Unless you've been trapped in Faraday cage these past couple of weeks, unable to discern the blue-light glow of your latest smartphone Twitter alerts, you've certainly heard about Jillian Johnson's famous Facebook fracas.
The first-term City Councilwoman was apparently taken aback at the reaction that her post about police and the military being the "most dangerous people with guns," as the N&O's Virginia Bridges notes in today's very good summary of the matter:
However, Johnson’s outspoken, activist style drew backlash last week after she posted a statement on Facebook as members of the U.S. House of Representatives unsuccessfully called for measures to curb gun sales to people on terrorism watch lists following the Orlando shooting in the Pulse nightclub.
“I am all about keeping guns away from dangerous people,” she wrote, “but I feel like more of us should be pointing out that the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers, and that the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling and Islamophobia.”
Johnson posted a clarification Wednesday morning, saying “state-sanctioned violence causes more harm” than non-state sanctioned violence.
Every action has an opposite and likely unequal reaction, and the comments -- circulated from her personal Facebook page to an audience far wider than she expected -- led to a predictable reaction from those in and related to the law enforcement community, some of whom called for her resignation.
And, of course, the comments section of sites like the N&O's web site were as banal as one would expect, with predictably-racist diatribes involving returning to Africa, or criticism of black men and fathers.
And, just as predictably, came the full-throated defense of Johnson's comments from the most progressive in Durham's progressive community, many of whom seem to be members of the activist community that Johnson has long participated in, organized and championed.
All of which has made for, I am sorry to say, a terribly unenlightening and unenlightened debate. It is possible, indeed far more important, to disagree with her comments without the jingoism and call to proverbial arms we have seen in the initial pushback.
But the progressive defense of Johnson's comments is also, to these ears, tone-deaf and unable to be supported by the facts on the ground -- as we note beyond the jump, the CDC's statistics find that homicide is, by a factor of 50x, a more likely cause of death for young black males than police action.
In a sense, this very debate is emblematic of the poor coin of the current political discourse's realm.
Because the concept that police officers are among the "most dangerous" people with guns, while touching emotionally raw wounds in the shadows of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and so many others, is logically inconsistent with the sources, uses and users of guns and violence, in a way that undermines the very important point underlying Johnson's comments.
Because the use of policing power in the public interest is a necessary function of any division of government, and while Johnson shows great promise as one who can reform the work, the seeming eschewment of its validity and purpose could undermine that end.
Because the intersection of the fundamental tensions here -- the acknowledged misuse of power at times by law enforcement, coupled with the inalienable necessity of policing functions to exist -- makes it crucial that elected officials engage and not pigeonhole the subject.
At the end of the day, Johnson's activist background is one of the things that drives the passion and engagement so many citizens have with Durham's newest elected official.
Yet it may be hard to hold the reins of power and a picket sign simultaneously.
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First, let's start with what seems problematic in the arguments made in the initial post and the walkback that followed.
As noted above, I winced at the push from some corners calling for Johnson's resignation, or otherwise drawing a thin blue shield around the general topic she raised. That malpractices and violence have existed for a long time in policing is, at this point, incontrovertible -- yet there are those who seem to argue whenever police are challenged that the work is too dangerous, the sacrifices too great, for us to denigrate the mass for the acts of those who transgress.
Yet while I recognize and appreciate that there is a strong need for "policing the police" -- the notion that "the most dangerous people with guns" are law enforcement and soldiers is -- I'm sorry to have to be the one to say it -- completely indefensible.
(To acknowledge something we'll note below -- Johnson's comments in the Indy, a week after this controversy bubbled up, find her acknowledging that violence levels in the community clearly outweigh that inflected by policing. Yet I've heard versions of the same point she raised in other corners, and it's useful for a moment to put data to hyperbole.)
There have absolutely been cases -- Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson, and some would argue Durham and Raleigh -- where police actions or inactions have caused a loss of life.
Yet as BCR's Lisa Sorg noted earlier this year, January 2015 was the most dangerous, violent year in our City's recordkeeping, and firearms used by Bull City denizens were the overwhelming cause:
Guns, not surprisingly, were used in the majority of violent crimes: In nearly two-third of robberies, the suspect used a firearm. And 44 percent of the 1,336 aggravated assaults involving multiple victims also involved guns. “This is the result of people shooting at occupied dwellings,” Smith says, “often ongoing disputes.” [...]
