Letter to Minneapolis

I lived in Minneapolis from 1999 until I moved to Sydney in 2017. In the last few days, the Minneapolis Police Department is again making the local news in Australia (following on the case of Justine Diamond) with the murder of George Floyd. Thanks to the internet (thanks internet !?) we can now livestream Minneapolis WCCO-TV here, along with the dumpster fire that is Twitter.

When I first took the job, and before moving, the University of Minnesota connected me to a real estate agent (from Edina Real Estate) who showed us around some neighbourhoods he thought we would like (Uptown, Edina). I asked about crime rates. He wouldn’t tell me (I think he implied it was illegal, which it may have been) and said I would need to look that up separately. I asked about some other neighbourhoods, like North Minneapolis, and he, in his Minnesota way, discouraged it. After moving there, I figured out why.

Open street on Minehaha Avenue in happier times. The center of some of the rioting.

We ultimately moved to Prospect Park in Southeast Minneapolis. We would shop and eat out at restaurants in the area around Lake and Hiawatha that was recently torched. We would regularly shop at the Targets on University in St. Paul and Snelling in Roseville that were looted. [Their logo is a target, obviously they were asking for it. And just sitting there, loitering in bad neighborhoods at all times of day and night, imagine what would happen to a person who did that.] [I am assuming looters are not reading this, if they are: looting is bad and does not directly address the problem, and probably undermines the general cause.]

Obviously much of this is crime of opportunity, which can be understood in game theory terms, following on the signalling of collective action among potential rioters, along with the distraction of police. But the core is not looters, the core is a protest against the police, and societal dysfunctions more generally. If society does not treat you with basic respect for your life, liberty, and property, the courtesy should be extended in reverse.

American society is broken. While irrational optimism is important to see our way through the present dilemmas, I believe it is important to recognise the degree of brokenness to do what is necessary. While this might bring us through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief from denial through acceptance, it is only with acceptance and recognition of reality that appropriate change can occur.

By all means vote for the right people, it may be necessary, but do not believe for a moment that it is sufficient. Elected officials, even when the “right people” are in a majority, do not control the Minneapolis Police, or many of the other institutions that are the root of America’s failures.

America, more than perhaps any other country, has become first-rate at admiring readily-solved problems problems [e.g., but this is not a complete list: police violence, gun violence, traffic violence, pollution, disenfranchisement and election malpractice, health insurance, congestion, pandemics, inability to build]. The most basic indicator of social success, life expectancy, is low for a country of its wealth, and falling. This is infuriating.

I say they are readily-solved as developed nations (a list we must sadly now exclude the United States from) have solved them, at least better than the US, and resources are hardly scarce in a country where the average size of a new home is on the order of 3000 square feet and there is a car for every driver, and a military which outspends the next 10 countries combined. This is not to say it is politically easy, otherwise one assumes they would have already been dealt with. But there are no technological barriers, nor lack of good ideas, just an unwillingness to make a hard decision. Politicians should be willing to take votes that will cost them their jobs. They will inevitably find work with the revolving door in industry anyway. There remain other problems (like endemic racism) which are more difficult, which also remain unsolved. America would collectively rather not go through any short run disruption to address even solvable problems with a huge long-run payoff. It suffers from failure of delayed gratification.

I have always thought Minnesota was one of the better governed US states, with a longer time-horizon than most. Minneapolis is very good (for the US, not on a global scale) at building bike lanes and of course it attracts hipsters (and wannabe hipsters) with coffee shops and microbreweries, and the city’s population has risen significantly over the past decade, but it also leads in segregation. All of the progress in bringing people back to the city is for nought when they cannot walk unafraid from violence perpetrated by the police.

This is not new. In recent memory, most notable was the well-known case of Philando Castile, nominally a traffic stop in a local suburb with a trigger happy cop, which inspired numerous peaceful protests closing freeways to temporary inconvenience. There was also Jamar Clark. But before that St. Paul tasered and arrested someone for sitting in the Skyway waiting to pick up his child.

The earth will continue to spin on its axis. Life will find a way. Civilization on the other hand is not nearly so robust. Nominally civilized Europe fell into how many wars last century? It’s not beyond repair, but every moment it remains unrepaired it gets harder. When in a hole the first step is to stop digging. Whether it gets fixed or not is a collective decision and I wouldn’t bet money on it.

