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Ferguson Fiasco


Here is the link to the United States Department of Justice’s Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department report written in its entirety http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/national/department-of-justice-report-on-the-ferguson-mo-police-department/1435/.

Fox News Radio Host John Gibson wrote an article on March 5, 2015 called “‘HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT’ WAS A LIE–FERGUSON MUNICIPAL COURT TAKES THE FALL.” In the article he takes the position that the United States Department of Justice’s Investigative Report on the Ferguson Police Department is Eric Holder settling for revenge on the institution because he couldn’t get revenge on the man he really wanted to: Darren Wilson. Those are his words, not mine.

Here is a link to his article http://nation.foxnews.com/2015/03/06/john-gibson-hands-dont-shoot-was-lie-ferguson-municipal-court-takes-fall.

Gibson writes, “Attorney General Eric Holder was very angry at Ferguson, Missouri, erupting in a near-the-end-of-his-tenure tirade: Ferguson, he said was a ‘community where both policing and municipal court practices were found to disproportionately harm African American residents…where this harm frequently appears to stem…from racial bias…'”

Let’s first start off with the words “angry” and “tirade.” When I watched his press conference, I did not see any anger on Holder’s face or hear any anger in his voice. And I certainly would not describe what he said as a tirade. He stated the findings and conclusions of the report. These words have angry black man stereotype written all over them. Gibson is either race-baiting, had a skewed view of Holder’s emotions due to subconscious prejudices, or watched a different press conference than I did. And to say that he was angry “at Ferguson” is also an incorrect statement. Why would he be angry at the entire city? To say he is angry at Ferguson implies that he is not only angry at Ferguson’s institutions but also at all of its citizens and residents.

Gibson would go on to write, “The Attorney General sent squads of investigators over to Ferguson to turn over every racist rock, and the more they investigated, the angrier he became…he ultimately found that he couldn’t achieve his main goal, an indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, but he could take out a secondary target…the Ferguson Police Department itself, and he came to the conclusion that he could also blame and punish the municipal court system across the entire state of Missouri.”

Once again we have this idea of anger. But Gibson introduces another idea: a witch hunt. I read through most of the Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) and it certainly is not much of a hunt when there is evidence all over the place of a conspiracy (more on that is coming up).

But Gibson keeps pumping out nonsense: “Holder would have loved to prosecute Wilson, but his investigators found that [Michael] Brown did go after officer Wilson’s gun, and did charge the officer only a few seconds later, and both those actions led to Brown’s death…all those fabulists who told investigators that Brown was an innocent young man who was hunted down and executed by a racist white cop while trying to surrender were willfully and maliciously lying. But the official Department of Justice report does not indicate such perjurious testimony to federal investigators that will lead to charges against those who purposely distorted the truth.”

This idea that these droves of people were maliciously lying is ridiculous. It has been shown time and time again through studies that eyewitnesses can recall events very differently in their respective memories. The part that is unclear is whether Brown was charging or stumbling and falling trying to put his hands up when Wilson fired the fatal shots. Many different forensic pathologists have come out with many different opinions on the issue. We will probably never know what happened in those final seconds. Third, the reason that so many people believe that a police officer would do such a thing as execute a black teenager is because of the distrust of Ferguson police, especially among Ferguson’s black residents, which is made understandable by the findings in the DOJ report (which I will get to in a minute). This idea of perjury is ridiculous.

Gibson then goes on to say, “In other words, the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ mantra was a lie meant to railroad an innocent police officer, but the liars got a pass from the Attorney General.” This is just flat out insane. There is no way that this mantra would have started unless people genuinely believed that he was guilty. And the bigger picture of the “hands up, don’t shoot” movement is that it speaks to the issue of racial disparity between police and black people as a whole around this nation. Need I mention names of people who were for sure unjustifiably killed (Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tanesha Anderson, etc.)?

