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.
The Losing Streak
Top of the ninth for the Mayor and things are not looking great. His no good, very bad losing streak started a few weeks before the month began in late April when the Wing Nut Collective posted an odd item regarding Mayor Jones’ real estate taxes. According to the City of Richmond’s Property Search and Tax Assessment data, the assessed value of the land that Dwight Jones’ house sits on has dropped $64,000 in the past year. No big deal, only all of his neighbors’ land increased in value–which makes you wonder. A city ‘revaluation’ was called in. That’s just a little awkward note to preface the streak to be, but it gives you the general flavor.
Meanwhile, last Monday, April 28th, Open High students Levi Bane along with Aaron Greene, Isabella Arias, Quante Barnes and Gillian Hogg organized a walkout of the student body over the lousy condition of Richmond Public Schools. Roughly 200 students altogether ended up leaving their classroom as part of a “Walk Out” protest—most of them from Open High, the remainder from Thomas Jefferson , John Marshall, Community, Albert Hill, Lucille Brown and Maggie Walker . They headed straight to City Hall to talk with Mayor Jones. The structural problems for the schools—covered nicely in this Style Weekly article – include tar diluted water oozing in “foul-smelling drops” into classrooms and hallways in Thompson Middle School, and black water-soaked ceiling tiles dropping from the ceiling. School Board Vice Chairman Kristen Larson said the environment there made her “want to throw up.” At Carver Elementary School, the skeletal remains of dead rodents crunched underfoot. Worse was Armstrong High where there were so many live rats that “snakes have become a problem as well.” It’s the kind of thing no one should have to deal with, much less high school students.
So the Open High folks organized a walkout last Monday in protest. The walkout is strikingly similar to a boycott organized nearly half a century earlier by Barbara Johns, when she took it upon herself to publicize the loathsome conditions in Prince Edward County public schools. Her actions eventually led to the Supreme Court decision overturning the specious doctrine of separate but equal. As a consequence, integration was enforced across the country—something white Virginians in particular opposed organizing themselves behind the banner of Massive Resistance. This ultimately led to white flight, which subsequently turned the screw on budgets for the Richmond Public School system. Why? Because when integration threatened, the General Assembly removed the city’s ability to annex surrounding communities, stifling its tax base and piling on a mountain of debt. Henrico and Chesterfield counties were left to enjoy the region’s economic growth alone. Richmond public schools were left to starve.
Underneath this movement, of course, lies the logic of gentrification. Something you would think Mayor Jones would be hesitant to embrace, but you would be wrong.
By way of background, a little over two weeks ago, Mayor Jones made the mistake of echoing Louis Salomonsky in a Sunday Richmond Time-Dispatch article. In an interview with Open Source (WRIR.org), Salomonsky openly lamented the city’s “ghetto of people making $30k-50k a year”, suggesting it’s the reason the city keeps asking developers for more and more luxury condos. Salomonsky, it should be noted, has done time in federal prison for conspiracy to commit extortion for bribing a City Council member and also, notably, has a stake in the Mayor’s baseball in the bottom plan. Politically tone-deaf, the Mayor essentially seconded Salomonsky’s opinion arguing that minorities moving to the counties because of a “declining school system” would finally bring rich, childless empty-nesters into the city. Or, put another way, get rid of couples interested in quality schools for their children. Too late, the Mayor realized that political acuity wasn’t his strong point, but he did manage to get the newspaper to pull his quote from their website—though it’s still available in the printed edition.
So it’s within this context that Mayor Jones deigned to meet with the boycotting Open High students; a PR moved that failed. That Monday afternoon (April 28th), Mayor Jones made his intentions clear: new schools are the way forward, maintenance of existing facilities not so much. He insisted that investments needed to be made in revenue generating schemes rather than existing schools: baseball stadiums, Redskin training camps, things like that. Only, the actual revenue generation part of such schemes falls abysmally short. As an example, the Redskins training camp has turned into a net loss for the city. In fact, activist and former School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf had to prod City Council to collect the $100,000 owed to them from Bon Secours for the leasing of the property—funds that were to be paid directly to the Richmond Public School system. By February of this year, Richmond School Board member Kim Gray said “We have yet to see a dime.” That eventually turned around, but the city tax revenue still falls far short. The promised boon to local business is pretty much a mirage. Retail sales in Richmond during August, the month in which the bulk of the Redskins training camp was held, declined 6.8 percent compared with the same month last year. Whoops. According to Style Weekly, “during the training camp, many restaurant owners complained that the camp had done little to increase sales, with only a nearby McDonald’s reporting a significant increase in customers.”
