Who Do We Think We Are?

Back In The Day

In the beginning, when Dick Cheney created the Bush administration, the U.S. anti-terrorism policy was pretty straightforward.  Then Cheney said “let there be Rumsfeld,” and there was suddenly a formless void and darkness: Rumsfeld.

And Cheney saw that Rumsfeld was evil, and that pleased him.  Together they worked to cover the world in darkness.  Cheney called Rumsfeld Secretary of Defense, and Cheney called himself Lord.  And there was torture and there was war, the first Bush administration.

Well, that’s the abridged version.

The average person doesn’t know or care much about the human rights abuses (if you subscribe to the argument that we were engaged in a “war on terror” then they are war crimes) committed by the United States following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  People vaguely remember Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, and a few Daily Show clips, but that’s about it.

Well, stop for a second.  If you are reading this blog you are probably an American (If not, first let me say: Welcome!  Second, favorite is not spelled ‘favourite’ you pompous jackass).

It’s well-established that we have tortured over a hundred people in prisons around the world since 2002.  That’s not up for debate.

Maybe you have a serious problem with this, maybe you are ambivalent, maybe you don’t care.  Either way, your government tortured (and killed) human beings in your name, using tax dollars from your pockets and your parent’s pockets and your grandparent’s pockets – allegedly to protect you and prevent further attacks.  What’s been established for some time, though only recently admitted publicly by the government, is that all of this horrible stuff did not make Americans safer by giving us reliable intelligence, it did the opposite.

It seems to me that the least you could do is take the time to read about what was done in your name, to protect you, by a government agency that has been lying to you about it for more than a decade.

 

Why, You Ask?

This post is intended to be (amongst other things) a thorough summary of U.S. torture since 9/11 (We tortured before that, multiple times, just an FYI).

Why should you listen to me?  Though in my more megalomaniacal moments I might call myself an authority on the NBA, literature, film, music or other topics, I wrote an entire Master’s thesis on the torture tactics of the Bush administration, so in this case I am (humbly) something of an expert.

Let’s get started.

 

A Brief History 

Before YouTube, Facebook and iPhones, there was torture.  Actually, torture has been around for millennia.  Waterboarding has been around since the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s.

For what it is worth, America’s founding fathers were opposed to the practice and had this opposition enumerated in the Constitution.  I add the qualifier to that sentence because some of these men owned slaves, making them hypocrites on any human rights issue. Nevertheless, even slaveowners in 18th century America expressed an opposition to torture and thought it had no place in a society of laws.

The United States prosecuted the Germans and Japanese for using these tactics (waterboarding, e.g.) during World War 2.  When the Gestapo did this to people we called it torture and prosecuted their leaders for war crimes. When we did this to people our president called it an “enhanced interrogation technique” and none of our leaders were prosecuted.

(A brief aside: I think making Nazi comparisons is generally an overused tactic and a bad idea.  But we employed literally the same methods as they did, and the leaders that ordered the use of these methods are totally unapologetic, therefore the comparison is appropriate).

The Bush administration began torturing as early as 2002 and, in fine Republican form, came up with a fantastically disgusting euphemism for these tactics: “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  This phrase makes torture sound like a communication strategy.  Bush, Cheney and Co. continue to maintain that the U.S. didn’t torture.

The public first heard about this behavior when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004.  That was portrayed as an isolated incident perpetrated by “bad apples.”  What we know now is that the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib were official U.S. policy.  Bush and Cheney approved of these methods and high-level officials (the Principals Committee) in the Bush administration met regularly to discuss the interrogations and the treatment of specific prisoners.

It’s taken more than a decade, but finally the U.S. government (well, part of it) is officially acknowledging that we tortured over a hundred people beginning in 2002.  Progress!

 

The Senate Report

The full 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee report is classified, but a 524-page executive summary has been released (the CIA broke into the computer’s of the Democratic Party staff members that were writing the report). The following facts and conclusions are contained in the summary:

The information in the report is solely the result of CIA records because the Bush administration refuses to turn over White House records.  (Hm, sure sounds like they aren’t worried about any potential criminal liability).

Roughly 22% – 26 out of 119 – of the tortured prisoners were mistakenly imprisoned.

Several of those we “mistakenly” tortured were our own informants.

One CIA agent killed a detainee during an interrogation.  This agent was not punished.

Many of the CIA interrogators were not properly trained.  Several had documented anger management issues as well as histories of sexual assault.  And they were allowed to improvise in terms of the methods they used.

The CIA took an “intellectually challenged” man named Nazer Ali hostage, with full knowledge that he was innocent. They tortured him and kept him imprisoned to gain leverage over a family member.

Torture harmed the global reputation of the U.S. (obviously) and impeded national security missions.

Torture did not yield valuable intelligence.  Torture yielded lies, because a person will say anything to get the torture to stop. Accurate and important intelligence, such as the information about the location of Osama bin Laden, was gained through conventional and legal interrogation methods, not torture.

 

Response

Not surprisingly, Bush administration officials – most prominently Dick Cheney – claim that we did not torture, that whatever we did do was justified, that the Senate report is full of lies, and, most importantly, that torture yielded valuable information.

These claims have been repeated for almost a decade.  But they are never substantiated.  If torture was so valuable, what information did we gain from it?  Silence.  If torture was justified solely in order to gain valuable intelligence, then how do you justify torturing the wrong person?  Crickets.

