As a Senior Manager and Chief Engineer on production efforts, I am trained in, inter alia, risk management techniques. One posits what can go wrong and why – what is the cause of the possible problem and how do we take steps to prevent, to mitigate, the problem and balance the cost of those steps with the cost of actually realizing the risk we consider. Likewise, when a problem occurs, regardless of whether or not we anticipated it, we must seek to contain the spread of bad material, to rapidly assess if product safety is impacted, to know if suspect product has shipped and inform the customer of any safety impacts and what the problem means to the operation of the widget involved. We and our government are loath to seek and mitigate the root causes of societal malaise, we put top dressing on problems, seek the quick fix that briefly moves attention elsewhere, and generally do things that are more harmful to law abiding citizens than to the lawless actors whom we seek to contain or change.
The results of our incompetence are impressive. We have the largest prison population per capita on earth. Our system, in comparison to experiences of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, is equally oppressive with people languishing in jail for years pending trials because they cannot afford bail, enormous terms being given to people for petty crimes – drug possession with intent to sell often receiving a much longer term than intentional manslaughter and murder. The ranks of the poor increase and we send stimulus checks to everyone rather than larger checks to those in need. Our system of fines destroys lives as we charge the poor person the same fine for a parking violation as that assessed on the rich often leading to jail time for the poor including loss of job, loss of housing, loss of their vehicle, while not even breaking the stride of the middle and upper classes. This entire inequitable system is an abomination to the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Justice without mercy is not justice – Jesus tells us that (Matthew 9:13); enforcement without equity is bad governance – Aristotle write of this in his Nicomachean Ethics.
We live in a society perennially afflicted by sensational accounts of current day events. Some of those accounts demand societal change and provide evidence for it; some of those accounts lead to horrific acts such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the press reports that fanned the flame for a white mob to try to get their hands on a black man to lynch him, a mob quite capable of doing so given that two years earlier they had done so and lynched a white man, and the black population dared stand up to them. In all of these things, while those fanning the flames need to be accountable, the actors themselves are the spark and the flame; we have societal malaise with many sparks ready to kindle conflicts.
There are a lot of causes for our malaise, and we’ve got to get on with understanding them and ranking them by their impact to address each and every one. Our methods of trying top down solutions which often result in only masking a problem or even making it worse, must give way to truly understanding the causes, and the only people who understand the causes are the people afflicted by the system. It is they who must lead while all participate and agree on a common purpose: beneficial change.
Accordingly, the first step in our society is to enable the oppressed to safely have a voice without fear or reality of reprisal for speaking what is demonstrably true – in my view, inflammatory rhetoric based on innuendo or bias always deserves scrutiny and response whomever the source may be. This sounds simple but it is impossible in the current state of affairs, and again the problem is us, the privileged, the middle and upper class, those who passively or actively benefit or think they benefit from oppression – even if that benefit be some hazy, vulgar, and vacuous sense of security.
policies and procedures for our police
The first thing we must do is correct our policies and approved methods used by our police forces in order to gain trust and respect within oppressed communities and hear the voices of the oppressed in a safer environment. I watch, with some regularity, The First 48, and used to watch COPS before its cancellation. What we see on such shows, produced in cooperation with the police, is real and likely sheds the best possible light on the police yet I still see major problems which are not a result of bad police but, rather bad policy and incompetent governance.
I suppose the first thing we should note is that poor areas, in general, do not tend to solve problems with the police. Isn’t it ironic that Jesus tells us something quite similar (Matthew 18:15-17). You see, the police lie. Yes, they do – they tell people in interrogation things that are not true in order to place pressure on those persons and get them to confess. They also tell people, with regularity, that the interrogation is their only chance to be heard which is a travesty of our justice system. As Victor Hugo writes in Les Misérables of the Bishop, when someone told him that two counterfeiters, a male and female (lovers) were in custody but would not talk and the magistrates concocted falsified love letters purportedly from the male to some fictional female resulting in the outrage of the female accused and her testimony convicting them both, our Bishop replied that it was good that the counterfeiters were being held to account but also asked when the magistrates would be put on trial. Agents of our society must not lie, ever. They needn’t disclose the entire truth either, for instance they can state that a camera was on location and need not clarify that the accused is not clearly shown. When they however state that the accused is clearly shown and is not or is shown from a camera that did not work in the first place, this is a lie and must not be permitted.
