Tag Archives: Ferguson

Let It (All Hang) Out

Our sorry excuse for a newspaper has a feature–common to many papers–called “Let It Out,” where readers can comment on the news of the day. I generally scan it, despite the relative absence of anything that might be considered insightful, since it is one of the few features (especially at this time of year) that isn’t an ad.

Yesterday, there was a particularly smug, utterly clueless sentiment about the mess in Ferguson: if African-American parents are concerned about what to tell their children about interactions with the police, the reader wrote, they should just tell their sons to obey the law, and then they won’t have any problems.

Really?

I guess all those statistics about disparate law enforcement are irrelevant. (Driving while black, anyone?) I guess the disclosures by Anonymous (the internet hackers who took over the Klan’s twitter account a couple of weeks ago, and found KKK members among police in several cities) are just evidence that cops are jolly joiners. And all those personal stories in the newspapers and on our Facebook feeds? Just anecdotal; ignore them.

Let’s get real, as the kids might say, and concede that none of us–on the left or right–knows what happened before Michael Brown was shot six times. The exoneration of the police officer in this particular case–irregular as the Grand Jury proceedings evidently were–may have been totally justified. And nothing excuses rioting and the destruction of the property of innocent shopkeepers.

Nothing excuses wholesale condemnation of the police, either. I teach a required course in a school with a well-regarded criminal justice program, so I teach a lot of police officers. Most of them are genuine public servants, trying to do a difficult but necessary job that sometimes requires them to make split-second decisions.

All that said, it takes a special kind of intentional blindness to ignore the fact that there are some very bad apples drawn to a line of work that confers power over others. (When I was in City Hall, we tried to weed those people out with psychological exams, with spotty success.) It takes a perverse and selective understanding of the American landscape to ignore the extent to which racism still characterizes the experience of the black community, and to ignore the reasons why some members of that community might periodically explode with anger.

And it takes an offensive and deliberate moral arrogance to lecture mothers who are desperate to protect their children from encounters that every sentient American knows are far from rare.

When you “Let it Out,” what comes out can sometimes be pretty horrifying.

 

 

In the Land of the Blind…..

Yesterday’s New York Times had a story about efforts to register voters in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown. This paragraph absolutely floored me:

“A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected.” Said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferbuson with her mother and has pledged to come back here each Saturday. “The prosecutor—he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council—they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”

The story also repeated the statistics we’ve seen before about Ferguson: a town that is two-thirds African-American with a virtually all-white power structure and a twelve percent voter turnout in the last municipal election. (And that was overall—black turnout was even lower.)

A few pages on, the Times had a report about the growing influence of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ vast organization. Taken together, these articles are a dramatic picture of what is wrong with our political system.

I know I sound like a broken record on the issue of civic knowledge. I quote the studies (only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government! People who are civically ignorant rarely vote!). I insist that our civic deficit is far more worrisome than our fiscal one.

These articles explain why it matters. Vividly.

We The People need to understand something about the disproportionate influence of money in politics: it requires civic ignorance. Whether it is intentionally misleading political messages or well-meaning but wrongheaded appeals to voters, these tactics are effective only when the people on the receiving end of the message don’t know any better.

The most basic civil right we Americans enjoy is the franchise. It would be great if we could reverse Citizens United and the other cases that have enabled the wealthy to buy our political system, but we actually have the power to neuter these people now.

The antidote to money in politics, ultimately, is an informed electorate.

In this day and age, it is absolutely unforgivable that American citizens don’t know who they elect—not that they don’t know the names of officeholders, but that they don’t know what offices they can vote to fill. This phenomenon is not limited to impoverished residents of Ferguson, Missouri; I regularly encounter middle-class college students who cannot define government, have no idea what a Constitution is or how it differs from a statute, and have only the haziest notion of what “rights” are.

Money is a huge advantage, and I am not minimizing its power. But the people who are all-too-often exercising undue influence in America are those who’ve figured out how to benefit from widespread civic ignorance.

What’s the old saying? In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Ferguson

I haven’t blogged about the depressing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, for a number of reasons: first of all, unlike left- and rightwing partisans, all of whom are convinced they know exactly what happened, I’m not in possession of all the facts.

So what do I know?

I know that everyone in a position of authority, including the police chief, the Mayor and the Governor, has demonstrated what world-class bungling looks like. It’s hard to imagine more ham-handed and counterproductive efforts to deal with an already difficult situation.

I know that Ferguson’s population is two-thirds African-American, and that virtually all of the power structure–elected officials, police officers–are white. I also know that–at least according to press reports–turnout in the last municipal election was twelve percent. Maybe there is a reason the residents of Ferguson are not exercising their franchise, but on the surface, it is puzzling that members of the African-American community haven’t used the ballot to address their grievances.

But most of all, because I have a lot of black friends and because I used to be the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I know that–Sesame Street et al to the contrary– the policeman isn’t always your friend.  Most police officers are good guys, but there are far too many who use the badge and the gun to compensate for whatever demons they fight, to reassure themselves that they are superior to the people they are supposed to be protecting, and as a license to frighten and dominate people they don’t like. (A police officer who was a recent contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” described her job as “Trash Management,” because she “takes out the human trash.” That’s an attitude we can do without.)

One of the blogs I follow is “Juanita Jean: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor.” This recent post from”Juanita” helps explain the concerns and the anger, not just of African-Americans and Latinos, but of all fair-minded citizens.

True story: the first time a met a Texas Ranger, the legendary Texas lawmen not the baseball team, I was wearing a gorgeous hand loomed sarape from interior Mexico. It was one of my prize possessions because of its beauty and utility in Houston winters. The Ranger, meeting me for the first time, said to me, “Don’t you know not to wear a poncho around a Texas Ranger?” I asked why. “Because that’s what we take target practice on. Har. Har. Har.” My stomach turned. It was a life-altering moment.

That’s not funny. Not at all. And the reason it’s not funny is that there is too much truth in it. Twenty-five years later, I met the first black female Texas Ranger. I asked her if I could hug her. I didn’t tell her why but I think she saw it in my eyes. She hugged me.

I am in pain over Ferguson. We’ve fought this crap for my entire life and we still haven’t won.

I still have some fight left in me. I do.

We all need to fight–for justice, and also for forbearance. We all have preconceived notions that dictate knee-jerk responses to tragedies like Ferguson. Those preconceptions only drive us further apart, when what we really need is a narrative and definition of justice that will allow us to come together.

And really, military gear doesn’t help.