Tag Archives: death

Watch London Cops Subdue, Not Kill, a Man Yelling and Swinging a Machete

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened (see this account in The Atlantic). Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away? 

The video is all over the Internet, including the link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video, then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man in 2011.  In St. Louis, Powell had a steak knife and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.  The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.


Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started. By the time the recording begins, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.  According to The Economist:

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The article includes this graphic:

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I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.<

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

DEAD! Executions and the Power of Photography

In 1928 readers of the New York Daily News were shocked by this cover.  It was the first photograph ever taken of an electrocution.

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The executed is a woman named Ruth Snyder, convicted of murdering her husband.  The photographer was a journalist named Tom Howard.  Cameras were not allowed in the execution room, but Howard snuck a device in under his pant leg.  Prison officials weren’t  happy, but the paper was overjoyed.

The fact that the image was placed on the front page with the aggressive headline “DEAD!” suggests that editors expected the photograph to have an impact.  Summarizing at Time, Erica Fahr Campbell writes:

The black-and-white image was shocking to the U.S. and international public alike. There sat a 32-year-old wife and mother, killed for killing. Her blurred figured seemed to evoke her struggle, as one can imagine her last, strained breaths. Never before had the press been able to attain such a startling image—one not made in a faraway war, one not taken of the aftermath of a crime scene, but one capturing the very moment between life and death here at home.

It is one thing to know that executions are happening and another to see it, if mediated, with one’s own eyes.

Pictures can powerfully alter the dynamics of political debates.  Lennart Nilsson‘s famous series of photographs of fetuses, for example, humanized and romanticized the unborn.  They also erased pregnant women, making it easier to think of the fetus as an independent entity. A life, even.

Unfortunately, Campbell’s article doesn’t delve any further into the effect of this photograph on death penalty debates.  To this day, however, no prisons allow photography during executions.  What if things were different?  How might the careful documentation of this process — with all our technology for capturing and sharing images — change the debate today?  And whose interests are most protected by keeping executions invisible?

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Sinking of Quicksand

“For many of us, quicksand was once a real fear,” write the producers at Radio Lab:

It held a vise-grip on our imaginations, from childish sandbox games to grown-up anxieties about venturing into unknown lands. But these days, quicksand can’t even scare an 8-year-old.

Interviewing a class of fourth graders, writer Dan Engber discovered that most understood the concept, but didn’t find it particularly worrisome.  “I usually don’t think about it,” said one.  They were more afraid of things like aliens, zombies, ghosts, and dinosaurs.  But they understood that it was something that people used to be afraid of: “My dad told me that when he was little his friends always said ‘look out that could be quicksand!’”

Engber became fascinated with what happened to quicksand.  He found a source of data — compiled by, of all things, quicksand sexual fetishists — that included every movie scene that involved quicksand from the 1900s to the 2000s.  Comparing this number to the total number of movies produced allowed him to show that quicksand had a lifecourse.  It rose in the ’40s, skyrocketed in the ’60s, and then fell out of favor.

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Why?

Engber found a pattern in the data.  In quicksand’s early years, the movie scenes featured quicksand as a very serious threat.  But, after quicksand peaked, it became a  joke.  In the ’80s, quicksand even made it into My Little Pony and Perfect Strangers.  Later, in discussions about plot lines for Lost, the idea of quicksand was dismissed as ridiculous.

I guess it’s fair to say that quicksand “jumped the shark.”

In sociology, we call this the social construction of social problems: the fact that our fears don’t perfectly correlate with the hazards we face.  In this case, media is implicated. What is it making us fear today?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How to Lie with Statistics: Stand Your Ground and Gun Deaths

At Junk Charts, Kaiser Fung drew my attention to a graph released by Reuters.  It is so deeply misleading that I loathe to expose your eyeballs to it.  So, I offer you this:

1The original figure is on the left.  It counts the number of gun deaths in Florida.  A line rises, bounces a little, reaches a 2nd highest peak labeled “2005, Florida enacted its ‘Stand Your Ground’ law,” and falls precipitously.

What do you see?

Most people see a huge fall-off in the number of gun deaths after Stand Your Ground was passed.  But that’s not what the graph shows.  A quick look at the vertical axis reveals that the gun deaths are counted from top (0) to bottom (800).  The highest peaks are the fewest gun deaths and the lowest ones are the most.  A rise in the line, in other words, reveals a reduction in gun deaths.  The graph on the right — flipped both horizontally and vertically — is more intuitive to most: a rising line reflects a rise in the number of gun deaths and a dropping a drop.

The proper conclusion, then, is that gun deaths skyrocketed after Stand Your Ground was enacted.

This example is a great reminder that we bring our own assumptions to our reading of any illustration of data.  The original graph may have broken convention, making the intuitive read of the image incorrect, but the data is, presumably, sound.  It’s our responsibility, then, to always do our due diligence in absorbing information.  The alternative is to be duped.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How Do Physicians and Non-Physicians Want to Die?

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

A recent RadioLab podcast, titled The Bitter End, identified an interesting paradox. When you ask people how they’d like to die, most will say that they want to die quickly, painlessly, and peacefully… preferably in their sleep.

