James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Occupy movement

  • Remember the Pepper-Spraying Cop? UC Davis Releases a Powerful Report

    After a notorious episode, an institution takes steps toward accountability

    If you are looking for something to read today, I highly recommend the "Reynoso Task Force Report," with its accompanying "Kroll Report" appendix. These are the findings of the panel chaired by Cruz Reynoso, a well-known former Justice of the California Supreme Court, charged with looking into the causes and consequences of the pepper-spraying episode at UC Davis last November.

    As a reminder:

    The report is relatively short, and is also direct, non-mealy-mouthed, and very much worth reading in its entirety.

    If anything, the lengthy accompanying "Kroll Report," from private investigators retained by the U.C. system president Mark Yudof to look into the event, is more startling and dramatic. According to its cover page, it was originally considered "Confidential - Do Not Distribute," and you can see why. It includes a lot of raw testimony from people involved in the decisions about when and how to disperse the demonstrators.

    Campus police and others come in for their share of criticism, including specifically the police lieutenant who has become notorious from the picture above. Both he and the UC Davis police chief remain on paid administrative leave. But at face value its findings are also very damaging to the still-serving Chancellor of UC Davis, Linda Katehi. For instance, the Kroll report says about a letter asking the demonstrators to disperse:

    In case that's illegible, it says:

    "Chancellor Katehi told Kroll investigators that Student Affairs wrote the letter and that she did not review it before it went out. The record contradicts both of these statements, as detailed below. Katehi did review the letter, provided an editorial change and approved it. Student Affairs did not write the letter..."

    The Kroll report offers email and other evidence to back up this claim. Similarly, from the main Reynoso report:
    And if that is illegible:

    "When explaining their decisions on Nov. 17 and 18, UC Davis administrators repeatedly referenced this concern about individuals not affiliated with the university at Occupy movement protests and encampments on campus, and the security risks created by their presence. Indeed, in Chancellor Katehi's letter distributed to campus protesters on Nov. 18, the day of the pepper spray incident, the Chancellor wrote "We are aware that many of those involved in the recent demonstrations on campus are not members of the UC Davis community. This requires us to be even more vigilant about the safety of our students, faculty and staff." As our report will indicate these concerns were not supported by any evidence obtained by Kroll."

    This last point is important because the heavy-handed police response was initially justified by the need to remove "outside agitators" -- non-students -- from the campus. The chancellor might well have convincing responses to these and similar findings, but the report certainly shows that responses are needed.

    There is much more in the report. The episode is off the front pages, but the UC system will show important things about itself with its long-term response and steps toward internal accountability. In its clarity and directness this first step is encouraging.

  • Today's UC Davis News, Including Defenses of the Police

    A school starts to draw a set of new rules, and new lines

    This actually is interesting: the home page of the Physics Department has a photo of a mass rally yesterday (below); a unanimously approved apology to students for the police violence on campus; and a majority-vote call for the resignation of the Chancellor, Linda Katehi.


    More on militarization and so on shortly.

    Also, after the jump, two notes from California in defense of local police.

    Reader LB writes:

    I am writing to note my distaste for the virulent bigotry against police officers that too often goes unremarked these days. Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass's NY Times op-ed piece a few days ago mentions "deputy sheriffs, all white men, except for one young woman, perhaps Filipino, who was trying to look severe but looked terrified..." Mr. Hass presumably chose his words with care, which makes the ignorance of the statement (along with the implicit self-loathing--isn't Mr. Hass a white man? oh, never mind) all that much more astonishing. Assuming his assessment of the ethnic background of the police force on hand in Sproul Plaza the day he got roughed up is accurate, what, exactly, would that signify?

    This kind of two-dimensional stereotyping angers me because I have a close family member on the Oakland police force who looks and sounds white, but, in fact, is half Mexican (and also has a diverse socioeconomic heritage). He is one of the most sensitive people to multicultural nuance I've ever met, and Oakland is lucky to have him doing his job under impossibly difficult circumstances.

    The naiveté of those who simplistically romanticize 1960s-era conflicts and perpetuate ethnic divides because of the power derived from victim status plays right into the hands of Karl Rove and his ilk. Bigotry in any guise is ugly, and does not well serve the noble spirit at the heart of the Occupy movement.

    And another to similar effect, about the gap, or lack thereof, between citizens and their newly militarized police.

