Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The many elephants in the room in Ferguson, Missouri

As long as I'm pointing out the obvious, I figure I should point out a few of the proverbial elephants in the living room in Ferguson, Missouri: the town is 70% black, but the government is overwhelmingly white.  There are only two possible reasons for this: either blacks think that having their town run by whites is just hunky dory, or blacks in Fergusson don't vote.  Unsurprisingly, the latter turns out to be the case.
According to a Washington Post analysis, an estimated 6% of blacks and 17% of whites turned out for the 2013 municipal elections in the township
I was shocked by these numbers.  It's not just that blacks don't vote, nobody votes in Ferguson!  Let's do the math: Ferguson has about 21,000 residents.  70% are black, 30% white.  So 21,000 x 0.7 x 0.06 = 880 black people voted, and 21,000 x 0.3 x 0.17 = 1070 white people voted.

As the mechanic who opened the hood of the non-function car only to find that the engine was gone said, "Well, there's yer problem right there."  It would only take an additional 250 black voters showing up to completely reverse the power dynamic in Ferguson.  That (and remember, this post is about pointing out the obvious) is far fewer than the number showing up to protest in the streets.

If there is a silver lining to Michael Brown's tragic death it is that Ferguson's black community might be finally driven out of their complacency.  There are renewed efforts to register black voters there.  And also unsurprisingly (pointing out the obvious again), Republicans are not happy about it:
In an interview with Breitbart News, Missouri RNC executive director Matt Wills expressed outrage about the reports [of efforts to register black voters].
“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Wills said, “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”
So black people registering to vote is "disgusting and inappropriate" according to the Republicans.  I'll say this for Matt Wills: at least he's willing to stand up for what he believes.  But as long as I'm pointing out the obvious, I will once again celebrate the fact that we live in a great country, where everyone has a right to express their views, no matter how repugnant.

Finally, no discussion of Ferguson and repugnant views would be complete without giving a shout-out to Professor Sunil Dutta, an ex-police officer who opined in the Washington Post that the best strategy for not getting shot dead by a police officer is to unquestioning obsequiousness.  Pointing out the obvious is starting the get a little old, so I'll leave it up to the fine folks at Reason.
If you have the attitude that you are owed deference and instant obedience by the people around you, and that you are justified in using violence against them if they don't comply, we already have a problem. That's especially true if official institutions back you up, which they do. 
If you really think that everybody else should "just do what I tell you," you're wearing the wrong uniform in the wrong country. And if you really can't function with some give and take—a few nasty names, a little argument—of the sort that people in all sorts of jobs put up with every damned day, do us all a favor: quit. 
The law enforcement problem in this country goes well beyond boys with toys. It's much deeper, and needs to be torn out by the roots.


Don Geddis said...

Love the take on Ferguson voting. Hadn't seen that before. Intriguing!

Small quibble with your Dutta comments, at the end. There seems to be an excluded middle here. I agree with Dutta, that when in the street, and there is an encounter with a police officer, and he's armed and dangerous ... that's not the time to pick a fight. In general (barring some known immediate harm), you should obey orders of the officer. I'm sympathetic to the officers as well: they're putting their lives on the line out there, for the benefit of public safety, and have no idea if members of the public are carrying weapons, have gang support, etc. They need to protect themselves, as well as the rest of the public. I agree with Dutta: when an officer gives you an order in the street, you should almost certainly politely obey.

But many people interpret that advice, as though it were equivalent to: "let the police be an armed gang, that can do whatever they want, regardless of the law." No, that's a different extreme point. What you should do, is use all your efforts to punish and prosecute the police for misbehavior ... but in the courtroom, and at the voting booth (mayor, police chief). Not in the street.

Obey orders in the street, and then later, in the calmness of the courtroom, convict the police for unconstitutional behavior. That's my advice.

But physically challenging an armed and trained police officer, who can also call for trained backup? I don't see the scenario where that is good advice.

Publius said...

>either blacks think that having their town run by whites is just hunky dory

How can you dismiss this possibility?

>So black people registering to vote is "disgusting and inappropriate" according to the Republicans.

