Monday, December 22, 2014

Why are we at conflict?

Why are we at conflict?


Being a law enforcement officer is a difficult and thankless job. It has its own unique challenges that other difficult jobs don't have. The nature of its work means officers are isolated from the community they police, so they don't get to live normal lives. It's not the most dangerous or demanding of jobs, but at least when commercial fishermen get back to the port they can live their lives just like everyone else without scrutiny or even rude behavior. It's emotionally taxing in that way.

However, when I see people posting items online supporting the police in the context of current events - especially when you don't see these same outpourings of support at any other time - what I see is people saying police shouldn't be held accountable for their mistakes. Because we don't understand how hard the job is, or how difficult it is to make snap decisions under pressure, we can't judge these officers who make these mistakes that cost the lives of others. And that is ridiculous.

Drilling wells at the bottom of the ocean is a difficult, demanding job, but when they screw up and fill the sea with crude oil we don't just throw up our hands and say, "Well, it's a tough job, and we don't understand how hard it is." No! We hold them accountable for their mistakes.

A simile: parenting is difficult, and it's impossible to know what it's like to be a parent unless you are one. It's even more difficult when a child is special needs, especially when those needs aren't diagnosed so the parent receives help. It doesn't matter if a parent is mostly good for seven years if they mess up once and throws their child down some stairs, or hits them with a board. So don't tell me the parent was good 99.96% of the time, so statistically they're a good parent. And don't take those statistics even further and compare all parents and all disciplinary actions taken by parents to minimize the one mistake made. That parent should be held accountable for that mistake.

Sometimes an officer who makes a mistake gets punished. The officer who shot Oscar Grant in the back while he was lying face down on the ground was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. Sometimes it doesn't. The officer who killed Eric Garner received an administrative reassignment and avoided any criminal charges, while the EMTs and paramedics were suspended without pay. It's when the system fails to hold the officer accountable that the system is criticized along with the individual. A failure of justice isn't something to just write off.

It’s different this time

In April of this year, Fox News and the conservative media as a whole was very upset about what they perceived as a failure of justice. Cliven Bundy had a 20-year dispute with the United States Bureau of Land Management over the use of Federal land to pasture his cattle. He didn't renew his grazing permit in 1993, and was prohibited from using the land in 1998 by a Federal Court, and Bundy didn't comply with the order. For the next 15 years he used the land illegally. A Federal judge ordered him again in 2013 from using the land, and he didn't stop, so in 2014 the BLM went in to impound the trespassing cattle.

I bring this up because you didn't hear the same refrains then as you do now, "You have to respect the law's decision." No, instead you had the media talking heads stirring up ideas of revolution. Because the government was removing cattle trespassing on government land, they called for revolution. These media people went to the ranch to support Bundy, and the attention it received brought militia types from all over to go to the ranch with lots of guns. These armed scofflaws pointed weapons at the law enforcement officers, taunted them, and told them they were going to die. The motivation for these people wasn't to protect these cattle but to start a revolution. They put women and children in the front lines so if a firefight did break out they'd have a propaganda victory.

These armed individuals attacked the law enforcement officers, with guns drawn, broke into the impound lot and stole the cattle. They stole government property at the point of many guns, and got away with it.

And the conservative media encouraged this. They didn't respect the justice system, they didn't accept the judicial decision, and they brought guns out to fight the law. (The mainstream conservative media backed away from Bundy after he made racist remarks, which must have come as a shock to him because he was just repeating what the conservative media is always saying about black people, just with unrefined language. Fox News has been trotting out these same ideas in recent weeks even.)

After the standoff ended, two of these crazies ambushed two police officers in Las Vegas while they were eating lunch at a restaurant, killing both of them. They then went to a Walmart and killed another person (a "good guy with a gun" concealed carry holder). A conservative talk show host went on to defend these murderers saying, "when you have police officers that are going around and doing violent things all day long, and then they take a break for lunch, well, it doesn't mean all of the sudden they're innocent or they’re being peaceful because they’re taking a break from all of their other anti-freedom, rights-violating violence. Think of how many lives might have been saved by this incident. How many people would these cops have killed had they not been killed?”

