We Failed Dontre Hamilton

In April, a man named Dontre Hamilton was shot and killed in Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee, WI, not far from where I live. In a pattern that has become all-too familiar across the country over the last several months, Hamilton, an unarmed black man, was killed by Officer Christopher Manney, a white policeman.

It was announced this morning that Officer Manney, who had previously been fired from the Milwaukee PD in relation to the fatal shooting, (a firing he is appealing) would not be indicted for killing Hamilton.

In this way, the case closely echoes the tragic circumstances of recent events in Ferguson and New York, but there’s even more to it than that. In many ways, the circumstances leading up to this killing were even worse, more inexcusable than those surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, or even Eric Garner.

On the day of his death, Dontre Hamilton hadn’t stolen cigarillos, or even dodged tobacco taxes by selling loose cigarettes. Instead, he had been sleeping in a public park. Earlier in the day, employees of a Starbucks overlooking Red Arrow Park had twice called the police trying to drive Hamilton away as a nuisance. Two other officers responded to the call and found the Hamilton was committing no crime whatsoever, and was within his rights to be in a public park. After checking on his welfare, they left without incident.

Seemingly unsatisfied with Mr. Hamilton’s continued peaceful existence in a public space, employees of the Starbucks called the police again and hit the jackpot with Office Manney. Unaware of the previous visit from fellow officers, Manney responded to a voicemail he’d received earlier requesting a welfare check on Mr. Hamilton. But instead of checking his welfare, Manney immediately approached Hamilton as a potential criminal and began harassing and attempting to frisk him for drugs or weapons, despite lacking any probable cause to do so.

This is where things go wrong. After already dealing with police once earlier in the day and being told he was doing nothing wrong, Hamilton became agitated at the treatment he was receiving from Manney. Treatment, it should be noted, which would later be grounds for his termination from the MPD. An altercation ensued and punches were exchanged. Manney pulled out his baton to try and subdue Hamilton, but it was wrestled away. At this point, Manney pulled his sidearm and emptied the magazine, shooting Hamilton fourteen times in the process.

Excessive force? Oh yeah. If you actually had to shoot something fourteen times to incapacitate it, what you really need is an A-10C Warthog, not a handgun. But, once again, Manney will not be facing any criminal charges in the killing. The DA believes it was self-defense and that’s the end of it. Although I must say that in this case, the DA had the guts to make the non-indictment call all by themselves instead of making a farce of the grand jury process as happened in Ferguson.

I have a joke I wrote in the wake of the Brown grand jury decision that goes like this:

“What do you call a group of crows? A Murder. What do you call a group of white crows? An Insufficient Evidence to Indict.”

I told that joke on stage the night after Ferguson to a great response, then figured I’d put it in the trunk unless it became topical again in the future. I was telling it a week later after the Garner decision. Now, less than a month later, I’ll be telling it to crowds again, and getting angrier each time.

It would be very easy, then, to slap Hamilton’s death up there with those of Brown and Garner as yet another example of police brutality aimed against black people going unpunished. It may be the best example of the three, in fact. But there are more layers to this story. How Dontre Hamilton died was simply the last in a long list of failures on the part of society to save him.

You see, Mr. Hamilton was homeless, and suffered from schizophrenia. Homelessness is a scourge in our cities, and Milwaukee is no exception. Since the economic downturn of 2008, the city’s homeless population has grown. But instead of attacking the underlying economic factors driving the epidemic, we’ve cut public programs through ill-conceived budget austerity measures. The same pattern has repeated in many states throughout the country, attacking the programs designed to help people in need and demonizing the people instead of the problem.

The same holds true for the sad state of our nation’s mental health infrastructure. In decades past, we maintained homes and institutions for those suffering from severe mental illnesses. But by the mid 90’s, most of these facilities had been shuttered. Their patients didn’t disappear, however. Instead, unable to afford the treatment, counseling, and medications they needed, most were left out in the cold, including an embarrassing percentage of former veterans suffering from PTSD and other ailments after returning from Vietnam, the Gulf War, and now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The mentally ill make up a disproportionate number of both the homeless, as well as our nation’s burgeoning prison population. Some estimates run as high as sixty-plus percent of inmates suffer from one or more serious mental conditions. Prisons and the streets have become the de facto dumping grounds for people, like Dontre Hamilton, who simply don’t have the capacity to fully integrate into society.

