Normative Narratives


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Aftermath of The Baltimore Riots: Justice is Blind, Economics is Not

RIP Freddy Gray. Just 25 years old, a young man’s life was tragically cut short. We cannot let the ensuing chaos detract from this ultimate injustice.

I have seen people on social media try to justify what happened to Mr. Gray by bringing up his criminal history. Not only is his rap-sheet immaterial to his death, but it is despicable that people would drag a dead man’s name through the mud to make their politically / racially charged points. This man is dead, he cannot defend himself.

Furthermore, Mr. Gray’s criminal history of non-violent drug use / distribution is a common product of his environment. Not to make excuses for his past crimes, but his environment does offer some insight and context into his questionable choices.

Another meritless claim is that Mr. Gray’s spinal surgery led to his death. Mr. Gray did not die on the operating table, and without some outside trauma to his spine he would still be alive today.

Equally disgraceful to these meritless justifications of alleged officer misconduct are opportunists using Mr. Gray’s death to loot and riot. Mr. Gray’s family, for their part, has condemned the riots. Nothing fuels a counter-narrative like unlawful behavior; as the saying goes, with friends like these who needs enemies.

A Department of Justice investigation is ongoing, and I fully expect that after a transparent investigation those responsible for Mr. Gray’s death will be held accountable.

Yes America’s criminal justice system is flawed, particularly with respect to African American communities, but to assume that it is never capable of delivering justice belittles its many unsung successes. As of this posting, the 6 officers involved in Mr. Gray’s death have been charged with various crimes, including second degree murder and manslaughter, by Baltimore’s Chief Prosecutor.

I can understand rioting after an unfair ruling, but not before a ruling even takes place. Some will argue that as a white man it is not my place to understand, and while I like to think I am generally pretty good considering things objectively, they may have a point. I do however know this; when comparing the track records of violent and non-violent protests in achieving meaningful reform in America, the more effective approach has unquestionably been non-violent.

Those sympathetic to the rioters may argue that every successful non-violent protest was buoyed by a parallel violent movement. While it is impossible to completely decouple the effects of parallel violent and non-violent movements, I find this argument flawed. What positive role could violent protest possibly play in political decision-making when violent protests detract from public sympathy, and the state always has the overwhelming advantage in shows of force?

To the contrary, in my opinion meaningful change results from strong leaders utilizing their rights to publicly frame issues in ways that even those who may, in their private thoughts, be ideologically opposed cannot as publicly elected officials reasonably challenge.     

Regardless of my understanding, the riots have, in the words of Baltimore’s African-American Police Comissioner Anthony Batts, embarrassed Baltimore as a city. Fortunately the negative actions of a few misguided Baltimoreans should have no impact on either the Baltimore Country or DoJ investigations.

But ultimately it is not the short-term embarrassment or immediate economic consequences that should most worry those who wish to see Baltimore thrive. It is the long-term impact on investment that is most troubling, as the riots will likely exacerbate the very socioeconomic conditions which indirectly led to Mr. Gray’s death and the ensuing riots in the first place.

While properly served justice is “blind”, economic decision making considers every iota of information available:

The looting and burning of a CVS pharmacy and general store, which has been shown on just about every newscast in the past 24 hours, as well as the destruction of other shops, will tend to deter retailers from making new investments, economists warned.

“One of the things that’s been growing in the area has been the tourism aspect and nothing puts off tourists more than riots and curfews,” said Daraius Irani, chief economist at the Regional Economic and Studies Institute of Towson University in Baltimore.

“One of Baltimore’s credit strengths is it has a sizeable and diverse tax base,” said Moody’s analyst Jennifer Diercksen, noting the city’s universities, which provide thousands of very safe jobs – creating a stable base for Baltimore.

Still, the city lags the rest of the nation on a per capita income basis. Its per capita income was $24,155 for 2012, representing only 86.1 percent of the national median, according to Moody’s.

Its unemployment rate is higher than the U.S. average – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Baltimore city’s unemployment rate in February was 8.4 percent versus the U.S. rate of 5.8 percent in that month.

Still, economists said one of Baltimore’s problems is the sharp demographic split between the successful elite and an underprivileged population.

“There is the vibrant, beautiful, urban community that is characterized by ongoing renaissance, and the poor, less educated, less visited, which faces more challenges,” said Basu. “Both Baltimores have been making progress in recent years.

“Despite the fact the destruction was in the other Baltimore, not the one visited by tourists, the damage economically in the near and mid term will affect both.”

When private investment lags, jobs and tax revenue for social programs and public goods take a hit. Regardless of your political affiliation or personal beliefs, one or more of these things are needed to promote social mobility and social justice.   

