Reflections On Opeth’s New Album

In which I do an album review.

And I forgot about the mellotron!  How could I forget the mellotron?

Cogs In A System

You’re providing a lot of color here “half”, “Nazi”, “thugs” – all introduced by you.

Look: an accountable, trustworthy police force is essential to a just society and a functioning democracy. Cops do an incredibly hard, stressful job, and must be aware that any time they’re on the streets sudden violence is a possibility. We can all respect the difficulties.

But: the (limited) license the cops have to exert force, and the incentive they have to strike first and hardest, create a difficult situation, one that is susceptible to abuse and to mistrust. And yet we are blessed to have technological resources to significantly alleviate these structural problems: the Badge Cam. If every cop knew their on-duty activities were being recorded (with the recordings under appropriate seal so they didn’t have to fear toilet humor or their loose tongues), they could know that they were protected against false accusations of unwarranted police brutality – and the public could know they were protected against false claims of Resisting Arrest and the like.

Remember, that’s where we started all this: not with claims all cops are scum (nor that half of them are Nazi thugs) but with a case of the cops violently refusing to be recorded, to be made accountable. So long as the cops refuse not only continuous monitoring but even sporadic, citizen-led monitoring, the assumption will have to be they are hiding and protecting thuggish behavior. – Warren Terra, comment at Lawyers, Guns, and Money

You may or may not have thought about this, but it’s not just that men of color (and some other categories like LGBT people of any color who don’t match cops’ notions of expected gender presentation) are likely to have less equitable encounters than you. It’s that they’re likely to have many, many more encounters with cops than you.

Even in elementary school, my black friends got an order of magnitude more “just checking you out, son” kinds of hails. As an adult, I find that being stopped by the police, generally with a skeptical to hostile suspicion that they’re just the suspects for whatever crime is handy, is a routine part of the experience of my black friends in a way it just isn’t for me and others.

Your encounters with cops, and mine, come filtered through multiple layers of self-restraint that simply don’t apply when they’re dealing with people of color. – Bruce B., comment at Lawyers, Guns, and Money

The issue is mostly not the individual personalities of the cops. Some of those are a problem too, but they aren’t the root of the problem. It’s broken systems, broken incentives, a culture that promotes an us vs them mentality. It’s a lack of accountability for the ones that do bad things, which I think is a higher number than you’re willing to admit. It’s a culture of treating violence as a primary problem-solving tool that extends beyond the job – domestic violence is 2-4 times more common in police families than in the general population.

If I am in trouble, I would not necessarily call the police – depends on the trouble and the circumstances – and believe me, an awful lot of people would say the same. In Ferguson, there were some thieves who targeted the protests, and my phone got stolen out of my hand the first night I was there. There were dozens of police within shouting distance and I did not shout for them because I was afraid of them (and more importantly, afraid of what they might do to the less-privileged people around me). Some of them were pointing guns, live-ammo assault rifles, at protesters who were offering them no threat.

I have had many other bad experiences with the police, mostly at protests though occasionally outside of them, including sexual harassment, watching them beat and strangle people, and having them brush me off when I reported a homophobic hate crime last year. I have also had some good experiences with the police. But my individual experiences, while they definitely inform my views, aren’t the point. The systems are the point. – JL, comment at Lawyers, Guns, and Money

To this I only want to add the following anecdote.  In 1998, I worked on a state-funded project in the same building as the Southside Virginia Community Corrections office.  I worked closely with three county sheriff departments, two municipal police departments, and the Virginia State Police.  The director of SVCC was a former Marine officer and Virginia State Police Officer and detective.  At times, he could make clear that many police have the attitudes they do because of constant exposure to people at the worst points in their lives.  This made a certain amount of sense to me; you rarely meet people who just say “Hi” to you and offer you coffee when you are in their home because of a domestic dispute, or are dealing with an armed robbery suspect, or what-have-you.  On the other hand, he made clear that once the police had made an arrest, it was likely the person was guilty of the crime with which they’d been charged.  Police officers watching people they “knew” to be guilty either receiving a lighter sentence or walking away completely created a low-level of anger and frustration that resulted not just in cynicism but a tendency to take out that anger on suspects.

