The Video

I had to watch the video. I didn’t want to—I’ve already seen way too many that are eerily similar. But if I’m going to write about it, I need to see it for myself. I owe that, at least, to you my readers.

Yes, it is horrific—sad and deplorable at the same time. It is likely that most of us have seen replays of the video of the murderous beating of Tyre Nichols. The brutality of the “elite SCORPION unit” has been rehashed over and over so there is no need to comment further upon that in this space. But there are two elements to this tragedy which have perhaps been underreported that merit consideration.

The first concerns where Tyree Nichols was going—in his own harrowing words as captured on the video, “I’m just trying to go home.” In fact, he was only about sixty yards from his mother’s home when he called out to her while in the midst of being beaten and when he was most frightened for his very life. His mother’s poignant comments in the press conference after the release of the video should haunt every parent, indeed every person, and speak powerfully to this tragedy, repeated all too often in America today: “No mother, no mother, no mother, should go through what I’m going though right now, no mother, to lose their child to the violent way I lost my child.”

The second aspect of this tragedy lies in the still unpresented evidence that a minor traffic violation prompted the traffic stop that led to his brutal beating. Was a crime committed? Was there a traffic violation at all? Was the community in danger, prompting the escalatory response that led to Nichols’ death? While this may change as more is revealed, as of this writing there has been no evidence of a traffic violation at all.

If we look at these tragic cases in the aggregate, many that have resulted in deaths of unarmed young Black men (a vital element in a much broader conversation), have been sparked by traffic violations—real or imagined. No one denies that with the increased use of automobiles, traffic safety is an important element in maintaining community wellbeing. Yes, we must ensure that our roads are as safe as possible. But it is ironic that the need to ensure safety on our roads has led so often to such fatal results for a certain segment of the population. How has their safety been enhanced?

This leads to a second under-reported aspect of this case: the potential use of technology to mitigate this ongoing horror. Granted, this will not reduce racism in our society or eliminate the malevolent actions of rogue cops. But with the technology we now have, we must ask: are police-initiated traffic stops the best way to guarantee safety in our streets? Can’t we use digital technology to alter the course of events at the front end of these incidents? We have mounted cameras that record the running of traffic lights, we have computerized systems that check expired licenses and registrations, we have electronic surveillance systems that monitor speeding and collect tolls. Why couldn’t we apply such technologies to shift the ways law enforcement deals with traffic violations? Could this help stanch the carnage?

This is not a new issue. Sarah Seo, writing in the New York Times on April 15, 2021 (almost two years ago!), states, “One way to address this problem is to reduce the number of encounters that drivers have with police officers…The solution is to decrease our reliance on human enforcement. Having police officers implement traffic laws is not the only way to promote road safety. Indeed, the evidence suggests that it is not even the optimal way to do so… Of course, some human enforcement of traffic laws will always be necessary. But the traffic police do not need to be weaponized officers trained to approach stops with a heightened expectation of conflict; unarmed traffic monitors could be used instead.”

And traffic duty distracts law enforcement personnel from their main task of fighting crime. As Seo states, “in terrible, tragic ways — police enforcement of traffic laws [has] also come to undermine the primary purpose of traffic stops: public safety.”

There is little doubt that the proliferation of video cameras has exposed excessive police violence historically used against people of color that is often covered up by bogus police claims of violence directed against them or he-says-she-says justice that has favored law enforcement over individual citizens.

Technology that extends beyond the digital universe has often been used to advance traffic safety—the primary example being the development of seat belts. Devices that measure a driver’s consumption of alcohol limit drunk driving.

I once lived in Teaneck, NJ, about three blocks from Route 4—a main entrance to Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. Every weekend—seriously, every weekend—there were ear-piercing crashes when cars would vault the low divider separating east and west bound traffic. It was horrible to hear. With the installation of Jersey Barriers (high concrete dividers), these devastating crashes ended virtually overnight.

Creative law enforcement approaches using technology that already exist can go a long way toward mitigating the destruction to lives and communities by sensibly finding better ways to enforce our traffic laws, saving lives and increasing neighborhood safety in the process.       

Can We Talk?

