Dark Matter, or Our Failure to Address the Justified & Righteous Anger of Black Lives Matter

In the universe there is a substance that has long eluded direct detection by astrophysicists and astronomers, but which has a profound effect upon the universe: Dark Matter:

Dark matter is non-luminous matter that cannot be directly detected by observing any form of electromagnetic radiation (light), but whose existence is suggested because of the effects of its gravity …

Yet, dark matter is not be completely unobservable. We just have to look for its effects on visible matter. We have to make the effort to see what has previously been unseen.

Understanding these invisible particles is now considered a priority among cosmologists and other scientists who study the universe. There is another form of dark matter, however, that much of white America does not wish to look at or understand, the dark matter of the existence of African American lives and the manner in which they have suffered, and continue to suffer death, imprisonment, discrimination, poverty and indifference to their plight at the hands of their governments, local and federal, and their fellow citizens. As Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, arguably the greatest American Novel of the last century, has his fictional narrator state at the beginning of the novel:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

In the hagiographic history of America, a pastiche of iconic images and legendary tales that fill the pages of our history books, books predominately written by white men, black lives have often been omitted except in those rare instances where their existence is necessary to highlight the exceptional qualities of our nation, or to be more precise, the exceptional qualities of white America. So, African American slavery is acknowledged in order to elevate our civil war to a moral crusade to end it. Lincoln, with his genius for speechifying, became an American immortal. The (mostly white) abolitionist movement and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and an abolitionist ‘champion’ are granted heroic status.

Meanwhile, Frederick Douglas, the escaped slave, self-educated man, tireless advocate for black America and one of the prime movers for ending the institution of slavery, is shoved into a shadowy corner, along with the the sacrifices made by black Union soldiers who literally fought and died for their freedom, though they’re efforts were little regarded at the time and even less rewarded.

Martin Luther King Jr. is (now) viewed as a saintly figure. As the best known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, the words from his greatest speeches are frequently quoted today, even by conservatives who would undo his legacy. MLK is viewed as both a symbol of racial progress and the catalyst for the enactment of the civil rights laws of the 1960s. Those laws that supposedly enshrined the principles of justice and equality in our justice system, and (according to many Americans) embedded them into the fabric of our society.

Glossed over and elided are the many, many violent murders of black men, women, children and civil rights workers, the bombings of black churches and the brutal treatment of African American teenagers peacefully protesting their subjugation by the laws of Alabama by racist police forces. Not to mention our prior history of Jim Crow, lynchings (both judicial and non-judicial), domestic terrorism by white supremacists and the massacres by whites of African American communities in Tulsa and Detroit, among others.

Why has so much of this, our history, been ignored, or worse never taught to the children of America in their still segregated schools? Why do so many white Americans act surprised at the recent rash of murders of African American men, women and yes, children by the very police that are supposed to insure their safety. Why do so many whites contest the notion that the mass incarceration of blacks is a de facto violation of their equal rights under the law?

None of those white people are among the people here, you might respond. They are Republicans and racists and conservative whites. We, on the other hand, are the good ones. We rally around our black community members in times of need. Heck, the Orange Satan went out and signed up Shaun King, a black activist, specifically to highlight these continuing injustices, these symptoms of a society beset by individual and institutional racism.

Fair enough. So, to you, the good guys, let me pose some different questions. Why did so many of us celebrate the removal of the confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol, figuratively high-fiving ourselves and lauding, in part, our efforts, when the impetus for that action was the slaughter of nine innocent black people in a church at the hands of a young white man who hoped to incite a race war? Why has there been such an uproar here on this blog over the actions of Black Lives Matter to vocally and visibly challenge the Democratic candidates for President who appeared at Netroots Nation 2015 on this last Saturday?

All right, I can hear some of you saying, that’s enough. You, Steven D, are simply trying to stir up more trouble. Bernie Sanders has a great record on supporting the black community and human rights for all people. The Black Lives Matter activists hijacked the event at which he and Governor O’Malley spoke. Their tactics were uncalled for and disrespectful and did a disservice to their cause. They acted as if we, their allies, were their enemies. They had no fucking right to do that!

Here’s my response. I waited a few days to post anything about this matter because I wanted to think about what occurred carefully, and not just react reflexively. Because, to be honest, my initial response was one of defensiveness. I support African Americans. I’ve written diaries about the unjustified and frankly criminal shooting and other killings of black men and women at the hands of police forces across the country. I support Bernie Sanders. I’m one of the good guys, dammit! How dare you attack my motives and good faith.

But that was wrong of me. In the words of the another fictional character, Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird (one whose reputation some feel was unjustifiably sullied by the posthumous release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman):

“First of all […] if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

And that is the trick, isn’t it. In fact, I believe it’s a trick that cannot be pulled off without a great deal of time and effort, more effort frankly than most people want to make. And even then, the skin you end up walking around in is, at best, only a simulacrum of that person’s life experiences. It’s an approximation, and far from a complete appreciation of what they feel and why they feel what they do.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

My wife was a rising mid-level executive in a major (at the time) Fortune 500 corporation when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, 2006. Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers which can afflict someone. She was fortunate. They caught it early. Her cancer had not metalized, and her tumor was confined to her pancreas. She had the surgery to remove her pancreas and spleen, followed by joint chemo and radiation treatments, and then a second course of chemo. She’s been cancer free these last nine years, and that is a blessing. However, she didn’t escape unscathed. The first chemotherapy drug stripped the myelin sheaths from her neurons (think of myelin as similar to insulation around electrical wiring), effectively short circuiting many of the connections between the various regions of her brain.

The effects came on gradually, but were continuous and the damage was cumulative. A woman with a brilliant mind suddenly couldn’t find the car keys she was holding in her own hand. She kept forgetting appointments, missing deadlines, and thus, she took early retirement and disability. She lost the ability to concentrate and focus on mundane tasks. Even reading became a chore because it took so long. She couldn’t remember what was told to her verbally because her short term memory stopped making – well, memories.

And god forbid she found herself in what we now call a “stimuli rich” environment. Her mind could no longer filter out extraneous information to focus on what was essential. Any place a crowd gathered became a living hell for her. Add to that peripheral neuropathy, which includes severe pain and muscle cramps, crashes when her blood sugar dropped too low (she often forgot to give herself insulin shots), nausea and other symptoms of Type 1 diabetes (they took out her pancreas, remember).

You can imagine the frustration and the fear and panic and sheer overwhelming sadness she felt at these losses, yes? No, no you can’t. I know you can’t because I still can’t, and I’ve been working on it for nine years. I thought I understood her based on my own health issues. I knew about sadness. I knew about chronic conditions that force you to retire early. I knew about constant pain, nausea, anger and frustration, but in truth I had no clue how she felt, what she endured. It’s taken a long time for me to begin to reach some comprehension of what she goes through on a daily basis, and that only happened after I stopped assuming that I understood, when I stopped trying to be helpful and after I started listening more to what she was telling me.

I had to learn to hear her, really hear her, because sometimes she said things I didn’t like. Sometimes her anger and anxiety boiled over and she lashed out at me. No one likes to be the focus of another person’s anger, but she was justified. I wasn’t listening to her as well as I should. I was always looking for a “fix” to her predicament instead of just letting her vent. I kept repeating the same mistakes in interacting with me that she told me were unhelpful.

I’ll be honest. There was an element of arrogance in my reaction to her. And arrogance can be a big problem. Only after I had been humbled was I able to begin to listen, listen and learn. And when I did I learned a lot.

I discovered that for month after month, year after year she constantly feared she would die at any time. I discovered she feared losing her mind, of being institutionalized for the rest of her life. I learned her anger and shouting at me was often a defensive response, an attempt to stop me from overloading her with too much information, too fast, information she could no longer process like she once could. I had to discover her all over again, and find the woman I loved underneath all the trauma she suffered and still suffers.

I cannot pretend I really know what her days are like. I can feel a slippery, illusive empathy for her struggles, but that my friends is not the same thing as understanding. At it’s best, it allows me to focus on her needs and not my own. And that is the key, isn’t it?

My wife is also Japanese American. I have some slight knowledge of racial prejudice from my experiences with her and my children over the years, but nothing as damaging or traumatic as any black person I’ve ever met. Police do not stop my kids for driving while Asian. I don’t have to warn them how to act around white people or white police officers, because – hey – with their Northern European/Japanese genes they aren’t seen as dangerous. They aren’t targeted as a threat. Neither is my wife. Rarely does anyone use racial slurs to their faces. Yes, they are stereotyped by many white people (they even joke about it), but its not the same stereotypes with which black people are burdened.

I do not live in a community with many African Americans. Police cars do not troll the streets of my neighborhood looking for excuses to arrest my children or me. The lawns were I live are green and lush, not dead, brown and full of broken glass like the Cincinnati projects I visited in 2004 when I canvassed for John Kerry. The people here have jobs and enough food for their kids. They don’t have that million mile stare, that utter look of something beyond hopelessness that I saw in the eyes of the people whose doors we knocked upon, people who sat and politely listened to the silly white people telling them how important it was to get out to vote when all the voting in the world had done next to nothing to improve their lives.

So, I’m not going to pretend I understand the anger and frustration and fear and emotional trauma that being black in America evokes. I don’t. But I do know that reacting defensively to that anger is not useful. The folks of Black Lives Matter are attempting to stop an assault on not only their liberty, not only their freedom, but their very lives. An assault enabled by both the entertainment and news media. An assault carried out by government bodies local, state and yes, even federal.

For years black people have suffered out of the sight of white people’s eyes. Whether that was done intentionally, out of malice or indifference, or whether it was done out of ignorance makes little difference. All these years while so many whites have been telling themselves the race problem was fixed because of what happened fifty years ago, these same daily atrocities have been ongoing. It is only now that we have the means to record them, and spread the news of them through other avenues than the narrow choke point of traditional media, that we have suddenly seen the people we made invisible, through our own neglect, our own ignorance, our own lack of understanding. And by we, I mean whites of every political and religious conviction.

The easy path is to reject the display of justifiable anger we witnessed on Saturday, to dismiss it, to refuse to listen to the message the voices of Black Lives Matters are trying to have heard. To feel disrespected. To get defensive. To whitesplain to them how wonderful we are, we few we happy few good, liberal, progressive white people.

But that would be a mistake. The same mistake I made with my wife.

Look, I appreciate that there will be those who feel offended by what I’ve written, or that I’m re-hashing matters that are better left alone. But BLM is not going away. African Americans will still be here, whether we choose to engage with them on their terms or not. We, the white community can remain in the dark and reject them, or we can come out into the light and listen, really listen to their grievances, their experiences, their feelings, their stories.

For my money, I think it’s the better way to go. Condemning them gets us nowhere. Not listening to them, thinking we know what their problems are or that we have the solutions for them hasn’t worked out very well for any of us, black or white. For the dark matter of America’s racism and racial conflict that I speak of here affects all of us, and though we may refuse to look at it, it will still pull us down, individually and collectively. That’s how gravity works.

A Love Story

(The above is a photograph of the two of us on our wedding day, 29 years ago)

We have called ourselves partners forever, it seems. She wasn’t fond of the term girlfriend, or later wife, and it never mattered to me. But partners, she liked. It made us equals, and if there is one thing I know about my partner, it’s that she insists on being treated as the equal of anyone.

