The Casual Blog

Tag: black bears

Peace and non-violence versus law and order

 

Barred owl at Pocosin Lakes

Life in Raleigh is looking more normal, with more traffic and more shops open.  As for Covid-19, there’s no reason to think the virus has left us.  I understand why businesses want to get going again and people want to get back to work, but I’m not clear why it makes more sense to ignore the virus now than it did a month ago.  Anyhow, I’m using a mask when I run errands, and avoiding unnecessary physical proximity.  

But it seems like we may be making progress on facing and addressing our racism.  Protests against police violence and racial discrimination are continuing across the country.  In many places peaceful protesters were met with tear gas and beatings from the police, which, though dangerous to the protesters, helped make the protestors’ point.  The police have been taught to think of everyone as a potential threat, and to assume that criticism is an attack.  We’ve come to think of police violence as normal.   All that needs to change.

Black bear eating grass at Alligator RIver

Abolition or defunding of police sounds crazy when you first hear it, and that language will stop some people from listening.  But if we can get past slogans, there’s a potentially rich and rewarding discussion to be had.  A lot of our usual police practices are simply bad habits developed over a long period.  Some grew out of the exigencies of racial oppression in our caste system.  Unpacking that history and mindset will take some time.

But it only takes a moments’ thought to realize that a lot of what the police are asked to do has nothing to do with stopping violent crime or theft.  Addressing domestic disputes, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and other social problems does not usually require a gun, billie club, and handcuffs.  Most of our ordinary problems can’t be solved by violence, and a show of intimidating force by police can make them worse.  It would be better to address, say, a mentally ill person who is behaving erratically using a health care professional.  

So it makes a lot of sense to reallocate part of our police budgets to things like addressing the needs of the mentally ill.  This idea of not trying to solve every problem with massive violence could go a long way.  As we start to straighten out the police violence problem, we can start to think about our military violence problem.  We’ve got a military budget that is, by itself, larger than the next ten largest military budgets combined, several of which are our allies’  budgets, and none of which are currently wartime foes.  With our massive advantage in weaponry, we tend to default to violence to solve our problems.

Our military expenditures are staggering, and also embarrassing, especially when you consider how little actual military success they have bought us.  Of course, that money could be spent in a lot of more productive ways either domestically (such as better schools, improved transportation, safer housing) or to advance peace internationally.  Dropping violence as our default solution to everything could save a lot of lives of our young soldiers and many others.  Gearing back on the massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the arms industry could help our inequality problem, while lowering the risk of a nuclear war that ends everything.   

 

But first things first.  I fully expected that conservatives would try to spin the George Floyd protests as the work of radical anti-Americans, and they did.  “Law and order” has been a rallying cry for decades, signaling the need for violence to maintain the existing hierarchy.  It was no great surprise when President Trump rolled out that slogan and called for violence against the protesters.  

I was surprised, though, that he used violent tactics, including tear gas, just outside the White House in order to clear away protesters for a photo op in front of a church.  And I was really surprised that he brandished a Bible over his head for the photographers.  I’m not a Bible man myself, but I assume that a lot of believers would find it offensive to see their holy book used so shamelessly as a political prop.  

Several times in the Trump presidency I’ve thought it can’t get any worse than this, or any more obvious than this.  I’ve gotten inured to his constant lying, but he periodically finds a new low gear for greater cruelty that I think must be shocking even to his supporters.  And I’ve generally been wrong, as almost nothing shakes his core supporters.  But I haven’t given up hope.  From recent poll numbers, it sounds like the old reliable “law and order” ruse may not work this time.  People may be realizing it’s a scam.  The reflexive resort of violence will not bring real peace. 

Anyhow, it seems like much of the nation has realized that our policing can’t go on the way it is, and that we’ve got a lot of other problems that derive from our racial  caste system.  There’s so much to do that it might be a good idea to start a to-do list.  Here’s an example.

 

  1.  Stop policing as it now exists, and retool it as peacekeeping, while redistributing responsibilities for addressing addiction, mental health, domestic violence, and other problems to well-funded professionals in the appropriate areas.
  2. Shut down prisons as they now exist, and retool the criminal justice system as restorative justice to address both the  needs of victims and needs of offenders, with prison used only as a last resort for those demonstrably too dangerous to live among us.
  3. End segregation in our schools and provide the necessary resources for high quality education for all. 
  4. Guarantee good health care for all.
  5. Guarantee safe housing for all.
  6. Provide for safe, efficient public transportation for all.
  7. Provide fair reparations for the victims of slavery.  
  8. End subsidies for pollution and provide resources for clean air and water for all.
  9. End subsidies for fossil fuels and invest in stopping and reversing global warming.  