Instead of proof, we are asked merely to take the word of people that ordered the use of torture and continue to lie about it.

When Obama took office in 2009, many human rights supporters hoped for prosecutions of high-level officials that approved torture. We believed – correctly – that failing to prosecute these individuals would send a message that these tactics were acceptable, and would shift the debate until we had lost any sense of morality or legality on this issue.

That is where we stand today.  The Obama administration has not prosecuted a single torturer.  Instead they prosecuted the man who revealed the program to the public.

The primary debate should be how to punish those who approved torture, which has been at odds with America’s self-described ethos since the time of George Washington – who specifically forbade the torture of British POWs during the Revolutionary War at a time when the practice was common.  Instead we ask if torture was justified.

We tortured, we tortured the wrong people, and we lied about it. Those who defend it claim that it helped us get valuable intelligence. It didn’t.  What it did do was create more terrorists and motivate people to do us harm, which makes sense.  That’s what torture does.

If the law has no impact, if no one is prosecuted under it and if those whom it allegedly protects are instead locked away in dungeons and secret military bases for years, then what is its use?  Why even call it a law?

If our principles, the bedrock of what we claim this country stands for, are just words without force, easily thrown aside in times of uncertainty, then what purpose do they serve? Can we really call them principles?

 

Gardner Marshall

 

Don’t Stop Talking About Eric Garner

The video tells the story.

We can add some context.  The New York City agency that will investigate Eric Garner’s death is not considered well-functioning and didn’t even have a leader for the first 6 months of Bill de Blasio’s administration). Not coincidentally, one was chosen the day that Garner died.

We can add some history.  The type of chokehold employed by officer Daniel Pantaleo that led to Garner’s death has been outlawed since 1993.

But the video tells the story.  An unarmed man, upset at being questioned by the police for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, is choked and forced to the ground by 4 cops while hoarsely yelling “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!”  He was left handcuffed on the ground for several minutes after his death.

The similarities to the Michael Brown case are obvious – unarmed black man killed by a white police officer, officer subsequently not indicted by a grand jury.  The reaction is similar as well – many people expressing surprise and outrage, and thousands taking to the streets to protest this injustice.  I want to refer to both of these as murders, but the legal system has thus far ruled that they are not.

I am skeptical that either of these incidents will be the watershed moment that leads to a massive overhaul of police tactics in America.  They certainly show that it is long past the time when we should be engaged in such an overhaul.  But what is also clear is that for any serious reform to occur the disconnect between white people’s perceptions of what life is like in America for non-white people (especially non-white poor people) and what life is actually like for these people needs to be drastically reduced.

I discussed this last week.  But no single post or book or film or experience or conversation can ever convey the vast difference between what life is like for a white person, particularly a white man (especially one with money) and what life is like for everyone else (especially those without a lot of money).

 

Race, Socioeconomic Status and Context

Race and socioeconomic status are inextricably linked in America.  Being white means you are much more likely to have money.  White Americans have 22 times more wealth than black Americans.

A powerful article from last year highlighted this stark inequality:

“For every dollar in assets owned by whites in the United States, blacks own less than a nickel, a racial divide that is wider than South Africa’s at any point during the apartheid era.

The median net worth for black households is $4,955, or about 4.5 percent of whites’ median household wealth, which was $110,729 in 2010, according to Census data.   Racial inequality in apartheid South Africa reached its zenith in 1970 when black households’ median net worth represented 6.8 percent of whites’, according to an analysis of government data.”

I’ll round up a bit – 5,000 to 111,000.  I see “black on black” crime statistics every.  Ostensibly they are meant to provide context.  But that isn’t what they do.  They are just numbers, and it is always the same numbers. Crime doesn’t occur in a vacuum. If you want to place crime statistics in context you need to discuss all sorts of socioeconomic data, things like household income, education data, neighborhood demographics, life expectancy, employment numbers.  Only a fraction of any population commits a crime, but these socioeconomic statistics give us information about almost everyone.

You want context?  The median net worth for black households in America today is not enough to buy a decent used car.  The median net worth for black households is not enough to pay a year’s tuition at a state college. The median net worth for black households is 7% of the $67,600 ($40,000 in 1992 dollars) Bill Cosby made per episode of the Cosby Show in 1992.

The difference between median net worth for white and black households in America is so vast that what a white person might consider working class or poor – say $50,000 – a black person might call middle class or rich.

That is context.

 

Empathy Found Lacking

Every day tens of millions of interactions, thoughts and reactions are impacted by race (and gender).  Every minority that you have ever met or seen has experienced racism.  Every single one.  It doesn’t matter how rich or smart or powerful or nice or (insert adjective here) this person may be. The overwhelming majority of minorities probably experienced a moment of prejudice today.

Stop and think about that for a moment.

Yes, you can never fully grasp what life is like for any other person.  Yes, this fact is relevant when talking about interactions between any two people, especially when these people are of different races, genders, socioeconomic statuses, nationalities, religions, ages, and on and on.  Yes, no matter how hard you try you cannot overcome this simple truth.

No, this does not mean you should ever stop trying.  It’s called empathy, and it is a big part of what makes us human beings.

