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From the caliphate to Ferguson and back, it’s a small world

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- starting with the news, closing with Jay Forrester & the impact of systems dynamics on our understanding of cause and effect -- a catchup post ]
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Clearing the decks grom the last few days, I found this DoubleQuote in the Wild from Ferguson staring out at me from my twitter feed — suggesting just how intricately interwoven our world really is:

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Souad Mekhennet has a piece titled Even the Islamists of ISIS are obsessing over Ferguson in the Washington Post:

You can understand if President Obama would rather talk about the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq, where he has scored some victories, than talk about the unholy mess in Ferguson, Mo. Surprisingly, though, ISIS militants are following developments in the St. Louis suburb, and some of them would rather focus on that. According to interviews and social media, members of the group and sympathizers with its jihadist ideology are closely tracking the events in the St. Louis suburb, where protesters and police have clashed. In it, they see opportunity.

Here are a couple of ISIS-fan tweets:

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Look, the point I’m making isn’t about Ferguson, it isn’t about the Islamic State, it has to do with the way that an event in one place whill have myriad unexpected effects downstream. The classic case which really opened my eyes to this was Aum Shinrikyo — the group that released sarin in the Tokyo subway system — sending a planeload of its members to Zaire in an attempt to collect Ebola samples for their biochem weapons labs.

Someone in a medium size yoga cult in Japan read the New Yorker and learned that Ebola esisted and was lethal, and the next thing you know there’s a religious terror group, led by a guy who reads Nostradamus, Asimov and Revelation — and has been granted a photo op with the Dalai Lama — working diligently to get that capability.

That was back in the last century, but Ebola’s in the news again these days, and it turns out that epidemiology needs to take into account pervasive belief in some affected corners of Africa that the whole business is a conspiracy designed to imprison Africans in “clinics” — the result being riots against at least one clinic, and blood-stained bedclothes and live virus carriers being dispersed into a poorly protected slum.

Epidemiology as theorized and modeled should be cleaner than that. But then there are other factors — in the case of polio, there’s CIA use of a vaccination team as cover for an attempt to obtain bin Laden’s DNA in Abbottabad, resulting in widespread rumors of conspiracy, refusal of vaccinations, and a resurgence of the disease.

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Big question: how can you figure out the unknown unknowns represented by riots affecting quarantine? words spoken when a mic supposedly off is in fact on? the impact of large scale climate engineering.

One of the ideas that has most influenced me in my thinking about games, simulations and models over the last dozen or more years comes from Jay Forrester. I’ll quote him from section 4.1, Cause and Effect Not Closely Related in Time or Space, in his 2009 paper, Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century, though I think I first ran across the idea in one of his books, probably Urban Dynamics (1969) or World Dynamics (1971):

Most understandable experiences teach us that cause and effect are closely related in time and space. However, the idea that the cause of a symptom must lie nearby and must have occurred shortly before the symptom is true only in simple systems. In the more realistic complex systems, causes may be far removed in both timing and location from their observed effects.

From earliest childhood we learn that cause and effect are closely associated. If one touches a hot stove, the hand is burned here and now. When one stumbles over a threshold, the cause is immediately seen as not picking the foot high enough, and the resulting fall is immediate. All simple feedback processes that we fully understand reinforce the same lesson of close association of cause and effect. However, those lessons are aggressively misleading in more complex systems.

In systems composed of many interacting feedback loops and long time delays, causes of an observed symptom may come from an entirely different part of the system and lie far back in time.

To make matters even more misleading, such systems present the kind of evidence that one has been conditioned by simple systems to expect. There will be apparent causes that meet the test of being closely associated in time and in location. However, those apparent causes are usually coincident symptoms arising from a distant cause. People are thereby drawn to actions that are not relevant to the problem at hand.

That stunned me. But it gets a little worse:

Comments such as I have just made about cause and effect carry little conviction from being stated in a text. Only after a student has repeatedly worked with models that demonstrate such behavior, and has had time to observe the same kinds of behavior in real life, will the idea be internalized and become part of normal thinking.

I don’t think that’s quite right, I think we’re now seeing generations arise for whom system dynamics and networked thinking seem progressively more “intuitive” — more in tune with the zeitgeist.

But the decision makers? As far as I can see, they are largely impervious to the kinds of thinking necessary to navigate our complexly interwoven envirorment.

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Ferguson: tweets of interest 2

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a follow up -- noticeable individual protesters and foreign commentary ]
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I began the first part of this double post with a strange confluence of religious and political groups — The Nation of Islam, Black Panthers and Moorish Temple — in Ferguson. I’ll begin this one with an interesting pairing of gangs — Crips and Bloods, standing together in Ferguson to prevent looting:

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There are some interesting individuals protesting in Ferguson, and some comments from “far flung corners of the globe” — as if the globe had quarters and someone had flung them, far, presumably, from here.. Some of these individuals and foreign commentators you may admire, some you may intensely dislike: I’m providing data points, your conclusions are up to you.