How do you conclude that from the statements of Matt Willis?
Willis is objecting to:
1. The violation of social etiquette norms of not politicking at the site where someone died, memorials, or graves.
2. Trying to re-cast a non-partisan issue as a partisan one; Willis is quoted as saying, "“This is not just a tragedy for the African American community this is a tragedy for the Missouri community as well as the community of what we call America." (a non-partisan statement)

Ron said...

> How can you dismiss this possibility?

I did not dismiss it as a possibility. To the contrary, I EXPLICITLY said that it WAS a possibility. The reason I believe it not to be the case is that there is overwhelming evidence against it.

> How do you conclude that from the statements of Matt Willis?

Um, because that's what he said?

> Willis is objecting to:

The problem with that hypothesis is that the Republican party (in which Wills is an officer) has a long and well documented track record of using racial tension for political gain. It began in the 60's with the "Southern strategy" in the wake of the passage of the civil rights act, and it continues today with attempts to disenfranchise blacks through restrictive voter registration laws. Since 1968 there has been only one black Republican U.S. Senator (vs. 5 black Democratic senators) and 4 black Republican congressmen (vs. 94 black Democrats). The evidence that the Republican party is racist is overwhelming. They also have a history of leveraging tragedies for political gain (remember Willie Horton?) So, again, you get your pick: either Matt Wills thinks it's OK when whites do these things but disgusting when blacks do them, or he's a hypocrite of the highest order. I consider hypocrisy to be the greater evil, so I was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Ron said...

@Don: you should read this:

Don Geddis said...

Ron: Presumably there are two sides to every story, and we'd need to hear the other (police) side to make a fair judgment in these cases. Note also that the article you linked to continued to make the same mistake that I originally complained about: there are (apparent) examples of police overreach, and then the false alternative of: just let them get away with being thugs. E.g.: "If the person feels his rights were violated by an illegal stop or search, he can try to take it up later but there is almost no chance that anyone will care that the officer tortured him into compliance."

That is the place for the objection. "Take it up later", is indeed reasonable advice (despite the cavalier dismissal in your article).

Can you please outline the alternative you are recommending? I keep reading these horror stories of police brutality. What, specifically, do you want citizens to do? You want unarmed, untrained citizens to attempt to physically resist teams of armed officers?

My objection is that I see a lot of moral outrage and emotional appeals, with very little practical advice. At least Dutta was trying to give practical advice. Please offer me some reasonable different practical advice to consider instead.

Ron said...

> Presumably there are two sides to every story

I think you're missing the point. This is not about Michael Brown. There may indeed be two sides to that story. This is about the continuous, systemic, ongoing violations of people's rights that are going on every single day in this country, that are going on *right now* in Ferguson *despite* the fact that the eyes of the world are on them. The police arrested journalists in a restaurant with cameras rolling, for Christ's sake! (One policeman even threatened -- on camera! -- to "fucking kill" a demonstrator. Happily, that officer has been relieved of duty, so at least *some* sanity is prevailing. But God only knows what is going on off camera.)

Here's the problem:

"if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you."

Period, end of story. No qualification of, "as long as what I tell you is a lawful order, of course."

It is indeed the duty of all members of society to comply with *lawful* orders given by the police. The question is what to do when a policeman gives an unlawful order. "What should citizens do?" is the wrong question. It's like asking whether a rape victim should submit or resist. It is not a rape victim's responsibility to make that decision. it is the rapist's responsibility not to commit the rape in the first place. It is not a citizen's responsibility to decide whether to submit or resist when their rights are being violated by the police, it is the police's responsibility not to violate those rights to begin with.

When a police officer orders someone to turn their camera off (and that happens all the time) the moral culpability buck stops there with the officer. The target of that order can choose to submit or resist. There is no right or wrong answer for the victim.

So... what specifically do I want citizens to do? Well, for starters, I want them to vote. If all of the people now marching in the streets of Ferguson had instead shown up to the polls in the last election we would not be having this conversation. But I also want the cops' rhetoric to change from "if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you" period-end-of-story, to something more like, "I don't want to hurt you, but I am trying to keep people safe, and if you don't follow my lawful orders sometimes that leaves me with no choice but to use force on you. So please, do what I tell you, for your sake, for my sake, and for the sake of everyone around you. For my part, I promise you that I will never give you an unlawful order, and I will have a zero tolerance policy towards any of my fellow officers who I observe giving an unlawful order."

