You Say You Want a Revolution

Everyone was young once, and some of us were young in the sixties, and we were going to change the world – but it refused to change. Many took to the streets in Chicago in 1968, or wish they had, to change things by disrupting the Democratic National Convention so much that those folks would become the antiwar party, not the sort-of antiwar party. Everyone knew the Vietnam War was worse than pointless by then, it had become shameful. Lyndon Johnson knew. He refused to run for another term. Things would change, but Gene McCarthy, whose strong showing in the early primaries had let Johnson know he’d lost his mojo, had given up early on, and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated that summer, a few months after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy’s last words, just after he won the California primary, were “Now, on to Chicago!” He never made it. All the Democrats had left seemed to be hapless Hubert Humphrey. The Republicans had Richard Nixon, big on law and order, and respect for things as they had always been – all that antirevolutionary stuff. Maybe it was counterrevolution stuff. He stopped the antiwar left, with some sort of revolution on its mind, dead in its tracks.

Nixon won easily, and he had let the nation know that the war would not end unless we had “peace with honor” – but there really was no honorable way out. That was the bitter joke. The war would go on and on and on. Gerald Ford finally pulled the plug, long after Nixon had resigned in disgrace. Hey, he was a crook after all!

Things finally worked out, but none of this had anything to do with taking to the streets in 1968, or at any other time and place. The voice of the new generation was heard. It was loud and clear, but those who run the world carried on as usual. America is immune to revolution. The times weren’t a-changing. This wasn’t the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The new generation should have realized that in 1969 when that song became a smash hit for The Fifth Dimension – one of the slickest pop groups around, a group your mother could love. They made a ton of money. Harmony and understanding, and sympathy and trust abounding, and the mind’s true liberation, were another matter. They didn’t show up.

There’s always hope. Back then, everyone knew someone who was carrying around a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, not that anyone ever read it, or it was a copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, not that any of us were going to join the Black Panther Party. We seemed to be white. There was the girl who claimed she was a syndicalist anarchist, but no one knew what the hell she was talking about. She was a Russian History major, and then the Beatles tore it all open:

You say you want a revolution…

You say you’ll change the constitution / Well, you know / We all want to change your head / You tell me it’s the institution / Well, you know / You’d better free your mind instead…

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow…

That song was released in August 1968, a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Whose side were these guys on?

They were on the side of reality. Revolution is a tricky business. We pulled one off in the late eighteenth century, and the French did the same, but that was long ago. Things settled down in both countries, and they settled in place. It took a civil war here to end slavery, and it took Lincoln’s life. It took the heroics of Martin Luther King to end our American version of apartheid, but that only changed to law, not men’s minds, and that took King’s life. We don’t do revolutions here, and the “tea party” revolution four years ago certainly didn’t overthrow anything, not even Obamacare. Those angry folks didn’t “get their country back” – because it wasn’t their country. This seems to be everyone’s country. It doesn’t belong, exclusively, to angry old white folks and Rick Santelli.

That presents a challenge. It’s hard to start a revolution, a popular uprising to change everything, when the majority of the people have very few problems with what you hate and insist must be gone. The healthcare system was broken. Obamacare isn’t much of a fix, but it’s a start. The EPA does work to keep the air breathable, not a bad idea. Spending money on roads and bridges and schools, and even on unemployment payouts and food stamps, does do good, good for everyone. Infrastructure and economic stability are nice, and taxing those who can pay more a bit more, so they pay taxes at the rate everyone else does, probably won’t ruin the economy. Closing the border might, and gay people really aren’t hurting anyone, and Obama keeps governing as a sort of Eisenhower Republican. None of this seems to call for a revolution.

It really is hard to start a revolution, a popular uprising to change everything, when the majority of the people are okay with what’s in place, but then there are times when what’s in place suddenly seems pretty damned awful, and maybe that just happened. Things didn’t calm down. The New York Times reports on how they escalated:

Thousands of demonstrators poured out in cities across the country on Thursday night in a show of outrage over a grand jury’s decision the previous day not to indict a white New York City police officer whose chokehold caused an unarmed black man’s death.

