An Anarchist and a Cop Walk Into a Bar

May 4, 2017

Little Beirut: It’s not completely untrue that May Day in Portland, Oregon is more celebrated than Christmas Day. May Day marches can bring thousands to the streets to show support for workers’ rights around the globe and whatever issue has people’s collective goat that spring. My first Portland march was in 1996 and there were some signs protesting Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence and Bill Clinton’s deregulation of the internet mixed among the calls for worker solidarity. I had my union card in my pocket and probably a Smashing Pumpkins song in my head.

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Portland has long skewed left-of-center. If you’re a registered Democrat, you’ll likely get sneers, not from registered Republicans, but kids in Che Guevara t-shirts. The city was dubbed “Little Beirut” in 1990 by a member of the George H.W. Bush administration after Vice President Dan Quayle came to town for a fundraiser at the Hilton. There had been several anti-Bush demonstrations between 1989 and 1991, but this one unfolded in true Portland style, with Reed College students vomiting in red, white, and blue up-chucks and a man taking a dump on a picture of the Vice President. Now that the city has a rad nickname, each generation of radicals feels the pressure to raise the bar.

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The first May Day of the Trump Administration put Portland back on the CNN map. An initially peaceful protest Monday was quickly hijacked by Black Bloc anarchists, garden-variety trouble-makers, and probably a few agent provocateurs. By afternoon there was a fire burning in the middle of 10th Street, the windows of a cop car had been knocked out, and some 22-year-old  “revolutionary” smashed out the window of the downtown Target and threw a lit flare into the store full of people. I don’t think this is what Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote that capitalism “sows the seeds of its own destruction.” The Portland Police Bureau declared the formerly permitted march a “riot” and most peaceful protestors got the hell out of the sustained barrage. Even Portland State cancelled some evening classes, perhaps depriving some students from a lesson on what anarchy actually is.

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Look, I get the excitement. I have all Rage Against the Machines CDs and used to play them really loud and scream along. “Fuck you, motherfuckerrrrrrs!” I was a punk in the early 1980s and spray-painted my fair share of anarchy symbols around Atlanta, including on a daycare facility. (I’m so sorry about that.) I even took a swing at a cop once. It was after a Clash concert in 1982. After the show, a brawl erupted in the sweaty summer street in front of the Fox Theater between members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and some Nazi-wannabees. Everybody else, charged up by the combat rock (The Clash’s final song was “I Fought the Law”), jumped in. Peachtree Street was full of punks and cops on horseback and 18-year-old Randy, who thought punching a police officer was the appropriate thing to do in such a setting. Luckily, I missed the guy who had more serious threats to attend to and I went off to the punk club and bragged about rioting in the streets to anyone who would listen.

There is a psychology of these events. Lord knows how many we’ve had over the decades. Social scientists have long looked at how angry mobs take on a life of their own and how a “herd mentality” emerges. When a like-minded crowd, excited about roughly the same thing and dressed similarly (whether its sports fans or black-clad anarchists), get together, there is a tipping point where the rational individual mind shuts down and the emotional collective mind ramps up. This is especially true when there is outside confrontation, usually with the cops. And it has to be added that most of the rioters are males acting out a hyper-masculine script in their “us vs. them battle.” I’ve seen it first-hand plenty of times and have been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed for my observations. “Smash the state! Quick, lets get a selfie first.”

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Monday’s riot took Little Beirut to a different level. It seemed to be motivated by a hatred of the police. Law enforcement officers had everything not nailed down thrown at them, including rocks, bottles, and fireworks. Besides the shop windows that were smashed and the bike tires that were slashed, “KILL COPS” was spray-painted on a street sign. I know these folks are opposed to the militarization of the police, but they’re pretty much encouraging the militarization of the police. It makes you think some of these supposed radicals are on the payroll of a defense contractor.

If you’ve read this blog you know that I’m anti-fascist. And the Trump presidency has moved this country closer to fascism than it has ever been. I also think intellectual anarchists, like Noam Chomsky, offer a path away from oppressive social systems. I get the antifa philosophy of “countering” fascism directly. (The FAQ on the Rose City Antifa website fairly clearly articulates their positions on the matter.) My whole life has been dedicated to countering neo-Nazis. I risked my life for years studying Nazi skinheads to learn how to do this. And I learned the best approach is to turn a Nazi into a former Nazi, not beat them into submission. That tends to have the opposite effect.  I’ve been to Klan rallies, Aryan Nations meeting, and had a couple of skinheads plan to severely beat me in a Portland strip club. I know Nazis and the Portland Police are not Nazis.

