Monday, June 8, 2020

Weekend Roundup

While this week was unfolding, I've been reading a book by Sarah Kendzior: Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America. She is a journalist based in St. Louis, with a Ph.D. in anthropology and a specialty in post-Soviet Central Asia and its descent into mafia capitalism and oligarchy. She sees Trump as part of a vast criminal enterprise, anchored in Russia, which she insists on describing as "hostile to America." I think she has that analysis ass-backwards. Capitalism's driving force everywhere is greed, which constantly pushes the limits of custom and law. The only thing that separates capitalists from criminals is a democratic state that regulates business and enforces limits on destructive greed. The former Soviet Union failed to do that, but the United States has a checkered history as well, with the major entrepreneurs of the 19th century known as Robber Barons, and a sustained conservative assault on the regulatory state at least since 1980. Trump may be closer to the Russian oligarchs than most American capitalists because of his constant need to raise capital abroad, but he is hardly Putin's stooge. Rather, they share a common desire to suppress democratic regulation of capital everywhere, as well as an itch for suppressing dissent. Arguing that the latter is anti-American (treason even) ignores the fact that that's a big part of the program of the reigning political party in the US.

Kendzior's arguments in this regard annoy me so much I could go on, explaining why the supposed US-Russia rivalry is based on false assumptions, and why Democrats are hurting themselves by obsessing on the Trump/Russia connection. I was, after all, tempted at several points to give up on the book. But I stuck with it: it's short, and anyone who despises Trump that much is bound to have some points. Also, I lived in St. Louis a few years myself, so was curious what she had to say about her battleground state. My interest paid off with her discussion of the 2014 protests against police brutality in Ferguson, a majority-black suburb just north of St. Louis with a predominantly white police force that was largely self-funded by arrests and fines. This is history, but it's also today in microcosm (pp. 164-166):

Understanding Ferguson is not only a product of principle but of proximity. The narrative changes depending on where you live, what media you consume, who you talk to, and who you believe. In St. Louis, we still live in the Ferguson aftermath. There is no real beginning, because [Michael] Brown's death is part of a continuum of criminal impunity by the police toward St. Louis black residents. There is no real end, because there are always new victims to mourn. In St. Louis, there is no justice, only sequels.

Outside of St. Louis, Ferguson is shorthand for violence and dysfunction. When I go to foreign countries that do not know what St. Louis is, I sometimes joke, darkly, that I'm from a "suburb of Ferguson." People respond like they are meting a witness of a war zone, because that is what they saw on TV and on the internet. What they missed is that Ferguson was the longest sustained civil rights protest since the 1960s. The protest was fought on principle because in St. Louis County, law had long ago divorced itself from justice, and when lawmakers abandon justice, principle is all that remains. The criminal impunity many Americans are only discovering now -- through the Trump administration -- had always structured the system for black residents of St. Louis County, who had learned to expect a rigged and brutal system but refused to accept it.

In the beginning, there was hope that police would restrain themselves because of the volume of witnesses. But there was no incentive for them to do so: no punishment locally, and no repercussions nationally. Militarized police aggression happened nearly every night, transforming an already traumatic situation into a showcase of abuse. The police routinely used tear gas and rubber bullets. They arrested local officials, clergy, and journalists for things like stepping off the sidewalk. They did not care who witnessed their behavior, even though they knew the world was watching. Livestream videographers filmed the chaos minute by minute for an audience of millions. #Ferguson, the hashtag, was born, and the Twitter followings of those covering the chaos rose into the tens of thousands. But the documentation did not stop the brutality. Instead, clips were used by opponents of the protesters to try to create an impression of constant "riots" that in reality did not occur. The vandalism and arson shown on cable news in an endless loop were limited to a few nights and took place on only a few streets.