So Mickey D’s gets a leg up, but that doesn’t really translate into the 3.8 million dollar revenue shortfall that the mayor slashed from the school board request for fiscal year 2015. Last Monday, in face of the Open High protests, City Council finally promised to restore that amount. But even that promise had a hidden caveat. As structured in the budget, the money will not go toward maintenance needs, but rather towards operation funding, which covers day-to-day expenses. Rats, snakes and black water dripping from the ceiling will remain the foreseeable norm. The Mayor tried to cheer the students by suggesting that his other big idea, the Baseball Stadium in the Bottom, could help close the revenue gap. Unfortunately said stadium plan would require capital investments from the city of 76.5 million over the course of thirty years. And the revenue projections are shaky at best. Not to mention, the chosen location would bury historical slave sites that Preservation Virginia decided to list as one of the top endangered historical sites in the country – the day after the students’ walkout: Tuesday, April 29th. Ouch. But really, the students weren’t buying the happy talk, either way.
Said Levi Bane, “The children of our city are this city’s future and it is high time that they be treated as such. A stadium which will hopefully provide more money in the future is not what our money should be spent on or invested in. Richmond Public Schools have thousands of children to invest in and thousands of children who, if provided for properly, will benefit the city of Richmond much more than a baseball stadium could ever hope to do.” The students are right, of course. But that was only the beginning of Mayor Jones’ losing streak.
Last Thursday, May 1st, the other shoe dropped. What would be excellent news for the citizens of Richmond, was plain old bad news for the Mayor. Developers with The Rebkee Co. offered to fund the building of the Stadium privately on the Boulevard. All of it. No public funds involved. Under the broad outlines of the proposal, an 8,000-plus capacity stadium would be built entirely with private money on about 10 acres of Boulevard land. The first phase would involve a small amount of residential, retail and restaurant development. The developers also would have the option of building out the rest of the 60-acre Boulevard area. Now that’s a sweet deal. But the Mayor didn’t like it. Make your plans public, he said. After he kept his plans for a stadium in the dark for well over a year. Never mind that! Now we must have transparency in our projections! The Mayor’s good buddy at Venture Richmond, Jack Berry, sent out a nasty letter to Venture Richmond’s board where the Mayor presides as President: “Beware when a Chesterfield politician (Mr. Gecker) and a suburban strip shopping center developer from Midlothian (Rebkee) tell you they know what is best for your city,” Berry wrote. “Does Gecker’s involvement and approach strike you as a conflict of interest, and disrespectful of city leadership, even offensive?” Apparently, Jack Berry flunked out of charm school.
But there was worse news for the Mayor. That Thursday night, in light of the proposal, City Council voted 5-4 to remove $12.6 million of the $13.6 million that Jones had budgeted for infrastructure improvements needed for the publicly financed Shockoe stadium plan. The council kept $1 million for any infrastructure work necessary for the slave heritage site, “seeking to decouple the museum from the stadium proposal.”
In all, the council reallocated $3.25 million for school maintenance, $3 million for the riverfront plan, $4.5 million for projects in council members’ districts such as sidewalk repairs, and $1.5 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Jones would have none of it. He threatened to veto the move and said the council’s action last week sent the “wrong message” to the General Assembly, “The business community has said that they would help us raise a certain amount of money, but they’re not going to do it if it’s not going to be a part of the complete package,” Jones said. But it’s not like you can take his word to the bank. As Paul Goldman, former state Democratic Party chairman noted, “… the politicians have not leveled with anybody.”
Yes, that would seem to be the case.
The losing streak continued this week when Rebkee Co. responded to Venture Richmond and the Mayor’s nasty gram: “The mayor has made it abundantly clear that he does not need or want an alternative in the event the land acquisition and developer contracts for the Shockoe Bottom project do not materialize… While we don’t agree this is in the city’s best interest, we respect that decision. We also recognize that no plan can go forward without the support of those in control of the city. A transaction of this scale is difficult with parties who share the same goals; it is impossible between those that do not.”
So the alternative is scuttled, yes? Well, no. Not exactly. The Mayor equivocated. Shortly after his stern veto threat and Venture Richmond’s ill-timed letter, the Mayor tried to sound reasonable. Here’s what Jones had to say as of Tuesday, May 5th in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “…. [the] administration is still open to receiving more information from the development team behind the recently floated proposal for a privately financed baseball stadium on North Boulevard.”