    Re some of your comments in the 'Tanks in Small Towns', the police just about everywhere in America DO live in the community. They always have - for a couple of centuries now.  They don't live in barracks, and never have. Almost everyone agrees that policemen should live in the communities they police, which used to be the rule. These days, there are a lot of exceptions, but that has to do with the affordability of housing, not policy.
    Also, they're pretty multi-cultural. Have been since the 70's. Looking up some stats on the NYPD (where I most assuredly do NOT live) for an article I intended to write, I learn that in 2008 that Department was about 26 percent Hispanic, 16-17% African American, and 8 percent agent. The Hispanic percentage just about matches the population, the African American is below the 25 percent or so of African American population, but hardly token, either. The one underrepresented minority is Asian, but since that culture is also underrepresented (in a good way) on criminal dockets, maybe it works out.
    More than that, though there's no question that the small police departments in the county where I used to practice criminal law, do love their toys, none of them have or had dedicated units. They all have SWAT teams and the like, but it would be cost-prohibitive to have officers who do nothing but SWAT. So a cadre of officers get the training, and be called upon to use it when the need arises. Ditto for the other exotic equipment. No one tools around in that stuff. The idea that cops are doing patrol in mini-tanks is actually a little comic. (Remember ultimately all officers report to the chief, and the chief to the city council. Police chiefs in most towns aren't at all sacred - they get fired all the time.  Do you think there is one community in the US that would tolerate that kind of policing on its streets? Forget it.)
    God knows, policing and criminal justice should be subjects of constant discussion. Justice Stevens is entirely correct when he calls the system 'bloated'. We criminalize too many actions, particularly drug use, and our fact-finding mechanisms are unbelievably roundabout. We imprison too many people. But I do think the whiff of scandal is inappropriate. The police officers themselves are members of the 99 percent - I'd imagine generally in the middle third. I never met a cop who had any use for the rich and privileged. Their natural sympathies are with the spirit of the protest, not the financial community. That in itself distinguishes the protests from those of the late 60's. where there were issues of life style ("long hair hippies") and politics.
    I'm all for the OWS protests - the disparity in income and wealth in this country is a scandal and the root of all the other problems. My daughter took time out from her studies to go down to San Diego and particpate (where she found the cops friendly and encouraging, by the way.) But what is going on in terms of policing, I think, is that the decision of a number of municipalities to permit the erection of these mini-Hoovervilles has created all sorts of problems for the police that are all but unprecedented. Some departments have handled them well, some badly, but mostly no one in recent memory has had to copr with these issues. In a funny way, it's not the police who are strangers to the streets, but the protesters, at least living in pup tents.
    I believe in the protests, but I think that permitting the encampments was a big mistake. What happens is that for a fraction of Occupiers, the protest becomes a life unto itself, they refuse to leave, and major confrontations occur. That's the Oakland story, anyway. (Davis seems to be plain old bad policing, plus maybe a rogue cop, and also - I think - a weak executive who lay have asked for a police action that was completely unnecessary.)
    In any case, the notion that because the cops are purchasing a lot of gear, that they have become an alien force, just ain't so. They live in the same type houses as other citizens, drink beer, worry about how their kids, pensions, and how the Giants are doing. What is annoying is that the Occupy policing issues tend to obscure that the need for financial and economic reform is one of the great unifying issues that have come along recently. Most cops, both by economic status and inclination, should be (and are) sympathetic to the goals. It's exasperating to have that commonality of interest obscured by these matters

    And one more, from a scientist on campus yesterday:

    I was at UC-Davis on Monday to give a seminar, and briefly watched the large but very civilized protest on campus...:

    Interestingly, from my own vantage point (near the site of the pepper-spray incident) I could see no police presence at all for the entire event, where several thousand people were assembled.  In fact, there seemed to be practically no visible police presence on campus at all.  I wonder what went into that decision: a crowd that big, justifiably angry, could turn ugly and crowd control measures might have been legitimately needed.  But of course visible presence of the UC-Davis police could easily become a flashpoint by itself.  (With the police department temporarily leaderless, they might have stayed away simply by default.)

    Unfortunately part of the rally was taken up by the typical unrelated left-wing cause floggers and that made for some dull moments as well as the message dilution the Occupy movement seems to suffer from overall.  I didn't hear "Free Mumia" but I feared it was coming up next at times.  Unfortunately I wasn't around for the really emotional parts, where the sprayed students told their stories while the chancellor waited in line with all the others to address the crowd for a timed minute.

