Arif Hasan and Ben Natan discuss legalized slaughter from law enforcement officers on people of color and how modern valorization of police leads to holding them to lower standards while holding blacks up to impossible standards. We also discuss the complex divisions forming among the gulf states in the Middle East and how that informs the conflict in Syria.

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Show Notes (Police Brutality)

More than anything else, people seem to want studies that indicate that unarmed black people are shot more than unarmed white people, and there are dozens of them, and we’ve known it to be true for decades. The seminal study might be this one from Paul Takagi in Crime and Social Justice from 1974. In it, he states that “the police have one trigger finger for whites and another for blacks.”

In 1976, this study in the Justice System Journal was published. Here’s one from the Department of Justice from back in 1979. It’s important to acknowledge that the decision to shoot is a fairly complex one to break down, which is why this 1981 study by one of the most respected criminologists in the field found bias and evidence of racism in breakdowns of decisions to shoot while openly acknowledging the dozens of factors involved in such a decision.

In 1993, this study found a link between macro-level economic inequality and police shootings as well as percentages of the population that were black. In 1998, the American Journal of Sociology published this one which provides some predictive factors for when and where killing of unarmed black people occurs but not explanations.

More contemporarily, this study last month by the Center for Policing Equity found that police officers were much more likely to use force in interactions with black suspects than white suspects. The Police Accountability Task Force in Chicago found the same.

ProPublica found that young black males specifically are 21 times more likely to be shot than white teenage men.

This 2015 study might be the gold standard, and it uses Bayesian analysis and an independent database that does not rely on the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide reports, which rely on police reports, to construct its model.

The results provide evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average. Furthermore, the results of multi-level modeling show that there exists significant heterogeneity across counties in the extent of racial bias in police shootings, with some counties showing relative risk ratios of 20 to 1 or more.

The study accounts for community crime rates, whether or not the individual in question was violent towards cops, income levels, and so on.

This Washington Post article goes over a lot of the myths surrounding the debate about police shootings and addresses the common myth that black people are shot more because they live in high-crime communities.

In a report covering 2015 data, Campaign Zero compared violent crime rates of 50 major cities to the rate at which police officers killed people, concluding that there was no correlation.

As part of its data effort, The Post tracks the “threat level” of each person who is shot and killed by a police officer: Were they shooting at the officer? Were they threatening the officer? Were they fleeing?

Overall, the majority of the people who have been shot and killed by police officers in 2015 and 2016 were, based on publicly available evidence, armed with a weapon and attempting to attack the officer or someone else.

But an independent analysis of The Post’s data conducted by a team of criminal-justice researchers concluded that, when factoring in threat level, black Americans who are fatally shot by police are no more likely to be posing an imminent lethal threat to the officers at the moment they are killed than white Americans fatally shot by police.

We also know that police are nine out of ten off-duty police officers shot by active law enforcement are black or latinx.

The primary argument against this is a working paper (not a peer-reviewed study) put together by an economist from Harvard. You can find it here.

The Fryer study has many flaws, and he acknowledges quite a few of them. One of the flaws was that it put “contacts” in the denominator, meaning it did not evaluate whether or not black people were more likely to be stopped by police officers. We know that they are based on this analysis of the Greensboro police department, this data about stops in the state of Illinois, the evidence presented in the federal court case over Stop-and-Frisk in New York (supplemented by this study), this data from a task force in San Francisco and much more.

Further, granular studies on the phenotypical markers of Whiteness show that there’s even a gradient of interaction that increases in civility with how much “Whiter” a suspect appears.

This piece has further criticisms on several levels, which includes a detailed breakdown on how Fryer even determined statistical discrimination as a method. Fryer is using the wrong maximization-utility standard. Not only that his method of separating statistical discrimination and racial bias doesn’t account for self-fulfilling prophecy effects (like if you search one population’s cars much more than other populations’, then you’ll find higher incidences of drug possession in the first).