We met at the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder, CO, during our first year. My earliest memory of her is me approaching her to bum a cigarette because I noticed she was a smoker. I had quit – sort of – by which I mean I’d stopped buying cigarettes for myself. I learned she smoked menthols (for the record I hate menthols). I smoked it anyway. Her smile, when it appeared suddenly was wide, beaming and infectious. She had beautiful long, blue-black hair that hung down below her waist. Yeah, I noticed her more after that.

Her clearest first memory of me was that – in her opinion – I was one of those idiots who asked questions in class about stuff that had no relation to anything she thought would be on the final exam. She had a point. One of the few times I was able to put aside my inherent shyness back in the day was in the classroom. And I did ask questions in class about – to be fair – legal issues that some might consider esoteric. To me the study of law was like a big intellectual puzzle, and it fascinated me. To her, I was simply one of those annoying people who raised their hands rather than wait to be called upon. One of the know-it-alls. One of the show-offs. Maybe she has a point, but in my defense, I didn’t have much self confidence – except in the classroom. There, I felt transported out of my normal, self-conscious, socially awkward persona into a better, more articulate, less fearful self (she would tell you this is all malarkey, by the way).

After our first semester finals, our class had a big party at a local dance bar. She and I ended up in the same group of people somehow. Then she gave me a ride to a downtown bar/restaurant on the Pearl Street Mall. Then we ended up going out dancing, and I learned she was a fantastic dancer, far better than me. Somehow we ended spending the entire night together, talking, talking and more talking. But she was in a relationship, so things never progressed very far after that. Until the summer when that relationship ended and she invited me up to her house in Boulder. I was back living in Denver, driving a cab and renting a room in a friend’s house. I accepted her invitation with – how shall I put this? – alacrity. I drove my 400cc Honda motorcycle for an hour on a 90 plus degree day and arrived, parched and a fairly beaten down by the sun and the wind, to find her sunbathing in her backyard, asleep, babay oil slathered all over her dark skin. I learned she loved the sunshine.

We started dating when school resumed. I hadn’t dated much for a couple of years, but being with her was easy. Her intelligence was more than my match, her wit sharper and keener than mine, and she could carry the conversation when I got tongue tied. And for some reason I couldn’t fathom, she didn’t seem to mind my company. Our classmates noticed we hung out together. We had become a thing, as they say, though I’m not sure we looked at it that way. Both of us had been burned badly in prior relationships, and we both proceeded cautiously. We were just friends with benefits, I suppose you could call it. Well, we were until the night that changed everything.

It was a Friday night and we had made plans to go see The Big Chill, which was the must see date movie that fall. We’d missed out a couple of times before when the theater sold out, so we planned to leave early this time. I left the law school library on my bike (the aforementioned Honda) to go home – a rental shared with two other students, one getting his PhD in physics and the other a journalism major – to shower, shave, and change clothes. You know – make myself pretty, or at least presentable. That was around 6:00 pm. I never made it. The last thing I remember was turning left onto Baseline from Broadway.

She and I had arranged for me to drop by at 8:00 that evening in plenty of time to get tickets for nine-thirty showing. By eight-thirty when I hadn’t arrived yet, she called my house, but my roommates had no clue where I was. She called a mutual friend (I’ll call her Janet here), a woman we both knew well. Janet was pissed. She said I was standing my future partner to be up.

[I should probably introduce my beloved at this point: her first name’s Clara, for Clara Schumann. Her father was big into classical music. Not surprisingly, he bought a piano, and Clara began taking lessons at the age of five. She was very talented and could have gone to Julliard, but chose Barnard instead to study psychology. Lucky for me that she did. But I digress …]

Janet could be very righteous in the defense of what she considered injustice, and a man standing one of Janet’s best friends up on Friday night was a major injustice in Janet’s eyes. Janet came right over to Clara’s house. As the time ticked off, Janet told Clara something to the effect that if I didn’t show my face in the next 15 minutes, the two of them were going to leave and go out on their own, and to hell with my sorry, no good, lying, disrespectful ass. I think that covered the gist of her remarks, though it is hearsay. I wasn’t there after all.

The deadline came and went. Janet was dragging Clara out the door when the phone rang. Janet told her not to answer it. Lucky me, she did anyway.

The person on the other end of the line was not me, just so you know. It was a nurse at Boulder Community Hospital. The conversation, as I understand it from numerous re-tellings over the years went something like this (obviously, the following reconstructed dialogue is nowhere near an accurate word-for-word recitation, but it’ll do]:

Nurse: Is this Clara?

Clara: Yes. [I add here that she was more than a little surprised to be receiving a call from the hospital. “Confused and bemused” would seem to be a fair description of her state of mind based on what she’s told me.]

Nurse: Do you know a Steven Searls?

Clara: Yes. [pause of indeterminate length] Why?

Nurse: He was in an motor vehicle accident and sustained a serious head injury. We have him in the ER. He can’t remember anything, but he recalled your phone number and asked us to call you. [Note – its possible she said I insisted. In any event, I like to think that was in fact the case]. Can you come down to the ER to see him?

Needless to say, Clara went. Here’s why I was there. A drunk driver in a 70’s era Cadillac had made a left turn directly into my path at an intersection about four blocks or so from my house. I wasn’t wearing a helmet, because I’d trashed mine two weeks before when someone cut me off and I had to dump my bike. When the Caddy hit me, I flew off my bike and the crown of my head struck the fender – pardon the pun – head on. When the police initially arrived on the scene they thought I was dead, because I was laid out on the asphalt unconscious and unmoving. They assumed I’d broken my bloody neck. Turns out, luckily for my kids, they were poor diagnosticians.

I did incur a concussion severe enough to cause me to lose consciousness. Later at the emergency room when I regained some semblance of consciousness, I exhibited post-traumatic amnesia. Here’s a link to a brief description of what that is like.

Post-traumatic amnesia (PTA) is a state of confusion that occurs immediately following a traumatic brain injury in which the injured person is disoriented and unable to remember events that occur after the injury.[1] The person may be unable to state his or her name, where he or she is, and what time it is.[1] When continuous memory returns, PTA is considered to have resolved.[2] While PTA lasts, new events cannot be stored in the memory.

For me, I couldn’t remember my name. I couldn’t remember I was attending law school. I couldn’t recall my parents, my siblings, or anything to do with my former life. I couldn’t remember I was in the hospital, that I’d been in an accident, where I lived, the date, the time or really anything, even after being told many, many times. Nothing. That’s how it worked for me. Apparently, the only thing I did remember was Clara’s name and phone number. When she got to the hospital, the nurse brought her to my bed and then said something to the effect of “call us if he has a seizure, loses consciousness or whatever other bad things might happen to someone after a severe head injury.” Then that nurse took off, and left Clara to deal with me.

For the next several hours I kept asking her the same questions, every five minutes on average. Where am I. Why am I here? What’s my name? And she answered them every time, though she told me it got to be a bit boring after about the one hundredth iteration.

The only thing that kept her amused, she said was my reaction to being told I was in law school. She said I would look okay for a second, but then get a very concerned, fearful expression on my face, and ask her, in an meek, barely audible voice, “How am I doing?” (i.e., how were my grades, class rank, that kind of thing). Each time she told me I was doing very well, indeed, she says I got (and I can quote her accurately here because I’ve heard here repeat this part of our story countless times over the years), “the biggest, shit-eating grin” she’d ever seen in her life. And then five minutes later I’d forget everything she’d just told me, and the cycle would start all over.

I once asked her if she was ever tempted to tell me I was flunking out of law school, and she said the thought may have briefly crossed her mind, but that she never considered doing something that needlessly cruel. I take her at her word. I know her sense of humor pretty well now, and it wouldn’t be much fun for her if the other person didn’t get the joke.

Anyway …. around two or three in the morning the hospital wanted to kick me out because my amnesia symptoms had mostly gone away and my “continuous memory” had returned. Besides, I only had student health insurance and that didn’t pay diddly squat. The last thing they wanted to do was admit me.

I was still pretty shaky on my feet, and felt like I’d been run over by a truck (close enough), so they told Clara what she needed to do to care for me over the next few days. I think they assumed she was responsible because obviously we must have a very close relationship. I remembered her phone number after all, and she had come when called. I am of the opinion that I told her that she didn’t have to do that, and to just drop me off back at my place, but she insisted on taking me to her home. She recalls that I was in no condition to remember anything of the sort (hard for me to argue with her on that point) but she flet sorry for me and she took me to her home where I moved into her bedroom. And then I just never left. [That’s the part of the story that always gets the biggest laugh when she tells it]

And it’s true, I never left. I did end up spending an inordinate amount of time that semester in her bedroom, and missed a lot of classes, because the ER folks hadn’t discovered that the nasty head banging the Cadillac gave me had also resulted in a cracked cochlea in my right ear, from which fluid leaked. Ultimately, I’d be diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease induced by trauma. That injury led to a number of vertigo attacks, nausea and general difficulty standing, much less going to class.

On the many days I missed classes, people lent me their notes, and I learned something else about Clara. No one took better, more detailed, more precise notes than she did. Reviewing her notes was like reading a chapter from a textbook, that’s how detailed they were. Of course, before law school she had worked as a legal secretary back when they still had to know shorthand, so she would take her notes in shorthand and then type them up after class. Oh, did I tell you she could type around 80-100 words a minute with no mistakes? Well, she could. Must have had something to do with her aptitude as a pianist.

The short of it is that within a little more than a year, I asked her to marry me – before I bought the ring! One night in bed, it just came over me to ask. I knew I loved her. I hoped she’d have me. Lucky me, she said yes, and right away, too, even though she has never been big on the spontaneous thing. Not having a ring turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because she wanted to pick out the jewels and fashion a ring based on her own design (a former lover of hers had been a jeweler). So, in a way that was my present to her. At least, that’s how I see it.

We told both our families of our engagement on our graduation day. That was also the first time I met her parents, two immigrants from Japan who came here after the war when Japanese citizens where generally banned from immigrating to the United States. Clara’s father, however, had a unique skill set, as we call it these days. He was a physicist who had by accident become a tropical storm researcher. He was also one of the brightest people I ever met. They made exceptions back in the fifties for people from former enemy combatants if they were smart enough and worked in scientific fields. So, lucky me, again, because otherwise Clara never would have been born in the United States, I we never would have met.

We married on one of the hottest days of the year in 1987 in the only church in Denver that had a minister who spoke Japanese – an important requirement as Clara’s grandmother (her Oba-chan) and two aunts came over from Tokyo to attend the wedding of the odest grandchild in the family. It was a wonderful ceremony, and an even better reception. We had a live jazz band for dancing, sushi as part of our catered dinner – that raised more than a few eyebrows among my extended family – and a wedding cake with two porcelain penguin figurines atop it instead of the traditional Bride and Groom.

