Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Both Right But Everything's Wrong: Darren Wilson, Michael Brown, Race, and Police Shootings

To the surprise of very few people, a grand jury failed to return any indictments against Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old black man, in Ferguson, MO. As has been widely reported, grand juries almost never indict police officers for shootings, for a host of reasons.

I am willing to believe the authorities that in this case, the grand jury carefully examined every piece of evidence available. I am also willing to believe that they were correctly instructed as to the law, and that a reasonable person would, given the law and the evidence available, determine that there is insufficient cause to believe that Officer Wilson committed a criminal act when he shot and killed Mr. Brown. In that sense, Officer Wilson's defenders and those who have lined up on his side (including a host of wealthy white conservative commentators) are right - within our system of criminal justice, no crime was committed here.

On the other hand, I also believe that both the shooting and the legal structures surrounding it represent a gross injustice not only for Mr. Brown and his family, but for a community of African-Americans living in Ferguson (and elsewhere). Mr. Brown was not armed, did not seek out a police officer for the purpose of attacking him, and had (so far as anyone knew at the time) committed no crime more serious than walking down the middle of a street. That anyone in such a situation should have to fear for his life gives lie to the boastful claim that America is a "free country", much less a land of equal opportunity. So while breaking windows is a terrible way to make a point, the protesters (most of whom have been peaceful) are right to voice their anger and their sense of injustice. They, too, are right.

So if both sides are right, why is everything wrong? Because we continue to ask the wrong questions. We build up a set of laws and practices and procedures for police that make it almost impossible for them to commit a crime, and then we continue to ask whether what they did was legal, as if "legal" is the highest standard. But laws are made by human beings, and can be flawed, skewed, stacked. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this well and spoke about it passionately. So did many before him. But today, we don't hear those voices much anymore.

We see the same debate taking place over immigration. The debate is about whether immigrants - 20 million, by some counts - are here in the US "legally" or not. TV pundits argue about whether President Obama had the legal justification to issue the executive orders he did. Nobody is talking about what is right.

I'm not arguing that laws are unimportant. Law that is truly fair and just and evenly applied is one of the greatest moral inventions of humankind. It holds out the promise of righting the wrongs that we have known about for as long as there has been civilization. Law promises to elevate the good over the powerful - something every civilization, in its highest moments, has sought for.

But we have made law an idol and enshrined whatever laws happen to be on the books at a given moment as the highest good. We forget that there were Jim Crow laws; that Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to camps in perfectly legal fashion; that only a generation or two ago, blacks and whites could not legally marry in many parts of this country. We look back on those laws now and wonder, how could we have done that? Wasn't the wrongness of those laws obvious? But apparently, it wasn't - not to the people who wrote them and lived under them and defended them at the time.

So arguing about whether something is or is not legal at a given moment in time misses the point. The overuse of force by police, while apparently legal by nearly all measures (vanishingly few cops are even tried, let alone convicted), is wrong. Racial profiling (setting aside whether that's what happened in Ferguson or not) is wrong. Looting and destroying shops because you're angry is also wrong.

As a culture we tend to turn to violence early and often as a solution to problems. Our public policies and our TV shows alike are full of attempts to force the outcome we want on the "bad guys". And we shape our laws to support the kinds of violence we want to use. On TV, this works great; in real life, much less so.

But violence itself is the problem, the question we should be asking. Why is it that the kinds of shootings we see here - police shooting unarmed, often minority, mostly poor citizens - almost never happen in other developed countries? Why do we permit our police not only to arm themselves with an array of weapons but to use them with impunity? What role should violence have in our society - when is it right to take the life of another, and when is it not? And when is violence not the answer? (hint: it very, very rarely is)

I doubt very much that any of these questions will be asked in the next few days or weeks. The protests will eventually die down and property will be put back together. Politicians and pundits will give empty speeches that accomplish nothing. Everyone will retreat back into their own corners, confident that they are right and ready for the next time when they can try to prove their rightness to others with shouting and threats and, yes, the use of force.

