Thursday, June 25, 2020

INSANITY



For anyone who is not a radical supporter of the current US president, it is next to impossible to understand how Donald Trump managed this past week to congregate thousands of people for two presidential campaign rallies in Oklahoma and Arizona in the midst of a national health crisis. Despite the fact that both events were hardly the blockbuster populist outpourings that Trump would have wished for (he was reportedly furious about the relatively paltry turnout) they still brought together a combined total of around ten thousand supporters in conditions that, considering the times we’re leaving in, were utterly insane—zero social distancing, practically no face masks, and an attitude demonstrated by the chief orator of derision toward the recommendations of those in charge of organizing the country’s fight against the worst pandemic since the 1918 worldwide influenza plague. 

Largely as a result of the confusing, unsystematic, generally lax and basically capricious policies put in place by the Trump administration in the face of the devastating COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the US has garnered the dubious distinction of being, certainly, the Western nation that has worst handled this global health crisis at a federal level, and the country that has been worst affected by this modern-day plaque worldwide. Deaths as a result of the pandemic in the US have soared to nearly one hundred twenty-five thousand. Comparatively, that figure surpasses by nearly twenty-five thousand the combined total deaths of US military personnel killed in the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the Iraq invasion and the War in Afghanistan. And it represents twenty-five percent of all coronavirus deaths worldwide, in a nation that boasts only a little over four percent of the global population.
These figures are a catastrophe by any reasonable standard. Especially since, as medical experts, including the Center for Disease Control’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, keep telling us, many of the infections and deaths that the United States is suffering are easily avoidable by following simple rules of what should be compulsory use of masks and the implementation of logical social distancing measures. Neither of those precautions was in evidence at the president’s populist-style rallies. Trump’s event organizers did offer masks to participants, which they rightly assumed the vast majority of attendees would not accept, due to their adherence to their leader’s contempt for this preventative measure. But offering them—like signing a waiver, which the organizers also required of those attending—let the president off the hook in case of potential laws suits based on the grave health risks to which his followers were being exposed.
And the risks were, undoubtedly, grave. A good indicator of this is the fact that the Secret Service agents who accompanied the president to the rallies have been placed on sick leave and preventatively quarantined. And several members of the point team organizing the event have tested positive for the virus, which, medical experts now know, can cause permanent damage to the victims’ lungs. Considering that the US is in the grip of a new and soaring peak in infections and death, the idea of holding this sort of indoor rallies, even if masks had been required, was nothing short of madness.
The non-use of masks is fast becoming a battle-cry issue among Trump supporters who take insistence that masks save lives to be an attempt to infringe on their freedom. There is no doubt whatsoever that they are taking their lead from their singularly powerful mentor, the president of the United States. Seeing the use of masks as somehow wickedly invasive is, of course, ludicrous. Requiring the use of masks in the midst of a lethal pandemic should be compared to using a seatbelt when driving a car or wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle. Except that in the case of masks, one is not only helping save one’s own life, but also the lives of others. People have come to understand that smoking in closed public places endangers the health and infringes on the rights of others. As such, prohibiting the practice is deemed valid under law, despite the protests of many smokers who complain that “their rights are being impinged.” One tenet of law is that my rights end where yours begin, and vice versa. But Trump and his most dogged supporters seem selfishly unwilling to accept the fact that their not wearing a mask in public violates the rights and health of their peers.
Having the access to sound information that the administration has at its disposal and still organizing ego-stroking campaign events like these latest ones is a criminally intentional act of mass harm. Those people who, in good faith, attended the events, to—for heaven only knows what illogical reason—lend their support to their president, trust him. We’ve even heard them in on-the-street TV interviews say, “If the president doesn’t think he has to wear a mask, why should I,” and “If the president isn’t worried, neither am I.”
