Our Carceral State
French philosopher, Michel Foucault once famously argued that society operates as a vast prison. While Foucault’s concerns were with an individual’s freedom constrained in such a system, maybe a more direct analogy to our current situation is how our judiciary and police force is used to control and literally imprison a vast swath of our lower classes.
It is no secret that in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, much of the city’s income was derived from fines and court fees for minor traffic violations, essentially converting area police work from “public safety” officers to revenue collectors. These violations disproportionately fell on poorer individuals and minorities who may not have had the money to keep their hedges trimmed and their vehicles perfectly equipped. In effect, the tickets and citations amount to a regressive tax on members of our society least able to afford it.
In the wake of the Brown killing, Governor Jay Nixon signed a broad municipal court reform bill that capped court revenue and imposed new requirements in an attempt to end what the bill’s sponsor called predatory practices aimed at the poor. Good. The bill’s primary sponsor, Senator Eric Schmitt, said people have the right “not to be thrown in jail because you’re a couple of weeks … late on a fine for having a taillight out.” He called the current system in place in Ferguson, “taxation by citation.”
“Under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops,” Nixon said.
This is all good, too, and certainly the caps on revenue collection by police is a step in the right direction, but in the larger scheme of things, I’m not nearly as sanguine as Governor Nixon is about “cops going back to being ‘cops.’”
…in Southern states groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same.
For one thing, the historical precedent that they might ‘go back’ toward isn’t exactly edifying, especially in Southern states where groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same; that is, ensuring the safe keeping of property for the wealthy. In the North, police officers often functioned as barriers between the wealthy elites and the immigrant “hordes.” The history of industrialization and unionization in this country is rife with struggles between union supporters and police officers or private firm surrogates operating in their wake (such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency –fun fact, at the height of its existence, the Pinkertons had more agents than the standing army of the United States of America).
We like to think of police officers as neutral arbiters of the law, itself a neutral amalgam of well thought out rules for living, but whether rounding up runaway slaves or busting union organizers, the police have historically found themselves on the side of property owners. What this means in contemporary America is a focus on things like illegal drug use and sale, vehicle violations, public disturbance rules, and zoning laws that disproportionately hit the poorest members of our society first and hardest. If we run back through just the most noteworthy police shootings in the last year (topping 1,000 according to an unofficial list compiled by the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/08/us/fatal-police-shooting-accounts.html?_r=0), most of the precipitating causes involved minor infractions, expired inspection stickers, broken signal lights, or tail lights, unpaid fines or alimony. Public service, protecting humans from harm to themselves or to others might be a nice ancillary outcome of a police officer doing his job, but it’s not the main event.
In fact, the idea that police are here to protect us is not much more than a happy slogan. In its landmark decision DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services,the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “the Constitution does not impose a duty on the state and local governments to protect the citizens from criminal harm.” The United States Supreme Court, in the 2005 case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales upheld that decision and extended it to include a state or municipality’s police force– codifying what many folks in poorer neighborhoods had long since suspected: neither the state nor the police have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm.
Strictly speaking, the police are law enforcement officers, they are present to make sure the laws as passed by city, county, and state legislators are followed. Towards that end they write tickets, and citations for breaking the law, make arrest and testify in court about their actions. This narrow interpretation of their duties is often clarified in training on the so called ‘public duty’ doctrine that provides that a “governmental entity owes a duty to the public in general, not to any one individual.”
Police are also warned—constantly—to look out for themselves. According to ex-Officer, Seth Stanton, writing in the Atlantic Magazine, “police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance.” Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. One slogan that is bandied about squad rooms sums up the mind set: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”
Police are trained to fear the public they are nominally intended to serve. During their training “they are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance.” Writes Stanton, “in most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”
“In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”
If you happen to peruse Police Magazine, you’ll find that the majority of the stories are about violence against police—and the weapons or tactics they can use to keep themselves safe. This month’s issue features a large photo of an Armalite AR-10 20-Inch Tactical Rifle that was initially designed for the US military. To drive home the point, Police magazine’s logo shows the O in policeman segregated by cross hairs, like a target.