Is this what we would do if we actually wanted to change things? If we really wanted a society where people can walk the streets without feeling threatened? If we wanted to make sure that - "legal" or not - encounters like that between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown never happened again? Law cannot guarantee that - only we can. But that would involve setting aside our fetish of the law and our lust for force and trying something very different.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bullying and Self-Defense for Kids: The Schools Have It All Wrong

On my Facebook feed, I found the following (posted by a prominent internet persona):

Caveat: Like all things internet, this one hasn't been verified. I don't know whether this kid's story is true or false. It was posted by a source I have otherwise found to be reliable, so I think it's likelier true than not. But ultimately, I'm not as interested in this particular story as I am about a specific aspect of it.

There's a lot about this story that rings true. Kids that "look gay" are harassed and bullied all the time. Schools frequently don't do anything about it, either because of pressure from the other parents or because the bullies are very good at not getting caught. That's one of the survival traits of a bully - the ability to sense when adults are watching and switch behavior.

The particular aspect of the story that caught my eye is in the middle:
I got 2 days out of school suspension for overcoming the bully, defending myself.
Schools obviously want to discourage fighting among their students. This is more a function of cultural behavior than anything else - where my kids go to school there are virtually no fights, because physical violence just isn't in the local culture. I'm sure that there is bullying of other kinds, some of which can be horrific. But kids hitting other kids? Not so much.

But this kid's school may well be different. And here's where the schools get themselves in trouble and end up teaching the wrong lessons. What most of us want schools to do is punish the aggressor in any physical altercation. Someone who defends themselves, within reason, should be either lightly punished or not punished at all. Personally, I'd lean towards the latter, because we want to teach kids that it's OK to defend yourself if someone attacks you. Otherwise, we're raising potential victims.

But schools don't do this - not because they don't want to, but because it's hard. Usually by the time an adult gets involved, the altercation is well underway (if not over), and there's no way of knowing who started it. Schools used to try to sort that out by interviewing both the fighters and witnesses, but discovered that that's a tricky arena. It takes real skill and judgment to take a bunch of biased witness statements and figure out what really happened.

In today's world, judgment is not encouraged. Schools prefer rules that can be uniformly applied by anybody, so there won't be any charges of bias against a particular teacher or administrator. "Zero Tolerance" policies fit this mold exactly. It doesn't matter if you're carrying stolen oxycontin or a couple of aspirin - a drug is a drug, and off to detention you go.

So if you want a universally enforceable rule on who to punish in school fights, but you can't know who the aggressor is, what do you do? Here schools adopt a rule with terrible consequences: they pin guilt on the winner of the altercation. Teachers will assume that, if you're winning the fight, you must have started it.

This is, of course, patent nonsense. Kids start fights all the time that they then lose, often badly - just search YouTube for dozens of filmed examples. Sometimes, the innocent victim really does know how to defend themselves, and does. Sometimes, the bully gets a nasty surprise.

My guess is that teachers, like most adults, have little to no experience with interpersonal violence themselves and so don't realize how silly the assumption is. Unless they have training, the most likely exposure they would have had to fighting was being a victim of bullies - in which case, they may well have been on the losing end. They may also make the mistaken assumption that violence is rational - that a bully wouldn't start a fight he couldn't win. All of this, of course, is wrong.

Unfortunately, the results of this error are that schools teach kids to be victims. If the only way I can avoid punishment by the school is to lose the fight, I have an institutional incentive not to defend myself. The authority figures around me are telling me: if you want to be a "good kid", if you want to get good recommendation letters to college and good grades and the approval of your teachers, don't fight back. Let yourself get hit, pushed, kicked, picked on. Trust the adults to deal with it.

Except, of course, that the adults don't deal with it. The story in the picture above rings true because it happens all the time. Teachers are powerless to stop bullying, and they know it. So do the bullies.

I don't have an easy solution. Allowing free-for-all combat would shift the balance of power to the strong, not necessarily the virtuous. Right now, that balance lies in the hands of the sneaky and unethical, which is probably worse. But I certainly don't think that having all kids "fight it out" is the answer.

