Examining Shades of Gray

Complexity is, perhaps, both the world’s most common occurrence and the most commonly overlooked. It seems as if we all want THE ANSWER, as if there is just one. Well, I don’t think there is. Instead, I strive to keep the notion of complexity at the center of my perspectives and perceptions, and to always see and understand its many shades of gray.

Unnecessary police confrontations undermine ‘Occupy Wall Street’ mission

While Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters aim to combat a broken and inequitable financial system, the world’s spotlight instead shines on their confrontations with police, thus overshadowing their mission and undermining their goals.

With headlines like, “Police Arrest More Than 700 Protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge” in the New York Times and “NYPD accused of heavy-handed tactics” in the Guardian, the goals and message of the movement are being lost amidst a torrent of ineffective tactics and misplaced anger.

In the most recent confrontation, on Saturday, September 30, protestors streamed onto the Brooklyn Bridge roadway and were then corralled and arrested for disorderly conduct and blocking vehicular traffic.

Opinions vary on how events unfolded, and on what role police played in instigating the confrontation.

From an official standpoint, fault is solely that of the protestors, whom ignored the threat of arrest upon entering the roadway. This is verified on numerous video accounts from that day, including one shot by the NYPD that shows protestors locking arms and approaching a retreating force of officers who were using a bullhorn to warn protestors not to enter the roadway and impede traffic.

On the other side of the fence, protestor accounts detail the commonly used trap-and-detain tactic, and portray themselves as the victims. Citing past protests in which police utilized the strategy, including one instance that resulted in a $13.9 million court settlement with the District of Columbia, Jason Cherkis strong evidence for this argument in a Huffington Post article titled, Occupy Wall Street Mass Arrest Resembles Infamous, Costly Police Tactic, Critics Say.

In this version of the day’s events, Cherkis points to police using video to record the warning, which protestors claim was garbled and inaudible, as well as the fact that arrest buses were arranged prior to the day’s march. Additionally, he highlights a marked disparity between the heavy presence of officers early in the march with their lack of effort to keep protestors on the bridge’s walkway. He illustrates how the bridge served as an area in which protestors could not disperse, a requirement of the trap-and-detain tactic, and how the actions of officers contradicted the reasoning behind their arrest of wide swaths of protestors: preventing a disruption of traffic.

Whether the protestors were baited or not is beside the point, however. Ultimately, protestors are holding such marches with an agenda, and their confrontations with police detract from that agenda. Thus, it’s their responsibility to ensure that these confrontations don’t occur and, if they do, it’s at no fault of their own.

Failing to secure a permit, entering a roadway, blocking the entrance to a public building, and trespassing on private property are all minor infractions, but each one provides authorities with ammunition. Every such infraction causes a confrontation with the wrong group. After all, are the police officers on the Brooklyn Bridge reaping the benefits of the inequitable financial system? Or are they underpaid, over-worked and equally frustrated with our country’s economy? They’re not the enemy; so protestors should not force them to engage. And, if they do anyway, it strengthen and gives credibility to the protestors’ cause.

To that effect, I point to demonstrations held during the Civil Rights era, as an example to follow.

When organizing the Selma to Montgomery March in 1966, John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) understood the importance of maintaining order, of refusing to provide the authorities with a reason to stop them. With discipline and purpose, they led more than 600 marchers in organized rows of two along the side of the road. They did not impede traffic and gave no reason for police to halt their march. Thus, when police did halt them, did make mass arrests and did respond with force, there was no room for debate about who was to blame. The un-instigated actions of police served to strengthen the cause of that protest.

This was not the case with the Brooklyn Bridge incident. Where the Selma March, and the group itself, was organized and efficient, these were just the opposite. The New York Times article cited above claimed that, “None of the protestors interviewed knew if the bridge march was planned or a spontaneous decision by the crowd,” and the aforementioned Guardian article explains that, “the confluence of so many on the road was a misunderstanding.”

What’s worse, the marchers and their supporters seem to believe that such confrontations are signs of success in their movement. During solidarity sit-ins outside of police stations where the arrested marchers were being held, OSW members were dancing, drinking, and cheering every time one of their own was released. Moreover, protestors and marchers have resisted arrest upon every confrontation with police.

