It’s never one thing: violence in Baltimore

A lot of things have to go wrong for protests to turn into sustained violent confrontations with the police–as in Baltimore today.  The reports on the repeated protests against police

Baltimore police rush at protesters during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland April 27, 2015.(Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)

violence last week emphasized that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators were determined to be non-violent, and that scattered attempts at provocation by a few provocateurs–maybe from out of town–were isolated from the much larger protest actions.

The death of Freddie Gray was the last straw–until the next last straw.  Picked up with a knife, Gray died because police delayed in getting him medical care–a fatal error local authorities have already admitted–and an investigation continues.  But Gray’s death comes in the context of a police force that has paid nearly $6 million in civil settlements for beatings and abuse, mostly to young black men who were not charged with crimes.  (See the Baltimore Sun investigation.)  And it’s not just the money, of course; each beating wounds not only one victim, but the relationship between police and the community they’re charged with protecting.  And it’s not just policing; years of gentrification and development of the Baltimore waterfront haven’t spilled over to produce good jobs, schools, or services in most of Baltimore.

At this moment, the reports are that local authorities received “credible threats” that an alliance of criminal gangs was going to go after police.  The police showed up at Freddy Gray’s funeral prepared for a riot–a riot they ultimately got.  Speaker after speaker at the funeral called for peace–and justice.  At the moment, neither appears close.

A boy throws a brick at a police van, Monday, April 27, 2015, during a skirmish between demonstrators and police after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A boy trying to shot put a rock at a police van must be terrifying to police, who know that someone bigger may be pushing something bigger. The police surely know that the world is watching and that there are all kinds of ways that they can’t respond, but they don’t know who else is out there and what other weapons the few rioters might have.  They see vandalism and they see officers wounded.  I don’t know if they see a way out.

We remember how much we take for granted about public order.  In a city of more than 600,000, how many people does it take to bring havoc to the streets, to poke and prod officers with riot gear into reaction and overreaction?  Mobilizing neighboring police forces and the National Guard, imposing a curfew, and promising to deploy a panoply of violent means to one-up the rioters, Baltimore police announced their determination to keep order:

“You’re going to see tear gas. You’re going to see pepper balls. We’re going to use appropriate methods to make sure we can preserve the safety of that community,” a spokesman, Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, said at a news conference.  (New York Times)

Some brave Baltimore citizens, including clergy, also tried to control the moment, putting themselves between rioters and police, and urging the young people to back off.  It is, after all, their community.  And this might have had some effect.

Police preserve the social order when they can separate a relatively small number of miscreants from the larger community, and when that community is convinced that the social order is worth defending.  At the moment, however, many peace-loving citizens of Baltimore are hard-pressed to throw their lot in with the police.

Meanwhile, a baseball game at Camden Yards is canceled (read the reaction of the executive vice-president of the Baltimore Orioles, John Angelos, who emphasizes that there are bigger issues than baseball at play here). School is canceled tomorrow.  I’m sure almost everyone in Baltimore wants the riots and the fires and the rocks to stop, but I’m not sure going back to the normal before Freddie Gray’s death is any kind of goal.

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Patriotic conflict at UC-Irvine unflagging

Amazingly, national interest in the flag conflict at the University of California, Irvine, where I teach, is unwavering.  More than a few people seem to think that there is political mileage in beating up on a few students who sponsored a resolution to ban all flags from one lobby on campus.

It’s worse than that.  Recall that the resolution was ultimately defeated.  A meeting to discuss the issues has been repeatedly cancelled because of what campus authorities judge to be credible threats of violence.  And veer to the comments sections of the news reports, and see anonymous posters proclaiming that the student sponsors–or even the whole university–should be tortured, killed, or sent back to…..(Temecula?)  Audiences are unhappy with what they think some UC-Irvine students are learning.

But as anyone in education knows, what students learn isn’t always what teachers teach.  [I don’t hold Senator James Inhofe’s proud ignorance about climate change against the University of Tulsa, his alma mater. Nor do I think that the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts and President Barack Obama differ on questions of Constitutional interpretation reflect badly upon the teaching at Harvard Law School.]

Clearly worried about the political fallout, at UC-Irvine, Chancellor Howard Gillman proclaimed his commitment to build more flagpoles, and hoist more American flags.  (LA Times columnist Robin Abcarian appropriately questions whether this is the best use of limited funds on campus.)

