De facto racism: poison-tipped bullets

I’m back from vacation, and will resume my regular blogging routine. My thanks to those of you who stuck it through the past couple of weeks. Happy New Year!

I consider myself lucky for a long list of reasons, but certainly chief among them is the truly impressive friends that I have amassed over the years. It’s often difficult (perhaps impossible) to engage in any kind of self-assessment that isn’t wildly coloured by self-serving biases, despite our best attempts to overcome them. I take no small amount of comfort, therefore, in making self-evaluations by proxy through my close friends. I admire and deeply respect these people, and the fact that they seem to actually enjoy my company (or at least do an excellent job of pretending to do so) leads me to suspect that I must be doing things at least halfway right.

One such friend is a young woman I met while studying at Queen’s. Kelly (not her real name) and I met while I was working at a bar in Kingston. She is a fiercely intelligent person who is very knowledgable about matters philosophical as well as legal (she’s now a law student at Queen’s with an undergrad in philosophy). I was able to meet up with her during my vacation in Toronto to catch up. We got to talking about her experiences working at a legal clinic in Kingston, and defending her first actual client as ‘first chair’ of the legal team. She was understandably excited that she was able to steer her client away from undeserved jail time (a sad story involving drugs, a negligent mother and overzealous police officers).

One of the legal maneuvers she was able to exploit in her client’s defense is a process called ‘diversion‘ – basically it is a way of having ostensibly guilty first-time offenders perform community service and restitution in lieu of jail time. From her description of the way it works, it requires agreement from the prosecutor (which is often not that difficult to obtain) that the defendant is essentially ‘a good guy’ who can make recompense and slide through without going to prison. Now, I have a notoriously bad poker face, so she immediately knew about my knee-jerk misgivings when it came to a program like this. After all, who could object to a program that includes the exercise of judicial restraint and principles of justice? [Read more…]

…and sometimes it’s not

Well THAT didn’t last long. My good mood from this morning has officially worn off. How could this have happened so quickly, you ask? Easy: because the people in charge are still unethical, scheming morons who legislate like cavemen and behave like schoolyard bullies.

Lethbridge MP makes shootout gesture during vote

A Conservative MP who made gunshot gestures as he voted to kill the long-gun registry last month says he meant no offence. A clip of Jim Hillyer miming a two-gun shoot-out as he voted was posted on YouTube on Tuesday, which was the anniversary of the Montreal massacre. Hillyer says if people were offended they should blame whoever posted the six-week-old video on the anniversary.


“No offence was intended. No one who sincerely looks at the video and the timing of the video would think for a second that I intended offence towards victims of violence. “The people who caused the association, the offence, are the people who connected the video at the wrong day. That is terrible.” [Read more…]

To deceive and project

I spotted a pretty clever tweet a few weeks ago that went something like: “Police are beating you for slight or nonexistent legal transgressions? Wow… shocking!” – Black people. The joke being, of course, that the kind of ham-fisted tactics that police are turning against peaceful protesters have been leveled against black people, particularly young men, for decades with scarcely any comment from the majority.

That’s one of the galling facets of privilege – it completely skews what your view of ‘normal’ is. Faced with stories about cops brutally beating young black men, many people reacted with incredulity. “I’ve never seen an officer hit someone. Are you saying that all cops are racist? I find that hard to believe.” I had a similar conversation with a friend when we both saw a police officer pull over a young black man driving in a nice car with dealer plates. When I cynically observed that the driver’s first mistake was driving a nice car while being black, my buddy expressed his disbelief, saying that dealer plates come with certain restrictions, and that he didn’t see it being a case of racial profiling.