Remember what I said about being equal partners? Well, Clara had been adamant that we would not have a cake with a bride and groom on it. To her that reeked if inequality and I wanted her to be happy. Eventually we came across the two penguins in some little knick-knacks shop, and (according to my recollection anyway) we made the decision the moment we saw them that that two penguins were the perfect topper for our cake. They were the symbols we chose to represent our relationship. Yeah, it confused a lot of people, especially the older ones on my side, but what the hell. It wasn’t their wedding. We did receive penguin themed gifts for years to come after that from my family, however, so I guess it did make an impression. We still have the original penguins from the cake, too!

It’s been a long time since our wedding. Good times and tough times. Our first born son, a year earlier than planned. Our baby daughter six years later, after we had abandoned all hope of having another child. A move from Colorado to Western New York so Clara could live in the same city as her brother, one that I struggled with for a long time. My chronic autoimmune disorder that caused me to retire from the practice of law only a few years after making partner. Clara’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and the chemotherapy treatments that may have saved her life, but devastated her brain, leading to severe cognitive deficits – confusion, short term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, anxiety attacks, depression and so forth. And all the other, common trials and tribulations that two people in a committed relationship inevitably go through.

But through it all, we stayed committed to our partnership, even in our darkest hours. And tonight we are going to celebrate at a local restaurant. Seafood. Clara loves her some crab. I don’t know what I’ll be able to eat from the menu – one of the issues related to my illness are lots of dietary restrictions – but it won’t really matter. We’ll be with each other. Still standing, as they say. Still – partners.

Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk – Cyberbullying, Online Harassment and the Culture of Shame

I just watched one of the most amazing TED Talks I’ve ever seen, and it was given by Monica Lewinsky. Yes, that woman.

I confess I hadn’t given her much thought since the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. I remember reading about the blue dress, see the pictures of her in that beret, and reading many of the all too numerous and salacious stories about her affair with the President. I remember watching the news shows where she was labeled a bimbo, a temptress, a victim, a home-wrecker, a [insert the derogatory word of your choice here]. I frankly can’t recall what I thought of her back then, but I’m sure it wasn’t flattering, even though even I did not listen to the tapes of her phone conversations posted online, which many did. If I thought of her at all since then, it was as a less than fully human figurine – as a one dimensional stereotype, the caricature that the media, online and offline, constructed out of this one brief moment in her life’s story.

I should have thought better of her, though. I should have remembered my own younger self, and my own numerous mistakes at that age. I should have shown a little compassion. But I didn’t think to do so. Shame on me.

Oddly enough, compassion is at the heart of Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk which is titled “The Price of Shame.” I just finished watching it. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as she recounted her experiences of public humiliation at the dawn of the internet age, and how it drove her to thoughts of suicide. These thoughts she expressed to her parents made them afraid to let her out of their sight during the worst of her ordeal. But the TED talk she gave is not merely about her past, it is about our online present and the wave of cyber-bullying and public online shaming that afflicts so many in our present day. What she had to say on that topic resonated deeply with me. Please watch it:

If you finished watching her talk, you’ll notice she didn’t speak only about herself. What she focused on, using her own experience as a prime example, was the manner in which the internet has coarsened our society. Every day, the worst angels of our nature are on display online in the constant flood of nastiness, name-calling, and general dehumanization and degradation of others. People – children – are targeted on social media with consequences that have led to a rash of suicides and suicidal impulses among those being bullied. The most vulnerable are often the ones hurt the most – women, minorities, and LGBTQ people.

I know from seeing the personal experiences of my children’s friends and from hearing their stories that it was bad, but I had no idea of the extent of this epidemic. Among a survey of 10,000 youth in the UK conducted in 2013 by by Ditch the Label I found the following revelations – or at least they were revelations to me:

Roughly 70% of the respondents had been bullied online.

Thirty-seven percent were bullied on a frequent basis.

In the US of A, the statistics are just as frightening.

Every 7 MINUTES a child is bullied. Adult intervention – 4%. Peer intervention – 11%. No intervention – 85%.

Bullied students tend to grow up more socially anxious, with less self-esteem and require more mental health services throughout life.

1 MILLION children were harassed, threatened or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on FACEBOOK during the past year.

88% of social media-using teens say they have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social network site. 12% of these say they witness this kind of behavior “frequently.”

Of course, harassment and bullying and cruelty online are hardly limited to our young people. Adults partake of this activity all the damn time. Some examples of things that didn’t exist in my twenties and thirties, but are all too prevalent now:

Revenge porn


Online harassment

We have the technology and we are using it badly. Every day, someone receives a threat online, is bullied online, has their personal information exposed online, is shamed and humiliated online. Every day people experience the emotions of fear, anger, frustration, terror because of actions taken by other people – online. Every day someone thinks about killing themselves, and many eventually follow through on those thoughts and commit suicide, because of what was revealed about them publicly online and what was said about them online and what was done to them – online.

It is easy, I imagine, for many reading this to think that this is all overblown hyperbole. That these kids and adults should toughen up, get thicker skin, grow a pair. The whole “words can never hurt me” mantra. To anyone who believes that, however, I say you could not be more wrong. Words lead to actions, and actions with real world consequences all too often. And the sheer scope and extent of the online experience can overload the minds of vulnerable people in ways that simply did not occur in the past. Bullying can now occur around the clock, 24/7.

When I was bullied in my youth, I always knew that I could escape the bullying after I was alone at home. I always knew that there were a limited number of people who witnessed my humiliation. That is not the case anymore. We live in a connected world. We are immersed in it. Even when we are offline, others – friends, family, strangers – can be reading negative things posted about us, and when we return we find that the nightmare is 1000 times worse than we could have ever imagined.

Monica relates the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers whose roommate secretly used a webcam to make a video of Tyler having sex with another man. When that video was released online the result was as predictable as it was tragic and completely unnecessary.

The roommate viewed him in an intimate act, and invited others to view this online. Tyler discovered what his abuser had done and that he was planning a second attempt. Viewing his roommate’s Twitter feed, Tyler learned he had widely become a topic of ridicule in his new social environment. He ended his life several days later by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler was eighteen years old.

Monica in her talk specifically recalls for her audience speaking to her mother at the time that Tyler’s death garnered national attention. For those of you who did not watch the video, here is what she said:

My mom was beside herself about what happened to Tyler and his family, and she was gutted with pain in a way that I just couldn’t quite understand, and then eventually I realized she was reliving 1998, reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night, reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open, and reliving a time when both of my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death, literally.

Today, too many parents haven’t had the chance to step in and rescue their loved ones. Too many have learned of their child’s suffering and humiliation after it was too late. Tyler’s tragic, senseless death was a turning point for me. It served to recontextualize my experiences, and I then began to look at the world of humiliation and bullying around me and see something different. In 1998, we had no way of knowing where this brave new technology called the Internet would take us. Since then, it has connected people in unimaginable ways, joining lost siblings, saving lives, launching revolutions, but the darkness, cyberbullying, and slut-shaming that I experienced had mushroomed. Every day online, people, especially young people who are not developmentally equipped to handle this, are so abused and humiliated that they can’t imagine living to the next day, and some, tragically, don’t, and there’s nothing virtual about that. ChildLine, a U.K. nonprofit that’s focused on helping young people on various issues, released a staggering statistic late last year: From 2012 to 2013, there was an 87 percent increase in calls and emails related to cyberbullying. A meta-analysis done out of the Netherlands showed that for the first time, cyberbullying was leading to suicidal ideations more significantly than offline bullying. And you know what shocked me, although it shouldn’t have, was other research last year that determined humiliation was a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or even anger.

So what is the answer to this horrible situation of our own creation? It’s not that difficult to do, or at least it shouldn’t be. Show empathy and compassion to those who are the subject of harassment. Don’t respond to cruelty shown to you with more cruelty. Do you remember this Daily Kos diary posted not so long ago, about a young African American woman who chose to respond to online hate with compassion? I do.

Most importantly, stand up to those who you see being harassed and bullied. Let them know that not everyone hates them or wants to shame them or humiliate them. As Monica stated, it doesn’t take much to make a big difference.

Shame cannot survive empathy. I’ve seen some very dark days in my life, and it was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends, professionals, and sometimes even strangers that saved me. Even empathy from one person can make a difference. The theory of minority influence, proposed by social psychologist Serge Moscovici, says that even in small numbers, when there’s consistency over time, change can happen. In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming upstanders. To become an upstander means instead of bystander apathy, we can post a positive comment for someone or report a bullying situation. Trust me, compassionate comments help abate the negativity.

How much pain and suffering can we alleviate by simply standing up for those who are being abused? By showing empathy for those who are the subject of online bullying or harassment? By changing how we choose to interact with others on the internet? I don’t know, but a damn sight more than refusing to change, refusing to help, refusing to show simple compassion for the suffering of others, even others who show hate or anger toward us.

I know, what a radical leftist idea. A fool’s errand, some might say. Something that will never happen in a million years. You can’t change human nature, the world, etc, etc., etc.

Well, we won’t if we don’t try, now, will we?.

Prosecutors in Eric Garner Case Censored Witnesses Who Testified to Grand Jury to Benefit Cops

Yes, I know prosecutors have a great deal of latitude with respect to how they present evidence before a Grand Jury. Usually, however, that power is used to obtain an indictment, not prevent one. However, as this report in the New York Times indicates, eye witnesses before the Grand Jury were carefully told what they could and could not say about Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the police. Specifically, their testimony was censored by the prosecutors who brought the case before the Grand Jury supposedly to obtain an indictment of the police officers who killed Mr. Garner, and censored in such a way as to make it less likely an indictment would issue.

For example, consider Taisha Allen, who was prohibited from describing what she witnessed in what appears to be a very deliberate attempt to make the police officers actions appear less abusive and excessive:

Several times during her testimony, which is kept secret under grand jury rules, Ms. Allen said prosecutors urged her to watch her words. When she said Mr. Garner did not appear to have a pulse, a prosecutor stepped in. “Don’t say it like that,” she recalled the prosecutor saying. “You’re only assuming he didn’t have a pulse.”

A prosecutor also interjected when she told jurors how Mr. Garner was taken to the ground. “I said they put him in a chokehold,” Ms. Allen recalled saying. “‘Well, you can’t say they put him in a chokehold,'” she said a prosecutor responded.

Look at the video of Eric Garner and tell me how else you would describe what was done to him as other than a chokehold?

One wonders if Taisha Allen was instructed not to call what Officer Daniel Pantaleo a choke hold because neither het, nor did any of the other officers at the scene, in their initial report stated that a choke hold was in fact used to take him down and kill him. But witnesses alleged the use of a choke hold and police indifference to Mr. Garner’s condition even before video came out showing that, yes, Eric Garner was choked to death by police who ignored his pitiful and heartbreaking pleas that he could not breathe.

Edward D. Mullins, the head of the sergeants’ union, said the officers and their supervisors did nothing wrong. Officers can take action without sergeants present and regularly do, he said. The lack of any reference to contact with Mr. Garner’s neck in the initial police report was not troubling, Mr. Mullins said, because the Internal Affairs Bureau would later prepare its own, more detailed report.

In addition, Mr. Mullins said, “no one” at the scene thought a chokehold was used. […]

An autopsy was performed the next day. “On external examination of the neck, there are no visible injuries,” according to the final report. On the inside, however, were telltale signs of choking: strap muscle hemorrhages in his neck and petechial hemorrhages in his eyes. No drugs or alcohol were in his system.

