Monday, January 26, 2015


Yale Library

I would bet that what happened to Charles Blow’s son has been duplicated at every “elite” university in the USA.

I made a bet just like that some years ago at the University of California, Berkeley. A black employee in our department of Microbiology and Immunology went one floor down in the Life Science building to use the public soda vending machine. He was accosted by a campus police officer demanding to know what he was doing in the building. The young man said he was an employee and protested being stopped. He was taken to police headquarters even though other employees had quickly verified his identity, which only served to make the police officer angry and more stubborn to assert his authority.

Faculty in our department got the employee released and strongly protested the incident. Our department Chairperson, however, said it was just an unfortunate matter of miscommunication, not indicative of any pattern of police misconduct.

That’s where the bet came in.

We agreed to poll individually the six or so post-doctoral fellows and graduate students of color in the various biology departments at Berkeley. Every single one reported being stopped more than once, at gunpoint in a couple of cases. Why? Coming to the laboratory after class hours to attend ongoing research experiments. (Our employee was detained during normal working hours.) What could a black person be doing on the campus of an “elite” university?

Our Chairperson was convinced. The Department took the case to the Chancellor, who reprimanded the Police Chief. Chancellor and Chief both apologized to the employee, but as is virtually always the case, the offending police officer was not disciplined.

Can anyone wonder why Charles Blow was “fuming”? He closes his column thus: “…the scars cannot be unmade. My son will always carry the memory of the day he left his college library and an officer trained a gun on him.”

Ask why a new generation is so angry and refuses to take it! What happens at Yale or Berkeley is a small but very meaningful part of the saga unfolded at Ferguson and Staten Island. As Blow says: There is no amount of respectability that can bend a gun’s barrel. All of our boys are bound together.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


There is no worse way to respond to the horrific Charlie Hebdo murders than to rally millions to take up the Charlie Hebdo banner, “I am Charlie”. It divides France and the world into two all-encompassing warring camps, as if on one side are those ready to identify with hate speech and, on the other, the Islamic populations in whose name the assassins claim to seek revenge. What a terrible trap, dug even deeper as humanity is already entangled in tragic and futile conflict!

Certainly there is sympathy for the victims of murder and determination to thwart terrorist actions. But promotion of religious and race hate remains contemptible. Its consequences are not only in incidents of awful retaliation, but, far more widely, in fostering oppression, injustice and violence against “the other.”

Granted, society’s response to hate advocacy ought not to be banning free speech.  But no decent society can fail to expose it, oppose it, and fully support its victims.

As more than a few people have commented, when  “I am Charlie” embraces indifference to or support for anti-Muslim provocations, it is no less vile than endorsement of anti-Semitic or Jim Crow “satire”, both of which have a very long and very bloody history.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Mobilizing tens of thousands of police from around the country to come to New York to demonstrate is far more than a memorial to fallen comrades.

While it is Mayor DeBlasio to whom many in uniform turn their backs, it’s the millions of Americans who say “Black lives matter” who receive the menacing response. Loud and clear, the message is the police will not be moved. Counter attack rather than reform, continuing violence against minority communities and protesters alike is the standard.  Immunity for abuses of justice and crimes by police remains sacrosanct.

One needn’t be a seer, just an ordinary observer of historical experience, to raise the alarm against the political mobilization of police forces, now highly militarized as exposed in Ferguson.

An interesting sidelight concerns reactions to circumstances in which a crazed individual kills, as was the case in the assassination of the two police officers in New York. It is certainly reasonable that the events in Ferguson, Staten Island and elsewhere gave shape to the irrational mindset that randomly targeted two innocent policemen for murder. But Fox News, former Mayor Giuliani and police union chief Lynch only have eyes for their chosen political (progressive) enemy, not for the crazed mental state of the shooter. By contrast, remember most media reaction to the rash of assassinations by anti-abortion and other ultra-right vigilantes: ‘the Left is politicizing random acts by deranged individuals.’

Fortunately, there is no indication that the millions who believe in justice, that “Black lives matter”, will be turned around by a sea of blue uniforms. Once upon a time, protesters against the Vietnam War had to move forward despite massed “blue meanies”. And, of course, there was Selma. When the cause is just, it can transform public opinion and change what’s politically realizable.