Politics

New Young Journalists Development Program - start date May, 2019

This is a call for young writers, aged 17-22, interested in developing core writing/journalism skills who want to write on hip-hop/music and/or other subjects. Women especially encouraged to apply. Intended for a small group of two, or three people.

This program is designed for people who do not have access to such training at school or in their communities; people who might be interested in becoming journalists, but feel that it is closed to them for whatever reason. It is aimed for people who are not represented in mainstream media spaces, because of background/place of residence, who want to write about stories relating to their communities, thereby altering the current media bias towards white, middle-class voices.

The program could be a formal training program, or informal mentoring arrangement depending on the need and interest of the trainees. No previous experience or publications required - but preference will be given to applicants with no other opportunity for media/journalism training of this kind and members of under-represented groups.

If interested, or you have questions: contact me with a brief introduction to yourself and what you’d like to achieve at madeleinebyrne.writer@gmail.com Proposed program start date: May, 2019


What’s on offer ….

1. Introduction to and mastery of core skills: how to contact talent/subjects, set up and conduct an interview; how to write an effective story appropriate for the target audience; how to pitch a story to an editor, how to follow up and continue building the relationship with the editor and publication

** Note that this is a journalism – not personal creative writing/fiction – training program.

The goal is to equip new journalists with the skills that could be applied to any subject and lead to publication (in mainstream/alternative media outlets/a personal site).

To be a good journalist you don’t need to be a “good writer.” All you need is commitment and determination, good people skills, curiosity, a desire to know why or how something has happened, or keeps happening, a desire to be balanced and fair and report the truth as you see it. Many of the best journalists started young – as teenagers – and learned on the job. This program will aim to reproduce this kind of training.

If the applicants don’t feel confident about their English writing “level,” we can work with this, maybe make it less about articles and more transcription of interviews, similar to an oral history. We can talk about it. My goal here is not to produce a certain kind of journalism, but have the trainee journalist stay true to their voice and people they’re speaking with: this is what being a good journalist is all about. You are the vessel for the story, not the story itself.

2. Mentoring on an individual basis, plus references for future employment in the field or more generally

3. Access to editors and artists within the hip-hop space in the US/UK and other areas (i.e. non-music related subjects if the writers would prefer this). Help making contact with both, including introductions. I will also promote the work on my site and social media (Twitter/Facebook)

4. Advice on which sites/publications are open to new writers and how the journalists might position themselves within the market, for want of a better word. Advice on how to set up a website, if of interest, or write a long-term project (I’m currently writing a book-length manuscript)

5. Guaranteed publication, note that this might be unpaid or paid very little

6. Contact with my students in Paris of the same age, interests and backgrounds/or not (I teach writing skills/communication at a university here). Contact with organisations linked to Africa and The Caribbean in Paris and people from these regions, if interest: primarily West Africa and North Africa (Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria). Contact with other young writers/journalists in the United States of a similar background/or not.

How it will work …

- If a formal program: regular contact (weekly or every two weeks depending on availability) focussing on core skills, with exercises, which will reduce over time, though I will be available for any questions or issues that might arise on an indefinite basis and will continue to support the writers and their work.

Why do this?

For a mix of personal and political reasons. For the personal: I started writing on Black American music – jazz, Soul/R&B, hip-hop – for my site (madeleinebyrne.com) a few years ago, after a long time of not writing, just eking out a kind of “survival mode” raising a now 12 year-old son largely on my own. This writing was my release and also a return to a professional identity (in Australia I worked in print, radio and TV and was an activist focussing on immigration detention and before this private prisons) that I thought I had lost. It was as if I was turning a full circle, returning to my first professional job as a music writer as a teenager in Melbourne. More recently I’ve found an audience and a measure of success primarily in the US, but elsewhere too, I feel grateful for this, so this is my way of giving something back.

It’s also something that I can do and I’ve done it twice before:

- with a group of university students in Melbourne when I helped establish the country’s first citizen-led inquiry into immigration detention

- as editor at Hip Hop Forum digital magazine where I set up a new writers program for people in Detroit, Philadelphia, Delaware etc. One of those writers ended up contributing to a major national US hip-hop site.

In Australia activists talk about “paying the rent” to First Nations people, in a literal and metaphorical sense. I write on Black American music, have benefited from it personally/professionally, been welcomed and supported by those whose culture I write on: this is my way of paying the rent (or giving something back, if you prefer).

