Lafayette Square Park, Washington, D.C., June 1, 2020 -- Photo by Michelle Conklin-Kusel (formerly Michelle Conklin)
In the Face of a Flood of Disinformation and Misinformation,
Wear a Life Vest of Logic and Facts
Oct. 20, 2020
Admittedly, I have fallen down on the job recently updating this blog, and for that, I apologize. Like everyone else, I have been working to navigate the obstacles this ongoing pandemic has posed. I am fortunate in that I have a job I can do from home, that through my doctoral program I’m earning credentials and acquiring experience that -- I hope -- will lead to long-term economic security doing work I am passionate about, attending to the needs of the people close to me, and recovering from an ankle and foot injury. This injury has prevented me from participating in person in marches and protests, so I have been making small donations to progressive candidates and causes from money I’ve been making through a side job of tutoring my friend’s son via Zoom. It’s not the same, but if the last four years have taught us nothing else, it is to work towards justice steadily and relentlessly. Even though I have a substantial amount of work I need to complete as both a student and teacher, I must take a little time as an American citizen to refute the overwhelming amount of half-truths, distortions, and outright lies that have been peddled during the pandemic and election. It is impossible to address all of them in one sitting, but it is possible to refute some of the deceptions by attacking those that are based on logical fallacies, disinformation, and misinformation.
While the term logical fallacy is casually bandied about, it is important to explain what it means. Purdue University has a website known as Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) that provides students, academic writers, and anyone who wants to write better valuable information and guidance regarding how to construct thoughtful, clear, and ethical pieces. Even though my mother is a graduate of Indiana University (Purdue’s rival school), I recognize the quality of thought and extraordinary care the student employees and faculty exert in creating this online resource. I’m giving this background to explain why I trust the site’s definition of logical fallacies: “Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. Fallacies can be either illegitimate arguments or irrelevant points, and are often identified because they lack evidence that supports their claim. Avoid these common fallacies in your own arguments and watch for them in the arguments of others.” Logical fallacies are often the basis of misinformation (unintentionally providing or sharing incorrect information) and disinformation (intentional spreading of false and misleading statements to manipulate) -- known as dezinformatsiya or dezinformatsia in Russia (because the KGB and the GU have used this tactic so frequently).
By defining my terms, I realize I sound wonky, but I want to make sure what follows will make sense -- that my readers will see why misleading statements threaten the body politic in the same way contagious diseases threaten our health as individuals. Therefore, I am selecting the most pervasive and most dangerous falsehoods in an effort to help people recognize that the facts may differ greatly from their perceptions.
Logical fallacy: If the stock market is doing well, the economy is doing well. This statement is based on the logical fallacy known as the composition/division fallacy: the notion that what is true for a part of a larger system is true for the whole group or system, or that what is true for the whole group or system is true for each of its parts. The stock market does not represent all of the economic activity in the United States. It is simply a representation of the value of publicly-traded shares of companies. As the National Bureau of Economic Research points out, “Publicly traded companies constitute less than 1 percent of all U.S. firms and about one-third of U.S. employment in the non-farm business sector.” The NBER is a non-profit and non-partisan entity that has existed since 1920, giving its research findings greater credibility. Performance of the stock market does not take into account people whose hours have been reduced or who have lost their jobs at privately-held companies or small businesses that have temporarily or permanently shut their doors. Furthermore, it does not reflect wage stagnation nor the difference between what people earn and cost of living increases -- a gap that has risen for the vast majority of Americans during the last four decades and has been measured by numerous government and academic studies.
