There’s something you should know about Walker’s proposal on college sexual assault reporting

As the work week wound down, one of the big headlines here in Wisconsin was that Scott Walker didn’t want colleges to report sexual assaults. Highlighted were amendments to ss. chapter 36 in the proposed changes to the state budget and state statutes that would eliminate current requirements for (1) university staff to report to central administration and (2) for the campuses to report to the system the statistic counts of known incidents of sexual assault.

Soon after the story broke, UW System administration and the Governor’s office acknowledged that the System had been asking for the removal of these requirements (conveniently omitted were details on the complex, confusing, and inefficient nature this dual reporting responsibility at the campus level as well as how the request has probably been repeated annually for years).

Jezebel, the first piece I saw on the matter, has already added a mea culpa at the top of its previously published article. I by no means intend to defend Walker. But the public ire on this issue is unfortunately misplaced and misinformed, and that’s good news for Scott Walker right now.

The deletion of the statutory requirements regarding sexual assault are absolutely important, but they are more reflective of bad (and successful) political optics, rather than sound policy.

It is a terrible idea, politically, to appear like you’re soft on the issue of campus sexual assault. If you’re thinking about making a run for national political office, you definitely do not want to risk alienating 50% of the electorate (who tend to vote disproportionately high). But if you can get some media coverage on the issue, while it also distracts from the very real negative outcomes likely from the proposed budget cut and changes to campus governance, you look “unintimidated” in the face of liberal media attacks. Republican voters will only have their positive opinions about you and negative opinions about the mainstream media reinforced because you’re unfairly criticized without all the facts (still underreported) known about the issue! It’s a win-win, politically.


When I saw the Jezebel article, it was accompanied with Facebook comments of exasperation and attacks on the governor. Of course, as the internet is wont, the opinions shared had nothing of substance and discussed nothing proactive.

Friday night, I talked with a colleague at another system institution, and we shared the same laugh about how, as a practical matter, the changes to the statutes don’t actually matter and actually do make some of our work more efficient. Here’s how:

UW System is required to annually report the numbers of sexual assaults reported to campus staff, no matter when or where these assaults took place, and categorize them by one of four degrees as defined in state statute, which is also the way our campus policies define sexual assaults perpetrated by students (a terrible way of doing things from a student conduct administration perspective, but that’s a whole other matter).

The Clery Act requires campuses to report sexual assaults as forcible or non-forcible (changing under the updated rules taking effect soon). These two categories had overlap with the state statutes, when they occurred in the reporting years or in Clery reportable locations, requiring university staff at each campus to spend time sifting through each individual report–some anonymous with little detail–to make sure the incidents were categorized correctly and not miscounted or double reported to the respective government entities. Erring in the federal report could result in a fine of $35,000 per miscount, even if you over count. 

Since I began working in the UW System in 2012, I have heard criticisms of the dual reporting structure from numerous colleagues across the System. You can imagine it is challenging to take anonymous reports of disclosures from our confidential reporting sources and cross reference those with known reports through police and other channels, to try and make sure we’re not double counting for each report and that the numbers accurately reflect the information known.

And so, for as long as I’ve been around, which isn’t long I’ll admit, my colleagues from across the state, who do the work day-to-day, have complained (and no doubt advocated up the chain in meetings I’m not invited to) that the dual reporting unnecessarily complicates both reporting to our communities and our overseers. Why couldn’t we at least report using the same definitions of sexual assault, specifically the uniform criminal definition for Clery?

So the message went up to the UW System to lobby the state for change. Clery rules for over 4000 schools aren’t going to change just because our 26 campuses are inconvenienced by our legislature’s rules. And until any change occurs, the System isn’t going to say to the campus leadership to skip the Clery reporting, and of course risk our federal financial aid or substantial fines, in favor of focusing on the state definitions report alone.

Getting back to the budget proposal: Those quick to attack the governor on his proposed changes overlooked other examples of when state government was taken out of the way to make things work best by the people who do the work. In the state statutes granting public authority status to the UW Hospital and Clinics (ss. chapter 233), there is not a single reference to the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which guarantees patients privacy of their medical records (note: whether this was the case at any point since the mid-90s when both HIPAA and the hospital were established is not known to me, but it’s not currently referenced today). Does that mean the hospital shirks its federal obligations because its not currently in state law? Of course not. 

