MINOT, N.D. — Earlier this week I mentioned a trip to Barnes & Noble in one of my columns. I love the store, but sometimes walking in there gives me a sad feeling.
Seeing those rows and books reminds me, especially as I enter middle age, that I'll never live long enough to read all the works I'd like to. I console myself by remembering that I'm lucky enough to live in such a bountiful time that the greater (and lesser) works of literature are readily available for everyone.
Unless it's a book deemed problematic by certain political factions operating in our society today, I guess.
On that unhappy note, to the mailbag! Remember, if you'd like to get in touch with me, you can email email@example.com, or tweet at me at @robport. Your messages, used in this column, may be edited for brevity and clarity.
Referencing my column about the Derek Chauvin trial, Jamie writes: "Imagine yourself laying on your stomach with your hands BEHIND your back with 3 officers killing you. The outrage is real and justified. Not even Chuck Norris could win a fight in those conditions. The anger is justified."
My column was critical of the violence perpetrated in the name of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement in general.
I agree with Jamie that anger is justified. Many things in our society — from harassing politicians to book bans to police brutality — are worthy of our anger. But what do we accomplish by manifesting that anger as violence against other people?
After Floyd died, political activists cordoned off the area where he was killed and declared it an autonomous zone — the "Free State of George Floyd — where police officers aren't welcome. Last week someone was shot to death in this "free state." In fact, violence is through the roof in this area. "In 2019, there was a total of three fatal and nonfatal shootings in the area. In 2020, there were 19," Slate reports. “It’s basically the Thunderdome right now," one of the local activists told the Slate reporters.
This would be funny if it weren't so awful, but while this activist was being interviewed, the reporter could hear gunshots in the background, and the activists being interviewed were lying down to protect themselves.
Is that situation the right way to honor the memory of George Floyd, and to fix the very real problems we have with authoritarian and too-violent law enforcement?
Again, anger about this situation is justified, but even just anger is not license to perpetrate more injustice.
Mark also responded to the Chauvin column: "I completely agree with the premise of your column on fair trial issues. I’m not sure a change of venue would change the concern, but it might mitigate it to an extent. Change needs to come from the legislative and executive branches, not the judiciary. MN is off to a good start — comprehensive reforms were passed and are being implemented (to the chagrin of the Fargo police chief and Cass Sheriff — neither will allow their officers to participate in MN matters because the new law is apparently too complicated). In truth, keeping Fargo and Cass cops in Fargo and Cass is probably a good thing anyway."
The Minnesota reform Mark references has, indeed, prompted some North Dakota law enforcement agencies to stop crossing the border to help their eastern counterparts, as my colleague April Baumgarten reported. Previously, in Minnesota and many other states, the law allows a cop to use deadly force if he or she merely perceives a threat. In Minnesota, cops "must articulate a threat with specificity, know death or great bodily harm is likely to occur if an officer doesn’t use deadly force, and the threat must be addressed with deadly force without unreasonable delay," as April wrote.
The cops argue that this puts them more at risk, both of injury or death in the moment, and of accusations of misconduct after the fact based on what they see as more complicated rules.
I'm not sure the Minnesota law is the silver bullet for our problems with police overreach — I want to see how it works in practice before I judge — but Mark is right that the Chauvin trial isn't the right vehicle for changing anything. That trial is intended the establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, of Derek Chauvin. Changes to how police officers do their jobs have to come from policymakers, and from the cops themselves.
One thing I'd like to see is cops moving away from the military-style culture they've embraced in recent decades. I'm not just talking about the equipment (though that's part of the problem). I'm talking about the high-and-tight haircuts. The military lingo.
It has to go.
Cops are not the military, because if they are, who is the enemy they're fighting?
Throughout American history, we have always drawn a bright line between the military and civilian law enforcement. That line has been fading. It needs to be refreshed.
Mary Ann writes about the Luke Simons harassment scandal, which seems to have concluded now that Simons has announced he won't be challenging his expulsion from the Legislature in court: "You and I have limited philosophical ideas in common but I have appreciated your courage and determination in bringing this story to light and pushing the ND 'leaders' to do what’s right. Sadly I’m not surprised at the response from many in the state. There’s a reason many of ND’s best and brightest choose to leave."
I appreciate Mary Ann's praise, though I disagree with her sour take on North Dakota.
One of the most frustrating defenses I've seen of Simons and his pattern of crude and abusive behavior toward women is the suggestion that this is somehow in-character behavior for someone from western North Dakota. Or someone who works as a rancher. Please, do not besmirch the good people of western North Dakota, or the proud practitioners of animal agriculture, by suggesting they think it's just fine to belittle women or ask female co-workers about lingerie shopping.
Simons' behavior is on Simons.
Mary Ann seems to think that North Dakota is an accepting place for Simons' behavior. Certainly, the disgraced lawmaker had his defenders, but they're clearly in the minority. There are 94 members of the House of Representatives. With every member present, 69 of them voted to expel Simons, including 14 Democrats and 55 of Simons' fellow Republicans.
Simons had some votes — mostly from the secretive Bastiat Caucus of legislative cranks who call themselves conservatives — but they don't represent anything approach a majority of North Dakotans.
We, as a society, have to stop letting the fringes speak for us.
Max had something to say about my column on the Dr. Seuss controversy:
Free market conservatives: LET THE MARKET DO WHAT IT WILL DO.— Max Grossfeld (@MaxGrossfeld) March 10, 2021
A private company decides to do something like not printing books with clear racist imagery: NO NOT LIKE THAT. https://t.co/mp3zCwh4WY
It amazes me how many are comfortable with censorship as long as it's perpetrated by some corporation. At least, they're comfortable with it as long as the things being silenced are things they don't like.
I don't care much about the Seuss books that were banned, in particular. I don't believe I've ever read them, nor do I think my kids have even seen them. I do, however, care a great deal about books, in general, and censorious public attitudes, in general, scare me.
My first exposure to the notion of censorship came from Ray Bradbury in his book "Fahrenheit 451." The interesting thing about that story, an aspect many people tend to miss, is that the censorship isn't coming from the government. The story isn't about people living under the boot of some cruel dictatorship.
The censorship is popular, coming from the people themselves, as Bradbury explained. "He wrote that at first they condensed the books, stripping out more and more offending passages until ultimately all that remained were footnotes, which hardly anyone read," L.A. Weekly reported in 2007. "Only after people stopped reading did the state employ firemen to burn books."
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.