American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.

The NRA On The Dallas Shooting

The National Rifle Association has issued the following statement in response to the shootings in Dallas:

Today is a great day for the Second Amendment, that everlasting guarantee of our right to bear arms and take them up against a tyrannical government. For months and years now, we at the National Rifle Association have watched with increasing dismay as law-enforcement officers have used their firearms to shoot innocent citizens for a variety of offences–sometimes playing in a playground, sometimes shopping, sometimes running away from police. These were all bothersome, but then we learned of the death of Brother Philando Castile, who was legally carrying a gun, and was then shot dead by a police officer as he reached for his license.  Enough is enough.

And that’s not a thought that just we at the NRA had. Clearly some peace-and-justice loving fellow citizens had the same thought and decided to act on it: by using their firearms, their constitutionally protected guns, against the agents of this oppressive police state, ruled by that socialist autocrat, Barack Obama, who would like nothing better than to take away our guns. So they fired on the police; that the police succumbed to their shooting is an indictment of the police’s training, their inability to defend themselves with their guns. No more protection can be afforded to our citizens than to arm them with guns, as many, and as heavy a caliber, as possible. These the police had; they simply did not use them well enough.

The shooters did nothing wrong; they were merely ‘speaking up’ as citizens, heavily armed ones. They knew their guns were there to protect them and their communities and families from danger–just like the founding fathers intended–and so they did.

Let us not respond to these shootings with alarmist rhetoric about protests endangering lives; protests do not endanger people’s lives, people do.

The Legal Protection Of Armed And Deadly Assault By The Police

There are, supposedly, many legal protections to guard a citizen’s interaction with law-enforcement agencies and their officers: you may not be detained without cause (‘Am I under arrest?’ ‘Am I?’ ‘If I’m not, may I go?’); you and your personal spaces and possessions may not be searched without cause (‘Do you have a warrant?’); you may not be coerced into making confessions or incriminatory statements (‘I’m not talking.’); you have the right to an attorney (‘I want to see a lawyer’); heck, you even have the right not to be assaulted or shot dead during the course of an interaction with a police officer.

So say the books. Courts sing a slightly different tune. There, all manner of exceptions may be found: law enforcement officers may detain, search, and question you in ways deviating from the prescribed code and conduct of behavior if they were ‘acting in good faith’; they may suspend their reading of your rights if they were acting under similar motivations and had reason to suspect some law-enforcement imperative could be compromised otherwise; and of course, in the course of performing their duties and protecting their own lives, they may use deadly force in interactions with citizens in many different ways.

The Fourth Amendment’s protections of US citizens are effectively eviscerated by the legal standards used to evaluate police behavior in seizure, search, and armed response scenarios:

The Fourth Amendment inquiry focuses not on what the most prudent course of action may have been or whether there were other alternatives available, but whether the seizure (in this case, the shooting) was objectively reasonable to someone standing in the officer’s shoes—and it was.

Excerpt from Smith v. Freland
“Under Graham, we must avoid substituting our personal notions of proper police procedure for the instantaneous decision of the officer at the scene. We must never allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day. What constitutes ‘reasonable’ action may seem quite different to someone facing a possible assailant than to someone analyzing the question at leisure.”
—excerpted from Smith v. Freland, 954 F2d 343, 347 (6th Cir. 1992)

And so, it must come to pass. Police officers can shoot and kill a twelve-year old boy playing with a toy gun in a children’s playground, two seconds after their arrival, because in their judgement of what constituted ‘reasonable action,’ it was reasonable to shoot and kill such a boy. Such a standard has been in place with us ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor ruling that “cops can shoot you dead as long as their sense of self-preservation is “reasonable” in the face of your perceived dangerousness.”

The gap such rulings and interpretations have opened have resulted in a chasm, a gaping maw into which we feed, without ceasing, the bodies of innocent citizens–mostly black and brown men–year and year. The feverish fears of policemen are the only regulators of their trigger fingers.

