Tag Archives: Police

America, We Have a Problem

Readers old enough or well-versed in space flight history will recognize my playing off the famous statement from Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell, shortly after an explosion aboard the spacecraft enroute to the moon: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” So calm you might have thought he was just reporting routine fuel burn information.

I had the honor of working briefly with Commander Lovell, then retired, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He was exceptionally gracious and willing to do whatever was asked. Our communications team at what was then the American Society of Travel Agents had the idea to have an astronaut film a public service announcement emphasizing that it was safe to fly again. We filmed it at O’Hare Airport, showing Lovell picking up a boarding pass, confidently going through the new security system. The PSA was seen by more than 200 million people.

I often think of those days in which our country was united in support of intelligently and safely getting the country moving again in the wake of the attacks that shut down air travel.

After the events of the past five or six, or is it 100 or the 56,575 days since the Civil War ended, I also often think of the ending of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet in which the Prince addresses the warring Capulet and Montague families:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d.

The Prince’s fine words are ultimately not enough to quell the irrational conflict between the families as they vie for who will create the better remembrance of the dead children. Thus, the Prince ends the play with,

A glooming peace this morning with it brings,
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

As I wrote recently, we seem to have learned nothing. Hate breeds hate. Violence breeds violence. Hate and violence reside in the ignorance of those who only see the “other” as less than human. It has been ever thus. Our beloved Constitution counted slaves as only 3/5 of a free person for purposes of congressional apportionment, thereby increasing the representation in Congress of states that legalized ownership of one person by another. The “North” won the Civil War but lost the peace. After “Reconstruction,” we reverted to Jim Crow and then segregation and it wasn’t just in the South that racism drove our politics.

That is part of the ugly truth of the history of the United States. Having spent my formative years in Memphis, Tennessee, often jokingly referred to as “really part of Mississippi,” I grew up all too familiar with the way racism robbed people of their dignity, their ability to earn a decent living and an equal education and, often of their lives without meaningful recourse.

Now in 21st century not much seems to have changed. Aside from income inequality, educational deprivation, and all the rest, we have again and again seen outrageous acts of white people against black people that go unaddressed. And those acts are often by police who have been given what the law calls “color of authority” to bear arms and enforce the law on the streets. They are given the benefit of the doubt in most close cases.

We all understand that their job is difficult and dangerous. There are many bad actors in our society, as in all societies, and we depend on the police to protect everyone else. The theory is that with good police protection, the citizenry does not have to arm itself and prepare to “take the law into its own hands” when it believes the police power needs to be invoked. That’s the theory.

Most police, I continue to believe, are honest, hard-working people trying to do the right thing. Their job does involve danger. That is why, among other things, they are provided training, advanced weapons and communications tools. I participated in one-day “school” in Alexandria, VA a few years ago, providing exposure to some of the tools and training that the police there were given. It was impressive. It also was discordant with some things I had personally witnessed on the streets of Old Town Alexandria in which police officers behaved in an unhinged way toward citizens who had engaged in minor violations of traffic laws. The line is a fine one.

It is also true that there are many police who cannot conform to norms of conduct. I have read stories of medical personnel saying they have treated many injured police officers and were stunned to see how many “white power” and similar tattoos they had.

So, finally, to the main issue for today. Multiple American cities are in turmoil. Protests have turned violent and the violence has been met with more violence, by the local police backed by state police and National Guard forces in full combat gear with military grade vehicles and weapons. To be sure, the LEOs are usually outnumbered but the protesters are unarmed at least usually. There are exceptions, of course, but the evidence so far is that the protesters’ main weapons are water bottles and traffic cones. And their bodies. Multiple videos have surfaced of police crashing cars into crowds of protesters, pepper spraying passively protesting individuals, physically attacking unarmed women and on and on.

Meanwhile, of course, the inevitable has happened. We are told, and there is no reason to doubt, that much of the violence (burning of buildings, destruction of storefronts, looting) has been caused by people from out-of-state to the city in which they were arrested. I expect that the affected cities will “throw the book” at these provocateurs; surely by now there is a state law everywhere for crossing a state line to perform terrorist acts or something similar.

I say this is inevitable because it simply is. Society, sadly, includes many people who are unwilling or unable to comply with law. It also includes people who, for reasons of ideology, will try to coopt a protest to make the protesters look bad. The right-wing media and the politicians to whom they cater will then try to shift the narrative to “it’s not a legitimate peaceful protest because, look, it’s looters and arsonists, etc etc.” This is a familiar refrain that is often, wittingly or otherwise, legitimized by the mainstream media. It doesn’t take long on the main channels to realize that the violence is getting most of the attention. It always does. And that’s part of why it happens.

The obsession with the violence obscures critically important issues that arise every time we are in this situation.

