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Somewhere along the way, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, one of a chain of small towns and neighborhoods buried near St. Louis, began to carry out a criminal enterprise. In a short time, that enterprise grew inside-out. It was wildly successful. It set goals and developed guidance; it applauded and defended its corruption. But Ferguson’s malfeasance never managed to get right-side-up.
In painful details, with statistics, records, and conversations—with emails that matter—the Justice Department shows Ferguson slipped into a parallel world that went almost unnoticed, as Ferguson openly created a criminal enterprise founded on crime! But Ferguson thought it was doing good by doing bad! What guided Ferguson’s fascinating dance on the wild side was a stern Puritan approach toward the majority of its citizens, easily identified by color. That Puritan judgment became racial bias. In the neighborhoods of Ferguson, two-thirds of its residents. people of color, made easy pickings for schemes to fill its coffers and to increase arrests for the city’s public order crimes.
Ferguson acted swiftly and expanded its violations of public order; many crimes were added to the city’s legal statures in order to increase revenues despite having no real public safety benefit. Public order crimes were the gateway to a broad labyrinth of administrative fees and fines, and added costs which developed after routine contact with the police and the court.
Public order crimes usually have no victims; they emanate from statures that criminalize certain behaviors interpreted by the police. “Failure to comply” was a common favorite; so was “manner of walking.” These crimes become an issue when police are out of control and use broad powers to target every slight, real or perceived. Discretion is not only judgment, it is power. In Ferguson, it was only power, a drill abused.
Crime is frequently about bigger things, about money and power. These motives underline bad acts. But Ferguson’s crimes began at the other end; they were the consequence of power: Ferguson converted its public safety and justice missions into revenue streams. Its systems became an ongoing criminal enterprise by violating citizens’ constitutional rights. The city institutionalized these violations as way to make public order crimes pay off for the city! These constitutional violations brought this small city more than a million dollars a year. On Ferguson’s scales of justice, one side, a minority, enjoyed special privileges. They rose above the other, a majority without power, on whom the systemic thumb of authority was an economic burden that weighed freedom down.
Corrupt? Criminal? Unfair? Biased? Ferguson officials disagree. They reject these descriptions and they are sincere. But their story, as they tell it, recycles a familiar canon: biased beliefs and myths about its majority, people of color. The same biases Mitt Romney expressed in the Presidential election. The ones he mentioned during his call to President Obama when he conceded. The ones related to the mythic stories Ronald Reagan often told. The difference in values and beliefs that Rudy Giuliani feels between white Presidents and a black President; a causal, mean-spirited disrespect echoed in the House and the Senate, in every political talking point flashing through social media; in part, the unstoppable outrage of acceptable mistreatment whose vicious blame and ugliness carries with it a simultaneous pledge of no ill will.
But Ferguson was loose about race. Police and court personnel often shared racial humor in moments of levity. In all of these jokes, they claim no intent to harm; it’s only small stuff. One official remarked about Ferguson’s unwritten policy of illegal 72-hour detention, “it was only few days.” When challenged, “it” was only funny/humorous/no big deal/why all the fuss/everyone jokes? Challenges meet with grievance or indifference.
When the police department and court clerks make jokes about eugenics and genocide that’s no laughing matter.
The town, Ferguson, which in the 1960s required all blacks to exit its limits by sundown and at night chained off the main street to Kinloch, the all-black town that was its closest neighbor, saw itself as honest in its bias. It found humor in its version of ugly truth.
Among city officials, court workers, and law enforcement personnel and supervisors, emails made the rounds which supposedly mirrored the profound—and pathetic—truth of being black. In one example, humor lay in associating abortion by black mothers with the laudable and socially acceptable goal of reducing crime. (Why did the pregnant mother who aborted receive a $5,000 check from Crime Stoppers?)
Think about it. As assembled, the joke slips out of joint. On closer reading, the joke implies not only does black life not matter—but that it matters even more and is worth something if and only if it becomes dead.
