Sunday, May 10, 2015

The policing thing

I finally want to tackle the difficult subject of present race relations in America, particularly the present debate about policing.  It’s a hard thing to write about, like abortion, because it raises such strong feelings and I do feel a little uncomfortable, not least because many people, including myself, have strong emotional feelings about it, rational or not, and it can be ugly to debate. There is even controversy about what words to use. I am using "black" and "white" to describe groups because I do not like African-American for the usual reasons and no one has ever suggested a word to me that isn’t immediately interpreted in our brains to mean black and white, whatever we may say. Who pictures Charlize Theron when we say African-American or Ayaan Hirsi Ali when we say European-American? In fact, I wonder if even Charlize and Ayaan do?

At the outset, few people could deny with a straight face that blacks in America suffered through slavery, bigotry, discrimination and other unconscionable horrors and disadvantages in the last 400 years or so.  Fewer would argue, but I still think a large majority, that if all prejudice ended today, that the effect of these four hundred years would leave blacks, in general, with a disadvantage in material wealth and connections that lead to opportunity and capital. Again, fewer, but I would still believe a majority agree that the history and stigma attached to that history has a psychological impact too, even on present day blacks who never suffered these crimes and indignities. All groups suffer discrimination at some time or another, but whether others agree or not, I cannot think of another ethnic group other than American Indians who have suffered as much over the course of centuries from discrimination and prejudice in this country.  

But, also, that was then, and this is now.  The years of slavery, oppression, Jim Crow and the like, are over.   Not that prejudice doesn’t exist and can’t be a problem with specific people, groups or institutions.  Of course we still have it.  And probably always will.  But prejudice is no group’s sole burden. There is plenty to go around. A recent Pew Group study found that there are more blacks prejudiced against whites than vice versa.  Some might say that this is only to be expected.  I have learned over time that if someone says that there is still prejudice, but not as much as there used to be, some people hear them say that there is none.  We can’t help what people hear. 
And, of course, most everything I write here is based upon generalities, as people - black, white or otherwise, have many different opinions, not necessarily consistent with those in whatever group with which they identify and I’m not implying any destiny or inherent qualities. But, the question with generalizations is rarely if you should ever make them at all (it is almost impossible to speak about many subjects without generalizing some and people are always more tolerant of their own generalizations) but what is too much and too little of a generalization? I do not know what percentage of blacks of whites believe most things, but we can say with a lot of confidence that more blacks believe OJ was innocent and believe that Michael Brown raised his hands over his head and said “don’t shoot,” than whites do and vice versa.  However, many whites, and they would tend to be more liberal than conservative in most instances (some exceptions), seem to agree with many of the arguments raised by the “black community.” 

The media, which is obviously quite influential, has weighed in heavily on the side of those who want police reform and argue that blacks are being wantonly killed by police on a regular basis. Just as one example, I read an article recently where the headline or sub-head was something like – Our argument is simple – Stop killing us.  I’ve read several op-ed’s or editorials in the NY Times even excusing violent protest and looting by blacks.  After reading sympathetically one article written by a successful author about a painful tale of a sad childhood in Baltimore because of discrimination and police abuse, I was stunned at the conclusion (and amazed the NY Times would publish it), which was a collective threat to burn Baltimore to the ground if the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death were not prosecuted. At first I thought I misunderstood him and read it several times. But he wrote in that paragraph that peaceful protest and singing kumbaya  doesn’t work and that the city would burn the city to the ground if they were not given what they wanted.  Fortunately, the large part of Baltimore does not agree with him – whether black or white.  I’ll come back to Baltimore later. 
Personally, I have always been more than sympathetic to the sufferings and labors of blacks throughout our history, and have admired numerous civil rights figures from the Quakers to Martin Luther King, Jr. and many who marched with him, as heroic, regardless of skin color. And even now, there are some issues between civil rights leaders on one side and government and the police on the other side, with which I agree with the former.  For one, after reading the decisions on the stop and frisk program in NYC, I had to agree that it needed to be seriously reformed, at best.  And I agree that the war on drugs has been a complete failure (as has the war on poverty) and the penalties for it fall disproportionately on minorities.  And, though I insist on waiting until I can have a fair amount of certainty as to what happened, I absolutely see some of the more highly publicized tragedies – such as with Eric Garner – as strong indication that we need constant police reform.  I would also, had I the power, fire any government employee who intentionally wrote racial slurs, as recently happened in San Francisco. And although I made ethnic jokes when young (and in my mind, the joke was always on the cracker, or the outrageousness of saying something so shocking) I would deserve to be fired too for stupidity if I did it as a government employee.  I have often stated my belief before that though I think parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were unconstitutional, we are a far better country because of it. Not just minorities – everyone.