    Best sign I saw (and apropos of your recent discussions): "Riot gear is for riots, not camping without a permit."

    More »

  • Tanks in Small Towns

    Police emulating the military's worst habits, as the military itself is moving away from them

    Thanks to many, many people who have written in about the ongoing militarization of the police, and the ramifications of police over-reaction to the Occupy movement in Davis, Berkeley, and elsewhere. Will format* and share some of these tonight or tomorrow. For the moment, here is just one, from a U.S. Army veteran:
    If you liked the wheeled APC in Galax Virginia, you're gonna love the M113 with a cupola mounted .50 cal machine gun that Richland County SC picked up [ a few years ago]. 

     Note the SWAT team posing around the vehicle with submachineguns. Lovely.


    As a former US Army Cavalry soldier, I have to say I am astonished and horrified that anybody in law enforcement would think that an M2 .50 cal machine gun has any place at all in a police force. It is a weapon made to destroy vehicles (like light tanks, APC's and helicopters) and unreinforced buildings. A single round can literally tear a person in half if hits him in the abdomen. It will go through your house and the house after that and then continue blithely along for another mile or more until it hits something else.

    While I'm at it, here is one more -- about the way the militarization of the police perversely ignores the way the real military is evolving: 

    Reading about the militarization of local police forces made me think about the strategic shift to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq under the leadership of GEN Petraeus.

    As commander of the 101st Airborne, GEN Petraeus saw combat for the first time during the division's drive up the Euphrates Valley, with sharp firefights in Najaf, Karbala and Hilla. But it was during the division's subsequent occupation of Mosul and northern Iraq that he won widespread acclaim by resurrecting the local economy, restoring services and preserving order with strategic force. Posters in the division bivouacs read: "What have you done to win Iraqi hearts and minds today?"

    The famous "surge" in Iraq was successful because of many reasons (including financial support to western tribes) and one  was a fundamental shift in strategy from operating out of heavily fortified, centralized compounds with periodic patrols, to dispersing soldiers to smaller, more numerous locations in order to "win Iraqi hearts and minds."  An unverified account of the orders GEN Petraeus gave upon initiating the surge:

        - "Secure and serve the population.

        - Live among the people. Promote reconciliation.

        - Move mounted, work dismounted; situational awareness can only be achieved by operating face-to-face, not separated by ballistic glass.

        - Walk."

    A good theme for our police leaders to keep in mind.

    * This is a surprisingly tedious chore with our blogging software. As the world goes, not a big problem, but it's not a simple matter of cutting and pasting from messages. Just for the record.

  • Two Views of Pepper-Spray, Abuse of Power, and the Militarization of the Police

    A white police officer in Dallas, and a black woman habituated to bad treatment by police, react to the UC Davis abuse

    The first is from a reader who asks not to be named. She underscores the point Ta-Nehisi Coates makes this morning, with a video of a young black man being pepper-sprayed in Illinois for no apparent reason. (Supposedly he was "resisting arrest" after being detained for ... jaywalking.) Their point is that what has happened before the world's eyes at Davis, Berkeley, and other recent Occupy sites goes on all the time but attracts no general notice because it affects the "wrong" people. In answer to my question, "How Did We Let This Happen?" -- "this" being the conversion of police forces into military units -- today's unnamed reader replies:

    You all (and by you all I mean whites, yes I'm black) let this happen because the people being hurt by police brutality were mainly poor, black and brown, and in many cases, immigrants.  It has always been this way.
    The militarism you are citing really doesn't matter.  Cops are more than capable of hurting people when they don't have armored vehicles and high-powered weapons.  In your reporting on this the common use of these vehicles is as some form of advertising.  Yes the scary almost-tanks get used but really all that equipment does is let grown men play dress up.
    A more important and interesting thing to think about would be to ask how on earth can this situation change when,
    1)  The majority of the population (yes white folks) are not touched by this violence and when they are they will only move in so far as it benefits them.
    2)  There are entire industries that profit from making and selling these vehicles.  We have all seen that defense contractors are a pretty powerful group.  Now that those companies have local police departments as part of their market, how are people going to stop this?  If it's like pulling teeth to get the federal govt. not to buy the latest warplane or spy system how do you stop the local govt. from doing it?  I'm thinking the lobbying dollar stretches farther at the more cash strapped local and state level.
    3)  People truly don't care about the people who have to deal with the police on a regular basis. 
    The most frustrating thing for me in the last 24 hours after seeing the footage from UC Davis is knowing that if it was a group of people like me protesting there wouldn't be the same outrage.  It's not every day you get told over and over again you don't matter.  It's depressing
    While your readers seem to be more thoughtful I have absolutely no hope that the spotlight on these recent incidents will result in change.  I feel like this mostly because I think it is impossible to have a real conversation with a white people about the police.  You all are too naïve and too frightened.