Of course, in addition to the protect-thyself-first attitude, there’s also an underlying racial bias; probably because police officers fear blacks more than whites. In 2015, The Washington Post documented 990 fatal shootings by police, 93 of which involved people who were unarmed. “Black men accounted for about 40 percent of the unarmed people fatally shot by police and, when adjusted by population, were seven times as likely as unarmed white men to die from police gunfire.”
“The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black,” said Justin Nix, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville and one of the report’s authors. “This just bolsters our confidence that there is some sort of implicit bias going on,” Nix said. “Officers are perceiving a greater threat when encountered by unarmed black citizens.”
The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black…
The report noted that officers may unconsciously develop biases over time. “In other words, the police — who are trained in the first place to be suspicious — become conditioned to view minorities with added suspicion,” according to the report.
So we have a fearful police force, over trained for self-protection with an underlying bias against minorities whose main job is not to protect citizens but to enforce legal codes that order society for the benefit of property owners (that will likely make a poor person’s life more difficult). Add to the brew, the over militarization of our police force (do we really need armored tanks on civilian streets?) and the fact that most police officer shootings are investigated by the police departments themselves and it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand how deeply dysfunctional the whole shebang is. I had one friend suggest that, given the stress our minority communities are under, it was surprising incidents like Dallas hadn’t happened more frequently.
But they haven’t– and perhaps that’s a testimony to what many police departments are coming to recognize—the necessity for retraining and community engagement. In fact, it’s a sad irony that the Dallas Police department has done an exceptional job in just this area. It’s obvious that Police Chief David Brown –whose own life is rife with personal tragedy—is dedicated to a community outreach program. Just hours before the killings began last Thursday night in Dallas, his officers took time to chat with protesters, even taking selfies with them.
“We saw police officers shaking hands and giving high fives and hugging people and being really in the moment with us,” demonstrator Sharay Santora said.
But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting. All of this should tell us that police forces in this country are as diverse as their leaders and the communities that they serve. Our own city, Richmond, Virginia, much like Dallas, has done excellent work in reaching out to the various communities here—including, surprisingly, the LGBT community. So it’s not hopeless, but no one solution will fit all the municipalities across the nation, and maybe one of the questions we should be asking is how well our expectations of police service match the reality? After all, as Chief Brown has noted, “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve”
But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting
Many of our poor neighborhoods have a nearly round the clock police presence—from squad cars anyhow. Police appear, write up infractions, and arrest vagrants, keep an eye on shifty characters, “gangbangers” and the like. They do what they are trained to do. But the result isn’t a working society. The result, as I suggested in the beginning of this essay, is a carceral state.
Right now, if you are an Afro-American male, your odds of being in jail at some point in your life are 1 in 3. I doubt this is because 1 in 3 Afro-American males are genetically predisposed to periodic episodes of violence and criminal behavior. More likely, it has to do with the incredible dearth of job prospects made infinitely worse by a rap sheet and applying while black.
Police officers can’t solve that problem. They aren’t social workers or teachers or medical service personnel, as Brown correctly points out—but the nature of the system we have put in place allows all the problems of our society to flow downward to the cop on the beat whose one job is to enforce the law, but who we mistakenly believe can somehow catch all the detritus of a dysfunctional system and keep it working.
In Michel Foucault’s famous work, Discipline and Punishment, the ruling metaphor is society as a vast prison; a kind of panoptic nightmare—a word derived from Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon which was a prison designed so that every cell is view-able from a raised central location, like a watchtower plunked into the middle of a cell block. The point was to understand and react to the behavior of the individuals in the surrounding cells so as to control them. But even at this rudimentary level we are failing, for it’s obvious we don’t understand the individuals caught in our system and we aren’t really controlling behavior, we’re merely holding them in our prison cells precisely because we don’t know what else to do with them.
You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell.