So maybe it’s okay, after all? That talk about being disrespectful of City leadership? Conflict of interest? Nothing to worry about! Jack Berry had a case of the bowels. And so it goes. The Mayor may be looking for a lifeline, or he may just be saving face. The next few weeks will show how his losing streak shakes out.
Meanwhile, at the School Board meeting at City Hall this week, Open High students were at it again.
Kevin Tyler: “The buildings are still in disrepair…Today a tile fell from the ceiling and almost hit a student in the head.” He said that when they had talked with the Mayor, he told the students they needed to speak with their School Board to make their needs known. Of course, weeks after an article about dead rats, live snakes and ceilings oozing with black goo you’d think the school board would have figured it out. But the Mayor likes this dance because after the students go to the school board, the school board gets to come back to City Council to ask for the funds the Mayor insists are earmarked for things like his Baseball Stadium in the Bottom. Which may or may not be funded any longer, depending on how willing the Mayor is to follow through on his veto threat. Is that clear, everyone?
Despite the bureaucratic maze, the students have remained persistent. “So here we are,” said Tyler, “asking the School Board to make our needs known.”
In a voice tight with frustration, Sydney Pollard asked, “How do we improve the conditions of our schools? How do we make them safe schools?…’Safe schools’…why is that a question we even need to ask?”
And finally, Isabella Arias insisted that everyone was responsible for the current impasse, but she ended on a cautiously optimistic note, “If government officials are able to work together then there is hope for Richmond public schools,” which may be less cause for confidence than she thinks.
~Jack R. Johnson
The Apex of Moronia
H.L. Mencken, who always had an eye for the weak and dumb in American life, paid an inordinate amount of time considering the case of the American South. One of Mencken’s tongue in cheek laws was that “Nature abhors a moron,” and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being ruled by what he termed the “booboisie.” …an interesting mash-up of boob and bourgeoisie. When Mencken called out Arkansas for especially sharp ridicule by elevating the state to “the apex of moronia,” the Arkansas legislative body complained and Mencken was, predictably, unmoved. Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas House of Representatives decided to hold a group prayer, to pray for Mencken’s soul. His response? “I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears,” Mencken told the press, “and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again.”
This obviously didn’t convert the Arkansas House of Representatives to his view, nor, by the way, did it affect Mencken. If anything, his readership probably went up. In a famous essay on the South entitled the The Sahara of the Bozart, Mencken suggested that the South was now “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”
Harsh words. And it is true the South has changed extensively since Mencken’s time. In fact, as if in retaliation, a Southern literary boom followed shortly on his venomous pronouncement. But many of the Southern state’s governments are as backwards and as moronic as anything Mencken might have inveighed against today. Take the current refusal to support minimum wage laws, the rabid union busting, the disregard for environmental regulations, the South’s addiction to gun culture, and their denial of Federal funds for Medicaid expansion even when the Federal funds are being handed out freely. Really, all these are indicative of less than stellar intellectual activity. But perhaps the most significant parallel lies with those who still tow the biblical story line on creation, like Virginia House Delegate Richard Bell’s recent attempt to legislate the teaching of creationism and climate change denial. Mencken, I suspect, would take special delight in Delegate Bell, just as he took special delight in the infamous Scopes ‘evolution’ trial. He even convinced Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in what he famously duped, “the Monkey Trial.”
Maybe Delegate Bell would like a brief primer on that historical event. Throughout most of the eight-day trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Mencken’s reports were syndicated nationally with equally stinging political cartoons seen by millions of Americans. In a not so funny twist, a mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.”
But Mencken saved his most potent venom for William Jennings Bryan, the populist defender of the biblical view. “It is a tragedy, indeed,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, “to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”
Williams Jennings Bryan was a great orator, a great populist and religious man, true, but his view of evolution was more nuanced than today’s current crop of fundamentalists. In fact, he seems a far more sophisticated man than Delegate Bell, or Ken Ham, the current defender of the creationist creed at Kentucky’s local yokel creationist museum shop. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers Bryan, “not only read the Mosaic ‘days’ as geological ‘ages’ but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution. Bryan’s main argument with the Darwinian view was its application to human societies. Bryan believed that Social Darwinism served not so much as an explanation for injustice but more as an excuse for injustice, particularly in the areas of harming the weak and waging war.