    The next is from a veteran police officer, Max Geron of Dallas, who stresses that he is speaking strictly for himself. Just to make sure that message gets across, I'm saying it here in addition to leaving in the first paragraph of his letter. He explains how the recent out-of-control situations look from a police point of view. If you're rushed for time, skip down to the part beginning "From a tactical perspective":

    Allow me to preface what I say by stating that my views are not those of the Dallas Police Department or the Caruth Police Institute and should in no way be taken as my speaking on the department's or institute's behalf.  These views are my own.
    I read your article regarding the brutality at UC Davis.  I was shocked and dismayed at the actions taken by Lieutenant Pike and at the same time can see how leadership and policies failed him.  I've been in law enforcement for over 20 years and have never been trained to use chemical agents on non-violent or passive resistors.
    I have more than a "lay-officer's" knowledge of how to address crowds.  In fact I have served as an instructor in Mobile Field Force tactics and have trained other officers/supervisors to be trainers themselves in crowd control techniques. I was a supervisor and team leader on Dallas SWAT and have dispensed chemical agents in various forms as part of my duties as a law enforcement officer.  I am also a graduate of the Caruth Police Institute's Lieutenant's Leadership Series and teach a class on values based decision making to police supervisors.
    There is a tendency in law enforcement to want to focus on the "Seattle/WTO" outcomes and how to handle them.  Training classes are ripe with Youtube videos of violent protestors overrunning police lines, throwing rocks and bottles and wreaking havoc on civilized society.  Organization of protestors (i.e. their ability to utilize modern technology to foil police attempts and their increasing organization) is also a topic of instruction.  A not insignificant amount of time is also devoted to moving in formation, using (appropriate) force and affecting arrests while maintaining officer safety.  These training classes must also address peaceful protestors and specifically how to humanely arrest and transport those that decide to be arrested in this manner.  Generally a 3/1 ratio of officers is advisable to handle passive resistors that must be arrested.  If however a department trains exclusively in these areas, it fails its officers. As civilian law enforcement we must be ever cognizant of the role we play in society and of the fact that we are not the military and do not live in a police state.  A department must devote time to training its officers in maintaining objectivity and humanity and recognizing when fellow officers do not.  Departments across the country struggle with the idea of "How do we get officers to make the correct ethical choices in difficult situations?" 
    From a tactical perspective I have no way of knowing how many officers UC Davis had on hand that day but they appeared outnumbered for the actions they chose to undertake.  Hindsight being 20/20 they should have recognized the need for more officers or (more appropriately) recognized the need to take a different approach to dealing with these protestors.  They owe a debt of gratitude to those students who, although very angry, remained relatively calm and certainly non-violent.  Had the crowd "decided" that the officers were not going to escort the prisoners through them, the officers would have been unable to do so. 
    Departments and officers must remember the we (the police) only serve at the allowance/discretion of the citizenry who employs us.  If we fail to treat everyone as we would have ourselves and families treated then we cease protecting and serving and begin preying and harming.  I personally appreciated your logical stipulations and from a law enforcement veteran's perspective I can see no legitimate basis for the actions that those few officers took either.
    We fail our officers if we refrain from reminding them that we are dealing with human beings who need be treated as such.  And while it is easy to vilify Lt. Pike and say "I would never..." or "He is evil..." he too is human, prone to mistakes and accountable for his actions.   I believe a leadership change likely must be made in that department (and likely in the university) in order for them to salvage and rebuild trust in the eyes of the community it serves.
    In closing, I believe that police leaders who recognize that their first response to these protestors is not to make them the enemy and further the "us vs. them" mentality but is to remind officers of the difficult line we walk in defending both the right to peacefully protest and the right of people to "go about their normal lives", will have served their communities successfully and in the greatest traditions of police work.

    Thanks to both. More to come.

