Some Thoughts on Ferguson

What has been your reaction to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri? Did you feel grief that a teenage boy was killed? Anger at the cop who pulled the trigger, the reaction of the Ferguson police, or the racism of the “system?” Did you feel frustration at the rush to judgment? Sadness at the divisions laid bare by these events? Fear that the riots that occurred in the wake of the shooting could be coming soon to a neighborhood near you?

Maybe you experienced some combination of these different reactions. Either way, it is hard to identify anything positive about the last two weeks. There are no winners here. Not Michael Brown’s family, who lost their son. Not the cop, whose life will never be the same – regardless of the outcome of any investigation. Not the small business owners whose stores were looted. Not America, criticized by the likes of Iran and Russia for the flaws in our democracy as we try to restore order and justice to the world at large. There are no winners here.

I read a post on Facebook by an African-American writer asking, where is all the white outrage over Ferguson? The piece began “As we all know by now” and went on to give a particular narrative where Michael Brown was just a boy walking to his grandmother’s house who was shot dead by a white cop, presumably for no reason other than his race.

The problem is we don’t know what happened. We weren’t there. Only Darren Wilson knows what occurred within his mind in the seconds it took for him to fire shots at Brown, six of which hit his body and ultimately killed him. Only Michael Brown, God rest his soul, knows what was going on in his mind when he engaged with Wilson prior to the shooting. If the races of the shooter and the deceased were reversed, would the media be engaging in the same rush to judgment? Or would we be urged to exercise caution and not jump to conclusions? Would we even be hearing about it at all?

Eyewitnesses might think they know what happened based on what they saw. At least one account captured on video moments after Brown’s death has Brown charging at Wilson. There are reports that Wilson suffered a facial fracture and was severely beaten by Brown. Other witnesses, including Brown’s friend and accomplice, say he had his hands up and was surrendering. Even if Brown was somewhat of a bully, as the liquor store robbery tape suggests, or an aggressor, as Wilson’s wounds indicate, this does not justify his death.

It is conceivable based on the available evidence that Darren Wilson feared for his life and used lethal force as a last resort. It is also conceivable that his judgment was clouded somehow by Brown’s race or appearance. Perhaps the fact that he was 6’4” and almost 300 pounds was a greater factor for Officer Wilson than his skin color. We don’t know. What we do know is that despite any new details that may emerge, the death of an 18-year-old kid is a terrible tragedy and we should do everything we can to prevent it from happening again.

One thing is clear after the last two weeks – there is very real frustration on the part of both minority and low-income communities in America that is threatening to boil over, and it cannot be ignored. The way to address this frustration and anger is not with looting and rioting, or provoking a police response by disobeying orders. It is not to change the subject to black-on-black crime or to wait and hope it all goes away. We need to seek practical, concrete solutions to bridge the divide between our dreams of a more equal society and the harsh reality on the ground. In my humble opinion, we should respond to the events in Ferguson in three ways, addressing both our short-term and long-term needs.

The first step must be to handle the immediate crisis and restore law and order to Ferguson. So far local law enforcement and state authorities have tried imposing curfews, using paramilitary techniques, arresting those who do not comply, and calling up the National Guard, none of which has done much to stem the violence. It seems the best solution might be to do what Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson has done, which is to ask that peaceful protestors assemble and march in the daylight, leaving the night for the police to protect businesses from the looters and agitators looking to profit off the community’s misfortune.

The second step must be to ensure a transparent and unbiased investigation of what happened on that August day. Already there is talk of how the riots will not stop until Wilson is indicted. Let’s not have a repeat of the Zimmerman-Martin ordeal. There was probably not enough evidence to indict Zimmerman, certainly not on the charge of murder in the first degree. This is why he was initially released. And yet the special prosecutor caved to the political pressure and overcharged him, leading to a highly publicized and divisive trial with a predictable “not guilty” verdict: not because Zimmerman was a great guy, but because in America defendants are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof rests entirely on the prosecution. So, let’s have an open and transparent investigation, but let’s not sacrifice one man’s life and the rule of law to the political and social pressures of the moment.

