Friday, January 16, 2015

Justice Sotomayor on the Oklahoma Lethal Injection Protocol

Last night, the State of Oklahoma put a child killer to death by a questionable lethal injection protocol. I understand not mourning the loss.

Admittedly, as I've gotten older,  I have become anti-death penalty generally, but my policy preference does not trump the constitutionality of the practice. Clearly, some form of capital punishment is constitutional. However, that does not mean that all forms of capital punishment are permissible.

As a nation that is to be governed by laws, and until we ban capital punishment entirely, how the state carries out these increasingly problematic executions must be examined for constitutionality--specifically the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Sotomayor, joined by the three Democrat-appointed justices, makes a strong and well-reasoned constitutional argument why last night's execution should not have happened.

You can read it here, courtesy of the Marshall Project.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Contra the "Individual Responsibility Trumps Racism" Shibboleth

I'm not a Redditor. I think I'm a tad too old or, at least, too old fashioned to utilize the medium as it is intended. However, I wanted to share a comment on a Reddit thread about poverty, racism, and individual responsibility that I think hits all the right notes. (I know the author but the comment was flagged for me by a mutual friend.)

An excerpt:
If you were to design a situation where I maximized my true utility of choices to leave poverty, I often made bad ones. But I was given two gifts without any effort: I have a high, high, high capability for analytic intelligence and my mother was a wonderfully stable human being. 
But lots of people didn't have those: people that worked harder, people that were kinder, people that made better choices. The gravity of the situation pulled them back, given all those attributes. I will always remember a coworker of mine a McDonalds: nice girl, kind, harder working than I ever was in school. She studied every day at after-school tutorials for two years to pass a Science TAKS test - she never did. I showed up hungover, I got perfect score. 
I have earned many things in life - my analytic intelligence was not one of those.
It's best taken in its entirety so please, go read it here.

The excerpt above reminds me of another one, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, that is one of my favorites:
But the game *is* rigged. Let me tell you how I came here. I write for a major magazine and this is a privilege. I would say that it is earned, except that many people earn many things which they never receive. So I shall say that it was earned and I was lucky.(via The Atlantic)
Yes, individual responsibility is important for people to escape unfortunate circumstances. But that doesn't mean that those who failed to get out lacked it, nor that those who did were living up to the noble ideal that fits your public policy worldview.

Mia Love and others of the economic right would have you believe that the structurally protected racial inequalities that have been baked into the American system since jump are best defeated by hard work and determination in lieu of systemic analysis and reform.

Such is a recipe for a different kind of American exceptionalism--that the exceptional and lucky people who succeed in spite of the myriad obstacles placed before them are the aspirational normal. Further, the continued unfairness that makes life harder for millions of marginalized Americans should be dismissed and ignored because Jim Crow is dead therefore everything is fair (enough) now.

I don't know if this nonsense comes from resentment, naivete, or general ignorance, but it's nonsense nevertheless.

Entrenched poverty comes from a lot of sources: the effect of broader society and preexisting public policy being two prominent among them. That neither of these typically appear in right-of-center solutions to ongoing socio-economic problems (save antipathy to demonized social welfare programs) is a big reason why the right's base is primarily old, white, and increasingly out of touch. The GOP's short-term electoral success masks a shrinking social relevance and resonance that is a demographic nightmare in the longer term.

Since the days of slavery, there have been exceptions to the crushing social and economic power of the dominant American order. That didn't make any of those societies just or "good enough." That circumstances have improved over those years is not evidence that American society is fixed or has recovered from hundreds of years of prejudice, racism, and inequality.

Individual responsibility is a necessary but not nearly sufficient condition for widespread social betterment. The arguments about socio-economic progress cannot continue to be simply about individual responsibility OR institutional racism, because such arguments are valid only in a world divorced from current American reality.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

PS--in case you didn't click through before, read all of the Reddit post here.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

On the NYPD Tragedy and Its Aftermath

As most people, I am horrified and saddened by the murder of the two police officers in Brooklyn yesterday. My heart goes out to the family, friends, and colleagues of  officers Wenjian Lui and Raphael Ramos.

But the reaction by some self-styled allies of the NYPD are nothing short of inexcusable. This sentiment may be best illustrated by former New York governor George Pataki:

Like Eric Holder, I have immediate family that served honorably and proudly in law enforcement. To assert that people like Holder (and me) who criticize police practices and want police to be better than they are should be held responsible for the acts of a murderous lunatic is reckless and unforgivably insulting.