Violent crime clearly occurs in East Durham, but there were five murders even in the western fringes of the city. At least one of these appeared to be the result of domestic violence; in fact, 10 of the 37 homicides were attributed to that type of crime.
This brings us to the victims, often lost in the haze of numbers and percentages. African-American men and boys are disproportionately harmed: They compose roughly two-thirds of violent-crime victims. This compares to whites, who make up 15 percent of violent crime victims and Latinos, at 17 percent.
214 aggravated assaults where guns were used. 37 homicides, the vast majority committed at the lethal end of a barrel sight.
Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, who noted in a 2013 analysis the following causes of death for black males aged 20-24:
- Homicide, 49.9%
- Unintentional injuries, 19.4%
- Suicide, 9.1%
- A list of maladies ranging from anemias to cancer to heart diseases, between 0.9% and 4.1%
- "Legal intervention," 0.8% -- defined as "Physical or other force used by police or other law-enforcing agents, including military on duty, in the course of arresting or attempting to arrest lawbreakers, suppressing disturbances, maintaining order, and other legal action. Includes legal execution and excludes citizen arrest."
So, if we want to get technical, a young black male is roughly 50 times more likely to be killed by homicide than by "legal intervention."
We don't have the data in this CDC summary to disaggregate further the category of legal intervention, but would note that this category includes those deaths that are considered justified -- including when a law enforcement officer is acting properly when responding to a crime in progress.
Yes, some fraction of these deaths are doubtlessly unjustified. (Exactly how many is a more pertinent question than ever.)
But it is also the case that homicides where law enforcement officers are not involved are far more common than the alleged iatrogenic deaths implied in Johnson's comment.
Indeed, this fraction would point out the necessity of policing (done right) as a form of common protection against homicide and violent crime, and to bring justice when such acts happen.
The above liturgy of statistics is, of course, wholly unnecessary to engage the topic, and the depth I go into here risks alienating, insulting or (to use a Millennial term!) "mansplaining" a problem that, as Charlie Reece notes in his own Facebook response to this issue, I cannot directly engage with as a white male.
And yet, given the nature of today's political discourse and our collective and individual easy-retreats to intellectual safe spaces, I feel it's actually necessary to put out there what the data show.
Because when it comes to this debate, there are other statistics being bandied about that lack much cohesion to reality.
Take one of the arguments made on a local blog (whose cite I cannot find at this writing) supporting Johnson's statement, arguing that deaths by police action far outweigh deaths by terrorists in the US.
By any stretch of logic, this is a patently absurd argument. (Police do not merely protect us from terrorists, e.g.)
Yet it is part and parcel of the level of debate taking place today.
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Of course, there's a deeper argument underlying Johnson's day-after clarification, in which she notes that she considers the harm that "state-sponsored violence" causes to be greater than that from other forms of violence.
Looking at the protests in Durham in recent years, the pain of families like Jesus Huerta's, there is no doubt that the actions of police in Durham, and certainly elsewhere in this time of troubled community-policing relationships, create a great deal of real as well as psychic harm, fear and mistrust in communities.
Yet when I hear Johnson's comments about the greater danger of "state-sponsored violence," I can't help but wonder how much distance lies between her words and the very real conversations going on in a segment of Durham today about "divesting" from police.
To me, the assumptions underlying that concept are impossible to contemplate.
It speaks to a deep, permanent, structural mistrust of sources and uses of power that does not seek to reform policing -- it seeks instead to remove it.
As Reece noted in his Facebook post, it would be condescending of me to believe that I have all the answers -- or more importantly, that I know all the pain, fear, racial injustice and violence that those who have been ill-served by policing feel.
Yet I also know that the solution must lie in fixing both the immediate causes of the problem -- reforming today's policing systems, adding real community oversight, but also addressing root causes of inequality and disagreement.
Sometimes, though, it's not clear to me who wants to fix what's broken, and who wants to break things beyond fixing.
And the greatest worry I have in watching this controversy unfold is, a City Council member should be unassailably, permanently, immovably on the former side of that line.
The most worrisome thing to me in this affair is, it likely leaves too much ambiguity around that question dangling in the air.
When I see an arch-conservative elected to public office whose first desire is to slash and burn the very underpinnings of the body politic, to cut schools and environmental protection and libraries all in the name of some Grover Norquistian fantasy, I rightfully wonder -- what the hell is a person who cares not about the public goods that government delivers, doing in government?
