Month: November 2017

The Right to Fear

by Cate Morrison

An astonishing thing happened in Rhode Island last Thursday morning.

I will piece together the complicated timeline to the best of my ability, mostly on the basis of the Providence Journal reporting.

9:00 am: Donald Morgan is being transported to a court appearance for vehicle theft by a state trooper, when the trooper stops to assist a car crash. While handcuffed but unsecured, Morgan gets into the driver’s seat of the police cruiser and drives away. The cruiser is located by GPS and found abandoned. According to an eyewitness, 40-50 police officers descend on the scene.

(roughly) 10:30 am: A call goes out over police radio to be on the lookout for a “white Ford F150” with “something hanging out the back.” A Cranston police officer assumes the truck must have something to do with Morgan. He then sees a white Ford F250 “driving erratically,” and pulls the driver over. The driver stops, but then drives on. The Cranston officer loses sight of the truck.

At some point, so far unclear, Providence police officers spot the truck entering I-95 north at the Providence Place Mall. What follows is an astonishing show of force.

There are unofficial estimates of 30-40 marked and unmarked vehicles that converge on the truck. Bystanders said the police officers themselves were driving in ways that would endanger the public.

Penned in by police vehicles, the driver attempts to first reverse and then go forward—though from videos, it is unclear if the lurch and drive forward is intentional or if Joseph Santos has already been shot dead with his foot on the pedal. Officers open fire on the truck’s cabin. Driver Joseph Santos is killed. Passenger Christine Demers is critically wounded. At this point, 5 Providence police officers and an unspecified number of state troopers all opened fire at some point at Santos and Demers.

They had nothing to do with Donald Morgan. They were unarmed.

Five officers were involved in the shooting, according to police officials. Estimates from bystander videos suggest 40 rounds fired.

When I first heard the story, my first mordant thought was “how soon will the victims’ arrest records be released?” The answer was a bit over 24 hours. The ProJo online headline announced “Police Identify Two Shot Thursday on Highway On-Ramp.” The identification was solely legal—the lead: “Both Joseph J. Santos, 32 and Christine E. Demers, 37, who remains hospitalized, had extensive involvement with law enforcement and the courts.” The following texts struggles to substantiate the claim. The records were revealed for the sake of shaming the victims, but they told of a far more disturbing pattern of human suffering at the hands of the law—where small infractions, petty arrests and add-on charges snowballed into more and more time, warrants and infractions, and struggles with addiction became criminalized. These were no great dangers to society, and given the number of officers responding, were also not threats to specific members of the public at the time. The chase was officer-initiated, sustained and heightened.

Aristotle, in his account of the emotions, comes to a very uncomfortable conclusion about the connection between individual and social feeling. Some people have rights to emotional responses that others do not. Deprived of a social standing that could be threatened, the slave cannot feel anger. Daniel Gross explains it as an economy of emotion, where social collectives invest concern in some and not others, and a system of not rationality but reason. There are reasons to be hopeful, angry or afraid, and to feel kindness, shame or admiration. Before even the word, emotional response expresses a rough system of judgment. One is worthy of pity, another indignation, some feared, others admired—this tells us about the originating reason of the world before it is laundered into more genial types of justification. My reaction tells me about what I am before I even know what I think. If I’m angry, you cut me down without cause. If I’m afraid, you can, want to and will cause me harm. If I am kind, I want to help you for no benefit to myself when you need it.

There is a caveat. The emotions are social. Some people have the right to feel. Others don’t.

What did Joseph Santos do to die, and Christine Demers to be gravely wounded? At most, Santos drove badly and Demers did nothing. They panicked after an initial stop for driving a white Ford truck, triggered by a fallacious state-wide bulletin. They then had police from several different towns and jurisdictions swoop down on

The enabling conditions of fear are a presumption that a) someone or something has the ability to hurt you, b) that it wants to or is going to hurt you, c) that it is close by and thus can hurt you. Santos and Demers both knew about the ability for the law to hurt them. They knew that they were being pursued with sudden, unexplainable and overwhelming force. They found themselves surrounded by this force without any way to understand why, when even bystanders were astonished. They were right to be afraid, to act in ways that are extreme and unreasonable, but their actions became instead justification for their nearly inevitable deaths once the horrible machinery began moving.

We know that the reaction of fear is deemed generally socially acceptable, because one of the most common responses to officer-involved shooting is that they feared for their lives or for those of members of the public, and thus deviated from standard practice.

Fear, however, is granted to some and not others. Santos and Demers were not allowed to fear. They weren’t given the benefit of the doubt.

What happens to members of public who fear for their lives? Why do they have no right to fear?

When police officer shootings occur, the feeling of fear is processed through its reasoning. The suspect was capable, willing and realistically in that situation able to hurt you. The specific Providence police were wound up and ready to fire on who they believed to be Donald Morgan. But Donald Morgan wasn’t there. It was two people with a history of petty crime, wrung through an uncompromising system, who got scared and tried to run when an unimaginable phalanx of police descended on them. Overwhelming force came down upon two people who had done nothing to deserve such a response.

They panicked. The officers did not. They killed with absolute control.

I thought that the body cameras and bystander films would show a scene of chaos and confusion. They did not. Officers cover the truck and systematically shoot into it, calmly and in formation. The videos show an execution.

We ask—how to process a mass shooting? How do we even comprehend a person shooting 26 in a church or 58 at a concert. We have a far greater vocabulary, though, for a single person shooting dozens of people than we do multiple people shooting 40 times at two unarmed people, whose greatest crime was panicking. What do we say then?

Cate Morrison is senior lecturer and director of debate at the University of Rhode Island.

Photo credit: ABC news, from bodycam footage.

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Sears CEO Eddie Lampert F***ed Up & My Friend Paid for It

by Matt

Over at Occupy.com, you’ll find my new essay on the fallout from Sears’ financial debacles (the result, among other things, of Lampert’s decision to do stock buybacks instead of, umm, maintain and repair the physical stores where people were actually showing up to buy things). It’s a personal essay, because my friend, a married father of several young’uns, is now unemployed because of Lampert’s bungling. It’s also an essay about morality. And that’s been on my mind for the last several months: the way that it’s really impossible to have a coherent normative or prescriptive moral theory when one’s practical moral culpability is inversely proportional to the amount of money one has. So give it a read and a share, okay? And I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the way class differences fuck up our ethics.

A Quick Q&A: Phil Murphy & Public Banking

by Matt Stannard

Q: Phil Murphy campaigned for New Jersey Governor –and won– on a public banking platform. What’s a public bank?

A public bank is a state- or city- (or other government entity) owned bank. The bank typically takes as its deposits the revenue or holdings of that government entity (such as taxes). The bank then lends to various entities and can do so at low- or no-interest, in order to finance public goods.

The only significant public bank in the U.S. now is the Bank of North Dakota. BND is one of the most powerful and solvent banks in the country, and it makes low-interest loans to the state for infrastructure; to municipalities to build schools and repair things; to farmers; to students (it supports student loans and offers good refinancing options); and to small businesses. BND supports community banks in North Dakota, and because of it, the state enjoys the healthiest small banking sector in the country.

There are public banks, or strong public banking sectors overall, in other countries like Germany and Costa Rica. Germany’s public bank has helped finance that country’s cutting-edge post-carbon energy transition.

A public bank has been a central piece of Murphy’s economic agenda, rather than just some idea he’s casually mentioned. He’s a believer, which puts him in a small list of good company that includes Bernie Sanders.

Q: Why do public banks have such potential?

Banks, whether private or public, have the power to create value through fractional reserve lending. Although it’s somewhat misleading to straight up say banks “create money out of nothing,” they sort of do that: If I borrow $10,000 from my local bank, it’s not like they go downstairs to their vault and bring out $10K in cash to give me. They essentially create $10K in credit. I pay them back with interest. That’s how they make money.

The theory behind public banking is: “Banks have a lot of power to generate public value. That power should be treated as a public utility, not just a private business.” Private banks have to make profits to satisfy their shareholders. Public banks make a (small) profit too, but that surplus can be paid back into the state or city coffers, essentially creating dividends for residents, all the while lending in the public interest.

Public banks keep communities financially healthy in hard times because their economic benefits run “countercyclical,” lending at low interest when private banks won’t lend even at high interest.

Public banks also help break state and local governments’ dependence on risky Wall Street finance. Had a public bank been in place in New Jersey starting around twenty five years ago, it could have helped the state save over a billion dollars on pension fund fees alone.

Q: But I thought Murphy had been a Goldman Sachs executive. Wouldn’t Goldman Sachs hate public banks?

I wrote about this question a year ago when Murphy announced his candidacy, in an article entitled “In Praise of Class Traitors.” I interviewed my former colleague at the Public Banking Institute, Ellen Brown, who speculated that a person from the financial sector might be exactly the kind of politician with the credibility to push a public bank. “Our biggest hurdle has always been that legislators don’t understand how banking works,” she told me. I also interviewed socialist economist Rick Wolff, who said Murphy probably “knows what shenanigans go on in big banks and investment houses like Goldman,” but that “as a Democrat, he cannot attack pensioners the way other, especially Republican governors have,” and that a public bank would, among other things, be “less politically costly” than letting pension plans burn.

Q: Why should we trust Murphy? Once a thief, always a thief, right?

I’ve already seen many of my friends on the left express skepticism about Murphy based on his banking pedigree. I get it. That skepticism is healthy. But Murphy is Governor of New Jersey now whether we think he should be or not, so let’s see what happens. He wouldn’t be the first person of privilege to facilitate egalitarian economic ideas. He wouldn’t even be the thousandth.

Q: How hard will it be for Murphy to actually establish a public bank in New Jersey?

There will certainly be a lot of hurdles to overcome. The legal hurdles will likely revolve around New Jersey’s constitutional prescription against the state “lending of credit.” But overcoming that hurdle will be relatively easy, Such provisions didn’t prevent North Dakota from running its own banks, and several other states (and Puerto Rico) have quasi-public infrastructure banks that offer loans and credit assistance to public and private sponsors of construction projects. After all, in the status quo, Governments deposit their revenues and invest their capital in private banks. Those banks, in turn, lend money–but they aren’t “lending the state’s credit.” The banks lend their own credit, which is distinct from the “credit of the state.” This distinction may seem complicated, but it’s good enough for the courts. Throughout the 19th century and in reference to the Bank of North Dakota in the 20th century, courts have agreed with states’ efforts to have public banks lend money instead of private banks.

The larger hurdle will be political–and this is where the public banking movement often flounders. Opposition from the private banking sector will be fierce. Wall Street will lie, steal, and cheat to discourage public officials from opening public banks.

What will be needed is a mass movement of people in New Jersey willing to write letters, make phone calls, and physically show up to demonstrations in favor of Murphy’s efforts (assuming Murphy goes forward with a public bank). It’s not like there will be many counter-demonstrators. But public officials are risk-averse, and there will be rich people in suits telling them not to do it.

In other words: Public banking is a good idea, but being a good idea is not enough. It’s not even enough, in an age of Wall Street hegemony, to be the Governor of New Jersey and push for a public bank. You need lots and lots of ordinary citizens willing to keep issuing the demand loudly and clearly.

Q: Where else are people pushing for public banks?

All over the place! City governments, spurred on by local economic justice coalitions, are exploring public banking all across California. Santa Fe, New Mexico is in its third stage of policy study on implementing a public bank. There are vocal movements and sympathetic public officials in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and at least a dozen other states. Whether they succeed or not will depend on whether they have behind them large coalitions of people willing to push past the resistance they’ll encounter from big banking interests.

Q: Will a public bank usher in an era of egalitarian, socially responsible, progressive economic policies?

This is a good question–and the answer is another reason why public banking requires a mass movement in order to work effectively. Public banks in and of themselves are not a guarantee of good economic policy, and are especially not a guarantee of economic justice. For all the positive aspects of the Bank of North Dakota (disaster relief, support for farming, building schools and community centers on the cheap, supporting local business development), that conservative state has used its socialist bank to do things like finance fracking and a toxic oil economy. The BND even financed police repression at Standing Rock last year through its emergency financing program–probably the most depressing and hurtful use of public financing we’ve seen in a long, long time.

The lesson here is that public banks are tools, and whether a tool is used to build good or evil things depends on who wields it. But in the hands of a democratic government committed to transparency, ecological sustainability, and socioeconomic justice, a public bank can do incredible good.

Matt Stannard is a legal and policy advocate for sustainable farming and cooperative economics. He previously served on the board of directors of the Public Banking Institute and was policy director for Commonomics USA.