National media had pounced on St. Louis, parachuting in when a camera-ready crisis was rumored to be impending, leaving when the protests were peaceful and tame. Some TV crews did not bother to hide their glee at the prospect of what I heard one deem a real-life Hunger Games, among other flippant and cruel comments. The original protests, which were focused on the particularities of the abusive St. Louis system, became buried by out-of-town journalists who found out-of-town activists and portrayed them as local leaders. The intent was not necessarily malicious, but the lack of familiarity with the region led to disorienting and insulting coverage. Tabloid hype began to overshadow the tragedy. Spectators arrived from so many points of origins that the St. Louis Arch felt like a magnet pulling in fringe groups from around the country: Anonymous and the Oath Keepers and the Nation of Islam and the Ku Klux Klan and the Revolutionary Communist Party and celebrities who claimed they were out of deep concern and not to get on television. Almost none of the celebrities ever returned.

In fall 2014, the world saw chaos and violence, but St. Louis saw grief. Ask a stranger in those days how they were doing and their eyes, already red from late nights glued to the TV or internet, would well up with tears. Some grieved stability, others grieved community, others simply grieved the loss of a teenage boy, unique and complex as any other, to a system that designated him a menace on sight. But it was hard to find someone who was not grieving something, even if it was a peace born of ignorance. It was a loss that was hard to convey to people living outside of the region. I covered the Ferguson protests as a journalist, but I lived it as a St. Louisan. Those are two different things. It is one thing to watch a region implode on TV. It is another to live within the slow-motion implosion. When I would share what I witnessed, people kept urging me to call my representative, and I would explain: "But they gassed my representative too."

By the way, here are the latest section heads (as of 7:37 PM CDT Sunday) in The New York Times' Live Updates on George Floyd Protests:

  • Majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledges to dismantle the Police Department
  • Trump sends National Guard troops home
  • New York's mayor pledges to cut police funding and spend more on social services
  • Democratic lawmakers push for accountability, but shy away from calls to defund the police
  • Barr says he sees no systemic racism in law enforcement
  • Romney joins protesters in Washington.
  • Protesters march through Manhattan, calling for an end to police violence.
  • Thousands turn out in Spokane, Wa., to protest "a virus that's been going on for 400 years."
  • Biden will meet with the family of George Floyd in Houston.
  • The view from above: aerial images of protests across the country. [link]
  • A Confederate status is pulled down during a protest in Virginia
  • Global protests against racism gain momentum.
  • An officer shot an anti-bias expert who was trying to end a clash at a protest in San Jose, Calif.

A couple items there look like major breaks with the past. While the "progressive" mayors of Minneapolis and New York seems to have spent much of the last week being intimidated by the police forces that supposedly work for them, the balance of political forces in both cities may have shifted to viewing the police as the problem, not the solution. I started off being pretty skeptical of the protests, and indeed haven't been tempted to join them. But it does appear that they're making remarkable progress. And while I abhor any violence associated with the protests, one should never allow such noise to distract from the core issue of the protests. Indeed, given that so much of the violence the media likes to dwell on is directly caused by the police and the government's other paramilitary forces, it's hard not to see that the only way this ever gets resolved is by restoring trust and justice -- which is to say, by radically reforming how policing is done in America.

I expected such sprawl at the start of the week that I decided not to bother organizing sublists. Still, some fell out during the process, but I haven't gone back and organized as many as might make sense. In particular, there are several scattered pieces on the "jobs report": the one by Robert J Shapiro is the most important, but I got to it after several others.

This wound up running a day late. Only a couple links below came out on Monday, and I tried to only pick ones that added to stories I already had (e.g., I added Yglesias' piece on economic reporting, but didn't pick up the one on Biden's polling).

Here's a piece of artwork from Ram Lama Hull occasioned by the recent demonstrations. I pulled this particular one (out of many) from his Facebook page. Some are also on Imgur.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that has come up a lot recently, as it makes it very difficult to hold police officers liable for their acts, even the use of excessive or deadly force. For example:

Parting tweet (from Angela Belcamino):

Who else but Trump could bring back the 1918 pandemic, the 1929 Great Depression, and the 1968 race riots all in one year?

Some scattered links this week:

Ask a question, or send a comment.