Sunday, May 3, 2015

How Bees Are Making Me Rethink Community

beekeeping and community

Dear Reader, our good professor is in need of more hours in his day and more days in his week so he asked if I wouldn't post in his stead today. Let's have a little bee lesson. I'm still evolving; how about you? That pesky growing and changing means that sometimes I have to rethink some previous ideas.

Here's an example that I recently wrote about on my blog: 

Bees are perhaps the most organized and productive society on the planet. This is possible because the bees are wired to care about the colony. They do things for the group and have a highly developed sense of community. They don't care who gets the credit for the work they do and they do wacky things like making sure all the work gets done and everyone gets taken care of. Pretty radical.

I have been a lifelong worshiper at the altar of the individual. In the  US it's kind of in our DNA. Everything is about me and my rights, right? God bless America and Ayn Rand.  I remember how I felt when Hillary Clinton said "it takes a village." I arrogantly spouted that is only took a couple of committed parents to raise happy and well adjusted children who would become productive members of society. And hilarious adults. Because frankly if you brought up kids with a lousy sense of humor I am going to judge you.

But on this side of parenting--the done side--I have a confession to make. That village that I claimed didn't exist was crucial. Because while I was claiming all the credit for having the most amazing children (or pretending not to know them depending on the day) lots of people were helping. Grandparents were giving me a break, Sunday school teachers were reinforcing not clobbering and biting, my friends were mindful and caring. Elderly neighbors shared wisdom learned over long lives. Whoever produces COPS was teaching them what NOT to do unless you want to end up on national TV in your underwear. When you are 8 years old that is pretty much the worst fate you can imagine.

As Americans we are terrified that saying that the group matters or that community is important is the pathway to group think and disregarding the needs and desires of the individual. Trust me as a creative person and parent of a couple of free thinkers, you would never catch me saying that. The key is finding the balance in the individual vs.society struggle. We come back to that a lot, don't we?

When I go to schools now to teach about bees one of the important lessons I try to get across to kids is that our actions don't just affect us. Our good actions as well as our bad ones end up affecting everyone. I often ask what their classroom, or home, or neighborhood would look like if everyone did what needed to be done without being asked (or told).

Their eyes light up but then they wiggle uncomfortably. So do I. As an adult this makes it hard for me to walk past trash at the park without picking it up. By the way bees do not tolerate any foreign substance in the hive and are meticulously clean. Just ask the guy who tried to hide 18K in cash from his wife during an ugly divorce. The bees chewed it up and pushed it out of the hive. He found a pile of green confetti in front of the hive.

Another great lesson is decision making by consensus and that a group is so much smarter than any one person (or bee) in it.

So while the bees also do some things we frown upon in society nowadays-- they will kill a queen if they sense she is weak and raise up a new one. They also throw all the males out in the fall because they just use up resources and are only good for mating so they let them starve. We probably shouldn't do that. And while they are super productive and efficient they aren't creative free thinkers which in human society we desperately need. But they have a few things to teach us about things like cooperation and hard work.  Lessons we seem to need to be reminded of.

This beekeeper/citizen/human needs them every day and often more than that.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Digging for Answers

Professor J,

My good man, we are struggling lately, aren't we? Or is that just me? But then we have been tackling a couple of issues that don't have easy answers. Although the older I get the more I think that things are more complex than I previously thought, that it's impossible to have all the information to make a fully informed decision, and we may not even understand the actual roots of lots of the issues we face.

In my last post I noted two separate uses for video documentation of police actions, I thought it went without saying that such footage wouldn't solve the layers of complexity involved in all of these cases. I meant only that the near universal access to cell phones results in publicizing these incidents and allows any citizen who witnesses such actions to document them. In supporting the use of cameras on and around police officers my thinking was that it might affect an officer's behavior occasionally (even once would matter) but the usefulness would also prove to document events and actions so that we no longer just rely on the officer or the suspect to give an accurate accounting of their actions. You are correct in saying that police in the past have tampered with or seized footage of this sort. For cameras to be effective in any real way tampering with them would have to bring about strict penalties. Think pilots tampering with the black box on their aircraft once the flight is under way.