Byran was actually victorious in the Scopes trial, at least from the perspective of the jury and citizens of Dayton, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best. Just five days after the Scopes trial ended, Bryan died. Not one to soften his rhetoric, Mencken declared privately, “We killed the son of a bitch.” Publicly he quipped that God had taken a thunderbolt and threw it down to kill Clarence Darrow but missed and hit Bryan instead.
God knows what Mencken would have to say about our current day creationists, Delegate Bell or Ken Ham, neither of whom have the rhetorical chops of Bryan, nor his intellectual acumen. In fact, if Ken Ham and his creationist project is any indication, the South has actually gotten worse since Mencken’s time. To be fair, it’s really not just the South—though it’s heavily represented. Roughly, half our population believes in some kind of creationist myth. That’s like saying half our population doesn’t believe in gravity. The fact that a debate took place at all, much less took place at a Creation Museum which purports that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and man co-existed; and that geologic features such as the Grand Canyon and fossils were created in a global flood provoked by Adam and Eve’s original sin—make the debate even more strikingly weird than the one Mencken wrote about 83 years ago. By all accounts, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, won, but the fact that the debate was even held tells us more about the rabid anti-intellectualism of the new South than Phil Robertson waxing dumb in interviews after Duck Dynasty.
Unfortunately, Delegate Bell’s bill, HB 207, is a kind of a doubling down on dumb, not only supporting a ridiculously anti-scientific view of evolution and climate change, but demanding that public schools teach fiction beside non-fiction with equal weight. HB 207 would direct the Virginia State Board of Education and local school boards to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science class.” Sounds innocuous on its surface, but once you read the bill, you begin to understand that it essentially creates a “right” for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of “scientific theories” — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists. Fox News comes to the school yard.
According to a report by the National Center for Science Education, the bill forbids “any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science class.”
The language of HB 207 is so broad that just about any controversial topic involving science would fall under its restrictions.
Dickie is not acting alone, unfortunately. The bill is part of a national trend of legislative proposals, led by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute and climate-change deniers such as the Heartland Institute. Together these organizations have pushed schools nationally to adopt curricula that has encouraged educators to include in their lectures the “non-scientific problems” creationists and intelligent-design proponents claim to have identified in the theory of evolution. A federal court held in 2005 that teaching intelligent-design in public schools is unconstitutional.
Mencken of course would love this turn of events — in a deeply cynical fashion, of course. Besides arguing about the relative merits of evolution, Bell’s House bill would also demand equal time for climate change deniers. There’s rich irony in this — for whether Bell and educators acknowledge it or not, scientists have identified climate change as a major threat to the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia. The National Journal reported last February that, “the economic impact of these [climate change] forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”
In 2012, Bell’s colleague, Del. Chris Stolle (R) called “sea level rise” a “left-wing term” and excised any mention of it from a state report on coastal flooding…Yes, please. Kill the messenger. That’s always an effective solution. Not only shall we deny science, we shall deny the reporting of science, the teaching of science. We shall mandate ignorance for our region and our time.
H.L. Mencken would feel right at home.
Note: HB 207 was effectively killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on February 12, 2014
Of Educational Reform and Trojan Horses
For a long while, Teach For America was the dazzling new kid on the educational reform block. All doors were opened for the program that recruits elite college graduates (many from Ivy League Universities like Harvard or Princeton), gives them about a month of intensive training, and places them in two-year termed teaching positions at low-income schools across the country. President Obama praised TFA corps members as “a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas — that people who love their country can change it.” Their political support crossed party lines, and just about everyone was on board, except, unfortunately, for the people who were actually affected by the program.
In Chicago, the push back originally came from the teacher’s union. Teach For America was initially instituted as a temporary solution to a temporary shortage of teachers. The five-week ‘intensive’ training program that substituted for a BA or MA in Education and much lengthier student teaching requirements was meant to fill an immediate need—to get teachers on the ground and teaching in poorly served areas. But that ‘temporary solution’ became a permanent fixture that displaced seasoned veteran teachers, many of whom had 20 plus years experience. When one teacher moved to New York after graduate school, boasting high grades and a teaching award, she found the district closed to external applicants. “But they had a contract with TFA where they were still taking college graduates with no training besides doing TFA.” The pattern is happening nationwide, she complained. “Meanwhile, they’re laying off highly experienced teachers.”