Of course the UW System–at least the people on the front lines who are committed to the educational mission and civil rights–are going to work to be better than compliant on the issues of interpersonal violence and gender equity. The real problem is that the budget proposal legitimately undermines our work in ways not discussed in the media.

This story, which when analyzed seems just too perfectly planned to be coincidence, serves Walker’s interests. Once the story broke that his budget proposal cut the reporting requirements, the System, possibly directed by the governor’s office, has to come out and say, “it’s not his fault, we asked for this” and Walker gets to look like his proposed statutory changes to reporting requirements are in the best interest of the system (which is true). He looks fine in the media, Jezebel and other media outlets have to backtrack, and the System has a little egg on their face because the reasons for requesting the change are too complicated for a soundbite or the AP wire. Walker supporters and Republicans generally laugh about this latest media gaffe and feel better about their chances in 2016.

And all of this obscures the real problems related to the Walker’s budget proposal and the issues of interpersonal violence at the UW System schools: The $300 million budget cut for the next two years – amounting to an estimated 2.5% or more of each individual campus’s total budget, and maybe much more for the county extensions – will do real damage to the ability of each campus to adequately serve and support victims of interpersonal violence, as well as to undertake the federally mandated responsibilities to prevent their occurrence in the first place.

Issuing “block grants” to the system forces difficult decisions upon campus priorities including federal responsibilities for compliance, debt obligations, contracts for employees, grant matching for existing research and programs, and staffing, hiring, and benefits. The dollars allocated will closely reflect the value of those priorities. If a campus decides on cuts to, say, victim services or investigative staff, Walker is insulated from the negative consequences of those decisions.

The draconian budget cuts, to shore up Walker’s failed budget of two years ago where his tax cuts failed to lead to increased economic growth and a net gain in state revenue, will further damage the UW System and the state. The collateral damage isn’t just the laid off employees; student victims will bear the consequences as well.

Students will have reduced contact to the remaining overburdened administrators and instructors who will be forced to be more “efficient.”  If you’ve got limited time and have more advisees, students in class, and projects because your colleagues were kicked to the curb, then its perfectly conceivable that even the best teachers will have to cut down on the time they spend one-on-one with students. On our campuses, instructors and staff often have the relationships with students that afford the opportunity to see warning signs of issues of concern.

Students may have felt comfortable reporting interpersonal violence precisely because it impacts their student experience in academics or involvement, or manifests in other behaviors of concern. When our relationships with students are diminished through the limitations of time and space due to the budget cuts, victims have reduced options on how to exercise agency in their own recovery: Imagine a situation where a student is struggling with anxiety from an assault or stalking or an abusive partner, and that anxiety is impacting their academic performance. If they seeks counseling or crisis services as the only course of action, that’s a great start, and the confidential counselor can of course share about reporting options and recommend avenues for academic support.

But if the student feels isolated from instructors due to being unable to see them in reduced office hour availability or because staying after class is not private enough, all the efforts to manage their anxiety through counseling are not going to get them the needed academic accommodations. If that instructor or advisor is buried in their work, it’ll be too late before they notice the student’s decline in performance before the end of the semester. The student is not going to request accommodations for the impact of a sexual assault via email, even if that is technically the most efficient means of requesting them.

Beyond the initial support and reparative measures, overburdened investigators will find themselves unable to resolve cases effectively with fair and thorough investigations, which are already often inconceivably difficult. Perpetrators may be able to continue on without being held accountable. Suboptimal investigations foster distrust in the system. All our efforts to encourage reporting will ultimately fail if students perceive the investigations as ineffective (I would consider optimal investigations to be fair and just in process, even if one of the parties ultimately feels unsatisfied with the specific outcomes).

As long as interpersonal violence affects any one of our students, we can be sure that these budget cuts will negatively impact their success on our campuses and after. And that’s what should really outrage us. It’s not the optics or the politics. It’s how these policies play out in the messy reality that is the college campus.

So if you were up in arms about Walker’s proposed changes to the UW System statutes regarding sexual assault, don’t just let that fire die with the clarification from the System administration where they take responsibility for the amendment to ss. 36.

If you’re not from Wisconsin, advocate for our students by contacting the members of the Joint Committee on Finance who have the most power over the direction of this budget bill and voicing your concerns about these budget cuts.

Wisconsin residents: Direct your concerns at your legislator and the JCF because if they go along with these budget cuts as proposed (to say nothing of the granting of public authority status scheduled to take effect in just over 16 months without any semblance of a System plan in place on how the new governance will be operationalized), then they are complicit in the further marginalization of victims, responsible for the failure to serve these students appropriately.