Trump supporters argue that liberals are giving Trump a bad rap, blaming him for the disease. Not true. His critics are blaming him for not taking the hard and necessary measures to combat the disease, preferring popularity to efficacy. And it shows in the statistics. Three hotspot states this week posted the most alarming one-day rise yet in new infections with a combined total of more than seventeen thousand. No one is pleased to comply with quarantine, social-distancing and mask-wearing measures. But just as in the case of a hurricane, a tidal wave or a forest fire, it is the job of a real leader—like Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, for example—to impose emergency measures to ensure that people stay safe, and to save as many of their lives as possible, often in spite of themselves.
Even if they refuse to admit the imminent danger of this disease to the US population, Trump and his political advisers are in possession of the best scientific data available on COVID-19. They know the horrific danger that it implies. They know that there is absolutely no guarantee of “herd immunity” by simply letting the plague run its course, because immunity to it is, infectious disease experts now believe, short-lived and incomplete. They also know that, until there is an effective vaccine, only strict social-distancing, heightened hygiene, disease tracing and masks can keep the plague from spiraling out of all control. So if they refuse to recognize that the virus will run rampant through the US population if the measures recommended by Trump’s own administration’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) are not adhered to, then they are intentionally placing the country’s population in grave peril. And doing so can only be described, I repeat, as sheer insanity.
James Jones, perpetrator of an historic
mass-suicide-murder pact
The president’s staunchest and most stunningly naïve supporters, like those who are attending multitudinous rallies that he is insisting on holding, blindly believe their leader when he reassures them that there is nothing to fear despite the dire warnings of the nation’s disease experts. They trust him as many of them trust their evangelist religious leaders when the latter tell them that there is nothing to fear because if they are “saved” the virus can’t trump God. Those attending the most recent rallies obviously couldn't see the highly infectious viral disease swirling around them. But calling it a perfect storm is a good description of the risk to which they were effectively subjected in obeying their leader’s call to congregate. It was almost literally as if they had been asked to gather together and cheer the president in an ego-stroking exercise organized in the direct path of a hurricane.
In 1978, a hypnotically charismatic American evangelist and alleged faith healer known as Reverend Jim Jones managed to convince hundreds of his followers to take part with him in a mass murder-suicide pact in a commune-like island religious colony known as Jonestown. His most loyal followers ensured that all but a handful of survivors who managed to flee committed suicide by drinking grape Kool-Aid (actually a cheaper imitation called Flavor Aid) laced with cyanide, with many of those who refused being executed. The victims included scores of children, often fed the drink by their own parents who believed fanatically in Jones, who promised them that they had nothing to fear from death, that it was just the passing of the spirit from the body to a new and higher level of existence. Chillingly, Jones reportedly ran several dry runs previously in which he urged his followers to drink perfectly harmless Kool-Aid while telling then that it was poisoned and insisting that if they had faith in him and in God, they had nothing to fear.
Jonestown shortly before the massacre
The grim and horrifying event gave birth to the term “Kool-Aid drinkers”—popularized, ironically, to a massive degree by the president’s own favorite information outlet, Fox News—to describe hopelessly naïve individuals who blindly believe PR hype and celebrity proselytizers. Clearly, the rallies that Trump is organizing with no precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, risking not only the infection of hundreds of their number but also the spread of the disease to hundreds or thousands more, strike a parallel with the Jonestown mentality. They are yet another Kool-Aid-drinking moment in the unfolding history of the Trump Era, one that threatens to have devastating effects on an enormous segment of the American population.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

