Wednesday, March 4, 2015

#LAPDshooting - The Right Questions

A few days ago, before we had full information, I wrote a piece for CNN on the shooting of a homeless man named "Africa" on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Here's my core argument:
The media and the investigation will likely focus on whether Africa was reaching for an officer's gun when he got killed.
This is the wrong question. Instead, we need to look at why the officers decided to begin the encounter by aggressively charging into the victim's tent, dragging him out, and demanding compliance.
Indeed, that's just what happened. Article after article after tweet on whether or not Africa had his hand on the officer's gun. I added:
It is necessary to ask why the officers thought the best approach was to grab him, drag him into the open and corral him, and to hold the LAPD accountable to best practices in such situations.
As we learn more about the man who was killed and the situation, I maintain that these remain the right questions - taking the broad assessment of the strategic and tactical situation, choices made by the officers, and the consequences of those choices. It may be that the officers made good decisions or not. Asking the right questions doesn't pre-determine the answers, just that you're going to get a good picture of the situation.

We've learned a lot more about Africa. First, we learned that he was Charley Robinet, a convicted bank robber who once pistol whipped a guard, but also someone diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities in 2003 and hospitalized. The French government, though, says he was not in fact Charley Robinet, as that French passport was stolen. It is unclear to me at this time whether or not "Africa" was in fact a convicted bank robber and violent offender, whether he was the individual diagnosed and hospitalized with psychiatric disabilities, or anything else about his past. Please send me updated information if you find some.

Meanwhile, the LAPD police chief and LA mayor are touting their mental health training for cops.
"All officers are trained for instance in dealing with the capacity of mental health issues that people have out there," the mayor said. "These (LAPD) officers get an additional training above and beyond that."

The mayor's point was underscored earlier by Police Chief Charlie Beck, who said officers working on Skid Row are trained in identifying behavior, advising support agencies and defusing sometimes violent situations.

"Several of the officers had participated and completed our most extensive mental illness training - over a 36-hour course," Beck said.
This is, then, the precise example of the limitations of CIT and related training, because a process that leads to a violent confrontation with an unarmed disabled individual is a failure. It may be a legal failure. It may not have violated departmental processes. But it's a failure.

There is no information presently that the officers believed Africa to be an armed offender with a violent criminal past. My best information is that they believed him to be a potentially unstable disabled homeless man who was a suspect in a robbery. Such a situation, given the best practices in "defusing violent situations," would not necessarily mandate ripping up the tent and sparking the violent conversation.

My guess is that the officers thought Africa might have had a weapon in his tent. That's not unreasonable, given the circumstances. But I'd like to hear the discussion of what de-escalation tactics were tried or why they were not applicable to this particular incident.

Unfortunately, all the media discourse is focused on whether or not he reached for a gun. We must ask the right questions. Not just for this case, but for the next, and the next, and the next.

Because only a few hours after Africa was shot, a black man in a mental health crisis was repeatedly tased by Oklahoma City police until he died.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Time Frame and Police Shootings

Yesterday CNN published my new essay on the shooting of a black, homeless, disabled man by the LAPD. I argue that the focus on whether of not "Africa," as the man was known, was reaching for a gun, is the wrong question. Instead, use-of-force incidents should be assessed by taking a broad time frame, looking at the decisions that led up to the violence.

I am writing a longer piece on the upcoming Supreme Court case for Al Jazeera, out sometime in the next few weeks, and so have been thinking about that specific issue a lot, and learning from Seth Stoughton, a law professor at South Carolina. After the Africa shooting, I reached back out to him for more information.
According to Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in police regulation, there are two ways to look at use-of-force incidents. One position advocates for a narrow time frame in which we only examine the moment in which the trigger was pulled. The other argues for a broad time frame, in which the whole chain of decisions leading up to the moment of force is part of the assessment.
In fact, Stoughton notes that the Supreme Court may well rule on this matter in Sheehan vs San Francisco, a case also involving police violence and mental illness. On March 23, the court will hear whether San Francisco police should have considered Teresa Sheehan's disability before entering her room, and whether their failure to accommodate her disability violates the Fourth Amendment. Sheehan was shot, but survived, and is trying to keep her lawsuit from being thrown out. As with most Supreme Court cases, the decision will likely have broad implications.
In an email, Seth wrote me to clarify slightly. "The failure to accommodate Ms. Sheehan’s disability isn’t the basis of the Fourth Amendment claim. The Fourth Amendment claim is for an unreasonable seizure (and one reason this seizure was arguably unreasonable is because officers knew of her disability)."

