Tag Archives: gun violence

One #YearWithoutTamir

Trigger warning: anti-Black racism, gun violence, police violence

Today marks the one year anniversary of Tamir Rice’s death in Cleveland. A Black twelve year old, he was playing in a park near his home with a legal, fake gun. Someone called the police, complaining, and within two seconds of their arrival on the scene, one officer had shot him. Tamir Rice died the following day – November 23, 2014. The killing was legally deemed reasonable after an investigation which the police department used to charge fees to Tamir Rice’s family for holding his body.

In commemoration, activists delivered some 20,000 signatures to a petition calling for the sitting county prosecutor to step aside or step down to his office. Their rebuke here is clear – the system has failed to work, and needs to be challenged to provide justice for the Black community of Cleveland and specifically Tamir Rice’s family.

tamir rice petitions

For more in depth coverage on this subject, I recommend Jamil Smith’s writing and recording at the New Republic. He ties what has happened to Tamir Rice to what is now happening to #BlackLivesMatter activists at Donald Trump rallies, both painting a moving picture of what has already been lost and delivering a haunting warning about who else is at risk.

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Police unions or Black lives: what kind of Democratic Party will this be?

Trigger warning: anti-Black racism, police violence, gun violence mention

Tonight’s Democratic Presidential Primary debate, which I’ll be liveblogging here, is an opportunity for observation. The three major candidates – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sitting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley – have all had various reactions and responses to the many different populist and grassroots political demands made in both the general electorate and within the Democratic Party itself over the past couple of years. While they discuss those and other issues on stage next to each other, something of a contest is unofficially being held, to see what ideas “win” the debate, in terms of both being highly visible and being effectively asserted.

With all three of those candidates having at least once put their foot in their mouth on the current popular discussion around anti-Black racism and police violence, one thing being measured tonight is whether (and if so, how) will they pick apart the increasingly elaborate falsehoods surrounding the police forces in the US as both worryingly vulnerable. The past several months have seen a prominent return of forms of violence sadly familiar to Black communities in this country, with the killings of among others Sandra Bland in police custody.

That violence cuts to the core of the modern Democratic Party, which arguably arose out of Fannie Lou Hamer’s demand for civil rights and political agency at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She recounted a part of her personal history – from facing housing and employment discrimination for attempting to register to vote to its ultimate conclusion of her being violently beaten in a jail cell for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time while Black. Her experiences were sadly typical for her time and have continued into the modern day with deaths like Bland’s. The modern Democratic Party has been profoundly shaped by her testimony, so it is key to ask tonight how each of those candidates carry forward the lessons she asked the people in this country to learn.

Police force members and others aligned with them have sought to obscure that reality, that those specific forms of violence are an on-going problem. Recently, a blatant misinformation campaign of sorts has been launched – misrepresenting the risks of police work and decrying that the police are under excessive surveillance on the job. The numbers are publicly accessible, however, and paint a different picture of slowly but steadily declining non-accidental deaths for officers who are on the job (2003 and 2008 were the only Bush era years with fewer than 50 gunfire deaths, while only 2010 and 2011 have had more than 50 gunfire deaths during the Obama era). The talk surrounding increasing oversight on police conduct has been born out of incidental recordings – sometimes those used to observe other people who are on the job – finding astounding discrepancies between police eyewitness and video testimony.

blm caravan Los AngelesA sign from a Los Angeles #BlackLivesMatter affiliated protest on October 10, from here.

Since Fannie Lou Hamer’s challenge to the Democratic Party, it has become increasingly common outside of Black communities to associate the police and their political pressures with the Republican Party. That’s a mistake, as they are a unionized portion of the public sector workforce. Like most such groups, they do skew towards the Democrats – and donation records (available only in aggregate between police and firefighter groups) show virtually all of their top recipients being Democratic Party members. With the Republican Party making an effort to show that those two unionized groups won’t face the same degree and forms of hostility under their governance as other public sector unions and a large chunk of Democrat-leaning constituencies increasingly critical of the broader system of policing in this country, that is threatening to change. If Democratic candidates want to maintain their edge with that specific type of union, they will likely have to signal their investment in the existing police force tonight. Police force members and organizers will be tuning in and want to see the Democratic candidates side with them over their critics.

In many politically-minded disciplines, it’s increasingly common to find people discussing power as at least in part the ability “to define reality” in the sense of psychologically organizing and labeling the complex world we all share. People with power – which can mean anything from people simply with certain communal or personal identities that are privileged as well as individually empowered people, like major presidential contenders – play a key role in declaring what is real. What the candidates tonight have is inherently a moment in which they have to pick a side in a contest for policy control in the Democratic Party and make it clear how they see the world (and in the process, influence how people like you and me can respond to their rhetoric and their policies). Tonight we will see what choices they make, among other things in terms of embracing, ignoring, or rejecting false ideas that some people are desperate to popularize about the police.

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Stuff Happens

Trigger warning: gun violence, war, terrorism, islamophobia

By now, Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign has seemingly hit a stumbling block that while not necessarily disqualifying in the Republican Primary, is likely to capsize him in the general 2016 election if he becomes the Republican nominee. If you’re unaware, when asked for his thoughts on the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, he shrugged off the loss of life, saying, “Stuff happens.