While watching an endless loop of depressing headlines the other day, my attention was interrupted by a public service announcement about an organization that promotes conversations about mental illness. The organization, seizetheawkward.org, offers helpful tips about how to have conversations with those you suspect might be suffering from an emotional crisis or more long-term mental illness.

In a week where at least two mass shootings occurred in California—for reasons that seem very different—this promotional spot addresses a prescient issue. In a society where the dominant means of communication is often on-line algorithms that prompt us to spiral further and further into rabbit holes untethered to reality, our already fragile 21st-century psyches can be pushed to the breaking point. Kellie Colunga writes in Viewpoint, “In today’s age of data tracking, each like or click provides search engines and social media sites with information about the kinds of things we like and then works to provide us with more of the same, further insulating us from news or opinions we don’t want to see.”

Recognizing the signs of mental illness (which, admittedly, can be easily disguised or deflected) is an important task in breaking out of our social media silos and taking responsibility for one another. But we need not limit ourselves to discussions of mental illness or mass shootings. Sometimes, day-to-day living demands courageous conversations. The question can be asked: “how do I begin a conversation about a difficult issue and, as importantly, how do I sustain the conversation in a constructive way?”

Early in my career as a local pastor, this was often a question I needed to consider. And, later, as my work centered on bringing people together across lines of difference, many of the principles that applied to individuals also applied to bridging painful or even hostile divides in our society in order to forge a course of action acceptable to different viewpoints.

But first, simply starting the conversation is essential. Then, once the conversation has begun, I have found the following five principles to be helpful in sustaining the dialogue in the hope of achieving breakthrough understandings:

            Create Intersections, Not Boundaries: It can be counterproductive to begin talking about a difficult conversation with the heart of the matter in dispute. Rather, start with something about which you can agree. “Small talk” can be valuable. Find something you have in common—family, sports, the weather—focus on those elements—however small they may seem—and try to build on them.

            Listen: No. Really listen to what the other is saying. But don’t just hear their words. Be attentive to their expression, their body language, even their moments of silence. Find your beginning point by trying to understand what they have to say.

            Be Genuine: People can usually tell when you are faking it. So, be real. If you don’t have an answer, admit it. And if your value system or understanding of the situation causes you to truly disagree, avoid declaring that the other is “wrong.” You might say, instead, “my experience is a little different” or “setting alongside what you’ve said…”

            Continue Talking: You can never tell how far into a conversation you need to go to find convergence, so try not to shut off conversation prematurely. If things get tense, return to the first principle, and focus on your commonalities.

            Treat Potentially Volatile Situations with Tenderness: Even when we try, it is difficult to walk in another’s shoes. We just don’t always know why there are strong feelings in an opposing point of view. Therefore, striving to understand what the other person may be experiencing means being open to levels of empathy beyond the mere “facts” of the case.

Mental illness is a profound tragedy in our society today that has only been exacerbated by the divisions among us and access to the technology that can exploit those differences. It is important for each of us to navigate these treacherous waters by taking the initiative to reach out and to offer patience and understanding in the words that we share.

The Canary in the Coal Mine?

Two developments this week have accelerated the assessment that China’s power and influence has plateaued. First, Chinese officials announced that the nation’s population declined last year for the first time in more than 60 years; and second—China’s economy grew by only three percent, well below the target of 5.5 percent growth for the year.

German Lopez reports in the New York Times that “both these outcomes are closely linked to Chinese policy. Decades-long government efforts to reduce birthrates nationwide, including the policy of allowing most families to have only one child, sped up the population decline. And the economic slowdown is in part tied to the zero-Covid policy that China backed away from only last month, which left the country unprepared to reopen.”

Economist Paul Krugman reminds that an aging population puts additional stress on a nation’s economy by using more government resources for health care and retirement benefits. And Brett Stephens warns that because of China’s opaque authoritarian leadership, these developments make China more dangerous, not less so, on the global stage.

I am intrigued by (and have recently written in this space about) important but mysterious developments in China that seem to have largely escaped the attention of an American audience preoccupied with ongoing political fisticuffs in our nation’s capital, the crisis at our southern border, concerns about inflation and the unrelenting series of partisan or racially charged incidents that have led to violence in many of our communities.  

