Quick Thoughts on Wilbon’s Mission Impossible: Bruh

Thankfully, any /number /of folks /have stepped forward to refute Michael Wilbon’s unfortunate column at the new TheUndefeated.com, “Mission Impossible: African Americans & Analytics.” (No. I’m not linking to it.) I’m not sure I have the time or energy to dig into everything that’s wrong with that column. So I’ll try to contain it to one sentence and a caveat. The column is reliant on worn-out, essentializng tropes about Black folk (at the barbershop, no less), about analytics, and oddly about the business of sports itself. (Is there anyone out there who honestly believes that these billion dollar franchises are going to refuse to use math and instead rely on some romanticized “eye test?” Or that they should? I mean…) The caveat here is that Wilbon’s take is in most crucial respects still the industry standard among columnists and broadcasters. Wilbon just happened to be focusing his lens on Black folk, so, let’s not put him out on curmudgeon island all by himself.

Let’s also note that people transform on this issue. I am a lifelong Mets fan. If you go back 4-5 seasons ago to any Mets broadcast on the SNY network with the award-winning (and mostly excellent) crew of Gary Thorn, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez, they basically just took turns screaming NNNNEEEERRRRDDDDSSS!!! into their mics. But they have actually softened over the years to where they include a number of rate/efficiency concepts directly into their broadcast. This should surprise no one. So much of the “anti-analytics” position is not a substantive critique so much as a dissociative rhetorical positioning strategy. It’s like a cowbell for the threatened and vulnerable. “We don’t wanna be like those guys, blogging from their mother’s basement.”

Having said all that, although I am disappointed with Wilbon’s take, I don’t feel a need to dog him out. The man is a pioneer who has long operated in the tradition of the late Ralph Wiley.  And hey, when you make your living with words, if you do it long enough, you too will swing and miss. I’m just miffed that his, “Good God, Lemon!” moment came on this topic at this time. It’s an important moment for analytics. Much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Many fans, even if not a full-on majority, now intuitively get that efficiency trumps volume, that pitchers don’t really “win” games, and that you must distinguish between context and performance. They may never talk about specific stats, but big whoop. But now, many of the latest techniques being imported from multivariate statistics are good at highlighting very subtle (but crucial) distinctions. It’s not easy to craft insights about subtleties though. This is an issue that the billion dollar businesses that make widest use of these techniques struggle with mightily. In other words, the new frontier for analytics is less about new techniques. It is about finding new stories and new storytellers; people skilled at taking the distilled observations these statistics provide and crafting stories out of them. Insights always reside in stories. So, this is a moment where analytics and storytelling approaches to crafting insight need each other.

In the words of Ye, “We sayin’ the same thing like a synonym.”

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The Seductive Logic of White Supremacy, Part 2

In part 1 I call “broken windows” policing what it is: fear-based collective punishment in the service of white supremacy. In part 2 I discuss broken windows’ most infamous policy innovations: stop-and-frisk and police militarization.

**Broken Windows Begets Stop-and-Frisk**

Broken windows policing in US urban areas traces its roots to 17th century “pre-professional” urban police forces deployed specifically to imprison the poor. In the rapidly industrializing urban centers of US in the 19th century, the “coppers” were the first line of defense against the poor, immigrant hordes, and waves of black Southern migrants. They were allowed broad discretion in use of force to defend that line. Thus, “fighting crime” has often amounted to little more than preserving nativism and white supremacy through collective punishment. James Q. Wilson and George Kelling formalized broken windows policing in the 1980s, they were mostly re-stating the views of their neoconservative mentor Edward Banfield, who in a 1969 article explicitly called for a return to the “pre-professional” policing style of the 19th century.

New York’s infamous (and now illegal) stop-and-frisk policy, popularized in the 1990s, is just the latest version of these age old contain-and-punish tactics. After years of collective punishment imposed on blacks and Hispanics under the guise of fighting crime (to a degree that European immigrants never faced) stop-and-frisk was successfully challenged in federal court. In Judge Scheindlin’s takedown she essentially ruled that New York couldn’t make a compelling case that stop-and-frisk was ever about anything other than race. The fact that nearly 90% of people stopped had violated no laws precludes even a post-hoc justification for stop-and-frisk, but far more importantly this kind of collective punishment is anathema to American jurisprudence. NYC Mayor William deBlassio withdrew the city’s appeal after taking office, ending stop-and-frisk as official policy. That is a victory for clear-thinking, humane people. It should be acknowledged as such.

Unfortunately, broken windows thinking is deeply embedded in contemporary urban policing. For example, deBlassio, widely viewed as an arch-liberal who campaigned on an anti-stop-and-frisk platform, remains an ardent broken windows devotee. He tapped former Police Commissioner William Bratton to reprise his role as architect of the city’s broken windows policing strategies from the 1990s. Bratton has vowed to continue aggressively confronting minor, so-called “quality-of-life” crimes. So not surprisingly, early reviews suggest that not much is likely to change on the ground for black and brown folk in NYC. deBlassio may be quicker to settle police misconduct civil suits than his predecessors, but he is no more interested in curbing the violent police encounters that are all but explicitly called for in broken windows policing. Even supposedly liberal politicians and bureaucrats either cannot see past broken windows or cannot effectively confront it.

