Disrupt J20: Solidarity Six Months Later

Six months ago today, a diverse collection of autonomous direct actions occurred in downtown Washington, DC, disrupting the Inauguration. Despite he fact that January 20th signified the arrival of the Trump presidency, the massive turnout across the city and country made it a beautiful day of collective struggle against hate, white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia. From across the country, leftists of all stripes came together to resist Donald Trump’s presidency in defense of women’s rights, indigenous sovereignty, black lives, peace, bodily autonomy, trans/queer lives, the climate, health care, reproductive rights, labor rights, and other causes. Thousands of people came to DC from near and far. There were dance parties and blockades and marches all day. We set the tone for resistance from day one.

While I was holding the line at 10th and E with a growing crew of radical feminists, I also got news that riot police had kettled the anti-capitalist antifascist march just a few blocks north of us. Several friends had been up there, and I had planned to join them if our blockade at the gate had been dispersed. Busy with our own aggressive cops and Trump supporters, I didn’t see video of cops indiscriminately pepper spraying crowds – including the elderly, disabled, and children – and using less lethal crowd control on penned protesters until I got home. It wasn’t until the next day that I heard that they had been denied food, water, or access to a bathroom for hours. It wasn’t until months later that news came out that several were stripped down and subjected to invasive searches, and have since sued MPD for using “rape as punishment.”

The two hundred individuals caught up in the kettle that day now face about 70 years in prison for protesting. There is little evidence of individual wrongdoing; and some lawyers have argued that the case has “fatal defects” since many are simply charged for associating with those who destroyed property. The case is a prime example of the type of unconstitutional mass arrests that MPD used to be known for, but have since abandoned thanks for community organizing, legal support, and expensive settlements – that is, until J20. In both their use of pepper spray, stingball grenades, allegedly tear gas and flashbangs too, and in their decision to mass arrest a city block of protesters – and anyone else who happened to be in the area – MPD violated its own policies and broke the last decade of crowd control precedent in the District. DC’s Office of Police Complaints issued a report  [pdf] in February citing concerns that MPD may have violated Standard Operating Procedure, and the City Council already appropriated funds to investigate MPD misconduct and abuses that will cost the city more than all damages from the protest itself, not to mention pending civil cases that could cost the city millions like past police misconduct settlements. Despite all of this, interim police chief Peter Newsham, who oversaw crowd control that day and has been implicated in the illegal kettling of proteters in 2002 at Pershing Park, was approved as police chief by DC City Council a few months later over the wishes of many in the DC community.

Beyond the police repression that day, the prosecutorial strategy has also been one that seeks to punish people for engaging in protest. Superseding indictments brought the total list of charges for most defendants to eight felonies including rioting, incitement, and conspiracy charges. These charges effectively argue that people can be held responsible for the actions of those around them, positing guilt by association just for being there. “Evidence” listed include the fact that people wore black clothing, covered their faces, chanted, and marched. Even journalists and legal observers have been charged (some, but not all, had their charges dropped). Such actions aren’t illegal, but the prosecution is trying to leverage them as evidence anyways, arguing that there exists a form of criminal protest rather than specific illegal acts. This is not new: Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock protesters have faced state repression, and the J20 case is just the most recent. There will be more: lawmakers in numerous states have proposed laws ratcheting up the punishment for nonviolent direct action, specifically targeting forms of protest that seek to disrupt the norm.

In the face of all of this, those involved in J20, and a growing network of support, are working to show the true meaning of solidarity. In conversations leading up to the day of action, organizers promised to provide legal support for those who got arrested. When the scale of arrests and felony charges became apparent, this legal support structure didn’t back down, it was amped up. Solidarity and mutual aid are at the core of what makes direct action possible, and in DC teams of people are attending status hearings at the courthouse, paying for transport and providing housing options for those who have to make multiple trips to DC. While the state tries to isolate individuals and intimidate them with decades in prison, people have got each other’s backs. You should have their backs too.

Ways that you can help:

  • Donate to the DC Legal Posse to help provide legal support and defray costs
  • Donate to local legal support funds
  • Keep the pressure on MPD by calling for investigations into police misconduct and abuse
  • If you’re in DC, provide housing for defendants or show up for court support
  • Support anti-fascist work in your community
  • Spread the word that protesting isn’t illegal, mass arrests are

Things that you should read, watch, or listen to:

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Straight to Court: The Case for Private Prosecutions

If there is one issue that has marked American society in the last year, it has been a lack of accountability for violence against people of color – especially by law enforcement. Men like Michael Brown, John Crawford III, and Eric Garner all died at the hands of police officers who were never even indicted, let alone tried and found guilty in a court of law. The rampant impunity that negligent police officers enjoy has been the rallying point for many protests and demonstrations since last summer.

The process from investigation to indictment to trial is usually not one that favors the alleged perpetrator, but mounting evidence shows that the system protects its own as multiple police officers escape accountability for actions both minor and egregious. In the United States, if anyone commits a crime, it is up to the state to hold them accountable – even if agents of the state are the ones who stand accused. This is part of a long tradition in which crimes are seen not only as crimes against a particular victim, but against the state and society itself. State prosecutors punish suspected criminals by defending the rule of law that binds our society together, not by merely seeking justice on behalf of victims.

