The Collective Punishment Continues

Gaza_Strip_NASAIn my previous post, I talked about the double standard when it comes to “migrants” and “refugees” when it comes to popular discourse. Today, as the conflict in Gaza enters Day 2, we see yet another double standard reflected in the media. The news presents the Palestinian side virtually uniformly as warlike and bloodthirsty, ready to “push Israel into the sea.” The Israeli side, meanwhile, is portrayed as “under attack,” defending itself from aggression and terrorism. This is despite the fact that Israeli attacks on Gaza have so far yielded over 30 casualties with more than 150 people injured, while Hamas’ rocket attacks have yet to result in a single fatality.

Also obscured is why Hamas resumed its futile rocket attacks to begin with. On June 17th, three Israeli teenagers — Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach – were kidnapped. On June 30th, their bodies were recovered. Incited by political and religious leaders, angry Israelis took to the streets, and on July 2nd, a group abducted and burned alive Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy. Days later, Israeli police brutally beat and detained Abu Khdeir’s cousin, Tariq. To once again mention contrasts, news reports tended to show the family members of the slain Israeli teens consoling one another and weeping, while reports about the Abu Khdeir boys showed the usual outraged mobs throwing stones. The fact that it was Israeli society that had erupted in a powder-keg of racial hatred has been almost completely ignored.

To make matters worse, Max Blumenthal has documented how the Israeli government fed the Israeli outrage machine to gin up support for the Netanyahu regime. He notes how the Israeli security service, Shin Bet, knew the fate of the Israeli teenagers longBenjaminNetanyahu before it became public knowledge, during which time Netanyahu and other like-minded opportunists had exploited fear of the worst rather than calling for calm. And when the news did come out, Netanyahu did not call for restraint; instead he referred to Palestinians as “human animals” and referenced a poem about a Russian pogrom. For those who don’t follow Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist rhetoric actually passes for moderation; those on the right-wing fringe issued much more explicit calls for vigilante “justice” – which in turn led to the barbaric death of Muhammad Abu Khdeir.

Obviously none of that justifies the indiscriminate rocket attacks carried out by Hamas, but neither do those attacks themselves justify the collective punishment meted out by Israel on the densely populated Gaza Strip. To put it plainly, Israel has state-of-the-art precision missiles, bomb shelters, and an Iron Dome to protect themselves from the substandard weapons Hamas has managed to smuggle past the Israeli blockade around Gaza that leaves civilians deprived of much-needed food and medicine. The notion that Israel faces an existential threat from Hamas is about as farcical a story to offer as any, yet that is exactly the one the Western media opts for as the lopsided casualty count continues to climb, with more and more Palestinian deaths. At worst, media outlets giddily cheer on the bombs falling on homes in Gaza, while at best, so-called “wonks” shrug their shoulders at an irrational conflict that they cannot explain as human spreadsheets.

Gratefully, some human rights advocacy organizations – such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – have followed the Israeli record of collective punishment inSumayya_and_her_cat_in_front_of_her_demolished_home_2002,_2nd_Intifada recent events, noting that the apartments of two men held as suspects in the murder of the Israeli teens had their apartments demolished overnight, damaging even the homes of other families in the same buildings. More long term, Israeli forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained Palestinians, with over 300 Palestinians presently jailed, in addition to checkpoint closures and restrictions on movement.

None of this can be attributed to some vague and inscrutable “age-old feud” between Jews and Arabs. This is about politics and ideology, pure and simple. As last year’s elections demonstrated, Israel has been moving to the extreme right, with settlers hoping for another confrontation and decisive defeat of Hamas, along with increased annexation of Palestinian land. This new offense, which will almost assuredly see Israeli troops occupying Gaza, will not only renew a large Israeli presence in the “Occupied Territories,” but will permit Israel to force even more concessions from Palestine (and definitely retard any further Palestinian efforts to gain formal recognition globally). In the grand scheme of things, this offensive is yet another step in eliminating the Palestinian presence from Israeli territory; after all, a thoroughly “Jewish state” struggles to cope with a non-Jewish population. Be it through dispossession or death, Israel fundamentally wants to see itself rid of its Palestinian population. As Noam Chomsky recently wrote in his essay on the BDS movement, comparisons of Israel to South Africa are misleading: South Africa depended on its black population to be its workforce. Israel has no such reliance on its Palestinians; indeed, it wants nothing more than to purge them.

