W. E. B DuBois On The Exportation Of Domestic Pathology

In ‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington And Others’ (from The Souls of Black Folk, Bedford St. Martins, 1997, pp. 68) W. E. B. DuBois writes:

This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute Force?

DuBois was, as might be expected from such a perspicuous thinker, onto something here. Just as wars fought overseas invariably come back home to roost, to corrupt and fester domestic realities by injecting into them the same militarism on display elsewhere–witness the policing on display in Ferguson and the awesome militarization soldiers in the War on Drugs are able to employ, so too, are domestic pathologies sooner or later exported overseas. Especially if the political power in question is capable of projecting itself to the furthest reaches of the world. It seeks and finds expression elsewhere; it has the means to do so; its motivating principles and ideologies lend it problematic form.

As DuBois notes, a nation capable of oppressing its own domestic ‘other,’ will have little compunction in translating that contempt into even more murderous form in its foreign policies. Especially if it sees that same ‘other’ present elsewhere. If indigenous people are exterminated at home, their extermination elsewhere will be of little consequence (it comes as little surprise that US foreign policy in Latin American has consistently propped up regimes who have enacted brutal programs of suppression of directed at their indigenous peoples); if people of color and women are denied rights at home, their enslavement elsewhere will matter little if required as a cornerstone of international relations (the long tolerance of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the propping up of dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere pay adequate testimony to this claim). Indeed, the increased ‘otherness’ of the peoples in distant lands may lend the foreign policy an especially brutal and indifferent edge.

It should be small wonder then that the rest of the world looks on with some nervousness at developments in seemingly domestic political matters in the American domain; an America more enlightened in its treatment of citizens at home has taken the first step–no matter how halting and tentative–in extending similar treatment to others who are the subjects of its policies elsewhere.

DuBois knew ‘colored Americans’ would not find respite elsewhere; sooner or later, they would have to fight a power that would soon find them in their new homes. Better to begin that battle now, here.

Is “Black Lives Matter” Aiding And Abetting Criminals?

This is a very serious question and deserves a serious answer. It is so serious that the New York Times has asked: Is “police reticence in the face of such protests, some led by groups like Black Lives Matter causing crime to rise in some cities”? The first answers are in. Those honorable folk, “the heads of the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration said they believed that this so-called Ferguson Effect seemed to be real.” (The Ferguson Effect, which sounds like an atmospheric condition that produces high winds and heavy rain, is capable of creating law and order crises.)

In general, whenever black folk get uppity, crime increases. See, for instance, the wave of crime that spread through the American Deep South after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era when freed slaves went on a rampage, killing, raping, and looting. Some folks blame that on white racists worried about the imbalance in the old power equations of the American South, but we should remind ourselves that the folks conducting those terrorist campaigns were riding around on horses while wearing white robes and hoods, so we will never, I mean never, know whether they were white or not.

We need not debate this question for too long. The FBI and the DEA–fine, upstanding defenders of civil liberties, and really, the first folks we should check in with when it’s time to evaluate political protest conducted by minorities–would never speak falsely on such matters. Besides, they have better things to do–like entrapping young Muslims in terrorist plots, arresting folks smoking that dangerous chemical, marijuana, and listening to the phone conversations, and reading the emails of, American citizens. (Some pedant will say I should be talking about the NSA but in this post 9/11 intelligence-sharing era, what’s the difference?)

We should be curious though about what such “police reticence” amounts to. Perhaps it means the following. Police officers will not be able to: fire sixteen bullets–known as ’emptying a clip’, I’m told–at black teenagers walking on a highway even ones with knives; come scrambling out of a car and begin firing, assaulting-a-Pacific-Beach style, at a twelve-year old playing with a toy gun in a children’s playground; shoot black men in wheelchairs; drive around a city with a ‘suspect’ in a paddy wagon, and then beat him to death; place sellers of illicit cigarettes in fatal strangleholds; shoot black men in the back, whether during an undercover drug sting or after a traffic stop; shoot black men who have knocked on doors seeking help; search, randomly and roughly, hundreds and thousands of young black men and women in their neighborhoods for looking suspicious.

The ultimate ramifications of such handicapping of our armed forces–sorry, police–are as yet, only poorly understood, but the contours of the resultant landscape are perhaps visible. Black folks will once again walk the streets; they will stay out late at night; they will go into white neighborhoods and mingle with the populace there. Of all the chilling effects of this new police caution, the last one, surely, is the most chilling. Black folks will be set free among us. The horror.