To make sure this tempest in the tea party doesn’t die down so that we can focus on something more useful, someone circulated a letter online, defending the students who sponsored the flag ban, and some of the thousand plus signatories were faculty members at UC-Irvine.  (I didn’t sign the letter, nor was I asked to.  I glanced at list of supporters quickly, and didn’t see anyone I knew–and I’m not looking to keep score.)  Support for the students and their right to propose policies that improve the campus is entirely appropriate, as is concern for their physical safety.

A university has to be a place where people can entertain and examine unpopular ideas.  Free speech is essential to education and to democracy, and free speech is explicitly about unpopular ideas.

But a conservative website found the letter, and proclaimed that the UC-Irvine faculty supported banning the flag.  Alas, the statement is poorly written, but I don’t see that prescription in it.  Anyway, it was certainly no less articulate than the drunken frat boys singing an explicitly racist and threatening song at the University of Oklahoma.  Free speech.


We know that opportunists all over are trying to use this dust-up to promote their ideas and themselves.  That’s America.

It’s also America to have disputatious discussions and differences of opinion about all kinds of things.  In the background to the photo above, behind the flagpoles, you can almost make out the library,  which for the university is something far more important, far more expensive, and far more difficult to maintain.  I hope that the visitors who came to yell at students for their ingratitude also visited that building.  In the stacks you can find The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, and of course, the US Constitution.  But all of that is in the public domain, and you can easily find those texts online.

But the library contains so much more than that.  There are classics of literature and pieces of fiction that feature curses.  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is there, offensive language and all.  There are paper copies and electronic access to extremely expensive academic journals where students and faculty can read the latest research on the employment effects of a hike in the minimum wage (economists disagree), or the human causes of climate change (climate scientists agree).  It’s a great place to spend four years–or for some of us–even more.

The presumption is that we get smarter by exposing themselves to ideas they find abhorrent.  Good students dig through stuff they disagree with and find problems and contradictions.  Great students dig through stuff they dislike and try to figure out why it appeals to others.  Some of them even change their minds.

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More flags


Participants in the flag debate around my campus note that the American flag has been deployed in the service of heroic causes and of less heroic and admirable efforts.  The truth is that if you can’t find the flag used in the service of something you find offensive, well, you’re just not trying very hard.  At the height of the Boston busing controversy, an activist at City Hall used the flag to attack a black man in a suit who happened to be passing by.

Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman provoked controversy and arrest by wearing an American flag shirt while protesting against the war in Vietnam. (Most states then had [clearly unconstitutional] laws prohibiting flag desecration.)  It’s odd now to see that shirt as controversial; it looks most like a jersey from the US Olympic team in the 1970s.  Contemporary tea partiers are more creative and less deferential in using the flag design in their t-shirts (TEA-shirts?).

Ku Klux Klan rallyThe Ku Klux Klan routinely deployed the stars and stripes, bowing to no one in their pursuit of patriotism.

But civil rights activists, here marching to Montgomery, Alabama, weren’t about to let the Klan claim a monopoly on patriotism or the flag.

The point?  Both the very best and the very worst elements of America have grabbed the flag to inspire, legitimate, or camouflage their efforts.  Don’t let your opponents steal it from you.

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Rally ’round the flag, Irvine edition

UC Irvine flag
It’s always nice to have patriotic visitors to my campus, and wonderful to see members of the community and students engaging in civil discourse.  But the flag controversy is a sideshow that distracts from real issues in the University of California.

OK: the story in brief: One member of the student government’s Legislative Council introduced a resolution to ban all flags from one hallway in the student center, creating what he thought would be a safe space.  The Council very narrowly adopted the measure.  The reported vote was 6-4, with two abstentions.  By my count, the Legislative Council has 19 members, and 7 vacancies.  The flag discussion was clearly not seen as particularly high stakes anywhere else on campus.  In no way can we see this legislative burp as a representation of anything.

Once passed, however, the idea drew immediate opposition and ridicule from the administration and the rest of the student government.  It was the latter that quickly overruled the Legislative Council, and three of the initial supporters posted an apology on the student government’s Facebook page.  Over?  Not quite.  Not close.

Raising the flag offers all kinds  of people a chance to grandstand and an opportunity to distract.  For the tea party visitors above, it was a chance to ridicule the judgment and naivete of all the students, and education in general.  For the badly outnumbered and mostly marginalized Republican members of the State Legislature, it was a chance at a visible and popular issue to organize around.   For national advocacy groups, it was a chance to rail at intolerance on campus and throw around the term, “political correctness” again.   This is the kind of opportunism that makes for successful and sustained advocacy, but it’s a real and terrible distraction from issues that actually affect students.  Right now, as the Legislature considers the state budget, the funding for the university and the tuition that students will have to pay is very much up for discussion.

