Friday, June 26, 2020

Rosa Diaz: The Face of Police Brutality

While it obviously is not anyone's top priority, many media observers have been wondering aloud about how Brooklyn Nine Nine will address the changing public perception of policing when it returns for its next season. Already, Terry Crews has suggested that several completed scripts have been scrapped as showrunners realize that they need to adapt. But it is going to be a very delicate line to walk. Since the show almost certainly is not going to return as a post office sitcom, it can't ignore the issue, or carry on as if the last few months haven't happened. Yet it probably can't do a full police abolition narrative, while if it takes a reformist approach it will be criticized for being too timid and out of touch.

As much as I love the show, I don't know if this is a hole it can write itself out of. But as I've thought about it, I keep on returning to one potential plotline:

Rosa Diaz gets kicked off the force for police brutality.

Now before I go further, I want to make two things clear.
(1) I adore Rosa Diaz. She's possibly my favorite character on the show. She's a queer icon. Stephanie Beatriz is a treasure.
(2) Rosa Diaz is definitely the main cast character most likely to physically abuse a suspect. Her whole character is based on her being violent, aggressive, and hot-tempered. She literally jokes about committing police brutality in the show's second episode!
It's not hard to imagine the scenario. Rosa is chasing a suspect through New York City alleys. She has to jump over dumpsters and garbage, she's hot, sweaty and frustrated. When she finally catches up with the guy at a dead end, she's basically snarling. And so even though he's cornered and not a threat, she takes him down -- hard. Which someone records, and it goes viral.

At this point, the squad divides. Jake, still hopped up on his childish notions on what it means to be a bad-ass cop, backs up his old friend from the academy; while Amy, in a new leadership position and more exposed to political fallout can't bring herself to defend Rosa's actions. Terry is sensitive to police brutality, having recently experienced a racist confrontation that nearly turned violent, and is surprised to learn that this is one area where Holt -- while not exactly approving -- is a man of his generation of cops, thinking that a rough take down of a suspect is business as usual and not worth getting riled up about. Hitchcock and Scully choose opposing sides for arbitrary reasons. Boyle is paralyzed by indecision.

Jake seizes on the notion that if he can prove the suspect really was guilty of a crime, Rosa's actions will be seen as justified. He works the case feverishly until he eventually discovers that the man Rosa injured had some drugs in his apartment -- a triumph, until Amy points out the obvious so what? So what if the guy smoked a few joints? Does that mean he deserved to be abused? Is Jake really going with "he's no angel"?

And so the resolution is not that Rosa is let off the hook, or learns a valuable lesson, or has the squad unite behind her. The resolution is that Rosa is fired from the NYPD (and, I imagine, written off the show).

Does it have to be Rosa? Could it be a random Nine Nine beat cop we had never seen before instead? No. It has to be Rosa, because it has to be someone we care about. The problem of police abuses is misjudged if it's viewed as the product of a few sadists hidden from public view. Those people exist, but the larger issue is that police abuse occurs by men and women who are in other respects normal, likable, courageous -- people who do good things, have friends who care about them and who care about others, people who in other contexts may do good or even heroic deeds. The Florida cop who attacked a peaceful protester, the one with 79 use of force complaints in three years? He also stopped a suicidal woman from jumping off a bridge. I bring this up not as an excuse -- just the opposite. It is to hammer home the gravity of the problem. This is the banality of evil at work; we deceive ourselves if we think it is a problem that is restricted just to some anonymous snarling monsters. We have to get used to the idea that police violence (like all injustices) are perpetrated by people who look familiar to us.

It has to be Rosa because it has to be someone who has already been fully fleshed out as a human, with the full array of human relationships and feelings and sentiments and history that humans carrying with them. It has to be someone we care about. Only that will give the issue the gravity it deserves.

