Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: equity and social justice

This square image is dominated by a red rectangle showing a black, green, yellow, and red design flanked by the words, “The seven principles: Umoja: Unity. To maintain unity in Family, community, nation, and culture.”

Kwanzaa Begins with Unity

Kwanzaa begins with Unity. Is there any value that should resonate more with all of us? Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, a seven-day celebration of African American strengths and values. I’m not Black, so I can’t presume to speak for Black people (other than as an ally against racism).

But no American of any ethnic background can afford to spurn the idea that unity is a paramount value, and sadly lacking in the USA right now. In this historical moment, all of us could afford to learn a few things from our Black neighbors and friends.

I don’t believe I did justice to the first day of Kwanzaa, back in 2017 when I wrote my first post about it. I squeezed it in between two other “holiday thoughts,” about the day after Christmas and Boxing Day. Both have their place, but Kwanzaa deserves to stand alone.

This square image is dominated by a red rectangle showing a black, green, yellow, and red design flanked by the words, “The seven principles: Umoja: Unity. To maintain unity in Family, community, nation, and culture.”
Image by, and courtesy of, Jeffrey St. Clair. See Credits below.

Kwanzaa Begins with Unity and so Should We

If you think about it, unity is what brought us together as a nation in the first place: unity against outside tyranny. We were perpetuating our own egregious tyranny over the enslaved Africans whose labor our white ancestors stole to build a lot of the young country. But at the same time the founders (apparently unironically) set forth principles of equity and justice.

The very foundations of this country were uniquely well-adapted to building a multicultural nationality. Emphasizing freedom, equality, and justice for everyone under the law was radical stuff in the 18th Century.

And it’s still radical stuff today. We set ourselves up “from the get-go” for a lot of trying and falling short. We are a multicultural republic, stitched together both by force and by choice. And we are perpetually certain to come up against opposing views competing for space and dominance.

The background of this square image is a charcoal drawing of four hands and forearms in a roughly square alignment, where each hand grasps the wrist of the person to their right. Superimposed over the drawing, it says, “’Unity is Strength, Division is Weakness.’ – Swahili Proverb.”
Courtesy of United We Stand on Facebook. See Credits below.

But Beginning is Not Enough

If you look at the whole principle as outlined in Jeffrey St. Clair’s design, the idea is “to maintain unity in family, community, nation and culture.” That’s no small feat. And it’s definitely not something we can do alone. That takes commitment. It takes grit, it takes communication, and it takes a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated, like-minded people.

Kwanza begins with Unity, but it continues with six other principles that ground and support and make unity happen. This holiday celebrates strong Black people living in a vibrant culture – but no single segment of our multicultural republic can flourish without a broader unity.

Here in the USA we’ve managed to let ourselves be drawn into warring camps, to the extent that we’re in serious danger of losing it all. Can the “democratic experiment” we started almost 250 years ago survive? Not without Umoja. And not without Black people, White people, Native people, immigrants from all different communities and everybody else in this country joining together in our own self-defense.

This is a dark red square image with a length of woven Kente cloth across the bottom. At the top it says “@SanCophaLeague,” Then “Black Unity is key. ‘Get organized and you will compel the world to respect you.’ -Marcus Garvey.” In the lower left, just above the cloth band, it says, “Facebook.com/SanCophaLeague.”
Courtesy of SanCophaLeague. See Credits below.

Kwanzaa Begins With Unity, but the Series Continues

I have spent a lot of time this week going back though my old series of Kwanzaa articles and updating them for today’s standards. 2017 was 6 years ago, which is an eon or so on the Internet. Now they’re ready for mobile devices, and I’ve tried to optimize them other ways, as well as expand them into fuller explorations of the topic. Along the way, I’ve also worked to improve the illustrations in both quality and relevance.

So please take a look at the rest of the series in their new format! Take them in order, or skip around if one or another takes your fancy: See Self-Determination on Day Two, followed by Working Together and Investing Wisely. From there, explore Empowerment through Purpose, and Creative Healing. Appropriately enough, on New Year’s Day Kwanzaa Ends with Faith to Take that Step . . . whatever you determine those steps should be in the coming year.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Jeffrey St. Clair, via LinkedIn’s Slide Share for today’s Umoja: Unity design. I really loved the “Unity is Strength” quote-image from United We Stand on Facebook, and I also loved how the quote coordinated with my topic today. It was a little harder to track down the SanCophaLeague’s exact image, which I first found on Pinterest. I figure it’s got to come from them since their name is all over it, but even Tineye Reverse Image Search didn’t turn it up. In any case, Thank you!

