Thursday, August 13, 2015

Grand Juries Aren't the Problem: Pressing Charges Against Police Officers

On August 11, 2015, California enacted SB 227.  This law prevents the use of grand juries in cases related to law enforcement officers' use-of-force prosecution.  What this means is that now, when a police officer fatally shoots a civilian, the decision on pressing charges is up to prosecutorial discretion.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

The prosecutors are the ones in charge of getting an indictment from a grand jury.  In an environment where you could "indict a ham sandwich" these same prosecutors failed to obtain an indictment for the murder of Eric Garner in New York.  In Ferguson, Missouri, the prosecutor decided to overwhelm the grand jury with any possible piece of evidence related to the murder of Michael Brown, and in doing so, managed to not get an indictment.

The grand jury system was a convenient way to allow the district attorney's office to wash their hands of the decision of whether or not to press charges.  In reality, they could have gotten the indictments if they had actually been trying to get them.

Under the new law in California, prosecutors no longer have to go through such a charade.  Now, they can simply choose not to press charges when a police officer murders a person of color, and are not required to give any sort of reasoning for the decision.

A large part of the systemic racism in the criminal justice system revolves around who the prosecutors choose to bring charges against.  Somehow, when a black person is arrested for possession of cocaine, they find themselves in federal court, facing federal charges.   When a white person is arrested for possession of cocaine, they find themselves in state courts, facing state charges.  All of this is up to the sole discretion of the district attorneys.  And due to the decision in United States v. Armstrong, you have to prove that there was intentional racism before you're allowed to subpoena the records from the district attorney's office.  But, of course, those records are what is necessary in order to prove the racism.  (Michelle Alexander has a great discussion of this in her book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness")

Getting rid of the grand juries in the use-of-force cases against police officers isn't the answer.  They're going to find that charges still aren't brought against police officers, and people of color are still being abused and murder by people with immunity to any kind of repercussions.  Police officers need to be held to a higher standard.  Yes, it's a very dangerous job.  But that doesn't mean that police officers should be allowed to shoot people because they feel threatened, or slam their heads against the concrete because they didn't instantly follow any and all orders, or conduct a forcible cavity search in the middle of gas station parking lot.  Any time that a police officer uses force, that officer needs to be held accountable for it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Donald Trump and War Heroes

I don't think that there are many people who will argue, in hindsight, that the Vietnam war was a good idea.  There's much that can be said about the history of colonialism in Vietnam, and the oppression of the native people that led to the kind of uprising that feeds so well into communistic regimes.  But this is a separate issue from Trump's statements about John McCain's status as a war hero.

I find myself trying to define a war hero during this time period, 2015, compared to the late 1960s and early 1970s, and even earlier from the 1940s and 1950s in the wake of WWII.  Defining a war hero in any of those contexts is murky at best. defines a war hero as "a person who is admired for bravery in war", which is a definition that can be fairly liberally applied.  Historically, I think that anyone who served and got any kind of decoration was considered to be a war hero.  Many people currently consider anyone who served in the military in or near a combat zone and was discharged honorably to be a war  hero.  They served their country by following orders, without shirking their duty or refusing to do it.

There are, of course, conflicting opinions on military service and the draft.  Several news articles have brought up the question of what was Trump doing while McCain was serving in Vietnam.  This brings up several separate lines of thinking to the issue.  What of the men who were able to use college as an out from the draft?  Or the men who fled to Canada?  At the time there were many reasons that a person would not want to go to Vietnam to fight.  Not wanting to die is a very good reason ("cowardly" though people may consider it), just as believing that killing other human beings is wrong.  But there was also no tangible, imminent threat to Americans.  There was no attack on Pearl Harbor, nor a dictatorship pillaging its way across Europe committing atrocious acts of genocide, to incite the need for Americans to shed their own blood for the cause.  The "threat" of communism spreading in Asia was the reason for entering this war.  Not wanting to fight in that war was not unreasonable.  Men who avoided the draft (through legal or "illegal" means) should not be judged harshly for it.

