Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Checked out the new 826 Valencia second location in San Francisco

Very cool that the venerable organization 826 Valencia -- founded by writer Dave Eggers to support tutoring and writing help for youth -- opened up a new location in the heart of San Francisco's troubled Tenderloin district. I checked the place out recently, as it's close, by foot, to where I work and use public transit. (Disclaimer: I've volunteered for an arm of 826 Valencia/McSweeney's in the past.)

I really admire 826 Valencia for going right into the heart of things. The building now housing the pirate store and tutoring/writing center used to be a corner liquor store with a questionable kitchen or lab of some type in the back. Turning a liquor store in a place like the Tenderloin -- where, if you aren't from the SF Bay Area or haven't experienced it, is home to many street people, drug abusers using out in the open, severely mentally ill homeless people, the long-term and chronically unemployed, and other manners of hellish horrors -- into a place of knowledge (and pirate supply store) is awesome. Better than gentrification!

After checking out the store and buying some "Unicorn Horn Polish" (chapstick) and talking with a friendly cashier, I moseyed down to Market Street, and not far from 826 Valencia (which is, somewhat initially confusingly, on Golden Gate Street) was offered "[crack] rockses [sic]" by a young Black man. I politely declined, but wanted to take the dude to lunch and just talk with him about why he's on the corner and how dangerous that is: mainly in the fact that some type of violence will eventually befall him, most likely incarceration and all its resultant challenges. It was sad to see yet another promising young Black male engaging in that type of self-destructive behavior.

But that is a good example of why 826 Valencia in the Tenderloin (I've been joking -- totally joking! -- that maybe it should be called 826 Cracklencia) is so needed: a place of education, where a liquor store used to be, improves what Adbusters calls the "mental environment" substantially, because one's environment is a huge factor on one's behavior, thought, and persona. The 826 Valencia model has been duplicated in unique iterations all over the U.S. It indeed takes a village to raise a child. Kudos to 826 Valencia for expanding that village to where it's crucially needed.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ugh. San Francisco.

MOMWLWOW: Just had this experience, one right after the other, walking in SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco:

1) Asian woman having loud conversation on her phone, in public, about how many shares the person on the other side of the line should get for an IPO company.

2) Wealthy-looking mom with huge fake tits walking her child (Brock Jr.?).

3) Pack of six or seven tech workers (obvious from dorkiness & t shirts) going to lunch.

San Francisco, you have changed. For the worse. I read in an anarchist-leaning publication somewhere that US cities have become "playgrounds for the wealthy." All too true. It is especially sad given what San Francisco used to be and used to stand for. Sigh.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Excellent sleeper gem of a documentary tackles the militarization of the police

Fantastic documentary about the militarization of the police in the US from the Watts riots in Los Angeles to the present. It's not as trendy a documentary as Making a Murderer -- which, after letting it settle in my mind, I find a bit semi-sensational, even though it's well-done -- but tackles bigger issues like shifting police mentalities, the history of cops and SWAT, and the systems that fail to protect, serve, and provide justice. (Making a Murderer does that incidentally by showing a particular case.) Peace Officer focuses on a number of cases in which a militaristic, rather than de-escalation/redirect, approach was taken by cops (often not in uniform) and SWAT teams. In one case, the cops actually unintentionally terrorize a family and almost kill the father who they've mixed up name-wise with a military deserter. The documentary definitely leans to the police reform side, but I find it very balanced in letting cops, SWAT members, victims of crime, etc also tell their side of the story (as a good documentary should!). And it could be stretched out into a binge-watching, trendy Making a Murderer-type thing if they wanted, because many of the cases shown have a lot of dubious unanswered questions that could be explored, such as the alleged suicide of a man who shot cops, whom, from watching the doc, I believe may have been killed not by himself in custody, but by cops out of retaliation. 

I watched it open-mindedly, even though, as a disclaimer, I work in the field of police and prison reform. I found that the "cop side" of the story contained some excellent points: 
  • Even though it's undeniable that the downsizing of the US military has meant the militarization of the police (police departments even HAVE TO USE the "donated" military equipment within one year!), one officer makes a good point that the military also learns from, and, uses police tactics, such as ways to work with the community in places of military intervention like Iraq, Afghanistan (even though why the US went there in the first place is dubious). 
  • Fighting crime and policing areas hard-hit by economic crises and a changing culture has meant that the general type of criminal the cops are up against has changed (kind of the "superpredator" Hillary Clinton talked about). Think of it like: an assault rifle in the hands of a criminal back in the day was rare to unheard-of, but is more commonplace now, so the cops have to respond accordingly -- you don't bring a knife to a gunfight. This is an intriguing point worth investigation. (At the same time, the documentary shows that violence works on a feedback loop in vicious circle fashion, and many people feel that it's the cops, not so much the criminals, that have changed in recent years.) 
  • Cops have milliseconds to respond in tense situations that sometimes endanger their lives. They make mistakes, they're human. It's easier to look at a case after the fact in detail and find flaws with police approaches (such as accidental shootings, over-reactive responses, friendly fire), but cops don't have that luxury in the heat of the moment dealing with what they deal with. This is a valid point. At the same time, it's okay to question how the police handled situations, demand reform or re-investigations, sue the cops, etc. 
  • Policing is a dirty, dangerous, hard job at times. People criticize the cops, but are comforted by the fact that they can always call 911 and get help. Valid point. Cops need support and trust in order to show trust in, and support of, communities. 
Okay, so here are some points to the contrary of the above: 

