To Hell with Them All

Current Events2 Comments

I’m reading on the couch and my phone buzzes with this disheartening news: “2 Killed in Texas After Firing on Anti-Islamist Group’s Event.”

My first reaction, shadowed in gloom, is that if this comes up in conversations I’m going to have to defend Islam.

I’m already preparing arguments, jogging facts in my mind, assembling anecdotes about the loving and wonderful Muslim refugees I work with.

I realize then that thoughts such as these are trapped in the same dangerous paradigm that ignites so much intolerance: that individual actions are an indictment of the group. I don’t have to defend Islam because two ostensibly-Muslim assholes attempted murder. No, I condemn them freely! To hell with anybody who uses deadly violence to stifle freedom of speech!

Likewise, to hell with anybody who uses their freedom of speech so smugly – so cheaply. Parading your disregard for Islam is not a celebration of your freedom, it is merely instigation.

It is not always wrong to offend people, but to turn offense into a celebration is alarming. These AFDI idiots would kick a dog until it bites at them and then call it a savage and say they kicked it because it bites people.

It is a weakness of human psychology that, in witnessing conflict, we’re always looking for who’s right and who’s wrong. Identifying sides allows us to take a position, to order the world around us and know our place.

But there are no good guys here.

SorenTo Hell with Them All

What Do You Call a Cop without a Gun?

Current Events, Discourse1 Comment

"New NYPD Police Officer sheds tears of joy at graduation ceremony" by Diana RobinsonEric Garner’s murder has made it really clear that there’s something wrong with the way police use deadly force. Cops are in a hard position, though, because their entire approach to working with people is predicated on our awareness that they can kill us.

That’s why they can demand absolute compliance and most of the time receive it. That’s why they make people nervous during routine interactions. That’s why people so callously blame unarmed victims of police shootings for their own murders. Well he shouldn’t have resisted arrest, they say. They don’t say the second part, but we all hear it anyway:  because everybody knows noncompliance is deadly.

Think about it – what’s a cop without a gun? At best, a community safety officer; at worst, just a power-tripping tax collector.

This hints at a major problem: police wear too many hats. They are a pseudo-military force that responds to terrorists, armed lunatics and dangerous criminals. They are peace officers who respond to domestic violence, noise complaints and child abuse. And they are tax collectors who will fine, cite and ticket according to the mandates of their bureaucratic leadership.

Those are three very different roles and they require three very different levels of training. The answer is so painfully simple: break it up. You don’t need a gun for the majority of police work. And if you’re inadequately trained for any part of police work, you will unnecessarily endanger people.

So let’s have a branch that is extremely well trained in the use of deadly force as an absolute last resort and also trained in and equipped with several less than lethal options. Let them be the specialists who deal with the truly scary shit that most people can’t imagine dealing with. Let’s not muddle this training or discipline with too many duties. Let the people who use deadly force be so good at it that they rarely need to.

And let’s give the beat cops, the people conducting the majority of police work, extensive, exhaustive training in deescalation techniques, nonviolent crisis intervention, and information about the populations and issues that they deal with so they can really stand up for trans people, rape victims, autistic folks, people of color, and others. Oh, and now that the first group is really well-trained and disciplined, the beat cops don’t need guns. If they don’t feel safe with that, they can call in for help, but without guns they’re going to really hone those deescalation techniques. And without guns, maybe they can earn back some of the community’s trust. Without guns, they just might not even need guns.

As for the fines and tickets…we already have meter attendants whose job is simply to attend meters. They don’t kill anyone. So let’s remove these tasks from the regular duties of the other two roles so they can focus on their more specialized work.

We can agree that police need more training, but it’s not as simple as that. You can’t be an expert soldier, an expert at peaceful conflict resolution and an expert at municipal codes all at the same time. Demanding these three roles out of one group of people is setting them up for failure at the cost of the lives of people of color, transgender folks and mentally-ill people.

Any reform that proposes simply adding more training or more responsibility to the already overburdened officer is simply a political maneuver. To really attack this problem, we need to reimagine the very nature of police work.

SorenWhat Do You Call a Cop without a Gun?

The Question White People Aren’t Asking

Current Events, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

What will we SACRIFICE?

I don’t care how many white people join in protest; without sacrifice, the movement is just a joyride to us.

What WILL we sacrifice?

It can’t be comfort, time or safety. Those are resources we can spend on the struggle, but even doing so reinforces the privilege of having those things in the first place.

WHAT will we sacrifice?

We can’t give up white privilege because it is conferred externally. We didn’t choose it.

But we choose what’s next. Allyship without real sacrifice is like telling someone in a burning building to just jump out the window.

So, what will WE sacrifice?

The naked truth of our being will be revealed in the answer, for sacrifice is the currency of progress.

