A shooting, many questions, no answers

Shortly after midnight on Friday, July 20th, a heavily-armed man burst into a movie theatre and opened fire on the crowd, killing twelve people and wounding nearly 60. This latest act of mass violence in the United States sparked yet another national conversation about the need for gun control, and questions about what could prompt a person with an otherwise-bright future to commit such an atrocity. I lack the necessary knowledge (and the energy) to comment much further about this particular shooting other than to say that I obviously wish it hadn’t happened, and that something must be done to make such events more rare. I do not believe that more guns are the answer to the problem, but that idea appears to have some serious currency in the United States, so I guess take that for what it’s worth.

Such acts are incredibly rare here in Canada (especially compared to our southern neighbour), and yet Toronto has recently been visited by a pair of public shootings that have sparked our own national conversation. The first shooting occurred at the beginning of last month in the food court of the city’s largest shopping mall. Two people, the apparent targets of the shooter, were killed. The motivation appears to be related to gang activity. At the beginning of last week, Toronto was once again visited by the spectre of violence at the hands of armed gunmen: [Read more…]

Movie Friday: Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

Public Enemy was the very first rap group I ever heard (aside from Hammer, but even at age 6 I wasn’t particularly a fan). My own internal conversation about race was between me, my father, a nearly-monochromatic mountain town, and Messers D, Flav, and Griff. In light of the theme of ‘othering’ and black Americans’ experiences with the ‘justice’ system, I felt this song was appropriate (language obviously NSFW):

Lyrics below the fold [Read more…]

Manufacturing the ‘other’

One of the frequent memes that emerges from racial discourse is that people of colour are expected to try extra hard to justify their existence and inclusion in American society. Nowhere was this more evident than when Congressman Peter King basically revived Joe McCarthy to investigate whether or not Muslims were ‘patriotic’ enough. It is not enough, according to Mr. King, to simply live in the United States – to be a real American, Muslims have to go above and beyond to prove that they’re not ‘too Muslimy’.

Of course, those kinds of obsessive intrusions often only serve to contribute to the general climate of xenophobia that leads to radicalization in the first place. Why on Earth would you be patriotic toward a country that uses the force of its government to peer into your personal life simply because you worship the wrong god? I alluded to this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of exclusion earlier this week:

It’s not hard, therefore, to imagine why black Americans do not see themselves reflected in the priorities of their country. It is certainly not hard to imagine that they may be less patriotic than one might expect. They see a country that seeks to lie about what it cannot hide. They see a country that seeks to erase what it cannot destroy. They see this country, and they say “god damn America”.

I would be interested to see a study investigating the causal association I believe exists between feelings of exclusion and likelihood of antisocial behaviour. We know, for example, that racial profiling by police makes members of minority communities less likely to co-operate. It’s not exactly rocket science – if you don’t believe the police are on your side, why would you work with them? What I’m curious about is whether or not that refusal to comply with social norms (i.e., recognizing authority figures) translates into a generalized contempt for other types of normative behaviours, like compliance with the law.

Or put another way, are New York’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ policies making their problems worse: [Read more…]

The worst thing in the world (Thursday edition)

Trigger warning: sexual assault and other violence. Also, police.

When they tore down the Occupy Vancouver tent city, I was there. I was all geared up to get arrested for peacefully resisting the destruction of what was ultimately an important and helpful resource, not only for Canadian democracy, but for the city of Vancouver. I called my parents to tell them I might be thrown in jail; I called my close friends to put them on notice that if they didn’t hear from me in the next few hours, I would need them to start making phone calls. Then I headed downtown, fully expecting to see the scowling face of a judge before I saw my own bed again. What I saw instead was a massive cleanup crew with police helping to facilitate the voluntary removal of a bunch of supplies. The square was cleared without any confrontation whatsoever.

My Occupy experience was entirely bloodless, with the Vancouver Police Department behaving as though they truly understood the concept of peaceful protest and civil liberty. Their professionalism and restraint stands in sharp contrast with what we’re seeing out of their comrades in New York City: [Read more…]

Trust unworthy

As I learn more about the world, I become more and more deeply skeptical of explanations of phenomena that are fixated on ‘personal responsibility’ narratives. If psychology teaches us anything it’s that people behave in ways that not only can they not predict beforehand, but that they cannot even explain afterward. Getting obsessed over laying blame on a lack of character is a temptingly easy but ultimately unsatisfactory approach, because it suggests absolutely no ways of making change (not to mention the fact that it is often demonstrably incorrect).

Yesterday was May Day, where Occupy protesters in New York City (and a handful of other cities – there wasn’t a peep out of Vancouver, which made me very upset) focussed less on blaming a few individuals for the problems facing our current political/economic system, but the factors that made it so corrupt. Predictably, those who staunchly refused to engage with Occupy to begin with will respond by complaining that the protesters are “blaming the rich for being successful”. In the same way, this kind of explanation is so wildly off base as to completely obscure the issues under discussion. Indeed, blaming individuals makes no sense – that’s why nobody’s doing it.

So we have to be careful when we are confronted by a fact like this: [Read more…]

Here come da judge…

This weekend this blog was visited by a rather unsavoury character who decided to take your humble narrator to school on why passing laws against black people isn’t racist. At first I was amused, much the way I would be watching a dog try to take a stick through the doggy door. It’s cute and entertaining in a pathetic sort of way, watching the poor thing struggle to achieve its goal. Unlike a friendly mutt, however, this particular commenter got progressively more unhinged as I refused to take him seriously, and he began lashing out. I quickly became bored, and left him to rage by himself in the dark.

