A Postscript to the Class: Gurbir Grewal Named Attorney General

A post from my personal blog, on the appointment of Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal to the position of Attorney General of New Jersey.


Gurbir Grewal on Law Enforcement in Bergen County

Use this space to comment on the talk by Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal.

Incidentally, a student at the end of the Q&A misinterpreted my final question to Mr Grewal. My point was that law enforcement’s reputation had suffered at the hands of criticisms like those made by activists like Black Lives Matters (BLM). Since Mr Grewal obviously disagrees with their views (after all, he took issue with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow), I invited him to imagine himself speaking to a room full of BLM activists, and asked what he’d say to them. (The book that Mr Grewal mentioned in his criticisms of New Jim Crow was John Pfaff’s Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration, which I may use next year, instead of Heather Mac Donald’s War on Cops.)

The questioner somehow took me to be attacking BLM, but I was neither praising nor criticizing BLM; I was stating an obvious fact about their view, and posing a question. It’s not realistically possible to deny that BLM holds a fundamental critical view of the police and prosecutorial side of law enforcement. From their website:

Enraged by the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, and inspired by the 31-day takeover of the Florida State Capitol by POWER U and the Dream Defenders, we took to the streets. A year later, we set out together on the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson, in search of justice for Mike Brown and all of those who have been torn apart by state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism. Forever changed, we returned home and began building the infrastructure for the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which, even in its infancy, has become a political home for many.

Change of Venue for Prosecutor’s Talk on December 5

Given the size of the audience we’re expecting, I’ve had to change the venue of our class for Tuesday, December 5–the day of Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal’s presentation. The presentation will now take place in the Education Commons Auditorium on the Rutherford campus, 2:30-4 pm, not in our usual classroom. Please come prepared to ask questions and discuss, as I’d like members of my class front and center for the event.

The event with Chris Napierala on November 28 will take place in our usual location, at our usual time.

Mac Donald’s “War on Cops,” An Appraisal

We did our last class yesterday on Heather Mac Donald’s The War on Cops, focusing on the broader themes of the book. We started by watching a video of a case that Mac Donald heavily emphasizes, the 2009 killing in Chicago of Derrion Albert (chapter 17). Here is a link to the video we saw.

Part of Mac Donald’s point is that critics of the police fail to grapple with the sheer violence of the people the police have to deal with. Mac Donald’s discussion of this case led us to a long discussion (drawn from a passage on p. 121) of the connection that Mac Donald asserts between black family dysfunction and crime–and specifically between absent fathers and crime. I asked what the connection was supposed to be, so we traced out the life-prospects of kids in a few hypothetical families, varying the variables of race, class, and “family brokenness.” Continue reading

Alexander on “The Cruel Hand”: Continuing the Debate

Today’s class was on chapter 4 of Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, “The Cruel Hand,” concerning non- and post-correctional supervision. Kristina and Obi gave presentations. The chapter deals with non-incarceral supervision of convicted felons. Alexander’s point is that such felons are deprived of access to housing (both public and private), welfare and other benefits (from TANF to unemployment), employment, education, loans, and voting. They’re socially stigmatized, and often loaded with court costs that they can ill-afford–costs which if unpaid, dig them further into the system. Alexander’s point is that this continues the old Jim Crow system in a new guise.

Contrary to the rather mild descriptions you all gave in class, it was obvious to me that the two presentations represented a fundamental disagreement over Alexander’s claims. Though Kristina agreed with parts of Alexander’s argument, she fundamentally rejected it; though Obi agreed with parts of Kristina’s argument, he fundamentally disagreed with Kristina and agreed with Alexander.  Continue reading

Heather Mac Donald, “The War on Police”

We saw and discussed this video in class today, ranging over some of the topics listed below. Feel free to discuss any of the listed topics, or any other topic in MacDonald’s lecture that you found of interest.