The Best Sound and Fury: The Case for Reparations

Has it really been over a month since I last posted? Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve passed all my classes and passed all my comprehensive exams, so no more coursework or tests in my extended education. All I have left is a dissertation proposal and then the dissertation itself. Not to mention also becoming a father and major role model sometime in last August!

Anyway, I’m resurrecting this blog (again) not so much to say anything new or novel, but instead to encourage people to go over to The Atlantic and read “The Case for Reparations” by the very talented essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a long read with ten chapters, and it’s not so much about an economic argument for reparations for African-Americans as it is an honest and thorough analysis of the many injustices facing the African-American community in the United States. This isn’t about statistical models, wonkish graph parties or anything like that, but a hard historical look at the institutional racism, discrimination and abuse a large segment of our national population has had to endure for generations — and the collective amnesia we so regularly take part to ignore it. It isn’t easy information to process, but it’s important for people to read it and to acknowledge that when we put the Founding Fathers on a pedastal or wax romantic about the past, we’re picking and choosing our history and failing to realize — much less take responsibility for — the fact the U.S. was built on and remains mired in racism.

It’s important for me to have written the above because lately I’ve been very down on blogging and promoting anything that might be considered a “thinkpiece.” I’ll probably never write anything as important or as meaningful as Coates’ essay, but even if I did, it would be hard for me to believe that, other than resounding in a like-minded echo chamber, such a piece would have any affect at all. Many people have already dismissed Coates’ essay without reading it; they read the title and perhaps the byline and reject it out of hand as “playing the race card” or “divisive politics” or whatever. People who care about social justice will share the article on their Twitter feeds or on Facebook, but will we really inch at all closer to addressing any of the many problems Coates outlines in his essay? It may be a great intellectual achievement and an eloquent exposition on slavery, bigotry and unaccountability when it comes to race relations in the United States, but as pleasant a sound is or as powerful a fury is, what do they amount to if they do not influence the popular consciousness or inform policy?

There’s a metaphor I like of human history being a mighty river, and each printed page is a stone, thrown into the river to raise the water level and spread the river out, until it becomes a marsh. If the stones are placed deliberately, with careful thought, then perhaps something meaningful can be built on that muddy foundation. But, as purposeful a set of stones as Coates’ essay is, will it amount to more than a pile of rocks? I doubt it. The social media buzz will pass, the essay will still be shared now and again by the people who really value the message and the effort, but for the most part, modern “journalism” will remain GIFs from Game of Thrones explaining Chinese cyber-terrorism.

What’s all the more frustrating about it is that this is a conversation America needs to have. Not just a “beer summit” that lasts a media cycle. Race is a big issue and one that comes up a lot, be it wannabe cops killing black teens with impunity or men in positions of power and influence regularly expressing racist views. Yet all one needs to do is consider how “political correctness” is treated today to see how little progress we’ve made on this issue. What is “political correctness” but, at worst, institutionalized politeness? How is that we as a society let white people believe even for a second that they are the most put-upon people in history because they are expected to think about their words before they articulate them? Granted, there are times when calling people out can get toxic, but nothing is more disgusting and crine-worthy than white middle class people spouting the old “Maybe the real racists are the people calling us racists” nonsense. No, believe it or not, the structural conditions constructed with the key pillars of racial segregation and exploitation founded in the past and perpetuated into the present are the problem, not the minor embarrassment you felt because your racist comment was identified as racist. This really isn’t that hard to understand.

So, yes, Coates’ essay is brilliant and you should read it. Yet I’m not at all sanguine that it will matter much in terms of inspiring change in our messed up world. But I hope I’m wrong.

The Case of Trayvon Martin: Is Racism or the Law to Blame?