  • Guest Post: 'This Is What Is Happening Around Us'

    A member of 'the 0.1%' urges attention to what is happening to his fellow citizens

    The post below is from Michael Jones, a successful tech-world figure in California. When I asked whether he should be identified as part of "the 1%" -- which is relevant, considering the argument he makes -- he said, "more likely the 0.1%."

    He also said, about his larger political perspective, that when it came to the current Occupy movement, "I have no political bond with them, disapprove of the sit-ins, see the claimed angst against Wall Street as mutually destructive, and so on." But, he said, "the motivation is so powerful that everyone in power MUST take appropriate heed. To do otherwise is 'let them eat cake.'" His professional and creative life involves understanding the ways in which networked communication and "big data" allow us to see the world in new ways. That is the background for this dispatch, which he stresses is his personal view and not that of any company or organization.

    Blood and Sweat and Tears
    By Michael Jones

    Mr. President, you are not leading this Nation--you're just managing the Government! We're in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears. The rallying cry of Occupy Wall Street? No, comments heard by then President Jimmy Carter and shared with America in his Crisis of Confidence speech of 1979. Now, years later, these words echo loudly and inspire urgent questions. Why have Americans young and old taken to the streets in anger, despair, and righteous indignation? What moral strength empowers their stoic endurance of baton beatings and pepper spray assaults? In less than fifteen minutes you will understand the answer and that knowledge will change you forever.

    Hundreds of thousands of hard working, educated Americans--the "can do" types you want your children to be--stand on the precipice of the pit of doom. Many thousands of them have bared their soul in an autobiographical  paragraph on the Internet where you can understand the issues behind Occupy Wall Street. Their dread has stripped them of pretension and given their words the profound honesty of a deathbed confession. Visit http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com to experience the people and stories of thousands who inspired Occupy Wall Street. For the next ten minutes, click each of the following. Spend a minute in their life, then click back to continue:
    If you still don't understand, perhaps one the 3,000+ other stories will help you realize that Americans just like you, your parents, children, and neighbors, are living a life of fear for their parents, old age, hunger, children, economy, debts, health, and future. Their blood, sweat, and tears send them to the streets. Facing a life of shattered dreams and lost faith in our country hurts them more than the pepper spray and batons. Yet they survive. They quote Wael Ghonim's "the power of the people is much stronger than the people in power."

    This is what is happening around us. It is indeed a crisis of confidence. A crisis that deserves our humanity and assistance. A crisis undeserving of political posturing, blaming, and denial. This widespread problem is more important than the bad behavior of some protestors. This is the sound of our own tired and the poor desperate to survive the gathering gloom. Ultimately, those who are our future are seeking a path out of darkness, or as Jimmy Carter said in that speech 32 years ago, If you lead, Mr. President, we will follow.

    I know that Michael Jones's main hope is to draw attention to real-world testimony like that now accumulating at Wearethe99percent -- and remember, this from someone neither by circumstance nor by political outlook a part of that group. Worth reflecting upon.

  • Turning Patrolmen Into Soldiers: How Did We Let This Happen?

    The forces behind this malign trend, and whether they might be reversed

    I'm chagrined not to have noted a great Atlantic item from two weeks ago, "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police." It covers systematically much of the terrain I've been going into episodically.

    Nonetheless, let's move on! Following this item about the "up-armoring" of even small rural police forces, and the decking out of ordinary police patrol forces in heavy-weather militarized riot gear, Mike Lofgren, a former Republican Senate staffer whose name may ring a bell, writes to say:

    Interesting series of posts. One further similarity to the military that the police have achieved is something not often remarked on and that goes beyond the physical substance of the militarization: a psychological distancing and de-humanization vis-à-vis the population. I noticed this beginning about 2004 as the insurgency began to heat up in the Iraqi towns. US troops, with full body armor, Buck Rogers-like M-4 carbines, grenade launchers and fancy commo gear, all topped off with helmet and tinted visors or wrap-around mirrored sunglasses, looked vaguely like space aliens, or even slightly insectoid. With the Blackwater and Dyncorp mercs, many of whom were 'roided up and scary-looking to begin with, the effect was even weirder.
    Now domestic police are copying this look. It is intimidating, alienating, and de-humanizes the cops in the eyes of the citizenry. That's the polar opposite of what a "peace officer" in a community is supposed to represent to citizens. By the same token, the cops being suited up like that probably strips away some of their inhibition about using disproportionate force by the very same psychological distancing process.
    This is not to criticize troops or cops as individuals, or to deny that they are, in the vast majority of cases, simply trying to do their jobs in difficult and dangerous situations. But leaders who make the policies the soldiers and police have to carry out should think harder about what they are trying to accomplish, and avoid employing equipment, tactics, and visuals that make violence more, not less likely, and alienate the population as well.