This is one root cause of massive distrust in our police force and it must stop. If one lies to get confessions they just as invalid as if one used torture. Likewise, police must cease to claim that the offender, by confessing, will get better treatment in the justice system. The police have little to do with that and cannot truthfully make such a claim – it is another trick that must end – it is the plea arrangement that is agreed through the district attorney and the accused or their representation that makes a difference – what the police get is used against the accused. And it goes on from there – is there any doubt as to the lack of credibility and trustworthiness that a practice of deceit such as this results in? There should not be, for these were the very practices of the Royal Administration of King George III that our founders rebelled against.
You see, our system has forced our police to become far too involved as an instrument of attaining ends levied by society and incompetent governance rather than as officers keeping the peace and helping citizens be safe. The ends should not be arrests and fines but, rather, decreases in crime and increases in community safety and trust. In Dallas, police have been used to tend to stray dogs, to work with the mentally ill, the drug addict – to be dog catcher, social worker, counsellor, and to defend themselves and others with their lives with a pittance of compensation. In response, they have become militarized, massive funding goes into finding the one perpetrator with night vision and FLIR equipped helicopters, to provide robots, SWAT teams armed to the teeth as though the SEALS or Rangers had been called in, and those forces are deployed not to multi-party armed conflicts but to individual homes resulting in a dangerous environment that can easily result in injury or death. This, too must stop.
Overwhelming force is a military technique and should be a last resort not the first play – unless the suspect poses a demonstrably clear and present danger to others. Yet I’ve seen these techniques, on these police friendly shows, used to apprehend a person accused of beating someone to death with their hands or using a knife. It is disproportionate, it is unseemly, it smacks of oppression, Nazi Germany, and the Iron Curtain. It must end.
It is not the police but the governance and policies that create this militarization, this must be clear. We are at fault, the privileged that have elected the people and supported the policies that put this in place. Calls to defund the police are myopic at best; it is another top down solution. Once a threat is contained in a house or other place, there is plenty of time. We need to change our approach and radically. It’s reducing risk that we’re about, not “getting our man”. Defunding dismantles without the necessary changes in policies and laws. Demilitarization is a much better approach, and it’s a damn sight harder. We must do what is hard; there are no simple or easy solutions to this enormous problem.
Our final stop in this short list of causes is of course suspect apprehension and use of force. This is a very hard issue to address because the use of force treads the thin line between a credible threat to life and limb as compared with fear of such a possibility which is a quite subjective and debatable line to be sure. My approach is to dig deeper into what causes those situations to arise in the first place.
First and foremost in this discussion is the definition of resistance and compliance as seen by police. The expectation of our policies seems to be that a suspect must have robot like compliance to every command acting as though the body were in complete obedience to the commands issued by police which is again rather subjective depending on the linguistic affinity of the police and the suspect, and I’m not talking about foreign languages but about the clarity of the command and expected response. Note that suspects and people whom the police want to interview are often treated in the same manner, handcuffed, taken to headquarters, and held in small rooms for as much as 24 hours, perhaps longer, from what I’ve observed on these shows. Even the families of those murdered are often treated this way, and on the day of the murder. Police tell people that they are being detained and are cuffed for their safety – from whom? The police of course.
The expectation of absolute robot like compliance is unrealistic to begin with, and the urgency of compliance is necessitated by the notion that safety is not secured until the target is neutralized by being in custody, after being searched, confined, and restrained. The presumption is that the target is dangerous, and that these actions are therefore urgent which then justifies the use of force at various levels. In military terms, the target individual is treated as though they are an enemy combatant or could be. I disagree with this policy and process because I think that escalation of force and urgency of restraint should rest squarely on demonstrable probable cause, not because someone is stopped for a traffic violation and they are black, or the stench of marijuana is present, or at least the officer claims it is.
If we look at the case involving Mr. George Floyd, we quickly find that the escalation of police force resulted from his unwillingness to ride in the back seat of the police car. There is no rational case for a person accused of passing a counterfeit bill and known to be unarmed to be compelled to do something that they frightens them to death as was clearly the case and regardless of the reason. It is the sense of urgency in getting the suspect to jail that appears to have driven the entire murderous affair, and this is repeated many, many times. Save time by escalating force. This should be anathema to us.