Covers for Jan's three "Cops in Space" books, "The Other Side of Fear," "What's Bred in the Bone," and "A Bone to PIck."

What should police do?

By Jan S. Gephardt

We rarely think to ask a fundamental question: what should police do? What part should they play in a multicultural, representational democracy? The ubiquity of police forces around the world argues that many societies believe police do have a role in civilized life. But what – exactly – should it be?

As a novelist whose primary characters are science fictional detectives, I am in an unusual position, both to ask and to answer this question. But I believe it’s also a question everyone should ask. Especially every citizen in a representational, multicultural democracy.

Why should we ask? Isn’t the answer to that question obvious? Well, no. We’ve all grown up “pre-loaded” with conscious and unconscious attitudes and understandings of what police officers and police forces do, and why they exist. But clearly, those seldom-examined attitudes and understandings aren’t leading to very good outcomes. Not in much of the world. And certainly not here in the United States.

"Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They've got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law." - Barack Obama.
Many thanks to BrainyQuote.

Asking as a Novelist

One of the best things science fiction does is hold up a mirror to society. If you think about it, all fiction does that in a certain way, because all fiction is a reflection of our experiences of life. I’ve written elsewhere about the role of the novelist in society. And yes, a fundamental aspect of our work is purely to produce entertainment.

But it’s not the only aspect. I would (and frequently do) argue that it may not even be the most important aspect, particularly in the realm of science fiction. That’s because science fiction is all about thought experiments.

When we start asking “what if?” a whole multiverse of possibilities opens up. What if a recent scientific discovery led to a new technological breakthrough? How would that change the world we live in? What if our society continues on its current course in this aspect, what might the future look like? How would our world change? How would we react?

So, as a novelist who writes about police in a future society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"My role as a novelist is to explore ideas and imagination, and hopefully that will inspire people from my world to continue dreaming and to believe in dreams." - Alexis Wright.
Thanks again, BrainyQuote!

Asking as a Citizen

But I’m also a citizen: of the world, and also specifically of my country and community. I’m a taxpayer, a voter, a member of “the public.” I can be sliced and diced out and defined demographically, culturally, and any other way you choose. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Woman. Educated. Teacher (retired). Middle class. United Methodist. White. Senior citizen. Democrat. Science fiction fangirl. Creative person. Animal lover. Multiculturalist. I am all of those things and more.

And as that complex, multi-aspect creature, I bring all of my experiences, understandings, and biases into my role as a responsible adult in contemporary society. For me, that involves an active interest in news and politics. I have formed some rather strong opinions over the course of my life. Each day I refine them or adjust them or reinforce them as I receive and process information.

I see it as my right – indeed, my responsibility – as a citizen to ask if my government and community leaders are representing me and governing in a way I think is appropriate. Are they respecting and honoring values I share? If they’re not, then I have a right to question them, and to seek better representation. As do we all.

This means, as a citizen in contemporary society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"Each day, millions of police officers do the selfless work of putting their lives on the line to protect civilians, frequently responding to or preventing crises completely with no recognition." - Letitia James
You’re now 3-0, BrainyQuote!

What Do We Ask Police To Do?

We currently ask police to fill a wide range of roles. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in a 2016 interview by the Washington Post. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

I tend to agree with Chief Brown. As a teacher, I learned all too much about the many things our communities want to dump in the laps of their public servants. Usually while also underpaying them, restricting their operating budgets, and asking them to do work they never trained or signed up for. I get it, and I agree.

But what problems are the police meant to solve? Unlike some observers on the leftward end of the spectrum, I do believe there is a role for police in society. Unlike some observers on the rightward end of the spectrum, I don’t believe we will ever be well served by our current system. Certainly not when it’s focused on criminalizing poverty and mental illness. Not when it majors on crackdowns on minority populations and small offenders. And certainly not when it perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.

This graph charts United States crime clearance rates in 2020, the most recent year for which the statistics are available. “Murder and nonnegligent homicide:54.4%. Aggravated assault: 46.6%. Violent crime: 41.7%. Rape: 30.6%. Robbery: 28.8%. Arson: 21.5%. Larceny-theft: 15.1%. Property crime: 14.6%. Burglary: 14.%. Motor vehicle theft: 12.3%”
Graphic ©2023 by Statistia.