Daryl Gates, who almost single-handedly invented the SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) unit, which shifted police mentality into a different, more violent, more militaristic approach, even though it was supposed to defuse situations and be a line of last resort. 
  • Daryl Gates, a racist, old-school, high-ranking cop in Los Angeles, created SWAT as a back-up for the police when situations were out of, or beyond, control. SWAT in L.A. focused on communities of color and aligned themselves with the War on Drugs that is now being considered a huge failure and wrong approach. There is a distinct difference between protecting and serving a community -- and doing things like having officers live in the places they patrol, use community policing and holding community meetings for cops to interact with citizens, coming down hard on racist policing, etc -- and going to war against communities. It's undeniable we've seen an overall move toward the latter in recent history, and this is not necessarily about equipment or tactics, but about cops' mentality.
  • Suprising suspects at odd times with undercover cops who don't identify themselves causes suspects, naturally, to be defensive. People have an uncontrollable self-defense mechanism that can be de-fused and de-escalated if police are clear about who they are, what they are doing. The "fog of war" has been brought into the local police department's approach with a more militaristic approach to policing. Some of this is inevitable in dangerous and confusing situations, but case after case shows that the police's approach and response is HUGE in determining the outcome of a sketchy situation.  
  • The documentary doesn't really explore this (because it focuses on largely white communities in suburban Utah), but police are often seen as not understanding the complex, root social causes of crime in the first place: the enduring aftereffects of slavery; the devastation of the crack epidemic; the impact of mass incarceration, undereducation, and joblessness among certain communities and among ex-cons; drug abuse and addiction (and their underlying causes), etc. Some positive ways to deal with these things is to have cops who are more like, in many cases, armed social workers. In some communities, a chaplain or community volunteer or mental health worker rides alongside cops to address crime in communities. This approach has been used successfully in Reno, NV, and is relatively inexpensive to government. Having cops work on root problems in communities before they become bigger or require SWAT-type responses, doing harm reduction and violence prevention, getting to know communities, is a better approach than coming out guns blazing (literally) when the shit hits the fan. 
  • America has been at war on and off again for decades*, and there is a strong connection between the military and the police, but the two are actually very different. A better solution for returning vets is something like the Post Office, rather than going into policing. Soldiers are trained for a different purpose than cops (despite some similarities) -- mixing these together via militarized police forces is very risky. 
  • From 2010-2014 in Utah, there've been more deaths from officer-involved shootings than drug and gang violence. SWAT usage overall in the US has increased dramatically over time from its inception as a backup plan. 
Anyway, see Peace Officer. I think you'll find its main protagonist, Dub, a former Sheriff turned investigator/activist (for police reform!), a really compelling character who understands things from both sides. By people on both sides of this issues avoiding the temptation to get defensive and dogmatic, and by listening open-mindedly and thinking critically, progress and improvement can be made, solutions can be found, and lives -- both citizen and cop -- can be saved. 

* See the book Addicted to War. Why the US Can't Kick Militarism. I was born in 1973 and have thus witnessed the Vietnam War, the Cold War (living in fear of a nuclear World War 3), Iraq 1, Iraq 2/Afghanistan, drones and the "war on terror," etc.

UPDATE 6/21/16: Just saw in The Washington Post that the Orlando PD in the Pulse club mass shooting were instructed, after the initial shots fired, to wait 15-20 for SWAT to arrive. How many lives could have been saved if the police were allowed to do their job without being subservient to SWAT? How long will it take people to realize that SWAT is often part of the problem, not the solution?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On the concept of an "unnecessariat"

Boing Boing recently ran an article about the concept of a class of American society that's superfluous or unnecessary, even a liability, to corporations (and thus the reigning economic order). While I think both Boing Boing and the original blog author (link below) make some provocative and solid points, I rolled this concept of an "unnecessariat" around in my head awhile and found that I have some problems with the argument. Below is a response to the original blog post. Whatever we call this segment of society, or how we think of it, I think this rich (no pun intended) discussion brings up something that's very important and insightful about American culture and economics.

I've been thinking about this argument, which I think is very evocative, but no so sure I agree. I'm sure you're familiar with the "capitalism is a pyramid scheme" idea and while I think it's oversimplified (and, of course, debatable), I think it illustrates something crucial, which is that any type of person at the precariat level or below is incredibly vulnerable to corporations. Poor people often eat poorly (corporate food), smoke (Big Tobacco), are targets of predatory lending and credit debt, are fodder for the military-industrial complex (a type of corporation), etc. Corporations are very interested in the very poor, because, like the image shows, they hold up the whole pyramid. To be truly superfluous to corporations would be to be at a level in the pyramid at which one has some defenses against corporations (ie doesn't need credit, has better food, can evade considering military service, etc). As BoingBoing summarized the blog post where this idea comes from: "Below the precariat is the unnecessariat, people who are a liability to the modern economic consensus, whom no corporation has any use for, except as a source of revenue from predatory loans, government subsidized 'training' programs, and private prisons." I don't think the "unnecessariat" is a liability to the economy, but in fact a key component of it. Private prisons are big business. Gov't subsidized training programs are sometimes really helpful to people (I work in this field). I understand the demographic you're describing, but I think "unnecessariat" is a misleading name, as this strata of society is actually extremely necessary to capitalism. I understand that at its lowest levels of the pyramid, this strata can be more of a burden to society overall than they contribute. Perhaps that is what we're talking about here. As harsh as it is, this strata is a kind of "burdencariat." But I would still argue that, whatever we call it, this strata is extremely important to corporations. Even the incarcerated have been victimized by telephone companies charging exorbitant rates to use the phone in prisons to call loved ones. There may exist a strata that is an "unnecessariat", but I think that occurs at either the extreme top or extreme bottom of the pyramid. Anything in between is fair game and in corporations' crosshairs.