This, too, must change. What is urgent is protecting the living – citizens and police. The use of force needs major changes in policy, techniques, and implements. For instance, the taser – clearly an instrument of torture if used in an interrogation – should be banned. Torturing citizens to gain compliance to absurd standards is the tool of an oppressive regime, not America. Does its wide use in America tell us that we are becoming an oppressive regime? Perhaps. Yes, perhaps it does. Add to that the largest per capita prison population in the world, and well, perhaps were are become an oppressive regime rather than merely being on the trend towards one.
Our society confuses equality with equity. Equality does not consider the person whereas equity does, and justice hinges on equality before the law improved by case by case equitable treatment of persons before the law. When we impose fixed fines and other penalties equally, justice becomes inequitable and does not result in the same punishment for rich and poor even if the penalties are the same because, for instance, a $500 fine would not cause me any inconvenience whereas another person might not be able to pay rent and could be evicted, or could lose their car, or could lose their home. As I’ve said, Aristotle discusses this in Nicomachean Ethics – the law, no matter how detailed, cannot address each specific case and must be bolstered by judges and juries who take the person’s situation into account in assessing penalties.
When the law mandates sentences that cannot be adjudicated with mercy and consideration of the person, we return to Ancient Greece and the Constitution of Draco which is where we get the term draconian. In his case, the punishments were drastic – death, loss of a limb, that sort of thing. But the impact of those sentences was indeed inequitable because they did not balance well against the crime – that is, fines and punitive measures to be equitable need to balance the scales between the injured party and the guilty party, and do so as well as possible remediating the damage done without destroying the guilty to an extent larger than that suffered by the injured party assuming no remediation. The purpose of the penalty is to restore balance, not to frighten people and thereby prevent crime – that doesn’t work. Surely we now that by now, then again, given the prison population and the reasons for their incarceration, it is clear that we do not understand this at all.
Further exacerbating this situation is the availability of highly qualified legal representation to those with resources and the lack of counsel – until lawfully charged of a crime – for others, and then counsel does not have the resources of the expensive legal representation even if the pro bono representatives are highly qualified. As we learn in Brown v. the Board of Education, separate is inherently unequal, yet the system of providing legal representation for the poor is in and of itself separate. This should not be, not before the bar of the court.
It seems few have read The Ferguson Report which among other things details the abhorrent practice of some local governments whereby government imposed fines and penalties are a for-profit enterprise which, to avoid lots of legal battles, rest largely on the poor and creating repeated fines for the same people as their lives spiral down into destruction caused by oppression in our society. If those people had money, they would not be thusly victimized; there is no justice in such societies. This is not new, not at all, Ancient Greece saw highly profitable rhetoricians arise who would accost reasonably wealthy persons and extort money by threatening to take them to court – the claims were absurd and false, but the rhetorician’s known talents were quite often sufficient to extort funds less than the fine they could get in court, and this is where our word sycophant comes from. I suppose we should also note that extortion is quite literally ex tortion – from twisting.
It seems to me that some basic assumptions from contract law might be helpful in working this issue. You see, in a contract where there is uncertainty, the assumption is that the writer of the contract had the advantage and therefore the other party benefits from any doubt. Here, too, especially in fines and civil affairs, the weight of the law should fall much more heavily on those with advantages than on those without. After all, those with advantages have better representation, had more leverage with society and its governments, and have far less impact when a penalty is assessed, in most cases. Therefore, the impact on the privileged and wealthy must be balanced with the impact on the poor which may indeed result in enormous fines and penalties on the wealthy, but the level to which they are discommoded must needs be balanced against what their actions have caused. Likewise, the fines on the poor may be a pittance in comparison to have the same impact as suffered by the complainant. This is equity, and we upend the scales when we treat the wealthy, popular, powerful, and privileged in terms of impact less severely than we treat the poor.
Once, on return from a vacation, we found our home broken into – not actually broken into, they came through the laundry room window which we kept unlocked and which I used from time to time, not having a key. At any rate, they stole quite a bit of food, canned and frozen, and that’s all. Once we’d realized that, dad insisted that we not call the police. If they needed food, we have plenty and they could have just asked. This is not a crime, said my father in a rare but truly magnificent moment. I compare that with Jean Valjean’s multi-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children in Les Misérables and what would likely happen to someone who broke a window and stole food in our world today. Justice rests on mercy. Oppression rests on inequity, inequality, lies, and force. We have become an oppressive society.
