28 April 2012

rodney king

Twenty years ago, I was living in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles, in a cozy little town called Claremont, when a jury acquitted the four police officers who had beaten Rodney King. I didn't live far away; in my mind I lived next door, and I felt it like it was my home that was burning in the riots that followed. But I might as well have lived far away. I went to work; I went home; I shopped at the mall. I looked at what I could do, and said to myself that I still had a job to do, and so I did what people do when they feel like they want to help but they don't want to interrupt their lives much: I wrote a couple checks, to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army or someone, and to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. A few weeks later we drove through Koreatown, and there were plenty of burned out buildings, and we gawked like tourists.

So, practically, I wasn't very affected by the LA riots, and I don't have anything much to say that other people can't say better, or with more authority, or insight. But I remember it as a time when I woke up a little bit, and I grew up a little bit, and maybe those events exerted a little gravitational pull that has helped set me on my current course. 

I am thinking about a couple things, though, this twenty years later. One is that what sparked the riots then seems so commonplace today. Maybe that isn't anything other than me having woken up a little more since then. But video surfaces of police beating the crap out of an unarmed civilian, and it doesn't lead the evening news every night the way it did then, and it doesn't lead to commissions or prosecutions or much in the way of general outrage. It's just the way we expect things to be.

The terrific KCRW radio program "Which Way LA," which began in response to the riots, spent this week reflecting on what happened then and what has happened since. The first show in the series looked at the LAPD then and now. The whole thing is worth listening, to, but the first ten minutes or so, in particular, are striking: how the pre-riot police department that’s described, and the actions that helped create the conditions for the riots, resemble the police department we have in New York today.

The second thing I'm thinking about is a column by Meg Greenfield, the former editor of the Washington Post, about the attacks on Reginald Denny - Denny was a truck driver who had the misfortune to be at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central on that afternoon, and was pulled from his truck and beaten by rioters while news crews watched from helicopters and the police failed to arrive.

Greenfield's column is about four individuals who left what they were doing and traveled to Florence and Normandie to rescue Reginald Denny.  They almost certainly saved his life.  They each had their own motivations, but what unites them, she says, is that they ignored all the reasons not to go help.  Maybe the column is sentimental hogwash, I don't know. At the time it offered some possibility of faith in humanity, I suppose, which is not nothing. Today, for me, it maybe points to a way forward that doesn't involve burning down the police precinct.

That's really all I have. It was a sad time. Looking back, and listening to Warren Olney's radio program, makes me think about who I was and where I was then, and the life I lived, and all the lives not lived.

01 February 2012

broken windows

Tim Noah on "Broken Windows" here:
There's a lengthy quote from the original "Broken Windows" paper in the linked article, as follows:

A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. "Don't get involved." For some residents, this growing atomization will matter little, because the neighborhood is not their "home" but "the place where they live." Their interests are elsewhere; they are cosmopolitans. But it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments rather than worldly involvement; for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet. 

Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion.

It occurs to me, reading this, that the sort of aggressive policing represented by "stop & frisk" doesn't actually address any of the so-called "broken windows" referred to above – it doesn't restore the values and behaviors that supposedly existed in the "stable neighborhood" before its decline."  Adults don't scold kids much more frequently; people don't ask sleeping drunks to move along any more often; merchants don't ask teenagers - or Occupy members - to move.  They call the police. 

In fact, it was suggested last Wednesday at the Civic Association by a long-time Red Hook resident that calling the police was the appropriate response for the shopkeeper at Fine Fare, because it enabled him to avoid an escalating conflict.  (Oh, hell, I'll just name him: Jay McKnight.) We have, in effect, outsourced these aspects of our community to men with guns and badges, and have concurrently criminalized behaviors that are the inevitable by-product of living in close proximity to one another.  We will always have drunks and rowdy teenagers and litterers, in some degree.  We didn't always use to arrest them, and we certainly didn't always use to throw people up against walls pre-emptively on the off chance (most charitably, one in nine) that they might sometime become rowdy or drunk.