SorenThe Question White People Aren’t Asking

Training, Self-Doubt & Fatal Flaws: What Social Work Taught Me about Police Work

Current Events, Reflections, Social Work, StoriesLeave a Comment

"Police Violence in Oakland" by Brooke AndersonHave you ever restrained someone the size of Eric Garner?

I have, and it was one of the easiest, most quickly resolved crises in which I’ve ever intervened.

It was 2009 and I was working with severely emotionally disturbed teens in a locked residential facility. A young woman, weighing in at 300 lbs, had just tried to punch someone, so we moved in to restrain her. When you take someone down to the ground from standing, you always put them on their stomach, otherwise you risk smacking the back of their head – where the skull is weak – into the ground. The problem with that, with a person of great size, is that their own body weight starts to compress their lungs. And this is right after they’ve just struggled with all their might to resist the takedown, so they’re already winded.

This is a documented and well-known phenomenon called positional asphyxia that has contributed to a lot of deaths. Thankfully, everyone on my team knew about this risk, because we had all been trained in keeping people safe even while we need to physically manage them.

So we carefully rolled her onto her back. In less than a minute she had gone from trying to haul off on somebody to too tired to resist. She caught her breath in that supine position and everything was smooth from there. Like I said, one of the easiest crises I’ve ever had to deal with.

What you need to know is this: even without that illegal choke hold, Eric Garner’s life would have been in danger. And even though he never did anything to threaten the police, the second he was on the ground, he wasn’t even capable of hurting anyone.

Is it possible that the NYPD receives less training than I did for my $13.50/hr job at a group home?

Every single cop who was there has blood on his hands. Eric Garner’s death was not an accident.

I’ll tell you one other story from those days that illustrates the only time in my life I’ve felt that I understand the police mentality of total control.

There was this kid, this lovable kid, who had a number of bullshit cards dealt his way before he had any say in the matter: his mom’s drug use while he was in utero left him with intense ADHD and impulse control issues, he grew up in poverty, and when he was 12 he watched his dad get gunned down in the street. So when he lost control, he was scary: I saw him stab my friend with a pencil; I was there when he bit my other friend on the leg for ten full minutes. But that’s what we signed up for. And we knew his story, and we cared about him. We got to see all the great things about him as well: his silly drawings, the way he smiled like a little boy during moments of real connection, his tendency to kill jokes by repeating them too much only for them to get funny again.

So there was one time I was feeling really worried that we didn’t do enough to avoid a restraint. He had wandered in and out of his room, and was acting the way he always acted before assaulting staff. We placed him in an escort hold and asked him to walk with us to the seclusion room. He refused. I was leading this intervention, and I thought maybe I could do what had never been done before: get him into the seclusion room without a full-blown restraint. So I kept talking to him longer than protocol said I should have. I did everything right, I used my personal connection to crack through his adrenaline-fueled focus on violence, I stayed calm, I gave him clear options, I told him we all cared about him and would be really impressed if he could just walk. Just walk. And he refused so I made the call to put him down into a restraint.

It wasn’t a particularly rough restraint, and nobody got hurt, but, still, I had been the lead – had I really tried everything? Was I too quick to initiate the escort hold?

And then, per policy, we searched him before having him enter the seclusion room, and we found a huge broken piece of a hard plastic cup in that narrow isosceles shape that screams weapon.

My self-doubt was instantly erased and traded for a feeling of conviction and solidarity with my teammates. This is a dangerous job, I thought, and we all have to keep each other safe.

It was days later when I realized that this must be exactly how police feel. Except they’re not just worried about a half-assed shiv, they’re worried about knives and guns. When they see someone not complying, they’re not responding to the actual behavior, they’re responding to their fear of what could happen if they’re not in control. If you question for a second how terrifying that can be, then watch this (NSFW & disturbing) video of what happens when an inexperienced cop doesn’t keep control. It goes quickly from confusing to lethal. Every cop on the job is aware of such doomsday scenarios; that’s why they demand total control.

The culprit here, without a doubt, is perverse and systemic racism. Additionally, however, it’s important to acknowledge that ANY human experiencing the constant threat of danger will develop an affinity with their teammates and gravitate toward increasingly absolutist, us-versus-them thinking. All it took to start me down that path was a plastic shiv that never got used.

That kind of thinking simply cannot accommodate the ambiguity of crisis intervention… and yet the policing model of this country necessitates that kind of thinking. No amount of reform can change that – it is a fundamental consequence of pitting society against itself.

Racism is the iron sights, our policing model is the trigger.

Both preclude justice.

SorenTraining, Self-Doubt & Fatal Flaws: What Social Work Taught Me about Police Work

Is That REALLY What Democracy Looks Like?

Current Events, DiscourseLeave a Comment

"Day 2: Ferguson protests nationwide" by  stauros bakalisIf you’ve ever been to a protest, you probably joined in that timeless chant: “This-is-WHAT de-MOC-racy LOOKS-like!”

