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South Africa – A Canary in a Cage?
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Having come of age in the 1970’s, South Africa holds a special place in my heart. Although I’d not been there before recently, the forced social separation by apartheid laws to reinforced White domination was a global disgrace, and I felt it. I signed petitions to get my college to divest from companies doing business there. Nelson Mandela’s political imprisonment was an international affront to justice that bothered me.
The spontaneous street protests in Soweto by Black high school student in the 1980’s was inspiring while the fact so many were shot dead shocked everyone.
And so I celebrated along with the rest of the world when Apartheid was finally dismantled, Mandela was freed and the first free elections were held. It was a triumph of the human spirit over oppression and it sent a message of love and freedom to the world.
When my wife and I recently booked a trip to South Africa, we were excited by the prospect of viewing great African animals in their natural habitat, but equally interested to see how this iconic country had fared during their 27 years of freedom.
The safari portions of our trip were spectacular, far exceeding our expectations. The landscapes, the plant life and geography were beautiful and so dramatic. All the people we met were friendly and welcoming. I felt I had come home to our mother continent where humanity itself was born.
Yet it was sad to learn how difficult the transition to self-rule has been for the people in this developing nation. We learned a lot about South African culture and it’s politics, much of which is just now seeping out to Western news outlets.
I can’t begin to do this topic justice from just a 12 day tour, but I can highlight some of my impressions.
Our tour guide on the trip was a brilliant, very engaging “colored” man (his term) who self-identifies as being from the Khoi-San tribe.
This is actually a joining of the names of two tribes indigenous to South Africa. The Khoi-San are genetically and linguistically among the oldest groups of humans on earth. It was they who Dutch settlers first encountered in 1656. Of course oppression and hardship followed the Khoi (or Khoe pronounced coy) and the San tribes throughout the colonial period under the Dutch, and then the English in the 1800’s.
After three-hundred years of colonial rule our tour guide, like most colored people in South Africa, is bi-racial with some Dutch and English ancestry. Colored people were oppressed in colonial times and still are today, although less overtly.
During apartheid, the designation of “colored” also applied to people from India who were brought there as slaves, and to any other group held in low esteem. If a black African wanted to appeal his designation as a colored person, a pencil was pushed through the person’s hair and they were told to shake their head. If the pencil fell out they lost their appeal.
The hope of inter-racial harmony and social unity that animated the successful struggle against apartheid in the in the 1970’s and 80’s has since given way to economic and political oppression by other factions. South Africa has among the greatest wealth inequality in the world. In our guide’s telling, it is the black African immigrants from the North who mostly hold the reins of power, Among these are certain dominate tribes, such as the Zulu for one example. There is a social hierarchy among these black African tribes while middle-class white South Africans are not in power and colored South Africans are at or near the bottom.
The degree to which society is stratified along tribal traditions is evident in the parliament where everyone insists on speaking in their own dialect or language despite the fact that virtually everyone speaks English. This means everything said in parliament has to go through interpreters and is fraught with misunderstandings.
Not surprisingly, it is global corporations who appear to be pulling all the strings in South Africa. As we road in our bus for hours from one site to another we saw miles and miles of eucalyptus trees planted in perfectly straight rows awaiting lumber harvesting. We saw miles and miles of other single crop plantings as far as the eye could see. It was corporate industrial farming on a grand scale harvesting crops destined for international consumption. I couldn’t help but wonder what native species of animals and plants were displaced by all this cultivated land. I wondered if beautiful giraffes or lions had once roamed here. Does loss of habitat contribute more here to species decline than poaching?
The only small farming we saw was tiny gardens between certain shacks in huge, crowded shanty towns that dotted the lands outside the major towns and cities. On one side of the roadway you might see a square mile or more of closely packed shacks made of corrugated tin or wood planks with electric wires extending down to them like ribbons from a maypole. Sanitation is provided by long rows of outhouses along the periphery of these villages.
On the other side of the road you might see large gated communities of small, brightly colored masonry houses with modest flower gardens and a little driveway. There is razor wire on top of all the walls surrounding these communities. These four or five room homes were described to us as middle class enclaves. Only in the township of Soweto did we see a community where rich, middle class and poor housing existed in proximity.
