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Posts from January 2011

Monday Lazy Linking

Shameless Self-promotion Sunday

Sunday! Self-promotion! Shamelessness!

You know the deal. What have you been up to this week? Write anything? Leave a link and a short description for your post in the comments. Or fire away about anything else you might want to talk about.

Friday Lazy Linking

Non-Lethal Force (Cont’d)

Here are the after-effects of some SWAT-police non-lethal force in California, which burned a man to death earlier this month, and set his family’s house on fire in the process. Turns out he was the wrong man, and they were at the wrong house.

According to the Monterey County Weekly, the same police force that burned down the Serrato house and killed Rogelio Serrato in the fire are probing what went wrong in the operation [sic]. Public-spirited fellow that I am, I’ll do what I can to help them figure it out. Here’s what went wrong:

Cops in America are heavily armed and trained to be bullies. Among the most highly trained, and therefore most domineering and violent, are the members of urban SWAT teams, who go beyond everyday bullying and instead are trained to think of themselves as paramilitary strike forces who are occupying hostile territory, and engaged in a war of classic counter-insurgency.

As such, police in general, and police assault forces especially, are trained to enter every encounter with the goal of taking control of the situation, by means of setting up confrontations in situations (no-knock raids, late-night forced-entry raids, etc.) where their chosen targets are most likely to be disoriented and easily terrorized, and by responding with maximal force in the volatile, disorienting confrontations that they create. For the sake of this maximal-force approach, they are equipped with an arsenal of weapons ranging from tasers and clubs to handguns and assault rifles, up to, and including, military helicopters and tanks. Worse, with all these weapons, they have institutionalized a culture of fact-free assertion and lies about highly dangerous weapons that they consider to be categorically non-lethal — and thus to be used as a first resort, in virtually any situation, as long as it might give the cops a tactical advantage over people who they intend to bring under their control (whether or not these people have ever committed any crime at all). These weapons continue to be used with no hesitation and no restraint, and continue to be called non-lethal force, no matter how many people are killed by them. There are, for example, tasers, portable electric torture devices which were originally sold as a less-deadly alternative to using a hand-gun in potentially life-threatening confrontations, but which cops now freely use for as part of pain compliance techniques[1] in everyday confrontations with the public. This would be bad enough on its own, but part of the reason they are used so freely is because they take no real exertion for cops to use, and are consistently billed as non-lethal by police and media, even though there are hundreds of documented cases of people dying after being subjected to repeated taser shocks.

Another non-lethal device, which is especially heavily used by SWAT assault forces during paramilitary forced entry house raids, are so-called flash-bang grenades. These grenades, frequently referred to as non-lethal diversionary devices are actually incendiary grenades, which police hurl into rooms full of people in order to set off an explosion, which they hope will disorient and terrorize the people in the room — many or most of them completely innocent people who just had the misfortune of being in the same building — right before the assault force storms in with guns drawn. This is exactly what they did when they surrounded Rogelio Serrato’s house.

So why were they at Rogelio Serrato’s house anyway? Well, they had a search warrant to serve. They say were going to serve the search warrant using these hyperviolent, extremely dangerous stormtrooper tactics because they believed that Serrato had been with a man who shot up a music club on New Years’ Day. But by the time they got out to Serrato’s house, they already knew that they had the wrong address and the wrong man: he wasn’t at the club when the shooting went down, and the identification of Serrato as the man who was with the shooter was simply a case of mistaken identity.

Nevertheless, even though they found out that Serrato had nothing to do with the violent crime which had supposedly mobilized the SWAT team and justified the decision to storm the house in a paramilitary raid, it did turn out that he had a couple of warrants out on misdemeanors which had nothing to do with the shooting. So, they decided they were going to go ahead and arrest him.

Now, you might think that, once they had found out they were at the wrong address, and the only reason they had to worry about Rogelio Serrato at all was a couple of misdemeanor beefs having nothing to do anyone getting shot, they might have backed off a bit on the level of force; perhaps even just left a couple cops to wait around and pick him up next time he went to work or to the supermarket. But, no. I mean, look, he’s a Suspect Individual, and what’s the point of having such a fine, well-armed paramilitary assault force, if you’re not going to use it?

So instead they surrounded the house, bellowed into their bullhorns, and then, when he didn’t come out on command, they decided to make a hyperviolent forced-entry raid in order to roust him out. So they hurled a couple of their non-lethal incendiary grenades into the house, which exploded, and set the house on fire. Rogelio Serrato, who was — remember — known not to be the man they were after; who was — remember — never suspected of anything other than having a couple misdemeanor warrants out — was killed in the house fire.