This is one of the ideals on which our justice system rests, but in practice this turns out to be a legal version of “#AllLivesMatter” as the victim all but disappears in cases labeled “State v. Defendant,” leaving the quest for justice in the hands of a state attorney. These public prosecutors don’t always dole out justice evenly, however, and throughout history minority victims have faced huge obstacles in gaining any modicum of justice. Recently, in police killing after controversial police killing, news cameras have awaited announcements from county prosecutors and state attorneys who have decided not to file charges. More often than not, the state has failed to hold itself accountable.

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Black Lives Matter demonstrators in NYC last November.

This is not surprising. On top of the racial disparities of the Unites States criminal justice system, the fact is that prosecutors work alongside police departments on a regular basis, and as such we should not expect them to suddenly be willing to crack down on police violence. Prosecutors have tremendous power at the early stages of an investigation if they want an indictment, but recent history shows that this isn’t always the goal. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough showed as much when he shepherded Darren Wilson’s case into non-existence and then reprimanded the media and demonstrators rather than make any attempt to discipline a police force responsible for preying on the residents of Ferguson.

Even in the rare instance that prosecutors do indict police officers, they face incredible obstacles and costs. When District Attorney Kari Brandenburg first began considering handing down indictments for two police officers for shooting and killing a homeless man in Albuquerque, police began investigating her for allegedly bribing witnesses related to an incident involving her son in an attempt to “destroy [her] career.” Later, when Brandenburg finally did issue the indictments, she immediately paid for it. The next day, when a prosecutor from her office went to investigate a different, unrelated murder, police denied her entry to the scene, citing a “conflict of interest.” Such blatant intimidation and brazen attempts to deny victims justice is only possible because police have so much power in American society and the U.S. criminal justice system.

In the face of such obstacles, we should expect most prosecutors to default to supporting police departments, regardless of the evidence or public opinion. Mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, petitions, speeches, and even a direct line to City Hall have failed to change the course of police impunity in New York as well as Ferguson. Very rarely are indictments handed down for police officers who kill people in the line of duty, and even more rarely are they found guilty.

In the absence of criminal indictments, the families of victims have tried to seek some semblance of justice in civil court.  Just in the last year, the relatives of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and many others have filed or considered filing civil suits or wrongful death claims against those responsible for their loved ones’ murders. However, while these lawsuits may win the families of victims some compensation for their loss, there is little done to actually hold their killers to account.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

When civil suits are filed against police officers for excessive force or other forms of misconduct, the police officers themselves seldom pay. The penalty often doesn’t even come from the police department at all, but rather from the city’s municipal coffers. The Baltimore Sun released an investigative piece last September – spread widely in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore this spring – that found that over one hundred people have won court settlements against the city’s police department in the last four years alone (this represents only one third of the 317 lawsuits filed against Baltimore police in the same time period). The city spent $5.7 million in pay outs in addition to $5.8 million in legal costs defending officers.

Little to none of this money comes from the police officers in question, however. According to the Baltimore Sun investigation, “an agreement between the city and police union guarantees that taxpayers will pay court damages” in cases in which officers were following department guidelines on the use of force, and “in such settlements, the city and the officers involved do not acknowledge any wrongdoing.” There is some degree of restitution, but no accountability and no incentive for police officers to change their behavior. From the police officers’ standpoint, even when found guilty, nothing changes.

Most recently, the City of New York reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Eric Garner in order to avoid a civil lawsuit. However, this money won’t come from the police department, and as a result will not give any disincentive to the NYPD – even though the officer who killed Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, did so using a chokehold maneuver banned by the department. Pantaleo remains unindicted and at his desk job, and other officers are well aware that there is no punishment for breaking the rules and killing unarmed civilians.

In a study [pdf] of such lawsuits across the country, legal scholar Joanna C. Schwartz found that “between 2006 and 2011, in forty-four of the seventy largest law enforcement agencies across the country, officers paid just .02% of the dollars awarded to plaintiffs in police misconduct suits. In thirty-seven small and mid-sized law enforcement agencies, officers never contributed to settlements or judgments.” In a summary of her findings, Schwartz states that during this five year time span:

Governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers in my study never satisfied a punitive damages award entered against them and almost never contributed anything to settlements or judgments— even when indemnification was prohibited by law or policy, and even when officers were disciplined, terminated, or prosecuted for their conduct.

With such protections in place, filing civil suits against police officers only hurts the cities that employ them. While there is hope that such actions would encourage cities to discipline such officers and do more due diligence in police training, hiring, and other responsibilities, this isn’t always the case. In Baltimore, while some officers were forced to resign, many kept their jobs even after being found liable in court because the department’s internal investigation cleared them. Even the state judicial system was secondary to the police departments’ own institutions – this reinforces the idea that police are above the law in nearly every possible way.

If public prosecutors won’t indict officers, and city governments shield them from the costs of civil suits, how can they be held accountable?