You may have already heard about this tragic case. In case you have not, here are the facts.

On the evening of February 26th, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic man and neighborhood watch member, dialed 911 when he observed 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin walking to his father’s girlfriend’s residence, where Martin was staying. Zimmerman frequently called the local Sanford police to make them aware of “suspicious” people, and even went door-to-door warning neighbors to look out for black youths. According to the 911 call, Zimmerman thought Martin was on drugs, staring at houses and possibly had something tucked into his pants. The 911 operator informed Zimmerman that a police officer was on the way, at which point Zimmerman bemoaned the fact that the “suspicious” people he called in “always get away.” Zimmerman initially agreed to meet the police near some mailboxes, but quickly decided to follow Martin on his own. The 911 operator advised Zimmerman not to do that, but did not object when Zimmerman asked if the police could just simply call him when they arrived rather than meet him somewhere.

Details after that are sketchy. Witnesses have told the media they saw Zimmerman and Martin wrestling on the ground, and at one point Martin had Zimmerman underneath him. Austin McLendon, 13, observed Zimmerman and Martin after they had separated while he was walking their dog. There was a gunshot, followed by someone screaming for help, followed by another shot, after which the screaming stopped. The gunshots and screaming can be heard on a 911 call from a woman whose backyard Zimmerman and Martin had been wrestling on. According to police, Zimmerman claims he was the one pleading for help, while some residents in the neighborhood believe it was Martin.

When residents and the police finally came out to see the aftermath, Martin was dead. Zimmerman, who is licensed to carry a concealed firearm, placed his handgun on the ground and immediately claimed self-defense. Martin had been unarmed, having only a bottle of iced tea and some candy he had purchased at the convenience store. Zimmerman has never been arrested, much less charged with any crime.

The injustice is obvious. A 28-year-old man carrying a gun kills an unarmed teen due to racial profiling, cites self-defense and never spends a second in handcuffs. How can this happen?

Some people cite racist law enforcement as the primary factor, and there is a history of that in Sanford. In 2005, two security guards with connections to the police department shot and killed a black teenager in the back, claimed self-defense and the court dismissed all charges. Last year, police refused to prosecute the son of a police lieutenant caught assaulting an innocent black homeless man, and only after the video generated outrage on the Internet did the police arrest the lieutenant’s son. Consequently, the Sanford police chief at the time stood down.

There is also evidence indicating the Sanford police have mishandled the investigation into the Martin killing. When Zimmerman told police he had nothing of his record (a lie), the police took him at his word. When a resident claimed that Martin had been crying for help before he was killed, the police “corrected” her because they were going off Zimmerman’s account. Since then, the resident, Mary Cutcher, has come out publicly with neighbor Selma Mora Lamilla to say that they do not believe it was self-defense and that, despite attempts to go into detail with police, have been ignored by law enforcement.

The Sanford police have clearly mismanaged this case and, given recent history, it is reasonable to presume that racism is rife within the local law enforcement agencies. Still, racism alone cannot take the whole blame for what is keeping George Zimmerman away from jail or a judge. The biggest obstacle to justice is, ironically, the law.

Florida is one of a number of states to have a “Stand Your Ground” law. Many people are familiar with the Castle Doctrine, which holds that people are under no obligation to retreat if someone enters their home because “a man’s home is his castle.” Therefore, if someone intrudes into your home and you have reasonable cause to believe that your life is in danger or the intruder will do some form of grievous harm to you, you are within your rights to defend yourself – with lethal force, if necessary.

What “Stand Your Ground” does is it takes the Castle Doctrine and does not apply it only to your home or your car, but anywhere where you have a right to be – a street, a sidewalk, etc. If someone attacks you, you have no duty to flee. You can fight back and, if you think you might be killed or seriously injured, you can use lethal force as well.

Of course, you might expect that you would have to prove in a court of law at some point that your use of lethal force was lawful. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, however, states that people who kill in self-defense are immune from prosecution – meaning that no criminal or civil charges can be filed, ostensibly to prevent loved ones of the victim from getting revenge through court costs or legal damages. For them to arrest you, the police need “probable cause” to believe you inappropriately used lethal force. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove murder rather than one the defendant to prove self-defense.

