Joe Arpaio Is Terrible, and Trump Pardoned Him

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Joe Arpaio is a real son-of-a-bitch. Forget about being pardoned for criminal contempt of court—he’s lucky he’s not in jail for worse. (Photo Credit: Angie Wang/AP)

In the interim before Donald Trump was sworn into office, no one was quite sure what to expect when the orange-faced one with a predilection for comically long ties would take the reins. He was, by most accounts, long on rhetoric and short on defined policy goals, such that when he finally was made official as the 45th President of the United States of America, observers were keen to look for any signs of possible shifts in our country’s approach to various economic, political, and social issues. In the early going, the White House’s official website proved to be quite the good indicator of where the Trump administration stands on key topics. Before we had even gotten to February, Trump and Co. had purged the site of pages referring to climate change, civil rights/LGBT rights, and regulations.

Obviously, these were symbolic gestures, but given how swift and specific the changes were, as well as the weight they took on considering they were coming from the leader of the nation, they spoke volumes. More than half a year since these alterations went into effect, Pres. Trump has since pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement—a symbolic device in it of itself—has vowed to roll back Dodd-Frank, backed by Paul Ryan and his pro-business lackeys in Congress; and has issued a directive to ban transgender people from the United States military, with apparent intentions to remove protections for the LGBT community within the Affordable Care Act and having communicated a position that favors the ability of businesses to discriminate against homosexuals all in the name of “religious freedom.” In short, it was evident early on in Donald Trump’s presidency that this was a new day and age for the U.S.A.—except that it was a return to previous positions marked by a deliberate reversal against progress we’ve made over the years and decades. We were “making America great again”—two steps forward and five steps back.

Perhaps the most notable change made to the White House’s official website, however, particularly in light of how Donald Trump started his campaign, was the removal of Spanish-language content from whitehouse.gov. As you’ll recall, Trump began his political ascendancy by essentially boiling down the entire country of Mexico—one with a rich culture and history—down to a haven for crime, drugs, and rape. You know, with some decent folks sprinkled in. As Trump stayed more than relevant in the polls, his message grew no more nuanced regarding his characterization of our neighbor to the south and his potential policies to be enacted, with calls for a costly, ineffective, imprudent, and literally divisive wall to be built growing ever louder and threatening to start a row between the countries with the insistence that Mexico pays for the wall after the election. Or, if you’re former Mexican president Vicente Fox, that f**king wall. Guy likes his expletives—what can I say?

Heretofore, that bleeping monstrosity has yet to be constructed, but an appreciably different tone has been taken toward the issue of immigration—both legal and illegal. While the Obama administration was responsible for its fair share of deportations, the increased vigor with which ICE agents have gone after undocumented immigrants regardless of whether or not they have committed violent crimes has evoked greater feelings of fear and a heightened sense that these deportations are being carried out as a measure of deliberate cruelty. As for the legal immigration aspect, so too does a shift seem to be underway regarding white supremacists’ notions of empowerment and entitlement following Trump’s electoral victory that would see America reject an international mindset and multiculturalism as detrimental forces to the country. To those who are willing participants in what is termed as a “culture war,” this is a conflict for the very soul of the nation. As protracted conflicts go, so too does collateral damage, and one need look no further than the violence in Charlottesville to see just how much people believe this ideological clash to be one worth physically and emotionally fighting.

The latest turn in the ongoing saga that is Donald Trump’s America vs. Mexicans, Muslims, and other people of color, is related to his pardoning of a figure central to the issue of immigration. A figure that, to call him controversial, would be akin to calling water wet. With Hurricane Harvey barreling down on the state of Texas and much of the United States duly distracted, President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, known to many as “Sheriff Joe.” Arpaio was facing a contempt of court charge stemming from his willful disregard of a federal court order from 2011. The original complaint was filed in 2007 when his department detained a Mexican man with a valid tourist’s visa for nine hours. Arpaio and the rest of the MCSO were found to be in violation in this instance and others, stopping motorists based on racial profiling and effectually trying to enforce immigration law out of their jurisdiction (immigration law is a federal issue, not a state matter). Joe Arpaio, though, not one to go gently into that good night, openly defied the order, even going as far as to tell local news media he wasn’t going to abide by the court’s mandate and lying under oath to misrepresent the fact his department was still profiling and making immigration-based arrests. So, in 2015, Arpaio, still Maricopa County sheriff, was charged with civil contempt of court, and last year, when a U.S. District Judge assessed that Sheriff Joe still wasn’t doing a very good job of not doing the feds’ job, she found him guilty of criminal contempt and set sentencing for October 5. That’s when President Trump swooped in and pardoned Joe Arpaio, no longer head of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office after losing in his re-election bid this past November.

OK, so maybe the Artist Formerly Known as Sheriff Joe was a bit zealous in wanting to uphold immigration law as well as that endemic to Maricopa County. One would imagine he is not the only lawman to feel this way, and Arizona does possess its own unique challenges within the immigration sphere. Moreover, as Arpaio’s supporters would allege, this trial was, above all else, a “show trial.” The man was working with the federal government to help them in their pursuit of those who had failed to abide by the law. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? You’d really put an octogenarian in jail for up to six months? If it were just about giving the federal courts the proverbial middle finger, perhaps one might be tempted to agree with Joe Arpaio’s fervent champions. Might, I stress, might.

Thus far, however, we have only scratched the surface of how Joe Arpaio became one of the most hated sheriffs, if not the most hated sheriff, in all of America. Michelle Mark, writing for Business Insider, profiles the litany of policies enacted under Arpaio’s watch that human rights activists would find more than disagreeable. He removed salt and pepper as well as coffee from the meals at county jails, of which there were only two a day. He held inmates outside in “Tent City” in extreme conditions in summer and winter with limited amounts of cold water during the former and meant no heaters or jackets during the latter. His office was regularly cited for use of excessive force, including use of pepper spray and restraint chairs. He approved of “random” searches of cars for people suspected of being illegal immigrants (which, often enough, were Native Americans instead of Hispanics/Latinos), and supported Arizona SB 1070, also known as the “Papers, Please” law and ratified in 2010, which essentially allowed uniformed police to harass and intimidate people within Arizona’s Spanish-speaking community. For all his bluster about being America’s “toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office were sued an inordinate amount of times from the families of those convicted of crimes, alleging police brutality. What makes this all especially egregious is that the Justice Department knew full well of the scope of Arpaio’s use of racial profiling and other misdeeds, but let him off with little more than a slap on the wrist. Democrat Janet Napolitano, prior to becoming governor of Arizona, led that investigation. So, naturally, whose endorsement did Napolitano seek and get in advance of her first gubernatorial election victory? Joe Arpaio’s. Politics is great like that, huh?

