Bernie Sanders, Racial Justice, Reduxing the Redux

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I know I’ve spent more than a little time this past week considering matters of race, policing, Sanders, ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ and Sanders’ seeming response with his newly-drafted policy platform on racial justice.

I don’t apologize. I have a feeling that these issues may well become a defining angle on the presidential debate over the next year.

And so. I read and re-read Bernie’s section on racial justice. Something about it bothered me. And it took me a while to work out what. As is my wont, I will now wander places which may make people uncomfortable. But. Hmm. I seem to do that.

There are very useful, interesting and constructive discussions which could be held, should be held about the matters raised in Bernie’s policy platform on racial justice. I hope that I have, in my advocacy over the years, been making some small contribution myself.

Whether it was my advocacy through and beyond the 2008 presidential election, when I campaigned for a candidate (any candidate) to adopt the notion that we could seriously impact the immediate symptoms of poverty by implementing a pledge that every man, woman and child in the US should have access to adequate food, clothing, housing and healthcare.

My attempt to get the Obama administration to set up a system of community organizers to ensure the sensitive disbursement of anti-poverty funds arising from his 2009 economic stimulus.

My current efforts to help introduce and explore the concept of citizen design of policing in Carrboro, NC.

My problem with Bernie’s new section on racial justice is that it does not offer a temperate and thoughtful review of the matters contributing to the discomfort surrounding the issues of color in the US, not least with policing. Rather it is a one-sided rant, offering little more than a check list of people and institutions to blame and victimize.

It is my opinion that any meaningful discussion of race in the US requires nuanced consideration of all sorts of impulses and imperatives, some of which are necessarily in conflict.

I want today to address just one matter that is raised in Bernie’s section on racial justice, a matter to which others return when I debate with them. Namely, the apparent bias in our justice system (from policing to court), which causes a seeming imbalance in the number of people of color in prison.

Is it reasonable merely to look at outcome (numbers in prison) and state baldly, as Bernie’s section appears to do, that this is a consequence of racial bias in our justice system? Or does it require further and sensitive examination, analysis and discussion? Not least about the rights and responsibilities of all of the protagonists which led to the bald numbers?

This is usually the point at which at least one of my friends screams: racist!

Let’s get down to the neighborhood level, and look at just one situation, merely as example. I truly understand the frustration of folk who say (and they have said it with respect to the conversation we are having in Carrboro; I’m not making this up): it’s ok for rich white people. They live on five acres. Their kids have their own room. They can engage in illegal activity unseen by cops.

Less advantaged families have to fit into a small apartment. Illegal activity takes place on balconies. Where it can be seen by cops. It’s not that poor people, or more specifically poor people of color, commit more non-violent crime. It is that they are more likely to be seen, and therefore caught.

What happens next is that police take to patrolling those neighborhoods more, partly because records now show there is more crime there, partly to increase arrest numbers. Folks in those neighborhoods feel stigmatized and targeted. Their kids have records. And this may start them down a path to more serious whatever. Bingo. More people from poor backgrounds and of color in prison for non-violent crime. Racial bias.

Is the response to apply the law unevenly, merely because of economic circumstance? At the very least, isn’t it fair to accept that this is a valid question, rather than merely presuming the answer is yes, as Bernie appears to do?

Is the answer to turn a blind eye? To decriminalize certain non-violent crime? Or reduce the sentences? Evenly? Or again, do we apply the blind eye unevenly, in response to economic circumstance?

If one person says economic circumstance is no excuse for breaking the law, it is fair to consider another person who says, yes, but we need to look at remedying cause as well as punishing effect?

And, straying a little from the specific issue of legal justice, when examining economic circumstance, is the answer to abandon the community where there is economic disadvantage, or is the better solution to work for improving that neighborhood?

I don’t pretend that the short moment spent discussing the above is the be all and end all of the nuance I reference. I offer it merely as a small example of what I mean by nuanced and balanced consideration.

And it is that nuance and balance which I feel is missing from Bernie’s section on racial justice. Rather I find his policy platform to be simplistic, trite, angry and bombastic.

There are a lot of angry people in the US today. On all sides of the debate on race, justice and policing.

It is entirely appropriate for an organization lobbying on behalf of a specific issue or an identified group of people to be so one-sided. That is their reason for being.

I would hope that a man I admire and who is running for President would be more recognizing of the fact that different viewpoints exist and require more careful navigation.

[Again, a rather interesting discussion began when I posted this essay on Facebook.]

Self-Determination -v- We Know Best

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Been having some interesting thoughts and conversations hither and thither about racial justice and policing. Keep coming back to a similar point. When do we leave it to people? And when does some higher authority decide for us that our decision-making sucks?