But in reading Lopez’s commentary, I was particularly struck by one point that evoked troubling visions of a future not limited to faraway China. He writes, “The median age in China has already surpassed that of the U.S. and could rise above 50 by 2050. Even Europe’s fastest-aging countries are not expected to surpass a median age of 50 until around 2100.”

Is China the canary in the coal mine of demographic stress that will eventually impact us all? The thought that in 100 years much of the world will have a median age of over 50 prompts dystopian images of what it might be like to be born into such a world.

How will our society be structured? What will be the burning issues faced by young families when the elderly who need care outnumber the caregivers? What will be the shape of youthful hopes and dreams, fears and dreads? What will be the most pressing justice issues? How will the term “inclusion” expand to focus on the increasing number of those who live past the century mark? How will the growing effects of climate change impact an aging world? How will we navigate the moral imperative of sharing wealth in a world of even greater income disparity? How will we approach our mortality?  

These are sobering questions. As I enter the second half of my 75th year, I am mindful that if China is the “canary in the coal mine,” then for my grandchildren’s children, these will not be theoretical questions, but practical concerns that demand answers every day.

Beware Moral Equivilency

It has now become clear that Joe Biden, upon his exit from the Vice Presidency in the Obama administration, took classified documents with him to his office at The Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.

CBS News reports that upon Biden’s lawyers “discovering” these documents (Biden reports that he was surprised by this development), it was immediately reported to the FBI and the documents were returned: “the same day the material was discovered, Nov. 2, the White House counsel’s office notified the National Archives, which took possession of the materials the following morning… Since that discovery, the President’s personal attorneys have cooperated with the Archives and the Department of Justice in a process to ensure that any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives…The Presidential Records Act requires all presidential and vice-presidential documents be turned over to the National Archives. There are special protocols to keep classified information secure.”

Subsequent headlines indicate that there are additional documents—perhaps also classified—that were removed, complicating the current administration’s ability to express outrage at the former President’s actions regarding such documents.

Republicans immediately cried foul—drawing the comparison between Biden’s actions and President Trump’s removal of documents from his Mar-a-Lago home. Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee and the recently formed Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government said the American public “deserved to know earlier about the revelation of Biden’s classified documents.” Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has requested that the U.S. intelligence community conduct a ‘damage assessment’ of the documents found at the Penn Center.

However, claiming the two incidents are similar and any attempt to equate the two incidents does further disservice to the quest for truth in our polarized society. As Meg Kinnard of the Associated Press indicates, there is a stark difference between the two incidents: “The [Biden] administration has also said that the records were turned over the same day they were discovered, without any intent to conceal. That’s important because the Justice Department historically looks for willfulness, or an intent to mishandle government secrets, in deciding whether to bring criminal charges.”

Though it is unclear as to his motivation, Donald Trump retained hundreds of documents from his time in the White House, proclaiming to the news media and others that they were “his” even though federal laws are clear that such documents belong to the public. Stringent guidelines dictate how classified documents are to be handled to insure the safety of national security personnel whose lives may be at risk should systems and methods become known and fall into the hands of adversary nations or rogue actors.

If we take Biden at his word, as soon as he learned about the existence of such documents, they were turned them over to the FBI “the following morning.” On the other hand, when documents were discovered missing from Donald Trump’s files, the former President continued to change his story, failed to reveal the total number of documents in his possession and then battled the Justice Department for months to keep from returning them.

Years ago, I was engaged in media justice work for the United Church of Christ. The Fairness Doctrine (passed in 1949 and then rescinded in 1987) “required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that fairly reflected differing viewpoints.” This became a sacrosanct principle in media justice and while I concur with the fairness doctrine in principle, it was developed long before the age of social media and the time of “alternative facts,” rampant misinformation, and vastly divergent information bubbles. Such developments foster “whataboutism” and supposed moral equivalencies that often fail to promote “the public good.” Hence, the comparison between Biden’s misplaced classified documents and those of former President Trump is ripe for protestations of moral equivalency.

