Tuesday, 23 December 2014

We cops are the victims, others have themselves to blame

The killing of two police officers last weekend apparently chosen at random is a classic illustration of the reactionary nature of terrorism. A movement was growing steadily among people of good will to rein in police excesses as embodied in the notorious Eric Garner snuff film. Demonstrations were massive, the coalition broad, and sympathy deep.

The only off-key notes were those emanating from the cops-can-do-no-wrong police union head and the predictably tone-deaf Murdoch paper, the Post. Those voices sounded shrill and clueless as the pundits and tabloids consistently made excuses for the Michael Brown killing, blamed the victims, defended the cops and tried to smear the citizens massed in protest.

Now, the cold-blooded murders of cops minding their own business has put Mayor de Blasio, who has tried to act reasonably and keep the police from making things worse, on the defensive as if his mild statements were somehow encouraging cop assassins (versus, for example, the equally plausible—or implausible—hypothesis that the many provocative defenders of Eric Garner’s killers did so). The whole right-wing echo chamber has exploded with convenient outrage while the police union chief and his Lynch-mob have issued direct threats, such as declaring a state of “war” (against the people of New York as the enemy, presumably) and suggesting that they need not obey civilian authority, a posture that author Greg Grandin calls a “cop coup”.

De Blasio has never been popular with a certain demographic in New York, and personally I suspect a large part of the motive is the fact that he’s married to a black woman and has mixed-race children. When he says he warns his black teenager about dealings with the cops, he’s only saying what every black family already knows. But the white suburbanites of Staten Island and Queens don’t want to believe the cops who privilege them and target minority males do anything wrong—ever. Maybe making them hear it anyway is divisive—who knows?

Before this latest twist, thousands of people were beginning to see the need for a major cultural shift in how we organize and monitor policing, a struggle that goes back to the years-long fight against stop & frisk that was itself instrumental in de Blasio’s election. The effort was making steady gains, despite the steady accumulation of more tragic incidents. Race was suddenly back on the agenda as an unresolved social dilemma. At the cinema recently, I was struck by how many new films openly probe black-white issues, like Dear White People, the Chris Rock film, Selma and several others not directly focused on race.

Although De Blasio had his detractors before the weekend murders, he also had the back of an important middle-ground sector of the population, usually sympathetic to the police but aware that things are not right here. Mike Lupica, the Daily News columnist who is a sort of weathervane for them, criticized the mayor but saved some ammo for Lynch as well, arguing that the force needs to weed out the minority of loose-cannon cops who can’t control themselves.

Now, Lupica has lined up behind the cops and puts the blame on the mayor. The atmosphere is suddenly less that of a political fight playing out on the streets than a budding war with unpredictable consequences. The rhetoric coming from the cops is scary: according to them, the protesters who object to excessive police violence are, like de Blasio, guilty of their colleagues’ murders. If the mayor doesn’t take a tougher stand against these insults, retaliation is almost a given, sooner or later. The tidal wave of self-righteousness in the cops’ language is an eerie pre-echo of how they’ll justify the next ‘incident’.

Meanwhile, de Blasio gets it exactly wrong on calling for people not to protest police violence for a while, a suggestion that feeds right in to the cop-land fantasy that people who object to their violent acts want them dead. Furthermore, the attempt to legalize mass arrests of people exercising their constitutional right to assemble is an appalling cave-in to the worst instincts.

One can sympathize with de Blasio’s dilemma in this troubling moment, but it’s pretty clear that trying to make nice with the cops union and play Mr Reasonable is going to get him nowhere. I’d like to see some measured firmness from him, a reply to Lynch reminding him that he’s talking to his boss, i.e., the people’s elected representative, whether he likes it or not, and a further reminder to the entire force that the weekend ambush does not give them permission to take revenge. Six years of watching Obama try to find a friend among the GOP should be enough of a lesson for anyone.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Torture 2 - Did it "work"?

An unedifying debate that emerged after the 9/11 attack is summarized as the “ticking time-bomb” scenario. This fantasy thought experiment was and continues to be very popular as an opportunity to turn the question of whether or not we should torture people into a philosophical game.

The game should never have been played. The game should not be played now. The game itself is the trick. Do not play the game.