I can certainly understand the instinct to dismiss these kinds of stories as exceptional or delusional. Five years ago, if you had told me that police were infiltrating political groups to drum up phony charges against them, I’d have called you a lunatic. Then again, five years ago I wasn’t reading stories like this: [Read more…]

The inherent racism of “Tough on Crime”

I’ve talked about the need for diversity before, as a way of making policy more effective. When you have a plurality of voices articulating their position, you stand a better chance of hearing new ideas. Diverse groups may be more unwieldy, but they are far less limited in scope than homogenous groups because a variety of perspectives are providing input. There is another reason why diversity is important though: it makes us less stupid. Because any in-group is going to subject to its own biases and privilege, the inclusion of diverse voices helps safeguard a movement from being self-serving, or worse, inadvertently harming another group.

It is fairly clear, based on this response, that the Prime Minister’s Office did not have a particularly diverse group building their absolutely moronic crime bill:

A University of Toronto law professor says a new federal crime bill chips away at sentencing provisions that require judges to consider all reasonable alternatives to jail. This, said Kent Roach, will only increase the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.

“We’re going to have a future where one in every four people in prison are aboriginal,” he said. “And we’re going to have a future where perhaps more aboriginal people are going to go to jail than to university.”

Nearly half of the inmates in some Canadian prisons are Aboriginal people. That’s despite the fact they make up less than three per cent of the general population.

So, funny story. It turns out that when you take away the ability of judges to… well… judge, they also lose the ability to factor in the causes of crime and the best interest of not only the criminal defendant, but society at large. Poverty and crime are inherently linked. Not all crimes, to be sure, are caused by poverty. One would have to stretch the definition of ‘poverty’ pretty thin to claim that Bernie Madoff was impoverished, but the types of violent and property crime that the omnibus crime bill are supposedly targeting is linked to poverty. [Read more…]

When in doubt, demonize!

Let’s play a fun imagination game. Imagine for a moment that you’re the political leader of your country. You’ve just won, with a minority of the votes, a majority of the power. It’s a majority that you’ve been fighting for tooth and nail for nearly a decade of consistent disappointments. You’ve had to compromise with a political system and a populace that disagrees with everything you believe in, but now you’ve finally got the ability to push your pet projects through.

Let’s continue the game, and imagine that you’ve managed to win this majority by playing groups against each other, and ramping up personal attacks against your opponents. It’s paid dividends thus far, because your opponents have been feckless wimps who don’t have the wherewithal to punch back. What happens when, in the absence of a credible politician to oppose you, you’re instead opposed by reality. What do you do?

If your answer is “launch personal attacks against reality”, then congratulations! You have the right kind of political instincts it takes to be Prime Minister of Canada: [Read more…]

You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!

I hope nobody can confuse me with someone who approves of religion, my recent posts supporting the idea of humanist ‘churches’ notwithstanding. I don’t. Religion is built on a foundation of unwarranted belief in claims that are nonsensical at best, and horribly destructive at worst. It concentrates unchecked and unimpeachable power in the hands of people who have done nothing to warrant it, and propagates abusive practices through threats and bribery:

Britain’s madrassas have faced more than 400 allegations of physical abuse in the past three years, a BBC investigation has discovered. But only a tiny number have led to successful prosecutions. The revelation has led to calls for formal regulation of the schools, attended by more than 250,000 Muslim children every day for Koran lessons.

The chairman of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board said he would treat the issue as a matter of urgency. Leading Muslim figures said families often faced pressure not to go to court or even to make a formal complaint. A senior prosecutor told the BBC its figures were likely to represent the tip of an iceberg.

But hey, so does the Boy Scouts, apparently:

CBC News has learned that Scouts Canada has signed out-of-court confidentiality agreements with more than a dozen child sex-abuse victims in recent years, shielding the incidents from further media attention. In many of the agreements, a confidentiality clause prevents victims from revealing the amount paid or even the fact that there was a settlement. At least one bars a former boy scout from publicly divulging that the abuse took place. Scouts Canada has refused to disclose details about any of the settlements. Sources tell CBC News that some settlements were around $200,000. [Read more…]

How do you know when you’re wrong?

