Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Documented gang members fuel riot in Anaheim

Residents of Anaheim, California, are justifiably outraged after police officers in their city shooting an unarmed man in the back of the head. Here's how the Associated Press reports what took place last night at the community-led protest against police violence:
Authorities say as many as 1,000 demonstrators surged through downtown in the Southern California city Tuesday night, smashing windows on 20 businesses and setting trash fires. Police and patrol cars were pelted with rocks and bottles. Hundreds of police used batons, pepper balls and beanbag rounds.
It's interesting, isn't it, that while police "were pelted with rocks and bottles" by protesters, there's no mention of those protesters in turn being "hit with batons and shot with pepper ball and beanbag rounds." The police, according to the reporting, simply "used" those weapons. Who they used them against is implied, certainly, but spelling out that they used them against living, breathing people puts the state-sanctioned violence against the community they claim to protect appear on par with the violence reportedly undertaken by members of the community against the state-sanctioned perpetrators.

Meanwhile, here's the official explanation of why Anaheim police felt the need to execute an unarmed man in broad daylight:
According to the police union, officers saw "the documented gang member" who was holding a "concealed object in his front waistband with both hands." Diaz then took off running, only to pull the object from his waistband and turn toward the officers.
"Feeling that Diaz was drawing a weapon, the officer opened fire on Diaz to stop the threat," said Kerry Condon, the association's president.
Officers reported that Diaz tossed away items as he ran, but no gun has been recovered.
In summary, it's basically okay to murder a man by shooting him in the back of the head so long as he's a "documented gang member." But don't get any ideas: not all gangs are created equal.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Drones for Obama

It's time for the left -- professional, anti-war and otherwise -- to put aside their purity and become President Obama's domestic drones this election season, or at least that's what I argue in The New Inquiry. Check it out.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Police dogs as divining rods

A local couple has been murdered in their own home. You, a respected officer of the law, are responsible for tracking down their killer. But leads are short and public pressure to solve the case is building by the day. Your career’s on the line here. What do you do?

If you were a cop in 17th century France, the answer would have been: find a guy with a magic stick. Indeed, in 1692 French police enlisted a peasant named Jacques Aymar-Vernay in the search for the perpetrator of a double homicide. And it paid off. Aymar-Vernay, who had gained a national reputation for his claimed ability to use a y-shaped stick, a “divining rod,” to locate sources of water, claimed his divine branch had fingered a 19-year-old man with a hunchback as the killer. The man was tortured to death.

A few years later, not surprisingly, Aymar-Vernay was outed as a fraud.

Today, we laugh at our primitive ancestors and their naive belief that a divining rod -- shown by study after study to be no more reliable than chance -- could actually be used to track down criminals. But the joke’s on us: we’re still using those magic sticks, except now they have four legs and are covered in fur.

In last week’s episode, we highlighted one case out of Virginia where the reliability of a drug-sniffing dog named “Bono” was called into question after it was found that, of the 85 times the dog had signaled there were drugs in a vehicle, drugs were only found 22 times. What we soon figured out, though, is that it wasn’t the fault of poor Bono but his human handlers, just as it wasn’t the stick that was at fault for sending a French hunchback to his death.

As researchers at UC Davis observed, police dogs will often signal that there are drugs in a car not because there are, but because that’s what they think their handlers want. And that leads to a lot of false positives. In Australia, one analysis found drug-sniffing dogs (or rather, their handlers) got it wrong 80 percent of the time. And the Chicago Tribune found that police dogs were wrong in 56 percent of the cases it analyzed -- and in 73 percent of cases involving Hispanic drivers, indicating that the dogs are being used to rationalize racial profiling in the war on drugs.

But that hasn’t stopped the police from relying on dogs for a simple reason: like the divining rod of old, the dogs lend a pseudo-scientific rationale to whatever it is one wants to do, be it finding a suspect to pin a murder upon or allowing one probable cause to search a vehicle. Indeed, in the “Bono” case a judge ruled that it didn’t matter the dog was wrong 74 percent of the time, according to one news account, because of “other factors, including the dog’s training and flawless performance during re-certification sessions” -- and, presumably, because ruling the other way would mean throwing out a whole lot of other cases. And we wouldn’t want something as silly as scientific evidence to get in the way of a conviction, no matter the century.

Friday, July 13, 2012

LAPD takes on the Chalk Bloc

What started out as a night of art, fun and food trucks ended with Los Angeles police creating a riot scene, assaulting unarmed protesters and firing rubber bullets seemingly at random into a crowd of bystanders, all -- ostensibly -- because people were "vandalizing the sidewalk and privately owned buildings [by] writing in chalk," according to a spokeswoman for the LAPD.

That, friends, is what the LAPD says justified the department deploying helicopters with searchlights and more than 140 officers in riot gear. That is what justified officers shoving protesters and random pedestrians and firing potentially lethal "non-lethal" rounds into a crowd of civilians: people drawing in public spaces.