Of course, the pretense is it is a joke about crime and criminals and criminal activity. But its core intent makes a clear case about competing ideals: about the values society rewards and the reasons why. The joke laces values, rewards, and reason to color by offering a large bounty for aborted black children, who, even unborn, are presumptive criminals—and born to be worthless.
Stand the joke on its head. It points back to a society monitoring intrusively the activities of black families. (In the joke, Crime Stoppers is monitoring the arrivals and birth certificates of black newborns; vigilant in its fear!).
The narrative of the joke denies an opportunity even for life itself; black death is an event and value to be glorified—and made valuable by the illegal cash award (mocking the truth of Ferguson’s illegal transfers!) that strongly suggests that normal social institutions endorse death and share common, dark fears. In the joke, a death certificate is like a coupon. It could be a lottery ticket, a scratch-off. The joke’s world view says the only choice for black youth is crime. It replaces grief and helplessness with cash incentives, makes the high point of black life an early death.
People who laugh at these jokes hold the jokes’ embedded values in their own core. Whether in anger or fun or rage, the narrative’s ruthlessness, closed-off coldness and concept of social good is easy to see, after the shock. Memory (and photographs!) say Southern lynchings were well attended. Black death has long been entertainment in live form or repeated stories. In Ferguson’s world of fungible humor, bounties were offered for dead black children. In the context of crime, laughter was invoked by a bounty for an unviable fetus.
The media, of course, failed to notice this. But CNN did discuss this “second” set of emails (after Hillary’s); its “expert” commenter ignored them and staged the report as the Justice Department coming after the police. He obviously had not reviewed any section of the report. His bit was familiar: liberals and black officials against the police; what else? He was a racist enabler. The anchor had not read the report either. Their questions and answers not in evidence called for speculation and went off-topic to familiar ground. By their insincerity, they were part of the problem. Continue reading Eugenics Is No Laughing Matter: Unconstitutional Humor Laughs at Black Death in Ferguson’s Emails
A big part of the American legacy is to reduce things to a simple either/or. It creates the illusion of being willing to make tough choices, of moving forward with decisive shows of strength while leaving piddling details unexamined.
Often this preferred way turns out be a stumbling block; America trips over details and consequences patience would have allowed the nation to foresee. Barack Obama’s mighty effort to restore the nation to the security and values of patience has been met at every turn with resistance that insists on immediate either/ors. But his patience is not incompetence, as America is soon to find out in the fight against ISIL.
Rush in, says John McCain. Despite being the Senate’s senior war hawk, his state’s Republican Party voted last January to censure their senior Senator for a voting record insufficiently conservative. Send troops, “think of an American city in flames,” Lindsey Graham cries. The terrorists have already occupied space in his mind.
But the criticisms of the President continue, this time from sources who attended a recent off-the-record press meeting and a White House invitational dinner. At both, the President reportedly said he would not rush to war. He would be deliberate. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater,” sources quote him as saying.
But the Wall Street Journal used these sources to speculate about his motivation rather than applaud the President’s principles. Richard N. Haass, an invitee (a former Bush official and president of the Council of Foreign Relations), said the President has been “forced to react to events here.” Haass goes on in the Wall Street Journal article:
“… attention to nuance is a double-edged attribute. “This is someone who, more than most in the political world, is comfortable in the gray rather than the black and white,” he said. “So many other people in the political world do operate in the black and white and are more quote-unquote decisive, and that’s a mixed blessing. He clearly falls on the side of those who are slow or reluctant to decide because deciding often forces you into a more one-sided position than you’re comfortable with.”
