Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A few thoughts on Ferguson

No bookshelves tonight. [actually, book thoughts at the end]  I've been on Twitter following coverage of the protests in Ferguson, and I have a few thoughts.  In no particular order.

First, there are people smarter than me writing about this.  If you're on twitter, I'd suggest looking for faces that aren't white. Also Saladin Ahmed for general notions about the experience of being nonwhite in America (plus a great book and information on old comics!).  Also this article: "America is not for black people".  But mostly I'd suggest that if you want thoughts about how a white cop shot a black kid and the police came out as basically a paramilitary force to suppress a community venting it's frustration and anger there are people who can express and inform better than me.

Second, the FAA closed airspace around Ferguson, MO to press helicopters.  So there's some level of federal cooperation with what I understand are primarily county police and officials.  That's terrible.  Especially because it's primarily directed at preventing coverage of what's going on.

Third, early Twitter response (for me) to this came from people of color.  Then women who I typically associate with social justice activism.  Only more recently have I seen privileged white men (primarily in the tech space) getting interested in what's going on in Ferguson.  That seems telling to me.

Fourth, there's a lot of deliberately inflammatory information floating around.  Quips about how Ferguson cops don't have dash cams but do have military equipment are obnoxious.  City policy aren't leading this crackdown, the county is.  Separate government agencies.  What's going on is bad enough, why should such misleading comments seem necessary to rile up anger?

Fifth, this is a really good reminder (for me) that the heat of the moment is a terrible time to make policy.  Because a common point being made is that this is a great argument for putting dash cams in every policy car and cameras on every officer.  And that's true.  And from what I understand, cameras have been shown to reduce overall complaints of police misconduct and police violence and have also (anecdotally) protected policy against false accusations of abuse.  It took a reminder from Twitter to me that there are serious privacy implications to putting cameras everywhere: with a few minor tweaks that turns our society into an essentially unprecedented surveillance state.  There are downsides.  Privacy protections are essential, and any sweeping structural changes shouldn't be made in the heat of the moment.

Sixth, police harassment of journalists brought a bunch of journalists to complain on Twitter in ways I hadn't seen previously.  (And by "harassment" I mean: ordering journalists to leave a McDonalds, stop recording officers, assaulting the journalists, arresting them, releasing them with no paperwork, record, or obvious means to seek recourse, and denying information about the officers' identity.  All of this is awful).  Journalists are right that if police feel entitled to act this way towards journalists supported by national organizations, what are they going to do to people without such a platform, but it still looks pretty bad to see them coming to the defense of two white men when paramilitary forces are shooting rubber bullets, sonic cannons and tear gas at a black community.

Seventh, there's something here about how this wouldn't have been reported even a few years ago and the incredible power of social media.

Eighth, it seems to me that there's a lot of very sophisticated tactics going on, with no real strategy supporting them.  I'm guessing that the FAA no fly zone was triggered by a request from local authorities.  The SWAT forces with military equipment have probably had a lot of training on specific scenarios, including riot suppression.  With no particular information, I'd speculate that probably the majority of crowd interaction training for these cops has been related to crowd control, and probably most of the focus has been on violent riots.  Tactically, I'm guessing the cops on the ground are doing what they've been trained to do and drilled on.  Strategically, it appears no one is seriously considering press freedoms, freedom of assembly, the possibility that legitimate grievances can be aired in nonviolent ways, or the ways in which this response is waving a red flag in front of a bull.

Ninth (and here's where we get to books), this tactics-no-strategy approach seems related to an increasingly militarized policy force.  I read an excerpt of Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop.  It's absolutely worth a read.  The military-industrial complex has moved from the military to local police forces.  And that leads to certain types of responses to situations like what's going on in Ferguson.  (Let's also make no mistake - there's gotta be a lot of money in providing equipment and training to all of these police forces).  Similarly (and again at least partially driven by capitalist concerns), we as a society have very specific repressive approaches to policing communities of color and specifically black communities.  (Here I'd suggest Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow which I have read and found incredibly enlightening.)  I was perhaps most shocked to learn that a generation ago the trend was away from incarceration and towards other approaches to crime.  Now, of course, the incarceration rate of the US is the highest in the world.  The school-to-prison pipeline is a thing, as is the prison-industrial complex (because of course incarceration is increasingly being handed to private organizations.  As with local police forces, basic constitutional rights aren't high on their list of priorities).
This isn't a case of "evil" as I've seen mentioned in a few places on twitter.  There are powerful societal and commercial forces that have worked to make sure that police forces in black communities are focused on repressing people especially young men.  These forces laid the seeds for a white cop to shoot a fleeing black kid.  These forces trained the paramilitary organization in St. Louis County to respond with military tactics and equipment when a community gathered to protest this murder.  We don't get to say "look at those bad people over there".  Our society laid the foundation for the events in Ferguson.  Individuals, policymakers, authors and others have warned us.  We (collectively) did not stop the trends in place.  And so Cliven Bundy and his friends can point sniper rifles at federal agents and escape unscathed while SWAT teams point sniper rifles at a grieving community.

Tenth (and finally, but here are more books), we need to get over our obsession with dystopic fiction.  We have had the warnings about what happens when language is redefined so that imminent danger is months or years away (1984).  We know what happens when patriarchal theocracies take charge (Handmaid's Tale).  We know what happens when corporations and the profit motive are allowed to infiltrate such levels of government (Neuromancer, among others, although I will admit that here my ignorance of dystopias is showing).  We aren't going to find outlines of the incredible power of the government to create a racist society that the indictments located in Ta Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations or The New Jim Crow.  What we need now are more books that wrestle in a positive way with the implications of our technology.  Governments have listened.  They have learned.  Science Fiction has the power to inspire.  Inspire us to ensure privacy while empowering citizens in an age of always-on communication.  Inspire us to change subconscious prejudices and assumptions so that we can expand our idea of community.  Inspire us to challenge the powers of centralized capital with decentralized outrage.  I'm tired of dystopias.  I can see them wherever I look.  Show me a Utopia.

OK, now I'm done.

No comments:

Post a Comment