The protests drew crowds in New York, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington. Many chanted the last words of the man, Eric Garner, 43, of Staten Island: “I can’t breathe.” In some places, they grew disruptive, snarled traffic on major arteries and lay down in the streets.

For the second night in a row, several groups of protesters roamed through Manhattan. They caused lanes to be closed on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the West Side Highway and at the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. The protesters also targeted the Staten Island ferry terminal. Dozens of demonstrators were arrested, but officials did not provide further details.

About 300 people moving north on Broadway toward Times Square laid down at 34th Street for 11 minutes of silence to commemorate the number of times Mr. Garner was heard in a video of his fatal encounter saying he could not breathe. The protesters then moved north and onto Seventh Avenue, where they were involved in a skirmish with police officers blocking the intersection of 42nd Street.

This is not slowing down:

In nearly every city where there were protests, demonstrators shouted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”

The Los Angeles Times reported this:

The chants are angry, but simple: “I can’t breathe!” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” “Black lives matter!” They have echoed from the American heartland to the coasts in the wake of two recent grand jury decisions that cleared white policemen in the deaths of unarmed black men.

Now, activists are counting on the rage behind those words to spur a movement that would force the country to confront the interlocked issues of race and policing and press the government to automatically take control of cases of alleged police abuse.

“They’re asking for something simple. They want to be treated the same,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said of protesters Thursday as he sought to calm a city where many were seething over a grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white officer, in the death of Eric Garner.

No one is talking revolution, but they are talking about a movement:

More large demonstrations erupted Thursday night in New York and throughout the nation, including in Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago. As night fell in New York, helicopters thundered over lower Manhattan while protesters gathered in Foley Square, near the courthouse and police headquarters.

“It was a murder on video and there was no justice,” said Mickey Thomas, a 21-year-old Hunter College student. “I definitely think we’ve had enough. I feel like there is a new civil rights movement.”

Ida DuPont, a Pace University sociology professor specializing in criminology, said she too thought the Garner incident was an “open and shut case” with the video.

“It was so ridiculous to me that I had to be here today to show my outrage,” DuPont said.

“I’ve been talking to my students about it,” she said. “All the young people know something is seriously wrong.”

That might be enough:

At a Thursday news conference, black leaders, including Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, sought to draw protesters from around the country to Washington for a Dec. 13 event aimed at pressing for federal intervention in excessive-force cases.

“Marches and boycotts led to the ’64 Civil Rights Act,” Sharpton noted. He said that just as federal legislation led to change 50 years ago, similar action is needed now to ensure that prosecutors no longer handle cases involving their own police. “That’s what [Dec.] 13th is all about,” Sharpton said.

Marches in Washington in recent years have done little more than draw a few thousand people voicing concern over issues including fracking and veterans care.

This time, however, those pushing for change have the attention of some of the nation’s top leaders, who view their demands through personal eyes – from President Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to De Blasio, whose wife is black.

This may be a tipping point. Unlike the Tea Party Revolution, funded and supplied by the Koch brothers and corporations that wanted lower corporate taxes and the end to as much regulation as possible, what has happened here seems to have sprung up spontaneously. Everyone knows something is seriously wrong here, but administrative changes in who prosecutes what isn’t exactly a revolution. Others suggest a revolution might be necessary. Brian Beutler is one of those:

Even if the Ferguson outcome didn’t strike you as evidence of systemic problems, then Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Garner, getting the same treatment as Wilson should leave you shaken. These are daunting problems. And because they’re daunting, they generate outpourings of unfocused indignation, aimed generally at racial inequities in the criminal justice system and at the culture of impunity in which so many police officers seem to operate. This is natural and important and healthy.

A white man in Garner’s shoes probably would’ve walked away from that confrontation, and the video footage of the incident, taken in plain view of the officers, suggests that even if Pantaleo had been wearing a camera, it wouldn’t have pierced that culture of impunity.