In the case of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy shot in Cleveland for carrying a toy gun in a park, there may be an answer.  In early June, more than six months after Rice was killed by Officer Tim Loehmann, the Cuyahoga County Sherrif’s Department concluded its investigation and handed over its findings to county prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty, who will present the findings to a grand jury to determine whether or not to proceed with indictments.

While everyone else is awaiting the grand jury’s decision, community leaders and activists in Cleveland have taken the initiative and asked a judge to issue an arrest warrant. By doing this, these community leaders are trying to circumvent the process that we have all seen unravel in the cases of other victims of police violence, from Staten Island to Ferguson. According to the New York Times, “Ohio law allows anyone with ‘knowledge of the facts’ to file a court affidavit and ask a judge to issue an arrest warrant. If approved, the arrest would be followed by a public hearing, and community members said that was preferable to allowing prosecutors to make the decision in secret.”

This attempt to secure a private prosecution rather than one through the state prosecutor’s offices may allow Rice’s family to have more control over the indictment, and may force Officer Loehmann to actually face accountability – or at least public scrutiny. If the tactic yields any success at all, it will be an important step towards attaining justice and give hope to those struggling to end police impunity.

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Such private prosecutions are incredibly rare in the United States, but they can be found in other parts of the world. In fact, private prosecutions have played a critical role in modern history as the foundations on which the emerging international justice movement has been built. In her book The Justice Cascade, political scientist Kathryn Sikkink points to human rights prosecutions in Greece, Portugal, and Argentina as beginning the shift towards individual accountability for serious state crimes like torture – a shift we continue to see today on the international stage.

In Greece, the first human rights prosecutions were held after the right-wing government was replaced in 1974. Just a month after the transition, Alexandros Lykourezos, a Greek lawyer who had returned from exile, initiated private prosecutions against military government leaders for treason for overthrowing the democratic government seven years prior. He was followed by others who filed charges against officials for torture and for the murder of students in the Athens Polytechnic uprising. According to Sikkink, “the private prosecutions both forced the government’s hand and relieved it of the burden of having to initiate prosecutions itself.” This brought about justice even in the face of government officials who did not want to focus on accountability for their predecessors.

Soon after, Argentina tried the leaders of the right-wing government that had tortured, murdered, and disappeared thousands of leftists and alleged communists in its Dirty War. Just two years after the junta stepped down in 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín’s government prosecuted several junta leaders. But it was everyday citizens and their use of private prosecutions that charged almost three hundred military officers for their actions during the authoritarian years.

When the expansion of accountability led to the attempted Easter Coup in 1987, Alfonsín issued amnesties for members of the junta to satisfy powerful criminals and prevent a return to the dark years of military rule. The strength of the military had forced the government to step back through its use of force and intimidation. Years later, however, the citizens of Argentina grew tired of impunity and once again used private prosecutions to find ways to hold torturers and murderers accountable.

Photos of those disappeared by the military junta commemorate the Dirty War in Argentina. (Photo by Pablo Flores, via Flickr)

Photos of those disappeared by the military junta commemorate the Dirty War in Argentina. (Photo by Pablo Flores, via Flickr)

Led by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an association of mothers and grandmothers whose children had been kidnapped and disappeared by the military junta, civilians began to push for true accountability in Argentina. In addition to torture and murder, there were many cases in which murdered communists lost their children, who were given away to military families to be raised away from “subversive” influence. The mothers’ association argued that the guilty military officials had never been charged with abducting children, and as a result had never been granted amnesty for such acts. After a decade of state-sanctioned impunity, the authoritarian leaders were back in the dock thanks not to the government’s prosecutors but to citizens determined to see justice carried out.

In these countries, as in Cleveland, private prosecutions served as a channel through which victims can seek not only compensation for their loss but true justice in the courtroom. As Sikkink states, “in a judicial system with strong private prosecution provisions, like that in Argentina, victims can insist that a prosecution continue, even when the state prosecutor would like it dropped.” In Cleveland, the Reverend Jawanza K. Colvin, a pastor and one of the community leaders bringing forth the charges, stated that “as citizens we are taking this matter and the matter of justice into our hands.” Walter Madison, a lawyer for Tamir Rice’s family, explained that “here we are taking some control of the process as citizens.” This is a democratic effort to do what democratically elected governments cannot – rein in police violence by ending impunity.

Just as private prosecutions helped victims find justice for torture and murder under right-wing authoritarian governments in southern Europe and South America, private prosecutions offer a new avenue to accountability for victims of police violence, among other prevalent crimes – especially for the more vulnerable in our society. While perhaps different than a state campaign of torture and murder, police violence in America is an issue with a long history and tragic consequences for America’s minorities. To many people of color, the difference between the two issues is probably not very big. For this reason, the actions of activists in Greece and Argentina are more than a sufficient parallel to efforts to hold police accountable for their actions. Private prosecutions are the link that ties them together.

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This method of bypassing the state is not new, but it is novel. As Noah Feldman explains, an Ohio state appellate court ruled that private prosecutions were legal in 1957, and in 1960 a state law was passed codifying the practice.

