A Little Matter of Institutional Racism and Violence

Note: This was published on Dec. 12, but I started working on it back in October (don’t know how to correct the date).

For the longest time I could not speak about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Akai Gurley, or any of the many black men who have been slain by police in recent months. I was caught between rage and powerlessness: Is it the right time to talk about solutions when so many are in pain? Is there any way to satisfy the extremes on both sides, where violence is the chosen response? These were two questions I struggled with as a peace activist and restorative justice practitioner — and as a white man.

It is undeniable that white people can and do suffer police violence, but they are typically not profiled due to race. Their skin color alone does not raise suspicion — although there is a class dimension that is worth noting. Would the NYPD have placed Garner in a fatal chokehold if he had been selling looseys in a suit and tie? I have never heard of such an incident, but there is no way to know for sure.

What I do know is that there is something deeply wrong in this country, and I am not referring to a few bad police or misguided laws but a system infested with institutional racism and hair-trigger violence. Blacks are so brazenly dehumanized and in need of progressive re-branding campaigns like #blacklivesmatter because the United States has not evolved beyond its several-hundred-year history of racial oppression. At times cops in certain segregated communities seem to function as a less crude, better equipped, and more organized version of the slave breakers of the 19th century. How else can we explain their overreaction to demonstrations in Ferguson and elsewhere and policies like Stop and Frisk that seem to only target people of color, whether they are law abiding or not? The slave breaker mentality was in full force in the powerful film, Fruitvale Station, which documented the tragic murder of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a white cop in 2008. To debate whether one particular cop is racist or if policing techniques are intentionally discriminatory is to miss the point.

Racism is not just about spouting epithets and wearing black face, it’s about incarcerating blacks at such disproportionate rates that even apartheid South Africa would blush. It’s about discriminatory housing polices forcing blacks into blighted inner cities and away from white neighborhoods. It’s about keeping blacks from holding decent jobs, owning land, or accessing higher education. It’s about holding a deep-seated fear of black men and justifying it based on lies, distortions, and stereotypes. And, yes, it’s about murdering them and getting away with it — whether you are George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson, or Roy Bryant.

But even the history and reality of institutional racism is not enough to explain the extreme violence used by police in situations where words or inaction may have sufficed. The lack of basic conflict resolution skills exhibited by police in those cases is appalling. Is this evidence of a deficit in training, competence, decency, or a combination of the three? I have not yet decided, although I will say that — as a trained mediator — while decency cannot so easily be taught, training in areas that people take for granted as intuitive is essential. At a minimum, before an officer is ever taught to use a gun, he should be taught to use his common sense.

In an ideal world he would not need a gun at all to defuse potentially violent situations. The organization Cure Violence, which views violence as the public health pandemic that it is and treats it through nonviolence, is representative of this ideal, and the proposal that standout police officers be trained as violence interrupters within their own units is the best solution I have heard thus far. If protesters can police themselves, albeit imperfectly, why can’t the police? Even if some departments were willing to submit to such reforms voluntarily, federal involvement is necessary given the power of police unions and the conservatism of local police not only in small, southern towns but also in ‘liberal’ cities like Portland.

The question that remains, though, is what to do when there is another instance of police brutality that threatens to tear apart yet another community — or even the whole country? I am so bold as to offer dialogue as the solution, which I know will disappoint both the revolutionaries and reactionaries alike. It does not require teargas, armored personnel carriers, or military-style assault weapons — nor does it require the blocking of traffic, the destruction of property, or the looting of businesses. It proved to be transformative for the police and concerned citizens of Seattle when John T. Williams, a First Nations woodcarver, was needlessly shot down in 2010. While, as is almost always the case, the officer was not convicted for the killing, the restorative justice process used allowed for healing, understanding, and other forms of accountability that benefited not only those close to the matter but also the community as a whole. No process can raise the dead or erase a history of oppression, but a victim-centered restorative approach — which focuses on harms, needs, and obligations instead of crimes, laws, and punishments — costs no additional lives and very little in financial terms while building a more equitable future.

This approach may not sound glamorous or lend itself to TV news in the way that a violent protest and the ensuing police crackdown do, but it requires more courage, creativity, and perseverance than both. I can only hope that this large, diverse, and divided community known as the United States can come to the table.


War on Terror/War on ISIS: History Repeats Itself

As the West and its allies continue their war on ISIS and whatever new bogeyman (Khorasan?) they can use to terrorize their citizenry with to make their violence and oppression look acceptable by comparison, I quote the words of my late friend and mentor, John Judge, who aptly predicted the government’s response to the attacks on September 11, 2001, while, in my opinion, just as aptly proposed a solution that would not come to pass in his prescient essay, “A New War or a New World?

