Monday, 22 December 2014

A ride with the police, a senseless attack - and why I'm seeing visions of injustice this Christmas

It was one Saturday back in September that I had much my most positive experience with officers of the New York Police Department. My family and I were taking part in a Kidical Mass ride for families from a park in Gowanus, near our home, to the Brooklyn waterfront. Two bike patrol officers from the NYPD’s 78th precinct joined us, as did a community relations officer and Frank DiGiacomo, the precinct commander. The officers stopped traffic to allow our families to ride through difficult intersections and chatted to us as we rode along.

A positive cyclist-police interaction: Hilda Cohen, ride
organiser, photographs two members of the 78th Precinct's
bike patrol.
By the time we reached Pier Six looking across to Manhattan, I was feeling warm enough towards them to try a gentle joke.

“I suppose I don’t really need to ask a police officer whether he’d like a doughnut,” I said to one of them, as I proferred him a bag of police officers’ favourite treat.

He felt sufficiently friendly in the other direction that he replied with a friendly punch to my shoulder.

I’ve been thinking about that incident in the last few days because of an appalling act of brutality against two NYPD officers just a few miles from where I gave the bike patrol officers their doughnuts. On December 20, as my family and I were packing for our Christmas break in the United Kingdom, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a 28-year-old black man, walked up to a police patrol car and shot the two police officers inside - Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos – in the head, killing both. Brinsley, who had posted anti-police messages on Instagram, then ran into the Willoughby Avenue subway station and, as police closed in on him, shot himself fatally in the head.

Given that Brinsley’s aim appears to have been to kill New York police officers no matter who they were, he could just have easily targetted any of the four who accompanied us.

The incident has challenged me to consider whether I, as someone who’s regularly complained about the attitudes of the NYPD both over traffic policing and race relations, helped to create the atmosphere that led to Saturday’s horrendous deaths. Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the New York police union, expressed fury in the wake of the crime over the criticism his members have faced in recent weeks.

"There's blood on many hands tonight - those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day," Lynch said outside the hospital where the officers were taken. "We tried to warn - 'it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated’. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor."
The Invisible Visible Man and Bill de Blasio, while the now-
mayor was campaigning. Both of us, I'm sure, have had reason
these past few days to reflect on Pat Lynch's criticisms.
Lynch’s comments, although intemperate, have made me look back on that September bike ride and wonder if those cycling officers perhaps represented a truer face of the NYPD than I’ve previously recognised. I’ve consistently focused on the negatives about the force. As a well-off white person, after all, I don’t rely as heavily on the police’s protection from crime as residents of the Tompkins Houses public housing, outside which Liu and Ramos were sitting. I encounter officers mainly when they’re in my way – for example, when they’re blocking bike lanes.

Since the police department’s handling of the issue that most acutely concerns me – road safety – is grossly inadequate, I’ve tended to feel resentful when I’ve encountered individual police officers, especially when they’re engaged in some pointless traffic policing. Because statistics show that there are disproportionately high numbers of brutality claims from blacks and Latinos, I’ve sometimes assumed that pretty much any police officer I encounter is likely to be racist.

It’s easy for someone such as me to ignore the effects of, say, last year’s sharp drop in New York City’s murder rate. That was achieved, according to the police, by examining patterns of Facebook and other messages surrounding gang violence, particularly in The Bronx. They brought conspiracy charges against the associates of those responsible.
Families part-way through September's Kidical Mass ride:
a scene I should recall when I wonder what the NYPD
has done for me
I’ve sometimes, I suspect, drifted close to the same thinking error as Ismaaiyl Brinsley, by viewing individual members of the NYPD as if they were responsible for the collective failures of the group or its culture. Liu and Ramos, as far as I know, were no more responsible for the wider failings of their department than I am responsible, say, for the conduct of cyclists who misbehave on the roads, or for the shortcomings of other British journalists.

Yet it remains fatuous to pretend that Brinsley decided to act as he did other than of his own free will. Even if the protesters’ rhetoric had not been mostly admirably temperate, only Brinsley himself decided to pervert the understandable, justifiable anger over the police’s killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, into murderous rage against individual officers. The story is at least complicated by Brinsley’s having shot in Baltimore, before he headed to Brooklyn, Shaneka Thompson, his girlfriend, who is not a police officer. She remains in hospital.
NYPD officers calmly march at the head of December 13's
Millions March NYC event: just because we take for granted
their readiness to protect marchers criticising them
doesn't mean it's not hard to do.
It makes no more sense to claim protesters somehow prompted Brinsley’s misdeeds than to claim that the NYPD somehow deserved them.

Instead, Brinsley was acting like the worst of the police officers he so hated. He showed the nihilistic lack of self-control that is a hallmark of many police brutality cases. Like the worst police officers, he used unjustified violence in such a way that the victims would have no reasonable chance to respond. He seems to have shared with violent cops a determination to impose his will on others no matter the havoc he risked unleashing.

It is certainly an important distinction that police officers are sometimes entirely justified in using violence, in a way that ordinary citizens seldom are. It’s also critical, however, that police officers are expected to act with discipline and self-restraint in a way that no-one expects a common criminal to do.

It’s vital to point out the balance of risks. New York police officers kill multiple unarmed people every year, yet Saturday’s killings were the first of an NYPD police officer on duty since 2011.
Marchers on the Millions March NY protest: some of them
shouted, "How do you spell racist? NYPD." I'd now be more
careful to point out it's the overall system - rather than each
individual officer - that's racist.
US Society, however, shouldn’t be tolerating even that limited amount of violence against police officers – just as it most assuredly should not tolerate the casual tossing aside of black people’s lives. While Ismaaiyl Brinsley had no justification for his brutal killing, there was also no justification for the actions of “pro-police” demonstrators who on Friday evening, the night before Brinsley’s attack, paraded outside New York’s City Hall wearing, “I Can Breathe” sweatshirts. The shirts mocked the proliferation among protesters of sweatshirts bearing the legend, “I Can’t Breathe” – the words that Eric Garner gasped out 11 times as a police officer throttled him on a Staten Island sidewalk.