The institutions may have closed, but we’re still paying the price to handle the issue of mental illness in this country, except now we’re doing it in the most inefficient and inhumane way possible.

It would be easy to just point a finger at the policeman who shot Dontre Hamilton, or to see it in the simple black and white of the sad state of race relations in this country. And you wouldn’t be wrong for doing so. But as the protests erupt and the excuses start flying, remember how Hamilton came to be in Red Arrow Park that day. Through our collective inaction on any number of important issues, we all helped to put him in front of that gun.

Back to Confusion, MI

So the biggest little con in the midwest is less than a month away. I’ll be attending Confusion, MI for the third time alongside a surprisingly thick roster of other sci-fi and fantasy authors. If you’ve never been, Confusion has quickly become on of my favorites.

Here’s my schedule of panels. It’s going to be a Sunday heavy con for me. If you’re around, drop in and say hello:

Saturday 4pm: Mass Autograph Session

Saturday 8pm: Building the Next Great Epic
What does it take to plan, write, and sell an epic series?

Sunday 10am: Tomlinson/Kaldon reading

Sunday 11am: Science or Science Fiction?
Science fiction novels continue to impress with amazing technological advances in so many areas. What’s more impressive, though? That some of them are reality! Come talk about some of the things you see on the news today that you first read about years ago in a book.

Sunday 12pm: Extreme Weather in Science Fiction
First the ice caps begin melting, and then we get Sharknado. How have real-world weather events influenced science fiction? Can we use science fictional ideas to solve our real-world environmental crises?

Sunday 2pm: Powersuits and Prosthetics
Science Fiction has long imagined a future when technology can replace or enhance human limbs. Join Science Guest of Honor Cynthia Chestek and our costume panelists to discuss how to design plausible robotics for your science fiction hero.

North Korea is Run by Lunatics

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Okay, I’m going to leave the implications of Sony bowing to pressure of terrorist threats and pulling the release of “The Interview” to other pundits.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the inexplicable fact that the situation exists at all. In a truly bizarre turn of events, it looks likely that North Korea was behind the illegal hacking of Sony’s servers which dumped thousands of emails, scripts, and financial information onto the wider internet, leading to a storm of controversies involving some of our most famous actors, actresses, and media moguls.

What I can’t fathom is why?

By doing so, North Korea has played its hand and revealed a surprisingly sophisticated and modern cyber-warfare capability that the west hadn’t suspected was within their reach.

And what did the hermit republic use this immensely powerful weapon to accomplish? To influence American foreign policy? To chip away at the sanctions crippling their economy? To attack and degrade our own war fighting capabilities on the Korean peninsula?

No, they revealed their doomsday device to annihilate a Seth Rogan comedy.

I’m sorry, but that’s fucking crazy. How much of an egomaniacal, Nero-esque nut job do you have to be to waste the element of surprise on what might be one of your most effective offensive capabilities to sink a B-grade James Franco vehicle that would have been destined for obscurity if you’d have just left it alone?

That’s some Kanye-level diva shit. If you weren’t already the laughing stock of the world, Kimmy, you sure as hell are now.

And seriously, where were you fuckers when we needed protection from the “Red Dawn” remake?

After the Draft: Victory

I am proud and humbled to announce that as of today, my third novel, THE ARK has been sold to editor Marc Gascgoine of Angry Robot Books.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Angry Robot is a publisher of genre fiction with many great names in their stable. Several friends of mine are counted among their ranks, as well as award-winning books that are redefining sci-fi and fantasy with their imaginative takes on worlds old and new.

The deal was arranged by my wonderful and patient agent, Russell Galen of Scovil, Galen, and Ghosh, and includes not only THE ARK, but a sequel that is currently being written under the working title of TRIDENT’S FORGE.

To say I’m excited at this opportunity is a massive understatement. The last six years of my life have been consumed by long hours spent practicing and honing my craft in pursuit of a moment like this one. In addition to Marc and Russell,  I’d like to thank Bradley Beaulieu for the introduction, Michael Underwood for his help and support throughout the project, M Todd Gallowglas for his invaluable advice on turd polishing, and my girlfriend Niki for being there through  every phase of manic highs and self-loathing lows over the last year.

I am thrilled to become a part of the Angry Robot family of authors. Look for THE ARK to hit the shelves sometime next winter, and keep coming back for more updates as I continue to blog about the process of taking a rough draft through to a completed product. There is so much more work to be done yet.

