Thursday, August 21, 2014

It Begins...

I've made no secret of my love for The Simpsons on this blog and in real life, so it should surprise exactly no one that I'm insanely pumped for the start of FXX's "just hook it o my veins!" marathon. Starting 15 minutes ago, the far-flung cable channel will be playing every Simpsons episode ever, in order. In light of the horrible cep going on in our world in that past few weeks, it's a nice break. For once I can watch tv without being sent into a blinding rage (that is until they start getting to season 15 or so).

I thought about composing some sort of long-winded post about how much The Simpsons have meant to me over the years, but I'll save that for 2037 when the show is finally canceled. Instead I'll just muse on the fact that back in junior high my friends and I had this plan of taping every episode that aired so we could have a whole catalogue of the show. Little did we know at the time it would require roughly 8,000 or so VHS tapes, or that DVDs would make the entire enterprise pointless, or that someday a cable channel spun off of another cable channel would play the whole damn thing straight through.

Unfortunately, to remain gainfully employed, I cannot watch the entire run. I have, however, vowed to keep my tv on and tuned to FXX for the entirety of the run. That way, no matter what I'm doing or where I am in the house, the sweet sound of the Simpsons will be with me. What more could a fella want?

Just look at how much Captain Wacky has changed...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson, The Commonality of the Police Riot, and the Long Road to Justice

This exists. We should all be incredibly ashamed.
If you're reading this, you've no doubt been following the horrific events unfolding in Ferguson. Touched off by the murder of an innocent child by an as-of-yet unnamed police officer, the town has become a virtual war zone (to the point where citizens of Gaza are tweeting the citizens of Ferguson helpful info on how to avoid tear gas and random beatings). There are so many horrible things Ferguson demonstrates about the current state of America, from the devaluing of Black lives (especially of young Black men), to the fealty of our major media (who ignored the tragic murder until social media forced the issue), to our depressing fondness for victim blaming (sure, an innocent child was murdered, but maybe he once did something bad?). I don't study those issues, so I'll leave all those points to others who can speak to them more eloquently (I highly recommend Greg Howard's piece America is Not For Black People). But I do study policing and actually have some expertise in that area, so this is what I can offer.

But before I begin anything, let me make one thing crystal clear: the death of Mike Brown is inarguably murder. Even if the current (albeit rapidly changing) story of the police (which just happens to contradict every eye witness) is perfectly true to what transpired, there is no legal justification for shooting an unarmed teenager who is several dozen feet away from oneself. The Tennessee v. Garner ruling clearly and unambiguously holds that the only time an officer of the law may use lethal force is in the immediate protection of life. That is, unless someone is directly presenting the ability to seriously harm another human being, police are not allowed to shoot to kill. By even the police's own account, Brown did not pose any immediate danger to anyone. This is not a justified use of force, this is not an accident, this is the illegal taking of a human life, which we colloquially and legally refer to as murder. But back to what I actually want to talk about...

My very first ever academic publication was on the subject of police riots, situations in which law enforcement officers are the principle (often only) perpetrators of violence and disorder. Developed by Rodney Stark in the late 60s, the concept still holds as the best way to understand what police in Ferguson are doing right now, as the extreme militarization of our police has only made such riots more common. In fact, Ferguson right now is almost the platonic ideal of a police riot.

Police riots typically follow six steps: some type of incident (say, the murder of an innocent child) leads to a convergence of people. The police do not like people looking at what they're doing, especially when they are committing blatant crimes (which would be why they are currently arresting journalists in Ferguson without even bothering to make up criminal charges), so this leads to some sort of confrontation. In the third step, police demand the dispersal of everyone, often demanding they return home.

This is the step when a riot is imminent; often crowds cannot disperse and go home because they are already home. This is happening on the streets in front of their houses. The people of Ferguson have no other "home" to go to. Or, as is very often the case, the orders are contradictory. Police are rarely trained in any meaningful way for these types of situations, and communication between law enforcement when order breaks down is spotty at best, often non-existent. So it's quite typical that people actually trying to do what the police tell them cannot; a famous incident from the limited police riot at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul illustrates this: police on one side of a long bridge told everyone they had to exit the other side of the bridge, while police on the opposite side said the mirror opposite, leaving no legal way to leave. So the crowd does not disperse and police begin to use force and arrested everyone on the bridge for failure to disperse (check out the not-that-greatly edited but containing awesome raw footage documentary "Terrorizing Dissent" which covers the incident). The point is that crowd had no way to legally disperse, so the use of force will not "help" them disperse, it will just inflict pain upon them for no reason.