So, Monterey County sheriff’s office, here is what I have found in my probe, which I will helpfully share with you. What went wrong here is that the cops believed they were on an operation that required an extraordinarily violent storm-trooper raid, even though they already knew that their original reason for being there turned out to be a complete mistake, and even though they also already knew that the man whose family they were attacking was wanted only on a pair of misdemeanor warrants. In the interests of better protecting their own hides during this needlessly violent high-stakes operation, they felt free to make use of dangerous incendiary grenades which are perfectly capable of setting a building on fire. No matter how many people or buildings are set on fire due to the use of these grenades, police consistently blame the victim (e.g., in another case: It’s unfortunate that those guys packed that house with materials that were flammable[2]), and just go right on asserting that these explosives are non-lethal force, and defend them as tools which provide the necessary means to the police’s completely unnecessary operations. They even have the gall to tell the press that these dangerous explosives are a life-saving tool, when explaining how they just killed a man by using them.

Do you feel safer now?

(Via Dr. Q @ CopBlock 2011-01-19.)

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  1. [1]That is, torture.
  2. [2]!! Apparently a right-thinking, responsible citizen keeps their house on the assumption that at any moment police might be throwing incendiary grenades into their living room.

On Mutuality in Aid

Bill Easterly recently wrote a brief article on the importance of attending to issues of complexity and spontaneous order in debates about government foreign aid transfers (and the small army of planners, developers, charity-workers, et al. that come along with those grants). It’s interesting enough, but I’m mentioning it because there are a couple comments from David Ellerman beneath the post, which are really worth noticing. First:

One could go on but I might try to cut to the chase and indicate why theories that may give some insights when applied to physical systems (e.g., self-organizing sand piles) and insect societies may rather "miss the boat" when applied to human affairs.

The mistake in applying complexity theory to human relationships such as the education, management, development aid, and helping in general is that the basic problem is NOT that the human systems are complex, messy, nonlinear, etc. The basic problem, across the whole range of the human helping relationships (like aid) between what might be called the helper and the doer, is that success lies in achieving more autonomy on the part of the doers, and autonomy is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be externally supplied or provided by the would-be helpers. This is the fundamental conundrum of all human helping relations, and it is the basic reason, not complexity, why engineering approaches and the like don't work. Thus the application of complexity theory to development aid–as if the basic problem with aid was the complexity of the systems–is unhelpful from the get go.

— David Ellerman (19 January 2011, 1:21pm), in re: Complexity, Spontaneous Order, blah, blah, blah…and Wow

Of course, human social life is complex, messy, nonlinear, and whatever else, and if you aim to study it, or to do something on the basis of your study, then you had better keep that in mind. But what you had best keep in mind, when it comes to the doing something part, is not so much some theoretical insight about top-down views of patterns of human activity, which you could have observed from Mars, say, through a very large telescope; it’s something about the human relationships that you are entering into — how you think about and how you treat the people you are supposedly coming along to help out with all their problems. (And just who are you? What are the problems you’re trying to solve, and whose are they, really?) For those who are interested in such things, this is of course the issue at stake in the Anarchist analysis of the difference between mutual aid and charity.

The second worth noticing are the comments on how this kind of discourse gets packaged, and how it spreads. I think the bits about the role of management theory as a vector for the fads to spread throughout institutionalized aid economics are especially insightful, and important:

Sticking to applications of complexity theory in the social or human sciences (the notion of a spontaneous order is an older and more profound topic), one should consult Ben Ramalingam's ODI paper at: http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/download/583.pdf . Ben and colleagues make a sustained attempt to usefully apply complexity theory to the problems of development aid–but I fear with little success. One can always reformulate some bits of old wisdom (openness, restraint, humbleness, courage) in terms of the jargon of some new faddish theory, but that is hardly a distinctive contribution of the theory. As Ben notes, there has for some time been a craze in organizational theory and business management to apply the buzz and jargon of complexity theory but with little if any results that are new or distinctive. Interconnectedness! Nonlinearity! Sensitivity to initial conditions! Unintended consequences! Adaptive agents! Wow!...

— David Ellerman (19 January 2011, 1:21pm), in re: Complexity, Spontaneous Order, blah, blah, blah…and Wow


Ben, I do appreciate that your uses of complexity theory have been guarded and (as one can see from my book) I am certainly a great fan of eclecticism and interdisciplinary thinking. If anyone comes to some insights through complexity theory (as I also have, e.g., the series-parallel interplay between "exploitation versus exploration"), then that is great–even though other routes may also have been available. … My problems lie in how seemingly every advance in the natural sciences is turned into a fad, usually first in management theory, which is then used to avoid looking at deeper persistent sources of dysfunctionality. In business enterprises, management sits astride huge organizations based on the employment relation, but then constantly tries to escape the resulting dysfunctionality by surfing the latest fads popularized from the natural sciences. Similarly, we see the large development aid bureaucracies that are deeply failing for structural reasons but constantly grasping for the latest fad-theories to explain why it wasn't working as expected and to provide rhetorical cover for their new ways of doing development assistance.

In short, my message is: eclectic interdisciplinary approaches to development, Yes; new popsci cover stories for the failures of the development aid bureaucracies, No.

— David Ellerman (19 January 2011, 9:25pm), in re: Complexity, Spontaneous Order, blah, blah, blah…and Wow

(Via Will Wilkinson @ The Fly Bottle 2011-01-20.)

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