Friday, June 26, 2020


Too late I saw I’d got the wrong end
thinking that the dough and good legs
would always be enough. I turned away from wisdom
and subscribed to 1000 cable channels.
“I will also laugh at your calamities
I will mock when your fear cometh she said,
tagging another city gate
before the heat closed in with the tasers.
No big deal, I thought, another extra gone.
Sometimes though at precisely 4 a.m.
I remember that I haven’t paid the ransom yet.
- Karen Chamisso

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Balzac's World

At the beginning of Balzac’s l’envers de l’histoire contemporaine – one of the most brilliant title ever -the narrator, who is easily recognizable as the ever voluble Balzac, places his still unnamed protagonist at the “heart of Paris”:

“In 1836, on a beautiful September evening, a man of about 30 years of age leaned on the parapet of the quai from which onne can see both the Seine flowing downriver past the Jardin des Plannttes to Notre Dame and,   upriver, the vast riverine perspective as it passes by the Louvre.”
The heart of a city changes more than the heart of a mortal, according to Balzac’s contemporary, Baudelaire. But this perspective is still there – I biked past it yesterday. True, the Notre Dame is a half charred skeleton, and the Louvre is presently defaced with an enormous advertising placard for some miserable luxury object, the kind of neo-liberal graffiti we see, now, in all the world’s hotspots, from corporation named stadiums to the university buildings named for odious tax avoiding plutocrats, philanthropists all.

Yet Paris is a stubborn fact. As is Montpellier, Nimes, Arles, Aix-en-Province, Nice, etc. This stubbornness makes for some despair among the neoliberal set: doesn’t this mean the heart has stopped? Where’s the disruption? Change for its own sake, imposed by above, permits rent-seeking possibilities beyond the wildest dreams of Balzac’s most superhuman speculator, and that’s what its all about. It is not hard to see that we are living, extras all, in the season of their fever dream – from the horribly incompetent Trump to the horribly incompetent Macron, all that is solid melts into the pipeline between the central banks and the investment banks. Ghost financial instruments and watered stocks, such is the economy of the movers and the shakers. Outside, corona takes care of the disposables, while party-on is the motto of the lesser bourgeoisie, that aspirational group who haven’t made it and won’t, but who long for a simulacrum of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous.   The aspirational zombies of the apocalypse of pseudo-freedom – Balzac would have enjoyed them immensely.

Or to put it differently: it is still Balzac’s world. The sentimentality of Dickens has degenerated into greeting card slogans that are now ironic even to their purchasers and their receivers. George Sand’s socialism has disappeared. Flaubert’s contempt for stupidity has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the most flatheaded reactionaries possible. But Balzac, I thought, passing by that quai and that perspective, lives.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The police function in a system that reaches beyond the police.

Cast your mind back to every Western you have ever seen. Most of them, I’d bet, featured or included a sheriff. The sheriff “kept the peace” but, if you think about it, never stopped a single wagon, carriage or horserider for speeding. Consequently, the sheriff never examined a single wagon, carriage or saddle bag for “contrabrand” material.
In Sara Seo’s Policing the Open Road, the burden of the narrative is on  the legal construction that allowed police, around the Prohibition era, more power over the car than the Customs officer had over the incoming ship – that is, police were allowed to make reasonable searches of vehicles without a warrant, and with the standard of “reasonableness” amounting to: what the policeman says.
The interesting subtheme, here, is that policing followed technological and legal changes, which intersected with an already existing hierarchy that separated the respectable (white) people and the non-respectable (working class, black, immigrant) people.
“Certainly, traffic laws, like prohibition laws, established mala prohibita—acts that were wrong only by virtue of statute. No inherent sense of morality deemed, for example, driving at the speed of twenty-two miles per hour a per se evil like murder or theft.”
Prohibition and the policing of the automobile came together in court cases that started to allow a growing police force a greatly expanded amount of power not only to regulate the traffic, but to search cars on the instinct of the police.
The addition of police union power beginning with the Civil Rights era added to this police power. Even so, the police would not have become the community’s ruler instead of their servant if the political power of the unions had not been flexed to take the power directly away from local law.
A good example of how the system works is found in Ohio.