Our criminal justice system is trying to repair something it simply isn’t equipped to mend. You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell. Perhaps if we, as a society, decided that the carceral state was a bad idea; if we decided, instead, to fund jobs programs and provide secure housing for those in need, if, indeed, we provided drug treatment programs instead of felony convictions we might resolve many problems before they become statistics. We can tinker with police community outreach, provide stricter guidelines for engagement and the use of force and institute better ways of policing the police (oh, please let us have a uniform standard for conduct and an external agencies that review police shooting across the nation), but in the end the panacea we are looking for won’t come from a guy or gal on the beat– with or without a gun. They will come from providing adequate resources to all our public workers, developing jobs programs and training for individuals from all walks of life, and from our own personal engagement with the community in which we live. Maybe it’s time to stop looking to the police to solve the problems of our deeply dysfunctional system. Rather, we should restructure the system so we don’t need the police—or not nearly as much. Maybe it’s time we all signed up.
A Handy Template Article for Your Next School Shooting, Mass Murder, or Inexplicable Slaughter of Innocent People
As many of you know, one year ago on December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Before driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother Nancy at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Notable things have occurred since that shooting. Talks with Iran have been opened and years of diplomatic antagonism between the US and Iran are beginning to thaw. The Affordable Care Act has gone into effect and hundreds of thousands of US Citizens have health insurance for the first time, ever. Also, the website has been fixed. We hope.
Cuccinelli did not become Governor of Virginia. God whisperer, E.W. Jackson, went down in flames for the Lt. Governor slot and Herring is likely to seal the deal for the Attorney General office, making it a clean sweep for Democrats in an off-year election with their own party holding the Executive Branch. This is something that almost never happens. The take away is that change is possible in many things. Except one, apparently.
Based on data compiled by Slate.com using mainly media reports (because Republicans passed a law promising to defund the Atlanta-based CDC should it start tallying gun deaths), since Newtown, more than 11,400 people have been shot and killed in this country. Impressive! But that’s a low tally, actually, because the majority of gun deaths are suicides and the vast majority of suicides aren’t covered in the news. Of those shot and killed, at least 194 were children under 12.
Other notable non-happenings: since Newtown, no federal gun legislation has been passed, though multiple gun control measures fizzled out in the Senate without even making it to the Republican controlled House. But just that whiff of gun control was enough to send Red states into paroxysms. Kansas and Alaska lawmakers voted to enact laws nullifying federal gun regulations for guns manufactured and kept within state borders. Missouri Republican lawmakers passed a nearly identical bill, but failed to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto by one vote. Montana went to federal court to defend a similar law it passed in 2009. The law was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, with the rabid 2nd Amendment secessionists momentarily held at bay, some states opted to double down on the dumb, voting to both loosen gun restrictions and clear the way for armed volunteers to guard schools. The apparent logic being more guns should be able to solve the problems that some guns never caused in the first place. Thus we see teachers ordered to gear up and get trained at shooting galleries. On the surface, this might seem outrageous, a kind of callous attempt by the NRA (and their sponsoring gun manufacturers) to deny culpability for the Newton shooting by devising– in advance– a specialized nationwide insanity defense.
I immediately thought, ‘well yes, arm the teachers and, while you’re at it, lets create a template form for mass shootings so that we don’t have to waste all this time writing up ‘original’ stories about something that will become—if it has not already– more common place than auto deaths.’
But with age comes wisdom. Given the fact that we, as a nation, haven’t done anything to prevent future massacres after 12 long months of slaughter, and, indeed, have gone out of our way to increase their likelihood, I began to realize it just wasn’t a priority for us. The Democrats are bipolar, wringing their hands about wanton massacres but scared to touch the issue for fear of the gun lobby, while the Republicans inhabit their usual cogently direct, if deeply cynical, sucking up to the NRA in all things no matter how deeply misanthropic (and make no mistake, a 30 round ammunition clip is deeply misanthropic).
So let’s just cut to the chase. Since our kids are obviously the root to all our angst –what with worrying about feeding them, educating them, protecting them (or at least our right to protect them with heavy weaponry) providing them with healthcare, and ultimately some form of retirement, we should take the Newtown School shooting as a lesson in one way of handling our many social ills, reduce our ballooning healthcare costs, dramatically cut our Social Security payouts and ultimately still preserve our cherished freedoms and The American Way of Life ™.
Once we arm teachers, and train them so they are excellent marksman (thank you in advance, NRA, we know you’d be willing to help) we’ll have them, on some appointed date—say, December 14—line up and shoot all their children, thus eliminating the future costs of education, healthcare and retirement in one fell swoop. The real glory of this plan, of course, is that we’ll be belt-tightening and cost cutting in the all American way we’ve come to know and love, which is to say, systematically, and with extreme violence. We’ll give the plan a really cool name like, “War on America’s Future.”