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Like most metropolitan police departments, The Portland Police Bureau has had its share of issues, including the shooting of unarmed African-American citizens. (Every time I pass the spot on the Skidmore Bridge where Kendra James was killed in 2003, I get a chill.) And there was one officer who was probably a little too fond of Nazis, which didn’t help the matter. In 2000, the city commissioned a panel to study racial profiling and found, surprise, the bureau did engage in racial profiling. In 2012, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city because of police interactions with mentally ill civilians and the Portland Police are currently engaged in reforms based on the DOJ settlement. That’s a good thing. We’re moving forward together.

There’s no doubt that racism is an issue woven within the institutions of our society, including the various institutions of law enforcement, that devalues non-white lives. Based on our actions, the evidence is clear; all lives don’t matter. But there’s a seriously wide continuum between old school Bull Conner racist cops and harm done by seemingly invisible implicit bias. Post-Ferguson Report, these issues are now out in the open. Although, I don’t have much hope that our new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, will continue the reforms being made in police oversight.

I know an awful lot of Portland police officers who don’t go to work every day to prop up capitalism or put down the little guy. The officers I know have more of a social work approach to policing and probably have more in common with the core values of true anarchists than the “boys in black” might guess. (I will exclude the “Anarchy!” thugs who just want to “fuck shit up” from this observation.) Sgt. Pete Simpson is the Portland cop you always see on TV talking to the local media. He’s a friend and former student of mine and I asked him what he would want the anarchists to know about his line of work:

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“I have been a police officer for nearly 23 years and I have worked with cops from all across the United States. Never once have I met one that said they look forward to going to work to support corporate America and oppress minorities. Quite the opposite really. Most officers I’ve ever been around want to go make their corner of the world slightly better every day — and a lot of those corners are occupied by local businesses and people of color who officers work to protect and serve. At a core level, officers might philosophically agree in some ways with “anarchists” about the things that are wrong in the country — but police officers have a different approach rather than to slash and burn.”

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I also know many anarchists and former-anarchists. They are on their own journey to make sense of the world how to most effectively address the serious problems we face. Like the Nazi skinheads I’ve studied for 25 years, some get pulled into a simple world of black and white with a subsequent action plan of “destroy everything and hope something beautiful arises from the ashes.” When I was 21, that seemed incredibly appealing and romantic. As a 53-year-old parent, I know the black and white analysis (“Capitalism is always evil!”) is problematic, at best. (Starbucks is not 100% evil. I’d say only 40-60% evil, depending on my need for caffeine.) I also know it’s better to get inside the machine and “fix shit up.” Maybe I’m just an optimistic 50-something, but I believe real reform happens.

There was a moment before one of the many Portland marches against George W. Bush’s pointless 2003 invasion of Iraq. We were making signs in the Park Blocks and a young anarchists with a red bandana over his face asked the crowd for some good quotes for his signs. I offered a few. “Government is not the solution to the problem, government IS the problem,” “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” and a few others. He scribbled them down furiously. “These are perfect! Who said them?” he asked.

“An anarchist named Ronald Reagan,” I said. He was not amused.

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Anarchism is a legitimate and important philosophy. I’ve taught its basics for years in my Contemporary Theory class. I’m guessing the rocket scientist who tried to set the Target on fire on May 1st would not pass the test on the subject. When people hear the word “anarchist” now they just think of violent thugs who want to murder the members of our community who work in law enforcement. Black Bloc might not all be agent provocateurs on Trump’s payroll, but they sure are reinforcing Trump’s narrative about the “violent left.” Not the best strategy of creating support for social change. Cool, in a Rage Against the Machine/rebellious youth sort of way, but not effective in reality. The 25 “protesters” who were arrested in the riot can only claim to adding fuel to the fire driving the drivel on Fox News. Capitalism remains unfazed.

On May 2nd, I was having an email chat with PPB’s chaplain. He had a little anecdote that said so much about the situation. “This morning at coffee I had a conversation with a young women who is friends with many of the Antifa people, and who was asking about racism and police brutality.  I think, from a honest position, her friends claim that there is out of control police brutality. And that none of the things the police claim are true, like destruction of property, aggressive actions, etc..  She came over to me and the officers seated at coffee with me and just didn’t know who or what to believe anymore.”

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What if we got the anarchists and cops in a room together? What could they learn from each other? It might serve to humanize both sides. I was on one side of the “battle” until I started actually listening to people I thought I was somehow fighting. Turns out we’re all on the same side. As someone who has pretty much read everything Karl Marx has written (The picture of me at his grave in England in 1991 will surely surface if I ever run for office), let me end with a quote; “Let us seek our salvation through solidarity.” I promise that’s from Karl and not Ronald Reagan.

