The dog was stabbed during a burglary
K-9 Kye, a three year old Belgian German Shepard, died Aug. 25 after being stabbed by a burglary suspect the day prior. Sgt. Stark tried to separate the dog and the suspect before fatally shooting the suspect.
K-9 Kye, a three year old Belgian German Shepard, died Aug. 25 after being stabbed by a burglary suspect the day prior. Sgt. Stark tried to separate the dog and the suspect before fatally shooting the suspect.
The events in Ferguson and elsewhere across the U.S. have launched a heated national dialogue that questions our faith in the benevolence of government institutions — especially police, judiciary, and politicians. Dead black bodies always makes us wonder whether they really have the best interests of the American people at heart, or just the best interests of some American people. Sometimes in the dense fog of passion and tear gas it is hard to see what values a country as diverse as America really shares. One way to check the heart of American attitudes is to lay our fingers on the pulse of pop culture, which often subtly reveals the truth long before the news pundits compulsively check their Twitter to see what’s trending and chase after it.
One pop culture truth that has clearly emerged over the last few years is that the sharp rise of vigilante heroes in our books, TV, and movies is supplanting the traditional cultural heroes of the precinct, ER, and courtroom. I’m not talking about Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, or any other super-powered beings fighting other super-powered beings. That’s adventure-fantasy that has little to do with the political or social landscape. I’m talking about our grim-faced, non-powered heroes who, realizing that government is either too impotent or too corrupt to deliver justice, take up arms against the sea of troubles — and by opposing, end them.
A quick look at movies and TV will confirm the rise of these DIY knights: Batman, the Punisher, the Arrow, Black Canary, Sherlock Holmes, Jack Reacher, Kick-Ass, Ray Donovan, Dexter, Luther, House, and the rogues of Persons of Interest and Sons of Anarchy, to name a only a few. Of course, there will always be cop, doctor, and firefighter shows because these dramatic, heroic professions lend themselves to exciting plot conflicts. But to ignore the seismic shift in who we’re elevating as heroes is like ignoring the backpack of meth you found in your teen’s closet.
What these vigilantes have in common is that they take the law into their own hands, sometimes coldly executing those people they decide are too evil to live. At the end of the BBC season of Sherlock, a smug media mogul who has destroyed the lives of many and manipulated governments through blackmail and printing lies thinks he has trapped Sherlock into being arrested. To which Sherlock responds, “Oh, do your research. I’m not a hero, I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” He then shoots the villain in the head. Problem solved. Justice delivered, hot and tasty.
Tempting, isn’t it?
In a world where we witness the most horrific, violent, sick bastards not only getting away with and profiting from crime, but also giving the finger to law enforcement behind a phalanx of high-priced, morally ambiguous lawyers, we can’t help but fantasize about a man like the Punisher who executes mobsters and terrorists and the morally ambiguous on sight.
But is that a healthy fantasy for our nation? And how did America go from admiring lovable police detective Columbo to admiring lovable serial killer Dexter?
Historically, the popularity of the vigilante hero increases during times of social chaos when the people lose confidence in the integrity of government. The golden age of the American private eye story is the 1920s and 1930s, during the Great Depression and Prohibition. In the massive upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, the outsider vigilante hero again took center stage. For whites it was Clint Eastwood as rogue cop Dirty Harry and white-collar architect Charles Bronson blowing away street punks in several Death Wish movies. For blacks it was blaxploitation movies like Shaft, Trouble Man, Super Fly, and Foxy Brown delivering neighborhood justice while standing up to the condescending Man.
Today, our belief that the government wants to help us achieve justice is lower than ever. Politicians make predictable flag-waving speeches about the bravery and sacrifice of our troops in order to get themselves elected, but allow the Veterans Administration to let vets die through deliberate paper shuffling inaction. Isn’t that the definition of murder? Yet, no one was charged. Justice? No wonder the Punisher and the Executioner are veterans who come home from war, find the country in a bigger mess than the war zone they left, and use their military skills to bring justice.
As of June 2014, a Gallup Poll showed only 7% of Americans had confidence in Congress, the lowest of 17 institutions measured and down from 42% in 1973. Gallup concluded, “The dearth of public confidence in their elected leaders on Capitol Hill is…a challenge to the broad underpinnings of the nation’s representative democratic system.” The criminal justice system only got the support of 23%. If these two powerful symbols of democracy and justice have no public confidence, then when it comes to fixing the system who we gonna call?
The problem is that the highly entertaining and emotionally satisfying legend of the Just Vigilante is only a fantasy — and one with possible harmful real-life effects.
First, it perpetuates the idea among our young that having corruption in government or big business justifies breaking the law. If you cheat on your taxes, shoplift from a department store, or don’t vote, aren’t you just sticking it to Corrupt Society? Getting a little street justice, instant karma, or political payback? No, you’re just emulating their despicable behavior. If you become just like your enemy, who’s really won?
