How to Reform the Police

Is it supposed to comfort us that "just" 1 in 4 is bad? And where are people of color?

And so it happens again. Change the victim. Change the place. Change the names of the murderers. Another black man killed by those sworn to uphold the law and protect all American citizens.

I have no words to add about the senseless death of George Floyd. His death is akin to those killed by gunmen with automatic weapons. We are horrified. We weep. We are angry. We bury our dead. Then we move on. Just more numbers for the data bank. Do we need more numbers to tell us that American society remains deeply racist? Or that police departments contain more than “just a few” bad actors?

Others have spoken more authoritatively and elegantly than I about race in America. This essay is about law enforcement—a topic I know from several perspectives. First, I worked in probation services for six years. Later I studied the sociology of crime. Then I taught college-level Crime in America for four years. As a citizen, I have witnessed the alarming militarization of police forces. I have informed views on what needs to happen to reduce police violence.

When Bill Clinton became president he pledged to appoint a Cabinet that “looks like America.” I will leave aside the many ways he managed to disappoint and assert that American police forces need to look like America. Nearly 80% of all police officers are non-Hispanic whites. Right away we have a problem; just 54% of the American population is Euro-white. Latinos make up 17% of the population, African Americans 16%, and Asians 7%. (The remaining 6% are a smorgasbord of Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and non-white immigrants.) The following can and should happen starting tomorrow.

·       An immediate end to all-white patrol squads. It should never be acceptable for a white officer to respond to a call without at least one person of color in the car.
·       An immediate freeze on hiring white police until racial and ethnic parity is achieved.
·       Immediate and mandatory racial and cultural diversity training. Officers who do not pass a post-training exam should be placed on leave until such time as they pass said test and remain on probation for 6 months after reinstatement.

Here’s another alarming statistic. Nearly 88% of all police officers are white males, though white men make up just 31% of the population. This underscores the need for:

·      A freeze on hiring white male police until parity is reached.
·      Sustained recruitment and hiring of women.

About one in five police officers has a military background. Speaking of things we have known for a long time but haven’t corrected, it’s well-established that the U.S. military has a distressing track record toward women and people of color. More ominously, one-third of those engaging in mass shootings are ex-servicemen. What to do?

·      End preferential hiring practices of veterans and …
·      Improve psychological screening of all candidates.
·      Tie the military budget to significant improvements in recruitment practices, personality profiling, diversity training, and psychological support for military personnel.  

This will upset “soft” liberals, but towns and cities should follow the European model and increase the use of security cameras on the streets. If you're worried about ICE raid, tapes can be erased daily if no crime or police conduct is image-captured in a 24-hour period. Some have argued cameras don’t decrease crime. That’s a debate for another day, but there are good reasons to turn on the cameras:

·      It should not have to be the job of Smart Phone-bearing citizens to risk their own safety to record the malfeasance of police.
·      It would actually help cops who aren’t jerks. Too many people bear animus toward police, have agendas, or do not see everything that occurs during an arrest. Good cops ought not be tossed into a he said/he said situation in which every perp cries police brutality, or someone with a grudge posts a misleading YouTube video.

Here are a set of no excuses, no forgiveness reforms.

·      The moment police are called to a scene, they should be required to activate vest cameras.
·      It should not be excusable for a police officer to claim the situation was too “hot” to turn on the camera. If cops have time to unholster a gun, they have time to turn on the camera. As noted, it should be done on the way to the scene.
·      Any police officer failing to have his/her camera running should immediately be suspended for a week without pay, unless…
·      A serious incident occurs, in which case officers in question should be immediately suspended. If a death occurs and there is no video, the officers should be fired.

These are not radical ideas. Nearly all could be funded by axing unneeded military-style hardware. Black lives matter. Moreover, if we don’t reform police procedures, we condemn ourselves to a society in which none matter if the white guy with the gun decides they don’t.