But, wait—it gets better. And, of course, by “better,” I mean, worse. Reporters like Michelle Mark and pontificating bloggers such as myself speak about Joe Arpaio’s transgressions from afar, but the powers-that-be behind the Phoenix New Times, a free local newspaper, have had a front row seat to the kind of bullshit Arpaio and his former department regularly pulled in the name of “law and order.” In an epic series of Tweets, the periodical’s official Twitter account provided additional context for how Sheriff Joe ran the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Here are some of the, ahem, “highlights”:

  • Going back to that Tent City business, Arpaio unapologetically referred to his creation as a “concentration camp.”
  • Inmates in his jails died at a disproportionate rate to other such facilities, whether because they took their own lives or as a direct result of harsh treatment by their jailers. Often, the MCSO had no explanation for these fatalities.
  • One time, as a publicity stunt, Arpaio had Latino inmates marched into a segregated area with electric fencing.
  • He also ran, before its ultimate cancellation, a “Mugshot of the Day” feature on the MCSO website where the public could vote on pictures of prisoners for their enjoyment.
  • The department failed to investigate scores of sex abuse cases, but had enough time to send a deputy to Hawaii to try to procure Barack Obama’s birth certificate. (Yup. He was/is a birther.)
  • Following the official finding by U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow that Arpaio had been profiling Latinos, he hired a private investigator to investigate the judge and his wife. He also attempted to destroy evidence specifically requested by the judge.
  • Arpaio had a “Sheriff’s Posse,” one of whom was brought up on child porn charges, and according to the New Times, the Sheriff’s Office was “responsible for countless fiascos” like a “botched SWAT raid, where deputies set a puppy on fire.” That doesn’t exactly sound like serving and protecting, if you ask me.

It is with a hint of irony, then, that Joe Arpaio’s supporters talk about court proceedings against him being a “show trial” and that Arpaio himself derides it all as being a “witch hunt” when he has exhibited all the signs of being a showman—even when countless lives stand to hang in the balance. That Donald Trump, a consummate showman and strongman in his own right, would pardon him sends a clear message about where we are in the state of American politics, and it likewise clearly communicates to his core supporters that the fears and prejudices of white America will be held sacrosanct above the rights of all others. Justice for all? Not by a long shot.


The debate over whether or not Joe Arpaio deserved his pardon unfortunately can invoke the kind of conflicts which denote the existence of the phrase “Blue Lives Matter.” Arpaio was a lawman, and I imagine he and the MCSO were responsible for their fair share of apprehending legitimate violent criminals. This does not, however, and should not exculpate him of what would appear to be a long list of offenses against the civil rights of inmates in Maricopa County jails, not to mention those who suffered physical harm, psychological distress, and/or death as a function of being housed in these “correctional facilities.” Simply put, two wrongs do not make a right, and that Arpaio might’ve gotten six months in jail for criminal contempt of court would have realistically been getting off light in light of the destruction he has encouraged in Hispanic/Latino communities. I’m not a religious person, but if Hell exists, I firmly believe Joe Arpaio may have earned himself a spot there—if only temporarily. Moreover, by characterizing Sheriff Joe in this way, I am recognizing that those sworn to uphold the law may abuse their privileges, but I am not condemning police forces and uniformed police wholesale. I believe most individuals who wear the badge do the right thing and want to do so because it is the right thing. Some, on the other hand, are bad actors, as with any profession. At least from where I’m standing, rather than reacting defensively to any outside criticism, those police should want to know when one of their own has been irresponsible or derelict in his or her duties. That is, the universal fraternity of policemen and policewomen has its limits.

Returning to an earlier notion and somewhat of a devil’s advocate distinction, Arpaio is not the only sheriff who has been accused of approaching law enforcement at all levels with—shall we say—extreme robustness. Still, he and others like him shouldn’t be celebrated or pardoned by the President of the United States, much less have their latest book plugged on Twitter. Such was the case when Donald Trump took to his favorite medium to hock Sheriff David Clarke’s book and to cheer him as a great man. There’s any number of problems with these sentiments coming from POTUS, not the least of which is that, based on what we know of Mr. Trump, dude doesn’t read all that much, so how he can recommend something he almost certainly has never cracked open? Besides this, though, Clarke, sheriff of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, is a notorious figure in his own right. As with Joe Arpaio, David Clarke and his office have been the subject of numerous lawsuits alleging abuse and neglect of inmates, even to the point of death. Plus, while we, ahem, shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I’m not immediately sure why cowboy hats should be a thing in Wisconsin. Is this standard issue or does Clarke just wear it because he’s the “Sheriff?” This is the Midwest, not the Wild West.

We like to subscribe to the black-and-white narrative in the United States of America that all police are of exemplary character and, conversely, that all people behind bars are deserving of their fate because of some character defect. The reality, of course, is much more complicated, and as literal issues of black and white go, matters of race factor heavily into why. The seemingly never-ending tally of black suspects being murdered at the hands of police despite relatively minor offenses (see also “driving while black”) demands accountability of the individual officers responsible for the escalations that lead to these deaths as well as that of the departments which assign and train these arms of the force. Racial profiling and disproportionate apprehension/sentencing of people of color are critical to understanding the systemic racism inherent in our modern-day prison-industrial complex. Joe Arpaio’s pardoning at the hands of Donald Trump was a symbolic gesture, but this is not to say it doesn’t resonate deeply with Americans of differing demographics and ideologies. It is basically the President of the United States thumbing his nose at Latinos, liberals, and those who would reject a “tough love” approach to law enforcement in this country, and pouring more kerosene on the Republican Party’s burning bridge between white America and people of color. It sets a terrible precedent, and should not be sanctioned by neither the left nor the right in the name of common decency.

When the NRA Points, Three Fingers Point Back

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Dana Loesch talks shit about other people’s outrage, but she’s sure good at acting like she’s outraged herself. (Image Source: Screenshot/YouTube)

We are in the midst of a culture war. Well, at least as some on the right would have us believe. President Donald Trump, for one, has used this kind of rhetoric to great effect on the campaign trail and continues to try drive a Russia-sized wedge between his supporters and the mainstream media. Recently, conservative talk radio host, television personality, and author Dana Loesch delivered a diatribe along these lines that got a lot of attention—mostly for the wrong reasons, but still. Loesch’s depiction of the United of States of America today on behalf of the NRA is nothing short of “madness,” a word she herself uses in setting a near-apocalyptic tone. Here are her words, and if you haven’t seen the video (you can Google it if you want—I’m not linking to that shit), I swear I am not making them up:

They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse “the resistance.”

All to make them march. Make them protest. Make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding — until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.

And when that happens, they’ll use it as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.

I’m the National Rifle Association of America. And I’m freedom’s safest place.

Apparently, our country is on the brink of catastrophe, and the NRA is America’s last hope for salvation and freedom. You know, not to self-aggrandize or anything. Dana Loesch’s rant is an emotionally-laden one, so on some level, it seems unfair to really sift through her comments and pick them apart. Then again, this is propaganda which has the power to motivate and influence people’s decisions, particularly in a negative direction, so—what the hell—let’s tear this speech to shreds. My $4.63 (two cents, adjusted for inflation):

They use their media to assassinate real news.

As opposed to fake news? Which is the real news and fake news, in this equation? Just checking. If we’re going to be conjuring images of unrest and trying to raise doubts about the fairness and soundness of the mainstream media, we should know who our so-called friends and enemies are, right? Right? Not only is Loesch remarkably vague in this demonization of the other, but she’s using some awfully loaded language from the jump. “Assassination” usually applies to the murder of someone notable or revered. Loesch could have used “kill” or even “destroy,” but instead, she chose to invoke a context in which the President is under attack and in immediate danger. Never mind that Donald Trump has been a consistent aggressor with respect to the news media, even going so far as to re-Tweet a depiction of himself nailing the likes of CNN with a wrestling move. For someone in the crosshairs, Trump sure lashes out at the MSM a lot. It’s at least a two-way street, but our President would imagine it as nothing more than a witch hunt—even when the news media has largely pulled its punches, sacrificing a certain standard for the sake of clicks, ratings and views. In other words, both sides have been doing their part to diminish a free press.

They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler.

