Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson: The Problem Isn’t Black People

America has done a pretty good job of getting the middle class to fear poor black guys instead of rich white men.

Consider Mike Brown Exhibit, oh I don’t know, 1,000,001.

Because that’s a rough guesstimate the number of African-American men currently enmeshed in the gears of the US penal system, incarcerated in prisons, held in jails , on probation, or on parole or, in sum, as the Pew Charitable Trust put it in 2009, “under correctional control.” 

Correctional control rates are highly concentrated by race and geography: 1 in 11 black adults (9.2 percent) versus 1 in 27 Hispanic adults (3.7 percent) and 1 in 45 white adults (2.2 percent); 1 in 18 men (5.5 percent) versus 1 in 89 women (1.1 percent).  The rates can be extremely high in certain neighborhoods.  In one block-group of Detroit's East Side, for example, 1 in 7 adult men (14.3 percent) is under correctional control. 

The black adult male population aged 18 to 64 roughs out at about 12 million x 9.2%, well you get the picture.

More recent data for incarceration rates are at the U.S. government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Total 478
Male 904 White 466 Black 2,805 Hispanic 1,134 Other 963
Female 65 White 51 Black 113 Hispanic 66 Other 90

In other words, black male adults are six times more likely to be in prison than the population as a whole, three times more than the average for the male population.  More than one third of the state and federal prison population (540,000+ out of about 1.5 million) is black.

As to whether this is an unfortunate coincidence born of particular patterns of misbehavior among African Americans, I have my doubts.

Fact is, to characterize this issue as fundamentally one of racism—though excellent and important work has done on the persistence of racism and its role in selective enforcement and incarceration, particularly in the area of drug laws--may, in my opinion, actually miss the point.

Maybe it reflects the use of race-biased law enforcement to reinforce the narrative that America’s problem is Mr. African-American Adult Male…

…while the problem—and the solution—may actually be somewhere else.

My personal suspicion is that the US political and social system has a vested interest in black alienation.  

Maybe it is good politics to abuse African Americans, goad and provoke them, escalate the fear and anger on both sides, force an angry reaction and respond with a fear-laden counterreaction, so an economically disadvantaged community has its hands full staying out of jail and not getting shot, and isn’t thinking about forming common cause with other disadvantaged or less-advantaged groups to stick it to the rich guy in the next election.

In other words, it’s not Fear of a Black Voting Bloc; it’s Fear of a Unified Lower & Middle Class Voting Bloc.

And alienation cuts both ways.

Other groups are more concerned with the undeniable and understandable anger in the black community, and worrying about its consequences for them—and looking out for Number 1--than they are in finding common ground.

One of the most interesting transitions occurred in the 1990s, as far as I can remember.  Old fashioned Democratic liberalism and its doppelganger, noblesse oblige white shoe Republicanism, fell by the wayside.  I associated old liberalism with the idea that problems existed in society, and it was up to an enlightened electorate to remedy them using the interventionist power of the government as channeled and constrained by the constitution.  Silly me.

What came after, with the collapse of communism, I guess, and its perceived challenge to the Western formula for social justice, was the idea of neo-liberalism, that there was a near-perfect set of constitutional, electoral, and economic mechanisms, and interference with those mechanisms is what caused the problems.  So it was up to disadvantaged groups to use the machinery properly, and up to the society to enforce the criminal and political rules that kept the bad, the greedy, and misguided from gumming up the works.  System’s workin’ but some people ain’t working hard enough.  That’s the problem.

If my model’s right, black political agency was attacked pretty much the same way that the union power was destroyed, by demonizing its demands as false entitlement and denigrating its needs as a call for privilege that degraded the overall functioning and fairness of the system. 
In other words, it’s up to America’s most marginalized, underprivileged, and over-incarcerated minority to solve its problems before we can talk about shared problems.  In other words, never gonna happen.  And for some people, that’s just fine.

Not just the hyper rich.

For Mr. White Middle Class Americans, pressure’s off.  Just sit back and let the miracle of liberal free market democracy work while the cops keep the troublemakers bottled up.  We’ll cut your taxes and put more cops on the streets.  Hell, I’ll take that deal.  Hell, I took that deal.

But the problems—the alienation—seems to be getting worse instead of better.

So it doesn’t seem surprising that the system might have a vested interest in encouraging and escalating black alienation, so it makes sense that local police are shooting and killing young black men, women, and children.

As to whether this was a conscious plan or some ineluctable alchemy of class and race relations, well, I guess I’ll leave that to the philosophers for a while.

But for the time being, I guess the message is Black Lives Matter More Than White Privilege.  That includes Mike Brown’s life…and my privileges. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Two Trains Running: Benny Tai and the Students Take Separate Tracks

The abrupt fizzling-out of the Occupy Hong Kong a.k.a. Umbrella Movement is still something of a mystery.

Everything was going so well.  Burgeoning street demonstrations, the  concentrated and largely favorable attention of the Hong Kong citizenry, increasingly vocal support by educational and liberal elites, breathless coverage by the international press, achievement of direct dialogue between the students and the government, a televised debate that, for Umbrella Movement enthusiasts at least, could be spun as an awesome Speaking Truth to Power moment, then pfffffft.