The Water Dancer an Impressive Debut

The Water Dancer (2019)
By Ta-Neshi Coates

Conduction: The transfer of heat, energy, or acoustics within or through a substance due to a change in temperature and without moving materials. It’s what happens when we turn on a radiator, heat a tea kettle, or hold onto an ice cube as it melts. In Ta-Neshi Coates’ debut novel, it’s also linked to the various meanings of conductors, the kind that transfer or store energy, those who orchestrate, and a crew member on a railroad.

Hiram “Hi” Walker is the protagonist of The Water Dancer. He is a slave on a declining Virginia tobacco plantation, but occupies a semi-privileged position as the half-white son of widowed plantation owner Howell Walker, who (rightly) sees Hi as the more promising of his two sons. He educates him and hopes that his commonsense will rub off on his white heir, Maynard. Coates gives us a memorable look at life at Lockless Plantation and Freetown, the adjoining hamlet. It is a world divided into “the Quality,” the white elites; “the Tasked,” those held in bondage; and “the Low,” who are essentially poor white trash and all the more dangerous for their degraded status. It is they who make up Ryland’s Hounds, who round up runaways and jail them, after they’ve had their sport with them. Coates never specifies the date, but one can infer that the novel is set sometime in the 1850s due to its references to escaped slaves such as Box Brown, Jarm Logue, and Harriet Tubman, all of whose abolitionist works took place after 1849.

Hi grows up thinking he will have a role at Lockless, even though Thena warns him against it. She is the hardened and outwardly unaffectionate older woman who acts as his surrogate mother. (Hiram’s actual mother, Rose, disappeared when he was a toddler.) Thena proves correct. A carriage in which Hi and Maynard are riding plunges into the Goose River. Maynard drowns, but Hi makes it to the bank after having a vision of Rose dancing on the water. Howell is outwardly kind, but Hi learns the hard way that the Quality do not cross social color lines. The upside is that Hi is more than a little attracted to Sophia, the slave and sex partner of Howell’s brother Nathaniel. That too is a reminder that Quality and Tasked live in different worlds, as is the coldness Hi receives from Corrine Quinn, Maynard’s betrothed.

Hi and Sophia attempt an escape that goes very badly–­at least for Sophia. Through circumstances outlined in the novel, Hi’s tormentors and captors are actually members of the Underground Railroad testing his mettle. In Philadelphia, Hi experiences the sweetness of liberty for the first time and immerses himself in a free community. There are many surprises awaiting, though, not the least of which involve those who are other than whom they appear to be.

Coates wishes us to see abolitionism as a higher calling—literally so. This brings us back to conduction. Hi is singled out because others see him as having special abilities. He is like his guide, Harriet Tubman, who takes him on his first journey on the Underground by bending the fabric of time and space. It’s not exactly like a wormhole, but that’s the best I can do. In other words, this novel is shot through with magical realism. Coates skillfully mixes magic with the real—Chautauqua gatherings, the ways in which fear sustains slavery, the potential treachery of all whites, and the serial affectionate bonds of slaves, just to name a few. For Virginia slaves, being sold “down Natchez way” was the ultimate fear, it being a symbol of the Deep South where the Quality neither put on genteel airs nor spared the lash. Escape from Natchez was exceedingly difficult. Coates presents water dancing as a gift, but not a superpower. The Underground was valiant, but not always successful.

The Water Dancer is beautifully written. It is especially impressive as a first novel. Many know Coates as an award-winning journalist and social commentator, but non-fiction and fiction share only a homonym, not a skill set. As in all first novels, there are details that don’t add up. I was quite underwhelmed by an ending and resolution that defied logic, but not in a magical way. A deeper critique is that The Water Dancer bears a lot of resemblance to Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad. Plus, Coates’ magical realism strays very close to some of Octavia Butler’s science fiction devices.