But is it?

On a good day, our government feels disconnected from the people. But on bad days, when we learn names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, we feel pushed over the edge. Dialogue isn’t enough. Voting isn’t enough. Petitions aren’t enough. We take to the streets to let our voices be heard.

But what is our best-case scenario? The passage of the Michael Brown Law? Body cams on all cops to keep them accountable would be a great step forward, but…

…is that really what democracy should look like? Is democracy just a reaction to oppression that runs out of steam as soon as it gets appeased with tiny acts of reform? Does democracy never address the root causes?

Don’t get me wrong, I think protesting is absolutely vital. And I think body cams would do good. But just as much as protesting seeks justice from a damaged system, it validates that system.

The whole point of protesting is to demonstrate that we have people power. If we’re loud enough and persistent enough, we might get what we’re asking for. But how much power do we really have if the only way we know how to get what we want is by asking for it from the same people that have been intentionally depriving us of it this whole time?

Protesting is like begging a neglectful parent for a sandwich. They might get so sick of you that they give in, but you’re still living in an abusive household. You gotta do it so you don’t starve, but if that’s your only solution the abuse is never going to end.

We need people power, but not just the power to take away someone else’s peace until they begrudgingly hand us a small token of justice. We need a new kind of power.

We need the power to meet our own needs using our own resources. We need to create safety and justice for ourselves to decrease our reliance on police and courts. But not just that, we need to create new economies that siphon money away from major corporations incapable of true responsibility. We need new schools that embrace radical theories of education instead of obsolete classical schoolrooms. We need to determine our own futures.

That’s never going to happen by asking for it.

And I admit, that’s going to take a while, but that just means we have to work harder. Protesting is necessary, but fundamentally problematic; social innovation can tackle root issues, but neglects systemic oppression. Change requires twin processes: work within the system to create meaningful reforms, but also circumvent the system to practice actual self-determination.

So how do we build power? How do we take charge of our own communities? How do we siphon control away from the powers-that-be so we can take charge of our own futures?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. At least not today.

But I know I’m not the only one yearning for something more; my generation aches for change. We need something powerful, something radical, something truly innovative to snap us out of our singular focus on reform.

Something that will only come along when we realize that oppression will never compromise itself out of existence.


SorenIs That REALLY What Democracy Looks Like?

What We Desperately Need to Learn from Ferguson

Current Events, DiscourseLeave a Comment

Built This WayIf you still think police protect and serve, then turn around and close this tab.

But if it’s as clear as a mother’s tears to you that such fantasy is as dead as her innocent son, then what are we going to do about it?

The old style marches and chanting aren’t going to undo a system with centuries of history. The politicians won’t do more than bait us into complacency with phrases carefully crafted to inspire hope without making real commitment.

Darren Wilson is the fist of a state that doesn’t hold equal the value of the lives of its non-white citizens. The Ferguson grand jury is the cold heart of that same body. Our legislative representatives are the brain. The media is the slick haircut.

If you really understand the sheer terror of the reality in which we exist, you’re left with nothing but the most profound sorrow in place of any idea of what to do. Often, our activism is little more than a way to cope with that grief. If we don’t keep ourselves distracted, keep telling ourselves our strategies might work, keep repeating mantras of change comes slow, then we would be crippled by our sorrow.

But what is the best possible outcome of this strategy? Body-cams on police officers across the country, as Mike Brown’s family is calling for? Even if we had that in effect tomorrow, even if we achieved such an ambitious measure of success, that doesn’t address the root issue. That says to police: we’re going to catch you killing our kids. What we need to be saying is: we’re not going to let you kill our kids.

Any strategy for reducing police racism and violence that relies on asking the police to change is not enough. What we desperately need to learn from Ferguson is this: we must develop ways to create safety and justice in our own communities. We must reduce our dependence on police.

I’m not saying efforts to reform police practices are in vain; we need to try to reduce police racism and violence. However, it is vital that we not stop there. We need to begin a long road of social innovation that will result in new ideas, new groups and new practices. We need to figure out how we can take safety and justice into our own hands in responsible ways. We need to practice community conflict resolution, alternative responses to violence, and restorative justice. We need to brainstorm new strategies that have never been tried before. We need to build something for ourselves.

So long as we depend on police to keep us safe, we won’t all be safe. So long as we depend on courts for justice, we won’t all be free.

Until we know how to create safety and justice for ourselves, we will all depend on police.

SorenWhat We Desperately Need to Learn from Ferguson

Rookie Rebels

DiscourseLeave a Comment

"King on the Run" by Colton WittIf tomorrow we twisted out of bed, turned on our coffee-makers and realized that the establishment had crumbled overnight and we suddenly needed to take charge, we’d quickly realize we’re out of our depth.