A botched referendum appears to be the proximate cause.
Benny Tai, the university professor who is one of the three elders of Occupy Hong Kong With Peace and Love, apparently intended a street referendum that would validate the rejection of measures the government put forth to address student concerns during the debate, and ringingly reconfirm the occupation and further confrontation.

The wheels came off—possibly because Tai unwisely proposed a “accept & leave” vs. “reject & stay” framing that raised the threat that anti-OKHPL “pro-Blue” forces would “freep” the poll and skew its outcome in order to send off the occupiers.

Discussions among the various Occupy groups on the wording of the referendum went nowhere and it was called off with some ignominious apologies and mea culpa bowing from Tai and the student leaders.

The student leaders of the demonstrations have tried to restore the old fire with some provocative japes like trying to confront the CCP leadership in Beijing, but gained little public traction.  The students’ call for pro-Dem legislators to resign their Legco posts and trigger a by-election that would serve as a referendum on direct nomination failed to find favor.

I wonder if the juice also went out of the street protests since Benny Tai and the other elders came to the conclusion they weren’t going anywhere and, for that matter, a rebuke had to be delivered to the students who thought they were running the show but were actually just running it into a ditch.

The pro-Blue united front didn’t seem to be cracking, Occupy leaders were under personal attack (strategic and apparently authentic dumps of embarrassing documents about Benny Tai and other top dogs may have convinced them their ability to lead the movement from a position of moral strength had been compromised), and the Hong Kong populace was clearly tiring of the disruptive and now apparently directionless Occupy circus.

And a few members of the Western media who had been covering or perhaps more accurately blanketing the Occupy movement with non-stop favorable coverage apparently wandered off to other assignments.

Though it will offend the vociferous advocates of the 100% homegrown purity of the Occupy movement, I also wonder if the US government passed the word—to paraphrase the anguish of Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront”—that “This ain't your year, kid.”

President Obama, I expect, was more interested in closing his climate deal with the PRC than providing moral and political encouragement to the Umbrella Movement and let it be known that there would no cookie distribution a la Nuland in Kyiv for this particular bunch of idealistic pro-Western demonstrators.

(Parenthetically, I’m looking for the movement’s motto to be “A revolution is a dinner party…and America’s bringing the cookies!”  Maybe next year.)

In any case, as the Hong Kong government started rolling up largely unresisting Occupy encampments—and Hong Kong public opinion was suitably appalled by the spectacle of some pro-democracy hotheads smashing a window at Legco with a metal barrier—the question of What next?  has been left hanging.

Benny Tai answered that question on November 22, in the form of an open letter to “Long Hair” a.k.a. Leung Kwok-hung a pro-democracy legislator of a leftist cum Trotskyist bent who has vowed not to cut his hair until Beijing apologizes for the Tiananmen massacre.

In the letter, which I’ve reproduced below as it was posted on a message board and I’m assuming is accurate, Benny Tai wanders into Marxist terrain by acknowledging Long Hair’s complaint that he did not arouse the masses and was guilty of being “out of touch”, but excused himself on the grounds that he was no streetfighter, indeed hailed from petty bourgeoise intellectual background—with which he was coming to terms.

Tai’s supporters in the West will breathe a sigh of relief that he does not wander off the neoliberal “res” after all, and asserts that street confrontation will not win the hearts of the people of Hong Kong who, Tai reports, are pretty evenly split between pro and anti-Occupy sentiment.

The terrifying shadow, in other words, of a violent overthrow of the city government by the cadres of Occupy Hong Kong With Peace and Love has, thankfully, been lifted.

Tai’s solution is to “自首”“voluntarily surrender” which I take it mean he will submit himself to the Hong Kong legal system.  I for one see potential comedy gold in Tai and perhaps his OHKPL partners determinedly trying to provoke their arrests and the Hong Kong government equally determinedly trying not to arrest them.

In the end, I guess, Tai hopes to effect his arrest and martyrdom, at least under the relatively benign conditions of the Hong Kong penal system, and use the bully pulpit of his trial to spread the word about universal suffrage…

…and also persuade a perplexed world why direct popular nomination of chief executive candidates, though not as far as I can tell a feature of any major democracy , is the inescapable sine qua non for Hong Kong.

Tai promises to use the city of Hong Kong as his lecture hall, a prospect that perhaps thrills connoisseurs of professorial verbosity but may elicit groans or Zzzzzzzzzs from the less intellectually engaged.

I wonder if Benny Tai is going to rely exclusively on his rhetorical talents to reignite the universal suffrage movement, or if the students will match his performance in the courtroom with feet on the street.

It looks like something needs to be done, and not simply to justify the ruckus of the last two months to the students who took to the streets and the citizens who tolerated their presence.

The student demonstrators must be willing to reappear in their enthusiastic, disciplined numbers as further milestones—and opportunities for principled outrage—such as the Legco vote on electoral reform—are reached.

