FBI Director Comey’s biased truths on policing and racism | #BlackLivesMatter on Blog#42

FBI Director James Comey has given two major speeches on policing and racial justice this year. He spoke at his old alma mater,  the University of Chicago Law School, on October 23rd . The speech he gave last February was a more formal, policy-oriented one. This latest address was more personal and less polished in content and formulation.

Both talks reveal different facets of a deeply flawed grasp of America’s racial gap and the nature of a police state network he is a part of and its place in America’s metropoleis and at the Federal level. Comey’s speeches also offer insight into a familiar white blindness to prejudice that is buried under a thin veneer of superficial pseudo-enlightenment. James Comey didn’t deserve the accolades he received for his ‘Truths’ speech in February. His statements, this time, should earn him a demand for his resignation or his firing by the President.

Comey’s speeches are best evaluated against the backdrop of Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s recent interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, as well as the actions of individual executive branch agencies such as the NSA and DHS. Both Comey and Lynch seem to share worldviews and sensibilities that are decidedly neoliberal to conservative in nature, in that they embrace a degree and scope of authoritarianism that is uncharacteristic of the Liberal mindset. These views run counter to current public sentiment in communities of color and the liberal community at large, going across race, class, and the generations, at a time when a new movement for civil rights has risen and is changing the way the political game is played.

One must also note that Comey and Lynch’ statements contradict President Obama’s newly liberated public attitude on race relations, policing, and Black Lives Matter itself.

It is generally agreed that Black Lives Matter was born out of a social environment that was ready for a new movement and a new kind of militancy.  Whether you call it the third civil rights movement or not, BLM represents not only their baseline constituency, over-policed inner-city Black communities, the Black middle-class and intelligentsia, but also a far larger wedge of American society, including other ethnic minority groups and white progressive and liberal America. The core principle that Black lives matter is one that is well understood, unquestionably so, throughout the left. What presidential candidates are willing to publicly commit to doing about it is another matter.

It is on the right that there is a fundamental misunderstanding and distrust of Black Lives Matter, along with an unwillingness to concede that because police brutality affects such a disproportionate number of Black men and women, Black lives matter, not to the exclusion of all other lives, but at a level of urgency that befits a crisis of the highest order of magnitude. People, men and women have been dying brutal deaths. Children of color have to worry about being brutalized in their classrooms.

Whatever public disagreements may exist between BLM and progressives, those do not affect the general belief in the legitimacy and necessity of this movement. There is also no disagreement on the existence of police violence fueled by the authoritarianism and militarization that have been promoted over decades of political corruption and the consolidation of political power by multiple special interest groups, including organizations that represent members of police forces. An article in the Chicago Reporter explains how police forces in many states have been winning extra-constitutional rights for themselves:

“A special Maryland law known as a police “bill of rights” gave the officers 10 days to respond to investigators – a protection that the average citizen doesn’t have.

Thirteen other states, including Illinois, have a similar law. In Illinois, police officers have a waiting period before they have to talk to investigators in response to complaints from citizens or even fellow officers. They also can get in writing key information about the investigation, including who will question them and what they’ll be asked.

Critics say Illinois’ 30-year-old law establishes two sets of rules – one for police officers and one for average citizens. And combined with police union contracts, which lay out further protections for officers, advocates for police reform say the law complicates efforts to address police misconduct in Chicago and elsewhere.

While this article’s focus is Chicago, we know the same set of circumstances exists in virtually every city in which civil unrest erupted following spates of police brutality and the collusion of the judicial branch in the victimization of specific portions of cities and populations served by these forces through municipal rules designed to make up for inadequate tax revenue via the over-policing of vulnerable populations. This behavior is a familiar one in the Deep South, where, in a new twist to the Ferguson model we learned about a year ago, the SPLC  has filed a judicial ethics complaint against an Alabama judge who forced people unable to pay court fines and fees to give blood or face jail time. Here too, we have a municipality that, in the absence of adequate funding, is extractive of the community it serves, with law enforcement and judicial systems playing active roles in the extraction effort. This story is repeated in many poor communities across the nation. In California, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would put an end to the over-fining of poor motorists.