Feldman begins his analysis feeling uneasy about whether we should applaud such actions or not. “The law… would tend in the long run to give an advantage to families with greater means to greater political clout. They, after all, would have the resources to collect affidavits and go to court,” he says. “Tamir Rice’s family has that capacity because this case attracted national attention and the help of clergy and civil-rights leaders. But the families of other, less heralded victims might not be so fortunate.”

Feldman is right that our society is unequal, and that we shouldn’t expect a provision such as private prosecutions to be any different. As much as private prosecutions would give the victims of police violence, rape, and illegal foreclosures a chance to put cops, rapists, and bankers in jail, those in power would also have yet another tool which they could use to discipline the vulnerable. But we shouldn’t convince ourselves that they don’t already do this. The nation’s rich and powerful already have all the tools – one of which is the state – on their side. That’s why police impunity, rape culture, and unregulated capitalism are the norm and accountability for their perpetrators is the exception.

If we can bypass the state in these early stages, however, we could at least remove one part of the system that protects the powerful and ignores the downtrodden. Sure, those with the backing of executive boards and police unions would still have the best lawyers, but a public that was committed to accountability could rally behind victims of our society’s major ailments – inequality, racism, sexism. Private prosecutions could address issues of structural violence by indicting those responsible for carrying out direct violence and forcing the issue to be discussed in the open.

Despite this worry, Feldman closes his editorial by saying that “prosecutors’ offices are always going to be tempted to go easy on the police with whom they must work. Ohio’s law deserves to be copied – not just by a few jurisdictions, but by all.” Indeed, private prosecutions should be an option for the most underprivileged in our society to seek justice.

In the weeks and months that follow, Cuyahoga County’s justice system will be the next battleground for the struggle to hold police accountable. But whether County Prosecutor McGinty’s grand jury finds reason to indict officer Loehmann or not, the people have spoken, and they have asked a judge to issue indictments regardless. Just like in other countries plagued by state violence of one form or another in history, Cleveland now has a chance to move past impunity and towards real accountability.

Black Lives Matter, Direct Action, and the Sanders Campaign

The Left was rankled when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted an event at Netroots Nation last month, putting Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders on the spot about racial inequality and police violence. The tension has continued since, with several protesters recently cutting a Sanders event short in Seattle. The actions have prompted a lot of anger and confusion from Sanders supporters that haven’t thrown their full support behind the movement for racial justice. The conversation is one worth having, but let’s try to avoid using this tone and maybe re-center the conversation on what black people in this country face, rather than the plight of liberal politicians. Instead, I’ll highlight what others have written about the issue, because they all put it more eloquently than I.

Speaking about radical left ontology, Nikhil Pal Singh addresses the potential – and necessary – roots of a truly anti-racist, radical leftism at Social Text:

In the US historical experience, black freedom struggles offer key insights into how radicalizing opposition to racial domination is a route to a universalist politics of human emancipation grounded in political economy. In the era before WWII, elite consensus viewed capitalist civilization as a racial and colonial project. Despite post-racial and post-colonial transition, it is not clear that capitalism suddenly stopped being what Cedric Robinson termed “racial capitalism.” From structural adjustment to subprime mortgages, the naturalization of the unequal worth of peoples has been retained as one of the surest ways to justify and profit from collectively enforced misery.

Activists shutting down a highway in New York City last November.

Activists shutting down a highway in New York City last November.

If Sanders is serious about pulling the Democratic Party to the left, it should require embracing anti-racism as the heart of the movement. As Malcolm Harris argues in his review of Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist, the conflict between an anti-racist political movement on one side and a liberal political campaign on the other is “between one theory of universal liberation and another, between a race-blind reformism and a shard from a shattered revolutionary tradition.”

One issue is that many liberals who aren’t on board with Black Lives Matter don’t understand this tactic. Even though a quick google search will define ‘direct action’ as “the use of strikes, demonstrations, or other public forms of protest rather than negotiation to achieve one’s demands,” many observers continue to believe that protesters should appeal to the Sanders campaign rather than interrupt it, that they should ask for a platform on racial justice rather than demand it. Never mind the fact that Black Lives Matter has, from the get-go, been about stopping the status quo and disrupting a system – and a society – that doesn’t bat an eye after ending black lives. That’s why highways, malls, and everything have been frequently shut down. That’s why campaign events are being shut down.

Activists marching through Penn Station last month, on the one year anniversary of Eric Garner's death.

Activists marching through Penn Station last month, on the one year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death.

Now, tactic and strategy are different, so it’s also worth addressing the strategy behind who gets interrupted. As Elie Mystal points out, this tried and true strategy of “[g]oing after your friends is effective when your enemies have already tuned you out and your friends have relegated your concerns to fringe issues inappropriate to talk about in front of independents. The Democratic party has pushed racial justice to the sidelines for a generation now. They nod and wink to the African-American community with the smug assurance of ‘what are you gonna do, vote for the Republican?'” The strategy has been used by the LGBT movement, the Tea Party, Occupy, etc. And, in light of the fact that Clinton’s events were notoriously controlled and closed to the public up until recently, it makes sense for activists to target Sanders. In fact, as Mystal points out, these actions have a really easy-to-follow logic:

White progressives are like, “Oh, but why don’t you go after Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders?” Fools. THIS IS HOW WE GO AFTER HILLARY CLINTON. The minute Sanders figures out that to defend himself he has to take the attack to Clinton on racial justice is the minute you’ll understand what is going on here. Bernie Sanders isn’t going to win. But he’s the only one who can pull Clinton to the left. If he wants to “be a friend” to the black people, then he needs to ACT like it.

