A Nation in Stagnation

There have been a bevy of depressing articles over the past few days that I haven’t seen tied together yet, but which I think do share a common theme. Here are the stories, which I’m just pulling from the top of my head.

1. The GOP’s moral authority is disintegrating.

The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation. The pro-life cause will be forever associated with moral hypocrisy on an epic scale. The word “evangelical” is already being discredited for an entire generation. Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever…

The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

2. Police can gun down unarmed civilians literally begging for life on their hands and knees now.

Last week, in “A Police Killing Without a Hint of Racism,” I wrote about Daniel Shaver, an unarmed man killed in a hotel hallway while begging for his life. At the time, the man who shot him, former Officer Philip Brailsford, was on trial for second-degree murder, and body-cam footage of the killing had yet to be released.

Now, that chilling, deeply disturbing video is available. The relevant portion begins at the 12 minute 50 second mark. Be forewarned: An innocent human is killed.

The video is not easy to watch. I did, and I’m not posting it here. In the end, the police officer was found not guilty of either murder or manslaughter. During the trial, the officer testified that he had no regrets, and that ““If this situation happened exactly as it did that time, I would have done the same thing.”

3. The media has lost its mind and its integrity

FRIDAY WAS ONE of the most embarrassing days for the U.S. media in quite a long time. The humiliation orgy was kicked off by CNN, with MSNBC and CBS close behind, with countless pundits, commentators and operatives joining the party throughout the day. By the end of the day, it was clear that several of the nation’s largest and most influential news outlets had spread an explosive but completely false news story to millions of people, while refusing to provide any explanation of how it happened.

The common theme I see running through all these stories is this: the degradation of our national institutions.

In all our panicked rushing from one sensational story to another, what I’m really worried about is the longer-term effects on the institutions that make up our nation. I don’t know how long police forces that treat their citizens like enemy combatants expect to enjoy public support, but the answer is certainly not “forever.” I don’t know what short-term victory the GOP thinks is worth selling its soul. Probably not the presidency and certainly not Roy Moore’s senate seat. And the same goes for the mainstream media and the American left which–instead of allowing Trump’s vast repository of lamentable qualities and poor decisions–feels the need to squander their credibility on conspiracy theories.

The finer points of each of these three stories can be discussed at length, and should. None of them represents a seismic cataclysm alone. None are without precedent.

But that, I guess, is the saddest part. These are just examples in long-running trends.

I don’t think more hysteria or drama will help. But I do think it’s worth taking a moment to realize there are things at stake beyond the short-term consequences, and that at a certain point the tribal, partisan struggles begin to tear the social fabric itself asunder.

The Second Amendment is for All Americans

Philando_Castile_-_Falcon_Heights_Police_Shooting_(27864126610)

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) investigators process the scene of where a St. Anthony Police officer shot and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile (Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last week, Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter after shooting Philando Castile to death. Yanez was a police officer. Castile was a law-abiding citizens with a concealed carry permit who followed Yanez’s instructions and was killed anyway.

I didn’t comment right away, because I wanted to study the issue more before commenting. Everything I’ve read since then has confirmed my initial impressions.

First of all, the verdict is a travesty of justice. If police officers can kill law-abiding, compliant citizens just because the officer is afraid, then we live or die basically at the discretion of police officers. “Sorry for killing somebody again, your honor, but I felt scared.”

Secondly, either constitutional rights apply to all citizens or they are not “rights”. Several outlets–like the Washington Post and the New York Times–have pointed out that if Philando Castile had been a white man instead of a black man, then the NRA would have gone into overdrive defending him and fundraising off of this story. The fact that they apparently can’t do the latter explains why they are not doing the former. It certainly appears that the NRA’s leadership, it’s base, or both simply don’t care about black concealed carry permit holders the way they do about white concealed carry permit holders. This is inexcusable. The time has come to decide if you’re defending the Second Amendment, or just perks for white folk.

This story is yet another example of the widening divide on the American right. The reaction to the verdict shows that Trump’s base is populist, nativist, but totally devoid of any consistent principles. Meanwhile, the derided “establishment Republicans” are turning out to be the ones with the real principles after all. That’s why it’s folks like David French writing for the National Review who are willing to say what needs to be said: “The jury’s verdict was a miscarriage of justice.”

