Detroit Police Chief on Arming Teachers

Over the past week, opposition to Trump’s proposal to arm teachers has played out in news channels, in town halls, on blogs and in social media: arming teachers would increase negligent shootings, aggravate existing racial disparities in harsh school discipline and endanger students of color, and create an undue burden on teachers already strapped for resources and support.

But one surprising voice in favor of arming teachers? Pro-gun public law enforcement. Just today, Chief James Craig of Detroit made local headlines by warming up to the idea of arming teachers:

“What’s a better idea? I’ve not heard one,” Chief James Craig told The Detroit News this week. “You can say put armed police officers into every school, but that’s not practical. I’m not saying arming teachers is the only solution, and I’m certainly not saying we should just hand out guns to all teachers. That’s ridiculous.

“But it makes sense to arm certain teachers who are trained, such as former military or police officers. That’s only one of several components, including taking a strong look at mental health issues, and making sure police take action when they get indications someone may be violent.”

Popular headlines in the New York Times (“As States Expand Gun Rights, the Police Object”), the Washington Post (“Houston police chief on gun control: If not now, when?”), USA Today (“Gabby Giffords’ gun-control group gets new law enforcement allies”) often paint American police as natural allies to advocates for stricter gun control. But survey research suggests a different dynamic: sure, they want more background checks and tighter mental health restrictions, but police support gun rights over gun control by a factor by a factor of 3 to 1 (civilians are split 50-50), and they are twice as likely as civilians to oppose an assault weapons ban.

While the public law enforcement community is known for being a more conservative bunch, the wide embrace of gun rights seems to fly in the face of broad trends that have widened the gulf between public law enforcement and the people they police, such as police militarization. Why would “warriors in blue” want civilians to be armed as well–and with assault weapons at that?

That’s a big question, with a complicated answer (one that I’m unraveling in my book-in-progress, Policing the Second Amendment, which is based on nearly 80 interviews with law enforcement in Arizona, California and Michigan). But part of the answer has to do with mass shootings. On the ten-year anniversary of Columbine, the Associated Press ran a story about the impact of the mass shooting on police training, tactics, and mindset. Headlined as “Shoot First: Columbine High School Massacre Transformed US Police Tactics,” the article outlined the new police sensibilities about the phenomenon of “active shooter”: with a gunman killing a person every 15 seconds in an active shooting event, police now “rush toward gunfire and step over bodies and bleeding victims, if necessary, to stop the gunman—the active shooter—first.” In contrast to the “contain and wait” strategies employed at Columbine, “it’s been a complete turnaround” according to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

This transformation resonated throughout my research. During my interviews with police chiefs, I was struck by how active shootings, starting with Columbine, had altered how police think about gun violence as a policing problem, how they understand police responses to gun violence, and even how they relate to their own guns. Mass shootings–especially in “normal” (read: white, middle-class suburban) places–caught police off-guard, and compelled them to adopt a distinct kind of mindset, centered on first-response. This mindset was saturated with anxiety about their own inefficacy without their guns (e.g., “Say I’m in a movie theater, and there’s a shooting and I am there but I can’t do anything because I don’t have a gun? I would feel devastated. Ashamed. Guilty, I would feel like all of those lives lost were on me. And it would ruin me forever. So that’s really opened my eyes”) and with their insistence that they’d act decisively if faced with an active shooter (e.g., “I don’t want to be caught in the middle of some movie theater where someone is shooting. There are lots of examples where people are unarmed, and someone is just shooting for the hell of it. I’m not going to be one of those guys who sit there and does nothing.”) And what’s more: I found that this first-responder-oriented mindset also opens up a space for armed civilians to play a role. As one chief told me, “If there’s an off duty cop next to me when I need back up, I’m going to want that back up. And I don’t see what’s the difference between that off-duty cop and the responsible citizen. There is zero difference.” 