One of the points that he was sure he had ‘got’ me on was the fact that black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white people. This proved, he asserted, that there was something wrong with black people that made them more likely to commit crimes. It’s just statistics, he claimed. The problem with his theory is that it is not supported by the evidence, or at least the evidence is not sufficient to justify the conclusions he draws. We know, for example, that racism often acts as a confounder in what appears to be a straight-line relationship. We also know that race can play an undue role in things like sentencing and presumed innocence, putting the weight of the judicial system disproportionately against defendants of colour.

This phenomenon is not necessarily because judges are ‘racists’ or because they have a grudge against black people or anything quite so simplistic. The issue is complicated, but one of the culprits is our inability to think critically about our own attitudes about race and racism. By making race a taboo subject, we have set up a situation where people would rather ignore it than discuss it. It happens to police, it happens to lawyers, it happens to judges, and it happens the next level up as well: [Read more…]

The benefit of the doubt is racist

Part of my daily routine involves coming home from the office, getting changed into a t-shirt and gym shorts, jumping on my exercise bike, and (in order to distract myself from how much I fucking hate exercise) turning on The Daily Show. I usually cringe when Jon talks about race matters – for example, he accused Spike Lee of sending “a lynch mob” to the home of an elderly couple whose number Lee mistook for George Zimmerman’s. Pro tip for Jon: maybe when a black man is executed based on his race (especially in the South), you want to avoid making hyperbolic comments about lynching. Despite Jon’s tin ear for racial issues, his correspondents usually handle stories with strong racial components much more adroitly.

Which is why, with a few exceptions, I am always happy to see “Senior black correspondent” Larry Wilmore appear on the program. While he tends to ride the “middle of the road” more than I would, he usually does an adept job dropping knowledge on Jon Stewart’s faux-clueless straight man character*. In discussing the unbelievably stupid backlash against people’s reactions to Trayvon Martin’s killing (replete with the kind of fake outrage and false equivalence that characterizes the right’s desperate attempt to appear less than rabidly racist), Wilmore skewers the argument that people only get outraged when white people kill black people, and that black-on-black violence, while far more frequent, elicits almost no outrage. After pointing out a number of specific outrages about black-on-black violence, Larry says this: [Read more…]

Hate the crimes, not the criminal?

I have a weird relationship with the concept of ‘hate crimes’. On the one hand, we ought to punish people for their behaviours, rather than their beliefs. The very idea of punishing behaviour a little extra because it was motivated by an idea we dislike seems to stand in stark contrast to the idea of freedom of conscience. Yes, once conscience moves beyond the boundaries of one’s head it is subject to the rule of law, but adding punishment for believing the wrong thing still seems at odds with that principle. On the other hand, sometimes things like this happen:

Two suspects arrested in a shooting spree that that left three people dead in Tulsa, Oklahoma have confessed, police documents filed in court said. An affidavit filed on Monday said 19-year-old Jake England confessed to shooting three people and 32-year-old Alvin Watts confessed to shooting two.


“There is a lot of media interest in this country about whether it was a hate crime and the police are very keen to play that down,” [Al Jazeera reporter John] Terrett said. Police have yet to describe the attacks, which took place on Friday morning, as racially motivated, although the suspects are white and all five victims were African Americans.

Police are also examining whether England was trying to avenge the death of his father, who was killed two years ago. “He [England] wrote what looks like a race hate rant on Friday, the day of the shootings, on his Facebook page, referring to the killing of his father at the hands of an African American man who wasn’t charged with murder or attempted murder,” Terrett said. [Read more…]

Swedish sex models!!!

So there is a bit of a back-and-forth happening between Greta Christina and newly-minted FTBorg Taslima Nasreen. Ms. Nasreen wrote a piece essentially equating all sex work with exploitative slavery. Greta, a long-time sex work advocate, disagrees with a great deal of Taslima’s piece. So do I, for the record. However, I found it more than a little interesting and opportune that this issue has come up. Some of you will remember my buddy T who guest-wrote a great piece following the news of the Ontario Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize brothels. T and I were going back and forth on a longer piece about the strengths and weaknesses of Sweden’s model governing sex work. Since Ms. Nasreen specifically name-checks Sweden numerous times in her piece, I thought it would be the perfect time for T to publish this work.

Hir thoughts below the fold: [Read more…]

Liberalization of Canada’s sex work laws: a more informed perspective

One of the things I’ve learned in my years (ironically, from a friend of mine) is that nobody can possibly be an expert on everything – as such, it’s a good idea to have a lot of friends who are experts at different things. That way when I need advice on understanding physical sciences, politics, law, current events, philosophy… basically anything that I don’t understand well, I can “cloud-source” it to any number of buddies who will be able to give me a much more in-depth look at things than I could manage on my own.

One of these is my pal T, who has devoted a lot of time and energy to understanding issues surrounding sex work and sex workers. Ze found me through the blog (coolest thing about this job – awesome people find me rather than me having to put in the effort to make it work the other way ’round) and we started talking about stuff. Ze opened my eyes up to some viewpoints I’d never considered before, and so when I heard about the Ontario ruling I immediately asked hir for hir thoughts. Ze was kind enough to school me a bit on some of the details and implications of the ruling. Hir response is below the fold. [Read more…]