If you decide to sit on the sidelines, then you’re complicit too.


Stonewalling Rape: Police Can Investigate, But Will They?

This is a thorough analysis of the “Cops or STFU” perspective that stands in opposition to addressing sexual assaults

One thing that comes up over and over in discussing rape and how to stop it is the role of the criminal justice system.  Advocates for survivors are adamant that survivors don’t have to report and don’t have to use the system.  Many other people, for various reasons, think that survivors have an obligation to go to the police and prosecute.  Some of these people are well-intentioned, and others really just want to say that any survivor who does not report should be ignored. I’ve written at the greatest length about this specifically with reference to kinky communities, where the “cops or STFU” brigade is not well-intentioned, but rather mostly composed of people who know full well that successful prosecution is almost impossible, that contact with the police will be affirmatively awful for the survivor, and just want a rallying cry to shout down all survivors.

I won’t repeat…

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Finding Inclusive Excellence at Exclusive Research Institutions

In the first few months of this academic year, there have been a number of burglaries and armed robberies near campus, affecting numerous students, and leading to an increased level of alertness (both in timely warnings and crime alerts issued and in student attention to safety). Almost without fail, the alleged suspect is identified as a black or Latino man, usually with a description so vague that it could apply to any college age male. Could it be that men of color, who typically do not live near this college campus, unless they’re students, due to a history of de facto (and de jure) racial segregation in housing in Madison, Wisconsin, are coming downtown to target college students? Sure, this is entirely plausible.

I’m not in a position to debate the veracity of the reports of burglary or robbery victims. However, there is the unintentional impact that this increase in crime has on men of color on this campus. When Latino or black men are singled out as potential perpetrators of violent (property) crimes, the inherent supposition when seeing a young adult male of color on campus is not that he is a student. The heightened alertness to risk of crime is to regard those individuals as a threat to safety or property.

This has obviously been covered extensively in the actual media (and other blogs) in relation to the stop-and-frisk policies of the NYPD. Racial profiling is an abhorrent crime prevention tactic, not exclusively because of the perpetuation of stereotypes and dehumanization of the victims of stop-and-frisk (or because it is statistically ineffective). On a college campus, the perception of black and Latino men as criminals also serves to reinforce another misperception: that these men do not belong on campus.

Recently, I sat in on our campus-wide Diversity Plan listening sessions, where we discussed the current proposed plan developed by the committee and provided feedback on what it means to have an inclusive campus. Nevermind the fact that the last plan expired in 2008 or that the focus on diversity sometimes gives ammunition to opponents of building an inclusive campus. Instead, I was struck by one particular interaction with a faculty emeritus who is actively and adamantly opposed to the current admissions process at the UW.

While seated in a small group dialogue about what it means to feel included on campus, he branched off in to a critique of the admissions standards and how that affects people from “targeted1 racial minorities.” He articulated information similar to the above opinion piece from Madison’s Cap Times, which may be compelling facts. His economic (or whatever) analysis does not hold water when thinking about the context and environments of the education system. The experiences of students of color, both prior to coming to college and after enrolling, matter, and faculty have a tremendous role in how those experiences can negatively (or positively) impact student academic performance.

What came to light in that dialogue, thanks to the generous sharing of a graduate student and a reframing of the issue, is that faculty members may hold certain stereotypes of students of color, including but not limited to:

  • They need a mentor, and therefore the faculty member should take the time to get to know the student.
  • They did not earn their way in to the institution under the “competitive” admissions process.
  • They may only be there as student-athletes, and the “student” part of that label is sometimes completely ignored by peers or instructors.
  • A faculty member’s teaching style, which has worked for White students for years, should also work for students of color. If they can’t compete in the classroom, then they don’t deserve to be there.

Taking these in turn, we can see that many can impact the academic performance of even the most academically talented students of color.

First, research shows that faculty mentors can be important to the success of students.2 However, if the faculty member has a negative perception about the student’s cultural capital or abilities, then this deficit-thinking will not lead to a quality relationship, which is more valuable to black students than the race of the faculty mentor, for example. Additionally, some students don’t have time for small talk–whether its introversion or other deadlines looming. Perhaps when they stop in for office hours, they just want their questions answered, not to share their life story with a well-intentioned instructor.

