Something Completely Different

“And now for something completely different…” That’s what made Monty Python’s Flying Circus work so well. The announcer, John Cleese, would appear briefly between sketches, and in a pleasantly informative voice intone the words “and now for something completely different” – and suddenly there he’d be, lying on top of his desk in a tiny pink bikini or something. Life is random. Don’t try to make sense of it. Lighten up a bit. The expected really never does arrive. And that’s a good thing. Enjoy the random.

That was directed at stuffy Brits – the show’s initial audience – but that intentionally subversive message travelled well. Americans got it, at least as comedy. But we are a nation that takes itself very seriously. Some things are just wrong – the government using our money to offer a bit of help to the wrong sort of people, or gay marriage, or any form of birth control. No one wants something completely different, except those who do. And some things are simply right and always right – the military, the police, and whatever Israel does that appalls everyone else in the world but us. Others say that the military, the police, and Israel, should never, ever, be given a free pass. Each side is adamant about that. Anyone who offers “something completely different” is a fool. We expect the expected, and damn it, we’re going to get it.

That’s the cultural divide. The British are stuffy, which is amusing, but Americans are locked in, or locked and loaded, which is not amusing at all. It’s not meant to be. We’re a serious people, but in Baltimore, something just happened that could have been introduced by John Cleese saying and now for something completely different:

Baltimore’s chief prosecutor charged six police officers on Friday with a range of crimes including murder and manslaughter in the arrest and fatal injury of Freddie Gray, a striking and surprisingly swift turn in a case that has drawn national attention to police conduct.

The state’s attorney for Baltimore City, Marilyn J. Mosby, filed the charges almost as soon as she received a medical examiner’s report that ruled Mr. Gray’s death a homicide, and a day after the police concluded their initial investigation and handed over their findings. Officials had cautioned that it could take considerable time for her office to complete its own investigation and decide whether to prosecute.

Surprise! Their investigation had been going on for weeks. The medical examiner’s report and the results of the internal police investigation were the final pieces in the puzzle, not the first pieces, so the “charging document” was filed:

The officers who were arrested, three white and three black, include a lieutenant with 17 years on the force, several near-rookies and a woman who had just been promoted to sergeant.

The most serious charges were brought against Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., who was driving the van that carried Mr. Gray to a police station after his April 12 arrest. Along with involuntary manslaughter, Officer Goodson, 45, was charged with “second-degree depraved heart murder,” which means indifference to human life.

All six officers were arrested and appeared before a judicial officer. Bail was set at $350,000 for four of the officers and $250,000 for the other two, according to court records. By late Friday, court records showed the officers had been released from jail.

After that grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict the white cop who shot the unarmed black kid to death, because there was no crime, and after that grand jury on Staten Island decided not to indict the white cop who choked the unarmed black man to death, because there was no crime – cops are almost never charged and almost never indicted for anything – this was something completely different, and it was specific:

Ms. Mosby faulted the police conduct at every turn. The officers who arrested him “failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray’s arrest, as no crime had been committed,” she said, describing the arrest as illegal. Officers accused him of possession of a switchblade, but Ms. Mosby said, “The knife was not a switchblade and is lawful under Maryland law.”

Ms. Mosby said Mr. Gray suffered a spinal injury while being transported in a police van – and not earlier, while being arrested – and pointed to the failure of the police to put a seatbelt on him as a crucial factor. “Mr. Gray suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside the BPD wagon,” she said.

Despite repeated stops to check on Mr. Gray, the van driver, Officer Goodson, and other officers never belted him in, she said, at times leaving him face-down on the van floor with his hands behind him. Though there has been speculation that the police intentionally gave Mr. Gray a “rough ride,” intended to slam him against the metal sides of the van, Ms. Mosby did not refer to that possibility. She charged only Officer Goodson with second-degree murder, the most serious crime facing the six officers; he was also accused of manslaughter, assault and misconduct in office.