Everyone should cultivate empathy.  But in modern America I believe the empathy of some demographics has much more of an impact, because some demographics have more power and money and control over the rusted levers of government.  Of course I’m talking about white people, and especially white men – my demographic.

I have no way of measuring another person’s empathy, much less a massive group of people.  But I do know that in both of these cases white men have made almost all of the most important decisions.

In Ferguson, Darren Wilson decided to stop his car, yell at Michael Brown, and eventually shoot him six times.  Gov. Jay Nixon decided not to appoint a special prosecutor, and then decided to call in the National Guard a week before the grand jury reached a decision.  District attorney Bob McCulloch decided to shirk his duty and then spent almost ten minutes criticizing the Internet before announcing the decision.  In Staten Island, Daniel Pantaleo decided to use an illegal chokehold to subdue a nonviolent, unarmed man who was not attempting to run, but was asking politely for the police to stop grabbing him.

This disconnect, the different Americas seen and experienced and described by different groups of Americans, can be measured.  Look here. The grand jury was drawn from a pool of people in Staten Island.  Staten Island is 70% white, New York City overall is majority non-white.  Recent polls show that only 41% of State Islanders supported bringing charges against Pantaleo, compared to 64% of all New Yorkers.  Two-thirds of New Yorkers felt there was “no excuse” for the way the police acted in this instance, while only 43% of Staten Islanders felt that way.

Finally, the real kicker: “Almost 60 percent of Staten Islanders, on average, said police treat both races the same, according to Quinnipiac’s surveys. Only 31 percent of all New Yorkers felt the same way.”

A mostly white borough mostly supports the police and mostly feels that police treat both races equally.  A diverse city disagrees.  Each group is responding based on their experiences.  Each group has had a very different set of experiences.

Dealing with the problems in our society means admitting this and discussing it.  Often.  Because right now a generation is coming of age that is very confused about these issues and mostly afraid to talk about it. According to polls, 58% of white millennials feel that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. Predictably, only a small number – 10% – said they had ever felt excluded because of their race.  This delusion needs to be confronted if we want any kind of meaningful progress as a society.

Chris Rock gave a fantastic and enlightening interview last week where he pointed out how absurd even the dialogue surrounding this stuff is. “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”

My life is easier in million different ways – big and small – because I am white, because I am a man, and because I live in America.  For the tens of millions of people in America who don’t share those first two traits, life is more difficult.  America would be better place for all of us if that was not the case.

Right now a lot of us are thinking and talking about these issues.  Pretty soon almost all of the white people will go back to their regular routine, meaning they won’t be thinking and talking about these issues.  But all of the non-white people will be dealing with them every moment of every day.

It is imperative that the rest of us don’t just shut this stuff out until the next unarmed black guy is killed by the police.  When, not if, that happens we don’t want to be right where we are now, gazing at each other, some of us baffled, others exhausted, wondering where things went wrong.

Things get worse when we are silent, so don’t be.

 

Gardner Marshall

 

Postscript: One of the most thought-provoking pieces on Eric Garner’s death was written by Joshua Keating at Slate.  It is based on a hypothetical: how would we report this crime if it occurred in another country?  Below is the full text (the original piece is available here).

“NEW YORK CITY, United States—The heavily armed security forces in this large and highly militarized country have long walked the streets with impunity, rarely if ever held accountable for violence committed against civilians. In recent weeks, however, several such incidents have ignited public anger and threatened to open new fault lines in a nation with a long and tragic history of sectarian violence.

In America’s largest city, the judicial branch declined to pursue charges against a security officer who was videotaped in broad daylight choking a man to death. This came less than two weeks after courts in the nation’s often overlooked central region reached a similar decision in the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Both victims were members of the country’s largest minority group, and the killings have set off nationwide protests that have often escalated into clashes between dissidents and the security forces.

While lower than that of other countries in the Western Hemisphere, America’s violent crime rate is high by the standards of developed nations, a situation experts blame on a variety of factors, including skyrocketing income inequality and easy access to firearms. In response, the country’s recent ruling regimes have broadly expanded the policing and surveillance powers of the domestic security forces and instituted draconian sentences for even minor criminal offenses. As a result of this campaign, the world’s second-largest democracy has the highest percentage of its population behind bars—a virtual prison state of 2.3 million people housed in an archipelago of often poorly maintained facilities throughout the nation.

Information provided by human rights groups shows that the state’s crackdown has disproportionately targeted members of the country’s ethnic minority groups, who have been historically marginalized and subject to severe discrimination. The election of the country’s first minority president, it was once hoped, would help bring these disparities to an end, but experts say they have persisted and in some cases even worsened.

Domestic critics also say the state has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent. Security forces have been outfitted with the latest in military hardware, often battle-tested on the fields of the country’s multiple foreign wars. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets against domestic protesters is reminiscent of the state’s tactics during protests against the system of legally enforced apartheid, which was in place in the country’s southern region until the middle of the last century.

With calls for sweeping democratic reforms mounting, the state has been slow to respond. Thus far, the ruling party has announced only limited measures, including new training programs and cameras to be worn by members of the security forces—an odd choice given that one of the killings in question was already videotaped.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture and global NGOs including Amnesty International have condemned the U.S. in recent days, though as yet there’s been little discussion of sanctions. With many of the country’s political leaders and media outlets casting aspersions on both the victims of violence and the protesters, it’s unclear if the events of the past few weeks will mark a turning point, or if this is just another periodic eruption of the country’s long-simmering internal tensions.”