Monday night the situation in Baltimore devolved into violence and I followed the events via CNN and Twitter. Social media provides a rawer version of people's attitudes than reporters are able to capture even on live television. The statements tweeted by a cross section of the country revealed underlying attitudes. First there is an huge amount of racism and an ugly disrespect for others that people are willing to express in a semi-anonymous form. But I think we all really know this already. The second thing is that people in the neighborhoods affected have great insight, dignity, and in many cases a sense of humor and insider perspective. But the third thing and the one I want to focus on is the devastating lack of understanding of poverty and its repercussions in this country.

I was shocked and saddened by the missing compassion in many of the statements. Limited to 140 characters people only have enough space to say what they actually believe (or think is clever) and not to flesh out complete philosophies. It's surprising how many people believe that poverty is a choice or a result of laziness instead of a systemic problem that affects the psyche of a human being and over time a neighborhood or culture. This is true in third world countries where we see people behave in ways that illustrate their hopelessness (images of young people throwing rocks at police in riot gear looked a lot like Palestine) but here, in America, it takes on an extra layer of cruelty. Here due to our consumptive lifestyles and the prevalence of advertising and reality TV we ask people to live under impoverished conditions while pressing their faces up against the glass of wealth and privilege. Then we just can't imagine what all the anger is about.  Because, after all, shouldn't they just go to college and work harder?

But then ask the people who tout that philosophy if college should be provided for free or student loan debt erased...

...or whether they want to invest in public transportation so people without cars can actually get to a job...

We send a lot of mixed messages. This week a mother who saw her son on television taking part in the riots and chased him down on the street is being praised for hitting him and cursing him. That video has gone viral. Meanwhile middle class parents praise her while increasingly shying away from physical punishment for their own children who are obviously misunderstood by teachers and others in authority when they are behaving badly. We cut government assistance and demand that single mothers find work, then the other night on CNN the black reporter wanted to know where all the parents of the young rioters were. It didn't seem to occur to him that it was possible they could be their jobs.

One of the underlying causes of all of these issues is that with poverty comes a lack of safety and a feeling of security that the middle class has no understanding of. Last week in my city a young girl was killed when a gang drove by and shot her to death while she was sleeping in her own bed and another child was killed playing in her own front yard.

We have trouble imagining why someone would fear the police because in our everyday lives we feel safe. There were a lot of jokes with pictures last night on Twitter about why people would steal toilet paper while looting a store. No one was taking a moment to think what those images, and there were a lot of them, might mean. One of the parts of feeling safe is feeling that you have enough. We don't seem to grasp that our cities have entire neighborhoods of citizens who don't know what the safety of enough feels like. I'm not condoning the behavior (do I really have to say that?) but pointing out that the disconnect we have leads to a dangerous lack of understanding and empathy which is getting to at least the first layer of these issues.

Having said all this, I return to the issue of police brutality, which is a very real issue. As you've pointed out there is a culture of covering up for each other in departments and in the justice system taking the word of the officer over a suspect. This isn't new. I would even say that this is the history of many local police departments and moreover law enforcement for time immemorial. It's the problem of authority in all its forms. It's the problem of giving people authority and arming them. It's the problem of giving them authority, arming them, and trusting them to do the right thing and police themselves. That's a lot to ask of people given how corruptible we seem to be. So the issue isn't if this happens or how often it happens but how to correct and prevent it.

I think that part of the problem is that we have taken officers off the "beat" of literally walking a neighborhood and being part of a community and placed them in cruisers that make them not people but the anonymous symbol of authority and, to some, oppression. We can link that to the actual design of modern American cities where few of us can walk anywhere and so even as citizens are disconnected from each other. We barely know our neighbors let alone the officers who patrol our streets.

We've also militarized local police departments to the point where many neighborhoods look like occupied territories, a complaint we heard about Ferguson. 

Probably one of the things that could be done to reduce all of these problems is the legalization of marijuana. Trying to police the possession and sale of that one substance keeps the justice system clogged and our for profit prisons full.