Paris Récit: Police attack on Théo Luhaka, Aulnay-sous-Bois

On the 2nd February, during a stop and search of one of his friends, a 22-year-old man was brutally assaulted by police in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poor neighbourhood north of Paris) and is now in hospital recovering from rectal injuries, caused by a police baton. One officer has been charged with rape, another three have also been charged with assault: all have been suspended.

‘There was blood everywhere, on the walls,’ the lawyer defending the man commonly referred to as ‘Théo’ by the media said. During the assault, the police are said to have called Théo Luhaka a ‘negro’ (it might also have been the French equivalent for nigger) ‘bamboula’ and ‘bitch’ and spat at him. For days after the assault, the impoverished housing estates to the north of Paris erupted in anger: cars were burnt and Molotov cocktails thrown in running battles with the police. The French President, François Hollande visited Mr Luhaka in hospital, where the young man called for calm.    

For reasons that remain a little opaque for me, I’ve found it difficult to write on this subject, even though it’s such a simple story - the facts write themselves - and such a familiar one.  

I live in northern Paris, but it is a completely different world to that of Aulnay-sous-Bois. If I walk down the street about five minutes, I’m in a largely immigrant neighbourhood, but in my immediate vicinity it’s cafés filled with tourists and women wearing very long coats and pearly-white sneakers. The extreme deprivation that marks out the poor neighbourhoods surrounding Paris, places like Aulnay-sous-Bois, with its rows of anonymous housing estates is less obvious in my area (though, of course, it is here as well, as is the aggressive police presence).  

Perhaps my ambivalence reflects tiredness about how this story keeps repeating and nothing gets done, alongside broader feelings of suspicion about how news stories of police violence against black men (and boys) play out in the dominant culture, whether it’s Aulnay-sous-Bois, Baltimore or the juvenile jails of the Northern Territory, Australia. (And it is gendered, non-white women are also victimised, of course, but the images we see repeated on the news tend to be of men being hurt, beaten, suffocated or shot)

In the end, I wonder about the value of broadcasting this brutality, without an exploration of the broader context, or statement of explicit political demands. Does the widespread dissemination of images of non-white people being hurt serve to further reinforce racist stereotypes, I wonder, while inflicting further harm on the victimised via the denial of their basic right to privacy? Surely, in the end, this right to be private, to decide how we are seen and perceived by others, is what makes us human.  

And even though it’s rarely said, I also wonder if this dissemination of imagery of violence against non-white people reflects a ghoulish perversity that has a long history, stretching back to the plantation and killing fields of Colonial Australia. Often people, usually white, say racism towards non-white people reflects ‘fear of the other’. It's not always this, racism in its most brutal form enacts a desire to humiliate, to insist upon another person that they are less than human, nothing more than bodies.

For a period of time, my Facebook feed was filled with images of black men being shot by police in the United States, which appeared to be updated on a daily basis by activist groups. (There was one video that didn’t get much attention, but shocked me deeply of a man being shot execution style in an Ohio street by a police officer; in such an ordinary street, in the middle of the day). And I started wondering about the value of all of this.

How effective was it in a political sense to keep seeing these images of people being killed, or handcuffed and shoved to the ground, I thought then, does it raise awareness in a way that leads to reform, prosecution and convictions of the perpetrators, or maintain the status quo (while significantly adding to the stress felt by minority communities in the US)?  

Now this perspective might seem strange coming from a journalist, but it is this professional background that motivates this reaction. In a news-room you quickly learn how and why certain stories rise to the top, usually it comes down to the maxim: ‘If it bleeds, it leads ….’

You also see how quickly stories and victims are forgotten. One of the older journalists used to talk to me about ‘old news’ saying that it had as much interest as ‘yesterday’s fish and chips’ (something that is foul, inedible). Within a few weeks, there is a chance that the abuse of Théo will for many people here in France be seen as old news. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.

The counter to this point of view is that such videos raise awareness in the general community; well, firstly who is this general community? None of this is news to me, or people with any kind of political consciousness, nor is it news for members of the affected groups. Whose interests are being served here and at what cost?  

In the end, I wonder why this shocking/extreme/brutal representation of racism is privileged by the media above all the other forms of race-based oppression. I have been educating myself about the economics of racism, past and present, in the United States and find this equally disturbing, if not more. But this colder version of race-hate doesn’t get the same kind of airtime on the nightly news and the question is why.  