 

Ferguson

There is nothing to say to make this situation better.  But one sure way to make it worse is to ignore it.  A friend texted me last night, expressing disbelief at the protests and rioting, and saying that he thought that would only make things worse.  I have seen that sentiment echoed by others, including veterans of the civil rights movement such as John Lewis, who argued for peaceful demonstrations.

Many people out there may feel that protests and riots only turn the public sentiment against those doing the protesting.  That is a legitimate point of view, and it may be correct.  But at this point the public needs to be hit over the head with this issue, and trying to win public sentiment isn’t as important as forcing the public to confront the ugly reality that the government of Missouri, from a local cop to the police chief and mayor of Ferguson, and on to the district attorney and the governor of Missouri, is guilty of inflicting racial violence.  And the criminal justice system has exacerbated rather than alleviated that violence.

I think the most appropriate response to that sentiment is that marches, protests, demonstrations, and riots exist for the extreme moments in the life of a country, and the state murdering an innocent teenager is absolutely an extreme moment.  There really isn’t any other choice besides large public demonstrations, unless you think that “Continue to be the victims of unpunished violent crime at the hands of the police” is a viable option.

 

According to the news, White People Celebrate or Demonstrate, but Black People Riot

Before we get too caught up in some of the imagery from last night, it is important to consider some other recent incidents that fall under the categories of demonstrations.  One obvious trend is that when groups of mostly white people gather in public to it doesn’t get called a riot, even when they wantonly destroy property and engage in violent acts.  Also, these people don’t get teargassed, bombarded with smoke grenades, or shot at.

 

(Look closely and you will notice a surprising lack of armored police vehicles and officers dressed for combat in those photos).

 

The Fucked Up Legal Proceedings

I am sure most of you have seen the statistics on how rare it is for a grand jury to fail to return an indictment.

Jay Nixon, the Governor of Missouri, chose not to appoint a special prosecutor and left district attorney Bob McCulloch in charge.  It seems pretty clear that Nixon had a reasonable expectation that this move would reduce the likelihood of an indictment and therefore upset the community, which is why he called up the Missouri National Guard last week!

After being placed in charge of the case, McCulloch did an unusual and self-serving thing – he decided to place responsibility for the outcome in the hands of the grand jury.  He was very clear about this in his speech last night, when he said, “They are the only people – the only people – who have heard and examined every witness and every piece of evidence.”  McCulloch presented himself as simply a resource for this evidence.

But McCulloch was the fucking prosecutor!  As several prosecutors have explained today, in deciding to present the grand jury with all of the evidence he abdicated his role as prosecutor.  McCulloch was tasked with framing the case to the grand jury, calling witnesses and presenting evidence to make that case, not leaving them with a pile of evidence to figure out themselves.  Grand juries almost always side with prosecutors, but McCulloch didn’t act like one.  In choosing to act this way, he made an indictment less likely.

It is also important to remember a few underreported facts.  First, a lot of attention has been focused on the fact that Michael Brown was a big kid, with the implication being that it would be natural for Darren Wilson to be afraid of someone that size.  Brown was 6″4 and somewhere around 280 lbs.  But Wilson is a big guy as well, he is 6″4 and roughly 210 lbs.  We aren’t talking David and Goliath here.  We are talking about two large people, one of them a teenager and one a grown man, and the grown man had police training, a motor vehicle, and a gun.  Second, the St. Louis County medical examiner didn’t take photos of the crime scene because…his camera battery died!1  Absurd.

Third, Wilson’s account of what happened is literally unbelievable. According to Wilson, he asked Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson to walk on the sidewalk.  When they refused, he asked again, and Brown approached the car, slammed the door shot as Wilson tried to open it, began punching Wilson (though oddly he hit the left side of Wilson’s face from his alleged position outside the driver’s side door), paused his assault and calmly handed some cigarillos to his friend, and continued the assault. Then Wilson reached for his gun, and Brown allegedly said “You’re too much of a fucking pussy to shoot me.”  Sounds more like the dialogue of a Sylvester Stallone film than what an unarmed 18 year-old would say. Wilson apparently fired 2 shots before Brown began running away, at which point Wilson got out of his car and began chasing him.  Wilson screamed for Brown to get on the ground.  Brown allegedly turned, began running at Wilson, on his second stride reached for an imaginary handgun (again, Brown was unarmed).  Wilson shot him multiple times, which apparently did nothing to slow Brown down, so he continued shooting (he fired 12 times).

Are you fucking kidding me?

Wilson claims Brown ran 20-30 feet from the car, turned, and charged him. But Brown’s body was 150 feet from the car (sure would be helpful to have some crime scene photos).  More to the point, as Ezra Klein states, why? “Why did Michael Brown, an 18-year-old kid headed to college, refuse to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk? Why would he curse out a police officer? Why would he attack a police officer? Why would he dare a police officer to shoot him? Why would he charge a police officer holding a gun? Why would he put his hand in his waistband while charging, even though he was unarmed?  None of this fits with what we know of Michael Brown.”2

This story is just begging for holes to be poked in it.  But, as legal analyst Lisa Bloom states, the cross-examination of Wilson was a cakewalk, not the type of detailed, intense questioning that the situation merited:

If the victim was white all the news shows would be focusing on the many holes in the case and serious problems with McCulloch’s strategy, things we learned about yesterday when the evidence was released.   Both Wilson and the medical examiner would be crucified on national television. Instead we are talking about protests and looking at images of police in riot gear.