That's my fault for trying to compress the whole case into a single sentence, and I appreciate Seth clarifying. You should also read this storify of his tweets on the concept of tactical restraint, as I think it's critical for re-imagining policing.

One criticism of every piece critical of police violence is the argument that the suspect should have just complied with commands and he or she would have been fine. Therefore, the failure to not comply justifies the death or violence.

I need your help pushing back against that when you see the argument and have the energy to do so. To make it clear that for people with disabilities, failure to comply may not be a choice, and best practices offer other ways to approach such situations. There will always be moments in which police need to use deadly force. It may even be true that there was no way to approach Africa without violence resulting, though I am skeptical of this. I believe he was another victim of the cult of compliance, and there will be more. Probably within a few days.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The death of "Africa" at the hands of the LAPD

Yesterday was the day of mourning for people with disabilities killed by their caregivers. I stood in the cold with a small group of people at the University of Chicago, candles mostly blown out by the wind, reading names. I noticed that some of the names included individuals killed by law enforcement, and while I think that's not the intent of the day, I mourn their deaths. We might still be standing their reading names if we had a master list of these kinds of cases.

We mourn. And we draw attention to their deaths as a way of remembering them and demanding no more. And then there are more. And we say stop. And the deaths do not stop. But neither do we. It was a hard night last night and a grim morning of writing, but thank you for reading, thank you for bearing witness, and thank you for continuing to say no more.

Here's one more:

"Africa," an African-American, unarmed, psychiatrically disabled, homeless man was killed by police in LA on Sunday. I have a piece filed on some of the issues raised by this killing. Note the intersection of factors - race, poverty, ability. Once the LAPD demanded compliance, a violent outcome was almost assured.

There's a graphic video posted below. It's awful and DO NOT FEEL OBLIGATED TO WATCH IT.

What I will be writing about today are the moments before the shooting, before Africa is tackled, before he allegedly reached for a gun. He's unarmed and clearly in mental health crisis (perhaps triggered by the officers charging in on him). That's where our accountability efforts need to focus. Once we reach the trigger point, it's all too late.

Here's the video. Again, it's very disturbing. Be careful with yourself.

UPDATE: the original poster made his video private. Here's a link to a youtube video. Not embedding because I don't want it to autoplay for you.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunday Roundup - Days of Action, Days of Mourning

Nothing was published this week outside the blog, but I filed several, including a parenting essay that I'm particularly proud of and a closely-researched piece on a coming SCOTUS case. I'm also working on some scholarship that has slowed down my journalism for a week or two.

My Pieces from the week:

Two Vows:
  • Day of Mourning - 3/1/2015. Today is the disability day of mourning. My vow is to continue to try and tell victim-centered stories and to hold other journalists accountable to the same. I will be at the Chicago gathering tonight.
  • National Adjunct Walkout Day. This week had the first national adjunct walkout day. My vow here is to not cross adjunct picket lines. I want to be clear - I think formal labor action MUST be a major part of the pursuit of a living wage for all teachers. I will not cross formal picket lines. I will also do my best to support and join less formal actions as well. But seriously - organize.
Other Posts:

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Day of Mourning - 3/1/2015

Every year on March 1st, the disability community gathers to mourn people killed by their parents and caregivers. We mourn all untimely deaths, of course, and there are far too many deaths by accident, stranger violence, police violence, and more.