Well there’s no definitive answer to this, but it’s a pretty safe bet you are if you’re considered too conservative for Texas:

Conservatives in the United States’ toughest crime-fighting jurisdiction — Texas — say the Harper government’s crime strategy won’t work. “You will spend billions and billions and billions on locking people up,” says Judge John Creuzot of the Dallas County Court. “And there will come a point in time where the public says, ‘Enough!’ And you’ll wind up letting them out.” Adds Representative Jerry Madden, a conservative Republican who heads the Texas House Committee on Corrections, “It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build ’em, I guarantee you they will come. They’ll be filled, OK? Because people will send them there. “But, if you don’t build ’em, they will come up with very creative things to do that keep the community safe and yet still do the incarceration necessary.”

I’ve spoken before about the terrible clusterfuck of ideas that is the incoming omnibus crime bill. It’s a mishmash of ideas, some of which are good, most of which are bad. Legal authorities, criminal law enforcement, opposition MPs, pretty much everyone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to crime, they’ve all said that it’s a bad idea. Then again, our mighty ruling party has demonstrated repeatedly that it is relatively indifferent to outside criticism.

Until, apparently, they went to Texas. It’s not a trivial issue – arguments that work in Texas work for the Republican North party’s base. If there was anywhere that this type of bill should receive a warm welcome, it’s in “common sense” Texas. The only criticism one would be likely to expect is that Canada’s crime bill, coming from the great socialist north, would be seen as a bit “soft on crime”.

The problem is that Texas has about a 10-year crystal ball look into the future to know that this kind of approach just doesn’t work: [Read more…]

Greta says it so I don’t have to

One of the frustrating things about this blog is that I have a lot of stuff I like to talk about, but limited time/energy/motivation to cover it all. I also worry about losing focus and having this Manifesto turn into a diffuse leftist whine-zine. The thing that is particularly frustrating is when I get e-mails from readers suggesting I talk about this article or that issue, and I have to tell them that I will try but can’t guarantee anything. For one reader, I had to give a definite ‘no’. The reader in question is someone who has worked with sex workers before and thought that since I was pro-fem and anti-racist, that the topic would be well-suited to my attention.

I had to confess to this person that while ze made a very valid point, I am not informed enough about the topic to do it justice, and it was a bit outside my wheelhouse. This exchange happened a few months ago and I have been quietly working behind the scenes to see if I can’t get some traction to open this issue up to the skeptic community here in Vancouver, since the city has many of its own demons to deal with when it comes to the sex trade.

The awesome thing about this blog is, now that I am an FTBling, I am surrounded by people who can do a much better job than I can of discussing these important issues:

The myth: Prostitutes and other sex workers can’t choose their customers. They have to have sex with anyone who offers to pay.

When you think about this for ten seconds, you should realize that it makes no sense. People in any other service profession can, and do, turn down customers they don’t want to work with. Therapists, car mechanics, gardeners, hair stylists, nannies… you name it. There are a few exceptions — emergency room doctors leap to mind — but for the most part, it’s understood that, as long as they’re obeying non-discrimination laws, service professionals reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. (My hair stylist has told me long, entertaining stories about clients she’s fired.) So it’s kind of weird to assume that sex workers would be the exception.

Greta Christina, one of my favourite writers (the first version of this post contained a 2-paragraph gushing elaboration of this fact – I decided to turn down the squee a bit) and fellow FTBorg hits 9/10 of my high points of the issue – sex workers as workers, sex workers as autonomous people, female sex workers as the victims of a cruel sexual double-standard – with her usual flair and sharp, critical eye. The one thing that didn’t make it into the piece was the way in which violence against sex-workers is disproportionately weighed against people of colour (PoCs) working as prostitutes, which tesselates nicely into her overall argument.

Anyway, I feel slightly less guilty about not spending more time on this topic, since I have a much more capable colleague to do it for me. Go read her stuff.

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Mandatory Minimums, Marijuana, and Measurement

I harp quite a bit on our comfortable Canadian myth that Canada doesn’t have a race problem. While I disagree with it in principle, in practice it is true provided you are grading on a curve. Canada doesn’t have nearly the same problem with racism that places like South Africa, South America, or even many places in Europe do. Canada’s history is one of comparative tolerance… aside from the initial displacement and subsequent repeated betrayals of its indigenous peoples… and the internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war… and the treatment of black settlers in the Maritimes… okay this is distracting me from my point.

