Sandra Bland: No need to defend the well-defended

I was wondering yesterday how I would articulate the system oppressing black Americans, were I given a chance on the open mic at a protest rally. It distilled down to a single sentence:

The names change, but the system stays the same.

Sandra Bland is just the latest of an ever-growing roster of unarmed black people killed due to the actions of law enforcement. What happened in that jail is something I don’t know. But the talk of murder vs. suicide cannot overshadow the fact that both are different variations of the same injustice. Bland should never have been pulled over, never been arrested, restrained, booked, jailed. Her death is the result of how little we as Americans restrict the acceptable behavior of the police. She joins four centuries of victims of structural racism.

What keeps coming up in all these interrelated struggles- against the murder of trans* individuals, against corporate actions that attack working class people and pollute the environment, and against US-NATO imperialism all over the world- is that there is a group or institution that is well-defended and there is another who are open to interrogation. Why did that transgender person make those men angry? Why should burger-flippers make a living wage? If they don’t want to get bombed, why don’t the Palestinians commit to the peace process?

These are all questions borne of a certain unjust system, which put the vulnerable on trial for the misdeeds of the secure.

I have no need to defend the police. They don’t need me even if I wanted to. They have their own lawyers, union reps, and politicians to defend them. They have a vast majority of the media who rely on the police for stories and tend to accept their side of the story as more valid and official. The justice system simply does not prosecute police officers, and even when charges are brought they are usually watered down to something far less than what they actually did. The whole world tilts towards them in this fight.

What the world needs are people willing to defend the undefended.

Black Lives Matter more than CVS laundry detergent

Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015
Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015

So I was honored to be interviewed at the San Diego march in solidarity with Baltimore and the fight against police violence (story with full video here). About 200 people came out to fill the streets and create urgency- black lives do matter, and justice for the living and the dead will come from ordinary people seizing the initiative and finding their own power.

My friend and colleague in Socialist Alternative, Bryan Kim, was also interviewed by Channel 8, and we complemented each other well. Local news incorporated a lot of voices in this event- black, brown, and white, both the organizers and regular marchers.

This one instance gave me the chance to collect my thoughts on Freddie Gray, the events in Baltimore, and the larger epidemic of police violence against unarmed people of color that has been steadily snowballing since last year. Unlike many others pouring their hearts and minds out on Twitter, Facebook, and to their friends and colleagues, I never created a long, detailed response.

Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.
Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.

The one thought I’d like to throw out comes from my own background and belief in nonviolent struggle as the way to enact social and political change. Baltimore has presented a complicated picture for people with this set of views, and the media and institutional politics has tried to put people into what I’d dub “the nonviolent trap.”

Essentially, the media performed a litmus test on everyone who claimed to be nonviolent- either denounce the looting and conflict wholesale, or be called a hypocrite. My tiny soundbite was part of the counter- if we are to talk about violence in these protests, we need to include the violence put on communities by the police and the state. The trial was about one form of violence while ignoring the other, or at the very least requiring a clear denunciation before anything else can be discussed.

Looting a CVS and killing someone like Freddie Gray or Michael Brown are not the same kind of force. They have been made equivalent by some public figures, and often shown side-by-side as equal in media reports. Capital and humans are fundamentally different. The destruction of property through riot action or looting can cause real harm- often in urban unrest the businesses who end up taking damage are owned by people of color. But a damaged storefront can be rebuilt. In the case of something like a CVS, there is no intangible value to what was held within. People are not replaceable. I find looting to be a concern, though it is a product of structural injustice rather than simple greed. But as a nonviolent struggle advocate, I think we need to see conflict as a chain of events, and avoid the quick-take of what happened today. Denouncing only the people of color who have faced economic and social deterioration is a de facto censoring of the oppressed, and in the process helps the elites who have done so much harm.

The best speech you may never have heard by Martin Luther King Jr., entitled “Beyond Vietnam” and given in 1967, has a bit I really like that I used as my basis when I was interviewed. It think it strikes at the root.