Elsewhere, pundits worry that the flag debate unfurling may be a type of activism that spreads across America’s campuses.  (Really?  Why pick targets and tactics that generate more opposition and ridicule than support, and that don’t improve your situation?)  Noting a recent Pew survey that finds today’s students more cynical and less attached to institutions and authority, maybe it’s worth considering why.

Our students are told that they have to fund a much much larger share of their education than did their parents or even older siblings, and that it’s not too soon to start saving for their own retirement.  Constantly reminded that they have to look out for themselves–because government won’t help–they are ridiculed for not being sufficiently grateful and deferential to institutions that are ignoring them. Hmm. Promoting patriotism might involve investing in our children–and our future.

Meanwhile, students should pull out those flags when they campaign for their interests.  It IS patriotic to invest in public education, to provide access to excellent and affordable universities, and to reduce the debt burden students face.  Let’s wave the flag for it.


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#Selma50: Whose history?

The thousands of people who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama this weekend would not be attacked by state troopers, nor face gas or police dogs. Fifty years makes for an auspicious anniversary.  The brutal beatings that brave and determined campaigners faced in 1965 is far outside the memory of most Americans.  It’s in a hazy image of black and white (television and race relations), before a black president, the internet, cell phones, or body cameras on police officers.  Bloody Sunday is almost long enough ago that it can, like the words of Martin Luther King, be appropriated by opponents of civil rights.


But 50 years isn’t quite long enough ago for us to have lost all of the veterans of those 1965 Selma marches.  Surviving state troopers, police, or hostile bystanders have not come forward to share their memories and claim their legacies.  But perhaps a dozen of the civil rights marchers returned to Selma for the commemoration.  The first row of marchers included two veterans in wheel chairs, Congressman John Lewis, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, their wives, and Obama’s children.

Congressman Lewis, formerly the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) remembers the troopers, the fear, the colleagues, and the pain, but not how he got off that bridge alive that day.  He remembers Lyndon Johnson’s historic speech, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and surely a divided Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that invalidated key provisions in the Voting Rights Act reauthorized in 2006 (signed by President Bush).  The presence of Rep. Lewis and other veteran marchers makes it harder to keep the protest at Selma safely in the past.

President Obama’s speech at Selma emphasized the work to be done on civil rights in America, including finding a way to restore a Voting Rights Act.  SNCC’s heirs have been campaigning with similar courage against police violence in America’s cities–starting with Ferguson, Missouri.  We commemorate the past to shape the future.  Civil rights activists want to tap into Selma’s legacy to invigorate their current campaigns.  For Democrats like John Lewis, it’s easier to invoke the history than to get anything to happen in Congress.

President Bush was the first Republican to sign onto appearing at the Selma commemoration, and for a while it looked like he’d be the only one.  National Republicans with campaigns in front of them saw no benefits to appearing in this version of the civil rights story.  After all, the story of Selma is one in which determined activists used provocative non-violent action to call the federal government down upon their opponents, including elected state and local officials.  Federal judges overruled state courts and federal marshals intervened with state officials.  An activist president invoked the language of the civil rights movement to advance national action to bring disadvantaged people into the political process.  Connecting up with current Republican priorities–like Voter Identification legislation–is is a bit of a stretch.

On Friday, however, current Republican legislators tired of the beatings they were taking in the media, and realized that at least some of their current presidential hopefuls have promised to compete for black voters.  About two dozen Republican members of Congress attended, but not the Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader, or any visible presidential contenders.  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was clear in rejecting any effort to restore the Voting Rights Act; he did, however, remind journalists that his Congress had issued medals to the surviving marchers.  Commemorating the past was great, as long as it stayed in the past.

Meanwhile, President Bush’s presence was a matter of some controversy.  Conservative websites (e.g.) complained that George W. and Laura Bush, marching 6 rows away from President Obama, didn’t make it into the photo at the top of the New York Times story.  (You can look at all the pictures on line and decide whether that crop was aesthetic or political.)

And all the civil rights activists weren’t willing to sign onto a march with President Bush in that first row.  Diane Nash, a co-founder of SNCC and one of the architects of the Selma Voting Rights Movement, refused to march with Bush.  Crossing the Pettus Bridge in 1965 was probably scarier, but the older Diane Nash again displayed bravery in noting that the Selma Movement was committed to nonviolence, which excluded starting wars and authorizing torture.  Predictably, she took a hit on conservative web sites as well.  (Here’s a somewhat more elaborated case against Bush’s participation.)

