Friday, September 09, 2005

Yellow with a Camera

If you haven't already, please be sure to read Ian Spiers' account of his ridiculous treatment for the terrible crime of "trying to complete his photography project". His brilliant, strategic artistic response is an uplifting ending that will help you wade through today's main account.

Buffalo News reports that Robert Rhodes III was acquitted of criminal civil rights charges. The jury found that he didn't violate Zhao Yan when he pepper sprayed her, knocked her down, struck her head with his knee, grabbed her by the hair and repeatedly smashed her face into the pavement. Rhodes attacked the woman because he mistakenly concluded that she was involved with a man who had just been caught smuggling four pounds of marijuana over the bridge into the United States

Rhodes' statement presents his side, "I did my job. . . . If Zhao Yan had not run away from me when I tried to question her, we would not be sitting here."

Rhodes' attorney thanked the jury saying,
"The jury did a great job for their country. They reaffirmed a law enforcement officer's right to protect himself, and his right to be able to do what is necessary to do his job." He added, "I believe that if the people of China had heard all the evidence in this case, they would have reached the same verdict - that Robert Rhodes did nothing wrong."

If you read the article further, there were three witnesses against Rhodes including two Homeland Security officers who corroborated Zhao's account.

So basically, it boils down to this: pretty much everyone knows what happened. The defense argued and the jury agreed that the officer was just doing his job and thinking of his own safety when he maced and savagely beat an unarmed woman taking pictures.

There's three issues I want to point out here. First, note the way the defense team highlighted that the woman was foreign and basically only Chinese people would care about the attack. Bullshit. She wasn't attacked because she was Chinese--she was attacked on the basis of her appearance and the assumption that she was with some other criminal in the vicinity. That's profiling. If she was a Japanese American raised in Orange County, it wouldn't have helped her initially. If she stuttered or was nervous, angry or scared, she would have received a severe beating. (Of course, I'm also not saying that someone not speaking English is a grounds for smashing their head into the pavement repeatedly--something the defense and jury basically did uphold.)

Secondly, I think we need to rethink this whole, "The police and law enforcement need to defend themselves" idea. That idea assumes that the police are in a war and that our own citizens (usually poor and of color) are enemy combatants. As we see in the Vang case (see below) when a person of color acts upon that assumption, they are certainly not vindicated by the press or our law enforcement system. The idea that our officers lives must be protected with force is basically saying that we are happy to have a few utterly innocent poor people of color die for what we claim is law enforcement's safety.

If you think more deeply about community safety though, you'll realize that this is not even the reality. Animosity between those targeted by the law enforcement and those job is law enforcement is not a foregone conclusion. It is a dynamic that has been created by decades and centuries of law enforcement killing and brutalizing innocent people of color. To reinforce that dynamic is to only make their own jobs harder and more dangerous.

The solution I proscribe is simple: Law enforcement should be paid more generously to reflect the hazardous nature of their profession. They should also be forbidden from protecting themselves through the profiling of those they choose to interact with. Their first priority must be the safety and health of those they are supposed to protect even at the potential cost of their own lives. That doesn't mean that they cannot discharge their weapons. But it means that they cannot shoot at someone who may have a gun or might use that gun, etc. No more shoot black kids because they carry wallets or cell phones, etc.

The final issue that surfaces is Rhodes' comment that he was targeted for prosecution because he is gay. This might seem preposturous given the nature of his crime--some might scream back, "You are getting prosecuted because you smashed an innocent woman's face into the pavement, not because you are gay!"

But still I wonder... The question is not "Should he have been prosecuted?" It is "Would he have been prosectured if he were straight?" Or furthermore, "Would he have been convicted if he were black?"

I have no idea, but I do believe that he should have been convicted and he has every right to demand that anyone else commiting a similiar crime be charged and sentenced in the same manner that he is.

As a final thought, I want to remind people of "empathy". Instead of subconciously putting ourselves in the shoes of the person in a situation that we most identify with, really trying to understand the feelings and thought processes of everyone involved. When we don't do this, we often get these ideas like, "Of course we need to fuck with Arabs now--they are our enemies! If Arab Americans are caught in the crossfire, so be it!"

Instead we need to ask, "How would I feel if my son were thrown in prison forever for nothing with no trial?" "How would I feel if my face were smashed into the pavement repeatly for taking pictures of Niagara Falls?"