As one former federal prosecutor put it, “So when a District Attorney says, in effect, “we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,” that’s malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.”

Exactly.

 

The Disconnect 

We live in a society where statistics like this are shocking to some people (none of them black):

A big reason for the disconnect (not to mention a huge driver of “black on black” crime) is segregation, most importantly in the form of housing discrimination.  In America, we live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools and mostly have friends that are the same race as we are. Next time you read that stat about how 90% of black murder victims are killed by black people, remember that 83% of white murder victims are killed by white people.”3  Basically, people kill people nearby.  But conservatives only throw a hissy fit when talking about crime involving black people.

“Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).”4

White Americans almost never have black friends, Hispanic friends, or Asian friends. White Americans are less likely to have minority classmates than they were 30 years ago. This might all seem shocking to people in my generation, the so-called “millennials.”  According to social science research, we support diversity and equality at higher levels than older generations.

The problem with all this is that the same research also shows the troubling prevalence of “post-racial” thinking.  5  That is troubling because the idea that America is “post-racial” is complete bullshit.  Pick any stat, from incarceration rates to income levels to neighborhood demographics (which, again, are the biggest and most under-discussed issue when we talk about race in America) to police shootings, and it is clear that not only is the idea of a post-racial America a distant fantasy, it is one that is moving further from reality because of our refusal to recognize reality.

Basically, millennials want people to be treated the same but we don’t want to discuss race, we are opposed to government measures to reduce inequality, and we aren’t really even sure what racism is.

White people in America don’t know what life is like for black people in America (or Latinos, or Asians, et al).  It really comes down to that.  If we had even a faint idea we wouldn’t be surprised by the outcome in Ferguson.  Because we don’t know, we look at cases like this from a totally different perspective.  As Jamelle Bouie of Slate argues, “A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.”

 

Gardner Marshall

 

Postscript: Charles Pierce of Esquire has a powerful piece up today on Ferguson.

I will paste most of it below, but it is worth reading in full here – http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/There_Is_Always_A_Reason.

“There is always a reason. Fear. Orders. Duty. There is always a reason after it happens. There is always a reason because we want there to be a reason.

There always have been people in whom we invest the power to take a life. There always has been a tendency among us, or at least among the more privileged among us, to give the benefit of a thousand doubts to those people in whom we invest this awesome power, because we give it to them in order for them to protect us and to keep us safe. They act in our name, always, no matter what they do. That, on the other hand, is often what we refuse to admit to ourselves when that power is misused. That is the way it is in a self-governing Republic. Every act of war is done in our name. Every action by the police is done in our name. Every prosecutor does his job in our name. Every governor who makes a decision does so in our name. When Michael Brown is shot and killed in the middle of the street by a police officer named Darren Wilson, then Darren Wilson is acting in our name, whether we want to admit it or not. We have given him the power to decide to take Michael Brown’s life. And, last night, the governor of Missouri, and a local prosecutor, and 12 members of a grand jury told their their fellow citizens that, in killing Michael Brown, the moderately abraded Darren Wilson acted properly, and in their name. That is the hard and undeniable truth of the matter. Darren Wilson cannot be guilty, because then all the institutions of our government are, and we are, as well, because we told Darren Wilson to protect us from people who look to us like demons.

Right from the beginning, when Governor Jay Nixon refused to name a special prosecutor and left the case in the hands of Bob McCulloch, the greasy and hopelessly conflicted local district attorney, this case was headed for the biggest public fix since the 1919 World Series. The people in Ferguson knew it. The police knew it. Even Nixon knew it; he declared a state of emergency a week before the grand jury’s decision was handed down. McCulloch simply abandoned his duties as a prosecutor and dumped the evidence on the members of the grand jury without giving them any direction at all. Both of them relied, tacitly, on the fact that they knew the benefits they all would get of the thousand doubts that we give to the people we empower to take another person’s life—”under the color of law,” as the legal jargon has it, and in this case that couldn’t be more ironic.

And whoever it was that prepped Wilson for his testimony deserves a raise. There is the “hand in the waistband” defense, which you hear in almost every police-related shooting. Wilson was able to convince a grand jury that he was physically intimidated by someone who was exactly the same height. He was able to convince them that he was struck in the head with a closed fist three times, and that he suffered what appeared to be nothing more than a severe razor burn. He was able to convince them that Michael Brown had become something else—a “demon”—and that Wilson’s actions in killing him was an act of exorcism on behalf of the entire community. He was able to convince them of something that the elected officials of the community already needed to believe.

This is a perilous time for the country, and for many of the citizens living in it. Our police are armed and trained as you would arm and train an occupying army. They are given body armor, and armored vehicles. They have been removed, physically and psychologically, from the people they are paid to serve, the people who invest in them to take the life of another. And there is a reason because there always is a reason, when some citizen winds up dead. The argument always is that you, the citizen, do not know the pressure these people face, that you never will experience a split-second life and death decision, and that the benefit of a thousand doubts is always justified because, otherwise, you will not be made safe by the people you empower to take a life. As regards to all the incidents cited above, not one person ever served one day in jail. This because there were reasons, and there are always reasons.