Baltimore’s leaders must now prove their mettle by utilizing the city’s strong fiscal position to attract investors. The city’s leaders must leverage both public money and the public relations boost private companies would realize by helping “rebuilding Baltimore” towards securing public-private partnerships that benefit Baltimore’s poorest areas.

The only silver-lining of these riots is that America is paying attention to Baltimore. While I think peaceful protests would have achieved this same outcome without the negative media coverage and economic backlash, the riots are now (hopefully) a matter of history. Moving forward, the attention Baltimore is currently receiving must be utilized as a positive.  

Another potential avenue for recovery runs through Federal government, which being within a stones-throw of Baltimore may be compelled to invest significantly in revitalizing the city. Of course these two sources of public funding–municipal and federal–should be carefully coordinated to ensure that maximum social benefits are realized.

It is exactly trying times like these when strong leadership is most needed. Let us hope elected officials in Baltimore and Washington D.C. are up to the challenge. Community and religious leaders also have an role to play, both immediately in catalyzing anger into a sustainable political movement, and in the long run by promoting the roles of strong social values, resilience, and personal and social accountability in poverty reduction.

I am confident that criminal justice will be served in the Freddy Gray case, and that this case will help spur more widespread criminal justice reform across America.

Unfortunately, I fear the riots may have exacerbated the very problems that need to be addressed for more comprehensive progress on the social justice front.


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Ferguson, MO: Justice is a Dish Best Served Well Done

I will not comment on the actual decision not to indict Darren Wilson; I was not at the scene of the crime, and even amongst those who were, there are differing accounts of what happened.

I trust the judicial process (although there does seem to be a conflict of interest when prosecutors are asked to indict police officers; having special prosecutors for police trials makes sense); anybody who is trying to sell you an “obvious” answer is being insincere (lots of clickhole “this changes everything” type nonsense out there). Even after months of deliberation, a jury could not find sufficient evidence to indict Wilson–there is no “obvious”explanation of what happened.

I will say this–indicting and convicting Officer Wilson because a lot of people are angry would not have been justice, it would have been mob rule, the exact opposite.

For their part, Michael Brown’s family have urged protesters to remain peaceful and constructive. Unfortunately, their wishes were disregarded by many.

It is not surprising people disregarded calls by the Brown family to remain peaceful. Those who disregarded this message where protesting underlying social injustices–Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Wilson was merely the spark which ignited decades of racially-charged tinder.

Unlike the exact events leading to the death of Michael Brown, these injustices are irrefutable. The ways forward are clear, if the leadership exists to mold people’s outrage into something sustained and constructive.

Police Accountability

Their is a deep mistrust between police and minority communities across America. History of racial profiling, and the failed “war on drugs” which disproportionately targets minorities, exacerbates the vicious cycle of poverty, crime, and mistrust.

One way of making police officers more accountable is a lapel camera. A lapel camera could have answered many of the unanswered questions surrounding the fatal Brown-Wilson confrontation. Wilson alleges Brown charged at him, certainly a lapel camera would have shed light on this claim.

I have heard many reasons why lapel cameras would not work, ranging from “cameras are too expensive”, to “officers will forget to turn them on”, to “recordings would be an invasion of privacy”.

Privacy can be protected by strict rules governing under what circumstances footage can be used (for example, yes in trials, no in performance reviews).

Expense should not be an issue; even a bulletproof top-of-the line lapel camera, should not be prohibitively expensive. Create a demand, and someone will supply lapel cameras at a reasonable price. Furthermore, in response to events in Ferguson, President Obama proposed spending $75 million on lapel cameras as part of a larger $263 million police reform package.

And of course officers can forget to turn on their cameras, just like they can forget to turn on the safety on their guns, or read someone their rights. By setting up proportional penalties, their is no reason to believe lapel cameras would be misused anymore than other equipment.

Camera’s do not just benefit the public at the expense of police officers. Lapel cameras can validate necessary use of force, and protect police officers from unjust complaints. As Cpl. Gary Cunningham of Rialto California put it “I think it protects me more than it protects the public,”

Before implementing its program, Rialto police launched a yearlong study in 2012, deploying wearable cameras to roughly half of its 54 uniformed patrol officers at a given time. The results were remarkable. The department saw an 88 percent decline in complaints against officers and use-of-force incidents plumetted 60 percent.

“After we got the data, we kind of sat down and went, ‘Wow, look at these numbers. There’s something to this,’” said Chief Tony Farrar, the program’s brainchild.

The debate about lapel cameras is taking place in municipalities across the country, and now at the national level. This is a good start towards building trust, transparency, and accountability between police officers and those they serve and protect.

