"What does not change / is the will to change"
--Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thoughts on Michael Brown and Ferguson

So, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was justified. That is essentially what the grand jury said yesterday when it refused to hand down an indictment against the shooter, Police Officer Darren Wilson. I know that, technically, the grand jury didn't say that. It found that there was not enough evidence to indict, but that is not the message being sent. And that is why there is a lot of anger in Ferguson and throughout the country.

I don't know what happened that night. I wasn't there and I was not on the grand jury. Few of us were, so we can't say for certain that Wilson did not fear for his life -- a key component of his defense. We can't know if he was afraid -- and, even if we assume he was, we can't know on what he based that fear, whether it was tied to stereotypes of young black males or to Brown's size or a real threat.

That distinction is important, because it relates back to the question of race in America. Police, as the courts have ruled, have a right to use deadly force if they fear for their lives or the lives of others. But what triggers the fear? When race is involved, as we saw in the Trayvon Martin tragedy, it literally can color judgment, lead us to assumptions that are far from accurate.

Brown was a large black teen, a fact that carries with it certain assumptions and biases to which even the best of us fall prey. So, it is not out of the realm of possibility that race played a role in Wilson's thinking, in the way he read the situation, in his reaction. Brown's physical presence may have been enough of a threat for Wilson to create fear in the officer's mind, may have been enough for him to believe he needed to respond with fatal force.

If this was true and the fear was enough to justify the use of deadly force, then this is more than a tragedy. It was a travesty. It is part of a long history in which black bodies come to stand in for danger and that black teens are seen as predators.

That's why I am having trouble not looking at this through the lens of race. We are supposed to assume that the justice system works, that the grand jury did its job and that the evidence led it to make a fair and well-thought-out decision. We are supposed to assume that the prosecutor in Missouri, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough,  was just trying to be transparent and fair to all sides.

But as Dana Milbank, of all people, points out, "the joke of a grand-jury proceeding run under the auspices of McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor," seemed to guarantee a pre-ordained result: "his decision not to recommend a specific charge to the grand jury essentially guaranteed there would be no indictment."
McCulloch essentially acknowledged that his team was serving as Wilson’s defense lawyers, noting that prosecutors “challenged” and “confronted” witnesses by pointing out previous statements and evidence that discredited their accounts.
This, as so many commentators have pointed out, put McCullough in the dual position of prosecutor and defense attorney -- an untenable position. In August, Vox quoted Alex Little, a former federal prosecutor, as questioning the approach taken by McCullough:
(T)here is no obligation for prosecutors to present possible defenses to the grand jury. The only question the grand jury must answer is whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has occurred. That's a very low standard, and it's almost always met when the District Attorney seeks charges.

If he takes that approach, then he's already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice.

So when a District Attorney says, in effect, 'we'll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,"'that's malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he's already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there's no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.
That, said Vox last night, "could have made an indictment less likely."

So why go to the grand jury? Some are saying McCullough did not have a choice, that it was politically problematic for him not to seek an indictment. But, as Milbank says, "it appeared he wasn’t even trying to get an indictment" and that "he had a long record of protecting police in such cases."

So, when the no-bill came down last night, Milbank said, "he prefaced it by blaming the press and social media for whipping up emotions in the case with inaccurate information." More importantly,
He hid behind the grand jurors, as if he hadn’t orchestrated their decision with the finesse of conductor Christoph Eschenbach: “Anyone suggesting that somehow it’s just not a full and fair process is just unfair to these people” who “gave up their lives” to deliberate.
The point is that the grand jury is not a jury. It is, as I wrote on a friend's Facebook wall earlier today,
an arm of the prosecution.
Normally, the prosecutor presents HIS case to the grand jury. He acts as an advocate for the victims (in theory) and the state, which is supposed to speak for the victims, and uses the GJ as part of the prosecutorial arm (it is not the same thing as a jury).
There is no right to a defense during a grand jury proceeding. That comes during a trial.

Complicating matters further, the interests of the state and the defense were intertwined, leaving the victim out in the cold with no one to guarantee him, Michael Brown, a fair hearing.


None of this is meant to lay a blanket of criticism across all police officers. I have the utmost respect for them and the job they do. And, as I told my class tonight, 95 percent -- and probably more -- are conscientious and committed to protecting the communities they serve. But they also are human and they are subject to the same foibles -- the same prejudices, the same fears, the same momentary lapses -- as the rest of us. They are trained to be better, and in most cases they are. But they are human and when they fire a gun and a life is taken, the public has a right to expect a fair and open investigation. As of now, it is unclear that Bob McCullough provided that.


This collection of essays, by the way, are a necessary read. They offer a variety of viewpoints on the question of police culpability.