POSTSCRIPT: I realize this blog post might annoy some police officers AND sone radicals. If that’s so then my mission as a teenage anarchist is complete. Now dig this song.

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Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children

Sept. 21, 2016

The beauty of privilege is that is invisible. If you’ve got it, it’s really hard to see. A right-handed person might not feel they have any unearned privilege but just talk to a left-handed person about that subject. Being privileged does not mean you are a bad person, it just means you have been given an advantage. And there is nothing more real than white privilege. It’s evidence is a dead father in the middle of a lonesome highway in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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There’s a whole army of white people who want to deny the existence of white privilege. “I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got!” they crow. “There are black people with a lot more money than me and a black man in the White House!” they’ll point out. “It’s a liberal plot to make me feel guilty!” they’ll bleat. These folks don’t understand the concept of white privilege. They may or may not be racist, but they’re definitely ignorant and ignorance can be fixed. We’re all ignorant about things, especially things that are invisible.

There are a lot of folks who have written about the daily experience of white privilege more eloquently than I have, people like Peggy MacIntosh and Tim Wise. Although my next book project is a tome on privilege called Recovering Asshole, so maybe I can join their ranks. The daily stuff is like just turning on the TV and knowing I’m going to see people who look like me or knowing that when people see me, my race isn’t the first thing that registers. This post is about the privilege that keeps me from being killed when my car breaks down.

I always tell my students about a local news broadcast I saw about two separate sexual assaults in Portland in which the attackers were still at large. In the first story, the wanted man was 6’1 with brown eyes and long dark hair. In the second story, the wanted attacker was 5’10, black with brown eyes and short dark hair. See the difference? The white man was colorless, because white is the “normal” race. You don’t even have to mention it. If you say “a person,” it’s just assumed to be a white person.

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There’s a lot assuming that goes with race. Assumptions that Asians are good at math, and Mexicans want to steal somebody’s job (How is that even possible?) and, of course, that African-Americans are naturally violent and animalistic. This last one has gotten a lot of unarmed black men shot by police over the years, because, well, you know, we don’t know what any of them might do. Meanwhile, there’s an “open carry” white guy on the side of the road who thinks cops are agents of the ZOG (that’s the Zionist Occupation Government for you non-right-wing extremists), but let him pass. He has rights!

White “Sovereign Citizens” are America’s top cop-killers.

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The shooting of Terence Crutcher by police last week next to his broken-down car in Tulsa is such a textbook case. We don’t know what the police were thinking as the father of four, heading home from a music appreciation class, held his hands up as instructed. But we do have audio from the police chopper as it circled over head. “That looks like a bad dude, too. He could be on something,” they said. Why would they say that? Because they were playing the race card. All you need to be a bad dude is black skin.

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If I were to breakdown on an Oklahoma highway, I am willing to bet my life that police would never unholster their weapons in the first place, let alone shoot me, even if I ignored a few commands. Because I’m white. Just because I’m white. My whiteness gives me the benefit of the doubt. And there are countless examples of this every day. Just ask how police dealt with Dylann Roof, the white guy that shot 9 people to death in a black church in Charleston last year. He got the benefit of the doubt. Instead of shooting him, the police got him some food from Burger King.

It’s called implicit bias and you don’t have to be a white supremacist to have it. Pretty much everyone does. Research has shown that white people have been successfully taught to fear minorities even though most crime is white-on-white and committed by someone known to the victim. African-Americans get the brunt of this insidious lesson. When I was a kid and we drove into Atlanta, as soon as my mom saw black pedestrians she‘d lock the car doors. “They will snatch you right out of this car, Randy.” (I grew up thinking black people collected white kids.) So I leaned that lesson, too.

CLICK HERE  to take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test but be prepared for your results!

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Implicit bias is precognitive. It happens before you have a chance to think about it. As a criminologist, I know that the overwhelming amount of property crime is done by white people (especially in Portland) but if a black guy is near my car there’s a little switch that goes off in my head. It was put there by a nation steeped in white privilege that very clearly whispers in your ear, year after year, that black lives matter but just not as much. Police officers, being humans, experience the same implicit bias. Before any rational thought it says, BLACK MAN = THREAT!!!! When the officer has a gun, that message can have disastrous results, as we add another unarmed black man to the body count. “Well, we couldn’t be sure what the true threat was.”

