Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Cause Turned Stupid

Jim Croce's ballad gave a good definition of wasted effort: You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, and you don't try to make intelligent commentary about the St. Louis area rioting. And yet, here I go.

There was a time, despite the distortions of the Michael Brown shooting, that the opportunity to really talk about justice and race in America was an open door. Although the premise that Officer Wilson shot Brown because of their respective pigmentation remains unsubstantiated, sympathetic minds saw the pent up frustration of a segment of Americans burdened by a legacy of discrimination. Prisons full of black Americans and reports of profiling are compelling.

Then it turned stupid, and thinking citizens are increasingly rightfully embarrassed by the whole affair.

Please take note that when I use the word "stupid", I am only borrowing from our President who has used the word in reference to the police. His endorsement of the word makes it clear that it is not a racist term and that it is appropriate among bright thinkers in discourse of sober matters.

The turning point for most observers was rioting after a black male attempted to kill a St. Louis police officer who shot the man after dodging three bullets. To think that Officer Wilson assassinated Brown at high noon on a Saturday for jaywalking was implausible to begin with, then the subsequent wild anger overshadowed any attention to potential facts. The latest rioting because an officer defended himself from a murder attempt is stupid in the first degree.

The important dialogue was lost early when leaders failed to lead. The discussion was framed by Missouri's Governor acting stupidly by sharpening the pitchforks of the mob and urging swift prosecution of Officer Wilson. Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Johnson acted stupidly when he inflamed the crowd by apologizing for wearing the uniform. Al Sharpton acted just as expected, so I can't say he acted stupidly. But he did fail to act wisely when there are bridges that need to be built and not burned.

And every citizen, regardless of color, who has failed to vote in his or her own back yard has no claim on the shape and color of their local government. Complaining about white rule when 77% of the voting population is black sounds more like consent than rebellion. We are still a democracy and one that was fought for at great, tragic price in the civil rights era by courageous black men and women, and allies of every stripe who should be the heroes whose voices are heard today. One vote is more powerful than any brick thrown through a window.

Protesters who wear shirts that say "Don't shoot me because I'm black" make a mockery of black murder victims where all but 200 of the 2,648 black homicide victims (2012) were killed by one of their own race. And nobody wants to hear that over 40% of officers murdered were killed by black offenders.

The blindness of the whole mess is in the implicit claim that racial disparity in the land is singularly because of the police. If black Americans get relatively poorer prenatal care, have less stable family structures, get lower quality education, worse nutrition, less quality health care, more inadequate housing, less mental health support, fewer opportunities for banking, and all of the host of seen and unseen differentiation in our society why is it that an encounter with a police officer is blamed for our prison population? Let the police be accountable for what is traceable to their discretion. Fixing the police - if indeed they are broken - will not fix the systemic problem that the protesters ostensibly decry.

The fixing that needs to happen will begin with real dialog, real data, and finding out who the real heroes are.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Obama's Hypocrisy on Mistrust of the Police

I try to be honest enough with myself to admit when I agree with something said by somebody with whom I usually disagree . When I saw the headline about President Obama's remarks on mistrust of the police I began my deep breathing exercises in anticipation of another blood pressure spike. To my surprise and delight, the President made several statements with which I agree during a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Mr. Obama spent a significant amount of time on the issue of justice, giving the topic highlighted attention among other sobering topics of war, disease, and the economy. The President, although entertaining applause for the parents of Michael Brown, declined to be accusatory and avoided referring to Brown as being "murdered". Obama accurately said that "the anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation" to the "gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement" rather than saying the shooting was a direct result of racism as is declared by many.

Obama observed that "many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement", using restraint to acknowledge that the problem is one of perception that may or may not be sustained by reality. The President also made references to the perception of inequality in the criminal justice system as a whole rather than going for the easy applause of blaming the police only.

The President also acknowledged that government can't raise America's children, and called for more collaboration with private groups to meet the challenges young people face.

Most interesting is Mr. Obama's use of the phrase "strong policing". In declaring that mistrust harms "the communities that need law enforcement the most" and need "strong policing", this President, for the first time I can recall, acknowledged the value of police officers.

This from the man who famously referred to Cambridge, Massachusetts police officers investigating a reported break-in as "acting stupidly". The facts of the case are that the officers responded to a citizen report of a man attempting to break down the front door. The officers confronted an unknown person whom they asked for identification. The person was a friend of Obama, and is a prominent black scholar who was the homeowner. According to the police report, the man immediately started yelling "THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO BLACK MEN IN AMERICA!"

Obama refused to back down from his "stupidly" comment, to which he had added an angry polemic about racial profiling, but did make a sideways apology for adding to the "media frenzy" over an issue that is "still very sensitive". The President stated two days after the remark that his words had "I think, I unfortunately, I think gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sgt. Crowley". The closest to an apology that I can infer is that, as the President said, "I could have calibrated those words differently", which was perhaps an apology for not finding an acceptable replacement word for "stupid" to refer to the police.

Befitting the low status of a police officer, the President, Joe Biden, the professor, and Sgt. Crowley were invited to talk over peanuts and beer in the Rose Garden of the White House. There was reportedly no apology that arose from that condescending photo op.

While I have yet to forgive the President's harmful remarks in favor of his professor friend, I liked Obama's remarks to the Congressional Black Caucus last week. With a small hope that the inflammatory anti-police sentiment might be turned down a notch by the White House, I'm still waiting for a full statement that America's law enforcement officers, and therefore the public whom they serve, have been put at greater risk by the frenzy of criticism from spineless politicians patronizing black citizens for headlines and votes.

Mr. President, at the time of this writing, seventeen police officers have died in the line of duty since Michael Brown was shot. Seven of those were murdered. Did any Department of Justice representatives attend their funerals, or are words of condolence and support reserved for anyone else but those in blue?