At the risk of sounding as oblivious to the recent pain as him, he is technically right. Miseries happen. Tragedies happen. Violent events happen. The issue here though isn’t that though, it’s what he meant by saying that. “Stuff happens” is what people say not to recognize pain and problems but to dismiss them. His implicit argument is that nothing can be done about these types of mass shooting incidents, which happen in this country at nearly a rate of once a day. His calculated political decision not to care about this specific form of violence is disguised by the powerlessness that “stuff happens” implies. He’s making a choice not to care, and presenting it as all he can do.

That’s not how he himself has spoken in the Republican Primary on all forms of violence.

“I don’t know if you remember, Donald- Do you remember the rubble?”

Jeb Bush is entirely capable of caring about the loss of life and the experience of violence – and not just in a standard Republican tone in a hypocritical call for new restrictions on abortion. He can see events of extreme, pseudo-militaristic violence, and say this is unacceptable and demands an organized, society-wide response. What he does is chooses which tragedies speak to him in that way, an indirect way of selecting the type of society he thinks we should live in.

A tragedy that justifies invasions and colonialism-echoing occupations in majority Muslim countries calls for remembering, for recognizing, for sacralizing to achieve those ends. A tragedy like a shooting by an able-bodied, able-minded, straight, cisgender, White man within the US has no parallel usefulness to Jeb Bush within the Republican Primary. If anything, it’s a liability in a worldview that depends on finding the origins of violence (and hence, reasons to strike back) as coming from other groups and striking with different means. What “stuff happens” underscores is not just a callousness to those affected by this most recent incident of gun violence or one of the scores of similar tragedies in these recent years, but a dehumanizing way of approaching any such loss of life, whether disregarded as yet another lamentable thing in the world or hallowed.

“Stuff happens” out of the mouth of Jeb Bush or anyone else who has spoken about 9/11 and other tragedies in such mournful terms makes clear that the speaker asks themselves a question after every catastrophe: what can I gain from this? Their sorrow is not a fully authentic emotional response, but a carefully chosen one, selected because of what it could bring about in the world.

Credit to the featured image goes to here.

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Onwards and upwards, but not for all

Trigger warning: gun violence, racism

Yesterday, ten people died and seven were injured in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Motivated by the public outcry, President Obama gave a speech on the event and the issues it raises yesterday which still dominates my newsfeed and in all likelihood yours as well. He laid out a basic argument for gun control and against a hypervigilance for over-regulation of firearms and related weapons:

We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston.  It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.

And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.  Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out:  We need more guns, they’ll argue.  Fewer gun safety laws.

Does anybody really believe that?  There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country –they know that’s not true.  We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws — including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.

That is understandably deeply moving. It taps into one of the great beliefs in the United States about this country – that we are an evolving country, tethered by traditions but not ensnared by them. We can – and do – blaze forward, the story goes, changing ourselves in order to make life better. This story is sometimes about this type of regulation on a product, but can also come in the form of appeals to how the franchise has expanded, widening the voting population towards something today considered to be an approximation of universal suffrage. Obama is, I suspect, quite consciously marrying those two tales together, crediting the ostensibly safer and healthier life of the average US citizen to the theoretically democratic achievements of this country. We can literally vote ourselves to safety.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly unclear that any part of this narrative is true. Past regulations on firearms and present day regulations on cars and other products Obama later mentions were opposed at almost every step by a major industry if not several. Those two are some of the most successful campaigns for that matter. Even as cars have reduced the dangers in an accident, they’ve gotten better at concealing their emissions, disguising the threat they pose to a stable and useful climate for us and ultimately everyone else in the world. Almost all of these improvements are rooted in economic bottom lines. It’s better to make a product that doesn’t easily and regularly kill your customers – that’s just basic business sense. But longer term damage to its consumers, to their descendants, and to the broader world can just be “externalities“, at least for much longer than that other kind of threat.

When it comes to more general issues of social and economic security that same statistics crop up repeatedly showing that many problems have lingered or even worsened. Food insecurity remains prevalent in the US. Union membership – long a bulwark for lower and middle classes to protect their interests – has drastically declined, as has (for that and other reasons) the political effectiveness of unions. Fear of poverty, of want, and of homelessness are barely considerations in the economic and political system in which we live, and so have at best been allowed, and at worst encouraged as “motivation“. The idea that we have become safer than those before us downplays these concerns and denies the observable reality that sometimes things actually have gotten worse.

Suffrage, still full of historical holes like felon disenfranchisement, has recently taken a hit from the dismantling of the pre-clearance system. Already, Alabama appears to be coordinating mass suppression of voters of color in advance of the 2016 election with no effective federal oversight. Other states are likely to follow suit. Even before that structural link in US democracy crumbled, we were already facing an effective plutocratic check on at the very least national elections, and by one study’s standards, were no longer a democracy, but rather an oligarchy. A majority of people in this country – citizens or not – might want basic regulations on weapons, but does that mean anything? For years, in spite of popular outcry, it hasn’t.

katrinaNew Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, from here.

Further along in his speech, Obama presented what he viewed as a few analogues to what he hopes we could accomplish on gun control, saying among other things, “When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer.” One needs only point to Katrina as an example of how limited those improvements often can be. Over a thousand died, and over a million were displaced. More valued populations threatened by later hurricanes have been better protected, so perhaps the government learned something from that disaster. But those lessons learned in catastrophe haven’t been applied to repair the still hurting (and specifically Black) communities in New Orleans, but to preserve the business centers of Houston and the greater New York area. In fact, as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina created the opportunity for a wealthier and Whiter demographic to move in and replace dead or displaced residents, parts of New Orleans seem poised to attain a similar status, only without the people who originally lived there.