Poverty is rampant everywhere, even in the wealth city areas. The unemployment rate in South Africa is currently approaching 50 percent. Crime has become an essential activity for survival among some South Africans. We learned that the country has an affordable and extensive railway system which is now plagued by long delays because robbers steal the electric lines to sell the copper.
Evidence of corporate industrial farming and its impact was just as evident in Swaziland, which is an independent nation within the northern mountain region of South Africa.
Here lives the only remaining sovereign king on earth. He disbanded the constitution when he took power and is the sole law of the land. A Western educated man with 13 wives, his most recent wife is just 19 years old. He is also one of the top richest men on earth living in a land of great poverty and very inadequate health care. Many people here still rely on medicine men when they are ill.
As we road through a rural landscape we passed hectors after hectors of sugar cane planted in neat, endless rows. Our tour guide told us all this sugar cane belonged to Coca Cola. Asked if the land was owned by the company we learned that all the land is leased to Coca Cola by the government, which is the Swazi king. Still, every child goes to school and has a school uniform. Parents who can afford it buy their child’s books and uniforms while poor parents apply for them from the government.
Back in South Africa the same is not always true. While every child is required to go to school and wear a uniform, in some rural farm areas there is a gap between sixth grade and eight grade. Parents who can afford it send their children to private 7th grade classes. Education stops at the 6th grade for those who can’t afford a private school. In this way there is a steady supply of laborers to work the fields.
Water resources have recently become a huge issue in Capetown, a city of twelve million people who are expected to run out of water sometime in April. Water conservation signs are everywhere, starting at the airport. In our hotel a four minute hourglass egg timer was glued to the shower stall to help guests take shorter showers. (Currently the recommended shower time is two minutes, not four).
Almost all of Capetown’s water comes from ground water reservoirs. So the environmental cause of this water shortage is a lack of rain due to five years of drought. But there are political causes behind the crisis as well. Endless squabbles and debates in the national government have resulted in years of delay in constructing a desalination plants.
I couldn’t get a clear answer as to whether there were sufficient aquifers under the city to dig municipal wells, but an hour’s drive south brought us to the wine district what water is abundant.
Here there were reservoirs filled with water as well as ground wells to irrigate the vineyards. There were lush fields of grapes in this fertile valley waiting to be picked and turned into that famous South African wine. Some of these vineyards are over 300 years old.
As my wife and I traveled around and observed all the contrasts and disparities, we got the sense we were not seeing South Africa backsliding towards it’s past, but rather a glimpse into our own future here in the United States. A future dominated by corporate servitude and stateless billionaires. South Africa, the cradle of humanity, is a place of awesome beauty and friendly, descent hard working folks. But the politics right now is frightening. The resources and economy of this developing country is increasingly falling under the control of private international companies and powerful foreign states, especially China. It is not unlike what we see happening here in the United States.
These are among my impressions, my cultural snap shots that a camera can’t capture. Since we returned home South Africa has been on our minds and in our hearts every day. A beautiful land. A beautiful people with high ideals and aspirations trying to find their way in a world full of economic wolves.
The Promise Makers of Wall Street
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Not long ago a dollar was backed by the promise that it could be exchanged for gold or silver. To back up that promise the US gold reserve was established at Fort Knox in Tennessee, for example. The confidence of our people, and of the rest of the world, in our currency was far less certain than it is today. The gold standard was perhaps a necessary step towards establishing the good faith of the US Government.
Look at a dollar bill and you will see that it is a Federal Reserve Note. Before the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, many banks issued their own currency, or “bank notes”. The worthiness of those bank notes wasn’t consistent. The Federal Reserve Bank standardized and stabilized our national currency. It’s important to remember that the word “note” is another word for an I.O.U. A bank note is a promise that a coin or a paper document can be exchanged for a stated amount of tangible value.