In the HIV prevention and care service industry that I had a seminal role in creating in a faraway corner of the world, we quickly became familiar with a phenomenon known as the “worried well”. This is a patient or pre-patient type known to all medical professionals: the obsessive individual who reads about a disease and is seized with irrational fear of having it or someday acquiring it. While questions about casual contagion are often common among people who have never heard the facts about HIV (or any other disease, for that matter), the vast majority accepts the science and move on. Even if they feel slightly squeamish about things they know are not dangerous, they recognize that their reaction makes no sense, that it is their own problem and that they have to deal with it themselves.

The OCD caller or visitor, however, does not let go of his (rarely her) fear. He wants to know the exact percentage of possibility that a given sex act or contact with a bodily fluid will produce the 1 in a million transmission that he heard of somewhere. He endlessly repeats real or imagined scenarios in which some weird combination of fluke events might have given him the infection or might do so in the future. I’ve counseled clients who brought along a sheaf of exams that they had insisted on getting from doctors or labs, none of which convinced them that the virus (that they could not possibly have acquired in any case) was not in their blood.

The only way to handle these suffering neurotics was to refuse to discuss HIV risk with them further. We referred them to psychiatric care, and if they refused to take the hint, we showed them the door since we could do nothing more for them.

The ticking time-bomb debate functioned in exactly the same way for those deeply in the grip of their fears of the unknown, given the huge surprise and sudden sense of vulnerability that the Twin Towers attack generated among the American public. Maybe if we could just find the guys planning to carry out the next assault and torture the facts out of them in time, we would keep ourselves safe from something like this happening to our own families. The fact that they are more likely to be hit by lightning or be gored to death by an escaped musk ox means nothing.

The unlikeliness of the hypothetical situations proposed was irrelevant to the role of the time-bomb scene (since played out in innumerable TV suspense shows) to soothe the minds of the fearful and reinforce their sense that law enforcement would Keep Them Safe. Like the obsessive neurasthenic, viewing the Jack Bauers torture the facts out of a series of nasty Mohammeds or Igors confirmed to frightened middle America that keeping that torture option open was not just understandable but essential. Many police and spy agency shows (e.g., NCIS) now routinely threaten or imply that torture will be used to get the facts out of recalcitrant subjects, who promptly confess. Torture is thus routinized.

I was sad to see in the post 9/11 period how the time-bomb debate elbowed its way even into the pages of The Nation and other quasi-liberaloid or ‘centrist’ venues. Instead of a firm, uncompromising NO to all torture under all circumstances, The Nation’s readers lent themselves to the smokescreen thrown up by the Cheney brigade that led directly to the all-out torture regime that some of us are now regretting. How easy it was to see that this was where the phony ethics-class thumbsucking was going to lead. Nonetheless, people who should have known better indulged in it.

Let’s stop indulging in it now. Law & Order is a much better guide to how a system of laws, deeply flawed though it be, should work: everyone gets a fair shot at justice, suspects have lawyers, cops do not slug people (of course, sure, it’s fiction, not a reality show). That means sometimes criminals GET AWAY WITH IT! Imagine that—a commitment to justice that recognizes we cannot be peectly safe all the time and that prohibiting torture in fact gives us a better shot at lowering crimes rates than the neonazi free-for-all that the NYPD union prefers.

Update: Rebecca Gordon at TomDispatch sums it up nicely:

But none of this matters. Nor does it matter how frightened we are. The situation isn’t complicated. We are not allowed to torture people, because we have passed laws against it and signed treaties saying we won’t do it. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. signed in 1994, makes it very clear that being afraid of an attack is no excuse for torture. In Article 2, the Convention states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” People will always make excuses, but there is no legitimate excuse for torture.

What’s at stake here is the kind of country we want to be: Are we a courageous nation ruled by laws or a nation of cowards?

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Torture 1

I support the CIA and anyway they can get information out of people who want to kill you. They want you dead ... they want your mom ... daughters and sons dead just because you believe in Western values. I’m not going to apologize for it. The CIA's job is to keep us safe. You act like these were innocent bystanders. That’s what makes it comical.
-taken from a comment thread on Facebook yesterday

Extreme events bring out discomfiting truths. The Michael Brown/Eric Garner cases have depantsed many closet racists in our midsts—my Facebook thread was peppered with stories last week of people de-friending others in shock after seeing their racist comments.

Today, we have the fascists coming out of their cozy closet in response to the CIA torture report. It’s quite startling for people who think their neighbors and friends and relatives are basically decent folks to realize that many of them think torture is basically just fine, just as long as it is applied to those perceived as scary or threatening and the squalid details kept out of sight.