There are more methodological criticisms laid out against the Fryer paper that are worth reading.

One common argument is that black people are more likely to be involved in incidents that lead to shooting, due to a variety of factors, including a higher likelihood for citizens to call law enforcement on black people, higher incidences of poverty, increased police presence in minority communities and so on.

But study after study that analyzed threat factor under a variety of definitions, including on-the-ground threat assessments (whether the suspect is advancing on police officers, whether the suspect has a gun, and so on) and found that police still engage in racial bias when deciding when and who to shoot. This study in Philadelphia confirmed that officers are much more likely to make mistakes in identifying threats among black populations (ie mistaking a cell phone for a gun) than for white populations.

We know that black people are much more likely to be identified as threats when studying quick response times (again and again and again and again and again) and that neurophysical responses in the brain that identify threats activate much more with black suspects than white suspects.

There’s some evidence that the decision to shoot and the decision to identify a threat who could be shot are different and that police officers are better about making that distinction, and there’s a semi-famous study among those who deny racially-motivated bias that indicates in computer simulations that officers are less likely to shoot, but there’s no evidence that a testing environment like a simulation matches real-world outcomes. It also doesn’t match the majority of computer simulation tests, as evidenced in the prior paragraph (like this study, already linked above)—and never accounts for the observer effect. If you are testing police officers for racial bias and they know it (or something like it), they will modify their behavior.

They will also argue that higher crime rates in black populations will naturally lead us to the conclusion that the police encounters tend to be more violent. But studies of threat misperception already account for the behavior of suspects.

Even outside of the context of shootings, there’s significant evidence of police bias in everyday policing. The Justice Department found racist policing practices in the Ferguson police department, the Seattle police department, the Phoenix police department, the Baltimore police department, the Chicago police department and more. There’s evidence of it happening in Oakland, too. Here’s a comprehensive study of everyday policing that indicates high levels of racial bias.

We know that black people in custody are four times more likely to die in custody than white people.

As for the Philando Castile case specifically, there’s a lot of information out there now since we’ve last recorded. Evidence was being released while Ben and I were at the tail end of the podcast and the facts available to the public are extraordinary.

If you can stomach it, the dashcam footage is at the Root. It’s disgusting and not remotely justifiable. That’s the video the jurors saw before they decided that cops do not require accountability. The people at the Root had a moving essay on the video, too.

There’s also absurd testimony about how the smell of marijuana somehow influenced the officer’s actions.

I imagine there’s not much record of the officer in question wantonly shooting tobacco smokers. The logic of that testimony is heartbreaking—that anyone engaging in remotely risky behavior must therefore also presents the kind of risk that warrants pre-emptive execution. This isn’t applied to other types of policing.

Police officers do not routinely execute people who buy fast food for their children or those who live in smoggy cities with their children.

The police can, and often do, take shooters in without firing a shot. Alternet has a list of eight and the Root goes into the underlying logic of white shooters being taken in alive while unarmed black men do not have this leniency.

Those taken alive include white people who have already fired shots at people and then aim the rifle at police.

Alfred Olango, a 30-year-old black man in mental distress, was shot dead by an officer mistaking a vape for a gun. The total contact time between Olango and the officer was one minute and 29 seconds.

This is all to say that police should provide the leniency they do to armed white shooters that they do to unarmed black victims, not the other way around.

Given that the military in war zones have more restrictive requirements on how they can deploy firearms than police do in civilian settings, there’s a lot of shocking latitude and poor accountability on the discharge of firearms.

The militarization of the police is a significant problem, but it also elides a mindblowing fact: that the police are more militarized (in the context of militarism as an approach) than the military in many instances.

How, then can anyone say that the police in St. Louis County, and all over America, are not militarized? Because the cops aren’t acting like soldiers. They’re acting like extras in a Michael Bay movie playing soldiers.