Gibson’s diarrhea of the mouth continues: “But the Department of Justice investigation did reward the Attorney General with a jackpot prize. His investigators discovered that…city administrators in Ferguson pressured police officers to write tickets in order to pad the coffers of the city, and…since black people break motor vehicle laws of various sorts on a regular basis, Ferguson police were writing many many tickets to black drivers. The first point must have been a stunner to the idealist innocents stationed in the D.C. headquarters of the Department of Justice. ‘Wait….police departments write tickets in order to generate revenue for the city government? Whoa!’ Yes, this naivete is happening. The naifs at the DOJ were shocked to discover traffic tickets were a source of revenue for the City of Ferguson, and even more shocked to discover the city administration was keeping tabs on the police chief to make sure his officers wrote more and more tickets…I should interject I am against any city pressuring cops to write tickets under quotas in order to exact a stealth tax out of its citizens…But please don’t tell me this is news.”

There’s so much to rip apart here. First of all, I doubt that anyone in the Department of Justice, especially the Attorney General, sees injustice as a “prize.” The second is the notion that black people “break motor vehicle laws…on a regular basis.” Is Gibson talking about black people in Ferguson or all black people? If he’s talking about all black people that’s extremely racist, and even if he’s just talking about black people in Ferguson he is wrong. And the Justice Department is not shocked at the fact that Ferguson generates revenue by writing tickets, but at the unbelievable extent to which it does so and how this revenue is made disproportionately off of poor black Ferguson residents.

Here are some examples of the kinds of things black people in Ferguson get ticketed or cited for according to the DOJ report.

In the summer of 2012 a black man was sitting in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a public park. Children also happened to be present at this public park. A police officer thought this was suspicious and that he might be a predator. The officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification. The officer then accused him of being a pedophile without any legitimate evidence and ordered the man out of the car for a patdown even though there was no reason to suspect that he had a weapon. When the officer asked to search the man’s car, the man objected and cited his constitutional rights. So the officer arrested the man at gunpoint. The man was charged with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. Some of these included Making a False Declaration because when the officer asked for his name he gave his nickname (for example, Mike instead of Michael) and having an address that was different from the one on his driver’s license even though his address was legitimate and for not wearing a seatbelt even though he was in a parked car. Because of the arrest, the man lost his job with the federal government that he had held for a number of years.

Here’s another example. In October 2012, police pulled over a black man claiming his passenger side brake light was broken. The driver had recently replaced the light and knew it was working. But one officer said to him, “Let’s see how many tickets you’re going to get,” while another officer tapped his taser on the top of the man’s car. The officers wrote him a citation for “tail light/reflector/license plate light out” and refused to let the man get out of his car to show them that it was working, saying to him, “Don’t you get out of that car until you get to your house.” He was so upset that he went to the police station that night to show a sergeant that his lights worked.

In February 2012 an officer wrote a Disturbing the Peace ticket for loud music coming from a car even though no one had complained about the music.

Here are some statistics about the disparity between black people, other citizens, and the police in Ferguson provided by the DOJ report.

Black people account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests in Ferguson. Ferguson’s population is 67% black. That means that there is an 18% disparity between blacks and other residents in vehicle stops, a 23% disparity between blacks and other residents in citations, and a 26% disparity between blacks and other residents in arrests. Unless we assume that there is something in the nature or genes of black people that makes them more likely to break the law (which would be racist and wrong), the only explanation for disparities this great can be institutional racism.

Black residents of Ferguson are more than twice as likely as white residents to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers.

From 2012 to 2014, FPD issued four or more citations to black residents 73 times. Ferguson police did this to non-black people only twice according to the DOJ.

From 2011-2013, 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges were charged to blacks in Ferguson according to the DOJ.

When it comes to speeding charges, the number of black people in Ferguson that are cited by using a method other than radar or laser is 48% larger than other people charged on the basis of radar or laser.

Gibson notes that ticketing practices similar to the ones in Ferguson for traffic violations happen in New York City. No one is saying they aren’t or that Ferguson is the only place guilty of these things. If anything, I would say that Holder and the DOJ are using Ferguson as an example to show people that things like this happen and is using it as a microcosm for what is true about many municipalities in our country.