Right now, US law enforcement are grappling with the “devastating” (in Sheriff Scott Israel’s words) inaction of Broward County Sheriff deputies at the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and they are re-evaluating their own protocols for preventing and responding to an active shooting event. As they do so, many police spokespersons are likely to advocate for stricter gun laws. But if Chief James Craig of Detroit, existing survey data, and my own interviews are any indication, just as many will double down on the “responsibly” armed American as a stop-gap measure for responding to active shootings.

 

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Review of “How Democracies Die”

 

“The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate,’ to mask the nothingness of what goes on…those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence.” – Slavoj Zizek, Violence

Is it a scholarly analysis? A manifesto? A living will for the death throes of American democracy? Already a bestseller and New York Times Editor’s Choice book, the newly released How Democracies Die is a text by Harvard political scientists Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. An accessible book no doubt responding to the urgency to ‘do something’ amid the chaos of the Trump presidency, the book is part wake-up call, part diagnosis, and part prescription.

Their wake-up call contains perhaps the most compelling observation of the book: anyone who thinks that democracies end because of dramatic autocratic power-grabs or military coups needs to shake themselves out of the 20th century. In today’s world, democracy dies not with a bang but a whimper, and oftentimes with the help of democratic institutions themselves. Hence, the lengthy juxtaposition of Trump with a variety of elected officials-turned-autocrats.

The next set of questions, though, are why the US, and why now? This is where the book starts to fall apart, and the urgency of the moment overtakes cool scholarly analysis as they call out two culprits: the declining power of political parties and the erosion of democratic norms.

First, they celebrate the gatekeepers of democracy–political parties–and bemoan the increasing democratization of the presidential primary process that began in the 1960s: “Binding primaries were certainly more democratic. But might they be too democratic?” (pg. 51). Here, as in other places, they equivocate, never clarifying what, exactly, counts as “democracy” or “democratic,” and how one would judge what makes something “too democratic” or “not democratic enough” other than the emergence of an elected demagogue at some point down the road. Thus, without any irony, the authors write, “For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping.”

Second, readers are reassured throughout the book that, indeed, democracy really did exist in the United States, and it was a good democracy: the book argues that the political norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance sustained a healthy political culture, at least from the aftermath of the Civil War until the present-day chaos. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, then, our task is not to build democracy (or interrogate and then put into practice which kind of democracy Americans actually want)–it is to save a lost democracy by recuperating these norms and, hopefully along the way, rebuilding institutions.

The most problematic element of the book is, then, revolves their attempts to hedge against the most obvious critique of this move to ‘save’ democracy: Democracy for whom?  They, perhaps following the liberal injunction to be ‘woke’, periodically remind the reader that white supremacy and racial exclusion have distorted American politics, but these observations are never systematically integrated in their analysis of how democracies ‘die’ and how democracies can be ‘saved.’ Perhaps this is because genuinely integrating this would mean that democracy has long been dead–or, maybe better put, long been in a zombie state. In other words, Levitsky and Ziblatt want it both ways–they want to reach historically backward for a Golden age of democracy that is marked by the cherished norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance, but they want to assert an awareness that these norms were made possible by an austere system of racial exclusion and expulsion. Consider this passage:

“America’s democratic norms, at their core, have always been sound. But for much of our history, they were accompanied—indeed, sustained—by racial exclusion.” (p. 232)

How can the core of norms be sound if the soil that sustains them is rotten? Rather than doing the analytical or historical work to answer this question, they equivocate: norms were both accompanied and sustained by racial exclusion. But history does not appear so equivocal; this is not merely guilt by association. Throughout the period that Levitsky and Ziblatt deem the high point of American democracy, people of color were politically excluded, economically marginalized, and violently terrorized by private citizens and state agents alike. And racial exclusion continues to operate through a highly anti-democratic political apparatus, though you’d never know it based on How Democracies Die. Nowhere in the book is there a serious challenge to a variety of anti-democratic elements of the American political system that far predated Trump–and will far outlast him. Readers hear not a peep about, as just one example, the anti-democratic elements of law enforcement, including the increased use of lethal force, the apparent impunity of officers who use that force, the erosion of constitutional protections vis-a-vis police power, and the non-starter status of any reform that hints at genuine community oversight or transparency.