But, I also believe that the absurd exaggerations surrounding a number of well publicized cases and official reactions to them in the past few years have, for the first time in many years, damaged race relations, which had steadily improved since my childhood (born the middle of ’59) and also damaged the trust of many people in government. These cases include Martin-Zimmerman, the “Duke Rape case,” the UVA race case and Brown-Wilson (i.e., Ferguson, Missouri).   In each of those cases, many in the public and in the media created false fact patterns and held to them against every bit of reason to the contrary as long as they could. In fact, protesters holding their hands in the air and saying "don’t shoot" in imitation of what appears to be a completely manufactured fact pattern from Ferguson damages race relations and decreases or eliminates sympathy for many people who are otherwise sympathetic to the “cause” or feel grave injustices have been done in some of the cases, such as with Eric Garner and, possibly Freddie Gray.
The actions of some political figures also must be called into question. Although I think he’s slowly learning the consequences of his statements and has recently tried to sound more evenhanded, President Obama has been very divisive during his two terms as have been his AG for most of that time, Eric Holder, and others, like NYC Mayor De Blasio, and, of course, professional instigators like Al Sharpton.  You can’t completely blame these people for the deaths of two officers in NY who were assassinated by a deranged man inspired by the inflamed rhetoric.  Maybe instead of the officers he would have killed his girlfriend, who he had already assaulted, or some random people. That I can’t say. But, I do believe that statements by those I just named inflamed him and contributed to why he targeted the officers.

There are many articles out there about what these politicians (and I’ll include Sharpton – he ran for president) have said and I won’t recount them all. I’ll just talk about two – Obama and De Blasio. Obama has made several unfortunate mistakes during his terms. When a black Harvard professor trying to enter his own house was questioned by a white police officer (a neighbor had reported him) and then arrested for disorderly conduct, Obama presumed it was an example of discrimination and said the police acted "stupidly." When he was criticized for getting involved in a local issue and taking sides based on skin color and was at least partially, if not completely wrong, he invited both men to the White House for a "beer summit," to quiet the criticism. But, he didn’t really learn yet. When Zimmerman shot Martin, he said publicly that Martin could have been his son – in other words, taking sides and again based on skin color. He certainly didn’t know the facts. The federal government got involved in Florida (and I don’t know if that was because of Obama or Holder or both) and Zimmerman was prosecuted by a special prosecutor on her own say so – no grand jury. We know the result. He was acquitted.  If you watched the trial, you should know why. Almost everyone, including prosecution witnesses, couldn’t help but bolster the defense.  When Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by police, the president weighed in again. His speaking style is usually very mild and he does make statements in favor of most police, urges only peaceful protest and the like, but he never comes out and quite says – "you know, folks, a lot of these claims turn out to be false and in this case it appears that Wilson did not murder Brown" or "I was wrong to say what I did about Martin and Zimmerman – I didn’t know the facts." He just weighs in and when wrong, forgets it.   
De Blasio, of course, really caused himself grave damage with the police, essentially his employees him, and with many in the public who disapprove of his racial positions. Some people still justify his remarks made about warning his son, who is bi-racial, but identifies as black, about the police, but if you look online at his statement, see who he surrounded himself with, and listen to the actual words, he was clearly stating that he was fearful a police officer would kill his son because he is black. It was not a surprise to me that police officers protested when two were killed by turning their backs on the mayor when he spoke at the funerals and protested by temporarily slowing down the "broken windows" approach to their jobs. Eventually it played out and allegedly he has patched it up with the police union leader, but I don’t believe it. The majority of NYers believe the police were being childish or petulant in turning their backs on him. I didn’t think so.  It was quiet and dignified and didn’t interfere with his speaking. They truly believed that he was partially at least, responsible for inspiring the type of anger that lit up the killer of two officers. Should they just forget it? The funeral was more for them than him. He was just making a political appearance. I don’t believe he should have even gone.