Haass is wrong. Patience provides you with a better perception; it prevents the errors that come from a rash rush to judgment. But Haass has assumed his conclusion and made it fit the circumstance. He has reduced the President’s incredible strength to wait without wasting resources into a waste of time. He deliberately denies that patience is an investment of time, rewarded by its unique benefits of resolve and understanding—a special quality of the President’s keen insight, tied to his clarity and force of intellect. For some, the President is always on the wrong side of their either/or. Likewise, the either/or of “boots or no boots” (to use US combat troops in Iran and Syria or no) is distorting the military argument and misleading strategy by failing to focus on choices outside the forced choices that neocons like Haass embrace and take comfort with in their sleep. The purpose of forced choices is to create limits. They do not enhance freedom; they tighten restrictions. They ignore options.
We see how the forced choices of either/or set limits on the domestic front. Voting rights, women’s rights, fracking, education standards, taxes, healthcare, immigration are all discussed without nuances—which prevents using the overlooked details to find a path that is reinforced and refined by answering its objections and working in its strengths; instead, Haass and his ilk double down on win or lose and participate in the giddy exercise of shutting down the government or the repetitive stupidity of voting 54 times to repeal a healthcare bill without a chance of success and with no alternative. Continue reading In the Fight Against ISIL, Going Beyond Either/Or
The story of the Jericho Road is well-known to many; a man traveling down the dangerous 17-mile old world passage that climbs between Jericho and Jerusalem; it is winding, steep, remote. Historically known as the Bloody Pass; in the one biblical story from the Gospels, a man is jumped by a gang of marauders and falls injured, unable to help himself. Several men of supposed good will—including a priest—pass him without offering aid. They see him and ignore him. Who knows why? One thing is clear: the victim is not their neighbor.
Not only in the sense of a person who is not of their community or one whose identity is unknown, but also in the sense of ethical action—a willingness to offer a hand to someone in need in times when danger threatens even good intent.
The ethical will which fails or is abandoned has a political and social side. Ethical choices have powerful consequences that quickly grow complicated and cover a broad range of actions. Immediate reflection shows the idea of the neighbor is at the center of our domestic politics. And the idea of the neighbor and ethical action is a paired “who and what” that underscores the immigration crisis that carried tens of thousands of children to our borders, our school lunch programs and the fight against obesity, the school-prison pipeline (middle school children in handcuffs taken out of school), our support for affordable healthcare (ethical actions of costs, coverage and value) and violence against women (perpetrator and societal victim blaming). The answer to “who” identifies the persons and communities, the victims we are ethically tasked to love and help, to take risks ourselves in order to render aid, to challenge the inherent dangers by our actions. As our national resolve weakens or gives in to hate and fear, the list of “who” grows short.
Who we see as our neighbor positions us on the political spectrum. It often determines the laws we support and social action we engage in (California communities illegally stopping government buses of immigrants from entering government facilities weren’t met with militarized policing as has been seen in protests elsewhere). Who we see as our neighbor often shapes the attitudes that are the milieu of society and define the bottom line of survival. It determines who we look up to and down on, the level of anger and respect we have for individuals and institutions. It separates us into friends and enemies.
So on the verge of US military engagement, as the world is rife with hot spots, as US domestic officials’ and pundits’ sound bites call, without clear specifics, for Presidential impeachment for high crimes (an echo that also engulfs Hillary Clinton’s unannounced run for President!), who is our neighbor? Is the President right to patiently, stubbornly push Iraq to create an inclusive government (making neighbors of distrustful clans) before increasing military aid to resist ISIL? ISIL, the well armed and financed jihadist extremists who control oil production facilities, and at one point held Iraq’s major dam, and whose fighters are only a short drive from Baghdad? Do the beheadings of two Americans change the equation? What should the good neighbor do?
Surprisingly, President Obama foresaw these choices. He wrote about them in the The Audacity of Hope, pointing out the many advantages of coalition building as a pillar of foreign policy and as an answer to global threats (among the advantages: improved skill sets in intelligence gathering, analysis, tactics, strategy, execution, weaponry, sanctions, coordinated isolation, diplomatic dialogue).