Don Geddis said...

"No qualification of, "as long as what I tell you is a lawful order, of course.""

I still think you're letting your anger at the thug-like tactics of the police (and the racial tension) get in the way of actually making a useful behavior recommendation.

The real situation is: you're in the street, and a police officer comes up to you and gives you an order. You suspect that the order is not lawful. Do you comply, or not?

Whether the order actually is lawful or not, is a question best left for courtrooms. Even if you're pretty sure, you're unlikely to be a qualified lawyer or judge, much less know the full facts of the situation, and how a subsequent court would rule.

Secondly, even if you are correct, and the order is not lawful, what do you expect to happen next? An unarmed man physically resisting a team of trained and armed police, is a recipe for extreme danger. Why would anyone recommend such a stupid course of action? (The only scenario where I could imagine that is a useful plan, is if you have high confidence that something worse awaits you if you comply: torture and suffering at the hands of a deranged serial killer, for example. Might as well die quickly now, rather than suffer in pain for days only to die anyway. And you might even escape!)

""What should citizens do?" is the wrong question. It's like asking whether a rape victim should submit or resist." I completely disagree that it's the wrong question. It's exactly the question that has real, practical importance! You may like to dream that we could all live in a world where such a choice is never required, but your fantasies don't have much to do with actual choices real people must make.

Michael Brown was jaywalking. A police officer ordered him off the road. Whether due to honor, pride, upbringing, (valid!) resentment at police, arrogance -- or even the suggestions of well-meaning people like you! -- he consciously decided not to comply. Everybody agrees on that. (The controversy is whether he deserved to die for such a minor offense, which of course he didn't.)

" The target of that order can choose to submit or resist. There is no right or wrong answer for the victim." I completely disagree that there is no right or wrong answer for the victim. That's the whole point of Dutta's article. The "right" answer is: comply with the order in the moment, then come back and resolve the legality later, in the calm of the courtroom.

It sounds like you tried to write a rebuttal to my statements. But what do you actually recommend? "I want them to vote." Well, sure! Me too. But that's not an answer to how you should act, if a police officer issues you an order that you suspect is illegal.

"I also want the cops' rhetoric to change" Of course I understand how the tone is different between the two statements. But is the implication really any different? You have a street situation, you have an order from the police. As a citizen, how should you react? I want to hear your argument for recommending anything other than, "obey the order given".

If you don't have one, then I'd say you're angry at Dutta because he told an uncomfortable truth, and didn't bother with enough tact to make you feel good about it. But at least he got his point across clearly, which deserves at least some credit.

(And BTW: my whole point was in support of your suggestion of "zero tolerance policy towards ... an unlawful order". Bad apples in the police department should be fired and possibly jailed. That's where all the focus of attention should be in this case. But resisting an order in the street? Madness!)

Don Geddis said...

Perhaps it would be clearer if I try a different scenario. Let's take the "police" part out of it. What if you're on the street, and a stranger (criminal) with a gun gives you an order? Say, something clearly illegal, such as "give me all the money in your wallet"? What "should" you do?

You "should": give him all the money in your wallet. Attempting physical resistance against an armed opponent (and possibly multiples, if it's a gang) is almost always a poor choice, even for trained fighters.

The karma for criminals comes later, from future mistakes, from the court system, etc. It's a very, very rare circumstance where your future expected value is higher if you resist in the moment, on the street, than if you obey whatever order is given.

I don't see how the armed criminal being a police officer somehow makes it a better bet to offer resistance in the moment.

Ron said...

> I still think you're letting your anger at the thug-like tactics of the police (and the racial tension) get in the way of actually making a useful behavior recommendation.

Yes, you may very well be right about that. Good thing no one listens to me ;-)

O. said...

@Don you are giving extremely practical advice to a moral, ethical, and practical question. I think your example gives the game away, so to speak. Likening the cop to a criminal highlights a problem, and your scenario and answer are hyper-practical, but are morally and ethically unsatisfying. And, ultimately, your hyper-practical advice doesn't always work, especially for people of color. Yes, you have a better chance of survival. No, it's not right. No, the system will not always make the rightfully aggrieved whole.