THE CASE FOR A JOHN WILKES BOOTH MONUMENT



The long-standing controversy over glorification of the Confederacy and its part in the War Between the States that ensued as a result of its declaration of secession from the Union has boiled over under the Donald Trump presidency as a result of the administration’s arguments—and redoubled arguments—favoring monuments to the leading proponents of slavery and the continued use of the Confederate stars and bars flag as an acceptable symbol of pride among the staunchest supporters in his base. I’ve tended to oppose that position as divisive and improper at a time when we should be moving toward less animosity among Americans rather than more, and toward genuine racial equality and justice in a country that used to pride itself on being the “greatest democracy on earth.”
John Wilkes Booth equestrian model
As growing calls have come for the removal of all symbols that continue to glorify the cause of slavery, which led to a tragic conflict in which hundreds of thousands of Americans were slaughtered, I, like all thoughtful citizens, have had to weigh indoctrination against genuine history and challenge learned ideas regarding the validity of any historical interpretation that in any way praises or immortalizes the leaders and symbols of a nefarious movement to continue to enslave an entire race of people, even at the cost of the dissolution of the United States of America.
I’ve concluded and argued repeatedly that we have to stop glorifying the Confederacy, which was a seditious anti-American movement that sought to overthrow the United States and form a new country whose basic founding tenet was the enslavement of Africans and African Americans. I’ve posited that officers of the US Army who rose up against their commander-in-chief and formed a new enemy army that engaged in civil war against the US were traitors and deserved execution rather than glory.
I have also proposed that requiring the African American soldiers and officers who today wear the uniform of their country to serve daily on military bases named after generals who enslaved their ancestors and fought to keep them enslaved forever is a gross injustice. And that forcing black children to play in parks named after—and in the shadows of monuments to—the very leaders of a seditious and illicit Confederate association that, if it had had its way, would still be enslaving them today is perverse. I’ve also expressed my conclusion that flying the flag that symbolizes the Confederacy in the United States is tantamount to flying the swastika in Poland.
However, some people on the social media continue to take me to task for being a vile revisionist who wants to re-write history and cut out the parts I don't like. To them, I argue that they are mistaken. I have no desire to “sanitize history.” On the contrary, I feel that it is sanitized enough already. I just want history to be history, rather than a fairy-tale designed to exculpate the white majority and to whitewash (pun intended) a part of our history that should be a source of abject and unmitigated national shame and that seeks to make it seem as if there were "some very fine people" on both sides of the conflict, which, perhaps, “wasn't about slavery after all.”
John Wilkes Booth fountain model
But okay. I've always been willing to keep an open mind in the course of debate. And maybe, for the sake of argument, I should try admitting that my critics are right. Maybe we should just “get a life”, stop looking for controversy at every turn and take a very kumbaya attitude toward the Confederacy, its symbols and its heroes. Maybe we should continue to honor them for fighting for what they believed in (albeit slavery), even though it ripped the country apart and left us with a legacy of racial hatred and violence that continues up to the present day.
In fact, maybe like President Trump, we need to double down on this kind of  acquiescence to racism and the causes of the long-defunct Confederacy. So I have an egalitarian proposal to make. And if there are some among you who have the gumption, I think it might be a good idea to create a petition to try and get the president involved. I think you might be pleasantly surprised if you do, since it’s not unreasonable (nothing is anymore) to think that he might act on it.
So here's the idea: How about, in order to honor the sensibilities of the president, his entourage and his base, if we build a monument to a truly unsung hero of the Confederacy? More concretely, let's petition President Trump to use taxpayer dollars to give credit where credit is due and commission a large equestrian statue or fountain as a monument to John Wilkes Booth, the pro-slavery gentleman who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln—certainly one of the most important events of the entire Civil War era.
And in order to ensure fairness to the Confederacy, we (the people) should suggest that this work of historical art and significance be placed at the foot of the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. Fair is fair, and Booth was, after all, a real hero to many of the people of the Confederate South who had just been cruelly defeated by the Union under Lincoln, who, through the Emancipation Proclamation brought an end to the golden age of the slave-holding South.
Any takers?


