Thursday, July 14, 2016

Black Lives Matter, Policing, and, Street Level Politics

I'm like an old war horse. When I hear the trumpet calling "charge", I want to rush off into action. This means that with all the demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter a big part of me wants to help out. But I'm old, I have responsibilities, and, I no longer have the time to do that sort of thing. What I can do, however, is write and I have a gift for explaining complex issues in a way that most people can understand. So what follows is my little attempt to explain what is happening between black folks and the police in the USA. I know, I'm not black and don't live in the USA, so if anyone thinks that I am getting things totally wrong, feel free to comment to that affect. I actually do read and think about any constructive criticism I receive. If you just want to call me names, don't bother. I just delete that sort of thing. If you believe that what follows has merit, please send links out on social media to others. I'm trying to cut through the fog that dominates this issue and it doesn't do any good if no one knows about it.


One of the memes that comes out in discussions is that people have to be "compliant" when they are stopped by police. Actually, there is a lot to be said for this point of view.

But having said that, there are also important caveats that need to be pointed out.

First, it is sometimes said that statistics point out that black citizens stopped by police are not killed in any larger percentages than white people. But it needs to be remembered that blacks are stopped in much, much, much greater numbers---in many communities, but not all---than whites. Moreover, studies indicate that when blacks are stopped by police in those areas the odds are much higher that the whites being stopped will have some sort of major criminal problem. This clearly indicates that different criteria---based on race---are being used by officers when they decide to stop cars. (Take a look at this Vox article, it deals with some of these statistical issues.)

Now it would be easy to stop at this point and say that this is evidence that most police officers have an unconscious or conscious bias against black people and stop there. But it's important not to jump to conclusions. It is well known that lots of small jurisdictions in the US run their police departments as revenue generation machines. Travelers from Canada often have stories about "speed traps" in small towns that are obviously designed to fleece people traveling through. As well, it is also well known that if you have a large amount of cash money on hand police will often just take it because of civil forfeiture "laws".

But fewer people know about the way some communities use municipal bylaws to fund their police departments. Just think about this for a moment. My home town spends about half of its total tax revenue on policing. For a police department to actually break even---let alone make a profit---it must be running its department in a radically different way.

They do this by taking something that is supposed to be about changing people's behaviours---fines---and making it into a "gotcha" that allows them to shake down people for doing things that almost everyone does. Recently people have been riveted by the horrific video that Philando Castile's partner took of him being shot and bleeding out in his car. (I'm not going to post that video, as I don't want to watch a woman document her partner bleeding out again.) What many people don't know is that Mr. Castile had been stopped 52 times over the past few years for various minor infractions.  A full 50% of those tickets had been tossed by judges, but still the remainder of fines probably represented a significant fraction of his disposable income. This problem has been very well documented by researchers in St. Louis Missouri.

Now, consider the fact that Castile had been able to "beat" 50% of those tickets. Everything I've read about this man seems to indicate that he was very intelligent, had a pretty good job, and, excellent interpersonal skills. These are very important assets if you are wanting to fight against an unfair ticket. America is far from a meritocracy, but as a general rule, people who are born poor, become poor, and, remain poor, tend to not have these qualities. Obviously, they don't have a good job. Intelligence is basically innate, but it can be damaged by lack of opportunity---such as an education. And in the US, there are HUGE differences in quality of public schools depending on what neighbourhood you live in. Mr. Castile had big advantages over lots of other people, which is why he was able to "beat" so many tickets. What would have the impact of those tickets have been if he lacked the skills necessary to get out of paying half of them? Wouldn't this have been the equivalent of the police putting boot on his neck and forcing his face into the dirt?

It's also very important to understand that interpersonal skills can be very different depending on what milieu you are used to. I read a book titled Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America  about murder in the rough parts of LA. The author made the startling disclosure that in the LA police department being a homicide detective is considered a low-prestige job. Police officers believe that the real job is in "crime prevention", which involves driving around, identifying "bad guys", and, keeping them from doing anything wrong. There are no "beat cops" in South LA, just macho guys riding around in cars who "hassle" people who seem to be "up to no good". As a result, you have this awful situation where most young men have been pushed around for just being "young men" and the rest of the population that have almost no interaction with police officers and know that if something bad happens, the police are not going to put any real resources into finding out who caused the problem.

