Monday, July 11, 2016

Black and Blue

As the killings and videos in the past few days, of black men at traffic stops, and five police officers in Dallas on Friday, remind us, we are a long way from the post-racial world many thought we'd entered after Obama's election (or even the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Most of us born after the Civil Rights Act (Gen X, Millennials, Homeland gen) don't remember segregated society, but the vestiges of it are still there, and they transcend age, income, gender and every other demographic. Du Bois's "the problem of the 20th century will be the problem of race," is just as easily true in the 21st century so far.

But while most of these issues are beyond this blog's scope, the one troubling item worth examining here was how the standoff with the suspect in Dallas (Micah Johnson) ended via a "bomb robot" that essentially blew the suspect to smithereens and completely usurped the judicial system in the process.

The Dallas police ended a standoff with the gunman suspected of killing five officers with a tactic that by all accounts appears to be unprecedented: It blew him up using a robot.

In doing so, it sought to protect police who had negotiated with the man for several hours and had exchanged gunfire with him. But the decision ignited a debate about the increasing militarization of police and the remote-controlled use of force, and raised the specter of a new era of policing.

The Dallas police chief, David O. Brown, said officers had used one of the department’s “bomb robots,” attaching an explosive device to its arm that was detonated early Friday when the robot was near the gunman. “Other options would have exposed the officers to grave danger,” he said.

But the decision to deliver a bomb by robot stunned some current and former law enforcement officials, who said they believed the new tactic blurred the line between policing and warfare.
I would venture that it more than "blurred" the line; it completely erased it.
They said that it might have been an excessive use of force and that it set a precedent, adding that they were concerned that other departments across the country could begin using the same tactic.

“The further we remove the officer from the use of force and the consequences that come with it, the easier it becomes to use that tactic,” said Rick Nelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former counterterrorism official on the National Security Council. “It’s what we have done with drones in warfare.”

“In warfare, your object is to kill,” he added. “Law enforcement has a different mission.”
Well, it used to anyway, back in the days before we militarized policing to the point that being able to discern the police from military personnel is almost impossible (e.g. this picture from Baton Rouge).


The dude on the right is National Guard, the guys in black police. And it's quite clear from the picture that the guys in black are WAY more armed to the teeth than the guy in green.

For a better look, witness this iconic picture that came out of the Baton Rouge protests.


A demonstrator protesting at the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, US July 9, 2016.

While the focus is on the well-dressed protester (and comparisons are being made to "Tank Man" from Tianamen Square 25 years ago), look at the police gear these dudes are wearing. It almost looks like they stepped out of the latest installment of X-Men: The Apocalypse, or the Suicide Squad. Are they, as one critic noted, simply acting out some adolescent male fantasy of super-human strength and super-hero power?


As the writer/creator of "The Wire" David Simon said, if you dress for a riot, you're gonna get a riot. The only purpose for this kind of overblown militarized presence and fashion wear, according to Christian Parenti, is spectacle..."to create a spectacle around you with the sole intent of intimidating, silencing, cowing, and otherwise harassing poor people and people of color."

But not everyone has a problem with this dude being vaporized by remote control.
Other law enforcement officials supported the decision, suggesting they could take a similar approach if the situation called for it. At a news conference on Friday, New York’s police commissioner, William J. Bratton, said that while he was waiting to find out precisely what the Dallas police did, “we have that capability.”

“This is an individual that killed five police officers,” he added. “So God bless ’em.”
Good old Bill Bratton...
One expert in legal issues and robotics said he thought the use of the robot was justified, and saw little difference between its use and having a sniper shoot from a distance.

“No court would find a legal problem here,” said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington law school. “When someone is an ongoing lethal danger, there isn’t an obligation on the part of officers to put themselves in harm’s way.”
I'm not sure who Calo is, but his reasoning is tortured at best. If there is no legal obligation to take out the suspect by sniper, where's the legal justification for blowing him to bits via drone strike (something, interestingly, I joked was possible just three years ago in this post)? Is he advocating for extra-legal outcomes in situations only he dubs "ongoing" and therefore terminal? What is the criteria for establishing such a threshold (beyond "whatever I say it is")?

Yes, some of these robots have useful purposes to law enforcement, including bomb disposal.
But bomb disposal robots have been used to deliver objects to suspects, hostages and others, or to distract or communicate with suspects.

Last year, a man with a knife who threatened to jump off a bridge in San Jose, Calif., was taken into custody after the police had a robot bring him a cellphone and a pizza as part of efforts to talk him down.

In November 2014, the Albuquerque police used a robot to “deploy chemical munitions,” in the words of a department report, in a motel room where a man had barricaded himself with a gun. He surrendered.
However, delivering an IED, and in the process acting like judge, jury and executioner, is a long way from delivering a pizza. And yes, as Bratton suggested, this guy killed five cops, and no one is going to shed a tear for him getting blown to bits anyway.

But what's troubling is the slippery slope mentioned above. Sure, this is a "worst case scenario" and maybe we can justify it today, but what about the run of the mill hostage situation tomorrow? Everyone's hot, it's been hours, we're hungry and ready to go home, let's just call it a day and blow the guy up? What happens when we bomb some guy and it ends up killing collateral victims? Or starts rampaging fires? 

This isn't Baghdad, and the streets of Dallas or Baton Rouge ain't the streets of Fallujah. But the logical extension to all this militarization of the policing is precisely that: eventually our neighborhoods become viewed as war zones, and any force necessary becomes justifiable in war.

It's also the logical extension to the "guns everywhere" madness that has swept the country, particularly southern states like Texas, the past few years. As this article notes, the Dallas suspect Micah Johnson was able to blend into the crowd so easily because he was "one of 20-30 people walking around at the protest on Thursday night carrying assault rifles." According to the chief, “They were wearing gas masks, bulletproof vests and camo fatigues, for effect, for whatever reason.” The protesters he's talking about. So the public is showing up dressed like the cops, because in Texas, in public, this is PERFECTLY NORMAL AND LEGAL.

One wonders: is the militarizing of the citizenry a cause of the militarizing of the police? Or a consequence?

Also put in a conundrum here is the NRA and its supporters. Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were licensed to carry the concealed guns they had on them, and Micah Johnson had purchased his street sweeper legally and was carrying it legally when he killed the five officers.  Incidentally: if you're wondering why law enforcement has always opposed the NRA and been against these "guns everywhere" and concealed weapons laws since day one, here's your answer.

Which brings us back to race and the Black Lives Matter v. Blue Lives Matter dystopia the media has fallen into. It's interesting how these things always get divided up into the simplistic A v. B, good v. bad, mentality that Americans seem incapable of thinking beyond. Like if presented with a third choice, people's brains just freeze and they go into a fetal position. 

Asked another way, can't you be against black suspects being killed at traffic stops AND against cops being killed in the line of duty? Can't you be in favor of de-escalation, and maybe even sending a ticket in the mail if your tail light is out? Does everything have to turn into a stop/confrontation (DWB: driving while black)? Can't you be against ALL violence?

Chris Lebron gives a very good explanation in his piece, about how truth and justice are filtered through the prism of race, and why at this point in time anyway, it's almost impossible for black and white to hear one another, let alone work together.

And that's even more dangerous, given that the political conventions start next week, and more violence is likely to occur. And this long, mean summer is just getting started.

1 comment:

Nobody said...

Like the blog. A bit of historical context: The Philadelphia PD dropped 2 bombs from a helicopter on a group called MOVE in 1985.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MOVE#1985_bombing