On Infrastructure and Injustice

There is the issue of public infrastructure and who pays for it. My dad brought it up to me and it led to an argument. He couldn’t understand why there was a national discussion about fixing infrastructure. And he seemed to assume that it was citizens and local leaders demanding this. But I’m not sure why he made that assumption.

First, this ignores that it is being talked about because the Republican president made it a main point of his proclaimed agenda. Trump campaigned on progressive-sounding rhetoric, including a promise for a New New Deal program for rebuilding infrastructure. He and those representing him repeated this promise many times. So, considering Trump is now president, all of this is coming from a federal level. The kind of infrastructure being discussed is such things as bridges, the kind of thing that politicians like to focus on. But most people don’t sit around thinking about bridges.

That brings me to a second point. The kind of infrastructure that concerns people is much more basic. They want a paved road so that they can more easily get to work and more quickly get back home after work to take care of their family. They worry about affording basic healthcare for easily treatable diseases and having clean water so that their children don’t get brain damage from lead toxicity. They would like reliable access to electricity, phone lines, etc. These were the priorities of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. These are fairly basic things that we expect in a modern industrialized society, the prerequisite for a functioning social democracy for all citizens.

The people most effected with infrastructure problems are the poor. This leads to multiple problems in solving these problems. Many poor people live in poor communities, oftentimes because of a history of racial segregation. Poor communities have poorly funded governments. But more importantly, it’s not just poverty. It is how that poverty is created.

The government regularly gives away trillions of dollars of public wealth to corporations, not just subsidies and bailouts but even more through cheap access to natural resources on public lands, which is to say from the commons that belongs as much to future generations (not to mention the money spent help corporations on the international market, including using military force to ensure they also have cheap access to natural resources on foreign public lands). By the way, the infrastructure to access those publicly-owned natural resources is typically built by government for free, for the sole purpose of the benefit of wealthy private interests who just so happen to donate lots of money to key campaigns and political organizations. The poverty we have in the US is enforced by those in power, not natural or God-given.

People don’t have a right to demand that their government serves their interests, that is the argument my dad makes. It’s obviously an insincere argument. What he means is that he doesn’t believe a government should serve anyone’s interests but the privileged, the worthy and deserving, ya know, people like him. Everyone else should solve their own  problems or else suffer. But that is mind-boggling ignorance. Civil Rights leaders attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but were met with resistance and oppression. Residents in poor communities dealing with lead toxicity have attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but officials and governments have ignored them. It usually takes decades or generations of local struggle before higher levels of government ever take notice, assuming their is a large enough protest movement or legal case to force them to take notice.

The thing is my dad acts like we have a functioning democracy, even as he knows we don’t. Besides, the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t want a functioning democracy. His argument against federal government being involved in local affairs is an argument that the federal government should not be democratic, should not represent the public nor serve the public good, should not be of the people, by the people, for the people. But he can’t admit it, not even to himself, because his actual beliefs are so morally horrendous.

It isn’t just about federal government. The same argument applies at the state level and even further down. Why should state taxpayers help with the problems at the level of communities? As far as that goes, why should the taxpayers in urban areas of a county pay for the infrastructure of rural areas of the same county? Heck, why should the wealthy people in one neighborhood help the poor people in the same city have access to basic utilities? Why have public goods at all? Why not make every all infrastructure privately owned? Why have any government at all since, as the right-wingers claim, taxation is theft and government isn’t possible without such supposed theft? Why not instead have a world of individuals where it is a constant war of one against all? As Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society.”

If you don’t have the money, then you shouldn’t be allowed to drive anywhere, drink clean water, or go on living — who is paying for that air you’re breathing, you pneumatic welfare queen! That is the principled libertarian solution. How dare those who suffer and struggle demand a basic response of human decency and compassion! It’s not the privileged controlling the government and the economy who are authoritarians. No, it’s the poor people crying out in desperation who are the real oppressors.

My dad (and people like him) don’t understand and don’t want to understand the very system he benefits from. But on some level, I know he understands. That is the thing that bothers me. My dad is not ignorant, even when he pretends to not know something. I know what he knows because of past discussions we’ve had. Yet each new discussion begins from a point of feigned ignorance, with a denial of what had been previously discussed. It’s frustrating.

If my dad didn’t have his privilege, if he and his family were being racially oppressed, economically segregated, and slowly poisoned by the only water they have access to, if he and his neighbors were politically suppressed and if the government refused to even acknowledge his existence other than to hire more police to keep him in his place, if there had been a long history of political failure at the local level, if wealthy and powerful interests almost always got their way no matter the harm to local residents, would my dad honestly resign himself with libertarian moral righteousness that it was all his fault and that he must be punished for his suffering because his poverty is proof of his inferiority? Would he watch his loved ones suffer and do nothing? Would he just lay down and die? No, he wouldn’t.

It’s not just conservatives such as my dad. I see the same thing with disconnected liberals, in their attitude toward poor people when they vote the wrong way or when a homeless camp appears in a nearby park, and then all the good liberal intentions quickly disappear. I see how easy people are turned against each other, no matter their ideology. And I see how easy ideology becomes rationalization. It reminds one of how quickly an authoritarian government can emerge.

As the desperate unsurprisingly act desperate, the upper classes will demand a response and it won’t be to help alleviate that desperation. It will be a demand for law and order, by violent force if necessary. Put them down and put them in their place. Put them in prisons, ghettos, internment camps, or maybe even concentration camps. Just make them go away or somehow make them invisible and silenced.

The line of thought my dad is following down can only lead to one place, increasing authoritarianism. Without a functioning democracy, there is nowhere else for our society to go. Either that or eventually revolution. So, apparently my dad is hoping for an authoritarian government so oppressive that it effectively stops both democracy and revolution, forcing local people to deal with their own problems in misery and despair. That is the world that good citizens and good Christians, the good people like my dad, are helping to create.

What happens when those who could have done something to stop the horror finally see the world they have chosen, their beliefs and values made manifest?

But Then It Was Too Late

They Thought They Were Free
by Milton Mayer
ch. 13

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.

* * *

Later on, I was able to have a more fruitful conversation with my dad. That emphasizes what was so frustrating in that argument earlier. I know he is capable of understanding the point I was making. But something about it so often triggers him. It’s so easy for social conservatives to fall back on such things as Social Darwinism, as almost a default mode.

It’s not like I’m a great defender of big government. Most people aren’t for big government on principle. Few would turn to a government any larger than is necessary. The first response the average person has is to seek what solutions might be had nearby. They only turn elsewhere when all immediate possibilities are frustrated or denied. This isn’t about big versus small government. It’s simply about government that functions democratically, on any and all levels.

So, I finally found a way to communicate this to my dad. But it is always a struggle. If I don’t frame it in the exact right way, he reacts with right-wing ideology. I have to put it into conservative terms of community and social fabric.

I find that a shame because the framing I’d prefer is simple honest concern for other humans, as if they mattered. I don’t want to live in a society where I have to carefully frame every argument in order to not accidentally elicit knee-jerk prejudices. I wish we were beyond that point. I wish we could have discussions that went straight to the problems themselves, instead having to first somehow prove that those suffering are worthy of our compassion.

I did apologize to my dad for getting so upset with him and lashing out at him. It’s not what I want. But these debates aren’t academic. It’s real people suffering, millions of Americans. These people don’t care if it is local or national government that helps them solve problems. They just want a better life for themselves and their children. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for. I have no apology for caring.

Interestingly, one way I got my dad’s mind onto a new track of thinking is by sharing a passage from a book. It was something I had read yesterday, about old school progressives. For some reason, maybe because of the framing of religious moral reform, the following passage was able to shift our dialogue.

American Character
by Colin Woodard
pp. 134-135

When another terrible depression shook the country in 1893, reform movements sprang up across its northern tiers. Like the Massachusetts Brahmins, these turn-of-the-century Progressives weren’t opposed to free-market capitalism or Lockean individualism, but they did believe that laissez-faire was destroying both. Their philosophical mentor was the sociologist Lester Ward, the son of old New Englanders who had settled in the Yankee north of Illinois, and who became the greatest foe of Herbert Spencer and the social Darwinists. “How can . . . true individualism be secured and complete freedom of individual action be vouchsafed?” Ward asked in 1893. “Herein lies a social paradox . . . that individual freedom can only come through social regulation.” He elaborated a theory of collective action to maintain the conditions required to keep individuals free:

Such a powerful weapon as reason is unsafe in the hands of one individual when wielded against another. It is still more dangerous in the hands of corporations, which proverbially have no souls. It is most baneful of all in the hands of compound corporations which seek to control the wealth of the world. It is only safe when employed by the social ego, emanating from the collective brain of society, and directed toward securing the common interests of the social organism.

It was in essence the approach Massachusetts had been taking for decades, which would now be adopted by insurgents in other parts of Yankeedom (Jane Addams in northern Illinois, Charles Evans Hughes in upstate New York, and Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin), the Midlands (William Jennings Bryan in eastern Nebraska), and New Netherland (where Herbert Croly helped found the New Republic in 1914 and from whence came the movement’s greatest figures, Al Smith and Theodore Roosevelt).

Teddy Roosevelt, who served as president from 1901 to 1909, broke up Standard Oil, Northern Securities (which controlled both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways), the American Tobacco Company, and other great corporate trusts; intervened in a major mining strike to secure a solution beneficial to workers; and founded the National Park Service, national wildlife refuges, and the U.S. Forest Service. He presided over the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, and the Hepburn Act, which regulated railroad fares. His goal, he told a rapt audience at the laying of the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1907, was to restore the spirit of the early Puritans, who yoked the individualistic Protestant work ethic to communitarian goals and institutions. “The Puritan owed his extraordinary success in subduing this continent and making it the foundation for a social life of ordered liberty primarily to the fact that he combined in a very remarkable degree both the power of individual initiative, of individual self-help, and the power of acting in combination with his fellows,” he said. “He could combine with others whenever it became necessary to do a job which could not be as well done by any one man individually. . . . The spirit of the Puritan . . . never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal; and it is this spirit which we must show today whenever it is necessary.”

 

Size Matters

“If you owe the bank ten thousand dollars, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank a million dollars, you own the bank.”
~ attributed to various people

And other variations:

“If you owe your bank manager a thousand pounds, you are at his mercy. If you owe him a million pounds, he is at your mercy.”

“If you owe the bank $100 that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.”

* * *

“a TEN-YEAR-OLD lad in Indianapolis who was arrested for picking up coal along the side of railroad tracks is now in jail. If the boy had known enough to steal the whole railroad he would be heralded as a Napoleon of finance.”
~ Mother Jones

And another version, also attributed to her:

“I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.”

Or related variants, often misattributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

“The illiterate robs a freight car; the educated thief steals the whole railroad.”

“An uneducated thief will steal a ride on a railroad train. An educated thief will steal the whole railroad system.”

“If a man steal a ride on a railroad, he is called a “hobo;” If he steal the whole railroad his name is emblazoned in history as a financier.”

“Steal a ride and you are a “hobo,” liable to be shot. Steal a whole railroad and you are a financier, eligible to the United States Senate.”

“if a man steals a ham from a freight car, he goes to jail; while if he steals the whole railroad, he goes to the United States senate.”

* * *

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
~ usually misattributed to Stalin

Along with numerous variations:

“The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. One hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic!”

“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

“One Murder made a Villain, Millions a Hero.”

“Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”

Invisible Problems of Invisible People

Many have explored how people are made invisible. As Becky Pettit explains in Invisible Men:

“[O]ur collective blindness hinders the establishment of social facts, conceals inequality, and undermines the foundation of social science research, including that used in the design and evaluation of social policy. The decades-long expansion of the criminal justice system has led to the acute and rapid disappearance of young, low-skill African American men from portraits of the American economic, political, and social condition . While the expansion of the criminal justice system reinforces race and class inequalities in the United States, the full impact of the criminal justice system on American inequality is obscured by the continued use of data collection strategies and estimation methods that predate prison expansion.”

In the Washington Post, Jeff Guo made a similar point, including mentioning the work of Becky Pettit and Bruce Western:

“Though there are nearly 1.6 million Americans in state or federal prison, their absence is not accounted for in the figures that politicians and policymakers use to make decisions. As a result, we operate under a distorted picture of the nation’s economic health.

“There’s no simple way to estimate the impact of mass incarceration on the jobs market. But here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine how the white and black unemployment rates would change if all the people in prison were added to the unemployment rolls.

“According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men (25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.

“For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That’s because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized.

“Now, the racial gap starts to look like a racial chasm. (When you take into account local jails, which are not included in these statistics, the situation could be even worse.)”

It’s nice for this to get some mainstream attention. It’s much worse when one considers that some studies have found that upward of 6% of prison inmates are innocent of all criminal charges. The system is designed to force confessions through threats. And then, innocent or not, the punishment doesn’t end even after people supposedly pay for their wrongdoings by doing time—more from the article:

“One in thirteen black adults can’t vote because of their criminal records. Discrimination on the job market deepens racial inequality. Not only does a criminal record make it harder to get hired, but studies find that a criminal record is more of a handicap for black men. Employers are willing to give people second chances, but less so if they’re black.”

It’s worse still. Other studies have found that blacks with no criminal records are less likely to be interviewed and hired than whites with criminal records. Even if a black ex-con tries to turn their life around by for example getting college education, they are less likely to get interviewed and hired than a white person of equal background with only a high school diploma. Simply having a black-sounding name will decrease the chances of getting an interview at all.

This is all on top of the fact that the entire policing and legal system targets blacks. For crimes whites commit more, blacks still get arrested more and convicted more harshly.

None of this is new information. It is well known by those care to know. It has been substantiated by decades of data and research. Yet too often we act as if not only the problem doesn’t exist but that those impacted also don’t exist.

