“Oppressive Lethargy Of Choicelessness”: What Is The Kerner Commission And Why It Should Be Revisited In Light of Ferguson
What we must remember always — and something I have told many juries in the past — is that the most powerful person in the world, on a day-to-day basis, is not the president of the United States. No, it is a police officer. Your local police officer can engage you — one-on-one, every day of the week, anywhere and any place. Your local police officer has the authority and power to take your life; and more often than not, get away with it; particularly if you happen to be a black or brown male in our society.
And how does it, all too often occur, that a police officer — most often a white police office — happens to shoot and kill or otherwise brutalize a black or brown male? Because by doing nothing when our local police officers engage in everyday minor, but insidious wrongdoing — most often directed at black and brown community residents, we enable and embolden all law enforcement personnel to believe that any wrongful conduct is acceptable simply because they wear a badge. They assume and too many in our society accept that, because they are police officers, our Constitutional constraints, under which they are sworn to perform, do not also apply to them even though they apply to each and every other American citizen.
So when I discuss the civil rights issues we tackled yesterday and the civil rights issues we confront today, including those that focus on law enforcement, I constantly advance the position that, while everything has changed, nothing has changed.
When the race riots of the 1960s occurred in communities across the nation, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed a commission, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. My mentor, the Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones, served as an Assistant Counsel on the staff of this commission before he assumed the position of General Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter to the federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The Kerner Commission Report concluded that the trigger for the riots — throughout the country — invariably derived from confrontations between the local police and members of local African-American communities. It also concluded that the residents’ held an often justified perception of the largely white police as an occupying force which was in the community to serve and protect the interests of the privileged white communities rather than to serve and protect the legitimate interests of the local minority residents and that the police inherently harbored racist attitudes toward residents of minority communities that they were also charged to serve.
Moreover, the Commission found that the underlying conditions in the making over decades — in fact, over centuries — in African-American communities provided the context for the precipitating trigger incidents of the unrest in the 1960s: racially segregated communities, inferior schools, high unemployment, and insufficient or inadequate governmental responses and attention to community needs leading those who resided in minority communities to suffer from a societal-imposed color “cast” status. They became victims of what the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her award-winning novel, Americanah, more recently described as the “oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” — a choicelessness growing out of government sanctioned inequality and second-class citizenship and a choicelessness that was waiting to explode.
Do these findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission sound familiar in 2014?
So, I urge President Barack Obama to revisit the Kerner Commission, some 50 years later; and to ascertain where — if anywhere — we have come since the founding of our nation with its original sin (slavery and its ongoing legacy); and where we have yet to go, since we are far, far from having arrived at a “more perfect union.”
What to do?
I propose that President Obama appoint a Commission, chaired by not one governor, but by two former presidents — Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, under the auspices of the Carter Center and the George W. Bush Library; and comprised of distinguished and diverse members such as Governor Deval Patrick, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Cisneros, Retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, former Attorney General Janet Reno, to be supported by a staff of highly respected and renown professionals from all walks of life to address and to courageously face our past and our present in order to plot our course forward.
While everything changes, the one constant that has not changed is the deeply embedded institutional and individual attitudinal racism that pervades our country. The fact remains that the impetus for local community explosions — racism — almost always is triggered by a confrontation between police officers (most often white) and black and brown males — youth and men, alike.
In 1852, at the Friends House in Rochester, NY, Fredrick Douglass stated in his historic address entitled, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, that “We must do with the past only as we make it useful to the present and the future.” Such is as true today as it was in 1852. And it is as true today as it was in the 1960s.
By: James I. Meyerson, Assistant General Counsel in the Office of the NAACP General Counsel, 1970-1981; The Huffington Post Blog, August 18, 2014
As a rule, those who ask House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) about his relationship with President Obama tend to hear the same answer: the two leaders “get along fine,” the Ohio Republican likes to say.
But as Boehner’s frustrations mount, his commitment to a respectful tone has disappeared. The Speaker sat down with KTGO in North Dakota on Friday and showed real contempt for the president with a tone that seemed unusually caustic for Boehner.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) blasted President Obama’s domestic and foreign policies in a recent radio interview, saying Obama was “not prepared for the job.” […]
Boehner also blamed global tensions on Obama’s “apology tour” five years ago.
In political science circles, there are often spirited debates about whether anyone is ever truly “prepared for the job” of the presidency, but the fact remains that Barack Obama has some of the most significant accomplishments of any president in a generation, even in the midst of crises few of his predecessors have had to endure. Boehner, on the other hand, is routinely ignored and bullied by his own members, struggles to complete even routine legislative tasks, and his most notable accomplishment as Speaker – indeed, arguably his only accomplishment – was a government shutdown with no apparent purpose.