OK, so the “Donald Trump is Hitler” angle was always apt to be overblown, but when the man is being cheered on by David Duke and white nationalists across the globe, it’s not a completely absurd comparison, especially not when someone like Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s stepsister, has accused Trump of “acting like another Hitler.” I’m actually less concerned about Dana Loesch’s allusion to Hitler here, and more disturbed by the attack on schools as a bastion of liberal indoctrination. If teaching children to respect women and people of other nations, races, and faiths is wrong, then so be it, because you’re sure as hell not getting that from our President.

They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse “the resistance.”

We’ve heard this line ample times before, especially from the right. Why do these celebrities have to wax political all the time? #StayInYourLane, am I right? Except for the idea that politics affects pretty much everything else, and these celebrities are not only entitled to their views, but arguably should be engaged when the direction of the country is involved. I don’t denigrate Scott Baio for expressing his conservative political views. Maybe I might denigrate him for lacking talent as an actor, but like I said, he can say and think what he wants. This is America. Speaking of views, what, pray tell, is wrong with a politician like Barack Obama commenting on “the resistance?” It’s literally been his job to be involved in politics, and he led the freaking country for eight years. If Trump is doing a shitty job, who better than his Barack-ness to render his opinion having done the same job?

All to make them march. Make them protest. Make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding — until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.

Um, Ms. Loesch, it’s American tradition to march and protest, not to mention completely legal unless it veers into the realm of violence and destruction of property. Even then, you’re describing a minority of instances and bad actors, and while we’re on the subject of the police and of bullying and terrorization, what about the fear that people of color face when they are made to understand that being stopped for a broken taillight may end up in their effective murder at the hands of an officer of the law? What about someone like Philando Castile being shot several times despite trying to warn the officer who stopped him that he was legally carrying a weapon? That to me is madness. Not to mention racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia can and should be called out and decried. There’s this notion going around that political correctness is holding us back as a nation, but it’s burdensome only to those who don’t practice it and who don’t genuinely believe people should be loved and respected.

And when that happens, they’ll use it as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.

Let’s get this straight: I don’t hate the police. I respect the job they do, thank them for keeping us safe, and appreciate the danger many of them face every day. I would even concede that most who wear the badge are good cops, and I think most Americans, liberal, centrist, or conservative, would feel the same way. Nonetheless, when officers of the law do not do their jobs correctly, or otherwise act in bad faith, that outrage is arguably warranted, especially when police forces show little interest in trying to admonish police for their bad behavior or even actively try to suppress the evidence. Again, any protests should be respectful and non-violent, but this is not to say they are unfair, and furthermore, one might submit that if anyone should want bad cops exposed, it’s others within their ranks.

Enough about our women and men in blue, however. Loesch here talks about fighting a “violence of lies” with “the clenched fist of truth.” First of all, what the heck is a “violence of lies?” Based on the dictionary definition, she is either referring to the conscious act of trying to hurt, damage, or kill something, or a strength of emotion/destructive force. Either way, it’s an odd turn of phrase, akin to calling a group of cows a gaggle. Besides, she points to the left and cries foul, but the same can be and has been said about the right, and I may be biased, but the criticism is way more justified.

One last thing: the clenched fist is a symbol of the resistance you have taken great pains to demonize. You and your conservative ilk are in power now, so kindly, ahem, step off, or else I have a new hand gesture involving a particular finger and pejorative meaning waiting in the wings


The thing that always gets me about the National Rifle Association and appeals to “freedom” is that it always seems as if the organization and its supporters are depicting a situation by which the “godless” left is coming for their guns. Except I never actually hear anyone on the left say we should take away the right to bear arms. This last election cycle, Hillary Clinton distinguished herself from Bernie Sanders by appearing tougher on guns, even going as far as to support the families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting in a bid to bring suit against gun manufacturers. (I myself, perhaps unsurprisingly, sided with the latter, because I don’t see the value in such litigation except in instances where the manufacturer clearly was at fault in creating a product that malfunctions or knowingly sells to a criminal element, but this point may be debated.) Still, even Clinton has never advocated abolishing the Second Amendment outright. Sure, she and others (including myself) may call for a restriction on sales of military-grade weapons to civilians, but this seems pretty sensible. Of course, “sensible” may be a relative term when it comes to gun policy and gun reform in the United States, but do with this sentiment what you may.

While we’re speaking in “sensible” terms, let’s state something which is obvious, but nonetheless bears repeating. The purpose of guns is to harm, intimidate, and kill. Sure, it may be used for hunting, but that still fits the bill. #DeerLivesMatter. Otherwise, people may blow off steam and practice their target shooting, though if they really wanted, they could—I don’t know—go to the bar instead. The most legitimate reason why anyone not already required to carry a firearm per their job or role should own a firearm, as I see it, is for defense of his or her home. Beyond that, the justifications largely appear to fall flat. Guns result in pieces of metal moving at high rates of speed. In this respect, they are like cars, huge masses of metal which are designed to move at high rates of speed. Cars, like guns, have the potential to kill. For this reason, before being able to legally drive one, people must first be old enough, and must pass both a written and road test. Because they can cause destruction, including to one another (not to mention they can cost a shit-ton), there are any number of car insurance companies as well. Automobiles, in short, are a big deal and require the requisite know-how and safeguards to operate, but hey, they get you where you need to go.

So, let’s get this straight: cars, which are comparatively much more useful than guns, require much more documentation and proof of proficiency than guns, devices designed solely to frighten, maim, and/or end a living thing’s existence. Wait, what? Relatively speaking, it is frighteningly simple to get a gun legally in the United States of America. A June 2016 report by Doug Criss for CNN put this matter in jarring perspective when it considered how a gun is easier to get than any number of things in this country. As noted, it is easier to get a lethal weapon than a driver’s license. You don’t need to pass any knowledge or proficiency exams, nor do you even need, in most cases, a license or permit. Furthermore, whereas new drivers in a state like Maryland must go through a probationary period, there is no such requirement for firearms. Just go to the shop, get a gun and some ammo, load that sucker up, and get to shooting!

Criss provides other examples as well, and of considerably less danger, to boot. For a passport, you need to prove your identity as a citizen, file paperwork, submit a photo, and wait about six weeks for processing, whereas with guns, if buying from a private seller, you likely don’t even need a background check. You may be limited to the amount of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine you buy in a month because it can be used to make meth; no federal law places such a limit on the number of guns you can purchase. For a divorce, it may take several months to finalize; the most stringent gun buying laws in individual states would have you wait mere days before you can take home your shiny new lethal weapon. Even getting a puppy may require you to be 21 or older, provide personal references, and submit to a home visit when adopting from an agency. A gun is nowhere as cute and cuddly, and necessitates no home visits or personal references. And, as we’ve firmly established, it can kill you.


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Donald Trump, being an asshole. As usual. (Image Source: CNN/Screencapture)

The influence of the National Rifle Association as a subset of the larger discussion of the issue of money in politics should trouble Americans regardless of their political affiliation, though certainly, those on the left particularly concerned about this matter should be especially alarmed. Not only is the NRA obviously well-connected in terms of access to politicians and availability of funds to devote to lobbying efforts, but they are also well-organized in terms of communicating with their membership and putting them on a path to action. In a piece from last year for NBC penned in the wake of the Orlando shooting, Leigh Ann Caldwell explored how the NRA exerts influence beyond mere political contributions to individual candidates. The Association can give to the major political parties as well as committees within their ranks at both the state and national level. Its five-million-plus members can also donate of their own accord, not to mention the NRA has its own super PAC and 501(c)(4) organization for the purpose of political campaigns. To top it all off, and perhaps most significantly, the NRA communicates constantly with its membership, informing them about gun-related votes, advising them how to vote, and even spelling out how specific lawmakers voted on the issues so as to apply political pressure accordingly, with people at the ready to send E-mails, letters, and phone calls in line with this function. Oh, and they register people to vote, too. At a time when Republican efforts to curtail the vote for the Democrats’ traditional systems of support are as strong as ever, this detail is not insignificant.

