An Open Letter to Senator Kavanagh

Dear John,

Because you requested that I provide my take on two of the observations you included in a comment to my post, Condemning the Baltimore Rioters? Try Channeling Miko Peled Instead, I thought it appropriate to elevate the discussion to a new post. As you noted, blog postings are supposed to be about discussion. If a participant in the discussion is an elected official, the discussion should be made as visible as it can be.

Before responding to your specific request, I’ll provide some background and make a few observations of my own. 

The post which generated your comments was about trying to understand the Baltimore riots from the perspective of the rioters. I used the example of Miko Peled to give readers the idea of how this works in its most extreme form. Peled, for those who didn’t read the post, lost his niece to a Palestinian suicide bomber, and reacted by immersing himself in what would drive a young man to take his own life that way. I don’t think I personally would have the internal strength to do what Peled did, but I do believe his approach is to be emulated in less extreme situations.

One commenter, TS, engaged in the exercise I proposed. He relayed an interesting explanation of what sometimes is taking place when stores are looted for food and other necessities. He even demonstrated empathy, stating flat-out: “Some looters in New Orleans were in need of insulin to treat their diabetes, without it they would die, can we understand that? I would certainly loot under those circumstances.”

And TS was careful to qualify his vignette as not an explanation of all looting.

But it didn’t matter.

The response of other commenters, including you, John, was to justify the condemnation of rioters.

What’s the point in that? Of course there are things to condemn. In these situations, there always will be opportunists who use the occasion to benefit themselves. There always will be misdirected anger.

But if you obsess over condemning those who qualify for condemnation, you’ve accomplished zero in terms of understanding the dynamics of the situation and what can be done to take us off the ugly path we clearly are headed down. This may be hard for you to understand, John, but try. If the focus of our attention is to condemn the actions of Black residents of Baltimore, it will make it more likely, rather than less likely, that a racist cop in Kansas City or Philadelphia will kill a Black kid next month.

I agree that blog postings are supposed to be about discussion, but I disagree with you regarding the form that discussion should take. In my mind, the discussion should be proactive — that is, we bring our ideas to the table to enlighten others. You seem to think the discussion is reactive: “I need you to enlighten me by giving me your take on my observations.” I’m going to indulge your request, but if you want a real understanding, asking me for help in the comment section of a blog is not the way to go about it. There are books I can recommend in this area that you should read, but I can’t in the space of a comment impart to you even 1% of what’s in those books.

If you’re interested, for starters, I’d recommend The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges. If you need a teaser, I’ll tell you that both Hedges and Alexander have very unflattering things to say about Democratic politicians.

Regarding the proactive versus the reactive model, compare what you, I and TS each brought to the table. Although the approach I suggested in my post was not novel, I think the context in which I presented it, using Miko Peled as an example, was new information to at least some readers. Same for TS. He shared a perspective that I found interesting and that I’d never considered in the context in which he presented it. Then you jumped in and told us that President Obama and the Mayor of Baltimore had condemned the rioters. And you informed TS that his explanation of looting could not be applied universally, something he had acknowledged up front in his comment. Sorry, but I learned nothing about the subject of the riots from any of your comments. (I did learn a little about you, however)

That’s not to say I’m rejecting your comments because your views differ from my own. Although I don’t think he acquitted himself well in this comment thread, I’ve found very useful information in Steve’s comments, and he generally shares your views, not mine, politically.

On this topic, there are contributions for those on your side of the political spectrum to make. Ross Douthat in his column today makes thought-provoking points about the role police unions have had in creating the situation we face today. Do I agree entirely with Douthat? No. But I’m glad he wrote what he did and I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Although I didn’t find any new information in your comments directly, I actually did learn a bit about you from your comments.

In one comment, you actually asked for an explanation of how “throwing rocks and bottles at the police” fit the narrative of understanding the riots from the perspective of the rioters. I found that stunning. I’ll repeat my reply here to save readers the trouble of linking back to it:

You can’t even grasp how “throwing bottles and rocks at the police” fits the narrative? Really? The police are terrorizing poor neighborhoods, John, not just in Baltimore, but nationwide. And one reason this is happening is that legislators have cut taxes to the point where cities and towns are using fines and traffic tickets to make up for the cut in revenue sharing from the state. That’s what the Justice Department unearthed in Ferguson. And that’s contributed to the atmosphere in those cities and towns that has led to the death of Black citizens at the hands of the police. So, one could argue that if legislators had acted more responsibly, a few of those deaths may have been avoided.