That’s exactly what fascism does, and a depressing percentage of the biped species enjoys the outcome immensely—until, of course, they happen to get caught up in the violent net themselves.

When that happens, howls of outrage pierce the sky. But they do not include condemnations of the techniques or the torture system; rather, the sudden fury of torture’s erstwhile defenders is directed at the appalling notion that THEY should be mistaken for a bad guy. The cycle is so predictable that it’s actually rather boring.

I saw the pattern repeated dozens of time during my time in Chile where torture and disappearance were so common during the early Pinochet years that something close to 10 percent of the entire adult population suffered some form of it at one time or another. But try telling that to a middle-class sympathizer of the military regime, including many lovely persons who would rush to your bedside if you were ill to bring you cazuela. Tut, tut, all lies peddled by Radio Moscow, they would say, OUR soldiers would never do that. Until one of their Christian Democrat friends gets beaten half to death in a police stationhouse, and suddenly all bets are off.

Denial is one of the more pathetic feature of the biped mentality. We have an uncanny capacity to block uncomfortable realities from our consciousness, and this trait is no fault of Americans in particular or more pronounced among a given ethnicity or nation. We’d do better to recognize that personal comfort and pleasure are far more compelling than moral coherence for a sizeable portion of the populace and plan accordingly.

Yes, there are fascists in our midst, always have been and always will be. When we give the state carte blanche to act with impunity and cover up the results, it always can count on willing backers who belong to the non-targeted population to cheer and rationalize. Surprise, dismay and disgust are understandable but in the end a waste of energy that should be directed to more productive ends.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The NYPD has a problem

I’m just back from a couple of hours of what I hope will be repeated marches through the streets in protest of the incomprehensible decision to let off the Staten Island killer cop, caught on videotape choking an unresisting detainee to death. There are several reasons why this should be making the department and the city’s powerbrokers, the ones happy with things just as they are, very nervous. [photo: sit-down protest blocks Columbus Circle, Manhattan]

One: as occurred in Ferguson, the NYPD and the prosecutorial system that protects it have been exposed as profoundly, institutionally racist. This is not news to the people on the receiving end of their abuses, i.e. black males. But it has been too easy for the average white citizen to disbelieve or minimize what is going on on our streets. Such voluntary ignorance is becoming increasingly untenable.

The racist practices within the department are possible because the perpetrators—perhaps a minority of the overall force—act with the full knowledge that their abuses will rarely be discovered and even more infrequently punished. But the impunity also requires deniability; that is now gravely weakened. After today, who will automatically believe cops when they deny they beat up someone, claim an arrestee became violent, or cook up charges against someone who files a complaint?

Two: not surprisingly, there were many young black men and women in the demonstrations tonight. However, a clear majority were white 20/30-somethings. This is not a demographic that you want to permanently alienate, as one Lyndon B. Johnson discovered to his dismay. And these kids are fired up. There are Occupy veterans among the mix, but the sheer numbers tell us that there is a deep malaise among a broad sector of our city’s youth, including many people we would not consider overtly ‘political’ in their habits or outlook. I’m not sure it means the seeds of a new social movement are sprouting. But it might.

Three: the average New Yorker who is not a hopeless, racist asshole is appalled at what happened in this case. I base that judgment both on anecdotal evidence from my daily life but also on the surprising reactions of the drivers whose commute I helped disrupt tonight. While people sat in total gridlock with no prospects of getting their cars moving for an hour or more, most did not scowl or complain but rather looked on with interest. A very considerable number expressed support for the march’s goals by honking, smiling or applauding, or even using the “Hands Up” gesture. I did not see a single angry confrontation of a suburbanite enraged about not getting home in time for dinner.

Four: I saw something else tonight that I have not seen since 1985 in the streets of downtown Santiago: citizens confronting the cops and shouting them into silence. When the bodies of three leftist professionals were discovered with their throats cut in a field near the Santiago airport that year, average office workers fed up with the Pinochet dictatorship poured into the streets spontaneously to express their fury. I witnessed a woman in heels become hysterical screaming in the face of a completely cowed cop, turning the tables on the normal state of affairs under Pinochet in which the cops bullied people as a matter of course.

