Yesterday marked Memorial Day, a holiday seen by most as an excuse for cookouts or sitting in Shore traffic. But it was created to remember the 1.35 million American troops who died in wartime. We should ponder their sacrifice, and whether the America they thought they were fighting for and ultimately died for is the one that we’ve created in 2022. We can do a lot better — for their memory and for our future.
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Uvalde proved the lesson of George Floyd. Cops aren’t there to keep us safe.
There are already a lot of myths about last week’s tragic mass murder of fourth-graders and their teachers inside a Uvalde, Texas, classroom, but the biggest one is this: that the police officers stood around and did absolutely nothing when they arrived at the Robb Elementary School just moments after a teen carrying his 18th-birthday assault rifle.
The police — and make no mistake, this rural county seat was crawling with cops, from school officers to a bloated town police department to federal marshals to Border Patrol agents with massive firepower — were actually quite busy during those now infamous 78 minutes that the gunman carried out his deranged killing spree.
They just weren’t doing the things that millions of Americans raised on TV crime dramas and “Blue Lives Matter” myth-making had naively believed that our police officers are physically, psychologically, and morally trained to do: Answering the desperate whisper of the 10-year-old girl who got through to 9-1-1 several times during the killing spree and pleaded, “send the police now.”
Instead, the oversized, over-resourced law-enforcement community of Uvalde passed most of those 78 minutes doing what American police do best: keeping the angry and bitterly confused masses in line. Instead of confronting an active shooter as police have been trained to do since 1999′s Columbine massacre, police officers on the scene wasted a lot of time with a single-minded focus: controlling a crowd of angry people demanding that agents of the state do something to stop the carnage and rush into the building where their own children were trapped.
In the most egregious case, the mother of a second- and a third-grader at the elementary school — who raced 40 miles to get to the scene — was arrested and put in handcuffs by U.S. marshals who accused her of “intervening in an active investigation” because she wanted to run inside and save her kids. She was, remarkably, able to convince some Uvalde cops she recognized to remove the handcuffs, and she did find and liberate her children.
Meanwhile, other officers continued to focus on confronting Uvalde’s enraged residents, and not the teen with the AR-15. According to witnesses, even after the gunman had been killed, an officer used a Taser on a father running toward a school bus to collect his child. Another video captures an officer telling a parent that he was not in the school trying to stop the rampage “because I’m having to deal with you.”
New reports and a brutal timeline of police inaction emerged over the weekend, suggesting that some of the 21 Uvalde victims might have been saved if cops had used their training to take the personal risk of confronting the shooter much sooner. These shocking details may have finally awakened many Americans to realities of U.S. policing that have been hiding in plain sight.
In fact, it seemed all too fitting that first the heartbreaking carnage and then news of the botched response overlapped with second anniversary of the event that — albeit all too briefly — had once threatened to start a reckoning with justice: the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In May 2020, folks were stunned to watch Officer Derek Chauvin kneel for nine minutes and 29 seconds on the neck of an unarmed Black man accused of nothing more than spending a counterfeit $20. Turns out those 569 seconds were a prelude to the agonizing hour and 18 minutes that Uvalde’s law officers fought the town’s mostly Latino parents instead of the rampaging killer. But it was just two sides of the same coin — policing for social control, not to keep people safe.
“U. S. police are trained to maximize control over situations while minimizing their personal risk,” criminal-justice author Patrick Blanchfield wrote on Twitter. The Intercept’s Natasha Lennard was more blunt, writing that politicians who continue to double down on hiring more cops “make clear that they too uphold what the institution of policing defends: property, power, and racial hierarchy.”
One thing is clear about Uvalde, a historic South Texas town halfway between San Antonio and the Rio Grande: the community, and its schools, are not under-policed. In addition to the school police force that oversaw the chaos last Tuesday, the town spends a whopping 40% of its general fund on its municipal police department. They’re spurred on by a right-wing Republican mayor who goes on Fox News to call Uvalde “the Wild, Wild West” because of a surge in immigration crossings, with schools routinely locked down because cops are in constant chase of migrants.
“It’s a town where the love of guns overwhelms any notion of commonsense regulations, and the minority white ruling class places its right-wing Republican ideology above the safety of its most vulnerable citizens — its impoverished and its children, most of whom are Hispanic,” Uvalde native Neil Meyer wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
The horrifying events in Uvalde were also a moment of clarity, that these warriors against an “alien” migrant culture from south of the border froze dead in their tracks when someone from their town’s prevailing gun culture was the bad guy, and that “Blue Lives Matter” to this fraternity quite a lot — more than the lives of defenseless children.
