While in the abstract, Arendt concedes that the use of force by state actors against its own citizens, such as in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates the collapse of legitimacy, she never addresses the interlocking systems of violence, coercion, and dehumanization that produce a constant state of fear and anger among target populations. If, for example, the actions of the Ferguson, MO police force in the wake of organized, peaceful protests are illegitimate, what about a police force that is nearly all white in a minority-majority community? What kind of legitimacy does any police force have among minority communities in the United States, who have a long history of official repression and continue to experience daily humiliations and harassment by the most visible representatives of state power? In such a situation, is not the question not the wisdom or rationality of a violent response by persons in communities who are exhausted by police harassment, but rather the on-going low-level violence these communities face? – Me, “Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Violence'”, No One Special, August 19, 2014
A torch-wielding mob chanting racist slogans descended on a Charlottesville, Virginia, park Saturday evening, to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
Chanting “All White Lives Matter,” and “No More Brother Wars,” the crowd, which said they were protecting their “white heritage” from the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue in the Virginia town’s park.
They also chanted “You will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend.” Dozens of protesters also brought bamboo tiki torches to a second rally once it became dark out. . . .
No arrests were made and there were no reports of injuries. – Phil McCausland, “White Nationalist Leads Torch-Bearing Protesters Against Removal of Confederate Statue,” nbcnews.com, May 15, 2017
I was surprised the other day to see someone recently read and liked my nearly three-year-old post on Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence”. Since my usual habit is not to go back and read old posts, and since I’d completely forgotten writing such a thing in the first place, I decided to give it a read. My general opinion is that it was a pretty average contemporary critique of Arendt’s essay. What surprised me, however, was a quite remarkable, not-fleshed-out set of ideas regarding the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence, particularly in regards to the racist structures of violence and repression that are the American norm. In light of the rise of Trumpism and the emboldened racist fringe, it seems more than ever we need to ask questions regarding the legitimacy of violence as a political tactic, whether on the part of the state or of groups protesting violence against them by the state and those supported by the state.
First, I neither know nor care whether Donald Trump is a bigot. While he talks like a pretty typical clueless, privileged white guy; while he took out a full page ad in The New York Times demanding the death penalty for the young men originally arrested in the Central Park jogger assault, a sentence to be carried out absent any trial; while he pretended not to know or care about the support he received – and continues to enjoy – among members of vocally racist groups; none of this interests me in the least.
What is far more fascinating is that, while such groups certainly became far more visible during the years Barack Obama was President, with Trump they obviously feel free to make their presence far more visible. Trump emboldened racists groups from the Klan to the Nazi’s and so-called “alt-Right” (nothing more than Nazi’s who hide their swastikas), for whom they worked during the Presidential campaign. While certainly never hugely numerous and obviously outside the “mainstream” of our public discourse, the rise in the visibility of these groups has posed problems for those who have tried to think clearly regarding protest and resistance to the Trump Administration.
Nothing exemplifies these troubles more than the reaction to the Inauguration Day assault on neo-Nazi Richard Spence while he gave a television interview on the streets of Washington, DC. Many, including me, saw this act of violence as a fitting response to the very presence of Richard Spencer. Indeed, the phrase “Nazi-punching” has entered our current lexicon thanks to this single act of violent defiance. Many liberals, influenced by the constant talk of “non-violent resistance” and the appeal of moral superiority in the face of intransigent resistance, continue to insist that any violence by those opposed to Trump, his supporters, or his policies is illegitimate. I have read more than one commentator insist that violence in the face of “differing political opinions” in unAmerican.
That last is so grotesque it almost defies comprehension. To make the claim that Nazism, gussied up with some other name but the same filth nevertheless, is a political ideology worthy of respect by anyone is both ignorant and disgusting. People like Richard Spencer embrace the idea of the mass murder of minorties – Jews, African-Americans, sexual minorities, Latinos – and they deserve neither our time nor effort at understanding. While verbal rebuke and rejection are always called-for, physical attacks should be considered a rational response, particularly when such attacks come from members of the very minority communities these racists would prefer disappeared. When white liberals insist that such acts of preemptive violence are inherently illegitimate, they are speaking from a place of privilege, removing a rational and viable response from affected groups to very real threats of violence and death.
