The Casual Blog

Tag: George Floyd

Happy Juneteenth! Let’s talk about police attacking black people

Sally’s orchid in late afternoon sun

Happy Juneteenth!  Change is in the air!  Aunt Jemima is finally retiring, and it sounds like Uncle Ben is soon to follow.  The Confederate flag is leaving NASCAR, and some of the many monuments to the Confederacy are coming down.  It’s true, these are just the symbols of our racial caste system, and there’s a lot more work needed to dismantle the system.  But it’s a start.

The Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd have now been going for several weeks.  The protests against police violence and discrimination have been mostly peaceful, with more black people coming out and more white people joining in.  Amazingly, the fires and looting that took place in the first few days seem to have stopped.  More recent violence has involved police attacking peaceful protesters.  And happily, that violence level seems to have come down, too.

On the radio and in the papers, I’ve picked up bits and pieces of discussions about how to address chronic violence by police against black people.  More conservative types tend to favor increased training to address bias, while more progressive types propose reallocating the police responsibilities and their budgets.  But there seemed to be a lot of agreement that something needs to be done about the abuse and killing of black people by our police. 

There is, though, a continuing counter movement, which views the protesters as violent insurgents, and the police as valiant defenders of civilization.  That Blue Lives Matter is an odd point to be pressing at this moment.  They do, of course, but no one is threatening to arrest and kill Blues.  

In this right-white universe, there are a lot of hymns to the heroism of the police.  Here again, there is an element of truth to the hymns.  Police work can be hard and dangerous, and we should be grateful to those who do it with fairness and integrity.  But the point being made by the hymns, even if by accident, is less noble.  That subtext of the hymns is:  we’re glad to see the police acting tough and violently attacking peaceful protesters, particularly black ones.  

We probably don’t know as much about police work as we assume.  We tend to think of it as a lot about finding and arresting dangerous felons, but that actually happens very seldom.  Much more often, police are responding to noise complaints, domestic violence, illegal parking, public drunkenness, and other minor disturbances of the peace.  The weapons they carry around are intimidating, but not often helpful in these situations.  

I used to enjoy watching television shows about cops.  The cops were so manly, and tough!  Except for Charlies Angels, who had such beautiful hair and legs, and could also kick butt.  I particularly liked The FBI, with the well groomed cops who always carefully did their homework to bring down vicious criminals.  Later, I enjoyed Miami Vice, with its stylish cops, speedboats, and explosions, and violent deaths for drug dealers.

My takeaway from so many cop shows was that police work required a lot of violence.  It was normal to shoot criminals, if you couldn’t beat them up.  It didn’t seem there were any other possibilities.  This seems to be where a lot of the right-wing proponents of police violence are now.   They, and in fact most of us, have not received any training in searching for peaceful resolutions.

It may be justified once in a blue moon for a cop to shoot a fleeing black man in the back.  It could be that the black man has just stolen the nuclear codes and is about to blow up the world, or that he’s making off with deadly bioweapons to start a massive plague.  But those cases are infrequent.  More often, police shoot black men because they’re black, and they refuse to obey them.  

Why do we think it’s OK for police to attack black people?  It goes back a long way.   When I was a kid, there was a lot of talking about desegregating the schools, but we didn’t really do it, and we aren’t even talking very much about it these days.  Indeed, there are a lot of people today who would vigorously resist a desegregation program.  

The people who opposed, and still oppose, desegregation may not know why they don’t like the idea, but I’m pretty sure I know.  They’re afraid of black people.  But why are they afraid?   Because they have very little contact with them, and they’ve been taught from an early age that they’re scary.  Some of their leaders keep reinforcing that message with racist fear mongering, which those leaders use to get votes.  

If people of different races went to the same schools and churches and lived in the same neighborhoods, it wouldn’t work.  They’d figure it out.  White people would gradually realize their black classmates and neighbors are OK.  Not scary.  It would take some time, for sure.  But eventually we’d quit thinking that the most important thing about a person is his or her skin color.  Eventually differences in color would matter no more than whether you have a sun tan, or don’t.

This would be great, except for those who benefit from the existing caste system, like fear mongering politicians.  And, to some extent, every person now defined as white.  White people will lose some advantages, like getting preferred over black people for jobs, schools, and catching cabs.  But nothing huge.  With black people competing on a level playing field, white people may need to raise their game.  But that’s just too bad.    

In fact, it would be good.  It would definitely feel good to be rid of the shame of racial oppression, of secretly knowing that we’re involved in something morally despicable.  It would be so good to take down the walls and fences, and have available more friendship.  We’d feel so much better.

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.