One of these two leaders is probably “not prepared for the job,” but it’s not who Boehner thinks.
As for the Speaker’s reliance on the “apology tour” talking point, it’s a painfully dumb argument, but more importantly, it’s beneath Boehner’s office. We expect lazy, recycled rhetoric from random talking heads on Fox, not the Speaker of the House.
Wait, it gets worse.
“There’s nobody more frustrated than I am, but we’re the minority party,” Boehner added.
Well, not really. Boehner is the Speaker of the House because his party isn’t in the minority, at least not in the House. It’s a divided government, but Boehner is nevertheless the ostensible leader of the majority party in one chamber.
Boehner said he is committed to reforming the country’s “broken” immigration system, but until “we have an administration committed to security of the border, it won’t happen.”
“We’ve tried and tried and tried, but he just won’t go there,” he said.
Wait, does the Speaker now want sympathy? The truth is, the Obama administration has already improved border security, and would improve it further as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Boehner won’t even bring a popular, bipartisan bill to the floor, refuses to unveil an alternative, refuses to negotiate with Democrats, and refuses to even consider a compromise.
“We’ve tried and tried and tried”? Have all of these efforts happened in secret because when it comes to immigration policymaking, it appears the only folks who aren’t trying are Boehner and his far-right caucus.
As for the larger point, does the Speaker believe such rhetoric will improve governing prospects over the next couple of years? Almost certainly not, though by all appearances, Boehner no longer cares.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 18, 2014
“What’s Old Is New Again In Ferguson”: The Tensions In Missouri Are Part Of A Too-Familiar American Story
Ferguson, Missouri, has opened our eyes to old and new unpleasant truths about the U.S. of A. First, a small Southern town burning over race – that’s a story we know by heart. American history and literature foretell it over and over: the South is the South is the South.
What’s new to our eyes is the extent to which police forces have become militarized against the citizenry. Why we should tolerate police officers on tanks, looking like warriors, wielding heavy artillery, is beyond me. It’s another outrageous gift from the presidency of George W. Bush, who founded the Department of “Homeland Security.” The word “homeland” was not even in American usage before 2001. Now with military surplus hardware going out to law enforcement, the face of policing at home has changed to become more hostile in a post-9/11 posture. Violence on civilians is thus more likely to happen.
Because of Ferguson, black anger and grief at white power and force is now in starker relief than the nation has witnessed in years. As our collective conscience registers the death of an unarmed youth by a police officer, this is a good time – a crisis – to look back as well as forward. Michael Brown was slain, shot several times, caught in the crossfire on a summer night, like many other young black men before him. Emmett Till, a Chicago youth of 14, died a brutal death in the oppressive heat of Mississippi in 1955. All they did to deserve dying was nothing.
Missouri has always been contested ground, a border state with Southern slavery and culture, much like Maryland. It’s the setting of the greatest American novel, all about the crucible of race. Mark Twain, a son of Missouri, wrote in “Huckleberry Finn” about runaway Huck and fugitive slave Jim seeking freedom, rafting on the Mississippi River, away from the slave state Missouri. How stark is that imagery in our shared memory? If you’ve ever seen Hannibal, the riverfront town that was Twain’s boyhood home, you can breathe that languorous Southern air that keeps people in their place. Missouri is far from the self-reliant Midwest in origins and character, contrary to reputation. It’s more Southern, not so much heartland.
One thing I will say in Missouri’s favor is that President Harry Truman, a native son, desegregated the armed forces soon after World War II. Good for Harry.
Missouri was a slave state in antebellum America and the focus of festering debate in Congress during the bitter divide between North and South. The “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 was just the first skirmish. In the 150 years since the Civil War, in the 50 years since the landmark civil rights acts, we are still prisoners of the past. Reconciliation is far from complete. Racial relations still smolder in the former slave states – known as “the Slave power,” among the abolitionists who resisted it. Philadelphia Quakers and Bostonian Unitarians shone as anti-slavery leaders from the 1830s to the 1850s. These decades were our darkest historical hours.
We still have an unspoken fault line, descended from the Mason-Dixon Line that separated freedom and slavery. Not all states were created equal, let’s be honest. The leading states standing against slavery were Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York. That’s just the truth. But old Missouri still has the weight of slavery hanging over it, our own American “peculiar institution.” It remains somewhere under the sun, painfully re-enacted in variations to this day.
Just ask Michael Brown.
By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, August 18, 2014
Looks like police in Ferguson, Missouri, took it upon themselves to suspend the First Amendment Wednesday night.
It seems two reporters, Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, were working at a McDonald’s, which has been used as a staging ground by reporters covering the ongoing unrest following the Aug. 9 police shooting of an unarmed African-American man. According to their accounts, the two were accosted by police, some in militaristic riot gear, demanding identification and ordering them out. These officers refused to provide their badge numbers or names or a reason for the order and grew angry when one of the men attempted to take a video.