The important point for this discussion is that all currency is a form of debt. A U.S. Dollar is a government backed loan. Our trust in its worthiness has become an intrinsic faith in our government’s ability to guarantee its face value. (Which is why the Congressional Freedom Coalition’s talk of not raising the national debt ceiling is so dangerous.)
I recently saw “Junk” on Broadway. It is a play partially based on the story of Wall Street financier Michael Milken. It is a cautionary tale of money and corruption. Milken’s new approach to finance made him a billion dollars over just four years in the 1980’s. He was like a god on Wall Street and all the normal rules didn’t seem to apply to him, until he got caught breaking the laws he ignored.
More than that, Junk is the story of the paradigm shift Milken pioneered in how modern bankers and business leaders have come to understand wealth and power. It is a view of wealth that can be summed up by the slogan, “debt is an asset”. Specifically, any financial instrument that reliably conveys the promise of value to another person or entity can be used as a form of currency. Government regulated Federal Reserve Notes are no longer central to the exchange of wealth. Nor is any physical collateral or real estate necessary. It seems almost any promise of payment for money owed is sufficient to make financial transactions on Wall Street. These creative financial instruments often have cleaver name and deceptive structures. They are increasingly complex and difficult to understand or regulate. But they all have one thing in common, they are all based on debt. They all create wealth on a promise.
In Milken’s case, he began with generating cash by selling very high risk, but high yield bonds and then using those bonds as collateral to finance corporate takeovers. These “junk bonds” (as they are still called) were used like currency to finance “leveraged buyouts” of other businesses. Whole divisions within companies purchased in these buyouts often had to be chopped up and sold off to pay back these high interest bonds.
The charges brought against Milken were ordinary financial crimes, such as insider trading. But his creative financing lead to a whole new banking culture that upended how business was conducted around the world. It has lead to an economic environment where new methods for wealth extraction competes against more conventional methods of wealth creation on a global scale.
The growing methods and culture of wealth extraction transfers wealth but doesn’t create new wealth. It doesn’t grow or manufacture anything. It only creates more opportunities for the wealthy to grow richer while disadvantaging mid-sized businesses and manufacturers. It is one of the drivers leading us into the next gilded age, but it hard to see just where it is taking us. It is harder still to know what we can do make our economy work for everyone again.
Should I Stand or Should I Kneel?
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Are the NFL players who kneeled in protest at the National Anthem to be reviled, or were they being courageous?
Did they insult our nation, or is their freedom to action what our flag stands for?
Were the protesting players disrespectful or patriotic?
These questions vexed the nation in recent days. People argued and took sides. Tempers sometimes flared. Angry posts or tweets were exchanged. And somewhere in a Russian troll farm cyber warriors were smiling.
This National Anthem flap is a perfect example of how we are being manipulated by higher powers in the media sphere every day. Some of the bad actors are foreign, such as the Russia operatives at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, with its army of automated bots, who took to Twitter once again to polarize our public discourse over the NFL protest flap.
The truth is that Russia has been doing this type of thing for years; Using social media platforms on the internet to post extreme and inflammatory messages on opposite sides of every issue. This is just one of Russia’s many methods to sow discord and to splinter our national unity. Their goal: Polarize our politics, widen our political fault lines, pit us against one another and make America ungovernable. Russia is targeting other democracies this way in Europe as well.
But Russia isn’t the only player fomenting disunity and despair. They may even be minor players next to some of our own “stateless” oligarchs who benefit from governmental paralysis at every level. These billionaires don’t want to pay any taxes, support the public commons or be told what they can and can’t do. They are among a oligarchs from around the world who control more wealth and power than most countries. They see self-governing entities as obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of wealth, or as competition in their exercise of power, and some have been messing with our politics and social perceptions for years.
To borrow from a prior article:
… there is strong evidence that the rogue interests of certain Western billionaires and Russian oligarchs have converged. Breaking down the economic barriers that keep wealth and power in check under civilian controlled democracies, and the goal of undermining the strength and unity of Western democracies (strengthening Vladimir Putin’s global influence) are essential aligned.
This is the bigger picture. It is a picture so large it’s hard to take in and even harder to accept as true. Yet here we are, confronted by a clear case where a foreign power used Twitter to influence the personal conversations we are having with each other.