What Problems WERE Police Meant to Solve?

If you were to ask the average “person on the street” this question, they’d probably say “Solve crimes,” or maybe “keep public order,” or perhaps “enforce the law.” Fair enough. So, how well are they doing?

Let’s take that first one, “solve crimes.” A look at the crime clearance rates (percentages of crimes that are cleared in a given year) is downright discouraging. “Clearance rate,” by the way, does not mean the full Law & Order-style litany of captured, charged, tried, and convicted. No, “clearance” means at least one person has been arrested and charged, or it means the probable perpetrator(s) are identified, but outside circumstances make arresting and charging them impossible. For two examples, circumstances could include that they died. Or maybe they’re in another country from which we can’t extradite them. Stuff does happen sometimes.

Clearance rates vary by the type of crime. But according to Statistia.com the only type that gets solved more than half the time in the USA is “murder and non-negligent homicide.” The clearance rate for that is 54.4%.

Flunking Crime-Solving

Think about it. That’s only a bit better than a 50-50 chance that any given murder will be solved. If I were grading a test and my student made a 54.4% on it, their grade would be an F (On a normal grading scale, 0-60% = an F). And that’s the best they do! You want them to solve your burglary? Sorry to tell you, but you have only a 14% chance that the perpetrator will be caught and charged with the crime. Someone stole your truck? Oh, dear. You only have a 12.3% chance they’ll ever arrest the thief.

So, basically, police in the United States flunk at crime-solving. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and many of them are tied up in the other answers to the question “What should police do?”

"When you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe." - Mary Frances Berry
Thanks yet again, BrainyQuote!

What Should Police Do to “Serve and Protect”?

What does “keep public order,” “enforce the law,” or “protect people” look like, when it’s happening? Does “keeping public order” mean bulldozing camps of unhoused persons? Or imposing a curfew on a small population’s free movement during a specific part of the day or in a specific place? Does it mean beating or injuring protesters? The words “keeping public order” have been used to justify all of those actions.

On the other hand, it also could mean directing traffic away from an accident. Maybe it means repelling a violent insurrection from the Capitol. And it could mean shielding a person who has not been convicted of any crime from a lynch mob that wants to kill them. It’s an umbrella phrase, broad and nonspecific enough to be both used and abused.

Standards Without Clarification

And in the end, it’s not a very helpful standard without further clarification. The seemingly obvious “protect people” brings the same host of issues when we try to apply it to specific cases. Which people are the police to protect? From whom or what? In a racist, sexist society (don’t kid yourself: that’s this one), how many ways could that go wrong?

“Enforce the law” is only deceptively “more specific.” Does that mean “enforce all the laws, all the time?” By that standard, most of us should be, or should have been, arrested at many points in our lives.

People are fallible. There are times when we’re sick and can’t cut the noxious weeds in our front yard. Or we’re forgetful and only notice later that our driver’s license has expired. Perhaps we’re tired or in a hurry, so we jaywalked when we saw an opening, instead of walking down to the corner and waiting for the lights to change. Minor traffic violations, legally carrying a gun, or simply walking down the street have resulted in citizens being killed by police in the name of “enforcing the law.”

"Accountability for police officers should be an expectation, not an aberration." - Alex Padilla
You rock, BrainyQuote!

Okay, so: What SHOULD Police Do?

As we’ve seen, that’s a really problematic question! But, both as a citizen and as a novelist, I want to find better answers to it. I cannot endorse a blanket approach such as “abolish the police.” I’m not a fan of “defund,” either. Neither of those represent where I think this conversation should go.

On the other hand, a thoroughgoing interrogation of that “what should police do?” question isn’t going to deal kindly with old-school “cop culture.” Not with many contemporary police training techniques and approaches, either. Nor even with a fair number of contemporary laws and standards.

Yes, dear reader, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m cueing up a series of blog posts on this topic. I’m not sure how long it’ll be. Considering our upcoming publication schedule, it most definitely won’t be every single post for the next umpty-dozen times without a break!

But over the next few months, I propose to take up one aspect of “what should police do?” at a time. I’ll examine how it’s currently being handled in the USA, survey the critiques, and then explain “how we handle it on Rana Station” and why I think that might work better. I hope you’ll find the series interesting.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to BrainyQuote (what would I have done without you for this post?) and Statistia.