So, how do we solve a problem like the NRA? The answer is both a simple one, i.e. funding resistance efforts, and a complicated one, in light of how entrenched its power is and how effectively it marshals resources when a vote is involved. Back in 2014,  Tim Dickinson wrote about how to beat the NRA in seven not-so-easy steps for Rolling Stone. Though perhaps a bit obvious, though decidedly necessary to mention given its history and investment in politics heretofore, the first step Dickinson outlined was committing to a generation-long battle against the gun lobby. With that, the next recommendation was to develop a local strategy of supporting gun control initiatives to amplify the position of the pro-reform White House. Of course, now man-baby Donald Trump is President, so the equation changes quite a bit, but the point of acting at the state and community level is yet highly relevant.

The other five steps vary in terms of how compelling they are, notably if you happen to be a progressive like myself, but they are worth deliberating. #3 involves politicizing disaster, because the NRA already does it and little has moved the proverbial needle outside of “making a political issue of the tiny coffins of dead children in the wake of a school shooting.” In advertising, they say sex sells, but maybe the anti-gun-violence activists among us need to fight fire with fire and play on the public’s emotions. Along these lines, #4 involves taking swift action to capitalize on tragedy. As Dickinson would have it, think less Barack Obama and more Andrew Cuomo. #5 is to bring Big Money to the table. This seems to be akin to dancing with the devil, but there is value in the idea that this money would be linked to a broad base of gun control activists with their own ability to donate and vote to the cause. #6 is to “think bigger than mayors, moms, and martyrs.” That is, create a movement that isn’t limited to concerned mothers and families of victims, and that has a simple message about ending gun violence and making communities safer. Finally, #7 involves preparing for setbacks and retaliation from the National Rifle Association. After all, if, in the wake of shooting after shooting, we are still lagging behind in terms of the use of background checks, waiting periods, and limiting sales of weaponry designed to kill the most people in the shortest amount of time, we need to understand that the NRA is primed to play both offense and defense. So far, it’s been a winning formula for the gun lobby.

Speaking of setbacks, Dana Loesch’s propaganda rant on behalf of the NRA was criticized not only by proponents of gun reform, but many gun owners as well as being a bit much. Still, if we would expect this to seriously hurt the National Rifle Association and its ability to recruit, we would be patently naïve, and we should be duly worried about how some of the organization’s supporters might interpret Loesch’s broad message. Loesch et al. frame this is as a “culture war,” but some might heed the call to action armed with more than just the clenched fist of truth, if you catch my drift. Lastly, in accordance with Tim Dickinson’s ideas, we must understand there is no, ahem, silver bullet when it comes to fighting the NRA’s influence. It will take money, it will take community involvement, and most of all, it will take time. When the NRA points, three fingers point back in terms of its contributions to limiting the freedom of Americans everywhere to enjoy safety without the fear of gun violence. If you think this is a self-defeating principle, however, feel free to talk to those onlookers at the Trump presidency still waiting on impeachment.

How Not to React to Stories about Police Shootings, from One White Person to Another

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Did Keith Lamont Scott (left) and Terrence Crutcher (right) have to die as a result of their encounters with police? Your answer may have more to do with the color of your skin, and the color of theirs, than you’d like to admit. (Image retrieved from rinf.com.)

Unfortunately, it seems that all you have to do nowadays is to wait a week or two, maybe a month, and soon enough, you’ll have news of another fatal shooting of a black person at the hands of police reach the national consciousness. Yesterday, it was Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Today, it’s Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. Though the pain for the black communities of Tulsa, OK and Charlotte, NC, respectively, is nothing less than the kind experienced by African-Americans and other concerned citizens in Baltimore and other cities, regrettably, for many Americans watching, instances of this sort of scenario are becoming old-hat. Black individual (most likely male) is stopped as part of “routine” police business. He is shot and killed by police, or otherwise subdued in a lethal fashion. The exact details of what transpired during the incident are debated. One or more people involved with the arrest-turned-fatal is put on administrative leave and later arrested themselves. Seemingly more often than not, those who face trial are legally absolved of their role in their proceedings. Frequently, as a result of the initial violence or the ruling which acquits the accused officer(s), there are vocal protests and/or more violence which threatens the lives of those in affected communities, not to mention the surrounding buildings and other property. It’s an awful set of scenarios, but sadly, it’s not one we haven’t heard before.

Likewise unfortunately, many of the same reactions we have heard from the likes of critics of the deceased, a good number of them white, conservative and/or Donald Trump supporters, are well familiar to us by now. With my use of the word “unfortunate” in this context, it’s obvious I am making a judgment about these critical reactions, and one the intended audience for this post is unlikely to absorb because a) not many people follow my blog to begin with, and b) my liberal attitudes would likely dissuade them from reading further. I also fully understand, as an average white dude with no formal basis in African-American studies, anthropology, or a related field, I am not the most qualified person to comment on these matters. All of the above notwithstanding, allow me to add my 47 cents (two cents, adjusted for inflation) and opine as to why so many self-righteous attackers of the victims in these situations and uniform defenders of uniformed police are, well, wrong. In doing so, I will try to consider multiple angles and the “broader picture,” which, in a writing-oriented context such as this, is usually advisable. So, here goes nothing.

First things first, stop saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.”

If we’re going to have an honest conversation about race relations in the United States and the broader aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re going to have to get past this “all lives matter” nonsense. First of all, the very notion of “all lives matter” actively seeks to negate the fundamentally most important word in the original phrase: “black.” As John Halstead, writing for Huffington Post, argues, this alteration only serves to betray white people’s discomfort with blackness and black cultural identity. Moreover, the use of the phrase “all lives matter” speaks to an attempt at racial colorblindness, a theoretical concept which only white people can hope to benefit from owing to the reality whiteness is treated as the cultural default in American society. We can only pretend not to see black people, their trials and their tribulations for so long. Many people of color, meanwhile, can’t help but see how differences in skin color matter, because they’ve experienced some degree of prejudice or animosity against them. In other words, to insist “all lives matter” because “race doesn’t matter” is to suffer from a serious case of white privilege.

Besides this bit of sociological theory, when it comes to simple logic, the concepts of “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. After all, if all lives truly matter, there should be no problem admitting that black lives, as a subset of all lives, matter in them of themselves. Saying “black lives matter” doesn’t mean you believe that black lives matter more than others. It means you believe that black lives should matter as much those of whites and other races, which is clearly not the case, because if it were, there would be no need for a movement called Black Lives Matter in the first place. Black lives matter. Say it. If you can’t, we already have a problem.

Black Lives Matter is not all about killing police.

The vast, vast majority of people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are opposed to violence against cops as well as violence against everyday citizens at the hands of the police. I obviously can’t speak for the organization or for black people in general, but I tend to think most African-Americans have respect for individual officers of the law, and activists who criticize police departments are interested in bringing only those who abuse the badge to justice, as well as dismantling the prejudicial systems that facilitate bad behavior within their ranks. To put this another way, protests by black activists, by and large, do not cause violence—but rather expose it. Calling Black Lives Matter a “terrorist” organization or “hate group” is a blatant attempt to de-legitimize the movement because it doesn’t fit a certain narrative—or worse, is designed specifically to silence the truth.