But for tonight, I’m going to go see how many free drinks this gets me. Later!

On Torture

On Tuesday, and against the wishes and behind-the-scene efforts of the Obama Administration, the long-awaited Senate report on the investigation of the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation” program was released.

I put “Enhanced Interrogation” in quotation marks because it is a euphemism for torture which abuses the plain meaning of language in the same way it abuses flesh. The term was first pioneered by none other that the Third Reich. Seriously, Bush II Administration officials were running around using torture code words invented by the Nazis.  And torture it was, as we’ll get to later.

In the aftermath, the media has been giving people, both inside the CIA and in positions of influence inside the Bush II team, plenty of airtime to try and justify their choices to the American people in a desperate attempt to avoid a reckoning for their actions. They’ve told us that torture was necessary, that it saved lives, maybe even your family’s lives.

Here’s the central problem with the arguments of every torture apologist and defender. The utility and effectiveness of torture is not a matter of opinion. It is an indisputable fact, supported by mountains of evidence and experience, that torture does not elicit reliable, actionable intelligence.

For every person you break who gives up a kernel of useful information, there are ten or twenty more that say whatever they think you want to hear just to make the suffering stop. It creates false leads and muddies the water. That bad intel goes on to waste resources, time, and manpower while our intelligence apparatus runs wild goose chases, follows blind alleys to dead ends, and ensnares an ever-growing collection of innocent people who are then also subject to torture, causing the problem to snowball further.

And let’s be clear about what’s being discussed here. We’re not talking about soldiers in an active warzone interrogating  prisoners while under fire, their buddies getting shot up or killed around them, when desperation causes emotions to run high and maybe somebody gets smacked around. While not excusing the mistreatment of prisoners of war, I am sympathetic to the stresses troops in the field face in the heat of battle and the snap decisions and impossible choices they often have to make.

Apologists often talk about a “ticking time bomb” scenario, where Jack Bauer only has thirty minutes to get the codes to diffuse the nuke before Seattle is turned into a crater, or something.  But that’s Hollywood counter-terrorism. It’s scripted television where the bad guy always caves at the last second, and coughs up the right codes so the hero can save the day with one second left on the countdown timer.

That’s not the real world, and that’s not what was revealed in the Senate report. Instead, we’re talking about prisoners transported thousands of miles away from any legitimate theater of active combat, restrained, defenseless, forced for weeks and months to live in rooms too small to either stand up or lay down, tied into stress positions for so long they shit themselves, deprived of sleep to the point of hallucinations, kept in cold cells and soaked with water until they were hypothermic, threatened with dogs, anally raped, forced to endure near-drowning dozens or hundreds of times, their families, wives, and children threatened with rape and death, exposed to fake executions, made to walk on broken legs, then beaten so viciously with battons that their legs liqufied.

It’s an inarguable fact that some of these men died while  in our care. The official story was always suicide or natural causes, which simply insults the intelligence of anyone who has read the reports. Many captives were later found to be completely innocent. This went on for years. There was no ticking time bomb.

If this was done to our captured troops, or one of our contractors, or to a kidnapped civilian, the government and media wouldn’t hesitate to call it exactly what it is. Torture.

Even if some tiny sliver of the information that was brutally extracted from these men had been true, and there’s nothing in the Senate report to indicate that any actionable intelligence was extracted through the program, the price to our nation’s principles and our standing in the world was far too high.

Yes, sometimes bad people kill good people. That’s the world we live in. But, the price of calling yourself the good guys is you have rules. You have a code of behavior that places you above the evil men who commit atrocities.

Personally, I have no issue with violence, and I’m pretty pragmatic about killing when the situation merits, but there is a time and a place for both, and wearing the white hat comes with conditions.

We used to be a great people who could face any challenge with dignity. We defeated the British Empire, (no hard feelings, lads, you’re all right), the Spanish, the Germans, the Nazis, the Japanese Empire, and outlasted the Soviet Union. We confronted all of these intractable, existential threats to our sovereignty and liberty without having to resort to the sort of barbarism found in the Senate report, even when it was used against us.

Are we so weakened, so diminished, and so scared that a single act of terrorism justifies abandoning more than two centuries of noble tradition, in the face of an “enemy” that has never, and could never, present a serious threat to our continued existence? I say no. But then, I believe in the promise of America, even when it’s difficult.

Especially when it’s difficult.