Progress appears to be a privilege, increasingly reserved only for some in this society. It seems vital that we ask who gets left behind, and not only when the answer is “almost everyone.”

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But they’re not the cops

Trigger Warning: anti-Black racism, gun violence, police violence, anti-protester violence, anti-labor violence

On the one year anniversary of the death of soon-to-be college student Michael Brown in Ferguson by police officer Darren Wilson happening this past Sunday, the tensions in the small Saint Louis suburb erupted once again. Notably, this time the presence of the Oath Keepers, a militant organization created after Obama’s 2008 election, was a strange third party not fully aligned with the interests of either the disproportionately White police force (and their supporters) or the predominantly Black population. This little-known group has become an increasingly visible presence in the town, made only flashier by their many and prominently displayed weapons.

oath keepers fergusonAn Oath Keeper member, gun in hand, atop a roof in downtown Ferguson, from here.

Founded to enforce (their interpretation of) constitutional law against the presumed threats to it by the country’s first Black president, the Oath Keepers themselves are an overwhelmingly White group of mainly former service members, but also many active duty ones, as well as police and other first responders. Even in only the immediate circumstances, they arrived in Ferguson’s predominantly Black neighborhoods as an obviously outside force, armed to the teeth. From their initial reasons for organizing, to their status as heavily armed White people patrolling Black neighborhoods, they clearly have their commonalities with those that many Black residents of Ferguson and many other parts of the United States live in a near constant state of fear from.

In fact, in recent publications, the Oath Keepers Movement admits that their involvement in Ferguson began in something like coordination with the police – where they “protected some businesses” from “rioters and looters” that the police allegedly weren’t keeping safe. That same announcement from a Missouri-based group of Oath Keepers criticizes the police from that angle, saying that they are violating the constitutional rights of people to seemingly defend their businesses and selves from alluded to alleged lawlessness going so far as to call it “criminal endangerment”. In short, “that’s why the violence problem in Ferguson is on-going.” In essence, they have grown critical of the police in Ferguson and other areas, but not from any sense of empathy for those faced with repeated police violence against their communities. Quite the contrary, their judgment of the police is typically that they are inadequately suppressant of presumed militancy.

In spite of this, federal mainstream coverage of their increasing presence in Ferguson has implied a common cause between them and the protesters against police violence, rather than a very arbitrary moment in which their different politics aren’t diametrically opposed. This misimpression of them only shrinks the events in Ferguson to an example of police violence, free from racial dimensions that can operate in other times and in other ways. While the killing of Michael Brown was a key catalyst in the building of the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of its momentum from Brown’s death reflected the pain and sorrow in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Himself a self-appointed keeper of the peace in spite of having no official status or relationship with the police, Zimmerman is something of a dim reflection of the same sort of person involved with the Oath Keepers.

Black anti-racism activists appear to have recognized those commonalities and have for that reason emphasized the need to expunge anti-Black racism in all people, whether they are police, non-police who collaborate with police forces, or even those who actively seek to replace or otherwise disband current police forces. That racial dimension to the current conflict between residents and police in Ferguson is easy to erase given the largely White critical response to the police that the Oath Keepers represent, but fully understanding that is critical to responding to that faction.

The Washington Post was one of the few non-local sources which felt comfortable noting the growing relationship between the Oath Keepers and various business owners in the area, admittedly as a cheery, positive part of their presence. The ways in which that reinforces existing fears about Black violence which justified many of the recent killings of Black people by police and others isn’t part of the assessment. As long as fascism is a bit of buzzword in modern US politics, it’s important to note that this is how fascism began – as an organizational bargain between Italian and Spanish landowners and armed gangs, circumventing a state viewed as not hard-hitting enough to deal with socialist and anarchist agitators.

migrant field laborers emilia region italy 1930sMigrant field workers in 1930s Italy, from here.

Scott Walker may be the quieter Donald Trump and consequently have his extremist positions overlooked, but the Oath Keepers, decked out in guns, are just as bombastic as Trump. But their contextual dissatisfaction with the police and momentary media spotlight have coincided, seemingly obscuring the nature of their politics. As fascism has been watered down to simply imply a constrained, dictatorial politics, those who very closely embody a revival of it have been able to escape being critically connected to it as long as their ideologies are framed through freedom and liberty. Make no mistake, however, what’s beginning in Ferguson is a historied relationship that we have a word to describe.

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The fundamental danger

Trigger Warning: police violence, racism, suicide mentions

More than two years later and the wisdom in this tweet has only been further demonstrated. We are currently in the middle of an epidemic of deaths of people of color (and particularly Black people) while in police custody, which has been promoted by us focusing on anything other than the needlessness of those deaths.

Freddie Gray, a twenty-five year old Black resident of Baltimore was arrested the night of April 12, 2015. He was charged with possessing an illegal blade (which is now disputed as having been outside of legal size ranges) and according to various eye witnesses was subject to some form of police violence, corroborated by a cell phone video that shows him being dragged to a police vehicle. Some have theorized that his spine may have been damaged before he even entered that car. Regardless, the “rough ride” he was then subjected to apparently caused significant neurological damage, which led near immediately to a coma and his death within a week.