If your answer is, "That would never happen to me--this is America," then maybe you are more deeply acquainted with racist privilege than you claim to be--many of us have to worry about these scenarios everyday. If you cared about equality in the least, that would anger you.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Vang: Killer yes, but murderer or heroic killer?

Chai Vang's jury selection starts today. Vang is the Hmong hunter who was hunting in Wisconsin when cornered by some of the hunters and friends (all white) who owned the property. What happened next is very unclear, but what is undisputable is that Vang killed six of the other hunters, wounding two others.

The Chicago Tribune has just released a two-part series
(you may need to register for free on the site--sorry about that) on the events of that day with a great deal of background on the different participants.

The dispute centers on who fired first and what exactly was said when the hunters confronted Vang. Vang says that the hunters threatened him and used racial slurs against him. The sole survivor from the initial group says that he "can't remember" if the other hunters used racial slurs, but from the article:

To me, it wasn't a race issue. It was about someone trespassing," Hesebeck said. Hesebeck admits that the men cursed at Vang. But, he says, "I don't know how he would be fearful of his life."

When I read this, I felt like I finally understood exactly what happened. First of all, let's establish that the hunters did curse at, and did use racial slurs to threaten Vang. I'm sorry, that's not something that you can just pull a Reagan and "not recall". Hesebeck might want to protect his dead friends, and who can blame him, but it's pretty clear that they used the slurs. You have a group of white men in a historically racist community with lots of disgust with the Hmong and other minority groups who have cornered a person of color who they feel has overstepped his bounds. They were going to teach him a lesson. It's possible that race wasn't a big issue to the hunters. It was a tool they whipped out when they wanted to beat someone “bad” down, but it was not something special that they were afraid of. To Vang and many of us folks of color, it's something else. When a badge or other person with a gun starts cursing, "Chink this, Chink that", it's time to duck behind something sturdy.

Am I talking about all people of color? Of course not. But there certainly are plenty of us who have been targeted for violence--beaten, attacked, shot at, or had close relatives or friends who have had these experiences. To Vang, who has had an incredible life up to this point, he knew the coding of this experience--white folks using their power to beat him down. He prepared for the worse and made some quick decisions. He thought that his life was in danger and that his exemplary marksmanship skills would be needed. Vang's own statements back this:
In his statement to police, Vang did not describe how he felt about the shootings, but in a letter, Vang wrote, "I have done something to defend myself and my race."

Remember also that many Hmong do not believe in private property. Vang had as much conviction that he did belong in that place, as the hunters believed that he didn't. Now, it can certainly be argued that in the U.S.--for better or for worse--we do have private property and if Vang chose to live here, he must follow those laws. But Vang did not choose to live in the U.S. The U.S. government chose to enlist his people to fight against the Vietnamese and got countless numbers of them killed in the process. If they did not want the Hmong to bring their cultural values to the U.S., they shouldn't have destroyed their ability to live in their homeland in the first place.

As tension built, one side or the other shot first. There's no way anyone except for the principles will ever know who did. Vang certainly has a strong interest in saying that the other side fired first and there's is no way in hell the survivors are going to say, "We shot first and he fired back killing all of us!"

Whomever shot first, Vang relentlessly continued firing until six people lay dead. Even if he had acted in self-defense, he certainly went beyond that when he gunned down two of the hunters as they ran from the scene. The two he killed who were approaching him quickly in an ATV, are more logical--according to him, they raised a rifle towards him. I tend to believe his story, but even if they had no gun, why were they pursuing him in the vehicle in the first place?

In the end, I blame the days events on two things. First, remember this was a trained American soldier in what he viewed as severely hostile territory. I believe that Vang's training kicked in and he used his shooting skill to take out as many enemy combatants as was possible. The fact that once he came down from the experience, he threw away his ammunition supports this. Secondly, I believe that the white hunters paid the ultimate price for their white privilege. Like thousands and millions of people across the country, they were tempted to use their racial privilege to attack someone else. They assumed that nothing would happen--as Vang's brother said, "
If they killed him, who would know? If they shot him, they wouldn't say anything at all.
He would just disappear."

However, they made a terrible miscalculation and chose to exercise their power against a trained U.S. veteran with a semi-automatic weapon.