Our choice now seems to be between a “new war” and a new world. As always, the forces of reaction and wealth are telling us we have no choice but war, and no right or power to decide.

It is a time for reflection and calm, not for reaction from the pain and fear we understandably feel. Now, more than ever, the voices of reason, social justice and democratic values must take on the task of correctly defining the situation.

The protracted war envisioned by some in the White House, under the rubric of ending terrorism and “eradicating evil” will destabilize not only the oil-rich Arabic world, but potentially the various states of the former Soviet Union. These counties are similarly rich with the sort of resources and well-educated labor that the globalization agenda demands. It will also change economic relations here in the United States, throwing us back into the permanent war economy of the Cold War years, and a severe economic slump.

This agenda always stresses military expenditures at the cost of industrial infrastructure useful to the civilian world, and cuts into the social services, education and medical research and care that could instead be the benefit of our vast reserves of wealth.

The Pentagon planners, who want always to operate in secret and dictate the terms to the rest of us, know who the real enemy is. It is not terrorists or religious fanatics. It is not foreign countries with their limited stockpiles of weapons, most of which the US sold or gave them. As Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo once noted, “the enemy . . . is us”.

There are many models for successful community and conflict resolution, for grievance, mediation and restitution, for economies of scale, for alternate means of exchange, for cooperative ventures and community credit, for democratic referendum and direct participation, for decentralization of power and decision making, for open communication, for inclusion and education. We do not lack the tools or the models, only the hope and the will. Those, like all else, belong to the people themselves.

To access more of John Judge’s work, visit http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/JohnJudge/#essays

Why I didn’t go to the biggest climate march in history (but probably should have)

Even though I have largely broken away from my youthful days of protest and resistance, I regret not attending last month’s People’s Climate March, billed by its organizers as “the largest climate march in history” with more than 300,000 marchers.

Claiming that I was just too busy does not seem logical because what could be more important than saving the planet — or, more accurately — saving humanity. As John Trudell, the visionary Lakota activist/poet/musician once said, the earth will endure long after we are gone. It has been through major cataclysms for millions, if not billions, of years. The existence of fossil fuels, the main enemy of the climate movement, is a major example of this fact.

Human beings, on the other hand, may not last even if climate change were reversed. The presence of thousands of nuclear weapons makes the threat of mass extinction both real and immediate. I am not implying that the nuclear issue is more important, however, because in everyday terms it is a lot less important due to the fact that nuclear weapons do not harm anyone while sitting in their silos (putting aside for a minute the environmental damage caused by their production and storage). Climate change is wreaking havoc as we speak on small island nations, such as the Maldives, and there is no serious debate among scientists that it is producing hotter summers, stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, and species endangerment throughout the world.

So, I repeat: I should have taken the five-hour bus ride to New York. Rather than make more excuses, I’ll list three things that would have made it a more desirable way to spend my weekend.

1) If the organizers explicitly connected climate change to war

The environmental movement, in my view, needs to do a better job at connecting environmental issues to violence and war. I once heard that tanks only get about 1.5 miles per gallon of gasoline, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. When the war machine is not directly destroying plant, animal, and human life, it is extracting every resource it can find from the planet in pursuit of said destruction. Oil is one of the major resources but certainly not the only one.

2) If it wasn’t the same old, same old

Even though the march was followed by a more disobedient ‘Flood Wall Street’ action, I know I am not the only one who struggles to get inspired by large marches through New York or D.C. A mass march may be one of the most recognized symbols of democracy, but if it is not part of a sustained campaign of further action, it is just that — a symbol. How many of those enthusiastic marchers will be just as enthusiastic about voting for do-nothing Democrats in November? Pardon my cynicism.

3) If the organizers had a more radical agenda 

With respect to Al Gore’s contributions to science and technology, any march that he feels comfortable participating in is probably not asking for much. I think it is naive and even counterproductive for organizations like Avaaz and 350.org to support a revolution as sweeping as the end of fossil fuels extraction (and capitalism as we know it, by extension) and act as if elites and non-elites are on the same side just because climate ultimately affects all of us. To use an appropriate analogy: while a hotter climate makes all of us sweat, those with means can afford air conditioning. And while the elites can protect themselves more easily from the worst affects of climate change, they still have a lot more to lose than the masses in economic terms, and history shows that they are unlikely to lose anything without a fight.

For a deeper critique of the organizations behind the march and their agenda, I defer to Arun Gupta’s harsh expos√©. I will conclude by saying that despite these criticisms, I hope that intellectuals who are serious about radical change keep their vitriol as constructive as possible and favor action over inaction while the targets of it refrain from the sort of defensiveness that leads to conservatism and isolation. While we fight amongst ourselves, humanity burns.