Monday, August 18, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson

Things are way out of hand in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death by police of an unarmed young black man, Michael Brown. Last night the governor called out the National Guard because thus far escalating the presence of armed troops has done wonders for keeping the peace. Everyone else is posting
Scenes from a militarized America
their thoughts about it so why not me? Warning, this is not going to be a politically correct post which I am sure will be shocking.    

Trying to unravel this situation and look beyond the limited facts we have about this case is difficult because this is a scenario that has more than a century of history impacting it. I am going to be wandering far and wide but I hope the whole thing makes sense.

What is muddling the issue is the usual political posturing by the polar twins of politics in America. A lot of "conservatives" are pointing to the apparent robbery of a convenience store by Michael Brown and the reported presence of marijuana in his system as if that justifies the police allegedly shooting an unarmed man. It does not. Petty theft is not a crime that is punishable by summary execution as far as I know. The protests and rioting that follow are not about one young man getting shot by the police. They are, in part, speaking to a larger set of issues. More on that later. Of course there are many who are simply opportunistic thugs, just like people who used the Rodney King verdict to steal or hurt others for their own amusement. That is not the point. The point is much larger than some bad apples who are taking advantage of the situation. It is disturbing that many "conservatives" are grasping at any straw to excuse the shooting of an admittedly unarmed young man.

Many on the left are using this to complain about income inequality as if taking even more money away from some people and giving it to other people will somehow magically start to heal racial division and distrust even though a half century of trying that has just made things worse. Newsflash, the "war on poverty" is much like the "war on terror" in that it has made the problem it purported to be fixing in reality immeasurably worse. Decades of mismanaging our largest cities and wrecking them in the process has disqualified the American Left from having a legitimate seat at the table of governance, relegating them to the political version of the kiddie table.

Some thoughts on poverty

There is no question that there is a close relationship between poverty and crime in our country. If one were to map out where the highest crime rates exist and then overlay a map of where the deepest poverty resides it is certain that they two would be nearly identical. Given the rate of poverty and unemployment among blacks, and especially young black men, crime is an ever-present reality in their communities which corresponds to unbelievable rates of incarceration and an often antagonistic relationship between blacks and the police, an antagonism that goes both ways. Some see this relationship and see causation, posing the naive "solution" that says get rid of poverty and you get rid of crime. To channel Lee Corso, not so fast my friend.

Poverty is not a driver of crime in isolation. Lots of people grew up poor. My dad grew up in a tiny house with a bunch of brothers and sisters and they were poor. He became a doctor, another uncle an engineer, another a very successful welder. They were not given government college grants or Federally subsidized student loans. They worked, they served in the military, they made their own way in a world that was far less of a hand-holding society than the one we live in, a society where opportunity is irrelevant, effort is downgraded and outcome is all that matters.  So what has changed in the intervening decades that poverty is seemingly inextricably linked to crime? Simply put the entitlement mentality.

Poverty + entitlement = crime

Lest anyone accuse me of racism here let me put this in bold and all caps:


I am sure that will not placate some people. Turns out that I don't care. Far too many people firmly believe that they are entitled to a lot of stuff that they really aren't. Recall the reaction last November when the food stamp cards had a major glitch that allowed people to spend unlimited amounts and people knowing full well that they were spending more than they were allotted decided to clean out stores including one recipient that had already spent her monthly allotment, leaving her with a balance of $.59 who tried to buy $700 worth of groceries. Riots like the ones we are seeing are crimes, no matter the motivation or "justification". They are crimes driven by entitlement, driven by covetousness, driven by a popular culture that glorifies crime. I see something someone else has, I want it and I am entitled to take it. When I am told I deserve anything and everything and that anyone who has more than me is somehow fair game for my greed, it is little wonder criminal acts follow. One political party in America has been cultivating this attitude by engaging in legalized theft from some Americans used to bribe other Americans for their votes for decades. It is the only way they win elections other than pandering to those who cherish the murder of the unborn. It should come as no surprise to see this spill over into everyday life even when engaging in criminal acts like rioting and the senseless slaughter of young black men by other young black men does nothing but deepen the poverty they are already in.

Some thoughts on race

I am not black. I have no idea what it is like to be black. That is self-evident to anyone who has met me but it bears repeating because of the raw wound of racial division in America and make no mistake that the issue of racial division impacts people of all races. It is not, as it is often portrayed, a one way street. Regardless I never think about a cop shooting my adult or teen sons or arresting them. It isn't even a thought. Cops just don't harass and certainly don't shoot middle-class white kids. However that is a very real concern, and a legitimate one, for the parents of black children, especially teen and young adult men.

I grew up in a overwhelmingly white environment. Black people lived somewhere else. It was a terribly, tragically, racially insensitive environment. The word "nigger" was used freely (and I refuse to use the ludicrous "n-word" to replace the word "nigger", we all know what we are talking about and pretending we don't is ridiculous.) and unapologetically. Most of the kids I grew up with didn't know anyone that was black other than a handful of kids in our school. I still struggle to this day with the pervasive racism of my childhood peers, a racism that I was a party to and a participant in. That admission might cost me a nationally televised cooking show later in life but there it is.