Second, assuming black or Latino men did not earn their way in to the university perpetuates “stereotype threat.” Faculty and instructors have no way of knowing if a student of color was the top of their class from the very best private institution, or “merely” top 10% from their urban public high school. To assume that they are not academically prepared, and then treat them accordingly, only serves to reinforce social messages students receive about how their race/ethnicity is perceived in academic environments, and can contribute to underperforming. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy about students of color when their grades come in.

Third, while student-athletes may be granted latitude in admissions, there are still expectations (per NCAA eligibility guidelines) that they perform in the classroom in order to be able to compete. Even if a student, no matter their race, were also an athlete, they and the instructor each have an obligation to ensure that they are performing at their very best. Making assumptions about their admission qualifications does nothing to assist this student in their academic (and subsequent) athletic success. Understanding that Division I intercollegiate athletics is both an access point for college for some students as well as nearly a full time job outside of classes, instructors should work hard to encourage their students’ academic success, time management, and balancing of competing priorities.

Finally, I find it particularly detestable, after secondary education preparation and my chosen career as an educator, that instructors would assume that their teaching style and methods would and should work for all students, just because it has worked for decades or worked when they were in college. We have learned so much about teaching & learning–to say nothing of racial and other identity development–over the last half century and for instructors to rely solely on methods that were pioneered in an era when only upperclass White men were enrolled in colleges (and that continued after the GI bill redefined diversity to only include White men from broader social classes) is wrought with White privilege, and both irresponsible and unfortunately damaging. It’s easy to teach the way one always has and chalk up poor grades by anyone to some fault in the student. It’s much harder to acknowledge that some students need different methodologies, different learning assessments, and/or different assistance outside of class, especially when the pressures and challenges for all students have changed so much over time, and to then make the time to engage in those new practices. Even faculty of color can fall in this trap, if that manner of education happened to work for them.

Many faculty like to believe that they are good instructors–and that’s probably true for many of their students. But that does not mean that their implicit biases or negative assumptions about students of color, especially in a community like Madison that has such racial disparities, don’t impact their teaching effectiveness. White students may pick up on these biases and it may reinforce their own negative assumptions about their peers’ academic abilities. It can reinforce stereotype threat. It can decrease student engagement and contribute to the lower graduation rates cited by Hansen. It can reinforce other negative stereotypes generalized to the broader group represented by the woefully few men of color on campus.

Connecting back to the initial point, the reality on this campus (and likely others experiencing similar circumstances) is that black and Latino men are at risk for being perceived as neither qualified for nor welcome on campus, and possibly even be viewed as criminals.

Of course, this is not just a problem for UW students. If affects community members and employees. It extends to other institutions as well. A recent example from UCLA highlights similar trends in elite public higher education. But if Inclusive Excellence is the overriding goal (Inclusion is excellent, excellence is inclusive), then is it fair to say that our institutions fail to measure up to the term elite, since we are reinforcing exclusion, and therefore not excellent? Perhaps this has always been what we’re best at: reinforcing a perceived meritocracy that is primarily about exclusion through competition for grades, degree program admission, and jobs after graduation. 

But hope is not lost! It is imperative that efforts to foster a more inclusive campus focus on helping faculty interrogate their instructional methods to make them more inclusive. Inclusive classrooms lead to greater creativity in problem solving and greater attainment of learning outcomes, to name two examples. But beyond the practical academic benefit, faculty and other instructors can better understand their own implicit biases and use pedagogical practices that have been shown to increase student learning and disrupt social systems of privilege. Research institutions should pioneer applied educational research to foster innovative and effective methods to increase the college enrollment and subsequent success of black and Latino students, with the added benefit of reducing the risk of committing crime.3 Madison and Dane County should be the laboratory in which we work, and if that’s not the Wisconsin Idea, then it’s really just a marketing scheme.

1.Targeted is an unfortunate term to describe their recruitment, since the targeting based on race/ethincity doesn’t stop once they matriculate. Instead many become the targets of microaggressions and even intentional acts of bias or hate crimes.

2.Sources: Lee, W. Y. (1999). Striving toward effective retention: The effect of race on mentoring African American students. Peabody Journal of Education, 74(2), pp. 27-43. Retrieved from and Hernandez, J. C., & Lopez, M. A. (2005). Leaking pipeline: Issues impacting Latino/a college student retention. Journal of College Student Retention, 6(1), 37-60. Retrieved from

3.A word on the crime disparities: Obviously context matters. Crime and criminality are not the result of some deviant genetic trait among people of color. Systems of socioeconomic (and behavioral) oppression lead to certain crimes in certain situations, as well as the criminalization of certain behaviors deemed deviant or dangerous. These categories are subjective, determined by people with power, and over time they have had a disasterous effect. Students who are more engaged in school, both K-12 and post-secondary, and feel that they are on a path to legal economic success, have less–no?–incentive to commit property crimes.

