How Private Violence Leads to Public Power

“Across the South a revanchist political class that had campaigned on eliminating the ‘threat of black rule,’ and as its power was restored and became congealed into the institutions of the state and thus ‘legitimized,’ it moved to subdue the wave of extralegal violence it had previously encouraged—and not in small part used—to seize power. This fact helps make sense of the puzzle introduced at the outset of this article—why a vulgar white supremacist would advocate lynch mob violence as a private citizen, only to undertake extraordinary measures to thwart lynch mobs as governor.”

–“The Course of Law: State Intervention in Southern Lynch Mob Violence 1882–1930

What “Local Control” Really Means

“In December 1890, on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, tribal police arrested and killed Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in similar circumstances to the earlier death of his fellow Custer battle comrade, Crazy Horse. Two weeks later, jittery Army soldiers opened fire on some 300 unarmed members of the Sioux tribe. Their bodies, mostly very small, very wrinkled, or with breasts, froze solid on the Dakota tundra. Ten months later Chief Charlo, leader of the last band of Salish in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, led his people on a tearful, forced march to a new reservation across the river bridge nearest the future site of Hellgate High School, where I would sit a century later and listen to a pair of neo-Nazis hold forth on misunderstood swastikas, miscegenation and what could be done with public lands were it not for federal conservation laws.”

—Nate Schweber, “A Racist Runs Through It

Trump is a Chaos Monkey (or Why I’m Not Afraid of Trump)


As the media machine ramps up outrage for every small wind that blows from Trump’s mouth, I’ve found myself growing increasingly zen about it all.

Yeah, there’s a slight possibility that Trump may win. So what?

Here’s why I’m OK with the possibility and why you won’t hear me whine about moving to Canada:

  1. It means that many Americans voted for him. Remember that whole thing, voting?We still live in a representative democracy, meaning that we elect our public representatives. We can then thank all those young idealists that either failed to vote or voted for a 3rd party candidate. Maybe they’ll get an inkling of how politics works from that experience.
  2. Trump is surfacing the toxins of our society.  If many Americans are truly angry racist xenophobic zealots, then it’s probably about time we saw one another for what we really are.
  3. If Trump doesn’t destroy our democratic republic, then he will make it stronger. We’re supposed to have a system that balances power. Like a chaos monkey, Trump will test this system through impulsive, bull-headed, shortsighted and selfish decisions. If our system then fails, then that means we need to build a better one. If it doesn’t fail, then it will adapt and react to his incursions like an immune system fighting off a viral invader. And so our political system shall evolve and continue.

Today, when the next headline crosses your radar manufactured to make your conscientious, caring, and progressive self get upset, calm yourself by considering that Trump may well be the Chaos Monkey of the gods. We shall overcome.

Direct Democracy and the Rule of the Mob

I haven’t been able to get back to my review of The Federalist Papers due to work that I need to catch up on, caused by a wonderful trip to Maine, during which I abstained from doing anything other than reading, eating, and otherwise vacationing. I aim to continue the exploration when I get a chance.

In the meantime, I just came across this interesting article on “The Monkey Cage” that demonstrates the danger in direct democracy that Madison warned us against:

July 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that nearly three-quarters of Americans felt that universities should not be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions.  A 2011 poll found most respondents agreeing that Muslims “undermine American culture.”  In the context of attitudes such as these, direct democracy campaigns may not only produce outcomes that constrain the rights and influence of minorities, but may also generate increased animosity toward the group.

The American Antecedents of the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

I don’t think there’s much I can add to what’s already been said on the terrible tragedy that occurred to Trayvon Martin in Florida, but there was a disturbing parallel that immediately came to mind when I heard about what had happened, and that his killer was still free.

As I have mentioned before, I am reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students, and in Chapter IV, Douglass details the gruesome shooting of a man named Demby by (the aptly named) Mr. Gore, an overseer. According to Douglass:

His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation . . . the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives. Mr. Gore lived in St. Michael’s, Talbot county, Maryland, when I left there; and if he is still alive, he very probably lives there now; and if so, he is now, as he was then, as highly esteemed and as much respected as though his guilty soul had not been stained with his brother’s blood.

