Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Right to Protest Should Not Be Infringed, Nor Should the Grievances the Protestors Make be Ignored or Ridiculed

“Riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the largely peaceful protests in Ferguson become overshadowed by occasional violent streaks, some have been eager to use these violent incidents to dismiss or ridicule the cause, particularly the presence of civil disobedience in the first place.

That is a mistake. These people are discounting very legitimate grievances surrounding institutionalized racism, police brutality, and utter lack of accountability and transparency.

I want to make this absolutely clear: I do not condone violence. I think that some, but not all, of the violence is opportunistic. Sadly, the presence of violent acts of behavior does undermine the legitimacy of the peaceful ones.

However, I want to put the rioting in context: here is a pattern I have observed:

  1. Protest starts off as peaceful and nonviolent. That is exactly what happened here.
  2. It is violently suppressed and/or grievances are ignored or ridiculed and/or condescending rationalizations are made. Police and political leadership were slow, defensive, and reactive in responding to calls for any semblance of accountability. The entire time, police were highly hostile towards protests and often attempted to break them up in riot gear and abusing full military equipment, arresting many people in the process.
  3. Driven in part by desperation and in part by opportunism, protests turn violent. It is important to emphasize that the proportion of violence to peaceful protests vary: in Syria, violent resistance more or less displaced its peaceful counterparts. In Ferguson, I believe there are still some pockets of peaceful protests left, but that is not what the media emphasizes.
Examples of When Peaceful Protests Eventually Turned Violent

There are a multitude of examples that fall under this pattern:

Civil Rights Protests (late 1950s – 1960s)

An iconic era of the US, the civil rights protests in the South were largely and undeniably peaceful. However, they were brutally suppressed. Police used fire hoses, trained dogs, and other tools to disperse the protests. While progress was made with landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, implementation did not happen instantaneously as Southern states fought tooth and nail against the imposition of reform.

Eventually, protests slowly transitioned towards more violent resistance. The Black Panthers Group was founded in 1966. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 probably further paved the transition.

In this case, the protestors’ goals minus the implementation were largely met. That is probably a major reason why the protests were largely peaceful throughout what is admittedly a very turbulent period.

Syrian Protests (February 2011 – Present)

Around February 2011, as momentum for the Arab Spring gained ground, unrest began in Syria. During the early months, protests were entirely peaceful: they called for Assad’s departure and the imposition of democratic governance in Syria.

These protests were brutally quashed.

As with Tunisia and Egypt, police and plain-clothed thugs alike arrested and tortured many, and in general harassed what was a very sizable number of protestors.

On July 29, 2011, the violent resistance began with the formation of the Free Syrian Army. Peaceful protests persisted long after that, but over time, armed groups and even opportunists such as ISIS (an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQIM) that even AQIM thought was too brutal) are destabilizing Syria and escalating sectarian tensions to the point where the original democratic ideals of Syria are all but lost.

The UN conservatively estimated back in 2011 that tens of thousands had perished. Now, that number could easily be hundreds of thousands. It is unambiguously a terrible tragedy.

Occupy Wall Street (October 2011 - )

On September 17, 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement began with protests in Zilker Park. The protestors, sadly, did not have clear goals, but they decried the troubling gains in economic and political power by the top 1 percent, as well as deepening income inequality (currently at levels not seen since 1929) and continued economic malaise.

I want to emphasize how the protests were brutally suppressed. At UC Davis, a police officer pepper sprayed clearly peaceful protestors. At other places, police broke up protests and arrested a number of people.

To be fair, the protests did affect economic activity. Small business owners complained of 40-50 percent losses to their business. Even so, there are far more sensible ways to disperse a protest without it getting violent.

These protests were a further indictment against senseless police brutality.

Russian Protests (late 2011 – early 2012)

Around December 2011, in response to the announcement that Putin was to run for president yet again, a sizable number of people, largely middle class, held a protest against his authoritarian tendencies. For months, the protests were peaceful, with tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands turning out. The protestors called for free and fair elections (which may or may not have resulted in Putin’s loss), and the immediate release of all political prisoners.

These protests were regulated to some extent and arrests still resulted. The more unsettling pattern was the presence of plain-clothed thugs clearly aligned to the regime who sought to harass protestors and give officials an excuse that things were going violent. In addition, Putin was easily reelected in March in what was clearly a shady and rigged election: The New York Times reported, for instance, that voter turnout at Chechnya, a region that is no fan of Putinism, was an astounding 106 percent! In large part, protestors’ demands were not met and they were constantly harassed by police and plain-clothed thugs.

Then, they began a violent streak.

I profess to be rather ignorant of the full story, but I distinctly remember these protests being a big deal back in the day when I was in debate. I have little doubt The Economist had excellent coverage on this subject.

Final Thoughts

I fully acknowledge these may not necessarily be the best examples.

