Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 September 2017

Black Protests, Hidden Reasons

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Black Protests, Hidden Reasons

    “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Prison warden and dark authority figure in classic movie “Hud.”
Today our media are all agog about NFL football players “taking a knee” while our national anthem plays before their games. They’re protesting something, but what?

I asked my fiancée that question, and she replied. “They’re protesting the national anthem,” she said.

My jaw dropped. This is a woman whom I adore. She’s smart, well educated, well read and well informed, and she’s unusually precise with her words.

She’s a lifelong Democrat and progressive, without a racist bone in her body. She (not I) has a subscription to the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, and she reads all regularly. She dismisses almost everything our current president says as a meaningless emotional outburst or a calculated lie. Yet that, verbatim, is how she replied.

If such an aware woman lacks the context and “backstory” for these protests, I thought, what white person doesn’t? Maybe the only people “in the know” are bloggers like me, who do our own research, and who will go to our graves with unslaked outrage at how our first black president—our best, in my mind, since JFK and maybe FDR—was treated.

Discussion made clear that my fiancée recognized some of the dots, but she hadn’t connected them. She knew that Trump had called any player protesting during our national anthem a “son of a bitch” who should be fired. She knew that a player named Colin Kaepernick had started the trend of “taking a knee” and now appears to have been blacklisted by the team owners. She had heard that another black NFL player had recently been offended, manhandled and slammed to the ground by Las Vegas police in a case of mistaken identity.

She had heard about many of the police-caused deaths of innocent and/or unarmed black people over the past few years, all over our nation. She knew the names of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. Yet she didn’t connect the dots.

The knee-taking players were protesting during the national anthem, and that was enough to evoke her conclusion. Yet what they were protesting had little or nothing to do with our patriotic song. The interval reserved for that song just turned out to be the best opportunity for the players to stage a quiet, respectful and peaceful protest before getting on with their jobs.

There are, of course, things the players could have been protesting that have nothing to do with race. Science is now discovering an epidemic of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, among professional football players. This cumulative brain damage arises from the frequent “hard hits” to the head or helmet that are part of the way we play football today. Results can range from dementia to homicidal and suicidal impulses.

Our president made light of this serious medical discovery. He implied that earlier generations of players had been tougher and better because they unknowingly had sacrificed their brains and post-retirement lifestyles for fans’ pleasure. Protesting that attitude would hardly have been unjustified.

But what were the players protesting? Their strong sympathizers knew. Probably almost every black person in the nation knew. But the people they most wanted and needed to reach, including my fianceé, didn’t know. Most of them still don’t.

Part of the blame belongs with our media, including the New York Times. By focusing so much on what Trump says and the ubiquitous political horse race, they allow demagogues to lead them around by the nose. Nowhere in the mainstream media have I read any decent reprise of the reasons for the protests—not even one as sketchy and abbreviated as in this blogpost.

And what about the deeper “backstory”? With my fiancée, I ran through as much of the litany of police-killed, unarmed black suspects as I could from memory. She asked me whether similar things happen to whites. All my mathematical intuition, coupled with my own experience of how differently police treat us whites, screamed “no!” But I didn’t have the statistics at my fingertips.

It’s odd that our nation is reacting to the NFL players’ protests at the same time as much of it is re-living the Vietnam War. Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s superb retrospective takes people my age right back to the formative political events of our lives.

Still much about that awful war remains in doubt. Much is still disputed. But there is now general agreement that the premises on which we went to war and escalated it for decades were false. There were no “falling dominoes” in Southeast Asia, even after we lost ignominiously. Ho Chih Minh and Le Duan were more interested in national liberation than in propagating Communism worldwide. The “Commies” had no interest whatsoever in following us into our bedrooms.

Our nation’s experts—the professors and diplomats who had studied Vietnam as more than an emergent political issue—knew this all along. Before our nation had committed itself irrevocably to wrongdoing, they had held so-called “teach-ins” exposing the relevant facts and history. That’s why so many students protested against the war and its escalation.