And, Clinton aside, these actions have directly changed how the Sanders campaign conducts itself. Racial issues have been featured in messaging that used to be centered solely on economic inequality, and Sanders has begun to put together a platform on the issue (albeit still nascent), as Jamil Smith notes.

Smith is also smart to point out that problem is not so much Bernie Sanders himself as it is his supporters who quickly denounce activists for interrupting events, some even calling for activists to be arrested, apparently missing out on the whole year of left activism against police violence. As Malcolm Harris tweeted yesterday (pardon me while I paste them together):

People are taught to be really embarrassed and shamed and uncomfortable when someone disrupts a speaker. Seeing that language a lot. Public vulnerability in others is hella embarrassing. It’s scary when someone grabs a microphone, we’re all the sudden asked to pick sides. And the first instinct is to shame them for making this demand, for asking more of us than we expected. Easiest to boo and demand a return.

At the same time, Trump goes up there and talks about buying politicians in both parties. That system is obviously worth disrupting. At this point in the cycle it makes total sense to me to attack the electoral system’s ability to incorporate left dissent through the Dems.

I’ll give Jamil Smith the last word:

Sanders acolytes insist upon nominating their candidate first as an ally for black people. They act insulted that they are not trusted to recommend their candidate as the top advocate for black liberation in the presidential race. Yet, they and the campaign spend time devising tone-deaf chants (“We Stand Together”) to drown out any future protesters, as [campaign press secretary Symone] Sanders announced during a Sunday night event in Portland. I’m not against criticizing activist tactics, but the idea that #BlackLivesMatter protesters are hurting their cause by challenging candidates, even those considered allies, is based in the notion that the burden of making change is on them. It isn’t. Too many Sanders supporters appear to be caught up in their feelings when a protester rubs them the wrong way. They ask, why are the protesters so rude, or annoying, or targeting the “wrong guy”?

In response, I ask simply: Since when are protest tactics designed to make the people whom they are targeting feel more comfortable and less annoyed? And since when is Sanders, or Carson, or any candidate exempt from being pushed? Just since Friday, we’ve passed the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, having seen both another young man killed by a cop and more violence in Ferguson. Yet we still have black conservatives like Carson letting the world believe that black activists trying to fix this are the true racial problem, and some white liberals telling them to ask for help more politely.

Watching The West Wing: Teachers and Courts

I am midway through a weeks-long marathon of watching The West Wing. When I was young, my parents watched the show, and I often watched it with them. Most evenings I watched whatever prime time drama my parents were into, and my wife and I recently began to run through the whole show on Netflix. Aaron Sorkin’s tendency to plant teachable moments throughout what is a fairly fast-paced and often context-riddled dialogue – notorious both in The West Wing and The Newsroom – does two things: teach the intricacies of American politics, both complex and simple, to an audience that may not yet know the details of a filibuster or censure or pardon, and allows those who do know feel a sense of being an “insider” as they follow the main characters down familiar hallways.

Coincidentally, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post is also watching the show this summer, and wrote a smart piece on the personal politics of the show, focusing on the fact that the main characters’ “positions on policy are — at least initially — determined by their personal attachments.” She argues that “it’s an ingenious way to make viewers feel attached to policy debates. But it also lets the Bartlet administration, which was never terribly liberal in the first place, be guided much more by emotion than any particular partisan theory of government.” I suggest reading her article, as it looks at the show’s focus on personal relationships and on its discussion of media and personal lives.

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But I have something else I’d like to focus on. In watching the senior staff of the Bartlet administration debate education, drug policy, war, and terrorism, I’m becoming more and more convinced that The West Wing obscures more than it reveals. While the script frequently teaches its audience about the inner workings of the White House and American politics in general, the descriptions and definitions it provides often preclude the viewer from making up her own mind about those very issues. The ideas proposed – recruiting more teachers, supporting international justice, decriminalizing marijuana, selling weapons to repressive regimes, etc. – are introduced not to educate but to show the viewer which one is right (or at least practical, for the latter two realpolitik situations).

The West Wing‘s take on the post-9/11 world is something I’ll have to set aside for another day (that subject will take much, much more time), but here I’m going to outline two specific scenes in seasons 2 and 3. I’m halfway through the show, so it’s very likely that more of these posts are coming. Without further ado, The West Wing, Teach for America, and the International Criminal Court.

