Of Broken Windows And Broken Spines

It was a dark and stormy night. But I was not swayed by the forces and the voices that commanded me to turn back from this lonely road I had set out on. For I was righteous, and I knew I was on the right path. Yea, for even though I was midway through life’s journey and in dark woods, I had not lost the right road. I was headed for the mountaintop, where my appointment with fate lay waiting. With head bowed, infected by a spirit of appropriate and comely humility, I pressed on. Far greater rewards than any this material world could promise me would soon be mine.

Soon, the moment was at hand. There was no need for incantations, no call to burn incense or fall on my knees. I had made the journey; I was here; my presence was adequate testimony to my standing as deserved recipient for the revelations that would follow as sure as night follows day.

And then the voice was heard, its sonorous, majestic tones momentarily hushing the peals of thunder that periodically threatened to split the firmament apart:

Speak, my child! I am your deity tonight. Your perplexities are for me to resolve; your darkness is for me to dispel. Speak!

I could not help myself. I fell to my knees, even as I knew that such obeisance was hopelessly old-fashioned, a holdover only required by the archaic gods and not by these egalitarians. When I had composed myself and dared to look up, I spoke, my voice trembling:

I am perplexed my Lord, by the violence that perpetually stalks my land. I am mystified by this scourge that claims the lives of men, women, and children, that turns us into killers and victims, into widows and orphans. How may we be freed from its clammy clutches? How may we reduce its toll? How may we bring the mourning and wailing to an end?

The voice spoke again, calm and measured, even as I thought I detected some thinly disguised impatience coursing through its tones:

You come to me with a seemingly perennial mystery, my child, which is only intractable insofar as you refuse to penetrate to its transparent and accessible core, its clear and limpid solution.

The voice spoke in riddles. What could it mean?  Only an arrogant disciple would ask for a revelation to be repeated and clarified. But I was at my wit’s end. The toll was too great to bear; we could not be pallbearers at funerals any more. I spoke up, trembling with fear.

My Lord, I am foolish and dense, my mind is addled. What is this great simplicity you speak of? Why are we not privy to it as you are?

There was a momentary silence. And then, again, that familiar aural benediction:

My child, the mystery is not great. You must only learn to grieve for broken spines as much as you do for broken windows.

And with that, the voice was gone.

 

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?

The NYPD And The Serial Abuser’s Oldest Trick

A dozen or so years ago, a friend told me his wife’s sister was on the run, seeking shelter and safety after her abusive, drunken husband had assaulted her–and threatened to assault her young child–again. She had spent a night at her mother’s place but was considering moving on to a ‘neutral venue.’ All too soon, she suspected, she would be forced to confront her serial tormentor, who would approach her, asking as usual, for reconciliation and forgiveness. The worst part of it all, she said, was that soon enough, she would find herself, the abused one, asking for forgiveness from her husband.

Come again, I said, to my friend. Why would your sister-in-law be the one asking for forgiveness?

I was not the first, and I won’t be the last, to be mystified by an all too common phenomenon in abusive relationships: very soon, after committing yet another offense, the serial abuser neatly turns the tables, going from a loud, blustering, abusive, violent maniac to being a sobbing, begging, whimpering, self-pitying whiner, one who points out that this abusive behavior was forced upon him, that he meant no harm, that his hand could  have been stayed, but it wasn’t, just because he felt so much pain and torment and anguish. And sure, he punched his wife, and threw a bottle at her, and smashed a hole in the door in his rage, but he’s just so sad and angry, he’s so tormented, don’t you know? And bizarrely, miraculously, the one with the black eye and the swollen lip, she would be the one asking her now sobbing husband to forgive her, to take her and her frightened child back into their house.

The oldest trick in the book of the serial abuser is to know when to play the part of the victim, to turn the tables on the abused and make them into the guilty ones. There’s so much pain in his heart that needs addressing–can’t the victim just put her pain on hold for a second and attend to this big blustering fool here, you know, the one that almost broke your jaw?