Male privilege is…

Male privilege is the ability to step in to and out of conversations and spaces about gender equity whenever I want to. While I have continued to have conversations about social justice and my own personal journey, mostly at work or with Maggie for the last six months, I’m about to jump back in with this blog.

Summers in Wisconsin are too short to not spend as much time outside as possible, another privilege of time and money, of course. My hope is to resume writing in this medium throughout the winter–I can think of few better ways to spend time on cold snowy mornings. And they’re coming–and hopefully become a bit more efficient and better able to write in the spring & summer.

Additionally, I’m hoping to gather real examples of male privilege that you’ve seen or experienced in everyday life (on a college campus would be ideal) for a future post. In the comments here, on Facebook, through Twitter, or via email send them my way. If they’re layered with intersectionality that’s great too, because my lens is White-straight-cis-atheist-able. My conception of male privilege is often limited to that paradigm and I would like to think and reflect more about the other ways it shows up.

The Scarlet D: The Accusation of Deviance

And interesting to think about how in the Italian media there was a similar identity applied to Knox, yet Berlusconi can run for and be re-elected. Sadly, the application of labels are more universal than just our flawed social systems.

There’s a lot to say about this.

Interviewer Chris Cuomo basically says he’s about to be a creep, and then does it anyway, knowing it’s creepy.  This isn’t just because he’s a nasty guy.  If it were, I probably wouldn’t write a post about it.  It’s a larger social phenomenon.  Actually, like so many things, it’s several, and they intersect.

The Scarlet A

If we’re looking for stories about women whose sexual behavior violated social strictures and who paid a terrible price for it, we could probably go back forever.  Certainly, there’s no shortage of cultural tentpoles.  Think about the “great books” of the 19th century — Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter.  (Hawthorne particularly pushed back, making Prynne essentially a paragon, but that’s a longer conversation …)

Since these are fictional, the label is always at least factually accurate. In reality, people tend to have incomplete and misleading information about…

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There’s No “I” in Tweet

Twitter can be a really selfish place.

It’s where we can add noise to a crowded room, trying to shout above the din, to share our day-to-day or cat pictures, quip about the news, recommend what we’re reading or viewing, or try and get retweets from followers: It’s where we can self-promote.

As much as I hate to admit it, I use Twitter for mostly selfish means. It’s a medium to get authors I follow to retweet my mention of them, as I’m about to start their new book. Or, I’ll hope that my quips get favorited by strangers or followers. I even linked this site to my Facebook and Twitter so real-life friends and total strangers alike can see my writing.

In a practical sense, this last one is fine. But I’ve been tweeting much longer than I’ve been writing, so my previous motivation is something more sinister.

When we get notifications that others interacted with our online activities, through likes, comments, retweets, or favorites, there’s a brief rush–dopamine?–rewarding us for our use. So we repeat, hoping for another rush (though for some reason though I don’t get excited about LinkedIn endorsements).

It feels just like successfully overcoming a challenge in a video game: A digital high.

And like a lot of ways that can lead to a high, social media can lead us to regrettable decisions. And, for me, that’s where this intersects with masculine norms.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve reflected on my use of social media sites, and one particular event stands out as the perfect example worth exploring. I was listening to a recent interview with Jen Kirkman, comic and and author of I Can Barely Take Care of Myself on Citizen Radio. At one point, co-host Jamie Kilstein, who is also a stand-up comic, and Kirkman were discussing the hateful and sexist vitriol tweeted at female comics.

So because I had seen some of the shit people tweet at Rob Delaney, my internal motivation machine went in to action. I thought I could come up with something worth getting a retweet from either Kilstein or Kirkman. I got more than a retweet though. The response, though, was not what I was expecting:

When I initially saw the Connect button light up, the rush was on. But then when I read the reply there was this weird adrenaline/anger combination. I felt like “Trust me” was just dripping with condescension, when I felt like I had made a pretty good point. I responded, trying to be civil, but I was actually in over my head. I was so caught up in my own self-interest that I had missed the whole part of their conversation when they were talking about female comics.