There is a subtle inculcation of fear among the races. A lifetime of news reports where it seems like every violent crime story includes a picture of young black men takes its toll. A pop culture that glorified but also warned against the culture of gang violence also contributed to this. I grew up when movies like Colors and Boyz in the Hood were hugely popular among white youth, as was popularized rap music from NWA and others. The cultural message: young black men, especially in groups, are dangerous. I admit freely that in public a group of 4-5 young white men is nothing I take note of unless they are wearing something stupid, which they inevitably are. A group of 4-5 young black men? Something to avoid. I would imagine that is true for an awful lot of people who look like me whether they would admit it or not. It is not healthy and it certainly is not a Kingdom focused outlook but a lifetime of having a particular message pounded into your head is hard to shake.

Race is a real, visceral issue for America, one compounded by the division between races in terms of income and crime. Most white Americans that I know think of crime as something that happens in the city. Most white Americans I know are firmly in the middle-class. At least when I was growing up America was still the land of opportunity. For black Americans I think that the experience is radically different. It is not an exaggeration to say that the two races in question live in essentially different countries. The Trayvon Martin verdict was a prime example. Most white Americans I know, myself included, saw the shooting as a tragic and unfortunate example of self-defense by George Zimmerman. I am not at all optimistic that we are anywhere closer to racial healing and reconciliation today than we have ever been and that presents enormous challenges for our society and especially for the church. Just going to our own church with "our people" on Sunday is not getting it done.

Some thoughts on militarization and fear

"Police Militarization" is a hot-button term. Thanks to the tireless work of mostly libertarian writers like Radley Balko and more left-wing groups like the ACLU, coupled with a growing unease about the level of government intrusion into our private affairs, an increasing percentage of the population is rightly concerned with the discovery that our local cops, including police departments in relatively small municipalities have come into possession of military grade gear like mine resistant armored vehicles (to protect against roadside bombs in rural Michigan apparently) and grenade launchers.

This fear is not irrational. Quite the opposite to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of the founding of America, a familiarity that you won't get in our public school system. Functionally and practically we are creating a standing army in our midst. With Federal spending to buy military gear then being transferred free of charge to local civilian police departments we are seeing a clever end around to avoid the Posse Comitatus act. Some $4 billion worth of military gear intended for use by the U.S. military to combat enemies of the United States is now in the hands of local police departments. Makes one wonder if the citizenry of America is now considered to be an enemy of the United States?

Even still many Americans, especially those who perceive that they have a lot to lose to faceless thugs (i.e. mostly white suburban middle-class Americans) in contrast to those who generally see the police as oppressors, are completely willing to let the police be armed like a military occupying force and to have the NSA spying on us because they believe that will keep us "safe". Safe from Muslim terrorists, from illegal immigrant, from violent minorities, from pot smoking hippies, from commies, from whoever is the threat du jour. As long as their is an "other" that is seen as a threat, many of us are willing to trade liberty (because we don't think it is threatened or particularly valuable) for security. That tide is turning, although all too slowly, but it is quite possible that it is too late. As long as we let the authoritarian forces use fear of others to control us, we will turn a blind eye to the real threat that is right in our home town.

Having an "other" is critical

Without an other to fear, people ask questions. Questions are inconvenient. Questions impede the march of progress. Stop asking questions because that terrorist/communist/black kid/dope smoking hippie over there is trying to take away what you've got. When you have the "other" for people to fear you can paint any who asks questions as being allied with the "other". Question the militarization of the police? You are pro-criminal. Question the "war on terror"? You are aiding the enemy. As President Bush helpfully painted it in stark either-or terms, you are either with us (and support our policies without question) or you are against us (and therefore an enemy). The "other", perhaps shadowy, perhaps real, perhaps a useful pawn, is how the state keeps people in line and in subjection. If anyone really thinks that armed personnel carriers and grenade launchers are necessary to community policing, I have a news flash for you. They aren't. No, I am not a cop but I know a little bit about the world we live in. Cops are not engaged in regular gun battles with thugs wielding military weapons. The one example from L.A. was a) in one of the very largest cities in the world and b) many, many years ago. In other words, stockpiling military weapons by a civilian law enforcement agency "just in case" is a potential threat far beyond the possibility of a pitched gun battle that requires gear more suited to the battlefields of Iraq (where we shouldn't be anyway) than they are to the streets of Fort Wayne. That is not being "anti-cop", one of my good friends is a cop and we talk about this all the time. I just think that having a pervasive armed force beholden to the government in our midst is a dangerous precedent.

So why isn't anyone trying to solve this?

Who benefits from this state of fear and conflict? It is not the average white person that lives in fear of the growing minority population in America. It certainly is not the minority community that has suffered under crippling policies designed to keep them essentially enslaved. The powers that be in our country benefit from a state of fear that drives spending which grants power. Keeping America in fear while encroaching on American liberty helps those who are already powerful stay powerful. That is not a conspiracy theory, it is just common sense and simple observation. There are those who intentionally keep Americans at odds, who pander to the fear of average citizens, who design systems that keep people as chattel by incentivizing poverty and dependency and in turn bribe those chattel, not with economic freedom or opportunity but with the wages earned by others.

So back to Ferguson, Missouri and Michael Brown. What is on display is portrayed by much of the media as an isolated incident but there simply is too much unofficial and frankly subversive reporting going on to make that notion stick. We are seeing the boiling over of decades of anger compounded by an increasing sense of distrust and aggression by the state toward the citizenry. I think this is just the beginning. I also would be very surprised if some new "crisis" wasn't suddenly ginned up by the state to distract people from what is going on. Pay attention people. Things are only going to get worse.

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