The results of the examination contrasted sharply with the Police Department’s initial account, titled “Death of Perpetrator in Police Custody, Within the Confines of the 120 Precinct.” It contained no mention of any contact with Mr. Garner’s neck.

Witnesses also indicated they felt the grand jury members were not interesteds in what they had to say, and that they were more interested in Eric Garner’s pre-existing medical conditions (diabetes and asthma) than in what the police did, and what the paramedics failed to do on that fateful day:

The beauty store manager, Mr. Lee, said he heard the female sergeant say, “Let up, you got him already.” An officer looked up but did not let go, Mr. Lee said.

Before the grand jury, Mr. Lee said he testified briefly about what he saw, but left feeling the jurors, who were able to ask questions, were uninterested. “They didn’t ask me nothing,” he said. […]

Ms. Allen said the medical response and Mr. Garner’s prior ailments seemed to preoccupy the prosecutors and grand jurors when she testified. Mr. Garner had acute asthma, hypertension and a history of diabetes. He was also obese; these conditions were all listed as contributing factors to his death.

It appears, based on what these witnesses told the reporters for the Times, that, much like the case of Michael Brown, prosecutors before the Grand Jury did the best to protect the police suspects, and paint their actions in the most favorable light possible. In other words, they acted like defense attorneys for the very cops who were “suspects’ in Eric Garner’s death. In my view, they appear to have done their best best, to muddy the waters and cast doubt on what any objective observer of the multiple videos of Mr. Garner’s death could plainly see – that a choke hold was used, that Mr. Garner was not resisting but instead begging for his life. Furthermore, they failed to make the case to the grand jurors that no one in a position of authority at the scene, from the police to the EMTs called to the scene, was terribly concerned about a man who choked into unconsciousness and left untreated for far too many minutes, valuable time that could have been used to save his life.

Eric Garner died for the crime of selling “loose” cigarettes, and no one – not the cops, not the prosecutors and not the grand jurors – had any interest in holding anyone responsible for what clearly seems to me a case of at least manslaughter.

Please read the entire article in the NY Times. It’s very detailed, and very damning.

Consider the Hummingbird

I was on my way out of the local supermarket this morning, my purchases, such as they were, in tow, when I saw a crowd of people, including one of the kids who haul in the shopping carts from the parking lot, gathered around the automatic entrance and exit doors. When I came closer, the reason for the gathering of this diverse group of people became clear. A small, green backed hummingbird, a rarity in these parts, was lying on the corrugated, slate grey mat, just inside the store. I’m not sure of the species , but it looked remarkably similar to this one, a female ruby-throated hummingbird (the females lack the colorful throat feathers that make the males so distinctive):

It was so tiny. It could have fit in the palm of my hand easily. Clearly, though, it was badly injured. As all of us watched, it tried to move away from us, probably out of fear of all the large hominids hovering over it. However, when it tried to hop it lurched to one side barely able to move an inch, at best. The one time it opened its wings fully – and that was a beautiful sight, though its wingspan couldn’t have been more than four inches – it struggled to lift itself off the ground. It made it as high as our ankles, and covered a distance of a little over a foot, before fluttering back to the floor. It had obviously suffered a significant injury, that much was apparent. Perhaps it had struck one of the large glass doors as it flew into the store. Who can say?

The kid who corralled the shopping carts was attempting to cover it with a large, thin plastic bag. His idea was too pick it up and move it outside, but we could tell he was afraid of hurting it. After some discussion by the group, we collectively convinced him to call Animal Control or the Humane Society. He placed an open cardboard box around the bird and one of those yellow cones with “Caution” written on it, and left to make the call. Hopefully whoever he reached will contact one of the local bird rescue and rehabilitation organizations in the area. I left shorty thereafter as there was really nothing further I could do.

Sitting at home now, what strikes me the most about this unexpected encounter is the depth of concern expressed by those of us who stopped to observe the injured bird. It was more than mere curiosity that caused us to hang around. Yes, hummingbirds are quite lovely creatures, and infrequently seen around here, but the predominant feeling I picked up from everyone there was compassion for this poor, helpless animal. The collective emotion was one of empathy, and a desire to see it receive proper care. I suppose one would have to be completely lacking in any feeling for the suffering of a fellow creature in distress not to express some concern. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about recent events around the country in which fellow human beings have been murdered, injured or threatened, and the disappointing lack of empathy for their situation I’ve seen so often expressed by too many Americans.

Like most of the people who visit this site, I’m white and male. I live in a predominantly white, marginally middle class suburb. I see people of color around town when I’m out shopping, but the percentage of them is fairly low. The largest minority in our town are Asians, mostly Chinese or Indians. Unlike the city proper, its rare to see any African Americans employed at the local grocery stores, restaurants or other retail businesses within a five ten radius of my home. My own neighborhood has one black family living in our development, immigrants from Nigeria. My daughter, when she was in high school had a diverse group of close friends (for here anyway) but only one of them was a black male.

I see a fair number of Obama/Biden bumper stickers left over from 2012 in our area, but in all honesty, the majority of the people vote Republican. My mechanic, a friend of longstanding, is an avowed Tea Party member. Recently, as I waited for my car to be repaired the TV in his waiting area, some talking head on his television (tuned to Fox News naturally) were discussing the death of another young black male at the hands of police. He went off on a mini-tirade regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, and in particular Michael Brown. He claimed the mainstream media was biased against the police, and as proof he said they never mentioned that Brown was guilty of 17 felonies. I’ve head a lot of outrageous claims against Brown, but that was a new one for me.

I told him that to the best of my knowledge that simply wasn’t true. A juvenile court system attorney stated Michael Brown was “not facing any charges at the time of his death as an adult, nor did he have any juvenile record for cases involving serious felonies (i.e., murder, burglary or robbery). She made those remarks at a hearing on a lawsuit seeking the release brought by the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the race baiting conservative blogger Charles C. Johnson, who falsely accused Brown of being both a gang member and having been arrested for second degree murder. She specifically stated that since Missouri law regarding the privacy of juvenile records did not prevent disclosure of arrests or convictions for serious offenses such as murder, she could legally inform the public that Michael Brown had no juvenile record for such crimes, despite the allegations by Mr. Johnson. After that, we changed the topic to something less contentious.

To be clear, it’s not just tea party types who harbor these biases regarding African Americans. My daughter’s boyfriend’s father is literally a card carrying union member, and a proud liberal. Whenever we get together he always brings up the latest Republican or conservative outrage du jour, as well as offering me his opinions on everything from climate change, the pernicious effect of Citizen’s United, to the need for single payer health care and – of course – higher taxes for corporations and other wealthy tax scofflaws. He’s the most liberal friend I have.

Yet, the last time I saw him in late May, he pulled me aside to ask me about Marilyn Mosby, Maryland state Attorney for Baltimore and the prosecutor who charged six police officers for the death of Freddie Gray. He wanted my opinion as a former attorney. Specifically he felt that she overcharged the police officers, but worse, in her her press conference her remarks about the police officers and the young victim were too aggressive and provocative. To put it bluntly, he implied that she “overplayed the race card” in her statements to the public about Mr. Gray’s death.

To be fair, he’s not the only white person who has suggested she over-politicized the racial aspect of Freddie Gray’s death when she announced charges against those six cops. Look at this description of her actions at that press conference by Baltimore Sun columnist, Dan Rodricks:

Meanwhile, the rest of us can look at [Mosby’s] behavior since May 1 — the outdoor spectacle when she shouted out the charges against the Freddie Gray 6; her decision to appear on stage with Prince and serve with her husband as honorary ringmaster of the UniverSoul Circus; the interview with Vogue — and see a person who clearly covets the limelight.

Marilyn Mosby is certainly a politician, more so in style than any state’s attorney in memory.

In Baltimore, we’ve seen, since 1983, Kurt Schmoke, Stuart Simms, Patricia Jessamy and Gregg Bernstein — all buttoned-down, professional and serious, with only rare flashes of showmanship, and usually in an election year.

Call it a matter of taste, but I like prosecutors who are all business and kind of boring. Prosecuting crime is serious stuff, and it calls for a serious public style. You have to believe a prosecutor is making decisions in the interest of justice and not just to please the crowd.

I don’t know about you, but maybe as a retired attorney, I find it strange to see a district attorney criticized for being a politician. After all the office is political in nature. I’ve seen many press conferences in which a prosecutor announced an indictment, and they all generally follow the same pattern. The DA makes a big deal about the charges, states they are justified in light of the evidence, thanks his or her “team” of investigators, and promises that justice will be served on behalf of the community and the victim. I watched Mosby’s press conference and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary as these things go. It was all pretty standard operating procedure. The only differences from the usual high profile case? The defendants were cops, and Mosby is an intelligent young female black attorney.

I keep reflecting back to that little hummingbird this morning. With one exception – the supermarket employee who was a young Latino male – all of us were white men and women. No doubt some were religious (this area has a large number of churches and a high percentage of Catholics), and some were not. There’s a good chance that I was in the minority as a person holding liberal/progressive beliefs with a record of voting for either Democratic or Working Families Party candidates here in New York. Yet, all of us were completely in agreement with what we felt regarding that little bird. We felt its pain. We identified with its suffering. We all experienced emotions of compassion and empathy for it even though it was a different species.

And let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with that. We should feel concern for all living creatures. What I find troubling is how little compassion and empathy so many people in our country, even a few here at Daily Kos, have for the victims of police violence when they are, as it often turns out to be the case, people of color. What is it that makes some of us see a small. bikini clad teenager as “no saint” when she is physically assaulted by a police officer? What is it about the other African American victims of state sanctioned violence – Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, etc. – that makes us so quick to believe they were somehow responsible for what was done to them, that they in some way deserved the death penalty for – being black?

Why instead of feeling empathy and compassion for these victims do so many feel anger and outrage that their deaths at the hands of police officers are being questioned? Why the fierce backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement? Why the need for so many to berate the protestors with signs and slogans proclaiming “White Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter” when no one has ever claimed they do not? I know there many who have offered up countless explanations and justifications – psychological, sociological, political – for the attitudes of these people, but I find it harder and harder to accept any reason for why such ugly and bigoted beliefs should continue to prevail among so many Americans, and predominately white Americans, at that. I get some of them are afraid, or filled with rage at perceived slights, or just believe the stereotypes fed to them by the media that blacks are inferior, prone to criminality, dangerous, not as moral as whites, ad nauseam.

But I’m sick of excuses from these people. I’m sick of their bigotry, their racism, the very real harm they do to other human beings merely be holding these beliefs and supporting those who participate in the violence and injustice done to our African American brothers and sisters. And I might add, the same thing can be said about those who hate and despise LGBT people, Muslims, Latinos, the disabled, atheists and other groups who feel the lash of prejudice.

It’s a standard science fiction trope in literature and the cinema that humanity is always at each others throats until some invasion of aliens from space show up to threaten all human existence. Then, like magic, a switch flips and we all become best buds in the fight to save the human race, on the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” I suppose. But why should it take a potential extinction event to cause all of us to reject the demons of our own irrational biases and hatreds and end these unreasonable and despicable belief systems that promote the viewpoint that any group of human beings is of lesser value than any other? Do not all of us have the right to be who we are without fear that our very lives are at risk because of the color of our skin, the people we love, the language we speak, the clothes we wear, the politics we espouse or the god(s) – or not – to whom we pray?