Something similar happened tonight when a few cops got separated from their platoon and were briefly surrounded by marchers who called them racist murderers to their faces. The look on their faces was one of sudden defenselessness because they knew the angry citizens have a very solid point. Those three cops prudently did not try to billy club their way out of that confrontation because they would have had the shit kicked out of them. Eventually, they were rescued by a dozen back-up officers who were also careful not to knock anyone around.

In short, the cops were scared of the people. You don’t see that too often, and it means the NYPD has a problem.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ferguson and the echo of American totalitarianism

It’s easy to understand why people in Ferguson or African-Americans in general would be upset, outraged, indignant and depressed all at once about the Michael Brown killing and the police/prosecutor cover-up that followed. But it’s counter-intuitive—or should be—that Officer Wilson’s defenders are just as passionate. Why this blind rush to justify what the guy did? Sympathy for the cops doesn’t fully explain it. What’s going on?

Whatever one makes of the piecemeal evidence available of the incident (since there now will be no trial to clarify it), it could hardly be controversial that teenagers should be guaranteed minimum safety while going about their business and not end up dead. What is it in our national psyche that drives a sector of the populace to rush to Fox News and cheer when any white cop guns down a black kid?

(By the way, anyone who doubts that this occurs should spend some time reading the comment section of any article or social media post on the Ferguson incident and the subsequent demonstrations over it.)

The buried history of American slavery provides an important piece of the answer, or would if we were allowed to make slavery an object of study. It is no accident that we are told so little as children and years linger so briefly during our student over the slavery phenomenon. After the peremptory and superficial required treatment, we never hear about slavery again unless we go digging or specialize in history. In some circles, it’s even considered bad taste or ‘too sensitive’ for fragile and unformed minds to handle.

I realized that many white southerners would rather glide quickly over talk of the bad old days when driving through the black residential areas of Hattiesburg, Missisippi, with a local woman a few years ago. She proudly pointed out the modest black churches where Martin Luther King had once spoken during the dangerous years of his political work in the Jim Crow South. I then asked, ‘Wasn’t Hattiesburg where one of the violent incidents of the Freedom Ride took place? Down at the bus terminal?’ She quickly replied, ‘We don’t talk about that.’ And she wasn’t joking.

There are a few former-slave narratives in existence, written by freedmen or women who managed to escape or were freed during the Civil War and acquired enough learning to record their hair-raising stories. Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Tubman’s are well known, and now we are aware of Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave. But Steve McQueen could spend the rest of his filmmaking career on the accounts by Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Olaudah Equiano, Henry Bibb and others, some of which make Northup’s trials look fairly tame.

The slaves would go to some cabin at night for their dances; if one went without a pass, which often they did, they would be beaten severely. The slaves could hear the overseers, riding toward the cabin. Those, who had come without a pass, would take the boards up from the floor, get under the cabin floor, and stay there until the overseers had gone. -Mrs. Mittie Blakeley, Oxford, Missouri (Federal Writers Project, WPA, ‘Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United StatesInterviews with Former Slaves/Indiana Narratives’)

[We] Negroes were not allowed an education. It was dangerous for any person to be caught teaching a Negro, and several Negroes were put to death because they could read. -George Taylor Burns, Gregery’s Landing, Missouri

What emerges from these largely forgotten autobiographies are many illuminating details of the pervasive system of social control exercised over slaves and nonwhite freedmen in the antebellum period, a pervasive, homegrown, early Stasi for North America. For example, a simple trip from one plantation to another could turn complicated and physically dangerous if a slave was not able to convince any encountered (and armed) whites that he had permission to be on the road.

Open-carry laws and the entire obsession with gun rights make more sense when viewed in the light of this permanent state of white militarization, an acknowledgment that active control was required to maintain the slave state.

It’s also illuminating as to why supposedly ‘conservative’ Americans are just fine with the permanent snooper state created by the NSA phone-tappers: on some repressed, psychic level, white Americans deeply believe they need to know everything about the suspect portion of the population—they just think they themselves will never form part of it.

We’re familiar with some of the surviving elements of this system in the post-war era from key classics of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird and from the eye-opening incidents of the Civil Rights period. The difference in the post-chattel slavery era is that when blacks were valuable property, it was costly to kill them. Once slave bodies ceased being possessable and exploitable for their labor-power, it was not. You read a lot about whippings and torture during the slave period, but it was only after the Emancipation that lynching flourished. Before 1865, killing a black, while sometimes deemed necessary or indulged in for sport, cost money. Afterward, it was free.