I do not know how much of this psychologizing about police behavior is or is not correct.  Some of it rings with more than a bit of truth.  By and large, however, I think it only works if one considers how police fit in the much larger apparatus of state control represented no only by the police, but the courts, the prison system, and how this apparatus serves to perpetuate racial and class repression.  That the default approach for many police officers is violence; that the default for other officers is to defend violent actions regardless of the facts or outside any reasonable justifications for violence; that the targets of this violence tend to be poor, male, and persons of color out of any proportion to their numbers in society at large is too often defended by a psychology that assumes young adult males are more prone to violence than other members of society, and that males who are also poor and/or members of communities of color have even more reasons to act out violently; all this creates a system in which policy impunity becomes part and parcel of police work, both defensible and rational within the terms society has chosen to understand the behavior of a particular cohort of the population that is consistently targeted by the police.

None of this, then, is aimed at any particular police officer, police department, or questions either the personal integrity or racial/class biases of any individual person.  What it does is focus attention on the way police have been and continue to be used as part of a system of social control.  It doesn’t eliminate individual responsibility for officers who violate the rights and bodies of persons; what it does is explain how and why this occurs, offering an opportunity for people to work towards fixing the problem so we have far fewer Michael Browns, as well as far fewer Darrel Wilsons.

Doing It Wrong

A look that drives men wild, according to some school districts

A look that drives men wild, according to some school districts

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through – “Changes”, lyrics by David Bowie

I sometimes wonder what adults in charge of youth are thinking.  Have they forgotten what it is like to be an adolescent?  Do they understand the realities of attraction between males and females?  Are they aware of the realities of human sexuality?  I ask these questions because an old high school buddy of mine who still lives in the area reported on Facebook that a local school district is imposing restrictions on girls’s clothing.  Specifically, v-neck tops and sweat pants.  As the above photo of a woman in a v-neck demonstrates, it is obvious why they are now banned.  Or maybe not.  The reasons stated for the change are simple: measures to prevent teen pregnancy.  During a time when the teen pregnancy rate continues to drop as shown on this graph:

Courtesy of the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention

Courtesy of the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention

In an effort, then, to prevent what is already a declining “problem”, the Athens, PA Area School District appears to be adopting the notion that girls wearing clothing that some might consider revealing, provocative, or perhaps just easy to remove (the only thing about sweat pants that seems remotely alluring).  Adopting this position places the onus for preventing pregnancy squarely on the shoulders – and legs – of teen girls.  It makes girls’s appearance the reason they are becoming pregnant at the lowest rate recorded.  It also assumes teen boys, helpless in the face, or perhaps cleavage, of teen girls find themselves a drooling tumescent mass fixated on coitus at any cost.

There is so much wrong with this, I’m not even sure where to begin.  Except, perhaps, with the fact that a school districts’s main purpose is to educate our children and youth.  What lesson does such a policy teach kids?  Beyond the on-going social conditioning that females are (sometimes, perhaps often) unwitting objects of male desire simply because of their dress, I’m not sure what is being taught.  Certainly not the realities of sexual desire, or even human sexuality in general.  That some people continue to believe the possible glimpse of cleavage sends your typical male into thoughtless lust and a demand for sexual congress is probably among the more ridiculous ideas out there.  By not teaching boys and young men how to control their natural pleasure when confronted by girls, we are perpetuating a system in which girls are responsible for their own victimization.

It would be nice if Athens Schools taught sex ed in such a way that it included promotion of safer sex, contraception, and the realities both of physical desire as well as how the act is consummated, relieving from girls the onus of preventing a possible unwanted pregnancy because they might, under certain conditions, reveal more of themselves than some might think preferable.  It might also be a good idea for the Athens Area School District Board to look at the ongoing decline in teen pregnancy rates and consider the possibility they are fighting a battle American society as a whole has been winning for a quarter century.  I do not think it possible that there has been a sudden uptick in pregnancies locally due to the prevalence of somewhat revealing clothing.  Of course, I might be wrong.  That doesn’t justify punishing girls for their appearance.