The issue specifically arose when I was discussing citizen design of policing with a couple of gents yesterday, and one said, and I paraphrase, I’ll get more detailed in a moment, what if folks in a particular community don’t get or don’t want to engage in citizen design, and bad policing continues? Do the rest of us merely stand aside and accept the bad policing? Or do we do something about it?

Huh. Good questions. And my immediate, non-detailed answer is, if folks don’t want citizen design in their community, and they aren’t in breach of state or federal laws, then it’s none of our business.

Ok. Now the long, detailed trek. I first ran (one of my very few elective successes) for my local municipal council in the UK when I was 22. I had all sorts of ‘efficient’ notions. The best was my idea for street co-ordinators, who were to be tasked with ensuring that everyone kept their part of the street clean and trimmed, so that the town looked pretty.

Harmless enough, until I realized years later that I had absolutely no business telling other people how their street should look. That was their business, not mine. I could advocate for tidy streets. I could offer guidance. I could even lobby for funds, if a low income street could not afford it. But I had no right to impose my values on someone else.

I have spent nine years advocating in the worker-consumer grocery co-op where I am an employee for more worker democracy. More inclusion of workers in decision-making. And for it to be easier for employees to become worker-owners, so that they can vote in elections for the Worker-Owner Board Directors.

I have been marginally successful. And in the year after the Board of Directors finally agreed to make it easier for employees to become worker-owners, the number of worker-owners in our co-op (of some 250 employees) increased from 99 to some 220.

Last year, a candidate demonstrably advocating for even more worker democracy in our co-op was defeated 55 votes to 19 by someone who, somewhat unkindly, but accurately, I will describe as a management stooge.

Am I disappointed that employees don’t take advantage of the new situation that I spent nine years helping to create, namely one designed to elect Directors who might actually want to help them? Yes. But that is their right.

I was deeply troubled after the shooting of Michael Brown a year ago. I originate from Great Britain. We have very different policing over there. I simply could not understand how any community would put up with policing of this nature.

I’m not stupid. I have heard all about the legacy of white supremacy. Implicit racial bias. I truly wanted to sympathize. I wanted to help find a way forward. Which did not involve burning cars and throwing rocks. And I wanted for that solution to come from the community. But, again, I knew about the legacy of racism. And so on. And so on. Round and round in circles.

And then, I discovered two stats. 67% of the people in Ferguson, Missouri are people of color. And in the municipal elections immediately preceding the death of Michael Brown, only some 12% of the electorate had voted.

I staked out a position, which angered some people. I declared that the remedy lay in the hands of the people themselves. All they had to do was exercise their right to vote. Get in black municipal councilors. Appoint a new police chief. And weed out the racists.

My viewpoint was attacked as simplistic. All sorts of arguments were run about the difficulty some black people encountered in voting. I took the view then, and still take it now, that patronizing blacks, or any other group of people in our society, is no less segregation than asking them to use different toilets.

The net result was that, at the municipal elections in Ferguson this past April, three out of three black candidates were elected.

This served only further to inform my approach with citizen design of policing. Where I say that the solution to bad policing, if it exists, already lies in the hands of the communities being badly policed. We just don’t make use if it.

Every law enforcement agency in this country has an institution which funds it, an institution run by elected officials. All that has to happen is for voters to choose candidates who believe that it is the elected officials (along with concerned citizens and the law enforcers) who should draft and monitor the rules of engagement for those law enforcers, not the law enforcers on their own.

It is at this point of discussion that the top-down politico’s enter the picture.

But what if a community doesn’t want citizen design? Their choice. Leave ’em alone. What if they decide their policy is, shoot first, ask second? Again, if it isn’t against a state or federal law, that is their right. If you don’t like it, move to a nicer community.

What if at risk folks don’t vote? Don’t be so bloody patronizing. Try using some of that time we progressives spend making ourselves feel good actually getting into those at-risk communities and helping folks to register.

What about the legacy of white supremacy, social disadvantage, economic inequality? What on earth does that have to do with voting for someone who will give you the opportunity to help design the policing approach in your community?

What if enough people don’t vote for candidates who support citizen design? Well, that’s democracy.

What if they can’t find enough decent suitable candidates who want to be the sort of police officer they want? Oh c’mon. Keep looking. Offer more money.

What if the community does not have enough money? Ok. That’s a good question. There is a wider dimension to citizen design, I grant you. Goes something like this.

I think that, at first, we need to test the concept fully in a quiet township, like my hometown of Carrboro, NC. Iron out the wrinkles.

Then, we can try it in a couple of townships with more demonstrable problems. Perhaps translate to county and state law enforcement agencies, to see how the relationship between citizens, elected officials and law enforcement officers works in a less obviously defined ‘community.’