Tuesday, June 9, 2020

WHY GEORGE FLOYD MATTERS



Over the past couple of weeks, for obvious reasons, I’ve been giving greater than usual thought to what “white privilege” means. I have been seeking out and reading every account I can find of what it means to African Americans, because I realized that it was impossible to think about what I viewed as white privilege, no matter how liberal and non-racist I have tried to be in my life, without first fully understanding what it meant to the people directly affected by it. I could enumerate everything I figured was different in my life than in the lives of people of color, but if the other piece of the puzzle wasn’t there, I couldn’t possibly comprehend the multiple subtleties of racial and ethnic discrimination.

This wasn’t unknown territory to me by far. As a journalist, as a liberal, as an expatriate and as someone intellectually curious about the world around me, these were questions that I had been studying and seeking to identify with for decades. But with the horror of the circumstances that are currently sparking worldwide protests and with all of the horrors that have preceded it, it has become crystal clear to me that, no matter how great my empathy with the victims of racism and of daily discrimination might be, it is not something I have ever had to live in the flesh and it is unlikely that it ever will be.
I told myself that, in order to champion the cause of those being discriminated against, I needed to delve much deeper than ever before into the real meaning of Black Lives Matter. I had to ask myself how, in this day and age, half a century after the civil rights era, such a phrase could even be a modern-day slogan. It was only plausible in the context of renewed racism, a rebirth of attempts to invoke white supremacy, an era of not merely tone-deaf leadership, but, indeed, of complicit and authoritarian leadership.
What I discovered in this search was that it wasn’t enough to declare myself a liberal who had spent a lifetime striving to “do the right thing”, to shrug off early-learned attitudes by affirming and reaffirming my dismissal of them. It was necessary to look back at my background and the society I came from to better understand why we whites can never seem to “own” the problems faced by black people and why so many white people don’t even try.
I was brought up in a homogenous society in west central Ohio. I lived in a small town where just about everybody was “people like us”. Despite the fact that a lot of us were second, third or fourth-generation Americans from German and Scots-Irish families, we seldom if ever thought about this and tended more to identify, especially at Thanksgiving time, with the English pilgrims who had come to the so-called New World in search of liberty from tyranny and freedom of faith. We were oblivious to the fact that many of the New England Yankees who claimed their roots went back to the Mayflower Compact probably wouldn’t have crossed the street to spit in our hair if had been on fire. We were also oblivious to the fact that, thanks to slavery, many if not most African Americans’ roots in America ran much deeper than our own. All the more so because they had soaked American soil with their blood for generations.
No, to our mind, we were the bulwark of American society. We were what people were talking about when they referred to “Americans”. Our town was not “predominately” white. It was uninterruptedly white. Blind white, you might say. And back then, in the nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, local law enforcement was paid to make sure it stayed that way. In the fifties and in the decades before, there was a discreet sub-chapter of the Ku Klux Klan to which some of the most prominent of male citizens belonged. But nobody talked about it. It was a kind of secret lodge, if one that made its presence felt in the town’s administration and churches. Indeed, I would only learn about it as an adult, in interviewing local historians, one in particular, who had done the pertinent research and could still name names.
That homogenous town was our world. It was what we thought of as America. We only saw people of other races when we strayed beyond the city limits and on those rare occasions, we looked on them almost as being “foreigners”, or at least not quite “people like us”. This wasn’t racism proper, but rather, blind prejudice ingrained from birth.
 