Think of this, when you think of the NYPD asking for kid gloves treatment, when it asks for a critique-free zone, for the #BlackLivesMatter marches and protests to end–which it offensively and cluelessly made responsible for the shootings of Officers Liu and Ramos–even as it insists its job is dirtier and dangerous than ever, that it wants to go deploying as much force as it sees fit, punching, choking, shooting, whomever, when and wherever it chooses. And if any of those punched, shot, choked, or humiliatingly searched ever dare speak up, ever dare protest, then well, aren’t you just being mean and unfair to the poor cops, who hurt so much, who are in such pain, who need your forgiveness and your love, because their hearts are so wide open to all the pain in the world. They are so hurt, they would rather declare war on the people and their elected representatives rather than hear one more hurtful word of criticism about their violent working out of all their job-related stress.

Get us a restraining order, please.

Memo to Blasio, Bratton, Lynch: Ixnay On The Suspension Of Protests

On Saturday, a lone gunman with a history of violence, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot dead two New York City policemen. Before he did so, he proclaimed on his Instagram page that the killings were revenge for the choking to death of Eric Garner by the NYPD. After he shot the policemen, Brinsley killed himself at a nearby subway station.

Brinsley seems to have been a mentally ill person, someone who had, earlier in the day, also attacked his partner. He was not acting on behalf of any political organization or movement. He acted alone, and violently. Unfortunately none of these facts seem to matter in the aftermath of the killings. Irresponsible and incompetent journalists are reporting hearsay that some cheered on hearing the news of the policemen’s shooting, and yet others are writing that Brinsley had tenuous connections with shadowy violent groups.

Most unsurprisingly of all, the worst reaction of all has come from the NYPD itself. Stewing in a deadly soup of resentment and self-pity over the years, it has come out swinging recklessly, threatening a coup d’etat of sorts, and declaring war against the the city and the people it polices. Pat Lynch, the head of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, proclaimed:

The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies, and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly. Absolutely NO enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual MUST be placed under arrest. These are precautions that were taken in the 1970’s when Police Officers were ambushed and executed on a regular basis.”

There is no comparison between the stray killing of two policemen by a violent criminal and the peaceful protests that have been prompted by the relentless killings of citizens by the police. This elementary fact is clearly of no import to the NYPD, convinced as it is of its martyrdom, its saintliness, its eternal rectitude. If it wants to make the lives of policemen on duty safer, it should begin by changing its crude and violent policing methods.  Threatening a coup d’etat and a quasi-strike won’t help. It won’t stop the ‘Fuck the Police’ chants that bothers them so much. It merely makes an already dangerous organization even more threatening.

Among my reactions to the news of his actions was the sinking feeling Brinsley had done incalculable damage to the protest movement currently underway; there was no doubt the protests would be blamed for the killings and sure enough, they were.

Today, New York police department commissioner Bill Bratton said:

[I]t’s quite apparent, quite obvious that the targeting [of] these two police officers was a direct spin-off of this issue of these demonstrations.

And then, New York City’s Mayor Bill De Blasio made matters much worse by asking protesters to cease and desist:

It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time. That can be for another day.

To paraphrase what Neo said to Agent Smith, when offered the opportunity to “bring a known terrorist to justice”, let me just say the following to Mayor De Blasio and Commissioner Bratton:

Well, that sounds like a pretty good deal. But I think I may have a better one. How about I give you the finger and you give us the protests.

Deal?

The Deadly Self-Pity Of The Police

In 1997, as a graduate teaching fellow, I began teaching two introductory classes in philosophy at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Many of my students were training for careers in criminology and law enforcement. Some hoped to join the FBI, yet others, the New York City police force. And, as I had been told (warned?) some of my students were serving NYPD officers, perhaps hoping to become detectives, gain added educational qualifications and so on. In my first semester, I did not meet any of these worthies.