**This Whole Thing in Ferguson Has Gone Sideways**

As you are no doubt aware, Michael Brown was shot down by local police in the “inner ring” St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, MO. In the immediate aftermath Ferguson PD refused to release a formal incident report, or any significant details of the incident. They held out until August 15th–most likely relenting only after pressure from the Department of Justice, who was already consulting on the investigation at the governor’s request. The Ferguson PD’s initial statements appear to conflict with multiple eye witness accounts. Notably, police at the scene collected camera phones from at least some eye witnesses. Yet no law enforcement personnel took statements from anyone on the scene. Darius Johnson, who was a party to the incident along with Brown, and presumably fired upon by the officer, was never detained as a suspect in a crime. Nor was he interviewed by Ferguson or St. Louis County PD as a material witness to a shooting. (He was interviewed by federal prosecutors days later, after giving multiple media interviews.)

By Sunday night into the early hours of Monday, angry residents took to the streets in protest. They burned a gas station to the ground and engaged in other intense but sporadic looting, mostly confined to an area roughly 5 minutes from the site of the shooting. (And coincidentally about 5 minutes from my high school.) A friend and classmate left a message on my voice mail late Sunday that ended, “Man, this whole thing in Ferguson has gone sideways.”

Indeed.

Since that time, things have moved well past sideways. The St. Louis County Police Department took over primary operations from Ferguson PD by Sunday evening (even if the Ferguson police chief mostly appeared on camera). Predictably, St. Louis County PD escalated tensions. For reasons that are to date being seriously under-reported, County PD began to treat the situation as a counterterrorism action beginning on Monday. They donned their counterterrorism finery and began to run plays from their counterterrorism playbook. They started by cordoning off West Florissant Ave., the main thoroughfare, with a mine resistant armored personnel carrier. They followed by teargassing protesters. That was Monday. On Tuesday, Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal confronted the Ferguson Police Chief at a press conference about being teargassed the previous day. By Wednesday evening, County PD had began a second round of smoke bombs, flash-bang grenades, rooftop snipers and LRAD sound cannon. By late Wednesday County PD was chasing people through residential areas, tossing teargas canisters into front yards without evident discrimination. Notably, the County officers openly harassed journalists. They fired teargas directly at an Al-Jazeera America crew filming on site, dispersing the crew. As crewmembers ran, officers then turned their recording cameras to the ground.

County police also ordered reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post to stop filming before detaining them for several hours without charge before releasing them. They initially declined to provide the reporters an incident report naming an arresting officer before relenting to provide a report in 4-6 weeks. This is important, as both reporters allege that the officers were unduly violent when detaining them. County PD also arrested St. Louis Alderman Antonio French as he recorded events from his car and live tweeted while parked at the scene.

**This Ain’t Irony. This Ain’t Even Coincidence**

On my twitter feed I saw tweets of solidarity with the people of Ferguson, MO coming from Palestinians, coupled with helpful hints on dealing with teargas and other so-called counterterrorist tactics. Many people pointed to the irony of a US city reduced to a war zone while people in an actual war zone looked on in shock and horror. But they are wrong to call the events in Ferguson irony. Irony’s defining quality is the unexpected, but willful blindness in the face of the unpleasant does not make the unpleasant unexpected. Ferguson is what collective punishment can look like, and increasingly does look like. What is happening in Ferguson is not irony. It is the burlesque of white supremacy. Extra-legal law enforcement killings and forcefully quelling the rage of those at the bottom of the order is the entirely foreseeable cost of maintaining such an order. Not everywhere, but anywhere. Not all the time, but anytime.

**Posse Comi–What’s That Now?**

Local law enforcement has been steadily militarizing for years now. Much of the build-up of military grade equipment has gone unnoticed, as much of it finds its way to local law enforcement from or through the Department of Homeland Security. This business in Ferguson has put it on full display. Of course, black and brown communities have seen militarization from the gun barrel end for quite some time. The War on Drugs has local police serving simple (and often outrageously broad) search warrants, and even chasing down rumors from informants, with full-on SWAT teams.

The enormous scope of federal agencies with broad authority to operate with local law enforcement on issues like drug trafficking, immigration, natural disasters, and terrorism threatens to render posse comitatus effectively meaningless as local police departments increasingly see themselves as para-military organizations. They are already equipping and training officers as paramilitary soldiers. For example, in a 2011 report centered on the Occupy protests, Raw Story, citing work by journalist Max Blumenthal, noted that Israeli-style counterinsurgency training has become the latest thing in urban policing. Police departments nationwide are sending officials to train with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). These “exchanges” have become a something of a cottage industry. Interestingly, it does not appear that law enforcement from areas of that include white separatist and militia groups known to engage in terrorism are lining up for these exchanges. Rather, law enforcement from the large cities (e.g., New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, Washington, DC.) and college towns (e.g., Ann Arbor, Berkeley) are lining up for counter-insurgency training.

Coincidentally, former St. Louis County police chief, Tim Fitch (who just resigned in December 2013), traveled to Israel for counterterrorism training. Not so coincidentally, County PD serves as the regional counterterrorism “fusion” center, where they coordinate counterterrorism strategy across all levels of law enforcement. As I noted earlier, St. Louis County PD began coordinating operations on the ground in Ferguson within hours of the shooting. So any suggestion that police response to the citizens of Ferguson resulted in any way from incompetence or boobery just doesn’t seem to square with what we know. This has always been a counterterrorism action.

So, I Decided It was Time To Start My Own Blog

After years of putting up posts here and there on other blogs I decided to start my own in this small little corner of the blogosphere. Initially, I was thinking of simply having a place to put some of my working papers up to make them available to friends and colleagues to read. I may yet do some of that, but I think instead this will mostly be a place for a few musings every now and then about marketing, consumer culture, race and ethnicity. Oh yeah, and sports! Can’t forget sports.

Since I’m getting hungry I’ll keep this short.

I have no idea where this will lead, but it should be fun.