Police acquitted for shooting innocent black man

April 30, 2008

This is just awful. In 2006, three NYPD police officers fired 50 shots at three unarmed black men, killing one of them. Their trial just came to a close and they were acquitted. This verdict just blows me away. What kind of world do we live in where police officers (who can in fact be referred to as “peace officers” – see the wiki page for law enforcement officer) violently kill innocent people and go totally free? Sadly, it does not surprise me too much, neither the racism nor the trigger-happy policemen. Law enforcement is set up to encourage people in ways of thought that are far from peaceful and far from contributing to a peaceful society. First of all, the position of police officer is going to attract a certain type of person: one who desires power, who is perfectly willing to carry and use a gun, and who believes in punishment. Next, we give these people an incredible amount of power, and teach and encourage them to view the world through the lens of “good guy” and “bad guy”. It should not be too much of a surprise, then, that many police officers abuse their powers, and are quick to believe that someone is doing something wrong. They (and we as a culture) see themselves as the “good guys” out to take care of all those “bad guys”. This does NOT in any way justify the actions of the police officers in this incident or in any similar incidents. However, it is not an isolated or surprising incident because it is part of a systemic problem with the entire field of law enforcement and the way our culture views it.

The acquittal, however, does shock me a bit. Some of the language in the nytimes article makes the actions sound quite unjustifiable: “The shooting followed a confrontation between Mr. Bell and a stranger outside the Club Kalua, where Mr. Bell had attended his bachelor party. During the confrontation, Detective Isnora said, he heard the threat about getting the gun.” So, they overheard a threat about getting a gun, which if you ask me implies that the men did not yet have a gun, and this is considered justification for shooting 50 shots? According the judge who acquitted them, it is: “The officers responded to perceived criminal conduct”. So, shooting at unarmed men is an appropriate response to perceived criminal conduct? Not imminent bodily threat, but simply perceived criminal conduct? What an awful precedent this is setting.

It’s pretty clear that both the actions of the police officers and the acquittal are racist. There is a good post about this on the blog Racialicious, discussing how our culture teaches us to fear black men and view them as combatants. I don’t have too much to add, but I will say this: the systemic problem that I discussed above, about the way that we create a “good guys” versus “bad guys” mindset, is, I think, closely tied to racism. Not only does our culture teach that there are good guys and bad guys, it further teaches (in subtle and perhaps not-so-subtle ways) that the white people are the good guys and the non-white people are the bad guys. This acquittal is only going to serve to further this awful myth that black people are the bad guys.

To bring everything one step further, the entire problem, both the systemic problem with law enforcement and the racism, can be summed up as the “us versus them” mentality. This mentality is deeply embedded in our culture, and one which allows us to commit and justify violent acts. We need to move far, far away from thinking in terms of us versus them in order to create a culture of peace.

Will changing yourself change the world?

April 27, 2008

As I discussed in my post on Deepak Chopra’s book, Peace Is the Way, his basic premise is that everything begins with you. That you need to transform yourself and if enough people transform themselves, we will have a global movement of change. I think this is true, in the sense that we will not have global change until enough individuals have changed. However, how many people are going to pick up Chopra’s book or some other book and go through a transformation because of it? Not enough. The problem is that the people who are the most ingrained in the ways of violence and war, and who are the most violent, are not very likely to even see that something is wrong with their outlook on life, let alone pick up a book such as Peace Is the Way and change their ways because of it. I am persuaded by Chopra’s words, but I was already a non-violent believer in peace before reading his book; it only served to reinforce what I already believed.

In a comment on my post on the Golden Rule, a.s. wrote that teaching the Golden Rule alone is not going to be enough, because the people who do harm to others have themselves been harmed (most likely as children) and thus are simply doing what was done to them. I agree entirely with this, but I will admit that reading this comment made my hope shaky for a while. The intent of that post, however, was not to say that all we need to do is teach everyone the Golden Rule and things will be fine. Rather, I was simply inspired by the fact that the Golden Rule is a globally and historically shared value, and thus there is hope that we can reach a point someday where everyone recognizes this as part of their shared humanity. I do realize that there is a lot of change that needs to occur before we get to that point, and I was able to bring my hope back by remembering that we can do things to help that change occur.

Although the two paragraphs above may seem somewhat unrelated, they are linked by thoughts that contributed to my understanding of the fact that for me, changing myself is not enough. I believe that in order for change and the way of peace to come about, those of us who already believe in and follow the way of peace need to take positive actions that help others reach that way as well. I am not content to sit alone in my room saying “I believe in peace”; I need to do something more, something that reaches out to people who have been hurt and cannot find the way of peace, or something that helps transform the parts of our society that detract from a way of peace. If I sound vague, it is because I have not yet figured out what this thing is that I need to do in my life, that will fulfill me and be contributing in this positive way.