It’s critical if this rift is to be healed to get away from the divisive rhetoric that currently disfigures nearly every debate in US public life. While there are certainly intemperate anti-police voices, there’s an equally disturbing tendency for any web story about a police killing of a young black man to become infested with slanders and lazy assumptions about the person’s lifestyle or behaviour.

US society has, somehow, to learn again to recognise the humanity of people on different sides of its profound racial and ideological divides.

I would normally offer policy prescriptions for how I think that can be achieved. But, after a year of chronicling dispiriting car crashes and a miserable deterioration in the US’s race relations, this final blow feels as much emotional and spiritual as practical. Brinsley twisted a knife in deep wounds that Eric Garner’s killing, the non-indictment of his killer and many other cases have left in New York’s body corporate this year.

Given the time of year, I’ve been prompted regularly in recent weeks to advocate that somehow the wider city could be more like the Episcopal Church I attend every Sunday in Park Slope. The congregation is made up of a vast range of people – around half of them black – of many different ages, backgrounds and sexual orientations. There is what feels to me, as a relative newcomer, a remarkable sense of unanimity for such a diverse group.

Note to self: next time you see a line of cars like this,
remember there are people inside
I attend the church partly because its clergy have been so quick to recognise the spiritual importance of contemporary events in the US. I’ve sat at points in tears as preachers have related the injustices that people who in some cases live very close to us have suffered to ancient spiritual themes and long-ago suffering.

While I know that few if any of my readers will share my specifically Christian experience of the last few months’ events, I imagine I can’t be the only one who’s had a sense of something truly momentous happening. The questions feel bigger than individual human beings.

I found myself describing to my wife recently the powerful sense I’ve experienced at points in recent weeks of how my faith relates to my feelings over the injustices I’ve seen being perpetrated.

“I keep thinking that somehow Jesus is there,” I told her, of Eric Garner’s death. “He’s lying facedown in front of a row of tacky shops in Staten Island.”

I have a similar sense about Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri – and about the fates of the many victims of traffic crime that go neglected by the police and criminal justice systems.

They’re thoughts that will, I’m sure, seem to many like the kind of foolish sentimentality against which I normally rail. To atheists, they will seem like the kind of deliberate missing-of-the-point of which they accuse all religious people.

Perhaps they are right.

But, for the moment, I also can’t help feeling that the central figure of my faith in some sense also sides with officers Liu and Ramos. Five days before Christmas, Jesus lay on the sidewalk beside them as paramedics worked in vain to undo yet another senseless injustice.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A protest march, a German thinker - and how injustice for some is injustice for all

The chanting on the night of December 4 sounded muted heard from my eighth-floor office. But there was no mistaking what was going on. Rushing over to the window, I peered down into Hudson Street and saw the front of a line of hundreds of protesters. The leaders were carrying black placards with slogans picked out in LED lights. “Justice 4 All” and “Black Lives Matter,” they read.

I felt admiration and fellow-feeling for the demonstrators, protesting against the decision of a grand jury in Staten Island, just across New York Harbor from where I was, to bring no charges against the police officer who killed Eric Garner. The officer placed Mr Garner, a black man, in an illegal chokehold in July as he sought to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The protesters were shouting “I can’t breathe” – the last words that a video of the event captured Mr Garner gasping out 11 times.

Drivers held up by protests over police brutality:
far from determined to uphold the rules themselves.
But I faced an immediate problem - how, with protests swarming over much of lower Manhattan, I would get myself and my bicycle home to Brooklyn. I opted for a route somewhat to the north of my normal one and successfully reached the Manhattan Bridge. Yet my biggest challenge turned out not to be the protests but the behaviour they encouraged in drivers. Many expressed their frustration at being delayed by driving into cycle lanes, executing illegal u-turns, honking loudly and otherwise behaving irresponsibly and illegally.

The experience was, it subsequently occurred to me, an excellent encapsulation of the crisis in policing of both the US’s roads and minority – especially black – communities. Far from looking down on the law, the most vulnerable people – the protesters, people who don’t own cars – have high expectations of law enforcement. Fair, undiscriminatory enforcement of society’s agreed rules is their main protection against those who have more power than they - or operate vehicles with greater momentum.

Meanwhile, it’s the people commonly regarded as upholders of society’s order – police officers and those who have taken driving tests and invested in cars – who often seem, consciously or otherwise, to hold those rules in most contempt. Many seem to think themselves responsible or respectable enough not to need to follow the pettifogging details of the rules.
An emblem of the NYPD's style: some officers are prone
to brutality and the department cites shortages of resources
as a reason not to investigate traffic deaths. But even on a cold
winter's evening at present there are four police interceptors
parked on the Brooklyn Bridge to guard against tampering
with the Stars and Stripes on the towers.

The episode brought to mind a famous passage in which Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, wrote about how justice’s significance went far beyond any practical effect its execution might have.

Kant expressed his views in relation to the death penalty – and took a position about the morality of capital punishment with which I profoundly disagree. But his take on justice’s significance captures something of why the families of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – as well as those of Allison Liao, killed by a driver in Queens, and Cooper Stock, killed by a driver on the Upper West Side – protest so loudly over the system’s failing them.