Gibson also would go on to say, “But the Attorney General also felt sulfurous and wrathful at the Municipal Court in Ferguson. He found it was also complicit in the revenue scheme that starts with a traffic fine, which graduates to late fees, which then graduates to a bench warrant, which results in an arrest, and jail time, and finally a payment plan that keeps (black) traffic violators in near perpetual indebtedness to the court…There is…punishment for the municipal court itself and new rules imposed on the court. According to the DOJ demands, the municipal court in Ferguson must ‘undertake a review of current fine amounts and ensure that…(they)…are not overly punitive, and take into account the income of Ferguson residents.’ (Emphasis added.) In other words, don’t fine traffic violators more than they say they can pay. And in assessing that individual’s ability to pay, the court should ‘include not only a consideration of the financial resources of an individual, but also consideration of any documented fines owed to other municipal courts.’ (Emphasis mine.) So the violator gets a break (not further punishment) the more violations he or she has committed…This means that in Ferguson…a black driver does not have to concern himself with traffic violations. If he were to get a ticket, he can ignore it. The court will find it nearly impossible to force the payment of a fine.”

Here again we have the stereotype of the angry black man being “sulfurous and wrathful.” It appears Gibson also felt the need to once again emphasize the fact that black people supposedly commit more traffic violations by putting black in parentheses before “traffic violators.” Perhaps Gibson does have an argument about not being lenient about people’s responsibility to pay for traffic violations and court fees just because of their ability to pay. Or he would if so many of the citations weren’t legally invalid in the first place. Think about it. Someone gets illegally cited or ticketed, has to go to court, can’t pay the court fee, has a late payment fee slapped on them, then next time they have to appear in court gets to court late because they don’t have a reliable method of transportation, so they get a penalty for showing up late, they can only partially the court plus late fee, so they have another fee slapped on them, have to go to jail, and so on and so forth, and they get trapped in an endless cycle of payments and late fees and arrests and jailtime that they can’t get out of all because of a citation that they got for committing no crime whatsoever. With the statistics and findings in the DOJ report, I can’t even imagine how many people this happened to. Also, just to illustrate the disparity when it comes to having court cases dismissed in Ferguson, according to the DOJ black people are 68% less likely to have their cases dismissed by a municipal judge. In 2013 black people made up 92% of cases in which an arrest warrant was issued according to the DOJ, which is 25% more than the percentage of the population they make up (67%). Black people also accounted for 96% of known arrests made exclusively due to an outstanding municipal warrant, a 29% disparity between the percentage of the population of Ferguson they make up (67%). Then Gibson insinuates that due to the changes that the DOJ is demanding, black drivers will have it easy, as if black people will ever have it easy, especially in a racist city like Ferguson.

Let’s face it: the city of Ferguson as an institution is not just unintentionally institutionally racist; it’s actively institutionally racist. The institution that is the city of Ferguson actively picks on black people. And that is something that I did not expect the Department of Justice to find. I was not surprised by the fact that Ferguson is institutionally racist, but the fact that it actively preys on its black residents.

EVERYONE was in on it. The court officials and the cops and the city officials of all ranks were all working together to carry out this scheme. Racism was not only present among these individuals, but rampant. Don’t believe me?

Here’s some examples of and excerpts from emails proving the extent of the conspiracy quoted in the DOJ report.

“Unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”

“Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”

According to the DOJ, “in June 2010, at the request of the City, the Chief prepared a report comparing court revenues in Ferguson to court revenues for cities of similar sizes. The Chief’s email sending the report to the City Manager notes that, ‘of the 80 St. Louis County Municipal Courts reporting revenue, only 8, including Ferguson, have collections greater than one million dollars.’”

According to the DOJ, “in March 2011, the Chief reported to the City Manager that court revenue in February was $179,862.50, and that the total ‘beat our next biggest month in the last four years by over $17,000,’ to which the City Manager responded: ‘Wonderful!’”

According to the DOJ, “in a January 2013 email from Chief Jackson to the City Manager, the Chief reported: ‘Municipal Court gross revenue for calendar year 2012 passed the $2,000,000 mark for the first time in history, reaching $2,066,050 (not including red light photo enforcement).’ The City Manager responded: ‘Awesome! Thanks!’”

According to the DOJ, “In one March 2012 email…The Captain noted that ‘[t]he [court clerk] girls have been swamped all day with a line of people paying off fines today. Since 9:30 this morning there hasn’t been less than 5 people waiting in line and for the last three hours 10 to 15 people at all times.’ The City Manager enthusiastically reported the Captain’s email to the City Council and congratulated both police department and court staff on their ‘great work.’”

Here is some more evidence found by the DOJ of a money-making conspiracy from excerpts of the DOJ report.

“The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation. Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued.”