The message to the proles: Don't bring chalk to a gun fight.

Like a lot of people caught up in the commotion Thursday night, I didn't intend to get involved in a standoff with police. With the hours I work, I figured I had already missed all the subversive chalking, so I went straight from my office to an Occupy LA bail fundraiser instead -- except when I go there, I found it was just me and the woman taking donations at the door. After milling about and staring at my phone for 15 minutes, I headed back outside and saw a helicopter shining a spotlight a few blocks away. I put two and two together.

With the police helicopter as my guide, I walked over to the scene of the crime. What I saw was a typical-looking LA crowd milling about an intersection, some people drawing things on the street, others passing joints and doing their part to maintain the constant sweet wafting smell of marijuana that seems to be omnipresent in California. Surrounding this crowd were lines of police menacingly wielding batons and rifles.

Within minutes of my arrival, the police started moving their line, pushing people out of the intersection with reckless macho abandon, roughly pushing people (like me) in the back even as they tried in the midst of all the confusion to comply with the order to leave. Several officers also started firing their weapons into the crowd, which is not a terribly great way to deescalate a situation, particularly when the "non-lethal" rounds one is firing sound exactly like the lethal rounds members of the LAPD are notorious for firing at the people they purport to protect. One man named Charlie (pictured) said he was shot just walking down the sidewalk and that he had no connection to Occupy LA or the dangerously subversive chalking that preceded the tiny cock-waving show of police force. Another man was jumped by police right in front of me, tackled and tasered as they moved the police line. Again, without any apparent cause.

Corporate media coverage will, predictably, focus on injuries allegedly suffered by police from bottles thrown at them by people in the crowd. The people the police attacked will be ignored or, like other victims, blamed for inviting the attack. But there's a plus side: every time a cop brutalizes an innocent bystander, more people are made aware of the sort of state-sanctioned brutality that is a regular feature of life for the lesser privileged in American society. Last night, a lot of people who left their homes expecting a good time full of art and white wine ended up finding themselves in the middle of a police state dodging rubber bullets. That's an experience that can't be replicated by reading a radical political pamphlet.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The myth of America

Like any organized religion, America comes with its own creation story, a beautiful, inspiring myth used to lend legitimacy to our modern priestly class in Washington. But there's another story worth considering: the actual one of how the founders of the United States saw their new government as a protection against democracy -- as a means of safeguarding privilege and elevating the right to property over the rights of the people.

During the debate on the US constitution, the founders were pretty explicit about this, making it abundantly clear that protecting property – the large estates gifted to them by the British crown, the men and women sold to them by slave traders – was a driving force behind their push for a more powerful central government. James Madison, for instance, who would serve as the young republic's fourth president, warned his fellow founders of the perils of democracy, saying too much of it would jeopardize the property of the landed aristocracy. “In England,” he observed, “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure.” Land would be redistributed to the landless, he cautioned. Without the rich exercising monopoly privileges over the commons, the masses would be less dependent on elites like them.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Is the Democratic Party a vehicle for radical change?

Los Angeles, CA - By this fall, the two major political parties in the United States will have spent around $10bn this election cycle to persuade an increasingly sceptical US public that there is more than just a stylistic difference between a Republican and a Democrat. Naturally, this campaign will focus primarily on the superficial (is Mitt Romney too weird to be president? Is Barack Obama too cool? And who loves America/Israel more?), as maintaining the facade of electoral choice requires obscuring the broad areas of bipartisan agreement: bailouts for the rich, prisons for the poor, and drone strikes for the poor and foreign.

Read the rest at Al Jazeera.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

That city edge

An unnamed NBA executive commenting on Moe Harkless, a player just drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers:
"He's a good kid. And he's one of those guys where, even though he's from New York City, he doesn't have that city edge to him. He's really polished."
And very articulate.


Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Santa-ization of MLK's legacy

By Matt Stoller and Charles Davis

The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.”
Martin Luther King’s final speech, Ive Been to the Mountaintop

In the first episode of BrandX, Russell Brand talked about meeting the Dalai Lama. Why did we choose him as the subject for our first show? Because the Dalai Lama’s preaching of peace, anti-consumerism, spirituality and nonviolence is radical, a stark contrast to the message of war and consumption one usually hears on television.

In the writer’s room, as we were talking about who the Dalai Lama is, we hit upon a question that none of us could answer: who is the American Dalai Lama? And we realized, there isn’t one. The last great spiritual figure in American history was Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, though, King has been turned into a Santa Clause figure. There’s a holiday commemorating his life and works and his likeness appears in ads for Apple Computer, Alcatel, and McDonald’s. King’s legacy, if commercial interests had their way, would be the nonthreatening “Think Different” campaign, an encouragement to purchase luxury electronic goods made by exploited foreign workers.