The pictures here are ones I took in eastern North Carolina week before last of barred owls and bears.  These owls can be hard to spot, and I would have missed these without my talented guide and mentor, Mark Buckler.  I share them as a reminder that the beauty of the natural world is still here, actually very close to us, and it can help us in these difficult times. 

Views of the big anti-racism protests, and getting close to some bears

I

A black bear last week in eastern North Carolina

It’s been almost two weeks since the first peaceful protests in downtown Raleigh, followed by not-so-peaceful protests, vandalism, and looting.  In our city and many others, people gathered in the streets in opposition to police killings of unarmed Black men.  The crowds shouted in unison, Black lives matter! And No justice, no peace!  

Late in the night, some of the demonstrators started throwing bricks through the big plate glass windows and grabbing the cash registers and goods from the shops.  There were some small fires.  It looked like our city could be in big trouble.  

The protests were not far from where we lived.  Our building’s management boarded up the ground-level windows the next day, and a lot of area merchants and residences did likewise.  But it seems like the demonstrators had second thoughts about the destruction.  The protests continued the next day, with marchers with signs, shouting, and drumming, but without the vandalism and looting.    

There have been thousands of people here and around the world peacefully protesting police violence and other anti-Black discrimination.  It’s not surprising that Black people are protesting.  They’ve lived with these problems and related ones for a long time.  It’s good that they’ve found the courage and purpose to organize, and good that non-Black people are joining in.  The movement is helping white people to see the reality of our caste system that subordinates and oppresses Black people.  

Our racist system, and the background folk ideology that sustains it, took a long time to construct, and it will take time to deconstruct.  But it feels like we may be moving in the right direction, and with any luck we’ll keep moving that way.  

What to say about vandalism and looting?  Obviously, it’s not as bad as the police violence and killing of innocent Black people.  Some of the vandalism likely comes out of anger, with inadequate legal outlets for that anger.  In many places, Black voting has been suppressed, so ordinary political expression is not available, and other methods of communicating are too expensive.  I can understand why anger and frustration make throwing a brick through a plate glass window seem like the only available way of getting attention.  And breaking glass and lighting fires certainly does get the attention of the power structure and the media.  

The problem is that property damage and theft also align with the traditional racist narrative that Black people are dangerous and must be controlled, with violence if necessary.  Property destruction is an understandable emotional outlet, but it is ambiguous as communication.  It creates a space for new police violence and disruption of lives by the criminal justice system.  Also, looting may just be a way to get things without paying for them, which is nothing to be proud about.

So, my recommendation is to stop breaking glass and looting, but keep shouting for change.  I really admire the courage of the protesters.  I took on board the message that the Covid-19 virus is dangerous and requires that we not get too close together, and as far as I know that’s still true, so I haven’t been marching.  Also, I’m fearful of getting tear gassed and clubbed by police.  There have been a few stories of police expressing compassion, but a lot more about brutal police attacks on non-violent protesters.  

That’s something else that needs to change.  I feel concern for the police, who in the best of times have a tough, dangerous job.  There are probably many police officers who resist and oppose anti-Black racism, but there are clearly some who don’t.  Police violence against Black people is endemic.  It has to stop. 

There was a heartening essay  in the Washington Post today by Patrick Skinner, a police officer in Savannah.  He noted that police training fosters a mind set of being a warrior, with citizens as the enemy.  He described his own experiment with a different approach to policing.  The key idea was to approach the people in the community he served as neighbors, and try to help his neighbors.  In his experience, it lowered the risk of violence and increased the possibilities for peaceful resolutions.  It sounded like a great idea!

But as I say, this is a good time for non-Black people to learn more about the Black experience and our caste system.  I was pleased to see that three books I found really helpful on this subject are near the top of the New York Times Best Seller list:  White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram Kendi, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  I continue to recommend them.   

I got to spend some time last week in eastern North Carolina at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge and the Pocosin Lakes Refuge.  I was there as part of a wildlife photography trip led by master photographer Mark Buckler.  This area is said to have the largest concentration of black bears on the planet, and we were hoping to see bears.  

There were a lot of them.  We saw mothers with cubs, frolicking yearlings, and males courting females.  We saw bears of various ages walking, running, eating, playing, and resting.   A couple of the bears looked like they had been injured, but most seemed to be well fed and healthy.  It was moving to be with these beautiful and resourceful creatures.   

 From what I learned, the popular myth that bears are normally fierce and apt to attack humans is way off the mark.  They are normally wary of humans and busy with their own concerns.  They are, of course, wild animals, wary and not entirely predictable, and they are definitely capable of attacking humans who threaten them.  

But we saw no aggressive behavior.  Some of the bears we saw were shy and kept a good distance, but a few let us get pretty close and stay for quite a while.  Of course, we kept a sharp eye and ear out for signals of discontent, like grunting, growling, or slapping the ground, and frequently updated our possible exit strategies. 

