Friday, August 22, 2014

Photo of the Day: Fathers and Sons

A father talks to his son about Michael Brown

The presidency is more than a bully pulpit

There are times when I listen to President Obama's critics that I think they must assume that the only power granted to the presidency by our constitution is access to the infamous "bully pulpit." Lately its been Michael Eric Dyson who has gotten a lot of attention for criticizing the President's statements about Ferguson while totally ignoring anything the administration has actually done.

An example of this phenomenon can also be found in Paul Waldman's attempt to explain President Obama to those who are criticizing his response to Ferguson. He cites the political polarization in polling about what the President has done. But then he assumes that all he's done is talk.
The important context to keep in mind for these figures is that Obama hasn’t actually done much of anything to either be pleased or displeased about. His statements on the subject have been designed to offend no one, trying to touch every possible perspective...
Nowhere in that article does Waldman mention that the FBI has initiated an investigation or that AG Holder visited Ferguson yesterday. And of course there's no talk about what's been going on behind the scenes with telephone conversations President Obama, Eric Holder and other members of the administration have had with community leaders and local officials. Its as if Waldman thinks the only tool a president has for dealing with a situation like this is the bully pulpit.

That's why this editorial in the NYT by Tali Mendelberg and Bennett Butler is such a refreshing change of pace. They take on the critique by many on the left that President Obama hasn't addressed poverty.
A true measure of a president’s priorities lies hidden in plain sight in his budget proposals. Under that standard, Mr. Obama has been more committed to communities like Ferguson than any Democratic president in the past half century.

By looking at what percentage of the budget presidents propose to spend to fight poverty, we can compare their degree of commitment...

Using this method, we find that President Obama attempted to deliver far more than his counterparts. The Congressional Budget Office’s inflation-adjusted numbers show that Mr. Obama sought to spend far more on means-tested anti-poverty programs than other first-term Democratic presidents. 
After providing data to demonstrate their point, the authors attempt to explain why - given this record - President Obama is subjected to this kind of criticism. Their answer is that he doesn't talk much about poverty..."Mr. Obama has been spending without saying."

But I'd challenge them on that point as well. If you pay attention to how President Obama talks about these issues, you will almost always find him talking about "the middle class and those who are struggling to get into the middle class." In other words, he addresses their aspirations rather than their current condition. That kind of nuance doesn't show up on a nexus search on the word "poverty" and it often goes right over the head of most pundits. But its just another way this President demonstrates his empathy.

So yes, words matter. But in the end, when it comes to the presidency, actions matter more.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Seeing racism

Nailed it!!!

On a more hopeful front, Josh Marshall published this comment from a reader:
It's incredibly unfair that it worked out this way but I think the historical take of the biggest success of the Obama presidency will be this.

As a white, suburban, middle++ aged liberal, I saw the run up to his first election as proof of what I believed for a long time - we were in a post-racial world where the only thing that was holding individuals of color back was a willingness to do the hard work that the rest of us were doing to get ahead.

The re-surfacing of the hidden racism that had become invisible to me was (and is) worldview shattering. The breadth and depth and virulence of both institutional and individual racism is so enormous that I have a hard time coming to grips with it. I'm entirely embarrassed by my pre-Obama beliefs and am still trying to figure out what I can do to move from being part of the problem and becoming part of the solution.

While discussing Ferguson with folks who fall in to the "don't think there's any racism" category, I'm seeing a shift. Events like this, and the pro-protester media coverage seems to be chipping away at the middle. More people are starting to see the world like it really is.

Looping back to my hypothesis, I suspect that without an Obama presidency, the lens through which we view the current events would have been much less sympathetic to the protesters.

Oh, and healthcare.

President Obama and AG Holder working together

At his press conference on Monday, President Obama recalled some of the work he did on criminal justice reform while he was a state senator.
One of the things I was most proud of when I was in the state legislature, way back when I had no gray hair and none of you could pronounce my name, was I passed legislation requiring videotaping of interrogations and confessions and I passed legislation dealing with racial profiling in Illinois.
That reminded me that two years ago I wrote about a whole spectrum of work on criminal justice reform then-senator Barack Obama had done during his short tenure in the state legislature. I found it documented at - of all places - the Daily Caller, where they were horrified at the extent to which President Obama had engaged in this type of reform (i.e., "he's really a blackly-black radical!"). It is rare to non-existent to see stories about this in the mainstream or liberal media.