The third step must be to have an honest conversation about how to address the needs of the African-American community and other minority communities in the United States. Here are just a few common sense reforms that might make a difference:

  1. Work to establish better relationships between police forces and minority communities by recruiting more minorities to serve in law enforcement and engaging in various outreach initiatives. JROTC is already successful in diverse public high schools like the one at which I teach. Why not pilot a junior law enforcement program? We should also have a separate discussion about the militarization of the police in general as it relates to their ability to serve their communities, not intimidate them.
  2. Reform our criminal justice system to eliminate any racial disparities that may exist in sentencing, reduce sentences for non-violent crimes including those that are drug-related, end mandatory minimum sentencing, and establish ways for ex-cons to have their voting and Second Amendment rights restored.
  3. Reform public school systems to focus on excellence and achievement for all students. I have read that even well-intentioned white educators can sometimes subconsciously lower expectations for students of color. Teachers may think they are being nice or understanding by making exceptions for kids with difficult lives, but this is not always the case. All students need to be respected, challenged, and given the support they need to succeed. It also couldn’t hurt to recruit more African-American educators, in particular African-American males. I have seen with my own two eyes the difference this can make in a student’s engagement.
  4. Reform our economy to create more opportunity for all Americans – especially minorities. African-American men have double the unemployment rate of white men. Imagine if our federal government were to cut the corporate tax rate, eliminate unnecessary regulations, and allow private businesses to develop our energy potential. Millions of jobs would be created for all Americans. Regardless of race, there is no better social program than a family and no better economic program than a job.

Of course, these reforms will do nothing to lift minority and low-income communities out of poverty and crime if a bigger change is not made at the family and community level. I have had the privilege to teach with many such positive African-American community leaders. They truly shoulder a heavy burden, working every day to be positive role models that provide both encouragement and tough love. They will be the first to tell you that government reforms are no substitute for having a father in the home or a culture that values education. They are the ones we need to be asking for solutions on how to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans.

The one thing we can’t do is send the message to black children that it doesn’t matter how much they study or how hard they try to succeed; our racist society will not allow them to advance. This is a bitter and contemptuous lie that I have already seen some of my African-American students swallow, and it might be the biggest obstacle to their future success. We need fewer Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons vying for their moment in the spotlight and more actual community leaders like the men and women I serve alongside, men like Captain Ron Johnson. The ills that plague many minority and low-income communities have both external and internal factors, both of which must be addressed if we are to avoid a repeat of Ferguson.

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A Hoops Fan Anticipates Football Season

By Lauren Gillespie

Growing up, football was never my sport. Basketball, soccer, and rock climbing all dominated my attention far more than the ironically named football, in which only a handful of players ever make contact with the ball using their feet.

Two reasons explain my early lack of enthusiasm. First, I am female, and as such never played organized football. Credit middle school gym class for finally teaching me the rules; I got good enough to captain some neighborhood two-hand touch with the boys. But football remains one of the only sports women are still not encouraged to play. (Unless you count hockey, which I don’t, because where are we, Canada?) You want to play basketball? Great. Soccer? Awesome. Lacrosse? Okay, but we’re going to make you wear mouth guards and goggles and it’s illegal to hit each other. Football? Awkward silence.

I bring up my lack of experience playing the game because this directly impacts my ability to enjoy watching it. You can’t really get excited about something you don’t understand, and the best way to learn is by doing.

My second reason for not caring was not really having a team to invest in. By middle school this changed, as my town’s high school was in the midst of a three-peat as state champions. I went to the games with my dad and generally understood the basics of what our team was trying to do and how important it was that they do it.

While it was impossible to avoid getting caught up in the excitement of a live game, watching football on TV still held little appeal. The only exceptions were Virginia Tech games, for which the entire region of Southwest Virginia pretty much shuts down. So I watched with my friends and family over cookies and bean dip. It was fun to cheer for Tech to win because they often did. These were the days of Marcus Vick, and later Tyrod Taylor. But I could never even approximate the level of absolute hysteria known only to true VT fans, whose blood runs that tacky maroon and orange.

I became a wahoo just in time for some seriously not-so-great years of UVA football. This ushered in another tradition – cheering (praying?) for UVA as they inevitably lost to Tech. The Hokies have their standard deck of insults. They usually start “The last time UVA beat Tech” and end something like “there was no such thing as an iphone” or “George W. Bush was pretty popular.” To this humiliation, Cavaliers respond with our standard pack of excuses, usually beginning “Oh yeah, well UVA is still better than Tech in…” followed by things like lacrosse, soccer, and the Founding Fathers. If I hadn’t quite been there in high school, I was hooked on college football.