Right now, we’re amateurs trying to tell the pros they’re doing it wrong. If they called our bluff and said, Okay, you try!, we’d have no idea what to do. Since we have had few opportunities to practice, we’re likely to prove incompetent at the craft of self-governance.

If you’ve never driven a car before, I’d be anxious to suddenly find myself buckled in next to you during rush hour in a big city. You’d probably rear-end somebody or clip a biker. Still, I’d rather be your passenger in a sturdy vehicle than be chauffeured by a professional stunt driver in a burning car headed for a high-speed impact. Our leaders may be skilled politicians, but that doesn’t matter when our political structure has fatal flaws. And you might get into a few scrapes on your first day driving, but you’d get better with practice.

Self-governance is a skill that can be developed. It’s a skill we must and will develop — but not before we screw it up. As we start gaining power, we need to expect mistakes and be so resolute in our ability to grow and learn that we recover without losing faith in ourselves. And we need to seize opportunities in the present to practice self-governance where we can so we can start to identify the many areas where we need to improve.

SorenRookie Rebels

…the Chicken or the Movement?

DiscourseLeave a Comment

Logan Temple Sunset by Sylvia KitchenSometimes I wonder if I’m selling humanity short by writing off the possibility of a massive, moral awakening.

When I imagine that, when I close my eyes and actually picture it, it’s literally breathtaking. But as soon as I inhale, I realize there’s a good reason for its absence:

We don’t live in an environment which requires heightened moral awareness. The opposite, in fact, it makes life really inconvenient.

The best solution I’m aware of for this problem is this: if we want to see more good, then it needs to become more convenient. It can’t be a righteous struggle, it needs to be downright easy.

You might say that cheapens the value of virtue, but I say it enriches the human experience.

Still, the question lingers like an eyelash stuck beneath the lid, scratching at odd intervals: do we rely on stifled hearts to overpower our negative conditions, or do we change those conditions to allow the innate power of our hearts to blossom?  

Soren…the Chicken or the Movement?

How to Trick Yourself into Happiness

Reflections12 Comments

Alieh Saadatpour: be always happy

Alieh Saadatpour: be always happy

If you google how to be happy, you can actually find some pretty good advice. Most of it, unsurprisingly, is written in the imperative. But when has simply telling people what to do resulted in them following through — especially when the tasks are complicated or abstract? Just do it. We’re talking about happiness here — if it was as simple as just committing to a decision, don’t you think we’d have done it? Do you really think we’re not happy simply because we don’t know what makes us happy, that our lives will be fixed as soon as we stumble across some advice?

No, something is clearly missing between reading a sentence like treat your body well, understanding its merit, and actually treating your body well. We all know we should eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. So why don’t we do it? It’s easy to say we’re not really committed to our health, but commitment alone doesn’t make us healthy any more than it prevents adultery.

Commitment is not the mother of change, action is. But how do we achieve action without commitment? I stumbled onto an answer while I was on vacation in Costa Rica. In hindsight it should have come to me sooner, because it closely mirrors the way I envision social change, but I suppose I had to experience it in order to understand. This is what I wrote on 8/9/14 at Cabinas Palmer in Cahuita:

Given the choice, at home, in a structure that rewards idleness & entertainment, I make unhelpful choices. Here, on vacation, I am still me no different than I was five days ago before we left, but the structure of each day rewards different behaviors. Reading and contemplation are more valuable here with the time on buses and the quiet time at the end of the day and so I do those things. Additionally, certain things are simply prohibited because there are no computers, no video games, fewer distractions. Certainly there’s something to be said about that — the hard limits of what is & isn’t even possible — because it’s not like I’m choosing reading over video games. I’m choosing reading over napping or staring out the window. There’s a lesson here that is like a microcosm for the social change I’d like to see: structure your life to reward/encourage good things. Decide to create a hospitable structure for the things you want to do rather than simply deciding to do them.

And that is how to trick yourself into happiness: don’t decide to do the things that make you happy, instead simply structure your day in a way that encourages you to do them.

I’ve already implemented this in one crucial way since my return from Costa Rica and it proves a useful example. Reading makes me happy and driving in Chicago makes me angry. Yet, previously, I drove every day and read very little. Upon my return, I bought a monthly Ventra pass. Now I take the train to work and always bring a book with me. I read every day and drive very little.

I’m happier and it’s not because I made a commitment to change. I had made many commitments prior to Costa Rica — even the 5th line of my electronic 2014 New Year’s Resolutions says modestly, Read 12 books. Ah, the imperative again. From January to August I didn’t finish a single novel. In two weeks in Costa Rica, I read five. I repeat: commitment is not the mother of change, action is.

My lone example isn’t enough, though, so let’s brainstorm. What do you want to change and how can you structure your day to encourage that behavior?

SorenHow to Trick Yourself into Happiness