“Even if a civil society resolved to dissolve itself with the consent of all its members… the last murderer lying in prison ought to be executed before the resolution was carried out,” Kant wrote. “This ought to be done in order that every one may realise the desert of his deeds, and that blood-guiltiness may not remain upon the people.”

The acute problem, however, is not so much that the US – and some other societies worldwide – is failing to prosecute some brutal police officers and many, many negligent or even deliberately violent drivers. It’s that by doing so the authorities send a message to those who follow the rules that they’re mugs. Refraining from violence at risk to yourself, police officer? Why not just grab the suspect round the neck? Ignoring that cellphone call so you don’t endanger other road users, taxi driver? Why? It might be a customer calling to book a long, profitable ride.

Minor lawlessness, certainly - but evidence of a corrosive
contempt for the rules: a private garbage truck blocks the bike
lane, while a delivery truck double parks outside
The challenge is less that the guilty are going unpunished and more that virtue is punished by default.

These ideas started forming in my mind nine days before the December 4 protests, as I took a bike ride on a rare day off work the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I rode from home in Brooklyn all the way up Manhattan’s 1st Avenue towards The Bronx. Yet it was soon apparent that the relatively new protected bike lane north of 60th Street wasn’t going to live up to its promise. I had to leave the lane repeatedly and pull into fast-moving traffic. Some of the obstructions were because of building work – but most were because cars were illegally parked in the bike lane or improperly turning across my path. More than once, on pulling out of the lane and round the legally-parked cars, I found a third barrier in the form of an illegally double-parked truck.

At one point, I found a huge semi-trailer truck (articulated lorry, British readers) had blocked the bike lane to deliver to a store. I appealed to a nearby traffic police officer to ticket the driver. The driver treated her with contempt and berated me, as a proxy for all other cyclists, for having forced him to park there. A previous cyclist had, apparently, sued after the driver struck him with a trolley while moving goods across the cycle lane from a legal parking place.
It's no illegal chokehold - but the parking outside the 52nd
precinct in The Bronx police station suggested to me something
about its officers' conception of enforcing the law.

It was no surprise when, later in the ride, I had to manoeuvre delicately around police cars parked illegally on the shared sidewalk and bike path outside the NYPD's 52nd precinct in The Bronx.

None of what I experienced went beyond inconvenience and I suffered no real harm. But I was soon feeling humiliated and powerless in the face of the bullying of those who were refusing to follow the rules. I felt angry that so little was being done to ensure a more equitable, fairer outcome.

Given my feelings over this minor injustice, I can only imagine the blind rage that Michael Cheung must feel over the failure to take any serious action against the driver who killed his 90-year-old mother as she crossed a street with the light in New York’s Chinatown in October. It must be indescribably painful for a mother such as Dana Lerner to hear that district attorneys are declining to bring criminal charges against the cab driver who killed her nine-year-old son, Cooper Stock, on the grounds the weather was bad when it happened.

I spoke recently to the daughter of someone killed by a negligent driver while he cycled in Central London. She expressed her rage at the failure of the police there to investigate the crime thoroughly and of prosecutors to bring a prosecution over the case.

It can only be worse still to learn that a relative has died because of illegal behaviour by those meant to uphold the law – and that those responsible will not be held to account. The killings of Eric Garner on Staten Island, Akai Gurley in East New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland in countless other cases are shocking because they contradict so many of the theoretical principles of life in the US – and anywhere that human rights are held in any regard. A mixture of rage, impotence and grief that must boil inside the victims' relatives at the thought that many of these incidents happened mainly because of their family's skin colour and others' assumptions about people of their race.
He agrees with Kant: a demonstrator voices humans' shared
yearning for justice.
Police officers and district attorneys who flout the law or ignore rule-breaking not only disgrace their offices - and sometimes break the law themselves – but breach a fundamental clause in western societies’ social contract. Civil legal authorities centuries ago largely removed from individuals the burden of pursuing those who had criminally wronged them. The promise was that justice would be more fairly, impartially and efficiently dispensed when its pursuit was no longer clouded by issues to do with victims’ personal power, prestige, feelings or wealth.

That principle has been abandoned, it seems, when it comes to many of those killed or injured on the roads or minority community members harmed by police officers. Many prosecutors in the US – and in the UK, I increasingly fear – are ready to pursue only cases where either overwhelming evidence or a plea-bargained guilty plea make a conviction nearly certain. On the rare occasions I cycle through New York’s Foley Square, past the steps that featured at the end of the classic legal drama Twelve Angry Men, I give a rueful smile at how such finely-balanced court cases increasingly seldom come to court.

Despite my misgiving about Kant’s support for the death penalty, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his feeling about a wider society’s guilt for unpunished crimes captures something about the deep wrong of the Eric Garner and other cases. If this behaviour isn’t regarded as wrong, if wider society imposes no consequences for these kinds of actions, what does it say about the wider society? How far into lawlessness is society prepared to let its roads or its police officers descend?

While the problems of unaccountability spread across the United States and some other developed countries, there are also very specific New York issues. Bill de Blasio stood as mayor on prominent pledges to improve police treatment of black people and to tackle the city’s epidemic of traffic deaths. It’s dispiriting that he appears so weak in face of his police commissioner’s apparent reluctance to act decisively on either.

Yet the outrage I witnessed from my 8th floor window and the growing disquiet over traffic deaths give me at least some hope. The United States might finally be preparing, as Winston Churchill would say, to do the right thing, having exhausted all other options.

Santa-conners in the 2nd Avenue bike lane: our trip would
have been depressing if we'd seen only sights like these.
That hope was boosted this Saturday, December 13, when I took my son Christmas shopping by bicycle in Greenwich Village.