It's also important to remember that the riot gear police wear in preparation for such situations (which in itself is incredibly provocative) typically obscures the officer's face and all identifying information. You probably can guess what happens when you give a bunch of people in a tense situation a lot of firepower and the knowledge no one will ever know who they are, virtually guaranteeing a lack of consequences for their actions.

This leads to a limited riot in which police use force indiscriminately and arrest without provocation or cause (witness the WashPo reporter who was arrested and taken to jail, then released not only without charges, but no paperwork of any kind). Multiple reports and videos show that the Ferguson police last night simply went throughout town gassing journalist and even tossing tear gas into people's back yards. At this point, we have reached full police riot.

I'll take a quick moment to address the inevitable "what about the looters?!?!?!?!?!?" argument people make as if that somehow absolves the scores of egregious police abuses. Even ignoring the fact that the looting was limited to a small number of people in a neighborhood nowhere near the demonstrations and lasted for all of a few minutes, pointing to that as any justification for the actions of the Ferguson PD has the merit of arguing "It all started when he hit me back!" And as this great piece in the Jacobin points out, if you are systematically denied your rights in every avenue of life to the point where police feel fine murdering your children and leaving their dead bodies in the middle of the street to serve as a general warning to the community, what choice is there beyond the riot?

For truly the most important thing to remember about police riots is that the only factor distinguishing them from every day police practices are the size and scope. Police are not ashamed of the use of violence against innocent citizens, they often enjoy it greatly:

This is a t-shirt produced by the Denver FOP after the repeated beatings of innocent citizens during the demonstrations against the DNC. Take whatever stance you will on the merit of the demonstrators, but they unequivocally have the constitutional right to gather, air their grievances, and, you know, not be savagely beaten for it. But this is exactly the point I'm trying to make about police violence: it is not an aberration of which police are ashamed, but the kind of thing they make "hilarious" fundraising t-shirts out of.

Finally, I imagine/hope people are wondering what we can do to stop this sort of thing. Like all forms of social change, there are no quick fixes. Obviously identifying and fully prosecuting the officer(s) responsible would be a tiny first step to some form of justice. Furthermore, identifying and prosecuting the many officers who have been involved in the obvious beginnings of a cover up would help, too.

But to prevent the murder of innocent citizens and the indiscriminate use of force by police that turns our cities into grotesque parodies of war zones (I once spent 3 solid months spending every afternoon at major, volatile demonstrations in Iraq during the war, and the police used more restraint. Let that sink in for a few minutes) requires some massive changes. It requires us to value the lives of citizens, to recognize the inherent humanity of people of color, to resist the urge to arm our police to the teeth as if they're trying to overthrow a nation, to not place our trust in an obviously corrupt institution which does incredible harm to the communities it is supposed to be protecting. It requires fundamentally reorganizing not only our police (and courts, and prisons), but reorganizing the very concepts we have of crime and especially what we think constitutes "justice."

And if you've got any idea how to make that happen, trust me, I am all ears...

R.I.P. Mike Brown.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Anybody Have $200 They Want To Lend Me?

If you're not currently watching Nathan For You, you need to remedy that situation post haste. It's one of those shows where the premise sounds terrible, but it's only because all of the comedy comes from the execution. The short version is the show is centered around Nathan Fielder, whom the show's intro assures us graduated from a top Canadian business school with really good grades. As such, Nathan For You is a show about him going to struggling small businesses and reinventing them a la all those reality shows with that exact premise. The hook is that Nathan's advice is uniformly terrible, typically involving incredibly outlandish schemes that result in no business. The humor comes from the time worn observation that people are significantly more willing to do what you tell them, even if it makes no sense, if you have a camera crew with you. Witness last night's genius episode in which a lawyer, ostensibly believing this is just all for the cameras, signs a waiver without reading it, only to be told a short time later he has just signed a legally-binding contract in which he assumes all legal responsibility for anything the show may do (the scene of an actual, accredited lawyer realizing what he's done and physically fighting to get the contract from Nathan is hilarious).