A city worker power-washes "Defund the Police" from the road outside the Atlanta Police Department, after the protests in Atlanta.

How (and why) might we defund police?

It appears that when people say, “Defund the Police!” they often don’t mean completely. They usually appear not to mean “dismantle the police force and don’t replace it,” although some do. I started examining the ideas of abolishing or defunding the police in the previous post on this blog.

Defund the Police, like Abolish the Police, is an arresting (sorry), but inadequate slogan. Like most ideas, if you take the logic to its farthest extreme, it’s a terrible idea (hint: for real-life applications, never go to the farthest extreme). But people have begun to have valuable discussions about the way forward.

In this Kevin Siers cartoon, two protesters carry a large banner, emblazoned with a very long slogan that takes up several lines and goes off the edge of the cartoon. Part of it says, "Defund reform repair reeval ... improve rework reenvision ...reinvent cleanse reshape recreate ... Police." One says to the other, "We need a new slogan!"
(Kevin Siers cartoon courtesy of Charlotte Observer/McClatchey)

Deciphering what they actually mean

In the simplest statements I’ve heard, the idea is to reallocate some funds from the local police department. Then to spend them building up departments that would be more appropriate responders to certain kinds of situations. Police solutions often end with someone arrested or ticketed, possibly taken to jail. That’s appropriate for some things, but not for others.

For example, if it’s a mental health crisis, deploy some kind of mental health equivalent of EMTs (and yes, I know we don’t have those yet). This would radically reduce the number of incidents in which a mentally ill person in crisis (but mostly a danger only to themselves) isn’t confronted, further agitated, and then eventually killed by police.

Another example we often hear cited is when police are called to deal with persons experiencing homelessness. What do these people need? Certainly a better place to live. Many also need mental health counseling, physical health care, possibly addiction treatment, additional education so they can find a job, or other services. What can police do about them? Usually none of those things. They can arrest them, or force them to go somewhere else. That’s pretty much it.

A large, multi-spout teapot labeled "Defund the Police" pours tea into cups marked "education," "universal healthcare," "youth services," "housing," and "other community reinvestments."
(Illustration courtesy of Aleksey Weintraub, @LAKUTIS via Twitter)

Why many say policing itself needs a re-think

Diversity training is only as good as the trainer who teaches, and the personal investment of the people who show up. Until individual officers take the messages to heart–and until there’s greater diversity and cross-cultural understanding in most police departments, cultural clashes will continue to fuel bad outcomes.

If the overall culture of the department doesn’t change (and changing police culture is an uphill climb), street-level outcomes won’t, either. Many American police are actively trained to distrust their communities, and to believe every encounter could end in violence against them. They are taught to “fear for their lives” almost as a default-setting. The “warrior” mindset of increased police militarization isn’t helping any of us.

Even when radical overhauls happen, there’s often still a gap between desire and result. It’s discouraging. But allowing ourselves to feel defeated and saying, “I give up” isn’t a sustainable solution. Sweeping problems (and problem officers) under the rug doesn’t work. Perpetuating and doubling-down on “how we’ve always done things” doesn’t cut it. We’ve been doing that for decades, and the results keep getting more extreme.

A city worker power-washes "Defund the Police" from the road outside the Atlanta Police Department, after the protests in Atlanta.
A city worker power-washes “Defund the Police” from the road outside the Atlanta Police Department, after the protests in Atlanta. When the protests subside, will calls for reform be as easy to erase or ignore? (Photo by Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

What is policing supposed to do?

It gets down to questioning the very purpose of policing. Why do we have police? To keep public order, so we feel safer in our neighborhoods? To respond to (or ideally limit/prevent) crimes such as murder, assault, rape, fraud, and similar invasions of property and person

Do they have a role in limiting vandalism, truancy, and roving bands of unoccupied youths, or should other programs address those ills?

Do we want police to prioritize our privacy and personal autonomy at the expense of the privacy and personal autonomy of others? How much governmental intrusion is acceptable, and are we okay with knowing that some people experience more heavy-handed treatment than others?

