say we, I mean white America – have to stop talking about fundamental change in policing and actually make it happen,” he later added, “because this cycle of state violence against Black lives has to be stopped. So put on your shoes, leave the house, march in the streets, and demand a better country – one in which Black people are treated with fundamental respect.”
The host then pivoted to his main subject for the evening: personal bankruptcy. The promise of a fresh financial start is an alluring one; over the last decade, between 800,000 and 1.5 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy each year, “and many worry that once the current pandemic assistance stops, more and more people will need the type of help that bankruptcy offers”, Oliver explained.
Though bankruptcy – the legal procedure of forgoing one’s debt and limited assets for a clean ledger – is marked by “completely misguided social stigma”, the process “is not solely caused by bad decisions”, Oliver explained. “It’s often caused by bad luck – unavoidable challenges like job loss, divorce, surprise medical bills, or perhaps even, you know, a once-in-a-century global pandemic.”
It’s also not an easy out – absurdly, the process of filing for bankruptcy can cost over $1,000, which means “a lot of people can’t afford to go bankrupt – a true sentence that fundamentally doesn’t make sense,” Oliver said.
Congress enacted the modern bankruptcy code in 1978, during a period of significant deregulation for credit card companies, which “worked out very well for them, because they marketed themselves aggressively, and during this time, consumer debt began to sharply rise”, Oliver explained. “What the industry clearly wanted was people stuck in a lucrative cycle of minimum payments, late fees and interest hikes. What they didn’t want spoiling that was people cutting the cycle short through bankruptcy.”
A 2005 bankruptcy reform bill supported by credit card companies made it “far more complicated to file for bankruptcy than it had previously been”, he continued, “which in turn made it far more costly, which meant many people ended up in a situation where they couldn’t afford to go bankrupt”.
Oliver blamed “so much of what is wrong with our current bankruptcy system” on that 2005 law, which made it harder to discharge student loan debt, mandated paternalistic credit counseling courses, and added a dozen ways for debtors to run technically afoul and fail to complete the process, thus having to start again and spend more.
Though Congress ostensibly passed the 2005 measure to curb exaggerated abuse of the bankruptcy system by wealthy people, filings in poorer neighborhoods decreased 32% more than in rich ones in its wake, “showing that, as always, when things are designed to become harder for everyone, for the rich they just become a bit more expensive, and for the poor, they become basically impossible”, said Oliver.
As a solution, “ideally, the people responsible for that 2005 law would acknowledge that our system badly needs fixing”, Oliver added. That would include Joe Biden, whose support was crucial for its passage in the Senate, where he clashed in hearings with Elizabeth Warren, then a Harvard law professor studying debt.
It’s Warren who, in December 2020, introduced the Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act, which remains unlikely to pass in the Senate as long as the filibuster remains in place. Regardless, “something big needs to happen here,” Oliver concluded, “because we badly need to get our broken bankruptcy system working again, for people who desperately need a lifeline.”