Mr. Gray’s condition deteriorated, she said, as officers repeatedly ignored his pleas for medical attention and ignored obvious signs that he was in distress. At one point, she said, when officers tried to check on him, Mr. Gray was unresponsive, yet no action was taken. He died of his injuries a week later.

Lt. Brian Rice was charged with manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and false imprisonment. Officer William G. Porter and Sgt. Alicia White were charged with manslaughter, assault and misconduct in office. Officers Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller were charged with assault, misconduct in office and false imprisonment.

That last bit is something completely different:

A. Dwight Pettit, a lawyer who handles police brutality cases in Baltimore – and worked to help elect Ms. Mosby – said her emphasis on the officers’ lack of probable cause in arresting Mr. Gray was significant. Rarely, he said, are police officers prosecuted for making false arrests – and too often, they do not worry about lacking probable cause.

He called the charges of false imprisonment “something new for police activity, which offends the constitutional rights of citizens.”

No one knew what to make of this:

In a city rocked by unrest this week, and now under curfew and patrolled by National Guard troops, Ms. Mosby’s announcement on the steps of the War Memorial downtown drew cheers from the assembled crowd while a nearby cordon of officers in riot gear looked on stonily. As word spread, people in parts of the city took to the streets in spontaneous celebration.

In the streets, of course outrage turned to awkward celebration – this was a surprise – but some didn’t like something completely different:

The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police dismissed the charges against six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on Friday and called for a special prosecutor to take over for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

“As tragic as this situation is, none of the officers involved are responsible for the death of Mr. Gray,” Gene Ryan, the Baltimore FOP president wrote in an open letter to Mosby posted on Twitter.

“To the contrary, at all times, each of the officers diligently balanced their obligations to protect Mr. Gray and discharge their duties to protect the public.”

Yeah, well, see you in court, guys. Still, there was this:

Ryan’s letter also asks Mosby to appoint an official prosecutor. It questions her relationship with a Gray family attorney, who donated to her election campaign, and said the career of her husband, a city councilman, will be “directly impacted” by the results of the case.

“While I have the utmost respect for you and your office,” he wrote, “I have very deep concerns about the many conflicts of interest presented by your office in conducting an investigation in this case.”

“In order to avoid any appearance of impropriety or a violation of the Professional Rules of Professional Responsibility, I ask that you appoint a Special Prosecutor to determine whether or not any charges should be filed.”

Mosby was having none of that:

“The people of Baltimore City elected me, and there is no accountability with a special prosecutor,” she said. “I can tell you that from day one, we independently investigated. We are not just relying on solely what we were given from the police department.”

That must have offended them even more, and now positions will harden. On Fox News, where the military and the police and Israel can do nothing wrong, every conservative politician in America will show up to say the police did nothing wrong, because they can’t do anything wrong, and Marilyn Mosby is young, and black, and smoking-hot sexy – so even if she comes from a family of five generations of police officers, she’s Beyoncé or something. Who are you going to trust?

Everyone else sees her as strong and sensible, and it was high time for something completely different, and Conor Friedersdorf doesn’t get it:

Baltimore cannot be understood apart from both the death of Freddie Gray and years of misbehavior by Baltimore’s police department.

Why do so few conservatives grant that?

It isn’t as if conservatives must focus on denouncing the rioters as though no one else is doing it. In Baltimore, no passersby were pulled from their cars and beaten nearly to death; there may have been as few as two or three arsonists; many of the looters are better described as impulsive high-school knuckleheads than rotten criminals. Even so, condemning their actions is a near consensus position in U.S. politics. President Obama rightly declared, “There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw,” adding, “a handful of people are taking advantage … and need to be treated as criminals.” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake dubbed them “thugs,” echoing every conservative critique of rioting in multiple interviews (even as hack pundits across America egregiously misrepresented her actual positions and words). Still other black leaders echoed the same conservative judgments even as they insisted that years of police abuses help to explain the civic unrest.