Both reporters were arrested. Reilly says a cop intentionally banged his head against the glass on the way out of the restaurant, then gave him a facetious “apology.”
The two were transported to a lockup. No mugshots were taken, no fingerprints collected, no paperwork done. After some minutes, they were released. The men were told they’d been arrested for “trespassing.”
At a McDonald’s. Where they were customers.
“Apparently, in America, in 2014,” tweeted Lowery, “police can manhandle you, take you into custody, put you in cell and then open the door like it didn’t happen.”
Actually, both men had been treated with a heavy-handedness and official contempt that are apparently all too familiar to black people in Ferguson — and to black and poor people of whatever tribe all over America. In arresting reporters for reporting, Ferguson police raise a pressing question: Just what are they trying to hide?
The same night Reilly and Lowery were handcuffed, after all, a local alderman who had posted video of the protests to social media was arrested. All last week we had reports of news photographers being ordered to stop taking pictures and reporters being tear-gassed. One officer reportedly took a TV camera and pointed it to the ground. Add to this police refusal until six days after the incident to name the officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, and the picture that emerges is not one of transparency.
At least three witnesses have now disputed the official version of what happened, the tale of how Brown inexplicably shoved a police officer back inside the officer’s car, and they wrestled for the officer’s gun. One witness, Dorian Johnson, says he was walking in the street with Brown toward Brown’s grandmother’s apartment when the officer, who was in his car, commanded them to “get the eff” out of the street. The street in question, to judge from television images, is a quiet one. We’re not talking Broadway at rush hour.
Johnson says the officer reached out of the car and grabbed Brown and the struggle ensued, the two men wrestling through the car window as a shot was fired. Then the officer got out. Another witness, Tiffany Mitchell, says Brown had broken away and was facing the officer with hands up when he was shot.
Let us hope that between the time of this writing and the time of your reading, the fighting in the streets of Ferguson is done. It makes no sense to compound tragedy with tragedy.
But let us also understand: The mere restoration of order is not the same as peace. If events in Ferguson prove nothing else, they prove the status quo of police harassment and no accountability is untenable and intolerable. And what happened to these two reporters should be instructive to those whose reflex in such matters is to accord police the benefit of even overwhelming doubt.
Such people might want to reconsider. If this is how some cops behave when the whole world is watching, can you imagine what they’re like when the whole world is not?
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist, The Miami Herald; The National Memo, August 18, 2014
There are far too many loose guns floating around the United States of America. What are we doing? This is not the world our forefathers conceived when they wrote the Second Amendment. Violence begets violence, and with no reasonable measures for arms control — our country is rapidly becoming militarized. The police are reacting to threats. Every angry or troubled soul could be carrying a concealed weapon and usually is. Yeah, yeah, yeah we have the right to bear arms ala the Second Amendment, but that was signed into law way before assault rifles were even a glimmer on the horizon. We are at an impasse in our country, society and culture, and must find a way to resolution.
Indeed guns are part of large sectors of our country often passed down through the generations – father to son. But it seems that our reality has changed. Too many novices are running wild and getting access to high powered weaponry. Last week, another young, white, mentally impaired woman was killed by the police right in San Jose, California. The weapon she was brandishing turned out to have been a power drill that had been painted to look like an assault weapon. Maybe, if the culture wasn’t running wild with illegal guns, the murder rate and gang activity so high in this locale — the police would have reacted differently. Yikes we sure don’t know and thank goodness don’t have to make those decisions every day.
Look the economy is still in the toilet for many Americans. Times are tough and income inequality still prevails. Funds have been cut from mental health services in many states, and unfortunately many are going untreated – proverbially falling through the cracks. Americans are nervous in this world of troubles. What’s going to happen to them? Is the US going back to war? And if so where – Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, or even Russia? Will folks be able to afford gasoline if this happens? Why are hybrids so expensive? Is the next airplane going to fall from the sky and where? What does it take to stay safe and keep your family safe? Sadly, this is the environment that allows racism and prejudice to fester and get a toe hold to dig in. Certainly, we know that we have got tough choices coming down the road. Turning the police into soldiers is not the answer as evidenced in Ferguson, Missouri; nor is denying generational family traditions. But maybe there’s just an opening big enough to consider enacting the simplest of laws that control the supply chain of weapons in this country. You know, we lived through Prohibition, and now track liquor and its sale. Marijuana is leaning toward legalization around the country. Can’t we step back from the random acts of violence in our streets, towns and cities? This might be the time to take action on gun control safety, and really turn a search light on what’s become of our public safety officers. We have to do better than this.
By: Michelle Kraus, The Hufington Post Blog, August 18, 2014