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All Aboard for Public Infrastructure

Over the last nine months, I have spent about 275 hours on trains. I usually take the Metro-North, a state-operated railroad service whose trains have been involved in multiple crashes since I moved to the area. Sometimes trains hit cars. Sometimes trains hit each other. Sometimes there are seemingly preventable accidents, like when a train goes 82 miles per hour through a 30 mph turn and catapults towards the Hudson River.

I usually take the Metro-North, but last month I got to take the Northeast Regional, an Amtrak train that is notoriously late and inevitably tries to make up time however possible. That’s probably why an Amtrak train was going 106 mph through a 50 mph curve Tuesday night when it derailed and crashed, killing several passengers and wounding more.

While trains are safer than cars and are crashing less and less often generally, this isn’t true in the New York City area, where crash rates haven’t really declined at all.

At the New YorkerJohn Cassidy writes that “the United States has been allowing its public infrastructure to decay” for decades. The government spends half as much on infrastructure as it did in the 1950s-60s. Of course, the government spends less on a lot these days, as public service provision continues to shrivel and programs get cut more and more. Infrastructure – and safety – for people to move around the country should be a priority.

Instead, Congress slowly breaks off chunks of infrastructure one bill at a time. From International Business Times:

Seven years ago, in the face of growing evidence that the American rail system was dangerously vulnerable to derailments and collisions, Congress passed a law requiring that railroad companies add to their tracks new technology designed to limit such accidents. Absent such technology, federal transportation authorities said last year, “everybody on a train is one human error away from an accident.”

In the years that followed, some sections of the rails threading the crowded Northeast Corridor gained the so-called Positive Train Control (PTC) technology. But in late March, a Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill to delay by an additional five years the requirement for the new technology. Among the sections of the system that were then still without the safety gear: the tracks stretching between New York City and Washington.

And then, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s crash, Congress rejected a proposal to increase Amtrak’s funding.

Public infrastructure is supposed to be just that – public. It should serve the public good, and it should move the people safely and at a reasonable cost. It should help the country move. Inhibiting that does us no good.

I still have a few dozen train rides over the next month, so let’s see how I fair. In the meantime, there are some rails that need repair, investment, and technology.

The New American University

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Newfield has a review of Michael Crow and William Dabars’ new book, Designing the New American Universityin which he gives a cogent analysis of Arizona State University, its vision for the future, and the national higher education ground on which it stands.

Newfield summarizes Crow and Dabars’ overview of ASU’s achievements – including expanding access, increasing diversity, and providing a better education, all in a state with politics such as Arizona’s. He also gives a fair assessment of Crow’s vision for the “New American University,” a moniker he has trotted out for the last decade as president of ASU. This vision is blatantly for access and equality – Newfield calls it “anti-elitist” and I don’t think he’s wrong. ASU’s claim to excellence has long been its willingness to welcome all and provide them with a quality education. This is an important part of the New American University’s vision. But, not for nothing, Newfield looks at how ASU has operated in the current climate of austerity and belt-tightening and finds a lack of vision:

Arizona’s state legislature cut higher education appropriations 32 percent from 2006 through 2011. Then the legislature delivered another 25 percent cut in 2011–’12. While I was writing this review, they voted another 14 percent cut for 2015–’16. As a share of Arizona’s general fund, higher education spending has been cut in half since 1982 (from 20 percent to 9 percent). While ASU was working on its eight NAU goals and making some impressive progress, its public funding base was being cut exactly as though it were the Old American University that has become a political whipping boy.

ASU’s response to these public cuts has been similarly traditional. Arizona was one of four states that saw its public universities double their tuition fees between 2006 and 2011. (California and Hawaii being two others.) ASU student loan debt now averages something over $21,000, up about 20 percent since 2008. ASU has used ever-increasing student body growth to generate ever-increasing enrollment revenues. Many of the new students were assigned to branch campuses or to online programs where costs are lower. Meanwhile, Crow was trying to increase other revenue streams (corporate partnerships, philanthropy) by raising ASU’s research prestige, which means offering special working conditions and internal subsidies for research teams on whose productivity ASU’s rankings climb would depend. Crow played the conventional game by growing enrollments and then using these revenues to support research outputs and reputation. To the extent that ASU uses low-cost enrollment growth to cross-subsidize showcase research, the NAU is welding its superstructure to a traditional budget base.

When he turns to the way forwards, Newfield identifies positive steps in the “New” part of the New American University. He finds a desire for nonhierarchical innovation among the main principles of Crow and Dabars’ vision, and goes on to outline why more universities don’t adapt such models (a section well worth reading). It’s worth noting that, while faculty aren’t up in arms about the New American University and ASU has actually found ways to operate without the levels of adjunctification that many other universities have endured, many of these changes are still extremely hierarchical.

While I was at ASU there was a rash of school and department closing. Within four years as a Education major I was a part of the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, the College of Teaching and Educational Leadership, and I finally graduated with a degree from the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College. These closings and mergers (there were three different education schools with different focuses and on different campuses as recently as 2008) were met with anxiety from some members of the graduate education population. Other departments were similarly reshuffled with little input from those working within the systems themselves. Combining schools or departments doesn’t always ensure that everyone gets the resources that they need and deserve. I am all for interdisciplinary studies (most of my education has been such), but as I’ve argued before, knocking down departmental barriers needs to be done by scholars and on scholar’s terms. There is a difference between “collaboration across traditional disciplines” and imposed interdisciplinarity.