This is the reason why I haven’t written about the brutalisation of Théo and the death of Adama. I have been watching, though, just like I have been watching the way the police stop and search non-white people in my neighbourhood, and especially the way the police touch the crotches of the young men as they pat them down.

And the way vans full of police in riot gear seem permanently stationed down on Boulevard Barbès, dozens and dozens of police kitted out like over-sized plastic action heroes, their shoulders and knees covered in black like beetles, waiting, just waiting …    

For more background on all of this, have a look at this very strong piece of reporting on the death of Adama Traoré in police custody, again in a small town to the north of Paris in July last year and attack on Théo Luhaka by Iman Amrani and Angélique Chrisafis, published in The Guardian a few weeks ago. 

Changa Onyango Interview, Community Mediation Baltimore after first acquittal in Freddie Gray police officer trial

‘Apathy is the word I'd use,’ Mr Changa Onyango replied via email when asked how people in West Baltimore responded to the decision that saw Officer Edward Nero cleared of all charges. ‘The people don’t hold out hope for justice in any tangible ways any more. Mainly they were happy to see that the world give them a nod for 15 seconds.’

Twenty-five year old West Baltimore native Freddie Gray died on April 19th after suffering a ‘high-energy injury’ an autopsy report said came from the sudden deceleration of the police van in which he was travelling, shackled and handcuffed, but not restrained by a seat-belt. As a result of his injuries – a severed spine and crushed voice box - Mr Gray fell into a coma and died a week after his arrest.

Baltimore’s former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the officers stopped three times: first, to put Mr Gray in leg-irons, second to ‘deal with Mr Gray’ and then to put another prisoner in the van. He also acknowledged that: ‘We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.’ After a medical examiner’s report ruled Mr Gray’s death a ‘homicide’ six police officers were indicted on charges ranging from reckless endangerment, manslaughter to 2nd degree depraved-heart murder.

Last December a jury failed to reach a verdict regarding one police officer. During the most recent May hearing, Officer Nero was cleared of all charges (two counts of second degree assault; misconduct in office and false imprisonment). Legal commentators claim that the reasons for the acquittal provided by Judge Barry Williams might indicate a higher chance of a conviction in the remaining cases, especially in that he argued Officer Nero’s role was ‘secondary’ so he was not responsible for the fact that Mr Gray was not restrained properly.

The case of the officer driving the van, Caesar Goodson, begins next. He faces 30 years in jail if convicted of a murder charge. Considering the evidence that show Mr Gray’s injuries were caused by the van’s sudden stop and a proven history of ‘rough rides’ in police vans in Baltimore, many believe that the case against Goodson is strong.

And yet, as Mr Onyango explained this raises difficult issues for the local community. ‘A lot of people see it as a color issue or race issue and one of the key defendants is black. People don't want to see at the end that their protesting etc ends up sending a black person to jail - cop or not.’ Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van, is African-American.

During the first Freddie Gray trial, Mr Onyango organised a series of open mics across the city so people could speak and be heard. ‘A big part of the violence (following Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 27th) happened because people had no place to fellowship. Churches weren’t open,’ he said. ‘There was nowhere you could take refuge from all the negativity. Having places open their doors and posting a sign up that says..."no judgement zone...speak your piece" was a way for us to be cultural relevant in our response.’

With more than 20 years experience working in West Baltimore, Changa Onyango is the Executive Director of Community Mediation and also helped set up two other non-profits in the city: OBI and Group Harvest. He explained the importance of his work this way:

As a mediator I facilitate tough conversations when people have a hard time getting themselves heard. The main thing we do is modelling the active listening skill in the context of conversation. We know through research that the best chance for peace is when both sides feel heard and understood. We train volunteers to do the mediations and we use local spots like conference rooms or churches to have the mediations in the community. Our mediators are trained not to input information or restate peoples position.. we only reflect, listen... listen, reflect. Its the key to people feeling like they own the solution. 

OBI is a non-profit that provides training to local boys and was founded after Mr Onyango travelled ‘around the country doing the training for other groups on contract through the United Way and Youthbuild USA’. While Group Harvest ‘came as a collaboration between myself and Rodney Powell who is now an administrator in Connecticut public schools.’

As he explained: ‘We decided to create a company that would go around and teach teachers through professional development workshops and also engaged directly with students to help build climate that over time could change the culture of student teacher relationships.’

