Analysis of police press release about Alfred Olango raises serious questions (updated)

The police in El Cajon have released, and then updated, a press release about the shooting of Alfred Olango.

Police have video of the incident taken from a bystander, which they say backs up their account, but refuse to release the full video. This is the still that we have to go on.

We know that Olango did not have a gun or a Taser. The press release states the exact objects Olango had were a Smok TVF4 MINI attached to a Pioneer4You battery box.

The first item sounds like the one pictured on the left, as it is described as “all silver.”

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Pioneer boxes look something like this:

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The device in total is 7″ by 2.25″ by 1″. For a comparison, a Glock 17 is about 8″ by 5.5″ by 1.2″. If the Smok was all silver as shown above, it wouldn’t resemble a gun from any distance, let alone the few feet as shown in the picture. Given that vape devices are commonplace, police should be expected to distinguish between smoking equipment, firearms, and Tasers. That’s an expectation that was not met here.

Other notes:

Shooting was at 2:11, with weather in El Cajon being very hot and bright. So no “it was dark to hard to determine” defense like in the Fridoon Nehad case, where a non-weapon was misidentified also. As the still shows, police saw the device from multiple angles.

Releasing the still seems to be a way of forming a narrative without backing it up in full. You would assume that this single frame, taken out of context, makes the police account look most likely. However, you don’t have to defend police conduct as it actually looked in real-time, nor any police methods used prior to the shooting.

The police deflect why there was not a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) personnel at this scene at the bottom of the updated press release.

The El Cajon Police Department does have an agreement with Community Research Foundation / PERT which allows certified licensed clinicians to partner with police officers in the field in order to provide direct support for mental health calls.  On 9/27/16, during the hours of this incident, there was a PERT clinician with a police officer.  At the specific time of this incident, that team was on a different radio call that was also PERT related.  They were not immediately available.

(update: the Associated Press reports it took over an hour for police to respond and one minute to kill Olango. If it took that long, the “not immediately available” excuse doesn’t hold up. This was not a rush, in-the-moment job.

Additionally, someone allegedly so dangerous that police had to quickly kill when on the scene managed to not hurt anyone in the hour before. The person Olango was most likely to hurt was himself, given his state and the presence of traffic.)

This was a 5150 call, in which authorities come to take someone to involuntary psychiatric hold. Given that the call was about mental illness (not a call about crime or a possible criminal), having no special preparation is concerning. Though 5150s can be a good thing in the long run for patient health (I know many people who have had at least one called), this incident makes me less likely to call one in.

As someone who provided information about mental illness to those who came into contact with people with mental health problems, or were otherwise difficult to help, I’m not surprised. The department likely trumpets this local relationship in promotional materials,  yet when people’s lives are on the line, they are somehow unavailable. This is a similar issue we’ve seen so far with  bodycams- often there, but unavailable or otherwise unaccessible.

The release says this

At this time, the officer with the electronic control device discharged his weapon.  Simultaneously, the officer with the firearm discharged his weapon several times, striking the subject.

Why, if the suspect is considered such that one officer has their Taser (rather than pistol) ready, would the two stages not be sequential. Non-lethal methods would not have worked in the death of Alfred Olango, because lethal means were used at the same time. Would Olango have survived if only the Taser been used? Much more likely.

In conclusion, large protests in El Cajon have been held in the aftermath of Olango’s death. Given the official story as presented thus far, I find considerable issue with police conduct before the shooting, the misidentification of the object held by Olango, the use of lethal force before less-lethal means were tried, and the release of a single still image without context, so to prejudice the public.

The next Donald Trump

We are now forty days from the 2016 election, and the result is still very much in doubt. The collision of two unpopular, ill-liked candidates has created something approaching competition. On the Wednesday after, talking heads will find their own way of saying “the losing party would have won if they had ran anyone else as their candidate.”

So perhaps we are heading into a Donald Trump presidency. The effects of this, domestically and internationally, are in the air. But one should expect regression and an increase in everyday hostility towards non-whites as a start.