Although several police officers present at the scene of his arrest have been indicted and charged with manslaughter (with a pending acquittal or conviction), the current public discussion of responsibility of Gray’s death is alarming. A Fox News reporter already openly approached the Baltimore police with the pitch that he would cover them positively, while others have clearly attempted to frame the response protests to Gray’s death as the actual problem. The Baltimore police appear to have encouraged this closing of public discussion of their culpability, allegedly having prevented Rihanna from holding a combined protest and concert in the city. Heading into the trial, efforts appear to have been made by the Baltimore police and others to downplay Gray’s death.

The cost of shutting down that conversation is already mounting. Eleven people – overwhelmingly people of color – have died in police custody in the past month. Most publicly discussed has been the case of Sandra Bland, an activist who was arrested for failing to use her turn signal while being pulled over by the police (and subsequently resisting arrest – meaning challenging police conduct that violated standards). According to the police, she committed suicide in a holding cell. Bland, who was six feet tall, supposedly hung herself in a rather low ceiling part of her cell. Her death came not long after she allegedly made a phone call in which she discussed feeling unsafe in police custody.

Many aspects of Bland’s death are becoming recurring in the most recent cases, with many activists in communities of color being targeted for arrests and their and others’ deaths being presented as suicides. Choctaw activist Rexdale Henry died in police custody earlier this month as well, and so far the police have refused to release autopsy reports, compounding critical questions about his mysterious death. The lingering unwillingness to condemn what was done to Freddie Gray has seemingly encouraged cavalier attitudes at best and malicious violence at worst, now specifically targeted at not only fairly randomly selected people of color, but activists organizing (among other reasons) to reduce and stop the deaths in their communities at the hands of the police.

Some have pointed out that even the police’s treatment of Freddie Gray didn’t happen in a vacuum. Many other apprehended people of color were given “rough rides” before him. As Jay Smooth’s tweet can remind us was done in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin and countless other acts of violence against people of color and particularly Black people in a policing context. These are ripples that don’t dissipate, they magnify each other.

How the upcoming trials for many of these cases – vitally those of the police charged with manslaughter against Freddie Gray but also a similar case in Cleveland – will affect the responses to this horrifying, new rush of deaths and to a degree whether there will be more deaths in the coming days. Currently, Baltimore is sounding as it has been forced into an uncomfortable silence and the Cleveland police union is auctioning off a weapon to raise funds for the police officer under legal scrutiny. Those are not the best of signs. It’s easy to hear that and think of rioting and other direct responses to these on-going patterns of violence, but the real danger is the same as it always was: more George Zimmermans.

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The Bundy Ranch: race, immigration, terrorism, and power

TW: racism, racist criminalization, anti-immmigrant racism, islamophobia, gun violence

Before we get into the heat of it again, I want to apologize for my long and unannounced absence. Life can get hectic, and writing about politics can be uniquely frustrating. One of the things I hope to do on this site is illuminate patterns in how many people approach and respond to certain issues, allowing those interested in improving things to anticipate their opposition. Unfortunately, that causes me to often feel like I’m needlessly repeating the same analysis, to the point that it gets stale, or even abstracted and confusing to someone who hasn’t been reading my posts here for months on end.

I’ll even admit I sometimes get concerned that I’m spotting connections that aren’t there or are less important than the context around them. Or maybe that my own biases are causing me to pick on people or otherwise get rather hyperbolically invested in a certain way of looking at an issue. A bit paradoxically, I’ve even been afraid of simultaneously showing off which news sources I prefer while more or less picking a fight with the journalists that I guess could be called my “favorites”.

So, hopefully I can avoid doing that when I say that Chris Hayes seems to have avoided looking at a crucial wrinkle in the recent controversy surrounding the Bundy Ranch in Nevada.

(The owner of the Bundy Ranch near Bunkerville in southern Nevada, has refused to pay fees for the use of adjacent federal lands for grazing since 1993. After a decade of court litigation and accumulating fines, the Bureau of Land Management attempted to repossess the ranch’s cattle these past few weeks, culminating in an armed stand-off. Image from here.)

Chris Hayes covered this initially from a variety of angles, but most interestingly invited Nevada State Senator Michele Fiore, a Bundy Ranch supporter of sorts, to speak on the developments. You can see the video of their exchange here.

Fiore immediately summarizes her perspective as one that rejects the governments response to the Bundy case as essentially heavy-handed, but very quickly makes it clear that she doesn’t disapprove of the government having those powers for supposedly distinct situations. She explained, “Generally when my-  when our federal government comes in armed, we expect a bigger problem, maybe terrorist crossing the border, not an unpaid bill”. She later clarified, “If we literally sent our federal government to the borders to secure them against terrorists crossing, hey I got that, but they want to come here with arms because cows are grazing?”

Her perspective is, essentially informed by the idea that not only is the Bundy Ranch not a problem, but it is not a problem because of inescapable comparisons – to a violent other, understood as different from the speaker probably in terms of race, religion, and national status. The idea of who qualifies as a terrorist, as the balking over calling the Bundy Ranch supporters domestic terrorists shows, is difficult to separate from toxic ideas about exactly those ways of distinguishing people, and the political systems that have elevated White people, practitioners of “Western” religious traditions, and US citizens over others. Fiore and others expressing that viewpoint basically want to play a rigged game.

This is a pattern of thought I’ve been talking about for a while now. Especially in contexts that could be described as having to do with “security”, a new way of thinking about those issues has begun to emerge, which is often called “libertarian” or a new sort of “third way“. It’s often discussed as challenging established power, but when examined closely it prioritizes limiting state power and only in selective ways. Typically, the restrictions that remain are designed to be brought up in a racially and ethnically neutral way, but that reflect biases and prejudices that will allow a backdoor profiling to occur. The implicit idea behind these politics is that state surveillance and aggression need to be curbed, in order to better concentrate on the correct populations (this is the part where the person arguing for them winks or says, “you know“).