On  August 12, 2017. 25-year-old Richard Hubbard III was pulled over on E 228th St. just before 10:30 a.m. for "a moving/traffic violation” by Michael Amiott. “Hubbard was ordered to exit the car and face away so he could be taken into custody. Police say Hubbard refused, and a violent struggle ensued. The video that was captured showed Amiott taking Hubbard to the ground, punching him multiple times.”

Thus far, a typical instance of the combo of race – Hubbard is black – the auto – Hubbard had committed a minor traffic infraction and had an expired license – and police authority – the taking into custody of a person without a licence is extraordinary. I speak from authority, having once been stopped by a policeman for a minor traffic infraction and then being told that I would get a major fine if I didn’t renew my license, which was out of date. At no point did the white policeman think that I was going to go down with him to the police station. Cause I’m white.
The video made Amiott’s action undeniable, although the police issued the standard pr piece about how Hubbard had violently resisted. It did not explain why Hubbard was taken into custody – this was, for the police, a simple norm. They get to decide who to take into custody. That power has been given to them when they were given untrammeled power over the streets.

In the next step in this drama, the town of Euclid reluctantly responded by suspending and then firing Michael Amiott. The mayor referenced further instances in Amiott’s record. Amiott’s case was then taken up by the Fraternal Order of Police, even though the Euclid police department is represented, technically, by another union. See this site for an indepth look at Euclid policing and race, including other violent incidences involving Amiott. (see all parts of Series 3)

In 1983, Ohio – like many Midwestern states with a strong union presence – instituted a  collective bargaining law that outlawed strikes in favor of arbitration. The driver, at that time, was the fear of teacher strikes. But included in that law were all public employee unions – the police unions foremost.

Ohio was once the heartland of American industry, and consequently, of the factory worker unions that allowed the working class to negotiate with Capital. Some leftist economists have pointed to the benefits accruing to public employees from these laws. At the same time, there is a difference between teachers and cops – the arbitrators and judges have myriad links with the police.
A study by Mark Iris in 1998 of arbitration results in Chicago bears out the bias:
“A total of 328 disciplinary actions were decided by binding arbitration during that period [1990-1993]. In addition, under a new process started in July 1993, 205 disciplinary actions have been reviewed by arbitrators for nonbinding advisory opinions as of July 1995. These two distinct data sets demonstrate remarkably similar patterns of outcomes; collectively, the discipline imposed upon Chicago police officers is routinely cut in half by arbitrators. This pattern recurs despite an elaborate, lengthy review process and close scrutiny before the suspension of an officer is ordered.”
This result should not surprise us, given the larger history outlined by Seo: the abdication of a large degree of sovereignty to the police. In a 2016 article by Tylor Adams,  “Factors in Police Misconduct Arbitration Outcomes: What Does It Take to Fire a Bad Cop?”, he summarizes other studies that show the same interventionist tendency. Although police chief, mayors, and the community may want Michael Amiott fired, he does not work at the will of the community: his fate depends on his union and his arbitrator.
Adams remarks that the reason for overturning suspension or firing is most often categorized as a Just cause mistake. “A principal reason why arbitrators overturn police discharges is a department's failure to prove just cause. The meaning of just cause is derived from principles of fundamental fairness that evolved over time through the decisions of arbitrators.” Adams does not question the circularity of this “evolution” through time: a biased system will become more and more biased as precedent is set.