Mainstream media also has its part to play in this NFL protest story and countless others like it. It is the “for-profit” news outlets that select what we will be talking about tomorrow. NFL players protesting during the National Anthem is a real money topic. It attracts a much wider audience compared to another story about race relations. It’s important to remember here that we are the commodity the broadcast media delivers to advertisers. What they choose not to cover, we don’t talk much about. A simple internet search for “NFL protests” proves this point. Lost in the hoopla about the flag is any discussion of why there is a protest.
So what was the protest about?:
1. Police in this country kill too many civilians.
2. If your skin is black, you are twice as likely to be one of those killed.
NFL players were trying to bring attention to these issues, one superimposed on the other. On average, police kill about two people per day. For perspective, in all of Great Britain police kill about two people per year. If the rate of police homicides were that low in the US there wouldn’t be enough of them to reveal any sort of pattern. But a pattern does exist, and African-Americans are too often the victims.
These same racial patterns come up time and again in the American justice system because we have a pervasive and persistent problem with race. Whether we are looking at statistics about arrests, convictions, incarcerations, police stops, etc., the same pattern is superimposed on the data. Racial disparity, by far, is the more stubborn of the two problems listed above. We do need to address it. The other part of the problem, the high number of police killings, is a more solvable problem. We can all agree that the fewer number of civilians killed the better. That might mean better police training, better vetting of applicants and changes in police tactics or philosophy.
But here’s the thing. When we try to have that discussion, the social media platforms light up with extreme, emotionally charged messaging that polarizes our public discourse. Conversations quickly become adversarial. Efforts to separate one issue from another to make problem solving easier are sabotaged. Fake news stories begin popping up to further cloud the issues and crazy websites emerge to sustain the divisions thus created. These are often organized disinformation campaigns to reinforce political disunity. They can be so successful that we sometimes can’t even agree on the same set of facts. We get locked into an ideological battle and don’t how we got there. We can’t see the nefarious forces at work behind the scenes.
To understand how this is happening we have to consider the massive social media platforms though which we can broadly and anonymously communicate with millions of strangers. Never before have we had a cyber presence where everything we write or reveal about ourselves exists forever and is available to anyone. The whole internet is a gigantic, ever growing database that can be searched and analyzed. It’s a mercurial universe of ones and zeros. Yet, to an ever greater degree, our world view is molded by our social media experiences. Even as we become more enmeshed in the cyber world, this new medium is increasing falling under the influence of powerful people with weaponized information technologies and the motivation to alter our perceptions, our behavior and our culture. Our vulnerability to manipulation by bad actors has never been greater.
We need to educate ourselves about this new virtual world in which we find ourselves. We have lost control over our public discourse and need to win it back. We have to learn how to recognize when we are be targeted with propaganda messaging and how to resist falling victim to it. We mustn’t let our authentic narratives become hijacked by those who would alter our perceptions to serve their own ends? If democracy is to survive, if America is to survive, we have to overcome our differences and fight back against those who want to see our people’s Republic fail.
E pluribus unum and Our Call to Be a Beacon
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
As we fall into the shadows of the propaganda wars raging to divide us, it is more important than ever to hold our focus on the principles and values that united America in the first place. From our founding we were uniquely conceived in the world of nations that existed in the 1700’s. We are the first nation built on shared values rather than shared religion, tribe, geography, common language, ethnicity or race. We are still an experiment well conceived, if poorly lead. From the beginning we place the universal needs of human beings and the universal rights of every individual at the center of a system of self-government. From the start, and throughout our history, we are a nation of truly global diversity united by common dreams and shared values.
“E pluribus unum” is our motto. It’s printed on our currency. It means “out of many, one.” This is the essence of who we are as a nation or, more accurately, what we strive to become as a people. We are bonded by nature to all who hold “… these truths to be self evident.” We fought and died in a bloody civil war that tested whether this nation, “… or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” We are still here. We are still called to be a beacon for a world in which ethnic and cultural diversity is a new and scary transition. If the United States of America can’t be both diverse and united after 241 years, if our experiment to make self-government work in a pluralistic society falters, what hope is there for a world where massive cultural migrations are challenging nation identities unaccustomed to such diversity.