We only saw African Americans—whom the more polite and proper of us referred to as Negros or colored people—when we went shopping or on some other outing with our parents a few times a year to the neighboring industrial city of Lima. We were almost tacitly cautioned —a pinch on the arm, a warning thump on the back of the head—not to stare at them, and to avoid contact or conversation unless they were working in the stores and shops we frequented. But that was, in fact, rare. They tended to be industrial and maintenance workers, police or firemen, short order cooks, dishwashers and delivery personnel, not the kind of people local white businessmen hired to deal directly with the public. And we needn’t have worried since, back then, they avoided contact with us as well. They, unlike us, knew precisely the world they were living in.
The homogenous community in west central Ohio was, in a manner of speaking, the milk we were nursed with. I wasn’t from a racist immediate family. If my maternal grandfather, a first-generation American of German descent, was indeed openly racist, my mother was not. I mean, not any more so than any other small-town, middle-class, white woman of those times. She taught us that all people were the same in the eyes of God and that we should never discriminate against people of other races. We shouldn’t, however, date or marry a black person. Not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with it. But the society of our time, we were told, was not ready for it and as a result, we and our children were bound to live a life of suffering and social ostracism if we formed a mixed-race couple.
In all fairness, however, we were also warned to avoid marrying a Catholic for the same reason. We were Protestants. What would our children be if we insisted on marrying a Catholic? At the time, that didn’t seem to make sense to me. Today I probably would have said, “White, privileged and free to choose.” But back then I was just confused. Later, however, I understood that this was a societal problem as well. My mother’s own upbringing had been in a German Lutheran community where the split went back to the very birth of Protestantism and it was “bad enough” that she had converted to Methodism when she married my father, let alone “getting involved” with a Catholic.
As I’ve thought over and over as an adult about discrimination, I’ve sometimes ventured that perhaps the only inkling, the only fleeting image we small-town white people might have had of the million-times-worse ostracism black and brown people feel in a white majority society is if we can think back to what the rivalry between Catholics and Protestants felt like when we were kids. And for the majority of children of later generations than mine, this was no longer even an issue. The protest era of the sixties and the ecumenical push by Pope Paul VI and other religious leaders had happened by then, so just about everybody but black and brown people had gotten “socially well.” And for a time, the success of the civil rights era made it look as if they might be on their way to full freedom and democracy as well.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that minorities are far better off than before the civil rights era and the equality laws that it engendered, it is clear that not all is well. On the contrary, there is a far too strong retrograde tide toward returning to “how things used to be”. And it is based on fears about the impending loss of white privilege. The demographics no longer favor white dominance. Relatively soon, the majority will be people of color, and the fear of white supremacists is that, if democracy survives, their misdeeds of the past, their discriminatory behavior, their “equal but separate” apartheid mentality is going to come barreling back to haunt them. And so the worst and most radical of these terrified white privilege advocates have thrown their full and blind support behind a would-be autocrat who is doing his damnedest to undermine democracy and make America white again.
If white liberals realize that something has to be done fast to defend and revive our fading US democracy, then they (we) also need to see that this battle for survival is inextricably linked to the need to extirpate the continuing curse of racial and ethnic discrimination. And the only way we can do that, as white people, is to start seeing the world through a different lens than the one that our own upbringing and white culture has provided us with. We need to be listening to minority community leaders, front-line minority activists, black and brown writers and journalists, minority film directors, the most venerated of still surviving civil rights leaders, and so on, without interrupting to say, “Yes but, what about...?” It is our time to listen and learn, because there is more at stake than minority rights. The entire American system is at risk, and if white supremacists win the race war, it will be game over for American democracy.
This is why George Floyd matters. Over the last two weeks, I have repeatedly heard especially whites, but some African Americans as well, try to minimize the importance of Floyd, the black man who was literally lynched on a city street in broad daylight by four police officers. The narrative of these people is that we should be careful not to turn George Floyd into a “hero”. They try to argue that Floyd was being arrested for a felony—passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill, which we have no reliable evidence to prove that he even knew was counterfeit—that he may not have been a model citizen, or, as the president tweeted, he was “not a nice person.” But within the scheme of the rule of law, and human and civil rights, none of that matters.
There is nothing to prove or disprove that George Floyd was “a hero”. But he most certainly was a martyr for the cause of human and civil rights. He didn’t choose to be.  I am almost certain, in fact, that, given a choice, Floyd would have elected to be alive rather than a martyr. But whether he or anyone else would have wished for a different outcome, Floyd has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. Floyd was the torch that lit the fuse to the powder keg. And if one nefarious political movement in the US has, for the last three and half years, been coaxing rampant racism out from under the rocks where it has been hiding since the sixties, the current demonstrations taking place in all fifty states promise to spark the political movement that will seek to drive racist demons back into the dark where they came from.