For instance, you might well feel some admiration for this old lady and her commitment to voicing her own moral perspective:

but find the following tweet, sharing at least the overall thrust of that perspective, less appealing:

Or not. Opinions differ.

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Here’s another venerable protester:

And another view from abroad, represented in this case by Tibetan monks in exile who have traveled to Ferguson to join the protests.

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Then there are those who would takr advnatage of the situation to score points — the Ayatollah Khamenei, for instance:

I haven’t found a similar tweet for Egypt or N Korea, but they may be out there…

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Amnesty International has a similar critique of US foreign policy, but unlike Khomaini’s Iran, isn’t in the business of runnig a repressive state…

It’s surely noteworthy that “Ferguson” is the first occasion to my knowledge in which Amnesty has been sufficiently disturbed to send observers to a situation in the US.

Amnesty, too, has its detractors, as witness a flurry of tweets responding to the one above, one of which, from Allen McDuffee, was picked up by Buzzfeed and widely quoted — while being hastily removed from the CSIS site itself:

That dispute, at any rate, appears to have ended amicably enough:

And so it goes.

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One last thing? That molotov cocktail allegedly thrown by a protester at the police in Ferguson? Apparently it was a police tear gas cannister being returned to sender. Not that there haven’t also been molotovs in Ferguson — as DoubleQuoted here:

In fact, peace with a dash of violence seems to be quite a common cocktail itself these days…

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Ferguson: tweets of interest 1

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the extraordinary cast of players surrounding Ferguson, not forgetting Marvin Gaye ]
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There’s a whole lot going on that, while not central to the face-off between public and police in Ferguson, is “constellating” around it, and worth our attention in any case. I’ll begin with the most interesting pairing of religious groups in Ferguson — the Moorish Temple, alongside the Nation of Islam — alongside the Black Panthers, whose interests are purely political AFAIK:

It’s interesting that according to WND — not necessarily a source I’d expect to find this sort of thing in — Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson “has had some words of high praise for some people he said helped get the violence under control for one night” in Ferguson:

It was Malik Shabazz, formerly with the New Black Panthers, and now with Black Lawyers for Justice, and his team, including members of that group as well as the Nation of Islam. [ .. ]

During a news conference held by Johnson in Ferguson, Shabazz started explained that it was his team who had shut down traffic, chased the people away and prevented rioting for a single night last week.

Johnson credited him with accomplishing exactly that.

“First of all, I want to say that those groups he talked about that helped us Thursday night, he’s absolutely correct and when I met with the governor the next day I said I do not know the names of those groups. But I said there were gentlemen in black pants and black shirts and they were out there and they did their job.

“And I told that to the governor, and I’ll tell that to the nation,” Johnson said. “Those groups helped, and they’re a part of this.”

For more on the Moorish Science Temple, see Peter Lamborn Wilson‘s Lost/Found Moorish Time Lines in the Wilderness of North America [part 1 and part 2]

The Moorish Temple, Panthers and Nation of Islam all converging on Ferguson is impressive. Apparently missing from this picture? The Scientologists. Louis Farrakhan of NOI has recently been recommending Scientology to his NOI followers [1, 2, 3], in yet another example of strange bedfellows…

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Okay, — on the face of it, the single most ironic tweet I’ve seen about Ferguson would have to be this one:

— and that’s unfortunate, because KaBoom‘s Playful City USA idea is a good one, and Ferguson deserves kudos for implementing it:

In 2012, Ferguson was recognized as a “Playful City, USA” for its efforts to increase play opportunities for children. The city of Ferguson hosts Sunday Parkways, a free community play street event in neighborhoods on Sunday afternoons. Streets are closed to cars in order to allow residents of all ages and abilities to play in the streets.

Closing down streets to traffic so people young and old can play in them isn’t enough, however — when they’re also closed down for the sorts of other reasons we’ve been seeing in Ferguson recently.

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One pair of tweets that caught my eye showed almost the same exact moment, captured from two angles that must have been almost perpendicular to one another — a pairing that would have made an interesting DoubleQuote all by itself. The first is from Bill Moyers:

while the second was addressed to him by another observer:

That second photo is the work of Scott Olson of Getty Images, a photographer who was himself arrested and then released in Ferguson, as part of the police vs press stand-off which has been a secondary motif in this whole affair.

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There are words painted on the PO box in that last photo that somehow made their way unfiltered onto at least one TV report, but one of them is NSFW. Three tweets from Yamiche Alcindor of USA Today delicately obscure the offending phrase with suitably placed asterisks, and indicate that as Congreve said, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak” — but can also arouse them.

In this case, the arousing came first, the calming second — kudos to polite police:

— with kudos, too, to Marvin Gaye:

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I’ll close part 1 of this double post with an interesting example of a DoubleQuote in the Wild:

Coming up next in part 2: noticeable individual protesters and foreign commentary

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Ferguson compared: Kelsey Atherton compiles the tweets

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- easily the clearest and most powerful critique of recent events in Ferguson comes from KD Atherton and friends ]
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Kelsey Atherton has Storified a fine compilation of tweets comparing Ferguson police, their weaponry, posture and tactcis, with military equivalents, in what is essentially an extended DoubleQuotes approach to understanding the “militarization” of US police. Please note that the piece runs two pages to see the second, you need to click for it at the bottom of the first page.