I’m betting Paul Ryan will be all over this.
Q&A—A Failed Background Check Vote, and the NRA
Sometimes what’s most important in a debate isn’t the answer; it’s the question. The Senate’s recent failure to pass even the simplest type of background check yields a set of interesting questions, like:
As far back as 1999 who said that background checks were reasonable?
A) Wayne LaPierre
B) Michael Moore
C) A majority of NRA members
D) All of the above
If you guessed all of the above you would be correct. Surprisingly, support for background checks among individual members of the NRA is quite strong. Republican pollster Frank Lutz found that 87% of non-NRA gun owners, and 74% of NRA gun owners support requiring a criminal background check of anyone purchasing a gun. 80% of non-NRA gun owners and 71% of NRA gun owners support prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. But the real shock is that Wayne LaPierre, as recently as 1999, supported back ground checks calling them ‘reasonable’(Politifact). On May 27, 1999, shortly after the Columbine massacre, LaPierre testified before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, saying:
“We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone,” he said. “That means closing the Hinckley loophole so the records of those adjudicated mentally ill are in the system. This isn’t new, or a change of position, or a concession. I’ve been on record on this point consistently, from our national meeting in Denver, to paid national ads and position papers, to news interviews and press appearances.”
In fact, for a short while after Columbine, the NRA ran national ads saying, “We think it’s reasonable to provide for instant checks at gun shows just like at gun stores and pawn shops.”
So what happened? Well that brings us to another question which may get to the heart of the matter:
Are many board members for the NRA also gun manufacturers?
A) No, the board is made up principally of hunters and sportsmen.
B) No, the board is made up of retired actors and singers/circus clowns like Charleton Heston and Ted Nugent.
C) No, the board is made up of ex-military personnel and police officers who like to practice their marksmanship in a disciplined manner.
D) Yes, the board has multiple members who are gun manufacturers—many of whom produce assault style weapons and magazines that are their bread and butter.
Alas, D is the correct answer. NRA board member Pete Brownell owns Brownells Inc., which sells a wide-range of high-capacity ammunition magazines for pistols and assault weapons, including the same capacity Glock magazine as the 33-round magazine used in the Arizona shooting that nearly killed Gabby Giffords.
Brenda Potterfield serves as vice-president of the NRA Foundation’s board of trustees and is co-owner of MidwayUSA, which sells a wide range of high-capacity ammunition magazines for pistols and assault weapons, including 33-round magazines for Glock pistols.
NRA board member Ronnie Barrett owns Barrett, which manufactures an AR-15 style assault rifle which comes with two 30-round ammunition magazines. Ronnie Barrett is best known for the invention and civilian marketing of the 50 caliber sniper rifle: a military weapon used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that can penetrate armor-plating from a mile away and down airliners on take-off and landing, but under federal law is sold with no greater restrictions than a standard hunting rifle. Barrett also manufacturers and sells the REC7, an AR-15 style assault rifle that comes with two 30-round magazines.
Adolphus Busch, the IV, a conservative activist and former NRA member suggests that the NRA board of directors is dominated by gun or ammunition manufacturing interests. After yesterday’s failed vote on the background check he resigned his NRA membership saying:
“…One only has to ask why the NRA reversed its original position on background checks. Was it not the NRA position to support background checks when Mr. LaPierre himself stated in 1999 that NRA saw checks as ‘reasonable’?”
“…I fail to see how the NRA can disregard the overwhelming will of its members who see background checks as reasonable…” […]
“I am simply unable to comprehend how assault weapons and large capacity magazines have a role in your vision,” he said. “The NRA I see today has undermined the values upon which it was established. Your current strategic focus clearly places priority on the needs of gun and ammunition manufacturers while disregarding the opinions of your 4 million individual members.”
“One only has to look at the makeup of the 75-member board of directors, dominated by manufacturing interests, to confirm my point. The NRA appears to have evolved into the lobby for gun and ammunition manufacturers rather than gun owners.”
