Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Wilson's Acquittal Don't Mean Shit

That headline is about as eloquent as I can be during this boiling rage. I want to write a million words on why this entire investigation has been a meaningless sham from the get-go, but I'm tyring to force myself to only hit the lowlights.

As you're already aware, police kill people all the time and are basically never punished for it. In fact, they're rarely indicted, as prosecutors rarely bother even filing charges against police because they know they won't stick. Humorously enough, one of the major reasons it's difficult to bring charges against police is because the police, like all violent and lawless gangs, will absolutely never testify against one another no matter what has been done. Protecting your murderous/rapist/thieving friends in blue means far more than the law to these people.

Darren Wilson, the murderer who is now walking free, was basically uninjured. Only in a nation with such a vile history of racism could barely-visible bruises somehow equate to the necessity of murdering an unarmed child. In fact, Wilson specifically cited the classic "big nigga" defense to justify his actions; even though he and Brown were about the same size, Brown is Black, and Black people have magical abilities which make the stronger than white people and impervious to pain. This has actually been extensively studied, as white people think Black people are such magical beasts that white people think pain doesn't effect Black people to nearly the same extent. This is why Wilson needed to murder Brown; because he was a magical Black man who wouldn't feel pain so he had to be murdered.

The fact that Wilson was not indicted means nothing about his innocence, but instead says everything about how the county prosecutor did not want to go to trial. A grand jury not returning any indictment at all is actually pretty fucking rare. To quote the linked article:

Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to "indict a ham sandwich." The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

It's also important to remember that the "physical" evidence, which is now being held in much higher esteem than the witness evidence (mostly because the witness evidence all pointed to Wilson being a murderer), is pretty much worthless. In fact, a recent meta study by the National Academy of Sciences found that pretty much every forensic science measure which isn't based on direct DNA evidence is completely worthless. There are basically no standards, no accreditation, and it's all pretty much make believe. Hell, one recent article I read gave top forensic scientists hair to analyze and these "experts" couldn't even tell if the hair was real or fake, let alone whether it came from a human or an animal. These are the people whose expertise was relied on for releasing Wilson.

One of the reasons you'll see so many clueless white people saying stupid shit about this is that most white people don't actually know or speak to any people of color. So for a lot of white people, this is some weird, isolated incident and they can't understand why "those" people are so upset. Hint: it's from the fact they are hunted like animals by the very people paid to protect them.

Finally, if you're one of those people who sympathizes but wonders why people would go around burning down buildings in "their neighborhood," I suggest you read this. Or just listen to Malcolm, which is always good advice, but especially pertinent here:

A good example of how they do it in New York: Last summer, when the Blacks were rioting—the riots, actually they weren't riots in the first place; they were reactions against police brutality. And when the Afro-Americans reacted against the brutal measures that were executed against them by the police, the press all over the world projected them as rioters. When the store windows were broken in the Black community, immediately it was made to appear that this was being done not by people who were reacting over civil rights violations, but they gave the impression that these were hoodlums, vagrants, criminals....
But this is wrong. In America the Black community in which we live is not owned by us. The landlord is white. The merchant is white. In fact, the entire economy of the Black community in the States is controlled by someone who doesn't even live there. The property that we live in is owned by someone else. The store that we trade with is operated by someone else. And these are the people who suck the economic blood of our community.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Yet Another Person Chimes In On #pointergate

If you're reading this, then you're no doubt already aware of the KSTP (Minneapolis) news story claiming the mayor was photographed making gang signs with an ex-felon. The gang sign in this instance was made by extending the index finger straight out and using it to draw a direct line to another person, or what we lay people call "pointing at someone." The faux non-story was quickly called out and led to national mockery of KSTP specifically and poor Minneapolis generally.