De-criminalizing our society

Many proposals start with a laundry-list of things to de-criminalize. I’ve already mentioned de-criminalizing homelessness in this article. A strong case also can be made for de-criminalizing addiction and drug possession

Much is made, in gun-violence arguments, of the urgent need for better mental health services. Yet we are a very long way from de-criminalizing mental illness and creating a robust safety net of mental health services.

De-criminalizing poverty is another consideration. We could do this in part by examining all proposed statutes, civil codes, and local ordinances to see which disproportionately afflict poor people. Another good starting place might be not over-policing poor and minority neighborhoods.

This cartoon by artist Barrie Maguire makes the point that de-criminalizing drug addiction would free up jail space.
Decriminalizing addiction, drug use and other “offenses” that could better be handled by other agencies would also free up jail space (Barrie Maguire cartoon courtesy of the Philadelpha Inquirer).

Where do we go from here?

Some”de-fund” arguments focus, not on policing itself, but on problems that perpetuate the conditions that encourage crime

Even before the pandemic threw them into glaring prominence, inequalities in educational opportunities, in health care, in food security and economic opportunity were major concerns. So it’s not surprising inequities claim prominent places on many people’s “to-reform” lists. Yet all of those things get less money from local governments than policing. Many cities’ biggest budget item is its public safety budget.

Some observers fear we’re rushing into things with half-baked approaches to revamping police forces or radically altering them. Others fear we’ll only use half-measures, then reluctant politicians will have an “out” to declare, “well, that didn’t work!” a few weeks or years from now.

But what if we were really serious about this? What if we actually tried a well-thought-out plan to readjust the way we do social well-being, including efforts to ensure law, order, and justice for everyone? For real.

I think we’re all still trying to figure out how that would look. But next week in this space, I’ll take a stab at relating my own vision and thoughts to my stories about policing in the future on Rana Station.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to the Charlotte Observer/McClatchey, for the Kevin Sierscartoon. The “Defund the Police Teapot” illustration is from Aleksey Weintraub, @LAKUTIS via Twitter. It appears to be a clever adaptation of a photo of an actual, multi-spout teapot from Tea Exporter India (now a defunct link) via Alobha Exim’s Pinterest board. The photo of the city worker power-washing the street in front of the Atlanta Police Department is by the formidable Alyssa Pointerof the Atlanta Journal-Constitution The remarkable Barrie Maguire (who also did a stint at Kansas City’s own Hallmark) is a marvelous fine-art painter of Irish-inspired work, but he also created cartoons for the Philadelphia Inquirer for a while, including this one dramatizing prison overcrowding.

At left two Kansas City PD officers hold up a sign that reads, "End police brutality!" At right KCPD Chief Rick Smith and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas kneel for a moment of silence for George Floyd, while holding up an "I can't breathe" T-shirt

Crossing the line

The phrase “crossing the line” has a special resonance for me today. 

Crossing a deadly line

Like many metro areas in the United States over the recent weekend, mine saw day after day of large, mostly peaceful crowds demonstrating in the streets. The protesters came out to decry the actions of four Minneapolis police officers who slowly (it took almost nine minutes), publicly, murdered a man in the street by kneeling on his neck and back. 

Protesters hold signs and give speeches at a march for justice in Kansas City
Nareen Stokes, mother of Ryan Stokes, a local man killed by police, speaks to the then-peaceful crowd in Mill Creek Park near the Kansas City Country Club Plaza. (Photo by Carlos Moreno. Many thanks to KCUR Kansas City).

That’s a deadly example of “crossing the line” that should never, ever be condoned. But that kind of “crossing the line”–extra-rough treatment of people from certain neighborhoods, with a certain skin color–by police happens all too often

Is there a systemic racism problem, or is it just a whole lot of unfortunate, isolated incidents? How you answer that question probably depends on your background, experiences and race. There’s even disagreement among police. Black officers see more of a problem than white officers, in recent polling.

Certainly, the officers in the George Floyd case crossed a line, although getting charges and convictions will be difficult. This wasn’t the first time Officer Derek Chauvin, the neck-kneeler, got in trouble for mistreating citizens, although one hopes it is the last.

Why do police officers cross those ethical lines? 

Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows I’m not a hater of the police. I’m concerned about their well-beinginspired by their service, and generally convinced that we’d be in a world of hurt without them. I write novels about (mostly) admirable law enforcement officers, and I do my level best to extrapolate realistically into my futuristic world.

