Oh yeah, guns…..

The sniper murders in Dallas provide another chance to think about what legal access to firearmsPOLICE RELEASE PICTURE OF DALLAS SNIPER SHOOTING SUSPECT in the United States should look like.

The demonstrators included individuals legally and openly carrying weapons. Apparently, even with good intent, this was of little help in deterring or responding to the bad guys with guns.

In the next few days, we should find out how the shooters obtained their weapons, and whether existing or proposed laws could have–or should have–prevented it.

Importantly, shooting at police is an example of individuals standing up to what they see as the illegitimate exercise of government authority. Some gun rights advocates point to recourse to armament as a defense against tyranny (e.g.).

This strikes me as an extraordinarily weak argument. First, citizens with grievances and guns can do a lot of damage acting against people and policies that most of us don’t see as tyrannical. Second, the government and the police will always be better armed, and the threat of armed opponents is used to justify harsh and violent policing.

The image of armed opponents is generally white and rural. The tragic crime in Dallas may change that. It’s worth remembering that the image of armed black men made it possible for conservative politicians to support gun control…long ago. In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which repealed open carry in California in 1967. It was directly inspired by the tactics of the Black Panther Party, whose members appear at right on the steps of the Capital building in Sacramento.

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The violent fringe and police violence

The killing of five police officers in Dallas last night isn’t going to do anything to help the ongoing problem of police violence. A Dallas Area Rapid Transit police officer receives comfort at the Baylor University Hospital emergency room entrance Thursday in Dallas. Gunfire erupted during a protest in downtown Dallas over recent fatal shootings by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. [Ting Shen | Dallas Morning News via AP]

The horrific attacks and deaths are shocking: the organized killing of law enforcement officers just doesn’t happen routinely in the United States.

We can mourn these deaths while remembering that it doesn’t take long to count to five when listing the names of black men wrongly killed by police. Alton Stirling (Louisiana) and Philandro Castile (Minnesota) are the two most deaths known nationally–but in every large city activists can quickly reel off a list that’s frighteningly long.

The demonstrations in those large cities over the past two days reflect an increased awareness that the individual police killings of mostly unarmed, mostly young, and mostly black men just aren’t that unusual. (We search for numbers.) Over the past few years activists across the country, often under the broad banner of Black Lives Matter, have worked hard to make sure the incidents of police violence don’t pass unnoticed. National social media networks and local groups are now well-prepared to respond to the next incident, generally with large, peaceful, and forceful demonstrations.

But a few troubled individuals, unconnected to the larger developing movement, have sometimes targeted police; opponents of Black Lives Matter have worked to blame the movement, citing inflammatory rhetoric when they can’t find other other ties. This is a familiar movement story: advocates try to tie their opponents to the most offensive exemplars they can find. The rest of us have to sort out which connections are real.

It would be a tragic and damaging mistake to allow a small band of snipers, apparently with no connection to the larger movement, to discredit Black Lives Matter and its concerns, but both supporters and opponents will try to help us make that mistake. The organized sniping of police isn’t a legitimate and effective response to differential policing; the organized sniping of police isn’t a natural outgrowth of protest to differential policing.

In the next days, it will be easy to lose track of these basic points. Police officers who feel threatened will have their worst fears confirmed. Anti-violence activists will have to confront more public criticism (politically motivated) and warier police. They–and we–will have to work harder to focus on the big picture.

Dallas shootingsAlthough we should be careful about accepting the earliest reports of the demonstrations and the shootings uncritically, but thus far:

It appears that the Dallas police have worked cooperatively with local activists to address the problem of police violence, and worked professionally to protect the demonstrators.

Some activists were legally and openly carrying weapons during the demonstration, which apparently had no effect on promoting or deterring violence.

It appears that the shooters had no connection with the local or national Black Lives Matter movement.

If all this is right, the challenge remaining is to respond to a terrible crime without letting it obscure a much larger set of issues that animated a peaceful demonstration.

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Evaluating the sit-in

The Democrats’ sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives is over–for now, and Protesters gather outside the Capitol during the Democrat sit-in, June 22, 2016. (R. Green/VOA)the House is out of session until after the July 4 holiday. There was, unsurprisingly,  no vote on any gun control measure. And no one thinks that any remotely meaningful gun control measure would pass on the floor anyway.

Speaker Paul Ryan, interviewed after trying to conduct business over chants from his colleagues, explained that the sit-in was a publicity stunt. He was absolutely right.

