Normative Narratives


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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.

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Economic Outlook: Reparations, Development Aid / Debt Relief, and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities

Original Article:

In recent international news, a group representing 15 Caribbean nations (CARICOM) is seeking reparations from former colonial rulers for past atrocities, which they argue continue to have negative socioeconomic development impacts to this day:

Spurred by a sense of injustice that has lingered for two centuries, the countries plan to compile an inventory of the lasting damage they believe they suffered and then demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands.

To present their case, they have hired a firm of London lawyers that this year won compensation from Britain for the torture of Kenyans under British colonial rule in the 1950s.

Just as important, the discussions around reparations — in the Caribbean as in Europe — might become an occasion to delve into history, to mourn but also confront the many ways in which the past continues to shape the present.

Laurent DuBouis Op-Ed:

This is more than just creative accounting. When economists debate why some countries are poor and others are rich, they often focus on the cultural, political or economic structures of poor countries. But historians of the Caribbean have long argued that national inequality is a direct result of centuries of economic exploitation.

But a French commission concluded that, while there was a responsibility on France’s part, financial reparation was not the solution. Its report suggested that French aid to Haiti was a kind of “reparation” and urged more of it.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, President Nicolas Sarkozy offered an aid and debt-forgiveness package to the country. But the French government never officially apologized, let alone offered compensation.

Despite the rightness of the Caribbean nations’ claim, European governments are likely to respond similarly this time. If Caricom accepts this approach, the call for reparations may ultimately just come to play a strategic role within international negotiations over aid and trade.

What would it mean to truly rid our world of the legacies of slavery? In the Caribbean, it would mean undoing the divisions created by colonialism, through regional economic cooperation and reduced dependence on foreign aid and foreign banks.

It would mean, above all, ending the continuing mistreatment and stereotyping of Haitians, who were the pioneers in the overthrow of slavery and have been paying for it ever since.

In Europe and the United States, it would mean abandoning condescending visions of the Caribbean and building policies on aid, trade and immigration based on an acceptance of common and connected histories.

It would mean, above all, consigning racial discrimination, exploitation and political exclusion to the past. That would be the truest form of reparation.

By framing the issue of reparations as a way to remedy past atrocities (mainly slave trade) as well as a way to move forward cooperatively, CARICOM may indeed be able to achieve its goals. Reparations fit into a broader interpretation of common but differentiated responsibilities, and are consistent with the human rights accountability based approach to development:

The concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in reference to the “global commons”, has until this point been used almost exclusively in the environmental and natural resource arena. I would argue that both of these terms have a much wider application. Global commons should refer to any non-excludable good / service, with positive / negative externalities, whose effective management requires global coordination (to overcome cheater and free-riders). This would include, among other things, development outcomes.

By re-framing the concept of “the global commons”, a new global partnership for development can take root through the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, with the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities at its core. By “common but differentiated” I do not mean that countries should have ideologically different policies–quite the contrary. The “common” aspect refers to creating programs with global policy coherence, aimed at achieving a normative vision of the future. The “differentiated” aspect refers to these programs being financed in a way that takes into account past transgressions, present context, and future goals.

Both articles mention the socioeconomic effects of slavery and slave trade, and corresponding financial component of reparations, an unavoidable element of any reparations argument. More tellingly, both articles also mention the emotional and psychological impacts of slavery that still persist today. What exactly should reparations look like? I believe in order to be effective–to truly “rid the world of the legacy of slavery”–reparations must have two components:

1) Debt Relief / Development Aid: Debt relief already exists, in the form of the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative. However, only five of the thirty-five HIPC countries are in Latin America (LA)–apparently Latin American countries are not poor enough to qualify for debt relief. Given the IMF’s role in the “Lost Decade” of development in LA (1980s), which was much more recent and therefore has a more direct impact on current socioeconomic conditions in Latin America than the 18th century slave trade does, it is particularly troubling that the IMF does not believe most Latin American countries should qualify for debt relief–particularly given Latin America’s substantial debt burden.

Debt relief should be extended to Latin American countries. Furthermore, donor countries should make a strong effort to reach the 0.7% of GDP for development aid target. Both initiatives should carry only the precondition of good, transparent, and accountable governance (political preconditions as opposed to economic preconditions, which are restrictive, paternalistic, and often lead to counter-productive development outcomes). This precondition gives developing countries the greatest amount of autonomy in developing their poverty reduction strategy.

2) An Admission of Wrongdoing, and an Apology: It is clear that the scars of slavery have not healed on their own over time. Drastic economic differences between the most and least developed countries play out as various power-asymmetries on a global scale, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Instead of convergence, there is divergence, with devastating impacts such as human suffering, instability, and conflict. In light of both our common past and interdependent future, it is essential to acknowledge past wrongdoings, so the worlds leaders can move forward in a constructive manner.

Case in point is recent news concerning allegations that the N.S.A. spied on foreign leaders. While Germany, France and Spain certainly are not happy with the news, they are willing to hear America out and work with U.S. intelligence agencies–they understand the positive ends of U.S. actions even if they do not agree with the means . Latin American leaders have, in general, reacted in a much more negative way, cancelling diplomatic exercises and moving towards greater isolation. This reaction is reflective of a deep mistrust between L.A. countries and the highly developed Euro-America alliance.

By admitting to past wrongdoings via these two forms of reparations, we can move forward with greater trust and cooperation with our L.A. neighbors. These are countries we share an economic and political ideology with; there is no reason for such distrust and dislike to persist. L.A. countries also have a crucial role to play in the global partnership for development, as an intermediary between the most and least developed countries in the world (“south-south cooperation“).

To overcome the most pressing issues affecting the world in the 21st century, we need trust, coordination and cooperation between nations–especially between allies! We also need a global economic framework that will reverse the damaging trend of economic divergence and lead to more sustainable, peaceful, and inclusive development. Reparations are but one example of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” every country has in achieving this future. That we can have a debate on the merits of reparations in an open and even-handed way is a testament to how far we have come as a global community, but much work still remains to be done.