Standing For The Anthem

In our sports-obsessed culture, when a professional athlete declines to stand for the National Anthem and says it is because he is protesting race relations and police brutality, it’s news.  In this instance, Colin Kaepernick’s actions have provoked some fans to burn his San Francisco 49ers jersey and generated reactions from all points on the political spectrum.

tsjcI don’t get the jersey-burning.  Of course, under the First Amendment, Kaepernick has a right to protest and advocate for his position on important issues of the day, period.  We all do.  Although some people increasingly seem hell-bent on punishing and eventually criminalizing free speech, through speech codes and “safe zones” and other contrivances designed to protect our delicate sensibilities from unpopular views — and, of course, quash the expression of those views in the first place — every American still has a right to peacefully express their views on topics like racism.  Kaepernick’s actions aren’t unAmerican; they’re quintessentially American.

And anybody who thinks sports figures should just take their big salaries and keep their mouths shut is kidding himself, too.  Sports have been politicized for as long as I can remember, since at least the 1968 Olympics when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists and bowed their heads during the playing of the National Anthem.  And the NFL itself has become increasingly involved in public issues, with events like breast cancer awareness weeks where the players wear garish pink towels and socks.  Breast cancer is a pretty safe public issue, but it’s a public issue nevertheless.  To the extent there ever was a line between sports and the real world, that line has long since been erased and crossed.

Kaepernick’s gesture shows the power of free speech — which is why the founding fathers were so interested in protecting it.  One player sits during the National Anthem, and it provokes a firestorm. Kaepernick obviously picked the National Anthem because he knows that every sports event starts with its playing and that it is a source of pride to Americans.  Showing disrespect for the Anthem is an effective way of drawing attention to your cause, just like burning a flag was during the campus protests in the 1960s.

Of course, we can wonder whether Kaepernick will just sit during the Anthem, or will go beyond exercising his free speech rights to actually do something to promote better race relations or address police actions.  The San Francisco police have invited him to come to the police academy to open lines of communication and learn about the challenges facing the thin blue line.  I hope he accepts that invitation, and uses the interest his one-man protest has generated to increase understanding and help improve things.  Sitting is one thing, taking meaningful action is quite another.

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How Divided Are We, Really?

Another week with really bad news.  Two African American men in two different states are killed in encounters with police that inexplicably escalated into fatal shootings, followed by five Dallas police officers shot down by a sniper at a protest of those police actions.

It’s the kind of grim, bloody ugliness that causes people to question whether the social fabric of the country is being ripped apart, and whether the common threads linking us all as Americans are snapping, one by one.

Police Shootings ProtestAnd yet, I don’t think there is an irreparable divide — at least, not yet.  No one I know, regardless of their race or political views, thinks that police should be shooting African Americans who are stopped simply for driving with a broken taillight.  No one I know, from any point on the political spectrum, thinks that police officers who are doing their duty at a peaceful protest should be assassinated.  There may be tiny fringe elements of disturbed people who believe such actions are appropriate; America has always had its share of lunatic loners.  But I’m quite confident that the vast majority of Americans unequivocally reject what we have seen in Louisiana, and Minnesota, and Dallas this week.  In that, at least, Americans can stand united.

So why, then, are people feeling a gnawing sense of despair about where the country is, and where it is headed?  I think it’s because we’ve seen these same scenarios before . . . and nothing gets done.  We feel disturbed because we don’t think our political leaders, or even our political culture generally, is capable of addressing the problem in a meaningful, effective way. We don’t understand how we can have gotten to the point where police shootings have become so commonplace, or where a military veteran can become so disaffected that he takes a rifle and starts indiscriminately killing police officers and shooting others at a protest — but we have a nagging fear that these incidents, too, will produce no answers.  We expect that we’ll see Facebook memes, and we’ll see people of different political views retreat to their corners, and we’ll see talking heads vigorously disagree about whether the problem is racism, or guns, or poorly trained police, or a general sense of hopelessness, but we fear that ultimately nothing will change, ever.

It’s another example of how the citizenry is being ill-served by the political classes.  I honestly don’t think the American people are deeply divided on these incredibly basic, core issues.  We know that what we are seeing in Dallas and Minnesota is flat-out wrong and can’t be countenanced.  We just don’t think that the people who are charged with trying to deal with the problems are up to the task.  We don’t think they’re willing to cast aside their knee-jerk reactions and pointless bromides and actually sit down to talk honestly and work out a possible solution — and we’re probably right.

That’s why so many people are walking around today, feeling an immense sense of sadness and discouragement about our country.  We feel like we’ve seen this before, and before, and before, and we know exactly how it will play out this time, too.

Cleveland’s Lucky Get

When the Republican National Committee picked Cleveland to host the 2016 Republican Convention back in July 2014, it was good news for the City by the Lake.