We live in strange times. Antipathy between the red and blue tribes within the United States are at an all-time-high, with each suspecting–and sometimes relishing–the worst in each other. But in this atmosphere of partisanship and tribalism, there are also opportunities to bridge that divide over matters of shared principle.

If you care about social justice and equality, then clearly you will be passionately opposed to this injustice. But if you care about gun rights and the Second Amendment, then reason calls you to be just as passionately opposed. In this tragedy, conservative and liberal philosophies align, and all Americans of principle can say: this is not right.

 

“Black lives matter,” “All lives matter,” and telling people what they mean.

You should be able to describe your opposition’s stance in a way they would agree with. If you can’t do that, do you really understand what they’re saying?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has seen this argument ad nauseum.

“Black lives matter.”
“All lives matter.”
“Why do you refuse to acknowledge discrimination againt black people?”
“Why don’t you care when others are hurt? Why don’t you care about police officers’ lives?”

Etc.

As best I can tell, this infinite argument stems from two factors:

  1. Allowing the extremists to represent our opposition.
  2. Telling other people what they think and what they mean.

These are both mistakes. We make them often in all kinds of debates, probably more often the more heated the debate is. But guys, I wish we’d stop.

I don’t doubt that there are people who are indifferent to or even celebrate an LEO’s death or a black person’s death. But I don’t think either of those stances represents the majority of either side. And it would be helpful if, when someone says something you think has an ambiguous meaning, instead of assuming they’re using the most extreme, awful meaning, you maybe just asked them to clarify.

So when someone says “Black lives matter,” instead of assuming they mean “Only Black lives matter,” either give them the benefit of the doubt (they mean “Hey, black lives matter too”), or at least ask them what they mean.

let's be clear BLM

And when someone says “All lives matter,” instead of assuming they’re just trying really hard to ignore the problems people of color face, either give them the benefit of the doubt (they mean “I care about all the lives involved in this issue” and/or “I’ve misunderstood what you mean by ‘black lives matter’”), or at least ask them what they mean.

his her their lives matter

Please stop telling people what they mean when they use a phrase you don’t like. Stop telling them what they think and why they think it. On this topic and most others, assigning meaning usually means you’re getting it wrong and almost always means you’re probably not going to have a useful conversation.

Remember that the people we’re talking to—especially if we’re talking online with strangers or very casual FB friends—likely run in different social circles than us and are exposed to different ideas, news, blogs, talking points, etc. In particular they’re probably exposed more to the extreme voices from our side and less to the rational voices. I think that’s a pretty common phenomenon.

Sometimes it is really hard for me to stop and realize that the premises I find blindingly obvious are ideas the person I’m talking to may not have even heard before. It’s very easy to assume she’s starting from the same baseline assumptions I am and is just being difficult or mean. And hey, sometimes that is what’s happening.

But often–probably most of the time–it’s not. And man I’d love it if we could have more useful conversations about some very serious problems and less yelling at each other about what the other side thinks, feels, and wants. That would be a good start.

The SJW who cried “police brutality.” The LEO who cried “self-defense.”

Asking for evidence of police brutality doesn’t make you blindly pro-cop. Being skeptical of the officer’s POV doesn’t make you blindly anti-cop.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf by paperlait
The Boy Who Cried Wolf by paperlait

I’ve seen people defend Officer Sean Groubert shooting Levar Jones even after Groubert was fired and charged with a felony count of assault and battery (he has since plead guilty). I’ve had arguments with people who claim the video of Officer Michael Slager repeatedly shooting Walter Scott in the back was deceptively edited, even though Slager has since been fired and charged with murder and obstruction of justice. There are people for whom no amount of evidence is enough.

So when someone says “We weren’t there. We don’t know what happened. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels weary and angry. I get frustrated because so many times those statements are insincere; so many times, when it comes down to it, the person patiently calling for objectivity and evidence doesn’t actually care about evidence at all. He says “Give the investigation time,” but he means “no matter what surfaces, I’ll assume the officer was in the right. No matter the injustice, I’ll believe the dead deserved it.”