A Divide in Justice, a Divide in the Mind

I got sidetracked into reading some of Matt Taibbi’s just released new book, The Divide. A review of it in the Wall Street Journal of all places caught my attention. It was a surprisingly good, although short, review by Matt Welch. The reviewer ended with this damning conclusion:

“Though Mr. Taibbi doesn’t couch it in these terms, his warning is all about moral hazard, in two senses of the phrase. When swindlers know that their risks will be subsidized, and their potential crimes will be punishable only through negotiated corporate settlements, they will surely commit more crimes. And when most of the population either does not know or does not care that the lowest socioeconomic classes live in something akin to a police state, we should be greatly concerned for the moral health of our society.”

If that conclusion is correct and the Wall Street Journal was doing its job, that should have been front page news. Instead, I found it printed in a small corner of a back page of the newspaper. I guess one should be thankful that a review like this gets published at all in the mainstream media, however hidden away it remains.

This hiding in plain sight demonstrates a point made by Taibbi, maybe the central point of the entire book. His conclusion is that wealth disparities are causing unequal and unfair end results in the US justice system. But that is more just the ‘what’ of his argument, the evidence in support of a more probing insight. It is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that is the real issue of concern.

Taibbi speaks of implicit knowledge, that anyone who is paying attention knows all of this and yet it remains in the background. This is the key to understanding his argument. He introduces and emphasizes this perspective of implicit knowledge in his introduction. It appears he offers it as the foundation for building his analysis throughout the rest of the book. It is the sad fact that this knowledge is implicit, rather than explicit, that allows and encourages the growth of this divide.

Near the beginning of the introduction, he presents his case and puts it into context (Kindle Locations 67-75):

“The other thing here is an idea that being that poor means you should naturally give up any ideas you might have about privacy or dignity. The welfare applicant is less of a person for being financially dependent (and a generally unwelcome immigrant from a poor country to boot), so she naturally has fewer rights.

“No matter how offensive the image is, it has a weird logic that’s irresistible to many if not most Americans . Even if we don’t agree with it, we all get it.

“And that’s the interesting part, the part where we all get it. More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not. It’s not as simple as saying everyone is the same under the law anymore. We all know there’s another layer to it now.”

Taibbi doesn’t pull his punches. He goes straight to the tender weak point in American pride by making a comparison to Soviet Russia (Kindle Locations 76-86):

“As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became all-important.

“So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard currency was technically forbidden , yet I never met a Soviet citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit on his back, and nothing would happen.

“Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a dream , and the system fell apart in a matter of months . That happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot it.

“Now I feel like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one. People are beginning to become disturbingly comfortable with a kind of official hypocrisy. Bizarrely, for instance, we’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.”

The example of Russia is an apt comparison. Like the Soviet Russia, the United States is in a precarious situation. We have immense power (or rather our government does) while at the same time having a population that is immensely deluded. Many American citizens have become disconnected from certain realities. Most Americans simply aren’t paying attention to what matters or not paying attention at all. But some Americans do notice, as the author acknowledges (Kindle Locations 95-101):

“This is obviously an outrage, and the few Americans who paid close attention to news stories like the deferred prosecution of HSBC for laundering drug money, or the nonprosecution of the Swiss bank UBS for fixing interest rates, were beside themselves with anger over the unfairness of it all.

“But the truly dark thing about those stories is that somewhere far beneath the intellect, on a gut level, those who were paying attention understood why those stories panned out the way they did. Just as we very quickly learned to accept the idea that America now tortures and assassinates certain foreigners (and perhaps the odd American or three) as a matter of routine, and have stopped marching on Washington to protest the fact that these things are done in our names, we’ve also learned to accept the implicit idea that some people have simply more rights than others. Some people go to jail, and others just don’t. And we all get it.”

This systemic and institutionalized injustice has become normal to us. We rarely think to even question it. Even when we do give it more than a passing thought, we typically accept it as the way the world operates, maybe inevitably. There are just those on the bottom of society as there are those at the top.

We see these problems and yet we don’t really see them. We never look at them head on. We never think about them carefully and talk about them openly. We live in social isolation and our minds are trapped within media bubbles. We don’t see the larger view (Kindle Locations 154-160):

“Most people understand this on some level, but they don’t really know how bad it has gotten, because they live entirely on one side of the equation. If you grew up well off, you probably don’t know how easy it is for poor people to end up in jail, often for the same dumb things you yourself did as a kid.

“And if you’re broke and have limited experience in the world, you probably have no idea of the sheer scale of the awesome criminal capers that the powerful and politically connected can get away with, right under the noses of the rich-people police.

“This is a story that doesn’t need to be argued . You just need to see it, and it speaks for itself. Only we’ve arranged things so that the problem is basically invisible to most people, unless you go looking for it.”

In our society, there is an implicit knowledge that is rarely ever overtly discussed publicly. I came across this same idea of implicit knowledge in a number of other books (and have written about this previously). The phrasing I kept coming across was to “know and don’t know”, a truth so dangerous that even to acknowledge it is frightening. What are we to do with such information? It makes us uncomfortable because it puts the lie to so many of our shared beliefs and assumptions, our collective self-image.

To know and not know. It is, at a fundamental level, a psychological dissociation, a splitting of the self based on a splintering of awareness. What we know in one context is separate from what we know in another context. We know and yet the full knowledge never gets our full attention, the different truths never quite connecting to help us see a greater truth that threatens our contentment and certainty.

There is a direct link between a disconnection of awareness and the social disparity of justice and wealth. The class and racial divide is part of the divide of ideological rhetoric, of political narrative, of media reporting, of public debate. There is a disconnection between what so many of us know on some level and what gets spoken in public forums and what gets implemented in public policy.

Reading a book like The Divide can be depressing. That was my initial response. The author, however, ends on a note of optimism. The divide was created and so can be changed. Going by the last examples in the book, it appears that changes are happening. “As this book goes to press,” Taibbi writes at the end of his concluding chapter (Kindle Locations 6405-6422),

“the Justice Department is sending signals that it’s beginning to realize its mistakes. Eric Holder is reportedly thinking of nominating a tough prosecutor, Leslie Caldwell, to permanently fill Lanny Breuer’s vacated post. Holder also talked about raising the statute of limitations on Wall Street cases, to give themselves another shot at all the crimes they ignored in the last five years, warning that those who committed crimes are “not out of the woods yet.” Hedge fund villain Stevie Cohen is being put out of business. As this book goes to press, criminal cases are reportedly coming against the megabank Chase for the “London Whale” episode and perhaps other misdeeds, including some related to its status as Bernie Madoff’s banker.

“At the very least, on the federal level, officials seem to recognize the political necessity of saying these things out loud, and this has to be in very large part due to the public outrage over the lack of Wall Street prosecutions. Decisions like the HSBC settlement were blunt bureaucratic calculations , where the risk of losing and/ or disrupting the economy was weighed against the benefit of receiving $ 1.9 billion in settlement money. But these new moves by Holder & Co. show that public outrage sometimes can change the calculus.

Exactly! Public outrage can make a difference. But public outrage requires public awareness. We are at an interesting moment in history that resonates with that moment when Russian society was awakening. With the rise of alternative media, Americans are becoming better informed in a way not seen before in my life.

Also, a large part of this shift comes from books like this written by Taibbi. It isn’t just the general public that is starting to question and doubt. More importantly, comfortably well-off mainstream media types such as Taibbi are beginning to look to new information and perspectives. And Taibbi isn’t alone. Many books like this one have been coming out recently and they are being read by all Americans, all across the economic spectrum:

“At the same time that Eric Holder was experimenting with a public change of mind, a federal judge named Shira Scheindlin handed down a ruling against New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. This was late in the summer of 2013. Scheindlin , among other things, cited a popular new book, The New Jim Crow, in her ruling and noted that since 2004 more blacks and Latinos have been accosted by police than actually live in the city. The ruling came at the end of a long and well-coordinated campaign by groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the NAACP.”

I liked the mention of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. That is another important book. It is surprising that Taibbi only mentions it right at the end and doesn’t even include the author’s name.  Alexander’s book goes into great detail about the data of inequality and injustice. The case made in The Divide could have been strengthened by Alexander’s analysis of data.

In his very last thoughts, Taibbi makes clear the power of public pressure and the necessity of more of it:

“Of course, a federal judge striking down stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional doesn’t mean the practice will end anytime soon. “You’re not going to see any change in tactics overnight,” promised Mayor Mike Bloomberg. But the fact that Bloomberg was put in the position of having to fight back— and that his successor, Bill de Blasio, won in part by running against those tactics— shows that public pressure can work . Just trying to do the right thing legitimizes the entire system. We don’t do it often enough.”

That is where the author leaves us.

A book is just a book. A writer can’t cause change merely through the act of being published. The only influence a book has is through those who read it and by what they choose to do with what a book offers. This may just be yet another book or it may be the start of a public discussion that we’ve needed for far too long.

We are on the edge of a historical shift. No one knows where this shift might take us or how it will happen. No one knows precisely when it will happen. But, one way or another, it will happen. We are close to the tipping point. Almost anything might push our society over the edge.

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

The Master’s Tools

In speaking about violence, injustice and utopias, Ursula K. Le Guin offers an interesting metaphor. She writes that, “Audre Lord said you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. I think about this powerful metaphor, trying to understand it” (“War Without End”, The Wave in the Mind). It is an interesting, albeit troubling, metaphor. It frames a particular way to think about our society.

This metaphor implies a number of things.

First, it portrays society as something intentionally created and actively formed. It is built by someone and for some purpose. A social order doesn’t just happen anymore than a building just happens.

Second, it claims that what has been built isn’t just any building, but the “master’s house”. It is built with the master’s tools and one assumes according to the master’s specifications. We can throw out the master’s blueprint. We can surreptitiously build something else while the master isn’t looking. Or we can try to tear it down. The master might punish us or we might get the upperhand. We could become our own builders for our own purposes. We could become masters in our own right. Even so, the tools we have are still the master’s tools with the limitations that those tools present.

This metaphor represents the view of the outsider, the person already standing back from the work being done and those attempting to undo it. It doesn’t automatically imply a particular ideological standpoint. But, in our society, this view is most often presented by the leftist and often directed at liberals most of all. I’ve increasingly been persuaded by the criticisms originating from the leftist perspective. I wonder what we have built and what or whose purpose it really serves.

Liberals attempted to dismantle the house of, in our case, the slave master for that is what our society was built upon. We dismantled slavery and other overt forms of oppression, but we weren’t able to fully dismantle the cultural structures that made oppression possible. This is, according to the metaphor, because we have continued to use the same tools.

 * * * *

Whose Welfare?

I’ve come to this understanding most directly from my thoughts on welfare. I’ve speculated that, if all welfare were to end instantly, revolution would happen over night. Our entire society, both the social and economic orders, is being propped up by the welfare state. Capitalism (as we know it) most of all couldn’t operate without the welfare state, without the direct and indirect subsidies of the government supporting companies and their employees in a thousand different ways.

I gained some insight when trying to make heads or tails out of Edmund Burke’s politics. Why would a supposed conservative or reactionary have been so adamant and consistent in his pushing progressive reform? An insight gelled in mind when I read a comparison of Burke and Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Burke in America by Drew Maciag). In their own words, it became clear that they promoted reform within the system in order to defend the status quo of the system. Small changes prevent big changes (i.e., revolutions).

This is why Burke took a reactionary stance when actual revolution threatened, when progressive reform became less relevant and brute oppression deemed necessary. This is also why Burke only cared about the complaints of Americans until their independence was won, and afterward it was no concern of his as they were no longer part of the British Empire which is the only social order he cared about. Burke’s concern was about the British Empire, not so much about the people who might be oppressed or otherwise affected by the British Empire. He only concerned himself about the problems of people when ignoring such problems might threaten the social order he was part of.

(My complaint against Burke here isn’t ideological. I would make the same complaint against a mainstream liberal in modern America, which is my entire point. Also, my inner libertarian wants to know where Irish Burke’s social identity and moral concern would have fallen when the British Empire violently suppressed the Irish bid for independence, a clash that caused more deaths than the French Reign of Terror he so harshly criticized.)

We focus so much on the calls for reform that we rarely stop to consider what is being reformed. And we defend what we identify with without really understanding why. We need to look beyond individual issues and parochial concerns toward a broader understanding. We need to consider what we are building as we consider how we go about that activity. We need to consider the foundation upon which our house is built.

* * * *

Tools and Blueprints

Progressive reform is one of the master’s tools, to be used or not as necessary for the master’s plans. But it’s just one of many tools, not the blueprint for what is being built.

I say this as someone whose natural impulse is to support progressive reform, slow and steady changes from within the system. I’m not a radical. It just isn’t in me to be a radical. And yet I find it impossible to deny the radical’s critique. Like it or not, I suspect leftists are at least partly correct in what they say about liberals.

The welfare state doesn’t simply or even primarily serve the interests of the poor. Rather, it serves the master(s), the ruling elite and their status quo. It is the bread part of the bread and circus equation. Does anyone genuinely think the leaders of the Roman Empire ordered bread to be thrown to the poor because of some liberal agenda to steal from the rich and spread the wealth? No, they wanted to keep the hungry masses under control by any means necessary, which sometimes meant bread and other times violence, but more often some combination of both (the carrot and the stick).

As a lifelong liberal, I feel pulled in two directions. To seek to reform the system may just continue the suffering. To seek to end the system, though, will also likely lead to more suffering. In terms of immediate options, it can feel like suffering is unavoidable. Is the only way to force change by forcing suffering to its extreme? Then what? We have no guarantee that anything good will result. Suffering isn’t a magical elixir.

A desperate people are as likely to turn to demagoguery and authoritarianism as to face up to the problems that are the cause of their desperation. The liberal’s complaint is that we might end up worse than we already are. Small steps of progress toward the public good is, as the liberal believes, much safer than risking it all on a gamble.

The vision of suffering, no matter what form it takes, too easily play into the hands of the powerful. A state of despair isn’t inspiring. It makes us feel impotent and apathetic. Isn’t there a third option, one that would offer genuine hope?

* * * *

The Problems We Create

The welfare state is just a single example among others. We could also include the minimum wage, which in a sense is another aspect of the welfare state.