Let me say that I know a lot of good cops and they will tell you that every police interaction is different and there are often factors in some high profile cases that the community doesn’t see. (Was Crutcher on PCP? Am I on PCP? White people need a defense!) I’ve also done a “use of force” training with the Mutlnomah Sheriff’s Department and know that a momentary hesitation can get innocent people killed. (I tried to tell a gunman that I was going to shoot him in the crotch if he didn’t put the gun down. Instead, he hopped in my police car with my rifle in and sped off to do more killin’. I should mention that this was SIMULATION.) But the reality is that even the most fair-minded police officer is up against the same racist messaging that says that, when it’s a black guy, better to be “safe” than “sorry.”

So here’s one example of my white privilege. I won’t have to explain to my light skinned children that the police, who are sworn to protect them, might accidentally kill them. Even if they have their hands up.

Again, if you want to say, “All lives matter,” you need to prove it, because it doesn’t look like it to me in 2016. The first step, if you are white, is stop being defensive about your white privilege. Secretary Clinton said this very clearly this week. “We white Americans need to do a better job of listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face everyday. We need to recognize our privilege and and practice humility, rather than assume our experiences are everyone’s experiences.” I don’t care what you think of her. I want you to care about this truth, in this crossroads in our history. We can tear down this wall.

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Here’s Why Saying “All Lives Matter” Makes You Sound Racist

July 12, 2016

Let me get this out of the way first – Rudolph Giuliani is a first class idiot.

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If you are white, I’m going to ask you to turn off your defense mechanisms and think about the value of empathy. Please, just try.

This has been a rough week in America’s tortured history of race relations. Two years after Ferguson (one of the first things I wrote about in this blog), we thought we’d be a little further down the road; not living through even more stories of police, caught on camera, killing black men. And then Dallas happened, a massacre that could only described as a hate crime. What is happening to us?

A lot of white people are freaking out. They think it’s suddenly open season on them or “their” police. They are desperate to blame Obama, or Black Lives Matter, or civil rights, or Beyoncé. They bleat, “No, ALL lives matter!” perhaps not realizing that they are only adding fuel to the fire and making things worse. Many of these people don’t actually care about all lives. If they did, most of these root problems would be long gone. These are the same people who think saying “Happy Holidays” erases Christmas. Yet they are willing to erase the real lived oppression of their fellow non-white Americans. Confronting the complexity and history of racism in 2016 America (and their role in it) is too hard and scares them right down to their tighty whiteys, so they bleat about “all lives,” like they give a rat’s ass about what is happening to black lives and the very real trauma of endless systemic racism.

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Hey, if I say, “Northern White Rhinos matter!” it doesn’t mean that other types of rhinos don’t matter, but there are only 10 white rhinos left on the whole fucking planet. You get that, right?

A lot of white people hear “Black lives matter” and their fragile egos hear, “ONLY black lives matter.” Either they’re suffering from delusions of persecution or a fear that the hell foisted upon minorities in America is coming back to haunt them. Stop. There is no “only.” It’s all in you messed-up mind.

The Point of BLM

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The point of “Black lives matter” is that all lives matter, including black lives. But those black lives have been devalued since the founding of this country. First it was slavery. Then it was Jim Crow. Now it’s the institutional racism of the criminal justice system and the informal racism of bigots, like Giuliani (and plenty of liberals), who pretend to be colorblind.

Any social scientist will tell you that every major institution in America suffers from racial bias. Just Google, “predatory lending and race.” We dump our toxic waste in black parts of states and defund job training programs in black parts of cities. Racism permeates the education system, the financial industry, housing, urban development, hiring, Hollywood, and, perhaps most of all, the criminal justice system.

Every step of the justice system demonstrates racial inequity. From who gets pulled over, to who gets arrested and when force is used. It’s in who prosecutors charge and how they charge them. It’s in who judges sentence and how long they get sentenced. There is racial bias in corrections and in parole. Every single step of the way. Whether were talking drug sentencing or the death penalty, there is no debate that blacks get it worse. Dr. Devorah Pager’s famous 2003 study found that whites with a criminal record had an easier time finding a job than equally qualified blacks without one. I could show you a hundred studies like that.

Every single African-American understands this. Most white Americans either don’t or choose to somehow justify it.

This racism knows no class boundary. Just ask a rich black guy who drives an expensive luxury car how many times he’s been pulled over. Of course, if you can afford a good lawyer, you might avoid the rest of the criminal justice nightmare.

So I’m thinking this is a good time to think about some other folks. I’m thinking about black friends, and, after Dallas, I’m thinking about my law enforcement friends. And I’m really thinking about the two worlds my black law enforcement friends navigate. I don’t want to listen to people try to rationalize the killing of Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile. (“They were thugs!” If police can kill thugs without due process maybe we should start telling them about the thugs on Wall Street who are robbing us blind.)

