criminal justice, politics

Black Lives Matter


Last July I went to a local Black Lives Matter vigil.  It had been a hard week.  A really hard and depressing week.  Videos on successive days showed two different black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, dying at the hands of police officers.  Then, when tensions were already high, almost to the breaking point, a peaceful protest in Dallas was interrupted by gunfire as a disgruntled man targeted the police officers who facilitated the protest.  He killed five officers and injured more.  All of these deaths were awful.

The vigil I attended was a way for the community here in Sioux Falls to stand in solidarity with other affected communities.  Sioux Falls is a predominantly white city.  In 2010 our population was nearly 87% white (compared to the U.S. as a whole, which in 2010 was 72% white), but it’s becoming less white, just as the rest of the U.S. is becoming less white.

I had decided that I wanted to participate in the vigil because I wanted to mourn with those who mourn, and because I wanted to affirm the worth and value of black lives in my community and in my country.

The plan was to march to the County Administration building.  We met several blocks away on an empty lot next to what passes for a major artery through town.  I saw a few friends milling around, and I was relieved to see the familiar faces. There was a local TV news crew and a reporter or two, interviewing the organizers of the march. I had forgotten to bring a sign.

The organizer gathered everyone around and then she read the last words of black people killed by police plus their names and age at death.  (You can find these and others using #lastwords).

“I can’t breathe.  Eric Garner, 43”

“I don’t have a gun.  Stop shooting.  Michael Brown, 18.”

“Mom, I’m going to college. Amadou Diallo, 23.”

And on and on.  So many names.  So many last words.

[The original version of this post included Trayvon Martin in the list of last words.  Martin was not shot by police, of course, but by George Zimmerman, a civilian who felt empowered by the Stand Your Ground law in Florida.  I included Martin because his case was so prominent, and because his death was so tragic.  I didn’t mean to imply that he had been killed by police.  I regret the error.]

Then we started to march.

We chanted “Black lives matter!” as we walked to the county building.  Yelling in public is not really my thing.  In fact, public demonstrations of emotion of any kind aren’t really my thing.  I’m more of a homebody.  I like to stay at home and read a book or watch Netflix.

But I was there to march.  And I was there to chant.  So I yelled along with everyone else.  I wanted my voice to join with the chorus.  I wanted everybody there to hear me voicing my solidarity.  I wanted to be a part of the vigil.  And I wanted the other marchers, especially the living, breathing, black lives there to know that I was standing with them.

Near the county building, police officers stopped traffic so that the marchers could cross a busy street to get to the parking lot.  I noticed one officer was smiling and shaking hands with everyone who passed him.  I gladly shook his hand.  The officer next to him wasn’t smiling, but he had been persuaded to shake the hand of someone in front of me.  I stuck out my hand, and though he didn’t notice it immediately, he then shook my hand.  I’m not against police.  They have an extremely difficult job.  If I can help build bridges, that’s what I would like to do.

At the county building, the space was given for anyone to share grief, pain, anger, sadness, or whatever.  Many people came to the front to talk, sharing impromptu thoughts and feelings.  I knew I wouldn’t go up to say anything.  I was there to listen and just be.

There were lots of black and white people there, and at least one Native American guy.  Some pastors from several different churches and denominations got up and prayed.  One memorable guy spoke about Martin Luther King and why we can’t wait for justice.  Someone read, “First they came for the socialists, then they came for…” to illustrate how glad she was that people were there who aren’t black, that they would stand with their black brothers and sisters.  I was glad to think that my presence might be an encouragement to her.

A few white people went up and said unfortunate things about how all lives matter and we shouldn’t focus on race.  I could tell that they meant well, truly, and I felt pretty awkward for them.  They wanted to say something positive, but didn’t know how to put it.

