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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ferguson Grand Jury Announcement Today

It has been a long time since I've been this nervous about a community's well-being, let alone one I'm hundreds of miles away from. All news reports indicate that the grand jury decision in the case of Darren Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown will be announced today.

It seems the entire media is bracing for a riot. I'm hoping that whatever violent elements exist will be largely contained by the righteously angry but largely peaceful demonstration in the case of no indictment--as has generally been the case since the demonstrations began.

Most people, on all sides, assume that there will be no indictment.

Even if everything (including the discredited broken eye-socket story) that Wilson's supporters said about the altercation with Michael Brown was true, the result has revealed the deep and unforgivable fissures between the local police and the community.

Much ado is made about the racial makeup of the Ferguson police force, and that certainly adds to the problems,  but this is really about a police force that enjoys no respect or benefit of the doubt from its community. As I've written recently, that blame falls entirely on the police departments, not the communities they are charged with protecting.

The release of the shoplifting tape, uninvestigated grand jury leaks, police-union backed "anonymous" fundraising campaigns, outright lies, and other Wilson friendly information fed to the media compound this distrust--and that's before you even get to the aggressive, unprofessional, and explicitly hostile way the police agencies have handled the demonstrations since the shooting.

Personally, I'm looking forward to going over the testimony and evidence the prosecutor presented to the jury. I'm very curious as to the actual police account of what happened--something we still have not had to date--and why, presumably, Wilson had his gun out to fight over in the first place, if indeed there was a struggle over said gun as supporters suggest. (That Brown reached inside an SUV and went for a holstered weapon could not pass the smell test.)

My layman's guess is that whatever transpired between Brown and Wilson, Wilson too quickly reached for his weapon. This is something that cost an innocent's life in New York last week, and I'm sure it happens more often than is widely reported.

Police who draw their guns as anything but a last resort demonstrate a fear and scorn of the people they are charged with protecting. Such animosity likely spills over into other, less violent encounters with police. A community that faces that animosity regularly will feel it and naturally resent it.

Regardless of the grand jury's decision, police across America should take this as a teaching moment. It is imperative that any police force has the respect and trust of the people its policing. Otherwise, when things go wrong--and they will--a bad situation may become exponentially worse. 

My thoughts are with the people of Ferguson today. Let us all hope for some measure of justice and, above all, peace.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Friday, November 21, 2014

Some Thoughts on Procedure 
Courtesy of and JPB.

"Procedure" is a word that evokes banality. It is the stuff of bureaucracy and litigiousness. It's the word we use to describe colonoscopies in polite company. And, if my Twitter feed is any indication, it is the last refuge of political scoundrels trying to make a point.

But procedure is also the bulwark of rights in our judicial system. (ie, Due Process) Those in power must follow procedure to exercise that power in a way consistent with law and custom. Presidents, Congressmen, police officers, prosecutors, and bureaucrats all most follow procedure to maintain their legitimacy.

I happen to agree with many on the Left, and a few on the Right, that Obama's executive orders relating to immigration were within the laws and customs currently on the books. Whether those laws should have exceptions that one libertarian friend said "you could drive a truck through" is another story entirely, but that's the law Congress gave him to work with.

(dis?)Courtesy of the White House

The Right's sky-is-falling narrative is overblown and off-base, at least in this context. Their references to a King or Emperor skirting procedure would be laughable if not so tragic, given what most of them are conveniently ignoring.

Obama has not once, but twice unilaterally sent troops to fight in civil wars that pose no existential threat to the United States nor could be construed (with a straight face) to be in line with the AUMF --lest we understand the text to mean the Authorization to Unilaterally Murder Foreigners. (See also: the Kill List.)

But you see, it's much easier to rile up the Right's base by helping millions of brown people here at home than blowing up different brown people half-way across the globe.

Take a moment to process that.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Friday, November 14, 2014

How Legal Cannabis Sales Help the Poor

The District of Columbia voted to legalize possession and non-commercial sharing of cannabis in last week's election. That's good, but the more important part of the law is the authorization of the DC City Council to vote to legalize (and regulate) the sale of marijuana if it so chooses.

This further action is necessary for the people in DC who suffer most from the effects of the drug war: poor minorities.