Despite their expensive costuming, the police in Ferguson are putting on an unsophisticated, unscripted performance, a copy without an original. If these cops were to take a page out of the Army’s book on crowd control, it would be an improvement. But they seem to be making up tactics to go with the gear they’ve acquired.

Military personnel often counsel police agencies to show more restraint, not less. As the Gawker article linked above puts it, “the cops aren’t acting like soldiers. They’re acting like extras in a Michael Bay movie playing soldiers.”

Show Notes (Gun Control):

I mentioned that the internal history of the NRA is a little tragic, but it’s important to point out that the NRA started out as a group advocating for marksmanship training and gun restrictions.

It is hard to believe that the NRA was committed to gun-control laws for most of the 20th century—helping to write most of the federal laws restricting gun use until the 1980s.

That history, we mentioned, is deeply steeped in racial politics.

The nation’s white political elite feared that violence was too prevalent and there were too many people—especially urban Black nationalists—with access to guns. In May 1967, two dozen Black Panther Party members walked into the California Statehouse carrying rifles to protest a gun-control bill, prompting then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to comment, “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

An internal revolt in the late ’70s to change the NRA’s organizing principles was a big part of the reason the NRA is now an organization attempting to expand access to guns instead of restrict them.

Using the NRA’s parliamentary rules, the rebels interrupted the agenda from the floor and revised how the Board of Directors was chosen, recommited the NRA to fighting gun control and restored the lobbying ILA. Harlon Carter became the NRA’s new executive director. He cancelled a planned move of its national headquarters from Washington to Colorado Springs. And he changed the organization’s motto on its DC headquarters, selectively editing the Second Amendment to reflect a non-compromising militancy, “The Right Of The People To Keep And Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”

This new arm of the NRA perpetuated the fraud that the Second Amendment generally armed the citizenry:

in 1977, new articles on the Second Amendment appeared” in American Rifleman, Burbick noted, “rewriting American history to legitimize the armed citizen unregulated except by his own ability to buy a gun at whatever price he could afford.” That revisionist perspective was endorsed by a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee chaired by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch in 1982, when staffers wrote a report concluding it had discovered “long lost proof” of an individual’s constitutional right to bear arms.

You can read more about that internal political takeover at the Washington Post. It’s not only a compelling narrative by itself but deeply important American history.

In gun lore it’s known as the Revolt at Cincinnati. On May 21, 1977, and into the morning of May 22, a rump caucus of gun rights radicals took over the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association.

The rebels wore orange-blaze hunting caps. They spoke on walkie-talkies as they worked the floor of the sweltering convention hall. They suspected that the NRA leaders had turned off the air-conditioning in hopes that the rabble-rousers would lose enthusiasm.

The Old Guard was caught by surprise. The NRA officers sat up front, on a dais, observing their demise. The organization, about a century old already, was thoroughly mainstream and bipartisan, focusing on hunting, conservation and marksmanship. It taught Boy Scouts how to shoot safely. But the world had changed, and everything was more political now. The rebels saw the NRA leaders as elites who lacked the heart and conviction to fight against gun-control legislation.

And yes, it’s a fraud. The Second Amendment as we know it didn’t carry the significance in jurisprudence it does now for the vast majority of the nation’s history. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Supreme Court ruled that it even meant citizens had rights to a gun. And we know it wasn’t the founder’s intent for individual gun rights, either.

There is not a single word about an individual’s right to a gun for self-defense or recreation in Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention. Nor was it mentioned, with a few scattered exceptions, in the records of the ratification debates in the states. Nor did the U.S. House of Representatives discuss the topic as it marked up the Bill of Rights. In fact, the original version passed by the House included a conscientious objector provision. “A well regulated militia,” it explained, “composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

Though state militias eventually dissolved, for two centuries we had guns (plenty!) and we had gun laws in towns and states, governing everything from where gunpowder could be stored to who could carry a weapon—and courts overwhelmingly upheld these restrictions. Gun rights and gun control were seen as going hand in hand. Four times between 1876 and 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule that the Second Amendment protected individual gun ownership outside the context of a militia. As the Tennessee Supreme Court put it in 1840, “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk, and buffaloes might carry his rifle every day for forty years, and yet it would never be said of him that he had borne arms; much less could it be said that a private citizen bears arms because he has a dirk or pistol concealed under his clothes, or a spear in a cane.”