After this event, I didn't a flood of concern for police. I didn't see Fox News go to the memorial for fallen law enforcement to remind everyone how much police sacrifice (as they did after the Eric Garner grand jury and before the slaying of two NYPD officers). There wasn’t a flood of Facebook profile pictures changing to support police. There wasn’t a rally to support police.

No. Indeed, Fox News, the media organization that put the Bundy Ranch in the spotlight, dropped all coverage of the cop killings the very next day. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity (the main personalities that kept the Bundy Ranch standoff in the forefront) never mentioned the deaths of those two officers. Megyn Kelly gave all of four sentences to their deaths after giving weeks of airtime to the standoff. Fox & Friends and other Fox News shows didn’t mention the killings at all. They instead covered Hillary Clinton’s book release.

Two days before the Las Vegas incident, another right-wing “sovereign citizen” drove up to an Atlanta courthouse and immediately shot a law enforcement officer and engaged in a gun battle with police for three minutes. He was armed with assault weapons and improvised explosive devices.

In 2010, two police were killed by two other “sovereign citizens” during a traffic stop. In 2009, a “sovereign citizen” set up an ambush in his home and killed three police.

There’s a whole segment of the right-wing armed and ready to kill police to start a revolution in this country. I know a couple. My family hosted events in the 1990s in our home where these people talked about their insane conspiracy theories, defended the Oklahoma City bombers, and stockpiled arms and supplies to take on the government. I remember one acquaintance in these circles tell my police officer brother that all cops are corrupt and dishonest, which provides a glimpse into the mentality that’s supported with this ideology.

Yet this isn’t a big story! This isn’t something people talk about. Conservative media won’t even give it any mention, because they have plenty of room under their “big tent” for cop killers and those who support cop killers.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a big figure in politics, and just this year at a rally for him one of the speakers went on a tirade about killing Californians. “[If you see Californians] pull off into residential areas, you need to open fire on these vehicles immediately. Immediately. Not with 9mm or AR rounds; you need to put mortars on those things, you cannot take any chances,” he says to a laughing audience. This is the type of rhetoric they use to stir up the conservative base.

And silence.

Compare and contrast

It’s the same year as the Bundy Ranch standoff, so what’s the difference now? Why no mention of the cop killing in Las Vegas and copious amounts of coverage of recent tragic shooting of two police officers in New York? Why the support of scofflaws in Nevada, and condemnation of the peaceful protesters in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, et al?

Yes, this time there’s widespread protests over the injustice. In April, the conservative media had to beat the drum of revolution to get anyone to care about grazing rights in the desert, so the protests were much more limited. On the one hand, you have two different courts finding Bundy noncompliant with the law, and on the other you have multiple departments, prosecutors, and grand juries not finding anything criminal in the homicides of many unarmed young men in what is perceived as an excessive use of force.

When you have protests you have counter protests, it’s the nature of the beast, but the counter protesters in this case don’t really have an ideological principle they’re supporting. There isn’t a political or policy issue at stake here. The counter protests are political, though, they’re trying to leverage power out of the situation.

Here’s where I think I’ll take a break and say that every protest has multiple voices. What I argue is the main issue here (which I believe is the actual issue most people understand and voiced during the majority of the protests) isn’t necessarily what everyone in the protest would agree upon. The same is true of the counter protests. It’s difficult to generalize these things. On one side, there are anarchists and agitators who are drawn to every protest who just want to cause trouble and other people who don’t have a good grasp of any coherent issue, they’re generally just upset with the system, and there are even some anti-authority people who just don’t like cops. (There are also undercover officers in the crowds who agitate in order to make arrests.) On the other side, there are the KKK groups who went to Ferguson, MO armed and threatening protesters with violence, the racists who think all black people are criminals or should be scrutinized as if they are, those who capitalize on racial tension, those who are not sure what’s going on exactly, but they don’t like the people leading protests so they’re against it by default, and of course those who only see the fringe elements in the protests and aren’t against the actual issue as much as they’re against the extremists who are simply opposing the police. (Usually this later group is this way because conservative media only focuses on the fringe elements.)

