Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why was Sandra Bland charged with assault when she was the one assaulted?

Sandra Bland, whose death in police custody on July 13 after being caught in a minor traffic infraction outraged much of the nation, was only in jail because she was being held on $5,000 bond after having been charged with assaulting the state trooper who escalated her ticket into a violent arrest, according to two documents filed in court in Waller County, Texas.

According to a "Magistrate's Admonishment" signed by Judge Delores Hargrave, a local Justice of the Peace, Bland was arraigned and charged with 3rd degree felony assault at 1:20 pm on Saturday, July 11, 2015. She remained in jail because she hadn't yet posted bail. The Admonishment does not indicate if Bland was represented by a lawyer when facing the charge against her, as is her right under the U.S. constitution.

Judge Hargrave was out of her office and not available to comment on Thursday, July 23, and her staff said she would not be reachable until she returned to work on Monday, July 27.

Though Waller County courts are closed on Saturdays, judges apparently go to the jail to process people arrested on evenings and weekends.

A second document, an arrest affidavit filed by Trooper Brian T. Encinia and signed by Judge Hargrave on July 10, detailed what the officer alleged to be the assault. The trooper declared that, though she was handcuffed, "Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin. I had a pain in my right leg and suffered small cuts on my right hand." Encinia also said that "force was used to subdue Bland to the ground."

A police video of the incident tells a more complete story. In it, Encinia seems to provoke the altercation after pulling Bland over for failing to signal before changing lanes at 4:27 pm on July 10. After writing up a citation and walking back to her car, he asks her to put out her cigarette and orders her out of the car. When she declines, he threatens to taser her if she does not comply, shouting, "I will light you up." A few minutes later, while Bland is still complaining vociferously about his treatment of her, Encinia radios his dispatcher to report, "I've got her controlled. She's in handcuffs."

Bland died in her cell in the county jail sometime before 9 am on Monday July 13. It is not clear if Bland ever spoke with a lawyer before her death.

Monday, July 13, 2015

to reach Christopher Gilbert

Christopher Gilbert, who died in 2007, was a chronicler of the hushed, the silenced, the gagged, the conflicted and often lying voices that make up so much of our lives in contemporary America. Now, Turning into Dwelling, a collection of his poems has been released by Graywolf Press.

His first and only book, Across the Mutual Landscape, which came out in 1983, is a coming of age tale, a collection of the things a man witnesses and experiences that make up what he is -- ham radio and fishing and gardening and jazz and R&B and basketball and baseball and panhandlers and traffic jams. It’s a book that finds scraps of solidarity and transcendence in unlikely places.

Like parallel parking
I park the car because I’m happy,

because if everyone parked we’d have a street party.
 and the hand of a sleeping derelict
Today I stumble over something

resembling a dead person.

I look down at the body—

a loose skin holding it in.

I lift an arm from the ground.

The whole thing stinks….

You touch the body, the parts

gathered by a suit of clothes.

You punch it, push your knife in

because it is now your turn.
The victim, pinned to the page by those horrible words, nonetheless
 finds a way to forgive

your being. As he struggles to not

be shaped by the wounds you bring

but to make something with those wounds.
Gilbert’s models were Muriel Rukeyser and Robert Hayden and Etheridge Knight: good models, great models, inspirational models. They, and his family, taught him  
a kind of getting by—

an extension of living

beyond my self my people taught me,

and each moment is a boundary

I will throw this bridge across.
That’s the first part of Turning into Dwelling: the collection that Chris Gilbert published.

The second part offers a new book crafted out of the poems Chris Gilbert left behind when he died. This new Chris Gilbert – you get the sense he’s still forming himself, so it makes sense that this sequence bears the title Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation -- is rigorous and attuned to difference and unity just like the old Chris Gilbert. He’s still writing about parking and traffic jams and jazz and R&B. He’s got the same dead-pan eye for the mute violence that lurks around most things most of the time. But this Chris Gilbert has shed the soothing skin of ideals. He no longer vouches for solidarity.

In these later poems, Gilbert acknowledges that, even as we strive for it, the mutuality he heralded in his early poems is a false dawn:
The truth between us—

blood, neighborhood, words, dream—

this steadfast imaginary community
Now he, an African-American man living, for the most part, in a white world, looks dispassionately around him, at
            the strip searches Boston’s finest do
against every black male in Mattapan old enough

to have the cultural balls which signal “I’ve got

nothing to prove” and not “forgive me” to

the man who is mauling him.
He sees through the pale excuses of people not seeing each other, engaged in willful misunderstanding:
Baby is doing just what many police departments do when they set up sting operations. He romantically sees people as either victim or outlaw, struggling for dignity and self worth, but with little direction. Your voice is a type of body contact, so do talk to baby. But speak quietly with a soothing and reassuring tone of voice. Don’t move suddenly since this startle him. Remember he is as innocent as a police department.
And he X-rays his own complicity:
Who is it who is the real Public Enemy,