“Look for the helpers.” Mr. Rogers said. The helpers are supposed to be the government, which includes the police. That’s what they teach in elementary school. They are not. No amount of policy change will should ever convince us they should be trusted. Their very position, arrogating to themselves a monopoly on the use of violence is perhaps necessary for the avoidance of anarchy, but not without questioning. Of course one must deal subserviently with any organization like the police that has more weaponry than you do. But that doesn’t mean you trust them.

There is an institutional problem that multiple weak mayors have been unable or unwilling to solve. Institutions only work with the consent of the governed. Removing and replacing a police force, especially one the size of Minneapolis is difficult, but not impossible. However with both the murder of residents they are charged with serving and their failure to maintain order in the aftermath of their own misdeeds, they have demonstrated unfitness for purpose. This is not a few bad apples, it is systematic. Fewer than 10% of officers live in the city. It would be easy enough to insist it be 100% and shed many officers voluntarily.

In contrast, while police in many other countries are overly militarized, they retain the confidence of their citizens. Our encounters with the local (New South Wales) police here have been professional as they investigated 1 break-in and theft (and recovered a laptop) and 1 attempted, including taking fingerprints, something Minneapolis could never be bothered to do when we had break-ins there. Notably the police are state rather than locally run. None of this is to say there are no problems: police brutality exists in Australia.

Disband the Minneapolis Police. Bring in temporary outside security forces with clear directives if necessary. Start over. That is what the protests are telling you. Listen to your residents, you govern with their consent.


Although this is not the general point, a modern banking system may have averted the whole problem, which reportedly started with questions about the legitimacy of George Floyd’s cash payment, resulting in the police being called (4 cops for a fake $20 seems excessive in normal circumstances), rather than the use of readily verified electronic debit transaction. It was startling returning to the US in January on the lack of universality of debit payments and the use of signatures in so many places.

Accepting risks

People died in a barbaric terrorist act recently at [insert terrorist act here]. That is terrible news. I wish it didn’t happen. It happens far too frequently.

We ask collectively “Could it have been prevented?” This question is more than idle curiosity, as it informs the follow-up “Can future terrorist acts be prevented?”

I highly doubt both of these propositions. They assume some fantastical superhero-like state, with the strength of an all-seeing and all-knowing Allfather. As much money as the state security apparatus gets, … and this is enough to monitor a lot, it still doesn’t bug my office, and would be very bored if it did. As much computer power as it has, it still cannot predict where I am going this afternoon.

Since we don’t have such a state, some people are proposing giving the state more powers so that we can naively feel comfortable in our security, foregoing our freedoms. The state will be at least a more-seeing and more-knowing Most-father.

Strategies proffered, like banning encryption (if encryption is outlawed, only outlaws, and the government, will have encryption), or registering people based on their religion or ethnicity, or building a wall, or prohibiting refugees are unenforceable or miss the point entirely. These are mostly nonsense ideas which might sound good if you live your life in fear because you watch too much news on television. Will ever more power for the security state really make a difference in our security? Like everything else, there are diminishing returns to investments in security.

Someone with a modicum of skill, who is determined to kill you, and is willing to lose their own life, will kill you.

No – kill them first.

Leaving aside the constitutional problem of killing people who have not actually committed a crime in the United States, is the physical problem of precognition. The state cannot actually monitor everyone all the time, with humans. Imagine 50% of the people were guardian/spies listening in on the other 50%. Do you trust the first 50%? This is such an old problem, there is a Latin phrase for this: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Even the most successful state security systems of fascist and communist countries still faced assassination attempts and revolutions from time to time. Perhaps this omni-state can reduce the likelihood of success of terrorist attempts, but it cannot ever eliminate the possibility. All we are arguing about is degree of security. Frankly, we are fairly safe now. Total global violence is near an all-time low. We should aim for zero deaths from violence, but efforts to reach zero are not without costs, which reduce the possibilities of other kinds of improvements.

Then there are the costs in human life of such a security state, which are often higher then the actual costs of barbaric terrorist acts that justify them. While these are not directly comparable numbers, I will compare them anyway, as getting a sense of the magnitudes of risks is important. In the US, the police killed over 1000 people so far this year. Terrorists  killed 3.  The September 11 attacks killed nearly 3000 people.

Certainly there is the risk terrorists will kill more. Maybe they will get the bomb, or poison the water supply. My 15 year old self was fairly sure that some city would have been nuked by now.

We want to avoid these mega-risks. But we also want to avoid run-of-the-mill non-political intentional killing (US homicides 16121 in 2013 and suicides  41149) and car crashes (33804).  We conspicuously don’t confiscate guns or cars. We accept certain risks as the cost of doing business.