This points to something alarming – that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic keeps stressing and stressing, the problems themselves in some ways just reflect public will – “And this isn’t the fault of police. Police act at the society’s behest. Police don’t need retraining. America needs retraining.”

If that weren’t true, then police wouldn’t be so much more likely to escape indictment than civilians. The disparity would narrow.

There’s a first step:

If Coates is right, then at least some of the effort expended on making police officers wear cameras has been misdirected. It should be redirected toward the source of the impunity, which isn’t the quantity or quality evidence, but the officials that so freely disregard it.

If prosecutors and police departments are too tightly linked for due process to mean anything, then puncturing the impunity requires breaking the link. One way to do this would be for citizens at the state and local level, through ballot initiatives, to take the authority for presenting evidence of police misconduct to grand juries out of the hands of local prosecutors. That authority could be handed to publicly accountable review boards staffed with civilian lawyers from within the jurisdiction, or to special prosecutors’ offices.

It’s not much, but it’s something:

Instituting systems like this in cities across the country wouldn’t amount to a frontal assault on the vast racial disparities in communities like Ferguson. But it’s a concrete goal – one that would give at least some vulnerable communities greater confidence that police wrongdoing will be investigated in an unbiased way. And it would put police on notice that their conduct will be subject to legal review by representatives of their communities who don’t work hand in glove with them.

Fine, but Albert Burneko argues it’s not enough, because it’s our justice system that’s broken:

In July, New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo choked unarmed black man Eric Garner to death, in broad daylight, while a bystander caught it on video. That is what American police do. Yesterday, despite the video, despite an NYPD prohibition of exactly the sort of chokehold Pantaleo used, and despite the New York City medical examiner ruling the death a homicide, a Staten Island grand jury declined even to indict Pantaleo. That is what American grand juries do.

In August, Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown to death in broad daylight. That is what American police do. Ten days ago, despite multiple eyewitness accounts and his own face contradicting Wilson’s narrative of events, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson. That is what American grand juries do.

In November 2006, a group of five New York police officers shot unarmed black man Sean Bell to death in the early morning hours of his wedding day. That is what American police do. In April 2008, despite multiple eyewitness accounts contradicting the officers’ accounts of the incident, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman acquitted the officers of all charges, including reckless endangerment. That is what American judges do.

In February of 1999, four plainclothes New York police officers shot unarmed black man Amadou Diallo to death outside of his home. That is what American police do. A year later, an Albany jury acquitted the officers of all charges, including reckless endangerment. That is what American juries do.

In November of 1951, Willis McCall, the sheriff of Lake County, Fla., shot and killed Sam Shepherd – an unarmed and handcuffed black man in his custody. That is what American police do. Despite both a living witness and forensic evidence which contradicted his version of events, a coroner’s inquest ruled that McCall had acted within the line of duty, and Judge Thomas Futch declined to convene a grand jury at all.

The American justice system is not broken. This is what the American justice system does. This is what America does.

We need to deal with that:

The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Sam Shepherd, and countless thousands of others at the hands of American law enforcement are not aberrations, or betrayals, or departures. The acquittals of their killers are not mistakes. There is no virtuous innermost America, sullied or besmirched or shaded by these murders. This is America. It is not broken. It is doing what it does.

America is a serial brutalizer of black and brown people. Brutalizing them is what it does. It does other things, too, yes, but brutalizing black and brown people is what it has done the most, and with the most zeal, and for the longest. The best argument you can make on behalf of the various systems and infrastructures the country uses against its black and brown citizens – the physical design of its cities, the methods it uses to allocate placement in elite institutions, the way it trains its police to treat citizens like enemy soldiers – might actually just be that they’re more restrained than those used against black and brown people abroad. America employs the enforcers of its power to beat, kill, and terrorize, deploys its judiciary to say that that’s okay, and has done this more times than anyone can hope to count. This is not a flaw in the design; this is the design.