“The court imposes these severe penalties for missed appearances and payments even as several of the court’s practices create unnecessary barriers to resolving a municipal violation. The court often fails to provide clear and accurate information regarding a person’s charges or court obligations…the court’s fine assessment procedures do not adequately provide for a defendant to seek a fine reduction on account of financial incapacity or to seek alternatives to payment such as community service. City and court officials have adhered to these court practices despite acknowledging their needlessly harmful consequences. In August 2013, for example, one City Councilmember wrote to the City Manager, the Mayor, and other City officials lamenting the lack of a community service option and noted the benefits of such a program, including that it would ‘keep…people that simply don’t have the money to pay their fines from constantly being arrested and going to jail, only to be released and do it all over again…these court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices. They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”

“Of the $11.07 million in general fund revenue the City collected in fiscal year 2010, $1.38 million came from fines and fees collected by the court; similarly, in fiscal year 2011, the City’s general fund revenue of $11.44 million included $1.41 million from fines and fees. In its budget for fiscal year 2012, however, the City predicted that revenue from municipal fines and fees would increase over 30% from the previous year’s amount to $1.92 million; the court exceeded that target, collecting $2.11 million. In its budget for fiscal year 2013, the City budgeted for fines and fees to yield $2.11 million; the court exceeded that target as well, collecting $2.46 million. For 2014, the City budgeted for the municipal court to generate $2.63 million in revenue. The City has not yet made public the actual revenue collected that year, although budget documents forecasted lower revenue than was budgeted. Nonetheless, for fiscal year 2015, the City’s budget anticipates fine and fee revenues to account for $3.09 million of a projected $13.26 million in general fund revenues.”

“In a February 2011 report requested by the City Council at a Financial Planning Session and drafted by Ferguson’s Finance Director with contributions from Chief Jackson, the Finance Director reported on ‘efforts to increase efficiencies and maximize collection’ by the municipal court. The report included an extensive comparison of Ferguson’s fines to those of surrounding municipalities and noted with approval that Ferguson’s fines are ‘at or near the top of the list.’ The chart noted, for example, that while other municipalities’ parking fines generally range from $5 to $100, Ferguson’s is $102. The chart noted also that the charge for “Weeds/Tall Grass” was as little as $5 in one city but, in Ferguson, it ranged from $77 to $102. The report stated that the acting prosecutor had reviewed the City’s ‘high volume offenses’ and ‘started recommending higher fines on these cases, and recommending probation only infrequently.’ While the report stated that this recommendation was because of a ‘large volume of non-compliance,’ the recommendation was in fact emphasized as one of several ways that the code enforcement system had been honed to produce more revenue.”

“Not all officers within FPD agree with [the revenue generation] approach. Several officers commented on the futility of imposing mounting penalties on people who will never be able to afford them. One member of FPD’s command staff quoted an old adage, asking: ‘How can you get blood from a turnip?’ Another questioned why FPD did not allow residents to use their limited resources to fix equipment violations, such as broken headlights, rather than paying that money to the City, as fixing the equipment violation would more directly benefit public safety.”

“However, enough officers—at all ranks—have internalized this message that a culture of reflexive enforcement action, unconcerned with whether the police action actually promotes public safety, and unconcerned with the impact the decision has on individual lives or community trust as a whole, has taken hold within FPD. One commander told us…that when he admonished an officer for writing too many tickets, the officer challenged the commander, asking if the commander was telling him not to do his job. When another commander tried to discipline an officer for over-ticketing, he got the same response from the Chief of Police: ‘No discipline for doing your job.’”

If you don’t believe me that racism is not just present but rampant among Ferguson’s police, city officials, and court officials, here are some emails and excerpts of emails provided or described by the DOJ report.

“An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, ‘Crimestoppers.’”

According to the DOJ, “A March 2010 email mocked African Americans through speech and familial stereotypes, using a story involving child support. One line from the email read: ‘I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment! Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!’”

According to the DOJ, “An April 2011 email depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.”

According to the DOJ, “A June 2011 email described a man seeking to obtain ‘welfare’ for his dogs because they are ‘mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.’”

According to the DOJ, “A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because ‘what black man holds a steady job for four years.’”

According to the DOJ, “An October 2011 email included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, ‘Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.’”

According to the DOJ, “A December 2011 email included jokes that are based on offensive stereotypes about Muslims.”