In this spirit of unity I recommend this recent article by Rebekah Entralgo in ThinkProgress. It is a brief article that highlights one example where our history and ideals are being undermined.
Online racists celebrated Miller’s performance.
Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Algorithms are powerful programs that increasing influence an individual’s world view. Their ubiquitous use may explain our growing political polarity, our growing knowledge gap in current affairs and even why our neighbors seem radicalized. But for impressionable or vulnerable individuals the impacts can be devastating.
Dylann Foot Roof is a case in point. You will recall he was a 21 year old white male who killed nine people in a 2015 massacre at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He left behind a manifesto that showed he was involved with white nationalist websites on the internet for about three years. A recent report by the Southern Policy Law Center details how Google search engine algorithms served a key part in radicalizing this young man who grew up in an otherwise stable, normal home.
Increasingly, algorithms decide what gets attention, and what is ignored; and even what gets published or censored in our search for knowledge on the internet. It is a powerful force with unforeseen consequences at best. Just as easily they can be used for sinister purposes as well if we aren’t careful.
The following are excerpts from a report presented by the Center for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR) entitled, Ethic of Algorithms. It serves as a good primer on what these powerful programs are and can do. CIHR promotes academic research about technology and society to inform public and academic debates.
- Algorithms are increasingly used in hiring (and firing), deciding who gets a job and who doesn’t. It is among the most powerful gate-keeping function in society.
- Algorithms influence how we perceive the world, often without us realizing it. by channeling our attention.
- Facebook algorithms decide what we see or don’t see. Newsfeed algorithm filters content without our knowing why.
- Facebook won’t say how the algorithm works, It’s proprietary. Without knowing the exact code, nobody can evaluate how your newsfeed is composed.
- Complex algorithms are incomprehensible to outsiders but they have values, biases, and potential discrimination built in
- Without algorithms many applications would be unusable. We need them to cope with the enormous amounts of data. But we must be aware how they work
- Algorithms are not neutral, but rather they perpetuate the prejudices of their creators.
They must be known to the user
“Since algorithms make increasingly important decisions about our lives, users need to be informed about them. Knowledge about automated decision-making in everyday services is still very limited among consumers. Raising awareness should be at the heart of the debate about ethics of algorithms.”
We are already at the point where regulating computer algorithms is essential for our collective well being, yet most people aren’t even aware the threats and problems they pose. I know I wasn’t until very recently. I hope this brief blog posting and the links above encourage others to explore this topic further.
America at the Crossroads of Crisis
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
His very name has become a dog whistle for expressing White outrage against growing minority influence in America. Trump! Trump! Trump!
His mantra, “Make America Great Again,” resonates with so many White people because they hear, “Make America White Again.”
As a country founded by immigrants and supported through slavery and exploitative labor practices for much of its formative years, the growth of a powerful, comfortable middle class in the last half of the last Century seemed like a coming of age. The rise of the middle class after World War II was vindication that our founding principles were virtuous and the diversity of our pluralistic society was our strength. We were now a world power and an exceptional example of a place where merit, innovation and hard work paid off. We were proof that immigrants can do well here. Of course the payoff was always more difficult for minority groups to achieve, especially African-Americans and South American migrants.
But now there has been some fundamental shifts in the fabric of America. The political and economic power of the middle class has been on a long, slow decline for decades. At the same time the population of minority groups and the flow of immigrants from our Southern borders have grown. Minority groups, taken together, make up nearly half of our citizens. Globalization of business has increased competition for good jobs and higher wages while domestic pressure has increased to give minority groups greater equality of opportunity. A bloody clash of cultures has arisen on the world stage adding anxiety for those of us who worry that America is losing its cultural identity. (A growing worry in Europe as well). And all the while, the American majority, made up of mostly White Protestants of Western European distraction, is being stretched and fractured by growing wealth inequality. The wages and ownership interests of most White Americans is declining while wealthy White elites are growing ever richer.