Our many failures aside, Canada does not have the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred that our neighbour to the south does. Well we do, but ours is less apparent/violent. Because of our non-identical histories in this regard, we have often compared ourselves favourably to Americans. The open question, one that may never be adequately answered, is the size of that difference. With large sociological and demographic differences between our countries, and due to the diffuse nature of the variable of interest (how do you quantify how racist someone is?), it’s a question that may be beyond our capacity to answer scientifically.

However, thanks to the short-sightedness of our federal government, we may have a shot at estimating a facet of it:

More per capita marijuana arrests are made in [Washington DC] than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.

But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.

If that graph doesn’t shock you, then you’re either completely heartless, or just as cynical as I am. While the rates of consumption of marijuana are roughly equal*, the arrest rate is tipped grotesquely in favour of arresting black people for marijuana possession. Now I can (and often do) speculate about the more indirect or obscure methods by which racism manifests itself, but this one is pretty clear cut: police officers are stopping and searching black people more often than they are white people. The idea of black pot smokers is more apparent in the minds of police than the contrasting idea of good, honest white folks being druggies. As a result, it becomes far more commonplace to look for drugs when stopping black District residents than white ones.

I was once invited to go to Washington, D.C. for a vacation. I politely declined, pointing out that statistics like this are why, despite my love of history and politics, Washington D.C. stands forever on my list of places that I will not visit unless I have to. Of course, most of the U.S. is like that for me, so perhaps that isn’t a big deal. Stephen Colbert once accurate described the city as “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center” – a tiny nucleus of white residents surrounded by a vast sea of unrepresented and underserved black residents. A place like that would render me incapable of functioning.

However, this does point the way to an interesting natural experiment. Now that the Republican North Party has announced its intention to pass a wildly unpopular and ineffective anti-crime bill that includes mandatory minimums for possession of marijuana, we can draw some comparisons. A few years back there was a great to-do about racial profiling in Toronto police. Many hands were wrung and pearls clutched over the fact that we, too, might be racist. With the introduction of mandatory minimums for possession, we can draw some direct comparisons between criminal justice in the United States and in Canada – are charges dropped less frequently against whites compared to blacks? Are black people stopped and searched more often, leading to a disproportionate level of sentencing? Do arrests break down by postal code?

Now it must be said that having this one statistic will not give us a measure of racism across the board. Obviously Canada has a very different rural/urban mix than the U.S. does, and segregated communities are something of a foreign concept to us, with perhaps the exception of certain suburbs. Our demographic makeup is also quite different in terms of ethnic groups, both in terms of size and in terms of sheer numbers. That being said, it will allow us to scrutinize the way we practice law enforcement, and point to areas that need our concerted attention. It is to our detriment to have one segment of our population disproportionately represented in the prison system, since it prolongs the effects of wealth and access/achievement disparities to make them into trans-generational problems.

While I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re heading backwards in terms of crime, or that racial profiling is a tool used by law enforcement, this new bill may provide us a unique opportunity to measure the effects of both. Hopefully only for a little while, when the next government scraps the stupid legislation and spends our money on something useful. Like ponies.

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*I am sure that some pedant will whinge about the self-report nature of the scale. The absolute size of the pot-smoking population is irrelevant. You would have to provide some pretty overwhelming evidence to get me to believe that black people are 8 times as likely to lie about smoking weed than white people, which is what that nitpick implies.

News blast: women’s headlines from around the world

As I mentioned this morning, there’s been a lot of stuff going on that I haven’t been able to get to, but that I would like to. I’ve only done this a couple of times before, but instead of a full-fledged Crommunist Manifesto treatment, I’m going to have to provide mini-commentary on these. Please do not interpret this as an indication of anything other than the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, and days in a week. This post is for the ladies.