This is one of the core problems of our societal malaise. And in oppressive societies, as people withdraw from a government that seeks to separate them from their money and put them in jail, sub-cultures arise and street law rules. Surely we see that this has happened. Only restoration of trust through fair and equitable treatment can resolve this, and that’s hard. Laws must change, our system of justice must improve. Yes, very hard indeed.
I know a man who was a Texas State Patrol Officer, we are both camera buffs, and he learned photography as Texas sought to document accidents and look at causes and how things might be changed and people educated to prevent accidents and to lessen the mortality rate. In one case he recounted, a hearse had run into a tree and he interviewed the people and photographed the scene. This event occurred while segregation was forced, and the black driver and white funeral director had stopped for a meal. The black driver had to eat in the kitchen, and the white man ate in the diner and got into a discussion with a service man that needed a ride. Having agreed to the ride, they finished their meals, and at the hearse the white man explained to the white soldier that he’d have to ride in the jump seat next to the coffin. They agreed and both got into the hearse. The driver joined them later and they went on their way. Shortly thereafter, the jump-seat passenger abruptly pulled aside the curtain separating the front from the back and asked “mind if I smoke?” causing the driver to jump from the moving hearse which then came to rest as it struck a tree. The driver sustained minor injuries, the other two were unharmed, the hearse and of course the primary passenger, in the coffin, were dead.
Equality is a matter of how people are received and treated. People are not equal in weight, height, color, gender identity, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and a host of other differentiating features. Indeed, no two excepting identical twins are genetically the same if DNA science be right, and even identical twins differ in personality and other key traits. It is not people that are equal but, rather, how they are treated that must be equal. And as we know, separate is not equal. They must have access to the same facilities and be treated with both equity and equality.
There are two general formulations of “equality wisdom” – the golden rule and the negative golden rule. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 NRS) and “Do not do to others what you would not like done to you.” respectively. I rather like the negative formulation because in the depths of contemplation, it seems more clear that you need to know the other person’s likes and dislikes in order to obey. Consider the book of Daniel chapter 1 where Daniel requests a vegetarian diet for himself and his companions rather than the full fare of the King’s table which included other foods forbidden by Jewish law and sacrificed to idols. Doing unto others requires mutual respect and even if we like pork, we should not expect our Jewish or Muslim friends to be pleased by that offering or to accept it. That’s really the moral of Aesop’s Fox and Stork, and I think we forget this in our assessment of equal treatment. Even equality is not necessarily the exact same treatment, you see – some accommodations are required for equal treatment, some taking into account of the person, handicapped access, dietary restrictions, seating arrangements, things that are not a matter of customization to a specific person but to a class. Equity, on the other hand, is always dealing with a specific person and their specific circumstances.
The issue of privilege in our society is one of inequality, not inequity. People receive (or refuse to receive) and treat others based on the class of persons that they ascribe to the other, and our society is rampant with such inequalities, so much so that the 1970’s film The Watermelon Man is quite funny but only so because we know that it’s true that a white man’s normal activities will be taken entirely differently were he to suddenly become black. At issue is much more than racism, it is what legal people call classes of persons – not economic classes although wealth is certainly a factor. It is all of the differences that separate the human species into definable groups such as I’ve mentioned before – race, ethnicity, gender, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, proficiency in English, wealth, politics, whom one loves, all of these things and more that make up delimiters in how we treat people differently and, too often, the reasons why people are denied equal treatment.
The results of our forced and vicious enslavement of fellow human beings and our failure to fully integrate the formerly enslaved into society following the civil war are a major problem in this country. And to be sure, these unresolved issues and lingering irrational attitudes among the privileged are not confined to the formerly enslaved but also to every definable class that has been viewed as somehow “less equal” in our society. Primary, in numbers, among those thusly afflicted are of course the entire female population. But it should be clear at this point that wherever there is such a difference, it is a human tendency to be take note and that equal treatment takes overt, conscious action to compensate for biases that seem built in. Let’s stop here for a moment.