So the pot has to be kept boiling.  Maybe Tai’s adoption of a two-pronged approach also represents a recognition that the student movement can’t be perfectly controlled or exploited, and the most effective strategy might be for Benny Tai to do his remonstrating scholar thing, the students do their firebreathing activist thing, and hope for some effective tag team escalation . 
Otherwise, the electoral process will take over and, quite possibly, in 2016 (Legco) and 2017 (Chief Executive)the Hong Kong electorate will be successfully reconciled to committee-vetted but reasonably attractive, well-financed and, at least in the pan-Blue realm, enthusiastically supported candidates.

To counter municipal complacency, street heat, confrontation, martyrs, and maybe even cookies—perhaps delivered courtesy of a more confrontation-minded Hillary Clinton—may turn out to be necessary.

請容我稱呼您一聲大哥,因您比我年長,也是我非常欽敬的一位政治家。雖然我們在一些政見上或有不同,但我們對民主的信念及執著都是一樣的。但更重 要是,我看到您是一位坦蕩蕩的抗爭者,您把您的觀點想法,盡現人前,不會為了贏取掌聲而會說一套做一套。我絕對相信您並不如一些政客般,在一些冠冕堂皇的 說話背後,卻隱藏着不可告人的政治目的。

在您上星期給我的信中,也反映了一些我們政治判斷上的不同,但卻不損我們的共同信念,就是追求香港能有真普選。如您所說,在2013年初我提出 「佔領中環」的建議,的而且確是受到您在2013 年元旦日凌晨一人在中環非法集會所啟發。我看到要能透過佔路行動產生影響,人數是關鍵所在。之後有機會在您辦公室「論道」,聆聽您縱論古今抗爭史,如您所 說,我們同意和平非暴力原則是當今抗爭的不二法門。而和平抗爭就是要挑釁出當權者的暴力行為。

當然我也不能不承認,我正屬您信中所說的那些「本地的中產階級及知識菁英」。這是一項事實,亦是我難以割離。因着我的成長歷史、生命經歷及在這種 處境下的所思所想,我也只能以此有限的視野看世界、政治發展、社會現態,去作出策略判斷。或許我們真如您所說,會是一廂情願地寄望當權者能有天向善,也真 有些因自恃而輕看了普羅群眾的智慧,因而作出了您會認為是錯誤的政治判斷。您的教訓我常記在心,時刻提醒自己這種「離地」中產必須注意。

但最近我對自己的「離地」有了新的體會,把這「離地」特質,由弱點轉化為一種新的思考方向。唯有有一點兒離地,我才能跳出現有處境下的各種局限, 不致被地上的各種枷鎖纏着。唯有離地,我才可以用另一種視角去俯瞰全局。也唯有離地,我才不會被任何過激的情緒而影響我作冷靜及理性的判斷

信中您認為自首是浪費前功,認為我們應繼續佔領行動,集體抗命,並以辭職公投去把運動轉向民眾,感召民眾。撫心自省,由提出「佔領中環」的第一天開始,我 也知自己並不是一個稱職的街頭抗爭者,即使我仿效大哥一言一行去作一個街頭抗爭者,也只能是東施效顰。如大哥信中所說,在過去年多以來,若我對香港民主運 動能有寸功,是因我身體力行不間斷地在香港倡議公民抗命、和平抗爭的精神。誠然,在「雨傘運動」之中,萬千民眾起來響應,是遠超我事前所想。

「雨傘運動」發展至今,在特區政府無恥作為(或不作為)下,運動現在陷入膠着的狀態,實是不爭之事實。因此運動必須尋求轉向,而方向就是走向民 眾。我也非常同意應以辭職公投為轉向之導引,惜因各種原因,現辭職公投的成數不高,故我必須再謀轉向之路徑,此為我提出自首的因由。


這也是說唯有改變人心,改變社會絕大多數人的心,令他們不能再接受現制的不公義可延續下去。但要改變人心,單靠施加外在壓力是難以達到的,更重要 是促使人內在良知的自我醒悟。公民抗命者承擔罪責,意在透過自我犧牲,暴露制度的暴力,去衝擊其他人內在的良知,促使他們反思原有抱持的價值觀。這正與大 哥透過抗爭行動去感召人心的想法不謀而合。

相信我們都同意「雨傘運動」已帶來不少港人的覺醒,但社會內起碼還有接近一半的人未接受「雨傘運動」要求真普選的目標及和平非暴力的抗爭手段。當 中包括很多都是只求安定的普羅市民。「雨傘運動」若只保留現在繼續佔領街道的形態,相信短期內是不能改變得到這些人的想法。若不能取得這另一半人的支持, 要改變得到現行不民主的制度仍會面對很大的困難。



從策略回到我自身的局限,我坦承因着我的背景,我不可能是一個稱職的街頭抗爭者。我的長處是當一個教書先生。過去那麼長的日子,我就是用我的生命去在香港 社會這大講堂,講了二十多個月民主普選及公民抗命的課。透過自首可能製造另一次講課的機會,與其死守在佔領區,這或許能讓我更好發揮在這場民主運動中的長 處。