It took me a while to process through all of this and really make meaning of it.

My initial motivation for using social media is inherently flawed. The selfish attempts to fuel my reward centers in my brain caused me to bypass the parts that involve critical thinking or empathy.

But I wouldn’t be writing about this if it hadn’t been for that feeling of anger that arose as a result of how I perceived that initial response. While I was aware of my internal motivation and my genuine belief that my comment was a positive contribution to the discourse, Kirkman called me out and with two words took the whole thing down around me. That opened the door to actually explore the selfishness and arrogance that really was the foundation of my tweet, and how I tried to recover to protect my ego from the dissonance.

When I read Kirkman’s tweets, I felt condescended to, and this did not sit well with me. As a (straight white cisgender American) man, consistently rewarded by society and the education system to believe that I am smart and right, I arrogantly believed that my comments were both relevant to the discourse and important enough for Kirkman or Kilstein to share with their thousands of followers. This is, of course, ridiculous.

When Kirkman essentially said that I was wrong and that I didn’t do my research, I didn’t know how to express my anger. I wisely chose to disengage, because I at least recognized that I was wrong, as I my second tweet was both true and a cover for my ego. But I fumed internally, keeping it concealed that my partner didn’t even know it was in my head until she read a very early draft of this post. And the reason I was angry about it was the same reason I didn’t talk about it: Guilt.

Now, with some time to reflect on what I did and didn’t do in this situation, I realize that my lack of comprehension of the interview or the hateful tweets made my initial comment a tacit approval of those hateful tweets (and depicted me, accurately in this case, as a man who has a long way to go in standing against sexism).

So, what I perceived as condescension was more likely Kirkman’s frustration with Internet asshats like me, because she can’t read my (somewhat) good intentions in my tweet. If she could have seen the irony regarding motivations, I would fully expect her to call me out more directly. It took a while to acknowledge that the blow to my ego was dual: as a person, adding noise to the Internet, and as a man who felt condescended to by a woman.

The Internet is filled with noise, ranging from the mundane and banal life updates to the vitriolic and hateful trolling. Because we are so easily motivated by the attention given to our contributions to the noise, we are all veering dangerously away from the ways in which new technologies can foster dialogue, social justice, progress, and change.

The participation-reward cycle of the digital high no doubt plays a significant role in making these new technologies part of an anti-social media, where anti-social behaviors are rewarded and reinforced, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. What is it when a genuinely held belief about white racial superiority or of appropriateness of female oppression is expressed, if not anti-social?

So we have the option to continue using our tweets and posts as a selfish means to share our wit or the fun in our lives, boosting our egos, indifferent to the ways in which that can reinforce hegemony and oppression.

Or we can realize a greater purpose: Instead of aiming for retweets (or WordPress site views, even…), we can work for quality interactions. We can use these tools as engaging online forums where we dialogue, seeking to understand the positions of others, so that the replies are mutually beneficial. Yes, we’ll still receive the rewards from that little blue dot on our Twitter apps, but by sharing and making mistakes and gaining perspective from others, we’ll be rewarded by learning with and from each other–well, at least 140 characters at a time.

Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers

Important commentary on rape culture and the recent news from the Air Force, Cleveland, etc.

[Content Note for rape and kidnapping, and general rape culture.]

They look just like everybody else.

It’s not an easy thing to keep in your head.  Disney movies have taught us that villains look like villains.* But in real life, they look like everybody else.

Once they get caught, and we see a mugshot and they look like they were up all night drinking and then groped a stranger in a parking lot and were driven off by force, it’s easy to see them for what they are.  But in the office, before Jeff Krusinski got arrested, he looked like a normal person.  Someone gave him the job of heading up sexual assault prevention for the Air Force.  In hindsight, it seems like a cruel joke, or a deliberate effort to put the fox in charge of the henhouse.  Rather like putting a pedophile in charge of…

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Our Fearful Response to Boston

Part 2: Sunday I wrote why I thought it was important to break down some of the issues that are absent from the discourse, including why platitudes, condemnations, and consolations should be absent without condemning the author. For more on that, please click over to that post to read the introduction (and the mythologies in the Boston media coverage).

Following the events Thursday night, for nearly 30 hours Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the most important 19-year-old man in America since Michael Phelps won six gold medals in Athens, with people glued to their TVs then (before the advent of Twitter) and their computers and TVs now. I am typically skeptical of the “copycat” argument when the media discusses school shooters, but I think the attention given to this manhunt hasn’t been seen since OJ. We don’t know what kind of impact this particular iteration of the media-going-overboard is going to have on future acts of violence.