In one of her comments, John, Donna tried to enlighten you about the “rough ride” tactic, which has been used by Baltimore cops for a decade. You acknowledged that the cops who did this should be prosecuted and punished, which I appreciate. But the problem goes so much deeper than that, John. On two previous occasions, Baltimore residents were paralyzed as a result of this tactic. Both collected millions in damages from the city, as well they should have. Yet the tactic continued. And it even continued on the heels of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and North Charleston.

But I suspect what Donna was getting at here, John, was not the criminal nature of “rough ride” but what it says about our society. I’d put it next to the gross misuse of Tasers, a tactic commonly employed in North Charleston. John, these are tactics reminiscent of those used in the South in the early ’60’s and before. They’re not unlike some of the disgusting tactics used by the Israeli police today in the West Bank. But should we be hearing about their use in America in 2015?

So, yeah, those kids in Baltimore threw rocks and bottles at the police. I know you think that should be condemned, but where do you start the clock in your condemnation? Freddie Gray’s death was not some one-off event. Black kids and young adults have been losing their lives on the streets of Baltimore at the hands of the police for years. Condemn the bottle throwing if you want, but at least ask yourself, John, how many would have to die or suffer serious injuries at the hands of the Baltimore police before you would understand the urge to throw a bottle?

You made two observations, which I’ll repeat here for the convenience of readers:

Two observations on condemning the rioters:
1. It was ok for both sides to condemn the rioters (Fox News, President Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake among many others) until a liberal commentator declared it non-PC and the mayor and many liberals retreated from the statement. You have to wonder how much of that reaction was true re-examination of the position versus politics.
2. Are the rioters oppressed, at least politically, given that the city government, city attorney and police leadership are all black? How can a group in political control be oppressed, at least politically oppressed? What dynamic is happening there?

Here’s my take, as you requested:

Regarding observation #1: You’ve turned the “political correctness” problem here on its head. President Obama’s and the Mayor of Baltimore’s condemnation of the rioters reflects what has traditionally been the politically correct thing to do. My own reaction was: “Of course they’re rioting. The only thing that’s surprising is that it’s taken as long as it has for a riot to erupt. And if we keep sweeping murders of Black citizens at the hands of the police under the rug, there will be worse riots to come.” Whose reaction was politically correct, mine or Obama’s? What happened here is that the “liberal commentator” didn’t “declare it non-PC.” Rather, he called BS on what has been considered PC. As for re-examination by Obama and the Mayor, you’ve assumed that their first statements were a true reflection of their beliefs. You may be right, but I think that’s no less speculative than my belief that their first statements were canned lines that all politicians, left and right, have used in this context for decades. Only this time, some people, myself included, called the use of those canned lines into question.

Regarding observation #2: This observation says a lot about how you see the world, but not all that much about the world itself. You literally framed the problem of oppression, John, as “the Blacks against the Whites.” Wow! The problems here are systemic. They transcend any election and any elected (or appointed) official. If you want a glimpse of the systemic nature of the problem in Baltimore, check out Max Blumenthal’s piece here. I doubt this is true John, but your comment suggests that you, as a legislator, look at your job through the lens of being White. Assuming you don’t, why do you think those elected in Baltimore look at their jobs through the lens of being Black? What do you think they would be doing to lift the oppression of Blacks that a White person in the same job would not do? Did you mean to imply that White elected officials have a mindset of oppressing Blacks? If you want to understand the realities of the oppression, John, I’d again refer you to Michelle Alexander. The oppression is real, and electing Blacks to high office, by itself, does nothing to change that reality. Nor should we logically expect it to.

What we’re seeing here, John, very well could be the beginnings of a revolution. At some point, the concentration of wealth and income will bring that result. There are no immutable laws here that tell us precisely how much wealth and how much income we can cram into the top before the bottom explodes, but we do know that at some point that bottom will explode. Chris Hedges speaks to that possibility here, if you’re interested.