Here’s how it mattered:

  1. Civil disobedience, including sitting in, is usually thought of as the tool of people who don’t have other ways to make their points politically.  If we all made lists of those without political power, elected members of the House of Representatives wouldn’t come up high on anyone’s. But the chaos on the floor of the House as Speaker Paul Ryan orchestrated a recess over chants underscored both the Democrat’s marginalization in the House and the difficulties Speaker Ryan has with his own caucus.
  2. Mass media responded to the sit-in by talking about guns. CNN’s morning show featured interviews with the parents of victims of mass shootings–which is not routine programming. When protesters get a broader public engaged with their issues, they’re winning.
  3. Mass media responded by talking about Congress and the National Rifle Association.  Vox published a listing of NRA contributions and rankings for every member of the House.  Look up your rep!
  4. The Democratic caucus in Congress has demonstrated some vigor and commitment. Admittedly, it didn’t take the same courage that sitting in required in 1960. A half-century ago John Lewis faced hostile police brandishing clubs, dogs, and firehoses–and counterprotesters determined to do him harm; this time, Senator Elizabeth Warren brought donuts.
  5. By pulling off the sit-in, the Democrats hoped to have enlivened and engaged their base. On rather short notice, activists turned up outside the Capitol in the middle of the night to support the sit-in. Democrats will be organizing and fundraising off the event for the next five months (See Chris Cillizza, a the Washington Post, on this).
  6. Putting an exclamation mark next to gun control should push the issue into the Presidential campaign as well. Strong positions from the candidates can mobilize their bases, who are mostly as committed on the wisdom of various gun control measures as they are to their respective parties. But the rather modest proposals now circulating are likely to appeal to swing voters–if the candidates can find any.
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Prospecting political tactics for gun control


Democratic members of the US House of Representatives sat in on the floor of the House, demanding recorded votes on gun control measures. Rep. John Lewis (Georgia) made the speech that launched the effort, and was framed at the center of most of the photos; after all, he has an unrivaled record for participating in such efforts that dates back to the sit-in movement of 1960.

They’re grandstanding, hoping to the play to the crowd by violating the norms and rules of the House where, under normal circumstances, a member of the minority party can’t do much on matters of policy. Appealing to the public is their best shot to get a vote, but it’s not a very good one; and it’s extremely unlikely that anything gun control advocates in the House want could win majority support in that body. The members sat on the floor in the well of the House, likely the most comfortable surface Rep. Lewis has ever protested on, without much fear of arrest or violence. The presiding officer, always from the majority party, adjourned the session, turning off CSPAN’s cameras–seeking to deny Democrats the audience they seek. But the protesters are livestreaming on a variety of social media. It’s not quite so easy to control the flow of images and information anymore.

The Democratic revolt in the House is yet another response to the mass shooting in Orlando, which once again reminded Americans–and their representatives–that it’s very easy for dangerous people you don’t like to get powerful weapons. The sit-in is also an attempt to escalate the political conflict and make more of the generally fleeting moment of public attention that follows such a tragedy. We’ve all seen it many times before: a mass shooting captures public attention and sets the agenda, but only briefly, and a familiar political ritual plays out: Advocates of gun control hold vigils and make speeches; advocates of gun rights mostly stay silent on matters of policy, and offer thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families. And the moment passes.

In normal political life, when  everyone isn’t talking about guns all the time, the gun rights side of the debate enjoys a substantial advantage, particularly visible in the National Rifle Association, which deploys more money, more active membership, and calls upon more well-positioned allies than its opponents, who come and  go. Gun control advocates have been “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned” (to quote Hamilton).

Since the tragic massacre of school children in Newtown, Connecticut, gun control advocates have been building organizations and  an infrastructure for action. They have been better able to exploit the moment of a massacre, and less willing to allow their opponents to stall until concern passes.

Last week, Senator Chris Murphy, who previously represented Newtown in the House, staged a filibuster Sen. Chris Murphy displays a poster of Newtown shooting victim Dylan Hockley as he comes to the end of his filibuster on the Senate floor early Thursday.of sorts in the Senate, monopolizing the floor while standing, not sitting, and talking about the need for action. In the upper house, a Senator can hold the floor as long as he can stand and talk. Most Democrats, and a couple of Republicans, joined Senator Murphy for part of 15 hours, offering sympathetic questions and taking up some of the talking. The leadership agreed to hold votes on four gun control bills, and Murphy stopped talking. The next day, the Senate rejected all of them.

Movement on policy? Not so much, and not so fast, but all of this sets up further contest in the November elections.