Okay, a question for the historian: What's a  version of law enforcement you can point to that was effective in all the ways we need it to be including protecting citizens from abuse? And would it be able to be replicated in a nation with the size and diversity of ours? 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Transparency and Linkage


It occurs to me now (too late!) that I should have originally phrased my words more carefully.  I should have said “I’m betting there’s a fair chance…” rather than stated so definitively.  Because the way I originally put it, I obviously tilted the odds of losing the bet! :)

All those things I put as general potentialities are specific realities for African-Americans and other minorities.   Living under that brings a level of stress, anxiety, and fear that is hard for those who don’t live under it to relate to.

My understanding of the law of allowed public recording of law enforcement actions is that it applies to public property/public space, and often does not apply to private property or space.  Some municipalities or even states have passed ordinances prohibiting videotaping of law enforcement officers.  Of course, these are technically against the above standard allowing of videotaping of officers doing their duties in a public space, but the ACLU (you know, that reviled organization) and others can only challenge just so many things in just so many places.  So local “good old boy” networks consequently get away with a lot, especially when THEY are responsible for enforcing the decisions of courts against them, and both the state and feds are often distracted, overwhelmed, or uninterested.

Even those few times when police are confronted for seizing or erasing (or harassing or arresting the recording individual) cellphones, the “penalty” (when there is one) is often little more than a slap on the wrist and a “don’t do it again.”

And courts have been VERY sympathetic to police officers who state they prohibited or pushed back recording because it was interfering with their duties, or, to be more precise, the person doing so was interfering with “carrying out police duties” or “inciting a hostile crowd.”  It remains to be seen how much the rash of publicized recent incidents will in actuality bring about a change to that standard.

I well agree, however, that cameras in all aspects of police duty would be a boost to citizen protection.  It is not flawless, however.  Those in power and control of the flow of information sometimes have turn off, override capability, or the ability to cause a “malfunction.” 

Rather like the Big Brother official in Orwell’s 1984.

So unless we inculcate cultural and institutional change, the cameras could become merely a loose band-aid.  However, if we push for change in the disconnected, parochial, defensive-aggressive, haughty, arrogant model that exists in far too many law enforcement organizations, the cameras would actually be a synergistic propellant to that change.

And then we could see about addressing who and what the “law enforcers” truly serve.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Cell Phone as a Civil Rights Tool

Professor J,

And now we have Baltimore and Freddy Gray.

But let's back up to your question which I answered. You asked, simply, what was the first reaction when seeing the police, without thinking about it intellectually. You assumed, even bet, it would be fear. You didn't ask whether there were any circumstances under which I might be fearful of police. If that is the question, then of course there are several instances in which that would be true, some of which you outlined.

From the rest of your last post I think we are agreeing that: yes there are lots of good police officers, there are some officers that have issues (whatever the cause) and shouldn't be in a position of authority let alone armed, and that police forces have a code of protecting their own and that is a huge contributing factor in all of these cases.

I'd be interested in knowing what the statistics are for female officers involved in cases like the ones we've seen a rash of recently.

While I was looking up statistics on that I found that last month a female officer in Pennsylvania was charged with shooting an unarmed white man twice in the back of the head after she'd tased him. I wonder why that story didn't get any national attention. I thought that was because there wasn't any video to stream on a 24 hour news channel, but there was actually audio and video of the assault that showed him not behaving in an aggressive manner (but guess what she'd reported). I'm guessing the reason we never heard about the story is that she was arrested and charged on March 24th. Which made me wonder about whether gender as well as race had any bearing on how these cases were perceived and resolved.

I can't help wondering if the greatest civil rights tool ever is the cell phone. Currently at the museum we have an exhibit of civil rights photography taken by nine photographers where were actual activists. Lots of photographs from that era are from publications where journalists showed up and chronicled an event then went home. These pictures were taken by people who were in the trenches, so to speak. But they still had to be published and publicized by the "gatekeepers" of information at the time. Which might have meant first winning those people over. Those barriers no longer exist. That anyone can record an event and post it or send it to someone in authority is helping to shine a light on the real problems that cannot be so easily covered up.

In recent years the law has upheld the right of citizens to record police officers doing their job anyplace that could be considered in plain view as long as it doesn't interfere with them. In the past it was up to the officer to decide whether or not that was happening (a problem) but that is changing. They also don't have the right to confiscate a camera or delete any images or video.