Plenty has already been said about how ridiculously racist the assumption that anything a Black person does with their hands is automatically a gang sign (hell, HuffPo called it "the most racist story of the year"). It is, much like the Fox News "terrorist fist jab" story a few years back, an obviously craven attempt to create a ridiculous story line out of nothing. One former KSTP staffer even wrote a great piece detailing why such racist dreck was allowed to make it to air in the first place.

What I'm most interested in this story, though, as a criminologist is the activity of the police in the report and subsequent follow-up pieces. Minneapolis PD, unfortunately, has a pretty long history of racial problems. Also significant to the story, they're not generally big fans of Mayor Hodges, who has made some overtures to cleaning up the force, nor the new chief (who, it should be pointed out, was about 5 feet away from the Mayor when she was being photographed making these "gang signs.").

And that's where the real impetus for the story comes in.

As one of the officers quoted in the original KSTP report notes, this is just another in a long line of actions Mayor Hodges has undertaken that upset rank-and-file police. And clearly they have seized upon this non-story as a chance to score political points against the Mayor. Which in and of itself is not such a big problem; while distasteful, that's how politics works. The problem is that the officer is on camera blatantly lying to the public. The gesture in the photo, as twitter has made more than clear, is simply two people pointing at each other. It is not now, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be a "recognized gang sign." That is a simple, bald-faced lie.

And this is what should concern us as citizens worried about anything approaching equal protection under the law. Because if the police are willing to have a spokesperson come on tv and directly and obviously lie to the public simply to score cheap political points, when else are they willing to so glibly disregard the truth for when it conveniently suits them? What about, say, when one of their officers murders an unarmed teenager?

The Minneapolis PD has very little incentive to lie as they have during the Mayor Hodges photo story. It's just some dumb run-of-the-mill racism that will be forgotten within a few weeks. Yet they're obviously willing to appear on television blatantly lying about this small matter. When it comes to matters of significantly more weight, when there's a real incentive to hide the truth from the public, well then it's hard to blame those of us who have a difficult time accepting the police version of events.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Hey Moron Feminists, Let a Moderately Humorous Comic Writer Tell You What You're Doing Wrong!

Scott Adams, creator of the super-edgy comic that's willing to take the radical position that sometimes office life isn't the most fun thing in the world, also has some thoughts on that street harassment video that's making the rounds. Spoiler alert: rich white guys thinks people who aren't rich white guys are just looking for stuff to complain about. After all, if life isn't hard for a rich white guy, how can it be hard for anyone? When will these women get it together and finally listen to a man?

To save you the time of reading it (seriously, it's neither original nor well-written and really not worth your time), he hits all the standard tropes of the "enlightened" "non-misongynist" who just happens to think everything feminists do is wrong and stupid. For instance, while acknowledging there might still be an occasional problem experienced by women, we solved most of the big stuff a century ago, so you're just nitpicking if you're upset.

It's also got the kind of tone-deaf commentary disguised as completely clueless advice rich white guys love to give. For instance, he explains that street harassment is apparently exclusive to New York City and would not happen to you if you just moved somewhere else. After all, he doesn't get catcalled walking down the streets of his suburb, so obviously it doesn't happen there (gee, can't think of any other reason why a middle-aged man would not be catcalled on the street as much as a young woman. Must totally and exclusively be the difference between NYC and his neighborhood). Of course, it's also super easy for people to move, because we all have tons of extra cash sitting around, not to mention that in an economy like this it's almost impossible to move to a new city and not have a job the moment you get there. After all, if you can make millions re-telling the same shitty joke every day, how hard can it be?

No, what really makes this awesome is that Adams takes two separate pauses in his rant to remind you that if you disagree with anything he says, it's because you're a shrieking harpy who is incapable of logical thinking. Here's one of his "warnings:"

I pause here to make a clarification for any folks who might have wandered over here from Jezebel.com, HuffingtonPost.com, or Slate.com. I will try to type slowly so you understand this next part: Scott...is...saying...there...is... still ...plenty... of ...spousal abuse...job discrimination ...sex crimes... and ...other ...horrors...perpetrated against...women.  But in 2014 that stuff looks more like crime than sexism. All women and 98% of men are on the same side when it comes to the criminal stuff.