I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Douglass then gives another gruesome example, of a slaveholder’s wife who beat a girl to death:

“Mrs. Hicks, finding the girl slow to move, jumped from her bed, seized an oak stick of wood by the fireplace, and with it broke the girl’s nose and breastbone, and thus ended her life. I will not say that this most horrid murder produced no sensation in the community. It did produce sensation, but not enough to bring the murderess to punishment. There was a warrant issued for her arrest, but it was never served. Thus she escaped not only punishment, but even the pain of being arraigned before a court for her horrid crime.”

Douglass spoke from a moment in our history over 150 years ago, but the profound wound of a societally accepted injustice and brutality still stings today.

The difference today is that the outcry that has been rightfully raised has been loud enough to prompt a federal investigation into the shooting. For more on how awareness on the case was raised, read deeper into the MotherJones article.

President Obama said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” demonstrating just how critically important it is to have a leader who can understand and speak directly to those long suffering under a history of oppression, and further demonstrating how today is different than Douglass’ day.

But rightwing punditry backlash against Obama’s commiseration with Martin’s parents demonstrates, on the other hand, just how mired in racial tension we remain.

To pretend that race has nothing to do with this case is to ignore our own history.

Some things have changed, but some things remain the same.


It was a Saturday afternoon, 3:30. I was returning from a long overdue run, a habit I have difficulty maintaining in winter. I could tell something was going on in the courtyard in front of my apartment building, because people were ambling over to it, as people are wont to do when drama is occuring in public spaces. I circled around them and approached around the side. Some guy in a baseball cap was screaming at a girl.

My mistake was in not taking the situation seriously enough. It was my building, after all, on a Saturday afternoon. This guy and his problems were in my way.

These are mere excuses.

Think of how I must have looked to him. A white boy, wearing strange running clothes, my old lightweight jacket much too small. Vibram FiveFingers on my feet. In the midst of the gathering handful of Dominican men, I was the one who stood out. I’ve learned, since moving to NYC, that I am much smaller than the average city male. I was a perfect target in that moment.

In that moment, as men gathered to watch him in his turmoil, his eyes locked on mine. His face was bloodied. He had been in an altercation. He was charged with anger and shame. He was taller and heavier than I.

“What the fuck are you looking at, white boy?”

He charged. I backed up, not quite believing that anyone would just begin assaulting a stranger without any reason. He did.

I ducked and backed up and ran a little bit. Apparently, this was an invitation to him for full on onslaught. On hindsight, the smart thing would have been to run completely. I would have easily outpaced him. But part of me was outraged. This was my building! So I stopped and faced him, as he commenced swinging. He missed most of his punches, but grabbed my jacket and threw me down on the sidewalk and dragged me down to the corner of the street.

I managed to mostly maintain my balance and get back to my feet after landing on my knees, but he was on me, kicking and punching. I was able to avoid any serious blows, but I could sense in that moment that I was utterly overpowered. I was a victim.

“Fuck you, cracker! Fuck you, cracker!” he shouted with every attempted blow. I was the representation for him of everything that had gone wrong in his life. The vessel for his release of anger, shame, and fear.

Before he could cause any serious damage, a couple of the bigger bystanders chased him away.

“Never come back here again!” two of them shouted, as the guy backed away down the street cussing them out.

One of them made sure I was OK, and continually assured me that this sort of thing doesn’t happen around here (unfortunately, not entirely true. My neighborhood isn’t exactly the pinnacle of peace. My wife witnessed a man stabbed in broad daylight last year). I nodded and shook his hand. I wasn’t all that shaken up, all things considered. In my last 2 years in the classroom, aggression and violence were unfortunately somewhat common, so perhaps I wasn’t as prone to getting emotionally aggravated (at least, not immediately). I was bleeding in places, but otherwise intact. He seemed to have landed a kick or punch to the back of my head, and a few on my body, but nothing on my face.