According to a recent article in the American Prospect, the criticisms come in triplicate. “The organization’s five-week training program is too short to prepare its recruits to teach, especially in chronically under-served urban and rural districts; corps members only have to commit to teach for two years, which destabilizes schools, undermines the teaching profession, and undercuts teachers unions; and TFA, with the help of its 501(c)4 spin-off, Leadership for Educational Equity, is a leading force in the movement to close “failing” schools, expand charter schools, and tie teachers’ job security to their students’ standardized test scores.”
What once looked like a kind of Peace Corps styled guardian angel for troubled inner city schools, more and more resembles a Trojan horse designed to eviscerate unions, privatize schools and leave public school systems worse off than when they started. As with so many other things in the private/public debate in this country, the public side is wildly outspent. Indeed, the resources devoted to TFA alone go far beyond what most large school districts could ever dream.
“The organization’s total assets for the 2011 fiscal year topped $350 million. That includes eight-figure support from the Broad, Walton, and Gates Foundations, leading bankrollers of campaigns to privatize school districts and ramp up standardized testing. The TFA orbit is also growing. It now has more than 10,000 corps members in 48 regions, as well as more than 32,000 alumni. Districts pay thousands in fees to TFA for each corps member in addition to their salaries—at the expense of the existing teacher workforce. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans cut 7,500 school staff, converted the majority of its schools to charters, and, between 2005 and 2010, saw its share of black teachers drop from 73 percent to 56 percent. Over the past five years, TFA expanded its Greater New Orleans corps from 85 teachers to 375.”
In addition to the money bags approach, there’s something a little unsettling about the underlying ideology which insists that “singular change agents can overcome poverty.” As TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp likes to put it, successful teaching “requires all the same approaches that transformational leadership in any setting requires” The emphasis on the individual and the so-called ‘transformational leadership’ devalues and patronizes current staff, of course, and elevates a solipsistic view of the world where individual effort trumps community context and values. Perfect for the libertarian billionaire’s ethos, but rather a contradiction if you’re actually trying to build communities and community standards. Indeed, there’s a shallowness to all the sloganeering and when push comes to shove, many of the TFA darlings simply quit. The high turnover of trainees being dispatched to some of the country’s most challenging school districts—often without any long-term plans to be teachers—is a major problem. In a typical cycle, a school might lose about half of its corps members after their second year. By the third year, half of those who had remained after the second year would be gone. The root problem, of course, is precisely that lack of community context and commitment. Many—perhaps most– who join Teach For America don’t actually want to be teachers in the first place, instead using the program as a prestigious stepping stone for policy work, law school, or business school. According to the Prospect, “One study found that roughly 57 percent of corps members planned to teach for two years or less when they applied, while only 11 percent intended to make teaching a lifelong career. (TFA has claimed, however, that 36 percent remain in the classroom as teachers. But their recently announced partnership with Goldman Sachs, which provides TFA recruits with jobs at the banking firm after two years of service, doesn’t entirely help their cause.)”
Ultimately, the two years of service is an empty promise to communities who more than anything need continuity and long-term commitment. If you want a school to become a community hub, you necessarily need to minimize ‘churn’—the rotation of teachers and principals. “Their framework is about developing leaders, not teachers.”
Gary Rubinstein, a veteran teacher, TFA alumni, and prominent critic of the program explains his motivations in joining as many do: “It [TFA] sounded exciting. For once, I’d be doing something ‘real.’ I’d be doing something valuable for society. I’d be making a difference.” But in its mission to enact progressive education reform and eliminate the cycle of poverty, TFA has advanced a conservative agenda that doesn’t seek education reform so much as its privatization. Like many others, he’s become acutely aware of the difference.
Now, of course, never one to let a bad idea go to waste, Richmond wants to join forces with TFA.
With a vote of 5-2 (with two members absent) the Richmond School Board has decided to contract with Teach For America to hire up to 30 teachers. Since TFA ‘teachers’ are paid an additional $5000 dollars for their services, Richmond taxpayers will need to pay out over $150,000 extra ($5,000 per corps member = $150,000) to TFA to hire folks who have had all of 5 weeks of training.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch,“During Monday’s (November 4th) work session, two board members and half a dozen members of the audience — including Christine S. Walther-Thomas, the dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education — vehemently opposed the idea of bringing Teach For America to Richmond.
