Would I have shot Michael Brown?

In Ferguson, Missouri, the Brown family has lost a son, and I can imagine no worse pain than that.

Police officer Darren Wilson allegedly shot twelve times at Michael Brown, and about six of those bullets hit. Brown was unarmed. To someone used to policing in Australia, on the face of it this seems like a gross over-reaction.

While searching statistics on shooting deaths by police, I came across Jim Fisher, who in 2011 tracked 1,146 shootings by police officers in the US, 607 of them fatal shootings. Fisher commented that ‘a reasonable person’ would think most of the shootings unnecessary.

Indeed, but who is ‘reasonable’ when involved in a confrontation with strangers who are likely to have a firearm within reach? Police in the US are under constant deadly threat because so many people are armed. The FBI says that in 2012, 48 police officers were killed in the line of duty – 44 shot dead. A simple traffic stop can lead to a shooting.   To be safe in these circumstances you must assume the worst, and do your job on constant alert.

Members of the public assault police officers in many ways, and even fists can cause life-threatening injuries. While police officers can keep a safe distance from knives and fists, they cannot put enough distance between themselves and a gun while on duty.

I am so sorry for the loss of Michael Brown, and for the pain of his family and community. This shooting, like so many, was unreasonable. However, I must confess that, if I were a police officer in what I saw as a life-threatening situation, I would find being reasonable very difficult.



What’s the use of speaking out?

I write posts like Nearly half of Americans say that poor children do not deserve any assistance in the hope that, if only they had the facts, readers would be as shocked as I am by what is happening in America.

I used to think that once people have access to facts their opinions will change. Perversely however, not only does providing information that counters someone’s beliefs usually fail, but it also has a ‘backfire effect’. Offering counter-arguments, even those based on extensive research, actually causes people who believe differently to become more deeply dug in to their own position.

When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even surer of their position”  Gulp! “Facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes”! That’s me!

In summary, I know the evidence doesn’t support me hoping to change opinions, but I keep on believing!! Case proved.

There is another, equally important reason that I write in support of the powerless, however. I want to turn up the volume of criticism of broken systems by adding my voice.


Nearly half of Americans say that poor children do not deserve any assistance

I have been shocked by the hard-heartedness now prevalent in American society. It seems that, wherever I hear the words ‘food stamps’, ‘welfare checks’, and ‘Medicaid’ I also hear “You got all these people who can work, who won’t’.

The prevailing beliefs that justify this are that that a lot of the poor don’t deserve help, that assistance causes dependency, and that many claims are fraudulent. The poor themselves – including those on assistance, will tell you this as often as any other group.

This hard-heartedness has grown over the last forty years, in sync with the rise in the number of Americans below the federal poverty level – $22,350 a year for a family of four which was 50 million in 2012, 18 million more than in 1989.

In the face of the fact that more than 15% of Americans live below the poverty line, nearly 60% of Americans believe that many people receiving government aid are just looking for a free handout – scamming the system. The facts say otherwise: according to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics website, for the years 2010-2012, fraud was prevalent in 2.67% of cases.

If you don’t care too much about adults in poverty, how about the children? The United States has higher levels of child poverty than most developed nations, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

As a shocking indication of how heard-hearted American society has become, 46% say that even these children do not deserve any assistance – food stamps, welfare checks, or Medicaid!  Are American children less deserving than those in other nations? Do the American poor deserve to be worse off than so many others?

Just as I believe that the poor in America are no less deserving than anyone else, I also believe that Americans are not naturally hard-hearted. American life has been saturated with these callous attitudes which have persuaded many otherwise good people.

Let’s change the conversation. Please speak out against this mean-spiritedness.


I support Walmart, if… The Black Friday Strike

‘I went to school and busted my butt to be where I am today… I did this because I want a high quality of life. I work hard. I have overcome barriers because life is not all sunshine and rainbows. Why could these people not do the same if they are unhappy?’

This was a comment on Facebook yesterday about the Walmart workers‘ strike planned for Black Friday. I replied to this post, because many Americans share its sentiment.

I said that the Walmart workers, like all of us, want a ‘high quality of life’. Many look for second or even third jobs, but this has become impossible because Walmart will not give regular schedules – workers must be available whenever the store wants. Most want full time work, but hiring part-timers means that the company avoids expenses like health care.

Our democracies were founded in the awareness that we are all self-centered. This is why we do not have absolute monarchs. Power without checks and balances will always seek its own ends. Money creates power, and those with power will always seek their own good.  As we all would.

Employees can hope that their employer is compassionate, but history has shown that this does not work. Without checks and balances on the power of the employer, work days were 14 hours, six and a half days a week, and workers were commonly killed, injured and sickened by their workplace. http://www.amazon.com/There-Power-Union-Story-America/dp/0307389766/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1416145082&sr=8-1&keywords=history+labor+unions&pebp=1416145120868

Labor unions gave the workers power, and working conditions improved, but the unions were only a human institution. Their power increasingly served the unions themselves, and not their members.

We may advise workers to show their discontent with the system by voting – but as is becoming more obvious, the influence of big money on government decisions has overtaken the influence of the ordinary vote.

I do not blame Walmart for making as much profit they can. But I know that Christ calls me to speak in support of the workers. If Walmart becomes powerless, I will speak out for them.


Let’s kick those tables over!