He leads of with a sequence of tweets from Andrew Exum aka Abu Muqawama, of which this is one:

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Two of the tweets Atherton posts use what I call a DoubleQuotes in the Wild format:

and:

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Here are some other examples, pulled from a total of 45 tweets all told — including some from friends of this blog:

One point nicely made by Adam Weinstein is that the “militarization” isn’t military much beyond the gear:

See also this:

Here’s Jimmy Sky:

— which pretty much confirms a point I was making in DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world.

Three from Nathan Bethea offer further perspective on Iraq:

Again, that last tweet reinforces what I was suggesting in DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world.

My next-to-last pick: Jason Fritz makes a triple point:

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After requesting further tweets that might be relevant to his Storify story, Atherton includes a handful of tweets from @kudzu81 aka ibreakthings, offering this moderate critique:

Atherton’s own conclusion, which he posts as a sub-head to his Storify:

The general consensus here: if this is militarization, it’s the shittiest, least-trained, least professional military in the world, using weapons far beyond what they need, or what the military would use when doing crowd control.

All in all, an impressive performance — much kudos to Kelsey Atherton, be sure to read his whole piece on Storify — and follow him on Twitter.

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DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world

Friday, August 15th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the militarization of law enforcement in the US and around the globe ]
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This double image is taken from a Foreign Policy slideshow published yesterday titled The Ferguson Spring and subtitled “Can you tell the difference between the Missouri town where Michael Brown was killed and some of the world’s most volatile uprisings?” The accompanying legend reads:

Left: A young man in Ferguson, Mo. at a protest against the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police. On Aug. 14, the protests entered their fourth day.

Right: A protester in the village of Diraz, Bahrain, holds a Molotov cocktail during clashes with riot police on July 19, 2013. Protests began in Bahrain in 2011, when the country’s Shiite majority began demanding more rights from the Sunni monarchy.

All told, the slideshow contains 14 such double images.

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Here’s the text of the FP piece:

In the days since Michael Brown, a 18-year-old African American man, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the town of 21,000 people located just north of St. Louis, has devolved into an increasingly tense confrontation between protesters and its strikingly militarized police force. Photos and footage from the scene show local police officers fully outfitted with body armor and tactical weapons — scoped, short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles, accurate up to 500 meters — modeled after the M4 carbine used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq. This police force, joined by officers from upwards of 15 other departments, has patroled the streets of Ferguson in military vehicles, arrested journalists and one local politician, and fired teargas and rubber bullets at mostly peaceful protesters. On Thursday night, hundreds of protesters marched through the streets — some 75 people have reportedly been arrested since Saturday, when Brown was killed. As of Aug. 12, the FAA has listed the skies above the town as restricted airspace.

Today, speaking from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., President Barack Obama called for calm, saying, “Now’s the time for peace … on the streets of Ferguson,” adding, “Police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.”

But for the moment, Ferguson, Mo., looks more like Kiev’s Maidan, the street fights of Bahrain, or the clashes of Cairo’s Tahrir Square than small-town America. In fact, at a glance, it’s pretty difficult to spot the difference between the warzone atmosphere on the streets of Ferguson, and the crackdowns and clashes that have erupted in some of the most volatile and repressive countries in the world.

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The demonstrators, cops and soldiers in each slide juxtaposed with those from Ferguson come from Bahrain, Ukraine, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Kenya, and the West Bank. The cops and soldiers — in every case — look uncomfortably like the cops and soldiers in all the other images, and the aame is true of the protesters and demonstrators.

What, I wonder, will a continuing media barrage of images of cops at home and abroad do to our overall perception of law enforcement and protest? Will we begin to see all cops in riot gear from Tahrir to Times Square as one and the same force, all demonstrators in street clothes with faces masked as one and the same protest? This doesn’t bode well for either group.

Matthew Harwood of the ACLU — which recently issued its own report on excessive police militarization — mentions a Johns Hopkins study in his article One Nation under SWAT thus:

People were shown pictures of police officers in their traditional uniforms and in BDUs. Respondents, the survey indicated, would much rather have a police officer show up in traditional dress blues. Summarizing its findings, Bickel writes, “The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, instead of trusted community protectors.”

Will that perception do anything to ease already tense situations?

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Not all the double images in the FP slideshow are as effectively paired as the one at the top of this post, but the slideshow as a whole is clearly an extended form of what I call DoubleQuotes in the Wild, and its cumulative impact is powerful.

I’ll close with another double image from the same source:

The legend with this pair reads:

Left: A Thai soldier with a machine gun secures the area outside a shopping mall in Bangkok where protesters gather for a demonstration against the May 22 military coup. Most of the anti-coup protests have been peaceful.

Right: A Missouri State Highway Patrol tactical vehicle travels down a central road in Ferguson as police try to break up protests against police violence.

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