If we had a society where economic (and political) inequality was less extreme and where social mobility (along with the attendant opportunities) was higher, then a minimum wage might be unnecessary. A minimum wage deals with the symptoms, rather than the disease. When you are sick, it is natural to want the doctor to make you feel better, even if it is just symptom management. You also hope, though, that the doctor is meanwhile seeking to cure the disease and will bring you back to health.

In our society, the metaphorical doctors are technocrats who have little concern, much less understanding, about fundamental causes. Their purpose is the purpose of the master, which is the building and maintaining of the master’s house: the status quo of the established social order. It would be as if doctors were more concerned about the hospital and their place within it than they were for their own patients’ care; the patients being seen as serving the purpose of the hospital, instead of the other way around. Such dystopian doctors would be mainly concerned about symptom management in the way technocrats are mainly concerned about human resource management and population control (along with economic manipulations and military coercion).

We look for solutions to the problems we create. But, as Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

* * * *

Building Something New?

The system precedes any individual person, and so the individual person by intention or default serves the system. But whose system is it?

It is first and foremost a system for the minority, a system of wealth and power. It is the master’s house. As always, the majority are the builders who build what the master(s) tell them to build. We are born into this society without choice, the house already under construction, the foundation and walls already in place. We reach adulthood and someone places the master’s tools into our hands. What can and should we do? Throw away these tools and starve? Throw the monkey wrench into the works and see what happens? Or use these tools to try to build something new? If so, how? One could argue that many have tried and failed.

We have seen the near continuous implementation of progressive reforms since the revolutionary era. Have our social problems been solved? Of course not. Even with the ending of slavery in the Western world, there are still more slaves in the world today than there were in the past and there are more African-Americans in US prisons now than there ever were in slavery. It is hard to see this as evidence of progress. Some have benefited while many have suffered.

Progressive reform, sadly, doesn’t necessarily solve problems. It can feel like a band-aid on a gaping wound. And a band-aid won’t stop the blood gushing out. Even if the wound stops gushing on its own, the band-aid won’t prevent infections and gangrene, won’t prevent scar tissue from forming. The wound needs to be opened and cleansed. It needs stitches and salves. It needs regular care until it is healed. And, if the injuries turn out to be deeper still, bones may need to be set or invasive surgery may be necessary.

* * * *

An Arsenal of Metaphors

We need to use every metaphor in our arsenal. Metaphors are how we make the abstract concrete, make the unconsidered real.

I particularly like the bodily metaphors of disease, of wounds and trauma, and of health and healing. We often use these metaphors to describe the experiences and behaviors of individuals. We speak of otherwise healthy veterans and rape victims as having been traumatized. No physical trauma may literally be detected, but it is as if there is an unhealed injury and a process of healing that can be assisted or thwarted. One of the greatest leaps of insight comes from seeing how this applies on the larger scales of entire communities and societies.

This has become clear to me in studying history. There is a reason we collectively are obsessed with past wars and conflicts. It is because they aren’t merely in the past. We keep reliving them as someone suffering post-traumatic stress disorder keeps reliving the original trauma. Some describe this as a victimization cycle, but that doesn’t do justice to the lived reality. It’s not just a cycle, a pattern repeating. It’s as if the suffering of the dead still haunt us. Borders aren’t mere lines on a map. They are still tender wounds, not just in the minds of individuals, but in the societies on both sides.

Like the welfare state, borders aren’t there for the good of the common people. They exist for the purposes of power, of enforcing social order. But the powerful are as afflicted as the rest of us. It is a psychological complex of fear, around which all sorts of rationalizations accrue. The desire for power and control is most often driven by fear. This isn’t to say that fear is never warranted, but it is to say we too often perpetuate the conditions of fear like a battered woman returning to her abusive spouse or else marrying another man who is just as abusive.

Once we realize the metaphors we are living, we are in a position to consider different metaphors and with them new understandings, new possibilities, new choices.

* * * *

Unnatural Boundaries

International aid relates as well. It is a globalized welfare system. It serves to numb the worst pain caused by the wounds of borders.

Modern nation-states are largely the result of colonialism. The borders in many parts of the world were created by the former colonizers who had very little concern for the native populations. They divied up land based on geographical conveniences, natural resources, and historical claims of power. It didn’t matter if such imagined boundaries divided tribes and ethnic groups or if they mixed together tribes and ethnic groups that were in conflict. These boundaries weren’t natural, are never natural.

The former colonizers have supported oppressive regimes for their own purposes. It is still the master’s house, even when the master isn’t living there for the time being. Local tyrants may sleep in the master’s bed while he is away, but such tyrants only maintain their position as long as they serve the master, as long as they act as caretakers in his absence.

Before modern nation-states with their borders, people traveled and migrated rather freely compared today. It is hard for us to understand that. Borders used to be much more vague and malleable human realities. They had more to do with cultural differences than political power and military force. In the past, before modern militaries, a border that was anything besides cultural didn’t tend to last very long.

A border isn’t a physical thing, permanently etched upon the landscape. It is at best a temporary truce among people who often don’t even remember what created it in the first place. It is simply where two violent forces stopped fighting, until eventually conflict breaks out once again. This is why borders throughout history have constantly shifted, each new designated border being a new wounding, scar tissue upon scar tissue forming in the shared soul of a people.

* * * *

The House of the Nation; Or a Mansion of Many Rooms

Welfare, minimum wage, international aid, borders, etc. All these are forms of social control. This what is found in the master’s toolbox.

These are various ways of mollifying the masses and dividing them into manageable chunks. When transnational corporations are wealthier and more powerful than many small countries, how can local workers even begin to unite across these boundaries that instead pit workers against one another. Foreigners and immigrants get scapegoated for taking ‘our’ jobs. Meanwhile, people in other countries scapegoat us in return for the problems they also face.

These problems aren’t national problems. They are international problems, shared problems. But the systems of control don’t let us see that. And our language doesn’t allow us to understand it.

If these systems of control were ended, it would suddenly force us all to deal with our shared problems. No longer could costs be externalized onto particular groups of people while not affecting those who do the externalizing. If people weren’t limited and oppressed by borders and governments, if people could freely choose to live where and associate with whom they wanted, we could no longer ignore the glaring problems and injustices we face. Besides, whether we like it or not, externalized costs and and projected problems always blow back, whether as illegal immigration or terrorism or worse.

The process of uniting people has happened within nations. What historically were seen as regional populations with regional problems have come to be correctly understood in a larger understanding of cross-regional challenges. The English, Welsh, Scottish, and many Irish are now all Britains (along with many British citizens from present and former British colonies). The First Nations tribes, French Accadians, and British are now all Canadians. The same process has happened in Mexico and the US. To extend this past pattern into the future, it is more than likely that one day there will be a single socio-political identify of “North Americans”.

This is what we now face with national borders all over the world. Borders, as they relate to geography, are one type of metaphor used for social identity and one of the most powerful metaphors at that for they are so easily conflated with concrete reality. That metaphor is what inspired early Americans to imperial aspirations. They saw themselves as a people of a continent, not a mere island as was the case with the English. They identified themselves with all of North America. And if they had had the power to do it, they might have gladly taken over all of Canada and Mexico. But their metaphorical imagination outran their military force. We the citizens of the US still call ourselves Americans despite our political boundaries only occupying a small part of the Americas, our imagined continental aspirations remaining unfulfilled, a minor detail that makes nervous other people in the Americas.

The problems within and between the US and Mexico have never been and never will be merely national problems. Most of the US once was part of the Spanish Empire and after that part of Mexico. There are populations of Hispanics who descend from families that have been in the US longer than when English colonizers first set foot here. There are parts of the US that have always been Hispanic majority with a majority of Spanish speakers. These people have family members living on both sides of the border. The border cuts through a historical population like a knife, divides a people and their communities, creates a culture of fear and conflict.

Yet still the borders aren’t secure and never will be. Metaphors, although powerful, remain as fictions and so can only be enforced imperfectly. They aren’t real and can’t be made real, however real they are treated. Only the violence that enforces them is real and it is only real as long as it continues, but even the most violent of societies eventually tire of pointless bloodshed and oppression or else runs out of money to support it. As human lives bleed, so does the wealth of a people. Lives are destroyed, communities are crippled, and social capital is lost.

The drug problem in the US is partly caused by the drug problem in Mexico; and, in turn, the drug problem in Mexico has grown because of the US War on Drugs which simply made it an even more profitable business by driving it into the black market. Likewise, the gun problem in Mexico is almost entirely caused by the gun problem in the US. Americans complain about the violence coming from Mexico or the ‘illegal’ immigrants. But why do so few ask what caused these problems in the first place?

NAFTA hasn’t helped small farmers in Mexico. The long history of the US government and business leaders undermining democracy in Mexico hasn’t helped the average Mexican.

After all that, do we really want to scapegoat the terrified Mexicans fleeing the horror we have helped inflict upon them, upon their families and communities, upon their entire society? We should be better than that and we could better than that, if we only were able to comprehend our own failings, the harm we mindlessly cause onto others, the endless cycle of violence and victimization. Empathy requires awareness and understanding.

* * * *

Change, the Only Inevitability

Like it or not, as Le Guin points out, “Societies change with and without violence.” Change can be beneficial for all or not so much, but change will happen. Progress, whether through reform or revolution, will likely continue to happen, however imperfectly and unequally, that is until society collapses. With a sense of hope, she reminds us that, “Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws—education, learning to think, learning skills?”

Le Guin then poses a set of questions, “Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful? Along with the priesthood and phallocracy, must we throw away science and democracy? Will we be left trying to build without any tools but our bare hands?”

In speaking of the master’s house and the master’s tools, she acknowledges that, “The metaphor is rich and dangerous. I can’t answer the questions it raises.” As with many other metaphors, this one is dangerous because it is powerful in how it forces us to think differently. It’s power isn’t in offering simple solutions, but in opening the mind to new ways of thinking, new possibilities. Societies are built. Nations are built. Governments are built. Borders are built. Once we become aware that we are building, we can begin to ask what we are building and why. And we can look more carefully at the tools we are using.

Is it enough that the master let’s us live in his house? Should we grovel out of fear that we might be evicted out among the masses who live in shacks and on the streets? Should we build more walls and reinforce them in order to keep people out? Or should we build a larger house to hold all people? What tools would be required? Do we have those tools? How would go about building better tools in order to build a better society?

Anything we build for the master to keep others out and to control the masses can and will just as easily be used against us. When a border is built and enforced, it doesn’t just keep foreigners out, but also keeps us in (something that may concern us one day). The worst borders, though, are those built in our own minds. These internal divisions create dissociation between different parts of our experience. It is because of dissociation that we go on building oppressive systems and why individuals can do horrible things in the service of those systems. Trauma lives within each of us and within our every relationship. We live through the trauma and then relive it endlessly.

We can go on doing the same thing over and over, continually rebuilding the walls of fear and oppression, continually picking at the scabs of our collective suffering and trauma. Or we can build shelters for those afflicted, places of healing and restoration. We can rebuild our communities as we rebuild society.

But first, as the metaphor suggests, we must consider the tools we are building with.

* * * *

Imagination: Storytelling and Truthtelling

Le Guin does make a suggestion. “To me,” she writes, “the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

The tool she offers here is that of imagination, the mother lode of all metaphors. To wield imagination is to wield the power to create and destroy entire systems of thought, entire ways of understanding. And we are only as free to the extent our minds are liberated.

“The exercise of imagination,” she states a few paragraphs on, “is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.”

It isn’t just metaphors that matter, but metaphors given life through story, through fully imagined possibilities. It is the act of imagining that matters, the freedom to imagine. It is the tool of imagination that matters. That is the one tool that can help us build something genuinely new.

We should be careful of the stories we tell. Continuing in this vein, Le Guin laments that, “It is sad that so many stories that might offer a true vision settle for patriotic or religious platitude, technological miracle working, or wishful thinking, the writers not trying to imagine truth. The fashionably noir dystopia merely reverses the platitudes and uses acid instead of saccharine, while still evading engagement with human suffering and with genuine possibility. The imaginative fiction I admire presents alternatives to the status quo which not only question the ubiquity and necessity of extant institutions, but enlarge the field of social possibility and moral understanding. . . —the impulse to make change imaginable.”

She brings this line of thought to conclusion with a clear assertion of what is at stake: “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

The first radical act is to imagine, and that requires we create the conditions that make this possible. Imagination isn’t just a tool for building anew, but also a tool for creating entirely new blueprints. Even an imperfect imagined alternative has the power to open us up to possibilities yet unimagined. Imagination isn’t a destination, but a doorway.

* * * *

Revolution of the Mind

“What is a manifesto? A manifesto is a galaxy. What is man? Man is a star.”
~ Jude Edze Davids

It is hard for us to grasp the fundamental issue at hand. It goes to the heart of our sense of reality. To imagine something completely new isn’t just radical. It has the potential and power to incite revolution. Not just ideologies, but entire worlds are being contested.

This touches upon the theological. Our beliefs about reality form a hidden dogma, the bedrock of our identity and perception. The metaphorical house we reside in is our, to use a modern phrase, reality tunnel. A tunnel is yet another metaphorical structure of the mind, reminding us of the ancient metaphor of Plato’s cave and quite similar to Gnostic writings, neoplatonism having influenced (via the Alexandrian Jews) early Gnostics and Christians alike.

Religion and mythology forms the earliest reservoir of imagination, of metaphor and storytelling. It was natural for a Deist like Thomas Paine to turn to Christian language in order to express his message. He wasn’t, in doing so, promoting a Christian nation. He was simply drawing upon a shared lexicon of metaphors, stories, symbols, and imagery.

The religious language resonated with Paine’s audience. And today a metaphor such as the master’s house retains its former religious significance.

The “master” theologically refers to who rules over us or what dominates our world. The demiurge is the false god who is the “god of this world”. He is the builder of our world. He doesn’t create anything ex nihilo, but builds out of what is already present. In political terms, the demiurgic forces of power represent the human archons, the rulers of our society. They simply rearrange the pieces on the board, reform the system as they find it. They have their positions in the hierarchy and so their agenda is to maintain the status quo… or, in reaction to changing times, to build a better and stronger status quo.