Nonetheless, The Water Dancer is a terrific book. Even with its borrowed elements and homage it remains a rare original perspective on slavery. I don’t mean that as a cavalier remark. Like the Civil War, slavery is one of the topics that so dominate the output of historians that it is hard to put an original slant on it. Like a modern-day conductor, Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers us to unexpected places by transferring our gaze from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Rob Weir            


Me, Groucho, and Job Searches

I found it in a box of old things: a picture of a younger me brandishing a fake cigar and wearing a Groucho Marx nose, glasses, and mustache ensemble. Unusual? Not really. The plastic Groucho face remains a popular novelty item. I didn’t look a thing like Groucho, but if anyone had the right to wear it, it was I. Groucho, was and remains one of my idols.

What marked this decades-old fading black and white photo as significant was its purpose. It was my “official” portrait for a job application. I bet you’re wondering what sort of job required such a shot. Comedy club? Traveling circus? Sales promotion? Nope. It was for a high school teaching job I knew I didn’t want and, yes, I will explain. The following is a (mostly) true story.

You may have noticed that COVID-19 has left the economy in shambles. It’s going to get much worse, and this saddens me because I thought I had already lived through what would be the worst financial crisis of my lifetime. I mean the one in the 1970s, not the one from 2011-16 that gets mislabeled the “Great Recession.” Let me assure you, the 1970s downturn was bleaker. It started with the first OPEC oil boycott in 1973 and, though it had brief breaks, lasted well into the 1980s and didn’t really break until early 1992. (Ask me about Reaganomics and I’ll fill you in on why it’s a myth.)

I had the misfortune to graduate from college in the midst of the 1970s muck. I was lucky enough to ditch my retail job, but unlucky to get hired as a juvenile probation officer. What I wanted to do was teach students, not bust them. History jobs are hard to secure today; in the 1970s, you couldn’t buy one, though I tried to do exactly that. We’d like to believe that hard times bring out the best in human beings. Actually, they tend to encourage pirates. In my case, the scurvy dogs masqueraded as an employment agency that found openings and, if you secured one of their leads, you agreed to dump 10% of your salary for the first three years into their treasure chest. You also had to apply for each lead they sent you, or they would stop looking.  

I should have known better, but I dutifully tossed resumes into several rings already mounded knee-deep. Then came the one that sent me over the edge: an opening at a rightwing Christian academy. We’re talking mouth-breathers and fire-eaters, not gentlefolk and do-gooders. I no longer remember where it was. Tallahassee sticks in my brain, but so does Georgia. What to do? When reason fails, try sabotage.

Take the application. Please. It went (more or less) like this:

            Q: Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?   A: I thought he was supposed to redeem all of humanity, not just me.

            Q: Do you drink?  A: Not much, but I’m open to suggestions.

            Q: Do you smoke? A: No, the cigar is made of rubber. (See attached photo)

            Q: Do you dance?  A: Not very well, I’m told.

            Q: Do you go to movies? A: Yes, but I’m rather picky about what I see.

            Q: What are your views on pornography? A: The same as Justice John Marshall Harlan. I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.

            Q: Do you believe in original sin? A: No. It appears to me that people just keep committing the same ones over and over. I can’t recall seeing an original one.      

            Q: Do you believe in premarital intercourse? A: It totally depends on the young lady in question. (Had I really been honest, I might have made some reference to demand outstripping supply!)

There were some theological questions that allowed me to be more seriously argumentative, but the application ended with this: Attach a recent photograph of yourself. It didn’t occur to me until years later that they probably wanted to make sure I wasn’t black, but you know what I did. I wanted to make absolutely certain that I had a less than zero chance of being interviewed!

So I went back to the social work job I so desperately wished to leave. As most of you know, my tale has a happy ending. I got married, Emily and I moved to Vermont, and I got my first teaching gig at a place the pirates had never ventured. If you are one of my former students (at any level) and think I helped with your education, don’t thank me. Thank Groucho.

Rob Weir