I’m thinking about the black father who has to have “the talk” with his 16-year-old son. The one about how to act if the kid gets pulled over by the police so he doesn’t end up dead. You know, the one white fathers don’t have to have with their sons.

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Look, anytime you have hyped-up males in the mix, you’re gonna have some problems, whether they’re hyped up because their sports team won or hyped up because their race has been systematically and violently oppressed for centuries. Yeah, there are some male folks who scream about “killing cops,” and one or two who have thrown a brick at public safety officers who are just trying to make it through another day at work. That’s not the true face of the nonviolent Black Lives Matter movement, but you’d never guess that watching Fox News. (As it turns out, the brick throwers were not BLM activists, but outside dickwads.)

It’s Getting Better All the Time

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First, some good news. I know there are fear-mongers in the media and on the campaign trail that want to tell you that everything is getting worse and what we need is some old fashioned “law and order.” Sorry, Chicken Little. The crime rate in this country has been dropping steadily for over 20 years. That includes a dramatic drop in gun violence. The shooting of police officers has also dropped. That might not be much comfort to law enforcement folks who are understandably on edge right now. The only thing that is up is fatal shootings of blacks by police. And there it is. We don’t need more “law and order.” We need real justice and education.

What’s changed in those 20 years is the public eye. In kind of an upside down version of Orwell’s 1984, it’s not just Big Brother who is watching. It’s nearly every little brother and sister. It wasn’t the 1991 police beating of Rodney King that changed things. Shit like that went on and goes on all the time. It was that it was caught on video and still the cops were acquitted. Now with cell phone cameras, more and more of these incidents are caught and even live-streamed. It only seems like things are getting worse. Technology is just letting us see things as they’ve always been. When people carry tools to document social injustices in their pockets, things are bound to get hot.

The Life of a Cop

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After the Rodney King riots, I wanted my students to better understand the world of the police officer and how even well-meaning public servants can end up in a situation that can go FUBAR in seconds. I’ve brought officers, detectives and FBI agents into my classroom to address some of the hard questions about the thin blue line they stand behind.

The life of a cop is extremely stressful. While being a public servant can be highly rewarding, law enforcement officers have higher rates of divorce, alcoholism and death from heart disease. It’s one of the few occupations where every time you walk out the door, you are well aware you might not walk back in at the end of your shift. To serve and protect. The kevlar vest is hot and heavy and shot to the face doesn’t care if it’s on your back or in the back of your cruiser.

So maybe we can dial back the simplistic rhetoric that police officers are secret Nazis, with shrines to Hitler in their backyards, or fronting for the KKK. Police departments recruit from the human department and they reflect that mix. You’re gonna get cops who are rude, or dealing with anxiety poorly, or are garden variety dickwads. But also plenty of men and women who get into policing because it seems like an effective way to make their community a more livable place for families like and not like theirs. I guarantee you for every avowed racist with a badge there’s a truckload of liberal social work-minded cops who voted for Bernie. I can give you names.

One of the lessons the Johnson Administration’s Crime Commission in 1967 was that police departments needed to look like the communities they policed. White cops coming into black neighborhoods, like in Detroit and Watts, with all their white baggage, inflamed the “us vs. them” tensions and cities burned. Now, about a quarter of all police officers are minorities. But that still means that mostly white police officers are patrolling black communities. Room for improvement.

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Where the racism is real is in the very real mindset of implicit racism. In a racist society, all of us (including African-Americans), have been brainwashed into thinking black men are dangerous THREATS (while we let Bernie Madoff slip by). It’s an unconscious form of racism. Dr. Kimberly Kahn, a professor in the Portland State Psychology Department, completed a fascinating study that found white motorists were less likely to stop for black pedestrians than white pedestrians. Do you think those white motorists truly believed “all lives matter”?

So that white cop may go for his (any her?) use-of-force toolkit more quickly with a black male based on same “threat assessment” toolkit the rest of us carry with us. There’s plenty of “open carry” white guys walking around that probably wouldn’t be right now if they were black. They are labeled “2nd Amendment Activists,” not dangerous thugs.

STFU

black-lives-matterSo don’t tell me, “all lives matter,” if toxic waste incinerators in black areas or the defunding of black schools or health care discrimination or drug sentencing and use-of-force disparities are not on your “things to abolish” list. You’re talking shit and black America knows it. They are in the street telling you the expiration date on your white bullshit has passed and you better listen because there is no going back.

