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“A Nation Of Cultural Illiterates”: What’s Next In Ferguson? Let’s Try A Little Education

What next?

That’s what should concern us now. When the nightly dance of angry protesters, opportunistic criminals, and inept police clashing over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown finally ends, what steps should civic-minded people take to address the ongoing abuse of African-Americans by the criminal injustice system? Not just in Ferguson, Missouri, but in America?

There will be no shortage of good ideas: dashboard cameras, community policing, the hiring of more black cops, the removal of military hardware from police arsenals, sensitivity training. To these, I would add a suggestion that is admittedly less “sexy” than any of those, but which I think has greater potential to make fundamental change in the long term. In a word: education.

Beginning as early as the latter elementary years, schools should offer — no, require — age-appropriate cross-cultural studies that would, in effect, introduce us to us. Meaning not some airy-fairy curriculum of achievements and accomplishments designed to impart some vague intra-cultural pride, but a hard-headed, warts and all American history designed to impart understanding of who we are, where we’re from and the forces that have made us — inner-city black, Appalachian white, barrio Mexican, whatever.

You might consider this a utopian idea. Maybe it is. But I’ve never been able to shake a conviction that if you walk the proverbial mile in another man’s shoes, you inoculate yourself against your biases toward him. I believe empathy follows understanding.

Surely we could use some empathy just now. As America races toward a future in which no one race is numerically dominant, it remains largely a nation of cultural illiterates content to interpret various Others through lenses of stereotype and canard. If this has been a bonanza for certain politicians (“Elect me and I’ll keep you safe from the gays/the Mexicans/the blacks!”), let us never forget that this ignorance, these unconscious biases for and against, have real-world impact.

Michael Brown lying dead in the street is seemingly one image thereof. Here’s another:

Last Thursday at 2:30 in the morning, seven teenagers, ages 18 and 19, broke into the home of basketball star Ray Allen. Allen, who played last season for the Miami Heat, was not home, but his wife was. Waking to find strangers in her bedroom, she screamed and they ran.

Police say the teenagers, who had been at a party at a house near Allen’s in the tony South Florida suburb of Coral Gables, didn’t think anybody was home and simply wanted to see what it looked like inside. The kids were questioned and released. Authorities have thus far declined to prosecute, saying — incredibly — that under Florida law, there was no crime with which the group could be charged.

It ought not surprise you to learn that these kids were white Hispanics. And I challenge you — I double-dog dare you — to tell me seven black kids who invaded a home in a wealthy neighborhood in the middle of the night would have likewise gotten off with a good talking-to. Black kids are strangers to such lavish benefit of the doubt.

And we have been too sanguine for too long about such inequality of treatment in a nation whose birth certificate says, “all men are created equal.” We have only the one country. And we can either tear it apart or figure out a way we can all live in it in justice and thus, in peace.

To do that, we must stop being moral cowards, stop embracing the idea that somehow, our racial and cultural challenges will resolve themselves if we just don’t talk about them. Ignore it and it will go away. Take a good look at the carnage in Ferguson and ask yourself:

How’s that working out so far?


By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist, The Miami Herald; The National Memo, August 20, 2014


August 22, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Ferguson Missouri, Racial Segregation | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Imagine, Registering People To Vote”: By All Means, We Should ‘Politicize’ Ferguson

After another chaotic night in Ferguson, MO, there are a dozen competing narratives swirling about this crisis, with everyone hoping that their preferred interpretation of what is happening, why it’s happening, what it means, and what should be done about it, will lead the discussion. A new argument is emerging on the right, one articulated by Paul Ryan when he addressed the issue this morning:

“The first thing I do is don’t try to capitalize on this tragedy with your own policy initiatives,” Ryan said in an appearance on “Fox & Friends.” “Don’t try to link some prejudged conclusion on what’s happening on the ground right now.”

“What I don’t want to do, as a political leader, is try to graft my policy initiatives or my preferences onto this tragedy,” he added. “I think that would just be disrespectful.”

Today on, there’s an article about how appalling it is that some people set up a table in Ferguson to register voters. The executive director of the Missouri GOP says:

“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” they quote the executive director of the Missouri GOP saying. “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”

Imagine — registering people to vote! Disgusting.

This argument isn’t just wrong, it’s precisely backward. “Politicizing” this crisis is exactly what we should be doing.

