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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Under the Gun

Photo: Jeff Roberson, AP source:
First: a big shout-out to Joshua Eaton for his article covering the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's recent protest against the Urban Shield conference in Oakland:

Joshua reported on a facet of what the rule of law has come to look like in our country and one to which I've been giving a fair amount of thought. As I'll be going to New York next weekend to participate in the People's Climate March, the militarization of the police weighs even heavier.

We need to question some assumptions about this on-going militarization of municipal police forces, particularly as violent crime has gone down in recent years.

The reasons are a constellation of factors; criminologists point to "a more settled crack cocaine market, an increase in incarcerations, an aging population, data-driven policing, and changes in technology that include a big increase in surveillance cameras" (from the CNN article). None of these include adding military grade weaponry, ordinance, and training to police.

A Wall Street Journal article from 2010 notes that one factor is that there is more of a trend to keep crime rates low as opposed to maximizing arrests. This contention as well as several others is debatable if not plain flawed (along with several others in the piece), but while incarceration rates are high owing to those very same maximized arrests there is a large measure of support that there is a greater amount of focus on containment. The problem, of course, is that people of color are disproportionally targeted and this only serves to perpetuate the fear of racially motivated reprisals and agendas. Socioeconomics drive the ratio of poverty to crime and the politics that support those social and economic elements continue to prioritize arrest and incarceration over education, engagement, outreach and engagement with the marginalized communities.

Blacks and Latinos are most targeted, despite the WSJ's contention that "(k)nowing the exact crime rate of any ethnic or racial group isn't easy, since most crimes don't result in arrest or conviction"; this is a metric that is likely to vary from place to place but given rates of incarceration across the U.S. and the demographic break-out of who is behind bars, this comes across as strikingly disingenuous. It is likewise extremely disingenuous to claim that race plays no part in civil discourse or that we should all be "color blind" or that, well, look, "it's because they're not doing anything to improve themselves".

Of course, this is further promoted and propogated by the idea that the social contract in the United States is predicated on lifting oneself up by one's own bootstraps and the individual is solely responsible for his or her own success or failure. Well, bullshit. If you're born in an extremely at-risk environment, if your family has a history of drug abuse, criminality and lack of education or access to same, the cards are hugely stacked against you. The likelihood of getting out of that cycle is extremely small. It's not to say it doesn't or can't happen, but it doesn't happen without assistance and advocacy coming from outside. Here's where we as a society fail miserably ( and for how we stack up in terms of international standards on profiling:

Arming police with bigger, badder weaponry is going to do nothing except exacerbate more fully a culture of fear. As a youngster in Houston in the sixties, I heard all kinds of foolishness about how the country would be consumed in another civil war drawn along racial lines, how the hippies and peaceniks were eroding our freedoms and how we should just A-bomb all of Southeast Asia. Half a century later, I'm still hearing similar variations on this clap-trap (the Internet, a haven for the stupid and morally obtuse, if there ever was one); so I admit I'm taken aback when I see cops in full riot gear armed and ready to gun down citizens they are allegedly sworn to serve and protect. It doesn't look so different from the National Guard at Kent State.

Arming police this way is not a solution. Not for crime, not for answering the ills that beset our very sick society and not as part of anything resembling a social contract. If anything, that contract seems to be fraying to the breaking point.

I do, by the way, recommend that WSJ article. It's flawed and in some very serious ways misguided. Consider this: "Blacks still constitute the core of America's crime problem. But the African-American crime rate, too, has been falling, probably because of the same non-economic factors behind falling crime in general: imprisonment, policing, environmental changes and less cocaine abuse"; but this is irrespective of the institutionalized racism that has led directly to the conditions that black people are in. It also doesn't recognize that black people are overwhelmingly more affected by "imprisonment" and "policing" and not in positive ways.

Other sources I used:

Crime figures and downward trends

Racial Profiling

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I didn't refer directly to this in my post, but it's worth bearing in mind:

Op-Ed on Police Militarization




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