A poster available on Amazon lists danger signs of officer stress
A poster available on Amazon lists danger signs of officer stress, and management cues. (image courtesy of Police Posters on Amazon).

But people are people. While most applicants go into law enforcement with good motives, no profession is populated solely by angels. And although many seek an exciting career, police work may be more than they bargained for. The job gives officers a front-row seat on more trauma and ugliness than most civilians would see in several dozen lifetimes.

Wounded, traumatized people can grow callous or violent. A persistent old-school police culture further tends to ignore the advice of psychologists about dealing with stress. Instead, there’s pressure to “suck it up” and get on with the job. To self-medicate for depression or stress with alcohol or other substancesNobody does their best work while drugged.

Crossing other lines

Unfortunately, I need to get back to those protests I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Because although during the day most protesters peacefully exercised their First Amendment rights, things changed at night. 

Night after night, rioters have vandalized, looted, and burned businesses and carsIt happened here in Kansas City, and in many other cities, too. One shocking casualty that hit the science fiction community extra-hard was the loss of the legendary Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore in Minneapolis.

It’s as if the transition from day to night turned people mean. In part, it seemed to become a self-fulfilling cycle. Authorities imposed curfews, in an effort to prevent violence. Police attempted to disperse crowds, in many cases using tear gas or pepper spray. Angry protesters fought back, and all hell broke loose.

After dark, the protests turned uglier. A Kansas City PD vehicle burns on Saturday night.
After dark, the protests turned uglier. A Kansas City PD vehicle burns on Saturday night, May 30, 2020. (Many thanks to Fox 4 News for this photo).

I think a lot of us would echo Terrence Floyd’s plea, “Let’s do this another way,” besides destruction. Yet it is important to pay attention to the roots of the contemporary violence. If riots are the language of the unheard,” we all owe it to ourselves to listen. And also to pay enough attention to discern between angry, fed-up people and calculating opportunists.

A better kind of line-crossing

But I’d like to close this post on a brighter note. For all the anger on display, for all the ugliness after nightfall, and for all the brutality being protested, there were moments of positive “line-crossing.” Of police officers taking a knee, joining a march, and reaching across barricades. And there were more of them than I recall having seen in past rounds of protests.

They, too, were mostly appalled at the way George Floyd died. Police forces in most of our cities are engaged in a long, slow effort to reform relations with their communities of color. There are a lot of fences to mend. A lot of history to overcome. That’s why people are in the streets–again. Too many times, police officers have crossed that line in the wrong ways.

At left two Kansas City PD officers hold up a sign that reads, "End police brutality!" At right KCPD Chief Rick Smith and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas kneel for a moment of silence for George Floyd, while holding up an "I can't breathe" T-shirt
Possible signs of change in Kansas City? At left two Kansas City PD officers hold up a sign that reads, “End police brutality!” At right KCPD Chief Rick Smith and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas kneel for a moment of silence for George Floyd, while holding up an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt. (Photos courtesy of Forbes, via Twitter and Katie Moore/Kansas City Star).

That needs to change. Our communities are calling for it. Police departments surely know it can’t continue this way, and some places appear to be doing better

Let’s nurture that change. Let’s find ways to encourage and reinforce itIt’s time for crossing the line of division, and reaching out toward healing.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to KCUR Kansas City and photographer Carlos Moreno, for the photo from Nareen Stokes’s speech. Police stress poster image courtesy of Police Posters on Amazon. Many thanks to Fox 4 News for the photo from Saturday night. Photos of connections between police and community are courtesy of Forbes, via Twitter and Katie Moore/Kansas City Star. I appreciate all of you!

Representation Matters

Representation and social transformation

The Artdog Quotes of the Week

How does representation play a role in social transformation? Last week’s Monday post explored stereotypes and the power of portrayal. Now let’s tackle social transformation.

Make no mistake. Society is always transforming. Social change happens, whether we want it to or not. And individually we can’t control how it changes. 

This quote from Ellen DeGeneres says, "Whenever people act like gay image in the media will influence kids to be gay, I want to remind them that gay children grew up with only straight people on television."
No, the creators of content can’t change basic facts of human existence. But we can affect how people think about those facts, for well or ill. (This quote-image featuring Ellen DeGeneres is courtesy of FCKH8 on Twitter).

One person’s efforts rarely provide a huge pivot point, unless that one person speaks for thousands, and society was ripe for the change. Case in point: #MeTooThat one was way overdue!