However, I do have a good idea of the things that I think contribute to people being unable to embrace peace. These things include children who are hurt and not allowed to heal, children whose creativity and critical thinking are stifled, the treatment of criminals in our society, poverty, and racism and sexism. Relying on people who have been hurt in these ways to find the way of peace and go through transformations by themselves is not going to be enough; we need to put in place support systems to help these people (who are unfortunately the majority by far) and work on fixing things at the source. I hope to find meaningful work in my life that contributes in a positive way to one of these issues (or another that I may not have thought of right now).

information overload, or why I don’t read the news

April 23, 2008

I don’t generally read a newspaper, either print or online. Sometimes I feel like this is an irresponsible thing to do, that I should be keeping myself educated about what is going on in the world. But I just can’t take the news. Most of the time it is either too depressing or just another article on the same old topic not saying much at all. I know that there are terrible things going on all over the world; I don’t need to have the details of each one drummed into me day after day. If the article is about something the United States government has or is doing, it is likely to get my blood boiling, and I really don’t need that kind of stress on a day-to-day basis either. I do occasionally feel that I am missing something by not reading the news (for example, looking at nytimes.com right now I see a few articles which I would most likely find interesting), but it is so hard to do without becoming overwhelmed.

I do try to keep up with a few feminist blogs which include newsy items of interest to feminism. Feministe and Feministing are both multi-author blogs with many updates per day, while The Curvature is written by a single author who manages to post lengthy analyses of various things on average more than once a day. However, I’m starting to find reading even just these three blogs (as well as a few others, such as No Cookies for Me, which are updated less than once a day) somewhat overwhelming. My blog reader has unread items from weeks ago that I will probably never get to. All of the authors write interesting posts and are capable of making me think about something in a new way, but sometimes I just can’t read yet another post about a rape apologist. So much of the news written about on these blogs is negative and it is starting to take its toll on me. In addition, the comment threads on these posts can get quite long, and while I want to read the comments for the posts that interest me the most, it is so much to process. On the other hand, it is encouraging to see that there is a large community of people who share similar values and beliefs with me, and occasionally I even feel inspired to write a comment on one of the posts. It is hard to know how to keep with these blogs without becoming both overwhelmed and desensitized to the types of things that get written about.

To generalize for a moment, I think desensitization is a big problem with the way in which violence and war is written about and shown in the news. When you see similar violent images over and over again (photos in the paper, or even more powerfully, on television), they start to lose their impact on your emotions. And then you start to accept that this is just the way things are. Perhaps I get so easily overwhelmed reading the news precisely because I am not desensitized in the way that most Americans are.

The one news source I read religiously is Ms. Magazine. It comes only four times a year and it is always packed full of well-written, well-researched, thoughtful articles on a variety of topics, with both positive and negative news. I enjoy that all this is encapsulated in a single magazine, which makes it feel more balanced than the daily stream of blog posts. I look forward to each new issue.

This post is a little rambly, but I think the basic question I am asking myself (and you, if you care to respond) is: in today’s culture, with so many media and news sources, how does one keep up with the important things in the news (or the things that are particularly interesting to you) without becoming overwhelmed and/or desensitized?

Happy Earth Day!

April 22, 2008

Today is Earth Day. I don’t have any special plans for it, but that link could give you some ideas if you want to do something. It would be nice if people would think about a sustainable lifestyle more than one day a year, but one day a year is better than nothing (with the hopes that it will inspire some people to make changes on more than just that one day). My intentions for the next few months that are very directly related to the earth include buying locally grown fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market, and possibly trying to grow my own vegetables (although we do not really have a yard per se, so it will mostly likely be in pots, and we are planning a two-week vacation in May so we may have to wait until after that to start. Since we’ve never done this before it will definitely be a bit of an experiment).

The Golden Rule

April 20, 2008

I sing in a Unitarian Universalist church choir, and we recently starting learning the third movement of a piece titled Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata, which consists of one movement for each source of Unitarian Universalism. The movement we are singing is inspired by the third source, “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life”, and the composer, Jason Shelton, chose the Golden Rule (do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you) as the centering theme of the piece. It is a simple yet beautiful and moving piece of music. He intersperses a repeated chorus with spoken words – quotes from many different religious all expressing a version of the Golden Rule, and concludes with a chant of the word “peace” in several different languages.

