Police-State Politics as Usual

“Tuesday night I heard about Mr. Sterling’s death, and I felt so very tired. I had no words because I don’t know what more can be said about this kind of senseless death.”

— Roxane Gay on the police murder of Alton Sterling in the July 6 New York Times

When I heard about Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala’s decision not to charge Port Authority police officers for the killing of Bruce Kelley Jr., I felt much the same as Roxane Gay. Gay is an African American writer and professor at Purdue and the police killing spree of black people is getting to be too much for her.  I felt tired too, but also angry.

While preparing to write this blog, I again watched the video footage of a platoon of PAT cops pursuing Kelley – who only wanted to be left alone – through backyards and back streets. His initial crime, you’ll recall, was to be discovered drinking with his father, Bruce Kelley Sr., in a gazebo near the busway in Wilkinsburg last January.  Rather than let the men leave in peace, the cops felt the need to provoke them by issuing tickets, which the Kelleys refused to take, and then escalate the situation further by attempting to arrest the men as they walked away.

They set a police dog on Bruce Kelley Jr., who defended himself by killing the dog. In response, he was riddled with bullets.

I watched the video of that man being hunted like an animal and my anger grew. Then came the death of Alton Sterling, and I watched Baton Rouge cops shoot him while he lay on his back, restrained by two cops.  I was moved to tears by the family’s emotional press conference where his 15-year-old son broke down and cried inconsolably.  That’s when I came across Gay’s column.

No time to catch my breath, though. I woke up the next day, on July 7, to news of the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota and was again emotionally shaken, this time by Castile’s brave girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who live streamed the immediate aftermath, even as her boyfriend sat next to her dying in the driver’s seat while a screaming cop stood outside the car window, still aiming his weapon at the visibly mortally wounded man.  And, oh yes, there was a child in the back seat.

What can you say?  Before the deaths of Sterling and Castile, I was prepared to counter Zappala’s “justifiable” defense claim, point by point.  But why bother?  (My colleague Greg Godels did a fine job of that here back in February.)  Bruce Kelley was the victim of business-as-usual in law-and-order America. Kelley and all the black and brown victims of the police were killed because we live in a hyper-capitalist country where racism and the paranoid fear of “the other” are encouraged in order to keep working and middle-class people divided and pacified.  The police are paid to enforce this ruling ideology.

Will black lives ever really matter as long as America continues as a police state? 

We have a black president who has tiptoed around the issue of race, even as white supremacists and police have taunted him with the brazen murders of African Americans, starting with the killing of young Trayvon Martin. Obama fights racism with corny, moralizing speeches, unlike Lyndon Johnson, who responded to violence 50 years ago against civil rights workers in the South with action.

We have a GOP presidential candidate who openly spews hatred toward Muslims and Mexican immigrants. And the candidate most of us will feel compelled to vote for – Hillary Clinton – professes her love for people of all races, colors, creeds and sexual orientations, and also promises to continue the arrogant foreign policy of endless aggression that has made the United States so many enemies in the Muslim world. These policies will no doubt fuel retaliatory attacks against US and Western targets, which will in turn fuel more anti-Muslim rhetoric at home.

We can take some encouragement from the words of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who came close to calling a spade a spade. But we must always take encouragement, pride and, most of all, leadership from the young people in the Black Lives Matter movement, who are willing to take it to the streets.

Bourgeois Brownnosers

The uproar over the Pittsburgh School Board’s selection of Anthony Hamlet for its next superintendent is finally dying down, and what a fiasco it was. Former city councilman Sala Udin (representing the Hill District Education Council), the group called A+ Schools, the Urban League’s Esther Bush, Tim Stevens of BPEP (all our bourgeois friends!) and others tried to “stand up” to the board’s selection after embarrassing information about exaggerations and discrepancies (why is it that nobody says “lies” anymore?) in Hamlet’s resume came to light.  But for whom are they standing? And just how tall?

There is no denying that the School Board conducted a buffoonish selection process – the discrepancies in Hamlet’s resume (or resumes) could have been uncovered by anyone with Internet access and the motivation to use a search engine.  Still, he was selected by an elected public body – a part-time board made up of working, scuffling people.  The board hasn’t done a great job over the years, but has its performance been any worse than our full-time City Council or General Assembly?  They (like the jury in the O.J. trial) may actually take their jobs seriously and know a little something about the school district business.  And who, if not our elected school board representatives, should select the superintendent?

Superintendents these days (and any days, for that matter) aren’t the great innovators and charismatic leaders that the movies and mainstream rhetoric would have us believe. They’re hired to be administrators of an incredibly complex, even arcane, bureaucracy that politically has very little space for innovation.  Sala Udin and his friends, experienced political players all, know this.  They are fronting for someone with power and privilege – someone who’d rather remain in the background – who wants a better-looking suit occupying the superintendent’s chair.

We should all be for “good government” – and governing – but I’m also for democracy. The school board may have made a good or a bad decision in hiring Anthony Hamlet – or no decision at all, given how power works and from where it comes in the education system.  Superintendents can make important differences – and maybe Hamlet will.  But these days, superintendents don’t produce the “Excellent Experience” that Sala Udin and company are calling for – unless said superintendent comes from a wealthy district.

— Jim Collins



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