“What we know is that they are talented young people but they don’t get a lot of preparation,” said Walther-Thomas, who spoke in favor of a 3-year-old teacher residency program VCU runs with Richmond Public Schools.
Jacqueline T. McDonnough and Kurt Stem-hagen, associate professors at VCU, were more direct. McDonnough said she would “lay down in the door” before she would allow Teach For America into city schools. Stemhagen said “poor and minority students deserve the best.”
Mamie Taylor, 5th District, and Shonda Harris-Muhammed, 6th District, were also vocal in their opposition, and both voted against the proposal.
On Tuesday, Taylor said the school system can’t afford Teach For America’s fee of $5,000 per teacher. And even if it could, she said she would still oppose it. “You can’t show me data that supports it,” she said. “Everything I’ve heard has been individual people’s experiences. I don’t see anything that tells me this is a direction Richmond Public Schools needs to go.”
At the November 4th meeting, Alliance for Progressive Values’ Deputy Kirsten Gray also pointed out that the rationale for hiring 33 TFA positions because of a shortage of teachers didn’t make a lot of sense, “… the city needs 33 positions filled but the openings aren’t advertised on the Richmond Public School system website. We were told there is no money to hire teachers and that “quality” teachers are hard to find. 8 licensed long term subs have been hired but we cannot afford to hire them full time. It was recommended that the School board work within budget and not ask the city for more money. ….but when the subject of Teach For America came up, all of a sudden almost half the board is willing to pay $5,000 more plus salary for a TFA teacher. I can not wrap my head around this. How can a system claim it is hard to find “quality” teachers when the RPS website claims zero openings?”
Teacher, parent and public school advocate Rachel Levy posted on her own blog that she had problems receiving a timely response from the Richmond Public School systems when she applied for an ESOL position. She was ultimately notified that a position might be available, but the reply came so late in the season — a month after school had started — that she had already accepted a position at another school.
“The problem there is not lack of “creativity” or lack of qualified applicants; it’s lack of competence, disorder, and a lack of, um, hiring. TFA’s presence won’t change that.”
Kirsten Gray said, “I believe change in the Richmond Public Schools needs to start with the people, not from above in the form of Corporate Reform. We know what works in this city, but it is a slow process, one chosen by the people. Look how many good elementary schools we have compared to just over a decade ago. Look how long our alternative schools such as Open High School and Community High School have been around. … These schools did not form out of corporate interests. This organization [TFA] is being used as a tool of the privatization movement.”
Kirsten added that when you looked at the rush of local events, it was hard not to see a concerted push toward privatization. She said that a Style Weekly piece recently noted public school closures and the possible inclusion of additional Charter schools.
“This is not sheer coincidence. It is happening in other cities… All of the measures that have been implemented so far have been fought against in the General Assembly by citizens and organizations such as the PTA.”
Public school advocate Sarah Radcliffe Gross added, “TFA teachers are not the answer for our hard-to-staff schools and most challenging students. But they are an easy out for a school board bent on reforms– for the sake of reforms.” Richmond’s public schools need strong committed teachers and leadership determined to address the needs of all students, but contracting to hire a revolving door of less qualified personnel from Teach For America barely gives the appearance of solving problems.
It does, however, assist a deeply conservative agenda that seeks to deconstruct our public school system -one teacher at a time.
National Teacher Appreciation Week – Last Call
Today is the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week for 2012, but it shouldn’t end. Our teachers earn appreciation from the American people every day. Collectively, they shape our nation and the world, preparing us for every crisis on earth. Individually, they do everything from wiping runny noses and spending their own money on school supplies, to forfeiting more gainful careers for a life of helping the rest of us improve ourselves. I think there is no calling more noble or worthy of our constant praise than that which falls to the devoted teachers who enrich our lives – all year, every year – in every imaginable way.
In recent years, with the help of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, our school system has been under attack like never before in our country. So much blame has been placed on our hard-working, dedicated educators it is ridiculous. It comes from misinformation and faulty logic, and it’s just as wrong as saying all parents are to blame for failures in the school system, so we need to demonize parenting.
To honor our teachers this year, take a close look at what’s really happening with education.
Why Isn’t Closing 40 Philadelphia Public Schools National News?