Lon Fuller On The Inability Of The Judiciary To Police The Police

In The Morality of Law: Revised Edition (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1969), Lon Fuller writes:

In this country it is chiefly to the judiciary that is entrusted the task of preventing a discrepancy between the law as declared and as actually administered. This allocation of function has the advantage of placing the responsibility in practiced hands, subjecting its discharge to public scrutiny, and dramatizing the integrity of the law. There are, however, serious disadvantages in any system  that looks to the courts as a bulwark against the lawless administration of the law. It makes the correction of abuses dependent upon the willingness and financial ability of the affected party to take his case to legislation. It has proved relatively ineffective in controlling lawless conduct by the police, this evil being in fact compounded by the tendency of lower courts to identify their mission with that of maintaining the morale of the police force. [pp. 81-82]

There is little need to emphasize the topicality or relevance of these words, originally uttered in 1964 by Fuller, during the delivery of the Storrs Lectures on Jurisprudence at Yale Law School. Still, one is almost unavoidably drawn to the last sentence of the excerpt above. The considerations raised there are especially worth revisiting. (Fuller’s larger project, of course, is to argue that law-abiding behavior is better ensured by a consideration of the moral weight attached to any injunction of the law.)

In the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, both of which resulted in acquittals and failures to indict the police officers, it was transparent to most dispassionate observers that the judiciary did not see its work as upholding the law, as much as it saw it as supporting the police force, a ‘partner’ in the work it was engaged in elsewhere. Prosecutors and district attorneys work with police forces to enforce the law; they were not interested in bringing any of their ‘co-workers’ to justice, to subjecting them to the same standards employed on other legal subjects.

These facts are worth keeping mind when we think about the developments in the latest case of murderous policemen: the shooting, in South Carolina, of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, supposedly for grabbing an officer’s stun gun. The police officer, Michael T. Slager, who shot him in the back as he ran away–and then planted evidence, the allegedly stolen stun gun, next to Scott’s body–is now facing murder charges. My first reaction to this story dipped deep into a constantly replenished well of cynicism:

My guess is, the new strategy is go ahead and indict, and avoid the fuss that will be made if you don’t. You can always acquit later with the right kind of jury.

Hours have passed since I wrote the comment and I see no reason to reconsider. Video evidence–the kind that led to the formulation and pressing of the initial murder charges–has never been considered probative when it comes to assaults on black men by police. And as always, the enduring and transient members of the judiciary–like the jury–will, in all likelihood, worry more about the hit the morale of the good police officers of South Carolina, and perhaps nationwide will take. Such dangerous work, such little reward; surely these men in the line of duty, standing shoulder to shoulder with us in the administration of the law, should be forgiven their minor transgressions?

NYPD: In New York, Protests Are A Terror Threat

There truly can be no police department more tone-deaf, more insensitive, more colossally, thickly stupid and offensive than the New York Police Department. Consider, for instance, its latest announcement, that of the formation of a special anti-terror unit:

A brand new unit of 350 NYPD officers will roam the city with riot gear and machine guns, trained specifically to respond to terrorist threats and public demonstrations, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced….

“[The unit] is designed to deal with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai, or what just happened in Paris,” Bratton said Thursday. “It will be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not.”

He added that the unit would be suited up with, “extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and the machine guns that are unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.”

You got that? The ‘recent protests’ –i.e., those protesting the choking to death of an asthmatic man by a NYPD officer, the shooting of a teenager in Ferguson or a twelve-year old in Cleveland, are just like the killings of innocent people in Mumbai and Paris. That is, citizens exercising their First Amendment rights by marching on the streets, raising slogans, and blocking traffic, are a terror threat just like those who throw hand grenades and gun down men, women, and children.

The announcement of this special anti-terror unit has, I’m sure, has sent the more trigger-happy members of Bratton’s corps into quivers of firearm-induced  tumescence. But before those lads get a little too giddy in anticipation of watching and listening to things that go ‘boom’, and enjoying the spectacle of their targets flopping to the ground in convulsions of pain and agony, I have some questions to ask.