The major police presence at the scene of protests does not just happen. The police has a command structure. Orders are given. In light of the scenes of police behaving in inexplicably violent and seemingly random ways, it’s more than fair to ask, indeed, it’s essential to know:

What role do the police have? Stop the protest? Arrest as many protesters as possible? Just wait and crack down after the curfew? Why are they on the street?

Without focus, they seem intent on attacking demonstrators. Their role of protecting property seems minor or irrelevant to their reason for being there.

What instructions were the police given?

The videos I have seen tend to show large numbers of police either blocking protesters’ path or trying to push protest groups into particular spaces. If they are resisted, they react explosively. The videos show police using batons in repeated blows to protesters on the ground and multiple instances of pepper spray being used against unsuspecting, fully complying individuals.

Where are the police on-site leaders during these events?

There appears to be little or no leadership. If it’s present, the leadership seems to condone if not actually order these attacks.

One situation that brings the above question sharply into focus is a video of a roughly few dozen police marching down a residential street in Minneapolis, screaming at residents to “get inside.” The person who was apparently on her front porch filming this and expressing surprise at the force appearing on her street is suddenly fired out with either paint balls or rubber bullets. They flee inside. Fortunately, no one was hit in the face or worse.

In another video that has attracted the attention of the Mayor of New York City and the Governor of New York State, a police car drives up to a metal rack, similar to a bike rack, being held by a large group of protestors in the middle of the street. The car stops. Water bottles and a bag are thrown at the car. Another police car appears and passes the stopped car on its right and plows ahead into the protesters. The first car then moves rapidly against the metal rack, driving it and the protesters holding it sharply backwards. Many people go down. It appears, miraculously, that no one was killed. But they easily could have been.

I understand that the police in those cars may have felt threatened. But they could have backed up. If they had a critical reason to advance at that particular moment, despite the risk to the protesters, it will presumably be disclosed in the forthcoming investigation ordered by the Governor to be conducted independently by the state attorney general.

It is difficult to understand how these seemingly random acts of police violence contribute to anything positive.

Why were the police sent into these situations? Do they not employ spotters and have advanced communications to produce high-grade situational awareness?

The police in the Minneapolis residential video can be heard issuing the order “light ‘em up” just before the shooting starts.

Is that what the police are for? To “light ‘em up?” Rough them up so they’ll want to go home?

There is, of course, another way. There is a video from Flint, Michigan, one of the most troubled communities in recent history, in which the sheriff tells the protesters, “we’re with you. We’ve put down our batons. Let’s make this a parade…. My officers love you…. Where do you want to go?…. we’ll march all night. Tell us what you want.” The result: protesters want their selfies with the sheriff and peace prevails.

Another image shows police on one knee in solidarity with protestors, while yet another shows Kansas City police holding signs that say, “End Police Brutality.”

I want to make three other points. First, Governor Cuomo, whose work on the pandemic has been, in my judgment, exceptional, passionately addressed the protests in his briefing today. He, of course, decried the violence. Fine. He also offered several specific proposals to change the way things work. He mentioned having independent review of complaints about police conduct, saying “self-policing just doesn’t work.” He argued for a uniform state law across the country on what constitutes “excessive force.” Both are good ideas.

But they do not go to or anywhere near the root problem, which is the persistence of racism throughout the United States. We won’t eliminate racism everywhere overnight, especially given the history that has brought us to this sad day. But, is it not time to address racism in the police departments around the country? Surely, it is not acceptable to have police be members of white supremacy organizations. Surely, there are ways to detect suppressed racism and subliminal bias and racist attitudes through testing and investigation. What is missing is the will to do it. There is simply no excuse to have racist cops on the force. On any police force. Yet, judging from the events of the past five days, likely to be repeated tonight, there is a staggering amount of racism rampant among our law enforcement services.

Next, I have been disappointed, stunned really, to see that the past five days of protests have seen few if any political or religious leaders on the streets with the protesters. This is not how it was during the Vietnam protests. We often had major political figures with us and “handlers” who understand how to keep the crowd’s “temperature” down when “outside agitators” tried to provoke violence. And it wasn’t that way during the major civil rights protests and the Women’s March.

Finally, I truly understand how horrified many people are about the looting, burning and rioting of some of the protesters. Related to the other points I’ve made, however, is the proposition that if you don’t given people anything to hold on to, they will just choose something at random. This usually has bad outcomes, as it did this week. We might have expected that the president of the country would step into that void but was kept busy throwing red meat to his political base with tweets promising “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” would be used against protesters if they breached the security perimeter of the White House. Then, the president took the day off.  Nothing more need to be said about this total failure of leadership except that it, yet again, shows how unfit Donald Trump is to lead the country.