Indeed, Newfield makes sure not to conflate Crow and Dabars’ dislike for elite, selective colleges with any hopes that they take a stand against the corporatization of universities:

At crucial points, the authors trundle in villains from central casting: “Faculty committees tend to deliberate while shifts in policy, culture, and technology flash by at warp speed,” etc., etc. Collaborative design cannot possibly move forward when the executive party feels entitled to judge (and lecture) the rank-and-file designers on the basis of off-the-shelf imperatives about disruptive innovation. Crow and Dabars miss an opportunity to advocate for fully inclusive collaborative design techniques. I wish they were as anti-managerial as they are anti-elitist.

From there, Newfield moves to a second criticism of the book (and Crow’s broader narrative) – a lack of demand for public funding of public universities. In the book, Crow and Dabars call mass funding of public higher education an “unattainable societal goal.” This is a perfect sum of Crow’s moderate fight against defunding in the Grand Canyon State, one which has caused nearly annual tuition increases in all three state universities. (Insert my all-too-frequent reminder that the state constitution calls for free higher education). Newfield closes with this wonderful conclusion on the New American University and the current higher education context in which it sits:

Crow and Dabars are right to want new public universities to replace the Harvard standard. Their book is worth reading just for that discussion. They also support “massive change” and celebrate moon shots. So then, how about these two moon shots? First, use ASU to model nonhierarchical collaborative design, design that replaces finance-driven restructuring supervised by academic executives. Second, call for the doubling of public funding of public universities (which shouldn’t be difficult as we have recently halved it), in tandem with a halving of tuition (which shouldn’t be difficult as we recently doubled it). Make “free college for all” a medium-term national goal. We did free K–12 a century ago. We did a moon shot for the actual moon. We can obviously do the same thing for correctly funded 21st-century public colleges and universities. But we need people in Crow’s position to tell the truth about the power shifts and the public money that the next-generation, democratized public university will require.

A Reminder to Arizona Lawmakers

Saturday morning, after a marathon night of whatever it is lawmakers do, the Arizona Legislature passed a new budget. The budget does many things, like “balance the budget.” It also does things like completely eviscerate higher education.

The cuts include $99 million taken from state universities and 100% elimination of state funding for Pima and Marciopa County community colleges (the two biggest counties in the state). Education funds that are opened up for K-12 schools include an open door for charter school expansion as well. And for the poor, cash assistance limits were cut in half and medicaid faces sizable cuts too. (Here’s a more in-depth article on the cuts). This will only exacerbate the ongoing trend of the increasing costs of getting a college education in the state of Arizona.

Why are state lawmakers doing this? Because they think they can. As the Arizona Republic editorial makes clear, “this deeper-than-expected raid on higher education is not a consequence of scarce financial resources. It is the result of ideological absolutism — and misplaced ideology, at that.” They link the budget decisions to the overwhelming number of lawmakers who have signed no-tax-increase pledges. Last week, ASU’s State Press lambasted Gov. Ducey’s logic, stating:

After campaigning on a promise to run the state like a business, Ducey has failed to enact one of the basic concepts of economics: making wise investments to ensure a stable and profitable future. Ducey and Arizona Republicans have made an all but official declaration that the education of future generations is less important than the feelings of millionaires on tax day.

I’d like to remind all of the state lawmakers that carved a giant chunk of funding from universities and carried out a scorched earth policy on community colleges of one important fact. While many of them find a pledge to not raise taxes to be a Very Important Document, there is another document that says:

The university and all other state educational institutions… shall be as nearly free as possible.

Yes, that would be Article 11, Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution.

The Right Kind of Victim

Earlier today a friend and colleague argued that, although police violence and race were important issues that deserved a public conversation a la Ferguson, Mike Brown wasn’t the “right” kind of person to be the locus of this conversation. This person cited some stuff about Darren Wilson’s innocence – stuff I disagreed with, but which is not what I want to talk about here. Instead, he referenced the case of Tamir Rice – the boy who was shot for carrying a toy gun literally the moment that police arrived on the scene, and was subsequently refused care by the officers and was later pronounced dead. There is video of the police misconduct. The victim clearly wasn’t charging the officers. This is where to organize protests.

Hours later, I saw news that Eric Garner’s murderer was also cleared by a grand jury. There is video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in an illegal chokehold. There is proof of police misconduct. The coroner ruled it a homicide. And the police officer won’t even stand trial.

Earlier today, I argued that – regardless of what one thought about Mike Brown’s death – the organizing and protests should continue. If you believe that police violence is a problem and black lives matter, you should be in the streets no matter what. Because the problem of police violence is a national crisis.

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When protesters tried to shut down New York City two weeks ago, it was as much about the injustice of the Ferguson grand jury as it was about the impending Staten Island one. It was also about Tamir Rice. And Akai Gurley. And numerous other men of color killed by police who are sworn to protect.