I know you think that when Obama was elected, he snapped his brown fingers and any vestige of racism disappeared (and now he’s just “dividing us”) but reality begs to differ. If anything, Obama has helped to reveal the depth of the problem of race. But don’t worry, the next president will be white. So, for now, if you are telling us, “All lives matter” and you are not actually doing anything to stop the devaluing of black lives, I am going to politely ask you to shut the fuck up.

Here’s the challenge. If you are not black, be quiet for a bit and listen to the concerns of your fellow citizens who are. Actually listen. And if you are not a cop, be quiet for a bit and listen to your fellow Americans who are. Don’t tell us about “them,” just sit with the information for a little while and then ponder how you would walk in those shoes.

I’m going to ask you to turn off your defense mechanisms and think about the value of empathy. Please, just try. Even you, Rudy.

Violence is the answer: I’m over football.

February 2, 2016

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I give up. I was ready to give up on American football before Concussion, the recent Will Smith movie that focuses on the NFL hiding the issue of the staggering number of serious head injuries among players. I was ready to give up before the endless stories of boys in high school who have died while playing football. I was ready to give up before the continuous stream of stories about college and professional football players beating the women in their lives. I was even ready to give up before Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson’s bra off at Superbowl 38 and the controversy was more about almost seeing her nipple than it was about the implied sexual aggression against women. You can have it, but I’m giving up.

I was ready in 1978, the day I sat on the bus after a B-team football game with the rest of the members of my team at Redan High School. We had lost the game and I took it in stride. But I questioned another player who was in tears. He said, “If you don’t care about this team to cry when we lose then you don’t belong on the team.” And then he beat me up. I quit the next day and joined the punk rocker team.

It might surprise some folks that I was a huge football fan as a kid. I was obsessed with the Miami Dolphins in the early 1970’s and can still name the starting offensive team (including kicker Garo Yepremiam). In 4th grade I wrote a letter to coach Don Shula asking him why the Dolphins never played my hometown Atlanta Falcons. After that the O.J. Simpson poster was on the wall right next to Farrah. There was nothing more blissful than a Sunday watching the NFL highlight reel and all the great tackles shown in slow motion.

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In my podunk Georgia county (Dekalb in the 1970s), there were no middle schools. So 8th grade was the first year of high school. You want to feel small? And I skipped 5th grade so I was essentially a 7th grade kid in high school. The only way for a 12-year-old boy (or any boy) to stake his claim for Southern masculinity was to join the football team. No cuts. You show up to practice in the sweltering Georgia sun and you are on the team. You might be tenth string but you get to wear the jacket and be in the team picture and sit in the front at pep rallies. Oh, and you get cheerleaders cheering for you. And the only people that get to beat you up are your teammates.

So I rode the bench as an outside linebacker (#53) for three years. I was skinny but fast so when I did get to play I channeled those NFL films and did recover a fumble in one big game against Cross Keys High School. At most of the games me and the other sideline jockeys would smack our helmets against the bleachers to make it look like we got in some good hits. When I left in 10th grade I was happy to let the jocks have their game and get out without a serious injury. (The first year I broke my tailbone. The second year I broke my thumb. The third year I ripped a muscle in my back and got to sit in the hottub during afternoon practices.)

But it’s hard not to be a casual football fan with all the billions spent on hyping college and pro football. Even last year I wondered if feminism and Super Bowls could exist side-by-side. Football is the only major sport where there is not some reasonable equivalent for females. (And don’t you dare say, “Lingerie Bowl.”) At least Major League Baseball has women’s softball to narrow the gap. If my daughter wants to become a part of the NFL, her best option is to become the wife of a player and risk abuse that comes from a guy who is being exploited and has been hit in the head too many times. Or she can be a cheerleader, cheering on the guys and getting paid minimum wage. But who cheers for the cheerleader? Even management in the NFL is an old boys club. What’s a female football lover to do?

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The abuse of women by players (and fans) is an old sad story. The new wrinkle to that story is the growing understanding of the cumulative effect of countless head blows that players get as part of their job description. And this starts when they are unpaid players in school. Yet people are still making millions off these young men killing themselves for our entertainment. A few will make it to retirement with a nest egg but more are just chewed up by the machine. There is even a Wikipedia page for NFL players who died while still playing and you have to stop wondering when you see all the suicides. But go team!

There is, of course, a racial and class element to this as poor boys from inner cities and rural communities are told their one way to the American Dream is through professional sports, especially the hyper-masculine world of football. They can have everything they see dangled in front of them on ESPN, including super-model wives. All they have to do is sell their soul (or brains, ACLs, and spines) to the game and hope they are one of the few that has a post-career life worth living.