But I need to be careful about my assumptions. On the surface there’s no way to tell the difference between the person who is really just going to side with the LEO no matter what and the person who genuinely cares about clear thinking and due process. It’s unfair to assume anyone calling for more information falls into the former category.

It’s also unhelpful. I want more people to consider the possibility that serious systemic problems are at play here; accusing people of bigotry just for asking for evidence isn’t likely to start a thoughtful conversation.

The principles of (1) innocent until proven guilty and (2) proof beyond a reasonable doubt inevitably mean truly guilty people will go free. Our justice system is (supposed to be) designed to err on the side of freeing the guilty rather than imprisoning the innocent. In fact, jurors are given explicit instructions to this end: if they’re presented with multiple theories about how a crime happened, they are supposed to pick whichever is most reasonable. But if there is more than one reasonable theory, they are supposed to pick the reasonable theory that finds the defendant innocent.

In the case of an officer-involved shooting, that means if there’s a reasonable chance the officer acted in self-defense and there’s a reasonable chance he did not, the jury is supposed to assume it was self-defense. Given how often LEOs do have to fear for their lives–and given that the dead can’t talk–this means an officer can claim self-defense and, absent extremely explicit evidence to the contrary, the jury will assume that’s the truth.

I would think that’s what we’d all want for ourselves if we were accused of a crime. We’d want the evidence to have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that we did the deed before we could be found guilty. Of course we would.

I would also expect we’d all want the right to defend ourselves in dangerous situations. That’s why I think it really undermines the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies when people fail to distinguish between LEO self-defense vs LEO abuse of power. For example, I’ve seen a few posts along these lines:

mic article

This article references a database put together by The Washington Post to track officer-involved shooting deaths. But the stat is for everyone shot and killed by police, whether those citizens were a danger to the officers’ lives or not. While I think it’s important to track that kind of information, I also think it’s misleading to use it in the context of police brutality.

Police brutality is unwarranted LEO aggression and violence, but not all LEO aggression is unwarranted. Good cops acting in self-defense shouldn’t be lumped in with corrupt cops abusing their power or even with incompetent cops dangerously overreacting. And victims of police brutality shouldn’t be lumped in with people killed attempting to commit violence against others. Equivocations like these are part of the reason so many hesitate to condemn a given shooting, instead asking for more information. It’s “the Social Justice Warrior who cried ‘police brutality,'” and many people aren’t interested in more accusations until all the facts are in.

The problem with that, though, is that there are a lot of cases in which the facts are never all in.

The Walter Scott case is a great example of what so many people now fear and expect: Officer Slager is being charged not just with murder but also with obstruction of justice because, after repeatedly shooting Scott in the back, Slager told investigators that Scott had been advancing toward Slager with a taser. It was only when a citizen turned over a cell phone video that it became clear Scott had actually been running away from Slager. If the citizen hadn’t come forward with the video, what are the odds Slager would’ve been charged with anything?

Similarly, when multiple deputies beat Derrick Price, two of them later submitted falsified reports claiming Price had resisted arrest. According to court documents, security footage later revealed that “Price was compliant and immobilized during the entire time of the beating.” The two deputies subsequently plead guilty to deprivation of rights, but if there had been no security footage it’s unlikely their false reports would’ve been discovered.

These are examples of officers being willfully deceptive, but I expect there are plenty of situations where an officer recounts events sincerely and still gets them wrong. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable; I see no reason this would apply less to officers than anyone else.

For example, Officer Groubert suggested he shot Levar Jones because he perceived Jones to be a threat, claiming Jones “dove” into his van. Groubert may very well have believed that, but his own dash cam footage shows Jones simply reach into the van directly after Groubert asked for Jones’ license and registration. That footage contributed to Groubert being fired and charged, but if there had been no dash cam footage, would citizen safety still depend on Officer Groubert’s judgement?

Officer Timothy Runnels tased teen Bryce Masters until Masters went into cardiac arrest. Police later claimed Masters had been uncooperative during the stop, but dash cam footage shows Masters only asking whether he was under arrest before Runnels tased him and dropped him face down on the pavement. Runnels has since been fired and plead guilty to civil rights violations, but if there had been no dash cam footage?