This means that even though South LA feels like it is under the thumb of an "occupying army" of police, it is actually under-policed. This means that people feel that they have no recourse but to "take matters into their own hands" if they are going to not end up being considered "easy pickings". This is a prescription to teach people to massively retaliate to perceived slights.  This maximizes the number of violent interactions between people. People who have never lived in "under policed" areas have a hard time understanding this, as we know that all you have to do to deal with a problem is dial "911" and within 15 minutes or so, help will be on the way. If you know that that isn't going to happen, you are left to your own devices.

A lot of people won't understand how this operates, so I'm going to spell out with an example that was related from a Justice of the Peace to a friend of mine. People who sell drugs are totally "under policed" because they have no recourse at all to the courts system. A fellow had fronted some drugs to another guy, who failed to bring in money for the drugs at an agreed upon time. Since the first fellow couldn't sue the second one for breach of contract, he had no recourse other than violence to force compliance. Even worse, if word got out that he was an "easy mark", he would probably have other people trying to rip him off. As a result, he felt obligated to do something to harm the fellow who hadn't brought in the money. So he stabbed the guy in the leg in order to "get the message across". He clearly thought that this would just hurt a lot without being life threatening. But instead, he severed a main artery and the guy bled out. So as a result of being in a business that is "under policed" he ended up being charged with murder with the result of losing the next 20 or so odd years of his life to prison.

I'm sure that lots of people will think "so just don't sell drugs", but in many communities this is simply the only way a person can make any money at all. (This is part of the reason why the war on drugs is such a terrible idea.) But even if you totally choose to avoid criminality, in a lot of "sketchy places" it is pretty darn hard to go through life without learning how to push back pretty hard. If you don't, the word gets out that you are weak and that makes you "easy pickings". In those places, you learn that aggression is the only way to protect yourself.

The above is an example of what you have to learn to do if you are going to survive in some areas of the world---including many parts of the USA. Teaching people to "always be compliant" isn't really a smart life strategy in many cases. Unfortunately, "you play the way you train", and if your experience is that you have to protect yourself your instincts are going to react the same way when you are being menaced by a thug with a uniform and a badge. Just by way of a bookend, take a look at what sort of thing happens if people are too passive and refuse to get aggressive.

I kept hoping that someone who wasn't "compliant" would get involved and kick that man's ass. But if you teach everyone to be compliant and non-aggressive all the time, this is what happens. Again, you can't just turn your response to injustice on and off. If you live your life caring about right and wrong, you simply cannot turn it off when the person doing wrong is wearing a badge and a gun.

The above, very funny Chris Rock video recommends that people "shut the fuck up" and "be polite" if they want to avoid a police beating. But people's anger has to be put into a context. If you have repeatedly been "shaken down" by the police, have no ability to defend yourself in a court setting, and, have learned through life experience that "compliance" in most settings makes things escalate, you are going be at risk of "losing it" and mouthing off to the police.

A second point that needs to be considered is that all those municipal fines have consequence. If you cannot pay them because you are very poor, you can end up in jail. And, if you are in jail, you usually lose your job. And, to a large extend---in many places---having a criminal record will ruin your life. Many jurisdictions will not allow people who have served time to vote or access benefits like subsidized housing or even welfare. It is a lot harder to get work too. As a result, many people try to avoid the whole legal process---which means that they get served with a warrant. Remember Chris Rock suggesting you ask all your friends if they have a warrant issued against them? In some neighbourhoods this can be a very large percentage of the population---mostly for very minor municipal offenses. A police stop can totally trash your life---is it really surprising that some people "explode" at a "routine police stop"?