Next, we probably need to have discussions at state and federal level, to consider universal guidelines (not too onerous; no, you can’t introduce capital punishment for parking in the Mayor’s slot), and to consider public subsidy for communities which can not afford the reasonable costs of their own citizen design.

Around about this point, the discussions have generally dissolved into questions along the lines of, well, if this has always been possible, why hasn’t it been done?

Frankly, I have no bloody clue. But I think that part of the answer lies in all of the ‘obstacles’ folks keep referencing when they tell me the notion of citizen design can’t possibly work, or won’t solve the problems of bad or racist policing.

And I’ll be honest, the ‘obstacles’ that annoy me the most are those that, in my humble opinion, seem utterly to patronize people at risk, and presume, although God forbid the words would ever be uttered by progressives, that those at risk are not capable of designing anything themselves, and that they need higher authorities to tell them what is best for them.

I have changed over the course of my life. I no longer think I have the best answer for anything. I am prepared every single day to expect better ideas from those experiencing the problems themselves. It is why I devote my advocacy now simply to creating the space where others may have the chance to design their own destiny – however imperfect the rest of us may think that destiny to be.

Bernie Sanders, Racial Justice and Policing

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My sparring partner on Facebook (Neil Shock) and I have exchanged a little on the subject of the ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ protests at a couple of Bernie Sanders’ political events.

Neil directed me to the views of Bernie, on policing and racial justice. I had two separate comments to make. I set ’em out:

“We have communities in this country who feel that the police are going to war on them. You do not correct that imbalance by going to war on the police.

Why is it that almost every American I meet has no concept of the notion of collective policing, as it was originally conceived, namely that policing takes place only with the consent of the community?

If you are one who feels that your community has or should withdraw its consent, then establish a process that re-establishes the notion of consent. Don’t whine. And don’t go to war.

Police are not authorities unto themselves, with whom we need to barter or go to war. They are public employees, who perform only with our consent. And therein lies the solution.

Every single law enforcement agency in this country is beholden to a civilian institution for its funding. And those institutions are run by elected officials.

Make it a condition of voting for a candidate that they will enforce a new social compact with police, who after all are no more and no less than public employees, a new social compact which states that, in return for funds, police must henceforth accept that their rules of engagement and operation are to be drafted and monitored by those elected officials, in conjunction with police and concerned citizens, but no longer by the police on their own.

It really is as simple as that. I call it ‘citizen design of policing’ [citizenpolicing.com]. You can call it whatever you like. And operate it in your locale however you like.

The one thing we do not need to do, when a simple approach like this presents itself, is to meet war with war.”

And:

“Bernie Sanders, bless him, is basically a professorial type, gloriously out of water. Give him a chance to get used to this sort of attention, and his responses might improve.

His groupies, the ones doing all the tutting, are looking ahead to the conversation they think they are going to have, the one where they tell Bernie it’s time to grow up, because this is looking serious now.

A conversation in which I hope Bernie limits himself to two words, the first one beginning with f, and the second one ending with the same letter.

Now I used to be a tacky political operator. And if I was advising Bernie, I’d say, don’t mess about, invite BLM to draft your platform on structural racism. With a very specific program as to how to address it.

Make the pledge: you draft it; it ain’t crazy; I get elected; you’ll be given the remit to implement it. Now, put your money where your mouth is.

I personally have very little time for empty words. I believe in doing (cf. citizen design of policing: citizenpolicing.com).

The only thing is, I simply do not understand why I, a white, sort of progressive, reformed British Conservative, am the one advancing this concept. Where are the US progressives – white, black or polka dot?

I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered since being in this country. There are too many folks having too much fun saying no. And not enough doing the hard, difficult, unseen job of designing the yes.”

As a consequence of my post, a rather interesting discussion began to develop here.

Achievable Aspiration -v- Misplaced Envy

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There was an article in yesterday’s NYTimes which isn’t strictly to do with policing, but it is to do with quality of life in poor neighborhoods, which is tangential. I’ve been thinking long and hard about that article for some twelve hours now. There is something about it which deeply disturbs me.

Why does anyone think they deserve what someone else has, rather than striving to improve their own lot?

I’m about ready to give up on labels. So, I’m not going to try to classify my politics in this post.

But people are not born equal. We have different gifts, different talents, different flaws. I believe in equality of opportunity. But aiming for equality of outcome is an unnatural ambition, which only leads to resentment.

And so it is that I keep reading this article, looking for efforts to improve systemic housing, educational and economic opportunities for those currently in disadvantage. And all I find are people who want to go live with the rich white folk.

Isn’t this just self-defeating?

I really would prefer we try to design policies and programs that are truly color-blind. That work to re-shape communities at risk. With public subsidy where necessary.