Actually, last night's episodes may have been one of the best half hours of television I've ever watched in my life, which is saying quite a bit given the inordinate amount of time I spend watching television. Last night's episode was the payoff to a bit that captivated the news cycle and internet for a day or two this past year: Dumb Starbucks. It turns out Dumb Starbucks was an idea to drum up business for a struggling local coffee shop by exploiting a loophole in parody law that allows one to use corporate logos as long as they're being made fun of (essentially...I presume the actual law is slightly more complicated than that).

I don't want to spoil too much of what happens, because you should seriously go watch the damn episode this very second. But one small part I will reveal is that Nathan is advised by the hapless lawyer that he has a much stronger claim to parody with Dumb Starbucks if he establishes himself as a parody artist (the logic being people would associate him with parody, thus making his claim of parody in court much more plausible. Kinda like how no one is going to assume Pharrell is the one ripping off Weird Al).

So amongst the many things he does to establish himself as a parody artist, Nathan rents out a space and has an art show of his parody art. Which mostly consists of terrible puns on corporate logos. And now those pieces are up for sale on ebay with the proceeds going to a non-profit that provides education for homeless youth.

Perhaps you're interested in a beautiful TGIFart sign?

Or perhaps a disturbing advertisement for 1906 Flags theme park?

But to me, the piece to win them all, and with the bidding at a mere $177.50 as of this writing, would be the cups and kippas combo of Jamba Jews:

There are very few things a fella actually needs, but I think I may have just found one of them...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Quick Bit on Gaza

One of the most powerful moments I've ever witnessed regarding the Israeli/Palestinian hostilities was from a young Palestinian man at a panel discussion of some sort I had organized as an undergrad. While the conflict wasn't the central topic of the panel, eventually someone asked him about it. Unfortunately I can't do justice to his eloquent discussion of the situation, but the part that always stuck with me was when he was describing the founding of Israel as a necessity, given what had happened in the Holocaust, he argued the Jewish people needed a homeland where they could be assured some measure of safety. But the problem is (again, he phrased this much more eloquently), that the leaders of Israel are essentially undermining the entire justification for the existence of the state by turning around and enacting such massive, racist violence on a different oppressed peoples.

Obviously he wasn't drawing a one-to-one comparison between the actions of the Nazis and the actions of Israeli hawks (to do so would be absurd), but he was getting at how the latter uncomfortably apes some of the detestable practices of the former. I was reminded of that this morning while reading this short piece from Glenn Greenwald, in which he notes the recent incredibly offensive statement of Benjamin Netanyahu on how Palestinians only trot out the "telegenically dead" bears a striking resemblance to something said years earlier:

Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday, on CNN, addressing worldwide sympathy for the civilian victims of Israeli violence in Gaza:
They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can. They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.

Joseph Goebbels, November 16, 1941, essay in Das Reich, addressing Germany sympathy for German Jews forced to wear yellow stars:
The Jews gradually are having to depend more and more on themselves, and have recently found a new trick. They knew the good-natured German Michael in us, always ready to shed sentimental tears for the injustice done to them. One suddenly has the impression that the Berlin Jewish population consists only of little babies whose childish helplessness might move us, or else fragile old ladies. The Jews send out the pitiable. They may confuse some harmless souls for a while, but not us. We know exactly what the situation is.
Again, as Greenwald points out, to say the two are the same is absurd, but to deny the uncomfortable way in which Netanyahu is pretty much saying the exact same thing as Goebbels means you're being willfully blind. And any time you're words match up with those of Goebbels, it does not reflect particularly well on whatever point you're trying to make...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Chivalry, Feminism, and Ray Rice Beating His Fiancee Unconscious

If you follow sports at all, you know that this week the NFL handed down the punishment for Ray Rice, who was caught on camera dragging his then-fiancee/now-wife's unconscious body out of an elevator after he had beaten her unconscious. The punishment was a suspension of two games. To put this is in perspective, Browns WR Josh Gordon is suspended the entire season for testing positive for marijuana use a second time. To put it really into perspective, the punishment for a first failed test for marijuana is 4 games. Or to put it into sickening perspective, the NFL believes that the recreational use of marijuana is at least twice as bad as beating your wife unconscious.

As a feminist I'm obviously pretty opposed to beating a woman into unconsciousness (though to be fair, as a bleeding-heart hippie I'm opposed to beating anyone into unconsciousness). But I'm also uncomfortable with a lot of the sports world reaction that views this as bad because the victim was a woman. Never hit a woman for any reason I've seen about a million times. If it was "never hit anyone for any reason," I'd be fine with it, but it's not. Instead, so many are denouncing one sexist act with a different (albeit more of an opposite side of the coin type of thing) sexist worldview, one in which women are tiny, delicate flowers unable to fend for themselves and must be protected by big, strong men.