When we look for the right kind of victim, we will always be waiting. The anger at racist police violence has reached its breaking point, and there shouldn’t be any discussion about the right kind of victim. Victims are victims, and we need to organize now – before there are more.

When Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a bus, she galvanized a movement against segregated buses. But Claudette Colvin should have galvanized the same movement, but she wasn’t the “right kind of victim.”

When the bus driver told Rosa Parks that he would have to call the police if she didn’t get up, Parks replied, with extraordinary self-possession, “You may do that.” When the police arrived, she went without resistance. When the cops came for Claudette Colvin, she yelled at them that they were violating her rights, and refused to move. They dragged her from the bus. When they kicked her, she kicked them back.

Ever since I was first made aware of Colvin’s story and others like it, I’ve been adamant that these stories are worth remembering – these lives are worth remembering. We shouldn’t only rally around the perfect symbols of resistance and victims of injustice. We should rally around every victim of injustice. Every time there’s injustice.

Waiting for the right kind of victim means ignoring the actual victimization of black bodies across this country. Waiting for Tamir Rice means that Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, and other victims of police violence.

We shouldn’t wait any longer.

Protesters staged a die-in at Grand Central tonight immediately after the announcement of Eric Garner’s grand jury. There is a demonstration planned at Foley Square tomorrow afternoon. If you’re against police violence, find a demonstration near you – or start one.

Coates on Reparations

The latest issue of The Atlantic features an important piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the issue of reparations for the U.S.’s racist history. It went live on Thursday to a lot of hubbub, but I wanted to dedicate a short post to tell you all to read the whole thing in full.

Coates uses housing as his framework for viewing America’s history, focusing on the long plunder of the 20th century. He spends much of the rest of the article arguing for reparations by showing how the repercussions of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration continue to punish black people. He also criticizes efforts to help the disadvantaged without taking race into account.

Coates also wrote here about tracing his line of thinking from opposing reparations four years ago. It includes links to several interesting pieces, all factors in his thought process. Coates also penned this short footnote to the article, highlighting why it is an important issue to tackle. Both are worth perusing if you’re interested.

In response, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote this piece about education’s role in inequality and the (lack of) potential it has for being the channel through which we can attain a more equitable future. She brings numbers to the game, for those who like them, from a recent economic policy paper. Summarizing the findings, she states: “No matter what black college grads do, they are more sensitive than non-blacks to every negative macro labor market trend. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees.” She closes by arguing that “[w]hen we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.”

Alyssa Rosenberg also wrote this piece reflecting on how culture would have to change in order for such reparations to occur. She sheds some light on American media and how much attention has been paid to slavery and racism through what we watch. There’s also an interesting piece on the recent Caribbean effort to gain reparations from European countries for 400 years of slavery and colonization, and this piece outlining ways to actually see reparations through.

(If you know of other good pieces on Coates’ article, leave them in the comments.)

AFRICOM is Everywhere

Nick Turse wrote up a report last month detailing some of the U.S. Africa Command’s presence in Africa, some of which is widely known, much of which is more opaque. The whole thing is worth a read, but here is a snippet:

Here, however, is the reality as we know it today.  Over the last several years, the U.S. has been building a constellation of drone bases across Africa, flying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions out of not only Niger, but also Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the island nation of the Seychelles.  Meanwhile, an airbase in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, serves as the home of a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as of the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative.  According to military documents, that “initiative” supports “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara.  U.S. Army Africa documents obtained by TomDispatch also mention the deployment to Chad of an ISR liaison team.  And according to Sam Cooks, a liaison officer with the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. military has 29 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers. 

AFRICOM is also engaging in a lot of humanitarian-like activity, leaving USAID and the State Department in its wake as it launches numerous programs across the continent. More from Turse:

When I spoke with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers, the first projects he mentioned and the only ones he seemed eager to talk about were those for African nations.  This year, $6.5 million in projects had been funded when we spoke and of that, the majority were for “humanitarian assistance” or HA construction projects, mostly in Togo and Tunisia, and “peacekeeping” operations in Ghana and Djibouti.

[Wayne] Uhl [chief of the International Engineering Center for the Europe District of the Army Corps of Engineers] talked about humanitarian projects, too.  “HA projects are small, difficult, challenging for the Corps of Engineers to accomplish at a low, in-house cost… but despite all this, HA projects are extremely rewarding,” he said.  “The appreciation expressed by the locals is fantastic.”  He then drew attention to another added benefit: “Each successful project is a photo opportunity.”

All this reminds me of is this money-quote from Adam Branch’s book on humanitarian intervention in northern Uganda. Citing correspondence with an anthropologist working in Kitgum, Branch discusses a U.S. Army training exercise in that town. I won’t add commentary, because it really speaks for itself:

As a public relations officer at the American camp set up during the operation put it, “We want people to see the military as something other than soldiers. In the U.S. soldiers are seen as heroes. In Uganda they have much more fear, so we are trying to change that image. The intention is to blur the demarcations between civilian and military.” This is a frightening testament to the militarization of U.S. society, in which exporting American values now becomes equated with exporting the U.S. military.