Ha! I mean, bitchez, amirite?!? What I love about this is how he manages to be an even bigger asshole than your standard "hey, I'm just being logical. If you point out anything wrong with what I say it's not because I'm being a sexist piece of shit, it's because you don't understand logic." Because he tries to have it both ways -- obviously he can't be sexist because he acknowledges that spousal abuse, employment discrimination, sex crimes and assorted other horrors still exist. But then in the next fucking sentence he immediately waves it all away, implying it's a problem that barely exists and explicitly stating all women and 98% of men oppose those things.

This is really interesting, as I would love to hear Adam's opinion on how those things, those "horrors," continue to exist despite, by his calculation, less than 1% of the entire population thinking they're acceptable? That's made even more confusing by the fact that, for instance, spousal abuse is committed by a lot more than 2% of men in America. But don't worry, apparently most of the guys beating their wives don't really believe in spousal abuse, so it doesn't really count, right? It's like reading your horoscope for fun; you don't really believe in the zodiac, it's just fun to see what it says. These guys apparently just beat their wives for the amusement, since we know, according to Adams, they don't believe in it.

But there I go, disagreeing with his logic when he took such time to assure me he's being completely logical. Holy shit, somehow I've become a shrieking harpy who doesn't understand logic! And all because I happened to point out that what he argues is empirically not true. But what do facts mean against the supreme logic of the self-appointed not-sexist man?!?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

May your day be fun and wonderful and spooky and all that, and may you not run into any of these horrible abominations posing as legitimate candy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

You Learn Something New Every Day

Yesterday I had two guest speakers from the WV Innocence Project come to class to talk about the work they do. For those not in the know, the Innocence Project is essentially a loosely-connected group of lawyers and legal advocates who review the cases of and advocate for factually-innocent prisoners. This bit of tortured language, factually innocent, is necessary because the only people the Innocence Project represents are people who they can indeed prove are innocent of the crime for which they're incarcerated. This makes their work, which often consists of a very long struggle to get the innocent person released, demonstrates a great deal about the problems with our criminal justice system. I find that students tend to take them more seriously, as they (like a lot of Americans) dismiss the idea of people being denied their constitutional rights during an investigation or trial as an actually meaningful defense (which has always confused me, because why have a constitution if we decide it's protections are really just cumbersome "technicalities?"). But no such argument here, as the people in question are empirically innocent (the vast majority proven so by DNA testing).

Although I'm pretty familiar with the work of the Innocence Project, I haven't devotedly followed their publications, and as such learned quite a bit from those two guests. But the most surprising to me was that of the 321 people exonerated by the Innocence Project, over half of them were originally convicted due to faulty conclusions drawn from forensic science.

Even more surprising was learning that of all the various forms of forensic analysis (hair analysis, fingerprints, bite marks, firearms analysis, tread and sole marks, etc.), pretty much the only valid and reliable one is DNA analysis. According to a massive study from the National Academy of Sciences, all other forms of not only lack any sort of national or conventional standards or training, but have also never been proven to be scientifically valid.

While the report goes into great detail about the relative validity of various forensics techniques, the general conclusion is that they're less on the level of DNA testing (pretty reliable) but instead much closer to the level of the polygraph (that is, may help aid an investigation, but nowhere near reliable and valid enough to rely on for a conviction).

As the fine folks from the WVIP did a good job explaining, these problems don't necessarily come from willful ignorance or intentional misconduct, but instead from the fact that our scientific understanding of most of these forms of investigation is still very much in its infancy. That, and we place a great deal of emphasis on precedent at pretty much every level of our cjs, and this is just always the way we've done things. Of course, the fact that it's no one's fault is small comfort to the wrongly convicted.