What does black lives matter even mean, and why is it insufficient to say all lives matter?  Many others have explained it better, but for me, when I say black lives matter, it boils down to expressing concern and support for those who don’t feel like society values them as much as everyone else.  When they see that black people are more likely to be killed by police, when they see that black people are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, when they see discrimination against black people in housing or employment or in the classroom, when they see black people’s voting rights attacked, and when they see large portions of the country question whether the first black president was even born in America or if he is patriotic and loves his country, they can be forgiven for thinking that their lives don’t matter as much as others do.  It’s not that other lives don’t matter because it’s not a zero sum game.  If I affirm that black lives matter, it doesn’t mean that other lives matter less.  No, what it means is that black lives matter, too.  Black lives matter just like other lives matter.  Even if they are oppressed and killed, their lives still matter.

So what’s wrong with saying that all lives matter then?  The reason it’s an unhelpful response to someone who says black lives matter is that it is beside the point.  It’s not addressing the problems that lead one to feel the need to say that black lives matter, too.  In fact it treats those problems as if they don’t really exist.  Think of it like this, if I broke my arm and went to the emergency room, I’d want them to splint my forearm and come up with a plan to fix it.  But if the doctor listened to my tale of woe about my broken arm and responded, “All bones matter,” and then sent me on my way without even looking at my arm, I’d feel like the doctor wasn’t listening to me and my pain.  In fact, I’d think the doctor didn’t actually want to help me get better because he couldn’t even acknowledge the problem by looking at my arm.  That’s what “All lives matters,” sounds like.

A while back I wrote a post about a time a few years ago when I got pulled over.  I wasn’t worried about the situation escalating, and I wasn’t fearful for my life.  A few months after that post I got pulled over again on the way to pick up my son from kindergarten.  Again it was for having an expired registration.  I had mailed in my money for new stickers to put on my license plate, but they hadn’t arrived yet.  The officer told me that I should have used the kiosk to get my stickers instantly (note to Sioux Falls residents, use the kiosks!).  He was very nice about it, but he still gave me a provisional ticket.  When my registration arrived a few days later, I drove downtown to the station and provided proof and my ticket was nullified.  A dozen years ago when I was in graduate school I was pulled over for speeding, but the state trooper let me go with a warning.  Those are the only times I’ve been pulled over by law enforcement that I can remember.  Three times in over twenty years of driving.

Now think about Philando Castile, the black man who was shot during a traffic stop that July week, a man who worked for years for the St. Paul school district in the lunch rooms.  According to NPR, Castile was pulled over at least 46 times in a 14 year period between July 2002 and July 2016.  I can’t imagine facing that kind of scrutiny as a driver.  I would be worried whenever I got in the car to drive anywhere.

Now think about the situations in Ferguson and Baltimore.  There were riots in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown and in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.  But the riots weren’t really about those deaths.  Or I should say they weren’t merely about those deaths.  Their deaths were a catalyst.  The killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were the lit fuse, but the powder kegs were already there.  In the case of Ferguson, which is one of the municipalities in St. Louis County, there was a large measure of distrust of the police force.  And for very good reason.

After Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, the Justice Department looked into the matter of his death and at the Ferguson Police Department as a whole.  The result of the first investigation was that they “determined that the evidence does not establish that Darren Wilson violated the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute” beyond a reasonable doubt.  The results of the other investigation were much more troubling.  The DOJ found that the Ferguson Police were racially biased against African Americans, made illegal stops and arrests, and focused on generating revenue over public safety.  Read that last part again: the police and courts in Ferguson were focused on giving out tickets and fines so they could raise revenue for the local government at the expense of keeping the public safe, which is their whole reason for being.  As others have put it, they treated the citizens of their municipality like an ATM.  Check out the summary by the Justice Department for yourself:

“The department found that the FPD has a pattern or practice of:

Conducting stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment;

Interfering with the right to free expression in violation of the First Amendment; and

Using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The department found that Ferguson Municipal Court has a pattern or practice of:

Focusing on revenue over public safety, leading to court practices that violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.