Many critics of how the case has been handled argue that the Sanford police have “probable cause” to arrest Zimmerman and the only thing holding them back is racial bias. While I am no legal expert, I do not think this is strictly true. The Sanford police may be racially biased, but I think even if local law enforcement was eager to throw the book at Zimmerman, they would have, at best, an uphill battle overcoming Stand Your Ground.

Let us go over some of the circumstantial evidence available to prosecutors, from strongest to weakest:

“Cutcher and Mora Lamilla both insist the voice they heard screaming for help belonged to Travyon Martin, not George Zimmerman.” While the police were obviously wrong to “correct” Cutcher, it is still the word of two indirect witnesses versus one direct witness (Zimmerman). I think this testimony might be sufficient enough for police to have “probable cause” at a stretch, but I fail to see how it gives the police, the judge or a jury adequate reason not to give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt since it boils down to “He Said versus She Said/She Said.” Given the strength of Stand Your Ground, I am skeptical that Zimmerman’s claim could be overturned based on the inference of two people who were not actually there. Sadly, there are only two people who definitively know what transpired, and one of them is dead.

“The screaming for help stopped when the second shot went off, killing Martin, so it must have been Martin screaming for help, in which case he was not assaulting Zimmerman.” Zimmerman says he was screaming for help, and I would presume he would say that he stopped screaming after the second shot because Martin was no longer a “threat.” As absurd as it sounds that a grown man would be crying shrilly for help because a teenager was kicking his butt, the fact that Zimmerman was getting his butt kicked is element of this where there is some direct corroborating evidence (see below).

“Zimmerman fired a ‘warning shot’ to scare Martin, yet decided to shoot Martin anyway.” The idea that the first shot was a “warning shot” is based on speculation by one of the lawyers employed by Martin’s parents. It is unknown, to my knowledge, how Zimmerman has explained the first shot (if at all), but it is entirely conceivable that he could chalk it up to a struggle for the gun, a missed shot meant to kill, etc.

“The 911 call shows Zimmerman started a fight with Martin, so if anyone was acting in self-defense, Martin was.” Zimmerman claims Martin started the fight with him and so far his account is all we have. On the 911 call, Zimmerman indicates he is following Martin, but that is all. Zimmerman could say that he approached Martin politely with a tap on the shoulder and Martin attacked; or that Martin, despite initially walking away when Zimmerman started following him, turned on his heels and began an assault. As absurd as either scenario sounds, again, Zimmerman’s account is the only one who started the fight.

“It is ludicrous that a 17-year-old teenager could seriously harm a 28-year-old man.” Agreed, but this is one of the few areas where witnesses support Zimmerman. Witnesses have said that Martin was on top of Martin at one point, and when police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman had a bloodied nose and head plus grass stains all over his clothes. Besides, Stand Your Ground does not require that one take weight and age into consideration. All Zimmerman had to do was “reasonably” believe Martin meant to seriously injure him, and that is all his appeal to self-defense needs.

While it would be easy for Zimmerman or his defense attorney to tear holes into the above arguments for why it wasn’t self-defense as I just did, it would be considerably more difficult for Zimmerman or his lawyer to actually persuade a jury or a judge that it was rational to perceive Martin as a genuine threat. Yet with the law so biased in favor of someone claiming self-defense, Stand Your Ground ensures neither Zimmerman nor his lawyer will have to make that case.

Please, be aware that I am not defending either Zimmerman or the Sanford cops. Like most people two neurons, I recognized this case right away as a would-be Judge Dredd racially profiling a black kid, getting into a situation he was not trained to handle and killing the black kid because the kid was beating him up. And I also do not doubt for a moment that if this had been a case of an ethnic minority killing a white person under similar circumstances, the law would likely magically “bend” in ways it has not for Zimmerman.

Still, the underlying point is this: Stand Your Ground laws protect aspiring Wild West vigilantes like George Zimmerman, racist cops or not.