Logical fallacy: China intentionally created COVID-19 in a lab. While there is no doubt the Chinese government has failed to be both forthcoming and transparent about the origins and the spread of COVID-19 (popularly known as coronavirus, even though there are numerous coronaviruses), no clear evidence has been produced that this pathogen was genetically engineered as a bioweapon. Scientists from within and outside of China believe it is more plausible that the disease organically evolved and jumped from animals to humans or may have been an unintentional byproduct of disease prevention research at a Chinese facility such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Washington Post article is only one of many reliable news media reports as well as open-source intelligence reports and academic journal articles that debunk this conspiracy theory. This rumor contains two fundamental flaws. First of all, it meets the criteria for proportionality bias: the idea that major events must be byproducts of elaborate plots executed by numerous people secretly working in the shadows (which, coincidentally, is the entire premise of the QAnon conspiracies). Secondly, those who counter with “Prove it isn’t true” are guilty of shifting the burden of proof on those who disagree with them, which is counter to logical reasoning. In the United States, we use the criterion of “innocent until proven guilty” in our justice system because the person or entity that calls for a change to be made in the status quo bears the responsibility of producing evidence that such a change is required. If a person is charged with a crime, the prosecution must provide credible and ample evidence that the accused is guilty. The same holds true for groups, organizations, companies, government agencies, and nations. Wrongdoers must be held accountable, but allegations must be backed by proof.
Disinformation: If we create herd immunity by allowing coronavirus to spread freely, we will build up the necessary tolerance to resume normal activity. This premise is a distortion of what is accomplished by widespread inoculation via vaccination. Herd immunity, as explained by Gypsyamber D’Souza and David Dowdy of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is much more safely accomplished when “[w]hen most of a population is immune to an infectious disease, [it] provides indirect protection—or herd immunity (also called herd protection)—to those who are not immune to the disease.” While people have intentionally exposed themselves to a pathogen to build up immunity (such as chicken pox before a vaccine was developed), this is a potentially deadly choice: “In the worst case (for example, if we do not perform physical distancing or enact other measures to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2), the virus can infect this many people in a matter of a few months. This would overwhelm our hospitals and lead to high death rates,” D’Souza and Dowdy add. To get an idea of how many people would die if we resumed pre-COVID-19 behavior, the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that 482,931 of our fellow Americans would likely die by Feb. 1, 2021 compared to 313,384 if we implemented universal masking -- which brings us to the next popular talking point of those who resist the advice of doctors and public health experts.
Disinformation: Cloth masks don’t prevent the spread of coronavirus. There are numerous studies that clearly demonstrate the efficacy of cloth masks compared to not wearing any face covering to prevent the spread of diseases. In a letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), Philip Anfinrud, Valentyn Stadnytskyi, and Adriaan Bax of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with Christina Bax of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, explained how they conducted an experiment using lasers to show how human speech transmits water droplets to explain how viruses such as COVID-19 might be transmitted between unmasked individuals -- even asymptomatic ones: “The act of speaking generates oral fluid droplets that vary widely in size, and these droplets can harbor infectious virus particles. Whereas large droplets fall quickly to the ground, small droplets can dehydrate and linger as ‘droplet nuclei’ in the air, where they behave like an aerosol and thereby expand the spatial extent of emitted infectious particles.” Anfinrud and his colleagues provided a video that shows the spread of the droplets at the link provided to NEJM above, both without a face covering and through a damp washcloth. In short, more droplets travelled further without a face covering than with one. Although numerous medical researchers concede that cloth masks don’t prevent all droplets emitted orally from escaping into the air (such as this study by Catherine M. Clase and nine fellow researchers published in the American College of Physicians Public Health Emergency Collection and this interview by Nina Bai of two physicians from the University of California San Francisco (Epidemiologist George Rutherford and Infectious Disease Specialist Peter Chin-Hong), they prevent the larger ones from travelling past the barrier.
Disinformation: Voting by mail is inherently inferior to voting in person and is more likely to be tampered with than a ballot cast at the polls. While recent changes to the United States Postal Service under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy have significantly slowed down mail delivery, if voters send out their ballots no later than Oct. 25, it will probably reach their local Board of Elections. Some states have systems in place to track ballots and voters can always send them via certified mail, which requires a signature by a recipient and can be tracked via www.usps.com. Many municipalities also allow voters to drop off their ballots at the elections office (visit your Board of Elections website for specific details). There have been many, many articles and studies that show ballots sent via mail are rarely tampered with and that it is nearly impossible to produce phony ballots due to the extensive security measures local governments take to ensure the veracity of ballots. Here are some of them: “Explainer: Fraud Is Rare in U.S. Mail-In Voting. Here are the Methods That Prevent It” by Andy Sullivan of Reuters; “Low Rates of Fraud in Vote-By-Mail States Show the Benefits Outweigh the Risks” by Elaine Kamarck and Christine Strenglein of the Brookings Institute; “US Election: Do Postal Ballots Lead to Voting Fraud?” by the BBC Reality Check Team; and “Why is Voting by Mail (Suddenly) Controversial? Here’s What You Need to Know” by Miles Parks of NPR. These articles are thoroughly researched and easy to understand.