None of this is to say that Vang shouldn't be convicted or shouldn't serve a long sentence for his crimes. My question is "How do we prevent this from happening again?" Do we just lock up Vang or kill him to remind people of color that it is wrong for us to try to defend ourselves when our lives are threatened? Or do we focus some of the responsibility at the racist roots of the incident so that Vang serves time for his excessive force, say two of the six deaths and we learn from the other four deaths so that nothing like this ever happens again.

I am not saying that the hunters were bad people. I know that they had families and engagements and helped so many people in their lives. That's what's so scary about these racial issues--I've been cornered on the street by white fathers with their children at their side. This is not even about whiteness or blackness or yellowness--it is about the sick, sick part of human beings that makes people want to use our differences as an excuse to hurt others. A sick force that flowed from that community, between Vang and the hunters and back into the community again in their hatred for the Hmong.

I do not want to bother to answer the question in the lead because there is no right answer. Vang killed six other human beings and there are myriad ways to view his actions. I just want to ask the question and remind people to look at the big picture--not just their own warped perspective. Because in the same way that some delighted at the deaths of the bridge snipers who had been shooting at relief teams, some part of some of us is delighted that some dangerous, racist whites finally got theirs. Until we practice enough empathy for everyone involved, we will not be able to collaborate or do anything constructive. We will only be able to react in incredulous surprise when our negligence backfires upon us and mourn these tragedies again and again like the fools that we are.

Tech on Katrina

Immortal Technique's response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy

Immortal Technique is another brilliant artist to point to when people are mocking hip-hop and its lack of depth. A social activist first and one of the planet's most talented lyricists second, he often does non-musical appearances at community forums around the country to attempt to impact social change.

You may not agree with all of his ideas (I often don't, especially on gender and sexuality), but I believe that his strategic, social justice oriented mind should be respected and his wise analysis contemplated.

Please let me know if you have trouble with the link.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The "Blame Game"

I just finished watching the White House Press Secretary on C-SPAN. He's stepped up him normal tack of not answering any questions and having a few catch phrases that he used to silence any unfriendly questioning (don't you have to be at least a little unfriendly to write a journalistic piece??).

He echoed the same phrase that Bush has been using. They say something along the lines of "Now is not the time to play the blame game, it's the time to save lives." Nobody of any political position is going to argue that "Now is not the time to save lives!" (Of course, it begs the question, "Why wasn't last week the time to save lives?")

But this should not be a forcefield to any sort of criticism. Is this really how people run their lives? I'm sorry, I critique procedures mid-process all the time. I do it for those I hire, but most of all I do it for myself. If you hire someone to build a house for you and they show utter incompetence, who says, "Well, now is not the time to play the blame game, it's the time to get the house built!"

I understand that people from different perspectives have different tacks on just how bad things were and are in New Orleans and elsewhere Katrina's wake--that's to be expected. But I think the people who say that "liberals are just exploiting this to get at Bush" are showing a lack of perspective and empathy. After all, isn't it perfectly reasonable to want to see the President held accountable (along with many others) after a preventable disaster that killed thousands of his nation's citizens? In the case where his appointments are shown mid-crisis to have no expertise at what they are doing, shouldn't he be expected to immediately find someone who does?

This is not the case where there were some minor mistakes and some partisan folks want to scapegoat someone on the other side of the aisle. There are tons of corpses here. If I'm flying in plane, mid-flight we find out that the pilot doesn't have a license and there's a licensed plane on board, I want them to switch. If I'm flying in a plane and the pilot has lost control half a dozen times and she/he doesn't have a license, I want a new pilot.

If I'm in a plane and the pilot has accidently clipped two other planes, killed a sizable portion of the passengers and is easily replaced, I don't care if the flight attendants also were responsible for the deaths of a few passengers, I want a new pilot.

I'm not real bright, but I can recognize incompentence across party lines, can those who insist that I'm "playing the blame game" really not recognize it? Or do they just not care about how the rest of the crisis progresses?

As an added perspective, Typhoon Nabi hit Kyuushuu this weekend killing 21. As you pray/hope/wish for the safety of those affected by Katrina, please keep in mind the familes affected by Nabi as well.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

If you are just going to make shit up...

Bush might as well just hire a fictional screenplay writer. He's actually just setting fake photo-ops now to try to show what he's accomplishing while the citizens of the country are still dying...

This diary from the Daily Kos cites various articles describing how he shows up, shoots film and leaves, with nothing changed for the better.
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