Court practices exacerbating the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices and imposing particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.

The department found a pattern or practice of racial bias in both the FPD and municipal court:

The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans and that this disproportionate impact is avoidable.

Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials.”

The problem wasn’t limited to Ferguson, but occurred in many of the other municipalities of St. Louis County.  St. Louis County has 90 small municipalities, most of which have their own police force, city government, and municipal court.  Those police, government, and court officers need to be funded.  Many of those towns use tickets and fines as a source of funding.  The police departments and the courts are often staffed with people from other, wealthier towns, so they do not understand the people they are supposed to be protecting and judging.

The situation in Baltimore before the death of Freddie Gray was also bleak.  For years the Baltimore police also had a pattern of violating the Constitution and discriminating against black people.  The report put it this way:

“BPD makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression.  The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies that have persisted within BPD for many years and has exacerbated community distrust of the police, particularly in the African-American community.”

If you have doubts about the situations in these communities, please, please read the links I have provided to the Justice Department report summaries about Ferguson and Baltimore.  Read the whole reports. It’s impossible to understand the situation in these places without that knowledge of how police had mistreated the black people in their community.  That doesn’t condone violence by the protesters.  I’m not asking you to say that violence is okay.  But it does help us understand what they are protesting; it helps us understand why they feel like they have no voice and no power.  Then maybe we can think about how we would feel and what we would do in similar circumstances.

Imagine that you’ve received a parking ticket, or gotten pulled over for an expired registration like I have been, and then because you live paycheck to paycheck (as so many people do) that led to a downward spiral of court dates, late fees, and arrest warrants.  The original ticket was too much to pay, but you couldn’t get off work to fight it in court either.  The outrageously high late fees add to the amount that you can’t afford.  Finally the court issues a warrant for all the money you now owe, all because you forgot to get your new registration on time.  How would you feel towards cops?  How would you feel towards the courts?

Imagine that a friend of yours was arrested, and then on the ride back to the station he mysteriously died from a broken spinal cord like Freddie Gray did.  How much would you trust the police after that?

In the fall during the presidential campaign, after the high profile shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, then Indiana Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence (and current Vice President) said, “we ought to set aside this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias.”  There is clear evidence of institutional racism and institutional bias in the police departments of Ferguson and Baltimore, but Pence would prefer we not talk about it.  He thinks we should sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist.  In effect, he is saying that black lives don’t matter as much as other lives.

Earlier today, recently confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, head of the Justice Department, admitted that he hadn’t read the full Justice Department reports on Ferguson and Chicago (and presumably Baltimore, too).  He found the summaries “too anecdotal” so he dismissed them.  Contrary to Sessions’s blithe description, the Ferguson report was based on interviews with city officials and half the police department; data analysis of stops, citations, and arrests; review of police records and emails; observations of the municipal court; etc.  It is not merely a few anecdotes of bad behavior.  The problems in Ferguson were system wide.  But the new Attorney General would rather not read the whole report.  He’s not going to bother.  He’s also effectively saying that black lives don’t matter as much as other lives.

So here’s what I mean when I say Black Lives Matter.  I mean that it’s a travesty that black people are killed by police at a higher rate than white people.  I mean that it’s unjust that black people are over-represented in arrests for drug crimes when they use drugs at similar rates as whites.  I mean that it’s sick that municipal governments could act like shake down artists to their residents.  I mean that black lives matter as much as my own life or anyone else’s life.

So I will join with others who say it because it needs to be said until it becomes a reality.

Black Lives Matter.

book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, November 2015

November’s books are a varied lot, but they were all pretty great (with one notable exception–I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker).  You might find something you like.

  • NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman is a comprehensive and important history of autism.  He details how two researchers, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore, both discovered autism around the same time in the late 1930s, but came to radically different conclusions based on their observations.  Kanner viewed autism as a rare condition with a strict set of “fascinating peculiarities.”  Asperger, working under the shadow of the Third Reich, however saw it as “not at all rare” and as a continuum, but his work remained untranslated from the German for decades.  It wasn’t until Asperger’s views were rediscovered and disseminated in the 1980s by like-minded psychologists such as Lorna Wing and Uta Frith that views began to shift.  In the meantime, Kanner’s narrow view of autism meant that few got a diagnosis and the help that they needed, and of those that did, he proposed theories (popularized by Bruno Bettelheim) that parents were to blame, especially “refrigerator mothers.”  The continuum model, or spectrum as it is now called, finally took hold in the DSM-III-R of 1987.  One of Silberman’s chapters details the fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it relates to autism, and how with the inclusion of Asperger’s syndrome in DSM-IV in1994, the way was paved for many more individuals to get a diagnosis.  It is this new understanding of autism that has led to the “epidemic” of diagnoses in the last 20-30 years.  Autism has always been there, but now there is a label to attach to it.  Silberman slaps down the study by Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a link between vaccines and autism, showing how the study was seriously flawed in many respects and was later retracted by the journal that originally published it.  There were many other chapters that focused on different aspects of autism besides the clinical and diagnostic side.  One focused on the impact of the film Rain Man, which was a favorite of mine in high school (not sure how it holds up as it’s been a long time since I saw it).  Another detailed the connections between autism and ham radio and science fiction fandom.  Others chronicled how families cope with autism and how the autism community has begun to define itself.  Overall, it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in autism.
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.  The main narrative concerns Walter McMillian, a man wrongly sent to death row in Alabama for a murder he had nothing to do with.  The twists and turns in the case as they try to appeal his conviction against a hostile prosecutor and law enforcement officers and indifferent courts read like a John Grisham novel (Grisham himself gives the book a positive blurb).  I could barely put it down.  The structure of the book aided this quality: he interspersed the chapters on the McMillian case with chapters on other topics including juveniles tried as adults, mothers in prison, and the mentally ill, so the reader can’t stop.  The stories are forceful and worthy of indignation.  Ultimately, Stevenson has compiled a moral argument for criminal justice reform that is a perfect complement to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Adam Benforado’s Unfair (both of which I reviewed in May and mentioned before).  He provides the emotional heart of the argument in the stories of the imprisoned that the others make in detailed analysis of case law or social science research.  What is the point of our criminal justice system anyway?  Stevenson points out how inhumane it has become as we have overseen the era of mass incarceration: “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken” (290).  I can’t recommend this book enough.
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is an important book of essays dealing with big topics like democracy, human nature, and the difficulty of history.  It’s not nearly as daunting as that sounds, but it is a bit daunting.  First, she knows a lot about history and literature.  Second, she doesn’t write down to her audience.  It’s not that she is showing off, but she packs so much into her analyses and probing that it sometimes does take a moment to soak it all in. Robinson has a style that meanders in a pleasant way, touching on matters that don’t always appear at first to be on topic, but that she brings around to great effect.  There are many passages I marked because they were so powerful.  For example, when talking about the Homestead Act, she points out that “housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together make the world salubrious, savory, and warm.  I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental” (93).  Or when discussing a number of books that attempt to debunk the Bible, especially the Old Testament for its violence, she proceeds to show how the Torah is heavily interested in the care of the poor, listing many laws that command making provision for those in need.  It’s a rich book, well worth the time and worth rereading.  I had the opportunity to meet Robinson once at a wine and cheese gathering before a reading.  She read from her then forthcoming novel Gilead, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  At the time, I had only read one of her books, a different book of essays, but when I had a chance to shake her hand, I told her that I thought she wrote beautifully and that I planned on reading everything that she had written.  I’m still working on that project, and I’m the better for it.