In my latest at Rare, I explain how marijuana for sale is better for the poor than marijuana for free.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Sunday, November 9, 2014

On Mia Love and Tim Scott

After last week's elections of Rep. Mia Love in Utah and Sen. Tim Scott in South Carolina, the Republican Party faces both a new opportunity in their minority outreach efforts, and a choice.

Although Love and Scott are both black conservatives, they are not the same. While they both tout personal stories that highlight 'pull up from bootstraps' narratives, the differences between them are nether subtle nor meaningless.

If the GOP wants to feel better about its rhetoric toward the poor and minorities without actually addressing their past transgressions, they should embrace Mia Love. If they actually want to address their relationship with black Americans, they could do much worse than Tim Scott.

Neither approach will bring a tidal wave of black support to the Republican Party, but resentment politics repackaged and delivered by a black person is not the way to reach out.

You can read my latest at Rare on this topic here.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Libertarians: "Pay No Attention to the Man Who Won't Stand Behind the Voting Curtain"

I already have made my personal reasons for voting clear.

However, my friend, colleague, and sometimes-editor Aaron Ross Powell has an essay up today about the moral case against voting. I understand where he’s coming from, and I’ll even concede the philosophical argument he makes in it.

But government and the elections that shape it are practical matters, not philosophy, so I respectfully disagree with its broader message.

There is a practical reason to vote, particularly for libertarians as a—gasp!—collective. 

Representative government is responsive to social needs, norms, and change, albeit in a very limited way. Political parties evolve, and respond to those whom they feel most obligated. The math certainly justifies the individual’s decision not to vote, but collectively, voting is quite meaningful.

I don’t understand the libertarians—some of them among the most prominent in the nation—who insist on supporting presidential candidates like Mitt Romney because the alternative is so much worse. Even if that were so, it’s fundamentally absurd to dependably toe the party line in fear of the alternative and expect that party to become more libertarian at the same time.

The incentives for libertarian acquiescence to either party for fear of the other is a recipe for irrelevance.

I often vote for a libertarian not because I identify as a capital “L” libertarian—I don’t—but because I want to express my displeasure with both major parties and in a way that shows my preference for smaller government. 

Aaron writes:

If you cast a vote today, there’s a pretty high chance that in morally significant ways you’re acting just like those friends mugging the old man. You may think there are good reasons for doing this, that a world where you vote for violations of basic human dignity and autonomy will be more livable—happier, freer, wealthier, more equal—than one where you don’t. But you’re still party to countless immoralities. You’re still expressing approval as politicians fail to live up to basic moral standards—and as they do so in your name.

By paying taxes on everything that I buy, and the income that I make, I'm already a party to these governmental immoralities. In many ways, I'm sure my money has gone to all sorts of terrible things both through taxation and participation in the market economy. My freely given or relinquished dollar does not sanction everything the recipient of that dollar does with or without my dollar. 

Likewise, my marginal preference for one major candidate or another--or neither, as I'm primarily discussing here--expresses only a preference, not an endorsement. A vote in one election does not convey approval for everything that person does, and there are alternative means--writing, calling, petitioning, organizing--that can later influence the behavior of that recipient while in office. 

And the more voters I can sway holds a lot more weight than a bunch of libertarians who are sitting-out on philosophical principle.

Whether or not we’re in a “libertarian moment” right now means less to me than communicating that the major parties will not, in fact, get my vote until they start paying more attention to civil liberties and reforming our criminal justice system. 

By myself, it’s not saying much.

But in toss-up districts and states, enough people who vote libertarian can, by shifting the margin, change the outcome of an election. A party that is on the losing end of that would be wise to cater to libertarian issues in the future. 

Yet, like clockwork, the libertarian corner of the Internet is riddled with arguments against voting today and, of course, is most likely to be read by people who agree with them. Effectively, libertarians are taking themselves out of political consideration. 

Not my idea of effective policy change.

Philosophy has its place, as it informs our beliefs and ideals. However, removing yourself—and, more damning, those whom agree with you most—from the election process eliminates the largest incentive for politicians to care what you and those like you believe.

It shouldn't be this hard to explain to libertarians that incentives matter.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Please Stop Helping Us" Review

Some weeks back, a book was brought to my attention by a colleague. It is called "Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed" by Jason L. Riley.  I was hoping for a sober analysis of the unintended consequences of big government policies and full of small government solutions to problems that continue to disproportionately affect African Americans.