This adds yet another layer to my long-gestating argument that television police, courtroom, and prison dramas are not only terrible tv, but are actually harmful, as they present a world so unlike ours yet clearly many people believe them to be only slight exaggerations of reality, if at all. On tv, the plucky forensic scientist/detective/swimwear model can find a single hair and unravel an entire case. In reality, we can be fooled into thinking dog hair is evidence a human committed a crime...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reverse Whitewashing?

In America, like most places, we love to whitewash away the many sins of our nation. Of course, ironically, this often means actually inserting more people of color into our memories. I thought about yesterday whilst watching one of those damn Cliff Paul commercials for the umpteenth time:

Of course this is all silly make believe, but in 1922, the fictitious Cliff Paul's grandfather and the real Chris Paul's grandfather would not have had a store next to a white business or played on an integrated basketball team. There were incredibly few Black-owned businesses at the time, and they sure as hell were segregated into neighborhoods far away from white insurance agencies.

But that whole Jim Crow thing? You know, when there were specific laws which only applied to Black people? You know, the system of laws in which minor theft committed by Black people was treated as a far more significant crime than murder committed by white people? You know, the system which spawned the convict lease program, which was reserved almost exclusively for Black people, and was quite literally worse than slavery?

Yeah, according to State Farm, that didn't exist. Nope, in 1922 America was apparently a racially-inclusive Eden where everyone got along and there weren't, say, concerted lynchings campaigns specifically to terrorize the Black community.

Obviously, though, this belief that racism was never that bad and, besides, ended like a long time ago so it doesn't matter has much weightier implications than shitty insurance commercials. Take this segment from last night's Daily Show:

Obviously I didn't expect O'Reilly to ever admit the existence of white privilege, but look at the amazing rhetorical gymnastics he performs to deny it. It's the kind of thing that would be hilarious were it not for the horrible consequences this kind of view creates in real life.

By far the funniest/saddest bit is that O'Reilly grew up in Levittown. For those unfamiliar, Levittown was built almost exclusively by the GI bill, the largest redistribution of wealth in the history of our nation and a program which has been long viewed as in a major part responsible for the creation of the American middle class. The GI bill is the biggest government "handout," as O'Reilly would say, ever given to the American people. It allowed a generation to buy homes, which in America tend to be the only major asset people own and the principle way in which they gain wealth.

But guess who Levittown and the GI Bill were legally closed to? That's right, anyone but white people. What's so hilarious is that O'Reilly tries the standard racist tack of claiming race mattered once, but that was soooooo loooooong ago, Go what can't you just shut up about it?

Except it wasn't so long ago. It was during his lifetime. It's the reason why his working-class parents were able to send him to college and why so many Black working-class parents of his generation were unable to sen their kid to college. Because the means of advancement in our society were quite literally only open to white people, something I know O'Reilly actually knows, because he grew up smack dab in the middle of it.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Inaugural Flu of the Fall

Gross. I've written many times in this space about how annoying it is to be sick once it stops meaning staying home from school to watch cartoons all day, but I go through the same pouty realization of this every time anyway.

Right now I'm working on one of those really annoying colds wherein my throat hurts terribly but nothing else really seem wrong. But the damn throat hurts so much it makes it nigh impossible to concentrate on anything, despite constant doses of dayquil and cough drops.

But on the plus side, this year's baseball playoffs feature one of the most lovably plucky teams you'll ever see in the Kansas City Royals. Of all teams, only my beloved Twins having this run would even come close to how exciting it is. I was going to write much more about this, but again, sick and all, so go read Will Leitch musing on how improbable a KC-Baltimore ALCS is.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Context is Everything!

There's a kind of running joke in my field that the sociologist's correct answer to everything is summed up as "well, it depends on the context." Hell, the American Sociological Association even publishes a journal titled Contexts. But like many cliches, it persists because it's basically true; no action happens in a vacuum, and the social reality surrounding any event can dramatically shape how even the same activity is coed and received (simple example: think of the reaction to a Black person using that most pernicious of racial slurs compared to a white person using the exact same word).