  • My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner is a startling and poetic memoir of an Iraq War veteran.  The book is divided into short, numbered sections, and it’s not surprising that some of them read like brief poems since Turner has written two well received books of poetry before this memoir.  To give an idea of what I’m talking about here’s the closing paragraph of an early section where he describes his time in Bosnia, where he was also deployed:  “Fires burned in Mostar and Visegrad, Gradacac, Gorazde and Sarajevo.  Season by season, the dead sank deeper into the soil—each enduring the severe and exacting labor of leaves and rain and sun in their compression of mineral and stone, there within the worm-driven kingdom of hunger, phyla of the blind.” (32)A later section about a house raid in Iraq begins with “The soldiers enter the house” and repeats the phrase like a refrain over and over, each time with a different description of how they enter the house (e.g. “with shouting and curses and muzzle flash” or “with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms”) (The entire section can be read at this link; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it; it’s worth your time).  I had the opportunity to hear Turner give a reading last month, and he chose this passage from the book.  It’s the centerpiece to the book, a moving description that humanizes the soldiers bursting into the home as well as the Iraqis who are disrupted and traumatized.  The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Turner to play around with memory and time.  Memory often works likes this, brief glimpses of the past disconnected from what came before, a moment captured, but then sometimes intertwined with an image or a person or a feeling to some other moment, leading to another glimpse.  One of the themes of the book is the legacy that Turner feels as he tries to explain why he joined the Army.  He recounts the war experiences of many relatives, including his father and grandfather, and the bonds that are forged by that experience and how it never leaves a person.  In fact, another part of the book explores how anyone can come back from a war zone and try to re-integrate into civilian life.  He describes himself as two persons, one Sgt. Turner who, although dead, still watches the other, civilian Brian Turner, from the cameras of a drone.  It’s a remarkably potent image of the nature of identity integration and the trauma of war as it is carried out in the 21st century.  I began reading the book on Veteran’s Day because I felt that I need to grapple with the experiences of our soldiers and the costs of our country’s decisions to go to war, even when I didn’t agree with the reasons for going to war.  Those men and women went on my behalf whether I asked them to or not.  Turner’s story is only one soldier’s story, but it’s worth knowing when it’s told this well.  [Here’s a great interview with Turner as well]
  • Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, written by Jason Aaron with artist John Cassaday, is essentially a placeholder comic, not really worth the time.  I was pretty disappointed at how predictable it all was: the first arc especially is simply another small band of heroes infiltrating an enemy base.  Set between the first two movies (Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), it is very constrained in what it can do in terms of story and character development.  These first six issues of the comic feature only familiar characters from the movies (with one notable exception at the very end of the collection).  For what it is, a retread of familiar characters in familiar situations, it actually is well done.  Aaron has the voices of the characters down, and the art by Cassaday is top notch, reproducing the facial expressions of the actors with real skill.  But I expected much more from these two creators who have written or provided art for some of my favorite comics (e.g. Aaron’s writing on Scalped and Cassaday’s art for Planetary and Astonishing X-Men).  I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you absolutely cannot wait until the new Star Wars movies come out, and you can read it for free (like I did, from the library).
  • Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok is another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.  Davita’s Harp is the only one of Potok’s novels with a female protagonist.  Davita herself tells the story of her childhood, growing up in New York City during the Great Depression.  Her mother is a Jewish immigrant, but not religiously observant, and her father is from New England privilege, but has renounced the wealth that he came from.  They are Communists (when that wasn’t quite as unfashionable as it would be today) with hopes and beliefs about making the world a better place.  Her father is a journalist who travels a lot to cover strikes and other important events, eventually traveling to Europe to cover the Spanish civil war in 1937.  Her mother is a social worker and very active in the party.  Davita never quite understands her parents and their beliefs, but she loves them dearly and respects their desire to make the world better.  She wants to understand how they changed so profoundly: her mother had been brought up in a Hasidic family (a very strict Jewish sect) but had lost her faith, and her father had renounced capitalism and his wealthy heritage because of some event in his past.  It’s all quite mysterious to Davita.  As she grows, she learns more about her parents and about her place in the world, both as a girl and the daughter of Communists.  There’s a lot of connections to the history of the period, to Jewish identity, and even to characters from other Potok novels, though it’s not necessary to read the other books to find pleasure in this one.  I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and I’m glad that it wasn’t another story about fathers and sons like so many of his others (though I liked those a lot, too).
book reviews, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, May 2015