Truth is, John, you’re entirely free to reject everything I say. After all, you’ve won all or most or your elections, and I lost the only time I tried. So, you get to call the shots here. If you want to cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations, I can’t stop you. If you want to build prisons and stock them full of people of color, I can’t stop you. If you want to force cities and towns to resort to petty fines, traffic stops, and civil forfeitures to fund their budgets, I can’t stop you. And if you want to blame the oppressed for their reaction to the oppression, I can’t stop you. Heck, you can even use that reaction to justify further oppression. I can’t stop you there, either. You even could impose stiffer sentences for participation in riots. After all, if you can incarcerate all the Blacks, you won’t have any more riots to worry about, right? Oh wait, if all the Blacks are in prison, you won’t be able to rip them off with petty fines in order to offset the tax cuts you gave to your wealthy patrons, and those private prison contracts are expensive. Oh, but you’ll figure that part out.

All the best,

Bob

7 responses to “An Open Letter to Senator Kavanagh

  1. I’m not that familiar with Baltimore, but its my understanding that there are two Baltimores. The tourist and waterfront Baltimore and the poverty Baltimore. Tourism is not threatened because the poverty neighborhood is nowhere near the tourist neighborhood.
    The policy of blaming the poor is coming home to roost across America.

  2. The court of last resort for the minority community is not the supreme court but the street! The courts threw out most of sb 10170 as boycotts and demonstrations were escalating. The rodney king riots shows how power politics taking it to the street works. As Malcolm X said “By any means necessary!” Here is another cheap plug to get you to read my screenplay at: thealamoisavenged.com It shows what can be done in the face of evil republican power!

  3. State Senator John Kavanagh

    Dear Bob,

    I appreciate your response and really do not know where to begin. This is such a complicated issue and so many points have been raised that it is hard to address all of them in writing, not only due to the length required but also to the fact that give and take becomes delayed and it is hard to clarify the points of both sides. But I will make due with the format.

    I think it is important to condemn the rioters because what they are doing is legally and morally wrong and not only self-destructive but also destructive to the community. Property was lost, jobs are gone, a senior center is history and whatever convention and tourism business Baltimore was going to get is also gone. The biggest losers in this mess are the law abiding poor residents who did not riot and rely on those businesses, services and jobs. Condemnation is in order and while failure to condemn is not promoting rioting, it is certainly not helping to deter it in the future.

    I do not deny that poverty is one of many contributing factors to this situation but I would hesitate to say it is the main one because most poor people do not commit crime, much less riot. To some degree, it is the blame poverty mindset that contributes to racial profiling, which I believe is really social class profiling, which focuses on blacks because they are, for many reasons, disproportionally poorer than whites. And regarding racial profiling, I agree that some cops do it but it is not as prevalent as you might believe, especially when you use crimes committed by racial group within an area instead of the racial composition of an area alone.

    By the way, for additional insight into the problem of poverty and crime, I recommend “The Unheavenly City Revisited” by Banfield.

    Much of our differences in opinion and perspective I suspect stem from our views of the police. You see them as terrorists (“terrorizing the poor”) and I see them as mostly decent people who are into public service with some bad apples.

    I also do not like to jump to conclusions about these force incidents. After all, the cop in Ferguson was publicly crucified and in the end exonerated and the victim had just completed a strong-arm robbery, which was public knowledge that was ignored by many police critics..

    Of course, I am not saying that all the recent incidents involved misunderstood cops. I suspect some will and should be going to jail. But you need to get all the facts. At first glance, the Baltimore case looked bad for the cops but then they mentioned a witness, another prisoner in the van, who said it sounded like Gray might have done it to himself. Nobody but the police have questioned this witness, so I am not judging his credibility or his statement but it raises questions that argue against a rush to judgment. (Note that I too am concerned about the reason for Gray’s arrest, which seems unjustified. However, I do not have a problem with police chasing people who run when police arrive for the purpose of a stop and question.)