It is understandable that the timing of middle class economic decline and the growth of minority interests would seem like a causal correlation. It is also understandable how powerful interests might exploit this apparent cause-and-effect for their own benefit, but the truth is far more nuanced, and cloaked in deceit. In an ironic juxtaposition, the New York Times published two excellent articles on the same day that highlight both our sad cultural polarization and the sinister impact of inequality on our public institutions.
In his July 13, 2016, article titled, “For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance,” Nicholas Confessore writes:
“In countless collisions of color and creed, Donald J. Trump’s name evokes an easily understood message of racial hostility. Defying modern conventions of political civility and language, Mr. Trump has breached the boundaries that have long constrained Americans’ public discussion of race.”
What follows is an excellent expose on the cultural landscape in America. Then in an article titled, “How Private Equity Found Power and Profit in State Capitols,” the journalist detail how private equity firms are manipulating state and federal governments to pass legislation even more favorable to their financial interests.
The slow but steady economic decline of the middle class has taken most of us decades to recognize. That it was a planned assassination of the middle class perpetrated by corporate capitalists in the 1970’s has yet to sink in. And efforts by the elite perpetrators to distract us from their deeds by blaming the poor and pitting us, one against the other, rages on.
It may be indirectly true that minorities are somehow responsible for the economic decline that White Americans are experiencing, but certainly not in the direct ways as portrayed in the press or on the internet. It isn’t really true, for example, that undocumented immigrants are taking away jobs from White Americans. It is true that immigration has created a growing pool of cheap, non-union labor that puts downward pressure on wages. It is also true that the pool of cheap labor has grown exponentially through the corporate globalization of commerce. But the bigger truth is that wealthy corporate capitalists have put us all in an economic vise. Almost all of us find ourselves in that proverbially overcrowded lifeboat that is about to capsize.
We seem to be at a crossroad. We can choose the Trump path to social dissolution and toss as many “others” overboard as we can, or ignore that we in the lifeboat because of the wealthy corporate capitalists (until we sink) or we can link arms to forge a new path that restores democracy and a civil economy for everyone. The only real option is to come together and face down the true source of America’s decline, the corporate global capitalists who are hoarding the fruits of our labors.
The Facts About Police Action Fatalities in America
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
On April 4, 2015, Walter Scott, an African-American resident of South Carolina, was stopped for having a broken tail light. He was stopped by Officer Michael Slager, a White, North Charleston police officer. A few minutes later Scott was shot several times in the back while trying to flee. The incident was presented as a justifiable use of force by authorities until a videotape surfaced Slager calmly aiming his service weapon and firing into the back of Mr. Scott as he was running away. It was national news.
Stories of people killed by local police action rarely get national attention. Unless there is some dramatic twist or shocking video, the incidents are only reported in hyper-local community newspapers. The only sources for these reports are usually a police spokespersons and sometimes friends or grieving family members. When cases like the Scott shooting do capture regional or national attention they also raise significant, unanswered questions. Just how many citizens are killed in police actions in this country? Is this rare? Who is keeping track of the numbers? Does this sort of thing happen mostly in certain areas or departments? Is it just a few bad apples or are there larger patterns?
There are no national databases to track civilian deaths that result from police actions. The FBI does maintains a partial database of “justified police homicides,” but reporting by state and local authorities is voluntary. Only 750 of the more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies in this country submit their data. This limited reporting yields about 400 police homicides per year,
Almost two years ago a group of dedicated citizens began searching through local newspaper accounts of police involved civilian deaths throughout the country. They started a Website called KilledByPolice.net. They compile names of civilian casualties and added links to the initial news accounts. They also open a Facebook page on each person killed to post follow-up news accounts and to collect any local comments about these cases. Most of these fatalities are police homicides, justified or otherwise, but the data also includes murder/suicides by police officers, fatal DWI accident where the officers were intoxicated, police assisted suicides of mentally ill persons and other such categories. This effort turns out to be the most comprehensive data resource I’ve seen so far on police action fatalities. Based on this raw material I have begun my own analysis of the data.