George Carlin said they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it. George Floyd jolted us from our slumber about who the police really are, and yet we went back to bed. Can America keep its eyes open after the nightmare of Uvalde?
Yo, do this
One thing I’d love to do in this space more often is recommend new music — but I don’t listen to nearly enough of it! One exception is the remarkable Adia Victoria, a Trinidadian-American who grew up in South Carolina, settled in Nashville, and absorbs the swampy music history of the American South to create something all her own that she calls “gothic blues,” occasionally with a political bent. That’s especially true of her new song “In the Pines,” which supports the Carolina Abortion Fund and that she’s dedicated “to every teenage girl who is desperately scratching at the walls of ideological imprisonment.”
Two years after George Floyd’s murder and one week after the tragic chaos in Uvalde, America is once again thinking about its fraught relationship with the police and their peculiar — and arguably warped — culture. Against this backdrop, HBO Max has been airing We Own This City, which takes viewers back to the hard-bitten Baltimore streets most famously seen in The Wire, which shares some key off-camera players like executive producer David Simon. The Wire is a tough act to follow, but this real-life tale of a narcotics squad gone horribly bad could not have been better timed for the current U.S. zeitgeist.
Ask me anything
Question: What gives you hope? — via Bettina Pearl (@bettinaapearl) on Twitter
Answer: Almost every question I received this week was like this: Nonspecific, but some variation on will something ever happen to make life better in America? Bettina, I’m sure you remember a few years (cough, cough) back, when I was an editor at the Brown Daily Herald and you were the star reporter: South Africa’s Nelson Mandela had been in prison for years with seemingly no hope of getting out — just like the Czech playwright and dissident Václav Havel. But things changed. Both men went from a cell to leaders of their liberated nations. There is always hope, and in America I find it in our young people — who are more tolerant than their elders, and more brave as they march for gun safety, climate action, and other important causes. I just pray that our generation listens to what they have to say.
Backstory on Biden’s student-debt crisis ‘small ball’
President Biden — whose approval rating only seems to sink lower — needs to put some points on the board before the first half of his term ends. To do it in the face of a relentless GOP blitz, he’s going to have to throw the ball downfield, but the play that Team Biden appears to have called — a less-than-halfway measure that will save some victims of America’s crushing $1.75 trillion student-debt crisis, but not most — is the political equivalent of a run up the middle on 3rd-and-14. Indeed, fans on both the left and the right of the political arena were booing this play before the snap.
To switch metaphors, Friday’s leaked-to-the-Washington Post trial balloon of up to $10,000 in relief for lower- and middle-class borrowers may have popped before Memorial Day weekend was over.
On the plus side, the $10,000 figure is (debatably) in line with the bare minimum of a 2020 Biden campaign promise, and reports suggest more than 11 million borrowers would have their loans wiped out. Doing something is better than doing nothing. But the move would still leave a ticking debt bomb of more than $1.4 billion. I don’t remember such a paltry, less-than-halfway measure when Wall Street bankers showed up, hat in hand, in 2008. Do you? And the idea of “means testing” the program would do more to exclude poorer folks who get overwhelmed by red tape than the high-income families supposedly targeted.
Going much bigger is the right thing to do, and not just because we’re simply acknowledging that a lot of these dollars would never be paid back anyway. Debt forgiveness is a matter of equity, since Black and brown families lacking the generational wealth of their white peers borrowed so heavily for a shot at the middle class. But it’s really a matter of morality, after “grown-ups” sold America’s young people a bill of goods on what a college diploma would really cost, and what it was really worth. This nation is broken after Buffalo and Uvalde, looking for a virtuous path forward. President Biden, why not start the road here?
Recommended Inquirer reading
Only one column this week because of the Memorial Day holiday and not surprisingly it was an emotional response to the slaughter in Uvalde. GOP politicians with blood on their hands were “horrified and heartbroken,” but much of America is filled with righteous rage. How can we convert that into meaningful action?
A lot of people had powerful reactions to Uvalde — none more so than the Philadelphia Union’s veteran captain and moral leader Alejandro Bedoya, who has spoken out in the past for Washington to do something about gun violence … to no avail. Before Saturday’s match in New England, Bedoya and his Union teammates warmed up in “End Gun Violence” T-shirts, and then the captain had a lot to say. The Inquirer’s tireless soccer writer Jonathan Tannenwald — after cranking out his game story — transcribed the whole thing and published it so Philly and the world could hear the diatribe. “This ain’t American exceptionalism,” Bedoya said. “It ain’t freedom that we have to now look over our backs all the time.” It takes energy, effort and resources to keep Philadelphia informed. That’s what you get back when you subscribe to The Inquirer.