What kind of future do you want?

We can’t control the changes. But we can affect how things change. 

What kind of future do you want? As creative people, we make art that comments on how things are and how things could be. If you think a more broadly representative world would be more fair and interesting, reflect that in your art.

Subverting the stereotypes

If you think harmful stereotypes should be questioned, treat them like the clichés they are. Turn them inside out. Subvert them. Transform them into something fresh and unexpected and better

This quote from Rosie Perez reads, "I started calling people on their stuff. I'd say, 'listen, things have to change. How come I keep getting 50 million offers to play the crack ho?' And I challenged them on it, and initially, oh my God, the negative response was horrific."
It can take guts to “call people on their stuff” and challenge stereotypes. But artistic integrity demands it. (This quote-image from Rosie Perez is courtesy of The Huffington Post).

That’s just basic sound practice–but you’re also making a statement by the way you make the transformation. 

Please note that this approach requires awareness. Creative people fall into tropesclichés and stereotyped thinking when they don’t recognize them for what they are. We all have unconscious biases. But we owe it to ourselves, our work, and our fans to learn about them and challenge them.

Representation and social transformation

Wider and more diverse representation is essential to the social transformations that I would love to see come about. I have my own ways to portray that, particularly in the stories I write. 

This quote from Gina Rodriguez says, "I became an actor to change the way I grew up. The way I grew up, I never saw myself on the screen. I have two older sisters. One's an investment banker. The other one is a doctor, and I never saw us being played as investment bankers. And I realized how limiting that was for me. I would look at the screen and think, 'Well, there's no way I can do it, because I'm not there.'"
Artists need to seize the power of portrayal. (This quote-image from Gina Rodriguez is courtesy of The Huffington Post).

There are as many possible approaches as there are artists. Some, such as those in the Solarpunk movement, seek to portray the benefits of positive future change. 

Writers, artists, filmmakers and others with a more dystopic bent often dramatize how badly things can go wrong. Perhaps as a cautionary tale. Or because they’re pessimists. Or because conflict is inherent in a dystopic plotline.

Everyone takes an individual path, because each of us has our own unique voice. We must let the world hear our visions, presented from our own perspectives, in our own voices.

What values do you seek to embrace? What negative outcomes do you hope we avoid? 

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to  FCKH8 on Twitter and The Huffington Post for the quote-images in this post.

This photo shows a wide shot of a large crowd, many in dark clothing with protest signs, facing off against police in New York's Grand Central subway station.

Nothing is simple

Nothing is simple, although it may look that way from the outside.

I found an article the other day in one of my online research resources, Police Magazine. It reported on a disturbance in New York City’s Grand Central subway station. 

A group called Decolonize this Place organized it as part of a daylong series of demonstrations. This is the third time this group has staged demonstrations since earlier in 2019.

This photo shows a wide shot of a large crowd, many in dark clothing with protest signs, facing off against police in New York's Grand Central subway station.
A still from a video from New York Post, via Police Magazine, showing the protest in the terminal. (Police Magazine/New York Post)

They didn’t manage to close it down, as they’d hoped.

What they did manage to do was get national TV and other news coverage, and slow things down in Midtown. Reports on the size of the crowd and number of arrests varied. They left banners and sprayed graffiti, and tweeted about it. And they made an effort to look both intimidating and impossible to identify. Seems pretty obvious this group is up to no good, right?

Well, nothing is simple.

What’s the goal of the disruption?

This group clearly hates the police. According to their tweets, they want to “end all policing & destruction of public order . . . to bring public safety back to NYC.” They also want all mass transit fees ended, so the rides are all free. 

This retweet by NYC PBA of a Decolonize video says, "New Yorkers should pay close attention: this is true endgame of the anti-police movement, an end of all policing & destruction of public order. Our members have spent their careers--and in some cases given   their lives--to bring public safety back to NYC. We can't go backwards"
Photo from 1010 WINS Radio, via Twitter. (Note the
linked Twitter video contains profanity).

Let’s unpack this. First of all, “end all policing” is connected to “destruction of public order.” 

The goal is “to bring public safety back to NYC.”

While the article in Police Magazine did list their goals as “no cops in the MTA, free transit [and] no harassment, ” they focused more on the disruption and vandalism

That’s not surprising. Their aim, as stated by MTA Chief Safety Officer Pat Warren (quoted in the article), is to protect “transit services that get New Yorkers to their jobs, schools, doctors and other places they need to go.” Simple enough.