It’s difficult to generalize, so all I can really talk to are the people I see that are closest to me. There I mainly see support for police in general, some blatant racism, and some who are only interested because they don’t like who are leading some protests. Usually the Venn diagram overlaps a bit. I’m confounded about why they care so much.

If you break this whole thing down into its basic elements, it’s police acting to enforce the law, applying force, killing someone, and not being held accountable. In some cases, no law is being broken; it’s just a suspicion of a criminal act. In other cases, there is a law being broken which isn’t a felony, and there’s no weapon. So the protest is about why so much force is being used on these young men, specifically why it’s overwhelmingly being applied to black men, and why the law doesn’t find anything wrong with this.

So when I try to figure out what the counter protesters are supporting/defending, I can’t figure it out. I haven’t read or heard anyone give a decent argument for it; all I hear is defensive posturing, hatred for the protesters, and general support for police.

Defensive posturing

There is a very obvious difference between the Bundy Ranch protest and the Ferguson protest: race. Not everyone has an interest in land disputes, but everyone has a skin color that puts them in a group. But the protest over law enforcement use of deadly force and its disproportionate effect on the black community doesn’t affect most white people, so why are they getting so defensive about it? It’s an issue so complicated it would take years to figure out, if possible, but many have tried. It’s difficult to criticize our nation’s racial inequalities without those who have benefitted from the inequalities from getting upset. This of course leads to a phrase white people hate: white privilege. When I see defensive comments about these protests, white privilege is always brought up. They really hate this term. It’s important though, so I’ll take another break to explain it.

White privilege

Most people think privilege is having outsized wealth and power, so they assume white privilege is having wealth and privilege without earning it by their own efforts. While it’s true our society has been bent to give wealth and power to white people for many generations, it’s also true not every white person has benefitted from this equally, and some even immigrated here after many of these unequal policies ended. But this isn’t white privilege. The diminutive definition of the term I’ll fit into this larger article is that white privilege is not having to deal with race as an obstacle, and indeed the ability to ignore racial issues altogether. This is not true of white people universally at all times, but white people can remove themselves from a situation where race is affecting them and into a place where it doesn’t while people of color don’t have this privilege unless they move to another country.

When white people get defensive about these protests, it’s because they’re losing a bit of their white privilege and they’re forced to face a racial disparity. I would like to just shut all of this out and live a little more happily, to avoid the arguments, avoid the heartache, and I can. I can ignore it if I wanted to, but I won’t. I won’t because I’m choosing to deal with a difficult issue that affects the lives of real people, including my own children. The default response is to deny there is a disparity, and that to say there is one is itself a racist statement.  This is why the most common meme I see from white people about these protests is a picture of Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jessie Jackson, President Barack Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder with a caption calling that person, or those people, “the real racists.”

It goes deeper than that, though, when I see comments about, “how am I responsible for this just because I’m white?” Which is another feature of defensiveness: making it personal. They will condemn lots of people because of what one person says, but then they’ll take a general criticism of society as a personal assault.

If you are working somewhere and the owner finds the profits aren’t where they should be because of a business culture that’s not working harmoniously, you won’t think that you’re the reason why the business isn’t making enough money, so when the employer makes changes to the business culture it’s not personal. But when our society is unequal, people take it personally. It’s not because we’ve all decided to be unequal, we’ve just fit into the culture, didn’t make waves, and went along with it, so when we need to change our society, don’t take it personally, we all need to work together to change the culture together, not place blame.

Hatred for protesters

Some people just don’t like protesters. They think protesters should just accept society the way it is, vote if they want changes, and get on with things. These people are typically silent, though. They’re moderate; they aren’t going to be vocal about these issues nearly as much as someone who has taken a position for or against the protested issue.

What I see is vitriol against anyone protesting. The first thing they do is make every protester into the spitting image of the worst elements. Imagine yourself being viewed as the worst from your group. The hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters are all viewed as the few who started fires. They’re all viewed as supporting the few who chanted, “What do we want? Dead cops!” They willfully blind themselves to the actual protested issues and focus exclusively on the few guys throwing rocks.

A criticism is a judgment of something. In order to judge something, you have to know its character and value. Too many protester haters do not listen to the protests to understand what the protest is about, so they don’t know what they’re criticizing. They’re not critics, they’re haters.

