Like many others, I’ve been horrified by the stories coming out of Flint, where the population of a city, disproportionately poor, disproportionately black, has been poisoned by lead in the tap water. While there has been plenty of finger pointing, it seems the culpability runs from the municipal government in Flint, to the undemocratic emergency manager, to the governor, to a number of state and federal agencies that knew about what was going on and failed to sound the alarm. The people of Flint noticed the water looked, smelled and tasted bad, and they complained. But lacking much in the way of power their concerns were largely brushed off. They also lacked the money to do something like GM, which switched its water supply when it noticed that the city water was corroding its parts. Now those that can show proper identification (i.e. not undocumented people) and who speak English are able to access bottled water, but the damage done may be irreparable. And no doubt continued pressure will be required to keep that water coming.
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According to Wesley Lowery , Black Americans now see race relations as nation’s most important problem. Read past the headline, and you learn that actually, ‘race relations’ is tied with ‘unemployment/jobs,’ which is a bit less exciting. Here’s the full table, from the poll from Gallup.
The initial challenge for an organizer—or anybody who’s going to provide leadership for change—is to figure out how to break through the inertia of habit to get people to pay attention. Often that breakthrough happens by urgency of need. Sometimes it happens because of anger—and by anger I don’t mean rage, I mean outrage. It’s the contradiction between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. Our experience of that tension can break through the inertia and apathy of things as they always are.
How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.
Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.
The way we talk about this is not just to go up to someone and say, “Be hopeful.” We don’t just talk about hope and other values in abstractions. We talk about them in the language of stories because stories are what enable us to communicate these values to one another.
Why Stories Matter, by Marshall Ganz
Unable to come up with any good jokes about dresses or llamas, I had some things to say about public education, ed reformers, and the push back against them. I then Storified it. Check it out. In retrospect, I wish I had fleshed out who I mean by “those at the bottom, who are systematically demobilized.” I meant to refer to race and class primarily, but also LGBTQ, non-English primary language, etc. Resources certainly includes massive inequalities in school funding, but also who has access to what resources within schools or even particular class rooms. Comments as always are welcome.
So first–the good news. There is dissension in the ranks of NYPD. It seems that PBA head Pat Lynch went too far, and a not insubstantial portion of the PBA membership has been pushing back. News of a contentious meeting, with much yelling and pushing and shoving, showed the cracks within the PBA. Perhaps because of this, Lynch backed off his call for the mayor to apologize, although I think some people are overinterpreting his changed position:
“Despite statements to the contrary, our demands have never been for a simple apology, but for clear and unequivocal expressions of support for our members and an equally strong condemnation of those who have stirred up hatred and violence towards police officers,” he wrote [in an internal memo].
“We have also demanded that these words be backed up by concrete actions to hold anti-police agitators accountable and to protect our members from further attacks.”
In the same memo, Lynch took credit for what he called a “shift in the mayor’s tone.” Still, this is being framed as a defeat for Lynch, and despite the fact that he hasn’t changed that much, it’s not an unreasonable conclusion. The memo, as the New York Daily News noted, came a day after a poll of NYC voters showed Lynch with an 18% approval rating.
Given De Blasio’s reputation as a progressive, and the fact that his campaign highlighted criticism of stop and frisk, it’s easy to see this as a victory for Black Lives Matter movement, as a step towards less punitive and racially discriminatory policing. But that would be a mistake.
Motives, Procedures and Hope, or How Not to Bring About Change
Policing practices, mass incarceration, and the general punitiveness of policy directed towards those at the bottom are all things I have been trying to grapple with for a long time. On the one hand, the levels of punitiveness are absurd and indefensible as ways to ensure public safety or achieve anything I’d consider a legitimate policy goal. This would be true even if they were applied evenly. On the other hand, punitiveness is always dished out in a highly stratified manner. These two things are connected–unless justified on the basis of supposed inherent Black criminality and dangerousness, these policies wouldn’t have been possible. They require Othering in order to be legitimated. And if they were applied with anything like an even hand, significant public push back from more politically powerful communities would be swift.
New York City is certainly not the only place where policing has focused on low-level petty crimes and ‘disorder,’ justified by the claim that addressing these minor issues would reduce more serious threats to the public. But it has been a prime mover in it. Broken Windows policing was implemented by Bill Bratton during his first tenure as NYPD commissioner, and when he was appointed again by Mayor Bill DeBlasio it was clear to all observers that the city would continue to be committed to this style of policing. Bratton’s appointment was an early disappointment for many DeBlasio supporters, especially since raising the issue of stop and frisk had been a key to his campaign.