As a Christian, I am called to support the powerless. People who have a great deal of money are more powerful than those who don’t, because governments and leaders listen to them. These reasons are often well-intentioned and pragmatic. For example, I knew of a large industry which was systematically mistreating its workers. The industry was in a small city, and the local government was reluctant to do anything to antagonize the company for fear that they would relocate. If they had closed down the factory, the most of the residents would have been jobless. The town would have died.

The very few workers who spoke out were fired. It is easy to find ‘lawful’ reasons to fire unskilled and low skilled workers who don’t have the education or finances to contest it. The company managed to keep unions out by threatening workers who showed interest in joining.

I did speak out. The responses went something like this ‘The company has to be tough – people just don’t work hard unless they are pushed’, or ‘These jobs are just stepping stones to better ones – if they have any gumption the workers would be moving on to better positions and better pay’. Some also acknowledged that the town had a vested interest in keeping the company happy.

I do not blame the town leaders for trying to keep the industry. I do not blame the workers trying to keep their jobs. I do not blame industry for making as much profit as it can.

What is wrong in this situation is that, without someone speaking out, the workers would have continued to suffer. They suffered ever more egregiously, in fact, until the few of us who were a thorn in the side of the local government and the company were able to influence those in power. As a result, the factory manager was fired and conditions improved.

Bob S recently commented on a post in which I talked about the system that creates and entrenches poverty:  “what have you personally done to remove the causes of poverty?” I thought about that. I have donated to initiatives that aim to ameliorate the effects of poverty through direct relief. It is clear that Jesus calls us to do so. But He also calls us to stand with the poor, the powerless, and the despised, just as He did. He calls us to step in and disrupt systems that allow the powerful to treat the powerless unfairly, as He did when He overturned the tables of the money changers.

Alan Walker, an Australian pastor, summed it up beautifully: a purely personal religion is ‘irrelevant, escapist, and unworthy of the Christian faith’, because it leaves unchanged the structures of society which so greatly affect the individual lives of men and women for good or evil. Equally, it is pointless merely to change the structures of society, as unredeemed humanity was not capable of maintaining a redeemed society.

Charity Box for Especially Difficult Children

Electoral snags? Try a sausage at the voting booth

American electoral problems are so great that they are reported across the world.  The ‘hanging chads’ of the 2000 Presidential election caused such a commotion that we even heard about it in far-away Australia. (Polling places in Florida used punched card ballots, and when the punch does not go completely through the card, a ‘chad’ of card is left ‘hanging’.)

In the same election, again in Florida, thousands of citizens who were entitled to vote were never added to the voting rolls.

During last Tuesday’s mid-term elections, voting machine and voter identification again caused problems.  There were machine failures in North Carolina and Texas, polling breakdowns in a key Florida county, and an increase in people reporting that they were turned away for lack of proper identification.

In Chicago, there was a severe shortage of election judges (officials responsible for the conduct of the election in the precinct polling place), because thousands had received bogus calls informing them they were not sufficiently trained to be able to serve on Election Day. As a consequence, some polling places could not open until hours after the scheduled time.

In 2012, the NAACP brought voting rights problems, including limiting the forms of acceptable identification, shortening early voting opportunities, restricting where and when eligible voters may register, and banning formerly incarcerated citizens from the polls, to the UN Human Rights Commission.

I have wondered why such problems are almost non-existent in Australia, and put it down to the US having held elections for a lot longer than Australia, resulting in traditions and practices that had not been standardized. Then I came across an article that argues that because voting is compulsory in Australia, this automatically  makes the state accountable for making voting accessible to all its citizens. The author attributes ‘the simple electoral enrollment procedures, voting on weekends, easily-organized postal-voting, ballot boxes in nursing homes and hospitals, and a system that must consistently identify and remove obstacles to voting’ to the law that obligates both the voters and the sate. “Compulsory voting isn’t so much about the state making the people vote, but the people making the state accountable for enabling universal access to the vote,” he says.

And, for Australians on polling day, it gives universal access to sausage sizzles (hot dog grills) and cake sales.


Australian pledge of allegiance? Good luck with that.

Last Sunday I joined a commemoration dinner held by the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights organization for ethnic minorities). It honored Martin Luther King who was assassinated 50 years ago. A bishop made a speech in King’s honor, calling on Christians to work for change in the system. He said that Christians are called to challenge the causes of poverty as well as to feed the hungry, to lay bare and contest the systemic roots of division and hatred as well as visit the prisoner – to fight the sins of society that cause individuals to suffer.  I realized that I am thirsty for this message –It was the first time I have heard this from the ‘pulpit’ since I have been here.

It was a night of other firsts for me too. I stood for the Pledge of Allegiance for the very first time. (I stood and put my hand rather diffidently on my heart but did not say a word – what is the right thing for a resident on a work visa to do in these circumstances?) A uniformed contingent of the American Legion (a wartime veterans’ service organization) marched in and presented flags while the pledge was taken.

I realized that the last time I did anything resembling this in Australia was back in Grade Seven at Rose Park Primary School. Mornings always began with an assembly on the playground with the kids standing to attention (or falling down, as happened quite regularly in the summer heat), while the entire school recited ‘I am an Australian. I love my country. I salute her flag. I honor her Queen. I promise to obey her laws.’ Then we were piped into class by the drum and fife band, in orderly rows unless someone’s shoe became stuck in the melting asphalt. I have never heard of any Australian ‘pledge’ since then – except for people receiving citizenship.

Those were the days too when movie shows began with film of the Queen on her horse with its mane flying in the wind while the audience stood and sang God Save the Queen. Even then there were some rebels who refused to stand.

Australians taking a pledge of allegiance now? Good luck with that.