This post is not about the 2016 election. It’s about the next Donald Trump-like candidate to gain a mass following in the United States. And the one after that, going forward into the indefinite future.

A common error in conventional thinking is to mix up structural and particular events. That is, is Trump emerging from a large, stable movement in society, or is he a man with a particular skill set that is not easily replicated? Sociologists like myself think the former explanation is better, while conventional Republicans would like to think the latter is true.

The debate about Trump harkens back to debates about the rise of populists and fascists in the modern world. That is, were Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, or the Khmer Rogue a special type of evil that is so tied to their being? The unsettling reality, which explains why so many believe that, is that monstrous figures emerge from society. Any political leader or force that has existed can return in a similar form. That means that we, collectively, have the potential to both build and destroy.

Deindustrialization, outsourcing, stagnant wages, underemployment, falling unionization rates, rising healthcare and education costs. All of these, beginning around 1970 and continuing until now, are serious structural forces. They impact a wide swath of society, but for conservative populists, working class whites can be utilized to gain power. Much of the country is at least partly segregated, making racial appeals effective. A massive recession hit the bulk of society head on, and the recovery has only benefitted the rich elite. These days are the crucible of radical politics, which has reached a more complete form on the right, though the Sanders campaign and Jill Stein indicate movement towards the left as well.

Remember that Hitler attempted to seize power first in November 1923 with the Beer Haul Putsch. The Enabling Act, which gave the Nazis unchecked power, came a full decade later. But in that time, the Weimar Republic struggled with hyperinflation, economic stagnation, and political paralysis. The persistence of this particular structure is what made far-right politics possible. As long as crisis reigned, there was always another chance.

And that’s what we should expect going forward from the 2016 election. Structural issues will persist, and a Clinton presidency is not going to solve core economic problems (remember when her husband destroyed welfare and funded prisons instead?) or help communities of color to any meaningful degree. Deadlock in the Senate, demagogues in legislatures across the country. There can always be another Trump. When they come, we should not be surprised.

The death of Alfred Olango, disability, and “failure to comply”

A black man, Alfred Olango, was killed by a police officer on Tuesday in El Cajon, CA. It’s the first major city to the east of San Diego, about 20-25 minutes by car from where I live.

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Site of shooting in downtown El Cajon, Sept 27 2016

Not much is known for sure, other than that the dead man was “acting erratic.” A woman identified as his sister said he had mental health issues. According to the NBC report, the police “did not release details on the specific threat he presented to officers.” There is also contention about whether the police confiscated cell phones of bystanders who may have had video of the incident. They likely did, given how often the police aim to suppress video that may run counter to police testimony. There’s also little reason to give police the benefit of the doubt. Look no further than the recent allegations of gun planting in Charlotte  and a much clearer case of planting in 2011 in St. Louis.

The killing of a mentally ill man echoes last year’s killing of Fridoon Nehad, which involved a long fight to release surveillance footage of the incident. The details I covered in December 2015 here. A big similarity in these cases is the difference between being erratic and being dangerous. Erratic behavior has many sources- in Olango’s case it looks like a seizure is the reason. A variety of disorders like bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, and some types of depression can also make individuals confused and incapable of responding to police demands- which are often given loudly, on top of one another, and with a very small time window for compliance. At my low point in 2012 when my mental health was worst, I could have easily been described as erratic. And I now realize that can put my life at risk, in a way never before considered.

Alfred Olango, from twitter.com/uaptsd
Alfred Olango, from twitter.com/uaptsd

Police protocol in these cases is infested with ableism. It assumes a perfectly compliant, quick, enthusiastic response to police orders. If someone fails on any of these counts, their life can be in danger. Sometimes the cops will just open fire before any real attempt at less-lethal options- Fridoon Nehad was shot by an officer who spent about 25 seconds from parking his car to killing him. But consider the case of Charles Kinsey, a black man shot for trying to help a young autistic man in his care, Arnaldo Rios. Kinsey served a perfectly compliant surrogate for someone who was unable to do so, and yet police did open fire on Rios, missing and hitting Kinsey instead. The resulting trauma for Rios has been awful, with him not getting proper therapy. But many people with mental or development disorders don’t survive their encounters with police. Robert Ethan Saylor, who had Down’s Syndrome, was tackled and asphyxiated over a dispute about a movie ticket. Again, defensive behavior or tics was interpreted as a threat. People who are deaf or hard of hearing routinely suffer from violence, since a basic assumption is that all people can hear instructions. And of course, many people don’t speak English, so being yelled at in the foreign language is just confusing and may lead to so-called ‘erratic’ actions. Police always filter civilian behavior through a lens of perfect ability. That is, those who are not fully able and somehow lesser and more likely to be targets of violence. The most vulnerable sections of the population are threatened by the institutions that in theory should protect and serve them.