    A reader with a military background says that he cannot personally vouch for the authenticity of photos like the ones below, of Tampa "police" vehicles (which have appeared online here and here), but at face value they are consistent with equipment showing up elsewhere [Update: here is a link from the Tampa police themselves showing the militarized equipment]:


    The reader adds:

    As a former US Army mechanized infantry platoon leader, I find the domestic use of these military vehicles revolting (such things were once used as examples of "what 'our enemies' do to their own people") but even more chilling is the armored personnel carriers' corporate sponsorship!


    In any event, they add further grim context to the militarization of America's police forces.  I'm starting to suspect that we're all ancillary characters in a dystopian science fiction novel.

    From Tom deVries, in California, with an example of the path not taken:

    I spent a lot of my reporting career covering 'campus unrest' in the Bay Area and I want to mention that the 'militarization' began a long time ago.  Police on the Cal campus in the late 60s had the face mask & black helmet look going, and they used chemical sprays and clubs quite freely.  Also guns and live ammunition.

    I don't think the campus police forces themselves had gone down the path yet, just the local forces called in to help -- SFPD, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda County.  I remember the Highway Patrol guys involved looking quite miserable and underdressed.

    So was this up-armor business on campus necessary and wise?  Or has it been a provocation and escalation?

    Thanks to Davis prof Bob Ostertag (via HuffPost) for this picture of a campus cop at Columbia arresting a student.  Looks like the volley ball coach.  Looks totally in control.  Looks good to me.

    Thumbnail image for 2011-11-19-Columbia.jpg

    PS. about chemical crowd control agents:  like waterboarding, I don't think anyone who hasn't been gassed should have an opinion about what it's like.

    Since he asks, and for the record: I have myself been tear-gassed twice, once in the United States and once in South Korea. My tone may reflect memories of those experiences. More after the jump.

    Another small-town report:

    A reader posted a picture of an armored vehicle owned by the police in Galax, Virginia.

    We have a similar one in Neenah, Wisconsin (population 24,000).  It's on display at the park on the Fourth of July, I've seen it at Wal-Mart when the cops have fund-raisers.

    Like your correspondent, I have a hard time imagining what this thing possibly be used for.

    A few years ago I was talking with the chief of police from a smaller town to our east, about 3,000 people.  His younger officers were real eager to have the town buy them all rifles for their squad cars.  He was against this idea, and his notions about policing in a small town
    carried some weight.  No rifles.

    He retired last year.  The new guy is younger and possibly more amenable to the idea.

    Me, if we're going to have a gendarme for a cop, then we should go whole hawg and do it right: national police force, boot camp on the Marine model, barracks instead of police stations.  Sure these guys would not be Officer Friendly but Officer Friendly looks like he's on patrol in Falujah so what is the difference.?

    Another reason for up-armoring:

    Re the fascinating discussion about the overarming of police departments in the US today, I suspect that your correspondent who mentioned money raining down on local PDs after 9/11 is partially correct. But I suspect that another part of the reason is that a lot of people in the US are heavily armed today, and that some of them are (or become) criminals.

    I would NEVER argue this justifies shooting, or pepper spraying, or threatening to shoot, unarmed students, but I do understand that police (though perhaps not university police) have  reason to be wary. I don't think arming the police is the right approach - as far as I am concerned, we should be increasing our gun control efforts, but sadly our national elected officials seem unable to stand up to the NRA. Didn't the House just pass the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act?

    And from the What Would Vannevar Blog site, more implications of the moment.

    More »

  • Why Does a Small Town Have an Armored Vehicle? The Police Chief Explains

    The 'up-armoring' of small town police forces, and the surprising reasons behind it

    Earlier today I posted a message from a reader who had passed through the small town of Galax, Virginia and seen this armored vehicle, with a label on the front saying Galax Police.

    Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for DSCF1927.jpg

    The Galax police chief has written just now to correct my reader's (natural) assumption that the city had purchased the "Bearcat" vehicle for its own fleet. Here is the chief's letter, in full. I thank him for the clarification.