Some people say these cases show our system does work because–given sufficient evidence–officers are charged with crimes. But I hope you can see how problematic this is. These cases are rare in that there was clear-cut video footage. How often do officers overreact, like Goubert did, or willfully try to deceive, like Slager did, with no video evidence to catch them? Perhaps it almost never occurs, and the exceedlingly rare times when it does occur happen to be disproportionately caught on video.

But I doubt it. A lot of people doubt it. Each time an LEO is caught not only unlawfully hurting citizens but also trying to cover it up, it greatly erodes public trust. And each time seemingly damning evidence proves insufficient to even indict an officer, it greatly erodes public trust. Each time there’s no major repercussion for anyone from the LEO himself to his superiors for, at best, grave errors in judgement, it greatly erodes public trust.

And once the public no longer trusts the system, cautioning people to reserve judgement until all the facts are in starts to sound a little too much like telling people to never judge an officer-involved death at all. In most cases all we can do is wait for one side of the story, and we already know what that side will say. It’s “the LEO who cried ‘self-defense.'”

So, while I understand people calling for calm and for evidence–a good approach not just here but in general–I also understand a lot of people feeling completely disillusioned and distrusting of the evidence-gathering process. I understand why having a jury decide an officer shouldn’t be indicted or isn’t guilty doesn’t necessarily convince the public the officer actually isn’t guilty.

People seem to believe this level of suspicion can only stem from a general anti-cop sentiment, but I don’t agree. Given the known cases of officers abusing power and then lying about it, it’s reasonable for people who respect the profession in general to still have major concerns about this issue specifically. I don’t agree with Jon Stewart on everything but I thought he was spot on here:

jon stewart quote

I don’t pretend to have a simple solution to all of this. I want to live in a society where people of color and LEOs are safe. I want us to respect the principles of “innocent until proven guilty” and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” I want law enforcement agencies to responsibly police their own ranks. It doesn’t seem like any of that is happening right now.

I’m not sure what to do, but I am sure that assigning the worst motivations to the other side doesn’t help anything. We may not be able to fix everything quickly, but we can at least try to understand where people are coming from.

 

The US Government has 73 Armed Agencies

2013-09-17 Armed Feds

Yeah, that’s right: seventy three agencies of the US government have armed personnel. That’s 40 that have their own armed divisions outright, and 33 more via various offices of the inspector general (which provides watchdogs for other government agencies that might not have their own pistol-packers).

This came to light when the EPA sent some of their own SWAT-style troopers to participate in a multi-agency raid in Alaska. The raid involved armed officers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and the Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Park Service in addition to the EPA. I’m not saying environmental regulations aren’t important, but I’m curious to know how they justify the use of a paramilitary assault.

I’m also not sure what is more ridiculous: that NOAA has armed officers or that apparently the feds plan raids like teenagers planning a house party when the ‘rents are out of town. Did they just print up flyers and distribute them to every federal agency they could find? Was anyone not invited to this shindig? Somewhere, are the armed agents of the Federal Reserve Board (yes, they have some, too) upset that they didn’t find out until too late to fly to Alaska and join in?

Hey, at least this time it wasn’t an undercover FBI sting operation on Amish dairy farmers.

(You thought I was joking about that last one, didn’t you? And then you clicked the link and realized I wasn’t even exaggerating. Now you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Welcome to my world.)

Building Bridges Across A Race Division

There’s no denying the raw emotion behind this video, just as there’s no denying the historical reality that drives those emotions.

I don’t disagree with a single word, but I do disagree with how Adam Mordecai at Upworthy decided to introduce it: If You Have To Tell Your Kids This Stuff, Then You Probably Aren’t A White Person. According to that presentation, the way we relate to cops is something that divides us. Black boys have to fear cops while white boys have nothing to fear. Dave Chapelle, who is hilarious, made the same point:

So there’s one view of reality, a view in which white people have absolutely nothing to fear from cops, and black boys are completely alone in their fear of police brutality. Here’s my view of reality. 

Read moreBuilding Bridges Across A Race Division