Here is a brief summary of my initial findings to date.
Between May 1, 2013 and April 4th, 2015 there were 2,181 people killed by police officers in the United States. That works out to around 95 per month or 3 police action fatalities per day. There is clearly a gender bias in police action fatalities. Almost all are males, 2,044, with only 135 females killed in this 23 month period. In six other case the gender was undisclosed.
The full identity of 565 fatality victims were not disclosed to the media as of yet. The average age of the known fatality victims is 36.9 years, which is also the national median age of the population. This means that there is no age bias in police action fatality. Younger people are not more likely to be killed in a police action, for example.
Regarding race and ethnicity, Latino’s make up 18.7% of the general population and were 17% of the fatality victims during the past 23 months, suggesting their rate of police involved fatalities is proportional on a national scale. This may not be uniformly true in every locality.
Whites make up 77% of the population but only 48.1% of the victims. African-Americans make up just 13.2% of the general population but 30.5% of the total fatalities. This clearly suggests a racial bias in police action fatalities.
When the data was sorted by U.S. Census regions, 41.5% of all police action fatalities took place in the Southern states. Add California’s 730 incidents to the Southern total and the subsequent total account for 58.4% of all cases nationwide. In contrast, police action fatalities in the highly populated Northeast make up 9% of the total. (see pie chart) The large regional differences strongly suggest that these incidents are not the random acts of a few bad apples, as some suggest, but real differences in police training, policy and culture.
The states with the highest rate of police action fatalities, in descending order, are Alabama, Wisconsin, Washington State, Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Wyoming, Vermont and Idaho have the lowest rates. The states with the highest annual average of civilian fatalities are California (193), Texas (112), Florida (93), Arizona (50) and Illinois (33).
The data contained in the KilledByPolice Website is far more extensive since in contains reports of the police accounts and some follow-up articles, but this information is not yet in a form that allows for statistical analysis. It seems that most of the reports I reviewed so far involve police shootings, but this remains to be verified.
Defenders of law enforcement will say, with some justification, that the vast majority of police officers are honorable, law abiding and competent professionals who put their lives on the line to serve and protect the public. This is a true statement. As a whole the incidents of police action fatalities involves a tiny fraction of the overall mortality rate and it is sure to be a tiny fraction of all incidents of police engagement as well. This, however, is not a high standard to judge whether the current rate of fatal outcomes is significant. To help put these numbers a national context, there were only 70 civilians killed by the police in Great Britain in the last 90 years.
The better standard to judge the significance of this problem is to ask how many of these civilian casualties could we have avoided. Even when a police shooting is ruled a justifiable homicide, for example, different tactics and better training might still have avoided a fatal confrontation. The justifiable use of deadly force is predicated on existing policies, procedures, tactical training, departmental culture and the careful vetting of law enforcement personnel, to list just a few factors. It is our obligation police action casualties and protect the life and safety of every citizen, including those who are subject of police actions. The problem is very real and it deserves public attention.
How Free is “Free Will”
by Brian T. Lynch
This is purely my opinion, but my understanding of “Free Will” is very narrow compared to most people I talk to about it. I see it as something that emerges gradually along a continuum from actions that are totally coercive to purely rational and independent. It isn’t an all or nothing phenomenon, as some see it. I exclude all impulsive actions taken due to internal urges from my definition since urges aren’t rational and follow from completely different pathways in the brain. Also, actions that spring from emotions may or may not involve free will in my view. It is here that the gradual blossoming of free will is most evident.
When ever we act to satisfy urges or emotions we really cannot distinguish “free will” from the actions taken since acting on a urge feels identical to acting by choice.. That is why people don’t even know they are addicted to something until they discover they can’t simply choose to stop. Addiction in insidious that way. No one can say for sure that they smoke by choice after that first cigarette because even six months later the brain can trigger powerful urges for another cigarette.