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The NFL had to wait for my attention. This would have been different if I lived in a major city like Philadelphia or Denver, but Virginia just doesn’t have an NFL team. I know some Virginians are big Redskins fans (can we still say Redskins?), but I don’t see how a team four hours away and not even in this region should command my respect more than anything else coming out of Washington these days. So I waited for players like Bret Favre and Peyton Manning to get me to care about the NFL. I now like to watch on Sundays, especially as it gets colder – not out of any deep loyalty to a particular team, but for the chance to see the best players compete and entertain, often while grading papers and doing laundry.

When it comes to watching professional sports on TV, I have always preferred basketball. In football, there are too many players, the positions are confusing, and you can’t see their faces. Basketball has none of these impediments. Twelve man team, five starters. Two guards, two forwards, a center, and they all play offense and defense. You can definitely see their faces, expressions, crazy hair, and tattoos. No nameless legions of anonymous helmets in skin-tight pants here (which from a female standpoint are preferable to baggy shorts, so score one for football!).

But even as I salivate over the thought of seeing Derrick Rose back in action for the new and improved Chicago Bulls and Lebron James return to the suddenly serious Cleveland Cavaliers, I have to admit I am getting super excited for college football season!!!!!!!

Was that enough exclamation points to sufficiently convey my enthusiasm?! Football might not have the same level of star players, all-around athleticism at each position, or overpriced shoe industry as basketball, but it does have a few things going for it. The main draw is that football more than any other sport approximates war. (Perhaps this is the reason women aren’t encouraged to play?)

People hit each other, repeatedly. In baseball and soccer, this happens incidentally; in tennis and volleyball not at all. Basketball players may push each other around in the paint, but they don’t bring each other to the ground dozens of times in a single night. There may be a high degree of grace and agility demanded of certain positions, but a lot of the action comes down to brute force, or for the scientifically inclined, mass times acceleration.

Yes, football teams have lots of players. Armies have lots of soldiers – so many that a chain of command is required to coordinate the mission. This even includes reconnaissance from above – the people up in the skybox sending intelligence down to the generals on the ground. Each position has a coach. The offense and defense have coaches. Head coaches are revered as something approaching saints. That is, until they call a really stupid play and lose the game.

Those helmets and plethora of pads I can’t even name? Every soldier needs his armor. You can’t see their faces, and you might not even know your entire team’s roster, but soldiers are not meant to be showered with individual glory. Everyone does their particular job to make the whole team work. They might not all be glamorous, but they are all necessary.

Each game is a big game – a battle – because there are not too many. Seriously, basketball, you should really learn from this. 82 games are too many games. Having to wait until Saturday (or if you’re lucky, Thursday night) allows time for the anticipation to build.

But the best part of football has to be the rivalries, the best of which exist at the college level. In order to be true rivals, you have to hate each other almost like the French and Germans did in the World Wars, or the Greeks and the Turks. Mild dislike will not suffice.

Last night I watched a couple of documentaries on ESPNU (Hey, life is hard in the NBA off-season.). One was about the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama, War Eagles versus Roll Tide. Alabamians repeatedly said that you can’t understand the intensity of the rivalry unless you had lived it, but this film gave a pretty good sense. A loss for one side leads to 364 days of depression, a win 364 days of joy. Everything is riding on the outcome. Married couples on opposite sides of the rivalry can’t watch the game together. One Alabama fan went so far as to poison Auburn’s live oaks, earning more scorn than if he had killed an actual person. The Alabama-Auburn rivalry surpasses the Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry because both sides care so much, and both sides are consistently so good.

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So here’s to the battles – the heroes, the villains. Here’s to the best kind of war – the kind where glory is the prize, but not at the cost of actual lives. Here’s to a fall filled with passion and intensity, even the vicarious sort that comes from observing the rivalries of others. Here’s to the sacks, the completions, the 98-yard returns for touchdowns, and the fourth quarter comebacks. That’s enough to inspire even a lifelong hoops fan.

Answering Israel’s Critics

By Lauren Gillespie

We all do things when we are fifteen that we later regret. In my case, in addition to the usual suspects, this was to draw a false moral equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians during the Second Intifada. In 2002, I wrote an op-ed for the Roanoke Times blaming leadership on both sides (Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat) and calling for everyone to just share the land and get along, as if this were as easy as two children agreeing to share a sandbox. At the time, Palestinians were launching suicide attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli civilians, while Israel’s alleged offense was to continue settling land won in the 1967 War. Were I to see the piece today, I would likely blush in embarrassment.