Second, the vigilante fantasy encourages thinking of violence as the default method of solving problems. That’s the opposite of what this country stands for, which is reasoned, thoughtful debate in an effort to resolve differences peacefully. It is not meant to be an excuse to grab your guns and line up on the border threatening children. Or open carrying guns into Denny’s frightening patrons.
Third, it undermines the concept of American justice by celebrating emotion over logic. Our judicial ethos proclaims that the only way to ensure justice is to deliberate rationally, without passion. Our vigilante heroes are often triggered by a rage for revenge due to the murder of a loved one. That’s the worst person to be in charge of seeking justice. Police blotters are filled with real revenge shootings in which the perpetrators killed the wrong people or innocent bystanders. We’ve seen how often an entire system of well-meaning professionals gets it wrong and convicts innocent people. Certainly the odds go up when one person without all the evidence judges guilt or innocence.
Fourth, many fictional vigilante heroes rationalize their actions because the villains “got out on a technicality” or “beat it through a legal loophole.” Nothing infuriates us more and we angrily blame our judicial system for these “technicalities” and “loopholes.” And yet, often the technicality or loophole that we so hate is actually something important, like searching without a warrant, racially profiling, or not reading Miranda rights. These aren’t minor “technicalities,” they are the foundation of the American ideal of protecting our people against the abuses of power. They are defending our Constitution as legitimately as soldiers on a front line. Yes, there will be miscarriages of justice because of these technicalities, but that doesn’t mean we dismantle the judicial system anymore than abandoning soldiers in a just cause just because we lose some to the miscarriage of friendly fire. We can’t parade around in stars-and-stripes sweaters getting teary-eyed when talking about patriotism, then turn around and complain about safeguards of the Constitution, the symbol of what we are being patriotic about.
Of course, our growing need for these stories is a symptom, not the disease. We need to accept that our stories are a sign of the times and try to fix the problems that give rise to our fantasies of taking the law in our own hands. The disenfranchised in society — the poor, women, minorities, LGBT — are even hungrier for justice than the mainstream because they experience less of it. It’s deliciously appropriate to our times that the new version of The Equalizer features Denzel Washington as the ex-Black Op agent now working at a Home Depot helping average people rather than the wealthy British original (brilliantly portrayed by Edward Woodward).
There are times when the individual should stand up to the communal notions of right and wrong, as did Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Gloria Steinem. But they did it with words, with courage, with intellect — not with violence. My hope is that we use the abundance of vigilante literature to fuel our outrage at injustice and to inspire us to, rather than cynically pull a trigger, fix what’s broken in our system through peaceful protest and the ballot box.
An Oklahoma City police officer was arrested Thursday and charged sexually assaulting at least six women while he was on patrol, though police expect more alleged victims to come forward.
Daniel Holtzclaw is charged with rape, oral sodomy and sexual battery. The three-year veteran of the force is being held on a $5 million bond, Reuters reports.
Police said the assaults took place while Holtzclaw was on the job, in some cases as a result of traffic stops.
At first, it seemed a perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression: a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager multiple times. He is shot with his hands up, it is reported, at least once in the back. The young man is a “gentle giant” with no adult criminal record. He seems guilty of nothing more than walking while black, albeit down the middle of the street. This takes place in a town that appears to have been cryogenically preserved from the 1960s, before the Voting Rights Act was passed. An estimated 67% of its citizens are African American; its government is melanin-deprived. The mayor of Ferguson, Mo., is white; 50 of the 53 police officers are white. Demonstrators come out to protest the atrocity–nobody is calling it an “apparent” atrocity yet–and the police respond in gear that makes a St. Louis suburb look like Kandahar.
But the perfection of the metaphor is soon blurred by facts. The gentle giant, Michael Brown Jr.–nicknamed Bodyguard by his friends–seems pretty intimidating in a surveillance video, in which he is seen taking cigarillos from a convenience store, tossing the diminutive clerk into a snack display as if he were a bag of Doritos. The alleged robbery occurs 10 minutes before the confrontation with the cop. The inevitable Rev. Al Sharpton says the video is an attempt to “smear” the young man. Then more facts emerge, and other eyewitnesses allegedly describe a more aggressive Michael Brown–more like the fellow in the video. An autopsy, requested by Brown’s parents, shows six bullet wounds; the kill shot is into the top of the victim’s head–which raises another possibility, that the officer, Darren Wilson, fired in self-defense. And now we have a metaphor of a different, far more difficult sort: about the uncanny ability of Americans to talk past each other when it comes to race relations, and also about the struggle between facts and metaphoric truths.