Saudi women may vote: King Abdullah

Women in Saudi Arabia are to be given the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, King Abdullah has announced. He said they would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council. The move was welcomed by activists who have called for greater rights for women in the kingdom, which enforces a strict version of Sunni Islamic law. The changes will occur after municipal polls on Thursday, the king said.

This move is so obvious and risibly behind the times that it’s almost hard to praise it. However, this small concession could potentially have profound meaning for the women of Saudi Arabia. That’s the problem, I suppose, with trying to impress liberals like me: you do something we ask you to do, and then we ask you why you didn’t get it done faster. There seems to be a lot of popular support for this move, and the least cynical side of me is inclined to say that this is indicative of a desire for true reform from the Saudi royal family. Within the structure of Shariah law there will never be legal equality for women in Saudi Arabia; however, it’s still a positive step that women will be allowed to make some decisions for themselves. Now maybe the car keys too?

Social media protest nets rape arrest in Nigeria

The Nigerian police have arrested two people in connection with the gang-rape of a woman posted on the internet. Bala Hassan, the commissioner for police in Abia State, said the two men were detained after cyber activists posted pictures and names online. The video has shocked Nigeria both for the brutal nature of the rape and the initial failure to investigate.

Once again, I have no words to describe the contempt I have for the vile slime that would participate in a gang-rape, let alone videotape it. They are perhaps one level below the police who, given evidence that can clearly identify the victim and perpetrators, decide to drop the case. While we (rightly or wrongly) often deride internet activism under the increasingly-inaccurate label of ‘slacktivism’, it’s great to see it being used as a tool for greater justice. While it is a double-edged sword that can be used to shame victims, this is a case where the reverse is true and those who failed to uphold their duty to justice were shamed into doing their jobs.

Wangari Maathai dies at age 71 

Kenya’s Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai has died in Nairobi while undergoing cancer treatment. She was 71. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation, women’s rights and transparent government – the first African woman to get the award. She was elected as an MP in 2002 and served as a minister in the Kenyan government for a time. Ms Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted 20-30 million trees in Africa.

It’s a shame, and a testament to my shitty scholarship, that I only learned about Wangari Maathai – a black African woman with a Nobel prize. Talk about your stereotype smashers. Reading her obituary, Ms. Maathai was a consummate warrior against the sexist status quo, and refused to let the patriarchy back her down. Kenya is one of the more stable and progressive countries in Africa (man… that makes me sad – Kenya is no Norway), and it owes quite a bit of that to the work of Ms. Maathai and those she inspired.

Report on sex trade needs to focus on roots of issue

Angela Marie MacDougall was exploited as a young girl, trafficked to grown men for sex. From ages 15-21, she continued working in the sex trade, mostly in Vancouver. It’s the usual story of how girls are inducted into sex work, she told a public hearing Thursday at Vancouver city hall on a city staff report about how to deal with sexual exploitation and Vancouver’s sex trade. “We hear in the report that we’re talking about women,” MacDougall said. “But guess what? Many of us aged into adulthood in terms of [selling sex]. We did not start as adults. We can’t pretend we’re not talking about girls here. By ignoring that in the report, we are failing.” MacDougall, who now works for Battered Women’s Support Services, told council the report needs to focus more on how and why young girls are being pulled into the sex trade in the first place, to get to the root of the problem.

I had a blog reader e-mail me (I love it when y’all do that, by the way) to encourage me to speak more about issues of the sex trade. For the record, I am pro-sex, provided that both parties consent and there is no coercion or exploitation involved. If that means money changes hands, then by all means throw those bucks down. Criminalizing prostitution only makes it more dangerous for all parties involved, particularly those who work as prostitutes. Vancouver has a thriving sex trade, but the structure of Canada’s laws and our puritanical views of sex make it a dangerous occupation. While some of the opinions expressed in the article are mind-numbingly stupid, it is a good sign that this kind of conversation is happening in the open.

My apologies for not giving these stories the individual attention they deserve. I invite your chastisement and further exploration of the issues behind the stories in the comments section.

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