We rode first up 1st Avenue and encountered drunk participants in the gruesome, annual Santacon bar crawl by young fraternity boy-types and like-minded women around the Lower East Side. The partygoers – who had noisily asserted their “right” to pursue their drunken binge in the preceding days – were the epitome, it seemed to me, of privileged refusal to follow generally accepted rules. They wandered over sidewalks, shouted across streets at each other and behaved self-indulgently and short-sightedly.

But, even as I mentally shook my head over them, I heard the first protest chants.

“I can’t breathe!” “Hands up – don’t shoot!”

We arrived at the Strand Bookstore on Broadway just as the front of the Millions March NYC protest headed by. Many of the participants were of the same twenty-ish age group as the Santacon participants. But there was an impressive earnestness about them that was entirely absent amid the Santacon foolishness.

There were also far more of them than of the Santacon-ners. We emerged after 20 minutes in the bookshop to find the march still in progress down Broadway. We joined them for a symbolic two blocks, wheeling my bike and the Invisible Visible Boy’s trailer bike.

“How do you spell racist? NYPD!”

A brief spasm or the start of real change? The Millions March
NYC protest just before I and the Invisible Visible Boy joined.
For those two blocks, it was possible to get caught up in the earnest passion of the crowd, the frustration that so little has changed. My heart sang to see several bicycles among the protesters, symbols of the union of my various political and policy positions.

But I’d have come away less optimistic had I not come away with the sense that others better equipped than I to understand the crisis also thought that, just maybe, these protests might be the harbinger of real change.

As my son and I walked those two blocks, I noticed a tall black man grab the hand of his young son – maybe three or four – and lead him across Broadway through the crowd. He was determined to get him a better view of the event.

“Come on,” he said impatiently, looking down at him. “I want you to see this.”

Monday, 24 November 2014

A 1980 crash, a rushed hearing - and why paradigms keep trumping facts

It was an experience in April 1980 – when I was ten years old – that first forced me to confront people’s thinking and expectations about road safety. I’d left my primary school in Glasgow without my homework and, on arrival at the flat across the road where I went after school, remembered and turned around. But, as I crossed back, a car that had come round a bend in the road hit me, and threw me up in the air. I wasn’t badly hurt when I landed but the impact must have been significant. One of my shoes landed in the back garden of the substantial house on the other side of the street.

Over the next few days, I encountered the complexities of people’s reactions. There was, of course, sympathy, as one would hope a 10-year-old would receive under such circumstances. But there was also a pursed-lip terseness to some adults’ solicitousness. They clearly regarded the whole thing as the inevitable outcome of my careless crossing of the street. Their view wasn’t, I think, based on the crash’s circumstances but on their expectations of how such things worked. Something in their head – a paradigm – told them that if I’d been hit it must have been my own silly fault.
The street where the Invisible Visible Man - then the Invisible
Visible Boy - was hit by a car 34 years ago. Adults sucked their
teeth at his negligence. But the streetscape changes hint
at the wider cause. (c) Google Streetview

My mind’s returned to that childhood experience this week as I’ve been pondering how ordinary people, the police and news reporters respond to road crashes far more serious than mine. Many of these events, it seems to me, are filed just as quickly as my crash was into convenient, easy-to-understand categories. Police officers, I suspect, start off with a similar paradigm to the one I faced 34 years ago – that pedestrians’ and cyclists’ mistakes, not cautious, respectable motorists, tend to cause crashes. Reporters overseen by under-pressure news editors all too easily fit events for their readers into even simpler, more misleading constructs.

One recently-publicised case shows such paradigms’ ability to overpower the truth. New York news outlets in October last year cited police sources as saying Allison Liao, a three-year-old, had “broken away” from her grandmother in a crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, before Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha drove over her in his SUV. The phrase “broke away” conjures up images from road-safety films of a child’s heedless breaking away from a parent’s grasp. It suggests a freak event – or negligence on the part of the grandmother or little girl – that Abu-Zayedeha could not have been expected to anticipate. The phrase is such a cliché that it ought, in retrospect, to have alerted readers that it was based on false assumptions.

Footage from another vehicle’s dashboard camera showed Abu-Zayedeha in fact simply drove his vehicle through the crosswalk oblivious to the presence of Allison and her grandmother, who had right of way and were holding each other’s hands. The truth, however, contains none of the satisfying closure of the “broke away” version, which suggests the event is simply a sad, unavoidable tragedy. There’s nothing to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about why such a horror should happen – no obvious sign of the driver’s using his telephone or acting deliberately. There isn’t an easy narrative to fit the many pointless, avoidable crashes that arise from drivers’ impatience and inattention while carrying out simple manoeuvres.

It's a long shot - but this NYPD driver
may not spend a lot of time questioning
the paradigms behind his thinking
about street safety.
Yet the recognition that the minds of all involved – the police, reporters and drivers – are falling in line with paradigms suggests a route towards achieving better understanding of such events. It’s vital, it seems to me, that road safety advocates start countering misleading stories about crashes’ causes still more quickly and aggressively than they do at present. Only when unspoken assumptions are spoken and revealed for myths will new, more accurate paradigms emerge. It’s imperative to recognise that narratives about crashes are built around pre-existing templates, rather than constructed afresh for the facts of each incident.

A change in the narratives might encourage police and prosecutors to act – and discourage future poor behaviour. Abu-Zayedeha has faced no criminal charges for his extreme negligence. Even the two traffic violations he faced were dismissed, after a hearing before a Department of Motor Vehicles hearing that Radio WNYC last week revealed lasted just 47 seconds.

In my own crash, I remember for sure that the school crossing guard – “lollipop lady,” in British parlance – had left by the time I arrived. I also recall letting pass a car heading in the other direction from the one that hit me. I’ve little idea why I then missed the one coming from my right – but there was a slight bend in the road and cars on either side. I used to tell myself that the driver – a driving instructor, on his way to a lesson – was speeding.  But I think I’d have been more seriously injured if the vehicle had been going faster than the 30mph speed limit.