His Nobel Prize acceptance speech later identified the looming threat of intra-national violence (violence within states by non-state insurgencies and movements operating across borders) and the heightened risks to civilians. He foresaw the dramatically increased demand for refugee services. He is well acquainted with how the mass movement of people escaping violence places destabilizing pressure on regional governments and local communities not engaged in conflict.
Right now, more than 50 million people are displaced and living in refugee camps, according to the UNHCR (the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; created in December 1950, the worldwide agency coordinating refugee assistance; it won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1954). President Obama knew the effect disruptions have on generations of children who would be denied education and families denied income. He understood how violence set back peace and prosperity by indirect means felt and experienced by refugees and by their host countries,who are often ill-equipped and under-resourced to receive those fleeing violence. In the President’s world view, our neighbors were any global citizens of good will who sought a concord with the American Promise—prosperity and peace in mutual association.
In all of his writings and speeches about how we help our neighbors, the President has argued for minimum military force over maximum force. He was aware of the paradox of maximum force: in the long run, it often expands the threat it is intended to crush. Continue reading Who Is Our Neighbor?
Mean reigns: its banner rises above the poor and the suffering and the global violence that bombs homes and threatens children and that seems to incite mobs and nations to reflexively attack the weak and completely ignore the trampled moral view, missed political opportunities and lost economic progress.
Even in the midst of good news and new milestones, mean is on display, in full regalia. Among the week’s high points was the historic US-Africa Leaders Summit held in Washington, from August 4 to 6, headquartered at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, with meetings throughout the city.
The Summit is the first ever gathering of African heads of states in Washington, a historic landmark under-reported by all the networks and major media. The broad agenda includes health, education, women’s issues, infrastructure, the rule of law, faith, food security, wildlife trafficking, and a future look at governing by the next generation. First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush team up (in another historic first!) to organize a day of activities for spouses in support of the main agenda.
So important is this first of its kind, historic meeting that the menu for the state dinner is top secret. White House chef Cristeta Comerford (of Philippine heritage!) embargoed the menu, preferring to talk about the difficult logistics of cooking for leaders of countries—carrying out “culinary diplomacy”–with so many religious restrictions and customs among their diets, but she has said several dishes will feature foods selected and picked from the White House garden begun by the First Lady in the first term. The garden’s offerings will include 30 pounds of green peas. (Note: the dinner was held Tuesday night, August 6; the one item we now know was served was the great American favorite, cornbread. The main course was a specially grown Texas wagyu beef.)
Within the brilliant summit of African leaders, former New York mayor Bloomberg and US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker organized a US-African business forum, and many of the CEOs of the US largest corporation’s participated. C-SPAN carried many of these panels, and quickly it became evident that the central issue was the mean things, from corruption to restrictive legislation and regulation that prevent forward innovation, job creation, trade, partnerships, financing.
Takunda Chingonzo, a young African business leader only 21 years old, developing internet service in Zimbabwe (co-founder, Saisai Wireless), took the stage to interview President Obama. His first question pointed out how 1992 US sanctions on Zimbabwe consistently prevented his company from developing vital partnerships with American firms. He described how trade agreements often worked against entrepreneurs and protected the status quo. He led an honest and tough exchange with the President on business issues, remarkable for its frankness, openness, directness and honesty.
He offered the world vivid lessons in how to combat mean. He described the problems in context and detail without assigning blame; he looked forward rather than backward; he understood the value of small steps. He resisted the temptations and peril of the mean and evil by staying focused on integrity.
Mean hurts even more when it is done by friends and those you have looked up to and held in high esteem. For me, that’s why the pain of Israel’s month-long attack on the residents of Gaza cuts so deep. (Yes, I know Israel vigorously asserts it was after military targets and its assertions are repeated, but neither side nor independent observers cite successful attacks on munition, launch or equipment sites. The usual pictures of blast launchers or even single, short-range mortars mangled on the ground are missing, along with reports of success against military targets.) Continue reading Mean Reigns