But there is something specific to the disability community in which caregivers kill and then are forgiven in the media. The media rhetoric explains away the violence by making disability itself the culprit.

We reject that narrative.

Here is a statement by Autistic Self-Advocacy Network president Ari Ne'eman
Memory is an important part of how we define our communities. When we think about the history of the disability rights movement, there are so many moments at which we stop and think to ourselves, “But for the actions of those who came before me, I might not be here with the chances and opportunities I have today.” From the heroes of the 504 Sit-In to the modern day struggles to free our people from institutions and nursing homes, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We are bound together by the memory of those who fought on our behalf.
But the memories that tie us together as a community aren’t just the happy moments, the victories where our cause takes a great step forward. We bond over our sorrows as well. Today, we are gathered together to remember members of our community who had their very lives taken from them, for no other reason than because they were one of us. Because they were disabled.
For George Hodgins, for Melissa Stoddard, for Daniel Corby, for Nancy Fitzmaurice, for London McCabe, for Katie McCarron and Tracy Latimer and Alex Spourdalakis and countless, countless others, there will be no opportunity to share in our community’s moments of celebration. There will be no chance to experience the sweet sense of belonging that we’ve each come to together after long years of fear in our time apart. There will be no chance even for the everyday joys of existence itself.
Here is a list of vigil sites for 2015. I do not know whether I will be able to attend the Chicago event, but I hope to do so.

I wrote an article on the death of London McCabe, quoting Ari, on this issue. My motto is that we should write victim-centered narratives, not killer-centered narratives. This was, I think, the hardest piece I've ever written in terms of its emotional effect on me. And I received criticism on it for not talking about the killer's mental health issues in an appropriately sympathetic way. It's not my goal to demonize the killer, it is my goal to remember London. This is the paragraph that gutted me.
London McCabe did not want to die. London liked big hats. He liked fuzzy stuffed animals. He made a wish on his cupcake for his sixth birthday. In September, his father wrote, "London is pleased as punch. He lays on our laps and puts our hands together. Last night he made the 'mmmwha!' sound and gave his Mommy a kiss. Then he made the same sound and pushed our faces together. He's all smiles."
Wherever your body is tomorrow, spend a few minutes remembering those we've lost. Vow to remember them. Try to tell their stories.

I will continue to use my blog and, to the extent I can land pieces, my contacts in journalism, to tell victim-centered stories and to call out those reporters who do otherwise. That's my promise.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates at Dominican University: Activism and Change

Last night I had the pleasure of watching one our nation's great writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, give a talk on the case for reparations at my university. The content of the talk was based on his recent major article for The Atlantic, which you should read. His thesis is that for 350 years, in an ongoing fashion, African-Americans can and are being plundered for their labor. Slavery is a major part of that story, the first 250 years, but he talks mostly housing and redlining and its consequences in the mid-20th century.

In the Q&A, he said something very interesting. A professor asked him what he would tell these "young people" in the crowd tonight, and he very important. He told them that none of them were all that likely to see real change, or at least they couldn't predicate their activism on that change.

He said that every time the African-American community had seen change, it had been because of a context that made the change useful to majority white society. Frederick Douglas was a great activist against slavery, but emancipation happened because it became useful to winning the Civil War. Ida B. Wells was a great activist against lynching, but the federal government did nothing. MLK was a great activist against discrimination, but civil rights legislation took place because the South was embarrassing America in the Cold War.

Now these historical statements are naturally reductive - Coates made them quickly and off-the-cuff - but they do speak to the difficulty of change. For 250 years, he said, slaves rebelled, slaves fled, slaves resisted. They brought no change, but they did say, in Coates' words, "Not in my name."

And then he talked about activism and, for him, writing, of telling true stories and trying to undermine myths of history that serve oppression. Speaking out. Rallying. Even implicitly, rebelling against unjust systems. He didn't promise change as a result of activism, but he promised that saying - not in my name - might help you sleep at night or live with yourself.