That's why I find articles like this one, where supposedly professional journalists project their own assumptions into their work rather than actually look at the historical record, to be nothing more than lazy reporting. The tag line reads: "Holder and Obama Differ in Approach to Underlying Issues of Missouri Unrest." They describe AG Eric Holder as a "child of the civil rights era," and contrast that with this about Obama:
He was too young and removed to experience the turmoil of the 1960s, growing up in a multiracial household in Hawaii and Indonesia. As he now seeks balance in an unbalanced time, he wrestles with the ghosts of history that his landmark election, however heady, failed to exorcise.
Its true that Eric Holder is 10 years older and grew up in Queens. I'm sure the two men don't always agree about everything. But even as the authors attempt to paint them at odds on these issues, they can't ignore that President Obama chose Eric Holder as his Attorney General precisely because of their shared vision on "overhauling the justice system." In the end, this is an attempt to create a story that doesn't exist.

I would posit that what we have in this country right now are two leaders who grew up as African American males in different circumstances, but came to the same conclusion about the need for reform. Right now they have different jobs they've undertaken to produce that reform. And they're doing a mighty find job of working together to get it done!

The new sheriff in town

The shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson, MO have resulted in the media finally waking up to something I wrote about over three years ago: the Civil Rights Division of DOJ has been extremely aggressive in going after police brutality
"I think the Civil Rights Division in this administration has been much more aggressive in pursuing police misconduct, both in criminal cases and especially the big civil 'pattern and practice' cases ... to reform police departments," said Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who was the administration's second-ranking civil rights official from 2009 to 2011.
And so, when AG Eric Holder visited Ferguson yesterday and met with community members to discuss their concerns, this was at least one of the messages he was sending to local law enforcement as they investigate the shooting of Michael Brown and respond to protesters:
"I expect that when all this cools down, you'll see the Civil Rights Division pursing a pattern-and-practice investigation" of the Ferguson police, he [Bagenstos] said, "both for what happened to Michael Brown and what's happened since."
Time to straighten up boys. There's a new sheriff in town.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Who are the peacekeepers?

Journalists on the ground in Ferguson last night credit the reduction in violence to the presence of community peacekeepers.

I remember this same thing happened in St. Paul in 2008 when local law enforcement adopted a militarized response to protesters at the Republican Convention. Community members came forward to receive training and act as mediators between the police and the protesters.

While I think that this is ultimately the answer to what is happening in Ferguson right now, it begs the question about the role of law enforcement. Shouldn't we be expecting THEM to be the peacekeepers? Isn't that what they are supposed to do? We won't get to the root of this problem until we get that one right.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Obama Way...on Ferguson

Yesterday President Obama once again talked about the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson. Like clockwork, he got criticized from the right for "racializing" the situation and from the left for not being bold enough in talking about the racial dynamics. Same story, eighty-second verse.

What I find interesting is that this time around, we're seeing some journalists attempt to explain the President's measured response to his critics on the left. Ezra Klein jumped into those waters as did Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessy at the LA Times. Both articles make claims that President Obama has learned from "mistakes" in the past and that he has changed his approach to dealing with this issue. I suspect there there is an element of truth to that. But overall, his response seems to fit perfectly into what I have always seen as "the Obama Way."

Klein goes on at length about candidate Obama's speech on race. He sees it in high contrast to the President's remarks about Ferguson. But as many pundits have done with the 2008 speech, he totally overlooks this section.
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
That was candidate Obama empathizing with the anger that fuels white racism. This is a man who has an extremely developed set of mirror neurons and always seeks to view a conflict from the perspective of his opponents. 2006 he said that we were required to see the world through George Bush's eyes. That doesn't mean we agree with him - but we understand his perspective. For Barack Obama, that has always applied to racial conflicts too. His remarks on Ferguson carry on that theme.

Pasons and Hennessy point out that President Obama spoke very pointedly about race during the Trayvon Martin situation. But it is crucial to note that he did so AFTER the Zimmerman verdict was announced. I remember some of the same critics being just as angry when he didn't engage initially about Trayvon Martin's death. Yesterday the President was pretty clear about why:
I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed because ... the DOJ works for me. When they're conducting an investigation, I've got to make sure that I don't look like I'm putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.
In addition to that, it has never been the Obama Way to enter into a conflict with strident remarks. When passions are high - he always takes his time to think through the situation and focus on solutions. We've seen this happen over and over and over again during his presidency. Its what drives Maureen Dowd crazy (LOL). At these times its important to watch what the President is DOING more than what he is saying. NAACP President Cornell William Brooks nailed it in regards to the situation in Ferguson.
"But his actions speak volumes," Brooks said. "The prose of his conduct and decisions outweigh the poetry of any press release."
I really love how David Swerdlick put it.
...although there are a lot of different voices that can underscore the racial injustice that surrounds Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown, there’s only one person who can direct FBI resources and order the Justice Department to investigate a civil rights violation: Obama. And I’d rather see someone who does understand black anger fulfilling that role rather than focusing on making speeches.
Finally, I'd point out what President Obama said during his remarks following the Zimmerman verdict.
There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.
Here's what I had to say about that at the time:
He didn't seek this job to be a civil rights movement leader. He sought it to be POTUS - and to be the best damn POTUS he could possibly be.