George Floyd is a symbol. He is emblematic of millions of African Americans who continue, on a daily basis, to be discriminated against and brutalized by bad cops and other bad actors. His death has been rendered emblematic of the deaths of people of color not only in the relatively distant past, but also in recent years and up to the present day. He is the iconic symbol of others like Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Freddie Gray, Manuel Loggins Jr., Ronald Madison, Kendra James, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and so many more African Americans who have been abused and summarily executed as a result of police brutality, and whose killers, in most cases, have gone free. George Floyd’s horrific and abundantly documented execution has become the place where not only minorities, but also democrats of all races have drawn a line in the sand and said enough is enough. This ends now!
To say that we whites—those who discriminate, those who don’t but do nothing to stop it, those who consider ourselves non-racists but who aren’t willing to be activists, those who keep trying to see the plight of people of color through our own skewed white vision without even attempting to walk around in another’s skin—are “part of the problem” is to miss the point entirely. We are not “part of the problem”, we are the problem. And as such must re-educate ourselves to become the beating heart of the solution.


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

I CAN’T BREATHE MEANS I CAN’T BREATHE



Part of the training I received—like thousands of other American boys during the Vietnam era—while doing my basic combat course at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in 1970,  was hand to hand fighting. The course was based, we were told, on a combination of karate, kick-boxing and street-fighting. Our instructor, who was a one hundred forty-five-pound, five-foot-eight-inch African American Airborne Ranger from Springfield, Ohio, was as fast and skilled as he was small. He was what Mickey Goldmill (the crusty old trainer brilliantly played by Burgess Meredith in the now classic boxing movie Rocky) would have called “a very dangerous individual.”
This sergeant’s job was to train us to use a minimum of blows and force to immobilize and kill our enemy in close-quarter combat. The skills he sought to teach us were based not on knowing how to throw the hardest and most punches, but how to throw the least and most accurate ones, to use our heads as well as our bodies, to strike where we could do the most damage in the least amount of time, since the longer a fight went on, the greater chance we had of losing...and dying.  It was, in short, a course designed to be an “equalizer”, to make men of all sizes, shapes and dispositions as uniformly dangerous as possible in given situations.
Go for the throat
Kicking another combatant in the solar plexus, smashing his knees, crushing his testicles, fracturing his nose bridge or gouging out one of his eyes were methods used to slow him down long enough to finish the job with a bayonet. But in order to deliver a killing blow, we were taught to concentrate on the throat, specifically seeking to crush the windpipe and deprive the opponent of the ability to breathe. This was, the sergeant drilled into us over and over again, the great equalizer. Whether with hands, feet or blade, go for the throat, and go for it right away, before the enemy could go for yours. You only needed, he said, five pounds of pressure per square inch to crush the trachea and block airways to the lungs and brain. And without air, no matter how big or how well-trained your opponent was, he was going down. There was, in short, a reason that the idiomatic expression “go for the throat” was used to describe ruthless disregard for the life of an opponent.
In the days since George Floyd was wantonly murdered—before multiple witnesses and on multiple cameras—by a Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin, I have repeatedly recalled this training. The reason it has come to mind is that reiterated attempts have been made by apologists for bad law enforcement to argue that Floyd’s death can be blamed on “insufficient training” for police officers. This argument has been combined with the almost ludicrous proposal by the local coroner that the throat of the victim showed no sign of trauma and that he might have died of pre-existing medical conditions exacerbated by excessive force employed by the police.
To my mind, the first of these arguments is implausible, while the second is preposterous and reminds me of when the notorious former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Daryl Gates, argued that black men were more susceptible to death resulting from strangleholds because of some genetic defect. According to Gates, in a statement he made in 1982, “We may be finding that in some blacks when (a stranglehold) is applied the veins and arteries do not open as fast as they do in normal people.” 