And to me, it's the telling of true of stories (which is what I try to do) and activism in all its forms, which has the potential to create the context in which change can take place. It's just not predictable and you cannot base your activism on whether or not you see change. You just have to act, however and in whatever ways you can, locally, globally, in art, in prose, on the streets, in the halls of power, in conversations in your local bar, with your fascist uncle at the holiday table, wherever.

And then you hope that you're lucky enough to be present when the context changes.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Christian Holy War - Next on FOX

All the news lately on Bill O'Reilly has focused on his chronic exaggeration of his records as a reporter on war. The short story is that while has has seen violent things here and there, he's not a war reporter, but it's not likely Fox News or their audience will care.

What I don't want is to let O'Reilly and his producers/writers off the hook for this.

After the Graeme Wood ISIS piece came out, O'Reilly used it to declare that we are in a Holy War. Now I know something about Holy Wars, and it's always possible for one side or another to decree that they are in a sanctified battle. Things get really nasty, though, when both sides adopt such rhetoric, and that's exactly what O'Reilly did here.
Fox News host Bill O'Reilly boosted his idea that the U.S. is in a holy war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), demanding the Obama administration "take the holy war seriously" and urging American clerics to lead the fight.
After the Islamic State's beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, O'Reilly claimed that "the holy war is here" on the February 17 edition of his show. O'Reilly later called on "all Christians, Jews, and secularists who love their country" to call the White House and "say enough."
On the February 18 edition of his show, O'Reilly again claimed it is "appropriate to define the worldwide conflict between Muslim fanatics and nearly everybody else" as a "holy war" and demanded President Obama "take the holy war seriously." O'Reilly asserted that the West must come together to eliminate the Islamic State, adding that "if the politicians won't do it, the clergy must lead the way."
What's ironic is that for days before this the right-wing was insisting that Christianity was fundamentally peaceful, while Islam was fundamentally violent.  And yet here he calls on clergy to lead the way.

This is dangerous talk. It's going to lead to further intensification of anti-Islamic sentiment and activity among radical right-wing Christians, it's going to serve ISIS very well in their recruitment efforts, and it wouldn't surprise me if it creates more domestic violence against Muslims.

I care about this much more than whether O'Reilly invented a fantasy of himself as a war correspondent. The fantasy of salvific violence is much more dangerous.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

National Adjunct Walkout Day

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day. Around the country, adjuncts have organized walkouts and rallies and donation funds and many other efforts to bring people together and insist on fair wages.

And they are right to do so. As a tenured faculty member, I stand fully in support with this movement, I see their movement as my movement, and will continue do the following - write publicly on the issue, act privately within my university and department, be ready to stand in picket lines and participate in labor actions as they emerge.

I have written some adjunct-related pieces.
Here are a few additional thoughts, though nothing formal, and I welcome debate, dissent, and added thoughts.

The entire university system is now balanced on a tower of debt on the one hand and an exploited workforce on the other. It is unsustainable. I think part of the key moving forward is to link these two problems in the eyes of students and parents (and politicians), rather than the current method of short-changing teachers to keep tuition costs down (not that it's working).

What does the future of higher education look like?

1. The whole university system collapses except for the super elite. We're all adjuncts. It's just about workforce training.

2. Students rebel against the adjunct system, realizing they are going into debt and the money isn't going into instruction. Paradise returns!

3. We continue to stratify in sustainable if unjust ways, dividing the profession between research and teaching profs more explicitly. Both earning stable middle class wages, but tracked and hard for teaching profs to switch from one to the other. Adjuncts return to their original purpose as short-term offerings, ways to bring professionals into the school, and related functions.

I guess I'm working for #3, as I believe it's realistic and possible that we could to turn most adjunct jobs into stable teaching positions with benefits, professional development, and a decent wage. I think we serve the students best when we are teacher-scholars (and I am very critical of profs who, at the elite level, try to avoid the classroom), both contributing to our field and engaging learners in the classroom. So I dislike the split model, but it's better than what we have now.

