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.