There’s arguments from the conservative sphere that the Court had recognized the individual right to bear arms in nonbinding errata in the Dred Scott decision. That’s a fairly unusual argument—actual court precedent countermands this, and other errata in the Scott case are also not opinions of the Court that conservatives recognize—like the persistent, but no longer enforced, argument that the federal government has such a limited set of powers that they can only engage in action explicitly in the Constitution.

That would kill federal drug laws, which are only justified through the interstate commerce clause—justifications for which Justices Rehnquist, Thomas and O’Connor do not hold up to scrutiny in the first place. It would eliminate federal civil rights protections, eliminate food stamps, allow companies to offshore, eliminate Social Security, eliminate Medicare, and so on.

When conservatives want the federal government to restrict access to abortion, a Dred Scott reading would hurt them. Same with federal public lands, which is an enormous political issue in the western United States. It may even end things like VA hospitals, which are not statutorily part-and-parcel to maintaining a standing military.

It would prevent the public collection of data in every scientific field, particularly the naturalistic ones: geology, meteorology, biology, ecology, climatology, economics, epidemiology and so on.

Moreover the part of the dicta of the Dred Scott decision that conservatives cite as reason for pre-Parker/Heller understandings of individual rights to carry doesn’t make sense in the context Taney is providing—he is (erroneously, as it turns out) describing how states do not recognize the citizenship of blacks in the United States and that doing so would ascribe them rights provided in individual states. In that section of Scott, he references Connecticut and Rhode Island state law.

At the time, many states allowed open gun ownership, but most particularly in the South, as a method of preventing slave uprisings. Ironically, they prevented concealed carry, only open carry. On the other hand, some states severely restricted gun ownership and did not face challenges in the Supreme Court because of those.

In fact, the legal tradition that the founders drew upon allowed officers to arrest anyone who was openly armed.

As a North Carolina jurist, James Davis, put it in 1774:

Justices of the Peace, upon their own View, or upon Complaint, may apprehend any Person who shall go or ride armed with unusual and offensive weapons, in an Affray, or among any great Concourse of the People, or who shall appear, so armed, before the King’s Justices sitting in Court.44

Many states restricted the right of individuals to carry arms in public at all, for the simple reason that police officers existed.

Massachusetts was not alone in its broad regulation of public carry. Over the next several decades, Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan, Virginia, Minnesota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania passed laws modeled on the 1836 Massachusetts statute.61 While modern regulatory schemes, such as the “good cause” permitting policy at issue in Peruta, do not operate in exactly the same manner as these regulations passed primarily outside the South in the nineteenth century, they are a logical analogue given present-day circumstances. Significantly, both regimes presume that the state’s police power justifies limiting the right to carry arms in public to circumstances in which there is a clear justification, such as a heightened need for self-defense.

That some states allowed individuals to carry arms does not mean the federal government guaranteed that right.

Show Notes (Middle East):

Saudi Arabia and five other countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, the interim Libyan government but not the UN-recognized one, UAE) have cut ties with Qatar ostensibly for their platforming and soft support for extremist groups, including funding and hosting Hamas locally as well as providing a platform for the Muslim Brotherhood and accommodating local funders of Al-Qaida. That’s all real, but some of the members of the alliance do the same thing. We know that Kuwait turns a blind eye to local terror support and the complicated relationship the House of Saud has with terrorism has yet to be fully explored by American interests or the interests of its allies.