Need the preening, self-important politicians be reminded: the United States is a country where free speech is an essential tool by which the government for, by, and of the people is held accountable. To say that those who criticize the police are responsible for the random violence inflicted upon some officers by an evidently suicidal man is to express a sentiment that is not only baseless and malicious, but fundamentally un-American in implication.

Beyond the preening politicians, there have been those who would like to characterize criticism as a 'war on cops.' Admittedly, there are those people who have become so fed up with how they and their loved ones have been treated by police officers that criticism comes from a place of anger and frustration. But the police are ultimately responsible for how they treat the public and thus have considerable control over how they are perceived by that public. It is pure fantasy to believe that the outrage that has fueled the dozens of nationwide protests against police brutality has been manufactured against an otherwise beloved police force that in every case has great relationships with the communities they serve.

Furthermore, the war on cops rhetoric coming from some police sources only reinforce the point made by many critics of the police that too many officers hold an "us versus them" mentality when dealing with the public. If the police believe they are working among an enemy population, their treatment of the public will undoubtedly reflect that mindset.

There is no greater threat to police-public relations than a police force that holds open hostility towards the people it is charged with serving. This jeopardizes public safety not only from police-public violence, but endangers communities by undermining the legitimacy of law enforcement itself.

The NYPD and its members have every right to mourn and be outraged by the actions of a lone gunman yesterday. My most sincere sympathies go out to them for their losses. However, that does not give them or anyone else carte blanche to abuse the citizens with whom they come into contact, nor does it require those of us concerned with improving police practices that enable that abuse to remain silent because they have dangerous jobs.

The police are not our enemies, nor are the people the enemy of the police. At a time when the vast majority of reformers are expressing sympathy for the police and the sacrifices they make, self-appointed friends of the police like Gov. Pataki would serve everyone much better by not stoking police fear and resentment. To do otherwise makes everyone--police, protesters, and the general public--less safe.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Police Policy and Police Violence

My first installment in a series on police policy and its relationship to police violence is live over at Frankly, so much of the critiques in the wake of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland focuses on niche issues, like the drug war, instead of how we allow our police agencies to be run in our name.
When used as a method to question someone in relation to a separate crime, whether in a car or on the street, this behavior is known as a pretextual stop. Simplifying a bit, one law (e.g., running a stop sign) is used as pretext to investigate further (e.g., looking for evidence of drug crimes) because the officer otherwise lacks reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop a person or vehicle. Thus, if a police officer makes up his mind to stop you, even the slightest violation of a law or out of the ordinary conduct (like looking nervous when a police officer is watching you) can give him an excuse to stop you. 
Put another way, he’s certainly going to stop you.
One disturbing aspect in so many of these recent, high-profile homicide cases is the quickness with which violence became the method of control against Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. That the recent cases have all involved black males is no surprise to many observers and protesters. Even skeptical black conservative Jason L. Riley tells a story about how he was grabbed from his vehicle by police at gunpoint because he "fit the description" of a suspect.. “Fitting the description” is, in practice, often just a police euphemism for being a black male.​
It's a tad long, but it lays the fundamental groundwork for understanding what is actually going on during police encounters all over the United States. I also explain how some departments knowingly tolerate police violence:
Fifteen years ago, criminology professor and police researcher Jerome H. Skolnick wrote an article on police brutality in the American Prospect. He noted that, “Police executives sometimes review the ‘resisting arrest’ cases of police officers to determine whether a cop inclines toward administering vigilante justice.”  
The thinking goes, if a suspect is in custody with visible bruises or other injuries, those injuries—if caused by the arresting officer(s)—are typically justified by claims of resistance.  
WNYC News recently reviewed over 50,000 NYPD cases in which resisting arrest was among the charges. WNYC found that five percent of NYPD officers accounted for 40 percent of all resisting arrest charges since 2009, and 15 percent of officers accounted for half of all resistance charges.    
The next installment will discuss systemic susceptibility for police perjury. Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Roundup: On the Torture Report

Simply put, the CIA was counterproductive, sadistic, and incompetent.

David Cole in the New Yorker.

Charlie Savage and James Risen in the New York Times.

Shane Harris and Tim Mak in the Daily Beast.

 Nick BaumannJenna McLaughlinPatrick Caldwell and Mariah Blake in MoJo.

Max Fisher at Vox.

There is no excuse for this. None. It is absolutely maddening.

What's even more galling? The only person from the CIA in prison is John Kiriakou, the person who first alerted the public to the interrogation program.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Friday, December 5, 2014

On the Developing Implosion Controversy over the Rolling Stone UVA-Rape Story

UPDATED to reflect controversy/rather than implicate falseness of the statements. The points of the post are relevant whether the allegations are true or not.