The best answer, unfortunately, is messy. There has to be room for judgment on the part of teachers and administrators. I have many teacher friends who have seen situations where they and their colleagues know who the troublemaker is. But because of the "universal rules", the kid gets away with it time and again. And all students learn the same lesson: the one who cheats best, wins.

Readers of this blog know that I'm an ardent self-defense pacifist and a passionate believer in the use of force to defend oneself. There are thousands upon thousands of teachers, dojos, workshops, and classes all over this country teaching people how to defend themselves when they're attacked. Much of that effort involves undoing the damage of the K-12 years, where kids are methodically taught not to engage in any self-defense at all. For the sake of the kids in our schools and the adults they will become, we need to find a better way.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post-Election Musings: Was This Really the Seinfeld Election?

It's the day after Election Day, and lots of folks are poring over the results to find meaning. Most, of course, will see what they want to see. Republicans will see this is a mandate - that the majority of the US agrees with them (whatever that means) and hates the President. Democrats will dig deeper to find rays of hope - overwhelming support for raising minimum wage laws, for example. Republicans have to decide whether they want to govern for substance and work with the President, or govern for symbols and spend two years trashing him. And everyone is looking already to 2016.

I have friends who are disappointed in yesterday's results and friends who are pleased. Some of this really is rooting for the tribal team - if you don't live in Kansas, who the governor is there doesn't really matter to you. For me, the "national scorecard" isn't very interesting for much the same reason that fantasy football isn't interesting - it's a made-up scoring system for something that doesn't really exist.

We also put FAR too much faith in the ability of any of these politicians, or all of them together, to actually make things better for the country. Does what Congress does matter? Of course. But if you think that one-party control of both chambers is going to usher in the new Golden Age, you need a reality check. Congress' ability (with or without the President) to affect things right now is pretty minimal.

[And yes, I know some folks will offer counter-examples - the Federal Minimum Wage being one. But those are exceptions, and most of the time these days Congress doesn't act anyway.]

At their best, elections serve as a kind of national conversation - a big (if imperfect and messy) discussion about the stuff that matters. The fact that we have to conduct those conversations through politicians, PACs, and media outlets is frustrating, but it can also be helpful. Ross Perot's surprisingly good third-party run at the White House in 1992 helped put the budget deficit and the federal debt on the map as an issue. Reagan's 1980 campaign was about America's place in the world and general vision for its future. Obama's 2008 run was fueled by a broad sense of post-racial and even post-partisan optimism (both now dashed hopes, which helps explain his approval ratings).

Midterm elections are usually NOT these kinds of conversations, although they can be. In 1994 the Republicans ran on the Contract with America, which put forward a broad set of ideas about what government should or shouldn't do. But that was the exception - usually midterms are about jockeying for power.

In this sense, 2014 was not the Seinfeld election (an "election about nothing", for those who don't get the reference), but it was the latest in a series. There were few if any defining issues - mostly just the same motley set of divides that we've been fighting over for years.

More important to me than what the candidates and PACs did talk about was what they didn't. Minimum wage laws are important, but that's a small stand-in for a much larger issue: the fast-growing and massive inequality in both income and wealth among Americans. That's a serious issue that shouldn't be a partisan one; most thoughtful conservatives I know (and yes, for my liberal friends - there are such people) don't want to live in a Russian-style oligarchy any more than anybody else. But nobody wants to talk about it.

Global climate change has also been buried as a live issue. Here we've so tribalized the issue that we are failing to ask the questions that need to be asked: how do we adapt to a changing planet? On the local level, coastal communities are already doing so, often in broadly bipartisan ways. But nationally our collective head is stuck deep in the sand while otherwise-grown people scream at each other.

I'm sure we can think of a few more such issues - things that broadly affect everybody in significant, even life-altering ways. Ebola isn't one of them; neither are Benghazi, ISIS, or most of the other claptrap that dominates the daily headlines. This isn't just the media's fault; it's their job to cover day-to-day news, to focus on what's changed since yesterday. But somehow, somewhere, we need to talk about the big stuff. I have no faith in either political party's ability or desire to do so. Somehow, the rest of us will have to figure out how without them.