A policeman feels unsafe; he fires. His safety has been addressed; what about ours?

Vincent Simmons: ‘The Innocent Burn When Falsely Accused’

A few decades ago, while watching a Bollywood potboiler at home with my parents, I saw a central character react sharply to a concocted accusation–perhaps of theft–by the movie’s villain, out to frame him and send him to jail so as to clear the way for his other nefarious plots. As our hero responded to this charge with loud, anguished protestations, his body shook; he seemed to be possessed by a demon of some kind. Unable to take my eyes off this acute reaction, I asked my mother, “Why is he so upset?” My mother replied briefly, “The innocent burn when falsely accused.” (Something is lost in the translation here.) Her language seemed apt; this man was aflame, suffering the agonies of being burned on the stake.

A few years later, in boarding school, a slimy weasel lodged a false complaint against me with the school prefects. Apparently, I had abused and hit him. I was lucky; the prefect who received the complaint let me off with a warning. As I stood there receiving his sonorous lecture about the need to behave better, to restrain myself and show some manners, I seethed with anger. What if I had actually been punished–perhaps by a caning or a punishment drill, or even worse, by suspension or expulsion? (Bullying, if found to be occurring, was a severely punishable offense.) I dared not even imagine what my response–helpless in the face of such injustice–would have been.

Last week, as I watched The Farm: Angola, USA, Jonathan Stack, Liz Garbus, and Wilbert Rideau‘s 1998 award-winning documentary set in the infamous maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary, and discovered the story of Vincent Simmons, still serving a life sentence–hundred years–for the attempted aggravated rapes of a pair of teenaged twins in 1977, I remembered my mother’s words all over again.

Simmons has been burning for thirty-eight years now. He was railroaded into jail, and there he stays. No physical evidence linking him to the rapes was ever prosecuted by the prosecution; his alibis were discounted; his counsel provided him inadequate legal representation by failing to question state witnesses about their testimony; the victims professed to not knowing the identity of their attacker because “all niggers look alike”; he was identified and picked out of a line-up in which he was the only handcuffed person; it took sixteen years for him to be granted access to “the evidence file pertaining to his case, including police reports, arrest reports, victims’ statements, trial transcripts, the medical examiner’s report”; in The Farm, a parole board, which reviewed his case in 1998, summarily dismisses the compelling evidence he presents to them without so much as a discussion of the merits of his appeal; the legal and moral atrocities go on and on.

Many Americans remain unaware–blissfully so–of the catastrophe that is our penal system. The indigent innocent go to jail all the time, there to face further brutalization and diminishment of their life’s prospects. The book is too often thrown at them; that done, they are left to rot behind the walls. Racism, the war on drugs, and the vicious retributive streak that informs our notions of punishment have resulted in a collective perversion of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’

The horror of what is happening today, under our noses, should keep us awake at night. It should induce nightmares, visions of innocence falsely condemned.

Note: A proper review of The Farm will follow anon.

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.

School Discipline And Socialization For The Carceral State

Schools are a buffer zone, artfully, strategically, placed between zones of dysfunction–the homes of ‘broken’ families, populated by the wrong ethnicity and racial category, which produce criminality and social pathology–and the rest of society. Here, a net may be cast, trawling through the swarms of schoolchildren, catching the bad, the misbehaved, the unrepentant repeat offenders practicing the tricks of the trade. Here, discipline may be applied in the name of tough love and muscular pedagogy, all the better to nip future outbreaks of antisocial violence in the bud. Here, police and school administrations may co-operate to give education a much-needed ‘correctional’ and ‘carceral’ edge.  Here, students may learn what fates await them in case they do not heed the warnings–dispensed with appropriate force, of course–that police officers, in co-operation with school administrators, direct at them.