Texas vowed to take steps to end the practice of asset seizure, but we now learn that the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, is distributing a tool that enables police officers in the field to wipe out a person’s finances instantly, as reported by the Freethought Project:

Case in point—the Electronic Recovery and Access to Data (ERAD) Prepaid Card Reader. This tool, developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is increasingly being deployed by local police departments.

The ERAD allows cops to swipe prepaid cards, check the balance, freeze the account and take all the money. The ostensible purpose is to go after “bad guys” with “dirty money,” as drug traffickers are turning to prepaid cards instead of bundles of cash when traveling.

Civil asset forfeiture (CAF) is a law enforcement tactic that has been used nationwide in the war on drugs, but has long been known to also be used on innocent and defenseless citizens who have little to no recourse in regaining possession of cash or property.

The nature of policing has been changing, markedly, since the 90’s, and not in any way that befits a free society. It is against this backdrop that Director Comey made statements that appear to be mindful of abuses and then turns around and posits theories that not only aren’t rooted in fact, but aren’t shared among the professional staff in his department and directly contradict his “truths.” For him to assume, as the basis of an argument, that it is because of YouTube videos that cops are doing less and murder rates are going up, is untrue and callous.

It is thanks to citizens with the presence of mind to turn on their cell phone cameras and the courage to upload their videos to YouTube that we have been learning about the true extent of police brutality against African American communities throughout the nation. Before then, all we had were the whispers in the community. We learned about the circumstance of Eric Garner’s death thanks to a citizen’s video. A video is how we learned about the shooting of Walter Scott by a South Carolina police officer. We learned about Sandra Bland’s arrest both through the squad car’s dashcam video and the recording she made. Police brutality has been documented by citizens with increasing regularity going back to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of 2008, around the country.

But the violence against citizens doesn’t stop with cops on the city beat. It now extends to school systems that hire local police for the purported safety of their schools or, if big enough, have their own force. In reality, this practice has nothing to do with safety. It is the pawning off of discipline by educators on law enforcement, and the growth of an industry of police agencies, all for the price of the criminalization of children. This trend became noticeably widespread in 2007 with stories of first graders being hauled away in handcuffs and even tased and culminating in this week’s horrifying classroom beating of a South Carolina African American female student in Richland County. Were it not for the presence of mind of her horrified fellow students turning on their phone camera, we might not have found out.

We must also consider the other kinds of violence that go on; ones that are perpetrated through the relationship between the police state and a prison-industrial system that must constantly be fed. Kalief Browder was taken off the streets of New York at the tender age of 16 and kept in Rikers Prison for three years without due process, suffering beatings and the torture that is long-term solitary confinement, which eventually drove him to suicide shortly after his release. Inmates across the country are kept in long-term solitary confinement. At Angola Prison in Louisiana,  Albert Woodfox, the remaining member of the Angola Three, has been in solitary confinement for over 43 years and is still being held in spite of a judge’s order to free him from prison. Some counties and states, starved for revenues and pressed for savings, have resorted to cut costs by passing legislation that reduces the number of meals and amount of food served to the prison population, resulting in hunger among inmates who are fed the caloric and weight equivalent of a meal fit for a 5 year old child.

Given all of these facts and the history they comprise, what is most striking about Director Comey’s latest speech is the flawed logic he employs. The following quote from his speech is most troubling:

“What could be driving an increase in murder in some cities across all regions of the country, all at the same time? What explains this map and this calendar? Why is it happening in all of different places, all over and all of a sudden?

But I’ve also heard another explanation, in conversations all over the country. Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves. And they’re saying it to me, and I’m going to say it to you. And it is the one explanation that does explain the calendar and the map and that makes the most sense to me.

Maybe something in policing has changed.

In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?

I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.”

I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.”