  • We discussed the adequacy of Mac Donald’s answer to the first questioner, who asked whether her anti-BLM rhetoric tended to demonize the group, and therefore undermine reasonable reforms like body cameras and oversight boards. For examples of oversight boards, here is the website to the one in Newark, and here is one in New York City.
  • We also discussed the adequacy of her answer to the second questioner, who asked whether “pro-active policing” leads to profiling, and then to stereotyping, which is unethical. This led us to putting up a list of low-level offenses on the board (about a dozen), and going through to see whether profiling or stereotyping would be required to enforce them. (Don’t forget to read the earlier post about Lodi Ordinance #931 in this connection.)
  • We had a long, complex conversation about the role that racial segregation might or might not play in the production of crime. If you’re interested in segregation in housing, you might read David Kirp’s Our Town: Race, Housing, and the Soul of Suburbia, or Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. (Here is a review of the Kirp book, and here is a review of the Rothstein book.)
  • We discussed MacDonald’s claims about the dysfunctionality of the black family as the basis for the black crime rate, the mechanism being absent fathers: fathers abandon the children they father (she argues), who then grow up fatherless and commit crimes. (One issue here is whether “pro-active policing” is itself responsible for black male child abandonment or absentee fathering, a claim that Michelle Alexander makes in The New Jim Crow.) The classic text on this subject is the so-called Moynihan Report, written in 1965 by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
  • We touched on but didn’t really discuss the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” as well as the phenomenon of crowd interactions with the police during stops.
  • Feel free to mention any topic we discussed, but that I’ve forgotten to write down here.

Two Pre-Law Announcements

I meant to make two announcements yesterday in class, but forgot–both relevant to pre-law students.

One is that the university is currently in the process of approving a Pre-Law Minor. The approval process should be complete by the end of this semester, so that the minor will likely go into effect next semester. The minor consists of the following 6 courses or 18 credits:

  1. PSCI 102: American Government
  2. PHIL 211: Logic
  3. PSCI 291: Judicial System and Constitutional Law
  4. PHIL/PSCI 305: History of Ancient Political Thought or PHIL/PSCI 306: History of Modern Political Thought
  5. PHIL 320: Philosophy of Law
  6. PHIL 380: Criminal Law: Theory and Practice

Incidentally, neither the decision to create the minor, nor the decision to structure it this way, were mine. Previously, Pre-Law had been an advising program, not a major or minor.

The second announcement was to share I notice I received of the Cornell Summer Pre-Law Program in New York City. It’s highly competitive, and very prestigious; look into it if you’re interested.

I get material from law schools every week, and mean to bring these to class, but often forget. Remind me if I forget again; pre-law students should be taking a look at it.

Trade-Offs Between Individual Liberty and Effective Policing

We spent some time in yesterday’s class talking about trade-offs between individual liberty and effective policing. The issue came up in the context of Alexander’s discussion, in chapter 2 of The New Jim Crow, of what she calls the “kissing frogs” phenomenon (pp. 69-72). On page 71, she quotes a California Highway Patrol Officer as saying, “You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.” What he means is that a lot of innocent people have to endure searches, seizures, and frisks so that we identify the relatively small number of guilty parties in the mix. When I asked you about the legitimacy of this approach, you tended to agree with the basic principle (the need to accept a trade-off), but what’s of particular interest is how the principle applies to cases. So comment on that below. Continue reading

Midterm Grades

There is no midterm exam or paper in this class, but I have to submit midterm grades this week. I’ll probably do that on Thursday. Your grade will have to be a very rough approximation of your performance to date, based on your in-class presentation(s) and your blog comments. I believe that everyone so far has given at least one presentation, but not everyone has written a blog comment.

As a general comment, I’d say that performance in this class has been subpar, especially for a 300-level course. This is not true of everyone, but it’s true of many of you: most of the presentations so far have been pretty weak, few of you have done very many blog comments, and the few comments that have been posted are of uneven quality. (I’ll send presentation grades and comments to you individually this week.) Continue reading