Disinformation: Democratic socialism, supported by American progressives, is the same system of government that exists in several Central American and South American nations that suppress speech and opposition. Furthermore, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris are being controlled by socialists. I cannot do justice here to the topic of the misapplication of political terminology to mischaracterize the ideological stance of opponents, groups, or nations. Oftentimes, oppressive regimes will adopt leftist monikers to brand themselves as reasonable and open. For example, the nation most refer to as North Korea has the official name of “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” which is a complete distortion of what it actually is. The United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s 36-page executive summary of North Korea’s numerous, flagrant, and severe human rights abuses exceeds any horrors that a Stephen King fever dream could produce. The official name of what we call China is the “People’s Republic of China,” even though the form of government bears no resemblance to a republic, in which the people freely vote for their leaders. Furthermore, North Korea, China, and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are or were ruled by people who claim to be adherents to communist ideology, but neither their political organization nor economic systems reflect (or have ever reflected) the core tenets of Karl Marx’s vision. In the same vein, when Venezuela or Cuba claim to be socialist, their forms of controlling citizens are too authoritarian to bear any markings of socialism, which is defined as “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” What US Senator Bernie Sanders and other American progressives favor is adopting economic aspects of democratic socialism to make health care access, education funding, and compensation for work look more like what it does in Canada, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. As for Biden and Harris being the puppets of the progressive wing of the democratic party, see Sanders’ reaction when asked by MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle.
Disinformation: If election results are not available the evening of Nov. 3, then the vote counts are rigged. The results we have been traditionally given on election night are a mix of in-person vote counts, mailed-in ballots that have been cast, exit polls, and projections. Too often, official results take much longer due to overseas absentee ballots from members of the military and American citizens living overseas along with locally mailed-in ballots that have not yet been counted when the prime-time pundits are prognosticating. Don’t think in terms of election night, but rather election week or to borrow a term from the British Isles, election fortnight (a two-week period). While there is the potential for one side to prematurely claim victory based on partial results (an excellent article by Allie Clouse of the Knoxville News Sentinel explains the voting phenomena of Red Mirage and Blue Shift here), it is much better to keep calm and plan peaceful action in the event a candidate attempts to misrepresent results or call the election early.
On this website, I have a page, “Sources for Civic Engagement,” that can connect people with websites to inform citizens (and others who are interested) about American government issues and processes. Before making a judgment or casting a ballot, make sure you have done your homework and have leaned on reliable information and logic to make decisions that will affect you and the rest of us. As for sharing information via social media, that will need to wait for another day, but if you have even the smallest doubt about the veracity of the information, simply don’t forward it. In addition, the websites, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies” and “Your Bias Is” will prevent you from falling victim to both faulty logic and confirmation bias.
Demand reliable information. Stay safe. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Know your voting rights. Vote as early and safely as possible. Take care.
It’s Hard to Stand Your Ground When You Don’t Have a Home
July 21, 2020
In four days, the federal government’s moratorium on evictions and foreclosures will end, and at this writing, it doesn’t look like the U.S. Congress will come to our rescue. Eleventh-hour deals have been struck before, but given the tumult we’ve experienced in 2020, I cannot assume a new assistance package will materialize. MSNBC reports the amount of people who could end up out on the street -- in a pandemic -- could be as high as 20 million Americans as a result.
I’ve been reading Candace Rai’s “Democracy’s Lot: Rhetoric, Publics, and the Places of Invention,” which examines the rhetorical aspects of democracy through the lens of a land dispute in the Chicago neighborhood known as Uptown. Rai explains that conflicting sides regarding what to do with an empty lot in this transitional neighborhood became a flashpoint for competing interests and in many ways, the identity of the community. While real estate speculators gazed upon the cleared lot with dollar signs in their eyes, lower-income members of the community dreamt of high-quality affordable housing. Rai recounts decades of struggle in the neighborhood among the various groups: homeowners who view renters as transients who have no investment in the community, renters who believe their high rents contradict the homeowners’ narrative and add that homeowners reap the long-term benefits of being in a neighborhood on the upswing while they cannot see a future in which they, too, can be homeowners. The homeless in this community are looked upon as an undesirable element rather than human beings struggling to survive.