Videos of the Brooklyn Bridge confrontation show the crowd holding onto and pulling back on individuals who were being arrested. One marcher even grabbed a police officer’s hat and threw it high into the air. Meanwhile, police never used clubs or mace, but instead hit the arms of those in the crowd trying to prevent arrests with their hands until they go.

Contrast this with the marches, sit-ins, and protests of the Civil Rights Movement. True police violence – water cannons, clubs, guns, and dogs – was met with no resistance. Protestors allowed themselves to be taken away because their wrongful arrest was what gained their support. There was power in their non-resistance. In the OWS protests, people resist and fight back. And, in doing so, they make the police their enemy rather than the financial system they set out to combat.

This act, of creating a new enemy in the police, changes what the OSW movement is fighting. Instead of speeches, proposed changes and voices of the movement being celebrated, those arrested are made into heroes, shallow media attention is heralded, and the culture of disobedience is made prominent.

And that’s not to confuse this with instances when police unjustly used violence against protestors. In the first OWS clashes with authorities, police used force against protestors despite their doing nothing wrong. And this helped their cause. The media portrayed them as victims and the police as instigators, and they gained valuable support. The incident on the bridge did not accomplish the same. It created a back-and-forth of throwing blame, a distraction from the purpose of the movement.

Instead, protestors need to work to always stay a step ahead of police on these issues. They need to be vigilant in predicting how police will respond, and what laws or rules they might be accused of breaking. Then, they need to develop strategies to prevent these confrontations. This, and similar protests, must evolve.

It’s unfortunate that police utilize the trap-and-detain tactic, and others like it. But it is, none-the-less, a fact that protestors must accept. So, as police tactics grow in sophistication, so too must those of the protestors; so too must their marches and protests become more advanced, more efficient, and more organization. Otherwise, they allow themselves to be caught up in such skirmishes that, ultimately, will always result in a loss to their cause.

Does wealth equal health? A cultural consideration

Having recently moved to – what seems to me – an exercise and health food mecca in the fittest state in the nation (Boulder, CO), I’ve heavily contemplated the culture of health.

Compared to the south, in which I spent the last five years in Greensboro, NC, Boulder is a polar opposite.

In its entirety, Boulder is healthier and more active. Every road has a bike lane, runners bounce at every corner waiting for their signal to cross, and it’s rare to see someone who is overweight. As for the food, it’s hard to eat unhealthy in Boulder the way it’s hard to eat healthy in Greensboro. Deep-fried food is rare and organic is the norm; Vegan and Gluten-free are expected to be seen on virtually every menu and there’s literally organic fast food.

As a change of environment, I certainly find these to be positive and enjoyable differences, and they remain a celebrated point of pride for the people and city of Boulder. However, it’s occurred to me that there is far more to it than people simply choosing healthier habits.

Perhaps my fiancé said it best while we discussed the issue, stating that, “Health is a luxury of the wealthy.” This extends beyond the obvious facts that organic food is pricey, and that fresh fruits and vegetables are far more expensive than fast food, or processed foods with lots of preservatives and a long shelf life. And while this is definitely a large contributing factor, there’s more to it than that.

It’s expensive to be active. Biking to work every morning, as many people in the Boulder area do, requires a nice bike, special equipment, and extra time. Similarly, it’s easy for a stay-at-home wife of a doctor or lawyer to hit the gym twice a day, and not so easy for a single mother working two jobs. Admittedly, that example may be extreme in that it pits polar opposite ends of the spectrum against one another, but consider how heavily economic status weighs on the equation; most middle or lower class parents need to be home immediately after work to watch their kids, as childcare is so expensive; home maintenance and basic chores can take up a great deal of leisure time when you cannot afford to hire help; and gym memberships can be very expensive.

Also, consider the area, and the opportunity to be active and healthy. The city of Boulder has dedicated itself to being bicycle friendly, to maintaining its numerous trails and paths and greenways, and to taking the measures needed to allow its citizens to be so active. But that’s expensive and the city’s incredibly high cost of living reflects these costs. In the surrounding towns, where many people reside who work in Boulder but cannot afford to live there, the percentage of overweight and visibly unhealthy people increases greatly – although I lack any numerical evidence, simply traveling to and around these towns provides the visible proof.