The truth of the crash is probably that the road, with its 30mph speed limit, no permanent crossing and parked cars obscuring the view, was simply a hostile environment that was intolerant of an incautious driver and my momentary lapse. A check on Google Streetview reveals that the site now has a raised pedestrian crossing. Many of the parking spaces that obscured mine and the driver’s view of each other have been taken out. There’s a 20mph speed limit around school times. Those all seem to me like retrospective recognition that the tooth-sucking adults 34 years ago were putting too simplistic a construction on events.

But humans take minutes or hours, rather than decades, to reach their conclusions on many crashes’ causes. The simple paradigms in many people’s heads keep pushing them, it seems to me, towards some strikingly misleading conclusions in that period.
The foot of the Manhattan Bridge bike lane, near where
Matthew Brenner was hit: a confusing place, but not one
where people deliberately take suicidal risks.
In one recent case, for example, the New York Police Department announced shortly after Matthew Brenner, a cyclist, was fatally injured in a crash near the Manhattan Bridge that he had been cycling against the traffic down Sands St – a street supplied with one of the city’s best segregated bike lanes – when hit. The explanation made sense only if one always frames such incidents in a mental construct that says cyclists regularly take suicidal risks with their own safety.

I expressed scepticism in the comments below an online story about the narrative, only to be criticised by other commenters to the point of abuse. Further investigation and video have nevertheless suggested Brenner – who had previously worked as a cycle courier in Washington, DC - appeared confused about how to reach one of the area’s bike lanes and was hit by two separate vehicles. The simplistic early version was indeed based on invalid, improbable assumptions.

Another more recent tragedy shows how the neat paradigms in police officers’ heads distort their efforts to assign culpability for crashes. On November 15, a man driving an F150 pick-up truck with a raised chassis and illegally tinted windows killed Jenna Daniels, a 15-year-old jogger, in a crosswalk on Staten Island. The police almost immediately told reporters that they were blaming the crash on Daniels’ crossing the street outside the marked crosswalk at the site. They had ticketed the driver for having illegally tinted windows, they said, but these played no role in the crash.
An F150 at the Detroit auto show: imagine a raised chassis
and tinted windows - and ask yourself if you'd assume such
a vehicle's design played no role in a fatal crash.

It takes extraordinarily powerful mental biases to reach those conclusions based on the available facts. The poor young woman, after all, was hit at least close to a crosswalk, by a driver whose vision must have been impaired not only by his vehicle’s height and size but by an illegal window tint. Only a very strong urge to blame pedestrians for crashes and exonerate drivers could immediately exculpate the windows and the driver.

Yet, as a newspaper reporter with more than two decades’ experience, my concern about the paradigms at work doesn’t stop with the police. I note their effect just as strongly in the work of journalists. The failure of reporters to interrogate their police sources about their improbable versions of events has certainly made life easier for the district attorneys, police officers and others who want to go with the easy version of events.

It’s perhaps less obvious to a non-reporter how those stories must reflect priorities coming from elsewhere in the news organisation. It’s clear to me, for example, that news editors regard many stories about traffic crashes as a minor matter, worthy of only a brief story. It’s hardly surprising that the stories often feel rushed and only partially researched. Reporters are inevitably under pressure to write such stories quickly and move on to the next. It’s impossible by its nature to contact a dead victim or one who’s in a coma to see if he or she agrees with a biased police investigator’s account.

A pedestrian tries to cross Varick Street, in Manhattan's
West Village. The intersection's badly designed and cars
behave badly around it. But, if something happens to him,
you can be fairly sure what the paradigm in the police's heads
will be telling them about whose fault it was.
It will be even less apparent to anyone who’s never worked in news how hard it can be to write a story that doesn’t fit a readily-understood paradigm. Even the shortest story needs some kind of narrative if it is to satisfy readers’ curiosity. It’s far easier from a news editor’s point of view to frame a story like Allison’s death as an inexplicable, unpreventable tragedy than to try to tie up the loose ends of the events in question.

The “inexplicable tragedy” version of road crashes also has the significant advantage – especially in England and Wales, which have appallingly restrictive defamation laws – that it tends to blame a dead or unconscious victim. A dead person can’t sue a newspaper. A driver accused of negligence certainly can.

That tendency to pick conveniently on the dead to simplify the consequences of their deaths for those still alive is, incidentally, one of the coldest, most cynical parts of the whole process.

It's far harder, however, to kill off a misleading paradigm than it is to kill a vulnerable road user. The paradigms in news editors’ heads were some of the last holdouts of last century’s outmoded ideas on sexual identify, domestic violence and a host of other issues. The paradigms about how to write about race, crime, immigration and a swathe of other issues continue to distort reporting. It is hardly surprising that few reporters currently care enough or are well-informed enough to counter their editors’ entrenched views of “common sense” views of traffic issues.

The paradigms in police officers' heads, meanwhile, can literally kill people. It's hard to imagine that, if Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, hadn't had fixed views about the behaviour of his town's black people, he wouldn't have felt it necessary to kill unarmed Michael Brown in August. It's hard to imagine that police views about the likely behaviour of people in Brooklyn's Pink Houses didn't contribute to a police officer's shooting of Akai Gurley, an entirely innocent young man, last week in East New York.