This neighborhood is a microcosm of the four decades-long growth of income inequality in America. One of the byproducts of wage stagnation and reduction of living-wage jobs is housing insecurity. If the thought of a lack of shelter wasn’t enough to spark nightmares, consider this: no address means no vote. Without an address -- not a post office box because that doesn’t count in the eyes of the board of elections -- you become a non-citizen in America.
Rai points out that in rhetoric, topos has two meanings: “Within the Classical tradition, these inventional heuristics were referred to as commonplaces or topoi (sometimes the topics in English). Etymologically, ’topoi’ refers to ‘places’ and, within the rhetorical tradition, the term
generally references the places one goes to discover the available means of persuasion . . . . But because Classical rhetoricians also understood invention as a deeply situated social act, rather than the labor of individual minds, commonplaces were also understood quite conceptually as publicly shared knowledge and ideological dispositions found “in the very language we speak and the symbols we rely on” (Crowley and Hawhee 133). In this sense, topoi are rhetorical structures that emerge from and guide the collectively held beliefs and practices within a community—and thus, topoi cannot not be fully known universally, but can only be found in the social, political, and material textures of places and times. Accordingly, one invents by immersing and orienting oneself within the rhetorics of particular places” (p. 36).
In short, there is an undeniable link between the grounds of one’s argument and the grounds upon which one stands. We are located -- in time, in economic terms, in society, and by GPS. We talk about where we live as our address, yet we also speak of addressing someone or addressing a situation. If we lack an address, we lose our ground to stand on in order to demand that injustices are rectified. We no longer have representation at any level. Homeless means displacement in every sense of the word: no place to go at the end of the day and rest, no refuge from the elements, no sense of security, and no stable identity as a citizen. Obviously, survival is the top priority, but an insidious aspect of homelessness in America is the stripping of an individual’s civic agency. Rai points out that “housing is one of the most tangible sites for generating contested arguments about citizenship, rights, and democracy, because it plays a central role in either propelling or protecting against displacements from class-based urban change, and thus, literally determines who can afford to remain part of the ‘demos’” (p. 32).
In May 2016, a writer for the Atlantic, Neal Gabler, reported that a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve revealed that 47% of Americans would need to sell something or borrow to cover an emergency costing $400 or more, adding that he was among them. So am I.
Many of us have argued for a long time that the quality of a child’s education should not depend on the zip code where he or she lives. Likewise, the ability of one to vote should not depend on one having an address. While election reform is unlikely in the next week or two, preventing more people from becoming homeless is possible. Remember, it is an election year. Put your representative and senators to work. A guide to how to reach them is here.
Benjamin Franklin remarked to his fellow Founding Fathers that “If we don’t hang together, gentlemen, surely we will hang separately.” I’d rather not die from hanging nor exposure. Doesn’t everyone have the right to die in his or her own bed, and until that time, wake up each day in it?
Getting Into "Good Trouble"
July 20, 2020
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, civil rights activist who stood up for the rights of people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and a multitude of other disenfranchised groups, came into my consciousness only four years ago. When I first heard of his passing, my mind flashed back to June 22, 2016, when he and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders were two of the many Democratic Members of Congress who staged a sit-in on the House floor to protest the lack of movement on passing gun control bills. The sit-in occurred after 49 people were shot dead by a gunman at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, targeted because it catered to a gay clientele, although straight people were also welcome. It had been the deadliest shooting in American history, and Lewis organized the sit-in with fellow U.S. Representatives Katherine Clark and Robin Kelly. While the sit-in may not have resulted in a vote on the House floor on gun control, the overnight protest demonstrated the anger many Americans felt -- and still feel -- about the scourge of gun violence in the nation. During the sit-in, Lewis lamented, “We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.”
A couple of years later, Lewis marched with teenagers in Washington, DC in the March for Our Lives to protest inaction regarding school shootings.