The May installment of mini book reviews has the two books I referenced in my last post about criminal justice, as well as two very different novels set during World War II, and another book on creation and evolution because I can’t stop reading about the topic.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.  It started with calls for a return to “law and order” during the tumultuous 1960s, then with Nixon calling for a “war on drugs” that didn’t really come to fruition until Reagan’s administration.  Reagan truly initiated the Drug War early in his time in office by dramatically increasing anti-drug budgets.  Interestingly, at the time he called for a War on Drugs in October of 1982, only 2% of the country thought drugs were the most important issue facing the country.  Things didn’t get better under Clinton in the 1990s.  He enacted many “tough on crime” policies such as 3-strike life sentences for certain crimes.  His administration cut public housing at the same time it was increasing money for corrections.  In Alexander’s telling, no one is blameless for the current predicament of mass incarceration.  After detailing the history, Alexander shows how police have virtually no legal restraints in carrying out the drug war.  Because there are few, if any constraints, the seemingly race neutral drug war ends up targeting and incarcerating people of color disproportionately, especially in light of the fact that whites and people of color use drugs at similar rates.  Even after someone has served a sentence for a drug crime, the system isn’t done with them yet.  Policies that control ex-prisoners make it difficult to truly re-integrate into society, often leading to second class status or, even worse, recidivism.  In order to end mass incarceration as a caste system, it is not enough to point out that drug use is a public health problem and not a criminal one.  Alexander argues that the racial component of mass incarceration has to be confronted head on.  If it is not, then even if mass incarceration is ended, another racialized caste system will emerge just as Jim Crow followed slavery, and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow.  I would highly recommend this book.
  • Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is a critical examination of the American criminal justice system.  And it is vitally important that we look at it.  Benforado details the many, many ways that the criminal justice system does not, in fact, deliver justice.  The structure of the book, from investigation to adjudication to punishment, allows him to show how things can go wrong each step of the way.  Along the way he points out the relevant social science research that helps to explain how these mistakes can be made.  For instance, some innocent people confess to crimes that they didn’t commit in order to make a grueling interrogation stop.  Or they might take a plea deal if they’re led to believe that a trial will not show their innocence.  Astoundingly, over 90 percent of those charged with a crime and offered a plea take it without a trial.  During a trial, it can be hard to determine guilt or innocence when prosecutors withhold evidence or a jury inaccurately rates a witness trustworthy or not.  Or take an eyewitness’s evidence: people’s memories can be notoriously unreliable when looking at a lineup or recalling the circumstances of a crime.  Memories can be easily corrupted or altered or even fabricated without the eyewitness realizing he or she is doing it.  And the impartial judge who oversees the proceedings of a trial may not be as objective as we would like to believe.  Of course everyone has biases, but it’s amazing how something like the time of day can affect someone.  In studies, judges are more lenient earlier in the day, but they are much harsher before lunch or at the end of the day.  How is that fair?  When it comes to punishment, Benforado puts forth the scientific evidence that “it is a desire for retribution—not deterrence or incapacitation—that has the strongest influence” (191).  This type of punishment leads to mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, life without parole, and the death penalty, which don’t work to actually deter crime.  Once in prison, it’s hard not to become “institutionalized” or broken as a person (whether by solitary confinement or the threat of rape and violence), so it’s not surprising that so many prisoners cannot re-integrate into society after serving time.  Benforado offers a smattering of possible reforms big and small that could get us closer to true justice.  One of the best suggestions, I thought, was the virtual courtroom.  It would remove obvious problems like being “swayed by the attractiveness of a witness” (266) or thinking a nervous witness is lying when they are merely nervous at speaking in public (we are not good at detecting whether people are lying or not, though we think we are).  My only real complaint with the book is that it sometimes reads too easily.  Benforado presents historical cases or the social science research so smoothly and convincingly (similarly to Malcolm Gladwell) that I was almost entertained by the story he was telling or the research findings he was presenting, when I really should be outraged.  It’s not that I wasn’t ultimately outraged, but maybe the pill should stick in the throat more rather than go down so easily. Despite that slight, and possibly idiosyncratic, complaint, I would highly recommend this book to everyone.  [Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof from the publisher via a giveaway in the hopes that I would give an honest review of the book.]