I was deeply moved to see together on one page the same moral belief expressed over and over by so many different religions. I found a website (one of many) that includes all the quotes in the music and more: Versions of the Golden Rule in 21 world religions. The words of the chorus touch on the shared humanity that I felt in reading these quotes: “Many windows, one light; Many waters, one sea; All lifted hearts are free”. To me, it is very powerful to think that across time and place, many different religions have espoused the same simple concept, and it makes me both sad and hopeful. Sad, because it seems that in daily practices and beliefs some groups within some religions have lost touch with the Golden Rule; groups that endorse violence and intolerance rather than acceptance and love. On the other hand, I am hopeful, because these quotes illustrate how very fundamental this rule is, and thus it must be possible for people to understand and rediscover meaning in it. I believe that if people take the time to sit down and read these quotes and think about what they mean to them, they will feel more compassion and understanding and start to question the incessant violence in the world.

What does the Golden Rule mean? Most fundamentally, simply to consider your actions; to put yourself in the place of others in order to understand whether you are doing something that may be hurtful to them. For me, this is particular crucial when your actions are violent, either physically or emotionally. Additionally, I think it is helpful to think of it in terms of general treatment of fellow humans rather than specific daily actions. If you would feel hurt to be treated with anything other than love, respect, and compassion, then you should make sure that you are always treating others with respect. This could in fact include doing a specific act for someone that you would *not* want done for you – because you listened to the person and did something that was truly important to them, rather than acting on your own beliefs or opinions about that person. For example, if you were grieving, you may wish to be left alone, while someone else who is grieving may wish for company. Just as you would hope that people would listen and respect your needs when you tell them to leave you alone, you should listen to the person who wants company and give them what they need. Thus, I interpret the “do” in the Golden Rule as meaning the fundamental way that you interact with others.

I am looking forward to sharing this piece of music with my congregation when we sing it in a service, and to read aloud one of the quotes during the piece. I hope that others will feel moved by it and that we can together remember and share the importance of the Golden Rule.

The global food crisis

April 18, 2008

My brother-in-law brought to my attention this article on nytimes.com about the global food crisis. Food prices have risen dramatically in the past few months and people in impoverished countries around the world are not getting enough to eat. First of all, reading about this makes me incredibly sad. How can we, as a single global humanity, be allowing so many people around the world to not have one of their most basic human needs be met? Here I am, a comfortable middle-class American, thinking about how my cereal is running low and I better go to the store soon, while people in other countries are starving. Something is not right here. Secondly, it makes me angry at my government and country. The United States consumes a huge amount of resources proportional to the population, produces an extraordinary amount of material items and thus material waste, and the government is not taking global warming seriously. Meanwhile, people around the world are starving as a global food shortage becomes a reality – a shortage that is in fact due in part to global climate changes; I found a good article about that here.

It does not surprise me one bit that there are outbreaks of rioting in the affected countries. People who are starving and desperate are going to do whatever it takes to obtain food. They are justifiably angry at their governments. And yet some of the governments do not seem to be reacting in a productive manner (quoted from the nytimes article):

Last month in Senegal, one of Africa’s oldest and most stable democracies, police in riot gear beat and used tear gas against people protesting high food prices and later raided a television station that broadcast images of the event. Many Senegalese have expressed anger at President Abdoulaye Wade for spending lavishly on roads and five-star hotels for an Islamic summit meeting last month while many people are unable to afford rice or fish.

“If all the people rise, then the government will resolve this,” said Raisa Fikry, 50, whose husband receives a pension equal to about $83 a month, as she shopped for vegetables. “But everyone has to rise together. People get scared. But we will all have to rise together.” It is the kind of talk that has prompted the [Egyptian] government to treat its economic woes as a security threat, dispatching riot forces with a strict warning that anyone who takes to the streets will be dealt with harshly.

Tear gas? A security threat? How sad. Using violence against the rioters is not going to help anything. It is only going to incite more anger, as the people sense that their government is resisting them rather than trying to work with them to solve the crisis. I am far from an expert on how governments can in fact go about addressing this crisis, but I’m pretty sure using violence against the people is not the solution. Niger seems to have the right idea, as activist Moustapha Kadi describes: “So when prices went up this year the government acted quickly to remove tariffs on rice, which everyone eats. That quick action has kept people from taking to the streets.”

There is certainly no easy solution to this crisis. But perhaps if we all start from a place of compassion for our fellow humans, we will be able to work together towards a productive and sustainable solution.

Peace is the Way Global Community

April 16, 2008

I have joined the online community of peacemakers based on Deepak Chopra’s book Peace is the Way, at http://www.peaceisthewayglobalcommunity.org/. It does not seem that active (and unfortunately the design of the site does not seem to promote high interactivity), but it is nice to join my name with those who are committed to peace, and to see that there are over 6000 members from around the world.