Few things are more infuriating to a sociologist than when people completely ignore any concern of context to announce what should be done by some other person, or what they would do were they in that person's shoes. To take one especially egregious example, lets look to that graveyard of irony, Forbes, and an editorial they published a few years back entitled "If I Were A Poor Black Kid." It's such a picture perfect example of the specious reasoning employed in the great SMBC comic depicted here.

To save you a reading of the article, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect: well-to-do white guy explains to poor people of color how despite the institutionalized racism and classism they face every day, it's really quite a simple fix. But the conceptual problems of this guy's tone deaf writings are the two-fold assumptions that if he were a poor Black kid he would somehow have the knowledge and experience of a middle-aged, middle-class white guy AND that people would treat him with the deference and respect our society reserves for middle-aged, middle-class white guys.

To pick just one idiotic example, he exhorts these youngsters (who I'm sure are just eagerly reading Forbes every issue) that they should invest in their education, but take advantage of free education resources, such as Google Scholar. But this assumes someone is teaching poor Black kids what google scholar and these other free education resources are in the first place. This is not something that is intrinsic knowledge, this is something that has to be taught. Hell, I have grad students who aren't aware of the existence of Google Scholar. And yet he's somehow assuming that the crumbling schools serving our nation's poor Black youth are spending a great deal of time teaching them about academic research search engines.

He goes on to lecture these hypothetical kids about financial literacy, which is even more tone-deaf than lecturing them about various research software. Because again, financial literacy is not innate knowledge; at some point, it has to be taught to you. Most schools do not teach meaningful financial literacy, which means it's obviously up to other sources. But what if you don't have any of these other sources in your life? Instead, he's acting exactly as the old man in the comic is -- assuming he just magically knew this stuff as a kid and the reason the hypothetical kids he's lecturing don't know this is because they either weren't paying attention or refused to heed his lessons. Not that, you know, they've simply never been taught this stuff.

Of course, none of this is to mention that all the financial literacy in the world wouldn't do these kids much good without his standing as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy to employ them. Because to assume it's that simple is to ignore the wealth of evidence showing employers are less likely to hire Black people, lenders routinely push Black applicants into worse loan rates, realtors refuse to show Black clients houses in many neighborhoods, police are far more likely to arrest Black people for the same crimes as white people...basically, the entirety of our knowledge about how racism operates in contemporary America.

In essence, this is just a greatly distilled version of white privilege, which is ultimately the ability to ignore context and assume the rules that govern your life apply to all. Which, as the comic so deftly announces, is probably the bitterest pill of them all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Profit ExcusesEverything

Long break between posts, sorry about that. Beginning of the semester and whatnot. As a bit of warning, I spilled a beer on my keyboard, and now my D key often doesn't work. I've spellchecked as thoroughly as I can, but it gets tiring, so that's my excuse for missing Ds in this post (and all future posts until I break down and buy a new keyboard).

Anyway, unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Adrian Peterson (a/k/a Purple Jesus, though I think we'll be resigning that nickname fairly soon) has been indicted on charges stemming from beating one of his sons with a switch. First the Vikings suspended him for a game, then reinstated him, then suspended him infinitely after hotel chain Radisson pulled its sponsorship from the Vikes.

It's that last part that I've been ruminating on the past several days. Much as Ray Rice was not infinitely suspended until the video of his crime became public, AP was not in any danger of missing much more playing time until sponsors began to get uncomfortable. In a wider parallel, the NFL is seriously working on some issues now that Anheuser-Busch, the NFL's biggest marking partner, has indicated it ain't too happy with what's been going on. Most interestingly, A-B didn't threaten to pull funding or rescind their partnership, just pointed out a lot more needs to be done. As opposed to their tone-deaf replies to an angered public, the NFL responded publicly to A-B within the hour.