Meanwhile, most conservatives either ignored or were oblivious to the Baltimore police department’s stunning record of egregious, normalized brutality and civil rights abuses. It would be one thing if these conservative pundits acknowledged that police brutality and violations of the Constitutional rights of black people are epidemic in Baltimore but argued that other factors mostly explain Monday’s civil unrest. Agreeing on what caused the riots isn’t actually vital when taken in isolation.

What’s vexing actually predates the riots: It is movement conservatism’s general, longstanding blindness to massive rights violations by police. The myopia has somehow persisted even in an era when an hour on YouTube provides incontrovertible evidence of egregious brutality by scores of thuggish cops.

It’s there to see, not that it matters:

“Conservatives do not like sweeping denunciations of the entire criminal justice system as racist, and they especially do not like violent protests, looting, and attacks on policemen – all very rightly,” Jason Steorts wrote in National Review after the Justice Department released its report on epidemic police misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri. “From there, too many conservatives have come to see any criticism of police conduct, or any allegation of racism, as if it were a play by the opposing team,” he added. “Instead, they should reflect that all that is correct in their defense of the police is compromised by the extension of that defense to anything unworthy of it.”

That seems to be the problem:

A few lonely conservatives have written on Baltimore as though heeding his counsel. Although Robert Driscoll is strangely dismissive of exhaustively documented police abuses in Ferguson, he took to the pages of National Review to urge its readership to refrain from reflexively dismissing the critiques of Baltimore cops, noting that if the DOJ is to probe the practices of any law enforcement agency, “it is hard to think of where it would be appropriate to open such an investigation if not a city with the record of police misconduct payments that Baltimore has.”

Yet the vast majority of commentary on Baltimore in right-leaning outlets is myopic and the blind spot is nearly always the ugly reality of bad policing in America.

Friedersdorf cites Jonathan Tobin in Commentary:

Let’s start by saying that protests about the death of Freddie Gray while in the hands of the police were justified. Every time a person suffers an injury, let alone, a death as a result of police action, it should prompt a serious investigation. But, like the reactions to the death of another young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, or the man who died as a result of a choke hold from a policeman in Staten Island, New York, the effort to spin a narrative of police oppression seems more of an attempt to contrive a false narrative of oppression than it is a genuine response to what may well have been a criminal act by a cop.

Friedersdorf:

But there is ample evidence of widespread police oppression! There is certainly enough to credit those alleging it with an honest judgment rather than dismissing them as disingenuous.

The Economist has noted that “British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans.” If that figure doesn’t grab you, know that over the last four years, “the police force of one small American city – Albuquerque in New Mexico – shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more than the number of Brits killed by all of England and Wales’s forces during the same period.” The U.S. imprisons a much higher percentage of its citizens than any similar country and frequently fails to protect those prisoners from being raped or assaulted, even when they are kids. The FBI helped send multiple people to death row based partly on junk science that was also used to convict people for lesser crimes for two decades. DNA exonerations of longtime prisoners are legion. Asset forfeiture laws have police seizing the property of Americans who’ve never been convicted of anything. The War on Drugs has eroded the Fourth Amendment and undermined the sanctity of the home to an oppressive degree, such that it is no longer surprising to hear about no-knock raids where family pets are shot, flash bang grenades burn innocents, and people are killed. Black and Hispanic men are stopped and frisked dozens of times by police without having done anything wrong.

What else do you need to know? Not much:

Many conservatives show no evidence of caring. And many are complicit in abusive policing. (Conservative voters keep reelecting Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for example, despite his presiding over civil rights violations costing tens of millions of dollars, prisoners zapped with stun guns while strapped in restraint chairs, and the hiring of a private investigator to tail the wife of a federal judge, among many other sins).

With respect to Baltimore, it’s madness that so many conservatives are unwilling to accept that policing there is oppressive and unprofessional, regardless of what happened to Freddie Gray.