Sharpton has made a living off metaphoric truths since the late 1980s, when he promoted a terrified young woman named Tawana Brawley, who claimed that she had been raped by six white men, including the local prosecutor. Her story was later shown in court to be false, but the metaphoric truth was undeniable: black women have been casually violated by white men in America for 400 years. The undercurrent was strong enough that few black leaders rose up to take on Sharpton. The fetishizing of black sexuality by white men (and women) was too close to the bone, an infuriating historic truth.
But we have developed new historic truths over the past 50 years. A great many bodega owners won’t see Michael Brown as a metaphor for anything. They see potentially threatening customers every day. Blacks represent 13% of the population but commit 50% of the murders; 90% of black victims are murdered by other blacks. The facts suggest that history is not enough to explain this social disaster.
You can’t convict a terrified, undertrained cop of murder for trying to defend himself, if that’s what the facts show–but all too often in the past, we’ve exonerated racist thugs who were clearly guilty. We can’t ignore the barbarity that got us here: lynching was a fact, too, not a metaphor. Oddly, the election of Barack Obama–poor guy–has blunted the conversation about race relations, at least on the white side. We elected a black man with a Muslim name to be President. What other country would do that? The conversation has also been blunted, honorably, by the President himself in the face of some of the most tawdry race-baiting since Selma. And it has been blunted by leaders of the black community, who don’t want to harm Obama’s presidency by criticizing him. In a recent New Republic article, Jason Zengerle makes a strong case that hatred of Obama mobilized Alabama conservatives to take over the state legislature in 2010 and strip black officials of the power they had gained since the 1960s.
Race remains an open wound. There is a new generation of black intellectuals who are raising the issue in thoughtful, provocative ways. “The Case for Reparations” by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is compelling, even if the case is not a particularly strong one. We’ve had 50 years of drastically improved political, educational and employment opportunities for blacks, which have produced a burgeoning middle class, but a debilitating culture of poverty persists among the urban underclass. Black crime rates are much higher than they were before the civil rights movement. These problems won’t be solved simply by the recognition of historic grievances. Absent a truly candid conversation about the culture that emerged from slavery and segregation, they won’t be solved at all.
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Ten days after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, died in a storm of bullets from the sidearm of officer Darren Wilson—and after nine nights of protests marred by spasms of violence—the authorities in St. Louis County announced plans to lay the facts of their investigation before a grand jury. FBI agents had been busy behind the scenes, interviewing witnesses. Forensic experts for the federal government and local police had pored over the evidence collected in their separate but cooperating inquiries. No fewer than three autopsies had been performed: one for the locals, one for the feds and one on behalf of Brown’s family. But no testimony or trail of clues could alter the fact that a white …
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for an end to the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, as he promised the Justice Department investigation into the shooting death of an unarmed teen by a police officer “will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent.”
“At a time when so much may seem uncertain, the people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learn — in a fair and thorough manner — exactly what happened,” Holder wrote in a piece published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The U.S. Attorney investigating the case told TIME Tuesday his department’s work is going smoothly, but cautioned the released of information will be a slow process.
Holder’s message comes as violent unrest continues nightly in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson after the August 9 death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old killed by a police officer there. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered National Guard troops to the area Monday after local police were heavily criticized for what many argued has been an excessive response to the unrest. However, the National Guard’s presence did little to calm tensions Monday night, as at least 78 people were arrested during violent demonstrations that continued through the evening.
Holder arrived in Ferguson Tuesday to take stock of the situation and “be briefed on the federal civil rights investigation” that’s currently underway, he wrote. Holder says the Department of Justice has committed around 40 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents to the case in addition to Civil Rights Division prosecutors investigating the shooting. Holder also urged Ferguson’s peaceful protestors to work together to calm those who have been looting and rioting during the ongoing demonstrations.
“I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord,” Holder wrote.
Former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is not joining his Republican colleague Rand Paul in calling to demilitarize the police in light of events in Ferguson, Mo. Ryan, who’s currently on a tour promoting his new book The Way Forward, is calling instead for a note of caution.
The Wisconsin congressman said it was too early to “jump to prejudging conclusions before evidence is in.” He added that he didn’t exactly know what Sen. Paul meant when he called for a demilitarization of the police.
“I think it’s more important to be respectful of what’s happened, try to get to the truth and let the investigation take its hold,” Ryan said during an interview at Time’s offices. “Our police tactics, do they need to be reviewed? That’s something we should look at when the dust settles on all of this. But the rush to judgment with some broad brush assessment on all law enforcement tactics with respect to this particular incident, I think it’s a little premature to do that.”