Unfortunately, what I got was the same ol' tired and worn out argument by conservatives that blacks just need to be better if they want to be treated better. More irritating, the author's disdain for American blacks--being one for the sake of the collective pronoun "us" in the title, but any shared identity is held at arm's length throughout the text of the book--is evident on what seems to be every page. I exaggerate, but not enough to be unfair.

Riley manages to fit in some policy, but most of it after he rationalizes police abuse of young black men  (even though he faced some of it himself) and dismisses those who object to criminalizing wearing sagging pants.His absolution of the criminal justice system by way of nonsensical "soft on crime" posturing and selective quotes of critics should undermine his credibility as a thoughtful writer on the subject, even if you remove the racial aspect entirely.

"Please Stop Helping Us" could have been a damning indictment of the governmental system that purports to help people. Instead, Riley took his opportunity to air his scorn for his fellow American blacks. And that is a shame on more levels than I can explain here.

You can read my review of the book at Rare  here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Cops on Camera Event Video

Just posting the video to the Cato panel I was on yesterday. It was covered by C-SPAN so you can find it on their website, or you can watch it here, with footage taken from (and available on) the Cato website.

A most sincere thank you to all of my friends, family, and colleagues that have been supportive of me and this event.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Come See Me at Cato on Thursday

As I've written recently, the advent of small, high quality cameras that can be put on dashboards, worn by police officers, or carried in your pocket as part of your phone is changing the very nature of police encounters and police accountability.

I know it's late notice--it was for me too!--but I'll be on a panel discussing cameras, technology, and policing this Thursday at Cato.

If you can't attend the event in person, you can watch it livestream here or catch it when it's later posted on the Cato Events archives page.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Importance of Cameras to Policing

Yesterday was a good day for new law enforcement videos. In addition to the superb John Oliver video on civil asset forfeiture that that went viral on Monday, put out a great video on the importance of video recordings to civil rights and policing.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am engaged to the narrator of this video, Ms. Dara Lind, but I would share it even if she had nothing to do with it. (Or, for that matter, that my employer was not cited briefly in the video as it is now.)

WARNING: Video contains footage of people being shot.

Police misconduct, as anyone familiar with my work probably knows, is a subject I've been interested in for several years now. I can talk about incentives and systemic structures and a bunch of other wonkish terms that explain what is happening and why, but videos like this really explain the human-impact of police abuse and how video evidence is often the only way for victims to prove their innocence.

After the fact video evidence won't bring back John Crawford, but wider use of dashcams and personal cameras my prevent more John Crawfords from dying in the future.

There are other issues that need to be addressed to save future John Crawfords...and Mike Browns...and Eric Garners....

But in the meantime, the more video evidence of police interactions, the better.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Monday, October 6, 2014

John Oliver [Ultra-Violent Verb]s Civil Asset Forfeiture

NB: My employer is a 501c3 and therefore does not endorse legislation. As always, I write here in my personal capacity and not as an employee. Thx, Mgmt.

If you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend watching John Oliver's latest video on civil asset forfeiture.

Hopefully, this high-profile treatment will get the ball rolling in Congress on federal forfeiture reform. States will have to independently reform their own laws, but a healthy debate about the practice could see reform moving in the right direction.

Two such bills happen to have been introduced this Congress:

HR 5212 is the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act in the House by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI).

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (Aka: the FAIR Act--well done, acronym team!)

Bills like this always face stiff resistance from law enforcement--both at the federal and state levels. Equitable sharing agreements that split proceeds from federal asset forfeiture typically sends 80% back to the state and local agencies that "cooperate" with federal authorities in these raids. As the Institute for Justice's 2010 paper pointed out, many law enforcement agencies feel that these proceeds are "necessary" to run their budgets.

If you care about this issue, this would probably be a good time for you to contact your senator or representative about supporting these bills.

P.S.--Headline reference here.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Relationship between Criminal Justice and Joblessness

I have a post up today at the Washington Post's Post Everything that looks at some of the many ways the criminal justice system helps drive poverty, joblessness, and further incarceration, particularly through collateral consequences:
In some jurisdictions, ex-offenders can never hold certain jobs. According to a 2007 article in Criminology and Public Policy, there could be as many as 800 occupations nationwide that automatically disqualify people with felony convictions for life.

Some of these restrictions make sense. Bank teller is probably not the best first job for someone who got out of prison on a bank robbery conviction. Likewise, a serial arsonist probably shouldn’t be a fireman.