This is the madness:

The conservative movement as a whole has no answer to corrupt cops or police departments, though they’re among the most oppressive bureaucracies in the United States. Prior to Baltimore, few voices on the right had even acknowledged the massive problem. Most commentary after the riots only highlights their blind spots. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger assigned blame for Monday’s unrest to Al Sharpton, the phrase “no justice, no peace,” and the unemployment rate. His column-length attempt to finger the causes of the riot makes no mention of Freddie Gray’s unexplained death or Baltimore’s long history of egregious policing. That hugely consequential local history is totally ignored.

The myopia sometimes manifests as a failure to apply “law-and-order” logic consistently. Jack Dunphy, a pseudonymous LAPD officer and longtime National Review contributor, wrote that “if you allow lawlessness to go unchallenged, you will very quickly have more of it. With the rioters thus emboldened, restoring order will now require a greater level of force than would have been necessary had the police been allowed to act decisively at the first sign of violence. As I write this no one has yet been killed in Baltimore, but I fear that will change soon enough.”

Why doesn’t a policeman who believes that lawlessness begets more lawlessness have any record of urging reforms aimed at lawlessness by police officers? It isn’t as if he’s never seen misbehavior during his decades at a scandal-prone LAPD. Why isn’t he professionally disgusted by the abysmal record of Baltimore cops? And one can’t help but notice that when he says that “no one has yet been killed in Baltimore,” he’s using a timeline that arbitrarily begins after the killing of Freddie Gray.

There’s more:

National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, is similarly selective in the time horizons he chooses. “Of course, law enforcement should always act responsibility,” he wrote, “but parts of Baltimore were burning yesterday because the police were overly restrained.” After watching residents of Ferguson, Missouri, riot even in the face of aggressive militarized battalions on its streets, I’m confused by the certainty some conservatives apparently feel that overly restrained police is what went wrong in Baltimore. But even if more assertive policing would’ve helped Monday, one need only look back a bit farther to see that if not for the insufficiently restrained policing that may have killed Freddie Gray and definitely brutalized scores of blacks in recent years, there very likely would not have been riots in Baltimore, just as there probably wouldn’t have been LA riots if not for the LAPD’s epidemic brutality.

And there’s this:

National Review is a diverse publication that publishes some impressive commentary from some first-rate minds. As noted, a couple of its writers have seriously grappled with police misconduct and others have fleshed out useful differences in how the right and left might approach the task of addressing urban dysfunction. But winning converts will be impossible for conservatism so long as those familiar with how tough it is to be born poor and black in Baltimore are as likely to encounter this:

“The young rioters have had their butts kissed for a long time. They’ve been told they are victims – victims of a society rigged against them. A racist society. They’ve been told they aren’t free in life, but shackled. They’ve been brought up to regard themselves as entitled and victimized, at the same time. In truth, they are among the luckiest people in the whole world: to have been born American. Millions, probably billions, would be happy to trade places with them. The rioters are free to make of life what they will. Their shackles are mental and spiritual.”

The writer, Jay Nordlinger, on other occasions strikes me as a kind-hearted, well-meaning person, but it beggars belief that an intellectual who calls poor black teens in Baltimore’s roughest neighborhoods as “among the luckiest people in the whole world” sees no incongruity in casting multimillionaire radio host Rush Limbaugh as a put-upon victim of Nazi-like ideological adversaries…

People do get locked in, and that Monty Python show is long gone. No one now looks forward to something completely different, but John Cleese, not the Washington Post, should have reported this – Freddie Gray’s Life a Study in the Sad Effects of Lead Paint on Poor Blacks – which is not a Monty Python joke. Kevin Drum, who has written extensively on childhood lead exposure and later crime, explains why this matters now:

When Freddie Gray was 22 months old, he had a tested blood lead level of 37 micrograms per deciliter. This is an absolutely astronomical amount. Freddie never even had the slightest chance of growing up normally. Lead poisoning doomed him from the start to a life of heightened aggression, poor learning abilities, and weak impulse control. His life was a tragedy set in motion the day he was born.