Ferguson Is America

Sondra Fifer defines courage, confronting a rally of whites supporting Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson

Sondra Fifer defines courage, confronting a rally of whites supporting Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson

As events continue to unfold in Ferguson, MO, it becomes ever more clear how the violence, the anger, the resentment, the fear, and most of all the division between African-Americans and whites show us who we are as a people.  It would be wonderful to believe we are our best selves.  It would be even better if we lived our best selves.  The facts of the matter, however, demonstrate not only the systemic violence that continues unabated against minority communities, but the lack of any desire by whites to take a stand against injustice, oppression, and a death penalty meted out not by judges and juries but police officers in the course of their duties.

I’m writing this Sunday morning, August 24.  I’m writing this before I head off to church, to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, the Father of Jesus Christ who died and rose to deliver us from slavery to sin and death.  I’m writing this before I join millions of American Christians in what continues to be the most segregated hour of our weekly lives.  We live in separate worlds.  We experience the world in different ways.  We come to understand who we are in our relationships to society at large and the power structure through different historical lenses and different – vastly different – experiences.  And we continue to worship as if our Gods were different beings.  We say the same words, we sing the same hymns, we pray the same prayers.  The words, however, mean something very different because we in white America continue to pretend that our experiences and definitions and history define a norm to which all others must give credence.

In a Reuters article carried on Yahoo News today, authors Nick Carey and Edward McAllister paint a picture of Ferguson divided by race, by sympathy, and by whether support is offered to the existing power structure or the very legitimacy of that power structure is called to question.  One of a group of whites gathered in a bar in support of Ofc. Darren Wilson says, without understand the way her words indict Wilson, the Ferguson Police Department, and the United States:  “It’s not about black or white, it’s about rule of law.”  The insistence on color-blindness and the rule of law give away the game.  As long as we refuse to recognize the reality of race, and how it impacts how the law is upheld, Fergusons will continue to happen.  As long as “the rule of law” means police impunity in minority communities, Fergusons will continue to occur.  As long as white people refuse to stand with our fellow African-American sisters and brothers and demand accountability from those in authority, Fergsuons will continue to occur.

On a side note, I do wish people would stop saying things like, “He/She’s been tried and convicted in the press!”  Because that is precisely why we have a free press: so we the people can be exposed the abuses of power and demand change.  The standards of evidence for public discourse are not the same as those in a court of law, nor should they be.  For example, years ago I was chastised for calling Mark Foley a pederast.  I had, as the cliche says, tried and convicted him.  I made the point there was enough evidence in the public record to insist my description of Foley’s unsavory sexual predilections was both warranted and fair.  Whether or not he had ever committed an actual crime was irrelevant.  I would say the same about Ofc. Wilson.  Whether or not he committed a crime under the statutes of the state of Missouri or the United States is irrelevant.  That he killed an unarmed young man, a young man who carried no weapon, had committed no crime, and represented no threat other than being a young African-American male is the single, indisputable fact of this entire on-going story.  Whether or not Wilson was an upstanding police officer, personally harbored neither hatred in his heart nor fear in his soul for African-Americans, or the Ferguson PD had a history of racial tolerance that was exemplary, above board, and transparent are neither here nor there.  The long history of sanctioned violence against African-Americans determines the narrative focus, not Wilson’s personal morality.

And here we are on Sunday morning.  I’m going to go to a predominantly white Church and worship a God that I hope will hear pleas for racial justice. I hope the Holy Spirit rips the scales from our eyes so that we can see the hurt, pain, rage, and fear among communities of color. I hope we are able to see in the shot and bleeding bodies of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell the broken body of Christ.  I pray that we are willing to demand justice for their deaths, demand an end to racially-motivated official violence.  Most of all, I pray that as we as a congregation gather around the communion table, we remember all our fellow Christians not only of other faith traditions and confessions, but other races, nationalities, languages, and histories are gathered with us because it is God who calls us to God’s table.  I believe the sacrament is the first place for healing to begin.  Let it be so in all our churches today and in the days and weeks to come.