The American Killing Fields

The eulogies are finished … for now. The President has spoken in his customary way of the pain of millions at the problem of racial conflict that is at heart of the shootings of black men by police and the retaliatory murders of police by black men. That is not to say that there are no police shootings of white men. There certainly are. But the data showing endemic racial profiling of black men (and women) appear incontrovertible.

The data cannot be explained away by arguing that since black men commit more crimes, it is only natural that they would be stopped, frisked, arrested and, yes, shot, disproportionately to their presence in the population. The excessive stopping, physical assaulting and shooting do not always take place in crime-ridden poor black neighborhoods. Day after day, black men of substantial roles in communities across the country — black doctors, black lawyers, black pastors and black businessmen — recount stories of traffic stops and hostile and threatening police interrogations, often covering spans of many years. No, the data cannot be explained away with “what do you expect from “people like that?”

It is a form of collective and deliberate blindness to reality to deny the facts showing discrimination in our law enforcement and judicial systems. It is also evident in many of the videos that circulate after each episode that people sometimes react verbally in challenging ways that in turn lead to strong physical reactions from police. There is plenty of “blame” and “fault” to go around.

This is not a problem that just happened in the past few years. It has been with us since the founding of the country. Tolerance is a great American virtue but we as a society have tolerated evil actions that have repressed massive numbers of Americans for a very long time.

Where did all this begin? You can trace the tribalism of the population back the era of the “divine right of kings” or beyond, if you like. For our purposes, though, perhaps the colonization of America is as good a starting place as any. The original settlers came to this country to escape religious persecution and immediately set up their own systems of discrimination. In the beginning, not everyone was equal. And it has been ever thus.

The men who rebelled against the British Crown and led the way to the creation of the United States were mostly white aristocrats and intellectuals. They had no intention of giving the vote to women, for example. Enslavement of black people from Africa under the most barbaric conditions became a central timber holding up the economy of the country, especially in the “south.” And despite the horrors of the Civil War, , Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, it was not until 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that the Supreme Court of the United States could get its collective mind around the idea that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. In my junior high history class in 1950s Memphis, the Civil War was still taught as “not about slavery;” slavery could not even be discussed in class.

Desegregation of the schools “with all deliberate speed,” turned out to be a long term intractable problem over much of the United States. For those who want a “Cliff Notes” style refresher on the aftermath, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_v._Board_of_Education, which is a decent summary.

The Brown decision was followed by, among many other signs of white resistance to equalization of educational opportunity, the rejection of the law of the land by the then governor of Alabama, declaring in his 1963 inauguration speech the following words:

“Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom- loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.” [emphasis added]

The speech is all the more astonishing because of its blatant appropriation and reversal of the very symbols of slavery in phrases like: “tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.”  Governor Wallace was not interested in a serious discussion of whose chains were clanking on whom. Additional parts of the address may be seen at http://www.blackpast.org/1963-george-wallace-segregation-now-segregation-forever. Governor Wallace had many supporters for his racist creed within, and far from, Alabama. Many Americans still believe in it, though most will likely deny it if asked directly.

The difficulty of bringing America into a post-racial status is illustrated by the fact that, after Brown, another eleven years passed before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted, to, among other things, enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that had been adopted in 1870 following, by half a decade, the end of the Civil War, which, I say again, was taught in my Memphis junior high as “not about slavery.”

So, without belaboring the details, the oppression of black people in America continued apace, resulting in geographically isolated black neighborhoods, denial of access to capital, underperforming and under-resourced schools, susceptibility to drugs and all that accompanies them, including constant violence and a staggering number of broken families. When I moved to the Virginia suburbs of the nation’s capitol in the late 1960s, racial discrimination in housing was still openly practiced.

Who is responsible for this situation? I suggest the answer is: everyone. The normal post-slaughter cries for better police hiring practices, better training, more “community policing,” more “transparency and accountability” and similar palliatives are, of course, good steps to take. Each will help to some degree. But they do not go the heart of the matter, to the true roots of the racial crisis that has enveloped the United States from coast to coast, north and south, affecting every place and every citizen. Everyone who thinks about it in a reasonably deep way is concerned if not outright afraid. Until we address the root of the problem, the evil virus of racial conflict will continue to fester and grow.

To some degree, everyone who has supported, through action, word or silence the continuation of the attitudes of white racial superiority is responsible. Everyone who looked the other way in the face of blatant job discrimination all around them. As the super-rich Republican children of Donald Trump remind us, there were plenty of obstacles for the immigrant families of other ethnicities who came to this country seeking a better way of life. But it is no exaggeration to state that the obstacles placed in the path of black people, including both legal, institutional and cultural barriers, far exceeded anything, in both depth and duration, that other ethnic or racial groups faced.