As you can tell from my disdainful tone, I obviously don't buy that line of logic, albeit obviously agreeing with those folks that Rice never should have done this. But it's not because she's a woman, it's for two reasons -- 1) she was his intimate partner, and 2) there's an amazing difference in physical size between the two.

On the first point, while all violence is bad, intimate partner violence is especially pernicious for many reasons. Obviously there are the physical effects, but also the psychological effects of someone you believe to love you and have your best interests at heart treating you in such a manner. And of course, we know this was not an isolated incident. Sure, I don't know either of these people, but I do know about intimate partner violence, as one of my close colleagues is among the leading experts in North America on the subject. And what we've learned from the scientific study of intimate partner violence is that it does not come out of nowhere and is never a single, isolated incident. By the time it gets to the point where you think nothing of beating your partner unconscious, you've already hit them multiple times. So to put Rice's slap on the wrist into even more context, this was the punishment meted out to someone we have every reason to believe (and no reason not to believe) is a repeat abuser.

But the second point is really where I diverge from the "don't hit girls" (these folks almost always use the term "girls" instead of "women," which I think speaks volumes about how they view the situation). And not disagree in the incredibly disgraceful way ESPN commentators have in which they keep raising the issue that maybe she was asking for it. Because some troglodytes defending Rice have suggested that maybe she hit him first, apparently justifying him beating her unconscious. But look at any picture of the two and you'll notice something obvious: Rice, the professional football player, is a big, muscular dude (5'9", 195 lbs, to be exact). His wife, on the other hand, is normal human size. This is why it goes from simple assault to a much more pernicious problem; if his partner was someone who could actually kick his ass, like say Ronda Rousey, and she was punching him, then sure it makes sense for him to defend himself physically. But the sheer size difference between Rice and his partner is what makes it so horrible, the gender doesn't really matter. It would be just as shockingly horrible had Rice beaten a man (or anyone of any gender) that much smaller than him.

tl;dr: It's not horrible just because he hit a woman. It's horrible because he beat his partner who was much physically smaller than him. We can condemn his violence without having to imply (or explicitly state, as many have) that women are incapable of defending themselves and need to be protected by men at all times.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Derek Jeter is Smelly and Stupid

In a perfect world, I wouldn't hate Derek Jeter. No one would. But no one would particularly love him, either. He would be remembered as an above-average hitting and below-average fielding short stop who put together a nice career (and by saying his defense is below-average is putting it nicely: his fielding is easily outshone by Adam Everett. Who? Exactly). But as Will Leitch so excellently points out, he's not allowed to be just another ball player. Instead, somewhere along the line, Jeter became representative of everything that gives Bob Costas a tiny li'l boner, and sports writers have made him into an emblem of everything the sport is supposed to be. And of course, the fact that he plays in the nation's largest media market has everything to do with his veneration. As Drew Magary points out, it's not just that Jeter allows the old fossils who write about baseball to wax rhapsodic about a better time in the game (you know, the time when those uppity negroes weren't allowed in, when popping amphetamines was just part of business, and when being a violent, racist alcoholic made you into a legend), but he also allows New Yorkers to jerk themselves off to how wonderful and special New york city is.

So instead of being treated like the overall slightly-above-average player he is, he has been turned into a demigod. One so important that the entirety of last night's All Star game was dedicated to him. A man so above the game that the announcing crew in the booth had already awarded him the MVP in the first inning, and could barely contain their disgust when the award was actually given to a deserving player. A man so important that while Glenn Perkins was pitching a perfect 9th inning for the game-winning save while playing for his home-town team in his home-town stadium, the on-field performance is completely ignored so we can continue to discuss number 2. A man so God-like that the opposing pitcher had to apologize in-game for having the audacity to admit what everyone knew: that he threw the old man (who is hitting terribly this season) an easy pitch so he could get a hit in his last All Star game. But no, to admit he did what everyone was expecting him to do and what everyone clearly saw him do with their own eyes would be to diminish the achievements of THE CAPTAIN©.