There are other matters regarding the matter of violence, particularly the question of the state’s monopoly on violence, raised by last night’s protests in Charlottesville. While the linked article does call the group a “mob”, and note that later in the evening as counter-protests arose there were “scuffles” and the police arrived, that not a single person involved was arrested demonstrates the unequal treatment of racial groups by authorities. In my original essay on Arendt, linked above, I noted that the police response in Ferguson, MO to what were largely peaceful protests against a police department with a history of racism; a police department in a predominantly African-American city made up of white people; and a police department that was defending the shooting of a community member in a questionable act of self-defense; was beyond any rationally considered response. The famous image of a man facing police in military camouflage armed with automatic weapons exemplifies the police overreaction to peaceful, non-violence protests.
Both the shooting that prompted the protests and the reaction to the protests themselves, not to mention a long history of police harassment of the African-American population of Ferguson, exemplify “systemic racism” in America. It is the archetype of what people mean when discussing the matter of systemic racism in America. While the police in Ferguson outfitted themselves for urban combat, the police in Charlottesville did not. Numerous people were arrested in Ferguson. None were arrested in Charlottesville, despite the protests in Charlottesville being violent and those in Ferguson remaining peaceful.
For people, particularly those not living, say, in Ferguson, MO to speak about the illegitimacy of violence without qualifying that to be the illegitimacy of state violence is to ignore the very real situation our minority communities face on a daily basis. To insist on greater police presence in the face of racist protests and violence in Charlottesville is to demand the state stop deploying its police power only against groups from minority communities while leaving racist whites unbothered by the presence of armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and automatic weapons pointed in their faces. The systemic racism endemic to America, part and parcel of who we are as a country, is riven with violence, both state imposed and state sanctioned. When private groups whose very ideology is violence are not met with the same kind of armed response as peaceful groups of ordinary citizens demanding real justice for their communities, we are confronted with the reality both of systemic racism as well as the reality of state-perpetrated violence to enforce the racist status quo.
While non-violent confrontation with state actors certainly remains a live option for any group, to artificially limit such confrontation in such a way without taking into consideration the uses to which the state puts its monopoly on violence is to ignore the realities many communities face each and every day. As with everything, a consideration of the whole context is necessary, including the already-existing place of violence as a method of social control, before making any judgments regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of violence as a tactic in social protet.
It’s one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies: Delta Chi fraternity has just had its charter revoked; the members are expelled with their draft boards being notified they are now eligible. Shocked and stunned, they wonder what, exactly, they can do now that they have nothing left. Someone says, “We have to do something!” One member pipes up, “What the hell we s’posed to do, you moron?”
I feel a bit like that guy in Delta House right now. Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, ostensibly for how he handled the release of information regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails (actually, it was Weiner’s emails, which included emails to Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin, who happens to be Anthony Weiner’s ex-wife). I largely agree with Josh Marshall’s assessment that, in the abstract, the arguments made in the letter to the President make some kind of sense. In the current context, however, in which the President and much of his campaign staff (who are now members of the Administration) are under investigation for their ties to the already-established Russian interference in our previous general election, this abstract argument is worthless precisely because it looks as if the President has something he does not want coming to light. Indeed, in the six months since the election, both Presidents Obama and Trump could have fired Comey for these very reasons. They chose not to do so for sensible if not necessarily good political reasons. Since the man who wrote the legal rationale for Comey’s firing was only confirmed two weeks ago with enormous bipartisan support, it looks clear both Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were waiting for a person with a reputation for integrity, who had support among both Republicans and Democrats, to enter the Justice Department so that, on the surface, it wouldn’t appear as if either Trump was acting impulsively or Sessions – who has slightly more political sense than Trump, which isn’t saying much – was acting on standing orders. It gives them both the appearance of distance. Sadly for them, neither are adept enough to make such an appearance stick.