The metaphor of the master’s house refers to a master. But which master? An important question. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “No man can serve two masters.” The master builder, the the greatest of masons, is still just a tinkerer, a manipulator. Jesus, on the other hand, threatened to “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was using metaphor with charismatic force.

To understand Jesus’ metaphorical temple, you must put it into context of his preaching about the “Kingdom”. This Kingdom, as both Christians and Gnostics agreed, is near you and all around you. But, the Gnostics pushed it one step further, when it was written in The Gospel of Thomas that,

Jesus said: If your leaders say to you ‘Look! The Kingdom is in the heavens!” Then the birds will be there before you are. If they say that the Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are. Rather, the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you . . . is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.

To clarify this, it is declared in Acts 7:48, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands.” It does not dwell in the house of the master builder.

So, where does it dwell? What is both within and outside? I would suggest, in line with Le Guin’s view, that what is being spoken of here is imagination in its purest and most extreme form, not just imagination but visionary imagination, the territory of radical possibility. The source of real power doesn’t reside within distant heavens or governments. Rather, it resides within us, around us, among us.

* * * *

Metaphors Unleashed

How do the teachings of Jesus apply today? He was distinguishing between various kingdoms and those who rule them. The lesser kingdoms are built on brute force and false beliefs, rather than on wisdom and vision. What presently are the lesser kingdoms that attempt to rule our lives and minds?

Philip K. Dick (PKD), a friend of Le Guin, gave a speech that offered a typically unique perspective, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”. He said that, “Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.” The artificial worlds created for us are more intrusive and pervasive than ever. They dominate in a way no lesser kingdom could have in the past. “And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.”

Taking a slightly cynical turn, PKD then argues, “So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.” Modern American society is Disneyland, an imagined world enforced onto reality, but hardly a radical vision to offer hope, just mindless entertainment and bright colorful facades. And, as globalization proceeds, Disneyland not democracy conquers the world. It is a fake kingdom of fake things, of fake experiences.

As always, PKD pushes this notion as far as it will go:

In my writing I got so interested in fakes that I finally came up with the concept of fake fakes. For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces. For instance, suppose the Matterhorn turned into a genuine snow-covered mountain? What if the entire place, by a miracle of God’s power and wisdom, was changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, into something incorruptible? They would have to close down.

What if the master’s house were transformed, renovated into something unexpected, made use for something not in the original plan? What if we reimagined the space we find ourselves in?

“Disneyland are never going to be the same again. . . [T]he birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.”

If we were to love democracy enough, could the simulations of democracy’s rhetoric be made real like the love-worn Velveteen Rabbit hopping in the grass?

* * * *

Normally, the envisioning of radical possibility is described as thinking outside the box. But what if we were to radically think within the box? The shape of a box, like that of a square, is an ancient sacred symbol. This symbol represents the world. It contains. It can be filled, but it also can be emptied. We need to seek that state of emptiness so as, like the Zen tea cup, to receive new visions and understandings.

It’s not just what is within us, the power of mind, of imagination, of vision. It is the possibility that is within all things — to return to The Gospel of Thomas: “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” Imagination isn’t an abstraction. We exist in the world and our imagination takes shape through the world.

Imagination is the one tool we can all claim. It isn’t a special talent reserved for the few. It is our natural right, our normal way of being in the world… if we have eyes to see, if we have the courage to take this tool in hand.

An Unjust ‘Justice’ System: Victimizing the Innocent

I wrote the first post of what will eventually be part of a long series. The opening salvo was about racism without racists.

The series shall be primarily focused on violence and more generally on the corollaries of injustice, oppression and disadvantage. I’ll also include some other issues for analysis — besides race: region, culture, IQ, poverty, economic inequality, social mobility, pollution/toxins, and other environmental factors. These will be contrasted, when relevant, against genetic explanations.

I plan on being systematic about this series. I will present lots of data and analysis, lots of quotes and citations. I’m going to be thorough. Each post in this series will have a theme, a different angle on the same set of interlinked problems and issues.

However, I’m going to be busy with work for a couple of weeks and won’t be able to make much headway with this project. To offer one more taste of what I’ll be exploring further, let me share a passage from a book I’ve been reading, a book I highly recommend. The book is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The section of the book is titled “Bad Deal”. It begins on page 87 in Chapter 2, The Lockdown.

Before I get to the passage itself, let me briefly explain why it is so significant.

One thing the author explains in this book is how little most people know about the system of police enforcement, courts and prisons. The media (news, tv shows and movies) do us a great disservice in not portraying the reality of what actually happens to people when they find themselves caught in a criminal system that seems to care little about whether you are innocent or not.

If you are poor as most are who find themselves targeted by police and prosecutors, there are few people to offer you help and guidance. Poor people certainly can’t afford lawyers and they would be naive to expect to get a lawyer offered them as happens on tv and in the movies. Most likely, you are on your own in a situation you can’t understand and no one will explain it to you. You have to make decisions that will effect your entire life with little information upon which to base that decision. The consequences are immense and, once set into motion, unalterable.

After you get a criminal record, the challenges and difficulties are numerous and diverse.

There are often severe restrictions about where you can live and with whom you can associate. Your drivers license might be revoked which makes very difficult normal life activities: shopping, taking kids to school/daycare, getting to work and keeping a job, and making the regular visits to one’s parole officer (even if you don’t have money to get on a bus because for example you can’t find or keep a job without having a car, missing a parole meeting can send you back to prison). There are expensive penalties and fees that many states demand parolees pay or else, in some cases, returning to prison.

However, at the same time it can be very hard to find a job for few employers want to hire ex-cons even if you were only convicted of a minor offense such as possessing a small amount of marijuana, and yet some states require employment as a requisite of parole. If you’re lucky to find a job, your paychecks can be garnished, sometimes almost entirely or even entirely. Furthermore, you are no longer eligible for government assistance and public housing, and so there is nothing to stop or discourage a downward economic spiral (quite the opposite actually). Under such conditions, it is easy to end up unemployed which often leads you to losing your housing and, if you become homeless, it could lead you to losing custody of your children (the most important part of many people’s live, often the one thing keeping the a struggling person from giving up entirely).

To rub salt into your wound, you may also permanently lose your right to vote and serve on juries. You will be treated like a second-class citizen. None of this would motivate and help you to rejoin normal society again. It is as if the entire world is against you. The punishment never ends. It doesn’t matter if you are innocent or not. It doesn’t matter if your crime was minor or victimless. Once assigned the status of a criminal, you are stigmatized for life. You become a part of the underclass or maybe even the permanent undercaste. Basically, your existence becomes a living hell.

Keep in mind also that most of these targeted poor people are poor minorities, mostly poor blacks. Numerous studies have shown that it is a racially biased system at every single step of the way, from policing to imprisonment. This is even worse when one considers, as the author does, how many innocent people become victimized by the very system that is supposed to protect victims. This is how families and entire communities are destroyed, many poor black communities with the vast of their male black populations (and much of their female black population as well) tangled up in the justice system or else in the school-to-prison pipeline.

To see some nice graphs, check out a previous post of mine: Prison Insanity. As violent crime has sharply decreased, the prison population has sharply increased. More specifically, even as violent crime has decreased among blacks and even though whites use and carry drugs more, the racially prejudiced War on Drugs has caused the black prison population to increase. That is an important point as the justification for imprisoning so many blacks is because of violent crime.

Without further ado, the following is the passage in question (key points in bold).

* * * *

Almost no one ever goes to trial. Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining— a guilty plea by the defendant in exchange for some form of leniency by the prosecutor. Though it is not widely known, the prosecutor is the most powerful law enforcement official in the criminal justice system. One might think that judges are the most powerful, or even the police, but in reality the prosecutor holds the cards. It is the prosecutor, far more than any other criminal justice official, who holds the keys to the jailhouse door.

After the police arrest someone, the prosecutor is in charge. Few rules constrain the exercise of his or her discretion. The prosecutor is free to dismiss a case for any reason or no reason at all. The prosecutor is also free to file more charges against a defendant than can realistically be proven in court, so long as probable cause arguably exists— a practice known as overcharging.

The practice of encouraging defendants to plead guilty to crimes, rather than affording them the benefit of a full trial, has always carried its risks and downsides. Never before in our history, though, have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe. When prosecutors offer “only” three years in prison when the penalties defendants could receive if they took their case to trial would be five, ten, or twenty years— or life imprisonment— only extremely courageous (or foolish) defendents turn the offer down.

The pressure to plead guilty to crimes has increased exponentially since the advent of the War on Drugs. In 1986, Congress passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established extremely long mandatory minimum prison terms for low-level drug dealing and possession of crack cocaine. The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years. By contrast, in other developed countries around the world, a first-time drug offense would merit no more than six months in jail, if jail time is imposed at all. 70 State legislatures were eager to jump on the “get tough” bandwagon, passing harsh drug laws, as well as “three strikes ” laws mandating a life sentence for those convicted of any third offense. These mandatory minimum statutory schemes have transferred an enormous amount of power from judges to prosecutors . Now, simply by charging someone with an offense carrying a mandatory sentence of ten to fifteen years or life, prosecutors are able to force people to plead guilty rather than risk a decade or more in prison. Prosecutors admit that they routinely charge people with crimes for which they technically have probable cause but which they seriously doubt they could ever win in court. 71 They “load up” defendants with charges that carry extremely harsh sentences in order to force them to plead guilty to lesser offenses and— here’s the kicker— to obtain testimony for a related case. Harsh sentencing laws encourage people to snitch.

The number of snitches in drug cases has soared in recent years, partly because the government has tempted people to “cooperate” with law enforcement by offering cash, putting them “on payroll,” and promising cuts of seized drug assets, but also because ratting out co-defendants, friends, family, or acquaintances is often the only way to avoid a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence. 72 In fact , under the federal sentencing guidelines, providing “substantial assistance” is often the only way defendants can hope to obtain a sentence below the mandatory minimum. The “assistance” provided by snitches is notoriously unreliable, as studies have documented countless informants who have fabricated stories about drug-related and other criminal activity in exchange for money or leniency in their pending criminal cases. 73 While such conduct is deplorable, it is not difficult to understand. Who among us would not be tempted to lie if it was the only way to avoid a forty-year sentence for a minor drug crime?

The pressure to plea-bargain and thereby “convict yourself” in exchange for some kind of leniency is not an accidental by-product of the mandatory-sentencing regime. The U.S. Sentencing Commission itself has noted that “the value of a mandatory minimum sentence lies not in its imposition, but in its value as a bargaining chip to be given away in return for the resource-saving plea from the defendant to a more leniently sanctioned charge.” Describing severe mandatory sentences as a bargaining chip is a major understatement, given its potential for extracting guilty pleas from people who are innocent of any crime.

It is impossible to know for certain how many innocent drug defendants convict themselves every year by accepting a plea bargain out of fear of mandatory sentences, or how many are convicted due to lying informants and paid witnesses, but reliable estimates of the number of innocent people currently in prison tend to range from 2 percent to 5 percent. 74 While those numbers may sound small (and probably are underestimates), they translate into thousands of innocent people who are locked up, some of whom will die in prison. In fact, if only 1 percent of America’s prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted, that would mean tens of thousands of innocent people are currently languishing behind bars in the United States.

The real point here, however, is not that innocent people are locked up. That has been true since penitentiaries first opened in America. The critical point is that thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences— sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers. This is the way the roundup works, and it works this way in virtually every major city in the United States.

70 Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, 35- 37.
71 See Angela J. Davis, Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 31-33.
72 See Alexandra Natapoff, “Snitching: The Institutional and Communal Consequences,” University of Cincinnati Law Review 645 (2004); and Emily Jane Dodds, “I’ll Make You a Deal: How Repeat Informants Are Corrupting the Criminal Justice System and What to Do About It,” William and Mary Law Review 50 (2008): 1063.
73 See “Riverside Drug Cases Under Review Over Use of Secret Informant,” Associated Press, Aug. 20, 2004; Ruben Narvette Jr., “Blame Stretches Far and Wide in Drug Scandal,” Dallas Morning News, Nov. 14, 2003; Rob Warden, How Snitch Testimony Sent Randy Steidl and Other Innocent Americans to Death Row (Chicago: Northwestern University School of Law, Center for Wrongful Convictions, 2004- 5); “The Informant Trap,” National Law Journal, Mar. 6, 1995; Steven Mills and Ken Armstrong, “The Jailhouse Informant,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 16, 1999; and Ted Rohrlich and Robert Stewart, “Jailhouse Snitches: Trading Lies for Freedom,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 16, 1989.
74 See Adam Liptak, “Consensus on Counting the Innocent: We Can’t,” New York Times, Mar. 25, 2008; and Adam Liptak, “Study Suspects Thousands of False Confessions,” New York Times, Apr. 19, 2004.

What is Fair? Who Decides? Why Should We Care?

What is Fair?
DrAnthonysBlog

“Funny thing is, for a word that most of us are very familiar with, many of us would be hard pressed to define fair in a way that others would readily agree with, though we can spot it in an instant when we see it!  Also, regardless of your definition, many people would probably agree that the world is not filled with nearly as many examples of fair as most of us would like.  Friendships have been soured, fortunes lost, needless lives taken, and countries throughout history have, and continue, to go to war over disagreements concerning what is considered fair.  All of this, over a deceptively simple word that really has no universally agreed upon definition…

“When we talk about what is fair, the conversations are sometimes loud, can be emotionally charged, and, as mentioned above, may result in disagreements with negative outcomes for one or more parties.  The disagreements can involve anything from how observations of details are perceived to questions about how others would feel if they were on the receiving end of a situation, or decision, that is not fair.  Regardless, conversations about what is fair are often not pleasant to have, though certainly necessary, at times, if we are to be true to ourselves and what we each understand to be right!

“Given the importance of what we believe to be fair, and the obvious impact that it has on our lives, both positive and negative, I find it truly odd that these aspects of it have not received more widespread attention.  Granted conversations about it do happen, mostly in college ethics courses, and I have no doubt that it is written about in low circulation scholarly journals, but those are limited in scope and appear to do little to add to the greater conversation and understanding.  I wonder;  is that truly fair?”