And this is why the man is so hated by large swaths of America (and why one beautiful fan made all of Minnesota proud by chanting "Over-rated!" loud enough for the cameras to pick up before Jeet's first at-bat). Because anyone who knows anything about how baseball and especially the baseball media work, knows that had Jeter played for the Twins (or the Astros, or the Brewers, or the White Sox, or the Mariners, etc.) that he would never be venerated to this extent. Instead, he might actually be judged fairly, seen as a pretty good player who stuck around for a long time, thus allowing him to pile up gaudy career stats (though had he not played for such a stacked NY team that allowed him over a hundred more at-bats per season than the average player, he probably never would have put up such numbers).

But he isn't judged fairly. He's THE CAPTAIN. He's Number 2. He's the guy you're supposed RE2PECT (I believe it's pronounced "re-two-pect," but I could be wrong). So the rest of us, the ones who see the player instead of the mythical God, grow weary of the constant praise. Eventually the weariness turns to exhaustion, the exhaustion to frustration, and the frustration to hate. So to all you Jeter-fanatics, it's your fault we hate him.

Hilariously Perfect Update:
Multiple outlets have complained that during the All Star game there was no tribute to Tony Gwynn, an all-time great who passed away recently. Well, apparently there was no tribute because Major League Baseball "did not want to slight anyone by singling out one individual." In completely un-related news, Derek Jeter was mentioned a mere 100 times during that same broadcast.

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Criminology of Baseball

Something I always highlight in teaching criminal justice courses is the fact that our criminal justice system (cjs), best summed up by Bill Bragg, is "not a court of justice but a court of law."The point being not so much that our cjs is a place where the pigs don't ever give anyone a break, but instead the less politically-loaded truth that courts are not a place where all involved seek the truth of a situation so that justice may be most effectively delivered, but is actually a place where two parties fight within the narrow confines of our myriad laws to get the best result as they define it (e.g. longer sentence for prosecution, shorter for defense). The grand point being, as I often explain to my students, having the truth on one's side in a criminal case is nice, but it's far from the most important factor in deciding criminal cases. If given the choice between being empirically innocent and having a really good lawyer, chose the lawyer every single time.

Sports are a great venue for demonstrating this principle, as the rules systems of most major sports are clearly modeled upon (and generally follow the logic of) our criminal justice system. But unlike our criminal justice system, we typically have video of the incident in question, often from a multitude of angles. As such, we typically know what actually happened (unlike in criminal cases in the real world). And yet, much like in our actual cjs, what actually happened is less important than how the rules set up to govern the process say the claim must be resolved.

Take this play from last week's As/Blue Jays game. The link has both a description of the play, and more importantly, video of it, so I highly recommend you go look at that. For those too lazy, here's a quick summation (for those who don't follow sports, skip this paragraph): the situation was the As had the bases loaded when their batter hit the ball to the first baseman. The Blue Jays first baseman fields the ball and attempts to tag the runner moving to second. The ump signals that he has missed the tag, so he throws home for the force out. Importantly, the catcher doesn't bother tagging the runner coming home, because it's a force play, so no tag is necessary. He clearly had plenty of time to make a tag, as the runner was still several feet away, but again, it wasn't necessary since in the video you can clearly see the catcher watching the first base ump signal the tag was not made.

The As manager then appealed the call at first base, and video replay shows the tag was indeed made. This means the play at home was no longer a force out and the runner should have been tagged, meaning he is now safe at home and has scored a run. The fact that had the first base ump made the correct call in real time would have left the catcher with more than enough time to make the tag is meaningless according to the rules.

This play is a great example of how our courts and greater cjs work entirely -- what actually happened is less important than how well one is able to argue in the confines of the rules. Logic, even that which all parties agree with (no one alive would dispute the catcher would have easily made the tag had he known he was supposed to) doesn't matter at all. Because the rules, for better or worse, leave no room for simply making a logical judgement call. So even though everyone knows the play would have ended with the runner at home being tagged out had the runner going from first to second been ruled out on the field, this is inadmissible evidence under the current rules.

None of this is to say our current structure of criminal justice rules (or sports rules for that matter) is necessarily good or bad, just to make the empirical observation that what happens in our criminal justice system is not about what actually happened, it's all about what is able to be argued by experts (well, hopefully experts) within these byzantine systems of rules. The only difference is that in sports we can go to the video record and draw our own conclusions of what happened, while in the criminal justice system we typically just have to hope things turned out for the best...