And so we are now in the strange position of witnessing a clear abuse of Presidential power – as much a political matter as a legal matter – and we all wait and wonder, What do we do now? I know people are contacting their elected representatives. I applaud the sense of civic duty. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling for an end to investigations into the possible collusion of the Trump campaign with the Russians, and the House Republicans both spineless and hyperpartisan, the necessary political will for the submission of articles of impeachment just isn’t present. Both the House and the Senate have demonstrated their lack of any interest in the questions, comments, and other input from their constituents. Particularly the Republicans have often closed down their phone lines, their email, and refused to hold meetings in order to avoid feedback they won’t like. They have worked on passing legislation the public neither wants nor needs, particularly their “replacement” for the Affordable Care Act, the vast majority of Americans oppose. To further demonstrate the Trump Administration’s contempt for the Constitution, a West Virginia reporter was arrested yesterday afternoon after asking HHS Secretary Tom Price a question.
Impeachment is far more a political than a legal action. While it certainly involves matters of lawbreaking, most Presidents, at least since James Monroe, have violated one or another statute or Constitutional provision. The first President who faced an impeachment trial in the Senate, Andrew Johnson, did so because the Radical Republicans (they were the good guys back then) felt Johnson wasn’t pushing hard enough on their agenda for reforming the Southern States (Johnson was a former Democratic Senator from Tennessee who refused to join his state in seceding from the Union). Richard Nixon’s string of corrupt acts would most assuredly not only forced him from office had he not resigned, but landed him in federal prison had President Ford not pardoned him. Bill Clinton faced impeachment for the rather narrow and arguable crime of lying under oath. Precisely because the larger matters surrounding the question involved Clinton’s personal rather than professional conduct, the Senate found no reason to find Clinton guilty of anything. Just because a person may (or may not) have broken the law doesn’t mean they should be removed from office.*
Now we face a moment during which the question of the survival of our Constitutional order might very well hang in the balance. I know this sounds melodramatic. I happen to believe it’s true. That the Russians intruded themselves into our last election is a matter of fact, not of opinion. That there appeared, even at the time, to be some kind of links between the Trump campaign and the Russians is also a fact. Russian interference was discussed mid-summer, 2016, both publicly and far more extensively in meetings with members of the Obama Administration, senior Congressional leadership, and the Intelligence Community. None of this is arguable. What needs to be done is a thorough investigation into whether or not Trump or his campaign had any knowledge of, contact with, or cooperation with these Russian efforts to undermine our last election. Rather than not investigate, one would think an investigations in to matters of such profound importance would be welcome. That members both of the Administration and senior Republicans are now calling for an end into such investigations demonstrates that there is no political will to curtail abuses of power by this Administration.
So . . . what the hell are we supposed to do? Call, write, be vocal about the insistence this matter not rest: these are, I suppose, important things. I doubt their efficacy, even in the long run. So we are faced with an increasing dictatorial Executive Branch with Legislative Branch unwilling to protest abuses or power or assert their primary prerogatives as overseers of the Executive. The Judicial Branch can only do so much, and they certainly cannot bring action on their own that gets Trump and his Administration out of office.
What? Do? We? Do?
*I think the authors of the Constitution, particularly James Madison, couldn’t imagine someone holding the office of President who had so little personal integrity they would willy-nilly violate their oath of office. Alas, honor is a republican rather than democratic value.
There are few things that really bother me as much as self-professed working-class heroes. These are the folks on your timeline who carry on about their long hours, their hard work ethic, occasionally make fun of people who don’t do the same jobs they do, and generally enjoy a kind of smug superiority. Particularly over other working-class folks whose views on life, politics, and workplace solidarity differ from their own.
These are the folks who carry on about protesters needing jobs so they won’t have time to protest. These are the folks who insist they’re the real backbone of America. They dismiss unions as promoting little work for a big paycheck. And they make sure everyone knows the world will stop if they decide not to go to work.
Except, of course, it won’t.
On the contrary, such self-promotion earns these people exactly nothing at all. The may feel good about themselves, but they won’t get a bigger paycheck. Their supervisors may pat them on the back, but when the ACA is repealed, their healthcare is going to cover less for a whole lot more money. They may flaunt their moral superiority over all the rest of the layabouts in the world, but when budget cuts come around, or the factory moves to Mexico or Thailand, they’re going to be just as unemployed as everyone else. With far less to show for it.
The thing is, the myth of the working-class hero plays on American themes – that hard work is a goo in and of itself and brings with it rewards; the myth of the powerful individual facing a hostile world and surviving, even thriving; the myth that organized labor is a long con looking to separate workers from their wallets in order to benefit a few – which makes it difficult to counter even with facts. The appeal is so basic, so much at the heart of how we see ourselves as Americans, it becomes difficult to resist.