The sharp turn the NRA has taken against reasonable background checks has consequences, of course, leading to our next question:
How many gun deaths have there been in the U.S. since the Newtown massacre?
A) Almost no one knows because under pressure from the NRA Congress passed a law to defund the CDC in Atlanta should it track gun fatalities or injuries.
B) The question is worded wrongly because guns never kill people. The question should be how many people killed people with guns since Newtown. And because I am far right libertarian, in the clutches of a blind ideology, I don’t care to know the answer to that question.
C) Slate magazine has been keeping a tally, and according to their figures, culled from daily news reports across the country, the correct answer is 3,513.
D) All of the above.
The correct answer is D. The CDC has been threatened with defunding should it try to provide statistics on gun fatalities and injuries. Recently, President Obama issued an executive order to get them back on track again. Answer B is correct, generally, channeling most conversation threads with rabid libertarian types, in particular those spouting the NRA’s vapid slogan. And finally, Slate magazine took up the task of actually tracking gun fatalities after Newtown and came up with the 3,513 figure. The information provided by Slate is here.
Despite all of this information, the US Senate failed to vote on a simple background check measure, leading to one of the final questions.
What is the purpose of the U.S. Senate?
A) It’s a self-sustaining oligarchy of overfed and lionized guys and (some) gals who every 6 years go through a ritual exercise in lying and debasement in order to preserve their positions.
B) It’s a place of civilized discourse initially envisioned as a safeguard against the passion of the masses (i.e., The House) and potential democratic intent.
C) It’s there to represent the will of lobbyists, corporate citizens, and individuals of sufficient wealth and status to purchase allegiance.
D) It’s an elite gentleman’s club and/or fraternity (with some token ladies and minorities allowed), that follows the same rules of discretion and secret insider knowledge. Its cabal-like quality renders all outsiders impotent and sneer worthy.
E) All of the above.
If you guessed ‘All of the above’ you would be correct. Among other factors, Reid’s ridiculous support of the ‘silent’ filibuster has rendered the Senate a useless body for doing the one thing not on that list: passing laws the vast majority of Americans support.
Now then, given this, which brave senator who filibustered yesterday’s vote is willing to talk with the parents of a child killed by gun violence and is willing to explain their principled position?
A) Rand Paul who has become so seduced by Ayn Rand’s pot boiler, “The Fountain Head”, that he accepts at face value principles like ‘altruism is evil’, or worse, that cardboard characters like Howard Roark might actually live.
B) Mitch McConnell, because he spent the day after the vote gloating over his victory and mocking the Senate’s background check efforts (another silent filibuster win!—which is not surprising as Mitch McConnell once even managed to filibuster a bill he sponsored himself).
C) Max Baucus, because cowardice is a principle, too, isn’t it?
D) None of the above.
The answer is D, because despite the relative accuracy of the other answers, the naked truth is none of these folks would have the courage to face the full fury of their victims. That’s 3,513 gun deaths just since the Newtown Massacre and rising daily. That’s more than died in 9/11.
Gabby Gifford said it best in this New York Times piece, A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip:
“I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences. “
And that’s the answer to our last question: What do we do now?
How the Aussies Live
This is the story about a mass killing, but not the one you think. Not the most recent one in Connecticut in which twenty children and six adults were slaughtered, nor the one in Portland, Oregon where a masked gunman opened fire in a crowded mall, killing two and seriously injuring a third before turning the gun on himself. It’s not the one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, either, where a white supremacist shot six people and a cop at a Sikh temple before shooting himself in the head. Nor is it the more famous shooting in Aurora, Colorado where a lone gunman killed 12 and injured 58 at a July 2012 screening of “The Dark Knight.”