There are three aspects of fairness that I can think of.

First, there is the philosophical debate of fairness.

On that level, there is much disagreement about what it even means or how it applies to real life. It’s easy to have an ideal of fairness, but applying it is obviously difficult. The ironic part is that one person’s ideal of fairness would seem unfair to others, even if it could be effectively applied.

I would throw in religion along with this for philosophizing about fairness would inevitably lead to theological issues. Also, religion plays a major role in either ensuring more fairness such as in helping the disadvantaged or assuaging the negative emotions related to living in an unfair world, although religion probably ends up doing more assuaging than actually helping. Whether philosophical or theological, our beliefs to a large part determine our sense of fairness.

However, our beliefs about fairness can just as easily be used to rationalize unfairness. A belief in fairness isn’t the same thing as a sensitivity to fairness. Something like religion can be used to defend or challenge unfairness. And the best way to defend unfairness is by trying to control the perception of unfairness which is why beliefs, especially collective beliefs such as religious doctrines, are often a battleground. The conflict is that almost everyone has a belief about fairness and yet few people probably have a strong personal sense of fairness. A sense of fairness can never be limited to a belief and will often contradict beliefs. Shared beliefs exist to constrain the personal moral sense to a colletive worldview.

Second, I don’t think fairness is just an abstraction or just a personal belief.

Fairness definitely relates to a shared human nature. There are certain situations that most humans will judge as being fair or unfair. So it isn’t merely subjective or rather it is a subjective sense that is shared by most. However, some people are born with a stronger sense of fairness (I suspect that research on thin boundary types would show a correlation to a sense of fairness, and of course such conditions as sociopathy and psychopathy would show the opposite correlation).

The cynical side of me predicts that people sensitive to fairness tend to not gain much power and wealth for having more than others would probably seem unfair to someone with a strong sensitivity to fairness. What this would mean is that we’d be ruled mostly by people with weak senses of fairness which would go a long way to explain the behavior seen in politics and big business.

On the other hand, fairness isn’t just something we are born with or not. Fairness could be fit into various models of psychological and spiritual development. There are many different factors in life that will determine the probability of our developing a strong sense of fairness and unfairness. But it isn’t a simple accomplishment for if it were society would be a much more fair place.

Third, the personal component is very clear.

Our preferences (our likes and dislikes) often determine what we judge as fair and unfair. We tend to get used to life being a certain way which creates in us a sense of privilege in that we think things should continue in the way that we’ve become comfortable with.

This would relate to my previous comment about wealth and power. We all gain a certain sense of privilege in what we come to expect as normal, but some people obviously have more privilege than others. This fits an observation that I’ve had and I’m sure many others have had. Those with more privilege (more control over their own lives and over the lives of others) tend to believe life is fair (that they deserve what they have because of hard work, talent, good genetics, good upbringing, etc). And those with less privilege tend to believe life is unfair.

When those with less privilege seek to gain a more equal share of privilege, those with more privilege perceive that as being unfair. Since privilege is often seen as a zero sum game, fairness itself can be seen as a zero sum game. Many people believe life can’t be fair or not fair for everyone and so they seek to gain or maintain their own sense of fairness for themselves, even if at the cost of fairness for others.

So, those who benefit from the status quo will typically see the world as fair and those who are harmed (or at least not helped) by the status quo will typically see the world as unfair. This is why the upper classes, including the middle class, often speak of a meritocracy even when facts are shown to them that income inequality is growing and economic mobility is shrinking, even when facts are shown that racial prejudice still persists and still has massive impact on people’s lives. This is why poor whites, what little privilege they have because of race, will tend to see the world as relatively more fair than how poor minorities will tend to see it.

Those who fight to make society more fair usually come from underprivileged and disadvantaged demographics. Growing up experiencing poverty or hunger, unemployment or homelessness, racism or oppression will tend to create an acute sense of what is and isn’t fair. It also usually takes someone who perceives themselves as having less to lose to fight for greater fairness for all. So don’t ask a fat man about the fairness of the access and availability of food.

I’m of the opinion that fairness isn’t just an opinion. It can be measured (through government records and scientific research). Economic inequality can be measured. Economic and social mobility can be measured. Racism and other forms of prejudice can be measured. In fact, we already have measured these factors. We know the world isn’t fair. That isn’t an opinion. That is a fact.

The question at hand is simple: How far are we willing to go to fight unfairness? What are we willing to do or even sacrifice in order to guarantee greater fairness for all? I’m willing to be most people don’t think we are doing enough as a society.

I would, though, add a cautionary note. I pointed out that the world is more unfair that most privileged people realize, but the opposite would also be true. Those who have experienced a lot of unfairness directed at them personally are likely to assume that society is more unfair than it actually is. There is a difference about the fairness in any given circumstance and the overall fairness. Also, just because the average person experiences or perceives relative fairness, that doesn’t disprove that there aren’t specific demographics that are still being treated unfairly. Generalizing based on personal experience can be the opposite of helpful which is why objective data should be given more credence than beliefs and opinions.

The complication of all this can’t be denied. Nonetheless, that complicatedness just confirms the importance of the issue for the issue of fairness includes every aspect of society.

“Another interesting thing about fair, is that when we focus on it the discourse is mostly about a lack of it rather than an overabundance of it.  I mean how many times have you heard someone, anyone, opine that something was really very fair!  Granted it does happen, but those conversations, or comments, are more the exception than the rule. Why is that?  If fair is so important, as it appears to be, why do we not pay more attention to it when it is present?  Is what we believe to be fair so fundamental to us that, like air or water, it is simply taken for granted generally, but felt deeply the instant we perceive it to be lost?”

I think this is inevitable. We must start from an awareness of a lack of fairness for fairness isn’t something that is found in nature like a rock that can be seen and touched. Fairness, first and foremost, is about relationships between people and relationships aren’t tangible things. Fairness impacts the tangible world and can take on tangible forms, but it begins in the intangible which isn’t to say it’s just an idea.

Fairness is built into our DNA. As social animals, as mammals with complex emotional experience, as higher primates with a moral sense, fairness is built into our very sense of reality. We embody fairness or the potential for it. The awarenss of fairness begins with the awareness of unfairness just as awareness itself begins with unawareness.

However, as evolved creatures, our moral sense evolved in relationship to the larger world. Fairness isn’t separate from the world we inhabit for we are part of the world, co-evolution. Humans are far from being the only animal with a sense of fairness.

It seems to me that fairness is a perfectly natural experience. It isn’t just an idea or belief that humans are forcing onto the world. However, the main problem modern humans face is that we have created a social system (i.e., civilization) that is very different from the natural environment within which human nature evolved. So, our sense of fairness might not perfectly fit the social system we’ve created. This might be another way of explaining our beginning with a sense of the lack of fairness. On a fundamental and often unconscious level, maybe we realize that civilization is an imperfect expression of our inborn moral nature and as civilized humans we feel an inner division, a basic wrongness, a social conflict (something that religion tries to pinpoint with ideas such as Original Sin and Karma).

This brings to my mind the writings of Thomas Paine. In Agrarian Justice, Paine argues that unfairness (in terms of social injustice and economic inequality) isn’t natural, even if it is the apparent beginning point of modern Western society. The following is how Paine explains it:

“Whether that state that is proudly, perhaps erroneously, called civilization, has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested. On one side, the spectator is dazzled by splendid appearances; on the other, he is shocked by extremes of wretchedness; both of which it has erected. The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.

“To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.

“Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures.

“The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.”

Going by this argument, humans in their more ‘natural’ state (i.e., simpler social structure) experience a basic fairness in that there is less opportunity for vast inequalities. It isn’t clear that the poorest of the poor are better off in civilization than they would be as hunter-gatherers. Either way, the richest of the rich certainly gain/take the vast majority of the benefit created by modern society. Among the billions of people on the planet, almost all of the wealth and land in the world is owned by a handful of individuals and families. A person couldn’t honestly and morally claim that to be fair.

So, in the civilization we are born into, unfairness is the beginning point for all of us. What many have argued is that this shouldn’t be the beginning point, that we shouldn’t accept unfairness as normal and inevitable.

Death of Millions is a Statistic

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/scope-severity-paradox/#ixzz12ks2Geww

An examination of jury verdicts over the past decade involving people charged for exposing others to toxic substances, has revealed that the more victims are involved in a case, the less harshly the perpetrator of the crime is penalized.

The study, which also included two experiments in the lab, is the first to show that the bias toward feeling empathy for a single individual versus many — known as the identifiable victim bias — causes people to make judgments based on emotion that are disproportionate to the severity of a crime.

“The inspiration for the study was the observation that we tend to focus an extraordinary amount of attention and resources to crimes that have a really small number of victims, and have a harder time remaining engaged to larger scale kinds of crime,” said psychologist Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University, lead author of the paper Aug. 25 in Social Psychological and Personality Science (.pdf).

The bias, which the researchers named the scope-severity paradox, has implications for a wide variety of fields, including the politics and media coverage of large-scale issues such as climate change or mass genocide.

“It fits well with a line of research that shows that as the number of people who are victims of some problem — whether it’s a crime or a famine — the responsiveness to it, and the likelihood of taking action to reduce the problem, decreases,” said psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study.

– – –

This reminds me of two things.

First, classism and racism go hand in hand. Most of the people committing large-scale crimes are disproportionately white. And yet blacks, even when the same crime has been committed as whites, are disproportionately incarcerated.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/institutional-racism-voting-rights/

Second, this study explains perfectly why anarchism, especially anarcho-capitalism, fails in a globalized world. Human nature evolved in small communities and so humans have little capacity for moral accountability on the large-scale. Those in power understand this and use it to control the population. Those in power understand they can get away with almost anything just as long as they do it on the large-scale.

John Bior Deng: R.I.P.

John Bior Deng (source for image: Gazette Online)

Recently in my local town of Iowa City, there was an altercation that led to a death.  The man who died was a Sudanese refugee (see Wikipedia article about Lost Boys of Sudan) which just makes his death all the more tragic.  Even when you move to an entirely new place, trauma from your past has a way of catching up with you.

 – – –

Shooting victim was refugee from Sudan by Lee Hermiston

Police said Thursday the man fatally shot by a Johnson County deputy last Friday was a Sudanese refugee. Investigators initially had difficulty finding family members of transient John Bior Deng, 26. But many people offered suggestions, leads and conducted their own research after police made a plea for help. Iowa City Police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said investigators learned after locating surviving family in Omaha that Deng was likely one of the “lost boys of Sudan,” a group of more 27,000 who were orphaned or displaced during the second Sudanese civil war. That war lasted from 1983 to 2002 and killed an estimated 2 million people.

[…] “That goes along with what little we did know about John Deng,” he said. Police found a Texas identification card on Deng. Kelsay said two surviving family members traveled to Iowa City on Wednesday to identify Deng’s body. He said they were not parents or siblings. Police said the family members told them that they last spoke with Deng in June. They were under the belief that Deng at some point had a job and a place to sleep, and they were unaware that he had been homeless, Kelsay said.

“They were distraught for a lot of reasons,” Kelsay said. “I think they genuinely would have helped if they had known.”

Transient by Peter Small

And how could you not be?

See full size imageWhen all around the settled world

lay burned to the ground

by the men on horseback with the guns.

You had to flee all that you knew:

mother, father, hut, playmates, herd of goats,

to join on foot

See full size imagewith the little boys lost

remnants along the salvaged road

carrying rags, hunger and memories

accompanied by snakes and death and soldiers

all the way to Ethiopia and beyond.

 * * *

The death of John Bior Deng was investigated and deemed justified (by rightly or wrongly dismissing the 2 or 3 contradictory eye witness accounts).  The scenario isn’t precisely clear because of these differing eye witness accounts and because of a generally confusing scenario that escalated quickly.  As I see it, the justification of the killing is highly suspect… by which I mean that there are too many unanswered questions to allow for an absolute conclusion.

 – – –

Deng killing was justified, report says by Lee Hermiston

Johnson County Deputy Terry Stotler was justified in shooting and killing John Deng, according to an Iowa Attorney General’s report released by the Johnson County Attorney’s office on Friday.

However, at a news conference, at least a half dozen members of the public appeared to be largely dissatisfied with the report’s findings.
Watch KCRG video reporting the incident
Watch KCRG video interviews with friends and family at funeral
Watch KCRG video of Attorney General publicly stating the conclusion of the investigation
Watch KGAN CBS 2 reporting of incident

 * * *

 Survivors of the unspeakable,

See full size imagethe pieces of the dismembered village

scattered to Texas, Minnesota, Iowa

like fallen seeds awaiting some new harvest.

You here among us

continued along your trail

to salvage our remnants —

cans and bottles

each for a nickel.

 * * *

My Initial Analysis:

For some reason, the information about this case has been hard to find online, but the city has made all of it available on 2 disks which can be purchased for 15 dollars per disk.  Why do I have to pay 30 bucks (which isn’t cheap) for the investigation data that my tax money paid for?  Why not release all of the data (911 calls, on-car police video, crime scene photos, the unedited transcripts of eye witness reports including the contradictory ones, etc.) so that the public can decide for themselves?  It would be easy to do.  They could post it on the city website.

Also, all of this was made available to the media and yet I haven’t seen much of it being presented in the media.  Why?  Instead, I’ve mostly had to rely on secondary sources (i.e., newspaper articles).  I’m forced to trust that the authors of these secondary sources have seen and fully analyzed all of the data and objectively reported on it (which, considering the rampant bias in this case, is hard to determine).

So far, I’ve only been able to find the 911 calls and the official report.  If any further data or media is available online, please tell me about it.

To the best of my understanding, the following is the scenario according to all of the eye witness accounts.  My only overt bias is that I included all of the eye witness accounts instead of dismissing the ones that were inconvenient.  As an outside observer, I can’t determine the validity (or not) of any of the details of any of the accounts.  As Fox News says: “We Report, You Decide!”