In short, Lewis may have started as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, but he saw the problems of the nation that affected people from many walks of life and stood up to fight injustices at every turn. Lewis embodied the scars of racism: Alabama law enforcement officers beat Lewis and fractured his skull. They also injured 57 others for participating in the protest march to demand voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The incident on March 7, 1965 would come to be known as Bloody Sunday. This abuse of police power did not stop Lewis from fighting for the causes of freedom and justice. He served as a congressman for Georgia for 33 years, his career only ended by pancreatic cancer.
Lewis’s fight for so many causes that at first glance might not look to be his own is likely because he was able to see injustice against any individual or group as a threat to the freedom of all. In June 2018, Lewis tweeted the following: "Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble." Even the Founding Fathers knew this to be true, which is why one side of the Great Seal of the United States features an incomplete pyramid: the work necessary to construct a democratic society is never truly finished.
Good trouble -- that might seem like a contradiction in terms, but in the context of nonviolent political dissent, it makes sense. Lewis may never have heard of the term rhetorical listening, but based upon the actions he took to defend the rights of people beyond his immediate circle, it is clear he practiced it. Rhetorical listening, as defined by Krista Ratcliffe in her introduction to "Rhetorical Listening, Identification, Gender, Whiteness," is “a trope for interpretive intervention . . . [it] signifies a stance of openness a person may choose to assume in cross-cultural exchanges” (p. 1). Regardless of our respective identities, we all have concerns and needs that should be addressed to create a more just society. Ratcliffe admits that as a white person, she comes from a place of privilege in American society. However, she is also a woman, so she understands how sexism creates social and economic barriers. Many white people (and I must include myself as one of them) bristle at the phrase white privilege because it often carries the connotation that all white people have enough money in the bank that they cannot conceive of economic hardship. Poor whites do exist in America. They do not feel privileged. Perhaps their only experiences of white privilege might be if they are pulled over by the police, they aren’t immediately harassed, or ruled out from the application pools for jobs or housing. For them, privilege only manifests itself as the absence of discrimination, which should be a status every human being enjoys. Such labels can empower people, disadvantage people, or both at the same time.
The intersection of Ratcliffe’s two identities (which I share) of being a white woman means that in some respects, we receive the fair treatment all people should have, but in other circumstances, we find ourselves on the outside. This dichotomy, however, can be useful if we think about how we can use it to benefit all people in society: we experience how people should be treated with respect as whites but know how that is not always the case as women. Therefore, we can work to change institutions to treat all with dignity and end discrimination in every form. However, the first step in doing so is not political organization, but rather, listening to the experiences of those different from ourselves. Ratcliffe asks, “Why is it so hard to listen to one another? Why is it so hard to identify with one another when we feel excluded? Why is it so hard to focus simultaneously on commonalities and differences? Why is it so hard to resist a guilt/blame logic when listening? And how do power differentials of particular standpoints and cultural logics influence our ability to listen? Any definition of listening must account for these questions -- and others” (p. 3). This might simply be part of human nature. Who wants to be labeled as an oppressor? Who wants to be labeled as participating in, or at the very least benefiting from, a rigged system? Discounting the stances of egomaniacal despots and robber barons, people don’t like to view themselves as trampling upon the rights of others to achieve a certain status. The narrative of hard work and overcoming struggle is far more romantic and appealing. Being survivors of harrowing circumstances make us more sympathetic characters in the life stories we craft about ourselves that we internalize and tell others. When those self-styled stories are challenged, our responses can range from discomfort to outrage. The questions we need to add to Rai’s series of questions are these: How do we continue listening to those who challenge us when we want to retreat inside ourselves, lick our psychic wounds, and deal with our cognitive dissonance? In addition, how do we refrain from being defensive or lashing out when we are challenged and at the same time, work for social and economic justice for all?