In a series of YouTube videos, Mr Onyango has offered up some interesting perspectives on the best way to motivate young people via a concept of ‘leverage’ without returning to harsh discipline, or physical punishment that can entrench a sense of disengagement. He describes how he tries to motivate his own children to strive for better, while reinforcing a spirit of collaboration, rather than a winner take all mentality.

I asked him to speak about this more:

‘My theory is there are three main ways to motivate people; the first being to influence their preference the second being to introduce a logical idea and the third being violence. If children are people then we have to use one of these three to get them to make decisions that are in line with what we think they should do. If children are not people and they are instead property, then we can just pick them up and manoeuvre them however we wish.’

He continued: ‘I don't wish to treat my children as property so I have had to retrain myself to treat them as humans regardless of their size I've had to retrain myself to respect their logical processes and to introduce to them the reasons behind my decisions and actions as well as the reasons behind what I wish for them to do. I've also have to convince myself to be okay with the fact that this will not always work. In our society external influence is pervasive. In poor families it's even more so.’

The neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived in West Baltimore faces a series of issues, Mr Onyango explained. One of the most important being the lack of good quality housing. This problem is not new. Indeed, Freddie Gray’s mother won a court settlement after laboratory tests in the 1990s found Gray and his two sisters had double the level the State of Maryland defines as the minimum of lead poisoning. The lead came from squalid walls of the home where they lived. While a 2014 Maryland Department of Environment report found that more than 2,600 children in Baltimore had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

‘West Baltimore is a very complicated set of circumstances. There's a lot of history that still effects and informs policy at high levels as well as individual decision-making at the lowest levels. There is still plenty of bigotry and hatred between disparate groups,’ Mr Onyango said. ‘The roots if you follow them deeply enough usually go back to resources and territory or property. Everyone wants to build a legacy and in America there's really only a few ways to do it.’ And yet, ‘the problem with trying to build a legacy (...) is that you must own the means of production. In this case that means of production is usually space.’

‘Baltimore is one of the highest concentration of dissing franchise black folk in terms of real estate meaning that the ratio of people who own is extremely low,’ he explained. ‘The fact is that this was intentional and very evident, yet no effort has been made to reverse the very real and lasting effects so this is the biggest reason that the hate endures.’

In conclusion, Mr Onyango said: ‘Poor education, Black Afluenza, discriminatory hiring practices, and media stigma are all also real contributors to the current climate,’ but in the end, the ‘housing/space ownership dilemma is the biggest piece of the puzzle for Baltimore.’

To find out more about Community Mediation Baltimore, go to http://communitymediation.org/

Thank you Omi Muhammad for organizing this interview.

EU Turkey Refugee Transfer Deal, March 2016

In early September last year, newspapers all over the world published the shocking photograph of a dead Syrian boy, of Kurdish descent, Alan Kurdi, with his tiny body dressed in a red T-shirt, blue shorts, lying face down in the water.

The reaction to the photograph was immediate. With world leaders expressing their shock and dismay; and donations to one NGO – that was set up to lead rescue operations in the Mediterranean - increasing its donations 15-fold in the 24 hours after the photograph was published.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi said: ‘‘For far too long we have related to these suffering individuals as if they are people living on Mars …. That desperately sad and tragic image has moved our hearts. (The image) has brought us to our senses and we must respond adequately.’

But what did this photograph represent to the millions who saw it? Did it represent an urgent need to stop people making the dangerous journey by boat to Europe? Or did the widespread reaction horror at the boy’s death signal a broader desire for Europeans to do more for those fleeing warzones – and in particular Syria?

There is much talk in Europe about the so-called refugee crisis. There is no doubt that thousands losing their lives. According to the International Organisation of Migration, almost 4,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, with most dying making the crossing from north Africa to Italy. A further 800 died in the Aegean crossing from Turkey to Greece.

While we might all agree that these deaths need to stop, what isn’t so clear is the best way to do this.

On the 18th of March, the European Union signed a deal with Turkey that will change EU refugee policy dramatically. Under a new plan all people travelling to Greece, who are found not to be refugees will be returned to Turkey immediately. What will happen to these people after that point is not spelled out, although the European Union has guaranteed that it will fund any further operations.

And yet the agreement also states that for each Syrian returned to Greece another Syrian – presumably a refugee - will be resettled in the EU.

According to the United Nations Human rights agency, the UNHCR, an estimated 91 per cent of the people coming to Greece from Turkey come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – so presumably a large number of them will have grounds for protection.