Regarding the relative value of birds and human beings, Jesus is reported to have said:

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

Matthew 6:26, English Standard version

I say: Are not our brothers and sisters who suffer under the burdens of racism, prejudice and hate as deserving of our compassion as one small hummingbird?

It’s Raining Lots Harder These Days (Just as the Climate Models Predicted in 2007)

That graphic from Climate Central shows the top fifty cities in the United States with the largest percentage increase in intense rain events (comparing the decade 1950-1959 to the ten year period 2005-2014). Those dramatic increases in heavy rainfall are no accident. They are the direct result of anthropogenic climate change. From Scientific American, dated May 27, 2015, “Heaviest Downpours Rise across the U.S.”

Record-breaking rain across Texas and Oklahoma this week caused widespread flooding, the likes of which the region has rarely, if ever, seen. For seven locations there, May 2015 has seen the most rain of any month ever recorded, with five days to go and the rain still coming. While rainfall in the region is consistent with the emerging El Niño, the unprecedented amounts suggest a possible climate change signal, where a warming atmosphere becomes more saturated with water vapor and capable of previously unimagined downpours.

Several people have been killed and hundreds have been rescued from their homes. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already declared disaster areas in 37 counties. These torrential downpours follow weeks of unusually rainy weather across the Southern Plains. And they stack up to a broader trend in the region, and across the U.S., toward more heavy precipitation.

Across most of the country, the heaviest downpours are happening more frequently, delivering a deluge in place of what would have been routine heavy rain. Climate Central’s new analysis of 65 years of rainfall records at thousands of stations nationwide found that 40 of the lower 48 states have seen an overall increase in heavy downpours since 1950.

Gosh, makes you wonder who could have predicted such a state of affairs? Oh right, there was ONE group of people who did. From the 2007 Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis, FAQ 10.1

Summer dryness indicates a greater risk of drought. Along with the risk of drying, there is an increased chance of intense precipitation and flooding due to the greater water-holding capacity of a warmer atmosphere. This has already been observed and is projected to continue because in a warmer world, precipitation tends to be concentrated into more intense events, with longer periods of little precipitation in between. Therefore, intense and heavy downpours would be interspersed with longer relatively dry periods. Another aspect of these projected changes is that wet extremes are projected to become more severe in many areas where mean precipitation is expected to increase, and dry extremes are projected to become more severe in areas where mean precipitation is projected to decrease.

Dear Climate Change Denialists (including just about every Republican candidate for the 2016 Republican Presidential Nomination, but especially Jeb Bush), please proceed.

High School Art Exhibit Attacked By Cops for Depicting Police Brutality

Many, many police officers and their supporters are going ape shit very upset at a group of student artists at Westfield High School in New Jersey for daring to exhibit their artwork. Why? Because the art in question is based on the theme “Law Enforcement – Police Brutality.” I guess cops can give a punch (or a taser shot, “rough ride” or a bullet) but they can’t stand to see any artistic expression of that behavior, symbolic or otherwise. And so they are lambasting the high school and the student artists whose only crime, as far as I can tell, was using their own life experience of interactions with police to inform what they create.

Artwork depicting scenes of police brutality displayed in a Westfield High School art show has set off a firestorm of comments from police supporters who have called the images “a gross misrepresentation,” “ignorant” and “one-sided.”

The artwork depicts images of officers with guns drawn, a target on a silhouette with his hands up, a bloodied body stabbed by a police shield and other scenes on a poster board that reads “Law Enforcement – Police Brutality.” The silkscreens were part of an annual project where students depict their takes on controversial topics, according to a student.

A storm of protest on social media erupted after the images first appeared on the school’s facebook page, with a large number of people calling for the firing of the Superintendent for the school district, Dr. Margaret Dolan. Here’s a screenshot of some of the tamer responses to the exhibit posted on the school’s facebook page:

Of course, Fox News couldn’t resist covering this story. Here’s Eric Bolling’s fair and balanced take on this matter, where he implicitly blamed the teachers at Westfield High for attacking the police, and demanded the exhibit be “taken down.”

Superintendent Dolan, as result of this “controversy” posted a response attempting to defuse the criticism from people who posted comments such and attacked the school district for “teaching kids to disrespect the police.”

I am sorry that information that has been passed along via social media and elsewhere has not told the entire story and has led some to believe that we do not respect law enforcement. We do, and we are teaching our students to do the same.

Ironically, it was the kids at the school who chose the subject – not the Superintendent, not their teachers. They were told that it was their choice to make and that, as one of the students, Kayla related to NJ.com:

“We submitted several different topics of our choice and finally narrowed them down to three – Law Enforcement- Police Brutality, Modern Technology Advances and Gender Equality,” said student Kayla McMillan. “The students were allowed to choose either side of the arguments and were told they would not be in trouble for their own opinions.”

Welcome to the real world, Kayla, where people will not respect your right to freedom of expression if it upsets their delicate sensibilities. Obviously, the student artists who created these images didn’t do so in a vacuum, nor did their teachers brainwash them to “hate the police.” The reality in America today is that police violence against all citizens, but particularly minority populations is commonplace, despite falling crime rates. We’ve all seen overzealous and violent law enforcement responses to peaceful protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street, and far too many shootings, and other instances of police violence against African Americans and Latinos, may of them unarmed and often while they were already in custody (e.g., Freddi Gray).

The cops and their supporters can loudly proclaim all they want that these “incidents” are infrequent and represent only a few bad apples. However, as more stories come out of officially sanctioned abuse and outright torture, such as what occurred in Chicago’s infamous Homan Square station, and as more and more people capture video of these brutal outrages (e.g., Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner) where innocent people are murdered by cops, the harder it is to defend the police, especially since so many of them remain silent in the face of their fellow officers’ open criminality.

Frankly, in this case, the kids got it right.

How Balt. Riot Police Helped Spark the Rioting – The Psychology of Militarized Police & Crowds

There are many factors that contributed to the riots that broke out yesterday in the lower income community of West Baltimore, the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, despite the best intentions of community leaders, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Police Commissioner, as well as the wishes of Gray’s family.

Obviously, while the pent-up anger toward the Baltimore police over the death of Freddie Gray was a huge factor, there were many others, as well. Decades of abuses by the BPD, including the far too often employment of excessive force that led to many injuries and deaths. The utter lack of any accountability by police officers to the community that suffered under these oppressive and unjust policing practices. The failure of the local educational system due to serious underfunding and official neglect. “Poor” economic outcomes for people living in that part of Baltimore, grossly inadequate housing and high rates of incarceration, especially among young people.

All those are relevant to what occurred, but I’d like to address a more immediate factor that I believe set the stage for the riots yesterday: the heavily militarized presence of the police themselves. Even before the first rock was thrown, legions of police were openly deployed in full riot gear, armed with tear gas, pepper spray, batons, tasers, guns that fired “non-lethal” rounds such as rubber bullets, etc. Take a look at this image of these officers in their full gear yesterday (from Slate):

These don’t look like cops, they look like an invading military force. How would it make you feel if large numbers of police that looked like this suddenly showed up in your local town or community on a day when you and other residents were dealing with the grief of a family’s loss caused by the very same police force? What did the appearance of heavily armed, paramilitary style police units in the neighborhoods tell the people who live in West Baltimore about what the “authorities” expected to happen?

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is taking a lot of heat for not having a more “robust” police response and presence, but I suggest to you that more police and more police “force” would not have staved off yesterday’s riot. The problem wasn’t a lack of police, but the presence of too many police deployed as military units with the aim of intimidation, i.e., by sending an implicit threat of violence against unarmed civilians should “things get out of hand.”

In short, the very nature of the police who were “deployed” in this manner begged for a violent reaction from the residents of West Baltimore, people already highly charged emotionally by the events of the past 15 days since Freddie Gray was arrested and fatally injured in the custody of “Baltimore’s Finest” back on the morning of April 12th. To understand why the presence of large numbers of police in their full riot gear helped spark the rioting, it is necessary to examine the the psychological effect of large crowds faced by exactly this type of police response.

# # #

The common response of most elected officials and politicians, when confronted with outbreaks of crowd violence, is to condemn those rioting as “criminals” and “thugs,” whose bad behavior is both senseless and counterproductive. In fact, Mayor used many of those words, including the characterization of the rioters as “thugs,” to describe the participants in yesterday’s riot.

But the notion that rioters are always comprised of people motivated solely by a desire to destroy, loot and commit acts of violence, like many lazy explanations of complex human behavior, makes the issue of riots into an overly simplified morality play in which there are only two camps: “good guys,” i.e., peaceful protestors, and the “bad guys, ” or the rioters. The real world dynamic that plays out when otherwise normal individuals suddenly engage in violent behavior when they are part of a larger group does not lend itself to such easy answers, however.

Psychologists have long studied the dynamics of crowd behavior. The question of why crowds erupt into violence in some situations and not others has been considered by a number of researchers. The truth is large groups change how people see themselves and changes what behaviors they are willing to undertake as part of that group. People rarely gather together for the sole purpose of starting a riot.

If you have ever been in mob that was agitated about some injustice, you know how contagious it can be. Ordinary people, normal citizens, you and me – we get swept up and do things that would be unlikely under other circumstances: shouting, shoving, throwing rocks, smashing windows, and, yes, even looting.

It usually takes an incident to get a riot started, such as an accident or the police attacking or killing an innocent bystander. But once it has begun, the raging mob has a life of its own. Deep-seated resentments, repetitive frustrations and long standing disappointments galvanize people into action. And the mob provides cover, an anonymity that makes it easier to overcome one’s usual reticence or moral scruples. One is immersed, engulfed. And it can become an exuberant experience, a joyful release for long suppressed emotions. It can also become manic, driven, a means of restlessly seeking new outlets. Leadership emerges spontaneously and changes rapidly.

It offers a kind of intense belonging, not dissimilar to what spectators feel at a sports event or fans at a rock concert. But because it isn’t focused on a game or performance, it easily gets out of hand. Freud described such “mass psychology” in 1924, in the tumultuous aftermath of World War One. Others have studied it since as a recurrent form of group behavior.

One significant factor that affects whether crowds remain peaceful or turn violent, which has been identified in the research literature, is the manner in which police at the scene are deployed for the purpose of “crowd control.” Specifically, a militarized police presence increases the risk of crowd violence.

The violence that turns a small-town protest into a fiery national spectacle like the one that has played out this month in Missouri is often unwittingly provoked by police, according to researchers at UC Berkeley.

The research team, which studied clashes between police and activists during the Occupy movement three years ago, found that protests tend to turn violent when officers use aggressive tactics, such as approaching demonstrators in riot gear or lining up in military-like formations.

In effect, what happens is that when police present themselves as an occupying force, armed to the teeth in military style gear, it changes the psychology of the people whom the police confront. It inflames the situation, and creates an “us” versus “them” mentality among the crowds faced with an image of deadly force at the hands of police arrayed in this fashion.