This notion, of health coinciding with wealth, isn’t particular to Boulder alone, and can even be seen in Greensboro. The northwest part of the city is predominantly upper class, educated professionals, and is far more active. The area around the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park looked like Boulder streets on nice afternoons, with troves of people out biking, walking and running. And just as this is probably the only place in the city like that, it’s also the only area in Greensboro where you can find a Whole Foods Market or Earth Fare health food store.

However, to chalk it up to “wealthy equals healthy” is far too all encompassing. After all, there are plenty of poor people who are very healthy and fit, and there are plenty of wealthy people who are terribly unhealthy. So there must be more to it.

I suppose, then, that we must consider other factors in the equation – both those contributing to health and those contributing to wealth: education, environment, opportunity, up-bringing, and the cultural values of the community around you.

Now, it is my observation that these overlap a great deal. So it’s difficult to discuss one without the other. For instance, individuals whose family have money often (probably an understatement) receive a better education, which in turn creates greater opportunity, which leads to joining a community with far different cultural values than those who are poor and uneducated (in most circumstances).

In this, however, we encounter far too many variables to determine a single rule of thumb. As culture, of any kind, is a conglomeration of so many different factors, it is impossible to point to one trend, correlation or commonality and determine it to be true or to produce proven causation. There’s just far more to it than a simple answer; there are far too many complexities.

So does wealth equal health? Yes and no. Not always, but it is certainly easier to maintain a healthier lifestyle if you have the luxury of wealth. And does poverty then lead to people being unhealthy? Not necessarily, but it’s much more common because of the limited options and opportunities that come with being poor.

Where then does this leave me? I guess I’m left needing to explore the overlapping of cultural circumstances. I guess I’m left with the glaring question of, “What is culture?”

Norwegian response illustrates resolve

Controversy surrounds the Norwegian people’s response to the death of 76 of their own at the hands of homegrown terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Many claim that Breivik’s terrible crimes far outweigh the country’s lenient penalties, and that Norway needs to reinstate the death penalty. I, however, see their response as a strong-willed resolve to maintain their unique culture.

Currently, Breivik faces a maximum 21-year sentence for the killings, with the possibility of a 30-year sentence if he’s charged with crimes against humanity – a sentence that could be increased after the 30 years if he’s deemed to still be a danger to society. Norway does not practice capital punishment, as the country discontinued its use for civilian crimes in 1902 and abolished it completely in 1988 (after briefly utilizing it to punish Nazi collaborators).

However, much of the negativity surrounding Breivik’s possible punishments – and their apparent lack of severity – seems to be coming from outside the country’s borders, largely through Facebook and comparisons to the American justice system. On the contrary, Norwegians are holding true to their culture and their beliefs.

The Aftenposten, a Norwegian daily newspaper, recently reported that 71,000 of one group’s 97,000 members voted against the reinstitution of capital punishment, according to USA Today. The Aftenposten political editor, Harald Stanghelle, helped contextualize the sentiment in stating that, “It’s important then to be aware that we are a just society. He [Breivik] wanted to crush that just society, while we others want to preserve it.” A similar sentiment was stated by Trond Bentestuen, a bank group vice president and former Norwegian army officer, when he said that, “The most important thing is to make sure this lunatic is not able to change our values and our society in a negative way.”

For now, it seems as if Breivik’s actions are accomplishing the opposite. According to one Los Angeles Times article, memberships among both liberal and conservative youth parties have surged since the attacks. Similarly, a New York Times article reported that 94 percent of respondents in a poll by the research firm InFact felt that Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, of that AUF party whose youth camp was attacked on Utoya island, has handled things well in the aftermath of the violence.

So what does this mean for the Norwegian justice system and its policies? Are their punishments too lenient for such a terrible crime? Perhaps. Capital punishment does seem fair under these circumstances – he’s confessed and the evidence is stacked against him. But that’s beside the point. He’s not an American and our justice system doesn’t apply. Moreover, it’s useless to try to judge their country’s system according to ours.

What is important, however, is to recognize how their response is both difficult and brave. It’s easy to respond with anger and revenge; it’s easy to compromise your values, to want to kill him and be done with it. What’s not easy is to show restraint in such a time of pain; it’s not easy to respond with the sort of calculated sensibility and trust in their system that Norwegians have done. Their response, although much different than how Americans would respond, is one that I respect even though I may disagree with their decisions. It’s a response that the world could learn from, and that illustrates the many shades of gray.