Instead, this builds on a growing divide in the Middle East that’s founded on Qatar’s political support for various Arab Spring movements (abroad, not at home), Al-Jazeera and closer relationship with Iran. Qatar’s relationship with Iran isn’t incredibly close; they had fighters in Yemen supporting the Saudi coalition against the Houthi rebels, who are ostensibly supported by Iran—but it’s too close for Saudi Arabia. A lot of Qatari “support” is more about a moderate stance in the region meant to prevent rising tensions and encourage open dialogue.

Trump may have exacerbated things, too, by disempowering moderates in Iran and empowering hardliners in Saudi Arabia. Foreign Policy Magazine explained:

His open embrace of the more hard-line factions in the Kingdom sent a signal to Tehran that regardless of its policies, the United States wouldn’t be responsive to changes in Iran and would continue its business-as-usual policy of isolating the country.

Relatedly but not directly relevant: the Houthi rebels are painted as receiving support for Iran, but there’s not a lot of good evidence for it and Saudi Arabia remain the only country in the region particularly convinced of this. The conflict itself provides a peek into the divisions in the Gulf region—Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign is too bloody for its allies, and often runs counter to some of the stated goals of the campaign, like containing Islamic extremism.

The Brookings Institute has some good context:

As it happens, the Gulf states are also crucial partners in the fight against terrorism. They provide the U.S. government with vital intelligence. They fly side-by-side in bombing runs on ISIS targets. They offer key facilities for fighting al-Qaida. What this means for the United States is that picking sides in a dispute like this one risks jeopardizing cooperation with some states by condoning the nefarious activities of others—all for little gain.

The Saudi government or its official charities channeled money and weapons to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and to Bosnian and Chechen insurgents in the 1990s. Several Kuwaiti charities likely sent money to mujahedeen fighters in the Balkans. Government-organized charities in Qatar associated with al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood cleric, raised money for Chechen rebels. The UAE government-sanctioned Human Appeal International charity had ties to Hamas. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were among the few governments to recognize the Taliban regime in the pre-9/11 era. The Kingdom also encouraged or at least permitted thousands of Saudi citizens to fight in these conflicts.

Many of these Gulf states remain supporters of terror, though indirectly. Kuwait is an “epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria” according to former State department officials. And, you know, Saudi Arabia. They provide the most foreign fighters to ISIS, host the most polemic voices in support of terror and are party to private funders.

There’s also evidence that supporters of Al-Qaida in Qatar are supporting Al-Qaida as a method of providing a bulwark against both the Bashar Al-Assad regime and the encroachment of ISIS. That’s not a justification for those funders, but a demonstration that the nature of the accusations carry much more complexity than at first glance. The Al-Qaida branch in Syria still presents a threat to American lives and the lives of innocents across the globe.

Not only that, Qatar’s “support” for Hamas is much more benevolent than it seems. It’s humanitarian infrastructural aid given with the blessing of Israel—things like schools, hospitals and homeless shelters. There’s a lot of criticism to be had for Qatar’s permissive attitude towards terrorist organizations, but Hamas is probably not the spearhead for those criticisms.

None of this is to say Qatar doesn’t have blood on their hands—they do, and have some of the most egregious domestic human rights abuses in the Middle East, but it’s pretty clear that the stated motivations for cutting of ties with Qatar aren’t genuine. And the United States shouldn’t pick sides in this conflict if they want to accomplish the stated goals their current Middle East policy:

And Qatar? Within its borders lies the massive al Udeid airbase, where 10,000 U.S. personnel are stationed. It is the largest, most important U.S. military facility in the Middle East, hosting the forward elements of USCENTCOM, and providing a base for much of America’s air operations in the region. Its runways are large enough to base the B-52s that bomb ISIS. The United States has even benefited from the ambiguous ties between Qatar’s Gulf partners and terrorist groups: When America sought the release of a hostage held by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, it turned to Qatar to broker the deal.

And of course, if they don’t (and they shouldn’t) want to execute their stated goals in the Middle East, they shouldn’t pick sides at all.