The posit of the coroner’s report seems to me to justify Floyd’s family’s decision to commission an independent autopsy (which, logically enough, concluded that the victim had died of asphyxia). While the idea that a policeman, no matter how minimal his training has been, wouldn’t know that kneeling on a man’s throat for eight minutes would kill him—especially when the victim repeatedly and desperately told his aggressor that he couldn’t breathe, when the victim in his final moments begged for his mother, and when, for over two of those eight minutes, the victim was unresponsive—is simply impossible to believe.
Why impossible? Well, if in standard Basic Combat Training for the US Army, the purpose of which was to give me my first eight weeks of instruction in the “art” of effective killing, I learned that the throat was the most vulnerable part of a human being in a quick-kill survival situation on the battlefield, how could a big-city police officer’s training be so utterly deficient that he wouldn’t know that pressing a handcuffed, defenseless man’s neck with all of his weight on his knee for eight minutes would result in the detainee’s death. I have consciously known this, as I say, since I was twenty (and, in all fairness, knew it even before I joined the Army, as do, very likely, the majority of children over, say, the age of ten) after only the most standard and basic of eight-week combat courses—the purpose of which, let me reiterate, was to teach me to kill people. I have known ever since then that a blow to the throat or a lethal stranglehold is not something you apply in a scuffle following a fender-bender or as a way of settling an argument, or if someone disrespects you. It has only one use: killing an opponent in a life and death situation.

That’s not the only reason that the “insufficient training” argument doesn’t fly as an excuse for the killing of George Floyd. If the City of Minneapolis website is to be believed, the city’s police officers go through intensive training. This training includes, among other things, defensive tactics, community orientated policing, firearms, defensive driving, report writing, ethics, traffic enforcement, crime scene investigation and physical training. It lasts from fourteen to sixteen weeks—at its maximum duration, twice the time devoted to our basic combat training when I was in the Army. And once recruits graduate, which they must in order to become Minneapolis police officers, they are then required to submit to a six-month on-the-job training period with a veteran training officer.
Derek Chauvin is no rookie whose fear and inexperience led him to make a mistake. At the time of his dismissal and subsequent arrest, he had been on the Minneapolis police force for eighteen years. Indeed, he was a veteran officer who had surely been in no few situations like the one he faced in taking George Floyd into custody, allegedly for trying to pass a phony twenty-dollar bill—the summary penalty for which ended up being torture and execution.
But here, perhaps, a little context is in order. It would appear that Chauvin isn’t just a cop who was having the kind of bad day Michael Douglas had in the movie Falling Down, and, inexplicably, took it out on a detainee. Use of force reports indicate that Minneapolis police officers have applied neck and throat restraints no fewer than two hundred thirty-seven times in the last five years. And in forty-four of those cases, those being detained lost consciousness. It would appear, then, that Chauvin’s using his knee to choke George Floyd, while three of his colleagues held Floyd down and kept at bay onlookers who were begging Chauvin to stop before he killed his captive wasn’t some momentary lapse on the part of an otherwise by-the-book officer. It seems that the use of strangleholds has been a relatively widespread practice among Minneapolis police—one of which local authorities should certainly have been aware.
It is almost impossible to come to any conclusion other than that George Floyd was intentionally and brutally murdered. And the whole thing played out across the US and the world on cellphones, social media and television. We all saw it happen. And any decent human being who was watching knew without a doubt that what he or she was witnessing was wrong. Many of us were outraged and desperate while we watched. So were onlookers who pleaded again and again for the police to stop applying what was undoubtedly lethal force, eyewitnesses that clearly saw that George Floyd was already immobilized, in custody and no longer a threat to the arresting officers.
The only people who seem not to have known that it was wrong, that what they were witnessing and participating in was what forensics experts refer to as wrongful death, were Dereck Chauvin and the three men who aided and abetted him in carrying out a gruesome murder.
Or perhaps, they knew perfectly well what they were doing and simply didn’t care.