Some other thoughts (I posted a version of this to another friend's Facebook thread, but wanted to share it here):
I was thinking this morning about how we construct narratives. TV news' need for striking and dramatic images tends to draw the eye away from more peaceful protests to violence because the violence is visual. Then the media uses the imagery to help reinforce its preconceived notion that the violence was inevitable so that it can stop looking at the underlying causes of the rage that resulted in the violence.

What helps drive this is the majority's almost blind trust in the police -- something the minority community lost a long time ago. The default position for most is to assume that police must take a military position, that their job entails cracking down on unruly and dangerous masses -- especially the darker ones -- and that the police must act like the military to do so. It is the norm, as is the TV-cop-show-inspired militarization of the relationship between police and the public. In many communities (not all -- there are thousands of good cops out there), we have moved from "protect and serve" to an occupational mindset. This attitude frames the reaction to photos of police in military gear, which we no longer question. (See my essay on this in Dinosaur, which is only available in full form if you buy the magazine.)

I also think the lessons of the civil rights movement about the impact of violence on the broader public's acceptance of protest have been lost -- because we have (through public policy and not-so-benign neglect) created a series of minority bantustans throughout the country, which allows anger to fester, where jobs in the legitimate economy are scarce, where the money that can be made is tied to drugs and other illicit activities; and because the society as a whole has become more accepting of violence as a tool of redress, whether real, as in our shoot-first foreign policy, or metaphorical, as in the way we have endorsed name calling and personal attack and innuendo as legitimate modes of argument.

In the end, we should be discussing whether the use of force by police deserves more scrutiny on a regular basis (and not just when there is a high-profile shooting); whether we need to re-evaluate the role of police and whether this militarization is necessary or wise; how we can break up these bantustans and provide broader housing and economic opportunities for all (it is going to take more than expanding the pie); and how we can devalue violence as a mode of redress. Instead, we are going to continue to discuss the torching of a convenience store and we will use it to ignore the real issues in play.
 As a postscript, I want to add that
the focus on arson is similar to the repeated playing of the videotape that purportedly shows Brown robbing the convenience store. It shifts the blame for underlying issues of race and power to one in which we can dismiss Brown -- or brown people -- as unworthy of our respect or support.
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Monday, November 24, 2014

Doubling down on my no-endorsemenet stance

Back in the fall of 2013, I wrote a blog post critical of an endorsement editorial published by The Star-Ledger. The paper's editorial, which backed Gov. Chris Christie for re-election, can be summed up this way: The governor sucks, but Barbara Buono sucks more, and, besides, we like his views on school reform.

My response was simple: Stop making endorsements. If you feel that you have to endorse someone who does not live up to your standards, then maybe you need to rethink the entire process.

Not everyone agreed with me. Some said the newspaper endorsement was a long and necessary tradition -- one I used to subscribe to -- while others said that we should reserve the practice for those cases when a choice was clear.

I've thought about this on and off since my 2013 post and have wondered whether I was too harsh. In the end, I don't think so -- and today's odd, pre-endorsement endorsement on MyCentralJersey.com (home of The Courier-News and The Home News-Tribune) underscores my thinking. In it, MyCentralJersey.com essentially endorses a Republican Assemblyman without making an endorsement, pushing him to throw his hat in and saying he had qualities that would make him a good candidate. (The editorial also attacks the current redistricting rules as corrupt and overly partisan because the Legislature gets to pick the tie-breaking vote on the panel -- which is not accurate. The 13th member is appointed by the Redistricting Commission if there are seven votes in favor of the appointment. If not, the state Supreme Court chooses.)

Here is what MyCentralJersey has to say about Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the subject of today's editorial. Bramnick, it says, "is a funny guy," who wants to remind public officials that they "should lighten up a little in trying to get things done."

MyCentralJersey calls that "a message public officials would do well to heed."
Most New Jerseyans would love to find a politician they can laugh with rather than laugh at. That doesn’t mean treating the serious business of government and politics lightly. It does mean giving residents a sense that real people are in charge, people with an independent mind and a sense of humor and not just a collection of vaguely shady characters serving themselves and their benefactors instead of the public.
The governor would seem to fit the bill, but he
has turned out to be just as manipulative and abusive with his power as those of whom he had once been so critical. He earns points with the public for his own self-deprecating humor, but there’s a phony quality to it that’s been exposed by his thin-skinned arrogance and bullying nature.
Bramnick is different, the editorial says. He's a politician, to be sure, but he "also spends a lot of time talking about humor and civility in politics, not exactly common topics among lawmakers."