There’s more:

Policing in America is not broken. The judicial system is not broken. American society is not broken. All are functioning perfectly, doing exactly what they have done since before some of this nation’s most prosperous slave-murdering robber-barons came together to consecrate into statehood the mechanisms of their barbarism. Democracy functions. Politicians, deriving their legitimacy from the public, have discerned the will of the people and used it to design and enact policies that carry it out, among them those that govern the allowable levels of violence which state can visit upon citizen. Taken together with the myriad other indignities, thefts, and cruelties it visits upon black and brown people, and the work common white Americans do on its behalf by telling themselves bald fictions of some deep and true America of apple pies, Jesus, and people being neighborly to each other and betrayed by those few and non-representative bad apples with their isolated acts of meanness, the public will demands and enables a whirring and efficient machine that does what it does for the benefit of those who own it. It processes black and brown bodies into white power.

That is what America does. It is not broken. That is exactly what is wrong with it.

Now THAT’S a call for revolution, or it’s a cry of despair, because all we’ll get is a Department of Justice investigation of the Staten Island incident. Still, at the libertarian Reason site, Damon Root is all for that:

Holder’s decision to launch a federal inquiry is fully consistent with the original purposes of federal civil rights legislation, which dates back to the Civil Rights Act of 1866. That law was passed by the Republican-led 39th Congress in the wake of the Civil War in response to the former Confederate states’ attempts to harass and oppress the recently freed slaves by stripping them of their newfound liberty and property, denying them the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, and failing – or refusing – to provide them equal treatment under the law.

In other words, the whole point of federal civil rights law is to provide a legal check against state-sanctioned injustice, such as the egregious police misconduct that killed Eric Garner. Attorney General Holder should be commended for putting federal law to its intended purpose in this case.

In the Washington Post, Paul Cassell hopes Holder moves quickly:

With regard to substance, the facts are disturbing – and seemingly, in large part, recorded on video. And with regard to procedure, unlike the Michael Brown grand jury, we don’t have transcripts of testimony to peruse to make an informed assessment about the fairness of the process. Questions abound.

Here’s where the Justice Department could perform a valuable service – by actually completing this civil rights investigation expeditiously. To be sure, the proof required for a federal rights charge is demanding. But if the Eric Garner facts are as clear cut as the video makes them out to be, there is no reason why the Justice Department can’t rapidly investigate the case and quickly announce what it finds. The Justice Department should live up to the attorney’s general’s promise yesterday to “expeditiously” announce its decision on whether charges are appropriate in the Eric Garner death … and in the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin deaths.

Okay, don’t tear up the whole system. Let it work as it should, but at Vox, Amanda Taub isn’t expecting much:

Demanding a federal investigation is a good way for politicians like de Blasio, Schumer and Gillibrand to show their concern about police violence. Unfortunately it’s not likely to bring justice for Garner.

Simple murder and manslaughter aren’t federal crimes. But killing someone can be one in special circumstances, including when it’s an intentional violation of civil rights. What the DOJ can do is bring charges under the federal civil rights statute in order to prosecute Pantaleo for Garner’s death. And that legal standard is difficult to meet: prosecutors would have to prove that Pantaleo willfully deprived Garner of his civil rights. A police officer intentionally killing someone outside of the set of circumstances in which deadly force is permitted would qualify. But a civil rights charge requires proof of intent, whereas a state manslaughter case could be made by demonstrating negligence.

Okay, tear up the whole system. You say you want a revolution? It might be time for one. People, without the support of the Koch brothers, have taken to the streets, and there’s even this:

After rolling footage of Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, Bill O’Reilly responded Wednesday night with a deep, uncharacteristic sigh.

Though O’Reilly made sure to point out that he did not have all the facts in the case, following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo, and mass protests in New York City, the Fox News host was at least firm in his belief that Garner did not deserve the fate that befell him.

“Garner should not have resisted, but all Americans, every one of us, should pity Mr. Garner and his family,” O’Reilly said, adding that he was “extremely troubled” by the video and would have loosened his grip after hearing Garner say he couldn’t breathe. “He did not deserve what happened to him. And I think Officer Pantaleo and every other American police officer – every one – would agree with me. He didn’t deserve that.”