Not all protesters want to burn buildings, loot stores, or smash windows.

Just as very few African-Americans encourage hostility and violence against police officers, it is the worst among them who show their frustration at brutality against their brothers and sisters in the form of rioting, violence and destruction. Certainly, most people within the black communities affected by unrest like that experienced in Baltimore and now Charlotte would condemn this sort of behavior, and I don’t excuse those actions. Still, even if the logic behind expressing one’s rage by lighting a car on fire is faulty, you can understand the raw emotion behind it, can’t you?

Well, if you’re white, maybe you can’t. Whatever your level of sympathy, viewing violent protests through a biased lens—that is, viewing looting and rioting as an inherently “black” phenomenon—is faulty in its own right. I mean, in 2011, following a Game 7 loss by the Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals, there was a riot in the city of Vancouver. In Canada, for gosh darn’s sake! If a bunch of riled-up hosers can tear shit up, anyone has that potential—black or white.

Barring one or more outstanding warrants, personal histories don’t matter when it comes to why someone is stopped by police or why they end up shot and killed.

Almost immediately after news breaks of a shooting by officers of the law of a black suspect, the “Blue Lives Matter” crowd and vigilante social media “thug” police set upon providing reasons why the men and women with the badges were unequivocally justified in their response, and why the deceased, in all likelihood, deserved it. As a function of what frequently amounts to character assassination, this sanctioning of police brutality is viewed through the lens of some criminal past of the victim’s, as if to say, “He wasn’t exactly the most law-abiding citizen. Why am I not surprised he reached for his gun?”

Stop. Unless the person gets killed had outstanding warrants for his or her arrest necessitating pursuit or influencing the judgment of the police officers involved, any criminal history is irrelevant. Alton Sterling pulled a gun on a homeless person who kept asking him for money. Did he deserve to die for it? Philando Castile had numerous run-ins with the police for traffic violations. Did he deserve his fate too? In so many cases of police brutality and shootings, and of police interceding in general, a critical element of why African-Americans and other people of color are stopped is the color of their skin. It’s called racial profiling, and I’m sure you know the term. Police forces say they don’t do it or encourage it, much as we white people might say we aren’t racist against blacks, but to that, I say they totally do it, and for all of us melanin-challenged individuals, here’s another term for you: implicit racism. Look it up. You might actually learn something.

Besides, if we’re invoking people’s personal histories and legal troubles, there’s a chance the same preceding logic of “they were probably guilty” can be used the other way around. In the case of Terrence Crutcher, Officer Betty Shelby was arrested for manslaughter for her role in the shooting. Shelby, as it turns out, was mentioned in a Tulsa PD November 2010 use of force report, has been involved in several domestic incidents in her adult life, and by her own admission, used marijuana recreationally as a teenager. If we’re applying the same conduct standards to Betty Shelby, then she’s lucky she’s on the “right” side of the badge, because she might as well have been shot in that moment. For her sake, all that’s important is what Shelby and witnesses say happened leading up to and including Crutcher’s shooting, what the evidence of the crime scene bears out, and whether the reports and the evidence match. Unless you’re already doubting her judgment just because she’s a woman (I, for the record, am not), and that’s another proverbial can of worms I don’t care to open in this space.

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Betty Shelby was cited in a 2010 use of force report by the Tulsa Police Department and was involved in multiple domestic incidents in her adult life. By some people’s logic, doesn’t that mean she’s probably guilty in her own criminal case? (Photo Credit: Tulsa County Jail)

Black people are allowed to have guns in an open-carry jurisdiction.

I’m no jurist, but um, I believe this is true. If everyone in a particular state is allowed to carry a gun, as an extension of our vaunted Second Amendment rights, then in theory, all things considered equal, an African-American suspected of wrongdoing should be viewed as no more hostile or a threat than an individual by any other skin color. And yet, we know this isn’t the case. Despite evidence cited by John Halstead and others that blacks shot by police are no more likely to be an imminent lethal threat to officers than whites in similar situations, they are disproportionately fired upon by officers of the law, and it has nothing to do with them being “violent criminals” or even being apprehended in a “violent” community. The predicting factor is their race. And I’m not even going to go into a diatribe about the disproportionate number of African-Americans targeted as potential perpetrators of crimes or arrested and jailed for committing certain crimes, notably drug-related offenses—even though there is plenty, ahem, ammunition on this front.

What this all boils down to, essentially, is that there is a double standard for blacks and whites carrying guns in the United States of America, as there is with any number of individual liberties. Bill Maher recently discussed this subject on Real Time, arguing, among other things: 1) there is a double standard for gun carry and ownership in this country, such that “open carry” apparently only means “open carry for white people” (on a related note, Maher suggested that, evidently, only white people like Donald Trump are justified in their anger, whereas black protestors and Black Lives Matter activists are treated as agitators or advocates of violence against police/whites), 2) that police should not automatically be “emptying their clips” at the first sign of something that “makes them nervous,” and 3) that officers like Betty Shelby should be better trained to handle a situation such as the one involving the death of Terrence Crutcher, and if they are still as nervous as Shelby appears to have been during their fateful encounter, they shouldn’t be doing their job, or at least not in such a capacity that they could potentially end someone’s life at a routine traffic stop. Granted, people like myself and Bill Maher don’t know what it’s like emotionally and physically to be involved in such an altercation as the one Betty Shelby faced from the officer’s point of view, but just the same, I don’t feel police officers and their departments should be above scrutiny on the use of force. Not when lives hang in the balance.

If an official video recording of a shooting exists, in the interest of transparency, police departments should want the public to see the footage.

You know, unless there’s something they don’t want the public to see—though that won’t necessarily stop the truth from eventually emerging, especially not in this day of cell phone ubiquity. What has struck me about the rather defensive reaction from a number of local police unions, police departments, and even supporters of the men and women in blue after fatal shooting events is that these groups seem to have forgotten that the police work to serve and protect the public—and not the other way around. Of course, this does not mean we should encourage police to walk into dangerous situations without the requisite defenses. Many good people have lost their lives in the interest of preserving order. At the same time, however, if protocol is being observed and a reasonable person would be able to observe that the apprehending officer or officers acted responsibly, there should be no reason forces shouldn’t want us to see the footage. Even if one or more officers involved unknowingly violated established guidelines, given the gravity or peril of the situation, they could be afforded some administrative clemency, or some sympathy from the general public. Likewise, when there is evidence to suggest that failure to comply with laws/rules manifested, as in the case of an officer “going rogue,” the powers-that-be in police departments should want to know this information. After all, these departments, as part of a larger and valuable societal institution, should strive to remain above reproach, and in theory, should be thankful to those that point out wrongdoing within their ranks.

Instead, as noted, the prevailing sentiment seems to be one of contentious resistance to criticism and scrutiny of our uniformed police. Black Lives Matter and other black rights activists protest the use of deadly force when it is seemingly unwarranted, only to be painted as would-be cop killers and ingrates. Colin Kaepernick kneels to acknowledge there is injustice in America’s criminal justice system today during the playing of the National Anthem. He, too, is branded disrespectful and a traitor, and is angrily told that if he doesn’t like it, he can kindly move to Canada or some other country. Beyoncé pays homage to the Black Panthers during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Police threaten to boycott her shows. Indeed, while not exactly a uniform response, too many uniformed police have met well-founded objections and calls for justice with, to be honest, fairly childish attitudes. It is, in fact, possible to still show respect for officers of the law and want to see proper procedure followed and offenders brought to justice. Money and privilege shouldn’t exempt people from prosecution, and neither should the badge.