    Mr. Fallows,
    I read your article that referenced the Galax Lenco Bearcat on the internet. I am Chief of the Galax Police Department and wanted to correct one item. The pride of the Galax Police is not the Lenco Bearcat rather it is the young men and women who serve the City of Galax on a daily basis. The vehicle was not purchased by the City of Galax it is housed here as part of a regional partnership. The vehicle is a multi-faceted incident response vehicle that is designed for operation in high risk situations including hazardous material spills, explosions and other disasters.
    It is not an equipment item that I would have asked the city to consider buying. We did however agree to house the vehicle and deploy it anywhere in this part of Virginia. We have in fact deployed it in high risk situations including one situation this year when two law enforcement officers lost their life when attacked by a sniper.  In all honesty it is not an equipment item that any agency in this part of Virginia could afford to buy on their own.
    I take offense at the characterization of storm trooper. The vehicle was in fact on display along with police vehicles and fire apparatus at a public safety display during the National Night out Against Crime which was celebrated nationwide. The writer neglected to mention that and I would have hoped that he would have mentioned the attitude and demeanor of the officers that they came into contact with while in Galax.
    I  realize that the proliferation of cameras in our society has changed the way we view the world sometimes good and sometimes bad. However this situation was a generalization based on an assumption not on the reality of why the vehicle is in the City of Galax.
    Rick Clark, Chief
    Galax Police Department
  • 'The UC Davis Policeman's Actions Are a Huge Gift to the Chinese Government'

    Seeing ourselves as others see us, UC Davis department

    Just now from an American living in China:
    I've been following the coverage of the UC Davis Pepper Spray incident and I just wanted to bring up another angle. 

    I first learned about the incident while sitting on the Hong Kong MTR [mass transit system, which of course is superb] en route to Shenzhen (I was flying back to Chengdu where I currently live.) The Hong Kong metro has tv screens, which happened to be showing the news, and my first thought when I saw the video of the policeman pepper-spraying the students was that I must be mis-reading the Chinese subtitles at the bottom of the screen, because there is no way this could be taking place in America.

    But my second and longer-lasting impression, was an amazement of how quickly this video had spread had spread throughout the world and how detrimental it was for the US's image. The UC Davis' policeman's actions are a huge gift to the Chinese government, because this gives the Chinese government added ammunition to build a moral equivalency argument between itself and the US (not to the world but to it's own people.) I only speak from experience in China, but I'm sure in many countries, the reaction will be the same. Just another aspect in which this horrible event is a tragedy.
    Of course I recognize the hypocrisy of Chinese officials harping on police brutality, when they spend half their time trying to suppress online videos of their police, Chengguan, and riot squads doing the same thing, and much worse, around the country. But as the reader says, that's the point: since when do we benchmark our standards of civil liberties, tolerance for protest, and police-public interactions on those of a one-party Communist state?

    More on this in a few hours. For the moment, a reminder that the connectedness of the world and the instantaneous global spread of images have consequences that are unfolding more quickly than anyone can anticipate or make sense of.
  • UC Davis Update, Featuring 'Catopticon' and Tanks in Small Towns

    The trend that has given every small town its own assault force

    After previous items here and here, some updates from readers:

    1) Kristin Stoneking, minister of the UC Davis Christian Association, is the woman seen in a now-famous YouTube video walking alongside UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi through ranks of stonily silent student protestors. On her site she has posted several behind-the-scenes accounts of what the Chancellor has been doing, and thinking, and why, plus what might come next. There are a number of surprising touches there, which I will let you find for yourself.

    2) Several readers have written in to show off point out that I shouldn't really describe the modern phenomenon of a camera-in-every-hand as "panopticon society" but rather as "catopticon society," or "sousveillance." The theory here is that Jeremy Bentham's original panopticon concept (which I actually wrote a college paper about, so there!) involved one central authority watching everyone all the time. Whereas "sousveillance," a genuinely nice play on "surveillance," means everyone photographing everyone and everything, and then sharing all the images. If you'd like to read more about this and the related "Catopticon," from the French computer scientist Jean-Gabriel Ganascia (in English), here you go.

    3) On the storm-trooperization of local police forces, which has been going on for years and whose results are so dramatic in Occupy footage from Davis and elsewhere, a reader sends this report and photo:

     In your post on the terrible incident at UC Davis you briefly discussed the militarization ("
    storm troopers" as you called them) of the police.  I wanted to show you just how far this has gone. 