If you want to know what is absolutely driving the white male patriarchy nuts about our first African American president - its that he's succeeding in doing that. Their freak-out is all about the fact that their game of dismissing this black man as a "boy" who is out of his league, is up.

That's the role Barack Obama chose to play in this struggle. It doesn't mean that its the only one that is needed in this country for us to continue on the path to a more perfect union - that requires an "all hands on deck" approach. But the integrity and competence he's bought to the office is an important piece of the puzzle.
I suspect that at some point President Obama will speak more in-depth to what has happened in Ferguson. But it is likely to be when passions subside and there is the possibility for a "teachable moment." Remember, he plays the long game. That's the Obama Way.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Context: What it means to be a black person in Ferguson, MO

My number one wish for this country is that white people across the land would fire up their "mirror neurons" and take a moment to think about what it means to be a black person living in Ferguson, MO.
The fraught relationship between African Americans, a majority in Ferguson, and the nearly all-white police force long preceded the eruption of protests.

In interview after interview, black men and women talked about their fears of random stops while driving in the city, as well as in neighboring municipalities.

Marcus White, an acquaintance of Brown who works for a moving company, said he frequently has to spend the night in his employer’s office because he can’t find anyone to drive him home to Ferguson.

“They’ll tell me, ‘I don’t go past Goodfellow,’ ” he said, referencing one of the streets near the line that separates the county of St. Louis from the city of the same name.

Many here have their own catalogue of towns that they dare not drive through. They sketch long, circuitous routes to avoid the small areas where they feel most targeted, a concern buttressed by statistics that show far higher numbers of traffic stops involving African Americans than whites in the St. Louis suburbs.

“More than four people in the car, they’re going to pull you over,” said Earl Lee Jr., a 41-year-old warehouse worker who lives in a nearby suburb. “Tint on your windows, they’re going to pull you over. Too early in the morning, they think you’re up to something. Too late, they think you’re up to something. When are you supposed to drive?”
That is the context in which folks experienced the gunning down of an unarmed teenager on their streets by a police officer. I won't say it equals the atmosphere of Jim Crow. But its pretty damn close.

Did you see what they said? Marcus White has to find someone white to drive him home at night or sleep at work to avoid getting pulled over by the cops. When is the last time you had to weigh those options? I think I can pretty safely guess never.

Until we begin to understand what it means to live like that in a country that pretends to espouse "freedom," we have zero business judging what's going on in that city today.

What Michael Brown's preliminary autopsy does/doesn't tell us

The New York Times released this graphic from the autopsy done by Dr. Michael Baden at the request of Brown's family. The local police have done their own autopsy but not released any results. Yesterday the FBI announced they will perform a 3rd independent autopsy.

What we learn from these results is:

1. Michael Brown was not shot in the back. That conflicts with at least one eye witness testimony and precludes an almost automatic conclusion of murder.

2. Its difficult to imagine the shots to the inside of the hand/arm unless Michael Brown did in fact have his hands up, as several witnesses said.

3. The shot to the top of the head raises the most questions and was described by Baden:
One of the bullets entered the top of Mr. Brown’s skull, suggesting his head was bent forward when it struck him and caused a fatal injury...
Baden goes on to suggest that could be because he was giving up or because he was charging forward at the officer. But the latter explanation seems like a stretch. Its hard to imagine putting your head down as you charge someone who is in the midst of shooting at you and its inconsistent with the shots to the inside of the hand/arm.

We still have a lot to learn about what these autopsies reveal. But this information points in the direction of confirming that Michael Brown was indeed "Hands up. Don't shoot" when he was killed.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Captain Ron Johnson, "That's my baby."

Just grab a tissue and listen.

What's going on in Ferguson?

My head is a jumbled mess these days about what is going on in Ferguson, MO. That's probably a result of spending too much time following the story on twitter. You get the news first there. But its mixed in with all the emotional reaction. So I decided its time for me to analyze what I think we do/don't know.

First of all, I think its helpful to recognize that there are two separate issues to deal with. First there's the shooting of Michael Brown. Secondly, there's the police response to the protests.

An awful lot of people are assuming we know what happened in the altercation between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson. Those who have been paying attention have heard a couple of eye witness reports and a reported friend of Wilson tell his side of the story on a radio call-in show. I certainly hope that at some point we get a clear picture. But there's a lot that is disputed or unknown right now.

I suspect that its very likely that there was a verbal altercation between the two when Wilson told Brown to get out of the middle of the street. It escalated and at some point Brown walked away. If the autopsy shows that even one of the 6-10 shots fired hit him in the back, it will be nearly impossible to see that as anything other than murder. End.of.story.