Director Comey is in constant contact with police forces around the country, and receives data from them. Moreover, he is privy to trends not only in criminal activity, but the activism of police fraternal orders around the country. The NYPD unions most famously instituted a work slowdown at the end of last year and beginning of 2015. So did Baltimore’s FOP early this summer. In Chicago, police just finished a successful renegotiation of a five-year contract.

What all these cities have in common, predating the unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, is that their FOP’s successfully negotiated bills of rights on behalf of their respective memberships, affording police officers legal rights no other class of citizen is granted in a criminal investigation. These extra-legal rights were negotiated over the last three decades as police department rolls have grown in size and power, resulting from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, written by current Vice President Biden, enacted in 1994, during Bill Clinton’s first term as president, and the war on drugs that led up to that. In the years since, police departments have were given surplus military and paramilitary equipment from the Federal government under George W. Bush, militarizing forces whose purpose and purview are civilian.

Between the Friday Comey gave his speech and the next Monday when the White House backed away from his assertions and sources within the FBI expressed puzzlement over his comments, Comey made this addendum in a new speech:

“Addressing police chiefs at a conference in Chicago, Comey said he could not be certain that the so-called “Ferguson effect”, following unrest in the Missouri city after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old last year, had led to a retreat by officers, but said this was “common sense.””

This admission by Comey raises questions about competence, but most of all points to a rather severe case of borderline subconscious bias. Comey started his speech to students at Chicago Law School with what appeared to be a recounting of anecdotes from his tenure there as a student. But, when we examine the rest of his speech and analyze the problem statements made in it, it is difficult not to wonder whether Comey felt the need to establish his young self as idealistic and race-neutral early in life in order to legitimize what was yet to be said.

Comey’s assessment of the reasons behind the beginning of the crack era in the 1980’s, to be blunt, smacks of racist blame-the-population dogma that is completely free of any recognition of the place and impact of neglectful policies in deprived neighborhoods over decades. This dogma is a central theme that Comey carries over to his suppositions on present-day resurgences of violent crime, placing blame both on the deprived and neglected for the violent behavior, but also the conscientious  for causing police work slow-downs by bringing to light acts of police brutality.

Comey came up with rationalizations for his statements when he was questioned. He did not back down, though he did admit that his suppositions are not founded in fact, but common sense. Comey’s brand of common sense is precisely the kind we do not need. It is the kind that protects those who should be exposed and stops agencies like the FBI from fully pursuing its mission to bring justice.

It is this kind of thoughtless expression that does the worst damage. It gives those with sinister objectives the necessary encouragement to keep perpetrating them, by validating a non-existent victim status. The videos Comey says police object to, show the police’s own misconduct. Logic dictates that if police don’t want to be seen committing brutal crimes on video, they should revert to a prior state when brutality was not used as a tool.

It these times and the atmosphere we live in, Comey’s views are completely out of place and sync with progress.


7 thoughts on “FBI Director Comey’s biased truths on policing and racism | #BlackLivesMatter on Blog#42”

  1. But do you have factual or logical rebuttals of Comey’s speculation? It does seem feasible.

    Moreover, your evidence regarding police brutality comprises of individual cases rather than aggregate trends. Individual cases could be cited to yield almost any conclusion one desires.

    On an unrelated note, deeply sorry to hear about your misfortune. Hope things work out.

    1. The federal government doesn’t keep a comprehensive database of police killings. This has been one of the top issues the Black Lives Matter movement has tried to address. Two newspapers, the UK’s The Guardian and the Washington Post have been keeping their own database for over a year. Nearly 1200 people were killed by police last year. This year, at this point, the count is at 500. You can see the Guardian’s database at http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/counted-us-police-killings

      AG Lynch gave an interview on the topic. You can watch it here: https://www.rimaregas.com/2015/10/ag-lynch-on-crime-and-counting-our-dead-blacklivesmatter-on-blog42/

      As for studies on the “Ferguson effect” there have been several since I wrote this a year ago and all refute the existence of such a thing. The NYT editorial even quoted one.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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