This is both a heartening and entirely dispiriting development. On the one hand, as many have pointed out, the NFL was never going to make any real changes until sponsors started leaving. So in that sense, this is a positive development, as it may actually lead the NFL to making some real changes. But on the other hand, why is it that gigantic public outcry (as well as what is obviously morally right) have no effect at all? It's quite disappointing that one milquetoast public statement from an international beverage conglomerate has exponentially more effect than the outrage of thousands (millions?) of citizens. Not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless.

It reminded me especially of this interesting think piece by Albert Burneko, explaining why the owner of the Atlanta Hawks super racist email was indeed super racist. It's well worth a read, but the tl;dr version is that his plan was to court the theoretical higher spending of white bigots by actively discouraging the current real spending of Black people on his team and at his arena. As Burneko points out, it's pretty much the definition of racism to view the actual spending of Black people as literally worth less than the hypothetical spending of hypothetical white people.

Most depressing about the piece, though, is that the comments section is filled to the brim with people saying some variation of "well, white people do have more money in America. It's not racist to go after them to the exclusion of Black people, it's just smart business." But as Burneko himself pointed out in the article (again, well worth a read), something can be both good business and racist at the same time, with the fact that it may be good business (though he also does a great job of explicating why it is not good business in this case), that doesn't make it any less racist.

But clearly to many, the fact that you may make more money by catering to bigots is completely fine, because after all, it might make you more money. No matter how cynical I get about the nature of capitalism, this line of thinking never ceases to amaze and astound me. Something that is as unequivocally racist as "we need less Black people allowed to spend none on our business" is wiped away as just smart business. The magic of American business worship is that as soon as something is justified as good for business, it automatically can not be wrong.

As I often ask my students when we're discussing white collar crime, though -- why can't businesses produce and sell crack? After all, it's highly profitable, has a wide-spread and readily available market, pre-existing distribution network, etc. Eventually the students settle on it not being allowed because crack is bad both for the individual and the community. So I use that opportunity to point out we're obviously willing to draw some lines around business practices and proclaim them a step too far.

So why does racism not rise to the level of business practice we're willing to condemn? Simply put, because most white Americans don't see racism as a problem. So it's much easier to hide behind the mantle of "it's just good business!" because it's not really about the business, it's about not caring about racism. People are genuinely afraid of the dangers of crack, so even Good Business™is not an excuse for it. But something as piddling as racism? Well, we're not going to let that get in the way of making money!

The process is exactly the same as how the Vikings handled Peterson's case. After quickly reinstating him, their best player, their excuse was that they needed to let due process work itself out. Which, on its face, is a reasonable decision. Except for the fact that in that past 2 years, the have cut three people for being charged with, not prosecuted of, various crimes of a similar level offense as Peterson. The difference, of course, is that AP is one of the all-time greats and those guys were replaceable cogs. So much like "good business,"due process is simply being used a smoke screen for the actual attitude of "sure, he may beat the shit out of his kids, but have you seen him make a cut in the open field?!?"

Again, not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless. But hey, at least we've gotten to a point in society in which viciously beating your partner and/or small child is becoming something that is not good business, so we may actually start doing something about it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why "Black-on-Black" Crime is Irrelevant (To Mike Brown's death, and pretty much everything else) and Why Black Lives Matter

Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the murder of Mike Brown and subsequent mass demonstrations for justice has undoubtedly heard by now, most Black murder victims were killed by a Black person. This is undisputedly true. You know what else is true? Most white murder victims were killed by white people (and yet during the OJ trial, I don't remember leaders of the white community speaking out against white-on-white crime; why is it they only care about dead white people when they can blame Black people, to paraphrase the entire Fox News network). You see crime, like nearly everything else in American society, is incredibly segregated. In general, Black people rob Black people, white people rob white people, etc.