Now, the question is, how can people wanting to point that out respond to that? Hayes later explained his decision to invite on Fiore, saying that he wanted to create a place where people can interrogate her ideas and better understand her potential disagreements. I applaud that goal, but I have to say, he unfortunately failed in the moment to get her to address the existence of non-violent people of color who are subject to very militarized state aggression that she doesn’t care about.

His even later analysis (with Michael Eric Dyson) is interesting, but fails to call out the fact that she seems to know what she’s doing – she raised the comparison before he did. There is worth in pointing out (to people who simply aren’t aware of it) that the Bundy Ranch probably wouldn’t still exist if people of color had pulled that stunt, but that doesn’t directly address that that’s exactly how Fiore (and those who agree with her) seems to think it should be. Dyson helpfully points out something quite powerful:

“When people have guns who we think should not have guns, our sense of the social order is- is dramatically changed. Think about the big brouhaha occasioned by Thelma and Louise. Here are two women who took up a few guns and had,you know, if you will, a kind of reverie, and of course ultimate, the potential, suicide. But there was more violence in the first five minutes of Lethal Weapon 1, than in that entire movie, but because women, who are the ordinary victims of gun play, are now the agents of gun play, this is seen as toppling the social order. And when race, and gender, and class, and generation get involved, it begins to change our perception of who legitimately has a gun.”

But Hayes responds to that by asking how liberals (here seeming to mean people who hope to challenge that sort of thinking about who is and who isn’t a threat) should react to that distinction working towards a peaceful solution. He was offered up eloquent commentary on the same sort of distinction that Fiore obviously had working from the beginning of her argument for the Bundy Ranch’s perspective, and rather than pushing his guest to make it even more relevant to the arguments he supposedly had on to engage with, he countered it.

Hayes said in fact, that he’s concerned that the good in the government’s (temporary?) backing off has “gotten lost in this”. That’s admirable, and perhaps we should take a moment to be glad when these sorts of situations are resolved peacefully. That said, Hayes didn’t unfortunately seem as concerned about losing his own thread with analyzing exactly what type of unequal policies Fiore was advocating, and which has for the time being been reflected in how the government has treated the situation at the Bundy Ranch.

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The unreality in America

TW: gun violence, political killings

Over the past couple of days, one particular study has set much of the US blogosphere on fire (along with a few more established media commentators). In a nutshell, congressional representatives consistently estimate their districts to be more conservative than they actually are – independent of their party identity (although Republicans overestimate more egregiously). It’s not just you, US politics really are distorted.

(Both elected Democrats and Republicans estimate their districts to be much more conservative than they actually are, from here.)

While I’m glad that someone’s gone ahead and quantified this phenomenon, I’m sadly not surprised in the least. The US has long had politics that seemed unreal, a fact that comes with nearly daily reminders. I was particularly struck by that confusing part of living in the US while watching Rachel Maddow of all news programs last night. She was explaining the significance of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and noted that he had connections to so many different countries that the US was in direct or indirect conflict with.

She ran through the list: “He buddied up ostentatiously with the Castro brothers in Cuba. He aligned himself with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – President of Iran. He signed giant oil contracts with the Chinese government. He bought weapons and fighter jets from the Russians.” It’s a bit curious that we think of these deals and connections as making Chavez exceptional, rather than reflecting the oddly solitary nature of the US in the world. Maybe Chavez was friends with many of our enemies, but doesn’t that imply something about how many enemies we have?

I had another such rude awakening this morning while commuting to work. In front of me I noticed a peculiar bumper sticker:

(A bumper sticker proclaiming: “Exist” written in scopes and firearms, from here.)

There’s a lot being said with that one word, but let’s simply start with the obvious: it say exist, rather than co-exist. It blatantly rips off and responds to that image that’s at least iconic to me, but it modifies it. Rather than mutual effort to understand respect one another, it’s a declaration of a right to violence. It’s a summary of a growing political philosophy in this country – that violence is a means of establishing one’s freedom. It joins the ranks of scores of earlier joke “hunting licenses” and maps with scopes on them.

But there’s also an important question in light of the evidence that the political realities of the US are not what they seem, that those stickers should raise: are they so impacting because of an actual threat of violence? Or are they so shocking because while vocal, they’re such outliers from the rest of the US? In other words, are they the last stand of a disappearing political subculture? And what risks do such last stands pose?

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Why I don’t talk much about guns

TW: gun violence, racist criminalization, sexism

Obviously the United States has some sort of a problem with the availability of firearms. I don’t really even have to make an argument – I can just list geographic locations, from a movie theater in Aurora, to an elementary school in Sandy Hook, and to a gurdwara in Oak Creek. I don’t have to even reach back to older memories of a high school in Columbine or a certain street corner in Tuscon, because so many incidents of extreme gun violence have happened in the past few months alone. The difficulty we face is frankly undeniable.

That being said, I don’t like debating about guns. No, not because I don’t have opinions on it, but because there’s so little consistency in how even the same policies are or might be applied. We can’t have a substantive national conversation on the issue for a variety of reasons, but that’s the one that frankly sets me off the most. I’ve already talking about how many of us seem to search for some “other people” that can be restricted in new ways to prevent the next tragedy, but beyond that, the laws and principles that we all supposedly live by now are so easily reinterpreted and found to mysteriously apply differently based on a few principles.