And, yes, as they also remind us, there are plenty of examples of black people and other racial/ethnic minorities who were individually able to rise above the obstacles and participate in the “American dream.” But the rush to cite the examples of “my hard working immigrant parents and grandparents” is itself evidence of the racism that is eating away at the fabric of our society. The success stories are heartwarming and play well to crowds in the conventions, but as a percentage of the lives lost to race-based obstacles to personal growth and achievement, they are all but meaningless. The fact that a relative handful made it out of the swamp of educational, social and economic deprivation says nothing at all about the vastly larger number who drowned in the quicksand sucking at their lives from birth.

We are now where we are. We can continue to wish for a better tomorrow while the killing goes on, while the deprivation of opportunity and the ravages of crime and indifference to poverty continue to erode the fabric of the country. Hope, as the saying goes, springs eternal. But I suggest something more profound is required and it likely must start with a kind of overt confession of white responsibility for the history that has brought us to this state.

I have no easy answer as to how to promote culture change in these circumstances. Many billions, if not trillions, of dollars have been spent over the years by right-thinking people and organizations, including the federal government, trying to defeat the forces that drag down minority people, primarily black but also now Hispanics that have come to the U.S. seeking a better life than their failed countries can provide. Ironically, and Donald Trump notwithstanding, America is still seen as the “land of opportunity” by people who know what real lack of opportunity looks like. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is the tenacity of the idea that there is still a possibility of racial reconciliation and that truth and justice will indeed be the American way.

But if we do not start by accepting the harsh truth about ourselves and our history, we are unlikely to progress. The National Rifle Association’s mantra of “arm everyone” seems more a prescription for preparing for racial war that a solution to crimes against humanity that have led to our violent and distorted society.

The solution, if there is one, must be found in changing the arc of our history. Enthusiasts for religion should look at what their religion expects of them. I doubt they will find much support for the Republican mantra of “I will work hard, and get as much stuff for me as possible and too bad for those that can’t compete with me.” Humanists will start somewhere else but inevitably must arrive at the same place, recognizing that the educational and cultural divide in this country is not sustainable.

We are at an important crossroads in that one of the two political parties that have a chance to produce the next leader of the United States and the Free World is presenting the country with someone who, while talking much about restoring greatness, defined essentially as American superiority over everyone else, is selling an image of a bygone and unrecoverable day to people who feel threatened by the changes that technology and globalization have wrought. Most of what this candidate has presented as policy and platform is based on outright fabrications, but his followers, proponents of American Nationalism, don’t care that his public persona is often out of control, running on ego fumes and indifferent to the concerns of, I believe, a significant majority of Americans. When challenged regarding his epithetical comments about Muslims, Latinos, Blacks, disabled people, women, among others, he typically doubles down on his contempt. His “commentators” on the “news” shows like CNN, constantly rationalize, reinterpret and recast his statements to reveal the “true Trump” with fantasmagorical distortions of “what he really meant.”

Trump’s acceptance speech last week, as clearly as anything before, represents a throwing down of a gauntlet to the rest of the world – a Trump administration will put “America First” and the rest of you can take a place in the queue. That a large number of Americans appear to be believe that this is a viable approach to international affairs, and that it will be accepted by other nations who are supposedly allied with us, is perhaps testimony to the failure of education in more places than the inner cities. The essential concept behind Trump’s foreign, and domestic, policy approach is that the government of the United States will force its will on everyone else. It will wall off its southern border, forcibly deport millions of people, wipe out the armies of ISIS, add new barriers to entry into the United States, increase intelligence gathering against huge sectors of the general population while, simultaneously, allowing the states to decide their own parochial and discriminatory education policies. Trump’s legion of supporters cheer at his every off-the-wall comment, applauding his willingness to say the unspeakable while often claiming that “he really doesn’t mean it, but I love that he’s saying it when no one else will.”

If Trump is truly giving voice to a new “silent majority” who believe that the past can be restored, the United States is in a deeply perilous state. Not for the reasons Trump recited in his convention acceptance speech, but because it portends an attempt to restore a society whose foundations were rife with inequity and that will be out of touch will the major influences of a 21st century world.

Where we go from here, I am not sure. I am pretty sure that the country is in more trouble than is widely recognized. Putting aside the astounding loss of productivity that massive poverty in the black community has stripped from the country, and putting aside the unknown but certainly real losses of serious genius among the oppressed population whose young often never have a real chance to rise above their circumstances, a condition of systematic repression of a massive segment of the population cannot endure indefinitely. We would all do well to remember the words of Shakespeare, in a different context, at the end of Romeo & Juliet:

“See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,

That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!

And I, for winking at your discords, too

Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.”