    Regarding your response to my political correctness observation, you did respond but you did so by saying that Obama and Mayor Rawlings-Blake did not really mean what they said (condemning the rioters) and were just being politically correct. How can you say that? What proof do you have? (I might add that you have a tendency to ascribe motives to others without any factual basis. That is wrong and because you lean towards negative motives, you may be a cynic – not a good place to be. You should wean down to skeptic. It is healthier.)

    Regarding your comments on my second point, you missed the point. I was trying to point out that these incidents (assuming Gray did not self-inflict his wounds but were the product of brutality) could just as easily happen in a minority-controlled city, which by definition is not politically oppressive unless you believe that the black mayor, black city council, black police chief and black prosecutor are oppressors. But you did not make that case and I doubt that you could.

    That raises the public policy issue that these incidents are not so much about race as they are about other dynamics, which I personally think are social class, street culture and a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust between the police and some residents. That is where the discussion should be and where I tried to steer it. But you cynically (skeptically?) suggested I was being race obsessed.

    I found your closing personal attack against me to be beneath the level of what I had previously come to expect of you. (You said, “ Oh wait, if all the Blacks are in prison, you won’t be able to rip them off with petty fines in order to offset the tax cuts you gave to your wealthy patrons, and those private prison contracts are expensive.)

    Again, you have a tendency to think you can read other peoples’ minds and ascribe negative motives to them. Not a good place to be but I will chalk that last jab against me to frustration. Work on making the leap from cynic to skeptic. It worked for me.

    • Despicable. You feign sincerity unbelievably well… key on unbelievably. Because I don’t believe you and no one in their right mind should.

      Why are blacks disproportionately poor? The responsibility, bottom line, falls squarely on your shoulders and those who have come before you with the same approach to lawmaking. Dramatically underfund education and other government functions except those empowered by the sick realization that the 13th Amendment provides the foundation for your pet cause — providing the utmost in funding and mandated occupancy levels for private prisons.

      Again, this goes to your inability to recognize the (perhaps unintended) consequences of the Republican aversion to taxes.

      Tax cuts do NOT promote economic growth. Instead, they exacerbate the already overwhelming inequality and wealth that defines the US as approaching third world status.

      Further evidence of your narcissistic delusions? Characterizing Darren Wilson as having been exonerated and Micheal Brown as having committed a strong-arm robbery. Neither is true.

      The prosecutor has already been called out for gross misconduct in said “exoneration.” Without that grossly ethical breach, Wilson was clearly headed for indictment and conviction.

      The strong-arm robbery consisted, at most, of grabbing a handful of cigars.

      To present a valid argument, you’ll have to do a helluva lot better than you did.

      And your snark about “I found your closing personal attack against me to be beneath the level of what I had previously come to expect of you.” is lame, tired and by you especially, quite overused.

      On the other hand, you are entirely predictable in your small-minded self-congratulatory attempts at rhetoric.

    • John, I don’t have time or desire to debunk all that you’ve thrown out here, but here’s one passage of yours that screams out:

      “Much of our differences in opinion and perspective I suspect stem from our views of the police. You see them as terrorists (“terrorizing the poor”) and I see them as mostly decent people who are into public service with some bad apples.”

      That makes no sense. It doesn’t matter whether all the “apples” are bad, an assertion I never made, or only “some” are bad, as you claim. The so-called “bad apples” are indeed terrorizing the residents of poor neighborhoods across America. From the perspective of those being terrorized, the existence of “good apples” doesn’t matter very much.

      And saying that Darren Wilson was “exonerated” because a district attorney tanked the presentation to the grand jury is perhaps even more ludicrous than saying the cops who whacked a helpless Rodney King 56 times with bully sticks were exonerated.

      I’m happy to have the discussion with you, John, but you’re just throwing out right-wing talking points.

      I will try to check into Banfield’s book, though.

  4. Donna Gratehouse

    North Of The River, you seem smart!

  5. North Of The River

    There is no ‘riots’ in the Kansas City area,because back in the late ’80’s/90’s a group was formed called “Harmony In A World Of Differance”

    Back then,PBS ‘Newshour’ did storys of this group and other places in the USA.

    All this happened before Al Gore ‘Invented’ the Internet,so you won’t know of these Organization and Movement.