[A] great deal of social-psychological research, as well as important anecdotal evidence from law-enforcement specialists themselves, suggests that militarized policing can greatly inflame situations that might otherwise end peacefully.

“Theory underlying the weapons effect or similar kinds of phenomena would suggest that the more you fill the environment with stimuli that are associated with violence, the more likely violence is to occur,” said Bruce Bartholow, a University of Missouri social psychologist who has studied the weapons effect. Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State, agreed. “I would expect a bigger effect if you see military weapons than if you see normal weapons,” he said.

This isn’t just about a link between visual stimuli like guns and violence, however. It also has to do with the roles people adopt, with how they respond to the presence of others who may — or may not — mean them harm. To a certain extent, if you dress and treat people like soldiers facing a deadly enemy, they’ll act like it.

In other words, the very equipment, gear and tactics that police forces in the United States have adopted with the intent to enhance public safety, instead often has the opposite effect. This occurs because of the psychological effects these “indicia” of violence create in the minds of those targeted by this “display” of force:

Rather than passively controlling a protest, heavy riot gear actively changes the dynamics of crowd behavior, according to the best new behavioral evidence. The twisted outcome is one that too many police forces have yet to learn: the military-style equipment intended to enhance public safety often ends up threatening it.

Research into the behavior of crowds has led to what one social scientist in the field, Clifford Stott, named the Elaborated Social Identity Model. That’s a mouthful of jargonese, but the essential elements of his theory are not beyond the realm of comprehension by lay people. In short, it refers to the way the psychological identity of individuals in crowds change based on the situation in which they find themselves.

Science writer Vaughan Bell gave a great hypothetical example of this behavioral model during the U.K. riots in 2011. Picture yourself on a bus with lots of strangers. Technically, you all share a common goal of reaching your destination safely. But you each have a social identity that doesn’t necessarily overlap: the old people, the commuters, the annoyingly loud teenagers. If the bus suddenly comes under attack, however, those various identities are united by a single goal: defend against the outside force. “You didn’t lose your identity,” writes Bell, “you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.”

Here’s where the militarization of local police becomes so problematic. Officers in full-on riot gear give all the individuals in a protest crowd a common enemy. It’s not that everyone in the protest crowd suddenly assumes the identity of a violent jerk—it’s that the many peaceful protestors feel a sort of kinship with the violent jerks against the aggressive police. Despite their differences, they’re united by a single goal: defend against the outside force.

This “social identity” is fluid, and easily influenced by changes in the environment. For example, lets consider the situation yesterday in Baltimore. A large number of people, particularly young people, were upset over the death of a Freddie Gray, a young man who died of massive trauma from injuries sustained while in police custody, actions yet to be fully explained. When these young people were released from school back onto the streets they found themselves confronted by a large police presence, police who affected the image of combat soldiers on the very day of Gray’s funeral, an emotional and gut wrenching experience for everyone in that community. The militarized image of the police, one intended to passively intimidate anyone they police came across, was not the optimal tactic for de-escalating the tension and anger of West Baltimore’s residents.

It was the equivalent of throwing gasoline on hot coals. So, what should Baltimore’s officials and the police have done differently? Well, based on Stott’s research into English soccer “hooligans” several things.

First, the police visible in the community should have been in standard uniforms, maintaining a low profile, similar to the policy adopted by Seattle’s former Police Chief, Gil Kerlikowske:

INSKEEP: The anniversary of WTO, a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization led to violent street protests. Kerlikowske became Seattle’s police chief soon afterward. And then came the anniversary protest. Kerlikowske’s response says a lot about the complexities of using force. The new chief did not want violent protests. So, he started by concentrating on what his officers wore.

KERLIKOWSKE: Rather than have all of our officers in very hard gear, helmets and masks and on and on. I was with them in the streets in soft gear.

INSKEEP: Meaning just uniformed police officers, looking like police officers.

Such an approach yesterday in Baltimore would have sent a message that violence was not expected by the authorities. It also would have shown respect for the community. After all, Gray’s family had requested a moratorium on all protests over his death yesterday. West Baltimore should have been given the opportunity to honor that request. Any police in riot gear should have been held back, far from the view of West Baltimore’s residents.

Instead, the Mayor and the police panicked. in the face of rumors of a planned “purge”, they opted for a high profile militarized show of force by police in full riot gear.

With tensions in the city running high on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, police began alerting local businesses and mobilizing officers.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore was one of the first institutions to acknowledge law enforcement concerns. With exams about to begin, school officials abruptly canceled classes “on recommendation of the BPD.” […]

When 3 p.m. came, 75 to 100 students heading to Mondawmin Mall were greeted by dozens of police officers in riot gear. The mall is a transportation hub for students from several nearby schools.

The students began pelting officers with water bottles and rocks. Bricks met shields. Glass shattered up and down Gwynns Falls Parkway. Officers sprayed Mace. Confrontations bled into side streets, where officers threw bricks back. A heavily armored Bearcat tactical vehicle rolled through the neighborhood.

One officer, bloodied in the melee, was carried through Westbury Avenue by his comrades. Police used tear gas to move crowds down the street. […]

Some said the presence of the police antagonized the neighborhood.

“The thing is if the cops never came up here, they weren’t going to [mess] up Mondawmin,” said a young woman who was watching the clash. ” What are they going to [mess] up Mondawmin for? They shop here. This is their home.”

If those police had not been there to confront the kids walking home from school, would yesterday’s violence been averted. We will never know, but I believe that would have been the case. There was no need for the BPD to be out in full riot gear positioned to confront those kids, no need to have spread panic among businesses and schools, no need for any of these actions, when research and the experience of other police departments around the world in dealing with similar situations, demonstrates a militarized police presence is just as likely to lead to an outbreak of violence as it is to prevent one. Probably moreso.

I hope that Baltimore’s local government and the BPD will draw the correct lesson from yesterday’s experience and modify their practices to minimize the risk of further violence in the wake of this tragedy. I fear, however that will not be what happens. I fear they will conclude that next time they must deploy police in even greater numbers, with an even greater arsenal, and react to any “bad actors” in the crowd with an even more aggressive response. If they do that, God help the people of Baltimore.

The Global Warming “Pause” That Wasn’t Explained in One Simple Video Graphic

Deniers have repeatedly claimed the global warming “hit the pause button” over the last few years. This idea that global warming had “paused” has been their biggest talking point of late. They have employed it to attack research that shows global warming was caused by increased emissions of greenhouse gasses. In short, they argued climate scientists were the ones “in denial” about “global warming,” not them. They proudly proclaimed victory over “eco-alarmists,” asserting that this “pause” demonstrated that all climate change models based on climate research were grossly inaccurate and misleading, at best, and outright lies, at worst.

Primarily, the argument they make says that rising temperatures have plateaued over the last 15 years or so. And it is true that atmospheric warming slowed. But global warming did not. This short video reveals the lie behind the claim of a global warming pause better than a thousand words from me:

As you can see, 93% of the increased heat caused by more and more greenhouse gas emissions leading to ever increasing levels of those gases in the atmosphere, was absorbed by the Earth’s oceans. The rise of ocean temperatures never paused or slowed or leveled off – quite the contrary. And now we are poised for rapid increases, again, in atmospheric temperatures.

Humanity is about to experience a historically unprecedented spike in temperatures. […]

Papers in two leading journals this week reaffirmed that the warming effects of a substantial chunk of our greenhouse gas pollution have been avoided on land for the last 15 to 20 years because of a phase in a decades-long cycle of ocean winds and currents. With Pacific trade winds expected to slacken in the years ahead, the studies warn that seas will begin absorbing less of global warming’s energy, and that some of the heat they’ve been holding onto will rise to the surface.

“Their results make sense to me, and are consistent with other evidence,” National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Kevin Trenberth, who has published research dealing with the relationship between Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) phases and surface warming, but who was not involved with either of the new studies, said. “The PDO clearly plays a key role — and very high PDO values in recent months appear to signal a change.”

The growing body of research helps explain why ocean temperatures have been rising faster than anticipated, and, perhaps more compellingly, why land temperatures rose less than models had projected after the turn of the century — a mystery, sometimes dubbed the warming “hiatus,” “pause” or “faux pause,” that confounded science until just the last couple of years.

“The hiatus [i.e., “pause”] is associated with the negative PDO phase — with strong subtropical trade winds that pile the warm water up in the tropical western Pacific, and bury some warm water in the subtropics,” Trenberth said. “If you turn that off, then the waters warm more generally and over a shallower layer, with consequences for the atmosphere above.”

So, the next time your climate challenged friends claim that temperatures have stopped going up, and thus the science that supports climate change is “all wet,” tell them, “Yes, that’s exactly what it is.” Then show them this video.

Killing Black People – Part 2: Slavery

This is the second in a series of posts that examine the underlying causes for the continuing police violence disproportionately employed against African Americans, causes I believe to be deeply rooted in the past history of racism, slavery and the unique situation of blacks in the history of this country. The first one can be found here.

There I discussed the role played by denial, revisionist history, educators and popular culture after the Civil War that created and/or reinforced stereotypes, biases and racism against African Americans. In particular, I examined the creation of the fictionalized image of African Americans as a lesser form of humanity, one inferior to whites and prone to criminality and violence, with an emphasis on the the iconic and infamous image of the hyper-sexual, animal-like “Black Brute.” I concluded that the manner in which these fictionalized narratives, stereotypical portrayals and outright lies about African Americans and the institution of slavery (in both the South and the North) were perpetrated within the dominant culture informed not only how white Americans perceived black people, but also laid the foundation to justify and excuse the disproportionate use of violence against African American communities as a means of social control.

Part 2 now examines the era of American slavery to shed light on the historical record of brutality, abuse, atrocity and violence, one which many white Americans are not taught about in schools even today; facts that a significant percentage of white people either ignore or discount, or in some cases simply reject outright and do not accept as true.

Reality: The Historical Record of an American Atrocity

Slavery – The Colonial Years:

The United States were colonies once upon a time, colonies that were dependent in large part on the slave trade for their economic viability. From the quasi-aristocratic gentry and their plantations of the Southern colonies, to the enterprising slave traders in New England, slavery played a dominate role in the economies of both North and South. Tobacco and sugar were to England and its colonies the equivalent of gold and silver to Spain’s empire in the Americas. The production of both required slaves. And the cheapest, most profitable source of slaves was Africa.

For instance, in the seventeenth century, the Royal Africa Company could buy an enslaved African with trade goods worth £3 and have that person sold for £20 in the Americas. The Royal Africa Company was able to make an average profit of 38% per voyage in the 1680s. […]

Slavery was the oil in the machine of these transatlantic economies. By the 1760s annual exports from the West Indies alone to Britain were worth over £3m (equivalent to around £250m today).

Individuals made large profits: for instance the merchant Thomas Leyland, three times mayor of Liverpool, made a profit of £12,000 (about £1m today) on the 1798 voyage of his ship Lottery.

This trade in human flesh did not go unnoticed by the American colonists in the northeast. The first slave traders of record shipped slaves from Africa in 1644. By 1680, two-thirds of all the American ships that traded in slaves were based out of Rhode Island. the trade in slaves, tobacco and sugar was the “first great global industry.” By the early 1700s, England was importing over 20 million pounds of tobacco each year from colonies such as Virginia, where slaves provided the work force for the large and small tobacco planters alike.