There is also the risk that in an enhanced superstate, the police and military will kill more Americans than they do now. Increasing deportation rates of undocumented residents will increase the mistaken deportation of legal residents and citizens. Increasing the level of policing will likely increase the number of innocent people killed or jailed by the police.

Bring the fight to them, so we don’t have to fight them here.

We have of course brought the fight to them.

The number of coalition soldiers lost in the Afghanistan war (Operation Enduring Freedom) (3506) and Iraq wars (Operation Iraqi Freedom) (4814), much less the number of Aghanis and Iraqis.

Had there been no Operation Iraqi Freedom, there would likely be no Daesh. And we continue to pummel them with air strikes and drone attacks, day after day. We could increase these numbers, but face the same problem. We target the “best” targets first (the one with the greatest likelihood of getting the bad guys without mistakenly getting the innocents and creating future terrorists in a multi-generational war), the next best targets second, and so on, until the last target we have little confidence we won’t be mostly killing innocents. If we killed everyone in the country, sure we would kill all the barbarians, but we would kill the innocents too. That is not the American way.

Small amounts of terrorism are among the unfortunate costs of living in the  modern world. Responding by sacrificing our freedoms and the opportunities for others to live in America is a self-inflicted wound that fails to treat the disease it was supposed to cure.

“I Am Not Your Brother” – St. Paul Cops Allegedly Taser and Arrest Black Male for Sitting in Public Space (Video) | streets.mn

Cross-posted at streets.mn

Twin Cities Daily Planet brings our attention to this story: St. Paul cops allegedly taser and arrest black male for sitting in public space. City Pages provides some details: St. Paul police roughly arrest black man sitting in skyway

Note, this is hard to watch.

There are a number of transportation and land use and other aspects to this case which are worthy of discussion:

1. Do you have to identify yourself to the police? It depends. When driving yes – driving is a privilege. When walking (in Minnesota) no – “police can never compel you to identify yourself without reasonable suspicion to believe you’re involved in illegal activity.” Minnesota is not a stop and identify state, unless the police have “reasonable suspicion”. [1] [2] [3]

2. Is the skyway a public space? It is being patrolled by public workers (police), so apparently it is – though I am sure the law is vaguer than it should be – so the rights should be the same as on the street.

3. What are the details? The comment thread at TCDP suggests it starts near Caribou or Arby’s on the St. Paul Skyway System. He is going to New Horizons Day Care to pick up his child.

Officer1Officer2

4. What happened after the incident – Charges were dropped according to City Pages. Did the police apologize to the man in front of his child? Was this incident expunged from his record? Did the officers have reasonable suspicion justifying their actions?

5. In case it isn’t obvious, posting photos of police officers is legal. [1],[2]

Should airport security be centralized or at the gate?

At most airports, there is a central security at front of the terminal, and then you proceed to your gate, having cleared security. At Schiphol in the Netherlands, security is instead at the departure gate. The metal detectors are fixed, but the security agents move around to the flight that will be soon taking off.

2013 09 14 at 14 22 10

This makes it more painful to change planes, but ensures that the plane won’t take off while there are passengers in the security line for that particular flight. It also ensures that the flight itself is secure, though someone might have snuck through another airport with less rigorous security. It also gives waiting passengers something to do, without having to be nervous about getting to the gate on-time.

I always thought this was an intentional design feature, which just had not been replicated at other airports due to the fixed costs of creating more controlled waiting environments, but it turns out to be considered more of a bug, since the European Investment Bank is lending Schiphol EUR 200 million to remodel the airport to make it more typical.

Els de Groot, Chief Financial Officer of Schiphol Group said “We welcome the EIB’s continued support for our airport investments, following successful funding by the EIB in the last decade of other important Schiphol projects including the fifth runway and the 70 MB baggage system programme. To remain Europe’s preferred airport we will invest an additional EUR 500 million in the coming years. An important part of this is directly related to creation of a central security facility for the entire terminal. Gate security checks for flights to non-Schengen destinations will disappear and be replaced by five central security filters. This will both improve passenger comfort and significantly enhance the efficiency of the passenger handling process for both the airport and airlines”.

Why we engage in ‘security theater’

At Symposium Magazine: Why we engage in ‘security theater’ :

“The politics of security are difficult. If you are in favor of security, you must be in favor of more spending on security, or on anything that will “keep us safe.” If politicians or bureaucrats oppose a proposed security measure and something happens, they will be blamed. Security ratchets up quickly. Ratcheting down can only really be by attrition.”

Security lines at airports

James Fallows on Security lines at airports, which I complained about years ago.