There’s much more on this subject upon which to expound, but I’ll leave it to the people truly qualified to wax philosophical on what is the right course of action going forward for the country. Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ll have ample opportunity to revisit these same themes in the near future. Another shooting. Another community in grief. Another dash of salt in a deep wound that divides our nation, black and white, as well as though who see there is a problem versus those who think people are merely “playing the race card” and trying unduly to invoke a sense of white guilt. This issue is not going away, and with people continuing to take sides and becoming more entrenched in their belief the other side is wrong, or even what’s wrong with America, it’s evidently not going away anytime soon.

The larger significance of tragedies like the shootings of Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, I submit, is that if more accountability is not demanded of those who serve the public interest on behalf of African-Americans and people of color—be they elected politicians, executives of publicly-held corporations, officers of the law, or other individuals in positions of influence—this moves us all dangerously further along the path to wide disparities of power between the public and those who represent it. Congress is already disliked by a vast majority of Americans for being beholden to special interests and generally proving ineffective in authoring substantive public policy. Numerous corporations over the years have violated the trust of their customers and shareholders in the quest for short-term profits and maximum gains. If police forces continue to operate all but unchecked, their actions sanctioned by juries of shooting victims’ peers and certain task forces resembling miniature armies, those apocalyptic visions of the future we have seen in sci-fi movies, in which cities and whole countries are ruled as part of a police state, might not seem so far-fetched down the road after all. I may seem like I’m being overdramatic here, but many of us probably thought a Donald Trump presidency was a joke or a worst-case scenario—and yet here we are.

In short, wake the f**k up, White America. People are being killed in incidents that objective observers have likened to lynching. Real, flesh-and-blood human beings are dying in the street, in instances in which deadly force likely could have been avoided. And if we keep trying to deflect blame and reason away this fact, we all risk having our civil liberties infringed upon and our overall sense of freedom curtailed at the hands of larger forces. Until we realize that the deaths of American citizens like Terrence Crutcher and Keith Scott affect us all, we’re not ready to make real progress in the United States. Not by a long shot.

Black and Blue

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Montrell Jackson, after the shooting of Alton Sterling and prior to his own death, emphasized the need for cooperation between police officers and the communities they serve as a symbol of unity between the two. (Image Source: Facebook)

Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Feel like Old Ned, wish I was dead
All my life through, I’ve been so black and blue

Even the mouse ran from my house
They laugh at you, and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?
I’m white—inside—but that don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face

How would it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

— “Black and Blue,” composed by Fats Waller, with lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf

In the prologue to the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the nameless narrator listens to Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the above-quoted jazz standard at full volume. On a phonograph, just to give you a sense of the time period. He secretly lives underground, stealing electricity from Monopolated Light & Power, and explains to the reader that he is invisible—not because of some feat of magic or science, but rather of intentional blindness on the part of the observer, refusing to see him because he is black.

Obviously, this facet of the narrator’s reality is a metaphor for the kind of “invisibility” faced by black Americans of all walks of life, but one that is starkly potent, and one still very much relevant even today. Especially today, more than 50 years after Ellison’s book was first published, and more than 80 years after “Black and Blue” came into being. In 2016, with cameras on every cellphone and a Vine or YouTube video seemingly for every situation that manifests in waking life, the struggle for authentic visibility for African-Americans is, well, perhaps more visible than ever before, and social media has only magnified the profile of responses within the African-American community to the injustices of society as a whole, notably that of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet for all the attention racism and other social issues surrounding black life in America have gotten in this day and age, it’s what remains invisible to so many of us that looms large. In “Black and Blue,” the allusion is, of course, to physical bruising caused by a rupture or tear of blood vessels under the skin—a black-and-blue. To be sure, in the violence against African-Americans which persists in the United States, those markings of bodily abuse have been plentiful in their own right. I speak, however, more pointedly about a bruising of the spirit and soul that has accompanied blacks in this country, one that, by its nature, can’t be seen unless the observer actively tries to find it. It’s a wound which exists in plain sight for those who feel its pain, but goes unnoticed, or worse, ignored by those who might stand to benefit most from acknowledging this hurt which spans generations. Even in describing this figurative subdermal bleeding thusly, I only hint at what experiencing it first-hand must be like. I couldn’t know the pain which comes along with it, nor would I want to.

In the past few weeks, another intersection of black and blue imagery has come to the forefront of the national consciousness, and unfortunately, in the worst ways possible. In the wake of the recent shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, protests have sparked across the country decrying the injustice of treatment of black suspects at the hands of officers of the law. These protests, when peaceful, are not only acceptable, but welcomed, from my point of view. The disenfranchised among us deserve a voice, a chance to be heard in their frustration and grief. Sadly, not all actions in response to acts of violence by police against African-Americans have been characterized by such restraint. America, still trying to process and recover from the tragic murder of five police officers in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest, as well as the senseless killing of at least 84 people in Nice, France in a terrorist attack on Bastille Day, was dealt another shocking blow on July 17 when three police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As with the Dallas incident, the brutal slaughter of these officers and injury to others appears to have been carried out in the style of an ambush, with little discrimination evidenced by the shooter. To injure and kill police, it would seem, was enough for the perpetrator.

We may not know all that much about the officers who lost their lives on July 18, but for the vast majority of us following this story, there is no need to be familiar with their character or their deeds to understand they didn’t deserve to be gunned down like they were. As much as critics of Black Lives Matter insist the group advocates violence against those who protect and serve the public, few within this organization would condone the actions of either the Baton Rouge or Dallas gunman. Even when law enforcement and the criminal justice system hasn’t been above reproach, the lot of us still believe in law and order.

Yet any number of opinionated detractors will outline a yet more sinister motive to these shootings, or otherwise will resort to hyperbole in explaining their driving force. Jeanine Pirro, a former prosecutor and judge who now works for Fox News as a host of her own show on the network, minced no words in expressing her belief in an interview with Harris Faulkner, another of the channel’s on-air personalities, that the murder of the three police officers in Baton Rouge was an “attempt at anarchy,” and furthermore, that “the killing of cops is becoming normalized, it’s becoming legitimized.” She also derided President Obama’s calls for a “conversation” between blacks and police officers, and professed her lack of regard for people’s fears about the growing militarization of police forces, saying whatever is needed for officers’ protection is justified. As Judge Jeanine would have it, then, we are a country at war.

Bear in mind I am usually not wont to side with Fox News anchors and talking heads, but I take issue with a number of Ms. Pirro’s arguments as well as the very tenor of her speech. Firstly, regarding the shooting of these officers as tantamount to anarchy, their killer, from the reports I have read, believed what he was doing was serving justice for offenses against blacks by police. Not merely to be cliché, two wrongs do not make a right—and this warped vigilantism is definitely wrong, as I see it—but the Baton Rouge shooter wasn’t acting on behalf of advocacy for the dissolution of government and absolute freedom of the individual as a political ideal, as my Google search on “anarchy” defines the term. If anything, he believed—however misguidedly—that he was bringing more order to the system, not less. Secondly, who truly thinks that killing cops is a legitimate solution to the plight of black America? I don’t think very much of black America itself does, even in the face of police brutality and other hallmarks of institutional racism, but suggesting the murder of uniformed police is becoming some sort of “new normal” is a stretch, to say the least. Thirdly, ensuring police safety and militarization of police units are related issues, but there are nuances to be weighed, most notably in the attitudes that come part and parcel with the use of extreme force for situations like drug searches. The ACLU comments on this trend on its website:

Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform “normal” police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence. Yet the ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, “War Comes Home,” found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes combined.

