Killing Garner

December 9, 2014

Are we safer with or without the police around? When juries, grand juries and prosecutors regularly decide that plain, on camera, evidence doesn’t show murder, what protects people?

It’s too dangerous to put your key in your front door like Amadou Diallo a few years ago. It took 41 bullets to meet that threat and shoot him in the back. It’s too dangerous to hold your hands up like Michael Brown in Ferguson – hands up can be interpreted as threatening. It’s too darn dangerous to complain “I can’t breathe” like Eric Garner – we know from sexual politics that people understand “I can’t” to mean “I can!” On camera they could see just how dangerous a man can be when he can’t breathe. And any Black kid with a toy gun is toast.

The police talk about bad officers. Most are not looking for a chance to show just how tough they can be toward inoffensive or defenseless people. But don’t let the so-called good cops off easily when there are no repercussions, when the “good cops” stand with the “bad cops” because it’s a dangerous job, so that there are no enforceable rules of behavior toward civilians and anything the police do goes but nothing civilians do – especially if they’re African-American. The culture of silence gives us no reason for confidence. No firings, no powers for civilian review boards, plus judges and prosecutors who stand by the cops regardless, like the judge who told me he believed my client but found him guilty because “I couldn’t do that to the police.” Are those who stand-up-for-the-cops-no-matter-what any better than the Romans who liked to watch Christians thrown to lions?

Black families have “the conversation” with their kids about how to deal with the police. Actually I’m also better off when I don’t argue with the police, don’t claim to know my rights. Most of my clients were Black. I gave them the same advice plus keep quiet and politely ask for an attorney.

Apologists for the police have used the conversation to say it was Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s fault that they were killed. They should have done what they were told. Then they wouldn’t be dead. But so what? I teach my law students that they should not expect their clients to know what to do and what they need to tell their lawyers. The lawyers are the professionals. The lawyers are trained. The lawyers must expect themselves to shape the encounter usefully and help the clients do what needs to be done.

It is a lot too simple and too self-satisfying to blame the victim. The Americans ISIS beheaded shouldn’t have been there if they knew what was good for them but that gave ISIS no excuse to behead them. Some women might not have been raped if they made themselves look ugly but that’s no excuse to rape them. I took part in a rape case where a young man was charged with raping an older, shriveled charwoman – not looking pretty doesn’t necessarily protect women. But no matter, none of them, pretty or ugly, young or old, should have been raped. It doesn’t help to blame the victim. Blaming Brown and Garner and Diallo and the 12 year old kid doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – none of them did anything that justified execution. Do we have to take the guns out of their hands to convince the police to use their heads?

—  This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 9, 2014.

References

On Eric Garnder’s death, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/nyregion/officer-told-grand-jury-he-meant-no-harm-to-eric-garner.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=article


The Threat of Self-Styled Armed Militias

May 20, 2014

Some of us remember having to sign loyalty oaths. In the language of the U.S. Supreme Court, one had to swear that he or she had not “advocate[d] the overthrow of government by force, violence, or any unlawful means.” That included the overthrow of “the Government of the United States or of any political subdivisions.” In the 1950s everyone from barbers to professors had to sign those things and even cafeteria workers got fired on mere suspicion of disloyalty, the absence of proof notwithstanding.

Of course it was political. Senator McCarthy famously attacked President Truman and many of the people in the cabinet as disloyal. Republicans attacked Democrats and liberals as if they supported a Communist invasion. It was a campaign of character assassination. Charges were brought without facts that prosecutors were willing to reveal until the Supreme Court pointed out that it had the obligation to insist on fundamental due process like the right to see the charges and confront witnesses. But at least, at some level, however misguided, it was about patriotism.

Now, a group of armed self-styled militiamen blocked the federal government from charging Cliven Bundy the fee for grazing his cattle on federal land. Then they took their weapons to a closed federal canyon, to open it by force for use by ATVs. They bluntly deny the authority of the federal government. To make it worse, prominent Republicans called Bundy’s refusal to pay for grazing his cattle on federal land, and the armed intervention of his militia supporters, “patriotic.” Read the rest of this entry »


We Will Not Comply

March 5, 2013

Did you hear the demonstrators against New York’s new gun law chanting in unison “We will not comply!”

That’s the problem. Guns allow some of their owners to think that they can define right and wrong and everybody else has to comply. In the hands of some of their owners, guns puff up their sense of self-importance, their sense that laws are written for everybody else but that they are above the law. Read the rest of this entry »


Guns, Militias and Public Safety

February 12, 2013

I’d like to address the debate over guns from an angle very different than the general conversation. Most of the conversation is about whether guns increase or decrease the risk of homicide or suicide. I’m pretty well convinced that the most likely victims of guns in the house are the people in the household, just as most car accidents happen within a short distance from home. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I see another problem that I think is quite significant.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has developed a great deal of expertise and information about the existence of hate groups around the country. It has identified thirty-seven different hate groups operating around New York State, forty-seven in New Jersey, thirty-four in Pennsylvania, ten in Massachusetts, five in Connecticut, four in New Hampshire and one in Vermont. These groups spew their venom at virtually every racial group, many religious groups, and gays. They comprise a litany of despicable groups from the KKK, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups to anti-Muslim, anti-white and Holocaust deniers. Some of them just write, speak and blog, but some have been involved in criminal violence. Read the rest of this entry »


Back from a trip – English and guns

July 24, 2012

I just got back from a trip abroad. We were treated everywhere with the greatest respect while visiting our former exchange student and her family in Serbia and Montenegro, and then in Spain for a meeting, People were happy to help us. We had no Serbian (though I learned how to say “thank you”) and little Spanish (though I studied in high school it’s virtually gone), but they were happy to use whatever English they had. When we couldn’t communicate it was still all smiles. Somehow, only in this country do people believe that English is under fire and all traces of foreign languages should be eliminated, despite the foreign policy disaster if some Americans weren’t conversant with other national languages. Of course there is one place where English really is under fire and has been for decades – Quebec. But I’ve never heard any suggestion that we ban the Quebecois.

That’s what I intended to talk about. But the news here on my return has been overwhelming. Another senseless mass killing of people the murderer didn’t know, had no grudge against, one a six year old child. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s creepin’?

June 21, 2011

I’ve been hearing Republicans bellyaching about creeping socialism since I was a kid in the 40s. People afraid of socialism under every bed. ‘Modern American conservatism began in an effort to … roll back creeping socialism,” Sarah Bramwell told a  conservative club. Socialism has been creeping up on us for decades according to the National Review. Senator Taft told us in 1952 “that … the [presidential] campaign … [was about] ‘liberty against the creeping socialism in every domestic field.’” Read the rest of this entry »


The underlying assumptions of this commentary

May 24, 2011

No one should make the mistake that many conservatives do of claiming that liberals have no morals, and no moral backbone. We have a different system of morals than those conservatives, but it is a very principled set of morals and we’re just as passionate about them. The battle for the soul of America is very much a moral battle. Read the rest of this entry »


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