That being said, those who served in the military did so bravely.  It took bravery to go through training, and go out into a war zone.  They followed orders, whether the orders were morally right or not, and they served their country.  That service should not be swept aside because the President and Congress foolishly ordered them into a conflict.
The news articles that try to undermine Trump's statements by saying that he avoided going to war while McCain went and served are missing the point here.  Trump's college attendance and upper class business pursuits are not what is needed to counter his war hero statements.  Re-hashing the discussion of the draft and who served and who didn't will not make anyone feel better, nor will it solve any current debates.  The issue here is that Trump is praising soldiers who were not taken prisoner during a war, at the expense of those who were.  Maybe the point he was trying to get around to was that he didn't think that McCain has done enough to support veterans.  That's a point worth discussing.  But that's not what he said.  No matter how much back-peddling he does now, Trump cannot avoid having conveyed his opinion of POWs, and his perception that they are not as good as soldiers who are not captured and taken prisoner.

I think it's necessary to say that it is not a soldier's fault for being taken prisoner.  If a mission goes bad, or an order is given that leads to soldiers being taken prisoner, maybe you can start to have a discussion about culpability around a bad order that led to bad things happening.  But that is an incredibly serious charge to make.  Especially during the Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese were trying to take as many prisoners as they could to use for bargaining power.  This was not a situation where prisoners could only be taken when something very badly went wrong.  This was a situation where prisoners were taken fairly regularly, due to no gross errors in judgement.  The conditions for the POWs in North Vietnam is described in detail in numerous war memoirs and by the government, and simply surviving those conditions required heroic effort.

I cannot abide anyone who summarily dismisses the experience of a POW and implies that they are not as much of a war hero as a soldier who was not taken prisoner.  That kind of perspective displays an inherent lack of knowledge of (first hand or second hand) and interest in the military experience of a service man/woman.  While he was trying to say that McCain hasn't done enough for veterans, what he actually said was that he doesn't understand military service and veterans, and he has no interest in doing so.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Cage of Oppression

The analogy comparing a bird cage to oppression has always stayed with me since reading the essay on oppression by Marilyn Frye.  When you look at only one little thing, one wire of the cage, it's not something that oppresses you all by itself.  But once you take a step back and look at all the wires put together, it becomes apparent that all the wires come together to create the oppression and trap you inside.

Frye was discussing this idea in relation to sexism and the oppression of women.  But I think the analogy can be applied to the systemic racism that is becoming more and more apparent thanks to the national news coverage of police brutality.

While waiting in a doctor's office, the TV in the waiting room was tuned to Fox news.  After a segment covering the protests and riots in Baltimore, the receptionist commented "I don't know why they can't just stop when the cops say stop".  Even when the victim has their spine severed while in police custody, this woman was saying that it was the victim's fault.  These young black men who have been killed are immediately painted by the media and public officials as having deserved it.  They are transformed from being victims to being criminals.

Part of the problem is that most white people don't see the cage of oppression, and they don't understand how much systemic oppression faces black people every day of their lives.  I'll never know what it's like to be black, but I have chosen to look at what has been happening with open eyes.  I wonder why it is that it's only black people being killed by cops.  Numerous studies have shown that different races commit crimes at the same rate.  Black people aren't more violent or more inclined to be criminals than white people.  But somehow, blacks make up the majority of arrests made in this country.  Prosecutorial discretion somehow plays out so that black people get harsh sentencing, while whites get minimal sentences or the charges dropped entirely.   The Supreme Court has ruled that statistical evidence of a pattern of racially biased sentencing does not prove racism in any one case, and that you have to prove there was specific conscious, discriminatory intent for a case to be made (McCleskey v. Kemp).

Police officers choose which communities to target looking for crime, having been granted sweeping authority and financial incentives to make drug related arrests.  Though all the statistics show that drug use and drug dealing is committed by all races at about the same rate, the police target black communities for raids and arrests.  It results in a disproportionate number of black people being discriminated against for their criminal record.

Racial targeting, racially based sentencing, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, police brutality, the list of wires in the cage goes on and on.