As someone who has an affinity for Boston, which I have chosen to minimize in this post because when we describe those things it only serves to feed in to expectation that we need to establish credibility as a critic, I also had the choice to tune out during the day on Friday. It felt completely unnecessary—well, after tweeting a quip about their literal Caucasian background when I woke up and learned about the overnight events before even getting out of bed—to remain transfixed by the internet/cable news cycle. Being indirectly impacted, trusting that friends in the area were safe because of the already problematic lockdown, meant that I had both the luxury, and in some ways maybe an obligation to wait. It made more sense to wait until the evening to get caught up, avoiding speculation and ignoring the news coverage until then.

Rather than stop everything I was doing during the day to follow the manhunt, I was able to turn on the TV at 7:30 and learn that they had the suspect trapped in a boat. Within 30 minutes I was caught up and the suspect was in custody on his way to the hospital for medical treatment (and aggressive interrogation). So as I caught up, and caught snippets if I did click over to Twitter, something that left me troubled was the reported voluntary compliance with martial law (not “marshall,” something Maggie pointed out after seeing quite a few folks ignorant of the difference in the Twittersphere) in a major metropolitan area. By shutting down the entire metro area, even under the guise of citizens voluntarily throwing open their doors to law enforcement, a strange precedent has been set in regard to the use of force and the expansion of police powers. I’m not an Infowars conspiracy theorist, I just find it troubling. My faith in the government to act responsibly has not yet been shaken, despite the repeated abuses of power that we’ve seen in just the last twelve years. Maybe I’m naïve?

But the good people of Watertown had that same faith: there may have been a belief that their search scope will be limited (will they ignore the pound of cocaine on the table?) or the attitude that it’s their civic duty to ensure that their household is safe and can be checked off the list. But what of those who refuse? Are they forced to comply? Is a search warrant at least attained? Do they get ostracized in their community for exercising their rights and potentially jeopardizing the safety of their neighbors? If they refused, are they viewed as collaborators or supporters of the suspects and their motivations? What about homes that were not occupied, did the police just bust in with out warrants to confirm that the suspect wasn’t holding anyone hostage or hiding in the basement? Do they put your dog down if it reacts negatively to the armed masked men storming in to your home?

Some of these questions appear answered through this video shared by Anonymous:

Now granted it’s across the street and amateur video, but that doesn’t exactly look voluntary—with a SWAT team on your porch and firearms in your face, it probably felt pretty coercive. It appears that you get treated as if there’s something to hide if the police judge you didn’t answer the door quickly enough. There’s an embedded level of fear, even with the voluntary compliance. And it should be mentioned, there’s probably a  great deal of fear permeating the police who are responsible for the manhunt. An officer is already killed and another wounded. The bombings on Monday are fresh in everyone’s mind. And they have no idea if the Tsarnaev is armed with explosives, waiting to take more officers out. Even trained officers with years of experience have to have felt some level of fear, every time they approached a door. After each house is successfully cleared, that only means they’re getting closer to a potential confrontation, no doubt heightening the fear or anxiety.

And this fear felt by the people in Watertown—officers and citizens alike—is important. Whether that was the intent of the suspects or not, their acts function as terrorism, prior to the political label being applied through our legal process, two distinct processes, as noted by Michael Eric Dyson on Melissa Harris Perry Sunday morning. This fear operates in conjunction with support for law enforcement (fear of being associated with “terrorists,” fear of the police response for non-compliance, fear of leaving your own home because you may interact with the suspects or police in a heightened state) and stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric that has permeated the news cycle immediately after the explosions on Monday.

Statements Monday and Tuesday in support of the people of Boston and those affected, such as vowing to run the marathon the following year or to walk the final five miles from BC to Copley, are remarkable in light of the fear that was evident in the photos of empty streets, the police presence, and the visible relief and celebration on Friday night when the suspect was taken in to custody. Clearly, by Friday morning as people learned of Thursday night’s events, there was fear, despite the well-intended statements of community courage not three days before. The defiance of the early week was not about showing no fear, but instead about putting that fear to work: Organizing the community to show the bombers that Boston will not be deterred. In fact, whether they see it that way or not, Boston was deterred, and fear was the reason. And now since Tsarnaev’s arrest, the fear of Friday stands in contrast with the recent news coverage of Boston getting back to “normal,” as if the anxiety of further violence is somehow completely behind them now.