At the time, I lacked an in-depth understanding of the background of the conflict and bought into the naïve notion that both parties must share the blame for any violence. Like others in the millennial generation, I have no memory of the Cold War. I grew up in the 90’s, that golden decade when communism had been defeated and Islamic terrorism still seemed a distant threat. The world was a safe, happy place. We didn’t have enemies bent on our destruction. Conquest and empire were things of the past, to be replaced with tolerance, multiculturalism, and self-esteem. If people in other countries still killed each other, they were either immature or mean.

In the twelve years since my first foray into writing about the conflict, I have earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Foreign Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East and spent five years teaching AP World History. I say this not to claim to be an expert on the region (which I am not), but merely to explain how my thinking on the subject has evolved.

For the past month, I have been devouring any new information I can on the ongoing Israeli-Gaza War. Each day brings new developments, and I am still discovering new layers to the proverbial onion. I have been hesitant to write on the subject because of both the complexity of the situation and the fact that it has become such an emotional issue for so many. Warfare has always been brutal, and civilians always suffer disproportionately for the mistakes of their governments. In the past, we read reports of the carnage and statistics of casualties. Now we see pictures of disemboweled toddlers posted to twitter in real time.

But I have reached the point at which I can remain silent no longer. I cannot read another blog post, twitter trend, or facebook status accusing Israel of genocide and not respond. It turns my stomach to hear people compare the Israeli Defense Forces to Hitler – as if Israel’s objective were to kill civilians; as if they have forgotten that the Holocaust claimed the lives of six million Jews.

Many Americans are as ignorant of the background of the conflict as I was at fifteen, and some just as naïve in their understanding of foreign policy. Unfortunately, this seems to include Secretary of State John Kerry, whose embarrassing attempt to negotiate a ceasefire ended in disaster, legitimizing Hamas (a terrorist organization) and infuriating Israel (our long-time supporter and ally).

Critics of Israel have only two arguments: that Israel has killed more Palestinian civilians than Hamas has killed Israelis (1,650 Palestinians killed in attacks by the IDF at last count, compared to 60 Israeli soldiers and 2 civilians killed by Hamas), and that Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians are justified as “resistance” to Israeli “occupation.” Both arguments fall apart upon closer inspection.

First, comparing death tolls is not the proper way to determine the moral high ground in a conflict. More important is the intent behind the action. In a court of law, self-defense can be used as justification for taking another’s life. There can also be cases of manslaughter in which the intent was not to inflict harm, but it resulted from negligence. At best Israel’s actions fall under the first category, at worst the latter.

Israel has taken several measures to limit civilian casualties among Palestinians, including “roof-knocking” bombs delivered as warnings, leaflets urging evacuations, and even text messages. This has proven extremely difficult, as Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet and Hamas has embedded itself within the civilian population, even urging Palestinians to ignore Israeli warnings.

Have they done enough? The shelling of another UN school (where Hamas rockets have previously been found) certainly raises this question. I’m sure that were I the mother of a Palestinian child killed in an IDF operation, I would be too devastated to care whether or not it was intentional; this is why we must always pray for peace. But charges of genocide imply an intent to inflict harm that simply has not been demonstrated. From the Israeli standpoint, it is also illogical. What does Israel stand to gain from killing Palestinian children? It only makes them look worse in the eyes of the world. Their quarrel is with Hamas, which they rightly perceive as an existential threat.

Hamas, on the other hand, has done everything it can to kill or capture Israeli civilians, including rocket attacks and tunneling. They have endangered Palestinian civilians by firing from schools, cemeteries, and playgrounds, even killing 10 Palestinians in a recent misfire. Since the conflict started on July 8, Hamas has launched 3,000 rockets at Israel. Is Israel to blame for the fact that they are better at (and more interested in) defending their civilians than Hamas? If Israel dismantled their Iron Dome Missile Defense system and Israeli civilian deaths climbed into the thousands, would world opinion shift in their favor? Somehow I doubt it. Israel has the military capability to annihilate Gaza – every man, woman, and child – but they have at least attempted to limit their attacks to military targets. It is highly doubtful that Hamas would show the same restraint if the roles were reversed.