Others make no sense at all. In some jurisdictions, a criminal conviction may prevent someone from obtaining a license to cut hair or be a beautician. Sweeney Todd aside, it’s hard to fathom how public safety is enhanced by prohibiting someone from earning a living at a job unrelated to someone’s past crime.

It’s not that certain crimes shouldn’t carry extra burdens, at least for a short time. But any restrictions should be tied directly to public safety or have some clear, offense-related justification.
You can read the whole thing here

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Rethinking Civil Rights as Property Rights

My latest over at Rare is an attempt to couch the importance of race-conscious policing within a libertarian framework:
As we’ve seen over the years, property rights, even more than tax rates, are more important to the development of markets and growing economies. Simply, if a nation-state wants investment—of both capital and effort—people who make those investments must have a reasonable belief that a return on that investment is possible in a successful venture. A state with shaky property rights—whether expropriated by the state, such as Venezuela, or seized and distributed to the kleptocratic oligarchy, like Russia—is much less likely to draw foreign capital because property can be seized at the whim of the elites. Places where investments are protected by the rule of law, on the other hand, attract capital because investments are protected from state-sanctioned theft.

Civil rights are really no different.

If civil rights protections are widely denied, particularly to one group of people, because they are routinely ignored and capriciously violated by police officers, those rights lose all tangible meaning to that population. Mistreatment by authorities—whether official policies like Stop and Frisk, or tolerance of police brutality, corruption, or homicide—corrodes the integrity of a community. The government loses credibility by effectively nullifying its own authority by arbitrary enforcement of laws (government powers) and the protections for citizens (civil rights).
Read the whole thing here.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Monday, September 29, 2014

Lessons from Ferguson

The quote that has been the subhed of this blog for years is Robert Nozick's "Only the refusal to listen guarantees one against being ensnared by the truth." In a world in which people of color feel mistreated because of their race, supported by mounting evidence supporting those claims, ignoring or simply waving away those problems is just that sort of deliberate ignorance. Someone who comes to public policy from this perspective needlessly undermines their own message because their worldview doesn't comport with the realities faced by many people.

That is why I was so excited about a recent event at Cato, and was even more pleased with how the event went.  The event was called "Lessons from Ferguson," and it featured a number of voices across the spectrum dealing with race and American policing.

Moderated by my colleague Tim Lynch, the panelists included Professor Alice Goffman, author of On the Run, a sociological narrative about her observations in a black Philadelphia neighborhood; Ethan Brown, author of Snitch, a history of the infamous and widely misunderstood "Stop Snitchin'" movement; Neill Franklin, retired Baltimore police officer and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and Lauren Victoria Burke, journalist and creator of the blog Crewof42.

I highly recommend you watch the event in full. I enjoy many Cato events, but it is rare when we have a collection like this. I'm not sure anyone on the dais (besides Tim, of course) would self-ID as libertarian, but these are problems everyone should recognize regardless of party or ideology.

Of particular note, I found Neill's comment about his run-ins with the police as a black child in Baltimore, as well as his admission that, even as a black police officer, you just become accustomed to treating black kids differently. That is what institutional racism is all about. 

It's all worth watching as I thoroughly enjoyed each presentation. I cannot say enough about how glad I am that Cato hosted it.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

DISCLOSURE: As most people who read this know, I work at Cato, but this is my personal blog. I wasn't asked to promote this event, it's just a topic that is near and dear to me and I'm so happy we're bringing in people--scholars, practitioners, and writers, including people of color--who can talk about what is going on in America. Also, I make a brief cameo near the end.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

No, RBG Is Not Embracing Eugenics

[NB: like all my posts here, but particularly on this topic, this is a personal opinion and should in no way reflect upon my employer or any other organization with which I may be affiliated. Thx, JPB]

I so very rarely delve into abortion politics because my personal views are just that, personal, and entirely separate from my thoughts of Roe, Casey, or the broader abortion case jurisprudence as it stands today.* But this hullabaloo over Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent comments about not wanting more impoverished kids is absurd. Separate from the context, the statement is perfectly reasonable.

The quote:

It makes no sense as a national policy to promote birth only among poor people.

Uh, yeah. For a party that embraces a smaller (if not non-existent) welfare state, this should be common sense. If abstinence were the context, this would be perfectly acceptable to the right.