In return, Turkey will receive three billion euros before the end of March – to aid ‘health, education, infrastructure, food and other living costs’ for refugees in their territory (and another three billion euros up until the end of 2018).

Discussions are also now underway to lift visa restrictions into the EU for Turkish citizens and there is a reinforced commitment to ‘re-energise the accession process’ that might lead to Turkey joining the European Union in the future.

What struck me in the announcement was the confused terminology relating to the largely Syrian arrivals. The document begins with the bold statement: ‘All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.’

But then mentions that these people will be returned in accordance with EU and International law and avoid ‘any kind of collective expulsion’. To avoid this mass expulsion, so-called ‘migrants’ will be allowed access to the asylum process, but it is not clear what will happen to those found to be refugees.

Will they be resettled in the EU – it appears yes - but how will that be arranged? And if they are to be resettled in the EU, surely this very possibility still offers an incentive for people to make that dangerous journey.

The statement allowed that this was just a ‘temporary and extraordinary measure’ that is ‘necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order’.

There is no doubt that the European Union needs to act. More than 1 million immigrants arrived by sea in 2015, with almost a further 34,900 arriving by land. Compare this to the previous year’s figure: in 2014, 280,000 people entered Europe by land and sea. And Europe – following the recent, bloody terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels - is not in the mood for accepting hundreds of thousands people fleeing warzones.

There is no reason to judge Europe for this: any other country would react the same way. But as an Australian this talk of mass returns of people to a third country, in this case Turkey is very familiar and a development of concern.

Don’t forget that Turkey too is undergoing a period of upheaval and has not shown its capacity to either treat refugees and asylum seekers – or its own population – with a respect for human rights.

Added to this: Greece has struggled with its role as the first point of entry for many migrants. It is not clear how the human rights of the asylum applicants will be guaranteed – even though now there is an added pressure on the Europeans to return them elsewhere.

Some years ago I travelled to Malta and Greece to report on these very issues. I travelled to Malta, a tiny island, and visited open-air camps where people slept in tents and a former school, where bright green mould covered the walls. (In Greece I couldn't enter any centres, though I did go to a 'prison' complex in Athens).

I spoke with local officials, people working for major NGOs, police and border guards. First-hand, I saw how ill-equipped both countries were to cope thousands of asylum seekers. Neither country had a developed immigration system, or refugee assessment agencies. Local lawyers were doing their best, but it was ad hoc and often arbitrary and chaotic.

There is an enormous difference in terms of development in the EU; northern countries such as Sweden or Norway inevitably have much better assessment systems compared to the poor countries on the edges of Europe. And as a result of these fundamental flaws in Greece – made worse by the 2008 crisis - asylum applicants were either detained for long periods of time, or as I saw in Athens, living on the streets.

But there is another broader ethical problem connected to this new EU-Turkey plan – and this reflects the emphasis upon deterrence. Key to this initiative is the idea that when people see the mass returns to Turkey, others will change their minds. This has long been the key driving force behind Australian policy that sees all boat arrivals sent to poor countries in the region, such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Notions of deterrence rapidly paint the seekers as somehow inherently guilty, as as at its base is the idea that seeking protection within the European territory is something to be discouraged - something to be deterred.

There is also another problem. To date, EU states have been extremely reluctant to resettle refugees via the official UNHCR program. Worldwide only a small number of countries accept refugees for resettlement. These are Australia, the United States, Canada and a few Nordic countries.

According to the UNHCR figures for 2014, the US tops the list in that it resettled just over 69,000 refugees; Canada comes next with around 15,000 and then Australia with 6,000. Then there are much lower figures for the remaining countries: Germany, Sweden and Norway, New Zealand. Note this, though: the figures for two of the richest countries in the EU in 2014, the United Kingdom accepted fewer than 1,000 UN identified refugees and France around 700 people.

I remember speaking with the UNHCR representative in Malta about this, and he said that getting European countries to accept refugees via the ‘official’ channels was the hardest part of his role.

Let me make this clear, though unlike some on the Left I do not believe that ‘open borders’ and the free movement of people, without any restrictions is the way forward. Of course, I see the hypocrisy of the current system, where people from rich countries have this freedom of movement, while people fearing for their lives remain trapped.

And yet, as Germany has now discovered ‘opening the borders’ - especially now in this tense time in European history - is not the right path. My concern is that any sudden and dramatic decision, as found in the EU-Turkey agreement, often brings further problems with it (for example, pressures to outsource even more to private companies with a punitive mindset).