54th St & 8th Avenue, Midtown Manhattan:
it's a chaotic environment - yet I never doubted
when I rode it daily I'd get no sympathy from
the police if a driver ran into me
Yet none of this is intended as a counsel of despair. Campaigners against domestic violence, drunk driving and countless other social scourges have changed the media narrative through sheer persistence. Street safety activist groups can adopt similar tactics, raising quickly after every crash the legitimate questions that police and news organisations currently fail to raise. The questions need not even be very specific to the individual incidents. The stories about Matthew Brenner’s fate and Jenna Daniels’ death would both have been improved by a simple reminder that research shows motorists - not the victims - cause most crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians in New York.

It is likely, no doubt, to be an uncomfortable business for activists used to running positive, non-confrontational campaigns to start taking such a stance. The resources to find people willing to put in the hard work will be hard to find. There could easily be resistance from police, media organisations and those responsible for causing crashes.

But substantial changes can take place. After all, as I sat on the kerb of that road in Glasgow waiting for an ambulance and wondering where my shoe was, nobody queried why a road past a school lacked a crossing, good sightlines or a lower speed limit. No-one now, I fancy, would tolerate the then-conditions on that road. If, heaven forbid, there are still crashes as horrendous as the one that devastated Allison Liao’s family three decades hence, the reporting should be just as different.

There are, goodness knows, multiple problems with rich-world countries' justice systems, societies and the way people write about them. But the conditions that led first to Allison’s death, then its misreporting then its mishandling by the legal system are undoubtedly among them. They must be recognised as lazy, complacent, obscene assumptions that obscure the truth of appalling tragedies.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Canadian terrorism, an Alphabet City hit-and-run - and the dehumanisation of the streets

It’s one of the excitements – and stresses - of my work that from time to time I have days like October 22. I found myself at the end of the day going to bed in a city – Ottawa – and a country – Canada - that at the start of the day I’d had little inkling I might visit soon.

Canada's parliament, the morning after the rampage
I was sent to the Canadian capital because of the shooting dead earlier that day of Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian soldier who had been on guard at Canada’s national war memorial. The gunman responsible – who seems to have been an Islamist jihadist – then ran into the Canadian parliament building, firing his gun. The parliament’s sergeant-at-arms and others shot him dead. Many streets were still closed when I arrived and the lockdown of parliament hill – imposed in case there was more than one gunman – hadn’t been entirely lifted.

However, an aspect of the stories I wrote over the ensuing few days struck me especially strongly because of my interest in safe streets. The shooting caused particular concern because it came only two days after another attack in which Martin Couture-Rouleau deliberately drove his car at two Canadian soldiers in a car park in Quebec, killing one, Patrice Vincent.

The immediate, unequivocal – and justified – condemnation of Couture-Rouleau’s act made me reflect on why in New York and some other rich-world cities even clearly deliberately dangerous driving often attracts far less censure.

The temporary press pass that got me into parliament in
Ottawa. I heard unequivocal condemnations of Martin
Couture-Rouleau's behaviour - of a kind I'd be surprised
to hear for Jose Henriquez's similar act.
The point resonated with me all the more because in the days before heading to Ottawa I’d been thinking about Jose Henriquez. Mr Henriquez was irritated that a cyclist took the lane ahead of him one day last year, on a narrow street through Alphabet City on New York’s Lower East Side. He then deliberately rammed him from behind, according to reports of witness accounts. He sent the cyclist tumbling over his bike’s handlebars and head-first into the road. He drove around the cyclist – who was injured but survived - and fled.

Just before I went to Ottawa, Steve Vaccaro, the attorney for the victim, announced the district attorney for Manhattan – Cy Vance – had dropped all assault charges against Henriquez. His only punishment will be a $250 fine for leaving the scene of an “accident," as the law deems this assault.

Both Henriquez and Couture-Rouleau had deliberately used their cars to ram other, vulnerable human beings with the intention of causing them injury or death. Couture-Rouleau’s act was worse for having been premeditated, politically motivated and having led to the victim's death. But it was far from clear why one act was roundly condemned in the Canadian parliament and the other treated as little more serious than a technical parking violation.

Pedestrians cross the 1st Avenue bike lane, with the light.
I'd like to think I'd never again cut off a pedestrian crossing
late - but I fear I might.
The two acts, I came to realise, lay on a continuum of deliberate bad behaviour in traffic. It starts with the kind of pre-meditated murder that Couture-Rouleau carried out but goes down as far as acts in which even I find myself engaging. I occasionally start riding when the traffic light turns green even when there’s a pedestrian crossing against the light still in the crosswalk. I do it mainly because I know the pedestrian will hold up motor vehicles and hence represents a chance for me to get a head-start on the accelerating drivers. But I know my practice also reflects my irritation with the way some pedestrians cross when I’m near the front of a line of traffic. I see some looking at me, appearing to calculate, “It’s OK – he’s only a cyclist,” and striding out.

Couture-Rouleau’s attack has, it seems to me, far more in common with other bad behaviour on the roads than might initially appear. To carry out his attack, he will have had mentally to demote Warrant Officer Vincent from being a human being with thoughts, feelings and relationships to a mere symbol of what he wanted to attack – the Canadian military. Jose Henriquez was presumably engaged in a similar mental process when he deliberately accelerated his car behind the stopped cyclist – as witnesses attest he did – and drove at him. The cyclist must have shifted from being a fellow human being into being a mere obstacle, something that could be struck with impunity.

Henriquez's behaviour is certainly not especially unusual.

In 2011, a London bus driver abandoned his bus full of passengers, got out to confront me and smashed out of my hand the phone with which I was recording him. My offence had been to take a picture of him blocking the cycle box by a set of traffic lights.

Some years before that, I was involved in an incident very similar to the one that faced Henriquez's victim. I swore at a motorist that was following me dangerously closely down a street in Brixton, South London. I let the car pass me at the next break in the parked cars but he stopped immediately after passing me. The passenger jumped out to confront me and told the driver to reverse at me.