General support for police

I have a strong affinity for police. When my children talk about what they want to be when they grow up, I make sure they include police on that list. The issues my family has dealt with has made us much more reliant on the police than most people. My brother is a police officer. I get support for police. I support them all the time, not just when they’re under attack. The problem here is that the police aren’t under attack – at least not as the purpose of the majority of these protests. When large groups of people gather to protest, it’s impossible to control the message coming from everyone, and some people certainly do hate cops, but the organizers of these protests, the vast majority of the protesters, and the protest issues aren’t anti-police. No, they’re pro-police. They want and need police; they just want them to be held accountable for their mistakes, and for the tactics to be reviewed.

When Ferguson first became a flashpoint, the police there came out very heavy-handed; so much that the issues quickly went away from Michael Brown and onto the militarization of our police forces. If there was a start to anti-police protests, it was there. It happens in a lot of protests, and it seems to be deliberate in a lot of cases. The police or someone with power over them start putting pressure on protesters so the protest issues change from their original goals to one of standing up for the right to protest. I watched it first hand during the Occupy Wall Street movement when those protests went from protesting the lack of accountability on Wall Street and the corrupting influence of power the banks have in Washington to fighting for the right to protest. It’s an ingenious move if you want to confuse the issues, and divide the protesters into infighting camps.

After the Ferguson grand jury decision, the protest message has been mostly clear, and the addition of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner only solidified the central issue of disproportionate effects of police force on black men. Overall, the protests have stuck to this message of accountability.

It seems the context of this outpouring of support for police is one of willfully ignoring the protested issues, denying racial inequalities or agreeing with the decisions to not hold these officers accountable for wrongdoing.

Ignoring the protested issues

I’ve covered this issues a few times now. Some counter protesters reject engagement with the actual issues and focus on the fringe elements. This is exemplified by one comment that literally claimed there were tens of thousands of protesters that were “armed, angry and on a mission.” They watch the video of the one, small protest with the “dead cops” chant and smear all protesters with the same sentiment. They see two police officers killed by a man (who actually seemed to express a desire to not go back to jail, like the tragic incident in Seattle in 2009), and claim protesters are going to kill more cops. They find videos of a few people who are inarticulate and claim the protesters don’t know why they’re protesting.

Or, they don’t like who is leading some protests (e.g. Al Sharpton), and don’t bother to listen to the protest demands at all.

Denying racial inequality

Denial of racial inequality is probably the most common argument I’ve encountered. This is closely tied with white privilege, because white people don’t have to see inequalities we largely ignore them. And when we ignore them, we don’t believe them. And when we don’t believe them, we say they don’t exist. And when we say they don’t exist, we’re gaslighting every person of color, telling them their experience isn’t real. They are confused. We know better than them. Because we, as white people in America, have a better understanding of how race affects people of color than they do. We have a clearer understanding, because we’re above all that. People of color can’t see the race issue clearly, and should recuse themselves, and let us think for them. Feel for them.

Why should white people think any differently? We’re not harassed by police for loitering, or looking out of place. We’re not regularly pulled over for any apparent reason. We’re not having our car searched every time we are pulled over. We’re not questioned every time something goes missing. We’re not told we’re angry. We’re not told our experiences aren’t real.

But when you talk to a pastor of a black congregation who tells you the majority of his congregation have had their cars searched, have had police draw guns on them, have had their bodies searched, have had to lay flat on their faces, and all of this for nothing, perhaps we should listen to them. And not just anecdotes: whites make up 70% of all arrests, yet only 40% of all inmates. Blacks make up 28% of arrests and 40% of the inmate population. This is problematic not only because persons of color are incarcerated in greater numbers, but because they face harsher penalties for the same crimes. Blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed by police at a rate 21 times greater than whites the same age between 2010 and 2012.

This is where we circle back to defensive posturing, because when the data come in that definitively show unfair outcomes, white apologists argue that blacks are more prone to crime, and then go on to argue that’s why they should be scrutinized by law enforcement. That is, of course, the dictionary definition of racism: “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race.” And the defensive circle continues, because nobody wants to be called a racist.