And the people who complain, and the people who riot, and the people who march and shout and scream for some kind of justice are just ungrateful because it is the job of the people we empower to take lives to keep them safe from each other, and don’t they understand that? Don’t they understand that Darren Wilson’s exorcised the demon on their behalf as well, that Michael Brown died so that they can be safe? That is the reason, and there is always a reason.”

 

Two Early NBA Thoughts

It is early in the NBA season.  Right now a bunch of projected contenders – Spurs, Clippers, Cavaliers, Thunder – are having underwhelming seasons. The Spurs and Thunder are dealing with injury issues, but the Cavs and Clips are pretty healthy to begin the season, and yet both began Wednesday just 1 game over .500.

The Cavs will continue to generate an insanely high level of discussion, debate and totally unnecessary noise simply because LeBron plays for them.  The Clips also attract a fair amount of scrutiny in the wake of the Sterling controversy and because they have the best point guard in the world and one of the best power forwards.  It is too early in the season to draw firm conclusions or freak out. But it isn’t too early to examine some minor tweaks that might improve on-court performance.

Thus far the Cavs best lineups are not their big 3 flanked by another big. Like the LeBron-era Heat, the Cavs play better when they go small.  We can see several reasons why the Cavs might be an elite small ball team just as the Heat were.  First, the Cavs have a fantastic pick-and-pop big man in Kevin Love.  Second, they have two long, athletic forwards capable of playing the 4 in LeBron and Shawn Marion.  Third, by putting as many shooters on the floor they create bigger driving lanes for Kyrie and LeBron and give more room for post-ups from LeBron and Love.  Perhaps the most unstoppable half court set in the NBA is LeBron posting up on the left block surrounded by shooters.

These lineups could go several ways.  The optimal balance between shooting and defense would be Love-Marion-LeBron-Irving and one of Miller-Waiters-Dellavedova-Harris-Jones.  Thompson and Varejao could be substituted for Love, but obviously neither brings the same level of outside shooting, although Varejao is a decent midrange shooter.

One thing that sometimes gets misconstrued is Love’s defense.  He doesn’t have the size or athleticism to be an elite rim protector.  He also isn’t nearly as quick as Bosh and therefore is less effective at trapping the pick-and-roll. But he is strong, and he isn’t going to be bulldozed by many post-up players in the NBA.  There just aren’t many players like that in the league, and the guys with either a bully-type post game (Pekovic, Cousins, Howard) or a refined set of post moves (Al Jefferson, Duncan) mostly play in the west or for non-contending teams.  Pekovic bullies everybody, it’s not as if Varejao or Thompson are going to do much better than Love.  And none of those guys are long, strong and skilled enough to really limit Big Al or Duncan or Cousins, but then there really aren’t many guys in the league capable of doing that.

Love is big and strong enough to play center, and his shooting brings opposing bigs away from the basket.  If he is flanked by a stretch 4 like LeBron or Marion that can open the floor even more and give the nascent offense more room to operate. Not surprisingly, the best Cavs lineup is a front line of Love-Marion-LeBron.6

Also, Love can do work in the pick and roll. In tonight’ game against the Spurs Varejao played very well, especially as the roll man.  But late in the game he passed up several open midrange jumpers.  This threw off their offense because then the clock was ticking down and LeBron was forced to create something quickly, which often led to a tough shot.  A screener who can take and make that midrange shot helps the offense flow better.  And both LeBron or Marion are big enough to guard Boris Diaw.

Out west, the Clippers have a glaring hole on the wing right now.  Both Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick are struggling shooting the ball.  Barnes is supposed to be their defensive stopper, but he is older and he was always more of a physical pest defender than an elite, lockdown, Tony Allen type of guy. Redick can track guys around screens but he is too small and slow to lock down an athletic perimeter scorer.

The Clips need more size, shooting and defense on the wing.  There has been speculation that they will make a trade at some point to address this weakness.  But they already have a good candidate on their bench: Reggie Bullock.

Bullock, at 67% from 3, is shooting better than Barnes (30%) and Redick (32%) combined.  Of course this is a small sample size.  Everything is at this point in the season.  But Barnes is in the midst of perhaps the worst shooting slump of his career, and he is a streaky shooter anyway.  He is also 34, so it stands to reason that he is in decline a bit and will continue to lose some athleticism.

Bullock is 23.  He should continue to improve.  Advanced stats already rate him higher than both Barnes and Redick.  Surely this level of play merits more than the 12 minutes a game he has been playing so far.

Tonight the Clips had a blowout win over the Magic, and Bullock played a measly 4 minutes. Hedo Turkoglu, who has been dead for several years, played 15. Turkoglu will give you terrible defense and inconsistent production on offense. He is barely a rotation player.  Doc is trusting declining veterans (who both had good playoff series against his Celtics teams 4 & 5 years ago) at the expense of developing younger guys.

Remember what Doc did with DeAndre Jordan last year?  He trusted him with more minutes and let the growing pains happen during the season, and DeAndre had the best season of his career and solidified their center position.  Why not try that with Bullock?  Barnes isn’t the future at the wing, neither is Crawford, neither is Turkoglu.  Bullock may not be either, but at least give him a shot. Could be a difference maker this year.