Like most myths, however, these old American myths contained far less truth than they claimed; with changing social relations, they are functionally meaningless now. Setting aside the reality that the myth of the self-made American ignored pretty much everything else going on the world even as it was being propagated, now it’s impossible to be a successful individual without help from others. Whether it’s municipal ordinances governing where businesses can and can’t operate, through local street and sidewalk maintenance, to the local police force up to and through workplace hour, safety, and pay regulations that keep our workplaces safe physically and financially, not a single person working today has made themselves who they are.
And all those pesky things like maximum hours legislation, minimum wage laws, the weekend, health and retirement benefits – these exist because of unions. People died to make sure their fellow workers would live better, be safer, and have better overall living conditions. And if you want to work more than 40 hours a week, these laws make sure you’re justly compensated for that work. It doesn’t prevent you from working more. It prevents you from being underpaid.
Setting oneself up as a paragon of working-class American virtue does one thing only: it makes those who do feel better about themselves, morally superior, somehow. Your bosses will encourage you to feel good about yourself at the expense of others so they can ignore overtime pay rules. They’ll use your own smugness against you, denying you benefits and continuing to keep your wages low, while constantly sending you notes thanking you for your example. You won’t be any better off. You’ll just have a bunch of paper to throw out.
I’m actually quite tired of self-professed working-class heroes who go around flaunting their alleged virtue for all the world to see. Businesses exploiting a meaningless myth in order to drive wedges between and among workers keeps everyone down. And the heroes themselves? They get nothing. Their pay is still low. Their jobs are still as vulnerable as everyone else’s. They work without any real guarantees their benefits will be there for them. Solidarity isn’t just a word from 1980’s Poland; it’s a goal towards which all workers should strive in order to benefit everyone.
Just because your boss pats you on the back doesn’t mean that same boss won’t exploit your smugness for his or her own benefit. Just because you have all sorts of letters and notes thanking you for your service won’t save your pension when the company decides to save money around the time you decide to retire. Being a working-class hero benefits no one. Not even you.
So get over yourself and start thinking of your fellow workers. We are all in this together. Even if not everyone knows it.
I’ve been honestly amused by people posting to social media that, while they support protests they see riots as a crime. There’s a meme going around that says that protests should only happen when human rights are being violated. As if there’s a time human rights aren’t being violated! People want to walk a fine line where they don’t want to appear unAmerican and say people have no right to protest marches; on the other hand, at the first sign of violence, the whole event becomes tainted, kind of like dropping a drop of sludge in a wine vat.
Except, of course, protest marches are little more than controlled riots. Anger is directed toward constructive acts like carrying signs, joining with a large of group of like-minded people shouting slogans. In a large group of people, however, there will always be those for whom this just isn’t enough. Windows get smashed. Rocks get thrown at police. People are shoved, sometimes punched (like a white-supremacist was yesterday; some people said this was wrong because it made him a sympathetic character. Really? A Nazi gets punched in the face by an African-American and suddenly we’re all boohooing for the guy?) Broken windows, bloody noses, arrests – these are part and parcel of political protest, going back to colonial times. In our oh-so-proper bourgeois world, we dislike anything messy, untidy, and disruptive. These are social goods to be maintained at all costs.
In 1765, after the British Parliament had passed the Stamp Act over the objections of many of the colonial representatives in London, people in Boston in particular were not fond of the law. Besides being onerous, there was the principle that Parliament, which had not sought to govern the American colonies for over a century and a half, suddenly thought it not a problem to pass laws for them without their voice or consent. One sunny morning, the local Stamp officer, Andrew Oliver, was hung in effigy from a tree on the High Street. A crowd gathered, with some merchants coming and making mock obeisance before the effigy. Boston’s sheriff wanted the crowd broken up, despite the fact they were doing nothing illegal. Officers told the sheriff even trying to do so would bring on the violence they were seeking to avoid.
Soon, however, the crowd seemed to break-up and the effigy was cut down and nailed to a board. They marched through the streets chanting and shouting against the Stamp Act, reaching the docks in Boston Harbor. A building under construction, thought to be the new Stamp Office, was torn down. Then, the crowd turned and marched to Oliver’s home.