Personal / Social accountability

Why aren’t there more minority police officers in places like Ferguson, MO? I do not believe their are any discriminatory hiring practices at work here, such a barrier could not exist in modern American institutions without being exposed. If anything, municipalities often have affirmative action mandates to hire more minority officers. So then, what is the issue holding back more representative police forces?

I think at least part of the problem is cultural (or in economics speak, a “demand side” issue). Minorities often face ridicule for pursuing a career in public service. Instead of being labeled a “hero”, they are labeled “snitch”, “rat”, “traitor”, etc. Facing ridicule and rejection from their communities, is it really surprising more minorities do not pursue careers as police officers?

Cultural change can only occur at the community level. It could be complemented by highly visible campaign of celebrities / athletes / entertainers on a larger scale, but the grass-roots community element is indispensable.

And this social / personal accountability goes beyond encouraging minorities to become police officers. No matter what a person decides to do for a living, we all have civic duties; to effect change, people must become more politically active:

Though two in three Ferguson residents are black, the city government is almost entirely white.

Local African-American leaders say that’s because, for a variety of reasons, blacks across the region simply haven’t participated in city elections. Until that changes, they add, Ferguson’s racial tensions aren’t likely to get better.

Black political leaders in the area say it’s not surprising that Ferguson’s government isn’t responsive to their community’s concerns, because blacks across St. Louis County simply haven’t turned out to vote in large numbers, or run candidates for office. 

No one collects data on turnout by race in municipal elections. But the overall turnout numbers for Ferguson’s mayoral and city council election are discouraging. This year, just 12.3% of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to numbers provided by the county. In 2013 and 2012, those figures were even lower: 11.7% and 8.9% respectively. As a rule, the lower the turnout, the more the electorate skews white and conservative.

“I think there is a huge distrust in the system,” said Broadnax, a Ferguson native. Many blacks think: “Well it’s not going to matter anyway, so my one vote doesn’t count,” she said. “Well, if you get an entire community to individually feel that way, collectively we’ve already lost.”

But State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Ferguson and who has been involved in the protests, said she thinks the anger over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown will translate into increased political engagement among the region’s blacks.

“I think this issue is changing the game completely,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “People are upset.”

Still, for [John] Gaskin, a board member of the national NAACP, the current lack of participation among the area’s minorities makes it’s tough to hear older activists talk about the sacrifices made in the civil rights struggle.

“It brings me to tears hearing from Julian Bond and everyone how important it is to vote, for the people that lost their lives,” Gaskin said, “when we’ve had to almost try to convince people to utilize this precious tool that so many people in the world don’t have access to.”

To help facilitate political engagement in Ferguson, mayor Jay Nixon today announced the “Ferguson Commission“:

An African-American pastor and a white civic leader will lead a state-appointed Ferguson Commission that will work toward “healing and positive change” in the St. Louis area, Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri announced  Tuesday.

The diverse 16-member panel has about 10 months to listen to residents, study social and economic issues and make recommendations for changes. The commission includes lawyers, activists, pastors, a police sergeant and a professor.

Inclusive political institutions should be the norm, not an ad hoc response to tragedy.

Mainstream development economics is predicated on a rights based approach. In America we no longer have to fight for basic political and civil rights, but simply exercise them.

But the ease of our modernized society has bred comfort and complacency. Events such the shooting of Michael Brown, and the ensuing protests, serve as a stark reminder that being at the frontier of progressive values requires constant effort.

If these protests can remain peaceful, and fuel sustained political activism, they will serve as a testament that our democratic system–while not always pretty or linear–is still capable of pushing the frontier of progressive values.

Let the concepts addressed in this blog–accountability (of police officers, but also of ourselves and our communities), inclusive politics, and a politically engaged citizenry–be the legacy of Michael Brown.

Let his death be the catalyst of a new Civil Rights movement, one which bridges racial divides and addresses underlying socioeconomic injustices which hinder Americans of all races and creeds.

Such cultural shifts would amount to a much more meaningful legacy than any individual indictment / conviction ever could have.

Update: The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were completely separate incidents.

In the case of Eric Garner’s murder, video evidence clearly showed a non-threat–and perhaps a good Samaritan who broke up a fight–being choked to death (a claim confirmed by a medical examiner’s autopsy).

In his defense, Officer Pantaleo said he never meant to cause Eric Garner harm:

…the officer’s testimony, as recounted by Mr. London, seemed at times to be at odds with a video of the encounter, such as his stated attempt to get off Mr. Garner “as quick as he could.” 

It is not even controversial, but I do forcefully condemn the decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo on charges of at least manslaughter.

The Justice Department is launching a civil rights investigation into Mr. Garner’s death; hopefully justice is served in this clear case of police misconduct and brutality.