I’m not going to pretend I have the answers to those last two questions. I’m still seeking them, but I’m also forcing myself to try new tactics. I’m revisiting how I teach. I’m speaking up for people who don’t look like me. I’m trying to be more like Lewis and others who follow his example. Fighting for justice in a nonviolent manner is always a good cause, but there is an urgency in this moment of multiple threats. That is what the protesters supporting Black Lives Matter in Portland, Oregon know. While there has been some graffiti on federal buildings, the actions of the newly-formed Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT), which is working under the authority of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under an executive order by President Donald Trump, are outside of the task force's stated aims. Its mission, according to the press release on the DHS website, is “to coordinate Departmental law enforcement agency assets in protecting our nation’s historic monuments, memorials, statues, and federal facilities.” However, multiple reports from various news media outlets as well as smartphone video footage and verbal accounts from peaceful protesters taken into custody tell a different story. Dressed in camouflage uniforms that only have the word “police” embroidered on them and wearing face shields, these armed individuals are grabbing protesters and others who are near protests -- but not near federal buildings -- off the street without identifying themselves, without stating why these individuals are being taken into custody, and without being told where they are going while being pushed into unmarked rented minivans. The actions of PACT and U.S. Marshalls have not been coordinated with state or local police departments, although there are news reports that police union officials communicated through back channels with DHS officials and without permission or knowledge of their respective police chiefs. The actions of these federal officers more closely resemble the tactics of secret police forces such as the Stasi in East Germany or the Chilean National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), which later became the National Information Center (CNI), acting on orders of Augusto Pinochet between 1974-1990. Portland’s Mayor Ted Wheeler has said he wants PACT to restrict themselves to federal property. Oregon Governor Kate Brown has asked the federal agencies to leave. The Attorney General of Oregon, Ellen Rosenblum, has filed a federal lawsuit on the grounds that these Oregonians’ civil rights have been violated. Yet Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolfe claims he does not need the permission of state or local officials to remain and operate in Portland.
Apparently, Wolfe has not been introduced to the concept of rhetorical listening.
This seems like a time to make good trouble.
Too Much Force, Not Enough Insight: Rethinking American Policing
June 11, 2020
In my previous entry, “Police Overaggression Has Fatal Consequences,” I discussed police overreach that can lead to needless and senseless deaths. So what are the causes of these attitudes and behaviors and what can be done to change them?
While most of us have heard of social distancing in the context of preventing transmission of the coronavirus, there is another type that sociologists use in the context of interactions between different ethnic and racial groups. Social distance, as defined by the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology (Fifth Edition), is "the perceived feelings of separation or distance between social groups.It is most commonly used to indicate the degree of separation or closeness between members of different ethnic groups, as revealed in answers to questions such as “Would you buy a house next door to a white or black person?” . . . a white respondent who is prepared to contemplate marriage between blacks and whites is likely also to be prepared to live in the same street as blacks" (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner 355).
Abercrombie and his two co-authors also describe that social distance exists on a continuum and mention the Bogardus Scale, which can be found here: https://brocku.ca/MeadProject/Bogardus/Bogardus_1933.html. Invented by Emory S. Bogardus, the scale has been used since 1925 to evaluate individuals’ attitudes about people with different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds than the respondents’ identities. Social distance is cited by Erin M. Kearns in her study, “Why Are Some Officers More Supportive of Community Policing with Minorities than Others” as a significant factor in how officers treat the residents of the communities they patrol and their willingness to change their practices. Published in October 2017, Kearns points out that social identity theory explains “that people have a greater affinity for members of their in-group versus members of an out-group. In-group members are viewed as having shared values, goals, and characteristics. In contrast, out-group members are perceived to have less commonality (Tajfel & Turner, 1979)” (quoted in Kearns, p. 1217). Kearns argues that the implications for community policing, a model that embraces cops walking the same beat and interacting more closely with community members to form positive working relationships to prevent crime rather than merely responding to incidents, are that officers who lack common ground with the people they are assigned to serve and protect are less likely to buy into a community policing model. Kearns explains the role of social distance for both officers and community members in the context of police-community interactions: "[T]he racial composition of a neighborhood impacts officer perceptions of it. Officers tend to view white neighborhoods more favorably than minority neighborhoods, even when the neighborhoods have similarly high crime rates and low social cohesion (Stein & Griffith, 2017). In short, race impacts both officers’ and community members’ perceptions of police-citizen relationships" (p. 1216).