Moreover, if the European Union has been unable to manage this issue within its own borders - in European countries, such as Greece, Malta and Italy, it's hard to imagine how they will be able to guarantee due process and human rights outside them. Perhaps, though this is the point.

December 28th ruling not to indict police officers: Tamir Rice case

Soon after Christmas, Timothy J McGinty – the Cuyahoga County prosecutor overseeing the investigation of the police officers involved in the Tamir Rice case spoke of empathy. Or to be more accurate, he spoke of his efforts to understand how the 12 year-old child may have felt in the two seconds before he was shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann. 

“If we put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, as prosecutors and detectives try to do, it is likely that Tamir — whose size made him look much older and who had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day — either intended to hand it to the officers or to show them it wasn’t a real gun.”

Embedded in this sentence – in the uncertain language, passive mood and shift in perspective (if we are trying to understand how Tamir felt, why are we being told how he looked, or that he had been warned that 'his pellet gun might get him into trouble'?) - is core unease, a kind of tension.

McGinty gestures towards empathy, but is unable to break out of his natural reflex to see the events from the point of view of the white police officer. The previous sentence read: 'At the point where they suddenly came together, both Tamir and the rookie officer were no doubt frightened.'

So in this historic moment, the 'frightened' adult officer, Timothy Loehmann who used lethal force against a child, within two seconds of arriving on the scene and who had been rejected by three previous police departments and received a damning appraisal of his professional conduct, the report noted his inability to 'follow simple directions (and) dismal handgun performance' were somehow equal. The adult man with a real weapon and the boy with a toy gun were united by their fear.

Prosecutor McGinty then continues to offer his assessment of events: 

“As they raced the mile toward the rec center, the police were prepared to face a possible active shooter in a neighborhood with history of violence. There are in fact memorials to two slain Cleveland Police officers in that very park. And both had been shot to death nearby in the line of duty. Police are trained that it takes only a third of a second to draw and fire a weapon at them — and therefore they must react quickly to any threat. Officer Loehmann had just seen Tamir put an object into his waist as he stood up in the gazebo and started walking away. A moment later, as the car slid toward him, Tamir drew the replica gun from his waist and the officer fired. Believing he was about to be shot was a mistaken — yet reasonable— belief given the high-stress circumstances and his police training. He (Officer Loehmann, not Tamir Rice, ed.) had reason to fear for his life.”

(Notice also how McGinty refers to the black victim by his first-name only and the white officer via his title and surname). 

“Every time I think about this case, I cannot help but feel that the victim here could have been my own son or grandson. Everyone who investigated this case feels the same way. All of our children go to parks and rec centers. No parent follows their 12-year-old around all day to make sure they don’t get into mischief. That is why this case taps such profound emotions in us all. The Rice family has suffered a grievous loss. Nothing will replace Tamir in their lives.”

McGinty expresses apparent empathy for the Rice family; although the lack of precision, how could Tamir Rice be both his son and grandson? And reference to Rice's apparent 'mischief' make me wonder how genuine it is.

His next line returns to the perspective of the police: 'The police officers and the police department must live with the awful knowledge that their mistakes – however unintentional – led to the death of a 12-year-old boy. ' Mistakes, however unintentional ...

Perhaps my focus on McGinty's statement might seem surprising, even cold. We are talking about a child here, a 12 year-old boy, killed in a public park, shot to death by a police officer while playing with a toy gun. We are talking about a son and brother: a boy, whose distraught sister was handcuffed by the police and then shoved into the patrol-car, unable to comfort, to render assistance to her brother who at that point was still alive (the police waited four minutes before returning to Tamir to see if he needed medical assistance).

Elsewhere in the statement, McGinty spoke of the case as if it were a natural event – lacking human agency: 'Given this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved (emphasis added) that day, the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police.'

But Rice's death was not an act of nature, outside human control. This death, although familiar, was far from natural. It was against nature – against the natural order of things, no matter how frequent such violence might be in the United States.

More than that Officer Loehmann had a choice. The police officer was not a victim of a 'perfect storm' of uncontrolled external forces, or his fear; this was not a Greek tragedy or a nineteenth century novel where a hapless hero is propelled by 'mistakes' made by others or himself. He had a choice. In a very powerful piece for the New York Times, 'Tamir Rice and the Color of Fear' Brit Bennett analyses the notion of 'reasonable fear' that informed the prosecutor's case. (Throughout the year-long 'investigation' leading towards the Grand Jury judgement not to indict the officers, prosecutor McGinty made no secret of his belief that the two officers should not face court).