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This issue is finally getting some attention. The NFL reports that this season there were 317 reported concussions of NFL players. (Who knows how many are unreported?) And that number may be down because of better helmets for teams that can afford the latest, most expensive protective gear. I doubt the inner city high school team is in line for the new top-of-the-line Xenith helmets any time soon. And there is a new effort to decouple the violence on the grid iron from the violence in the home front that is encouraging. You just wonder if the neurology of football can counter a few well-meaning PSAs. But I have to say I have a big ol’ man-crush on former LA Ram Terry Crews and his efforts to bring these issues to the audience that needs to hear it the most. There are feminist football players, y’all.

In a society that claims to preach, “Violence is not the answer,” why do we still obsess over the macho violence of football? In football, violence IS the answer, and the harder the better. I’m not immune to this. As a kid in Georgia I would go to stock car races and PRAY to see a big crash. The game itself can be fascinating and artful and (in those slow-motion NFL films) can look more like ballet, than war. But there is a growing body count that is part of the cost. And that includes battered women who are beaten by brain-damaged players and former players.

I’m just not sure it’s worth all the hype. Sure it’s fun to meet friends to watch a big college bowl together. Maybe you even went to that school 100 years ago. And I know some people want to watch the Super Bowl “for the commercials,” but your are going to see every single one of those commercials a thousand times over the next three months (including whatever sexist crap GoDaddy and Carl’s Jr will throw at us). There certainly is a thrill to watching a live sporting event as it happens, and not TIVO’d (or like with the last Olympics, on a 3-day tape delay). To share in a global experience can be unifying and exhilarating. (Just witness my freak out for the World Cup every four years.) It crosses political, racial, class and even gender lines. I bet even Bernie Sanders has a pick for the big game. (I can hear him say, “I’m quite impressed the the Carolina Panthers ability to reduce the inequity between the salaries for its support staff and its management.”)

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I won’t hold it against you if you are all in for the sport and Sunday’s Super Bowl. I’m out. I’ve devoted enough time watching reruns of players getting folded, spindled and mutilated and just thinking, “That’s awesome!” This year, out of respect for the dozen boys who died playing high school football in 2015, like 17-year-olds Luke Schemm and Andre Smith, I’m going to spend Sunday hanging out with my daughter. Maybe we’ll go to the duckpond or go shopping. And I’m trying to teach her to play catch so she can play softball someday.

Edit: I’m supposed to watch this Frontline story: League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.

Another Day, Another Mass Shooting in America

October 2, 2015

I’ve been writing about boys and guns for a long time now. I was writing about it before Columbine. I’m writing about it today and I imagine I will be writing about it 20 years from now. Boys (and men) love guns and shooting them. Some shoot targets and tin cans and some shoot people. A lot of people.

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I’ve been doing a lot of talking about boys and guns for the last 24-hours after a young man in my state decided to go on a shooting spree at Umpqua Community College, killing nine people. That was the 294th mass shooting this year with a body count of 380 people killed, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker. When it’s close to home, like yesterday’s shooting in Roseburg, it hurts, but if it’s not, it can be just background noise of life in America. As President Obama put it so powerfully yesterday, we have become numb. Comfortably numb.

It’s about gender first

If all these shootings had been committed by girls and women, you better believe we would be talking about gender. We are so used to boys shooting that we don’t even see it. I was a boy and I was taught to love guns. I had plastic six-shooters and then graduated to a plastic tommy gun that shot sparks out of the barrel. The movies and TV shows I loved had gun violence and so did the video games. But I didn’t become a mass murderer.

I learned that violence was a part of my maleness. If I was having a beef with another boy in school, he’d ultimately say, “Let’s go outside and solve this like men.” That didn’t mean we were going to have a discussion about our feelings. I didn’t fight much, but I did obsess over comic books where my heroes did a lot of fighting. And I did play high school football for a while because the most violent sports were the easiest way to confirm my teenage masculinity. During practice I would bang my helmet on the bleachers to make it look I got in some “good hits.” But I didn’t become a mass murderer.

So much of the way think of “manning up” is wrapped up in violence and the best way to attack a boy or man is to attack his masculinity. But, unfortunately, the quickest way to push back against that is with violence, especially gun violence and go out like a man. When we look at the boys and men who commit these mass shootings, they usually have been emasculated in some way. They have been bullied, or had a wife leave them, or lost a job. I’ve had all the above and thoughts of retributive violence certainly crossed my mind, but I didn’t become a mass murderer.