Though we still don’t know the motives for acting, if it did include political terrorism, then it stands to reason that bringing the city to a halt and inducing a week of fear was a bonus they may not have anticipated. However, their behavior on Thursday night in to Friday seems so haphazard and poorly (if at all) planned, that it is reasonable to believe that they did not think that far ahead. Hell, the elder Tsarnaev was dead before the lockdown. And carjacking and ATM withdrawals are really easy ways to draw police attention to yourselves, and anyone who watches a season of 24 could have probably put that together. But it does seem like a reasonable panicky reaction from two people who just saw their faces plastered across all media outlets.

Taking a step back from the heightened fear and anxiety of the past week, it’s also important to think about some of the other impacts that the manhunt had. Just like the poor and working class were largely ignored in the election discourse, it seems that they were again not a consideration, because the perception of public safety is paramount. This 19-year-old was so feared that communities beyond the cordoned off area were also on lockdown, though the police were less of a presence due to their focus on Watertown. Unfortunately, shutting down the metro area disproportionately impacts the poor and working class. Hourly workers counting on the 60 dollars for food or rent may have concerns about safety that are competing with the need for shelter and food. These folks are unfortunately usually in the position of having to weigh needs against each other, with those in the lowest economic class often living in the most dangerous neighborhoods, while those of us more privileged do not need to treat our needs as trade offs.

People like me could take the vacation day or just work from home. I wouldn’t have to think about if its safe to go to work because I need money, or prioritize my safety over earning the money to pay rent (or feed my children, if I was a parent). That lost income isn’t coming back to them in some class action lawsuit against the suspect. The knee-jerk reaction to close Quincy, Brookline, or South Boston to commerce and free movement is extremely problematic. I can understand closing the T to limit the suspects mobility. But by suspending taxi service outside the cordon and closing the streets or businesses, when there was no indication of additional people involved, shutting the city down as a precaution disproportionately impacts people who are already forced to balance their needs on a daily basis.

Here’s something else about the underclass that doesn’t get mentioned: Federal (and possibly other) prisons went into lockdown on Monday after the bombings to prevent violence against those perceived to potentially be involved in the bombing, or ethnically related to stereotypes of terrorists. The people who are subjected to the strictest social control in our country end up even more restricted, because that initial level of control is not sufficient to protect the safety of every person within the prison. The fear that one’s loved ones may have been injured or are in danger can be enough to drive even free people to commit tremendous acts of violence. I can’t imagine the additional pressure when that love is the one constant, sustaining hope in a future after prison or a reality outside the walls of control, and there’s nothing you can do about it or know about their well being. That is no doubt a catalyst that would otherwise lead to violence against others, if not for the lockdown. I’m not sure what it says about our society, if the most restrictive environment, intended to keep free society safe, is not restrictive enough, to keep those within the prison safe, in the wake of tragedy.

And finally, I mentioned the vigilantism in my previous post on Boston, but this is a good follow-up to the suspicions offered by Redditors, many of whom probably haven’t been to the Boston Marathon pre-race. Guess what? They sell black backpacks at the marathon. I bought one in 2008. Lots of people have them! I had it with me in Boston in 2009 because, like others, I returned to give it another shot. It’s hardly an identifying characteristic, and maybe why the bombers chose a black backpack in the first place. But an athletic looking dude with a black backpack is probably about 60% of the people running and milling around the finish line.

So now, about one week later, I’ve also reflected on my general disinterest in the events in Boston, manifested in a resistance to the 24 hour news cycle, while maintaining a general knowledge about the events. It forced me to consider if focusing on my day-to-day existence makes me a “bad” person, who is not patriotic or American enough to comment on the events.

I still have a life and work and responsibilities, so I chose to disengage from the media circus. It’s funny to know that CNN sucks but it doesn’t make me a better person to feed in to it.

Instead, I took care of my home and spent time with family, and put my effort at work towards the difficult challenges related to public safety in my job. From the outside it may look like callous indifference to the events in Boston. But from where I sit, where geographical and financial limits constrain my ability to make any difference, I choose to be active in my spheres of influence, pushing forward with meaningful strategies to help the college students on my campus. Rather than spend too much time, at least during the week, thinking about how I can’t do anything about the Boston situation, I’ve directed my energy in to something I can do to improve the community I live in.