However, there are countless examples of civil disobedience devolving into violence because the incumbents in power steadfastly refuse to be responsive to protestors’ demands and actively attempt to suppress the protests.

Here is my proposition: if corporations have the right of “free speech” in a way that is highly corrosive to democratic governance, then people have a right of “free speech” through protests that shape the dialogue of the country and help deep grievances be heard.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Troubling Presence of Either/Or Propositions in Ferguson

I have not followed the news in Ferguson closely. If there are any factual errors or misleading statements in this post, please feel free to point it out and I shall look into it and correct it accordingly.

In this post, I want to address a very specific pattern I’ve seen in the discourse.

The loudest voices concerning what should be done about Darrell Wilson seems to lie in two main camps:
  • He should be indicted and put behind bars for the rest of his life. I actually completely agree with this. However, given unfortunate political realities, I find it unlikely that that will happen, and if protesters will continue until such demands are met, then they will be stuck protesting for a while.
  • The grand jury decision was fair and he should walk away completely scot free. What a ridiculous and indefensible position to take. To rationalize this senseless view, these people often paint Michael Brown as aggressive and at fault, with very obvious racist undertones (i.e. look at that intimidating and strong black guy).
I want to establish this: I think the Brown family deserves justice and, consequently, Darrell Wilson should be punished. I understand that he is symptomatic of a larger system of institutionalized racism and indefensible police brutality, but that doesn’t stop the fact that he clearly did it.

Even if he had every reason to discharge his weapon in self-defense, the benefit of the doubt died with Michael Brown after the first “warning” shot on his hand. Assuming the worst, that Michael Brown had an intent to do harm, he could have simply driven away and gotten backup.

However, I think there are plenty of perfectly acceptable intermediate outcomes that can be realistically reached. From least to most severe:
  • One heck of a hefty fine. While I personally believe this to be a slap in the wrist, the least that can be done is that Darrell Wilson be responsible for the funeral costs of Michael Brown and that he shoulder substantial compensation for the Brown family’s tragic loss.
  • Permanent and explicit disbarment from serving as a police officer and from owning or operating a firearm. To be fair, Darrell Wilson has already been suspended from the police force, and it is unlikely he will ever return. However, I think it should be made unambiguously clear that he be unable to be nowhere near firearms, which is designed to explicitly kill someone, let alone continue being an officer. 
  • House arrest. This could range from several years to the rest of his life. He would be able to live a comfortable life (I know, highly unjust), but he will be permanently barred from a wide array of freedoms.
  • A 5+ year prison term. Yes, murder does not deserve only 5 years. But prison sucks, and, to quote from The Dark Knight, “How long do you calculate [he] lives?”
Yes, compromise sucks. It is frustrating. It doesn't feel right. It is probably unjust.

But dismissing compromise as an option makes it likelier that Darrell Wilson go completely unpunished.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A letter to Senator John Cornyn

I am planning to send the following letter to my Senator, John Cornyn who has the audacity to claim he represents me or a substantial portion of his constituency. If I am feeling particularly bold, I may even send this to Ted Cruz (god forbid.)

This letter contains some very blunt portions. In my final letter, I will make some minor revisions on these blunt portions in order to improve its persuasiveness: after all, if you are insulting the person you want to convert, then you are, by definition, fighting an uphill battle. I will also write in my name at the bottom.

Without further ado:

Senator John Cornyn,

I have one single question for you: what are you going to be doing to stop the gradual return of unfettered special interest influence in Washington DC?

For decades, really picking up since the advent of political advertising on television, the U.S. political system’s maddening addiction to money, predominantly sourced from special interest groups, has caused Congress to become more and more detached from the needs of the nation and from reality itself.

The problem has been exacerbated by Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates to theoretically unlimited and more importantly unaccountable money that has flooded our nation’s airwaves with negative and sometimes factually incorrect advertising via the Super PAC (this lack of transparency even goes directly against the wishes of Justice Kennedy’s opinion, which emphasized that Americans needed to know where the money was sourced). During the 2010 midterm elections and again in the 2012 presidential election, inordinate amounts of this Super PAC money was spent, often crushing the political aspirations those who were less well funded.

I, along with many of my fellow Americans, have had enough.

Why is campaign finance reform important?

The first answer comes from Princeton professor Larry Bartel. He conducted an excellent study published in 2005 on Senate voting patterns in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, and observed that you, as a U.S. Senator, don’t seem to give a damn about the poor.

Here’s what he writes:

“My analyses suggest that the views of constituents in the upper third of the income distribution received about 50% more weight than those in the middle third (with even larger disparities on specific salient roll call votes), while the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution received no weight at all in the voting decisions of their senators.” [Emphasis my own.]

Although statisticians caution against making too many extrapolations, one could easily imagine that the new campaign finance landscape enabled at Citizens United has actually made the problem even worse today.