Israel as Contagion

There's a narrative bubbling in certain areas of the left which seeks to tie American policing abuses to cross-training exchange programs some police departments do with Israeli counterparts. The narrative has its roots in Jewish Voice for Peace's "Deadly Exchange" campaign, which uses the claim as a means of further its campaign to see Israel isolated and ostracized in global society. As the issue of police violence surges to its place at the top of the public's deliberative agenda, the deadly exchange claim likewise attracted those eager for a anti-Israel or antisemitic hook. Just yesterday, new Labour leader Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey -- a prominent Jeremy Corbyn ally and one-time rival for party leadership -- from her position in Labour's shadow cabinet after she approvingly shared an article where actress Maxine Peake claimed, without evidence, that "The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services."

This is not true. Many have cited an Amnesty International report where, they say, it is proven that Israeli police train their American counterparts in human rights violations. But Amnesty has since come out and said explicitly that "Allegations that US police were taught tactics of ‘neck kneeling’ by Israeli secret services is not something we’ve ever reported." This is not surprising, as the content of these exchange programs by all accounts rarely, if ever, focuses on what we might euphemistically call "interpersonal" or "tactical" elements of police activity (it generally concentrates on strategic questions regarding operational responses to mass atrocities -- a subject upon which Israeli security forces sadly carry much expertise).

So what is going on? The stock response from those objecting to the link is the simple but truthful observation that American police hardly need Israeli help on the subject of how to harass racial minorities. Some have argued that, because it is true that there are Israeli and American policing exchange programs (and apparently some Minneapolis officers had partaken), it is ipso facto fair to draw a connection between American abuses and those training seminars -- without any regard to what actually is or is not done in those programs. The argument, in effect, a contagion theory: anyone who associates with Israelis, we can assume, is at least partially corrupted by the contact. They're worse off coming out than coming in.

In apologizing for her comment, Peake said something very interesting: she said "I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources." Assumption is the key word there: she had, presumably, read about Israeli and American police training together, and so she assumed that the bad American practices had Israeli roots. But the only evidence was the bare fact of contact -- that's what's driving the narrative. Hence: contagion.

This, I submit, is something antisemitism does. It allows such assumptions to become naturalized. They feel right. American police have done exchange training with counterparts in dozens of other countries, ranging from the UK to Germany to Mexico to Tanzania. Even those who take a dim view of, say, the Mexican police however would likely not jump from mere contacts to causality. If someone said "American police learned chokeholds from Tanzanian police," they'd ask for evidence. If the only evidence is "there are exchange programs between American and Tanzanian police", that likely wouldn't be sufficient. But antisemitism gives a smoother cognitive ride down -- it makes little connections look huge, and implausible leaps seem manageable. It is not accidental that the narrative is about Israeli police exchanges and not German or Mexican or Tanzanian ones.

This is an unorthodox but I think ultimately more accurate way of understanding what antisemitism does. We think of antisemitism often as a motive: because I hate Jews, I think or say or do this thing. But antisemitism is more often a force or process. We usually ask "did Burke or Long-Bailey say what they say because they hate Jews?" The answer to that may well be no. But that's not the right question. The right question is "did a particular way of thinking about Jews render what Burke or Long-Bailey said plausible or resonant in a way it otherwise would not have been?" And there I think it is quite clear that the answer is yes. It is because we think about Jews in a particular way that this contagion theory of Israeli culpability in American policing injustices -- a narrative which objectively stands on such a thin reed -- is plausible when it otherwise wouldn't be. That is the work of antisemitism.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Primary Day Predictions (Kentucky and New York)

It's primary day in America, with some big races in Kentucky and especially New York. Why not lay down a marker  of some predictions?

Kentucky Senate: McGrath defeats Booker. Over/under: 15 point margin.

NY-03: Tom Suozzi (incumbent)

NY-09: Yvette Clark (incumbent) -- but with less than 50%.

NY-10: Jerry Nadler (incumbent)

NY-12: Carolyn Maloney (incumbent)

NY-14:  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,(incumbent), and it's not close.

NY-15: Richie Torres breaks from the pack and defeats the loathsome Ruben Diaz Sr.

NY-16: Jamaal Bowman defeats Eliot Engel (incumbent) by a surprisingly comfortable margin (~10 points).

NY-17: Mondaire Jones in a tight race.

Keep in mind: I'm not very good at predicting things. But we'll see how I do?