John Bohnenkamp, a “respectable” older white man employed by the University of Iowa, was leaving a local bar (Hawkeye Hideaway) a little after 7 pm on Friday July 24th (it’s highly probable he was intoxicated and as far as I know he hasn’t denied such being the case) when he noticed John Deng, a homeless black man (oddly, Deng was referred to in the media as a “transient” even though he had lived in town for 2 years having even been employed in the past).  Deng was collecting recyclable bottles and cans, and had accidentally dropped some while crossing the street or the parking lot.  Bohnenkamp, instead of trying to help Deng pick up his recyclables, aggressively approaches Deng while yelling at him (when exactly he became openly confrontational towards Deng is unclear, but one account supposedly claims he was already acting confrontational even while some distance away).

It’s unclear the order of events, but Bohnenkamp at some point started beating on Deng and Deng at some point stabbed Bohnenkamp.  Either Bohnenkamp started punching first or Deng stabbed first.  The investigation, according to one article, concluded that Deng stabbed in self-defense after being attacked by Bohnenkamp (although I don’t think the official report used the term “self-defense” in describing Deng’s actions), but other articles seemed to want to paint the picture that Deng stabbed before being physically attacked or at least they were being unfairly hazy on the issue (the official report doesn’t offer many details other than a 911 caller mentioning someone having a knife before the shot).  What is absolutely clear is that Bohnenkamp started the fight and intentionally escalated it.  To add to the confusion, a crowd formed around the two.

Sometime during all of this, the plainclothes (wearing shorts and a t-shirt) Johnson County Deputy Terry Stotler saw the altercation and tried to stop the fight but neither Bonenkamp nor Deng would back off.  Some eye witnesses claim that the deputy announced who he was and announced he had a gun, other eye witnesses claim he didn’t, and still other eye witnesses as far as I can tell made no claim either asserting or denying either of these other claims.  Also, some eye witnesses claimed Deng was still holding the knife and others claimed he wasn’t.

What is known is that both Bohnenkamp and Deng were focused on each other and there is no evidence at this time that either of them noticed or heard the deputy.   At some point, Deputy Stotler tried to step in between them or somehow get them to separate.  The Deputy claimed to see the knife still in Deng’s hand and so this is the justified reason for the Deputy having his gun pointed at Deng (the argument is that his pointing the gun at the poor black guy had nothing to do with racial or class prejudices).  Bohnenkamp had knocked Deng down when he was beating on him (supposedly after the Deputy announced his presence and had his gun drawn). Deputy Stotler told Deng to stay down and the he told Bohnenkamp to leave the scene (“Run! Get out of here”), but either they didn’t hear him or intentionally ignored his commands.  They were solely focused on each other and on continuing the fight.

In particular, it’s possible that Deng didn’t even notice Deputy Stotler (or recognize him as a Deputy) considering his limited comprehension of the English language (some bystanders claimed Deng spoke to the deputy in English, but even if this were true it wouldn’t prove Deng knew the man was a Deputy nor that he understood what the Deputy had said) along with being slightly intoxicated and defending himself against a severely aggressive man who wouldn’t back away.  Also, Deng was a man who had escaped a violent and traumatic past.  He was living alone and homeless in a foreign land.  Here he was being beaten up by a white man while surrounded by a screaming crowd of white people.  His mind surely was in a state of complete fear.  Even if he did notice the deputy with a gun, it was just another white guy threatening him.  He was in a fight for his life, and obviously he was correct.

As Deputy Stotler was warning Deng, the crowd was yelling for the deputy to shoot (one article stated the report said that Bohnenkamp himself had yelled at the Deputy to shoot).  The Deputy claimed he saw Deng tense as if he were going to stab again (which is specifically what certain eye witnesses disagree with) and so shot him somewhere in the mass of his body (abdomen or chest).  Deng died soon after.

If you prefer, I noticed an article on the Iowa City Press Citizen which offers MP3 format of the 911 audio from the shooting of John Deng:

The first audio file is a recording of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office contacting Iowa City Police, advising them that “Fifty-two eight” (Deputy Terry Stotler) is on the scene of a fight on Prentiss Street.

The next audio file is of two witnesses calling in to 911. Shots can be heard partway through the first call.

Two more witnesses call in. Shots can be heard almost immediately on the first call. The second call comes in after the shooting.

The last file is of Deputy Terry Stotler calling in the shooting to Iowa City Police.

The declaration of the killing’s justification was based on Deng wielding a knife which is probably the case but was never proven (I haven’t even seen how they determined it was Deng’s knife other than the Deputy claiming he was holding it at one point).  Besides Deng’s death by gun, the only fact that is absolutely clear is that Bohnenkamp was the initial and primary cause of the altercation.  However, Deng’s blood was tested for alcohol and yet Bohnenkamp was never tested (even though Bohnenkamp went directly to the hospital where it would’ve been easy to have drawn blood).  Bohnenkamp started a fight which is against the law and so it would’ve been legal to have arrested him.  In fact, not only would’ve it been legal but it would’ve been moral and just to have arrested him.

Is it a mere coincidence that a homeless black foreigner gets killed while the respectable white local guy gets to go home even though his actions led to someone’s death?  If Bohnenkamp or any other respectable looking white guy had been holding a knife, would Deputy Stotler have been so quick to shoot to kill?  Probably not.

Deputy Stotler was within his rights to shoot, but he didn’t have to.  Besides trying to intervene in some other manner, he didn’t have to go for a kill shot.  A gun has multiple bullets and shots can be taken very quickly.  He could’ve first shot at a non-fatal location of the body such as the arm or leg, but instead he chose to shoot at the center of Deng’s “mass”.  Couldn’t he have spared a bullet or two in trying to disable Deng before going for the kill shot?  The official explanation is that deputies are trained to shoot to stop which means shoot to kill no matter what the situation  Another question that came up is why don’t deputies carry non-lethal weapons which have proven to be extremely effective in most situations.  The report stated he wears (was wearing?) a fanny pack in which he keeps his gun and badge.  They make fanny packs of a large enough size to carry a non-lethal weapon, but for unstated reasons apparently “civil deputies” aren’t issued non-lethal weapons.  This line of questioning has never been answered.  Apparently, the only choice the deputy had was to ask them to stop fighting or shoot to kill.  Shouldn’t there be some other options?

In some countries (such as the UK), the police don’t carry guns.  I would assume that knife fights happen in these other countries.  How do they intervene with non-lethal force?  Obviously, lethal force isn’t the only answer.

Anyways, this justification is what goes for justice in our society.  Either this investigation was biased or simply bungled, but either way it was far from being satisfactory.  I assume that Deputy Stotler had the best of intentions in mind (and so, in that sense, his actions were justified), but some of his own admissions could be interpreted as demonstrating a bias in how he treated the two men differently.  The official report, of course, ignored any possibility of bias which implies a potential bias in the investigation itself.

Whatever is the case, we’ll never get to hear Deng’s side of the story.

 – – –

Official Investigation Report: Quotes and Comments

The  following is a more detailed response to what is specifically said in the report.  Just as a quick note, I’ll say the investigators do seem to have tried to be fair to an extent and much of the analysis is evenhanded.  I commend them in being somewhat open about the process… but, of course, I have some strong criticisms.

 John Bior Deng death investigation (official report)

As one would expect, these eleven reports are inconsistent in many details.  They are consistent, however, in all important respects.  None of them contradict Depuy Stotler’s account in any significant matter.

None dispute, and most specifically observed, that (1) Deng and Bohnenkamp were fighting, (2) Deng displayed a knife, (3) Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, (4) Deputy Stotler arrived, displayed his handgun and repeatedly identified himself as a deputy sheriff, (5) Stotler ordered the two to desist, (6) The two failed to obey Stotler and kept fighting, (7) Stotler attempted to intervene between the two, (8) Stotler ordered Deng to drop his knife, (9) Deng refused Stotler’s order.

One or more also verify, and none dispute, that (10) the three were within a few feet of one another, and (11) Deng was holding a knife and moving forward when Stotler shot him.

Although the investigators did consider the contradictory witness accounts, they ended up dismissing them entirely.  That aspect of the bias in the report was obvious, but I noticed what appears to be some other biases which are more subtle.  The report is slanted by what data is emphasized and in how it’s presented.

I’ll have to read the report more carefully, but this particular passage seems unclear in its conclusions.  It may be true that “None dispute, and most specifically observed”.  Even assuming this is correct, how many specifically observed and how similar or dissimilar were those observations (details are more important than generalized declarations).  Furthermore, weren’t the dismissed witness accounts disputing some of these observations?

Even more importantly, the last paragraph states “One or more also verify” which seems to imply that it was a minority of the witnesses who claimed that the three were close to each other and that Deng was holding a knife while move forward (towards Bohnenkamp?).

Beyond all of that, there is a further problem in the report with how Bohnenkamp is treated.  I’m glad they gave more info about his actions.  My criticism is that they mostly treat him like a central witness rather than as the instigator of a fight that led to the death of the person he attacked.  There are those who demand that Bohnenkamp be investigated, but there are also those who question why Deputy Stotler told him to flee a crime scene after the Deputy witnessed him beating up Deng. 

Continued from official report:

The fact that Deng was displaying a knife at the time he was shot is also evidenced by the audiotape of a 911 call made by one of the witnesses during the incident.  On this tape, the caller’s mention of a knife is heard seconds before the gunshot.

This supposed fact isn’t proven simply because someone mentions a knife.  There was a knife that was present.  That isn’t disputed.  The caller said, “He had a knife” before the shot.  But the caller doesn’t identify who had the knife or where it came from.  From this caller’s statement, nothing can be determined with absolute certainty.  What is stated in the report is just speculation (which is in disagreement with several of the witness accounts).  Even accepting that it’s a probable conjecture, it’s still different from a proven fact.  I keep wondering how they even know it was Deng’s knife (as far as conjectures go, maybe the knife was Bohnenkamp’s and Deng wrestled it from him… just conjecture of course).  I also wonder at what point can everyone agree they first saw Deng holding the knife (among the witnesses, there may be a majority but there isn’t a concensus that Deng was holding it when he was shot).

This is where audio from the scene would be helpful, but I don’t know if the cameras on the police cars also pick up audio.  I’d like to hear what the police said and asked of the witnesses.  For instance, how do we know one or more other officers didn’t ask some leading questions or make statements that would bias what the witnesses wrote down?

The problem is that the facts are limited and the accounts are contradictory which forces speculation.  On the Iowa City Press Citizen website, commenters who were defending the shooting kept complaining about the speculative questions of critics of the shooting.  However, even the investigators have no choice other than to speculate because without speculation they couldn’t absolutely conclude it was justified.  One way or another, the investigators are going to twist the facts and slant the accounts in order to make a case for justification.  They’re the authorities and so of course they’re going to try to defend the actions of the deputy.

Here is some evidence that the results of the investigation were possibly a foregone conclusion:

KGAN CBS 2 article

After the shooting, Deputy Stotler was put on paid administrative leave while DCI and Iowa City Police investigated the situation. Johnson County Sheriffs Department says he returned to work several weeks ago though, before the investigation report was finished and submitted to the Iowa Attorney Generals Office.

“We understood the situation. We didn’t have all the facts but we felt it was appropriate to bring Deputy Stotler back to work,” says Sheriff Pulkrabek.

CBS 2 asked Sheriff Pulkrabek twice why Deputy Stotler was able to return to work before the report was finished. Both times he simply said the decision was up to him and he believed Deputy Stotler did everything right the night the homeless man was shot.

This is what I’d expect.  If you’re in a position of authority, you’ll tend to believe the opinion of someone else who is in a position of authority.  It’s human nature to defend those you feel identified with.  The question is whether it’s morally just considering that the investigation was ongoing.

There is a further interesting comment from the article:

“Law enforcement is trained to stop the threat. Stop the threat is to shoot at the center mass that’s how we train, says Pulkrabek. He continued saying, when aiming for the torso there is always a chance the shot will kill. However, aiming anywhere else or firing warning shots is too dangerous to any bystanders.

This is a rational for a general statement, but I would prefer to know the factors of Deputy Stotler’s decision in this specific situation.  So, aiming anywhere besides Deng’s mass would potentially be dangerous to bystanders.  That is reasonable considering the purpose of shooting Deng was to protect the other people nearby (Bohnenkamp in particular).  However, I haven’t seen it stated that any bystanders were behind Deng from where Deputy Stotler was standing.  If such were the case, then it’s a point that should be clarified.

The following is a key section of the official report:

Bohnenkamp struck Deng on the side of the head with his fist, knocking Deng to the ground.  Deputy Stotler stepped between Bohnenkamp and Deng, pointed his handgun at Deng and again ordered Bohnenkamp to leave.  Bohnenkamp did not leave.

Deputy Stotler admits that he told the assailant to flee the scene of the crime directly after Bohnenkamp had punched Deng so hard as to knock him to the ground.  Why would a Deputy tell an assailant to flee the scene of the crime?  Furthermore, why does he point the gun at Deng when it’s Bohnenkamp who is acting directly aggressive in that moment?

I did appreciate that they gave Deng’s background as I think it’s important that he isn’t dehumanized simply for being homeless.

John Deng’s license indicates a birthday of January 1, 1983, but in all likelihood, he did not know his actual birth date.  He is one of a group of South Sudanese Dinka tribesman known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” who suffered extraordinary mortality and hardship in their odyssey to America, which they began as child orphan victims of tribal and religious genocide during the 1980s.  He entered the United States in 2001 under refugee status, initially residing in Fort Worth, Texas.

According to compatriots in Omaha, Deng had reduced contact with them in recent years.  He had numerous alcohol-related contacts with Iowa City law enforcement beginning in June, 2007.  At the time of his death he was residing in a transient camp near the old Iowa City animal shelter at Kirkwood and Clinton Streets.

  The next paragraph in the report bothers me:

A person is justified in use of deadly force to defend against the use of deadly force against himself or another.  A knife, when used as a weapon to stab another person, creating a sustantial risk of death, permanent disfigurement, or protracted impairment of bodily member or organ, is deadly force.

Yes, this is true.  Then again, beating someone so hard that you knock them to the pavement is also deadly force as defined here.

Maybe Deng was going to stab Bohnenkamp again, but maybe Bohnenkamp was going to beat on Deng some more.  Did Deputy Stotler happen to notice whether Bohnenkamp’s fist was clenching?  I doubt it.