I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (source)

Syria’s civil war machine keeps chugging

Last week an estimate came out; with over 1,700 dead, the third week in July may have been the deadliest in the Syrian conflict to date. This combines with a press conference held by a regime defector who has tens of thousands of pictures of dead Syrians, who had been brutally tortured. This man surfaced back in January, which led to a post I made located here, which links to a gallery of photos, most not for the faint of heart.

Destruction in the middle of Homs, Syria. Credit: Yazen Homsy, Reuters

In the international community, a cadre has long hoped that the Syrian conflict would reach a stalemate. The parties would then be open to a negotiated settlement, and large-scale violence would cease.

There has been no slowing down. Syria’s army, the Free Syrian Army, the fundamentalists, the Kurds, and all the other groups trying to survive are not out of will and fight.

Assad’s regime continues to get heavy weapons from Russia, while the Islamic State is now making huge sums from the oil fields it has captured. As long as the various factions have the money and arms to sustain a struggle, the idea of a lasting peace seems absurd.

 

 

We might all be monsters one day

Some of this may sound a bit dated, but it’s written because of a post yesterday on Gin & Tacos called “Incurable“- about how smart, regular people become bitter right-wing fanatics.

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A primary component of stigma against people with mental disorders is belief that the population is inherently violent. If I may forward my own theory, I think in the past decade we have seen an even more radical belief. It’s gone beyond ‘the mentally ill are violent’ to ‘all great acts of violence are done solely by the mentally ill.’

We can never forget what happened at Newtown. The subsequent blame game has important lessons as well. Wayne LaPierre ran a dedicated campaign to deflect responsibility from guns to quite literally anything else. Violent video games, the collapse of the nuclear family, and most frequently, mental illness. Had he been speaking about blacks or Latinos, his tone would have been considered hate speech. The Economist wrote a feature in the aftermath about the campaign, and conclude, bluntly, that “when he talks of mentally ill ‘monsters’ and ‘lunatics’ walking the streets in such numbers that all prudent citizens must arm themselves to the teeth, he is slandering both them and his country, just as surely as any American-hating bigot.”

The APA concurred in several publications, including this statement:

The association objected to LaPierre’s assumption that horrendous crimes such as the one committed by shooter Adam Lanza are commonly perpetrated by persons with mental illness. In addition, he conflated mental illness with evil at several points in his talk and suggested that those who commit heinous gun crimes are ‘so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them,’ a description that leads to the further stigmatization of people with mental illnesses.

That bolded portion leads me to my point. It’s the move from tendency to sole causality. In the NRA’s view, and the view of a large portion of the American public, regular ‘sane’ people don’t commit terrible crimes. Ever. That sentiment is dangerous. I’ll talk a little about the present then jump over to a historical example.

A couple years back I read David Neiwert’s The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the RightIt opens with a man walking into a Unitarian Universalist congregation during a children’s play, firing a shotgun. He killed two and injured seven, and they found in his truck a short manifesto blaming liberals for ruining America, and lots of material by right-wing talk radio and television personalities. The UU church took out a full page ad in the New York Times in which they declined to hate in favor of love, perhaps their finest hour in recent years.

So was this shooter completely insane? Or was he made violent by extreme political talk, over months and years? In this case, was it perhaps not genetic mutation but cultural influence that cause him to strap dozens of shotgun rounds onto his person and enter a sanctuary to kill indiscriminately?

Similarly, are those that shot Muslims and Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11 totally insane, or lashing out in grief and pain to make someone pay? Is not racism learned rather than a born trait?

Is every person in the US military insane when they plan and execute military operations that may kill far more civilians than Adam Lanza ever did? What about business executives who cut corners to increase profits, which could injure or even kill workers or members of the public?

Perhaps these things make people insane, and thus capable of great crimes. If that was the case, why is the NRA’s rhetoric, that  ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” bravado exempt from that trend? Even if some people are just by birth monsters, it is absurd to think that monsters cannot also be created- or that people can deteriorate at some point.

