About Me

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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mark MacPhail: The Forgotten Victim

Troy Davis was executed last night around 11pm EST.  I don't know the ins and outs of the Davis trial, but feel that there is significant doubt surrounding his guilt.  Different accounts have shown that 7 out of 9 key state witnesses have since recanted statements that were used to convict Davis.  Some accounts have said that witnesses felt coerced by police to sign bogus statements.  Others have implicated one of the other key witnesses--"Redd" Coles--as the person who actually killed off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail.   

Troy Davis: Did the state have enough evidence to execute him?
According to a NY Times article, Troy Davis maintained his innocence until the very end.  Moments before he was killed via lethal injection, Davis looked directly at MacPhail's family and said, " I did not personally kill your son, father, brother.  All I can ask is that you look deeper into this case so you really can finally see the truth."  Davis also said to prison personnel, "May God have mercy on your souls; May God bless your souls."

I think capital punishment is an incredibly complicated matter.  There have been times in my life when I was adamantly opposed to the death penalty.  In addition to the larger moral arguments about whether or not governments should decide issues of life and death, I feel that the criminal justice system is far from full-proof, which makes capital punishment a particularly steep outcome for many who are sentenced to death. For example, organizations like the Innocence Project have used DNA and other methods to exonerate wrongfully convicted death row inmates in recent years.  

The Davis case has also got me thinking about other, related issues that are inspired by my fieldwork with families of murder victims in Philadelphia.  During the past couple years, I've learned about the lifelong challenges facing families of murder victims.  I can't do this topic any sense of justice here, but feel that it's important to remember that many families never feel a sense of closure and peace--particularly in cases that go cold after time.  Families who attend hearings, appeals, sentencing, and executions also don't feel entirely resolved; while these methods are intended to bring about a sense of closure, they are a poor substitute for the mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, of friend who is no longer with them.  And while some families are able to resume a semblance of their former lives, many live with deep emotional and psychological scars that leave them broken and changed forever.  Not surprisingly, these lingering issues have spillover effects into the working lives, personal relationships, and physical/mental health of victim's families.  

Mark MacPhail was brutally murdered while working a night security job
Mark MacPhail was a husband and father of two small children when he was murdered.  While many of the world's most visible newspapers are using the Davis execution to talk about larger issues of racial injustice and the moral implications of capital punishment, it seems that we have all forgotten about the MacPhail family.  

Indeed, the NY Times article cited above has a few passing quotes about how MacPhail's family has felt in the week leading up to Davis' execution.  To find out more about MacPhail's family, one might have to look in alternative media sources like The Peach Pundit.  Apparently, the pain and suffering that MacPhail's family has endured isn't "newsworthy."

Although the experiences of victim's families may not produce the sound bites and stuff that produces popular headlines, their stories are an important--and often neglected--part of murder cases.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

RIP Tupac

Tupac: Revolutionary, Problem, or Neither?
It's been 15 years since Tupac Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting.  While perusing news websites, blogs, and my Facebook status feed, I began to think about a larger moral debate that often comes together around Tupac and other rappers.

On one side, there are journalists and academics who are guilty of "Tupac worship."  I'm paraphrasing, but there are tons of journalistic and academic accounts that treat Tupac as if he were a "revolutionary" or "visionary" who changed the face of the music industry.  The more ambitious accounts like to argue that Tupac has forever changed the face of American culture.

I'm uncomfortable with the revolutionary tag and feel that people throw around this term too casually and liberally.  I'm also ambivalent with the visionary label, particularly since I think it's hard to really assess how a single artist has impacted something as vast as the music industry (let alone American culture).

C. Delores Tucker
To be fair, these accounts are responses to conservative criticism of Tupac and rap music.  The 1990s were a tumultuous time for Tupac and other outspoken black rappers.  In addition to a host of community groups and organizations, Tupac also faced intense criticism from the late C. Delores Tucker, a famous Civil Rights activist who waged a war against Tupac and other rappers.  Like many of the critics that have come before and after her, Tucker attacked the sometimes violent and misogynistic lyrics in Tupac's music, claiming that these lyrics were negatively influencing the attitudes and aspirations of black youth in the US.

Although I sympathize with the romantic treatments of Tupac, and understand some of the concerns from different critics, I think both sides commit the same error: They reduce Tupac and rap music into something essentially positive or negative.  Like debates about religion, abortion, gun control, and other hot button issues, both sides have a moral stake in the ground and seemed prepared to defend their position tooth-and-nail.

As a sociologist, I tend to think about things in less essential terms.  Instead of thinking of Tupac's music as a kind of "revolutionary music" or as a "cultural problem," why not appreciate it for all of the unique ways in which it has been a part of our lives?  One thing I love about music is that it can always take me back to some particular place and time in which I was listening to an artist or song.  Many of my fondest memories come equipped with a musical soundtrack of some sort.  Isn't this how music resonates with all of us?

"Zombie" now reminds me of intense swimming
For example, whenever I hear the Cranberries, I am reminded of the winter of my 9th grade year in Jacksonville, Fl.  At that point in my life, I was attending a prep school--The Bolles School--to pursue my dreams as a competitive swimmer.  I got a Cranberries CD for Christmas and took it back to Jacksonville with me.

In between morning and afternoon training sessions, I would come back to my room, and right before falling asleep, I'd put on "Zombie."  I don't know why, but this song was strangely comforting during that experience.  Now, whenever I hear that song or anything by the Cranberries, I'm reminded of a string of memories that begin in that place/at that time.