It turns out that he had been in some kind of fight with his “friends” who lived in my building, and had been beaten up with a glass bottle (hence the bleeding face).

Later that night, as I lay in bed, I kept reliving those moments in my mind. “Your heart is racing,” my wife told me.

This was the worst aftereffect of senseless violence, the replaying, over and over. Asking myself why I didn’t immediately attack. Angry at myself for letting myself get into the space of a person who was obviously in a heightened state of aggression. I recognized that if this hadn’t happened in the middle of the day, I knew that I would have been seriously hurt.

I could tell myself that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the fact is, I let my guard down and I walked into a situation without better assessing the danger. This could have been avoided.

Lesson learned.

Thoughts on ‘The Shame of the Nation’

The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in AmericaThe Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I don’t agree necessarily with some of Kozol’s perspectives on education, such as his obvious horror of standardized testing and other accountability measures, I do think that his ultimate unveiling of the United States educational system as one based on apartheid as devastatingly accurate. Any educational reform, whether a Race For The Top or a No Child Left Behind—anything, essentially, short of equitable integration—will continually fail to bridge the “achievement gap.” There will be only those children already poised to succeed academically by the nature of their parent or community resources, and those children largely destined to fail academically by the nature of their family or community poverty. And it must be clarified explicitly that those children destined (statistically speaking) for academic failure are predominately black or Latino. There is a prevalent perspective based on fundamental racism in our country—all the more insidious because it is rarely voiced outright—that black or brown or just simply poor people will never really amount to anything because they just aren’t smart enough. And should thus be kept out of schools with gifted white children destined for true achievement. This racist perspective is not only insidious due to its covert nature, but furthermore because it is an often subconscious distillation of policies, lifestyles, and the nature of our current economy. The form in which it is considered does not appear immediately racist when it does come into public discussion. In this form, it arrives as something unfortunate, something so deeply ingrained that it cannot even be challenged. As an example, think of the middle class white parent who wants to get their child into a “good” school. They may move in order to be within the zone that will most likely get their child placed there. They may buy their child special instruction in order to meet the testing and interview requirements for the school. They may borrow money or dip into savings in order to pay the large tuition. And the school we may be discussing might only be pre-school. This competitiveness, in which parents positioned with resources may most easily navigate and triumph, seems at first sight to be based somewhat fairly on our democratic and capitalistic notion of merit. There does not seem to be any overt racism there. Who would deny a caring and savvy parent their right in garnering the best possible opportunities for their children? But upon further examination, it becomes evident that the only children who get into these “good” schools come from families or communities with resources. Meaning, in effect, the white children of the middle or upper class. As Kozol painstakingly reveals, the reality of this results in an educational system more deeply segregated than in the years immediately following the Brown vs. Board of Ed supreme court decision. And all of the reforms that have been enacted since that time address only achievement, not equity nor integration. The failure of such educational reforms can be examined, as Kozol does somewhat here, historically, or simply by looking at some recent news. New York has come under criticism due to the revelation that its standardized test scores have been inflated over the last few years. Scores from this last year were then accordingly scaled down, revealing that barely half of NY city students are considered even “proficient” in math (already a pretty low standard to achieve), and well less than half are capable of reading at grade level. This sobering news may for a moment make some would-be reformers want to throw up their hands. It also reinforces the quiet racism that lurks at the back of people’s minds, such that they think “Why should we even bother trying to raise the achievement of these children? Why waste the money?” But the problem is not the reform movement per se. There are achievements that have been made in instructional delivery and research-based assessment that I don’t think should be played down. The effort to improve achievement in the face of entrenched poverty and ingrained racism and ghettoized city policy has been noble. But nothing–as Kozol so despairingly portrays in his book–will vastly improve until children of all races and classes are given equal opportunities to learn in the same schools.

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