Bennett writes of the trouble with 'empathy' and focus on fear:

“How do we determine reasonability? Who determines whether a fear is “objectively reasonable,” as coined in the report, as if reason can be completely impartial? According to the prosecutor’s report, a reasonable fear does not have to be an accurate one. “A reasonable belief could also be a mistaken belief,” the report outlines, “and the fact that it turned out to be mistaken does not undermine its reasonableness.” (…)

The report also dismisses the relevance of whether Rice heard the police yell for him to show his hands. The officers testified that the cruiser window was rolled up, but the prosecutor’s report states that “even assuming Tamir could not have heard Loehmann’s warnings given from inside the car, Loehmann felt he had no choice in the instant he used deadly force.” The report reiterates the circular argument used by the Supreme Court to define reasonability: A fear is considered reasonable if another reasonable person would fear it.”

And that 'reasonable person' usually resembles those being investigated, in this case white police officers who also received surprising advantages in the legal process; being allowed to provide written statements to the court, rather than being cross-examined. While legal, this is not standard practice.

But I wonder why such emphasis is being placed on these subjective notion of fear. Why not focus on whether sufficient efforts were taken by Officer Loehmann to avoid the use of extreme force? Why not focus on whether or not Officer Loehmann assessed the situation appropriately, with all due care given to the avoidance of causing harm? Ohio is an 'open carry' state which means that even if Rice had a real gun, rather than a toy, or was an adult he had not committed a crime. Keeping this in mind, that carrying weapons in Ohio is legal, why was Officer Loehmann so frightened that he thought he might die? Hadn't he received training on how to respond to civilians carrying guns in public spaces?

McGinty refers to the belief that the two officers believed that they were approaching an 'active shooter' situation, but this is not only illogical, but bizarre; Tamir Rice had a toy, which for obvious reasons could not shoot bullets. Moreover, Officer Loehmann shot Rice two seconds after arriving on the scene, from a close proximity. If he seriously believed he was entering a life-threatening situation, why didn't he keep his distance, take the time to assess the situation and then act? 'Any fear feels reasonable in the moment,' Brit Bennett writes. 'And if black bodies are inherently scary, white fear will always be considered reasonable.'

Something that continues to surprise me personally is the emotional charge behind white racism, where the perpetrator of the crime seeks out the status of victim. Whether it is in a colonial context, or modern-day US, those committing the violent acts desperately cling to the role of victim, while seeking sympathy from others. We are encouraged to empathise with them, with their confusion and their fear and then excuse whatever they did because of these misguided, or mistaken (or even completely illogical, groundless) fears. This impulse fascinates me, especially since it is so heartfelt.

Rare is it for white supporters of Officer Loehmann to imagine how such bluster must feel for the surviving family of Tamir Rice and his mother, Samaria, who continues to fight for justice, despite personal attacks. In an interview with Ebony from June last year, Samaria Rice said how 'Tamir is getting me up every morning because I’m still waiting on answers. I still don’t know what happened. I don’t want anyone to have to suffer like this. I want to be a part of making change. Whatever we have to do, I’m willing to do. I believe that we are in a war. We are in a war. They are out here killing us and whatever I can do to bring awareness to that ...'

Many months ago, I read that Samaria Rice and her surviving children were for a time homeless. No longer could Tamir's mother bear living so close to the park where her son had been so brutally killed. This stopped me cold. And reminded me how after each death, after each statistic – and all the outrage, or shameful justifications on behalf of those supporting the perpetrators – there is family, still alive and still grieving.

This essay was re-published in the Australian journal, Arena (Feb-March, 2016)

National Front victorious: French regional elections, 6th of December

When French President, François Hollande contacted the country’s leading politicians to invite them to march in support of Republican values after the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year, there was one striking absence: Marine Le Pen. The same woman whose far-right party, the National Front, topped the country's regional elections yesterday.

Leading in half of the country's electorates, the National Front received almost 30 per cent of the national vote and is now expected to take control of two regions; the country's poorest region in the far north and the glitzy Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. This is unprecedented.