But nothing is simple.

How can the protests promote the need for public safety?

I’d just read another article about a UK study that demonstrated a 14-21% reduction in crime when the police patrolled subway stations every 15 minutes. These platforms previously had not had a police presence–exactly what the New York demonstrators are demanding

The article even went so far as to make a direct comparison: “London’s Underground, akin to NYC’s subway system, was the first underground railway in the world, and now services more than 1.3 billion passengers per year.”

The police show up and crime goes down. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? But nothing is simple.

This photo shows a seating area at the Canary Wharf stop of the London Underground, with a train in the background.
A study showed police patrols every 15 minutes in the London Underground deterred crime. Yet Decolonize this Place is demanding that police stop patrolling the New York City subways. Does this make sense? (Photo courtesy of Forensic).

Who’s protecting whom, and from what?

The London Underground recently has seen delays from demonstrations, too, but those were staged by climate activists seeking attention. One of the biggest worries there seems to be terrorist attacks (and with good reason)

But hardly any of the London Underground’s users seem to think the police themselves are a danger to public safety. No so, for Decolonize this Place. They demonstrated to remove them from the subways entirely

The New York City subway system’s police officers, interacting with an assortment of low-income persons of color have been captured in distressing videos that went viral. This apparently happens frequently in the subways. 

Six homeless persons doze or sleep on a bench in a New York subway terminal.
The number of homeless persons living in the New York City subways has jumped by 20% recently (screencap of a video via ABC-7 News)

The MTA recently (and controversiallyhired 500 new officers to patrol the subways. They are there to address “quality of life” issues, such as illegal food vendors and the growing number of homeless people living in the subway system. 

Meanwhile, the NYPD has been cracking down on low-level crimes, and that’s no surprise, since that kind of crime is up. But that often means focusing on persons of color, whether it’s because of simple economics or racial bias. But addressing those issues, no matter how tactfully, is no simple matter.

Respect is not as simple a matter as it may seem. 

This 1981 news photo shows uniformed British police moving toward a barricade and bonfire, behind which a group of demonstrators hide.
1981 Brixton Riots in the UK: first large-scale clash between low-income black youths and white British police in the 20th Century. (Photo from The Royal Gazette)

As far as I can tell, one clear problem with NYPD and MTA officers’ approach is that it never seems to be respectfulDefensive, definitely–and in the current environment, caution is warranted

But whatever their intentions, the effect when they surround a tiny, elderly churro vender with four or five much taller armed police officers and handcuff her is pretty darned intimidating.

This is not a new thing, this antagonism between police forces and the working poor. And it’s not isolated to New York City. Fines that unfairly burdened lower-income residents of Ferguson MO fueled some of the fury in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing. And all too often cities’ attempts to “deal with the homeless problem” turn into efforts to chase the homeless out of town–or at least out of sight. 

In this CBC photo officials use a construction front shovel loader to dump debris from the homeless camp into a dumpster for disposal.
Officials used heavy equipment to clear out a homeless camp near Moncton, New Brunswick last May (photo by Shane Magee/CBC)

Even efforts designed to be helpful don’t always succeed. Many places create task forces that include social workers to coordinate with the police, but their success is mixed. “Neighborhood policing” doesn’t always have the desired result.

It’s not just the working poor who feel disrespected. Police officers also have every reason to feel they are not respected. Indeed, too often they are violently targeted. “Bad actors” among sworn-officer ranks get sensational headlines, and besmirch the ones who honestly struggle each day to serve their communities.

Nothing is simple. Especially not efforts to negotiate the delicate balance of respect, accountability, and public order that characterizes interactions between the police and the working poor

But it’s quite simply true that everyone’s safety and security depends on finding a way.

IMAGE CREDITS: 

Many thanks to Police Magazine (and New York Post) for the coverage of the protest, and to 1010 WINS Radio and Twitter for the tweet from Decolonize this Place. I’d also like to thank Forensic for the photo from the London Underground, and ABC-7 News for the screencap of homeless people in subways. Additionally,  much gratitude to The Royal Gazette for the historic photo from the Brixton Riots, as well as The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and their photographer/reporter Shane Magee for the photo from the Moncton NB homeless camp.

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