Back then, of course, no one knew how the Republican race would shape up, or precisely who would be competing for the nomination.  So happy Cleveland city elders probably anticipated your normal Republican convention, where one candidate would long since have the nomination sewn up, polite delegates wearing silly hats would flood into local restaurants to buy fine meals and drinks, and the only drama would be identification of the vice presidential candidate and whether Clint Eastwood would give another speech to a chair.  Delegates would come to town, toast the new nominee, spend some money and generate some tax revenues, and compliment Cleveland on its new look.

elite-defenderjpg-72ac43921b785fbaIt hasn’t exactly turned out that way.  With four Republicans still in contention and splitting up delegates, new twists and turns every day, “establishment” Republicans vowing to fight against a nomination of Donald Trump at all costs, and party leaders openly talking about a brokered convention, Cleveland could host the most eventful party convention in decades — perhaps since the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968.  And the kind of police-protester clashes that made the Chicago convention so memorable might be replicated, too, if the Trumpeters feel that their candidate has been screwed out of the nomination and decide to take their angry, “anti-establishment” mindset a few steps further.

So I wasn’t surprised when I read that Cleveland is looking to spend $50 million on riot gear and other crowd control materials in preparation for the convention.  According to news reports, the money will be spent on things like black, robotic-looking riot control suits complete with a robust and no doubt comfortable codpiece, 26-inch collapsible batons that police can use to crack protester heads if necessary in the name of public order, special riot-control suits for officers riding bicycles (riding bicycles?  in a riot?), and miles of interlocking steel barriers, ranging from 3 1/2 feet high to 6 1/2 feet high, for crowd control purposes.  Cleveland also plans to have a special force of 5,000 police officers — many recruited from neighboring communities — on hand, just in case things get feisty.

Whoo-hoo!  It could be hot times in Cleveland come July.  Let’s just hope the hat-wearing, button-sporting Republican delegates can still see and enjoy some of the city sights over the steel barriers and past those warmly welcoming black-suited riot police.

Fuel To The Fire

New Year’s Eve might be even a bigger deal in Europe than it is here.  (Google “drunk Brits new years eve” if you don’t believe me.)  But in Cologne, Germany — and in other cities in Germany and elsewhere — the drunken mayhem took a turn for the worse.

In Cologne, mobs of drunken men surrounded, assaulted and robbed women in the huge square outside the city train station; two rapes also were reported.  German police now estimate that as many as 1,000 men were involved in the incidents and are looking for 16 men in particular.  More than 100 women and girls have come forward to report the gropes, robberies, and attacks by the men, and they describe a chaotic and lawless scene in which the gangs of men did whatever they wanted without fear of apprehension or reprisal.  The women say there was no meaningful police presence at the scene, and the Cologne police chief said the scale and nature of what happened was “a completely new dimension of crime.”

GERMANY-EUROPE-MIGRANTSWhat makes the story even more incendiary is that witnesses described many of the men gathered in the square as being northern African or Arab in appearance.  Critics of Germany’s recent decision to permit more than 1 million refugees from the Middle East to enter the country have seized upon the attacks in Cologne and elsewhere as another reason to reject the open-door policy.  German authorities have said, however, that there is no evidence that the men who committed the robberies and assaults were recent refugee arrivals.

And there is an undeniable undercurrent of distrust of German authorities lurking in reports of the incidents, too.  The initial police report on the New Year’s Eve celebration in Cologne said there was a “joyful, party atmosphere” and a celebration that was “mostly peaceful.”  It was only after countless women began telling people about being mauled and robbed that authorities changed their reports to acknowledge the lawlessness and disorder.  You can’t read about the Cologne mobs without wondering whether the initial reaction by authorities was to minimize the extent of the criminal activity in order to avoid additional criticism of the German immigration policy.  Indeed, comments by Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, amazingly seemed to suggest that the assaulted women bore some of the responsibility for the attacks, saying they should “keep at an arm’s length” from strangers and “stick together in groups, don’t get split up, even if you’re in a party mood”.

We’ll have to wait to see whether the German police apprehend and identify specific suspects, but the failure of authorities to be forthcoming about the incidents in the first place simply, and unnecessarily, adds fuel to the anti-immigrant fire.  It’s hard for many of us to accept, but Donald Trump apparently appeals to some Americans because of the perception that he is “speaking truth to power” — and that perception can be created only if there also is a perception that power isn’t speaking truth in the first place.  When authorities are seen as trying to downplay the facts or bury the true story, it only reinforces that underlying perception and gives blowhards like Trump more ammunition for their anti-immigration rants.

Cracking Down On Jaywalkers

As I was walking home last night, I saw a blurb on the news crawl on the facade of the Columbus Dispatch building about Columbus police cracking down on downtown area jaywalkers.  Oh, great, I thought: another questionable allocation of police resources to address a negligible problem when more pressing issues need attention.  It reminded me of an incident that occurred many years ago, in which a lawyer hot-footed it into our firm to avoid being ticketed for jaywalking by a policeman.

But when I read the Dispatch article on the effort, I saw that the effort is far more nuanced than the blurb indicated, and I actually support what the police are doing.

The underlying problem is the recent time change, which means that Columbus is plunged into darkness in the middle of the evening rush hour.  The statistics show that deaths from car-pedestrian collisions increase during the fall, so there is a real problem to be addressed.  And, according to the Dispatch report, the enforcement effort is both even-handed — police are looking for jaywalkers and for drivers who make illegal turns or fail to yield to pedestrians who have the right of way — and is designed to focus on reminding people of their legal obligations, by having yellow-jacketed motorcycle cops stationed at key downtown intersections to talk to pedestrians and look for drivers who don’t yield, and representatives of city organizations handing out leaflets about the traffic laws near bus stops.

As I’ve noted recently, if drivers are inattentive, being a pedestrian can be very dangerous.  And if Columbus police are going to target drivers who fail to yield, it’s only fair to cite pedestrians who fail to comply with traffic laws, too.  We’re all sharing the streets and crosswalks of downtown Columbus together.  (And while we’re at it, looking for cyclists who ignore the rules of the road would be a good idea, too.)

I always cross at crosswalks, anyway, and while I like to make good time on my daily journey to and from work I’ll gladly restrain myself from crossing too early in exchange for police efforts to remind drivers about keeping an eye out for the pedestrians among us.

The Law Enforcement Nod

If you’ve publicly encountered anyone involved in law enforcement or security lately — whether it be police officer, Highway Patrolman, or black-shirted rent-a-cop security officer — you’ve probably received what I’ve come to think of as the “law enforcement nod.”

The encounter begins as you approach the law enforcement person, who undoubtedly is wearing mirrored sunglasses and a wholly deadpan expression.  They give you an obvious head-to-toe visual inspection, apparently checking to see if you are armed or whether your guilt about some recent criminal wrongdoing will cause you to begin sprinting away in mad panic.  If you continue on your path, smiling pleasantly and up to no apparent mischief, you are likely to receive “the nod” — a barely discernible head movement signalling that you have passed muster.  And then, after you have passed by, you breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s amazing how uniform and widespread “the nod” is.  I’ve received it in every corner of the country and from every imaginable person charged with maintaining order.  It’s pervasiveness reminds me of the anecdote at the beginning of The Right Stuff, where Tom Wolfe observes that every airline pilot curiously seems to speak with the same chuckling West Virginia drawl, mimicking the patois of Chuck Yeager, the pilot who broke the sound barrier.  Somewhere, I wonder, was there a trend-setting police officer who first decided that the best approach to interaction with the law-abiding members of the general public was a slight yet unmistakably judgmental nod of acknowledgement that has since been copied by law enforcement personnel throughout the land?

It didn’t always used to be this way, I think.  In days gone by, when cops walked regular beats and got to know the residents along the way, conversations and other more normal forms of human interaction were routine.  But now our encounters with police officers tends to be much less frequent and much more impersonal — how often do you meet a patrolman on the street, as opposed to seeing one zooming by in a cruiser? — and police officers and citizenry both seem to be constantly on guard.  And, with the shootings of police officers that we have seen, I can’t really blame law enforcement officers for being focused more on scrutinizing everyone they encounter as an act of self-preservation.

Hence, “the nod.”  I understand it, but I think the old ways are better.

Memorial Day Money-Making

Memorial Day is one of the great American holidays.  It’s also widely recognized as one of the biggest driving weekends of the year, as people kick-start their summer with visits to relatives or a long weekend at a beach or lake.

So . . . why do our uniformed friends want to make the weekend painful for patriotic American motorists by looking to hand out speeding tickets by the bushel basket?

On our drive from Columbus to Cleveland on Friday afternoon every conceivable law enforcement representative — from the Ohio Highway Patrol with their spiffy gray muscle cars, to helmeted and booted motorcycle cops, to “County Mounties” and local police officers, seemed to be out on the road, aiming their radar guns at motorists.  It’s weird and unnerving to see a uniformed person pointing a gun-like device your way, and it aggravates an already stressful driving experience.  The roads are clogged as it is, and the immediate braking when a patrolman comes into view just adds to the congestion and the hassle.

Many people theorize that there are speeding ticket quotas each month that officers need to meet to help bring money in to governmental coffers, and therefore you’re more likely to see police stopping speeders and handing out tickets at the end of the month than at the beginning.  I’m not sure about that, but Kish and I saw more police officers out on I-71 on our drive up on Friday and back this morning than we’ve ever seen before.

I recognize that we can’t have people playing Max Max on our highways, but is it really necessary to send every officer of the peace in the Buckeye State out to hand out tickets?  How about letting us celebrate Memorial Day without getting hit with a fine?