Professor Bartel concluded, “the economic order of the contemporary United States poses a clear and profound obstacle to realizing the democratic value of political equality.” What he failed to mention was that the maddening effect our current system of financing campaigns is directly related to the tendency to overemphasize the views of deranged billionaires. As The Center for Responsive Politics astutely pointed out, during the 2010 midterm election, only 0.26 percent of Americans made campaign contributions exceeding $200, and only .05 percent reached the $2,400 limit. Worse, only 10 percent of Americans made a political donation at all. Although a large number of small donations remain a substantial source of funding for politicians, it is largely overshadowed by a small number of large donations. In other words, the people who fund your political campaigns is horribly lopsided towards the wealthy.

The second answer gives you a compelling personal reason to take up arms against the current system of campaign finance. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig estimates that congressmen spend anywhere between 30 percent to an appalling 70 percent of their time fundraising. That’s time not spent doing casework for constituents, researching more about the most pertinent issues of the day, or, you know, actually reading your legislation. This fundraising also more than likely includes little quality time actually spent with constituents, many of whom have requests themselves about how you should vote.

In order words, in meaningful campaign finance reform that includes provisions for a robust publicly funded election system, you would be able to spend more time connecting with constituents and, you know, actually representing them. This would restore fundamental republican principles of our governmental system.

The third answer comes from your fellow politicians, state congressmen from states such as Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut that have varying levels of publicly funded election systems. Professor Lessig explains in his excellent book, Republic Lost:

Though the details of these programs are different, the basic structure of all three is the same: candidates qualify by raising a large number of small contributions; once qualified, the candidates receive funding from the state to run their campaigns.

…These “clean money,” or “voter-owned,” elections have had important success. Candidates opting into these public funding systems spend more time talking to voters than to funders. They represent a broader range of citizens than the candidates who run with private money alone. And they have succeeded in increasing the competitiveness of state legislative elections, making incumbents if not more vulnerable, then at least more attentive.

With the possible exception of the final point, all of these are wonderful benefits. Even regarding the final point, if your constituents believe that your opponent can do a better job than you at helping run the country, then it is the simple reality of democracy. Who knows? Your opponent might even do a better job, and if they don’t, you can step right back in the next election cycle.

So what can you do to give representation back to the American people and uphold political equality?

There are many solutions out there, but in my opinion, the best one comes from Professor Lessig. Here is how he explains his plan:

Almost every voter pays at least $50 in some form of federal taxes. So imagine a system that gave a rebate of that first $50 in the form of a “democracy voucher.” That voucher could then be given [in part or in whole] to any candidate for Congress who agreed to one simple condition: the only money that candidate would accept to finance his or her campaign would be either “democracy vouchers” or contributions from citizens capped at $100. No PAC money. No $2,500 checks. Small contributions only. And if the voter didn’t use the voucher? The money would pass to his or her party, or, if an independent, back to this public funding system.

Fifty dollars a voter is real money: more than $6 billion an election cycle. (The total raised in 2010: $1.86 billion.) It’s also my money, or your money, used to support the speech that we believe: this is not a public financing system that forces some to subsidize the speech of others. And because a campaign would have to raise its funds from the very many, it could weaken the power of the very few to demand costly kickbacks for their contributions — what the Cato Institute calls “corporate welfare,” like subsidies to ethanol manufacturers, or tariffs protecting the domestic sugar industry. Cato estimates that in 2009, the cost of such corporate welfare was $90 billion. If cutting the link to special interest funders could shrink that amount by just 10 percent, the investment would, across a two-year election cycle, pay for itself three times over.

You can continue to deny that who funds your campaigns has a substantial impact on the way you vote. Hell, many of you and your colleagues appear to believe that climate change is a hoax and are unmoved by any overwhelming body of evidence that contradicts your ideological views, whether or not they are motivated on kissing the asses of the special interests you serve.

A dedicated few have raised the banner to fight special interests. Buddy Roemer believes in comprehensive campaign finance reform and ran for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. However, the media that hosted the debates, whose funding via commercials is held hostage by the corporations that make up special interest groups, systematically denied his ability to participate in the debates. Among the developed world, only in America can a former governor and congressmen with views dangerous to special interests and greatly beneficial towards public interest and our nation not even get a chance to express his views in a more public forum.

Another, Arnold Hiatt, the chairman of Stride Rite Shoes, has donated millions of dollars supporting the cause of campaign finance reform. In 1996, he was the Democratic Party’s second largest contributor, funding the campaigns of 40 congressional candidates who supported campaign finance reform.

You are in a unique position to join these early heroes. Should you still feel apprehensive about the entire idea, Professor Lawrence Lessig’s excellent book, Republic, Lost, just may convince you otherwise. If you want a shorter read, I outline some of Professor Lessig’s most important points and added in a little bit of my own analysis in a 15-page blog post:

I thank you for your consideration for reading this rather lengthy letter.


An extremely concerned constituent