But I keep coming up against people who want nothing more than to identify and isolate black people as black people. Black people as much as white folk.

Maybe I suffer from still being an outsider. But, as that outsider, what I see are both black and white straining to maintain segregation.

If you aim for a society that deliberately treats black and white differently, even if the ambition is well-meaning, you merely create a new form of segregation.

The path to true integration lies in creating rules that apply and opportunities that are available equally to all parties.

Wanting what the other person has, leaving your disadvantaged community to go live with the rich people, may serve as a short-term fix. But it actually perpetuates segregation and disadvantage.

Why not instead join forces with your community, create political and economic muscle in numbers, and work for improvement?

Policing: Suppression, De-Escalation, Detention or Release? [Part II]

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Reports of a man killing five children and three adults in a home in Houston, Texas once again highlight the other side of the coin in this whole discussion about citizen design of policing.

If citizens are going to be involved in designing the policing approach in their community (citizenpolicing.com), then participant citizens are going to have to consider what sorts of rules of engagement to design for situations like this.

Do you contain or suppress? De-escalate or detain? Hold back, go in? Did police wait too long? Should they have tried to enter before the High Risk Operations Unit arrived?

If we, as citizens, are saying we no longer want police, who are simply public employees, to be making these sorts of decisions on their own. We, as citizens, want to be the ones to write the rules of engagement. Then we have to be prepared to step up to the plate, have the time to think these things through, and then have the courage to stand by our police, if they follow our rules.

Are we ready to do that?

‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ ‪#‎MichaelBrown‬ ‪#‎ChristianTaylor‬

Policing: Suppression, De-Escalation, Detention or Release? [Part I]

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I hope there is no serious doubt that I personally am doing all that it is possible for one engaged citizen to do to try to improve the relationship between police and citizenry in my community and within the US generally by my advocacy for citizen design of policing [citizenpolicing.com].

But, on this one year anniversary of the shooting of ‪#‎MichaelBrown‬, I find myself utterly perplexed by the incident making headlines this morning, in relation to which a video has been released (‪#‎ChristianTaylor‬).

If this incident, and frankly, so many others, were to be the subject of any process flowing from citizen design of policing, it is my opinion that citizen participants would find themselves facing a very difficult yet pertinent question:

Precisely what rules of engagement do we design for our law enforcers when they are faced with an apparent lawbreaker who allegedly refuses to desist, will not submit to detention and seeks to flee the scene?

Do we instruct our law enforcers to detain at all cost? Or do we design a rule that states that a potential lawbreaker be allowed to go free?

A few side issues. Is anyone seriously suggesting this incident represents profiling or racial bias?

Save for the question of detention -vs- release, is anyone suggesting that the arrival of two police officers equates to an inappropriate display of law enforcement presence?

I say again, this incident just leaves me baffled. Not least because, and not for the first time, the response portrayed in the media seems to bear no relation to facts or resolution, but rather, more to arch political motivation.

Sandra Bland

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I sympathize with the Attorney General’s comments on the Sandra Bland case – to an extent. But I also feel that it is time to talk about the anti-societal attitude of all participants in confrontations where law and order is being enforced.

I agree totally with Loretta Lynch when she says the ultimate solution to engendering a situation where a community feels comfortable with the way it is being policed is for there to be input from the community on that policing approach. Hence, my advocacy for citizen design of policing.

Will that require a change in policing approach? Almost certainly. Will it focus on new training with de-escalation a priority? That depends on each community. For there can be no one-size-fits-all solution.

In my hometown of Carrboro, where we are already holding community forums between police, elected officials and citizens, in due course, I will certainly be wanting to discuss de-escalation rules of conduct. But, when I do so, I will emphasize that it is incumbent on all participants to de-escalate.

Just as it is unacceptable to have police act in a manner which makes the community feel uncomfortable, it is unacceptable for individual citizens to act in a way which makes police feel threatened.

At the end of the day, it is for the community to regulate the behavior of its police force, not individual citizens at the moment of law enforcement, whatever the citizen may think.

At that point, it is totally unfair to demand that a police officer make a distinction between someone losing their rag because they don’t like being stopped, and someone who may be about to pull a gun.

There is no doubt that certain police are abusing their authority. That must be controlled. By the community. In the meantime, police, for better or worse, act on behalf of the community.

It is for the community to set rules for, to monitor and to regulate the police. If you have a complaint about police behavior, under citizen design, you will be able to go to a forum, complain, and get the rules changed, if that is what is required.

But even under citizen design, once you have made a police officer aware you believe he is abusing his authority, your recourse will lie with citizen design – after the confrontation. Not during it. At that moment, whether you like it or not, the police officer, acting on behalf of the community, is the arbiter of the situation, not you.