The majority of blacks living in the Chesapeake worked on tobacco plantations and large farms. Since the cultivation of tobacco was extremely labor-intensive, African slave labor was used, despite questions of whether slavery was morally right … Tobacco was an eleven-month crop. Cultivation began in late January … By mid summer, tobacco was growing in the fields, but the delicate plant required constant care. At harvest time, tobacco was gathered and prepared for its shipment to England. […]

Slavery was the foundation of Virginia’s agricultural system and essential to its economic viability. Initially, planters bought slaves primarily to raise tobacco for export. By the last quarter of the 18th century, wealthy Virginia farmers were using slave labor in a diversified agricultural regime. Enslaved African Americans also worked as skilled tradesmen in the countryside and in the capital city of Williamsburg. Many also served as domestics in the households of wealthier white Virginians.

After the Revolution: It Gets Worse:

The American Revolution, nominally based proposition that all men were created equal and born with certain “inalienable rights” such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” was of course the first great lie regarding the foundation of the country that came to be known as the United States. As you may recall, per the Constitution, slaves counted as 3/5th of a person for purposes of determining how many free white men from each state could be elected to the House of Representatives, and for purposes of the Electoral College.

Unfortunately, despite the many slave memoirs and autobiographies written and published during the years the peculiar institution was officially sanctioned, and those that were published afterwards, many white Americans, especially those who lived in former slave states are still taught that slavery was not particularly harsh or cruel life for those held in bondage as property, despite all evidence to the contrary. Evidence such as can be seen in the following infamous photograph of an escaped slave, often referred to as “Gordon under medical inspection.”

Reports of beaten, whipped and raped slaves were far from uncommon in the pre-Civil War years. It’s one of the reasons Uncle Tom’s Cabin was both a national bestseller and widely reviled by Southern whites, who protested it was full of lies about how their precious slaves were treated. Yet, Stowe’s portrayal of the brutality inflicted upon slaves was a mild depiction compared to actual narratives authored by those who suffered the harsh life of being subject to the whims of one’s master, such as revealed most famously in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave and Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave.

More telling than these manuscripts, however, was the reaction of slaves to their condition of involuntary lifetime servitude.

Slave Rebellions, Escapes and the White Response:

According to some historians, there were as many as 250 slave revolts or conspiracies to revolt prior to the Civil War. Slave rebellions, of course had occurred prior to the revolution, including rebellions in northern states such as New York. The largest pre-Revolutionary slave revolt was perhaps the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739:

South Carolina, September 9, 1739: A band of slaves march down the road, carrying banners that proclaim “Liberty!”. They shout out the same word. Led by an Angolan named Jemmy, the men and women continue to walk south, recruiting more slaves along the way. By the time they stop to rest for the night, their numbers will have approached one hundred.

This revolt may have been triggered by a proclamation by Spain that any slave who reached St. Augustine (then part of the Spanish Empire) would be freed, and the subsequent passage of the “Security Act: in August 1839, which required every white male to carry firearms to church (Sundays being a day slaves were usually left to their own devices while whites attended services). The Security Act was intended to allay white fears of any slave rebellion. It may have had the opposite effect of encouraging slaves to rebel. In any event, ultimately approximately 20-25 whites were killed by the rebelling slaves. Armed whites put down the revolt by shooting to death 14 “rebels” in a confrontation on and subsequently executing all those who they recaptured. One result of the Stono Rebellion was a law known as the Negro Act that expressly forbid slaves from “grow[ing] their own food, assembl[ing ]in groups, earn[ing] their own money, or learn[ing] to read.”

Slave rebellions and plots increased after the Revolution as slavery spread to the new states and territories of the South. Some of the more well known of these insurrections include the Gabriel Prosser Conspiracy of 1800 in Virginia, the Denmark Versey of 1822 in Charleston South Carolina, and perhaps the most famous of all the slave revolts in the United States, Nat Turner’s Rebellion of August, 1831 in Virginia:

[O]n August 21, Turner and six of his men met in the woods to eat a dinner and make their plans. At 2:00 that morning, they set out to the Travis household, where they killed the entire family as they lay sleeping. They continued on, from house to house, killing all of the white people they encountered. Turner’s force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most on horseback.

By about mid-day on August 22, Turner decided to march toward Jerusalem, the closest town. By then word of the rebellion had gotten out to the whites; confronted by a group of militia, the rebels scattered, and Turner’s force became disorganized. After spending the night near some slave cabins, Turner and his men attempted to attack another house, but were repulsed. Several of the rebels were captured. The remaining force then met the state and federal troops in final skirmish, in which one slave was killed and many escaped, including Turner. In the end, the rebels had stabbed, shot and clubbed at least 55 white people to death.

Nat Turner hid in several different places near the Travis farm, but on October 30 was discovered and captured. His “Confession,” dictated to physician Thomas R. Gray, was taken while he was imprisoned in the County Jail. On November 5, Nat Turner was tried in the Southampton County Court and sentenced to execution. He was hanged, and then skinned, on November 11.

In total, the state executed 55 people, banished many more, and acquitted a few. The state reimbursed the slaveholders for their slaves. But in the hysterical climate that followed the rebellion, close to 200 black people, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were murdered by white mobs. In addition, slaves as far away as North Carolina were accused of having a connection with the insurrection, and were subsequently tried and executed.

Revolt was not the only means by which African American slaves sought to escape the harsh reality of being a commodity, to be bought and sold as any other form of personal property. When possible, many of slaves risked their lives and ran away from their “kindly” masters in large numbers (one estimate says at least 100,000 ” between 1810 and 1850″). These numbers led to the passage of a law (included as part of the Compromise of 1850 at the insistence of Congressional Representatives and Senators from slave states) which gave unprecedented federal power and authority to anyone seeking to recapture escaped slaves from states and territories where slavery was illegal. This law, as many of you know, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, one of the most controversial laws in American history.

Of all the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was the most controversial. It required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. It denied a fugitive’s right to a jury trial. (Cases would instead be handled by special commissioners — commissioners who would be paid $5 if an alleged fugitive were released and $10 if he or she were sent away with the claimant.) The act called for changes in filing for a claim, making the process easier for slave owners. Also, according to the act, there would be more federal officials responsible for enforcing the law.

For slaves attempting to build lives in the North, the new law was disaster. Many left their homes and fled to Canada. During the next ten years, an estimated 20,000 blacks moved to the neighboring country. For Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive living in New York, passage of the law was “the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population.” She stayed put, even after learning that slave catchers were hired to track her down. Anthony Burns, a fugitive living in Boston, was one of many who were captured and returned to slavery. Free blacks, too, were captured and sent to the South. With no legal right to plead their cases, they were completely defenseless.

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act made abolitionists all the more resolved to put an end to slavery. The Underground Railroad became more active, reaching its peak between 1850 and 1860. The act also brought the subject of slavery before the nation. Many who had previously been ambivalent about slavery now took a definitive stance against the institution.

The Fugitive Slave Act was followed by the equally controversial and widely despised decision by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sanford. There, after pressure by President Buchanan, the court held that (1) African Americans, free or slave could not be citizens of the United States or any individual state, and had no standing to sue in Federal Courts; (2) No law that would in effect deprive a slave owner of his or her “property” after a slave moved to a free state or territory was enforceable pursuant to the 5th Amendment; and (3) to the extent the 1850 Compromise gave the Federal government the power to regulate slavery in free territories, the laws of the states from which a slave escaped took precedence over federal law.

Slavery and White Violence

Slave Traders and Slave Patrols:

Suffice it to say that no system of oppression can exist without the use of force, both psychological and physical. Violence as a means of control of African American slaves existed from the very beginning. After all, to make a person a slave one must first employ physical force to abduct that person and keep him or here under your control before you can even begin to think about selling that slave to a market where “its” labor and body has value. What other purpose would all those chains and shackles on slave ships serve?

Then, once the slaves (those who survived the trip from Africa) had been purchased by its end user, means had to be taken to ensure that the “asset” did not just up and leave its new owner in the lurch. Or worse, decide to murder Massa in his bed. Violence became a necessary means of maintaining what we euphemistically call “social control.”

Torture, execution, rape – all were violent means to the end of insuring the slave stayed where he or she belonged – working for its owner at whatever that owner demanded it do. In short, slave owners by necessity had to be terrorists. They had to create fear of punishment, up to and including the possibility of death, in their slaves to insure the obedience and productivity of same. It didn’t matter whether a slave owner or his agent (i.e., the proverbial “overseer”) dispensed these punishments, for the object lesson for all the slaves – do not disobey your master, or else this could happen to you – did not depend on who acted as the instrument of violence.

For the same reason, slave patrols and local “militias” came into being. Here the benefit provided did not accrue to any particular slave owner, but to all who supported the patrols with men, arms or money. They were in effect the first “police forces” in what would become the United States.

The slave patrols emerged from a combination of the Night Watch, used in Northern colonies, and the Barbadian Slave Code initially employed by Barbadians settlers in South Carolina in the early 1700s.

As Southern colonies developed an agricultural economic system, slave trade became indispensable to keep the economy running. African slaves soon outnumbered whites in some colonies and the fear of insurrections and riots led to the establishment of organized groups of vigilantes to keep them under control.

In The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America 1638 – 1870, W.E.B Du Bois quotes South Carolinian authorities: “The great number of negroes which of late have been imported into this Colony may endanger the safety thereof.” And “…the white persons do not proportionately multiply, by reason whereof, the safety of the said Province is greatly endangered.”

All white men aged six to sixty, were required to enlist and conduct armed patrols every night which consisted of: Searching slave residences, breaking up slave gatherings, and protecting communities by patrolling the roads. Historian Sally E. Hadden, notes:

“In the countryside, such patrols were to ‘visit every Plantation within their respective Districts once in every Month’ and whenever they thought it necessary, ‘to search and examine all Negro-Houses for offensive weapons and Ammunition.’ They were also authorized to enter any ‘disorderly tipling-House, or other Houses suspected of harboring, trafficking or dealing with Negroes’ and could inflict corporal punishment on any slave found to have left his owner’s property without permission. ‘slave patrols’ had full power and authority to enter any plantation and break open Negro houses or other places when slaves were suspected of keeping arms; to punish runaways or slaves found outside their plantations without a pass; to whip any slave who should affront or abuse them in the execution of their duties; and to apprehend and take any slave suspected of stealing or other criminal offense, and bring him to the nearest magistrate.”

Free blacks and “suspicious” whites who associated with slaves were also supervised. Slaves lived in a state of trauma and paranoia due to the terror that these patrols instilled in them. Various former slaves from different colonies provide an account of their daily lives.

Indeed, the “Stono Rebellion” discussed above, which occurred at a time when slaves may actually have outnumbered free whites in colonial South Carolina led to the creation of the first formal “Slave Code” that mandated the creation and operation of slave patrols.

In response to the Stono incident, South Carolina became the first of the three slave-owning states to adopt a comprehensive slave code. The new code officially established slave patrols or “paddyrollers,” groups of white men charged though civic duty to keep slaves down and keep revolts from happening.