Oliver and his family were spirited away even as a crowd gathered and set up a bonfire, upon which was thrown first the effigy, followed by pieces of Oliver’s chaise. I’ll let A. J. Langguth continue the story:
[Rioters] raced to the bottom of Oliver’s garden and began ripping down a fifteen-foot fence. Once inside the garden, they stripped all the fruit from the trees, brokes off the branches and tore down a gazebo. When men began to smash windows at the back of the main house, it was not idle vandalism. Window glass had to be imported from England and was expensive to replace.
. . . [M]en were sindie the house and heading for the cellars, where they helped themselves to the stores of liquor. Ipstairs, rioters found the familys looking glass, which was reputed to be the largest in North America. They left it in shards and went on to break furniture and scatter the Oliver silverplate throught the house. [A. J. Langguth, Patriots, p.56]
Before we were a Republic, Americans have protested, including using violence, to make political statements. There were anti-draft riots in New York City in the summer of 1863. In Chicago, the Wobblies and Pinkerton detectives fought running battles in the streets that are now known as the Haymarket Riots. In 1932, World War I vets looking to receive the bonus promised them at the end of their service in 1919 gathered on the Mall in Washington DC. Local businesses claimed the so-called BEF (Bonus Expeditionary Force) was responsible for vandalism, robbery, and even rape. Against the direct orders of President Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur sent in tanks and cavalry who burned tents with the families of the protesters inside. A young cavalry captain named Goerge Patton bayonetted the leg of one Bonus Marcher; that veteran had, in 1918, literally dragged a young and wounded George Patton to safety on Flander’s Fields back in 1918.
Northern White America came to appreciate if not necessarily sympathize with the non-violent protests across the segregated South. Thinking well of themselves as broad minded and liberal, they thought the treatment the protestors received – beatings and arrests – an overreaction even while preferring there be no such protests at all. After all, didn’t these young men have jobs or school to attend? Wouldn’t they better serve their race if they were doing that rather than stirring up trouble? While in Seminary taking a class in Liberation Theology, I insisted that there was not nor could be any such thing as non-violent protest against injustice. Even if those doing the protesting do not act out violently, the powers that be most certainly will. American saw that in places like Birmingham, AL and in North Carolina where young men sitting in at the Woolworth’s counter were beaten and dragged off by mobs of whites, only to return to their silent protests.
It is fashionable these days to say, “Well, I like Dr. King and his peaceful protests, but people like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were too extreme.” This ignores the reality that, at the time, officials saw no distinction among these persons and group. Thus we create the distinction between protests and riots in the face of a historical reality that denies such a distinction.
Yesterday’s bit of vandalism provided good visuals for those who don’t like protests. I’ve yet to hear whether these were people who were protesting Trump’s inauguration, agent-provocatuers (something the feds have always been very good at), or just knuckleheads who might just want to show up on TV. By and large the protests yesterday was subdued and orderly. Today as hundreds of thousands if not millions of women around the country march to remind America and the incoming Administration that women’s rights are human rights, to be respected and protected rather than dismissed, I just have to wonder why anyone would be against such protests. Because of the possibility of violence? There’s always the possibility of violence. There usually is violence of some sort, although that has been reduced thanks to the examples of the Civil Rights era. Still, whether it comes from the protesters themselves or officials (just remember that young man facing a squad of militarized police officers in Ferguson, MO; that’s what I call an overreaction), the potential for violence is always present. Rather than try and create a false distinction between peaceful protests and violent protests/riots, how about we all grow up and understand that when people protest, they’re angry. Anger, particularly over rights revoked or denied, can be on high simmer for years, with a protest offering a forum either for constructive action or destructive action. Rather than insist that violence is bad, tout court, how about we recognize these as political acts rather than criminal acts, and treat them accordingly? Rather than sit at some remove from the scene of the action and presume to pass judgment on what is right and what is wrong, how about asking these folks why they’re angry and actually listening to their answers? How about thinking, for just one moment that people are acting out like this might very well have legitimate grievances? After all, breaking window glass in a home was a political act. Why should we not think busting the window at a Starbuck’s, the epitome of middle-class and upper-middle-class complacency and serenity in the face of human suffering, might well be a political act? And please remember, there’s insurance for for things like this, so I don’t get all that upset for the companies.