A few weeks into my second semester, soon after I had finished teaching for the night, a student walked up to me, asked me a couple of questions about the material I had just covered and then introduced himself. He was a serving officer in the NYPD, working in a Brooklyn precinct. We chatted for a bit, and then as I headed out to the subway station to take a train home, he accompanied me. At the station he indicated he could wave me through with his card, but feeling uneasy, I politely declined and said I would use a subway token instead. Shortly thereafter we said goodnight. From that night on, after the end of class, he would sometimes accompany me to the station; we would chat about his educational plans and of course, his work at the precinct.

1997 was the year that Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been assaulted and sodomized with a broken-off broom handle by the NYPD after being arrested outside Club Rendezvous in East Flatbush. That incident had sparked angry demonstrations and the same old calls for reform of the NYPD, for an inquiry into race relations in New York City. (Incredibly enough, the officers who assaulted Louima would go on to serve time.)  That fall, that incident was something my new ‘friend’ returned to again and again. It made him ‘unhappy.’

Not because he felt for Louima. Not because he sympathized with a man who had been beaten and raped by the police. Not because he felt for the mothers of the black and Latino men who had been shot dead or assaulted by the NYPD. Not because he thought that communities of color were unjustly targeted by the police. None of that that bothered him. What bothered him was something else altogether. Now, the people of the borough didn’t ‘respect the police’. They were ‘disrespectful.’ They walked by the precinct waving broom handles at the police, shouting angry slogans, reminding the police of the night that another  broom handle had been used to commit sexual assault on someone like them. It was so ‘hurtful’ to see that kind of contempt, that kind of language directed at policemen, who were after all, only trying to ‘do their jobs.’

I was talking to a man who seemed curiously consumed by self-pity. He was not happy his profession was being maligned, but he didn’t seem to think it had anything to do with the way his colleagues–other than a few bad apples, who he wanted to disown all too quickly–behaved with the communities they policed. The police were the real victims here, unfairly made to bear the brunt of a community’s wrath. Louima might have suffered one night, but all the agitators and demonstrators–sometimes folks who didn’t even live in Brooklyn!–were now making life oh-so-difficult for the rest of the police, forced to deal with this daily reminder of their brutality.

What makes policemen really dangerous, I think, is that their implements of destruction do not end with the deadly firearms that they discharge so easily and so carelessly. They carry around too, a toxic mix of self-pity, righteousness, and resentment at a deliberately obtuse world. When they walk the streets, they do not see a ‘community’ around them; they see the sullen, non-compliant subjects of their policing. They are convinced of the rightness of their actions; if they are ever subjected to critique then it must be flawed, infected with an ignorance of the nature of police work. They are mystified and angry. They seek to bring ‘these people’ law and order; why don’t they encounter more welcoming behavior? My ‘friend’ was caught up in this mystery. He could not fathom how the folks who said the police were ‘pigs’ could not separate out the good from the bad, how they could not exercise a discrimination finer than the one they put on display.

In this attitude, urban police forces in America today are very much like occupying and colonial forces elsewhere: they are puzzled why the occupied are not more grateful for the benefactions of the armed forces that stride through their neighborhoods, stopping and frisking, getting young men up against the wall, stamping out ‘disorder’, showing by their body language and their voices that they are armed and dangerous and will not tolerate dissent in any form. And just like those forces the police  ask again and again: Why do they make us hurt them so? Why do they make us do the things we do?

Is there anything more deadly than self-pity, the conviction that you have been sinned against, and the right to use arms?

 

 

Let The Fire Burn, And Ferguson

Jason Osder‘s searing Let the Fire Burn–a documentary about the tragic standoff between the radical black liberation group MOVE and the Philadelphia city administration in 1985–is ostensibly a documentary about an America of thirty years ago, but it is also about the America of today.

Last night, as my wife and I waited for the ‘verdict’ in Ferguson, we decided to watch Let the Fire Burn; at its conclusion, we sat there stunned and speechless and disbelieving. I could hear my wife sobbing. Contemplating the death of children, left to burn, and indeed, possibly forced back into a burning house by gunfire from a homicidal police force will do that to you. I got up, walked over to my dormant desktop machine, touched the space bar, and watched the screen spring to life. I checked my social media news feed: as expected, the grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict, and thus bring to trial, the police officer Darren Wilson, for the deadly shooting of Michael Brown.