Both Obama and De Blasio also do something that makes it very hard for others to take them seriously as speaking for everyone when it comes to race relations.  They both appear to be under the sway of Al Sharpton, if you just go by the number of visits by him to them.  Obviously, he is a close adviser.  I’m not going on a long rant about Sharpton. If you believe he’s a good man who does good things for the “black community,” then you do.  I think he has done as much harm to race relations in this country as virtually anyone and I also believe he thinks it is all right if whites are falsely accused or even go to jail undeservedly, because blacks were so mistreated for so long.
It is critical, of course, that our justice system be as limited in discriminating against anyone because of race or ethnicity to the degree humanly possible, while at the same time – and this is the tough part – using such descriptive terms and profiling abilities as are necessary to combat crimes. As examples, there is nothing wrong with describing a person as white or black or Chinese or Irish or Hispanic, etc., in order to help locate them.  Also, where there are cultural ethnic associations conspiring to commit crimes, it is not discrimination to be aware and investigate this fact, whether it is Islamic terror groups or Russians or Pakistanis exploiting the personal injury market by manufacturing claims, using their own doctors to generate false medical reports, and so on.  You might say, what about Anglo-Saxons or Jews,  and I say, if there is some communally favored crime being committed, then, of course recognize those who congregate by their ethnicity if it might help combat it. When we investigate gangs involved in many crimes, isn’t that precisely what we do – and need to do?

Let me move on to Baltimore. A few weeks back, as is all too well known, a young man named Freddie Gray was arrested by police officers after he ran from them. He was put in a van and transported by six officers. At that point it is murky for most of us, but it appears, as best as I can tell, at some point his back was broken.  In addition, it is at least reported that they kept him in the van for an astonishing long period of time, given how short their ride was.  Eventually, some days later, he died of his injuries. That’s a very general description and I am leaving out some facts others might find important either because I don't or because I don’t trust media reports very much.
We all know what happened next - protests, then rioting, much like Ferguson, Missouri not long before.  Buildings looted and set on fire, police vehicles and police themselves assaulted and pelted by rocks. Death threats were made. The mayor told the police – and she can deny it all she wants now – to give the rioters room to destroy – but I heard her say it myself while she was addressing the public, and was surprised by it then, before she walked it back. This has been vehemently criticized by law enforcement and other mayors as a bad idea. And, of course it is.  It goes without saying that this was a small group of people, and likely gangs, involved, while most Baltimoreans were repulsed and protested the violence.

Soon after, not surprisingly, it was reported that six police officers were arrested. Despite all the screams about racism, it turned out that half of those arrested and allegedly involved were black themselves. I haven’t heard as much about racism since.  They were charged, but no grand jury has indicted, or possibly been convened as of yet.  At least, I do not know of one.
Of course, if the officers are guilty of these crimes, they should be indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced. They should not be prosecuted, as was Zimmerman, for political reasons or to pacify the press or citizens.  And that is a possibility too.