This circles back to taking everything personally, instead of collectively. A police officer will say, “I’m not racist.” She might be right, but collectively the system is bent in such a way that outcomes for people of color are different. It’s not out of conscious decisions. It’s not out of racial animus. It’s out of a historical pattern of white supremacy in the nation with the only constitution that supports racism and slavery (Articles I and IV respectively.), that gave land to white settlers, provided education for the settlers to farm the land, gave them commissions to improve these farms, separated the races, denied people of color GI Bill benefits, redlined minority communities, et al. This isn’t ancient history, there are people alive today who suffered unequal laws and segregated culture. There is people alive benefitting monetarily from slavery in the form of loan interests. When we have hundreds of years of racial inequality, we can’t expect the affects to disappear over one generation just by pretending it never happened.

Claiming the officers did no wrong

The protested issues are about the use of force by law enforcement officers to subdue suspects. This issue is nuanced. I know law enforcement officers don’t want the burden of criminal liability for taking a life in the course of duty. I don’t want that. I don’t think any thoughtful person wants that. What we want, of course, are policies that will minimize the chances for unjustified homicide: taking a hard look at double standards, rigorous police candidate screening, and robust tactical training. If we accept police tactics that result in unnecessary deaths, we should look at those tactics and change them.

The autopsy of Eric Garner showed he was killed by homicide, by the compression of his neck and chest. That chokehold tactic was not permitted by the NYPD. There was no accountability for breaking a protocol that resulted in the death of an innocent man. Why do we accept a system that doesn’t hold this officer accountable?

Tamir Rice was shot dead two seconds after the officer exited his vehicle, which was still moving upon egress. We should not accept a tactic that escalates rather than deescalates a situation. This tactic was tantamount to a surprise attack, more fitting to the military than to policing a community.

The same tactic was used by the officers that shot and killed Kajieme Powell. If the officers are afraid of a man with a knife charging them, why are they pulling their vehicle right up on him?

John Crawford was shot with little warning inside a Walmart because he was holding a BB gun. Let’s track back to the Bundy Ranch for a second to recall that none of those gun-toting lunatics were shot for aiming real guns at law enforcement. We’ve seen other videos where armed men are contained and talked down or taken down without fatality because the police deescalate the situation. Why should we accept tactics from police that are for all intents and purposes ambush tactics?

Akai Gurley was killed because the officer was patrolling with his gun draw and was startled when Gurley opened a door on a stairwell below him (at least according to the officer’s account). Marines deployed to Iraq have testified that during house sweeps they were not to aim their weapons until ready to fire. Why are we allowing police to patrol apartment buildings with their guns out?

There is pushback from law enforcement, and I don’t blame them, they don’t want to be told how to do their job. That’s not a luxury most of us have. We follow policies given to us by our employers or clients. Police officers are servants of the public, if their tactics are making the public feel like the enemy in an occupied territory, the tactics have to change. If the tactics are resulting in unnecessary deaths, the tactics have to change.

In Ferguson the argument is, “the grand jury decided nothing criminal happened, we have to accept the decision.” Why? Why do we have to accept that shooting at an unarmed man as he was fleeing is acceptable? (More than half of the grand jury witnesses and the Ferguson police said Officer Wilson opened fire while Brown was running away.) Why should we accept that shooting a man with his hands up is acceptable? (More than half of the witness statements at the grand jury said his hands were raised.) Why do we have to accept shooting a man while he’s on the ground is acceptable? (Half of the grand jury witnesses claim he was shot while on the ground.) Why do we have to accept the results of a grand jury where the prosecution acted like a defense attorney, provided incorrect and unconstitutional information about police use of force, and allowed witnesses he knew to be lying testify, including a witness who was nowhere near the scene and was recounting tales learned on conservative blogs?

These protests aren’t just about what happened in these confrontations but about a system that says this level of force is acceptable. That even when mistakes are made or protocols aren’t followed there is no recourse for justice.

There are actual human beings who are dead right now that shouldn’t be. There are families grieving the loss of their son, husband, father. Don’t pretend that you’re the one with the sob story because these protests make you uncomfortable.

And, for goodness sake, quit minimizing the loss of life as if it’s losing loose change in the sofa cushions: an unavoidable minor inconvenience. A matter of statistics.

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