So while you're right, your answer ignores the most important parts of the question. Police should expect and handle resistance appropriately, not resort to the route of fastest resolution, outcome be damned. We expect more of cops than common criminals, surely.

My life may well be more important to me than my rights when I'm stopped on the street, but our rights should be more important than our lives when we want to effect meaningful societal change.

@Ron long time listener, first time caller. I enjoy your blog, keep it up!

Don Geddis said...

I understand the tension between my strange practical advice, vs. the moral outrage that "cops shouldn't be doing this!", or "we have a right to do legal things!"

Let's be clear: I'm a huge supporter of public oversight of police. I recommend that you be polite in the moment, obey orders ... and gather evidence, prepare for clear recollections, write down or record memories as soon as practical, etc. And then sue the bastards in court later. Put them on leave, get them fired from their jobs, perhaps put the cops in jail. If the police chief and mayor don't support you, then you back off to political advocacy, and elect politicians who will demand better accountability of the police forces.

But all that takes place over months and years, not in the seconds and minutes of the street encounter.

Let me try one more scenario. We're constructing a new civil society. We'd love it if everyone was polite and respectful for each other, but that's not reality for human beings. So we need some answer to the problem of violence.

The general approach is: the government ought to control a massive monopoly on violence, but then have civilian and political oversight at the top for checks and balances. You have a basic question to resolve, in your society: do you want your police (and army!) to win every violent encounter? Or not?

The problem is, if the police don't overwhelmingly win every violent encounter, then ... some other person or group does. Do you think your society will be safer if non-police dominate some violent situations? What kind of oversight and recourse do you think you have for non-police violence?

A guy in San Diego steals a tank (in 1995). Police actually have a very hard time preventing him from doing whatever he wants. Surely our response is: we want our police to impose their will no matter what, to be able to control any violence situation. In the moment, the police MUST win.

Separately, if the police begin acting illegally, then we need to correct and reform and perhaps punish them. But that's a matter for courts and elections. In the moment, do you really want police to NOT get their way? How would a system like that really work?

(The alternative would need to be something like Gandhi's civil disobedience, where you refuse police orders, and then voluntarily take the resulting beating. I suppose, if carefully planned, against the right kind of police force, that's an alternative to obeying police orders.)

Ron said...

> gather evidence

How exactly are you supposed to do that if the cop has ordered you to turn off your cell phone, taken your cell phone, handcuffed you, and is in the process of raping you? And no, I did not just make that up. This was in my morning news feed:

"An Oklahoma City police officer was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of sexually assaulting at least six women while on patrol, police said. ... Police expect there may be more victims who have not yet come forward."

And that was not just a coincidence that this story happened to pop up just when I needed it to make my point. Things like this happen ALL THE TIME.

It's easy for you and me to think about this in the abstract because we're rich white guys. The police don't generally fuck with us. The situation on the ground is radically different for women, poor people, and blacks.

> if the police don't overwhelmingly win every violent encounter, then ... some other person or group does

Sure. There are situations (like the situations I cited above) where that would be the proper outcome IMHO.

Only in totalitarian societies like North Korea do the police unconditionally win every violent encounter. Is that really the world you want to live in?

> A guy in San Diego steals a tank

That was an extraordinary circumstance, a true outlier. Misappropriation of military hardware should probably be dealt with by the military, not the civilian police.

Don Geddis said...

What are you supposed to do if the cop is actually just a criminal? Presumably, react as you would do if you were accosted by any criminal. (In general, that means: do what the criminal says in the moment, and then attempt to prosecute them later.)

Pure criminality has jumped a long way from the original question of an officer giving you an illegal order, or violating your rights.

I think the more interesting case is: ordered you to turn off your cell phone. And then, perhaps, some additional illegal activity occurs subsequently, but you no longer have the evidence to prove it.

You may not be able to prove the subsequent crime, but you can work one step at a time. Presumably the order to stop recording police activities is itself illegal, a form of throwing sand in the umpire's face. So you charge the cop with obstruction of justice, for illegally ordering the stop of recording. Do that enough, get enough cops fired, and typical police practice (in the future) will no longer include orders to stop recording.