Meanwhile, other advocates are prospecting another strategy that operates with different rules and on an alternative schedule. Parents of some of the massacred students at Sandy Hook Elementary School have filed a product liability suit against Remington Arms, the company the  manufactures and markets the AR-15 Bushmaster, the weapon used in the mass murder. (See Evan Osnos’s report at The New Yorker.) By pursuing their argument about deceptive marketing, they hope to publicize the workings of the arms industry, contributing to a political debate that’s only slowly emerging. America offers many outlets for people to try to organize for change, none of them very easy or fast.

Nothing gun control advocates have tried has affected national policy for more than twenty years. As public concern and political resources grow, however, they keep trying to innovate new approaches, hoping that something works before the next time.

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Coming out in the immigration debate

Valedictorians are rule-followers. They turn their work in on time, and check their spelling, grammar, and references carefully beforehand. They don’t slack off on courses draftthat aren’t interesting or assignments that aren’t important. It’s hard to stay focused all the time, and do it better than anyone else around you. (I imagine; I didn’t come close to delivering that valedictory address as a high school student.) They take everything seriously. We’re impressed with their achievements and their discipline.

That’s why we pay attention when such hyperachievers make waves, as two brave young women did in Texas last week. Mayte Lara Ibarra, valedictorian at David Crockett High School in Austin, tweeted her impressive academic accomplishments after her speech, and revealed that she was an undocumented immigrant. On the same day, Larissa Martinez announced her undocumented status in her valedictory address at the McKinney Boyd high school.

Valedictorians aren’t usually risk takers, and most of their speeches are memorable only to their families. Ms. Ibarra and Ms. Martinez decided to use their moments to make a larger point about a toxic political debate about immigration in which some partisans focus on the few undocumented immigrants responsible for heinous crimes. The true story: a group of some 11 million people will include both achievers and delinquents, but the latter don’t get to keep their status secret. The valedictorians, who didn’t have to disclose, came out about their status to show a fuller picture of America’s immigrants, documented and otherwise. These young women excelled in EVERYTHING in high school; the smart money says that they’re going to continue to excel at the University of Texas and Yale University, respectively, and to make good use of every opportunity they’re given.

President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals made it a little bit safer for these young women than for other undocumented youth who came out over the past 5-6 years, including journalists, students, and civil disobedients pressing for immigration reform. All, however, have been working to push the public debate, offering to serve as poster children for the cause.

And the risk hasn’t disappeared. Thus far, Ms. Ibarra and Ms. Martinez have encountered the toxic sludge of a social media dump, which seems a little less scary until you recall that a) they’re high school girls, and b) on odd occasions, tweeters and trolls are capable of violence in real life. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that a few people on their campuses next fall could work to make their lives miserable. They didn’t have to disclose, and they took serious risks in doing so.

Here, we’ve noted the way coming out works for campaigns about other issues as well, including LGBT activists and people suffering with mental illness. By coming out, these people work to destigmatize an identity or status, and move the political debate. Importantly, even after much progress, risk remains, as the events of the past week in Orlando tragically demonstrated.

Mayte Lara Ibarra and Larissa Martinez left high school and entered the political debate, a move that entails risk and displays considerable courage. They’ve learned enough to know that’s how the world changes.


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Meat as a weapon

Today’s bizarre headline: Georgian nationalists attack a vegan cafe in Tbilisi, armed with sausaKiwi Cafe is a counterculture-style gathering place that opened in Tbilisi about a year ago. It is popular with foreigners and employs foreign, English-speaking staff as well as Georgians.ge.*

Read below the headline, and reports describe a protein-filled assault on the Kiwi Cafe, as protesters rained grilled meat and fish upon diners, then lit up post-meal cigarettes.

The Image result for wordgirl, the butchermode of attack recalls The Butcher, one of the villains tormenting Wordgirl in her quest to spread civility and erudition. Not much on symbolism, The Butcher deploys a flood of sausage and chops to bury Wordgirl–although, this being PBS, the hero always wins.

Reports from Tbilisi, however, suggest that the protesters were griping about more than the standard restaurant policy requiring diners to buy rather than bring their own food. Apparently the cafe had become a congenial hangout for denizens of a Georgian counterculture, including LGBT people. Throwing meat was an assertion of some vision of a traditional Georgia culture, intended to create discomfort and provoke confrontation. But the protesters left the meal early, before police arrived.

The protest in Georgia using food to isolate and stigmatize opponents is, alas, not an isolated incident. Most recently, local governments controlled by the National Front in France have mandated that the meals they serve school children will include pork, explicitly forbidding accommodations for Muslims or Jews–or, presumably, vegans. The meals served are far more sophisticated and substantial than in American public schools, and the French lunch ladies emphasize that they won’t force children to eat food they don’t like. The point the National Front is making, however, is that those who won’t adopt its vision of French culture don’t belong in France. Focusing on school lunches is harsh and cruel and makes exactly the politics and images that the party wants.