In Florida, for example, many people know about how the radical Stand Your Ground laws have essentially forced mass protest to occur to hold one White Latino adult responsible for the death of a young man who was Black. Of course, the same laws were found by the same state police and same state courts to not apply in the context of Marissa Alexander’s self defense against her abusive husband. When the person wielding the gun was a Black woman, rather than a White man, somehow the laws don’t produce the same police and judicial procedures. In Zimmerman’s case, he almost didn’t even stand trial. In Alexander’s case, she’s been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Marissa Alexander
(Alexander as she was being sentenced. From here.)

This is sometimes more subtly expressed though. As this recent batch of mass shootings was just beginning to heat up, the National Rifle Association (NRA) released in anticipation a list of people and organizations it “opposes” to its members (who, by definition, are owners of weapons that can easily kill). The list contained in some cases the work addresses and phone numbers of some of the people it listed. Can you spot the obvious security risk in an organization suggesting that these people are threats and then providing its members with information on how to reach them?

The discrepancy might not be as obvious, but the NRA has been the primary force in opposing a national database of gun purchases, as a means of monitoring the sale of weapons to catch illegal activities. Its reason for this should be clear to anyone remotely familiar with the NRA – the fear of information on gun owners being used to target them. The information the NRA puts out about other individuals, however, is seemingly of no concern.

In short, some of the people in this discussion are fighting dirty, and the real issue seems to be less about access to weaponry rather than whose access to firearms. This isn’t a conversation about rights, but privileges.

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The year gun control became a thing

TW: Oak Creek shooting, Aurora shooting, Newton shooting, islamophobic violence, racist profiling, abilist profiling

In December, even the National Rifle Association needed to offer its wacky solution of arming teachers and other school-based volunteers to deal with some of the ramifications of the availability of certain firearms and the surrounding culture of violence in the US. That is how profoundly firearms-related violence has impacted American politics, after not only a constant background of mass shootings but several high profile cases this year culminating in the recent 27 deaths in Newton, Connecticut. Gun control has become feasible, at least in certain forms.

I’ve written before about the way violent deaths are understood, namely how class, race, gender, and other social categories with serious power discrepancies are something of predictors of how seriously a death will be taken. The rapid string of anti-Muslim attacks earlier this year, based on islamophobic ideas that are still lurking out there, didn’t elicit demands for a serious conversation about violence in the US.

Likewise, in the wake of evidently more convincing shootings, much of the discussion has relied on the idea of bad guys with guns being stopped by good guys with guns. How do we know who the bad guys are, especially if they might be carrying a concealed weapon? Mayor Bloomberg’s office seems to have viewed race as a good answer to that question. Others have seemed to point to the mentally unwell as the obvious bad guys. Gun control has finally become a feasible policy in the US, but only with restrictions applying for those people, who are believed to be the cause of gun violence, contrary to all other evidence.

(Although young Black men and young White men are almost equivalent percentages of New York City’s population, more than a quarter of all stop-and-frisks involve the former while less than 4 percent involve the latter. From here.)

Perhaps it’s insufficient to say we need to examine the way certain firearms and the broader culture in the US are contributing to violence. We need to also notice the ways that violence doesn’t originate from some other, whether racial or psychological. And likewise, that otherness makes people vulnerable to violence. Instead of that, however, we seem poised to seriously discuss gun control for the first time in at least a decade, but while scapegoating certain groups as the primary if not sole originators of violence.

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Dead women of color: political symbols or human beings?

TW: gun violence, racism, sexism

The past week has seen pretty extensive coverage of the lives lost and the grief they left behind in Newtown, Connecticut. The attention involved in this has been, in my opinion, so focused on their daily lives, that it’s humanized the victims to a great degree, even as the tragedy they experienced has reignited discussion on numerous political issues. The nagging question I have, however, is what comparisons can be drawn between this mixed-gender group of almost exclusively White and affluent child victims and the variously aged women of color who faced attempted murders in the past couple of weeks.

In Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, a fifteen year old, was shot in the head after publicly advocating for greater access to education for women both in her home country and more broadly. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has visited her, as she is now a symbol of the struggle against sexist policies for many. In Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died unnecessarily as medical professionals refused to terminate her pregnancy until it not only put her at risk of complications but put her life in “immediate” danger. Unfortunately that wasn’t determined until their inaction had killed her. The Irish government is now considering changing the law, which would ideally not force non-Catholics like Halappanavar to live under catechism-inspired laws as well as establish a parity between Irish and EU law on the issue. In the United States, Kasandra Perkins, the girlfriend of the Detroit Lions’ linebacker, was killed shortly before the player, Jovan Belcher, took his own life. One anti-domestic violence activist actually referred to this as an “educational opportunity” where the NFL might make some sort of statement (they didn’t).

(Halappanavar’s death elicited protests, which used an unfortunately quite familiar slogan, from here.)

Last night, Rachel Maddow mentioned that one of the victims from the shooting at Sandy Hook, a White boy just short of seven years old, loved to play something she only described as “the lawnmowing game on the ipad”. It’s an inane but humanizing detail, and if you stop to consider it, the coverage of all those previously mentioned (near) deaths of women of color didn’t even pause to mention their needs, wants, interests, or desires. There’s no quotes from them directly or from their loved ones. They apparently exist as events with political importance, with little sign of the emotionally charged notion that human beings died in the process.