Yet the same skepticism must apply to those on the left as well.
A Council member who is as passionate, intelligent and engaged as Johnson can be a force for remarkable good in encouraging reforms and changes within Durham's policing systems. And indeed, the selection of a promising new chief, pressure on body camera policies, and scrutiny of jail conditions are all good.
I am certain that Johnson will continue to press for such changes, just as her advocacy among others' has helped to cause them.
Yet comments about police being "the most dangerous" gun users, or speaking of the danger in the state's inherent policing power, come at a time when they're easily misunderstood.
Mind you, these come at a time when staff at Cocoa Cinnamon see fit to stage a workers' revolt when their coffeeshop partners with police on a thanks-for-not-jaywalking campaign.
They come at a time where there is at least a self-serious movement to divest in police -- a movement that at some level seems to believe we would be better off without police in communities at all.
(Frankly, the level of abuses within our own legal system even with its checks and balances makes me shudder at a system with even less oversight and electoral accountability, but then, I don't dwell in the fantasy aisle at the bookstore, and I won't dwell on this particularly policy fantasy, either.)
They come amidst difficulties in recruiting and retaining police officers. Could such comments encourage a striving, fair-minded officer to choose elsewhere, while a cynical, capricious LEO shrugs and stays for the paycheck?
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Is it likely that Johnson literally believes that a person is at more direct risk from law enforcement officers in Durham than from community violence?
No -- indeed, Johnson quickly noted exactly this in comments to the Indy:
For her part, Johnson says she was making a broad point about policing and militarization to an audience—her private Facebook friends—that regularly engages in such conversations. "Outside my personal Facebook community, that message gets distorted and lost," she says.
"I don't think the police in Durham are more likely to cause harm to the Durham community than street violence," Johnson adds. "But I do think when they do cause harm—and they have—that needs to be quickly and effectively addressed."
I find it hard to quarrel with any part of Johnson's argument here.
Yet it is also a fundamentally different text and subtext here than the comment of a week prior. And it's those original comments that have been far too widely propagated for comfort.
More to the point, I suspect there are those in Durham's activist community who will accept the original comments as shorthand for the movement, the effort going on to reform -- and others in the community who literally believe this to be so, and see no hope for fixing a system they see as irrevocably broken.
The latter is a dead end for public policy.
And it's unfortunate that this affair will further foreswear some in the community to Johnson's position and perspectives.
This may be nothing more than a case of, as Johnson implies to Barry Saunders, comments among friends getting a wider, unintended circulation than intended.
Yet I hope this will also be a moment when, perhaps, we can remember the importance that perception has, and the important roles that community leaders have in, well, really leading a community.
You do not have to go back far in Durham's history to encounter some times of fairly terrible governance, and some fairly terrible elected and appointed officials to go along with it.
We have also had those who have been voices of reason, calm, compromise, engagement. And these latter officials have invariably been those who moved our community forward.
Johnson's strength lies in her engagement with the community, and she is not the kind of Council member to turn her back on protest marches and people's movements.
Yet there is a fundamental difference -- in tone, in contemplation, and in reflection -- between the work on activist front-lines and what happens at the dais.
Movements and marches are clearly very well-planned, yes, but they also ride a tide of immediacy and energy.
How many of us in our community, dear readers, were absolutely certain Something Terrible happened in that house on Buchanan Blvd. so many years ago? How many of us were on the lawn, with the pots, with the anger and sorrow in our hearts?
It was an open and shut case, everyone was sure -- until it wasn't.
Looking back, it was the great strength of Mayor Bell and of leaders at NC Central and Duke who called for cooler heads and calm to prevail.
(Frankly, the abhorrence so many younger Durhamites seem to hold for Bell's leadership sits to me as part and parcel of the Year of Bernie, Trump and Brexit, and the lack of taste we have for any form of compromise. Scorched earth over consilience, in all things in the public sphere; it leaves the nastiest, bitterest taste.)
"It will be very interesting to see how she balances that responsibility with her activist impulses," the Indy's David Hudnall wrote, closing his article in last week's issue.
It will indeed.
I only hope that should Durham have a real crisis in leadership or the public realm, that Johnson's voice will grow into one that can unite diverse voices, not divide it.