Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I Fear They Are Right

The government is merely a servant -- merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. ~Mark Twain

I was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1962, a fact of which I've been regularly reminded as I've regularly presented my passport at airports while traveling here in Australia and New Zealand these past 3 weeks. It's one of those bits of information used to identify me as me. If I remember my family history correctly, I celebrated my first birthday there, but was gone before the second, never to return except when current events take me there such as when a tornado devastated parts of my birth city back in 2011.

Missouri is in the news again, not Joplin, but a place called Ferguson across the state near St. Louis. If you've not been following the news, it's an easy Google search, but honestly, if you're an American who hasn't heard about this horrible story, please let this be a wake-up call: you need to pay more attention. It's an infuriating story about an unarmed teenaged boy named Michael Brown who was shot not once, not twice, but at least six times by a police officer. His crime was jaywalking and, quite likely, sassing the cop, offenses hardly worthy of a death sentence. All the witnesses who've come forward so far have said that he was shot once while trying to run away, which is bad enough, but the rest of the shots were apparently fired as he stood with his hands up in the universal posture of surrender -- even the three-year-olds I teach understand that. 

If this is all there was to the story, it would stand as a tragedy of "one bad apple," but what has since transpired, and what continues to transpire, should make it clear to all of us that America is broken and democracy is in disarray.

In the immediate aftermath, this cop stood by offering no help to the young man as he bled out. As his fellow officers arrived on the scene they prevented concerned citizens from helping, even a nurse who offered her assistance. As word got out, citizens of Ferguson emerged from their homes in protest as any loyal American citizen should, not everyone has been peaceful, of course, but most have been non-violent in their justifiable outrage, yet the police have responded by treating everyone as "bad guys." Instead of contrition, concern and transparency, instead of honoring their oath to protect and serve, the Ferguson police have behaved like a military in a war zone, armed with tanks, rubber bullets, tear gas, and an attitude that the American people are the enemy. This has, quite naturally, ratcheted up the tensions, increased the anger, and turned Ferguson into every American's war torn home town. 

Each man must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide against your conviction is to be an unqualified and excusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may.  ~Mark Twain

The American people have not only the right, but the responsibility to protest, in the streets if need be. It is as American as apple pie; it is as American as it is un-American for cities to employ militarized police forces. I saw this first hand during my involvement in the Seattle version of the Occupy Wall Street protests. We had a few actions that drew thousands of participants, but most of the time we were groups of no more than a few hundred. I was shocked then at the militarism displayed by men and women who are supposed to protect and serve me, and outraged when they treated us as an enemy, pepper spraying almost at random, threatening, arresting journalists, and showing off large, military-style weapons, all clearly intended to intimidate law abiding citizens who disagreed with their government. One evening as we surrounded the downtown Sheraton Hotel where the banking crime boss James Diamond appeared as a speaker, a small group of large men emerged with giant rifles while wearing full body jungle camouflage in the middle of city. It was so ridiculous we started laughing, shouting, "We can't see you! You're camouflaged!" It was a moment of black humor in the midst of a clearly coordinated effort to quash Constitutionally protected democratic speech.

Yes, in Ferguson as in Seattle, there were a few, a tiny few, who take advantage of the situation to commit petty crimes. I just finished watching a press conference in which the police commander tried to blame these trouble-makers for their anti-American overreach. Any cop who needs tanks to deal with a handful of petty criminals has no business in law enforcement.

You might ask, what does this have to do with teaching and learning from preschoolers?

My job as an educator is to prepare children to assume the rights and responsibilities of self-governance, of citizenship, and this right to peaceful protest is one of them. I took my own daughter to some of the Occupy Seattle protests, but had second thoughts when I saw the vicious brutality implied in the garb, armaments, and attitude of so-called law enforcement. Those guys came prepared for a fight even when none was offered. They shouted, commanded, and threw their weight around like a pack of sociopathic thugs. Early on in the protests I tried to sidle up to cops and chat with them, but those days faded away as the weeks wore on. Soon my friendly comments were met with curses and threats. I had become their enemy simply by virtue of how I chose to exercise my rights and responsibilities as a citizen.

The police have no right to behave this way. None whatsoever. Indeed, what they are doing is intimidating people like me and making otherwise peaceful situations more dangerous. There is no way Ferguson would have erupted as it has without the cops showing up like an occupying military force. They are supposed to be peace officers, but they have, as they did with Occupy, made the world far more dangerous, far more violent, and far less democratic than it would have otherwise been.

Yes, petty crimes have been committed by a few people in Ferguson, but major crimes, including murder and assault have been committed by the police, not to mention their flagrant violations of our Constitutionally protected rights of speech, assembly, and the press. How can I prepare children for this? I suppose they want me to teach them to obey. That, I will not do. I will not be a traitor.

It's particularly eye-opening to have this happening while I'm overseas. Most have responded with a shrug and comments that amount to, "That's just the way America is, isn't it?" I've tried to explain why they are wrong, but I fear they are right.

I hate that I feel I must protect myself from the police, but when I exercise my democratic rights it's clear they have been trained to consider me their enemy. And I'm chilled by this bottom line message from a former cop, now a "professor of homeland security" writing for the Washington Post: "(I)f you don't want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you." Obey, or else.

The protestors of Ferguson are patriots and their names ought to be remembered by those who write our history, that is, if we've not already lost our democracy.

(Update: The police have admitted that Michael Brown was shot while running away, the rumor that the officer had broken bones in his face has been disproven, the so-called "witnesses" who have alternative versions of what has happened have all done so anonymously or are not actual witnesses, the store owner has said that Brown did not rob him, and the FPD has apparently not released an incident report because no one ever wrote one. In other words, every one of the attempts by FPD and their supporters to smear the poor kid appear to be lies. Despite all of this, I have very little faith that justice will be served. The deck is usually stacked in favor of outlaw cops. I have written this, in part, because the court of public opinion is likely the only court in which justice can possibly be served when it comes to police brutality. I hope I'm wrong.)

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Teacher Tom said...

Sorry, I got the teenage victim's name wrong originally. It has been corrected.

Dean said...

Teacher Tom shows/writes what humanity's best is