The election was marked by a high abstention rate; just under 50 per cent of all registered voters cast their ballot (more than doubling the rate from three decades ago). And this always benefits the National Front. But this unequivocal result, coming soon after the party's first place in the European elections indicates a major shift in the French political landscape.

When French President, François Hollande contacted the country’s leading politicians to invite them to march in support of Republican values after the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year, there was one striking absence: Marine Le Pen. The same woman whose far-right party, the National Front, topped the country's regional elections yesterday.

Leading in half of the country's electorates, the National Front received almost 30 per cent of the national vote and is now expected to take control of two regions; the country's poorest region in the far north and the glitzy Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. This is unprecedented.

The election was marked by a high abstention rate; just under 50 per cent of all registered voters cast their ballot (more than doubling the rate from three decades ago). And this always benefits the National Front. But this unequivocal result, coming soon after the party's first place in the European elections indicates a major shift in the French political landscape.

Indeed, Le Monde's front page from this morning demonstrates the extent of the National Front victory. It is a map of France, with all the results coloured pink for the ruling Socialists (and other left parties); blue for the Republicans, formerly the UMP, led by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and brown for the National Front. From the north to the south, to the east and into the centre, the map of France is almost completely shaded brown.

Back in January, the logic behind the exclusion of Le Pen from the march was simple. The anarchist cartoonists behind Charlie Hebdo despised Le Pen père et fille . Hollande was merely following usual practice here; that is, either ignoring, or blocking, Le Pen and her party in the hope that they might fade into the background.

And yet the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and 350 injured changed everything. At the deeply moving national ceremony to remember these victims at Les Invalides, Marine Le Pen was present. Les Invalides is the symbolic heart of Paris' military past and present; a site that houses the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte and has traditionally been used to commemorate the passing of important heads of state; fallen soldiers; police killed in the line of duty and résistants. This was the first time 'ordinary heroes' were to be commemorated there, and here the French State was making a clear point. As Patrick Garcia, Professor of History at Cergy-Pontoise told Le Figaro: ''The victims of the 13th of November were elevated to the level of military heroes.'

The Saturday after the Paris carnage, Le Pen repeated the National Front's three core demands first outlined after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January; the closure of France's borders (the party wants this to be permanent); the stripping of French citizenship from dual citizens involved in terrorism and the closure of 'Salafist' – extremist - mosques in France. The Hollande government announced its agreement with all three; while declaring a state of emergency in France that will continue until next year.

It would be easy to argue that Sunday's historic victory of the National Front will have little political influence here (how important are decisions decided in the regions in terms of a national politic?) or that it will not guarantee Marine Le Pen's success in the 2017 Presidential poll.

It would be easy, but misguided. What this election demonstrates is the truly national reach of the National Front (the six regions include Alsace in the east and also central regions, such as Burgundy and the Loire Valley). Alsace also has the second highest rate of absenteeism – after the Ile-de-France, which includes Paris.

Moreover, as Australians, the British and Americans know full well: the shocking success of parties largely considered to be fringe, or marginal not only shake up the content, but how politics is played by the mainstream parties. And this is what is happening now in France.

Back in 2002, after the National Front founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen was included in the run-off presidential election, French voters – right and left - united to support the conservative Jacques Chirac (who received 82 % of the national vote).

Today, governing Socialist politicians are calling for the same, urging candidates to withdraw or for voters to be 'strategic' in an effort to keep the National Front out of power. This suggests that they are not only rattled, but scared. The problem here is that such efforts only reinforce one of the National Front's key arguments, that is that mainstream parties are the same; and only look out for their own interests.

In January, Marine Le Pen responded to her exclusion from the Paris rally that ended up attracting more than 1.5 million people onto the streets of Paris in a characteristic fashion. What her exclusion showed, she said, was that the march was more about the political class than anything else. It was also an insult to the 25 per cent of the French population that voted National Front in the European elections in May, 2014, when the party topped a national poll for the first time.

Taking on the victim role, she said that the National Front represents the ‘invisible and forgotten’ unlike the ‘gang of four’ (the classic French political parties).

Some years earlier, in a meeting in Metz, north-eastern France, Marine Le Pen summed up her political world-view when she said her party spoke directly to ‘farmers, the unemployed, workers, the retired, people living in rural France. You are the forgotten ones, the invisible majority, crushed by a financial system gone mad,’ she said. Then she added, 'For the political class, the UMP-PS (conservative and Socialist party), when faced by their god, the triple A finance rating, you are the triple nothing.