Then again, maybe we did do that, and I just didn't realize it was a problem.

And so, the Stop & Frisk variant of "Broken Windows" policing doesn't actually restore the "stable neighborhood."  It introduces an element that perhaps contains the instability by force. And in doing so, it adds its own inhospitality to the neighborhood.  Consider the latter part of the quote again:

... it will matter greatly to other people, whose lives derive meaning and satisfaction from local attachments rather than worldly involvement; for them, the neighborhood will cease to exist except for a few reliable friends whom they arrange to meet. 
I suppose, for some number of us, the nearly-random stops and searches of of neighbors makes us feel more safe to go out.  But for the portion of the population, approaching 20 percent or so, who are stopped and questioned for having the temerity to walk on the sidewalk outside their homes, it's hard to believe this increases their likelihood of engaging with the community.  For that segment of the population, and their friends, the criminal invasion is merely augmented by men and women in blue.

To put it another way: In the 76th Precinct, misdemeanor assaults occur at the rate of slightly less than one per day.  That's the entire precinct, not just Red Hook.  If we counted the portion of Stop & Frisks not leading to arrests as misdemeanor assaults - which I think is not unreasonable - the rate would increase by something on the order of 400%.
This looks less like fixing broken windows than it does breaking other windows to even the score.

25 January 2012

economic debates

I don't really know why I'm starting here, but...

I read Paul Krugman in the NYT.  A lot.  Everything, even the stuff I don't understand, because in part the idea is to understand more.

And I basically agree with him, both about his economic views and, I think, more philosophically about the role and nature of government.  "I think," because I don't really know what he thinks about that, I'm just intuiting it. 

This week, it seems, there's an argument in full force between himself and an economist at Chicago called John Cochrane.  Krugman doesn't think much of Cochrane's ideas, or those of the U of C economics department generally; aside from their right-winginess, he thinks they're wrong.  I tend to agree with him on that, too.

You can check out the debate, if you're so inclined, although it probably helps to have been reading Krugman for a while to get the sense of at least his side of it, as well as of his irascibility.  (This became apparent during the 2000 Bush II election run-up, when Bush kept saying he was somehow going to create private social security accounts and keep funding social security and not raise taxes, a sort of 1+1=3 argument.  Krugman was plainly driven round the bend not so much by Bush's promises, but by the way they were taken seriously by the news reporters covering the election.)

But anyway, my point is not the merits of the economic debate in question, so much as something that struck me about the U of C and its economics department.  When I was a student at the U of C, I formulated a theory about it, that went something like this: it was (is, perhaps) a place where they took the most brilliant people they could find, gave them all the resources they needed to do their work, and left them alone; and the brilliant people have an ethos of pursuing knowledge - something like truth - in total disregard of its implications for the world outside the U's walls.  It's almost the definition of an ivory tower, I suppose.  And it's exactly the place you would go if you wanted to invent an atomic bomb.

Something about the Krugman-Cochrane debate reminded me of that.  Part of it was this:  Krugman once wrote of his irascibility, "This is not a game, and it is also not a dinner party; you have to be clear and forceful to get heard at all." Cochrane responds to it, in his current post, "Life is a dinner party -- at least if your goal is the truth ...."

I think this is where the U of C econ department went off the rails.  They forget there's a world out there, a messy world where people live and work, and sometimes don't work, and sometimes starve to death or fail to get needed medical care.  You'd think they would remember this, being on the south side of Chicago, but I'd presume most of them travel to and from the bubble within a bubble that is the U of C campus in Hyde Park without getting out of their cars much.  (It was a sociology student who provided most of the data that made the most interesting part of Freakonomics worthwhile.)

(Life is a dinner party?  I thought it was nasty, brutish and short.)

Part of what made me think of that was also a comment about "swimulus" on Cochrane's page that brilliantly describes the difference between economics in the abstract and economics in the real world.

This isn't perfectlythought out, so maybe I'll come back to it.  Anyway, these are notes for nobody but myself.

Good to be writing again.