According to the DOJ, “Our review of documents revealed many additional email communications that exhibited racial or ethnic bias…Our investigation has not revealed any indication that any officer or court clerk engaged in these communications was ever disciplined. Nor did we see a single instance in which a police or court recipient of such an email asked that the sender refrain from sending such emails, or any indication that these emails were reported as inappropriate. Instead, the emails were usually forwarded along to others.”

And if you still don’t believe me that there’s rampant racism throughout the police department here are some examples and statistics of use of force on black people as well as other actions committed by Ferguson police provided by the DOJ.

In July 2014 a group of FPD officers shouted racial epithets at a group of a young black man and his friends as they were walking.

Eighty-eight percent of cases in which FPD used force were against black people in Ferguson. That’s a 21% disparity from the 67% black racial makeup of Ferguson’s population.

In every incident where a Ferguson police dog bit someone, the person was black. Gee, does that bring back memories America?

In August 2014, a black man who was having an argument in his apartment that FPD officers responded to was immediately pulled out of the apartment by force. When he told the officer, “You don’t have a reason to lock me up,” the officer responded, “Nigger, I can find something to lock you up on.” The man responded, “Good luck with that,” and the officer slammed his face into the wall. The man fell to the floor and the officer said, “Don’t pass out motherfucker because I’m not carrying you to my car.”

According to the DOJ, “In a January 2014 incident, officers attempted to arrest a young African-American man for trespassing on his girlfriend’s grandparents’ property, even though the man had been invited into the home by the girlfriend. According to officers, he resisted arrest, requiring several officers to subdue him. Seven officers repeatedly struck and used their ECWs against the subject, who was 5’8” and 170 pounds. The young man suffered head lacerations with significant bleeding.”

According to the DOJ, “In January 2013, a patrol sergeant stopped an African-American man after he saw the man talk to an individual in a truck and then walk away. The sergeant detained the man, although he did not articulate any reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. When the man declined to answer questions or submit to a frisk—which the sergeant sought to execute despite articulating no reason to believe the man was armed—the sergeant grabbed the man by the belt, drew his ECW, and ordered the man to comply. The man…objected that he had not done anything wrong. Video captured by the ECW’s built-in camera shows that the man made no aggressive movement toward…The sergeant fired the ECW…causing the man to fall to the ground. The sergeant almost immediately applied the ECW again, which he later justified in his report by claiming that the man tried to stand up. The video makes clear…that the man never tried to stand—he only writhed in pain on the ground. The video also shows that the sergeant applied the ECW nearly continuously for 20 seconds, longer than represented in his report. The man was charged with Failure to Comply and Resisting Arrest, but no independent criminal violation.”

In cases where it is apparent that a person might have a mental health issue or may be on drugs, Ferguson officers either don’t seem to give a shit about their training to deal with them with more care and understanding or don’t seem to have had any training in this area. According to the DOJ, “In August 2010, an officer responded to a call about an African-American man walking onto the highway and lying down on the pavement. Seeing that the man was sweating, acting jittery, and had dilated pupils, the officer believed he was on drugs. The man was cooperative at first but balked, pushing the officer back when the officer tried to handcuff him for safety reasons. The officer struck the man several times with his Asp® baton—including once in the head, a form of deadly force—causing significant bleeding. Two other officers then deployed their ECWs against the man a total of five times.”

According to the DOJ, “FPD officers respond to misbehavior common among students with arrest and force, rather than reserving arrest for cases involving safety threats. As one SRO told us, the arrests he made during the 2013-14 school year overwhelmingly involved minor offenses—Disorderly Conduct, Peace Disturbance, and Failure to Comply with instructions. In one case, an SRO decided to arrest a 14-year-old African-American student at the Ferguson Middle School for Failure to Comply when the student refused to leave the classroom after getting into a trivial argument with another student. The situation escalated, resulting in the student being drive-stunned with an ECW in the classroom and the school seeking a 180-day suspension for the student. SROs’ propensity for arresting students demonstrates a lack of understanding of the negative consequences associated with such arrests. In fact, SROs told us that they viewed increased arrests in the schools as a positive result of their work. This perspective suggests a failure of training (including training in mental health, counseling, and the development of the teenage brain); a lack of priority given to de-escalation and conflict resolution; and insufficient appreciation for the negative educational and long-term outcomes that can result from treating disciplinary concerns as crimes and using force on students.”