I’m curious about the different choices John Lewis and Diane Nash made regarding President Bush.  Both were courageous and committed crusaders for SNCC from the beginning, working together in Nashville as college students, on the Freedom Rides, and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965–when the slightly younger George W. Bush was a cheerleader at Yale.  Nash reminded audiences of the early civil rights movement’s values and goals, as well as the policy battles of the present.  John Lewis embraced the former president’s participation, welcoming him to the commemoration and the cause.  I can see the logic of both approaches, and wonder if the cause is best served by both taking place together.

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Less amusing animals: How movements work

As anyone who has stumbled across the internet and sampled a tiny sliver of the astounding variety of cat videos, animals can be entertaining.  For years animal rights advocates have been emphasizing the price those animals pay for our amusement.

When we learn that elephants are beaten in training, we may become a little less impressed by those amusing tricks.  Maybe, we go to the movies or  a concert instead of dragging the family to the circus.

After years of countering the rhetoric,  and offering reforms in training methods, even litigating against its critics (and winning!), Ringling Brothers has given up, announcing that it will phase out the use of elephants in its circus shows.  There are a lot of factors–as there always are: circus audiences are declining; taking care of elephants is expensive; and some cities have laws banning elephant performances.

Kenneth Feld, the president of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, explained that successful businesses change and adapt to changing markets and changing tastes.  He emphatically proclaimed that Ringling Brothers was NOT reacting to decades of protest.  As reported by AP, he explained, “We’re not reacting to our critics; we’re creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant.”

Yeah, well the protests affected the markets, the laws, and the costs.

PETA’s president Ingrid Newkirk claimed credit, without offering even a hint of conciliation.  “For 35 years PETA has protested Ringling Bros.’ cruelty to elephants,” she said,  “We know extreme abuse to these majestic animals occurs every single day, so if Ringling is really telling the truth about ending this horror, it will be a day to pop the champagne corks, and rejoice. … If the decision is serious, then the circus needs to do it NOW.”

SeaWorld is living the same story.  Protested and pilloried by critics who focus on the cruelty inherent in capturing, holding, and training killer whales, SeaWorld has endured bad press, a falling stock price, and declining attendance.  Blackfish, a powerful documentary, crystallized the charges of animal cruelty.  Last year, SeaWorld announced its plan to build bigger pens for the orcas.  This year the company announced a search for new corporate leadership.  And surely the public relations nightmare that Shamu has become will be one of the new CEO’s challenges.

Changing the world, even a little piece of it, takes a long time.  And it’s never just one thing.  But activist efforts can play a critical role in changing the conditions in which governments and businesses make decisions.

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The Ferguson report: How protest works

The Department of Justice has released its report on policing in Ferguson.  It tells an extremely disturbing story, in which the killing of Michael Brown and the volatile protests that followed, the awful policing of those protests, and the subsequent protests when the officer who shot Brown was not indicted, are all rolled into a larger–terrible–story.

Ferguson police stopped, cited, and arrested people less to maintain public order than to finance the city and their operations.  By itself, this is troubling enough, as the phobia about paying for the services we want through taxes has translated into a push for “user fees.”  This includes holding those who are arrested, tried, and sentenced responsible for their costs to the city, even as those costs can destroy the lives of people whose financial well-being is pretty tenuous to begin with.  This, alas, is not peculiar to Ferguson.

And Black people were more attractive targets for police than White people; they are stopped, cited, and arrested more frequently, and subjected to more harsh treatment at every point in the process.  This isn’t peculiar to Ferguson either.

Whether or not this report will lead to any kind of changes in criminal justice, policing, and funding policies across American cities remains to be seen.

But the report exists because of the protests in Ferguson that began last year and spread across the country.  It was the protests and not the death of Michael Brown that pushed the Department of Justice to investigate and report, and their notoriety produced the massive coverage that attended the release of the document.  Reporters and editors are reading and summarizing the nearly 100 page report.

It’s hard to think that police chiefs and mayors aren’t reading carefully as well, looking at the Ferguson story as a cautionary tale.  Now, the lessons learned may not be the ones you’d like (immediately, it seems clear that police officers will be told not to circulate racist jokes on email), but the opportunity for reform is here.

Protest works by redirecting our attention (public and government) and providing the opportunity for advocates to make their case to a larger audience.

Social scientists may struggle to model this in convincing ways, but, at least in this story, the sequence of events tells a clear story.  Would-be police reformers should be both encouraged and enabled.

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