People who control the flow of information have power. Much of what we are seeing is a significant shift in who has the ability to shape the conversation and public opinion. In the Freddy Gray case the video that shows him before he got into that van looks damming. We can all speculate but only those officers inside the van know how he came to be so horrifically injured that it resulted in his death. We'd like to think that people conduct themselves whether or not they think they are being watched. Unfortunately we know that simply isn't the case. Any citizen would feel safer knowing that their interaction with a police officer was being recorded.  A camera inside the van and on every officer involved would eliminate the mystery of what happened to Gray once those doors were closed.

It may even have saved his life.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Out of the Blue

Friendly Bubble Blower!

I see you and I are determined to keep our disputation going a while longer, lol.

But first, yes, agreement! Wisdom in the justice system is in short supply and yet so desperately needed!  

Security is close to the first of the basic needs, of course.  For women in general it tends to become even more valued than for men.  And for some women, it is nearly equal to the primal basics of food, clothing, and shelter.

The title of your last post implied the famous Lord Acton dictum about power.  Therefore, I cannot fully agree with your stipulation that wanting to go home at the end of a shift makes police less likely to do anything that would interfere with that.   Distortion can occur far too readily for anyone with the potential power of freedom or restraint—or life and death—be they military members or law enforcement officers.   It doesn’t have to occur in a majority to be a serious problem, it only has to occur in a significant number, with the other members ignoring, going into denial about it, or even closing up or covering up about it.

Many of us—you and I included—have friends and family members who are in law enforcement, and we like and trust them.  Most people have no contact with police, outside of traffic tickets.  There is also the “Congressional phenomenon”--being unconfident about and dissatisfied with the police, but satisfied and confident with a friend or relative one knows who is on the police force.  Of course, we likely count our family and friends in that majority who do, at least in their minds, their best to serve and protect and get home safe.    But what do they tolerate?

It happens enough in “well funded” and “highly professional” police forces.  Yet especially in the poorer or lesser desired forces, there tend to be larger numbers of the marginals—those who shouldn’t be police officers—but because we value police officers little better than we  do teachers, it’s hard to attract sufficient high caliber folks in numbers.  And that’s even where there is adequate pre-testing and screening.  In many places, primarily for money reasons, there isn’t.

But more importantly is the blue code:  they don’t turn each other in.  They don’t “police” their own ranks.  Indeed, only when forced to, or when they are punishing someone for personal or tribal reasons, are members “given over to the justice system.”

THAT is corrupting.  At first, only a little.  After a while, it is like a descent into a group psychosis. 

Wishing it were otherwise will not unmake it so.

Yes, a great many law officers try to do their best. That’s who I’m appealing to.  The good ones must transcend the ones who have gone astray, and correct things. 

Yes, protocols of force usage do exist in a great number of police departments.  But even where protocols exist, are they followed?  Are there sanctions when they aren’t?  Is the standard override of “I was in fear for my life or the public’s safety” justification ever strongly questioned?  In the vast majority of cases for all these, the answer is no.

We do levy high expectations on officers who must work in often continually stressful environments.  They often deserve our reward and respect.  That’s one reason that law enforcement and military often get to retire after 20 years; the strain beyond that is often too telling.

Let’s suppose for the moment that I have overstated, at least for white people, the fear issue (which is entirely possible, but I will supply further arguments later) and that “safe” is the overwhelmingly dominant reaction.  There could still be complexity and nuance and situation-dependence there.  For example, even the neighborhood bully is a welcome sight when the menacing gang from another street shows up.

Also, would one feel “safe” if an officer seemed to start following you?  What if a police car seemed to start following you?  What if a police officer called from behind you, “Excuse me sir/mam, I need to talk with you for a minute.”

Would one feel the same if the police knocked on your door in the middle of the night?  How about if they knocked forcefully?  Shone lights from outside into your bedroom? 

How about if one were an activist?  Worked for justice?  Stood up to police and systemic abuses?

Even for those people who feel no fear at all toward the police, do they feel closeness?  Warmth?  Confidence?  Surveys cast some doubt.