If you still don’t believe me, there’s something wrong with you.

One more statistic. Ferguson’s police department is made up of 50 white officers and 3 black officers. I will remind you once again that Ferguson’s population is 67% black. I wonder if this is on purpose.

There is only one conclusion we can come to with this information: the city/town of Ferguson, as an institution, hates black people and loves to prey on them and see them suffer. They think it’s funny. And they know it’s profitable. And they have intentionally set up their institutions and departments so white people will be at the top and have all the power. What is institutional racism? Institutional racism=prejudice+power. But this is worse. Ferguson is actively institutionally racist. It wants to whip black people while they’re down. And I guarantee you that it’s not the only town in our country like this. Granted, I think this is rare for a town to be actively and intentionally institutionally racist to this extent. But trust me; Ferguson is probably not the only one. However, unintentional institutional racism is rampant throughout our society. And people are totally blind to it. More than half of the “millennial” generation believe that racism against white people is as bad or worse than that against other races today. The light at the end of the tunnel for this new information about Ferguson is that perhaps it will open people’s eyes to the fact that racism still exists. And perhaps in some ways this kind of racism is more dangerous than the kind that used to be more prevalent back in the days of Jim Crow because it is undercover and operating behind the scenes and under the surface. It’s right under our noses and we may not even realize it. And why? Because we don’t talk about it anymore. We like to pretend it’s dead. But it will never go away. All we can hope to do is keep it in check by being aware of our own subconscious prejudices and racism and fighting them. So the question I must ask Mr. Gibson is, how much of the report did you really read? Did we even read the same report?

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Slaves to Greatness


We often say in this country that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. As an American, I believe it is too.

But I don’t see this as a fact, but as a matter of opinion. It’s more like the USA is my favorite country.

But when we say it’s the greatest country in the world, what are we measuring its greatness by? Here are some reasons that people say the US is the greatest country.

  • diversity
  • freedom
  • government system
  • opportunity
  • military might
  • power
  • achievements and advancements we’ve made and our contributions to the world in terms of inventions, technology, exploring uncharted territory, and science
  • Some say it’s because we’re the most important or influential country.
  • standard of living and wealth
  • capitalism
  • economy
  • culture
  • natural beauty
  • people
  • principles
  • resilience
  • the nature of our revolution
  • patriotism
  • adherence to religion
  • American dream
  • drive

Out of all these things, most people tend to focus on the idea that we are the world’s “superpower.” And God forbid anyone tells us that we’re not the best, especially if that person is an American. Then they are a traitor. Because in America we don’t just want to be the best, we have to be the best. And to most Americans being the best ties in heavily with being the most powerful or the most important or the most prestigious. And we are terrified of the idea of not being the best. And to many Americans, our country is the greatest as a result of this desire.

But this isn’t just true of our country as a collective whole. The reason that our country as a whole has this attitude is because so many individual people have this attitude. Oftentimes parents’ social status are dependent on what kind of grades their kid is getting in school, or what college their kid is going to, or whether or not their kid even goes to college, or what profession their kid chooses, or if their kid has an internship by their junior year of college or not.

Or people are often defined by what kind of stuff they have. We always have to have the latest technology. Recently in September the iPhone 6 came out. And there are always people who when something like that is released CAMP OUTSIDE THE STORE SO THEY CAN BE ONE OF THE FIRST TO BUY IT. The iPhone 5S came out a year before that around the same time, and iPhones have a pretty good lifespan. The iPhone 5S could certainly last you more than a year. But nope gotta have the iPhone 6 because everyone else is going to have one and you don’t want to be left out. Samsung releases a new phone in their Galaxy S series every year, but for each phone in the series sometimes as soon as one month they will release a new version of that phone and every few months will release a new version of the phone. And of course people can’t have their current phone anymore; they have to have the newest thing. For those who are a bit more well-off, go out and buy a home theater system. I guarantee you within the same year your neighbor buys one too. And it will be a better home theater system than the one you bought.