This doesn’t even touch how hypocritical groups like the NRA have continually been about mental illness. Dumping stigma on a group will not lead to more people getting treatment and being less of a threat to themselves and (possibly) others. It will keep people from getting treatment, because it is now thought of as a synonym for evil. The rhetoric is self-defeating, which reveals what it was all along- typical political scapegoating. Any speech by any politician of any background that identifies something else as the problem, yet is disinterested in taking steps to solve it, is not worth the paper it was printed on.

This whole process, which started well before Newtown but has organized itself since then, is about denying our collective capacity to do horrible things. You can see this in any discussion of a genocidal regime or dictator- as usual Hitler is the most visible, but there are dozens. People treat Hitler as a different species- something unique for all time, that could never be replicated. And in that, they let their guard down, and forget that as twisted a soul as Adolph Hitler was, he was still a human. He has more in common with each of us than society would ever like to admit.

To think that the ‘regular’ section of American life couldn’t possibly commit horrible atrocities is naive. It’s not all at the feet of mental illness, just like how Newtown wasn’t all at the feet of guns or violent media. But the more the United States public is willing to accept reality distortion to meet short-term political goals, the less will be done to make all citizens safe from criminals- of all types.

 

 

Understanding what mental illness is and is not

I’ve been featured twice recently in articles about the Affordable Care Act and its impact on mental healthcare- first by the Peninsula Press, and subsequently by Generation Progress, which is an offshoot of the Center for American Progress think tank. This wasn’t by accident- I approached the author of the first article, Maya Horowitz, during a county meeting on mental health. What prompted me is the serious lack of literacy in regards to what people with mental disorders are like and the challenges they face. The ACA is a good legislative step by eliminating these disorders from disqualifying individuals from quality insurance, nevertheless there still is societal stigma.

A place I return to time and time again is the largest bipolar community on reddit.com. To some extent, in a non-medical sense I’m already somewhat of an expert. Living with bipolar disorder for almost nine years now, I see my own early struggles in new people that show up. In the pre-ACA era there was what I described to the Peninsula Press as “a climate of fear.” Consequently most people stayed in the closet, and avoided disclosing their status to co-workers. It was dangerous to let insurance companies know too much about your chronic condition, and embarrassing to disclose in a social setting.

Polls show that a third of Americans think prayer alone can overcome serious mental illness. People who openly talk about their struggles will inevitably get condescending suggestions to ditch their medication in favor of alternative remedies, yoga, or positive thinking. Many can improve their mood with exercise, sunlight, and improved diet; but scientifically it is clear that medication is the primary answer for people with severe major depression:

The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo increases with severity of depression symptoms, and may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms. For patients with very severe depression, the benefit of medications over placebo is substantial. (2010 study, source)

The public by and large does not understand major depression, or bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia are, how they present, are diagnosed, and are treated. This lack of tangible knowledge leads to one of the most offensive aspects of mental health in America.

That the media and special interest groups are lumping all violent behavior with mental illness, and erasing any distinction between violent individuals, those with mental disorders, and violent individuals with mental disorders.

A large portion of mass shootings lead to a blame game, and mental illness is always brought up as a hand-wave answer for why such things happen. This is reinforced by scary news features, along with TV and film portrayals of sadistic, insane villains. However, the link to violence is an illusion. Terrible crimes are committed routinely by people with no trace of mental illness; the more blame lumped onto mental health, the less vigilant people are about other at-risk groups.

Indeed several mass shooters had serious mental issues, but they also had warning signs that should have been picked up on. More stigmatization keeps people from seeking treatment, and leading to risky and destructive behavior.

The reason I volunteered to go on the record is because there need to be more voices with experience, even though it’s always awkward to talk about mental illness in public. Anti-stigma campaigns are being formulated and launched- my county now has a unified campaign with quality materials. One way I look at the 21st century is how there are a shrinking number of acceptance prejudices. In many ways those with mental health are not treated with the same empathy and respect as others. They should.