How do we get there?

One way is for the accrediting bodies to demand that we meet certain thresholds.

A second is for students and parents to demand it. Adjuncts are usually terrific teachers (my basic premise is that everyone is brilliant), but part of what makes a great college prof is the ability to really engage with your students. Adjuncts don't have the time. They often take time though, and then their wages per hour plummet even lower.

A third is for adjuncts, themselves, through labor actions and the support of other faculty, to force change.

Can we combine these three? I'm not sure, but I'm going to continue to write in ways that talk to fellow tenured faculty and to prospective students and parents of students, while supporting labor actions as they come up.

My pledge: I will not cross a picket line of adjuncts.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Another Astounding Adventure of Space Pirate Pilot Ellie!

Pretty much everyone agrees that fostering creativity is one of the most important things you do for a child. Skills are all well and good, of course, but the ability to imagine and create matter so much to overall development. One way to foster, of course, is by reading to them and then with them, as books do wonders for a child's brain. Imagination play of any kind is fruitful.

When my daughter goes to bed, I usually have her pick between a book or a story, though sometimes she gets both. I tell her silly stories about made-up characters, including a recurring series of adventures of Space Pilot Pirate Ellie! and Space Engineer Nico (First Class). 

Last night, this happened:

Ellie: Will you tell me a Space Pirate Pilot Ellie story?
Me: No, I just read you a whole book!
Ellie: I could tell you one?
Me: Ok!
Ellie: Once upon a time there was a space pirate named Pilot Ellie, and what she really wanted was a cookie. But not just any cookie. She wanted the Cookie of Space! But it was guarded by the Cookie King. And if you ate the Cookie of Space you would become unstoppable and never die. So she blasted off to the Cookie Planet and met the Cookie King, and said, "I want the cookie of space, please!" And the Cookie King said, "No! Not unless we battle." So Space Pirate Pilot Ellie said, "Ok, we can do that." And then they battled. Pew Pew Pew Pew. And then the Cookie King said, "Ok, you win." And then they shared the Cookie of Space. And they became unstoppable. And the next people they battled is what I will tell you in the next story.

Then I kissed her goodnight. Maybe it's time to build another spaceship.

From October 2013. My daughter and I made a spaceship!

She's so serious!

#DontreHamilton - Milwaulkee Doesn't Follow Its Own Police Oversight Law

Wisconsin has good rules for independent review of police killings, at least partially as told through this story in Politico. The author tells the story of his son's death, the lawsuit, and then the campaign to get an independent review law passed. He concludes:
Finally we began to get some movement, helped by a friendly Republican legislator, Garey Bies, and a Democratic assemblyman named Chris Taylor, in August of 2012. In April of this year we passed a law that made Wisconsin the first state in the nation to mandate at legislative level that police-related deaths be reviewed by an outside agency. Ten days after it went into effect in May, local police shot a man sleeping on a park bench 15 times. It’s one of the first incidents to be investigated under the new law.
So, that's great and other states are looking to Wisconsin as a model for how to respond to officer-involved killings. But such models only work if they are followed. In the killing of Dontre Hamilton, a black man with psychiatric disabilities, they weren't.
A former state legislator who co-sponsored a law requiring independent investigation of those deaths says the Milwaukee Police Department and state Department of Justice didn't comply following the death of Dontre Hamilton.

"Milwaukee just thinks they're different from the rest of the state and they just do things their own way, and until somebody makes them accountable for their actions, they're going to continue," said Garey Bies, a Republican who represented Sister Bay in the Legislature for 13 years. "The citizens of Milwaukee should be insisting that they abide by the law the way the rest of the state has to."
The piece goes on to give background on the law, detail the way it wasn't followed in this case, and quote lawmakers and advocates on their hopes for the future. Here's the point I want to make, though. When we build new systems of police accountability, we also must build in consequences for not following through on those systems. Too often I see stories in which resources and oversight were available, not used, and there are no professional consequences.