Sure, the students didn’t want to go to war. Most sensible people don’t. But they especially didn’t want to go to war, and maybe die in, a fight for no rational purpose.

Once the demagogues got hold of the issue, the rationale for going to war or not got lost. The domestic battle became a name-calling struggle between unpatriotic, free-loading draft dodgers and evil imperialists exploiting and killing brown people for profit.

The lies and resulting hatred on both sides killed any chance for seeing the truth, just as much as the war eventually killed some 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3.5 million Southeast Asians. Now Vietnam, wholly “Communist” in name, makes our underwear, docks our cruise ships, and takes any Americans willing to go on ghastly tours of the results of our deadly folly.

With the memory of that awful time so recently rekindled, we Americans have a sacred obligation not to let the same kind of thing happen again. The NFL protestors and their backers and sympathizers must explain their reasons respectfully, and the rest of us must listen respectfully.

There are reasons for the protests. They include unprecedented police brutality, over-militarization of normal city police, casual disrespect for minorities on our streets, racial profiling by police and citizens, the vast over-incarceration of minor criminals (mostly minorities) in our society, our long history of racism and economic oppression of minorities, and the sad fact of subjecting a whole class of athletes to a terrible disease (CTE)—for our entertainment!—when we could mitigate or perhaps even prevent the disease with some simple changes in rules and equipment.

These are all real issues. We can face them like intelligent citizens of a democracy. Or we can divide into tribes and call each other names, thereby thrilling the heart of every enemy of ours, from Islamic terrorists and foreign strongmen to Russian spooks and North Koreans.

If we want to face these issues like men and women, the first step begins with knowing the facts. And whether fair or unfair, the burden of teaching them falls on the protestors, their backers and their sympathizers. Let the “teach-ins” begin!

Some day, I believe, Colin Kaepernick will be a hero, lionized like Rosa Parks. But before that happens, the many people out of the know—the innocent, the ignorant and the curious—must be taught what these protests are all about. The lessons will not be as dramatic as the dogs, bull whips and clubs of Bull Connor’s police on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. But I trust the results of the education will be similar.

A Good Start

It’s not often that I get caught behind the curve. But I did this time.

Unbeknownst to me, a teammate and friend of Colin Kaepernick named Eric Reid, who had protested with him, had published an explanatory op-ed in the New York Times the day before my blogpost above appeared. But I didn’t read his op-ed until yesterday.

Reid’s work is a fine piece of writing and humanity. It explains how and why the players intended their “take a knee” protest to be gentle and respectful.

In my view, the protest was both solemn and beautiful. But I’m not a Trumpet nor even a big sports fan. So more is needed: the backstory. People like me find Reid’s op-ed convincing because we already know the backstory. The people who don’t know the backstory are the ones who need convincing.

Even as a fervent supporter of the protests, I still want to know more facts. During the past five years, for example, how many white suspects who later turned out to be unarmed and/or innocent ended up dead after encounters with police? I want to know the name, age, gender and story of every such victim, black or white. Of course I want also to calculate the ratio, but the full stories may tell us much more.

For example, I know that Eric Garner was suspected of selling cigarettes without a license, and Sandra Bland was stopped for failing to signal a lane change. Isn’t what turned out to be capital punishment a bit severe for these offenses? But I want to know the whole list.

This information may not be easy to compile. Until two years ago ago, there were no official statistics in America on citizens (white or black) killed in encounters with police. A British newspaper, The Guardian, undertook to compile that information, which you can find here. (The Guardian lists all people killed by police, so you have to do some work to find those who were innocent and/or unarmed and were killed while in police custody, rather than (for example) in a chase or an unprovoked attack on police.)

Maybe I’m naive. I can be a cockeyed optimist. But I hope that, with such statistics, names and faces carefully compiled and presented in summary form, it would be a whole lot easier to convince all but confirmed racists that the NFL protestors have a lot to protest.



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