These issues would be much less prevalent if American police really committed to deescalation, and had proper understanding of the symptoms and nature of mental illness. I was even part of a county program in 2014 that helped explain mental illness and stigma to schools, crisis lines, and yes, police departments. But it’s not working- street-level cops still can’t process disability at any level. The existence of the ADA, and the sense that people with mental and physical disabilities have rights has no place among the police.

Screencap of ABC 10 report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zi5Xa_ja_7I

The true answer, to help make sure there is never another Alfred Olango, is community policing. Community members and organizations band together to help keep things safe, using their pre-existing trust to make bonds that the police will never be able to. And a community effort means more local knowledge, including those who live with mental or developmental disabilities. Communities also don’t want gun homicides and violence- they have the most vested interest in deescalation. Restorative justice can change mindsets in a way mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline cannot.

Alfred Olango is not the first, not in this country or this county. But he is a reminder that police departments have the most sinister and deadly ableism one can imagine.

San Diego will participate in 022, the October 22nd National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Event details are on Facebook here. The national event website is here.

Criticism of safe spaces unmasks white supremacy

The debate about campus free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related topics in schools and universities is very old. Indeed, modern campus activism traces to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where the student body fought against an administration that wanted complete control of conduct.

Though safe spaces have been placed in direct opposition to campus free speech in many discussions, I will point out that the University of Chicago’s stance against safe spaces is the same sort of administration power play that free speech coalitions have fought against. Issues differ, but it is all rooted in the same power dynamic

Well, the University of Chicago has always embodied the Slowpoke meme. Always relishing its anachronisms. Thus, it’s not surprising that they take fairly regressive stances on campus issues. Students and former students like Cameron Okeke have criticized the university’s stance, saying it has no appreciation of how safe spaces can improve campus function and dialogue, not hinder it. They’re right.

Within education there is a bizarre, unresolved contradiction. Schools, especially universities, are supposed to be about open exchange and freedom. Yet these institutions often serve to bolster white supremacy and obscure historical injustice. Whatever your age, if you were born and raised in the United States, what was the first thing you ever learned about the indigenous people of the Americas? Probably the first Thanksgiving, which occurred over a century after contact. We are told there was harmony, while the systematic extinction of the original inhabitants starting with Columbus is taught much later. Humans tend to believe the first thing they are told about a subject, even if it is later proven to be false (in psychology this is called anchoring). Thus many people think Thanksgiving, not the forced mining or Trail of Tears. If you grew up in California, you spent a whole half-year talking about the mission system. I’ll bet subjugation of natives to serve as labor was probably glossed over. Same with focusing on the Founding Fathers crafting a republican form of government, rather than how it excluded anyone who wasn’t white and wealthy.

So if primary and secondary education fail us, universities have to serve as the counterpoint. But eliminating safe spaces doesn’t make the discussion better, it makes it worse. In most elite schools, black and Latino/a students are under-represented. The strain of often being the only black or brown student in a class, or on the floor of a dorm, is huge. Universities that historically had no people of color (or women, for that matter) are not welcoming, especially if no effort is made to change. Safe spaces, trigger warning, etc. are an effort. U of Chicago is nailing its feet to a place between the beginning of the civil rights movement, and now. It can only fall further behind.