You can rule out the Oakland, California massacre, as well, where a former student at a Christian college fatally shot seven people and injured three – that was back in April of this year. I don’t want to talk about the slaughter in Copley Township, Ohio, either, how a man in a family dispute used his handgun to shoot and kill his girlfriend and six others. Maybe you think I want to discuss the massacre in Geneva, Alabama? That one had eleven victims, ages 18 months to 74 years old. They were killed by a lone gunman in a family feud in March 2009. I don’t want to discuss this anymore than I want to talk about the Omaha, Nebraska massacre where a 19-year-old man shot nine people at a department store in December 2007 before cops killed him. No doubt, you think the largest mass shooting in our history, the violence at Blacksburg, Virginia where a student at Virginia Tech managed to murder 32 classmates and wound 25 others before committing suicide in April 2007 would warrant some discussion. But no, I don’t want to mention any of these, anymore than I want to talk about the famous Columbine massacre that left thirteen dead and 21 wounded a year earlier.
No. What would be the point after all? The litany of death hasn’t changed our behavior. We, as a nation, don’t care. Oh, we tear up and we make memorials and our politicians go through the usual genuflection to public sentiment and, of course, there’s nothing like social media to demonstrate our earnest convictions about all of this. But to really do something that might lessen the odds of mass death on occasion? Ban assault weapons? Reduce the size of ammunition magazines? Enforce background checks and close the gun show loop-hole? We’ll have none of it. So rather than whine, I’d like to talk about a national moment that occurred, that changed the fabric of a society and a nation for the better. I’d like to tell you about a country that managed to preserve its ‘gun culture’ while still strictly regulating weapons that could be used for no other purpose than mass killings.
This country isn’t ours, of course. At least not yet. It’s Australia. A massacre occurred in Australia one year prior to the Columbine massacre in the United States, in 1996. It involved the usual script we’ve come to know by heart. A lone gunman, mentally unstable goes on a shooting rampage, murdering 35 innocent people. Like citizens in the US, the Australians acted with shock and horror. But then something different occurred. Galvanized by the nation’s grief and outrage, the conservative prime minister sought to ban rapid-fire rifles—our infamous assault weapons. The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those remaining in public hands. Importantly, the law did not end gun ownership in Australia. But it reduced the number of firearms in private hands by one-fifth, and they were the kinds most likely to be used in mass shootings. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “researchers at Harvard University, concluded that ‘The National Firearms Agreement seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved.’ To be specific, we’ve had no gun massacres since 1996, compared with 13 such tragedies during the previous 18 years. (A massacre is defined as the killing of four or more people.) Total gun deaths have been reduced: gun homicides and gun suicides had been falling gradually before Port Arthur, but the reforms in 1996 caused that decline to accelerate dramatically. In the early 1990s, about 600 Australians were dying each year by gunfire; that figure is now fewer than 250.”
Could the same thing happen here? Obama has issued a strong statement, but tellingly without details. Even with the full support of the executive branch, we need politicians willing to take risks. After all, it takes courage to change behavior and to make new laws that might go against the powerful gun manufacturing industry whose millions pays off the NRA who, in turn, threaten our politicians, and sow confusion in the media, perversely advocating for more weapons to stem the carnage of gun violence (Let’s just throw a little gasoline on that fire, why don’t we?) It takes political courage to stand up to such bullies, just as it takes physical courage to imagine yourself protecting your house without the aid of a Bushmaster at the ready with a 100 round ammo clip. Are we too fearful a country to change our ways? But it’s not just courage, this is about sacrifice, too. Are twenty dead children enough to pry these weapons from our cold dead fingers? And, if not, what number will suffice?
Slow erosion of gun laws presages another tragedy, The Sydney Morning Herald
Not So Fast, Not So Furious.
For months the radicals in the House of Representatives have been hammering away at Attorney General Eric Holder, the DoJ, the ATF and the Obama administration in general over a failed program to track guns being trafficked to Mexico to arm the drug cartels engaged in what amounts to a virtual civil war with the government of that country. The DoJ and the ATF lost control of a lot of guns that finally ended up in Mexico and one of those guns was used to kill a federal agent. The program with the duffous, macho code name of “Fast and Furious” was started in the Bush administration and continued by the present administration.
When it went wrong several years ago it quickly morphed from a botched government attempt (in the eyes of most observers) to stem the flood of arms that is destabilizing a neighbor with a 1,000 mile shared border, into a sinister plan to impose gun control throughout the United States as part of an even more sinister plan to turn the United States into a communist/socialist/atheist/Nazi (pause for breath), Muslim/vegetarian/global warming hoax loving/secular humanist/New World Order/flag burning/cheese eating surrender monkey… well you get the idea.