 

Gardner Marshall

What Will Happen to Football Fans?

Sports season for me lasts from the beginning of NBA training camp to the last game of the NBA finals.  It’s not really sports so much as it is sport. And I only watch the people who are compensated for their labor, though that is due more to the superior quality of NBA basketball than to my total dislike of the NCAA.

However, I am an anomaly in terms of American sports fandom.  Football is the most popular sport in America, followed by baseball, and football again (the college version).

“In 2014, 35 percent of fans call the NFL their favorite sport, followed by Major League Baseball (14 percent), college football (11 percent), auto racing (7 percent), the NBA (6 percent), the NHL (5 percent) and college basketball (3 percent).”

Hell, the NBA is behind auto racing.  I don’t know a single person that follows auto racing seriously, and I know my fair share of Republicans. Altogether almost half of the country (46%) considers football their favorite sport.  Wow.

The NFL is in the news a lot.  And recently the news has been quite bad. Players killing people.  Players killing themselves.  Billionaire owners and multimillionaire commissioners clinging to the absurd notion that the NFL is a “non-profit” entity and thus deserves to avoid paying taxes.  Players abusing wives/girlfriends and children.  Players saying homophobic things. Players saying racist things.

I think the attention is most appropriately focused on the ongoing problems associated with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and other long-term brain injuries suffered by NFL players.  Recent studies have found CTE in 76 of 79 former players, including Junior Seau (who committed suicide) and Jovan Belcher (who killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide).

There are a bunch of articles out there lamenting the ongoing popularity of the NFL.  These pieces point to stats like the ones I have listed above as evidence that playing football is more dangerous than we previously thought.  And that’s true.

There are also pieces predicting an imminent decrease in, and the potential demise of, the popularity of football.  The most common comparison is boxing, a sport that was very popular 50-60 years ago but now barely sustains a niche following.  The parallels are clear. Both sports are violent, both sports are macho, and both sports even cause the same type of brain damage.

It is easy to find counter-arguments.  The NFL occupies an unprecedented financial situation, both in the American sports landscape and the American economy.  Consider just the television revenue.  Sports channels such as ESPN are forced on cable/satellite TV subscribers (there are generally no plans without ESPN).  ESPN pays tens of billions to the NFL for the right to broadcast MNF.  And ESPN wants to protect that investment.  In fact, ESPN is so concerned about that partnership that it was willing to suspend Bill Simmons, a very popular writer, for merely pointing out that the NFL commissioner lied regarding the timeline of the Ray Rice abuse scandal. Hard to imagine the NFL’s bottom line being impacted anytime soon when it has decades-long, multibillion dollar TV deals in place.

My question: If, in 30-40 years, football has experienced a significant decline in popularity (which is possible; I expect at least a moderate decline), what happens to all those sports fans who no longer follow football?

The articles excoriating society for its embrace of football often insist that one day people will be ashamed that they were once football fans. And there is the subtle hint that people should be ashamed.

I know people who used to love watching boxing.  I have never heard anyone apologize for it or express any shame.  Consider Muhammad Ali. Probably the greatest athlete of all time, adored by tens of millions of people all over the world.  Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 42, just 3 years after his last fight (his second-to-last fight, in 1980, was described as “watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive”).

Though boxing is no longer a mainstream sport, Ali is still spoken of with reverence, appropriately so.  His current state is tragic, but that doesn’t stop people from focusing on his years of glory, years which ultimately contributed to his deterioration.  Fans insist on seeing Ali as he was, not as he is.  We look away from the depressing stuff.

I think this is what will happen with football.  The sport will experience some decline, surely. As more parents learn about the increased risk of long-term brain damage – a risk that exists even at the high school level – fewer kids will play, and fewer people will watch.

More players and ex-players will experience the effects of CTE.  More stories, like the recent one in the New York Times, will describe the daily suffering of football players:

“Spend an extended period of time behind the N.F.L. curtain, as I did, see eerily subdued postgame locker rooms filled with vacant stares and hear anguished screams echoing from the training room, and you’ll understand how the physical and emotional toll these players endure is devastating enough to erode the morality of a good man or exacerbate the evils of a bad one.”

Terrible as it is to imagine, the rash of suicides by ex-players is not probably not over.  And the discussion about the dangers of football is far from over.

Eventually fewer people will watch.  They will look away from the depressing stuff, and perhaps try to forget how intently they once looked toward what caused it.  They will just find something else to watch instead.7

Hopefully it is something that causes less suffering than football.

 

Gardner Marshall

The NBA Cares

March Madness is almost upon us, and football season is (mercifully) over.  I thought it might be time to address two of the more pernicious tropes regarding basketball in the United States.  These foolhardy notions are intertwined, and can be described as follows: college players play harder/care more about the game than NBA players.

The absurd logic of many (many) college basketball fans apparently goes something like this:

When player A is playing for his college team, he is a selfless, heroic, laudable athlete playing simply for his love of the game, his school, and his teammates (in roughly that order).  If player A is skilled enough and works hard enough (and is very lucky), player A makes it to the NBA. Upon entering the professional ranks, player A becomes a selfish, overpaid, lazy jerk who loses all love for the game, his teammates, and his organization, and cares only for himself.

Clearly this is a deeply flawed perspective.