This attitude even is in the heads of younger children! A kid gets a new toy (or these days maybe even a Kindle or an iPad or a tablet) and if they’re kind of a rotten kid they rub it in the face of all the kids that don’t have it to show how much better they are. It gives the kid a sense of superiority because they has a thing that the others don’t. Some of the kids are just like, oh wow that’s cool, but then move on with their lives. Other kids go home and ask their parents if they can have the thing that the little flaunty Francis has and their parents say no because they either can’t afford it or don’t want to spoil their child; some of these kids will just be like, oh okay, whatever, and move on with their lives, other ones whose view of themselves is dependent on social status will throw tantrums. Some of the parents of the kids that throw tantrums will cave, others won’t. Other kids go home and ask their parents if they can have the toy and the parents realizing that the other kid has something that their child doesn’t have to make their kid equal to this other child so they go out and buy it for him.

When people get ridiculously rich, such as professional athletes, some of them buy like 10 cars. Now maybe I’m wrong, but I can only imagine that they would do this for one of two reasons: either they are a car collecting enthusiast, or they just want to be able to say I’m so rich; look how many cars I have. Somehow to them this makes them better than other people.

When someone is engaged to someone, oftentimes others’ opinion of their choice is judged on what they do for a living or what socioeconomic class their family comes from. Or how big the diamond on the ring is.

We even sometimes judge people’s intelligence by what they do for a living. For whatever reason, it seems that many in our society don’t look at people who have blue collar professions such as mechanics and plumbers as smart, even though those jobs require a lot of problem solving skills. Yet we call them “unskilled laborers.”

With all this in mind, I think we really need to take a look at how we define greatness.

One disturbing fact is that the reason we give Alexander the Great his “Great” epithet is because of how he conquered so many lands. Is that what makes someone great?

We give Peter the Great, one of the czars of Russia, “the Great” because he brought many elements of Western culture to Russia, ignoring the fact that he murdered his oldest son Alexei after brutally torturing him for opposing his policies and also dragged Alexei’s mother from her home on false charges of adultery and tortured. His mistress also suffered a similar fate. Oh yeah he was an adulterer too. He was a horrible human being. But because he brought elements of Western culture to Russia, he’s considered “Great.”

Charlemagne (which is French for Charles the Great) is another revered historical figure in Western culture because he conquered and united lands and became King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans and ruled over most of western Europe. Oftentimes in his conquering of these lands his armies would massacre people and he would order people to become Christian or else face the penalty of death. But yeah, great guy.

Another son of a bitch who is a revered historical figure is none other than American President Andrew Jackson! This guy owned hundreds of slaves, killed a man in a duel over a matter of honor regarding Jackson’s wife, and ordered many indigenous Americans who refused to “assimilate” to be removed from their homes and be relocated to land west of the Mississippi River that would be known as Indian Territory in a supervised, on-foot exodus that resembled a Nazi death march where over 1,000 indigenous Americans died. But he was president and a famous war hero in the War of 1812 for winning many battles against indigenous Americans and against British soldiers and for the Battle of New Orleans, so we decided to put him on the 20!

Sounds like we have a pretty screwed up definition of greatness if these guys are viewed as great men and heroes in our culture. What do all these figures have in common? They were powerful. Both in the sense of being able to best people and being in positions of power. So in this country it seems that more than anything greatness=power. So when we say we are the best, we are saying that we are the most powerful. So as a country, we want to be the most powerful. And as individuals, we want to be of the highest status. Why? Because status=power. So as a collective whole we want our status to be the most powerful country in the world and in turn the best.

We are slaves to this desire, this deep desire to fulfill our self-esteem by achieving the highest status. But is that really greatness? After all, slave is a pretty low status. When you are a slave to a desire, it becomes a need.

In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said that as a nation it is not whether we lead, but how we lead.

A few days ago was Martin Luther King Day, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who truly understood the meaning of greatness. He also understood the existence of this innate American desire to be first. My favorite speech ever delivered by Dr. King isn’t his “I Have a Dream” speech, but a sermon he gave called “The Drum Major Instinct,” which was played at his funeral. In this speech he demonstrates both his understanding of greatness and his understanding of the American ideal of and need for greatness. Here are some excerpts from that sermon.