Donald Rumsfeld was a horrible Secretary of Defense, but when he told reporters asking questions about post-liberation rioting and looting in Baghdad that democracy is a messy business, he was quite right. While it was an excuse and smoke-screen to cover-up the reality the invasion had occurred with no thought given to what would happen once the government fell, it is also true. Democracy is messy. It’s never tidy. Having hundreds of thousands of people engage in acts of protest, resistance, and defiance is a sign of a healthy polity. It means people are engaged, they care what happens to them and others. It means they’re willing to take risks to make the world a little better. As someone who has marched in a couple really big marches and watched as police treated peaceful protesters badly, let me just say that violence, like H. Rap Brown reminded us, is as American as cherry pie. We should just pull up our grown-up pants and deal with it, rather than pretend there’s actually a distinction between political protests and riots. They’re just different stages of the same, larger, action.
“I think one of the big differences then was you had governors and mayors and the president — whether it was President Johnson or President Nixon, Republican or Democrat — condemning violence against the police and urging support for the police.
“Today that’s markedly absent,” [William] Johnson [executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations] continued. “I think that’s a huge difference, and that’s directly led to the climate that allows these attacks to happen.”
Johnson says that Obama has not supported the police or condemned violence against them. – Adam Thorpe, “Law enforcement lobbyist says pro-police speech is ‘markedly absent’ from Obama”, PolitiFact, July 12, 2016
Donald Trump says there has been “a substantial rise in the number of officers killed in the line of duty — a very big rise.” He’s right, to a point. There has been an increase in firearms-related deaths in the last six months compared to a year ago.
But the number of fatalities from all causes, not just firearms, is largely unchanged from a year ago, and has substantially declined in recent years.
Annual fatality data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show that there have been an average of 135 police fatalities a year under President Obama, from 2009 to 2015, compared with 162 a year for the previous seven years, from 2002 to 2008. That’s a decline of 17 percent. – Eugene Kiely, “Killed In The Line Of Duty”, Politifact, July 13, 2016
These are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.
And I just want to give people a few statistics to try to put in context why emotions are so raw around these issues. According to various studies, not just one, but a wide range of studies that have been carried out over a number of years, African-Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over.
After being pulled over, African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched. Last year, African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites.
African-Americans are arrested at twice the rate of whites. African-American defendants are 75 percent more likely to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimums. They receive sentences that are almost 10 percent longer than comparable whites arrested for the same crime.
So if you add it all up, the African-American and Hispanic population who make up only 30 percent of the general population make up more than half of the incarcerated population. Now, these are facts.
And when incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same. And that hurts. And that should trouble all of us.
This is not just a black issue. It’s not just an Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we should all care about, all fair- minded people should be concerned. – Part of Pres. Barack Obama’s statement on two police-involved killings, Time, July 7, 2016
Yesterday, two police officers put on their uniforms to serve and protect the communities they loved. And early this morning, they were taken from us in shameful acts of violence.
Sergeant Anthony Beminio and Officer Justin Martin represented our best, most decent instincts as human beings – to serve our neighbors, to put ourselves in harm’s way for someone else. They knew the dangers of their job. They knew the risks. Yet they chose to dedicate themselves to those values anyway. So today, Michelle and I join Americans across our country in expressing our condolences and stand in solidarity with their grieving families, fellow officers, and the communities they served so honorably. – Statement by the President on the Shooting of Police Officers in Des Moines, Iowa, WhiteHouse.gov, November 2, 2016
Sgt. Debra Layton of the Orlando, FL Police Department was shot and killed yesterday while trying to apprehend a suspect in the murder of Sade Dixon. Later that afternoon, while participating in the manhunt, Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis, a motorcycle officer, was struck and killed by an SUV. The people, particularly law enforcement, in and around Orlando and Orange Co. are sad and angry. People around the country are offering condolences even as police continue to hunt the suspect. I think it’s fair to say that this will not end well for the suspect.
This particular situation, as horrible and frightening as it is, has become the latest instance of a political campaign being waged against Pres. Obama by some police officers and police organizations around the country. There are those who believe, and publicly insist, that Pres. Obama has remained silent as police officers are killed in the line of duty; that he is far more quick to speak about police brutality than he is to speak about the deaths of police officers killed in the line of duty; that he has created a climate that is hostile to police officers, encouraging violence against the police.