What does Bratton imagine his ‘special terror unit’ doing when a protest gets a little loud, when the slogans of protesters hit a little too close too home, when their die-ins go on a little too long, when their chants of ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ or ‘I Can’t Breathe’ get a little too aggravating? Will the officers in charge set up special machine-gun nests, arrange their ammunition belts in neat little stacks, and then open fire, making sure they distribute their payloads evenly and accurately so that the thousands of bullets they emit find their targets unerringly? Will they wait till they see the ‘whites of their eyes’? Will they keep firing till the barrels of their machine-guns overheat, or will they stop occasionally to let them cool off? Will they rely on snipers–like the kind glorified recently by Hollywood–to blow out the brains of those who have somehow survived the initial barrage of fire? Will we have to rename Union Square ‘the killing field’?

If Bratton could put down his video game controller and his armament requisition forms for a bit and address these questions, I, and many other citizens of this city, would be most grateful.

Nick Kristof Should Stick To High Profile Rescues

Nick Kristof writes on his Twitter feed:

Activists perhaps should have focused less on Michael Brown, more on shooting of 12-yr-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland

This is the kind of sensible, pragmatic advice that journalists like Kristof, safely ensconced in their opinion pages, are in the habit of handing out to unhinged radicals everywhere: pick your battles, choose wisely, activist resources and public attention are scarce, and on and on. (My guess is that Kristof also finds the activists’ rhetoric ‘incendiary and counterproductive.’)

Except that this advice is vacuous and misguided, and shows a severe lack of political nous.

The reason Kristof offers this second-guessing of activist strategies is because he has internalized some irrelevancies pertaining to the Michael Brown case. To wit: Brown was a ‘hulking young man’, a shoplifter who smoked marijuana and scuffled with a policeman. None of these factors remotely mitigates his shooting in cold-blood by a police officer whose actions that day and afterward suggest if not outright racism, then at least spectacular incompetence. Furthermore, the Michael Brown protests might have started out as protesting a young man’s senseless death, but they very quickly turned into a much larger statement against police brutality. It would have been politically dumb of those who resist police brutality and heavy-handedness to not make a visible statement against the excessive, ongoing militarization of the police that was visible, day after day, night after night, on Ferguson’s streets. And then later, after the grand jury’s scandalous acquittal of Darren Wilson, after a process that has now been shown to be irredeemably flawed and corrupt, protests broke out again, which had the salutary effect of highlighting the almost unconditional protection that police enjoy from prosecutors everywhere.

Michael Brown was shot on 9 August 2014; Tamir Rice was shot on 22 November 2014; the grand jury acquitted Wilson on 24 November. What does Kristof think the activists should have done between August and November? Waited for someone really, really innocent to be shot? A younger man, a slighter man, a man who didn’t smoke weed? Should they have canceled all protests against the grand jury decision, saying “Sorry, we got a a much better case to concentrate on”? Sauve qui peut, I suppose.

The most offensive implicit statement in Kristof’s tweet is that somehow Tamir Rice was ‘more innocent’ than Brown, that his death was ‘more tragic,’ and deserved more attention from activists and protesters. This is morally obtuse. The deaths of both young men were tragedies and they deserve equal attention precisely because the same system–the same deadly combination of systemic racism and an over-armed, trigger-happy, incompetent policeman–killed them.

Journalists like Kristof continue to write weak pablum on this nation’s most prominent editorial pages and persist in offering inane, offensive advice to those engaged in struggles whose dimensions they remain blithely unaware of. They insist that political protests–about issues which are far removed from their lives and experiences–conform to their notions and expectations in form and content and target.

What a waste of a soapbox.

PS: Do read the linked article Kristof provides; it details the criminal negligence that led to Rice’s death.

Thou Shalt Know All Before Offering Critique (Of The Police)

A common argument made in the ongoing national discussion about police brutality and violence is, very roughly, “We should be careful in criticizing the police because we have little idea of how difficult and dangerous their work is.” Which reminds me: some ten years ago, when discussing the Abu Ghraib tortures and sundry atrocities with a serving military officer, he offered me the following piece of wisdom: “You cannot, from this safe couch-warming distance, judge the actions of military men; you have no idea of the dangers and stresses of their work.”

You know, whereof one cannot know every excruciating detail, one should not criticize or judge or pass moral judgment?

I don’t ride around in a police cruiser, I don’t encounter gang members, I don’t break up domestic disputes. I really should watch what I say when I see a police man crack heads with a nightstick, or shoot a young unarmed man. I really should bite my tongue when I see soldiers harass and humiliate naked, cowering, and helpless prisoners.

