Things Are Not Getting Better

The news has not been good, leading various journalists to summarize the past few days the way Jamelle Bouie did for Slate:

After months of sustained public criticism from Trump, Andrew McCabe stepped down as deputy director of the FBI. The rationale behind McCabe’s decision is still not entirely known, but there’s little doubt it involves the Russia investigation. In addition to being a verbal target of Trump’s, McCabe had become a bête noire of conservative media, the subject of baroque conspiracies about a “deep state” that is allegedly conspiring against the president….

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a … memo [that] accuses the FBI of abusing its surveillance powers, using partisan opposition research in order to attack Donald Trump’s campaign and undermine his presidency, and singling out officials like McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and former FBI Director James Comey, all targets of Trump and his allies in the GOP and conservative media… Democrats on the committee have called the document a “misleading set of talking points”, and federal law enforcement officials had warned that releasing the memo would be “extraordinarily reckless”….

In the wake of this vote, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee also opened an inquiry into the FBI and the Justice Department… On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his support for both moves, calling for a “cleanse” of the FBI….

What began as Trump venting on Twitter has now become official administration policy, carried out with the blessing of White House aides who were at one time seen as bulwarks against such behavior. Bloomberg reported on a phone call between White House chief of staff John Kelly and senior officials in the Justice Department, where the former conveyed the president’s “displeasure” and reminded them of his expectations, albeit adding that the White House doesn’t expect them “to do anything illegal or unethical”.

To all of this, add the fact that—during this same period of time—President Trump declined to sanction Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election [after Congress voted almost unanimously for new sanctions to be imposed].

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said this about the president’s decision:

Congress voted 517-5 to impose sanctions on Russia. The President decides to ignore that law. Folks, that is a constitutional crisis. There should be outrage in every corner of this country.

There should be, but there hasn’t been. Most of us are suffering from outrage overload.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Bouie wrote about “ICE Unbound”:

[The president has unleashed] the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, giving it broad authority to act at its own discretion. The result? An empowered and authoritarian agency that operates with impunity, whose chief attribute is unapologetic cruelty.

…. The most striking aspect of ICE under this administration has been its refusal to distinguish between law-abiding immigrants, whose undocumented status obscures their integration into American life, and those with active criminal records—the “bad hombres” of the president’s rhetoric.

Erasing that distinction is how we get the arrest and detention of Lukasz Niec, a Polish immigrant and green card holder who was brought to the United States as a young child. Last week, ICE agents arrested Niec …, citing two misdemeanor convictions for offenses committed when he was a teenager… A practicing physician, Niec now sits in a county jail, awaiting possible deportation….

Bouie didn’t mention Amer Othman Adi, a 57-year-old Palestinian who had been in the U.S. since he was 19. A married man with four daughters, he helped revitalize the city of Youngstown by opening several businesses. He was deported to Jordan on Monday night.

It all makes these Twitter thoughts from author G. Willow Wilson worth thinking about:

It may be time to start thinking about how we can effectively push back against authoritarianism once the last of the checks and balances have fallen.

It’s a mistake to think a dictatorship feels intrinsically different on a day-to-day basis than a democracy does. I’ve lived in one dictatorship and visited several others–there are still movies and work and school and shopping and memes and holidays.

The difference is the steady disappearance of dissent from the public sphere. Anti-regime bloggers disappear. Dissident political parties are declared “illegal”. Certain books vanish from the libraries.

The press picks a side. The military picks a side. The judiciary picks a side. This part should already feel familiar.

The genius of a true, functioning dictatorship is the way it carefully titrates justice. Once in awhile it will allow a sound judicial decision or critical op-ed to bubble up. Rational discourse is never entirely absent. There is plausible deniability.

People still have rights, in theory. The right to vote, to serve on a jury, etc. The difference is that they begin to fear exercising those rights. Voting in an election will get your name put on “a list”.

So if you’re waiting for the grand moment when the scales tip and we are no longer a functioning democracy, you needn’t bother. It’ll be much more subtle than that. It’ll be more of the president ignoring laws passed by congress. It’ll be more demonizing of the press.

Until one day we wake up and discover the regime has decided to postpone the 2020 elections until its lawyers are finished investigating something or other. Or until it can ‘ensure’ that the voting process is ‘fair’.

A sizable proportion of the citizenry will support the postponement. Yes, absolutely, we must postpone elections. The opposition is corrupt! Our leader is just trying to protect us! A dictator is never without supporters.