The loons on the right started the outcry, and as is now the norm in conservative politics, people who should have known better were sucked into the vortex of a conspiracy theory in which the Obama administration’s complete disinterest in gun control of any kind was all part of a secret plan to lull the “real” Americans into a state of complacency so that he could, I suppose, deploy a massive UN army bent on seizing everyone’s guns. That this somewhat counter intuitive “theory” was popular in the right wing press, FOX News and talk radio goes without saying, but the umbilicus that connects the radical conservative media and right wing lawmakers is now very strong and very short and such viruses that once remained on the fringe now flow unhindered through them into the mainstream media and onto the floor of Congress, where today the House votes on charges against AG Holder amid accusations of a massive cover up intended to hide the “gun walking” scandal and the larger “pry the guns from their cold, dead hands” scandal.
As is so often the case, as soon as real journalists started looking into the matter the whole thing blew up in the faces of the accusers and now Speaker Boehner seems to be looking for a quiet way to drop this vote in the eddy and swirl of the Supremes’ Obamacare ruling. But this story will remain out there, and you will hear about it from your FOX News watching grandpa at the 4th of July cookout or over Thanksgiving dinner.
Below is some information about Fast and Furious and how the radical right got nearly all of it backwards or wrong or both. Feel free to share it with your friends and relatives between hot dogs or sweet potatoes with the little marshmallows on top.
By the way, the real scandal is that states like Arizona (and APV’s home state of Virginia) have next to no gun laws that prohibit straw man purchases, and local prosecutors show little to no interest in pursuing these cases while across the border 50,000 people have died mostly at the hands of criminals using American bought weapons.
The truth about the Fast and Furious scandal by Katherine Eban, Fortune Magazine.
“Some call it the “parade of ants”; others the “river of iron.” The Mexican government has estimated that 2,000 weapons are smuggled daily from the U.S. into Mexico. The ATF is hobbled in its effort to stop this flow. No federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking, so agents must build cases using a patchwork of often toothless laws. For six years, due to Beltway politics, the bureau has gone without permanent leadership, neutered in its fight for funding and authority. The National Rifle Association has so successfully opposed a comprehensive electronic database of gun sales that the ATF’s congressional appropriation explicitly prohibits establishing one.”
Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground
The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away. ~William Golding, Lord of the Flies
PRwatch has chosen A Police Officer Speaks on ALEC and “Stand Your Ground”, by Brian Austin, as one of their highlighted opinions this week. Interestingly, Austin has been a state prosecutor and is now a police detective in Wisconsin. He was “a police officer for 15 years, and a SWAT officer for 12 of those”. Aligning his experience with his insight was a curious task for me, but I was delighted with his ability to step way back and apply a patchwork of current events to one of our nation’s most profound and troubling choices – which is where he leaves us at the end.
Insinuating Golding’s Lord of the Flies was also a little curious. Afterward, I thought about it … so will you.
Here’s a taste:
The Castle Doctrine is just one part of the “shiny object” campaign that the corporate right has waged for decades to prevent this awakening from occurring. (…)
I believe that in order for the corporate elite to continue to further an agenda that favors a select few, they have to turn the masses against each other. That need becomes even more urgent as more and more people wake up to the realities of America in 2012, and uprisings like the Wisconsin protests and the Occupy movement spread. If the corporate elite failed to keep us at each other’s throats, and we actually developed a sense of community and compassion and empathy, we would see with total clarity the insanity that grips our nation. At that moment, their gig would be up. We would no longer tolerate what is occurring in America, and the corporate elite and their legislative water boys would be driven from power post-haste.
Hearts and Minds
Sculpture “Non-Violence” in memory of John Lennon, Manhattan, by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd
Gad! No wonder the people in this country are struggling. This issue is disturbing on so many levels that just being aware of it is intimidating! If it continues unabated like it is now, just imagine what life in the good ole USA will be like for Americans down the road a ways. You think they’ll be safe enough?
The cost of America’s police state, by Stephan Salisbury, is a good recent piece on the what, where, when, why, and how of the militarization of our local police forces, the vast network of video surveillance interlinked with information databases, “fusion centers”, and more.