Is this true? Is it true there’s a “war on police”, either subtly encouraged or at least not discouraged by our President? Has he remained silent on the deaths of police officers even as there are more deaths than ever?
Let’s start with some raw numbers. According to the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund, From 2009-2015 there was an average of 135 police officers killed in the line of duty. While there hasn’t been a definitive total added for 2016, one unofficial number I’ve seen, 140, certainly remains close to the average for Pres. Obama’s tenure in office. It’s easy enough to do this by Presidential Administration: George W. Bush average – 172; Bill Clinton average – 164; Ronald Reagan/ George H. W. Bush – 181. It’s true there was a 40% increase in the deaths of police officers due to gunfire in 2015, looking at the actual numbers, broken down by Presidential Administration (since that seems to be the measure being used by Pres. Obama’s critics), there has been a downward trend over the past 35 years, with Pres. Obama presiding over the least deadly eight years.
Let’s look at the charge made by Police Lobbyist William Johnson that Pres. Obama has remained silent, creating a climate for attacks on police officers to occur. After Rudy Giuliani alleged much the same thing in 2014 after the deaths of two NYC Police Officers, Politifact went back and looked at official statements from Pres. Obama from the August protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO through a Dec. 8 interview with BET, discussing the need for policing in minority communities. Simply put the claim that Pres. Obama was encouraging people to hate police was utter nonsense. Using much the same method – presenting what and when Pres. Obama actually said – they concluded that Johnson, too, like Giuliani two years previously, was “Pants On Fire”, a polite way to say he was full of shit.
So there’s this narrative out there, believed by many including many police officers, that there’s a “War On Police”; that during the years of Pres. Obama’s tenure in office, there’s been a subtle or perhaps not-so-subtle encouragement of violence against police; that Pres. Obama has been far more silent on the deaths of police officers than have previous Presidents, going back to Lyndon Johnson. None of these statements are supported by any evidence whatsoever. Why is the belief persistent?
First of all, Pres. Obama has spoken out against police brutality and the reality of racial disparities in policing that occur nationwide. He has done so even as he has maintained his vocal and active support for police officers, the work they do, and mourned with us during each and every instance of violence against police officers. Because this President sees himself as President of all Americans, he has insisted that there is the need for reform of police procedures, particularly regarding matters of race. This is no more “anti-police” or “cop-hating” than are those prosecutors who bring charges against officers whose flagrant law-breaking disgraces all police. It does not create an atmosphere of hostility toward police officers that our President has recognized the legitimacy of the issues raised by Black Lives Matters, while certainly condemning acts of violence committed by members of BLM and denouncing violent rhetoric by some BLM members. It is, indeed, possible to do both things at the same time, especially when it is clearly understood that Pres. Obama has always understood himself to be President of all Americans – police and the communities they serve included.
It is horrible this young woman was murdered in the line of duty yesterday. Whatever may be justice in this instance, her death is not honored by making of it more fodder for a political agenda promoting a falsehood regarding the President of the United States. I’d ask about shame, but I know that just doesn’t exist anymore.
So I learned from a (liberal) friend that a lot of her (liberal) friends have stopped following the news. Don’t do this. Don’t let your friend do this. We need your courage. We need your intelligence. We need your power. We need you not to be one of the people who insist to your grandchildren, “But nobody knew what was going on!” – Rick Perlstein, Facebook, 12/31/16
And yet . . . We Have Matt Taibbi, an excellent reporter and writer, casting doubts upon the matter of Russian interference in the election. We have lost any grasp of who is and who is not authoritative. We have lost the ability to ensure the right questions are asked. We no longer get have a critical facility, at a social level, to weed out the spurious from the truthful. Paying attention? To whom? Upon what authority? – Me, comment on above post, 12/31/16
The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect. Nothing quite adds up.