Journalism is hard.

I've never been a reporter, so I'll leave the professionals and media critics to talk about the ethical and professional lapses at Rolling Stone that led to what appears to be exaggerated, if not flat-out false gang rape allegations publishing a piece that shook the University of Virginia.

But I do know about rape victims. I've been trusted by several of my female friends with the information that they have been raped at some point in their lives. I can't explain how it feels to hear that someone you care about has been raped. As far as I know, only one of my friends ever went to the police about it.

I never judge the woman for making the decision not to press charges, because going through that process can be a trauma on top of the trauma of being raped. Some people think it's an ethical duty to keep that person from raping again, but I'm always much more concerned with the immediacy of my friend's emotional well-being. Granted, it was usually well after the fact that I was told, but it is nevertheless something I do not feel qualified to pass judgment on.

And yes, this is something that has occurred enough times in my life that I can use the term "usually." This sickening fact is why I have no patience for people who claim that "rape culture" doesn't exist.

I have also had the unfortunate experience of hearing false rape claims.

Years ago, two friends and I were standing outside of a bar in Chinatown here in DC. We hear a woman yelling, mostly indistinct. She sounds angry, but it's nighttime in Chinatown, it's not particularly unusual. Then she yells "RAPE!"

One of my friends, J--who takes his role as a responsible citizen more seriously than most people I know--immediately runs to her aid. My other friend, G, and I look at each other, utter some obscenities, take a deep breath, and run after our friend because we have his back.

We get to this screaming woman yelling rape as she's a passenger in a parked car. Someone has already called 911, a bystander, if I recall correctly.

J tries to calm her down, G and I confront the guy in the drivers seat and ask him what the hell was going on. He tries to run away, but we corner him. 

He explains to us that he was breaking up with her and she was upset and wouldn't get out of the car. We were hostile and skeptical at first, but he was pretty convincing. (After all, once we started running, we had to prepare for the prospect of violence, so this wasn't the most cordial introduction.)

Moreover, he says works for a prominent [then-]US senator and can't be dealing with police. We tell him that A) he needs to stick around, if for no other reason than they have his car it'll look awful to flee and B) this woman needs to come clean about what happened.

We go back to ask her what happened, and she admitted that she just wanted to put pressure on him because she loved him.  G asked her why she made that up. She then starts cussing him out and calling him "nigger" and I pull him away.

Then the police show up. Like a dozen of them.

We give our statements and say that she yelled rape and we came running (thanks to J) and that she admitted to making it up because she was upset, in addition to the verbal abuse of G. We were talking to a male officer about what happened and the look on his face was like "Oh great, another one." Two female officers a few feet away but within earshot looked very angry, as well they should have been.

We were all angry. And I'm angry now.

For every case like that awful woman in Chinatown, there are countless women who don't say anything for fear of ruining their own lives--risking so much without any guarantee of a conviction. This UVA case, if it falls apart as the some reports indicate is possible, could be another Tawana Brawley or Duke lacrosse case--unverified stories that opportunists (or perhaps in the case of this writer, someone too trusting) exploited for their own careers. These few instances of false claims will likely dissuade more victims from coming forward and undermine the legitimate efforts to curb rape and bring its perpetrators to justice.

If innocent, the men accused at UVA ought to be fully and publicly exonerated, full stop. But it is important to believe women if and when they tell you they've been raped. The overwhelming majority of women don't make that stuff up, and they need support if they ask for it.

It is almost a mathematical certainty that you know a woman that has been raped. It may have happened before they met you, or since you've known them. That you may not know speaks not only to what they suffered, but the stigma, guilt, and shame that accompanies such an intimate and scarring violation.

Rape is far too common in this country, and it is an acute problem on college campuses. Collectively, we need to take it more seriously, and as individuals, we need to believe and support the women who come forward.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Thursday, November 27, 2014

On the Rule of Law in Ferguson

After the grand jury decision in Ferguson and the sometimes-violent aftermath, I wrote a piece for Rare explaining--but not excusing--why people reacted the way they did. It's not very long, but might be summed up by a friend's comment on Facebook, "Well what did you expect to happen when you treated people like niggers?"

My piece is here. If I get a chance, I'll share a roundup of some of the most poignant writing on the aftermath. 

I hope you have/had a wonderful Thanksgiving, or Thursday, if you don't happen to live in America.

bellum medicamenti delenda est