If these aren’t reported like the deaths of other human beings, the inevitable question might be whether those who write these articles consider the victims to have been human. Beyond that, exposed to stories like this for years on end, does much of their audience think of these women of color as living, thinking, feeling human beings? Or are they merely test subjects for policies, that will be changed when their deaths become particularly noticeable?

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The state remains king

TW: gun violence

As the United States is gripping for another round of debates on whether the state can actually enforce gun laws, it’s worth looking to the rest of the world to check the American skepticism about the state’s potency is necessarily a universal problem. Luckily, the events of the past week are a pretty resounding counterpoint to the idea of laws being option and states being delicate creatures.

In Japan, the recent election handed the Liberal Democratic Party near total control of the government, ostensibly in response to the party’s tough talk concerning Japan’s mineral rights to the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese), as well as similar border disputes with South Korea. The Japanese state is clearly a major player, as a national conversation begins on whether and how to expand nuclear power capabilities (or “nuclear power” capabilities?) and augment the power and size of the military-esque defensive forces Japan is constitutionally permitted to have. Even having lost an empire, an actual military, and the right to preemptively declare war, Japan is a force in the region.

(The Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands are not only strategically located, but thought to have oil or gas reserves trapped beneath them and conveniently lack an indigenous population. Originally from here.)

In the recent Ghanaian election, which I’ve discussed before, the primary policy-focused difference between the mainstream presidential candidates concerned how to direct the state’s resources, not whether the state should direct them. Incumbent President John Mahama argued for recent windfalls from oil exports to be put to use in infrastructural development, while challenger Nana Akufo-Addo called for the primary focus of state-led investment to be in education. There are clear trade-offs involved. Education spending will more likely to be available to urban-dwelling Ghanaians, to say nothing of the class politics of forcing children to potentially choose between their livelihoods and their education. On the other hand, infrastructure typically translates into lucrative contracts for the well connected, but a product that’s often useful to a wider group of the population. In total, 97 percent of the population voted for either of these candidates, as part of the election became a referendum on the particulars of state involvement in the economy, not the concept itself.

Earlier today, the UN War Crimes Court acquitted militant leader Mathieu Ngudjolo, who participated in violent anti-state activities in the northeastern areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) almost a decade ago. So, while the DRC has been considered incredibly impotent in putting down the almost constant state of revolution in that portion of its territory, it successfully detained one of the premier leaders of an earlier uprising and maintained at least partial control over the region. In contrast, the sub-state actors, like Ngudjolo, who are sometimes referred to as warlords, have never been able to establish even de facto independence for very long even in the unstable corner of one of the most defunct states. To top it off, the non-state entity of the United Nations can’t even persuade its own judges that a warlord is guilty of war crimes. Even one of the least stable states in the world has come out ahead of everyone else in this situation.

Even the DRC can outfox armed gun men, but the US has paralyzed itself into believing its own laws can’t be enforced.

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We’re all a little scary

TW: Sandy Hook shooting, gun violence, abilism, racism

Since the shooting of Gabby Giffords and assorted others nearly two years ago by a clinically-diagnosed schizophrenic, public discussion of the prevalent gun violence in the United States and the widespread failure to address the needs of the mentally ill have entangled themselves together. In the wake of the much more recent Sandy Hook shooting, it seems that fear of the psychologically “unwell” as eclipsed all other parts of that discussion, especially among Republicans.

Look no further than yesterday’s This Week, where Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers made it quite clear, that the only people who could ever be using guns towards violent ends are those who are “crazy” so additional laws, particularly those aimed at the “sane” are irrelevancies. Through the ensuing roundtable fellow Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz made it clear that the discussion he thought the only real problem was policing the mentally unstable.

Event recent stories that were reported widely about the violence faced by those deemed mentally ill disappeared down the memory hole, once it became clear that the main options policy makers faced were tighter gun control for everyone or tighter gun control for, in Rodgers’ words, the  “crazies”. This was hardly another narrative floated by the powerful, hoping to hedge a direct assault from the NRA come reelection, as Liza Long’s similarly framed piece, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”, showed.

It’s important, in the face of this to become familiar with the perspective of some of those told that they may need to face new and unique restrictions. This goes double as Connecticut schools were shut down in response to some one seeming “threatening” earlier today. Unmentioned, of course, was what caused the person to be so labeled and how were they deemed safe? Did they seem mentally impaired? Did they look Black? Were they searched? Was it at gunpoint?

Who’s safety is actually going to be enforced by new policies or attitudes created after this shooting?

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This year’s presidential campaigns are stuck between a rock and a hard place

TW: misogynistic policies and rhetoric, institutional racism, deportation, gun violence

Last week, I quoted Brian Williams lamenting that there’s currently little in the way of grand appeals to moderate, centrist, and undecided voters from either the Obama or Romney campaign. Williams faulted the campaigns themselves, implying that they are unconcerned with the quality of political discourse in the country, but I think there’s other factors explaining why both major parties’ tickets are playing cautiously. Looking back over Nate Silver’s record of the presidential polls so far this year, there have been two really interesting political shifts over the summer. As his methodology behind the his poll numbers is rather well thought out and has a good track record of predicting results, I think there may be something important to the appearance a subtle shift in favor of Obama in late June and a sudden erosion of that support at the tail end of July.

(This is a capture of Nate Silver’s “Now-Cast” for the popular vote in the presidential election.)