The disturbing part of all of this is how the local police handled the shooting:
  • Didn't allow CPR on the scene
  • Left Brown's body on the street for hours
  • Didn't interview any witnesses
  • Allowed the officer to leave town
  • Withheld the officer's name for 5 days
  • Still haven't released the incident report on the shooting or the autopsy results
  • Against the advice of DOJ, released a video purporting to show Brown involved in an unarmed robbery and then admitted it had nothing to do with the shooting
Hence the protests. On Friday the Brown family's lawyer confirmed that an autopsy had been performed by both local law enforcement and the family. So someone has answers to the question of whether or not Michael Brown was shot in the back. But they're not telling the public. 

All of the concern about the militarization of law enforcement has come as a result of the initial police response to the protests (not the shooting of Michael Brown). Its true that there has been some looting. And its right for people to call that out. But its been by a few and, for the most part, the community has done what they can to stop it. Overall, the situation was only inflamed by the over-response from police to the protesters and their lack of action in dealing with the shooting.

That summarizes what I've been able to suss out about what's been happening. At this point its clear that we can't trust local law enforcement to deal with either the shooting of Michael Brown or handling the protesters. The FBI has been sent in to rectify the former and Capt. Johnson is doing his dead level best to deal with the latter. 

But I suspect there are serious power plays going on behind the scenes about all that. And the fact that things haven't clarified yet shows they are likely pretty intense and still in play. Governor Nixon seems to be playing both sides of that isle - which is why things are still muddled. 

Stay tuned...

Friday, August 15, 2014

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I don't know why nobody told you how to unfold your love. 

The power of "You Belong"

In response to the events in Ferguson, President Obama said this yesterday:
I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened. There are going to be different accounts of how this tragedy occurred. There are going to be differences in terms of what needs to happen going forward. That’s part of our democracy. But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law; a basic respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protest; a reverence for the dignity of every single man, woman and child among us; and the need for accountability when it comes to our government.
The bolded phrase reminds me that for years now he has been talking about empathy and expanding our moral imagination. His focus on that is totally validated by this video about the possibilities of an empathic civilisation. Please take a few minutes to watch this. I promise you won't regret it.

There's a lot to digest. But its a powerful idea to consider that we are soft-wired to be empathetic and that our first drive is to belong. That explains why this writer - who had never been interested in poetry before - was totally hooked by this line from David Whyte the moment I heard it:
It doesn't interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
Its also why the most telling reaction to the election of Barack Obama as President came from Whoopi Goldberg, who said, "I've always thought of myself as an American. But today, for the first time, I feel like I can finally put my suitcase down."

When it comes to what is happening in Ferguson, compare and contrast these two images (top from the local police response on Wednesday and bottom when Capt. Ron Johnson took over last night) on what they say about sending a "you belong" message.

Is it any wonder that last night's response was so much more effective?

Its important to note that in the midst of this highly charged situation,  President Obama talked about being one American family. We all know that being family doesn't mean we all agree. Instead, it means that we tell each other, "no matter what you do or say, you belong with us." That's where empathy gains a foothold.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Photo of the Day: What Works

This one goes out to law enforcement all over the country. Take a look at what works...partnership with the community!

Captain Ron Johnson marches with protesters in Ferguson, MO

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What it will take to fix law enforcement

What is going on in Ferguson, MO after the killing of Michael Brown should horrify all of us. It is WAY past time that we took a long hard look at what is happening to local law enforcement. And I am very happy to hear that the Department of Justice is doing just that.

About 25 years ago I was surprised and impressed as I watched our local law enforcement embrace the concept of community policing. That whole movement developed far beyond the idea of cops walking the beat. It embraced the reality that in order for cops to do their job - they had to work in partnership with the community, not see them as a threat.

But 9/11 stopped most of that in its tracks. One high ranking officer told me that his work on crime prevention all got put on hold as the department geared up its anti-terrorism efforts. The culmination of that came into view when our local law enforcement geared up for protests at the 2008 Republican convention. It scared the shit out of me!

This is what was on display before anything happened. It was nothing but overkill and intimidation...IOW, all about dominance. 

Back in the early 1990's a Deputy Chief told me something that has stuck with me for a long time. Please excuse the sexism involved because I think its an important point. He said that the police department would be where it needs to be when over half the officers are women. That's because police work is mostly about negotiation and women tend to be better at that. 

I was reminded of that a few days ago while I was listening to a program about changing careers on public radio. One of the people who called in was a cop who said he should have become a farmer like his dad because police work was such a disappointment. He went on to talk about how he expected to be chasing "bad guys," but instead found he spent most of his time mediating and negotiating community conflicts. 

To me, that gets to the heart of our problem with law enforcement. We envision it as "good guys vs bad guys" and then recruit people for the job who want to stick it to the "bad guys." Racial sensitivity training is never going to cut it when the problem goes much deeper. Until we get to the place where we see law enforcement as a service working for/with the community and recruit folks who are good at doing that, we won't be able to fix this mess.