"We'll be coming for you with a gun next time," one shouted as they drove off after I took shelter on the pavement (sidewalk, American readers).
The floral tributes by Canada's Cenotaph sum up the horror
at the events I covered. Politically-motivated violence
retains - rightly - a capacity to shock that deliberate
traffic violence seems to have lost.

I’ve had many drivers deliberately manoeuvre across my path in irritation that I was in front of them, been dangerously tailgated many, many times - including when with my children - and suffered more times than I could possibly recount passes so close they were clearly meant to send a message. I imagine that most regular commuter cyclists have similar experiences to recount.

I’m also confident that far more fatal and serious crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians have a genesis similar to Henriquez's case than is generally acknowledged. It’s luck rather than the perpetrators’ judgement that none of the incidents I’ve suffered led to serious injury. It must seem far more acceptable in a police interview room to say one didn't see the pedestrian or cyclist one hit than to admit one deliberately drove at the victim out of irritation.

Nor are there clear boundaries to the behaviour that results from this mental dehumanisation of other people on the roads. It’s emerged during the past week that New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles has voided the traffic tickets that were issued to Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha for running over Allison Liao, a three-year-old, as she walked through a crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, in October last year. Video from another driver’s dashboard camera clearly shows that Abu-Zayedeha turned fast and negligently through the crosswalk and cannot have looked properly. He continues to insist, despite the evidence, that Allison broke away from her grandmother, who was accompanying her, and that the collision was unavoidable.

News of the DMV’s action has brought back to my mind a mental picture of Allison’s father at a protest I attended last year to call for better street safety. He stood quietly at the back of the crowd, weeping and holding up a picture of his daughter, as Amy Cohen, mother of Sammy Cohen-Eckstein, described her grief over Sammy, her 12-year-old son. Sammy had been killed only a few weeks before on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn.

It is impossible to imagine that Abu-Zayedeha could have driven as he did – or reacted as he appears to have done since – if he had been fully aware of the humanity of the people he was putting at risk by paying so little attention.

A speeding BMW driver hit and killed Nicholas Soto, 14,
at this corner in Red Hook in June. It wasn't terrorism
and wasn't deliberate. But it surely wouldn't have happened
if the driver had fully recognised Nicholas' humanity.
Yet the failure so far of any law enforcement or licensing authority to take any action over Abu-Zayedeha’s behaviour – and the Manhattan District Attorney’s dropping of the assault charges against Henriquez – illustrate the nature of the problem. Law-enforcement authorities in many countries seem almost explicitly to endorse the idea that drivers can’t be expected to behave responsibly – or rein in their violence or negligence – when behind the wheel of a car. I've seen cyclists suggest on the internet in the wake of the Henriquez decision that the only answer if threatened in such a fashion is violence, given the official passivity. The implications for everyone – pedestrian, cyclist or motorist - if such a sentiment gains ground are alarming.

Couture-Rouleau’s act was certainly more wicked than Henriquez's and I will lose no sleep over his fate. After crashing his car during a police chase, he emerged brandishing a knife and was shot dead. But it is also clear that Canadians are regarding Couture-Rouleau’s act in a different light because of its explicitly political context. It is certainly unimaginable that the Manhattan DA would be taking such a lenient view of Hernandez’s actions if his victim had been, say, a police officer, Henriquez had been an observant Muslim and he had been heard to shout the slogan, “Allahu Akbar!” as he drove at him.

There seems to be a vast range of circumstances where, short of such a clear ideological motivation, violence on the roads is understood, tolerated and, effectively, encouraged. Moral philosophers have warned since the time of the ancient Greeks of the consequences of allowing such amorality to flourish. New York City battled in the 1970s and 1980s with a culture where a range of other violent offences were treated with the same misguided tolerance as motoring violence is currently. Only when society and law enforcement officials start to treat the use of vehicles as weapons with the same seriousness they treat the use of guns will the problem have a chance of being properly resolved.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

An oafish limousine driver, an English Channel passage - and why a metro makes the case for bike paths

It was as I was riding down 13th St in Park Slope, not far from my apartment, last Sunday that I heard the sound of honking behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a black Lincoln Town Car – vehicle of choice for many New York City car services – barrelling down the street towards me and my son, who was on his trailer bike behind me.

New York City's official advice on where to ride in the road:
not bedtime reading, I'd suggest for the guy I encountered
But my response wasn’t what the driver obviously hoped it would be. Knowing that the street’s single lane, though wide, lacked the space for a wide vehicle to pass safely at speed, I steered into the very centre of the lane, preventing his attempted pass. At the next traffic light, he pulled up next to us and yelled how I should have been over to one side of the street. He then gave a loud blast on his horn and passed aggressively and fast. At the light after that, I asked his passenger please to withhold her tip.

The driver was inconsiderate and dangerous, as I pointed out in my subsequent complaint to the Taxi & Limousine Commission (top tip, for-hire drivers: behave especially well if you’ve got an easily-remembered licence plate). But he also misunderstood the complicated relationship between space and speed. There are circumstances where it might be safe for a 6’ 6” wide car to pass a bicycle on a 28’ wide street where parked cars are taking up 8’ on either side. But they don’t include occasions when a person is riding a bicycle laden with groceries and hauling a trailerbike at 17mph downhill.