Now let's add a little cherry to the top of this "shit sundae". Do you think that the police are encouraged to go after wealthy, white people for petty revenue generating reasons? Not likely. It can be a "career limiting move" to ticket an "important person". Even if you did, these people hire lawyers and they take issues to court instead of just meekly paying the fine. Court time costs money, and even if you win the case, the revenue from the fine is not going to pay for the cost of bringing in a police officer, paying for the judge, bailiff, prosecutor, etc. What this means is that the police are going to be encouraged to only go after poor people. And for various reasons that usually means black people. So blacks are pretty darn sure that there is a racial component to the way policing is done in large parts of the USA.


Having written all of the above, let's look at things from the point of view of police.

You don't even have to be working for one of those services that are systematically jerking around the citizenry to routinely come across people who have been primed to absolutely loathe police officers. This is because policing in the US is decentralized in a way that no other country in the world would allow. Each tiny little town or municipality has its own police force. This happened, bye and large, because of slavery and Jim Crow. Because of slavery, the racist slave states were absolutely adamant about decentralizing as much power as possible to the lowest level possible. This is generally described as "state's rights". They wanted this to prevent the more powerful North from forcing them to treat black people like human beings. Moreover, after the Second World war large cities began to desegregate, which meant that huge numbers of whites moved from large cities to small municipalities where they would still dominate local government and be able to preserve their "right" to treat black people like shit. Of course, you can't really treat blacks like crap unless you control the police force---which is why policing was never amalgamated, like it has been in Canada. This means that you can drive a couple miles from one area with a fairly progressive police force to one that is little more than an occupying army keeping the "coloureds" under control.

Now let's add some gasoline to this slowly smoldering fire. The gun lobby in the USA has been progressively stripping-away every last vestige of gun control legislation. This means that in many parts of the country it is tremendously easy to legally purchase and carry fire arms. "Conceal carry" permits are literally easier to get in many states than a driver's license. As well, many states have laws that allow anyone to carry around a long gun or pistol as long as it isn't hidden.

So a police officer may or may not be in the process of shaking down a marginalized "under class", but he wears a uniform and people who are oppressed rarely make such fine distinctions. So that means that no matter what, a significant fraction of the public that they have to deal with ABSOLUTELY HATE POLICE. Add to that the fact that there is a very good chance that those people may have a military grade weapon at their disposal.

Now, let's look at the internal dynamics of the police. Most police are just "regular folks" who are trying to get by in one of the few working class jobs that actually pays something like a good wage. That means that they try to keep their heads down and avoid "making waves". As one ex-officer puts it,
On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
This shouldn't be all that surprising. Only a small percentage of people in the general population make any effort to think for themselves or show any initiative. Mostly, they just follow other people's lead. This is what causes the phenomenon known as the "unresponsive bystander".

In most occupations, this is no big deal. But the problem with police is that they hold a monopoly of force in society. Moreover, the legal system is set up to give preferential weight to the testimony of police officers. This means that when that 15 percent of bad officers get into trouble---and the other 70 percent back them up---the police can literally get away with murder. This has been going on for a very long time, as various investigations of police have shown over the years. But what has changed now is the proliferation of video evidence in the form of security and cell phone recordings, and, Social Media on the Internet to disseminate it all over the world. This is important because while in the past there were eye witnesses to various crimes, the courts automatically discounted any testimony that contradicted the police. Moreover, the "Lame-Stream Media" routinely refused to publish anything that contradicted the police narrative because crime reporters require access to the police to do their job. Anything that jeopardized that access would be avoided. But now there is an alternative to the crappy newspaper, radio or television news that fed people pablum. Now we have websites like "Democracy Now" and "The Young Turks" that will show you exactly what happened---because their reporters don't get any access to the police anyway and as a result have nothing to lose. As a result, a lot of people are really pissed off with the police now---even people who have never been shaken down by the cops. This is creating a lot of confrontation in society.


This isn't the first time that increased visibility has led to social unrest. I grew up in the 1960s and can remember a time when city after city would routinely explode into race riots all across the USA. I am of the opinion that a lot of this came from television coverage of the civil rights movement.