is it I, the professor, who would

wrest my lines into the here and now of a local lie

good for a few neighborhood blocks and this

false need for a black meanness, mean enough

to knock the game socks off those purveyors of

ironic taste who want a vision metered out

between the lines ruled by the appetites of the wrong

music, which would dress all my neighborhood’s wild right

rhymes in tennis whites and proper formalistics,

or is it simply another literal example of

life unfolding in its ugly statistics?
This Chris Gilbert gives politics no quarter
I get to the campaign rally and “fuck

there’s no mo chicken,” but the candidate,

the divine Mr. Sound Bite, stops eating his

long enough to cite some wrongs and cluck,

“there’ll be soon be beef for each and every plate.”

And about the lack of cole slaw, he promises

that more is coming with Cokes aplenty,

and music to help us all do the trendytrendy.

It was your usual day, and so forth,

with God on someone’s side. But where my man

flunked the test was thinking that I’d give a damn.

I want food, relevant tack from a bottomless source.

A meaty word to last me past the hassle

of this symbol spewing more symbols out like an asshole.
Indeed, he insists that we have all mangled our moment to set things right
Man we mess it all up! We step forward

into our urban selves all faithless and lie

as though a presence is a paint job, a fashion—

that put-on face which has its moment that

then, like an uncoded character left

            in the oblivious weather, simply fades away.
In response, he creates his own Dr. Seuss doggerel for the generations teased into lassitude by the triumph of consumer culture:
I would not, could not where terror reigns.

And I will not, will not need useless things.

Not for a Porsche, nor the status quo.

They are not why I’m striving so.

Not for the gain of celebrity.

Nor to suffer more misery.

Not next year. Not quietly.

Not “over there.” You watch me be.

Well, we can’t face history by looking at a model. At some point

   you have to sacrifice yourself. Coltrane’s quest was

   to kill the self, then find it.

Well, we face the mysteries by living among them.
Now there’s only one way forward.
There is nothing to do but to let it happen. But you must gesture like a motherfucka because you’re involved in the change.
In Across the Mutual Landscape, Chris Gilbert steps over the smelly man in the alley, wounding him. The riffing improvisational Chris Gilbert who he is becoming in his later poems listens to the man in the alley, and realizes that his responsibility, through his life and through his poetry, is to be that man, to become him, somehow, symbolically.
a ghost hand from a man

who says he’s Lazarus,

who quotes Langston Hughes, whose black

body is so black it’s pre-

African, it’s purple, it’s bruise

set on a set of bones

as he laughs between poems

and the gaps in his teeth,

and offers me a swig from his bottle of wine choked

inside a greasy McDonald’s bag,

till, walking further on, I realize

that I, too, can, through myself, just be,

realize that a man can move beyond images

and “what ain’t so” into the great gulf

of what ain’t talked about,

realize that that man’s sudden gesture

is the “the” in this

language that doesn’t get said

and that I must name it

            to have it live as part of me.
Chris Gilbert contained within him a thousand gesturing motherfuckas.
And so it has come down from the gods that all speech is a claim for transcendence, an attempt to step forward from one form—absence—into the pure plane of difference. And so it has come down that all poetry leads to more poetry. And so it has come down that one must choose between getting things as they are or getting the last word about them.
Chris Gilbert didn't seek to have the last word. He witnessed things and named them and welcomed them and got them as they are and made them part of his life.

Now do your part. Read him.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Better Call Sepp

Here’s a tip to politicians on both sides of the Greek debt debacle: it’s not too late to get out of the way and bring in a highly trained professional to head home a deal. Fortunately, there’s a solution for Greece and Europe – one that represents the kind of shocking tactic that should please Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and also offers the kind of buttoned-down efficiency that should appeal to Greece’s troika of adversaries—Germany, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission.

Here’s what should happen—and fast: the ancient and ailing country that was the birthplace of the polis should merge with FIFA, the world soccer federation, and bring in Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s disgraced caretaker president, as Greece’s interim unity Prime Minister.

Blatter is the only man in the world who offers the correct combination of tactical nous and Socratic inscrutability that could inch Greece and Germany past the goalpost of reconciliation.

First, Blatter’s got an undeniable Midas touch in deal-making. His ability to ease through the first-ever World Cup in Africa and to deftly get his board to agree to the controversial notion that Russia and Qatar would host the next two World Cups, shows he knows how to broker international feuds. And consider his technical ability off the ball: the recent FIFA election, which he won despite the fact that it was held two days after Swiss authorities swept into a five-star hotel and arrested his underlings, showed that he is a diabolical force, able to keep a fractious coalition of teammates together even as they were all threatened with criminal red cards. More than anyone else in the world, Blatter clearly has the skill to nutmeg German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde as he gets the deal done.

