Justice


Last week I wrote about FBI Director James Comey’s speech on law enforcement and race relations. A few new thoughts since then:

Can institutions with toxic origins or a toxic past ever be truly reformed? (Consider school turnaround strategies and whether those are effective). Can people imagine a day where our law enforcement system is just or do we need something new entirely? What do we do until then in the absence of real community accountability alternatives?

Two things that seem relevant:

  • The U.N. Committee against Torture recently “urged the United States … to fully investigate and prosecute police brutality and shootings of unarmed black youth…”
  • Activists are demanding reparations for the survivors of police torture in Chicago.

These are both things I wish got more coverage, and they both make me wonder if we need some sort of equivalent of a “truth and reconciliation commission” — an external body to help our country face and move forward on race and policing.

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FBI Director James B. Comey addresses students and faculty at Georgetown University. Seated is Edward Montgomery, dean of the the university’s McCourt School of Public Policy, which co-hosted the event

Photo via FBI.gov of James B. Comey delivering Thursday’s speech

FBI Director James Comey gave an unprecedented speech yesterday [full text] on law enforcement and race relations, giving a thoughtful — though at times frustrating — take on the relationship between police and communities of color.

David Graham of The Atlantic wrote: “[Comey] seemed genuinely concerned about the tensions between the two groups.” And I agree: much of the speech thoughtfully decried the far-too-frequent circumstances that bring young Blacks and Latinos in contact with police, the lack of consistent annual data collection around how many African Americans are shot by police, and the ugly history of law enforcement serving as an enforcer of the racist status quo in the United States. (I wish I wasn’t surprised when an FBI Director says thoughtful things.)

The best parts of Comey’s speech made me consider that I need more of an open heart and mind when it comes to members of law enforcement, especially as someone who is not frequently targeted by them. As an anti-war organizer from 2003-2009, I often heard the phrase “love the warrior, hate the war.” For me, this means directing criticisms at institutions rather than individuals when relevant.

But it’s the solutions he posed that missed the mark in some places. According to Graham, “[Comey] placed a heavy burden on communities of color to solve the problem, while deflecting police responsibility […] [B]lack men can do everything right and still end up on the wrong side of an encounter with the police.”

There were a few other things that irked me about the speech. For one, Comey insisted that “…racial bias isn’t epidemic in…law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts.” This comment felt like speculation. Has anyone seen research about this?

And I didn’t like Comey’s assertion that “officers had rescued [Bedford Stuyvesant] from the grip of violent crime.” For one, “rescue” is a very loaded term, but there are also many more factors at play in that changing neighborhood (where I used to teach).

Still, as Graham wrote: “Comey’s speech is a milestone in the conversation springing out of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland […] The question is whether he will confine his search for such solutions to communities of color, or shift his focus to address the systemic problems with law enforcement itself.” I, for one, am hopeful that smart pressure by activists and writers and thoughtful reactions from elected and appointed officials can lead to reform of our criminal justice system.

I am having trouble making sense of it all, so I point you to a few things I’ve been reading:
The National Guard arrived in Ferguson last night presumably to keep calm in the streets. Would it not send an even more powerful message for those officers to guarantee the safe passage of thousands of children to school?
Grand juries nearly always decide to indict. Or at least, they nearly always do so in cases that don’t involve police officers.
The grand jury decision on the Ferguson case was in keeping with a longstanding pattern: Police officers rarely face prison time after a fatal shooting, as the Los Angeles Times reported last week. One reason is that intent is hard to prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ prosecutors tend to see police as allies, and jurors are inclined to be sympathetic to law enforcement.

People want to call abusive men—men like the man I used to love, and men like Ray Rice—“monsters.” But that term, with its connotations of the unnatural and uncontrollable, absolves the abuser of the responsibility for being human. It also makes it easier for people to blame women like Janay Rice — who admits to loving a man who has abused her — for staying in a relationship with someone “inhuman.”

– From this brave article by Lacy M. Johnson at GOOD about why we should stop calling abusive men “monsters”

[Adrian] Peterson isn’t a monster. Nor are the millions of parents who spank their children every day. Raising kids can be frustrating. You try so hard to make them behave, but they just don’t listen. You hope a spanking will get their attention, and it does. But they’re not listening to your words. They’re listening to the switch, or the belt, or the sting of your palm. With every blow, you’re losing contact. Remember that the next time you raise your hand.

– From William Saletan’s brave piece about corporal punishment (and his own experiences with it) over at Slate

There’s not much difference to me between the adjunct crisis in higher education and the labor conversations that fast food and other low wage workers are having. It’s just that we like to see ourselves as different. We like to see our destinies as different. But they’re the same thing.

— Excerpt from an interview between inequality scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom and reporter Carla Murphy of Colorlines.

I appreciate that McMillan Cottom talks about structural change for vulnerable workers across class lines. I recently left academia after three years as an adjunct professor, where I struggled with voicing my concerns about adjunct exploitation.

But McMillan Cottom reminds me not to fall into the myth of scarcity — there is room to talk about all these injustices. Exploitation is exploitation is exploitation. Read the fascinating interview here — it touches on feminism, labor protests, and reparations.