If the American security agencies had smoking-gun evidence that the Russians had an organized campaign to derail the U.S. presidential election and deliver the White House to Trump, then expelling a few dozen diplomats after the election seems like an oddly weak and ill-timed response. Voices in both parties are saying this now. . . . Matt Taibbi, “Something About This Russia Story Stinks,” Rolling Stone, Dec. 30, 2016
I saw the above FB post from historian and author Rick Perlstein yesterday, and among the many things I read as I went through the discussion that followed was a sense of a lack of any sense of security about what news sources we should trust to offer us some glimmer of reality. There was also a good discussion about what it means to “follow” the news. My comment, citing only one instance of a trusted reporter asking important and necessary questions about the entire narrative of Russian interference in our recent election, could very well have been longer. Taibbi is very clear on the sources for his skepticism: Our recent historical experience with fake intelligence information offered as “proof” of Iraqi perfidy in order to justify war.Other commenters noted another author accepted as authoritative among many on the libertarian Left, Glenn Greenwald, who has been doing much the same work as Taibbi: questioning the very foundations of this ongoing narrative not, it should be pointed out, in support of Donald Trump. Rather, Greenwald’s position and motives are simpler: He wishes readers to think critically about this story in order to stop what seems a headlong rush toward judgment.
Other commenters noted another author accepted as authoritative among many on the libertarian Left, Glenn Greenwald, who has been doing much the same work as Taibbi: questioning the very foundations of this ongoing narrative not, it should be pointed out, in support of Donald Trump. Rather, Greenwald’s position and motives are simpler: He wishes readers to think critically about this story in order to stop what seems a headlong rush toward judgment.
Both authors offer sound reasons for taking care in our over-indulgence in “official” stories precisely because “official” sources should not carry the authority they seem to be wielding. Particularly among a segment of the population – liberals and (some) progressives – who have been skeptical of official narratives for decades, there seems to be something akin to joy in repeating the official line over and over. Despite decades of dismissive comments concerning our national newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post, our 24-hour news programs on CNN and FOXNews, we now have people insisting these organs of our establishment are somehow engaged in brave truth-telling (well, at least the print sources; the three major cable news channels are still dismissed as either to servile to the Establishment [CNN, MSNBC] or little more than Republican propaganda channels[sometimes CNN, FOXNews]) while doing little more than repeating an official line offered with what appears to be little to no evidence offered to the public.
There’s a story about how FOXNews parrotted a story first reported by Breitbart.com regarding SNAP fraud. The USDA says they have released no recent report regarding SNAP fraud (which is true). Breitbart insists its story was not about SNAP fraud (also true). Somehow, it seems, someone at FOXNews decided to make up a story about SNAP fraud (not exactly a shocker) and the organs of the Establishment found at the contemporary American version of the Volkischer Beobachter a story both about SNAP and that used a figure similar to the one at Breitbart. The evidence, however, just isn’t that clear-cut. Yes, FOXNews pulled the story about SNAP fraud out of its ass; what would FOXNews viewers think if they discovered the standard government estimate for SNAP abuse is around a billion dollars annually (while a much larger number than $70 million, it’s still about 1.4% of total SNAP outlays, so hardly significant)? In the sudden rush of stories concerning “fake news”, and the glee among right-wing sources labeling mainstream news “fake”, this whole story demonstrates just how difficult it is to untangle the mess of sources, of who is saying what and why, and how narratives – several stories linked together – are constructed.
We should be skeptical of official sources, particularly anonymous sources. We should also be wary of self-appointed meta-journalists like Glenn Greenwald who, not being a journalist, continually tell journalists how to do their jobs. We should also be wary of pretty much anything from a source whose sole or major presence is the Web. We should be skeptical of those whose views on the world are similar to our own. We should also be wary of those whose view of the world is significantly different.
Skepticism, however, should not equal a lack of trust. Evidence matters. The history of a particular news source matters. How one particular bit of news fits into other pieces of news is important. Precisely because we have been swamped, not just in this election cycle but for years (even decades), with what is now called “fake news”, however, we have moved from skepticism to refusing any authority save that which confirms our view of the world. We are living in a time with the total breakdown of any national consensus concerning, well, pretty much anything at all. We all seem to inhabit little conclaves that share only one quality – anything “outside” is not just suspect, but a priori untrustworthy.
We as a people no longer inhabit the same world. We are not citizens of the same country. We are not speaking the same language, regardless of how much they all sound the same. How is it possible under such circumstances to insist one group or another “should” follow the news when there just isn’t any single “news” narrative to follow, but multiple narratives with their own sources, their own presuppositions, their own larger stories into which each piece of new information fits?