The problem is one of philosophical priors, not a lurking embrace of Sangerian ethnic cleansing.

This isn’t a small semantic difference. Progressives and other pro-choice folks don’t see abortion as murder. They just don’t. You can believe it is, that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t. If you want to say that being actively pro-abortion is effectively supporting mass murder, it’s an opinion and it’s consistent. 

Suggesting, however, that RBG and other pro-choicers actively want to wipe-out the people who are poor, not the symptoms of poverty—you know, like teenage motherhood and all its trappings like dropping out of high school, working at a low-skill job that can’t pay for food, shelter and daycare, etc.—is just nonsense. 

They don't see the fetuses as people, so the underlying problem with the statement is that she does not believe abortion is killing children, not the destruction of a class or race of persons. Your problem, if you have one, is her view of abortion, not of poor people, let alone poor people of color.

Regardless of your opinion of abortion’s morality, just because a woman has an abortion at 17 because having a child would financially ruin her doesn’t mean she’ll never have kids when it’s a better time for her. Ergo, it’s not  supporting eugenics to say that, as a matter of public policy, we shouldn’t encourage unwed teenage motherhood. 

The left sees this as an abortion issue, the right sees this as a family/personal responsibility issue—both would agree, in a vacuum, unwed teen mothers are not ideal. The difference comes in what to do after a woman gets pregnant, but I’m not here to say what that should or should not be.

If you want to say abortion is murder, that’s your business. But don’t equate being pro-choice with supporting genocide through attrition. Yes, pro-choicers have a racist, horrific past—but that’s because America has a racist, horrific past. It’s no more racist to be pro-choice than it is to be in favor of small government. 

Both have roots in racism, because they both have roots in America. 

bellum medicamenti delenda est

*Indeed, RBG herself has misgivings about the rationale supporting current abortion jurisprudence.

PS—I’m not going to argue about this on Twitter, so don’t try.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How Did We Get Here?

Today, Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute takes exception to my response (and that of Vice writer Lucy Steigerwald) to Franklin Foer's piece about runaway local law enforcement and the abuse of civil asset forfeiture.

As I explained to Konczal in a longish Twitter exchange last week, I'm not arguing with Foer's point that local law enforcement needs oversight, namely by the federal government. I believe strongly in equal protection and I have argued many times on this blog and other places that local law enforcement can be and is often a pernicious influence on the well-being of a community.The federal government, specifically the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, serves a vital role in the protection of American citizens from the abuses of their own police forces.

But the argument Foer and Konczal make is that because most civil asset forfeiture--Foer's exemplar of local government run amok--is run by and for state and local governments, the remedy for this should be federal. The point of my argument in Rare last week was that civil asset forfeiture is also the policy of the federal government and doesn't look to be abating any time in the near future.

Lost in Konczal's response today is how much of local police policy is driven by federal intervention. COPS grants, Byrne Grants, the War on Drugs, the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill all had and continue to have direct influence on where and for what purpose policing happens.

Take these highlights of the 1994 Crime Bill, courtesy of Mariame Kaba:

1. $10.8 billion in federal matching funds to local governments to hire 100,000 new police officers over 5 years.
2. $10 billion for the construction of new federal prisons.
3. An expansion of the number of federal crimes to which the death penalty applied from two to fifty-eight (the bill also eliminated an existing statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants).
4. A three strikes proposal that mandated life sentences for anyone convicted of three “violent” felonies.
5. A section that allowed children as young as thirteen to be tried as adults.
6. The creation of special courts able to deport noncitizens alleged to be “engaged in terrorist activity” on the basis of secret evidence.
7. Established guidelines for states to track sex offenders. Required states to track sex offenders by confirming their place of residence annually for ten years after their release into the community or quarterly for the rest of their lives if the sex offender was convicted of a violent sex crime.

I think Foer, Konczal and everyone else with passing knowledge of criminal justice policy agree that the War on Drugs undergirds these and other rampant abuses by local police. The War on Drugs IS federal policy. The War on Terror which further augmented the already creeping militarization of local police departments, IS federal policy. DHS and DoD grants are federal government incentives--some of which are "use it or lose it" grants that influence local police to buy more than they need or risk losing federal assistance.