Anyways, why did Deputy Stotler shoot at Deng to protect Bohnenkamp who started the fight and wanted to continue it?  If Bohnenkamp wasn’t worried about being stabbed, then why was Deputy Stotler?  Going by the witness accounts, it seems Bohnenkamp had the advantage as he was beating up Deng despite the knife.

Plus, it’s important to note that it isn’t illegal (as far as I know) to defend oneself (with or without a weapon) when being physically attacked.  It wasn’t illegal for Deng to threaten to stab or even to stab someone who was physically attacking him (and you most definitely can kill someone simply by beating on them enough).  In Iowa, it’s legal to carry a pocket knife and the report didn’t make any claims of it being an illegal size.  The only thing that Deng did that was illegal was to not obey the Deputy, but Bohnenkamp wasn’t obeying the Deputy either.

One other detail from the report brings questions to my mind.

When Deng was approximately five feet away from Bohnenkamp, Stotler saw Deng “tensing up, getting ready to stick him again.”  At that point, Deputy Stotler fired one round at Deng.

So, Bohnenkamp was some distance away.  Taking into account Deng being intoxicated and just having been beat to the ground, he wasn’t likely to cover that distance very quickly.  Bohnenkamp had plenty of opportunity to remove himself from danger if he so desired.  Who was Deputy Stotler trying protect and why?

 – – –

Summary:

(1) I think the alternative witness accounts should be considered more seriously.

(2) Even dismissing the alternative witness accounts, I think Deputy Stotler’s actions should be analyzed more carefully for potential bias.

(3) Even if Deputy Stotler is given the benefit of the doubt, Bohnenkamp’s actions are unforgivable and he should be investigated (along with an investigation of why his blood alcohol level was never tested).

(4) Whatever the judgments made of the individuals involved, it’s sad and the case should be studied to see if there are ways to prevent this in the future.

 – – –

Further comments on Prejudice and Profiling:

I wrote some extensive comments and so I posted it separately.

John Bior Deng: Racism, Classism

 – – –

Newspaper Articles:

Here are some various articles about the Deng case.  I quote extensively from them to present some of the questions, criticism, and alternative views.  My purpose is to show that many people share my concerns and there are good reasons for those concerns.

Shooting justified, AG’s office concludes by Lee Hermiston

Deputy Attorney General Thomas H. Miller, complied the final report, which is based on investigation completed by the Iowa City Police Department, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Attorney General’s office. Thomas said there were essentially 16 people encompassed in the investigation – Deng, Bohnenkamp and his wife, nine witnesses interviewed at the scene and three people who were later subpoenaed after comments they made about the shooting were published in an area media outlet.

The statements of those three men, which were contradictory to statements made by the other nine witnesses, are largely discredited in Miller’s report.The men reported Deng did not have a knife and Stotler did not identify himself as a deputy.

 

Homeless man did not threaten deputy, 2 witnesses say by Adam Belz

 Two men who watched a Johnson County deputy shoot a homeless man to death Friday night tell a story that’s sharply different from the account police have so far provided.

The 26-year-old homeless man was not wielding a knife and did not lunge at the deputy before the deputy fired, said Brock Brones and Mike Tibbetts, both of Iowa City.

“There was no knife, there was no lunging,” Tibbetts said. “I saw a cop shoot a guy in cold blood.”

Brones, 22, and Tibbetts, 40, who both work for a telecommunications company in Iowa City, got off work at 7 p.m. Friday and drove with another co-worker to Old Capitol Brew Works to have a drink. As their vehicle was coming out of the alley next to City Electric, which was blocked by bags of cans and bottles and some broken glass, they saw the episode unfolding to their left and turned off the radio so they could hear what was going on.

A skinny black man was lying on the pavement with his head against the tire of a car about 40 feet away. He was missing teeth, his clothes were dirty and he had blood on his torso. The deputy, wearing civilian clothes, had a gun pointed at the man, and a third man — whose side was covered in blood — was standing next to the deputy telling him to shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.

The homeless man on the ground appeared to be drunk, they said. The deputy told him not to get up, or he would shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.

“I don’t give a f—,” the homeless man responded.

The deputy repeated the threat, and ordered the man to stay down. Again, the homeless man said he didn’t care. Then he stood up, spread his arms, and stumbled a few feet to the side before the deputy shot him in the chest from about 15 feet away, Brones and Tibbetts said.

The two men insisted the homeless man had no knife when he was shot.

In fact, Brones said, the homeless man was wobbling, and, though he disobeyed the deputy, he never made a threatening move.

“It wasn’t aggressive,” Brones said. “He was just drunk.” 

 

Our View – Justifying the shooting raises more questions

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for advantage of the lawyers. — Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1911).

[…]But the report raised a number of new questions when it stated that, after Stotler had arrived on the scene and had his gun pointed at Deng, Bohnenkamp allegedly refused to follow Stotler’s command to flee. Instead, the report states, Bohnenkamp allegedly punched Deng in the head so hard that the man fell down. Nor did Bohnenkamp, according to the report, follow Stotler’s repeated orders to flee even after Deng stood up and eventually made what Stotler considered a threatening move.

Because Bohnenkamp has offered no comment on the incident — and because Deng can’t comment — we still don’t know what all was said between the two men. The report states that Bohnenkamp initiated the confrontation when he yelled at Deng for dropping some bottles, but we don’t know why the confrontation seemed to escalate so quickly or why Bohnenkamp didn’t flee when given a chance.

Nor do we know how much (if any) Bohnenkamp had been drinking before the incident. Although Bohnenkamp had just come out of a bar, investigators did not measure the 63-year-old’s blood-alcohol content — despite Bohnenkamp having been taken to the hospital where a blood sample presumably could have been procured easily.

  

Questions still remain in Deng death by Michael Dale-Stein

Why in his right mind would Bohnenkamp care, let alone confront, a man who accidentally spilled his means of income? My first thought is that by consuming alcohol, Bohnenkamp’s inhibitions and judgment were to the point that he felt persuaded to do so. We’ve all seen the homeless people carrying garbage bags full of cans, but I have found no good reason to clash with them.

Although the police investigation tested Deng’s blood-alcohol content and found it to be .295 percent, they did not find it necessary to test Bohnenkamp’s. It is unacceptable for the police not to test the alcohol level of a man leaving a bar who was involved for the death of another, whether it was in self-defense
or not.

I say responsible for a good reason.

When Stotler identified himself and drew his gun after Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, the deputy specifically yelled “Run! Get out of here” to Bohnenkamp, according to the official report. Instead of fleeing the situation, Bohnenkamp escalated it by striking Deng in the head, which prompted Deng to charge with the knife. Then Stotler discharged his weapon.

  

Deng and race relations by Cliff Missen

This privilege was apparent at Friday’s news conference, particularly in the comfort with which members of the all-white panel were able to justify the actions of the white belligerent in the case. John Bohnenkamp, a white 63-year-old facilities worker at the University of Iowa, had, according to most witnesses, felt obliged to harass and physically assault Deng, a black man, because Deng had spilled bottles he had collected for recycling. Not once during the proceedings did our white leaders question this act.

So this is the kind of community we are building: One in which 60-year-old white guys, upon leaving a bar, are deputized to monitor inebriated young black guys and make sure — using physical force if necessary — they clean up their litter?

From all the accounts we have, it appears that the white man was determined to cause a ruckus — despite his wife screaming at him to leave. The white man physically assaulted the black man before being stabbed with a pocket knife. The white man disobeyed an officer’s instructions several times, continuing to attack the black man.

Yet after the shooting the white man was not arrested. He did not have his blood alcohol tested. His role in causing the tragic event was not investigated.

Switching positions

The report states that the white officer displayed his badge, identified himself as a deputy and drew his gun and pointed it at the black man. He ordered the two men to move away from each other. The white man then hauled off and slugged the black man in the head hard enough to send him sprawling onto the ground. The white officer kept his gun pointed at the black man and then coached the white man to run away.

Imagine yourself in Deng’s shoes at this moment. You’re a young, intoxicated Sudanese refugee with middling English skills. You’ve been physically assaulted by an enraged old white man. You’re trying to defend yourself. Another white man shows up in street clothes and points a gun at you. The first white man delivers a powerful punch to your head that sends you flying off of your feet. The white guy with the gun is still pointing it at you and telling the other guy to run away.

Now let’s stop the camera for a moment and switch positions. If the white police officer had identified himself, ordered the combatants to part and then watched a black man slam a white man in the head, I’m fairly confident that the same group of white community leaders would have stood before us on Friday and assured us that the white officer was justified in shooting the black man.

But in real life, the white officer did not point the gun at the white man after witnessing the blow to the black man’s head. He did not try to arrest him. He did not demand that he lie on the ground. He did not do or say anything to assure the black man that he was not in greater danger.

Bohnenkamp, who is probably more responsible for the tragedy than anyone else, is given a pass. It’s the white man’s privilege. The white police, who did not follow up on the case, are given a pass. The white county attorney, who said she sees nothing wrong with the lack of an investigation so far, is given a pass.

Deng, who probably died a frightened man who thought he was defending himself against a raging drunk, is buried.

  

The ongoing controversy of John Deng by DI Editorial Staff

Before the incident took place, Bohnenkamp and his wife were inside the Hawkeye Hideaway, a tavern on Prentiss Street. At the time they exited the bar, Deng was crossing the street carrying bags of bottles, one of which spilled its contents. Bohnenkamp then confronted Deng, ordering the Sudanese man to pick up the bottles. Why in his right mind would Bohnenkamp care, let alone confront, a man who accidentally spilled his means of income? My first thought is that by consuming alcohol, Bohnenkamp’s inhibitions and judgment were to the point that he felt persuaded to do so. We’ve all seen the homeless people carrying garbage bags full of cans, but I have found no good reason to clash with them. 

Although the police investigation tested Deng’s blood-alcohol content and found it to be .295 percent, they did not find it necessary to test Bohnenkamp’s. It is unacceptable for the police not to test the alcohol level of a man leaving a bar who was primarily involved — and somewhat responsible — for the death of another, whether it was in self-defense or not.

I say responsible for a good reason.

When Stotler identified himself and drew his gun after Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, the deputy specifically yelled “Run! Get out of here” to Bohnenkamp, according to the official report. Instead of fleeing the situation, Bohnenkamp escalated it by striking Deng in the head, which prompted Deng to charge with the knife. Then Stotler discharged his weapon.

 – – –

Did authorities conduct a complete investigation? 

No.It seems John Bohnenkamp was partially responsibly for John Deng’s death and should be charged for being involved in the altercation.

 33% (18)

No. They should have checked Bohnenkamp’s blood-alcohol concentration.

 20% (11)

Yes. They used what resources were available to them.

 13% (7)

Yes. It’s over and done with.

  35% (19)

 

In whose interest, safety?  by Vershawn Ashanti Young

First, everyone knows that Stotler has been absolved of any misjudgment, mishandling or wrongdoing in his shooting of Deng. But any citizen who can read should be alarmed by his own account of the events.

In the report given to the public, Stotler says he arrived at the scene where John Bohnenkamp had instigated an altercation with Deng. Stotler writes that he immediately told Bohnenkamp to “run, get out of here,” without trying to find out what had taken place beforehand.

Bohnenkamp did not leave the scene but instead became emboldened and hit Deng so hard that Deng fell to the ground. Instead of apprehending Bohnenkamp, Stotler said he again told Bohnenkamp to leave the scene. Bohnenkamp refused.

Deng begins to get up and perhaps stumbles or perhaps makes a move toward Bohnenkamp — no two statements agree on which — and the officer shoots him because Deng refuses to drop a small knife!

I asked the officials at the meeting if Deng had been a pregnant woman, would Stotler had allowed Bohnenkamp to hit her and knock her to the ground and then encourage Bohnenkamp to leave the crime scene.

I was not exactly posing a hypothetical scenario as much as I wanted to take attention off Stotler/Deng and ask about proper protocols. What should an officer do when a person clearly assaults someone in the officer’s face? Encourage the offender to run or handcuff him?

It’s a huge problem that Stotler by his very own admission repeatedly encouraged the only assailant he witnessed commit a crime to leave the crime scene. And, it’s an even bigger problem that Stotler shoots the victim of battery because he maybe made a threatening move, maybe made a move in self-defense.

I ask you, reader, if you were involved in an altercation that you didn’t start, and the police arrive and allow the perpetrator to continue not only to berate you but beat you, knocking you to the ground, would you drop your knife?

  

Citizens for social justice by Vershawn Ashanti Young

In May, in a conversation with Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson, I predicted that a black man would be killed this summer by a local police officer, probably under unclear circumstances. I also said that the citizens of Iowa City would probably be insufficiently enraged.

I was right about the first prediction. According to local media reports, John Bior Deng, a 26-year-old black man, was killed Friday by Terry Stotler, a plainclothes civil deputy for the Johnson County Sheriff’s department. And the circumstances are unclear: There are conflicting reports from the officer and some eyewitnesses. The officer says the man was threatening another civilian with a knife. Two people who said they witnessed the event told another local media outlet that there was no weapon and that the officer shot him “in cold blood.”

I hope I’m wrong about the second prediction. Concerned citizens of Iowa City should expect a full disclosure of the details about the actions that lead to Deng’s death, about the investigation and about what, if any, actions the police department, city and state will take.

Each citizen’s concern should stem from both personal and community interest. We respect our police, depend on their sound judgment for our personal safety and well-being, as well as promoting a safe environment in our city.

We also expect that the police will protect all people — middle-class ones and homeless ones alike — and are well-trained to handle complicated circumstances that seek to sustain people’s lives. We should expect police to protect their own lives as well as any and all those involved in any activities they’re investigating.

This case, as reported, has big and serious questions. One is: Why is that 26-year-old homeless man dead? We don’t know all the facts yet. But we should certainly want to, especially given the contradictory reports.

One of my own concerns is about the way Deng is being represented as a trouble-maker — a criminal, a nuisance to our town — as if that somehow justifies his killing and alleviates others involved from responsibility. Homeless or not, unpleasant or not, drunk or not, this man, like everyone else in the city, had rights. Were those rights protected, respected?