The United States can use this crisis as an opportunity to force what Foreign Policy magazine calls an “audit” of the relationship, where they provide relief from foreign pressure in exchange for good-faith efforts to clamp down on domestic support of terror, but it doesn’t seem like the United States is headed in that direction, nor do they have the diplomatic capital to negotiate such a complicated arrangement.

Qatar has prosecuted five domestic financiers but largely this has been for show. But they have demonstrated the ability to close down on terrorism. Some have speculated Trump is mostly pissed because Qatar pulled out of a Trump Tower deal.

Foreign Policy magazine quoted a Pentagon official:

Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, the Pentagon praised Qatar for hosting the U.S. air base and for its “enduring commitment to regional security.”

“We continue to be grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support for our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis told reporters.

Foreign Policy magazine also convincingly made the argument that we’re on the path to another Great Power War given Trump’s handling of the crises in the Middle East.

But the glaring absence of a U.S. positive political vision in the Middle East has left its negatively defined anti-Islamic State and anti-Iranian goals untethered, which has generated regional confusion. Imagine a sheepdog who is good at barking, but has little sense of direction: The Middle East is now in the position of its harried flock.

Even the administration itself seemed confused about how to respond to the implications of its own strategy, as was clear from its plainly contradictory signals on the Qatar crisis: While President Trump initially enthusiastically endorsed the blockade of Qatar in public, his national security team sought to de-escalate it behind the scenes, and this calmer line seems to be prevailing. So, what does Washington positively want? Who knows.

In my view, until the U.S. presents a positive political strategy, we will continue to have direct clashes between Russian-supported Shiite militias and U.S. forces, which may well produce an accident in which either Russia shoots down a U.S. plane or vice versa. Even then, I think that neither Washington nor Moscow would rationally want a conventional fight. But conflict dynamics are never wholly rational; far from it. Violence can generate new emotional pressures in conflict and spin out of control in a direction nobody anticipated.

Besides the risk of escalation with Russia, the more the United States starts directly attacking Shiite militias, the more likely the Iranian nuclear deal will completely break down. This would reopen the possibility of a U.S. war with Iran. Even before that point, Iran would likely react to counter the United States in the region by exerting much more aggressive influence over Baghdad. The nightmare scenario would be an Iranian puppet like ex-Prime Minister Nouri alMaliki getting back into power, and issuing a demand for U.S. forces to leave Iraq, which would put Washington in a vexed position of either accepting or returning to direct rule.

Here’s the Jeet Heer piece that Ben referenced on the podcast about that very thing.

Clinton’s policies were controversial but at least sprang from a coherent foreign policy worldview which could be debated. Trump might be following Clinton’s policies in broad outline but with little thought to consequences. He appears to be responding to unfolding events in an ad-hoc way, rather than being guided by a broader strategy. This “incremental escalation,” according to national security expert and former Obama adviser Colin Kahl, could quickly escalate because of the “asymmetry of stakes.”

Kahl notes that despite Trump’s more aggressive stance in Syria, the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran “haven’t backed down. They keep pushing, probing, testing, countering. They haven’t been cowed & deterred.” That’s because, whereas “the interests for the U.S. are important,” they are “vital” for the “Axis of Assad.” For Iran, the conflict is a chance to prop up a key ally in its broader regional struggle against Saudi Arabia. For Russia, propping up Assad would be a victory for their policy of national sovereignty versus America’s preference for regime change. For Assad, as Kahl says, the interests are “existential”—and not just for his government. If his regime falls, he may well end up like Hussein.

So the “Axis of Assad” won’t back down. Will Trump? Kahl seems pessimistic. If the axis retaliates over these recent provocations, the hawks in Trump’s National Security Council “will argue U.S. credibility has now been engaged, so we have to keep punching.” In effect, Trump is playing a game of chicken with foes that cannot afford to surrender, and the president might refuse to back down out of fear of losing face.

It’s terrifying.