It’s also not new: More than a decade ago, nationalists began  serving “identity soup“–with red wine–to all comers on the streets of Paris. The stew, larded with every conceivable part of the pig, promoted as a gesture of generosity and welcome, was exactly the opposite. Prohibited by French laws that ban activity that incite racial hatred, the disobedient demonstration surrounding the cauldron was all about showing who wasn’t welcome. “We are all pig eaters,” the diners chanted, between slurps of stew.

Deploying a cuisine is a way of asserting and imposing identity, and provoking reactions and conflict. Again, this is nothing new. Before the miracle of oil lasting eight days, the Chanukah story begins with Antiochus, a Hellenistic king of the Eleucid Empire, ordering pigs to be sacrificed–and eaten–on the steps of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. More than 2,000 years later, observant Jews at Christmastime celebrate the successful rebellion of religious zealots by lighting candles, spinning dreidels, and eating fried food–and no pork.


*Thanks to Erin Evans for the tip.

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Coming out on mental illness

Kristen Bell is my new hero. And it’s not just her charming rendition of “Love is an Open Door” as a Disney princess in Frozen (in duet with Santino Fontana). In an interview released last week, Bell acknowledged her long term efforts to manage anxiety and depression, including the effective use of medication since she was a teen.

Bell is clear, composed, and very sharp in explaining how important it is to challenge the stigma that comes with mental illness. Coming out is a powerful way to do so, but it’s also risky. As an actor with a star profile, she commands high fees and is expected to carry big budget films. Producers wary about their investments can always think now about someone else. But acknowledging risk is part of coming out. In this way, she is just like those brave undocumented youth, gays and lesbians, and many others who challenge stigma head-on. Her celebrity and her candor makes it at least a little easier for the next person as well.

Surely, there couldn’t be a much smaller share of mentally ill people in Hollywood than elsewhere in American life. Indeed, a growing tranche of journalism is devoted to documenting the crazy stuff tha635720452396985694-Screen-Shot-2015-07-09-at-1.26.56-PMt celebrities do. But more typically, that’s troublesome behavior: substance abuse, tantrums, and acting out–on and off set. You’d think those things would make it harder to get hired.

Kristen Bell, deliberately or not, is part of a larger effort to destigmatize mental illness. Less famous folks have taken on displaying a semicolon, often tattooed, to make the same point (comma underneath): that mental illness is more common and more treatable than we think. Organized by Project Semicolon, the idea is to show people struggling with mental illness that they are not alone–and to show the rest of the world that they need not be ashamed.

Kristen Bell isn’t the only well-known actor to choose to reveal her struggle–and success. Wil Wheaton, best known as a teen actor on Star Trek: The Next Generation, has been admirably candid on his blog for years. I think he first came out in 2012:

I haven’t ever talked about this in public, but today’s a good day to start.

I haven’t ever felt suicidal, but I do have Depression and Anxiety. I suffered for no good reason for decades, until I couldn’t reconcile my awesome life with feeling terrible all the time. Talking therapy wasn’t ever enough for me, and I was very resistant to medication, because I believed (and continue to believe) that we are an over-medicated culture.

But, still, I wouldn’t just sit around and suffer if I had a treatable non-mental Me, cosplaying as an adult who knows exactly what you're up to.illness, so I went to a doctor, and I got better. Now, I take some medication every morning, and it has made all the difference in my life….

So, please, if you or someone you know suffer from Depression — with or without thoughts of suicide — please talk to someone, and get help from a doctor. As Jenny says, Depression lies, and you don’t need to let it control your life.

Both Kristen Bell and Wil Wheaton are coming out to make it easier for others.

But however much risk they took on in going public, one place even worse than Hollywood is high school.  Two years ago, 

Again, the message was clear and smart and sharp and the messengers courageous. I haven’t heard them sing or watch them act, but I admire them even more than I do Kristen Bell and Wil Wheaton. If they’re all successful, one day it won’t take courage to come out.

Is mental health awareness a movement? Battling stigma and exposing a problem is surely a start. But there’s also policy work to be done. Although federal law now compels health insurers to cover mental illness comparably to physical illness, no one even pretends that this is actually the case. And while the crusaders in this post had not only the conviction, but also the resources, to get effective treatment, many many people are left behind.

Coming out, often the culmination of a long process for an individual, is the first step of a political movement.



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