These shooters are almost always suicidal. The ones that aren’t killed by police or their own bullet, like the Charleston church shooter, just chicken out at the last minute. When right-wingers call for putting more guns in schools, movie theaters, and churches, it sounds wonderfully John Wayne, but would have zero deterrent effect. These boys and men want to die. They just want to take as many people with them as they go out the door. They suffer from acute depression, something I have known in my own life, but I didn’t become a mass murderer.

The sociopathic boy

So we know that these shooters are males (usually white, but not always), fixated on guns and violence, who have been emasculated in some way and suffer from depression. Well, that describes probably the majority of males in this culture at some point, including myself. Gender is the funnel that moves boys and men closer to this act but there has to be something more than that.

As I wrote in my 2000 book with Wayne Wooden, Teenage Renegades, Suburban Outlaws, there is a psychological thread that connected the wave of school shooters leading up to Columbine. They tended to have evidence of sociopathic personalities. Someone with Anti-Social Personality Disorder displays the classic psychopathic attributes. They are cruel and manipulative. They are driven by impulse and act without the guilt mechanism that stops the rest of us from doing bad things. They have a big devil on one shoulder but no angel on the other to balance out those dark thoughts and impulses. If it feels good, do it.

Sociopathy in boys starts early. We get the big three red flags; bedwetting, animal cruelty, and fire starting. If you have a boy who has an issue with two of those, you are probably OK. But if they’ve regularly expressed all three there is a chance you could end up like Kip Kinkel’s parents. As we learn more about the Roseburg shooter, I expect we will find a clear case of sociopathic behavior. Some of his social media postings point in that direction.

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Sociopaths are angry at the world for not giving them what they think they are entitled to. They want others to suffer the way they do and are willing to go out in an orgy of violence so the world will remember their name. And absolutely nothing can stop them (unless they can’t get their hands on their weapon of choice).

The problem with sociopathy is that we barely understand it. Some evidence points to early childhood sexual trauma. Some newer research connects it to chromosomal damage and brain dysfunction. If we don’t understand its cause, we can’t take that psychopathic kid and treat him or her (sometimes it is a female) before something big happens. So here’s our call for more mental health interventions for young people, but the reality is that sociopaths walk among us and we really have no defense against them.

Of course guns are a factor

Let’s make this simple and complete the equation. The profile of a mass shooter = Violence obsessed male + sociopathic personality + access to guns. I suppose these potential mass murderers could blow up schools, like Christian Slater did in the 1989 film Heathers, but that requires a lot of work. Guns are easy. More than a third of all American households have a gun. That’s a decrease from the 1970s, but it’s still plenty of readily available armaments.

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There is some important information for you 2nd Amendment advocates I’d like to share. All our constitutional freedoms are negotiated. You have freedom of speech but you do not have the freedom to slander or shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. On your next air flight, tell the attendant that you have a bomb and then try to hide behind the 1st Amendment. The same thing with the right to keep and bear arms.

The 2nd Amendment, authored in 1789, does not give you the right to keep and bear nuclear arms. It also does not give children, inmates, convicted felons the right to own handguns. The courts constantly negotiate and update our constitutional freedoms. You do not have the right to own a TEC-DC9 assault weapon unless the Supreme Court says you do. And if you don’t believe that, you don’t understand how America works.

So there is a way to have sensible gun laws that limit the access of certain kinds of people to certain kinds of (high power) weapons. The rest of the world can do it, why can’t we? I share in the president’s frustration over how hard it is to get over this hump. I thought after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012 we had finally had enough. But, apparently, we haven’t.

Get ready for more carnage

The good news is the gun violence, in general, has been on the decline in America since 1993. Things are getting better and most of can sleep at night knowing our family is not going to be mowed down by a crazed gunman. But the model of mass shooting as a glorious suicide is now part of our culture and we can chose to accept that. (The “Columbine Effect“)

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There is going to be more bloodshed and body counts. Students are going to continue to die as well as people in churches and in movie theaters and in work places. We will call for prayers and hold vigils and then forget about it until it happens again, probably tomorrow. Boys love their guns and if a few of them are sociopathic and shoot somebody else’s boys, or girls, or mommies, or dads, that’s the price we pay for “freedom.” It’s the American bloodsport that we’ve become accustomed to.

This is a complex issue that no simple solution is going to fix. But if we look at the issue of violence and masculinity, sociopathy, and gun access together, we might have a few less days like yesterday.

Note: As feminists have acknowledged, there are some very positive aspects of masculinity, like care for the family. Those are the boys we want to raise and you don’t need guns to do it.