If community policing is a potential solution to reduce negative police-community interactions and crime, why haven’t police departments embraced it? The answer is twofold. One reason I was given when I was a reporter is that it is far cheaper for a police department to stick a lone officer in a patrol car to cruise a neighborhood as a deterrent than to have more officers walk a beat. The cop in the car can cover more territory and is deemed safer from attack. This premise is problematic because it measures expense in dollars and cents over the short-term as opposed to looking at policing as an ongoing activity that requires relationship-building with residents. In addition, the community is viewed as something the officers need to be protected from rather than working with -- a recipe for alienation. As a reporter, I worked in majority white communities, so if this is the attitude of police officers who are generally from the same race as the people they serve, social distance theory posits that the disconnect between officers of one race and community members of another will be much greater. Another reason Kearns lists that police may resist the community policing model is many officers fall into path dependency, which is when a policy is implemented, it is challenging to adopt an alternative approach (p. 1216). In other words, once officers develop a routine to execute their duties in a certain manner, they are reluctant to change it.
Unfortunately, this attitude carries over onto college campuses, as Carmen Kynard explains in “Teaching While Black: Witnessing and Countering Disciplinary Whiteness, Racial Violence, and University Race-Management.” Kynard, currently an African-American English professor at Texas Christian University, describes how during her tenure at a New York university, one of her students (whom she calls Sammy to protect his identity), had a run-in with campus security that can be characterized as a demonstration of alarming surveillance. Sammy, whose father is a Caribbean black man and whose mother is a white-skinned Latina), is Arab in appearance, resulting in frequent contact with police. Sammy was in the process of writing about these regular stops and searches in his daily life -- particularly when taking public transportation -- when campus security red-flagged his paper after he used a campus printer. Sammy was called into campus security headquarters for questioning about his paper, which Kynard had to confirm was written for her class to end the harassment of her student (pp. 11-12).
College students are frequently encouraged by their professors to integrate their personal experiences in the context of their classes in situations that will add some qualitative data to what might be presented as trends that can be measured in quantitative terms, as described in other qualitative data, or both. For campus security to interrogate a student for merely describing his (or her) negative law enforcement experiences while not threatening any individual or group indicates a siege mentality on behalf of the campus security officers. Kearns observes this attitude often comes from the top: command-level officers who perceive conflict with the communities they serve interpret this sentiment as a “war on cops” (p. 1216).
A standard practice on college and university campuses across the country is that student writing that indicates a willingness or intent to do harm to one’s self or others must be reported to campus authorities to begin an intervention with the student. This was not the case. Instead, campus security initiated an investigation simply because Sammy chronicled his history of police harassment. Furthermore, Sammy’s experiences are based upon his appearance as Arab, which is associated with a Muslim identity, which in turn is often connected to a hypothesis that such young men are either terrorists or prime candidates to recruit to become terrorists.
Kearns believes that merely diversifying police departments will not be sufficient: the attitudes of police recruits and current officers towards the members of the communities they will or already do work in need to be evaluated to determine if these officers are open to forming collaborative relationships with residents. Another change many activists and experts on crime and policing are proposing is that departments spend far fewer resources on revenue-generating activities, such as issuing speeding tickets and engaging in civil forfeiture, to focus on crime prevention in the neighborhoods they patrol.
The campus cops’ suspicion of Sammy reveals layers of assumptions and prejudices that led to even more harassment -- the very topic he was discussing in his writing. For about three weeks, protesters across the nation have been demonstrating against police brutality and ironically, have become victims of it in the process. I witnessed firsthand this harmful overreach on June 1 in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC -- an experience I believe I will be able to recount soon. In the meantime, stay safe and take care of one another.
Police Overaggression Has Fatal Consequences
June 11, 2020
Most Americans were taught as children that the main mission of the police is “to protect and serve” the public. When that notion doesn’t play out in reality and too many incidents, too many personal accounts, demonstrate that many police officers are first and foremost concerned with protecting and serving their own (and only their own), it is time to make significant changes.