His final attacking move – abruptly resigning two days after having been reelected – was pure class. And his most recent defensive substitution – deciding not to attend the Women’s World Cup final in Canada – showed that the wizened wizard of world football has not lost his touch despite being a lame duck: he could potentially be arrested and subject to extraordinary rendition if he left the comfortable touchline of the Swiss border.

There’s also a simple financial reason why Blatter would be the right choice: FIFA currently has an estimated $1.52 billion in the bank. That’s a crossbar's width from the €1.6 billion Greece owed the IMF and defaulted on at the start of this month. FIFA, clearly, could make the payment. Think how great this would be for all the parties. In one move, Greece would avert a financial meltdown, Europe would save its prized single currency system, and FIFA would regain the trust of the world. If he could engineer this, Blatter could become the only person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize and Economics award in the same year.

A merged Greece and FIFA would also benefit from of Blatter’s Swiss upbringing. This provides a two-fold advantage. First, no one could accuse a man steeped in the culture of a country famed for its neutrality of playing favorites. And second, Blatter, like most Swiss, is multi-lingual, which means he could gossip with Merkel in her native German and chat with Lagarde in flawless French, while, as a FIFA man, he could speak with Tsipras in the language all other Europeans secretly think all Greeks speak: the mother tongue of payoffs and corruption.

While Blatter’s ascendance would be a temporary come-down for Tsipras and Varoufakis, it would represent the crowning achievement of their favored game-theory, uncertainty-principle economics -- so they would end up behind-the-scenes philosophical winners.

Sepp Blatter was the overlord of the world’s game who was reviled by the world’s people. In the modern era, economics is a bigger game even than football. By merging FIFA with Greece, Blatter has the opportunity to put his footprint on global capitalism and to bask in the adulation of the world.

Message to Tsipras: better call Sepp. He’s the perfect Mr. Fixit to stave off the Grexit.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sartre on the banality of evil

This past Sunday, TheNew York Times published a front page article that purported to tell the story of an American teenager’s journey from playing b-ball in Minneapolis to joining the fight for the Muslim Caliphate in Syria.

But the article left the young man at its center, Abdi Nur, a cypher. All we learn is that he was slim, apparently liked playing basketball, and was attending a local community college with the hope, perhaps, of becoming a lawyer. The newspaper did report that there are, according to best estimates, a few dozen Americans (the article gives various specific figures that, unfortunately, don’t add up) and perhaps 3,000 Europeans who have joined or attempted to join jihadi groups. But it didn’t give us anything about their lives either. It was the same with all the coverage of Mohammed Emwazi, raised in London since he was six, who studied IT at the University of Westminster and worked for a Kuwaiti computer company before rocketing to fame as Jihadi John of various ISIS snuff flicks. Yes, we now know his name and we have seen some columns asserting that the atmostphere at the  university was friendly to fundamentalists—but who the hell was he? A similar dynamic was at work in what has been written about ShamimaBegum, Kadiza Sultana, and Amira Abase – the three teenage girls who snuck out of London on a flight to Istanbul and now are, presumably, arranging to make their way to Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria that is not far from the Turkish border. We know their names but almost nothing else about them.

The Times noted that, in the U.S., a cluster of radicalized American kids developed in the Minneapolis area. According to the paper, the local mosque has accused a 30-something volunteer of pointing kids in the direction of militant action. But we don’t learn anything about him either.

Sadly, it seems, there’s not much to find out about any of these people. This is not a criticism of them. They are, for the most part, just starting out in life. They are largely unformed and, probably, like most of us at their age, trying ideas and identities on for size. We’d probably like them if we met them on the street. I’m sure they are good kids. Dutiful sons and daughters. Thoughtful. Caring. Open to experience. Energetic. They are exceptional only in that they are not exceptional. They are the norm. And so we don’t know how to talk about them.

We seem to want our terrorists larger than life – people who have gone through a grand conversion experience or a quick boil in the stew of radicalization. We don’t know how to talk about terrorists who have not gone through anything extravagant. We don’t know how to cope with absolutely normal terrorists.

Fortunately, there is a narrative of how an ordinary kid becomes a violent extremist. The Childhood of a Leader, a 75-year-old short story by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, chronicles the life of Lucien Fleurier, a bourgeois Mama’s-boy who morphs, as he reaches adulthood, into a violent anti-Semite. It was published in French in 1939 and translated into English 9 years later.