Obviously the fact the Black people have killed Black people before has nothing at all to do with the murder of Mike Brown. As Jon Stewart so aptly notes, to bring it up means to not only ignore the fact that plenty of Black people do care about, and are doing plenty to combat. Black-on-Black crime (just because you don't bother to look for something doesn't mean it doesn't exist), it also means you can't see the difference between someone being murdered by a gang member and someone being murdered by a uniformed law enforcement officer who has sworn to protect the citizens of their town. Now, gangs and police forces actually share quite a few similarities in both organization and culture, but I think it's pretty uncontroversial to suggest that police should probably be held to a bit higher standard than gang members.

But arguing all the specific points of why shouting "Black-on-Black crime also exists!" every time a white supremacist murders a Black child is pointless; I have a hard time believing the people making that argument actually think it's a realistic rebuttal to such stark evidence of institutional racism. Instead it's just a classic derailing tactic designed to push the conversation to all those horrible things Black people have done, conveniently leaving behind the murder of an innocent Black child by someone who has yet to be arrested or even investigated for their blatant crime.

Ultimately bringing up Black-on-Black Crime™ simply reveals how profoundly racist the person mentioning it is. Not just for the reason explicated above (and much more eloquently by thousands of of other outlets), but because it's essential premise is "There's another dead Black kid. Who gives a shit who killed them? They're all violent criminals who are going to die young anyway." Because the only reason completely unrelated murders become relevant to the case of Mike Brown (or Eric Gardner, or Amadou Diallo, or Sean Bell, or Trayvon Martin, or the hundreds of others) is if you think Black lives have no value, so the specific cause of their death is a pointless concern.

If you doubt me, spend a few minutes researching the media's response to literally any non-Black murder victim. Simply put, you will never find an article wondering why white people don't spend more time worrying about white-on-white violence, why gay people don't spend more time worrying about gay-on-gay violence, while women don't spend more time worrying about women-on-women violence, etc. (Obviously Black people can be gay and/or women as well, but in the question of whether a murder victim deserves any sympathy, Blackness seems to trump all else).

Why don't we ever find these things? Well, it could potentially be many reasons. But if the aftermath of Mike Brown's murder (and so many others like it) has taught us anything, it's that these non-Black lives have value to us. It's that we as a nation assume Black people had it coming, whether for something they did at that moment or something they did years earlier. And the only reason to feel that way would be because you feel Black lives have no value. After all, there may be a reason why this has become one of the central rallying slogans in the wake of Brown's murder:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Say Nice Things To The People You Like

My high school vocal coach passed away this past weekend, far too young. It got me thinking, as such things tend to do, and I had the supremely trite realization I should be better about telling people what they mean to me. According to her obituary in the ol' hometown newspaper, she died in hospice, so I'm guessing she had some sort of serious terminal disease, though the fact that I have no idea what it was is probably a good indication of how frequently Julie and I have spoken over the past several years.

Losing touch with someone is not a particularly novel or malicious thing, as pretty much all human beings can attest. This specific case was not unlike most every other person I've lost touch with; I moved away to college and then grad school, she moved to the West coast for a job, I moved out to the East Coast, etc. and somewhere along the way we just quit contacting each other as we took smaller and smaller roles in each other's life.

But she was one of the most formative educators I've ever had. I started taking lessons from Julie when I was a freshman in high school and continued through most of college, and over time her house became not just the studio, but a second home, to me and countless other students of hers. She was the first teacher/mentor in my life (as I imagine she was for a lot of others) that treated me like an adult, and her life advice was just as good as her voice instruction. I could go on, but the simple point is that she was hugely influential in my life.

And of course I never told her this. I imagine she was probably plenty aware of how much she touched the lives of those around her, but at the same time, I doubt anyone would mind hearing in detail how profound a positive contribution they've made to the lives of others. But I never told her anything of the sort, and now she's passed away.

I've got nothing revelatory or insightful to add. There's a reason things become cliches, etc. But every once in awhile life reminds you that you should probably let the people you love know you love them. So go do that right now.

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...