Setting aside for the moment, the number of documents discovered, the greater question involves how the respective presidents responded to these documents’ existence: Biden immediately offered a mea culpa and cooperated with law enforcement; Trump, as is his wont, continued to change his story about where and how many of “his” documents were retained and then proceeded to obstruct federal officials from securing the documents in question. These incidents are clearly not the same.

Covid in China

The tendency in developing my post for this week has been to focus on the chaos underway in the House of Representatives. But I have tried to be more forward looking in this space. So while the endless machinations in Washington, DC—while fascinating for political junkies like me (and, I suspect, just the beginning of other strange and frustrating events as Republicans try to navigate their narrow majority in the House), something else is unfolding beyond our borders that warrants our attention.

NPR’s Morning Edition set the context in mid-December: “After nearly three years of strict “zero-COVID” policies, in recent days Chinese officials have rolled back most of them following rare protests across the country. Mass testing and mass quarantining are now things of the past. Mass infection among the elderly and those with chronic conditions could lead to large numbers of people with serious illness and deaths… Different cities and provinces are moving at different paces. Meanwhile, anecdotally, case numbers are soaring.”

Echoing this reality, Jennifer Rigby and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber report in Reuters, “Late last month, the world’s most populous country narrowed its definition for classifying deaths as COVID-related, counting only those involving COVID-caused pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among world health experts.

“The WHO [World Health Organization] says deaths should be attributed to COVID-19 if they result from a “clinically compatible illness” in a patient with a probable or confirmed infection, and no other unrelated cause of death—like trauma—is involved.

“China has reported five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn. But many Chinese funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts predict at least 1 million COVID-related deaths in China this year without urgent action.”

Hospitals and crematoriums report that they are inundated as Covid surges among those who have been isolated, have not been vaccinated or who have underlying health issues. The Chinese government is not anxious to publicize their country’s struggle with this impending surge in cases—so the news coming out of China is obviously unreliable. If we cannot get accurate information from the world’s most populous country, we have learned painfully what can happen: the virus does not respect differences among us and none of us—even among the most privileged—are immune from being affected.

Does all this sound familiar? What have we learned? How are we prepared to deal with a potential explosion of Covid cases in China and beyond?

In February of 2020, I attended a large family wedding on Long Island. Headlines on the Covid front were just beginning to emerge in this country and I thought that the mingling we were doing at the wedding would not have been possible in China—the place where the virus seemed to be limited. I wrote then, “I was struck by the thought that such a celebration is impossible in many places around the world. The reason: restrictions on public gatherings due to the coronavirus.”

“Indeed, the whole world is vulnerable. We have an obligation, as individuals and as whole nations, to mobilize against this inevitable tragedy…Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus calls upon us all—as individuals and as members of communities that make up the fabric of our society—to think beyond borders about how to marshal our resources in defense against this common enemy.”

Despite more than a million deaths from Covid in this country, I wonder how much we have learned. In addition to seemingly sparse preparations for any future pandemic, we cannot also make mistakes of the past, labeling it as the “China virus” and prompting anti-Asian hate crimes. Frankie Huang in the NY Times reminds us to assess the current situation rationally: “China’s recklessly executed reopening has become a farcical nightmare resulting in millions infected, hospitals and crematories overflowing…The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing requirement for passengers ‘on flights originating from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau,’ will once again invite a racial backlash against Asian people in America…The coronavirus knows no nationalities or borders, and treating it as a uniquely Chinese problem not only serves to pathologize Asian people but also fails to protect the American public, whose understanding of how the virus spreads and harms depends on consistent and scientifically rigorous messaging from the government.” 

While there are clearly domestic events that demand our attention, we must not close our eyes to what is unfolding in places far from our borders. The world is too small. We are too interrelated. Technology is too sophisticated. We will reap the results of these new developments, whether we want to or not.

So, let us learn from our past. Let us prepare for the future. Uncertainty about the next Speaker of the House of Representatives pales in comparison to the suffering and death, economic and diplomatic turmoil if our vision for the future yet again fails to extend beyond our borders, next quarter’s profit margins or the results of the next election. We are all in this together…for the long haul.