Recent studies have shown affinity bias in children as young as three (numerous studies, e.g., Patterson/Bigler, UT Austin, Childhood Development Volume 77 No. 4, 2006, p. 847-860). By affinity bias, I mean identification with a group, a class, with pejorative connotations attaching to actions of those outside of the class and quite pleasant connotations attaching to actions of those in the same class even though the photos shown are clearly indicating bad behavior. What I’m talking about is not so complex as the classes I’ve mentioned, it’s a simple as a t-shirt color. When given a red t-shirt, and having donned that apparel, children associate others wearing that color with good things and those wearing the green t-shirt with bad things. The same is true when given a green shirt and the others having red shirts – it’s not the color, it’s the difference.
To be human is to be biased towards the groups that a person believes they belong to. In our ancient past and evolution, this was clearly important for safety and many other reasons. In our present it is an impediment to progress towards an equal and equitable society, and we must all work to compensate for this innate human characteristic. You see, this is the root, the tap root, of a whole bunch of our problems. When we abhor racism and sexism and so forth and so on, we must not claim that we are not racist or sexist or otherwise biased because we of course are, simply because of overt differences and understanding of the classes to which we belong. It takes effort, and it is hard, not to fall into this very natural and evolutionary necessary trap. After all, the basic “stranger danger” notion that is truly important for children to understand is of the same ilk, isn’t it? Those not within your circle are dangerous, we teach them and wisely – but not so for adults. This is very difficult indeed because there are dangers, and a reasonable person must be equipped to avoid them. But, similar to the conundrum for police in present fear versus fear from a probable cause, we too must strive to make such differentiations, as adults, when rationally warranted, not simply based on a difference.
Again, this is a hard and enormous problem. School bussing ended when it became obvious that people like to dwell in communities based on social groups – that this is not necessarily forced albeit there has been (and still is) quite a bit of that in not allowing people to live where they choose. We were moving children large distances to integrate them which was simultaneously punishing the children and their families by taking time from both and making it difficult for families to participate in school activities because of the distance involved and, for the poor, lack of transportation or available time. The cure was indeed worse than the disease provided that segregation was never forced. So, too, with neighborhoods which can become ghettos where housing prices force segregation of the poor. However, there is value in communities that are geographically centric that cater to specific needs of a group. Take, for instance, high rise apartments in New York that, on Shabbat (Sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday) cater to observant Jews by programming the elevators to stop on every floor so that there is no need to do the “work” of pushing the button. Or communities that spring up near a temple complex for Hindu worship, or at easy (and within Shabbat law) walking distance to Synagogue for Orthodox Jews, or cater to Gay communities, or provide ethnic foods and groceries associated with various groups, or speak certain languages, and so forth and so on.
Equality of treatment for all people. It is an impossible state, it is contrary to our nature, we have striven for it throughout time even in Ancient Egypt with the concept of Ma’at – truth, justice, equity yet when we delude ourselves that we are close we find ourselves within the confines of our affinity groups deaf to the cries of the poor, the oppressed, the homeless.
Admitting that we are so, all of us, so that we can strive to improve is perhaps the hardest task before us.
This we have every right, in America, not only to expect but also to demand.
For humans to ascend and improve, we must first recognize that we rely on each other, need each other, and that we are from one source. Best we can tell, that source is Africa, and we are adapted not evolved from that basic ilk that we all share. That there are so many of us is perhaps lamentable and a problem in and of itself, that we raze, pillage, and pollute our good earth and destroy our many important partners, flora and fauna, evolved to maintain life on this planet is another lamentation we should share.
If we are intelligent, if we are the species that will continue to dominate the earth, we must learn to cherish each other and in so doing cherish the world itself. It is neither balance nor justice we truly seek, no, it is the best outcome for each and every human. Only then will we have the resources and self control to properly tend to our planet, our biosphere, our partners, and yes, even to worship the divine. Only then.
It is hard work, and we must not seek to tear down but rather to raise up. This is the road of life, a rocky road up a steep incline. We must admit our faults, face them, face the rocky road and the rock filled fields that we seek to plow, and learn to remove the stones and love one another for whom we are.
My fellow sons and daughters of privilege, we must act. We must empower the oppressed and support them to achieve change. Let this be our legacy, that we dared help improve the lives of others. Yes, it’s a difficult conversation. Yes, it’s controversial. But it must be done. Ultimately, the survival of our species depends on it.
Peace be with you.