The change in equipment is too often paralleled by a corresponding change in attitude whereby police conceive of themselves as “at war” with communities rather than as public servants concerned with keeping their communities safe.

When the police view the patrol of our streets in terms of an “us vs. them” paradigm, is it any wonder that many African-Americans, especially younger individuals who have grown up with these regiment-like law enforcement units (and who by virtue of their youth may not possess the most well-developed sense of judgment), react with hostility toward the men and women in blue? Again, while the murder of officers as in Dallas or Baton Rouge is not to be excused, for this and other more defensible expressions of resistance within the black community, there is a least a context which helps explain why emotions run hot with regards to this issue on both sides of the badge.

Both the families, friends and those who knew of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, alongside the litany of other black Americans who have been treated unjustly at the hands of the law, as well as their counterparts mourning those officers who were tragically cut down in the line of duty in Louisiana and Texas, are in a state of grief and shock right now. To an extent, much of the nation feels these same emotions right now. Where anger and resentment put us on a path to hate, however, is where we lose a portion of our humanity, and in the process, plant the seeds for disunity, inequality, racism and violence to spring forth anew. Jeanine Pirro’s rhetoric is part of the problem, but hers is just one example of the kind of divisive language which characterizes the lesser outcomes of incidents like the shooting in Baton Rouge (and yet, Barack Obama is the one who’s the divider, according to her!). Surely, there is blame to be had on both halves of the equation.

Moreover, when misfortune strikes those who can speak for these two camps, effectively bridging the divide, our sense of loss is all the more poignant. Montrell Jackson, one of the three officers who lost his life on July 17 and a new father, wrote this on his Facebook account in the wake of the death of Alton Sterling:

I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.

What a sad and ironic end to the life of a man who recognized that, through his actions, he could make his community and those in it better for them, and furthermore, that hate doesn’t achieve anything but giving way to more hate. This is not to diminish, by the way, the lives and service of the two other men lost that day. Matthew Gerald was a husband, father and serviceman for both the Army and the Marine Corps. Brad Garafola was a husband and father as well, and had been with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office for over two decades. Both of these men, by all accounts, were good officers and even better people. Montrell Jackson just happened to be in an unique position to embody the duality recent events have served to highlight—black and blue.

Though it may be trite to say, though Garafola, Gerald and Jackson are gone in one sense, their memory will live on. What is critical, however, for us as a nation moving forward, however, is not that we remember their sacrifice, but how we remember them, and how we approach the intersection of the fundamental rights of all people, notably African-Americans, and the ability of police officers to do their jobs effectively without compromising those rights. There has been a tendency in the numerous high-profile confrontations between blacks and law enforcement for those on the outside looking in to take sides in individual cases. Seemingly, for every activist championing the cause of Black Lives Matter, there is someone whose reverence for the men and women that serve the greater good compels them to co-opt the very namesake of their movement, calling for recognition that Blue Lives Matter and louder than those of Black Lives Matter, whether blinded by their admiration, wishing to drown out the inconvenient truths of prejudice, systemic bias against minorities, and white privilege, or some other reason.

Before automatically deciding that Barack Obama is automatically wrong for wanting to promote a dialog between blacks and police within communities, or subscribing to the viewpoint that all cops are crooked, we should consider that the major aims of Black Lives Matter and like organizations, and the wish to respect officers of the law and prevent them from undue danger, are not mutually exclusive. This is realistically difficult to argue when emotions are so raw immediately after the fact, not to mention when stereotypes of the nondescript black male as perpetrator are perpetuated on the nightly news, or when cable news shows and conservative talk radio hosts dismiss Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization, when in actuality, these anchors and pundits are merely projecting their own fears and insecurities. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, we all want people to stop getting shot and killed. Black or white, police or civilian, heck—with the more-or-less constant conversation about gun control that exists in America today, any death, regardless of the specifics of the situation, seems like one too many when at the barrel of a gun. In this regard, there’s a lot more that these two sides—black and blue—have in common than some might have you believe.

At first blush, it may seem as if we are not making progress on the issues of racism and violence in our society, but as long as we keep talking about these matters, as uncomfortable as confronting them may be, we will be better off for it. Going back to the imagery of black-and-blues as bruises, though we as human beings may look different on the outside, underneath the skin, we all bleed the same color blood. Only when we begin to understand this concept can we as a nation start to live up to the greatness synonymous with the United States of America.

Black Lives Matter, but Personal Histories Don’t

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Say what you want about Alton Sterling’s past, but in the incident that led to his passing, those details don’t matter. (Photo retrieved from Facebook)

For people who don’t favor the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seemingly have a problem with African-Americans existing in some form or another, there are explanations for why blacks in any given situation are wrong. It’s not Black Lives Matter—it’s All Lives Matter. They don’t care about reforming a broken criminal system or ending disproportionate violence towards minoritiesthey only advocate killing cops. That girl in the classroom slammed to the ground for refusing to leave class? She should have listened to the cop! Eric Garner? He shouldn’t have been selling loose cigarettes! Trayvon Martin? He shouldn’t have been wearing that suspicious hoodie! All those black characters dying in The Walking Dead? They should have known what happens to black people in horror movies and TV shows! OK, that last one was meant to be kind of silly. Kind of.

Time and again, in cases in which black suspects are injured or killed at the hands of the police, two major criticisms will be lobbied at the person who is, by many accounts, the victim, but only ostensibly so, as far as others are concerned. As I see it, they are:

1. “They shouldn’t have been resisting.”

OK, let’s deconstruct this idea as viewed through the lens of a recent shooting, of which I’m sure you’ve heard by now. From what we know or have read, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was selling CDs and DVDs outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5. Reportedly, he was approached by a homeless man asking for money in a persistent manner, whereupon Sterling showed him his gun and said something to the effect of “I told you to leave me alone.” Sure, we might have preferred if Alton would have treated his solicitor in a, shall we say, more Christian manner, but who among us hasn’t been abrupt or less than charitable with someone begging for even pocket change? Or called them “bums?” As John Oliver puts it, referencing a quote from Ivanka Trump with respect to her father, Donald Trump, pointing to a homeless person and saying “that bum” had $8 billion more than him, owing to his debt at the time: “That really shows you the indomitable spirit of Donald Trump. To fall to his lowest point, and in that very moment, still find a way to be kind of a dick to a homeless guy.” We may shake our headsand in Trump’s case, start researching the logistics of moving to Canada should he win the presidency—but this is no crime, and certainly not an offense warranting death.

Whether he felt legitimately threatened or not, the fateful events leading to Alton Sterling’s demise, according to a CNN report by Joshua Berlinger, Nick Valencia and Steve Almasy, were precipitated by that homeless man calling 911 on his cell phone (let’s table any sidebars about a homeless person having a cell phone for the moment, shall we?) and reporting a man “brandishing a gun.” This necessitated the intervention of police, though apparently, Sterling was not immediately aware of why he was being confronted by officers. In a video included within the CNN report, a “pop” is heard, and Alton is told to get on the ground, but given little more than a moment to react, he is pulled over the hood of a car by one officer and slammed to the ground, whereupon he is helped by a second officer to keep him down. Seconds later, someone yells that Sterling has a gun, whereupon the two officers frantically pull their weapons. Not soon after, the fatal shots are delivered, with horrified onlookers reacting viscerally to what they witnessed.