I dunno. I don’t have a pass to the White House or the Oval Office. I’m not privy to all the deliberations of the executive branch of the US government; I’m not invited to sit in on the meetings of the councils of power and take minutes. Yet I find myself criticizing its members’ actions all the time–with passion and fervor. Certainly, many of those who would like criticism of the police or the military to be tempered and attenuated and channeled into more ‘constructive’ forms and venues have no problems in doing so either.

I feel free to offer such criticism because the effects of the actions taken by those I criticize are real, visibly tangible, and affect the lives of humans in wide-ranging ways. Sometimes it’s because I feel my critique should feature in the decision-making process that the powerful employ. Perhaps those in power should keep my perspective front and center when they begin some course of action.

The imbalance of power runs only one way in this relationship: my critique attempts to redress it.

The note of caution, the command to seek a broader and more synoptic perspective, directed at me, is misplaced. It should be directed instead at those who wear uniforms, carry guns, deploy deadly force; its passion should be channeled toward those who can imprison, torture, kill; it should stay the hands of those who can end the lives of considerably less powerful humans thanks to their flawed, made-on-the-basis-of-incomplete-information decision-making. How about if the police, in their interactions with citizenry, strive to achieve some understanding of, some empathy with, those whose lives they regulate and discipline and punish?

There is always some problem with critiquing the powerful: you didn’t understand their perspective, you know not what they do, you didn’t protest the right way.

Every argument that urges the weak, the less powerful, the subjects of often deadly state and penal power, to understand and integrate and internalize the perspectives of those with greater power, is a dangerous diversion, a sham, a participation in, and propagation of, an ideology that glorifies and valorizes the political structures that oppress us.

Darren Wilson’s Post-Police Career

Darren Wilson has resigned from the Ferguson, MO, police force. His stated intentions are honorable, possibly even noble:

It was my hope to continue in police work, but the safety of other police officers and the community are of paramount importance to me. It is my hope that my resignation will allow the community to heal.

We should not, as some rather unkindly have, respond to this announcement with a chorus of “I got your healing right here.”  Yet, in the wake of his entirely unrepentant, six-figure earning, television appearance last week with ABC NewsGeorge Stephanopoulos, one in which Wilson made clear that he had no regrets for having shot Michael Brown dead, that he would do it all over again, and expressed no remorse at the loss of a young man’s life, and certainly no empathy with his grieving parents,  I am, how you say, somewhat skeptical.

In that non-gullible spirit therefore, I hereby offer some speculation about Darren Wilson’s post-police-career alternative means of employment. That  most of these involve speaking engagements should be entirely unsurprising: all too often, the clearest path to eventual riches in today’s US–now that seminars in real estate and finance have lost some of their former cachet–seems to be offering advice.

Darren Wilson could be:

1. A community speaker on neighborhood relations, offering talks such as “The Importance of Street Stops Done Right.”

2. A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, speaking on ‘This Might Be My Gun, But It Sure Ain’t For Fun.” Flyers for his talks might note Officer Wilson’s “extensive experience in using and discharging firearms till they are good and empty.” (As a side bonus, Wilson will offer dark warnings on “the dangers of unused ammunition.”)

3.  An adviser to Marvel Comics for a new super-villain series, starting with a yet-to-be-named dastardly entity, who, as a mash-up of “Hulk Hogan” and your garden-variety “demon,” gets “mad” if you “shoot at him.” Wilson will also be contracted to supply some artwork, especially for the villain’s highly emotive expressions.

4. A distinguished guest on Rush Limbaugh‘s radio show, speaking on “Model Majorities: The White Police Officer.”

5. An author, writing his memoir–titled My Life Drawing And Coloring The Thin Blue Line‘–one contracted to a major publisher with a hefty advance.

6. A commencement speaker, offering advice on how to navigate the grand jury process and emerge indictment-free. (Pro-tip: start white.)

7. A security director for the National Convenience Store Owners’ Association, describing and designing appropriate steps to secure small items from the depredations of large young black men. (Pro-tip: Start shooting.)

8. A  security consultant on anti-looting measures. (Pro-tip: See #7 above.)

9. A public relations consultants for the pharmaceutical industry, offering talks such as “What To Do When Accused of the Deaths of Innocents: Managing Public Relations’ Disasters.”

10. A special guest on  Fox News, speaking on, “Why They Hate Us And Our Freedoms (Especially Those Pertaining to Peaceful Assembly.”

The demand for Wilson’s resignation was grounded in one overriding principle: that Wilson not do more damage–especially to the communities he polices. As my only half-facetious list suggests, Wilson could yet do more damage and make a better living than he ever has before.