Such, apparently, is the vision of school that underwrites school discipline today, one in which administrators, under the sway of a relentlessly constructed and reinforced vision of their wards as potential criminals, not only hasten to call in for armed and uniformed help on all too many occasions, but also demand the constant presence of the constabulary on campus.  In this vision–one that supplements the ‘teachers are babysitters’ one which is trotted out when school teachers go on strike–the burdens of disciplining the unruly can now be shared between the adult penal system and this ‘juvenile education facility.’

Education-shmeducation; reading-shmeading; learn to behave first.

Unsurprisingly, given the animating sentiments at play, students are treated by police–sometimes described as ‘school resource officers’ but always armed and equipped like folks with far less benign monikers–much as the residents of a correctional facility would be. A refusal to leave a classroom pops into focus through the lens of the school-as-prison perspective and appears akin to a jailyard riot; failure to comply entails the death of discipline. The police officers on duty in schools, taught and trained to extend their vision of the streets and neighborhoods outside as war zones into the boundaries of the school campus, respond to reports of such misbehavior with alacrity; it’s a 911, it’s a four-alarm fire, we need backup and possibly covering fire. Their responses and behavior, observed by the other students, inculcates important lessons: do not talk back to authority; comply with alacrity or face the consequences; violence will be visited upon you if arguments are not resolved. The critical thinking and speaking truth to power can come later, much later. Much, much later; once you are done serving time, that is.

The old saw about hammers and nails is inescapable here. When order is judged our supreme value, then all will be bent to its directives and requirements. A non-authoritarian society is a messy, fractious business; its path ne’er did run smooth. But it is the price that has to be paid if our obeisances to a democratic society are to not ring hollow. If the administration of our schools is any evidence, it has been judged too high a price to pay.

Our Police, Keeping Our World Safe From Young Black Women

The next time a video link passes you by on social media stop and take a closer look. Chances are, the dysfunction implicated in it can be traced back to one cause, and one cause alone: teenaged black women. And the police of this nation are on the case, keeping us safe by any means necessary.

Remember that black girl from the swimming pool party in McKinney, Texas, this past summer, the one wrestled to the ground by a brave policeman, Eric Casebolt, the one who executed a smart SEAL move, rolling and leaping into an Action Jackson move on his way to making said maneuvre? (For good measure, that policeman pulled his gun on the girl’s friends–presumably other thugs on the make–and let them know the precise fates that awaited in case their expressions of concern for their friend grew any louder.)

Attack_of_the_14_year_old_girl_Web

 

Well, she has a counterpart in Spring Valley, South Carolina, right down to a policeman with itchy arms and shoulders.

This juvenile miscreant, after committing the high crimes of being disruptive, and indulging in the dangerous activity of refusing to vacate the premises–nothing quite as threatening as a black person that does not leave when asked to–had to be wrestled to the ground and dragged out by a brave police officer.  The escalator to escalation was hailed and used quickly by him; not for him the patient assertion of his authority with judicious application of force. No, this called for application of the Powell Doctrine: overwhelming power, applied quickly and efficiently, with an aim to neutralize any hostile responses. (The application of a military doctrine to community policing is but one of the many talents this extremely accomplished officer of the peace–a ‘school resource officer’–brings to his daily assignments in the war zone, er, local neighborhoods. Officer Ben Fields’ “biography on the [school] website” indicates “he also coaches the school football team’s defensive line and is the team’s strength and conditioning coach.” Strength and conditioning well utilized, Sir.)

As the police officer performs his duties, quietly–except for the one warning directed at some ruffian in his audience that he will be the next person to feel the strong arm of the law on his collar–and efficiently, the other students look on in some awe. They have, in all probability, given their dark complexions, already experienced some of this tough love; they have now received another demonstration that that force may be applied, violently, to their recalcitrant behavior. This too, is education. It too, is dispensed in schools. Those students who will not learn their lessons today–about directing appropriate respect at uniformed armed men capable of exerting deadly force against you–will take their chances in the future, at their own risk. The ‘smart’ ones will police themselves from now on.

Officer Fields was not just subduing one stubborn subject; he was making other subjects docile too. And keeping all of us safe from those dangerous young black folk.