What does this mean? It means that we are depending on the “reasonableness” of cops and the precedents set by police-biased arbitrators. It means that the community needs to take back power. If we dismantle the way the police operate, we have to dismantle  and clean up the system of arbitration that is broken. A simple but effective tool is to take away the “just cause” rationality from arbitrators, and have the legislature spell out very what just cause is. I would think that process would weed out bias from racial and gender causes that might make a mayor fire a police officer;  but it would not allow police judgment about the appropriate use of force to triumph over the community.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The car and the police state - 1

Sara E. Seo bookends her book, Policing the Road: How cars transformed American Freedom ( ) between two cases. In one case, Wiley v. State (1916), a Police officer in a car – an unmarked car, as police cars weren’t “marked” until the 1940s – named Wiley called out to a car speeding by to stop. He and the police with him suspected that the car was speeding from a robbery. So, with instincts echoed by every officer related shooting since, they trained their guns on the car and shot it up, killing the passenger, a Mrs. Bates. The court decision in this case went against the police:
“In the case of Wiley v. State, which affirmed the guilt of Deputy Sheriff Johns, whose shot had killed Mrs. Bates, the Arizona Supreme Court maintained that even if the Bateses had heard the shouts and refused to stop, the officers’ manner of pursuit “was more suggestive of a holdup by highwaymen than an arrest by peace officers.”
At the other end of Seo’s history is the case of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was stopped because she failed to use a turn signal. From the moment the policeman pulled her over to the moment three days later when she supposedly hung herself in a cell, is the American nightmare that we see all around us.
Seo notices something crucial about Sandra Bland’s life:
The automobile appeared in nearly every significant setback in Bland’s life. Exorbitant traffic tickets that Bland paid for by “sitting out” in jail. Convictions for driving under the influence and arrest warrants for unpaid traffic fines that severely limited her employment options. Charges for possessing marijuana—her lawyer suspected that Bland was self-medicating—that the police discovered in her car.”
How did we go from Wiley v. State to Sandra Bland?
Seo’s story is not only focused on racism and the police, but more generally on how overpolicing and the automobile form a dyad in the United States. It is a topic that cries out for a Ballardian and/or Deleuzian treatment, but Seo remains a calm positivist about it all. Wondrously enough, her thesis has, I think, never really been explored in depth:
"Before cars, American police had more in common with their eighteenth-century forebears than with their twentieth-century successors. What revolutionized policing was a technological innovation that would come to define the new century. This is, therefore, a history about policing cars and, thus, about policing American society as it fast became an automotive society. It is thus also about the practical, theoretical, and legal problems of policing everybody who drove. "
To put this in a crude way that Seo herself would not countenance, the rise of the cop as overseer of traffic spelled the downfall of the 4th amendment to the constitution – the one about unreasonable searches and seizures. The one about having to have warrants. The fourth amendment never applied to slaves, whose own limited travels in the South were overseen by Slave Patrols. The Slave patrols, as Jim Crow kicked in with a vengeance at the turn of the century, were represented, mainly, by legislation degrading African-Americans on public transportation – the kind of legislation later copied by the Nazis and applied to Jews in Germany. The automobile appeared as, at first, a challenge to this.
W.E.B. Dubois, for instance, was an ardent car driver. He was proud of his cars. Since he traveled extensively in the South, being in a car kept him out of the reach of the Jim Crow laws attendant on trains and buses. Although as the history of police – and mob – interactions with black drivers shows, the Slave Patrol system was not that easy to slip.
Seo’s book – which everybody should read – overturns an old intellectual history of jurisprudence that attributes to the Warren court the new enforcement of prohibitions on police abuse – a new national standard for all states concerning the fourth amendment – by showing that the courts, in reality, were instrumental throughout the twentieth century in increasing police power, based in “reasonable” standards of policing automobiles that increasingly made the cops the judge of when and when not to search, when and when not to stop – basically giving them unlimited powers of harassment. And it is a pretty simple matter to see that in an unequal society, the people who would bear the brunt of harassment would be those who were people of color, those who were poorer, those who the respectable – the white bourgeoisie – were most afraid of.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The possible life - Karen Chamisso

Born gangster from the fist of her momma’s belly
she grew up rolling on her jams and jelly
Two loaded dice were found in her baby hands
The odds were in her favor. Everything was grand
Love money attention and all the last chances
Went up her nose in cold white prances
Cars were totaled, parents were called
Bounced from all the clubs, while police were stalled
The predictions about her in circulation
Always pictured her ODed, or in rehabilitation.

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...