Because the summer breeds more trouble than winter, just as night is scarier than day, and because of the unfair way I perceive some media and some city residents represent black men, I raised the prediction with Charis-Carlson. There is a tendency, I think, to associate what some say is an increasing crime problem with blacks — blacks that many say are ruining Iowa City.

Perhaps some of this true. I’m uncertain about that. But what I know for sure is that no group of people should be vilified as a group. No group of people should be made to feel as if they can’t live in a town or that they somehow have less rights or concern than other citizens.

This kind of belief, when it’s shared and spoken, leads to ambivalence regarding the lives of the group. We don’t care as much about them. But we should. When we don’t, it contributes to a disregard for them. And that disregard is represented in how we much concern we show in cases like the dead homeless man’s.

 * * *

And we seemed so green and settled here,

could you find a life, a wife?

But kind strangers do not suffice

when inside howls a whirlwind

as loud as burning houses.

And our own quiet houses

which you pass by on your daily sojourn

are none of them as settled as they seem.

 * * *

John Bior Deng – Friend, Family, Human Being:

I was glad to see a few articles that describe who John Deng was as a person.

Two views of John Dengby Diane Finnerty

Iowa City resident John Bior Deng, 26, died of injuries from a single gunshot wound on July 24. Deng was well-loved by his Iowa City friends and was described as a kind, generous man who would always say “God bless you” as he passed you on the street.

Deng was originally from the Sudan and came to the U.S. as a refugee who overcame many horrendous struggles, including having survived brutal experiences in his home country where his people were ravished by a civil war between 1983 and 2002.

Deng was only 26 when all of the struggles of his life brought him to Prentiss Street the evening on July 24, where he was killed by a white police officer after getting in a fight with a white man who yelled at him for breaking bottles on the street. Friends who knew Deng say that the account of him “throwing bottles” onto the street would be unlikely, given that the bottles were Deng’s income.

Friends are very glad that the man whom Deng stabbed, John Bohnenkamp, is still alive, and they are very confused at what might have happened to enrage the person they otherwise knew as gentle and kind to stab another person. It is yet to be determined what the other Iowa City resident said to Deng and how it was said, but some eyewitness accounts tell a different story than, as yet to date, has been reported in the newspaper.

The Iowa City Sudanese community mourns the loss of their young brother, as well as the loss of their community’s nascent sense of safety in their new homeland far from the brutal violence they experienced in Sudan. 

 * * *

We heard later you found some peace

with the players of the drums whose hands,

beat with the time of the heart,

with the voices of a father, a mother and cousins.

“I so happy,” you said.

 * * *

He wasn’t just some homeless transient passing through.  He had lived in Iowa City for a few years and even had been employed for part of that time.  He was just a guy with a troubled past that finally caught up with him.  He was an alcoholic which is a common way to deal with trauma.

Even so, he was just a person like the rest of us… just trying to get by in life.  But his life wasn’t simply a thing of misery.  He had friends and family.  And he apparently had some very happy moments here in Iowa City.  I liked the description of him involved in the drum circle.  I’ve spent much time in the ped mall and I’m very familiar with that drum circle.  As I live and work downtown, I’m sure I had seen Deng around in the past.

Some note different side of John Deng by Abe Tekippe

Canganelli, who said she was not defending any of Deng’s alleged actions, acknowledged that while “there were a lot of issues he was dealing with,” the person Shelter House staff was familiar with was “quite personable,” “quiet,” and “even-tempered.”

Others in the community who had encountered Deng agreed.

“He didn’t have a lot of English under his belt,” said Cliff Missen, the coordinator of Yahoo Drummers, a group that plays on the Pedestrian Mall on Monday nights. “He had a good sense of rhythm, though; I know that much.”

In the weeks prior to his death, Deng had joined the drummers downtown, said Missen, who is also an associate director of the UI School of Library and Information Science.

He said he didn’t even know Deng’s name prior to the shooting, because they spent most of their time drumming, not talking.

“We were looking forward to seeing him on Monday,” Missen said.

Just before Missen went to the Pedestrian Mall on Monday, he found out Deng was the man who had been shot over the weekend, prompting the group of drummers to play a slow, mournful song in his honor.

Though he had only met Deng a few weeks before his death and he admitted he didn’t know him very well, Missen said his memories of the 26-year-old have resonated.

“My last vision of him was standing behind the drums [July 20],” he said. “He just had this grin from ear to ear. He said in his broken English, ‘This is happy, this is so happy.’ It gives us a little comfort that he had those moments of joy.”

 – – –

For various reasons besides his death, thinking about Deng saddens me.  I assume he probably lost family in Sudan and certainly lost his home, and so I was surpised to learn he did have some extended family members also in the US.  However, this saddens me as well.  It seems he wasn’t in close contact with them.  His family didn’t even know he was having troubles.  I suppose Deng felt ashamed.  He was dealing with problems that were just too large.

In Memory of John Deng by Gark

His uncle Peter from Houston, Texas related to the overflowing crowd that while Deng was considered by many to be “homeless”, in the Sudanese community, if you have family, you have a home. He was saddened that Deng did not let others know what his situation was. Others explained that in Sudan, many members of the family would share their plates, their huts, and so on. His cousin from Michigan described their childhood in the Sudan and how all of them had come to the United States for the freedom they could not have in their war torn country. His cousin from Nebraska encouraged anyone who may have witnessed his death to step forward and help them to understand the killing of a young man they and many others knew to be peace loving.

A cook at the Salvation Army described her conversations with Deng as uplifting and that he was very sensitive to offending her, offering “five minute apologies” if he suspected he said anything that might have made her uncomfortable. Another woman explained how he would bring her a chicken sandwich and cherry cola when he’d see her in the Ped Mall. Another told of how he helped to deliver chairs from the UI Surplus with a smile.

Many reflected that the newspaper accounts of the events leading to Deng’s death made him a person they did not recognize and wanted people to know the Deng they remembered. 

 * * *

But we have guns here too, and knives

and angry words and nighttime and confusion.

And the bullet you had fled for so long

found you here in this green, quiet place

(we may never know all the what or why).

 * * *

Davey Collins, of Iowa City, beats his drum during the funeral service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at Lensing's Oak Hill in Coralville on Saturday, August 8, 2009. Deng played in Collins' drum circle on occasion. Deng was shot and killed by a Johnson County sheriff's deputy outside an Iowa City bar July 24. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette). Davey Collins, of Iowa City, beats his drum during the funeral service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at Lensing’s Oak Hill in Coralville on Saturday, August 8, 2009. Deng played in Collins’ drum circle on occasion.  (Source for image: Gazette Online

Lost Boys – Related Issues of Deng’s Past:

John Deng’s death brings up many issues.  There are the basic issues of poverty, homelessness, class, and race.  But there is the issue of immigration and refugees.  In particular, refugees such as the Lost Boys of Sudan pose a problem for this country, but also for the world at large.  It brings up issues of morality and there is no simple resolution.  The people who need the most help are those who for that very reason are the hardest to help.

Deng having survived the Sudanese genocide was no small feat.  He had the opportunity to start a new life, but trauma has a way of haunting a person and one never forgets it (technically known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).  Many would claim that the problems of refugees from other countries aren’t our problems and we shouldn’t be allowing them into our country.  This is not only cold-hearted, but it’s also a fatalistic view of human nature.  Many Lost Boys have become productive citizens, but many have had continued problems adjusting.

On top of the trauma itself, there is the stress and challenge of adapting to an entirely different culture and way of life.  For example, I think I saw an article report that Deng had missing teeth which would be common for the Lost Boys because the removal of teeth was part of their tribal initiations, but in America missing teeth have a very negative connotation.  These young orphans sometimes lacked education (or lacked the proof of their education) and there difficulties most definitely didn’t end with coming to America.  Basically, they had everything going against them.  They stuck close together because they all shared a history of loss.

The question is how did Deng end up here in Iowa City.  There is a Sudanese population here, but Deng didn’t begin his new life in Iowa (a KCRG article — Family of Homeless Iowa City Man Shot by Deputy Grieve and Ask for Answers— did mention he had some family in Iowa and one family member (Tiir): “Deng’s death isn’t the first family death they’ve had involving law enforcement. He said another cousin died in a Des Moines jail, but didn’t elaborate.”).  According to the official report, he was “initially residing in Fort Worth, Texas.”  This fact is eery in that, as reported in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, another Lost Boy recently stabbed someone in Fort Worth.  Fortunately, no one died in that case.

Stabbing suspect is ‘Lost Boys’ refugee by Elizabeth Zavala

FORT WORTH — A man shot by police Monday after they said he repeatedly stabbed a UPS driver on her delivery route was one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” refugees who came to Fort Worth this decade, a minister said Tuesday.

Police identified the suspect as James Panchol, 32. Panchol was in critical condition Tuesday and was scheduled for surgery at John Peter Smith Hospital, said Sgt. Pedro Criado, a police spokesman.

A hospital spokeswoman said Tuesday that she had no information on the man, but Gatjang Deng, a friend of Panchol’s, said he was in critical condition with gunshot wounds to his neck, left arm and chest.

Wichieng Wetnyangran, associate pastor of African Immigrant Ministries at Peace Lutheran Church in Hurst, said Panchol was part of the group of about 40 Lost Boys who came to Tarrant County in 2001. More than 4 million refugees came to the United States to escape years of civil war and famine in their country.

“It’s absolutely a shock,” Wetnyangran said of reports that Panchol is a suspect in the stabbing. “That was a part of the life they ran away from. They were hoping their lives would change.”

Wetnyangran, who had a similar role at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Fort Worth when the refugees arrived, recalls that Panchol had to undergo treatment for mental illness but does not remember the specifics.

Deng, also a Sudanese refugee, said Panchol was prescribed medication a few years ago for a mental condition but was unsure whether Panchol was still taking it.

According to Texas Department of Public Safety records, Panchol pleaded guilty in Tarrant County in 2002 to a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.

During Monday’s incident, officers were called about 12:30 p.m. to a reported stabbing at the Bent Tree apartments on Randall Way in west Fort Worth. Witnesses told police that the man approached the UPS driver and repeatedly stabbed her in the back, according to reports.

The driver apparently broke free and ran, police and witnesses said. The man was chasing the woman when police arrived. He was ordered twice by officers to drop the knife and refused each time, police said. When one of the officers fired a Taser at the man, he charged her, police said, and the other officer shot the suspect with his weapon.

“They told me the Taser did work, but the suspect pulled the probes out of his body,” Criado said. The officer who deployed the Taser was treated for minor injuries and is on paid administrative leave.

The UPS driver, whose name has not been released, is 50. She was treated for stab wounds Monday at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, was listed in good condition and was expected to be released Monday night, Criado said.

The suspect and the driver did not know each other, he said.

 – – –

I was doing some web research on the Lost Boys of Sudan.  There are plenty of success stories.  Some went onto college or became active in helping their fellow Sudanese (in the US and in Sudan).  What I was struck by is there desire to accomplish their goals on their own and they supposedly haven’t accepted much government assistance (although some church communities offered help when they first arrived).  One thing that can be said about these Lost Boys is that they are survivors and they can take care of themselves (which, however, has obvious downsides as some problems can’t be solved by one self).

A New Life for a ‘Lost Boy’ of Sudan (NPR)

‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ Finally Find a Home (NPR)

‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ Reunion (NPR)

Revisiting Sudan’s Haunted ‘Lost Boys’ (NPR)

Lost in America (salon.com)

Are the Lost Boys still lost? (Seattle Weekly)

Stress issues still plague ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan (azcentral.com)

Sudanese “Lost Boys” in the United States:Adjustment after Six Months (BRYCS)

The Lost Boys of Sudan: Ambiguous Loss, Search forFamily, and Reestablishing RelationshipsWith Family Members (Family Relations Journal)

Resettling the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ in the United States: BU medical researchers find family, community engagement may mediate traumatic reaction (Science Blog)

The “Lost Boys of Sudan”: Functional and Behavioral Health of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Resettled in the United States (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine)

It’s a sad fact that there are a number of examples of Lost Boys who have lived troubled lives and in some cases died violently.  For those like Deng, life didn’t work out so well.  Even for those who are successful, the trauma of their past (and the still occurring violence in Sudan) isn’t easily forgotten.

This is extremely sad because it’s unnecessary.  Idealistically speaking, violence is unnecessary as a general rule, but that isn’t what I mean.  There was an attitude after the Nazi death camps of WWII.  Many people thought we had fought the good fight and we had won.  Never again, was the collective declaration.  Yet, genocides keep happening and some of them have been far worse than anything experienced by the Jewish community.

Between imperialistic colonizing and the World Wars, 20th century Africa was left in endless conflict.  The many genocides that have occurred there were caused by Western interference in local cultures which gave favor to particular groups.  Even America, which isn’t generally considered imperialistic in the traditional sense, was built upon the slave trade coming out of Africa as it was being colonized.  The race clashes in the US have their origins in the history of colonized Africa.  African-American slaves saw more trauma than even the Lost Boys, and it was upon this collective trauma that the African-American community was built.  Colonization, exploitation, slavery, cultural destruction, World Wars, genocide… all of the modern world is built on collective trauma.  The Lost Boys are just a sign of the times.

John Deng may now be dead, but this deep-seated conflict in the world remains.  People who think they can isolate themselves and their communities from these problems are being very naive.  Besides, too many Americans forget that their own ancestors were also refugees escaping persecution and ended up spreading their trauma to every other culture they met (be it Africans or Native Americans).  None of us are innocent, but all of us are deserving compassion.

 * * *

You were laid here to rest

so you could settle at last in the earth,

where your village rejoined around you

their prayers burning with sorrow and memories.

And we are none of us so settled,

not so settled

as we seem.

Mourners gather as the casket is lowered during the burial service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Iowa City on Saturday, August 8, 2009. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette). Mourners gather as the casket is lowered during the burial service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Iowa City on Saturday, August 8, 2009. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette).  (Source for image: Gazette Online)