There were also some less beautiful creatures, including opossums and biting insects that left me with some extremely miserable itching wounds on my legs.  Some of these seemed to be chiggers.  But there were different looks to the wounds:  some bites became blisters, some became hard, and other were oozy.  Wonder if they bite bears?

Wild swans in eastern North Carolina and posthumanism

blogpicbug-1

This past weekend I drove to eastern North Carolina to see wintering tundra swans and other brilliant creatures.  The swans were there — hundreds of them!  These are majestic birds, with long necks and seven-foot wingspans.  They look quiet and elegant as they swim, but they’re very vocal, barking and squawking, sounding from a distance like a huge crowd of little kids at an exciting  sporting event.  

For part of the time I was travelling with members of the Carolinas Nature Photographers Association.  We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express in Plymouth, which was fine.  The CNPA folks were friendly and knowledgeable, and I enjoyed talking with them about such things as camera lenses, post-processing, and wildlife.  I took these pictures with my Nikon D7100 and a Sigma 150-500 lens (a beastly large piece of glass) on a Vanguard tripod.

blogpicbug-1-7

To get to the birdy places, we had to drive a good ways down muddy dirt roads.  I unwisely brought my sports car, and was more than a little anxious at points that we’d get stuck in the mud, with uncertain prospects of getting unstuck.  We never quite got caught, though we did get muddy.  We explored Pocosin Lakes (mostly at Pungo Lake) and Lake Mattamuskeet.

Once I got over the initial goosebumps of seeing the crowds of swans, I started looking for snow geese, but without success.  I  did see various pretty ducks, including northern pintails and northern shovelers, as well as great egrets, great blue herons, and black crowned night herons.  I also saw three black bears, including a youngster.

blogpicbug-1-9

It was wonderfully absorbing and calming to be beside the water, removed from civilization, relatively (my phone had 0 bars ).  Given the fraughtness of our current political drift, it was a particularly good time to be outdoors and close to all that non-human life.  Earlier in the week, I’d read an intriguing column about posthumanism, which resonated with me strongly.

blogpicbug-1-11

More and more, I’ve found myself unsatisfied with the common assumption that people are by definition superior to other animals, and disturbed by the dark implications of that assumption.  It turns out that these are issues addressed by posthumanist thinkers.  The column, an interview by Natasha Leonard of Cary Wolfe, is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a sample.

Humanism provides an important cultural inheritance and legacy, no doubt, but hardly the kind of vocabulary that can describe the complex ways that human beings are intertwined with and shaped by the nonhuman world in which they live, and that brings together what the humanist philosophical tradition considered ontologically separate and discrete domains like “human” and “animal,” or “biological” and “mechanical.”

. . .

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

. . .

My position has always been that all of these racist and sexist hierarchies have always been tacitly grounded in the deepest — and often most invisible – hierarchy of all: the ontological divide between human and animal life, which in turn grounds a pernicious ethical hierarchy. As long as you take it for granted that it’s O.K. to commit violence against animals simply because of their biological designation, then that same logic will be available to you to commit violence against any other being, of whatever species, human or not, that you can characterize as a “lower” or more “primitive” form of life. This is obvious in the history of slavery, imperialism and violence against indigenous peoples. And that’s exactly what racism and misogyny do: use a racial or sexual taxonomy to countenance a violence that doesn’t count as violence because it’s practiced on people who are assumed to be lower or lesser, and who in that sense somehow “deserve it.”

That’s why the discourse of animalization is so powerful, because it uses a biological or racial taxonomy to institute an ethical divide between who is “killable but not murderable,” those who are “properly” human and those who aren’t. So the first imperative of posthumanism is to insist that when we are talking about who can and can’t be treated in a particular way, the first thing we have to do is throw out the distinction between “human” and “animal” — and indeed throw out the desire to think that we can index our treatment of various beings, human or not, to some biological, taxonomic designation. Does this mean that all forms of life are somehow “the same”? No, it means exactly the opposite: that the question of “human” versus “animal” is a woefully inadequate philosophical tool to make sense of the amazing diversity of different forms of life on the planet, how they experience the world, and how they should be treated.

I was enough intrigued by this to download Wolfe’s latest book, but soon found it tough sledding.  Based on Wolfe’s many references to Jacques Derrida, it sounded like I might need to go back and get a deeper understanding of Derrida’s work.  I downloaded Derrida:  A Very Short Introduction, by Simon Glendinning, which at any rate hasn’t yet been hopelessly confusing.  This might be fun and illuminating (though it might not).  

Anyhow, the swans made me think of  The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats, just as Yeats had helped draw me towards the swans.  I once memorized these stark and poignant lines and enjoyed rereading them, and hope you will as well.  It’s an amazing feat to combine with seeming simplicity such wonderful sensuality and the steady-eyed confrontation of  death, that most difficult of subjects.

 

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?