Like most kids, Lucien spends much of his childhood trying to find himself in a family and world that doesn’t seem to care what he feels. He loves his doting mother with an almost erotic intensity – but is repulsed by his own feelings. He fantasizes about being an orphan, but his guilt over this implied rejection of his family moves him to redouble his outward expressions of affection. His father – who owns a factory in the countryside – is, for the most part, a distant and dreary presence. He clearly expects Lucien to take charge of the family business when he grows up. This troubles the youth, who sees himself as a follower, not a leader. Lucien’s not sure he’s got the strength of character to run a factory.

In short, childhood offers Lucien little to encourage him to forge his own identity. Instead, he is mired in bad faith. No matter what he does, he finds himself inauthentic – a loving son who fantasizes about being a castaway, a kid who expects an inheritance he doesn’t deserve and doesn’t think he can handle.

In pursuit of an identity – any identity – he apprentices himself to people who seem self-possessed: older students who strike him as more decisive than he is, adults who seem to offer a firm sense of the world. He flirts with surrealism and has a brief affair with an older man (this scares the hell out of him, because, whether he’s gay or not, he knows he doesn’t have the guts to face the judgment of society, his family, and his peers.) His late-teen years are, as they are for most of us, an egotistical time. He picks up and drops friends and role models without wondering who they are or what they feel. Almost without thinking, he manipulates people under his control. He hooks up with a girlfriend he doesn't really care about. The sole question, for Lucien, is selfish: “What am I here for?”

Then, a guy he knows asks him to sign an anti-Jewish petition. Lucien had previously shown no interest in Jews. In fact, he had no experience with them whatsoever. He simply lived his reasonably cushioned life—summers at Férolles, the factory town, the rest of the year in Paris. But this makes the appeal perfect: Lucien doesn’t have to feel anything or know anything to put his signature down. So he signs and begins hanging out with the fascist cabal.

A short time later, his group, out for a night on the town, mugs a Jewish man, and Lucien spontaneously throws the final knock-out punch. With this single swing, he finds exactly what he has been craving. Previously a nebbish, a nothing, he has become someone who acts from conviction. He has an identity – he hates Jews – and that identity allows him to project a sense of authority. “The real Lucien—he knew now—had to be sought in the eyes of others, in the frightened eyes of Pierrette and Guigard [two friends who are impressed by his anti-Jewish views], the hopeful waiting of all those beings who grew and ripened for him, these young apprentice girls who would become his workers, people of Férolles, great and small, of whom one day he would be master. So many people were waiting for him, at attention: and he was and always would be this immense waiting of others.”

This, Lucien decides, is what he is here for, this is who he is. “I am the cathedral,” he tells himself. He wants – deserves, even – to be worshipped, and to achieve this end he doesn’t need opinions. Indeed, it’s better if he doesn’t have any – because then he can do horrible things without feeling or thinking anything at all, just telling himself it’s a matter of conviction. And, he doesn’t need any interest in the feelings or thoughts of others – because to let these things in is to admit that your convictions could be wrong. He assimilates anti-Semitism and hews to its line. The more resolute he is, the more people will watch, follow, attend to his views. And if he ceases to hold the line, he knows, he will lose his grasp on people’s attention and imagination.

In the final moment of the story, Lucien looks at his reflection in a store window. He expects to see the newly-serious committed man he has become in his mind. Instead, he encounters what he has always seen: “a pretty headstrong little face that was not yet terrible.” Nonplussed but still resolute, he knows what he has to do: “I’ll grow a moustache,” he decides.

It’s a banal decision, yet a telling ending.

For more than a decade, we have deluded ourselves into believing that terrorism is something radically other, outside our milieu of multi-culti tolerance and democracy. We believe that jihadis have to have been injected with some theocratic brainwashing virus or grown up in some stultifying medieval culture. Sartre’s ¾-century-old story reminds us that the appeal of terror is not alien. It is wired into modern life. Every person wants to make their mark—yet doesn’t know what to do to make it happen. We live on a ruthlessly competitive and utterly unfair planet. We seek to be extraordinary yet find ourselves condemned to be insignificant and ordinary, bit players even in our own lives. Despite contemporary rhetoric, we do not live in an inclusive world. Our system discards many without a care or even a thought. Our big cities – supposed melting pots – are segregated by race, by class, by country of origin. And as inequality rises, the lines of demarcation are getting more extreme even as we pretend they are being erased.

And then, on the verge of despair, people find a way they can differentiate themselves. Like Lucien, they grasp at this chance to be respected and revered. Like him, they discover something alien from their lives which offers them the chance to have what the world so far has denied them: an identity, a chance to become a leader, an opportunity to become a person to be reckoned with, a person with firm commitments that lead to spontaneous and resolute action. In search of identity, then, they become exactly what they are not. This is, of course, the essence of bad faith. The lure of violence, hatred, and terror is one of the outward expressions of this thin veil of nothingness that separates us from who we desire to be.

It is so ordinary it seems impossible to comprehend.