Therefore, it is PATENTLY ABSURD to believe that the federal government neither has had nor  continues to have an active role in influencing and driving the policies of local police. Without the federal War on Drugs, it's hard to imagine civil asset forfeiture becoming the cash cow for local authorities it is today. Without federal direction and incentives, due to the War on Terror, it's hard to see how police became surplus dumps for the DoD and beneficiaries of DHS largesse. Without federal influence, it's hard to see how marijuana and other drug arrests for simple possession become the number one reason for being arrested in the United States. (I think it is no coincidence that driving under the influence, a crime that also drew federal incentives before it became a cash cow in itself, is the second leading cause of arrest in the United States.)

In short, yes, the states and localities are running rampant with the law enforcement tools they use. I never argued they didn't. But it is nothing short of fantasy to think that past and current federal policies didn't get us to this point. Looking to them as the beneficent saviors to the policies they created--beyond removing the incentives they did and continue to provide--seems a bit daft.

As I ended my Rare piece, criminal justice reform need not start at the federal government level. But if we want to look at the source for many of these problems we face in localities today, you cannot responsibly ignore the federal government's heavy hand in most of them.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Response to Franklin Foer of The New Republic

TNR editor Franklin Foer took to his virtual pages today to argue for more federal involvement to protect our civil liberties. In the abstract, I agree with him: I think the federal government is a necessary check against wanton abuse by states and locals against their own people. (We kinda fought a war that settled that.)

However, when it comes to details, he's about as far afield of correct as you can get:
But back to the actual issue at hand, Foer cites civil asset forfeiture as the strongest evidence of need for federal intervention. Oh, if this were only the case.

As this Institute for Justice’s 2010 paper on the subject makes clear, the rise civil asset forfeiture is a direct result of federal involvement in local policing. In what are known as “equitable sharing” agreements, federal law enforcement split forfeiture proceeds with state and local law authorities, supposedly in relation to the amount of work the agencies put into the investigation. While the amount of money is discretionary by statute, all reports indicate that the default split is the maximum allowed: 80 percent to local agencies, 20 percent to the federal government.
You can read the whole thing here.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Beyond the Drug War: How Libertarians' Aversion to 'Black Issues' Impedes Their Own Relevance

I have a new piece up at Rare today. In it, I lay out the case that color-conscious criminal justice reform is needed, and libertarians persistent refusal to take these problems head-on undercuts their message of individual liberty.
Take the reaction to the Ferguson protests: only one third of white people surveyed by Pew thought tear gassing and pointing guns at peaceful black protesters (and journalists) was “too far.” Even subtracting the third who answered “I don’t know,” half of those who expressed any opinion thought the police’s actions against the primarily black crowd—captured on countless cameras, phones, and video recorders—were within the range of acceptable behavior.

In a world in which this well-documented, recorded, over-the-top enforcement is tolerated or condoned by a majority of Americans, relying on cameras to rein-in police behavior in minority enclaves or against minorities individually is probably quite naïve.
Other big picture policy shifts like eliminating sex-work prohibitions, broad sentencing reform, and reducing the Pentagon programs that militarize and hyper-weaponize local police would also benefit millions of Americans. However, there’s no reason libertarians should not add an equal protection component to their criminal justice reform wish list and encourage law enforcement agencies to improve community relations with minorities.
You can read the whole thing here.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Monday, August 11, 2014

"You're Not Really Black, Right?"

I guess it's time to finally write a version of this I can publish and share as needed. I wrote a post on a similar theme years ago in response to a reflexive, lighthearted but racially tinged facebook comment I wrote when my social media presence was essentially some friends, family, and former schoolmates. I write this disclaimer basically to avoid accusations of 'plagiarizing myself' and just basic principles of honesty, since much of what I write here is copied/adapted from what I've said so many times before, though I've only written about it once. -- JPB

Over the course of my life, I've been questioned about my race. These questions have taken various forms--from mildly curious to unintentionally offensive to bizarrely hilarious--but they've been coming since I was about 9 years old.

For those few readers who may not know what I look like:

I'm 'light-skinneded' and then some
My father was black. My mother was white. As I have said often, I could "pass" for white if I so chose. I am aware that some people don't consider me "black" by their standards, but that's them and not my problem.

That said, I take my race and ethnicity very seriously. I grew up with black family and black friends. No more than four familial generations ago--records indicate I'm 4th familial generation born free--my family was owned by white people in Meridian, Mississippi.

I mean, it was 1880 Mississippi. I don't know how "free" they really were.