Society back then was facing an impasse over whether or not black people were going to get the real right to vote. The political parties originally refused to pass legislation that would give them this right for a very good reason---whichever party did so would suffer huge electoral consequences. Eventually, the Democratic Party did so, and its support totally collapsed in the Southern USA. This destroyed the old "New Deal" machine. The Republicans instituted a "Southern Strategy" which allowed them to vacuum-up all the racist voters and elect people like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and so on. Democrats became terrified of pushing too hard for helping out the poor and blacks because they don't want to see support for their party collapse like it did when LBJ brought in the Civil Rights Act.

Bill Clinton only brought the Democrats back to power through pushing left wing politics into what was called the "neo-liberal consensus". This is an idea that the role of government is quite limited and instead the free market---through things like deregulation and free trade agreements---should be allowed to govern most of human interactions. This is what led to NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagal, which in turn led to America losing huge numbers of good-paying manufacturing jobs and the 2008 crash. Clinton was not alone in shifting to the right, as the New Democratic Party in Canada also did so, as did Labour---under Tony Blair---in the United Kingdom. Because of this consensus, "taxes" became a dirty word and everywhere government was starved of funds, and, social and physical infrastructure was left to fall apart. (This is why so many of those municipalities have turned their police departments into revenue generation machines---their rich citizens refuse to pay more taxes, and, their poorer ones simply cannot.)

Clinton didn't sell this shift to the Democratic party as "capitulation" to Republican ideology (even though that's exactly what it was), but rather as "triangulation". That is to say, he was arguing that what he was doing was finding some common ground that would allow him to peel away part of the Republican base in order to get enough votes to win an election. This was based on the unspoken assumption that the Democratic base (blacks, progressives, etc) couldn't possible go towards the Republican party, so they could be totally ignored when it came to developing policy.

The problem with triangulation is that eventually progressive voters realised that they were being played for fools. There was no viable third party in the USA, so the only way they could show their anger with the Democrats adoption of the neo-liberal consensus and triangulation was to simply not bother to vote. This is why so many people argued that "there's no difference between the two, so I'm not bothering to vote". Of course, the problem with not voting is that it plays into the hands of the Republicans and allows them to win election after election. As a result, Republicans have been able to win both Congress and far too many state governments, which has resulted in regressive policies that have accelerated the stratification of wealth in society. Vote in the Republicans and you will get worse poverty than if you vote Democrat---although the difference can sometimes seem slight.

This association of Democrats with neo-liberalism and triangulation hasn't been helped by the rise of Hillary Clinton. While it is very important to remember that she isn't her husband, she still is associated in many people's minds with neo-liberalism. This is why progressives are so often grudging in her support. One hopeful sign seems to be that she is actually much more willing to listen to other people and change her policies as a result. More importantly, the surprisingly strong campaign of Bernie Sanders seems to be an object lesson to the Democratic party that if they stop trying to triangulate towards elements of the Republican voter base, they will be able to get huge numbers of progressive voters to come out to the polls. If the Democrats can increase the voter turnout, they can not only win but probably annihilate the Republican party.


I have focused on the politics of triangulation because the underlying causes that created the battle between blacks and police all come from economic policy. And that means you simply cannot fix the problem without getting progressive politicians elected into office. If you still have wild wealth stratification and penny-ante police forces in tiny little municipalities, you are going to have police forces that are out to extort poor people.  As a result, you are going to have a lot of people who hate the police. If you don't have decent gun laws, you are going to have police officers who are terrified of getting shot. As a result, they are going to continue to be trigger happy. This means that if people really want to stop this mayhem, they are going to have to vote the Republicans out of office and ensure that the Democrats they elect are really progressive, instead of Bill Clinton-style "New Democrats".

I think the Dallas police chief was getting at the need to get beyond the neo-liberal consensus and start instituting a new "New Deal" in American society when he said that America asks too much of the police. One of the saddest things about the sniper attacks on the Dallas police seems to be that it is probably one of the most progressive police departments in the country---probably one that has made the greatest strides towards dealing with the issues that Black Lives Matter has been bringing to people's attention. But, as many people over the years have said, "life ain't fair".

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