You have to build the culture you want, one slow step at a time.

"There are situations ... where that would be the proper outcome" But you don't get to fine-tune that much. You're comparing the messy real world, with a beautiful abstract fantasy where only the illegal criminal police activities get violently resisted.

That's not a realistic comparison. Either cops have overwhelming force to get their way ... or they don't. If they don't have the ability to control situations, then they aren't just going to lose when they're doing illegal things. You're going to be sad when the police are doing the right thing, but lose anyway to real criminal gangs.

The problem with North Korea is not that the police win. It's that there is no democratic voter oversight to correct police abuses over the long term. Again, I'm frustrated with the constant framing people are proposing on this issue, of either (1) resist violently in the moment; or else (2) the police get to be unchecked totalitarian dictators.

The correct solution (I claim) is to obey police orders in the moment, and have critical civilian oversight through the court system over the long term. I reject the framing that one must either always be for the police, or always against them.

O. said...

I understand your frustration with the binary framing. However, I don't think that's the framing serious folks intend to create.

> Either cops have overwhelming force to get their way ... or they don't.

This binary framing is more troubling to me, more because it does not address the central problem. It is not that they should or shouldn't have overwhelming force. It is that they should practice discretion, and they sometimes do not, and when that happens, the burden to act appropriately as well as the consequences land very heavily on the people, and people of color disproportionately.

I appreciate that your rhetorical position stands in some contrast to your general position on police oversight. But there isn't perfect police oversight, police do overstep their bounds, and standing up for one's rights or having a bad day shouldn't get you dead. We can discuss what people should do, but that's the small half of the problem.

Ron said...

> I'm frustrated with the constant framing people are proposing on this issue, of either (1) resist violently in the moment; or else (2) the police get to be unchecked totalitarian dictators.

The only one I see framing things that way is you. I certainly don't advocate resisting *violently*. That is clearly foolish. But in between resisting violently and quietly obeying an unlawful order there is a broad range of possibilities. For example, if a cop gives you an unlawful order to stop filming them you could respond by saying, "With respect, officer, I am a U.S. citizen, we are in a public place, and so I have a constitutional right to film you which I choose to continue exercising notwithstanding your unlawful order to the contrary." That is not even civil disobedience because you are not in fact breaking the law. (And BTW, I'm not necessarily *advocating* this approach either. I'm merely pointing it out as a possibility.)

> What are you supposed to do if the cop is actually just a criminal? Presumably, react as you would do if you were accosted by any criminal.

My default reaction when accosted by a criminal is to call the police. That's probably not an option when the criminals are the police.

And BTW, I do not mean to suggest that all or even most cops are criminals. Clearly most cops are still the good guys. But bad cops are, sadly, much more common than people who steal tanks, and *that* is the reason why I don't think that "Follow every order given to you by any cop under any circumstances" is not sound advice. (Of course, telling a cop to go fuck himself is clearly a bad plan too. Ron's First Law still applies: all extreme positions are wrong.)

Don Geddis said...

Actually, I kind of agree with you (and to some extent oododa too). It does seem like a calm, rational discussion is a very viable response. And it preserves your rights. For example, if you get pulled over on a traffic stop, and the cop says "open your trunk", you may not know whether you are allowed to refuse. But if you just "follow orders", then in a later court you can be described as having "voluntarily" opened your trunk. It does seem wise, at that point, to ask a polite and respectful question: "Are you making a request that I can lawfully refuse, or are you giving an order that I must obey? If I'm allowed to refuse, then I choose to do so. On the other hand, I intend to comply with all lawful orders you give me. Please clarify for me your trunk-open request." Now it's up to the cop to provide you legal advice. If he says you must obey, then you should -- but if he's wrong, everything subsequent will get thrown out in court. If, in the moment, he agrees that it's your option, then you get to decline an order without confrontation.

"My default reaction when accosted by a criminal is to call the police." I actually would advise the same thing, even when your accusation is against a cop. You may need to look a little closer at exactly who to complain to (ombudsman? internal affairs? the mayor? FBI?), but there probably is a specific place within the existing government to lodge such a complaint. (And, eventually, if the current officers are not receptive, then this can become a political rallying point in subsequent elections.)