The same holds true, by degree, with our emotions. We can’t know for certain if we are acting on free will when we acquiesce to our feelings since emotions can also overpower free will. We even say we are “acting on our emotions” to explain certain behaviors, but it still feels exactly like a choice, even if we can’t help it. So inwardly speaking, we can only no for sure that we are acting on free will when our actions are contrary to both our urges and our feelings. It is only when we place them in check that we can know for sure we are acting on our own free will.
That said, what about free will in circumstances when our only available options for action are proscribed by others, or by circumstances out of our control? If we have no choice but to act, do we have free will? If we have only bad choices, are we exercising free will by making that bad choice? Was Socrates exercising free will when he choose to drink hemlock rather than face a public execution? It so, and I believe he was exercising free will, then a limited form of free will must exist even under extreme forms of coercion.
How we define “free will” has enormous social and political implications because it thereby defines how responsible individuals are for their actions. It is here we see the continuum of emerging free will run its course. Some folks believe everyone is 100% responsible for their actions. They might then blame the poor for being poor, or the sick for being sick (live style choices) and would probably not accept an insanity defense for crimes committed by the insane. Speaking of justice, we see the role “free will” plays in our action played being calculated in criminal sentencing hearings when mitigating and aggravating circumstances are used to determine appropriate punishment. We punish people for criminal intent but not acquit them, or lighten their punishment if they were not in control of their actions.
These are just examples. In fact, we use these sort of calculations everyday with each other or our children in judging their actions and in modulating our responses. So the idea that free will is an all or nothing phenomenon just isn’t born out in our every day experience.
Anyway, here is an interesting article on the subject.
It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells…
“Serve and Protect” or “Enforce and Collect” The Changing Character of Local PD
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Police officers come in two basic flavors, the “serve and protect” peace officers and the “enforce and collect” enforcement officers. These represent (in the overly simplified terms used here) two fundamentally different and incompatible philosophies that are competing for the heart and soul of the profession. I needn’t mention which view is winning out since 9/11. Still, the drama playing out among departments also plays out within departments, which might help account for some of the reasons behind the article below. You might not see it at first, but so often the emotional motivations behind what seems like petty disputes are really underlying rifts involving fundamentally different world views. That’s what I suspect is happening here in New Jersey and elsewhere around the country.
Good Cop, Bad Cop: How Infighting is Costing NJ Taxpayers
Police officers across the state are suing fellow cops and departments over everything from sexual harassment to being sent home for wearing the wrong shoes — and residents are footing the bill. We unearthed the details, and the latest tally.
In the opening account in this article a female officer in Camden is made Chief of Police. When she inspects the unmarked car that comes with the job she discovers that one of her fellow officers planted crack cocaine in the car to derail her promotion and her life. Incidents like this reveal just how serious the clash of ideologies can be within public police departments.
I had a good friend who spent his entire career in local police departments. He dedicated himself to serving the public. Sometimes that meant arresting people who endangered others or disturbed the peace, but it also meant going the extra mile to help out a resident in a pinch. In smaller towns and communities it isn’t all bad guys all the time. He was never cynical or jaded by his work, but his philosophy on small town policing set him at odds with a segment of his fellow officers. It played out in many internal conflicts and unfavorable personnel decisions over the course of his career. In the end he retired early in part because of the hostility he felt in the workplace.
I have other police officer friends, even some who are of the “enforce and collect” variety who received negative attention in their careers when they strayed a bit from that philosophy. Another person I know who aspires to be a police officer was turned off by the militancy and hardnosed cynicism that has been built into the police training curriculum. Just what does the current police training curriculum look like these days? The public has a right to know.
What all this really means is that the drama playing out in society as a whole between ultra-conservative ideologies and more liberal ideologies is also playing out in all our institutions, including police agencies. Local departments are not immune to what affects society as a whole. What’s different here is that even small, local police departments shun transparency. While they work for the public they tend to view us as civilians outside of their fraternity. It is hard to penetrate a Departments cultural view. At the same time, there is clearly money and military style equipment flowing into even local law enforcement agencies, which serves to alter the character of local policing.
These changes are real. What is missing, in addition to transparency, is a robust public debate on what role we want local police to play in our communities. Are we aware of the changes character of our local police departments and are we comfortable with those changes?