  • The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard by Patrick Hicks is a novel of witness and remembrance.  It’s an unflinching account of the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp told in a documentary style.  I’ll admit that I mistakenly thought it was going to be told more from the point of view of the title character (though the back cover and the blurbs are quite clear about the documentary nature of the story).  A story told from the POV of the Commandant would have been contrary to the spirit of the novel.  Rather, the narrator refers repeatedly to the absences and the missing, to the thousands killed on a daily basis, about which “traditional modes of storytelling fail us” because “the darkness itself is the story.”  It’s powerful.  And haunting.  The fictional camp of Lubizec is modeled on real camps like Treblinka.  In high school I read Jean-Francois Steiner’s account of Treblinka and the revolt by the prisoners there.  Something similar happens in this novel, but the narrator reminds us that this is not an adventure story, it is rebellion against the killings.  And though this is not a character study of the Commandant, it does in its own way try to humanize him by detailing his family life outside of the camp.  He is truly a bifurcated individual, a loving father at home and a cold, unfeeling engineer of murder at the camp.  His two selves seem impossible to reconcile.  Near the end of the novel, he even refers to himself in the third person when trying to explain his actions during the war.  I would highly recommend this book to everyone wanting to understand the Holocaust better.  [Disclosure: I am acquaintances with Patrick Hicks; he teaches literature and writing at the same college where my wife teaches.]
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff is a marvelous adventure story set during World War II during the siege of Leningrad.  The narrator, Lev Beniov (in the conceit of the novel this is the author’s grandfather telling him the story), along with Kolya, a deserter from the Army, must find a dozen eggs for an important Colonel, so that his daughter can have a wedding cake.  The city is surrounded by the German army, and the people are starving during the winter months.  It simultaneously has the quality of a fairy tale where the heroes have to accomplish an impossible task while also being a coming of age story for the 17 year old narrator.  During their search, the two young men encounter the many brutalities of the war, but there is also a lot of humor in the story, especially the way Lev and Kolya interact.  Kolya treats Lev like a younger brother whom he can teach about the ways of the world and women.  Like any quest narrative, it hits the right notes with twists and obstacles to keep our heroes from their objective, while also subverting some of our expectations along the way.  It was a very satisfying read.  As it was primarily a guy book, I would recommend it as that, though noting that anyone could enjoy it.
  • Evolution from Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence by Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett is a useful book on the topic of theistic evolution.  The two authors (one a theologian, the other a scientist) offer a helpful guide to the landscape of Christian approaches to origins.  They critique the young earth creationist and the intelligent design positions, but in the most fair and serious way I’ve ever seen.  They treat those who hold those positions with the utmost respect as fellow Christians (it’s a marked contrast to books I’ve read by Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller).  Curiously, they don’t spend any time with old earth/progressive creationists.  The best part of the book is where they detail the spectrum of beliefs in the theistic evolution camp.  They analyze various thinkers in five areas: (1) deep time, (2) natural selection, (3) common descent, (4) divine action, and (5) theodicy (i.e. an attempt to answer why a good God would allow evil and suffering).  Afterwards, they present their own model that avoids some of the pitfalls they see in the other positions.  For example, most of the other thinkers used some version of the free will defense to answer how God could allow evil.  The problem they see with a free will defense is that it requires God to relinquish interacting with creation, which then makes evolutionary processes random and purposeless.  Most theists would like to avoid that conclusion.  Their approach is novel, by contrast, but it too is rather unsatisfying.  They view creation as both an initial point in time (creatio ex nihilo) as well as an ongoing process (creatio continua) that is not yet complete until it can be redeemed as a “new creation.”  In their reading, the “very good” declaration of Genesis is from the standpoint of the new creation, looking back on the whole history of creation (seems like a stretch).  They admit that they, like Job, don’t know why suffering and death are part of the creation at this time.  So, it’s still a mystery.  Regardless, the book is a handy reference for the various positions within theistic evolution.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the debate on creation and evolution.
criminal justice, personal