    This summer my girlfriend and I toured the U.S. for a few months.  We stopped in Galax, Virginia, a tiny hamlet in western Virginia with (according to Wikipedia) a population of 7,042 as of the 2010 census.  When we got to town there was a street fair going on with a huge bounce-house, a (sad) pony ride, and vendors of fried food. 

    In the middle of all of this was displayed the pride of the Galax police.  I've attached pictures for you to see what I mean.  It is called a Lenco Bearcat, a 4WD V10 that is essentially a tank.  According to the spec sheet proudly displayed on the vehicle it can withstand multiple hits from a 50 caliber gun.  You've may have seen one of these guns before, but they can kill from 2500 meters away and the bullets are about 6 inches long.  Wikipedia has a nice bullet comparison here.  The vehicle is armored and has 4 "gun ports".

    I probably don't need to say it, but this is a tool of the Galax police force intended to protect it's citizens from the beautiful rolling countryside around them.  

    What does it say about the fears of the townsfolk that they would consider this purchase a point of pride?  What justification can there be? [Update: the Galax police chief replies.]

    More than that, I suspect that an entire industry has been created to sell this to police forces.  Such misdirected economic incentives are very difficult to dismantle in the same way that hiring outside contractors in Iraq has caused the mushrooming of the private security firm whose largest actors can effectively lobby office-holders to continue getting military contracts.  A terrible cycle that looks for justification for its existence (beyond greed).

    More about militarization after the jump.

    Another reader writes:

    Thank you for posting the historical tidbit that this over-arming of the police force started with the LAPD in the nineties. I had no idea.

    My own theory would have been this: after September 11, 2001, homeland security money rained on police departments all over the country.... In addition, the gear it buys sets the norm even for non-recipients. As regular police become more heavily armed, that becomes the standard of care, so to speak. Campus police won't be allowed to provide substandard protection; the concerned parents wouldn't stand for it. So, the campus cops get helmets, submachine guns and the rest. Tuition hikes and state support will fund that if there's a clamor.

    What shocked me was a picture on nytimes.com at the time of the Hutaree story up in Michigan: a half-dozen guys with pea shooters and a lunatic leader were deemed worthy of national attention and a police response that included an armored personnel carrier. It was parked in front of these people's house, with POLICE stamped in white across it. [JF: Here's the AP photo in question.]


    The NY Times casually took a picture and moved on with the story. Not a single line mentioned the weirdness of the fact that these days APC's are part of the regular police fleet somewhere in the United States.

    If there's one silver lining in the downturn, I think it's this: homeland security loot funded one-time capital outlays that police departments were happy to undertake without much concern for ulterior maintenance. Now those bills are due, and times are hard. The wisdom of the whole thing might yet be reconsidered. At least, that's what Reason is advocating.

    More »

  • Well, This Is Something: UC President Responds to Pepper Spray

    They're just words from the head of the UC system, but they're better words than we've heard before

    This afternoon the President of the University of California system, Mark Yudof, issued a statement about the pepper-spraying abuse at UC Davis and the baton-beating abuse at UC Berkeley. The oddly detached "mistakes were made" initial response* from UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi had only made things worse.

    Yudof has come in for his share of criticism and controversy over the years, mainly about budget and salary issues. But from the very first words of this statement he strikes what I think is just the right note. From the UC news office.

    University of California President Mark G. Yudof today (Nov. 20) announced the actions he is taking in response to recent campus protest issues:

    I am appalled by images of University of California students being doused with pepper spray and jabbed with police batons on our campuses.

    I intend to do everything in my power as president of this university to protect the rights of our students, faculty and staff to engage in non-violent protest.

    Chancellors at the UC Davis and UC Berkeley campuses already have initiated reviews of incidents that occurred on their campuses. I applaud this rapid response and eagerly await the results.

    The University of California, however, is a single university with 10 campuses, and the incidents in recent days cry out for a systemwide response....

    "I am appalled," "everything in my power," "protect the rights," "non-violent protest," "cry out" -- these are just words, but they're encouraging words to hear from the head of the system right now. Let's see what actions follow. [Thanks to R. Richards.]
    * For comparison, this was Linda Katehi one day earlier:

    "Yesterday was not a day that would make anyone on our campus proud," Katehi said in her statement. Then, at the news conference, she called the use of pepper spray "chilling."

    "The use of pepper spray as shown on the video is chilling to us all and raises many questions about how best to handle situations like this," she said.


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