The brutality and cruelty of what we had just paid witness to was enough to make me pen the following initial response on my Facebook page:

Jesus Christ, the racist, malevolent stupidity on display in this documentary was unbelievable and unbearable.

Much of that same thick, unblinking, deadly mental and moral dysfunction has been on display in Ferguson: in the murderous shooting of Michael Brown, the heavy-handed reaction to the protests, (which sparked an inquiry by Amnesty International), the refusal to indict, the timing of the announcement, and sure enough, the pronouncements of St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch.

To place this latest episode of the continuing tragedy of African-American life in some context, to see that black American life has always been cheap, that the police get away with murder all too often, all too easily, Let The Fire Burn is essential viewing.

There is no doubt MOVE in the Philadelphia of 1985 was a prickly bunch: they were radical in their deeds; they could be violent; there is ample cause for disagreement with their indoctrinaire methods; they were anti-social and bad neighbors. But nothing I saw in Let The Fire Burn will convince me that the police action, the heavily armed blockade of their ‘headquarters’ in a predominantly black neighborhood, followed by a gun battle in which over ten thousand rounds were discharged, the bombing of their house by a incendiary device dropped by a helicopter, and then fatally, the decision to not put out the fire, and burn down not just the house with its occupants still inside, but a total of sixty-one homes, could ever be justified.

Let The Fire Burn is made up entirely of archival footage; there are no talking heads, no contemporary analysis, no hindsight to be offered. The words and actions you see and hear are those of almost thirty years ago. They speak for themselves; no commentary is required. This is documentary making of the highest order. Watch it, weep, and rage. Most of all because nothing has changed.

Calling Bullshit On ‘Outside Agitators’ in Ferguson

A few days ago, a friend on Facebook posted the following as his status:

Would any of you be down to help me organize a march on Ferguson, MO? Dead serious. It’s something I hope would send a powerful message to the powers that be, but I’d need help getting it all together. I mean, like a grassroots thing via Facebook to organize a march on Ferguson and get people from here in NYC and possibly the entire country to descend and march on Ferguson. A march to show solidarity. A march to show that we will not sit idly by and ignore human/civil rights violations at the hands of police against anyone, but most specifically to say that we will absolutely not ignore the deliberate genocide of black boys and black men in the United States.

If my friend does manage–beginning with this powerful and passionate call to action–to organize this march,  and is able to bring to Ferguson other concerned citizens to participate in protests and rallies, and perhaps even get in the face of overzealous police to remind them loudly and verbally that they might be overstepping the bounds of reasonable policing, that the murder of Michael Brown will not be allowed to just pass idly into history, he will be regarded as a provocateur of sorts, an outside agitator, one meddling in affairs best left to locals, to the local community and their police, who can, and should, work out by themselves, a response to a highly particular, specific, local, problem, using highly particular, local, specific tactics to devise a highly particular…you where this is going.

It’s a road to unmitigated bullshit, toward the worst kind of self-serving political delusion.

For as long as the cry of ‘outside agitator’ has been made–most notably, in the sad history of racist Southern resistance to the nationalization of civil rights–it has always been code for ‘butt out, and let us continue to address a political problem in familiar dead-end ways.’ In the South, the cry of ‘outside agitator’ was simply a euphemism for ‘we know how to deal with our blacks and we’ve been doing damn good job at it when no attention was paid us.’ The light often sends many scurrying for cover.

What is happening in Ferguson is not a local affair. It never was and never will be. The shooting of Michael Brown was a national phenomenon, temporarily resident in a new setting. That circus will soon move elsewhere, to some other urban killing ground, where soon enough, some other young man of color will fall to a policeman’s bullets. The police in Ferguson are not a local problem; the response to the demonstrations in Ferguson–indicative of a dangerous militarization of the police–is not a local problem. These are American problems, of interest to all Americans.

There are no ‘outside agitators’ in Ferguson. There is no arbitrary boundary that can be drawn around the problems of racism and police brutality; the stench of those wafts easily across one county line to the next.