Criminal Injustice

A few years ago I got pulled over and received a ticket.

I became nervous when I noticed that the police car had started following me.  I tensed up and kept my hands on the wheel at ten and two.  I made sure I didn’t go over the posted limit.  I was in the van with my kids, heading to the mall so they could play indoors during the cold weather.  Soon after I turned onto the ramp for the expressway, the patrol car lights came on.  I muttered under my breath.  Immediately I pulled over to the shoulder and waited for the officer to tell me what I had done wrong.  It turned out my registration had expired.  The officer had noticed I didn’t have an updated sticker on my license plate.  We had moved a few months earlier, and I had neglected to inform the DMV of our new address.  Consequently, I didn’t receive a reminder to renew, and I didn’t remember all on my own.  Of course as luck would have it, my insurance card was also expired (though our insurance was paid up, I had also neglected to print out an updated card).

However, I wasn’t worried that our vehicle would be searched.  I wasn’t worried that the officer would presume I had drugs or a weapon, or even a criminal record.  I wasn’t worried about being arrested.  I wasn’t worried that our interaction would escalate.  I wasn’t worried about getting killed.

And while I was nervous during my interactions with the officer, it was only because of my personality.  I don’t like to get in trouble with authority figures (just ask my wife).  But I wasn’t nervous about my safety or my rights as a citizen.  I’m a white male, and those aren’t things I have to fear when interacting with the police.

I politely received my citation and that was that.  I continued on my way to the mall.

I’m not writing about this incident in order to talk about whether cops are good or bad.  That’s not the point.

Rather, my ability to take my safety for granted in an interaction with the police when racial minorities, especially African Americans, cannot is a symptom that something is wrong with our criminal justice system.  By now, the statistics may be familiar to you (And they are not under dispute.  A quick Google search led me to a NAACP fact sheet and a list of facts from Alex Jones’s InfoWars, hardly ideological companions, that agreed across the board on the situation).

  • The U.S. has 25% of the total prison population of the world, despite only having 5% of the total population. That means that the U.S. has more prisoners than either Russia or Cuba.  [Check out these graphics on Vice News that help put it into perspective]  Most individual states, including my own South Dakota, have higher incarceration rates than any other country in the world.
  • The U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980. The violent crime rate increased from the 1960s until its peak in 1991, but has decreased steadily since then.
  • The incarceration rate for African Americans is close to six times the rate for white people. African Americans and Hispanics constitute well more than half the prison population, even though they are only a quarter of the general population.

Recently I finished reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado and my eyes opened a little wider to the problems with how we in America treat criminals and dispense justice.  Originally I was planning on writing a long post synthesizing all of the things I had learned about the criminal justice system from these two books (and some other sources), but it’s too much.  Now I’m planning on breaking down my thoughts into more manageable chunks and writing separate posts on the many topics involved, such as the nature of punishment (including capital punishment), racial bias, felon disenfranchisement, manipulation of witnesses and memory, among others.  So consider this part one of a series of posts in the coming weeks, months, and years, concerning what I’m learning about criminal justice.