It is a shame that Levitsky and Ziblatt cannot take their acknowledgement about the role of racial exclusion to inform their own prescription, because it would have provided a far richer terrain of political possibilities than outlined in the feel-good conclusion. In their concluding thoughts, readers learn that Americans must stick to our core values (including diversity) but at the same time, open our arms to new allies. As the book celebrates the “American creed” of “individual freedom and egalitarianism,” the missed opportunity for excavating Really Existing Democracy becomes palpable. Indeed, rather than political parties, it is the very histories that Levitsky and Ziblatt gloss over–the histories of oppression and struggle among the racially excluded throughout the late 19th and into the 20th and 21st centuries–that provide the most encouraging indications of American democratic spirit. As Princeton intellectual Imani Perry writes in More Beautiful and More Terrible,

“Practices of resilience are already part of every cultural tradition in this nation and certainly are part of every history of undoing historic injustice…my measure of possibility is not present claims to impotence; it is historic examples of resilience and then transcendence. There is no humbler root found than that of the descendants of slaves, no greater possibility than going from chattel to citizen, no stronger motivation than the legacy of those who made that transformation real.” (p. 207)

Implicitly, How Democracy Dies conceals that legacy with a wish for a return to a nostalgic fantasy of democracy. Overall, my concern with this book isn’t that readers will find parts of it misplaced, and other parts of it compelling (as I do); it is that readers will come away from it thinking that they understand something about American democracy that–by virtue of the book’s partial narrative–is only further obscured. Across the political spectrum, Americans today are convinced of the urgency of the present moment; if we don’t make history, history will unmake us. Levitsky and Ziblatt persuasively show how political polarization has been aggravated by the high-stakes ‘tit for tat’ game between Democrats and Republicans; unfortunately, though, Levitsky and Ziblatt seem embedded in a similar kind of game. Not unlike Trump’s fantastically nostalgic promise to bring back American manufacturing jobs despite fundamental shifts in technology and political economy, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die ultimately turns on a sustained nostalgia for a democratic Golden Age that, for many Americans, is not worth returning to.

 

Rebooting

Hi, Friends.

This semester I get to say those amazing words: “I’m on junior sabbatical.” That means it is time to read again, write again, and blog again. This is the chance not just to run myself into the proverbial ground of grinding academic productivity, but rather to reboot. Of course, to figure out what that meant, I spent a lot of time hitting the academic advice columns, hoping to blueprint my way to a restorative sabbatical.

Annoyingly, there’s a lot of advice out there if you are planning to take a whimsical sabbatical that involves packing up your entire family to travel the world. With a terminally ill father and a family that includes four felines, that’s not practical for me. That also isn’t my ideal sabbatical, anyway. Yes, I have much-needed travel planned, but set me up on an ergonomic work-couch, surround me with cats, and put coffee at my side and a computer in my lap, and I’ll be contentedly productive.

Or at least, so I think. The problem is that it is so freaking easy, amid the pressures of finishing a PhD, getting settled into a job you love, and chasing down tenure, to lose touch with what is so enjoyable about that triumvirate of the academic idyll–cats, coffee, and computer–after all. Now, at the start of 2018, I realize I haven’t really, sincerely pressed the pause button at least since 2010. So, here I am, learning again to love the life of the mind, relishing in #cleaneating, finding productivity in slowing down rather than speeding through, forging forward with Book #2…and rebooting this blog. I’m especially encouraged by my mentors in academic sanity (looking at you, Jooyoung Lee & your Positive Sociology!) and looking forward to sharing sabbatical tips, sociological thoughts, a few breakthroughs, and definitely some cat photos.

#rebootcomplete

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