“If any of you are round when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his live serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

“And…Jesus goes on…to say [to James and John], ‘”But so it shall be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”‘ The setting is clear. James and John…had dreamed as most of the Hebrews dreamed, of a coming king of Israel who would set Jerusalem free and establish his kingdom on Mount Zion, and in righteousness rule the world. And they thought of Jesus as this kind of king…and they were saying, ‘Now when you establish your kingdom, let one of us sit on the right hand and the other on the left hand of your throne.’ Now very quickly, we would automatically condemn James and John, and…say they were selfish…But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first…And there is deep down within all of us an instinct…kind of a drum major instinct…a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life…we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”

“Now the presence of this [drum major] instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers…they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this type of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff.”

“…the drum major instinct is real. And you know what else causes it to happen? It often causes us to live above our means…Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego.”

“…you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. They’ve got to get this coat because this particular coat is a little better than Mary’s coat. And I’ve got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. I know a man who used to live in a $35,000. And other people started building $35,000 houses, so he built a $75,000 house. And then somebody else built a $75,000 house, and he built a $100,000 house. [(Keep in mind that this sermon was given back in 1968, so inflation has increased the dollar amount that houses cost nowadays. Back then houses worth this much were not exactly super cheap.)] And I don’t know where he’s going to end up if he’s going to live his life trying to keep up with the Joneses.”

“There comes a point where the drum major instinct can become destructive…if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct…if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted…you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting…And then it does other things to the personality. It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes…the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. Criminologists tell us that some people are driven to crime because of the drum major instinct. They don’t feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior…the great final tragedy of the distorted personality is that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in the most vicious activities…the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct…when you don’t harness the drum major instinct–this uncontrolled aspect of it–is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism…that can happen with the church…I’ve been to churches, you know, and they say, ‘We have so many doctors…teachers…lawyers, and…businessmen in our church.’ And that’s fine, because doctors need to go to church, and lawyers, and businessmen, teachers–they ought to be in church. But they say that…as if the other people don’t count. And the church is the one place where the doctor ought to forget that he’s a doctor…a Ph. D. ought to forget that he’s a Ph. D….the…teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name…the lawyer ought to forget he’s a lawyer.”

“…let me rush on to my conclusion, because I want you to see what Jesus was really saying…One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned [James and John]…But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, ‘Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.’ But he reordered his priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this [drum major] instinct. It’s…good…if you use it right…if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important…for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.'”

“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important–wonderful. If you want to be recognized–wonderful. If you want to be great–wonderful. But recognize that he who is the greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

“…if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

When we ask ourselves what the greatest country in the world is or why America is the greatest country in the world, why are the first thoughts in our head not how happy our people are, or how righteous we are? Why do we not measure our greatness by how much we love each other or how our people treat each other? Why do we not measure our personal success or greatness or status this way?

The true way to be great is not to be slaves to greatness, but to be servants of love. And to make ourselves happy. What’s the point of achievement if we are never satisfied? It seems like in this country our people are insatiable and in turn our country as a whole is insatiable. Yes we should always strive to be first. But why is anything other than first a failure? Why do we have the mindset of Ricky Bobby when it comes to success? Why can’t we ever be satisfied with just doing a good job or with what we have? Why is everything in life a competition for us in America?

We value the wrong things when it comes to greatness. Dr. King showed us what real greatness really is. He showed us the power of service and sacrifice and love. And that’s why we admire him so much. We just don’t realize it. If we put the kind of greatness that he valued on a higher pedestal than the kind of greatness our country currently values, we would be a much happier country. Many wise people through history have taught us that love of others and love of self is the true way to happiness, not love of power and wealth and status, men like King, Jesus, Lao Tzu, the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Confucius, St. Francis, Mother Theresa, etc. Yet we still choose the latter as the one we strive for. Let’s change our definition of greatness. Like the President said, it’s not whether we lead but how we lead. What’s the point of being the world’s leading power if we’re not a nation that the world want to look up to? I’m not saying that other countries around the world are any or much better than we are when it comes to this type of thing, but there are countries out there that seem to value power less and happiness and communitarianism more than we do. But as a country once again in 2014 we failed to crack the top 10 happiest countries in the world list. Maybe we would be happier if we worked together more, were less competitive, and changed our definition of greatness. Maybe this would help us live more fulfilling lives. Instead of being slaves to greatness, let’s be servants of love.

Here is a link to the written form of “The Drum Major Instinct.”

http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/

Here is a link to an audio version of the sermon on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBiFnDuCJIU

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