There have been some reactions that are quite discouraging to me.  First, I have read the comments in the media from many writers and heard from any number of good-hearted friends, all white, that the rioting was okay, and justified by the desperation of poor blacks in Baltimore. I am astonished by this, though I know it is well intentioned, a product of sympathy for those less fortunate, and possibly exactly how I would have reacted when I was even in my mid-20s. It is also, in my view, spectacularly wrong and dangerous.
The idea that rioting is a good idea is a bad one, whatever the reasons. I do believe in civil disobedience. But, it is when it is based on self-sacrifice and consciousness raising, à la Thoreau, Gandhi and MLK, Jr., that is both admirable and effective (in the right situation).  Looting, destroying and terrorizing, not so good.  The people I feel for during and after the rioting, were the police – and a large percentage of them were black – the employees of CVS and other businesses I saw on television – mostly black or other minority - crying because their livelihood was destroyed, and the people of Baltimore who will have to now live with more blight and possibly even higher taxes to pay for the repair and clean up of all the damage.  I cannot tell you that I believe there is never a time where government acts justifies violent retaliation - it is, for example, when democracy has completely broken down. I don't mind the people in Syria rebelling at all.  I haven’t questioned my friends for the most part, but I could have asked, so it’s okay if a desperate person burns down your house or murders your spouse? Because their belief justifies most violence. And, it is probably not true in many cases. It sure seemed that many of the rioters just wanted to steal stuff. Perhaps the majority. We don't know because it was a riot.
Another thing that has greatly disturbed me about it is the threats that were made by gangs to target the police.  Another is the statement by the attorney general that she heard the “calls” of “no justice, no peace” and responded by her charges.  It sounded like she felt the rioting was justified.  While some people have described some of the protesters as a lynch mob, and others have decried that, this is exactly what it seems like to me. Should the person responsible for law and order in the city be saying that lawlessness and disorder is okay? I don't think so.

Yet another thing that stunned me was the quick call for the federal government to get involved by Baltimore’s mayor herself, especially so quickly after Al Sharpton himself suggested that all the nation’s police should be supervised by the federal government. What mayor wants to so quickly give up sovereignty and ask the federal government to come down on it hard (as former U.S.A.G., Michael Mukasey pointed out – that’s usually what happens) unless she believes that it is out of her control and that such discrimination and abuse exists to justify it. She probably should resign, in that case.  Of course there are other cities and states where the federal government has investigated civil rights abuses by the police. I can think of L.A., Albuquerque, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Cleveland, off hand. And perhaps other cities have requested it themselves before, though I don’t recall any. But, it strikes me in this case that her request was more about ideology than management of the problem. And, Loretta Lynch, the new A.G., has announced a federal investigation. Ironically, of course, they will be investigating a force that is run by a black mayor, a black commissioner and assistant commissioner and is already or nearly made up of a majority of black officers.  The Maryland General Attorney prosecuting the Gray case is black as well.  Some would argue that this doesn't matter because Baltimore’s force has been challenged, and at least once successfully, that there is discrimination in promotions and privileges (such as getting light duty when injured). That may be so, but is hard to comprehend when so many of the leading figures are black. Are they the ones discriminating against minorities? Is the federal government going to determine that a predominantly black run department is violating the rights of blacks? Does this give some clue that this may not be about race at all, but perhaps about income or class?
I do not live in Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t live in Baltimore, though I have visited it a bit and a couple of times driven through its slums (hardly making me an expert).  I don’t know if there are systemic material problems on the police end there or not and I am not going to make a judgment based upon some highly publicized cases and media reports, when, in fact, it is possible, that under the conditions, the police, or most, may do a very good job.  Or not. And, there have been my own interactions with the police, thankfully rare enough, and sometimes I was really disappointed in how defensive or even angry they could be.  Mostly though, they were very polite, in fact, sometimes really nice, even when giving me a ticket.  When they were hostile, I tried to remember that so many people are lying to them and therefore they may presume most everyone is. That is, after all, my own presumption when I cross-examine someone on the stand.  And, I have heard too many stories from too many black men who are going about their business and are harassed or treated poorly by the police, to think they are all made up in some grand conspiracy, though we never get to hear the officer’s version unless he’s being prosecuted or his neck is on the line.

But, that doesn’t change my mind about the violent confrontation approach to protest, or those praising it. You have to draw a line somewhere.  To excuse violent protest is to ask for more violence in reaction to frustration.  And if it is good for blacks, why not any other group or criminal?  I also am amazed at the certainty people have as to the supposedly beneficial motivation of the rioters in Baltimore, who seemed most interested in wanton destruction of the lives of other black people and enriching themselves, self-glorification and attacks on the police that would have in my mind, justified a very violent response.  Whatever the truth is with regard to police abuse, I thought the police force, restrained by the mayor’s orders, was incredibly restrained, even heroic, in the face of violent provocation.
We can do more than one thing at once.  I believe in permanent ongoing government reform, including for the police and am often shocked at the benefit of the doubt we give both police officers and government officials, particularly in court.  Protest over police abuse shouldn’t be something that is seen as abnormal.  It is something we all have to care about  – when it is real, of course.  But the tactics of the protesters, the coverage of the bad leaders, rather than the good ones, and the sympathy people seem to have for violent protest have created more racial dissension than I have seen in decades. I’m far from sure that the reforms, if based upon the idea that there is a war on blacks or police regularly kill black men wantonly, will not in fact make life harder for poorer people, who will have less protection against crime perpetrated by their own neighbors. Because the part that is being ignored, of course, is that urban police in poor areas spend their days in dangerous, hostile territory.