I both looked at the research and canvassed many people from a variety of backgrounds and situations to get some additional words or phrases of how they feel around the police:  Besides Fear, there was Uneasy.  Intimidated.  Wary.  Skeptical.

I also dug into how citizens see the police:  Lazy.  Complacent. Unprofessional.  Arrogant.  Loners.  God-complex.  Not happy.  Ticket-crazy.  Snooping.   Abusive. Unfriendly.  Not courteous.  Biased. Disrespectful.  Unethical.  Not part of us.  Can’t catch real crooks and don’t try.  Tardy.  Aggressive.  Rule-breakers.  Harassing.  Excessive in use of force.

But there was also: Dedicated.  Cool-headed. Helpful.  Fair.  Needed. Protectors.  Reliable.  Tough.  Rule-enforcers.  Unappreciated.  Underappreciated.

The George Mason University study is some of the most comprehensive research, but it is now dated, nearly 14 years old.  It has been critiqued not only because of its being commissioned for police chiefs, but for being a product of the low-crime, go-go economy of the Clinton years, and thus some feel it is not representative of overall patterns, and especially those of today.   That criticism probably goes a bit too far.   For one thing the study did chronicle was that confidence in police has been on a steady (although slow) decline.  And, one of the most troubling of trends, individual citizen interaction—almost any interaction—with the police tends more often than not to to drive down satisfaction, confidence, trust, and support. 

Age plays a part.  Younger and disadvantaged people tend to have a perception of the police  that is FAR harsher than other age groups.  In general, one’s perception of the police tends to be increasingly milder and positive the more of the following factors one has:   older, socio-economic advantaged, suburban, white, and neighborhood satisfaction.

The more times police actually try to help citizens in some fashion, the better perception, the better cooperation, the better satisfaction, and the lower the crime rate.  Community policing is not just some buzz term; it works when done properly and embraced by both officers and the public.

According to the George Mason study, 20% of Americans fear the police will out of the blue (no pun intended) come and arrest them when they are completely innocent.  Since the study’s release 14 years ago, we have 1) had the Patriot Act and other measures of the security-fear state, 2) a marked decline in socio-economic wellbeing, and 3) the continued disconnection trend, all of which, and more, have given strong indication that the percentage cited in the study has substantially increased.

Of course white people don’t feel the same fear that minorities often do.  Not even close.  And white privilege makes our eyes less sharp to the realities that others face.  If one talks to African-Americans, they will readily tell you that North Charleston was not some isolated incident.  It is what happens all too regularly all over the country.

Most of the time un-recorded, unbelieved, and uncared about.

But we should care.  MLK was right when he said injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Corrupting Power?

Professor J,

Thanks for helping me out when I had once again overestimated what I could get done and underestimated how long any one task is going to take. Great wedding weekend although it seems as though the entire state of Georgia is under construction. Here's something I learned: blowing bubbles out the window of a car sitting on the interstate in traffic makes women smile, children laugh, and men irritated. 

First I'll go back to our other discussion for a moment: Agreeing that criminality is overstating much of what we're talking about, probably most.  As I stated early on the problem we are having with it is the law which must have a standard to go by when in reality it would take great wisdom on a case by case basis to come to a fair and wise decision based on each individual circumstance. 

I read the question you posed and answered it in my mind before I got to the end of the sentence. Safe. The only time I feel fear when seeing a police presence isn't when seeing an officer but when seeing a police car when I'm driving. Like everyone else I'm afraid of being pulled over. Blue lights make us all nervous. But if I am in a business or restaurant and a police officer enters, that presence makes me feel safer than I did before. Those feelings are based on my experiences with officers who have been polite when ticketing me for some infraction where I know I've been guilty and times when they've been needed and responded promptly and courteously. Also a couple of incidents when accidentally summoning them to the house earned a certain three year old boy a badge and friendly lecture about what constitutes an emergency.

Are these experiences the result of being white, privileged, middle class? Maybe. Even probably. I have never been stopped unnecessarily. Certainly never harassed or even made uncomfortable. But even so somewhere in the back of my mind rattling around is the awareness that here's a guy with a gun and a badge and authority along with some scenes from movies with bad cops. There are plenty of real life stories of corruption and cover ups so the concept is hardly a foreign one. Where I think we enter dangerous territory is when we start to assume that it's the majority.