In the debate about how best to allocate space
on the roads, New York's police department
prefers to make practical demonstrations
of its position.
It’s at the root of very many of my arguments with motorists that few seem to understand how I expand the buffer zone I’m mentally defending around myself as my own and other road users’ speed increases. I’m sure that many motorists see me and other cyclists squeezing past stationary cars and jump to the wrong conclusions. It’s a very different business riding close to a stationary motor vehicle and next to one doing 40mph while one’s riding at 20mph. Fast-moving vehicles travel far farther while the driver is processing the need to stop and then need a far greater distance to come to a halt. It should be obvious that every mile per hour of extra speed disproportionately expands the invisible balloon of space I need to keep free.

The point is especially important because so many of the disputes about how to accommodate growing levels of cycling use – or cities’ aspiration to have more journeys by bike – come down to the allocation of road space. The debate is an asymmetric one at present. Nearly anyone who regularly rides a bike in a city will have thought about the space he or she can use on the roads, how the space is apportioned and the issues that that allocation raises. Many people who drive cars around cities seem instinctively to think the roads should be freer of obstructions in front of their cars, wider and more conducive to high speeds. To such a view, any space taken away from cars is being stolen from its rightful owners.

The whole issue has reminded me of a reporting visit I undertook 10 years ago to Line 14 of the Paris metro, the city’s first entirely driverless metro line. I noticed how trains slowed down from their 80kph (50mph) top speed well in advance of the terminal station if another train was occupying the platform. But then, as the trains slowly negotiated the junctions at the end of the line before turning back, they would come almost in touching distance of each other. They were under the control of one of the world’s most advanced signalling systems. It was constantly calculating the balloon of space it needed to maintain between trains, providing many train lengths’ of empty space in front of each train at top speed but barely any at 10kph (6mph).
Smith St, Brooklyn: it's a bike lane but also, on a busy morning,
a corridor of collision uncertainty.
A chaotic, busy street makes far more sense if one pictures every object encased in balloons of space like those that Line 14’s signalling system projects in front of trains. Every vehicle operator should be maintaining in front of him or her enough empty space to stop safely in the event that an unexpected danger crops up. But, just as importantly, everyone on the street needs to plot the trajectories of other vehicles or other potential obstructions. Looked at this way, it’s clear why suddenly-opened car doors pose such a danger. No other obstruction can appear as suddenly or with as little warning as a suddenly-opened car door. I refused to let the angry car service driver past to avoid being forced into the door-opening danger zone. To the driver, I’m sure that looked like a willful refusal to go into an unused, empty zone.

It’s because I draw a safety balloon round any moving vehicle that I find myself at least once a week in shouted conversation with the drivers of vehicles that have started pulling into my path. “Stop!” I’ll shout as the vehicle keeps moving across my path. “I see you!” the motorist shouts, exasperatedly, as if I should implicitly trust that the driver of a slow-moving vehicle on a collision course with me will not immediately turn into a faster-moving one.

The APL Pearl turns at the Port of Salalah: I yearn for her
navigational equipment, if not her limited maneouvrability.
I yearn for something like the collision-avoidance radar I watched a pilot use seven years ago as the APL Pearl, a container ship on which I was travelling, negotiated the chaotic shipping lanes of the English Channel. Each vessel’s radar plot had in front of it a line showing where it would be within six minutes. Slow-moving oil tankers and bulk carriers sported only relatively small, short lines. The lines before container ships like our own were longer. However, a fast ferry emerging from the Port of Boulogne suddenly threw a long, worrying line across the paths of many of the vessels, including our own, sending the pilot into a brief frenzy of calculation about collision courses.

The more one ponders the complexity of the interactions on a shared-use street – or the English Channel - the less one becomes surprised at people’s tendency to crash into each other. The surprise is how effectively most of the time people manage to miss each other.

Yet a trip the week before my run-in with the Impatient Car Service Driver of 13th Street suggested a different lesson about space. I was visiting the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad in North Dakota, where sudden, unexpected growth in both agricultural and oil traffic has led to significant congestion. As we drove by the company’s main line across the region, we saw an Amtrak passenger train zipping along the main line at 70mph, far faster than the 50 or 60mph common for freight trains on the route. “I’ll bet that really eats up capacity,” I said to the railroad people, to a resigned harrumph of acknowledgement.
A BNSF oil train near Ross, North Dakota: the drivers are
probably not grateful they share their tracks with faster,
lighter passenger trains.

No railwayman relishes running trains of sharply-varying speed next to each other. The fast ones constantly catch up with the slower trains in front, leaving unused space behind them. The slow ones constantly fall behind, leaving unused space in front of them.

It's key to improving road safety to control vehicles' speeds on city streets and New York in particular needs to do a far better job of the task. But there is also, it occurs to me, an Amtrak-type effect on many congested streets where bikes, cars, buses and others share space. The differing braking and acceleration statistics of the different vehicles waste space and capacity as effectively as if the New York subway decided to run the F Train with a mixture of the latest electric subway trains and its plodding diesel maintenance trains. Were New York’s Department of Transportation to provide properly-segregated bicycle lanes on downtown Brooklyn’s most chaotic streets, it’s easy to imagine that they would instantly become far more efficient places, as well as far safer ones. It’s perhaps time to label such streets as optimised streets, rather than simply safe ones.

It will, of course, be some time before all the hundreds of backstreets like the one where I was riding last Sunday will justify such optimisation. While the ultimate cure for episodes like the one I encountered might be surgery for the street, the short-term response will still be for the driver to take a don’t-be-an-inconsiderate-fool pill.

But the spaces under the streets of many cities and the rail lines that march across many countries’ open spaces show that transport can be conducted in an orderly, safe, efficient manner. It would be a tragedy not to learn at least a little more from them.

Update: I've just heard (on February 25, 2015) that the limo driver who harassed us has been dealt with - with a $200 fine an no points on his licence. I'm glad he's faced some penalty. But this strikes me as fairly paltry - and heightens my concerns about Taxi and Limousine Commission procedures.