When I was polishing this piece up for posting, I was also looking at some books online by one of my favorite linguists, John McWhorter, who happens to be black. I was not aware that he had written a book about the problems of the black community called Losing the Race, particularly in their adoption of three cults – victimization, separation and anti-intellectualism, all of which play into one another (in my view, the latter two are a subset of the first), and their choice of leaders like Sharpton. Though the book, with a few additions as to recent events, could have been written today, it was actually published in 2000.  In far more detail than I can provide on a blog, he gives statistic after statistic, anecdote after anecdote, building his case. Among the products of these cults is the conclusion held by many blacks and some whites too, that so many years of oppression insulates blacks from criticism for any wrongdoing. This, of course, is not only bad for victims, but for the black community itself - as they are the usual victims. This is the only way to understand why blacks, who are preyed upon and victimized, and regularly murdered by black men, seem to think the police are their biggest problem.
I highly recommend his book, though not least because I agree with what he writes in it (though, I’m only about 50 pages in, he summarizes it beautifully right at the beginning).  He followed it up with Winning the Race in 2006 which I suppose was supposed to a more positive counterpart to the first, though I haven’t read it and don’t know if I will.  Don’t get the idea he is an “Uncle Tom” or even a conservative (for one thing, I think he is an Obama supporter).  He also writes op-ed pieces and has written for Time Magazine, in regard to Ferguson, for example, “However, in light of what we heard last night, I feel that the Ferguson incident is instructive to America in a larger sense. The key element in the Brown-Wilson encounter was not any specific action either man took — it was the preset hostility to the cops that Brown apparently harbored. And that hostility was key because it was indeed totally justified. [Para.] The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?”

I’ve read a number of his op-ed pieces in the recent chaos and though he remains balanced and a rational voice, I don’t agree with everything he says anymore than anyone else. But, he’s an interesting thinker who is not intimidated by group think.
I have also learned by experience that some who read what I’ve written here would see it as racist or anti-black or that I completely misunderstand the problem.  As McWhorter explains, the culture is that no explanation must be listened to other than that blacks are victims only. But, the whole point is, do we want to make it better for everyone, whites, blacks and every other group, or, do we want to wallow in our own bias and prejudice and make them worse?  I get mocked from time to time by people who know I believe that moderation is often the best answer and I believe it is here. But, it is not the best answer to everything and for every situation. It is not the best answer with a Hitler and it is not with a riot, though when peace is achieved, a spirit of moderation is usually the best way to proceed. Arguably, had that been more so applied after WWI, there would have never been a WWII (which we never would have known, and our world would be somewhat different).  For me, moderation is often a recognition that we are doing our best to deal with balancing more than one value which can never be done perfectly, and often only very imperfectly. What does moderation mean to me in terms of the ongoing struggle? We have to find a way so that       

  • the words “all men are created equal” includes that the power we cede to our governments does not permit them to discriminate against individuals or groups because large numbers of that group, for whatever reason, are hostile to society or predictably dangerous

balanced against

  • the recognition that the most efficient way to protect innocent people and lives is to recognize that culture and ethnicity very often play a role in who will most likely be dangerous and not to sacrifice individuals to political correctness, whatever their color.
What I am trying to do, is get to the essence of the problem. You can fit policing, profiling or national security into that same framework. In the end, slowly, painfully and sometimes grudgingly, we will continue to try and make this country a more perfect union. Of course, it must be limited to more perfect, not perfect. 

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .