2016 Is Our Year of Brutality

By Gamal Hennessy

There are only a few days left in the year, and for many of us the end can’t come soon enough. Members of my generation have seen our icons fall in film and music. The wider world is bracing for Brexit, the Trumpocalypse and ongoing bloodbaths in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. The most sensational brutality of the year might be a recent phenomenon, but the cruelty that has faded from the headlines and mainstream consciousness is embedded in the fabric of ‘Merican culture.  Police brutality and violence against people of color had a prominent place in the public consciousness this year, but not much has changed on the ground.

From Anton Sterling to Jessica Williams to Philando Castile to Korryn Gaines to Tyre King to Terence Crutcher to Taiwon Boyd to Levonia Riggins to Keith Scott to Alfred Olango to Deborah Danner we find a pattern.  The gender, age, and geographic location might have been different for each victim, but the outcome was the same. Our police use our funding to murder us and face little or no consequences for their actions.

And all this occurred under the administration of an arguably progressive, feminist, black president. Do we have any reason to believe police brutality will decrease under Trumpzilla? Is there any chance the motivations of police will change? What is the likelihood that people will stop labelling us as criminal simply because of our race? Our society shares several characteristics with the slave ships of the Middle Passage. Those similarities are likely to deepen once we replace Obama with Trumpzilla.

None of us are fortune tellers. We don’t know what 2017 will bring, but it’s safe to say some of us won’t make it to see 2018. All we can really do is listen, learn, fight, work, create and love the people who are important to us.

Good luck to everyone who reads this. Remember the Moscow Rules.

Have fun.

What Happens If American Police Departments Get Their Own Torture Sites?


by Gamal Hennessy

Last year, the internet expressed a considerable amount of outrage when we realized some elements of American law enforcement were using military weapons and tactics on American citizens. People went out into the street to protest sanctioned police brutality and murder (See Who Watches the Watchers). On this blog, I advocated endangered groups in our society adopt a version of the Moscow Rules to cope with the reality we live in (See Racism, Misogyny and the Moscow Rules). All these deaths and revelations have not altered the climate of fear. If the latest reports are to be believed, things might be getting worse. 

The Guardian recently ran a story about a secret detention center run by the Chicago police department. (See Chicago Police Detain Americans in Black Site). Like Abu Gharaib in Afghanistan, the CIA secret prisons in Turkey and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, we might be creating institutions and venues to deal out the same punishments we ascribe to our hated enemy. The only difference between Gitmo and Homan Square is the nationality of the people being abused. In the military secret prisons, alleged foreign fighters and terrorists are the inmates. In Chicago, and perhaps in other cities, the prisoners are American. 

If the Guardian report is true, then the Homan Square detention center might have more in common with the old Soviet Union gulag system then the War on Terror black sites. When Stalin and his regime wanted to remove dissidents from the political discussion and sow fear into the populace, people would be snatched off the street and perhaps never heard from again. Dictators like Pinochet, Pol Pot and Idi Amin are accused of doing the same thing. Is it time to add the Chicago chief of police to this list? Have we moved from fighting totalitarian regimes to supporting them, to using their tactics on our enemies to using those same tactics on ourselves? If so, if the Guardian report is true, what happens next and to whom? What, if anything, are we going to do about it?

Based on the internet chatter going across my screen, we aren’t going to do anything. This week, I’ve seen far more arguments about the color of a dress than the alleged atrocities of Homan Square. There wasn’t even the impotent call for indictments like the one the Times issues after the CIA torture report was issued. (See The Futile Call for Torture Justice). Why? Have we so fully accepted our collective impotence against the power of the state that we’re not even willing to address their atrocities anymore? Are we so numb to discussions of torture that we accept it as an inevitable reality? Do we enjoy the idea of security so much that a secret police prison makes us feel better? (See America’s Love Affair with Torture).  

I understand the concept of police using detention and the labyrinth of the criminal justice system to manipulate and abuse suspects. As a person of color, the fear of walking into a police station and never coming out has crossed my mind more than once. The idea has become a trope in modern crime drama from Dirty Harry to The Wire. Is Homan Square just another step in the direction of roughing someone up in an interrogation room? Is it too late to turn back now?

There is a line from the last Captain America movie I think of when situations like these cross my mind. Steve Rogers and Nick Fury are staring out at four huge aerial battleships designed to hit anyone in the world anywhere at any time.  

Fury: We’re going to use these to maintain security all over the world.

Rogers: That’s not security. That’s fear.

The exchange might come from a comic book movie, but there is more insight there than in our current cultural discussion. It is a sad day in America when local law enforcement creates secret prisons to hide and abuse Americans. It is a tragic day when Americans decide they don’t care. 

Have fun.


We Are the Enemy

By Gamal Hennessy

As pundits debate the utility of the Department of Homeland Security, it might be helpful to consider the actual threats to American lives since 9/11.

I'm sure several plots have been deterred or stopped due to the efforts of American intelligence and law enforcement. But when I compare terrorism deaths to firearm deaths over the past ten years, I think we're focusing on the wrong thing.

  • Number of Americans killed in domestic terrorist attacks, 2002-2011: 30
  • Number of Americans murdered by firearms, 2000-2011: 115,997

In America, we are more likely to be killed by an angry neighbor or a police officer than a member of ISIS. Children in America are more likely to be gunned down in a school shooting than kidnapped by Boko Haram. Maybe we shouldn't be discussing disbanding Homeland Security. Maybe we should use all that money and manpower to deal with the real threat to American lives.

Have fun.


Police Brutality Beyond America

Protesters and critics in the United States might view the deaths of Garner and Brown as symptoms of a problem unique to our country. But a recent op ed piece by Usayd Youis points out Britain's long history of police who were not punished for violence against minorities.

Does this suggest parallels between U.S. and U.K. law enforcement in terms of tactics, or does it flow from a more basic concept of power corrupting the very people who are supposed to protect us. 

Misogyny, Racism and the Moscow Rules

If my intent is to write something useful that people can understand then it's better to write about the way things are instead of what we imagine them to be. Many have imagined the world in ways which don't really exist because how one lives is so far removed from how one ought to live that the person who abandons what one does for what one ought to do, learns frustration rather than clarity.”
Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince

During the Cold War, Russia was the most dangerous place to be an American spy. The men and women who survived this dangerous and brutal environment followed a set of concepts called the Moscow Rules. These weren’t official guidelines. For years they were never written down. The rules were simple, easy to remember and essential if you didn’t want to end up dead in the street with a bullet in your back.

In the 21st Century, America has proven itself to be a dangerous and brutal environment for women and minorities. Look at the police brutality caught on tape (See Thoughts on Police Brutality). Consider the institutionalized misogyny of the NFL (See My Sixteen Game Ban on the NFL), Uber and the legal system when it comes to rape. Spend a moment thinking about all the hate groups, militias and interpersonal conflict in the United States and you might see parallels between Cold War Moscow and present day Ferguson (See Writing While the World Burns). 

Perhaps it is time for us to adopt the Moscow Rules for our own use. Maybe evolution is based on survival and survival is based on adaptation to circumstances. If you don’t know who to trust and you can’t rely on institutions or violence to protect you, then maybe you need a different approach.

Since there is no official set of Moscow Rules, I’m going to suggest my own. These are based on different versions of the Cold War ideas. I’ve simply modified them for the world we live in now.
  • Assume nothing. (Help may never come)
  • Pay attention. (You can’t avoid what you don’t know about)
  • You are never completely alone. (Threats can come from anywhere)
  • Everyone is potentially under opposition control. (I’ll let you define “opposition” for yourself)
  • Go with the flow, blend in. (If they don’t see you, they probably won’t get you)
  • Always give yourself a way out (of a conversation, altercation or attack)
  • Vary your pattern. (if they know where you are, you’re an easier target)
  • If it feels wrong, it is wrong. (Don’t ignore your instincts)
  • Maintain a natural pace. (Too fast or too slow draws too much attention)
  • Lull them into a sense of inactivity. (If they define you as a threat or an opportunity, they will attack)
  • Build in opportunity, but use it sparingly. (Pick your shots and your battles)
  • Don't harass the opposition. (Attack from a position of strength, not weakness)
  • There is no limit to a human being's ability to rationalize their actions. (Being “right” won’t protect you)
  • Keep your options open. (especially when it comes to getting away)
  • Technology will always let you down. (Rely on your wits and your skills, not your stuff)
  • Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is an enemy action.  (Understand the patterns of human behavior)
  • Don't attract attention (Even by being too careful or prepared)

I’m not suggesting we need to be spies in our own country or personal lives. I’m not saying this is the right way for people to live. On a certain level, adopting these concepts as part of your daily routine involves a change in perspective. You might begin to see yourself as isolated and oppressed by your own society. Seeing life this way can create emotional and mental damage over time. But I’m not writing this in response to the way life should be. I’m looking at the world around me and writing about the way our society is now.

If you feel the institutions and systems you live in will protect you, then you have no need for the Moscow Rules. If you are willing to risk a bit of alienation to avoid being shot dead in the street, consider the Moscow Rules. They might help you adapt to the dangers and brutality of your environment.

If you hope the institutions and systems you live in will protect you, give you justice or make you whole again after you’ve been violated, good luck. Just remember; hope is not a plan and the news is full of people who didn’t have a plan.

Have fun.


The Luxury of Voting

I almost didn’t vote yesterday. I didn’t want the hassle of the forty minute train ride. I didn’t know anything about the candidates or the issues allegedly defining the election. I didn’t think it would make a difference. But I got off my butt, went into the city and voted anyway. The after affect wasn’t empowering or inspiring. I just had the same feeling I get when I finish running an errand.

So why did I bother? There are probably a lot of reasons. The fact that no one is going to lynch me or bomb the polling place has a lot to do with it. The persistent encouragement (or shaming depending on how you look at it), of social media plays a role. Expressing my disapproval of politicians who side with FOX News also helped me get to the polls. But the biggest reason can be boiled down to the luxury of expression.

As a writer, I have the luxury of being able to express myself in words. When my friends perform at a show or have an event, I enjoy the luxury of expressing my support by showing up to cheer them on. When things I find online resonate with me, I have the luxury to express my perspective by sharing them. When I vote, I take advantage of the luxury to express my preference for the particular personality or perspective presented to me at the time.

As a student of the realpolitik school of political science, I do not see individual votes or even individual elections as the ultimate measure of political success. Politics isn’t about candidates or issues. Politics is about power. Power is measured by what you can and cannot do to affect change. The power to change or not change the lives of individuals comes from actions not votes. Whether you’re talking about ending slavery or LGBT rights or ending Prohibition, the pattern is the same. The decisions and actions come first. When the votes come later, it is an expression of acceptance for a fait accompli.

Is voting a decision or an action on its own? Maybe, but if it is, it represents a minimal act of power. It will not create change by itself. The party in power may or may not change, but the sight of a police officer will continue to make me just as apprehensive as the sight of a potential criminal. Temporary political shifts in Washington or Albany will not change my struggle to manage my relationship with money, time or the people who are important to me. If I’m going to change anything substantial in my life, it will be determined by what I do during the 364 days when I’m not voting.

I don’t vote to exercise power. I vote to express my opinion. My opinion in this case is symbolic because it is limited to a handful of pre-selected, carefully screened artificial personas. But most luxuries are symbolic. The real power in my life comes from my choices and my actions.

Maybe it’s the same for you too.

Have fun.


How Can We Forget?

It is difficult to forget a turning point in history. 

Few other events in recent memory have done more to expose our arrogance, our ignorance, our greed, paranoia and basic disregard for human life. We hide behind our insecurity to justify our self-righteous indignation, willful blindness, double standards and docile conformity. 

There are some things we can never forget. There are other things we can never remember because we probably never knew them in the first place.

Have fun.

Who Watches the Watchers (Thoughts on the American Police Brutality)

The current strained relationship between police forces and some communities could be the result of military surplus weapons and training flowing from the War on Terror to local precincts (See Bill Maher: Police State).

It could be the result of the gradual expansion of police powers and a siege mentality in policing dating back to the American Revolution. (See Rise of the Warrior Cop).

Perhaps this occupying force mentality has always been present in our society and is only on the top of our minds now because the wider proliferation of personal video gives us weekly examples of minority and poor Americans being attacked and sometimes killed by police officers or even neighborhood watch members. (See NYC Official Wants Police to Wear Cameras After Chokehold Death).

It’s probably a combination of these factors and many others, but I think the most important thing to look at when thinking about or dealing with the police revolves around understanding their day to day motivation.

The articles I’ve seen about the killings in New York and Missouri frame the issue as racial, economic or social. (See FBI Steps In Amid Unrest After Police Kill Missouri Youth) I think all these things come into play, but why a person does what he does is based less on his socio-political position and more on his mental and emotional motivations. I’ve never been in the police department, but I don’t think it takes twenty years on the force to understand the things he care about:

A police officer wants to protect*:
  1. His life
  2. His partner’s life
  3. His family’s future
  4. His income
  5. His pension
  6. His career and/or promotion
  7. His reputation with other police
  8. His relationship to his superiors
  9. The relationship of his precinct to the others
  10. The relationship of his precinct to City Hall
  11. His relationship to the media and the court of public opinion

Please note: aiding the members of the community like you or me may or may not fit on this list. If it does, I doubt it will be higher than any of the things I’ve mentioned. I think this is accurate not because police are evil, but because police are human and every human in a society is motivated by self interest. If you or I decided to be a cop for whatever reason, this list would seem completely reasonable.

When you add the constant threat of sudden violence that comes with being a police officer, and increased access to military weapons and training to the list of motivations above, you create a situation where any actual or perceived threat to an officer or his motivations could result in a lethal force altercation.

To reiterate, I don’t believe all cops are evil. I don’t believe all cops are good. I believe all cops are human and are driven by what they perceive to be their best interests in stressful situations. Putting every police officer on camera for every civilian interaction can be effective because it impacts most of the officer’s motivations. But footage can be manipulated and evidence is not a guarantee of anyone being punished for a crime. Cameras treat the symptom, but they do not alter the underlying factors of behavior.

I’m not, nor do I plan to be engaged in any violent or criminal activity. Having said that, I limit my interactions with police to the same level as the characters in my writing. I avoid them when possible and do my best to avoid or disengage from any situation where police might become involved. If that isn’t possible I try to remove myself from the situation as soon as possible without making things worse (See 10 Rules for Dealing with Police)

Struggles between police and the people they protect is not a new phenomenon. In the first century AD, a Roman poet coined the phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? or who watches the watchers? Through the magic of YouTube and Iphones we can all watch them, but until we can understand and change their motivations, is there anything we can do to stop them?

Have fun.

*Yes, I realize there are female police officers. Yes, I made a specific choice to single out men. I’m sure you can figure out why.