That has implications:

Thanks both to lead paint and leaded gasoline, there were lots of teenagers like Freddie Gray in the 90s. This created a huge and genuinely scary wave of violent crime, and in response we turned many of our urban police forces into occupying armies. This may have been wrong even then, but it was hardly inexplicable. Decades of lead poisoning really had created huge numbers of scarily violent teenagers, and a massive, militaristic response may have seemed like the only way to even begin to hold the line.

But here’s the thing: that era is over. Individual tragedies like Freddie Gray are still too common, but overall lead poisoning has plummeted. As a result, our cities are safer because our kids are fundamentally less dangerous. To a large extent, they are now normal teenagers, not lead-poisoned predators.

This is important, because even if you’re a hard-ass law-and-order type, you should understand that we no longer need urban police departments to act like occupying armies. The 90s are gone, and today’s teenagers are just ordinary teenagers. They still act stupid and some of them are still violent, but they can be dealt with using ordinary urban policing tactics. We don’t need to constantly harass and bully them; we don’t need to haul them in for every petty infraction; we don’t need to beat them senseless; and we don’t need to incarcerate them by the millions.

Here’s a new way to look at it:

Generation Lead is over, thank God. Let’s stop pretending it’s always and forever 1993. Reform is way overdue.

That’s something completely different. Expect the unexpected. And this time a few bad cops were actually charged with actual crimes. America will survive. Get used to it. John Cleese said so.

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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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One Response to Something Completely Different

  1. Rick says:

    Conor Friedersdorf may call himself a conservative, but probably in the same sense that Andrew Sullivan, the guy he used to work for, is — that is, the thinking kind of conservative, the kind I often find myself in agreement with — but Friedersdorf is not the same kind of conservative as those he’s preaching to. Unlike them, he’s one of the nice ones.

    It’s a temperament thing.

    I believe (and there are studies to back some of this up) that we are born with a temperament that determines our ideological leanings, and that the non-Friedersdorf/Sullivan conservatives are born preferring explanations be kept simple and based on “common sense” and that are easy to grasp, unfettered by too many details that just obscure what they consider the most important point — that we live in a society overflowing with pampered miscreants who have been encouraged by misguided liberal governmental policies to stay home and live off their welfare checks, and which also encourage these “thugs” to riot and loot whenever they get the chance, and encourage them to blame their misbehavior on extraneous circumstances, such as cops who are only doing whatever it may take to protect the law-abiding public — even if “whatever it may take” means “cutting thorough the red tape”, and isn’t exactly “by the book”, if you catch their drift.

    Although they often claim the opposite, these conservatives are not so much ruled by facts and reason as they are impressed by what moves them. Think Dirty Harry, pointing his huge pistol at some bad guy’s face, gently but firmly intoning the words through his teeth, “Go ahead! Make my day!” When a conservative sees that take-no-shit attitude, a tingle runs up his leg.

    Sure, there are rules against cops doing that sort of thing, but your namby-pamby liberal who follows all the rules, instead of doing what needs to be done, obviously isn’t up to the job and should just go home to his mommy. As much as conservatives may say they hate Hollywood, they’d be totally adrift without a moral compass without movies like that. Their real beef with Hollywood is that it doesn’t make vigilante movies like “Death Wish” anymore.

    It’s the same impulse that makes it seem that these conservatives are more concerned for the well-being of the American flag than for the actual republic for which it stands, and respond to any liberal suggestion that the country repair some defect it has with the accusation that liberals are always “blaming America first!” Every problem is simple, with two distinct sides to it, and people need to choose one or the other, instead of trying to complicate the issue by looking at “the big picture” — which they often see as liberals, once again, just trying to defend the behavior of the bad guys.

    But okay, maybe I need to back up here and concede that conservatives are not the only ones who try to paint a simple picture. Aren’t the folks who accuse all police of being racist pigs also oversimplifying the situation?

    Yes, indeed they are, but that just complicates my explanation. Let’s just try to keep this simple.

    Rick

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