The first tentative charge against Chauvin was “third degree murder and third degree manslaughter”. Few if any news people had ever heard of such a charge. And CNN’s talk show host Van Jones seemed to speak for many of us when he said he could think of no other homicide in which such a charge had been implemented and speculated that the idea was to start low “and then plea-bargain it down to a traffic ticket” so as to let the cop and his accomplices off scot-free.
Latest reports suggest, however, that authorities may now be leveling second ­degree homicide charges against Chauvin. This still, however, would presuppose that the former officer killed Floyd unintentionally, which the facts—including his continuing to kneel, pressing down with all his weight, on Floyd’s neck even long after the victim had stopped moving or talking and no longer had a pulse—seem to graphically belie.
Finally, today, June 3, it was reported that the prosecution in the case has also finally charged the other three officers,  Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao with aiding and abetting murder. Kueng was in custody, and authorities said they were in the process of arresting Lane and Thao. But it seems clear that the authorities have been reluctant to prosecute bad law enforcement and outright murder, since the upgraded charge against Chauvin and the first-ever charges against the other three officers have only come after a week of rioting and mass protests all across the United States.
Will justice prevail in the murder of George Floyd? It remains to be seen. But if not, it is likely that we will have reached a tipping point for the average American’s patience.     


Saturday, May 30, 2020

SOME THINGS NEVER SEEM TO CHANGE



In 1970, I was an Army Specialist 4 posted to the 72nd Army Band at Ft. MacArthur in Los Angeles. We played a lot of “public relations” concerts and parades. One, while I was there, was in the troubled neighborhood of Watts. I can’t recall the occasion, but it was a military parade.
Watts 1965
Midway through our march across town, we had to break ranks and it was every man for himself as we were pelted with cans, bottles and anything else angry protesters could heave at us. I was told the protest was over the disproportionate number of African Americans being sent to Vietnam. With the help of LA County law enforcement, we were able to push back until we could reach our bus and leave.
Although I considered myself socially aware, it was the first time the vast difference between my life and that of minorities in inner city neighborhoods was driven home. Our first sergeant, who was out front, was African American and had grown up in Compton. So was our second-ranking NCO, who was from a dirt-poor childhood in Alabama. So were several other members of the band. But what the protesters saw were our uniforms, which represented the government that didn't represent them.
Not personal, just the uniform
My friend Fermin, who before entering the Army had been a member of the Black Panthers, patiently explained it to me. It wasn't personal. I was a symbol. And it didn't matter how non-racist or liberal I might be, or how much I strived to understand and empathize with the black cause. To the rioters, none of that mattered since they faced daily discrimination simply because of the color of their skin. It was something, he explained, that no matter home empathic I might be, I could never fully understand or “own” because I was white.
And then there was the context. Five years earlier Watts had been the scene of The Watts riots, sometimes called the Watts Rebellion. They were sparked, as the current ones rocking the US, by police abuse of minority citizens' civil and human rights. They broke out after police physically assaulted a pregnant, black motorist, who happened to also be a parolee, after pulling her over for reckless driving. When community members in Watts publicly decried the incident, six days of civil unrest ensued.
Minneapolis 2020
Nearly four thousand members of the California Army National Guard—hence, the hatred for Army green—helped suppress the disturbance, which resulted in thirty-four deaths and over forty million dollars worth of property damage. It was the city's worst unrest until the Rodney King riots—for the exact same reason—twenty-seven years later.
And still today, as US cities are again in flames over the brutal police murder of George Floyd—nothing ever seems to change. On the contrary, over the course of the last three and a half years, the situation has been vastly exacerbated by a federal administration that is openly racist and blatantly disrespectful of civil and human rights.