So the carving up of Philadelphia public schools IS a national story. It’s just one that corporate media won’t tell. Not in Philly, not in LA, not in Kansas City or anywhere, for fear that ordinary people might try to write themselves into a leading role. Polls show that the American people don’t want their schools privatized, and don’t believe education should be run by business people like a business. People want to take the money we spend on wars and bailouts and use it on education. Telling the story might give people the notion that the ultimate power is in their hands, not of mayors and chambers of commerce or the so-called “CEOs” of school system. It’s time that story was told, and more of us heard it.
Changing the way we educate America’s students is a priority for three groups – parents, educators and corporatist-neoliberals. And the legislation to change our system is being pushed through by the wrong group – the ones who want to implement their corporate control fantasies. Every benefit of a school system that actually educates the people flies in the face of their profit-driven goals.
They’ve done their best to ruin our schools through neglect, defunding, the demonization of good teachers and by eliminating the protections that allow them to keep teaching. So much disinformation has been spread about it that many good-hearted American parents can only see their children as the “trees”, and are helping to burn down the forest for every American student to come.
Privatization, vouchers, choice, corporate scholarships, internet education – it’s all about neoliberals deconstructing the public good. They want it; they want to control it; they want to sell it; and eventually, they will decide who is entitled to it. What they’re doing is typical: 1) break it 2) get paid to privatize and rebuild it 3) and then funnel the money up to the top. It’s always the same pattern for these people. You can see it in everything they do.
What Matt Taibbi so aptly said about Goldman Sachs applies to neoliberalism in general: It’s “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
We’re turning the education of America’s children over to the same group – the likes of Goldman Sachs – who destroyed our economy with impunity. They’ve already come so far with higher education that extreme personal indebtedness now stunts the beginning of independent life for most students who graduate from college. And typically, they pushed through legislation to remove all the reasonable American protections against bankruptcy and credit abusers for these same students.
Will a Young Generation’s Dreams Be Rescued – Or Bundled and Sold On Wall Street?
Jobless or overextended college graduates aren’t even allowed to declare bankruptcy – a privilege that’s extended to every reckless investor and mismanaged corporation in the nation. Once they finally find work, college graduates face years of garnished wages to repay the loans that funded their often-overpriced educations. If they haven’t repaid that debt by the time they grow old – a very real possibility at the cost of a college education today – they’ll even be forced to surrender part of their Social Security benefits.
That’s indentured servitude.
Meanwhile banks have been slicing and dicing student loans into derivative financial instruments called “SLABS” – student-loan asset backed securities. We’ve seen this movie before – the one where big banks mass-market loans to a population with stagnated wages and dwindling economic prospects, then bundle them and sell them to investors who haven’t reviewed the way they were underwritten and sold.
SLABS for Wall Street investors are a big red flag waving in our faces. And when they jack up the interest and cut the grants while increasing the salaries of college presidents, it’s neoliberalism and it’s not going to end well for the American people.
As neoliberals find it reasonable to cut food money from hungry people – which is what they are doing now, how long will it be before they refuse tuition loans to anyone who might be a financial risk? This brand of corporate interference is what has happened to healthcare, the Post Office, the prison system – and everything else their blood funnels have jammed into … and it’s a long list. It always starts with “breaking” something they want to take from the public good to be controlled by corporate players for maximum profit.
While America still has the finest educators in the world, why aren’t we listening to their advice about the needed changes for our education system? This opinion by Chris Hedges from last year is the best answer I’ve found to that question. Please read it. Our teachers have earned and deserve America’s wholehearted protection in the fight for better education, last week, next week, every week … they simply are not the culprits.
Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System
Off topic, here, but to drive the point home, consider another recent and shocking example of planned privatization. Last year, the Chief Economist at Citigroup, Willem Buiter, announced a similar neoliberal vision for our drinking water!
“I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years. Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments—puts, calls, swaps—both exchange-traded and OTC will follow. There will be different grades and types of fresh water, just the way we have light sweet and heavy sour crude oil today. Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”
Chris Saladino: “This only has the worst possible outcomes. The attempts at water privatization have so far created far more problems than solutions and in most cases have actually failed. To make it worse, this kind of corporate intervention in yet another essential component of human survival has been just as unfairly dominated as food, health care, and energy.
The Cochabamba riots in Bolivia are a telling and frightening case study. The police actually arrested people for illegally collecting rain water. It’s just a bit too much like the fear of Jack T. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove…”
Water Privatization Case Study:
Cochabamba, Bolivia (pdf)
We thank our new APV member, Chris Saladino, Professor of International Studies at VCU, for commenting on the privatization of fresh water and look forward to more of his contributions in the future!