Player A is admirable only when his labor is being exploited by a bunch of administrators and coaches and NCAA officials.  Once he is finally compensated for his labor (as he should have been all along), he become selfish?

One facet of reality that this perspective ignores is that college athletes don’t have a choice.  How many would turn down a salary if it was offered to them?  Would the ones who accepted it – an overwhelming majority – care any less about the game?

Also, NBA players play many more games each year, roughly 3 times as many as college players.  That is a sizable difference.  And an NBA game lasts about 17% longer (8 minutes) than a college game.  NBA players are playing against the best, most athletic, strongest, fastest, players in the world every single night.

Think of a guy barely in the rotation on an NBA team, a guy that other teams pick on and target (e.g. Jimmer Fredette).  That guy almost certainly dominated at the college level.  Did he just stop caring once he made the NBA?  Was his goal simply to make it and not actually to succeed?  The partying was too much to handle?  (As if college athletes never get a chance to party, ever).

When an NBA team (or player) plays a bad game (or a few), people say they aren’t playing hard.  When a college team plays a bad game (or a few), it is blamed on coaching or lack of skill or the folly of youth. Because of their youth and much, much kinder schedule, college players certainly have less of an excuse for not playing with 100% effort. Yet that happens all the time.  It happens in all sports, and in every other facet of life.  The occasional lapse in effort is a universal human quality.

The more plausible answer is that succeeding in the NBA is incredibly difficult.  Harder than anything these players have ever done before in their lives, by a magnitude of several degrees.  And the players in the NBA, though they have lags in effort like any human being in any endeavor, are actually consistently playing at an incredibly high level.

Consider someone like Steve Nash.  He played 4 years of college basketball.  He is in his 18th season in the NBA.  He has played 1,332 total NBA games (including playoffs).  He currently plays for a crappy team (the Lakers) that has essentially no chance of making the playoffs.

Nash is 40 years old.  He has dealt with numerous serious and debilitating injuries in his career, the most recent – a nerve root irritation – has forced him to basically rebuild his muscle memory and come up with an entirely new training regimen.

Check out what he is currently going through just to suit up in an NBA game for a non-playoff team:

Incredible.  This guy has 2 MVPs, numerous career achievements, and tens of millions of dollars.  He has far exceeded any expectations that people had for him when he came out of Santa Clara University in 1996. He has nothing left to prove.

Nash could simply retire and live a very enjoyable life on the coast of Southern California. But he chooses to go through agonizing physical rehabilitation every single day so that he might have a shot at getting back out on the court.

So who says NBA players don’t care?

I think the other portion of the answer is that the people who turn to these tired stereotypes don’t watch the NBA.  Maybe they turn in during the playoffs a bit, or watch some of the NBA Finals, but they don’t watch a Monday game in the middle of the regular season.

It is easy to say NBA players don’t play hard in the regular season when you don’t watch the games and thus have no idea what you are talking about.  And of course people are free to watch what they want and say what they want.  But perhaps a few more people should tune in during the NBA regular season, if only to watch the two best basketball players in the world compete for the MVP award (and earn home court for the playoffs in their respective conferences).

Last night LeBron put up 61 points while wearing a mask.  He shot 22-33 from the field against the 7th ranked defense in the NBA, making 8-10 3-pointers, with 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and only 2 turnovers (http://espn.go.com/nba/boxscore?id=400489766).

Pretty amazing for a guy who apparently doesn’t care enough to try hard.

 

Gardner Marshall

 

Movies

Bill Murray did a great AMA (“Ask me anything”) at Reddit recently:

http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1vhjag/bill_murray_here_ok_ill_talk_ill_talk/

 

Political and Military Affairs

A history of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the document upon which most of the legal reasoning and political justification for the ongoing War on Terror rests.  The immediate aftermath of 9/11 is a crucial and overlooked period in our history.  The construction and subsequent interpretation of this document is frightening and disturbing:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/gregorydjohnsen/60-words-and-a-war-without-end-the-untold-story-of-the-most

If you don’t initially agree, consider the following quote from the article:

“Twelve years after 9/11, who exactly is the U.S. at war with?”

“When I contacted the Pentagon to get an answer, a spokeswoman emailed back: “’The list is classified and not for public release.’”

 

Humor

An open letter to people on the Paleo diet:

www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-open-letter-to-paleo-diet-enthusiasts

 

Music

A look back at Nirvana’s phenomenal live performance on MTV 20 years later (this performance ultimately became the album Unplugged In New York):

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/nirvanas-tense-brilliant-em-unplugged-in-new-york-em-20-years-later/282040/

 

Sports

Zach Lowe of Grantland (probably the best NBA writer around) makes his case for who should be selected to the NBA All-Star game this year:

http://grantland.com/features/our-nba-all-star-team/

 

Tech

I have never had a Facebook account, in part because of some deep philosophical issues I have with the lack of privacy and seemingly trite nature of the majority of the content on the site.  So I am encouraged by the fact that teenagers, in spite of their tiny brains and poor taste in many areas, have begun a shift away from Facebook (although I am sure many of them are choosing to spend time doing something equally wasteful):

http://istrategylabs.com/2014/01/3-million-teens-leave-facebook-in-3-years-the-2014-facebook-demographic-report/

 

I apologize for the delay in posting, I had to be a law student for a minute.  And then travel.  But I’m back.

 

Gardner Marshall