Cal State Los Angeles has recently gotten attention for offering campus housing that is designed for students interested in black culture and issues. This has been called segregation (it’s not), but this all seems to be about comfort. Namely, sacrificing the comfort and safety of students of color in favor of the comfort of white people, who would rather not be reminded of how the university works for them but not for others. That lofty concepts like academic freedom are being dragged down is distressing, as it’s just a fig leaf. Administration wants control, nothing more and nothing less.

 

Everyone everywhere wants to tell women what to wear

The move against religious attire in France- in practice meaning various types of coverings used by some Muslim women- is not new. Recently, however, the brand of secularism touted by French authorities has increasingly come to mirror the restrictions imposed in countries with fundamentalist governments. The horseshoe theory of ideology, ironically created by a Frenchman, posits that the two far ends of the spectrum are more alike than each end is to the political center. Laws banning the ‘burkini’ and other types of clothing definitely give credence to the horseshoe concept.

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Having armed police order a woman in loose-fitting clothes and headscarf to strip on a beach bears far too much resemblance to the ‘morality police’ in Iran. It’s an example of the limits of Western liberalism- which has always been rooted in European cultural superiority. Freedom of religion is sacrosanct, but only within very particular boundaries. Islam is not a protected group- as was seen when Switzerland banned minarets, yet kept Christian bell towers alone, despite being functionally identical.

The idea of French law as a savior, keeping Muslim women from subjugation, is a contemporary repackaging of the white man’s burden. And as a version of the white man’s burden, it is dangerously misguided.

In society, there are institutions and processes. Institutions are concrete, and processes are are created and/or influenced by institutions. The hijab is concrete, the processes that lead women to wear it are really, really complicated. France is banning clothing and justifying it by saying it addresses the underlying process. Namely that women who cover to some degree are oppressed, and they are liberated through having certain types of clothing banned.

This rarely works. Clothing, being concrete, is much easier to regulate. Thus it is often chosen not because it is effective, but visible. Increasing airport security does nothing to combat the forces behind terrorism, but it signals that those in power are doing something. However, the core issue was never the hijab, burqa, or burkini. The issue is coercion and male supremacy, which may lead some (but certainly not all) women to don clothing they would prefer not to. And clothing is one of many manifestations of this coercion. It’s just a particularly visible one.

What we get with the French approach is a blanket ban that doesn’t actually solve anything, and fosters a clear cultural bias. Is modesty in public, no matter who you are, now unlawful? Anyone can choose to dress conservatively in public- many of these people are not Muslim, not female, or both. Europe for centuries sanctioned and punished women for showing too much skin, only for the pendulum to swing such that not showing skin is now somehow suspicious.

Women need a lot of things. Access to education and healthcare. Protection from discrimination in the workplace. A safe environment to live. And the ability to decide how they wish to dress, and whose opinion they listen to on the subject. Women do not need to be told how to dress- and those who came from countries with morality police now find in the enlightened West the same, damn restrictions.

The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

Glimpse of a Mad King

Even if the present downward spiral persists all the way to November 8th, the 2016 presidential election will not be a historic blowout. Since 1960 a half dozen elections have been lopsided, including two where the winner came close to carrying all fifty states. Yet, despite this historical perspective, 2016 may feel like those elections. Because qualitatively, the Trump campaign seems like a disaster.

It is clear that despite statements to the contrary, campaign workers and the GOP establishment have lost control of their candidate. Now that the conventions are done, Trump and Clinton will receive classified briefings. Within 24 hours, there was already concern that Trump may have described a top secret video. He did not, but few think he is incapable of such things. Many Americans simply have zero faith in Trump to do the right thing, for that is often the selfless thing. And not only is Khizr Khan right that Trump has never known sacrifice, he has no ability to do so.

What I think is interesting right now is that with the Republican Party, we see a glimpse of what an authoritarian America would look like. While the US is an oligarchy in practice, there is a political culture that curtails what leaders can do. Right now in the GOP, there is no one higher than Trump, and if he chooses to self-destruct nobody can stop him. Conservatives are getting a taste of the old days of European royalty, where insane monarchs ruled for years because they were, on paper, the leader.

This all remains in large part a vanity campaign. But in the service of ego stroking, the consequences may not be as trivial as the candidate.