But putting down or discouraging revolts was far from their only purpose. Indeed, they primary function was to recapture escaped slaves. Thus evolved the first use of racial profiling in America and the the first use of ID – slave passes.

Racial profiling became the fundamental principle of policing and the definition of law enforcement came to be white –and whitewashed – patrolmen watching, detaining, arresting and beating up people of color.

In an effort to establish a consistent surveillance and identification system, the slave pass, one of the earliest forms of IDs, was created to prevent indentured Irish servants from fleeing their master’s property, to identify Native Americans entering white colonies to trade, and to limit mobility of black slaves, of course.

Funny how things come full circle. But I digress.

The last means to which a slave owner could resort to recover his missing property, in the event the slave patrol wasn’t up to snuff, were slave catchers.

These were people who literally made their living by tracking and hunting down runaway slaves – and the occasional free black living in the North, such as the aforementioned Solomon Northrup. Communities in northern states that had abolished slavery were not always welcoming to these men who skirted the edges of the law, slave catcher being an occupation in the nature of both bounty hunter and kidnapper.

The first national law regarding Fugitive slaves was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. However, after many states passed laws that conflicted with its provisions, the Supreme Court in 1842 held that state authorities were not required to assist slave catchers in enforcing that federal statute by it terms. Which, a few years later, of course, led to the passage of the far stricter, less open to interpretation, Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which expressly made it a crime for any state magistrate or official to refuse to assist in the recovery of a fugitive slave, one punishable by a fine of $1,000. This new law led to a great deal of trouble for northern communities whose sympathies lay more with the escaped slave than with the slave owner or his more often than not armed and dangerous agent.

After the Fugitive Slave Act passed, Wall helped start a local abolitionist society. Across the North, slavery’s opponents were resolving to do whatever they could to keep runaways free. To their minds, the law of the land had been so corrupted that there was no reason to obey it. The Fugitive Slave Act was little more than “a hideous deformity in the garb of law,” the abolitionist orator John Mercer Langston told a convention of black Ohioans in 1851. His brother Charles, a schoolteacher in Columbus who would be the namesake of his grandson Langston Hughes, called on “every slave, from Maryland to Texas, to arise and assert their liberties, and cut their masters’ throats. […]

Even as the Wall family prospered in Oberlin, however, their lives were never completely secure. Reports trickled in of court-sanctioned kidnappings in southern and central Ohio. The town reeled with word from Cincinnati of Margaret Garner, who cut her daughter’s throat rather than surrender her to slave-catchers. In 1854, Anthony Burns brought his own chilling story to Oberlin, where he was enrolling as a student. That spring he had run away from his master in Virginia, only to be captured in Boston and marched by a military guard past a crowd of tens of thousands to a boat that took him back south. He survived to tell his tale because horrified Bostonians raised $1,300 to redeem him. It was only a matter of time before the slave-catchers reached Oberlin.

They first started arriving in August 1858. In the summer heat Oberliners were besieged from within and without. Upon John Mercer Langston’s election as town clerk the year before, the man he defeated switched parties from Republican to Democrat and was appointed deputy U.S. marshal by the proslavery federal administration. Carrying an open grudge against Oberlin’s black residents, the new marshal, Anson Dayton, said that he was willing to capture fugitive slaves. He started responding to advertisements and reward notices, sending south descriptions of local blacks and offering to arrest them for money.

Even though many freed slaves lived in northern communities, corrupt officials were a threat to their continued freedom, as the new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was all too often abused to enslave both runaway slaves and freedmen. In fact, the source of abuse was written directly into the law itself (Section 8). It provided that any commissioner (an official appointed pursuant to the act who ruled on cases of regarding the validity of claims made to recover a slave) who ruled in favor of the claimant (i,e,, the slave catcher) would receive a $10 fee, but only $5 if he ruled in favor of the fugitive. As slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to US officials regarding the identity and ownership of the alleged “fugitive” slave, you can imagine how often accused “fugitives” succeeded in winning their freedom once they were in the hands of a Federal Marshall.

Northern states continued to pass laws, however, that directed state and local authorities not to obey the law, state courts that refused to enforce it, and juries who refused to convict people charged with violating it. All in all, the effect of the new law was negative, not only runaway slaves and those who aided them, but it also proved a bone of contention between Northern and Southern states. The controversies and disputes it engendered added fuel to the fire of the abolitionist movement and also to those in the slave states who favored secession. In fact, South Carolina, in its declaration of secession, cited many of the laws passed by the non slave states as justification for severing their state from the Union.

But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

From the beginning of the Civil War many, many slaves fled to Union forces to escape their masters. As early as May, 1861 slaves in Virginia sought refuge with and protection by Union forces.

On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel. Fort Monroe, Va., a fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, had been a military post since the time of the first Jamestown settlers. This spot where the slaves took refuge was also, by remarkable coincidence, the spot where slavery first took root, one summer day in 1619, when a Dutch ship landed with some 20 African captives for the fledgling Virginia Colony.

There the commanding officer, Gen. Benjamin Butler, decided to hold them as “contraband of war” rather than release them back to the Confederate forces. This posed a problem for President Lincoln, who had not yet decided to emancipate slaves that fell into Union hands.

Lincoln and his cabinet gathered to address Butler’s decision — and ended up punting. While reminding Butler that “the business you are sent upon . . . is war, not emancipation,” they left the general to decide what to do with fugitive slaves — including whether or not to continue declaring them contraband of war. Unfortunately, no detailed account of the deliberations survives. But a letter from one cabinet secretary, Montgomery Blair, suggests they were driven by a motive as common in Washington then as it is now: “a desire to escape responsibility for acting at all at this time.” By that point, the administration had already received a second dispatch from Butler, describing the influx of women and children. […]

Blair suggested that Butler keep only those slaves he needed as workers and release the rest, but Butler was stubborn and insisted that none should be released back to their former owners. By June over 500 slaves resided within the walls of the fort, and Northern newspapers had made the matter of the escaped slaves a “cause celebre” with many editorial boards supporting the General.

“Stampede Among the Negroes in Virginia,” proclaimed Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, with a double-page spread of dramatic woodcuts showing black men, women and children crossing a creek under a full moon, then being welcomed heartily into the fort by General Butler himself (or rather, by the artist’s trimmer, handsomer version of him). One correspondent estimated that “this species of property under Gen. Butler’s protection [is] worth $500,000, at a fair average of $1,000 apiece in the Southern human flesh market.”

Journalists throughout the Union quipped relentlessly about the “shipments of contraband goods” or, in the words of The Times, “contraband property having legs to run away with, and intelligence to guide its flight” — until, within a week or two after Butler’s initial decision, the fugitives had a new name: contrabands. It was a perfectly composed bit of slang, a minor triumph of Yankee ingenuity. […]

Many of the Union soldiers had never really spoken with a black person before; the Vermont farmboys had perhaps never even seen one before leaving home. Now they were conversing with actual men and women who had been (and perhaps still were) slaves: people who had previously figured only as a political abstraction. Some fugitives shared horrific accounts; one man described “bucking,” a practice in which a slave, before being beaten, had his wrists and ankles tied and slipped over a wooden stake. Almost all spoke of loved ones sold away; the most chilling thing was that they said it matter-of-factly, as if their wives or children had simply died.

Perhaps most surprising of all — for Northerners accustomed to Southern tales of contentedly dependent slaves — was this, in the words of one soldier: “There is a universal desire among the slaves to be free. . . . Even old men and women, with crooked backs, who could hardly walk or see, shared the same feeling.”

General Butler grew ever more adamant in the defense of “his” contrabands, to a degree that must have shocked his old associates. By July, he began pressing the Lincoln administration to admit that the contrabands were not really contraband: that they had become free.

Other Union armies soon faced similar dilemmas as escaped slaves flocked to their encampments.

Within weeks after the first contrabands’ arrival at Fort Monroe, slaves were reported flocking to the Union lines just about anywhere there were Union lines: in Northern Virginia, on the Mississippi, in Florida.

Most of these forces simply adopted the “practice” of declaring them contraband, allowing the escaped slaves to perform manual labor and other logistical services in support of the war effort. Eventually the small stream of refugee slaves became a flood, one the Union soldiers themselves found beneficial.

Within little more than a year, the stream of a few hundred contrabands at Fort Monroe became a river of tens — probably even hundreds — of thousands. They “flocked in vast numbers — an army in themselves — to the camps of the Yankees,” a Union chaplain wrote. “The arrival among us of these hordes was like the oncoming of cities.” […]

Blacks were contributing to the Union cause in larger ways. Not just at Fort Monroe but also throughout the South they provided Northerners with valuable intelligence and expert guidance. When Lincoln’s master spy, Allan Pinkerton, traveled undercover through the Confederacy, he wrote, “My best source of information was the colored men. . . . I mingled freely with them, and found them ever ready to answer questions and to furnish me with every fact which I desired to possess.” They were often the only friends the Yankees encountered as they groped their way anxiously through hostile territory.

Indeed, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, when it was finally released in September of 1862, essentially adopted the very argument that General Butler first used in denying to return the original three slaves who found their way into his fort: that as the nation was at war, he had the authority as Commander-in-Chief to emancipate slaves of disloyal rebels, because it denied to the Confederacy their labor and service. Framed as a narrow legal principle in wartime, that statement changed the war. By that action, Lincoln 1862 changed public opinion in the North, which swung toward freeing the slaves and ending slavery as one of the purposes for which the war was being fought.

The shift of opinion about emancipation and slavery was evident throughout 1862 by Lincoln, politicians, and the public. Obviously, slavery was an important topic and was in the front of many minds with the progression of the war. However, the issue of slavery took a turn when Lincoln released the preliminary emancipation proclamation to free the slaves. Regardless of the multiple opinions across the north over slavery, by the end of the year and with the Emancipation Proclamation being announced, there was a clear united front against slavery.


The historical record is clear:

1. America’s early economy from the colonial days until the Civil War was dependent on African American slaves and the slave trade.

2. Slaves were often mistreated, tortured and abused through sexual assault, psychological cruelty, and the sale of family members to new owners.

3. African American slaves were not content or happy with their lot as a general rule. This is evidenced by the many slave conspiracies and revolts, and the innumerable attempts made by African Americans to escape their condition.

4. The origins of America’s earliest police forces were slave patrols, most mandated by state laws requiring participation by white males.

5.The institution of slavery was not popular in the North, nor was it an only a minor important issue promoted by a few radical Abolitionists. Many Northern states passed laws to protect runaway slaves and freed blacks, and to obstruct federal laws mandating their return to their slave owners (i.e., The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850).

6. The cause of the Civil War was indeed the Southern States desire to retain slavery as an institution, and even extend it to new territories, as well as the fear that the Federal Government might one day fall into the hands of abolitionists who would move to end it once and for all.

7. The flood of slaves flocking to Union Armies wherever they appeared in the early years of the Civil War was further evidence of the desire among them for freedom. That exodus, in itself, played a role in Lincoln’s decision to emancipate the slaves, and in moving public opinion in the North toward the goal of abolishing the institution of slavery.

My next diary in this series will examine the use of violence against African Americans in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Thank you for reading.