And hey, if we pull ourselves back from the brink and the midterms go ahead and the 2020 election is free and transparent and on time, you are cordially invited to point at me and laugh. Honestly. No one will be happier to be wrong than me.

 

New Video From That Day in Ferguson, Missouri

New witnesses to the apparent execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have come forward. CNN has cellphone video of them watching what happened and, oh yeah, they’re two white contractors from out of town. Isn’t it funny how that “white” part makes a big difference (to us white people)? The video and the description of events offered by these witnesses is strong evidence that Michael Brown was indeed executed that afternoon.

What People Say Happened in Ferguson

The town of Ferguson is near St. Louis, Missouri. It has a population of 21,000, so it’s big enough to have a small police force. Everyone agrees that Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, around noon on August 9th. The results of the official autopsy haven’t been released yet, but it’s been reported that it will substantially agree with a second autopsy done at the family’s request: Wilson shot Brown approximately six times.

I spent some time recently trying to find out how many witnesses to the incident there were and what they had to say. It wasn’t easy, but two sites had some details. One was Wikipedia and the other was The Root. The latter is a magazine devoted to African-American news and commentary founded by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Donald Graham, Chairman and CEO of what used to be the Washington Post.

Here’s a summary based on these two sources and a statement made by the St. Louis County police chief on August 17th:

Officer Wilson ordered Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson to walk on the sidewalk, not the street. Wilson and Brown got into a physical altercation while Wilson was still in his police car. A shot was fired in the car, which may or may not have struck Brown. Wilson’s face was apparently bruised during the struggle. Brown then ran away. Wilson got out of his car, chased Brown and fired again. Apparently, none of these other shots hit Brown until Brown turned around and faced Wilson. At that point, Wilson continued to fire, killing Brown. Overall, Brown was shot four times in his right arm and twice in his head. Brown’s body ended up about 35 feet from Wilson’s car.

Whether or not Brown raised his hands to surrender after he turned around, or fell toward Wilson, or decided to move toward Wilson, is now a matter of dispute. However, the four people who claim to have seen the shooting and who have been identified so far (Dorian Johnson, Piaget Crenshaw, Tiffany Mitchell and James McKnight) all indicate that Brown wasn’t threatening Officer Wilson at that point. They suggest, in fact, that Wilson executed Brown. On the other hand, Officer Wilson, who still hasn’t been directly quoted, is said to have felt threatened. The wounds Brown suffered are consistent with Brown having surrendered and fallen toward the ground, although they don’t rule out Brown having moved toward Wilson with his head down.

If this were the only evidence presented and I was on the jury, I’d have to conclude that Officer Wilson was guilty of second-degree murder. It wouldn’t be first-degree murder, since there’s no evidence of premeditation. Firing his weapon at Brown as Brown was running away indicates Wilson’s willingness to use deadly force. The consistency of the four statements from people who apparently didn’t know each other (except for the two women, one of whom supervises the other at work) implies that Brown had stopped running and was giving up. Is there reason to doubt that this is what happened? Of course, it’s possible that Brown meant to stop Officer Wilson from firing at him by moving toward Wilson. But so far there is no good reason (which is the definition of “reasonable doubt”) to think that Wilson was in danger when he killed Brown.

At some point, it would be helpful to hear a police officer admit that the deadly force he (it always seems to be “he”) applied to some black man or some crazy person wasn’t necessary. He’d explain that he was angry and excited and fearful and his emotions took over. He’d remind us that police officers hate it when their authority is challenged. He’d also remind us that he’s only human and that having the power of life and death over one’s fellow citizens will sometimes inevitably lead to misuse of that power. He’d further admit that, when it comes right down to it, he’s like too many Americans in feeling that some people’s lives just aren’t as valuable as others, especially black people’s. 

Update:

The New York Times ran an article two days ago concerning “conflicting accounts” of what happened in Ferguson. To her credit, Margaret Sullivan, the Times‘ Public Editor (which is similar to an ombudsman), points out here that:

The story goes on to quote, by name, two eyewitnesses who say that Mr. Brown had his hands up as he was fired on. As for those who posit that Mr. Brown was advancing on the officer who was afraid the teenager was going to attack him, the primary source on this seems to be what Officer Wilson told his colleagues on the police force. The Times follows this with an unattributed statement: “Some witnesses have backed up that account.” But we never learn any more than that…[The Times story] sets up an apparently equal dichotomy between named eyewitnesses on one hand and ghosts on the other.