Could Alton Sterling have been more physically still in this scenario? Sure, although when you’ve just been body-slammed by a large police officer, and you’re not completely sure why you’re being accosted in the first place, you’re probably not thinking all that rationally. Either way, I don’t know that I would be considering his actions or motions resisting, and moreover, outgunned and outnumbered, even if he were resisting, was he genuinely in a position to react in a way that made the officers’ use of deadly force appropriate? Put another way, is this the only way that scenario could have played out? Could Sterling have been subdued by a Taser or other means of incapacitation rather than bullets being spent?

These questions are, to varying extents, rhetorical ones, but let’s not demean the notion that tough decisions based on judgment have to be made by police in these situations, and that their own personal safety is at risk. Nonetheless, as trained, uniformed defenders of the public’s safety, there is some level of assumption of risk in the line of duty, and I submit, an onus on the officer or officers to act responsibly. That Alton Sterling’s detractors would be so quick to deflect responsibility onto him seems patently unfair, if not understating the capabilities and discretion of the officers. We spend so much time building up the men and women who serve and protect the public interest, and often justifiably so, but let’s put accountability where it belongs all the way around.

2. “Well, he was no saint.”

OK, so this hypothetical argument is at the heart of my post here, and while my concerns are very real with respect to the role of the police in the course of interactions with potential criminal suspects, from an outsider’s perspective, arguments about the background and possible criminal history of someone who dies at the hands of officers, in my view, utilize a fundamentally flawed logic. Not soon after the events leading to Alton Sterling’s death, Jessica McBride of Heavy authored a post advertising his “arrest record, criminal history, and rap sheet,” which may have been phrased in this way for dramatic effect, but is notably redundant; a “criminal record” and “rap sheet” are the same thing, and this appears to serve only to either generate more hits for this article or lead the reader into believing he was some sort of degenerate.

The post, which includes an exhaustive display of the physical documentation of his relationship with the law prior to, as some see it, his “lynching” at the hands of uniformed police, ticks off the evidence which apparently lends itself to portraying Sterling’s troubled history with the boys and girls in blue. As McBride outlines, per an affidavit of probable cause from 2009, Alton Sterling was involved in a “wrestling match” with a police officer after resisting arrest, an event in which he (Sterling) was in the possession of a semi-automatic weapon. Sterling was also a registered sex offender after being convicted of “carnal knowledge of a juvenile”—Louisiana’s seemingly antiquated way of saying “statutory rape”—in 2000 and serving four years in jail. Lest this seem especially egregious, Alton was only 20 at the time of his conviction, so while this is not meant to exonerate him, it does give context to the notion he may not have been all that mature and well-developed with respect to his regard for obeying the law. There are other offenses highlighted in the Heavy piece, too, including Alton Sterling’s conviction in 2011 for “knowingly and intentionally possessing a firearm while in possession of a controlled dangerous substance,” in this case, marijuana, a drug many contend should be legal, and domestic battery in 2008.

These violations of the law are all well and good, but any insinuation that Sterling “deserved” his fate suffers from one or more serious errors in logic. Firstly, the bulk of the offenses referenced in Jessica McBride’s piece on happened over five years ago. This is not to excuse Sterling’s behavior, mind you, but it does provide context to his criminal history. Since that time, perhaps Alton Sterling had changed. Perhaps not. Regardless, we’ll never know now, and it’s a little disingenuous to assume he hadn’t. Secondly, as the CNN report above makes explicit, there’s no evidence that the officers who responded to the 911 call knew of Sterling’s criminal history. So, while this may help frame some people’s understanding of the situation better according to the narrative of crime perpetrated by blacks that they would like to believe, this doesn’t necessarily mean Alton Sterling’s past was a factor in this incident. Thirdly, and most importantly, it shouldn’t matter what Sterling did or did not do prior to the events at the convenience store. Whether the suspect is black or white, sex offender or not, protocol should be followed. To stress, I respect that police offenders should be on high alert in the case of a weapon, as their personal safety and life may hang in the balance. All this aside, firing shots should be a last resort, and yet you get the sense in this shooting that the officers at the scene were all too ready to pull the trigger. If a supposed “Ferguson effect” exists, it didn’t appear to manifest itself here.

It seemingly gets worse in consideration of Philando Castile’s track record prior to his being gunned down at what should have been a routine traffic stop. Hmm, who could we trust to provide us with this historical documentation and information? Why, no other than Ms. Jessie-on-the-Spot herself—Jessica McBride! Castile, stopped for a busted taillight and fatally shot after attempting to make it clear to the officer that he had a gun on him (legally) and was trying to get his wallet to produce his identification, had numerous traffic offenses on his record. Aside from these relatively minor infractions, though? Two drug incidents, in which the charges were ultimately dismissed, and no felony or violent criminal record. I don’t care if Philando Castile were green and had tentacles for arms—it’s a hard sell to insist the lethal force used on him was appropriate.


Philando-Castile
Philando Castile was murdered at the hands of police. Yes, murdered. You’re not disrespecting police officers by acknowledging this truth. (Photo retrieved from Facebook)

I started planning out and writing this piece after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and before the killing of five officers in Dallas and the injury to more. Suffice it to say, this event in it of itself is a tragedy, and their assassin is not only clearly wrong to bring more death to this world, but a coward on top of it for sniping unsuspecting victims. Certainly, there is a point to be made about the prevalence of guns in America as a factor in all these cases, though I don’t feel the gun control issue should predominate the conversation. I also don’t wish for what happened in Dallas to overshadow what I believe were the wrongs done in Louisiana and Minnesota.

The officers in Texas were killed in cold blood by a madman, recluse or whatever term you feel you want to use; while we’re delving into people’s criminal records, it’s worth noting the shooter had no criminal record and served his country as an Army reservist. This is undeniable. But Castile and Sterling were murdered in their own right, and in their case, it was those with badges who perpetrated it. Because it must apparently continue to be a refrain, this is not a blanket condemnation of all police. Most officers, I believe, do the right thing. Some do not, however, and when the criminal justice system and law enforcement officials conspire to deflect blame and shield those who did wrong from criticism and due consequences, those officials and systems are not above their own criticism and scrutiny. For those who would supplant Black Lives Matter with the insistence “Blue Lives Matter,” I agree those who serve the public interest should be lauded, but not deified. Again, if anything, we should be holding them to higher standards.

I wouldn’t wish what happened to the slain officers and their families on my worst enemy. Theirs is a loss I couldn’t even begin to try to comprehend. That said, if this collective violence of the past few days provides them with a broader perspective on the pain so many Americans feel right now—especially within the larger black community—these killings won’t be for nothing. In 2015, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that black Americans are four times as likely to describe violence against civilians by police officers as an “extremely” or “very” serious problem, and that, while more than 80% of blacks say police are too quick to use deadly force, two-thirds of white respondents label police use of force as necessary, and six out of ten white respondents believe race is not a factor in the use of force. These are huge disparities, and suggest we have a long way to go before we can say we are having an authentic conversation about race in the United States today. If “all lives matter” as much as we might insist, we need to realize the issue of violence related to encounters between civilians and police is a shared human burden. Seven citizens died in much-publicized ways this past week, and that is the essential notion here.