As shown above, for the most part Obama has hovered approximately 1 to 1.5 percentage points above Romney, excepting the brief period mostly in July when the gap reached as much as 2 points. Interestingly, both the background lead of Obama as well as his July boost seem linked to a wide variety of shifting factors. Unlike the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, which were to a large extent referendums on George Bush’s prior term or terms, there’s a great deal of muddling about what issues this election will focus on.

I’d argue that two major forces were creating Obama’s smaller but sustained lead prior to the last week of June, through his July surge, and even now – the blowback from the War on Women and increasing restrictions on voting. Especially in the past few weeks, misogyny that simultaneously denies women their reproductive freedoms, denies basic scientific knowledge of female reproductive biology, and denies that women are valid witnesses to their bodily experiences, has been exposed as a component to the Republican presidential ticket and the Republican Party’s platform.

Likewise, while new voter restrictions have disenfranchised millions of Americans, their effect on the polls is probably quite negative for the Republican Party, as they can easily be interpreted as fixing elections. Whether criticism of the party for attempts to purge voters in Florida and Colorado as well as instituting new restrictions in numerous other states will actually counterbalance the mass disenfranchisement in the coming elections remains to be seen, but currently both presidential campaigns seem to anticipate even the most stringent barriers to voting to have minimal impact.

Against the electoral background created by those two issues, late June saw a bit of a perfect storm, if a smaller one, for the Obama campaign. The President’s executive order to halt deportations of undocumented individuals who would have been able to apply for citizenship under the DREAM Act on June 15, was an action the Romney campaign couldn’t respond to without either alienating vital Latino support or nativist segments of the Republican base. He spent the following weeks in June seeming weak and indecisive if not two-faced on the issue, which allowed Obama to regain levels of Latino support reminiscent of his 2008 landslide.

Meanwhile, in proceeding weeks the Obama campaign had been producing some hard-hitting ads about Romney’s record of disaster capitalism at Bain, but I remember an ad originally aired on June 23 affecting people more than earlier ones. Something about the poetic cruelty of being forced to build the stage on which an executive announced your downsizing convinced people more effectively than earlier ads, which many pundits had declared to be a tactical mistake by the Obama campaign. In any case, this and later ads seemed to shore up Obama’s support in Democrat-leaning areas of the rustbelt and give him a small but clear lead in more conservative states in the same formerly union-rich region.

Of course, not all of the major events at the end of June were ones that necessarily favored Obama. The most impacting of them – the Roberts ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – was contained in its damage, however, as it mainly rallied the conservative base to push for a full repeal and the liberal base for a reinstatement or similar fix. The only demographic that it seems to have caused to shift were independents who agreed with Obama’s progressive social policies and comparatively moderate international approach but differed with him on economic issues. Concentrated in rural New England, the worst damage was in New Hampshire, where Obama’s lead shrank significantly but didn’t disappear.

While there are obviously other issues that have reared their heads at various points in this election, these seem to be among the major players, which the Republican National Convention is in part trying to respond to, both to prevent another rush like the July surge and to address the fact that their party is systemically behind. That’s why we’ve seen so many prominently featured female speakers of color – Mia Love, Nikki Haley, Lucé Vela, Condoleezza Rice, and Susana Martinez. That’s partly an attempt to inoculate their party from criticism for supporting nativist, racist, and misogynistic policies. This is also why they’ve worked to reframe the “You didn’t build that”/“We built it” debate around immigrants who started family-run businesses (like the Tangs referenced by Rand Paul), pulling the quote out of its context as a criticism of the supposed captains of industry. That’s an effort to reframe the previous discussion of class and inequality in a way more favorable to their party. That’s also why Attorneys General Pam Bondi and Sam Olens (of Florida and Georgia, respectively) framed voter restrictions as a reasonable precaution and a national health care mandate as tyranny – to defend the Republican stance on those issues. It seems likely that at least a few of those themes will be touched on throughout the remaining speeches tonight.

Intriguingly enough though, the issue of violence in American culture and potential policies of gun control, which seem linked to Obama’s falling numbers in later July, is a topic that can only be faintly implied, as in New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez’s speech. It’s worth noting that in the later weeks of July, originally after the Aurora shooting but as similar incidents continued to rock the nation, calls for gun control seriously perturbed firearm advocates, and tapped into a long-standing anti-Obama message. With a wide range of firearm-related deaths in recent memory, it’s understandable that this point is too politically risky for Republicans to directly address. It’s likewise the case that Obama, as described by Ta-Nehisi Coates, has to remain absolutely non-threatening as a Black man and can’t even obliquely reference these issues without eliciting blowback.

So the political campaigns have taken a huge twist in the past few months. Obama is capable of making key choices to heighten his lead but vulnerable to events outside of his control limiting his ability to discuss pressing issues in any capacity. Romney likewise can’t directly reference the issues most toxic to Obama because they’re potentially dangerous for him to be seen as politicizing, and he can’t counter Obama’s current strengths without some duplicity (namely, implying one thing to White supporters and implying another to Latinos and other people of color). This race is practically guaranteed from here on out to be an interesting series of rhetorical gymnastics. Obama can speak plainly but only as long as certain issues are out of the picture and Romney has to speak around issues to lead different groups to mutually exclusive conclusions about what his policies would be. To the extent that Brian Williams is right that neither campaign is directly addressing many of the important political issues, he’s ignoring the complex reasons behind their strategic choices.

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