"Atliens" reminds me of D-Man Blancnhard
The same can be said about Outkast.  Everytime I hear songs from Atliens or Aquemini, I think about late nights rolling around Jacksonville with my "brother from another mother," Donald Blanchard.

Back in those days, Donald had a dark grey and black Nissan truck.  It had two doors, light grey interior, and very darkly tinted windows.  I didn't have a car in high school, but was able to ride shotgun with Donald wherever he went.  Most nights we never really did very much.  Aside from trips to different local malls, movie theaters, or late night restaurants, Donald and I spent a lot of time just cruising the sprawling streets of Jacksonville listening to Outkast.

What's up with this cat?
Finally, I have a ton of fond memories of Blink-182.  During my freshman year of college at UC Berkeley, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Matt Macedo.  In addition to swimming and partying together, Matt and I were also enrolled in Sociology 1: Introduction to Sociology.  At that point in time, I loved punk music.  I spent most of my free time going to punk rock shows at 924 Gilman Street, but then discovered Blink-182, NOFX, and other pop punk bands courtesy of Matt Macedo.  To this day, when I hear the song "Carousel" I remember lots of fun times with Matt and other swimming buddies.

I'm sure all of us have funny, sad, or inspirational stories of times in which we remember listening to Tupac's music.  If you feel comfortable sharing, I'd love to hear about them.

So, in short: Instead of analyzing the potential merits or problems of Tupac (or any music for that matter), why not remember all of the times in which we were listening to "Shorty Wanna be a Thug" or "How Do you Want it?" This is just my opinion, but I feel like these kinds of conversations are what's missing in moral debates about music.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A More Sympathetic View of Cops

Recently, I've had some interesting conversations with friends and colleagues about the police.  One friend shared personal stories about being racially profiled by cops.  Two other friends described what it's like to live in a city that feels "under siege" by police officers; this is all on the heels of a string of incidents in which police officers have shot and killed young black and brown men riding public transit.  Unfortunately, it seems that these kinds of incidents are all too common, particularly in cities with large racial-ethnic minority populations. 

Like my friends, I am also outraged by police brutality.  I've personally experienced and witnessed a number of incidents in which officers seemed to be using racial profiling to make traffic stops/arrests.  I've also collected data on numerous episodes of police brutality during my fieldwork in Los Angeles; these range from young black men getting "roughed up" and harassed by officers, to more extreme cases in which young black men are falsely arrested on suspicion of gang ties, only to be dropped off into Mexican gang neighborhoods (in which young black men become targets of hate crimes).  This stuff is all terrible and the officers involved in these kinds of incidents deserve to be punished for their actions. 
But, stepping back from personal experiences/politics/emotions, I want to make a case for why social scientists and the mass public should adopt a more sympathetic view toward police officers.  As part of my new book project, I've begun talking to police officers who respond to shootings across the city.  These conversations have been nothing less than eye-opening.  I have emerged from these interactions with a new and more sympathetic view of police officers and the challenges of their work.  Although I've always known that police work is "tough," "traumatic," and "violent,"  these were merely abstract concepts and words that I used when thinking/talking about police work.  I never fully appreciated what officers routinely see and experience during a shift.

Pittsburgh cops mourning three officers killed in duty
One of my main informants, "Officer Peterson," has shared stories from 20+ years of police work.  On one of his first night patrols, he and his partner were the first responders to a drunk driving accident.  The car that got hit by the drunk driver had been smashed to a pulp.  The driver, passenger, and 4 small children in the backseat were smashed beyond human recognition; their remains were splattered across the concrete.  

Officer Peterson has also shared stories of giving dying gunshot victims their last rites.  On numerous occasions, he has been with young men in the moments before they die.  He remembers incidents in which dying victims cry for their mothers while shitting themselves--something that happens before someone passes away. 

And perhaps most enlightening, Office Peterson has shared stories of how officers never really have a  "time out" from the stress and trauma of their work.  In particular, Officer Peterson shared one story about being at the hospital when a fellow officer was killed.  In the middle of trying to process the death of a close friend, a shooting occurred in his district.  Still traumatized from seeing a close friend die, he and other officers were called back into the line of duty.

Some critics might argue that this is the name of the game--that police officers signed up for this.  I think this is too simplistic of a view.  Social scientists and health researchers have known for a long time that exposures to violence have a profound impact on a person's mental health.  Police officers are no exception. 

All of this has lead me to believe that we should use episodes of profiling and police brutality to take a more critical look at the kinds of mental health services available to police officers and other people who work in stressful and traumatic professions.  In recent years, psychologists and social workers have begun to document the alarming rate of PTSD amongst young men and women who are coming home from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in which they face war.  I don't know the average length of a person's tour abroad, but I wonder why the same kinds of sympathies aren't extended to officers, who are exposed to death, violence, and other forms of trauma for entire careers that span 20+ years?

In conclusion, I have a much more sympathetic view of police officers these days.  I believe that they are saddled with one of the most difficult and also one of the most thankless civil service jobs around.  When officers make an arrest that takes a violent predator off the streets, they often risk their lives and go into situations that 99% of the population couldn't stomach.  Similarly, when officers prevent other violent crimes from happening, they are "just doing their job." 

It seems that we are often quick to focus on the mistakes that officers make on the job.  Stories of police brutality, scandals, and other issues of misconduct make for racier headlines.  But, what about the everyday work of cops?  Where is this stuff in the news?