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When Hamas does something particularly indefensible, like attack Israel 90 minutes into a humanitarian ceasefire, their apologists quickly claim that an occupied people have the right to resist in any way they see fit. But Israel does not occupy Gaza. In 2005, they withdrew all their forces, evicting 10,000 of their own settlers and essentially creating the first independent Palestinian state. World leaders kept telling Israel the attacks were due to settlements and occupation. Why not give it a try?

Unfortunately, Palestinians in Gaza voted Hamas into power over the more moderate Fatah. Hamas devotes most of their resources, including international humanitarian aid, to the construction of costly tunnels and purchase of new rockets to attack Israel, rather than improve the lives of Palestinians. They preach Anti-Semitism to children and celebrate the slaughter of Israeli civilians. After the 2012 conflict, parents in Gaza named babies after the Iranian rockets that had been used to strike Israel.

Israel has been criticized for its blockade of Gaza (not the same as an occupation), and perhaps they could do more to ease this. But Israel’s strategy is based on the desire to keep Hamas from getting new rockets and to shift Palestinian support away from Hamas, much like our nation’s economic sanctions of Iran. Egypt has also restricted access to Gaza, yet they do not face the same criticism.

Second, if Hamas is justified in resisting “occupation,” isn’t Israel justified by the same logic in resisting its destruction, the stated goal of Hamas? If America had an enemy that was constructing tunnels to kidnap and kill American civilians and launching rockets into our airspace, how would we expect our leaders to respond? Perhaps it is not surprising that 95% of Israeli Jews see the operation in Gaza as just. Denounced by both traditional adversaries and allies, including the UN, Israel seems to have concluded that nothing short of national suicide would increase their global popularity. They have chosen the survival of their people over the approval of others.

In a way, Israel and Hamas are both succeeding in their different objectives, which is why a ceasefire has been so difficult to negotiate. Israel has dismantled hundreds of terrorist tunnels and 3,000 Hamas rockets, protecting their civilians at the cost of 60 soldiers. Hamas has won international sympathy, protecting its political relevance at the cost of an estimated 1,650 Palestinian civilians. Israel’s stated goal is to destroy Hamas. If it is allowed to succeed, Palestinians in Gaza might benefit just as much as Israelis.

But Israel’s struggle means more to me than just this most recent conflict. In Dinesh D’Souza’s America, Bono claims America is exceptional because it is the only nation that is also an idea: that you can advance as far as your talents and work ethic will take you, no matter where you were born or what your father did for a living. But Israel too is the embodiment of an idea: the belief that the Jewish people should control their own sovereign state in the Promised Land, also known as Zionism. In a recent column defending Zionism, Michael Oren writes:

Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000-year-long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained throughout 20 centuries of exile. This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today. It is why citizens of Israel—the state that Zionism created—willingly take up arms. They believe their idea is worth fighting for.

Hamas is also founded on an idea they are willing to fight and even die for – Islamic supremacism. But Hamas is not the only organization dedicated to this cause. Just look across the Suez to the Muslim Brotherhood, only recently ousted from power in Egypt. Look at ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Islamic supremacism (which is distinct from the religion of Islam) has been shown to lead to the persecution of Christians and the perpetuation of violence wherever it spreads. Zionism, for all its flaws and critics (including some Jews), has proven the only thing capable of protecting and empowering many of the world’s Jews.

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Even in the face of Hamas’ rockets, Jews continue to immigrate to Israel by the thousands. Why? Because they still believe in the idea of Zionism. Because Anti-Semitism is alive and well around the world. In Europe, the black flags of ISIS were recently allowed to fly over the Netherlands, as crowds chanted “Death to the Jews!” In the United States, pro-Israeli demonstrators had to be escorted away from the White House after being attacked by a pro-Palestinian crowd. Online forums erupt with Anti-Semitic rants, yet facebook decides they do not violate their community standards. The virulence and hatred on display cannot be explained by anger over Palestinian casualties in the ongoing war.

The Holocaust did not give birth to Zionism, or even Jewish migration to Israel, but it did offer definitive proof of the need for a Jewish state. For a brief moment, the world realized that never again should Jews be forced to rely upon the goodwill and generosity of strangers. It is a lesson we would all do well to remember.