You say you want a revolution? Even Fox News is on board, sort of. It’ll be just like the sixties, when people took to the streets, and we got Richard Nixon. But maybe this time it will be different.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to You Say You Want a Revolution

  1. John Le Pouvoir says:

    Well, at least the Pittsburgh cops haven’t made the headlines recently.

  2. Rick says:

    Albert Burneko ponders something:

    “Yesterday, despite the video, despite an NYPD prohibition of exactly the sort of chokehold Pantaleo used, and despite the New York City medical examiner ruling the death a homicide, a Staten Island grand jury declined even to indict [officer Daniel] Pantaleo.”

    By the way, not that anyone really cares, but Pantaleo apparently insisted to the grand jury that the hold he had on Eric Garner was not that (prohibited) “chokehold” but something called a “takedown”, which he said he learned during basic training — not that it really matters, since (a) neither hold is prohibited by law, despite being allowed or disallowed by the Department, and (b) it seems to be what killed Garner anyway.

    But concerning another technicality: I, too, was confused on how a grand jury could refuse to indict Pantaleo after the coroner had ruled Garner’s cause of death as a homicide, until I heard it explained by Chief Legal Affairs Anchor for ABC News Dan Abrams.

    It turns out, according to Abrams, that when a coroner uses the term “homicide” to describe the “cause of death”, he’s just saying the dead person was “killed by another human being” (as opposed to, I assume, having a heart attack, or dying of lung cancer, or was eaten by a bear or something), and is not commenting on whether a crime was committed, which is something to be determined by a grand jury. In this case, by choosing not to indict officer Pantaleo, the grand jury was, in effect, ruling that Pantaleo did not exceed his authority to use “justifiable lethal force”, an immunity few of the rest of us non-police human beings caught committing homicide would enjoy.

    And while I’m picking nits, I should also comment on what seems to be Burneko’s main point:

    “The American justice system is not broken. This is what the American justice system does. This is what America does.”

    If you read the original article, entitled The American Justice System is Not Broken — which otherwise has some pretty good observations — he essentially repeats over and over that the things people have been complaining about in the justice system lately are not bugs, but are features. This is not to infer that Burneko necessarily approves of these features, only that he thinks they are built into the design, presumably by the founders, and are maintained by a society that likes it that way.

    Whatever. I choose to see this approach as mostly unhelpful, since whether or not it was built this way on purpose, if we don’t like it, we can change it. In fact, we don’t, so we should.

    The one specific thing I see that we can work on improving is how grand juries deal with police-involved deaths, particularly addressing the problem of prosecutors and the police at least seeming to have a conflict of interest in these cases. Anyone else who has watched as many “Law & Order” reruns as I have can see how this works: Yes, sometimes the two offices get into a scuffle, but mostly they work hand-in-glove to nail the perps. (And I know I should know this, but I still get confused about which group represents the “Law” and which the “Order”. But never mind that.)

    Maybe one solution is that we should skip the grand jury system altogether.

    Maybe trials of cases involving the police killing someone should be treated somewhat like (although not actual) civil wrongful-death cases, in which both the defense (the police officer) and the “victim” (the dead and their family and friends) are represented by legal counsel, maybe court appointed, arguing their case before a twelve-person jury — automatically convened anytime someone dies in a confrontation with police, and convened by some judicial authority, rather than the prosecutor’s office. Plea deals, allowing the matter to be settled out of court, would be allowed, but if it goes to trial, a “probable cause” finding (not unanimous, but a finding by some majority) could mean the case would proceed to an actual criminal trial.

    The main advantages here would be (a) removing from the prosecutors the responsibility of prosecuting their friends, the cops, and that (b) all evidence, from both sides, would be considered, instead of, as in the case of the grand jury, just some of the evidence, and just from the plaintiff’s side.

    Am I missing something? Probably. I would welcome a critique. And maybe, me being a rank amateur, I’m just unknowingly rehashing something that constitutional scholars have already picked to death, and are still stumped.

    But if so, I think we need to bring those discussions out here, into the public, because what we have now is seriously flawed and we want it to be fixed.

    Rick

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