One thing not mentioned in the article is 1033. But more than a year ago, Benjamin Carlson covered it in BATTLEFIELD MAIN STREET, and I think it’s key in understanding how all this got its big heave-ho. Here’s an excerpt, and the article has some great photos of the equipment being distributed at the time.
“Passed by Congress in 1997, the 1033 program was created to provide law-enforcement agencies with tools to fight drugs and terrorism. Since then, more than 17,000 agencies have taken in $2.6 billion worth of equipment for nearly free, paying only the cost of delivery.”
In today’s Mayberry, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife could be using grenade launchers and a tank to keep the peace. A rapidly expanding Pentagon program that distributes used military equipment to local police departments — many of them small-town forces — puts battlefield-grade weaponry in the hands of cops at an unprecedented rate.
Through its little-known “1033 program,” the Department of Defense gave away nearly $500 million worth of leftover military gear to law enforcement in fiscal year 2011 — a new record for the program and a dramatic rise over past years’ totals, including the $212 million in equipment distributed in 2010.
The surplus equipment includes grenade launchers, helicopters, military robots, M-16 assault rifles and armored vehicles.
And the program’s recent expansion shows no sign of slackening: Orders in fiscal year 2012 are up 400 percent over the same period in 2011, according to data provided to The Daily by the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency. (…)
Experts say the recent surge is simply the continuation of a decades-long trend: the increasing use of military techniques and equipment by local police departments, tactics seen most recently in the crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street protesters across the country. But critics of the program say that the recent expansion of 1033 distributions should be setting off alarm bells. (…)
Arthur Rizer, a Virginia lawyer who has served as both a military and civilian police officer, stressed that their outlooks and missions are fundamentally different.
“If we’re training cops as soldiers, giving them equipment like soldiers, dressing them up as soldiers, when are they going to pick up the mentality of soldiers?” he asked.
“If you look at the police department, their creed is to protect and to serve. A soldier’s mission is to engage his enemy in close combat and kill him. Do we want police officers to have that mentality? Of course not.”
The intimidation factor associated with having a military presence instead of a “protect and serve” mentality in law enforcement from coast to coast is obvious. If you haven’t noticed it, try a little redress of grievances with a group of like-minded, concerned citizens some day soon. At this rate and before too long, most people will be afraid to object to any legislation that comes down the pike, and I’m not sure that isn’t the precise intention of all this beef-up. If you read the articles above, you may disagree, but I think it’s already out of control in every way. Regardless of the “freebies” provided to local law enforcement, we can’t afford it. It’s an oppression tactic, and we don’t want to be an oppressed people. At least, that’s not what I had in mind.
How do you go about turning something like this around before it gets worse? Salisbury offers a clue or two pointing out: “This is not simply a police issue. Law enforcement agencies may acquire the equipment and deploy it, but city legislators and executives must approve the expenditures and the uses. State legislators and bureaucrats refine the local grant requests. Federal officials, with endless input from national security and defense vendors and lobbyists, appropriate the funds.” [emphasis mine]
But for some historical context, validation and encouragement, this recent interview with Jonathan Schell did it for me. It’s worth your time, “hearts and minds”.
How Empires Fall: An Interview With Jonathan Schell
“Communist-Trained” Obama’s “Massive” “Conspiracy”: Extremist NRA Goes Over The Edge | Media Matters for America
President Obama, when will you get it through your ivy league educated head that these people hate you and will never be appeased, no matter how far you slide towards them and away from your base and your values. It is the great tragedy of the modern Democratic Party that it seems to crave the approval of those who despise its basic tenants and despise those who support them.
NRA President Wayne LaPierre:
LaPIERRE: “[I]n public, [President Obama will] remind us that he’s put off calls from his party to renew the old Clinton [assault weapons] gun ban, he hasn’t pushed for new gun control laws, and he’ll even say he looked the other way when Congress passed a couple of minor pro-gun bills by huge majorities. The president will offer the Second Amendment lip service and hit the campaign trail saying he’s actually been good for the Second Amendment.”
via “Communist-Trained” Obama’s “Massive” “Conspiracy”: Extremist NRA Goes Over The Edge | Media Matters for America.