Another war fought with the machete

9 Dec: A Christian man with a knife chases a suspected Seleka officer in civilian clothes near the airport in Bangui.
A Christian chases a suspected Muslim rebel with a knife. December 9th, 2013.
Credit: Jerome Delay/AP

The Central African Republic has rapidly become a place of unimaginable violence and cruelty as Muslim rebels battle the government and Christian militias for control of the landlocked country. The BBC reported a couple days ago that Muslims have been mutilated in the capital’s airport (a massive refugee camp now), and that

There is no more safe part of the city for Muslims. We see them being killed everywhere in Bangui, and Christians as well.

We were at the morgue two days ago, and it really was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. They showed us the death records in case after case of people who had been lynched in the street, shot, burned.

These scenes are repeating themselves throughout the country, not just in Bangui.

That French peacekeepers witnessed this but did not intervene does not engender confidence towards their efforts- before and now- to keep religious and ethnic violence from engulfing portions of the country where the groups live together or nearby.

With the incredible brutality in mid-90s Rwanda in mind, one would hope that lessons have been learned. However, the history of post-colonial Africa is one of Western nations creating conditions for religious, ethnic, and national conflict and taking inadequate measures to prevent it.

Regarding Syria: Be horrified. Continue to be horrified.

Syria
A leaked photo of a dead Syrian with ligature marks around his neck.

One of the big recent stories about the Syrian conflict is new primary evidence of mass detention, torture, and killing of people by the Assad regime. A formal report by war crimes prosecutors with graphic pictures is available here (PDF). Regarding a defector who had been tasked with documentation of it all (alias “Caesar”) Der Spiegel reported:

Caesar provided his testimony and photographic evidence to lawyers and forensic experts at a British law firm. Together, says Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, the defector’s evidence shows the “industrial scale” of the killing perpetrated by the Syrian regime. In addition, the photos provide a horrifying explanation for what might have happened to the 50,000 or more missing people in Syria — those who were abducted by the regime of the course of the past two years. They are not included in the casualty figures, which assume a total of some 130,000 killed in the civil war. But prior to last week, there had been no clear indication as to where they might be.

Later discussing a campaign in early 2012 in Homs:

Beginning in February 2012, thousands of Homs residents disappeared in the wake of the 4th Division’s attack on the rebellious quarters of the city. Whether the victims belonged to the opposition or not was irrelevant for the subsequent death sentences — the wrong address was often enough. But the men whose corpses the soldier and the military doctor later saw in the inner courtyard of the Homs military hospital did not yet show indications of systemic starvation, as is evident in many of the images provided by Caesar.

Of course, there is an obvious question- if you’re doing barbaric, illegal killing campaigns on your own people, why leave a trail of evidence? One person defects and they have tens of thousands of photos indicting the regime. The defector has a chilling answer:

Why would a regime, which kills thousands of its own citizens, collects them in a discrete location and buries them in hidden mass graves, photograph and number the dead?

Caesar says that one reason is so that death certificates could be issued. But why document bullet holes and signs of strangulation given the interest in concealing the true cause of death? The second reason mentioned by Caesar seems more important. The regime wanted to make a record of which security service was responsible for what death, he said according to the report. A kind of performance report for brutality.

All of this is horrifying- and a key thing that third parties have to do in these cases is to continue to be horrified. All aspects of the Syrian conflict are terrible- the shooting of unarmed protestors, the shelling of civilian centers, the millions of refugees fleeing to countries that want nothing to do with them, the civil wars among the “rebels” themselves, the use of violence to make religious and political statements.

It makes sense to become acclimated, to see this as just more torture, more murder, more war. But that is an injustice to those that suffer and die. Be horrified, be disgusted. It’s how things get changed. Why do politicians get nudged towards action? How do groups like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross get the funding they need? People are disgusted. They spend time and money to react to that. And it can do a great deal of good.