This, MyCentralJersey says, is of paramount concern. So, it goes on,
Here’s hoping Bramnick does indeed toss his hat into the gubernatorial ring for 2017. Maybe he can be what Christie has only pretended to be — a leader who can distance himself from the usual political nonsense and govern the state responsibly. We’d still like to think that’s possible. Hey, don’t laugh.
My point here has nothing to do with Bramnick. He may very well turn out to be the best candidate for the job. My criticism is with MyCentralJersey, which has complicated future endorsements. Imagine you are another Republican down the road who loses out on an MyCentralJersey endorsement to Bramnick; you could make the case that the fix was in before you even attended an editorial board meeting.

As I said last year, we should move away from the personal endorsement and focus more on laying out the issues that matter, telling the reader why and then explaining where the candidates stand. Essentially, we should frame the debate, but let the voters decide what is most important.

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Otherness and the immigration debate

Apropos my post from last week on classiness and race, I recommend this Charles Blow column deconstructing the opposition to President Barack Obama's executive order on deportation.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Quote of the Day

From William Grieder in The Nation:

The Republicans are a wholly owned subsidiary of the business-finance machine; the Democrats are rented.
Does this mean that electoral politics doesn't matter? No. It only means that we have to be more creative in how we approach it, while also being more aggressive outside the electoral arena. On this point, here is more from Greider:
What we need is a rump formation of dissenters who will break free of the Democratic Party's confines and set a new agenda that will build the good society rather than feed bloated wealth, disloyal corporations and absurd foreign wars. This is the politics the country needs: purposeful insurrection inside and outside party bounds, and a willingness to disrupt the regular order.
Historically, it is what made labor unions effective, along with so many other social and economic movements. The willingness to break with the system to generate change within the system created a moral urgency, a momentum that pushed the system to reform itself. The outsiders' efforts create space in which reformist insiders can work.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The meaning of 'classiness' in a not-so-post-racial America

This meme has been circulating on Facebook -- and the responses to it offers an interesting glimpse into the growing divide in the United States.

I first came across it on a conservative friend's Facebook page. The post seems pretty straightforward to me, though it is based on a set of underlying assumptions and carries a subtle message that conservatives -- at least some of them -- are not likely to want to admit to holding.

Consider the image -- two generations of smiling, happy ex-presidents, who happen to be the last two Republicans to hold the office and who also happen to hail from a wealthy and influential family. They also are white. Then, consider the statement and follow-up question: "I miss having a classy first family. Do you?" It implies, rather unsubtly, that the Bushes' classiness is missed -- primarily because the current occupant of the White House apparently lacks class.

What is missing is a definition of class, though it is implied both by who is pictured and who is purposely not pictured but is central to the understanding of the entire meme. The Bushes have class, the meme says, and the Obamas do not.

What should we make of this? Perhaps this is a partisan meme, one based solely on party identification or ideology. That would equate class with being a Republican or with being a free-market ideologue and foreign-affairs hawk. But if this was about ideology or political party, as a friend points out, why raise the question of class?

The answer is that this meme is designed to plug into racial animus while allowing a level of plausible deniability. Conservatives can post this and claim they just miss the Bushes without having to own up to the inherent racially racial underpinnings of the image and text.

I explained it this way on a friend's Facebook page, and I think it sums up my thinking:
There is no doubt that this is built on the race/class trope, but I don't want to go so far as to say that all who deploy it see the racial aspect overtly. It is latent, subconscious, and the poster and many of the people who would deploy this would vehemently deny any racial animus -- and they would thoroughly believe their denials and are unlikely to question their own assumptions or the assumptions on which this is built. I agree ... that the hate of many Obama haters has little to do with race, though the tropes -- like this one -- too often come back to race, partly because we are in a political climate in which everything is on the table and anything that can be used against an opponent is fair game to trot out.
So, even if the posters of the meme do not think of themselves as racist, they are trafficking in racism. When I questioned the friend who had posted this originally about his definition of "class," he said "he knows it when he sees it." But what does he see? And is he willing to questions the assumptions that underlie what he sees?

That is, as I said later in the same Facebook discussion, "part of the difference between the fundamentalist mindset and others -- the ability to look inward and to examine one's beliefs, assumptions, etc."
We all have assumptions and biases that control much of our thinking, but intellectual growth demands that we constantly challenge them. This kind of post, however, allows for the bunker response -- when called on its underlying racism, the poster can plausibly deny the connection and claim that the critic of the post is being overly sensitive or dogmatic on the other side. Sadly, that is the state of our public discourse these days.

It is, as the phrase goes, "dog-whistle politics," the use of a phrase that has a certain meaning to certain people, and that is designed to rally the faithful without raising the hackles of the rest of us. "I'm not talking about race," the argument goes, even as the meme connects with the undercurrent of racism that continues to exist in polite, middle-class society. It is more subtle than the Jesse Helms "Hands" ad or the Willie Horton ad used by George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. But it plays to the same instincts, nonetheless.

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