The experiences of people of color in the United States are much different from those who are white. Stop and frisk in New York disproportionately targeted young black and Latino men compared to other groups. In addition, all female drivers in the United States have either heard stories about or have experienced first hand traffic cops’ offers to ditch the ticket (which is often based on a falsified premise) in exchange for sexual favors. For many years, in the closest town to where I lived during my high school years, older girls warned their younger friends not to drive alone, or with only females in the car, in the City of Brighton, because they would be pulled over by police and threatened with a ticket or arrest on a frequently baseless charge if they didn’t give the officer a blowjob. Keep in mind that this is an affluent, white exurb. If police abuse can happen in a place like that, it can happen anywhere to anyone. Fortunately, a change in leadership has long since ended that practice. For women of color, I can only imagine how those intersecting identities could make them twice as vulnerable to such harassment.
When I was an undergraduate, I recall how my Introduction to Journalism professor told us that the police officer is the single-most powerful individual in society because he or she has the power to take life and will likely not be questioned at length about it after the fact. I have since passed that warning on to others. I have had mixed experiences with police -- some very helpful and positive, while others have been examples of abuse of authority and power. Given the recent events that have brought people into the streets to protest, our attention must be on the latter and how to end these lethal practices.
There are different levels of force police are authorized to use, but any tactic police use is supposed to be a proportionate response -- in other words, no more force is to be used than what is necessary to resolve the conflict or to subdue the suspect in order to arrest him or her. According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Justice, there are three main levels of force police officers can use to deescalate a situation, subdue suspects to take them into custody, or both: basic verbal and physical restraint, less-than-lethal force, and lethal force. The institute has a continuum of use-of-force, which can be found here: https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/use-force-continuum. This continuum shows that what was used on Breona Taylor and George Floyd was the most force possible: lethal force. In its overview of police use of force, the NIJ cautions that "[c]ontext counts. No two situations are the same, nor are any two officers. In a potentially threatening situation, an officer will quickly tailor a response and apply force, if necessary. Situational awareness is essential, and officers are trained to judge when a crisis requires the use of force to regain control of a situation. In most cases, time becomes the key variable in determining when an officer chooses to use force (emphasis mine)."
The situation with Floyd is more straightforward and is thoroughly documented, so it is easier to address. The Minneapolis Police arrested Floyd on suspicion that he passed a counterfeit $20 bill. At this point, there has been no publicly released information indicating if the bill was in fact counterfeit or if Floyd knew if it was counterfeit. What we do know, thanks to the video recording by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, is that Floyd did not resist arrest, was completely compliant and respectful towards officers, that officers taunted him to get up as three of them knelt on his body and one dug his knee into his neck, resulting in asphyxiation. The video shows that the police used excessive force in response to the situation, even while Floyd and witnesses pleaded with police to get off of Floyd for fear he would die. The officers continued to crush Floyd to death.
Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old emergency medical technician fatally shot eight times by Louisville Metropolitan Police Department Officials on March 13, although the official incident report released on June 11 is severely lacking in details: no cause of death is listed, no address is provided (which has been widely reported in the news media because Taylor lived where a drug suspect used to live, providing the pretext for the no-knock search warrant), no injuries are listed, and only the names and ages of the three officers are provided. In her June 11 article for the Louisville Courier Journal, Staff Writer Tessa Duvall points out the incident report does not include that the no-knock warrant was issued to take a suspect into custody that the police already had in custody, nor does it explain that Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, contends that contrary to the officers’ account, the officers did not announce themselves when they entered the apartment by force with a battering ram. Duvall adds that neighbors back up Walker’s story about the lack of officers’ self-identification. Walker shot at the officers because he thought the three unknown men were trying to break into Taylor’s apartment. As a result, Duvall explains, Walker fired one warning shot that ended up hitting LMPD Officer Jon Mattingly in the leg. The full story is available here: https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/crime/2020/06/10/breonna-taylor-shooting-louisville-police-release-incident-report/5332915002/.
Taylor’s case shows how lack of communication (officers looking for a suspect who was already in custody) combined with inaccurate information (the suspect no longer lived at the apartment) and excessive use of force (a battering ram and rapid gunfire) followed no audible self-identification, according to numerous witnesses. It is a case of inadequate investigation paired with undue aggression.
Floyd and Taylor’s deaths demonstrate gross overreach by police with lethal consequences. They need to be addressed through multiple measures. In my next entry, "Too Much Force, Not Enough Insight: Rethinking American Policing," I will explain some of the causes of these attitudes and actions along with some potential solutions.