“Let’s not politicize this” is something we hear whenever a dramatic (and especially tragic) event occurs, and talk inevitably turns to the larger issues and policy implications raised by the event in question. The guardians of the status quo always say that this isn’t the time to talk about those implications (this is particularly true of gun advocates, who inevitably argue that the latest mass shooting isn’t the time to talk about the fact that our nation is drowning in firearms).

But what’s a better time to talk about those larger issues than when the nation’s attention is focused on a particular crisis or tragedy? The events in Ferguson have highlighted a number of critical issues — the treatment of black people by police, the unequal distribution of power in so many communities, the militarization of law enforcement, and many others. Does anyone think that if we all agreed not to propose any steps to address any of those problems for a few months, that we’d actually restart the debate over these issues unless there was another tragedy that forced it into the news?

The emerging conservative “move along, nothing to see here” caucus can call it “exploiting” the crisis if they want, but you can put that label on anyone who talks about it. Are the libertarians and liberals who want to talk about the long-developing issue of the militarization of law enforcement “exploiting” Ferguson for their own purposes? If you mean that they’re hoping that the crisis will lead to change, and making a case for why it should, then I suppose so.

But that’s how change happens. When events draw public attention, they spur people to think about things they might have been unaware of or just been ignoring. Politicians feel increased pressure to come up with ways they can address the problem, which will vary depending on where they’re situated. So members of Congress want to reexamine the 1033 program that has transferred billions of dollars of military equipment to local police forces, because that’s an area where the federal government’s actions have played a part in what we’re seeing in Ferguson.

Meanwhile, people in that community may be thinking more about their lack of political power, which might lead them to do things like register voters. I’m sure that all over the country, local activists are starting to ask questions about their own police departments and whether they suffer from some of the pathologies we’ve seen in Ferguson. That’s not exploitation, it’s the political process in action.

Since I’m generally cynical, I’m not particularly optimistic that creative and far-reaching solutions are going to come out of this crisis. The deepest problems it has revealed, like the general hostility with which police so often view black people, are the ones that can’t be fixed with a bill in Congress. The militarization of law enforcement is about the equipment they’ve been given, but it’s even more about a mentality that has spread through departments all over the country.

But change certainly isn’t going to happen if we all agree to defer talk about the policy steps we can take to solve those problems until the media leaves Ferguson, everybody’s memory fades, and the urgency disappears. If we want to make crises like this less likely in the future, this is the best opportunity we have.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, August 19, 2014

August 20, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Politics, Voter Registration | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Weapons Of War On A U.S. City’s Streets”: Law Enforcement Thinking Of The People They Serve As Enemies

There’s something viscerally gut-wrenching about the photos. We see police officers with powerful, military-style guns from the roof of armored, military-style vehicles; then we see those officers pointing these weapons at unarmed civilians.

The questions are obvious. Why aim these guns directed at peaceful protesters? By what rationale would such threats from law enforcement diffuse an already tense environment?

And why do St. Louis-area police have roof-mounted machine guns on armored vehicles in the first place? On this last question, Adam Serwer reminds us today of the “militarization” of domestic law enforcement – weapons “built to fight a faraway war” have “turned homeward.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Defense has transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local and state police through the 1033 program, first enacted in 1996 at the height of the so-called War on Drugs. The Department of Justice, according to the ACLU, “plays an important role in the militarization of the police” through its grant programs. It’s not that individual police officers are bad people – it’s that shifts in the American culture of policing encourages officers to “think of the people they serve as enemies.”

Since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged further militarization of police through federal funds for “terrorism prevention.” The armored vehicles, assault weapons, and body armor borne by the police in Ferguson are the fruit of turning police into soldiers. Training materials obtained by the ACLU encourage departments to “build the right mind-set in your troops” in order to thwart “terrorist plans to massacre our schoolchildren.” It is possible that, since 9/11, police militarization has massacred more American schoolchildren than any al-Qaida terrorist.

If, as you watch developments in Ferguson unfold, it looks as if police officers are soldiers, it’s not your imagination.

What’s more, it’s likely to continue.

Dara Lind noted this morning, that “with the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars under the Obama administration, the Department of Defense finds itself with a lot of excess military equipment on its hands.” It’s leading to “a lot of local police departments and sheriff’s offices asking for, and getting, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and M-16s.”


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 14, 2014

August 15, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement | , , , , , | 1 Comment


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