More On Barth At Reflections On

In which I have the audacity to question and criticize the most important theologian of the mid-20th century.  No humility here, I guess. . .

Elsewhere In The Greater St. Louis Area

The following video contains the graphic image of the killing of a young man, as well as strong language.  View at your own discretion.

While I applaud the St. Louis police for releasing this video of the shooting of Kajieme Powell, I think it offers the public an opportunity to have a real discussion of police procedures and the use of deadly force.  I would like to copy and past a comment I made on Facebook, then expand upon it a bit.

Let’s assume for the moment the young mad had a knife. Let us also assume that when the police pulled up, they saw the knife. They also had to have their radio on, knowing back-up was on the way, no more than a minute or two out. They see a man holding a knife, but they can also see, very clearly, several other people who, while keeping their distance, do not feel immediately threatened by this person. It seems to me they have several options at this point. Sit in the car and wait for back-up to arrive, giving them a chance to figure out how to approach the young man; try and engage him in some kind of conversation, to determine if he is either on drugs, suffering some kind of mental illness, or just angry; get out of the car, no guns drawn, and order him to drop the knife and assume a position of submission. Get out of the car with guns drawn and do the same thing without firing, waiting to see if he charged, approached them in a threatening manner, or otherwise became a direct threat to their life, or the life of others; get out of the car, as they did, guns drawn, order him to drop the knife, and when he didn’t open fire. The idea that we should allow officer discretion in each and every instance where they discharge their weapon in essence means that the police operate without any guidance, without any accountability, and outside the restraints of proper procedure and conduct. While I have respect for what police officers do, I do not and will not make some odd leap that states that therefore we who do not do what they do cannot and should not judge their actions in any given moment. On the contrary, in a society in which we all are subject to laws, the police do not wear an exception under their badge or in their holsters. These officers, from everything I saw, made at the very least, a very bad judgment call. A young man is dead because of that call, and because a young man is dead, more scrutiny is necessary from those of us who weren’t there rather than less. It seems to me all those who wish us to defer to the police officer’s judgment in the moment have it all backwards.

Deferring to the snap judgments of police officers acting in any particular moment, allowing that to be the sole criteria for judging their actions, for all practical purposes silences any possible criticism of any police action at any given time.  Police officers are subject to the law as any other person, and therefore accountable to that law.  We do allow for deadly force by the police in certain given conditions, e.g., they feel an immediate threat to their own lives or the life of someone else.  The question becomes: In this particular instance, in what way did the officers feel themselves in immediate danger?  Because a young man was carrying a knife and did not immediately acquiesce to their demand to drop it and allow them to arrest him?

We as the public have a duty not to defer to any given officer’s discretion.  On the contrary, that discretion must become the subject of intense scrutiny, in particular when a person is killed by the police in the course of the police doing their jobs.  The police are supposed to be trained, setting aside personal discretion to follow laws and rules of conduct and policies of police departments; deferring to individual judgment makes them no longer police officers, but random individuals who exist outside any accountability at all.

A young man is dead, and it seems to me options were available to the officers on the scene that could have prevented that outcome.  To demand that I should not question the officers’s actions or judgments either because I am not a police officer or because the officers’s actions were theirs and theirs alone is to set the police above the law, rather than those who enforce the law by arresting those suspected of a crime.  At the end of the day, the incident is not an individual’s judgment call.  It is, rather, whether or not the officers’s actions conformed not only to proper police procedure, but made every effort to preserve and protect their own lives, the lives of others, and the lives of a young man who, at this point, was just a person walking up the street carrying a knife that might – or might not – be used as a weapon.

Until someone is willing to demand police accountability, young men like Kajieme Powell will continue to die.

More On Barth At Reflections On

Some more reflections on the first few pages of Volume II, Part 1 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  In which I agree with a pretty radical claim Barth makes right off the bat.  I know, hard to believe.


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