Most officers want to do their job, protect their community and go home at the end of their shift. If anything the day in and day out of the profession makes them less, not more likely to behave in a way that would interfere with doing any of those things. When we see a uniformed officer assuming that he is a danger in some way isn't  any more accurate than assuming everyone in a military uniform loves war and bloodshed. Or that every black teenager hanging out on a corner is dealing drugs and belongs to the neighborhood gang. That we see this trend in white officers shooting black suspects is tragic and disgusting. But lets dispense with promoting fear when it isn't necessary. It isn't fostering the reconnection you allude to in your closing.

The South Carolina case is murder. For whatever reason the officer shot an unarmed man in the back as he was running away. And hardly at a pace that would have stopped the policeman from running him down to grab and handcuff him. Were it not for the video this officer could tell the standard story of being in fear for his life and having no choice but to shoot. We can only hope that the placement of the wounds would have been cause for a serious and in depth investigation. Based on other cases it's doubtful.

It's fairly common knowledge that police are not supposed to discharge a weapon simply because a suspect is fleeing. An officer would have to prove that they were a danger to others. The old "stop or I'll shoot" is against protocol on modern police forces.

The majority of officers are working hard to make their communities better places. Many of them have diverse backgrounds and are college educated. But it does attract a particular personality. According to psychologists police officers tend to be:

Action oriented

But these traits only hold true after several years on the job. The psychological testing that takes place  before being admitted to the academy is meant to weed out particular personality type and avoid a force comprised of any one particular type of individual. The problem may be that, like politics, it's the job itself and the power it involves that corrupts the individual over time.

We are asking people to take on the work that few of us would want to do and perform it for years without being changed by it while operating in more stressful situations than most of us will every experience. That may be the root problem that needs solving and doing it in some way that doesn't lose the valuable experience of men and women in uniform is going to prove a challenge

Monday, April 13, 2015

Twitching With Fear


I have a question for you and our readers.

Not what your intellectual thought is, but what is your first emotion when you think about the state police or your local police?

I’m betting it’s fear.

And ask yourself, if you’re not Latino or African-American or Arab-American: If YOU feel fear, what must they feel?  If YOU feel no closeness or warmth or confidence toward or from the police officers, what must minorities feel?

And those who film injustice have fear.  The man who caught the apparent murder of Walter Scott on video so feared for his life that he almost erased it.

If those who are to uphold the law, to be the honest servants of the law, instead hold us in disdain and themselves above and around the rule of law, what do we then have?  Who do they really serve?

It does not appear to be “merely” epidemic, it appears to be common police methodology, and not just against minorities: plant evidence if necessary, provoke someone into committing an “offense,” harass, intimidate, and show “them” that their lives are really subject to police whim.  All in supposed service of “keeping the streets safe.”

It not only feeds a prison-industry system with its required bodies and labor, but it brutalizes both the oppressed and the oppressors, each of which carry around fear, distrust, anger, and resentment that always house the potential to explode at the slightest stress or disruption.

Police officers who subvert their honor, morals, integrity, and the confidence of their families and the public by subverting law in supposed service of it have strayed and stained far.  Their fellows who protect them and acquiesce in silence have also done so.

That violence and murder by the police are too often accepted by those police as normal or even desired is very disturbing.  That we even have to explain how wrong revolting actions are—indeed, have to explain to a fine level of granularity—is even more disturbing.

That many police forces do not emphasize—sometimes do not even have—resolution protocols where violent means (and especially deadly violent means) are the least desirous of options and only resorted to when truly unavoidable, should disturb us greatly.  And that even when violent means are determined to be necessary, why is there a presumption that deadly violent means are the preferred or even only option? 

Because it might surprise you that, even getting past the fact that an unarmed mere runner probably shouldn’t be shot at by the police at all, that police often have no training, no protocols, and no desire to shoot to wound.

America is paying a terrible price for its over-emphasis on individuality.  For there are great evils that arise from all that disconnection.  The police may have often disconnected themselves from us.  But we have also often done the same toward them.  We need reconnection, stat.

We will know we have it when the first emotion we have about the police is fear no longer.
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