My father grew up in the Great Depression in Indiana--a state literally run by the Klan at the time. I have heard stories about how my grandfather, James, would grab his gun and go outside to get all the children in the house because the Klan was about to march up the street they lived on--one of the three streets or so blacks were allowed to live on in Fort Wayne at that time. My father and my family had to endure racism most of us today can hardly fathom--and I grew up acutely aware of this. I knew I had opportunities that my father never had, and I have always been grateful for how much he went through and how much he sacrificed so I and my siblings could become successful people.

The 70s were an awful time for fashion--I mean those shoes! Ugh!--but Pooh is eternal

When I was very young, my father told me, (paraphrasing), "Because of who you are, or what you are [read: black]--you may have a harder time than other [read: white] people. Deal with it, and move on." It was the 1980s and my first school district was still trying to implement desegregation plans--and we were still interchangeably called "Negro,""black," or "Afro-American."

Ironically, my father's insistence on voting on that desegregation plan after our family moved a quarter mile from the school district boundary, unbeknownst to us, caused me to leave my accelerated magnet program for a less advanced, increasingly segregated school system.

The students' race used to be listed next to our names on our attendance sheets in this second school system. Race is most certainly a social construct, but it made enough of a difference to mark each of us as such on every printout every teacher, student, and administrator was given.

Jonathan P Blanks| 7(th grade)| M(ale)| B(lack)

America was much less tolerant just 20-25 years ago than it is today. It was weird, even in the closing years of the 20th century, for a white girl's parent to be okay with their daughter dating me, despite my not being visibly black or holding the stereotypical undesirable traits which may lead one to think reasonably justifies such explicit prejudice.

But that's the thing--racism doesn't make any damned sense.

We, as black people, have different experiences that make us who we are. These differences are related to skin tone, hair, what part of the country we grew up in or whether we lived in the country, the city, or the burbs. There is no singular "black" experience--but almost all of us know racism.

How we deal with that is a part of what makes us black. I've been called an 'exception.' I've been called 'not really black.' But I've been told nigger jokes, and I've heard people say "well, not you, but YOU know." I've had perfect strangers talk about 'niggers' in front of me--even since I've moved to DC (by a former police officer, no less!).

I know they're talking about my father. I know they're talking about my siblings. I know they're talking about my cousins. And make no mistake they are talking about me--whether they know it or not.

Somehow, I'm dorkier than the guys in the Purdue and Starbury jerseys. SMDH
I can't explain the range of emotions that hit when that look comes over their face when I tell them I'm black and they start stammering their way into excuses and lies about what they really meant. No one thinks of themselves as "racist," but it takes a special kind of coward to disown the words that just came out of his mouth for not the first or second time.

I digress.

While my parents were among the first generations in living memory to openly 'miscegenate' absent of government obstacles, I'm hardly the first person who could 'pass for white.' Indeed, James Weldon Johnson wrote a moving book entitled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man back in the early part of last century. It's moving and heartbreaking...and you come away understanding why some people would deny their heritage and their families to escape the punishment and terror that was black life for so much of our nation's history.

But the pivotal moment when I realized my situation wasn't new--and what I was feeling wasn't either--was when I read Malcolm X's Autobiography for the first time:
"But I will tell you that, without any question, the most bitter anti-white diatribes that I have ever heard have come from "passing" Negroes, living as whites, among whites, exposed every day to what white people say among themselves regarding Negroes -- things that a recognized Negro never would hear."
Like a thunderclap I realized that this resentment I felt--while not "anti-white" per se--was something untold numbers of Americans have felt for years. That my experience was something genuine too--because my authenticity (black, white, or other) was questioned by seemingly everyone in my adolescence--was a seminal moment of my life. I didn't necessarily self-ID as "black" for a number of years afterwards--indeed, I went through a phase during which I was quite hostile to the concept of a distinct black identity--but that book changed my life.

I knew exactly what those people felt...and realized I wasn't alone. That shared experience is the bond of community that a lot of black people feel toward each other. It took me a bit longer to figure it out, but that is why I feel how I feel and why I identify as "black" and not "white," though I never disavow nor do I feel shame about my mother's family or heritage.

I think I've said enough on this subject for public consumption.

Suffice it to say, however, that if I'd be black enough for Malcolm X, I'm pretty sure I'm black enough for you.

bellum medicamenti delenda est