Asked if he can offer any insight on the situation in Ferguson after spending time in several poor urban neighborhoods, Ryan did not miss the opportunity to make his oft-stated case against government-led solutions to the issues faced by people in poor neighborhoods in America. “I think a lot of taxpayers, a lot of people in America have been basically given the sense inadvertently from the government that the government’s going to fix this problem,” he said. “You pay your taxes, and we the government will take care of this. That’s not good enough. That’s not going to cut it. That’s actually the wrong impression.”
Instead, Ryan, echoing one of the themes of his book, called for a return to a more civil society. “People need to get involved in their communities. People need to get involved not necessarily with their money but with their time, with their talent, with their patience, with their love. And so the way I think we ought to approach this is we’d better be thinking about how to fight poverty eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul, person-to-person and reintegrate our communities instead of isolating people in our communities.”
A fuller interview with Ryan will be in the magazine’s 10 Questions page in the next issue.
The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., occurred off camera. But the reaction of local police forces, in their efforts to calm the civil unrest following his Aug. 9 shooting by a Ferguson cop, has been documented by hundreds of them. Many Americans were surprised by the martial response, which had the St. Louis suburb looking more like Baghdad or Cairo. Some veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq noted that the cops appeared better-armed and outfitted in middle America than the GIs had been in the war zones. Most of the gear has come from the Pentagon, which has ended up with enormous surpluses of guns, radios, and armored vehicles following the end of the Iraq war and the winding down of the conflict in Afghanistan. Since 1997, some $4.3 billion has been given to the nation’s police forces.
The U.S. military has long tried to reduce the number of troops it needs to send to war by giving them better and more powerful weapons than potential foes. While that logic makes sense on the battlefield, where the goal is to kill the enemy, it doesn’t translate particularly well on American streets, where the goal is to preserve order. The photographs above show how police forces have girded for battle over the past half-century.
Four days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., students at Howard University gathered for this picture with their faces plaintive and their hands:
Since then, similar images of groups around the nation — from other college students, to teachers to churches — have spread across social media under the hashtag “#Dontshoot.”
In 1990, Ferguson, Mo. was a middle class suburban enclave north of St. Louis with a population about three-quarters white. In 2000, the town’s population was roughly split between black and white with an unemployment rate of 5%. By 2010, the population was two-thirds black, unemployment had exceeded 13%, and the number of residents living in poverty had doubled in a decade.
Demographic transformation came fast and stark to Ferguson, Missouri. So what happened?
The situation there is “really not so different than the rest of St. Louis County,” said Dr. Norm White, a criminologist with the Saint Louis University School of Social Work. “The problems we saw in the urban core have become the problems of the suburban umbrella.”
The big picture trends White describes aren’t even unique to St. Louis County. Poverty in America’s suburbs has been on the increase nationwide for decades, as the suburbs themselves have grown and affordable housing options moved farther out from urban centers. Opportunities for low-skill jobs—already diminished due to the decline in American manufacturing—in sectors like retail and construction have became more concentrated in suburbs. And its not only a matter of emigration of low income people into the suburbs. Long-term residents in some places have became poorer; suburban areas were hit particularly hard by the recession and housing crisis in the 2000s.
With respect to St. Louis in particular, White points to the razing of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project — a public works project as extraordinary a failure as was the scale of its original vision — as a key factor in the flight to the suburbs. First erected in the early 1950s, the 33, 11-story towers on 57 sprawling acres in St. Louis was designed by the architect who went on to build NYC’s now-fallen World Trade Center.
The complex was intended to be a modern, vibrant community to replace the old poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the poor. In reality, the structures became crime-plagued labyrinths left unmaintained by the city and beginning in 1972 they were torn down, jumpstarting the processes that sent the poor of St. Louis, as elsewhere, out of the city and into the suburbs in search of affordable places to live.
Like most states, Missouri allows for highly fragmented municipalities, each of which retains its own tax revenues and the power to write its own zoning laws. Newer, wealthier suburbs sometimes write zoning restrictions to ban high-density housing, and thus affordable apartments. But Ferguson, an older suburb, has no such restrictions, according to Professor Clarissa Rile Hayward of Washington University in St. Louis. The result is a town where the population of the poor is not only large but also highly concentrated.
“A decade ago, none of the neighborhoods there had poverty rates above 16%,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on the rapid growth of suburban poverty in America. Now every neighborhood but one in the town has a poverty rate over 20%, the point at which typical social ills associated with poverty like poor health outcomes, high crime rates and failing schools start to appear, she says.
“Ferguson is just the place that the scab got pulled off,” White, the criminologist, tells TIME. “The reason why this is so intense is that there are a lot of these little communities that have been left almost to rot. Physically the buildings are falling down. There are no social service programs.”
As to whether or not the spotlight currently shining on the problem of suburban decay will result in a renewed commitment to address poverty in the U.S., White believes politicians and the media will move on. “You listen when the fires are burning,” he said, “but you then go away when the fires are extinguished.”