But, if you ask them whether they would want various types of interventions, were they on the cusp of death and already living a low-quality of life, they typically say “yes,” “yes,” and “can I have some more please.”  Blood transfusions, feeding tubes, invasive testing, chemotherapy, dialysis, ventilation, and chest pumping CPR. Most people say “yes.”

But not physicians.  Doctors, it turns out, overwhelmingly say “no.”  The graph below shows the answers that physicians give when asked if they would want various interventions at the bitter end.  The only intervention that doctors overwhelmingly want is pain medication.  In no other case do even 20% of the physicians say “yes.”

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What explains the difference between physician and non-physician responses to these types of questions.  USC professor and family medicine doctor Ken Murray gives us a couple clues.

First, few non-physicians actually understand how terrible undergoing these interventions can be.  He discusses ventilation.  When a patient is put on a breathing machine, he explains, their own breathing rhythm will clash with the forced rhythm of the machine, creating the feeling that they can’t breath.  So they will uncontrollably fight the machine.  The only way to keep someone on a ventilator is to paralyze them. Literally.  They are fully conscious, but cannot move or communicate.  This is the kind of torture, Murray suggests, that we wouldn’t impose on a terrorist.  But that’s what it means to be put on a ventilator.

A second reason why physicians and non-physicians may offer such different answers has to do with the perceived effectiveness of these interventions.  Murray cites a study of medical dramas from the 1990s (E.R., Chicago Hope, etc.) that showed that 75% of the time, when CPR was initiated, it worked.  It’d be reasonable for the TV watching public to think that CPR brought people back from death to healthy lives a majority of the time.

In fact, CPR doesn’t work 75% of the time.  It works 8% of the time.  That’s the percentage of people who are subjected to CPR and are revived and live at least one month.  And those 8% don’t necessarily go back to healthy lives: 3% have good outcomes, 3% return but are in a near-vegetative state, and the other 2% are somewhere in between.  With those kinds of odds, you can see why physicians, who don’t have to rely on medical dramas for their information, might say “no.”

The paradox, then — the fact that people want to be actively saved if they are near or at the moment of death, but also want to die peacefully — seems to be rooted in a pretty profound medical illiteracy.  Ignorance is bliss, it seems, at least until the moment of truth. Physicians, not at all ignorant to the fraught nature of intervention, know that a peaceful death is often a willing one.

Cross-posted at Pacific StandardThe Huffington Post, and BlogHer.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Unsung Heroes of the Crash Landing in San Francisco

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Like many people, I’ve been following news about the crash landing in San Francisco. It’s a frightening reminder of the risks that come with air travel, but an uplifting one thanks to the small number of casualties.  The Mayor of San Francisco was quoted saying: “We’re lucky we have this many survivors.”  And the Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department said that it was “nothing short of a miracle…”  At CNN, after mentioning the two confirmed fatalities, the reporter writes, “Somehow, 305 others survived.” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote that it was a “serious moment to give thanks.”  But to whom?

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There’s a kind of person who is trained to maximize survival in the case of a plane crash: the flight attendant.  Airlines don’t advertise the intense training their flight attendants receive because it reminds potential passengers that air travel is risky.  As a result, most people seriously underestimate the skills flight attendants bring on board and the dedication they have to the safety of their passengers.

Flight attendants have to learn hundreds of regulations and know the safety features of all of the aircraft in their airline’s fleet. They must know how to evacuate the plane on land or sea within 90 seconds; fight fires 35,000 feet in the air; keep a heart attack or stroke victim alive; calm an anxious, aggressive, or mentally ill passenger; respond to hijackings and terrorist attacks; and ensure group survival in the jungle, sea, desert, or arctic.

It isn’t just book learning; they train in “live fire pits” and “ditching pools.”As one flight attendant once said:

I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol or a servant. I think of myself as somebody who knows how to open the door of a 747 in the dark, upside down and in the water (source).

This is why I’m surprised to see almost no discussion of the flight attendants’ role in this “miracle.” Consider the top five news stories on Google at the time I’m writing: CNNFoxCBS, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today.  These articles use passive language to describe the evacuation: “slides had deployed”; all passengers “managed to get off.”  When the cabin crew are mentioned, they appear alongside and equivalent to the passengers: the crash forced “dozens of frightened passengers and crew to scamper from the heavily damaged aircraft”; “passengers and crew were being treated” at local hospitals.

Only one of these five stories, at Fox, acknowledges that the 16 cabin crew members worked through the crash and its aftermath.  The story mentions that, while passengers who could were fleeing the plane, crew remained behind to help people who were trapped, slashing seat belts with knives supplied by police officers on the ground.  The plane was going up in flames; they risked their lives to save others.

I don’t know what the flight attendants on this plane did or didn’t do to minimize injuries or save lives, but I would like to know.  Instead, they are invisible in these news stories as workers, allowing readers and future passengers to remain ignorant of the skills and dedication they bring to their work.

Cross-posted at JezebelPolicyMic, Huffington Post, and BlogHer.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Red Bull’s Historically Stupid Thanksgiving Fantasy

Still from a 2013 Red Bull commercial:

Red Bull TV Commercial

The winter of 1620 was a devastating one for the colonists who had just arrived from England in New Plymouth.  They suffered from scurvy, exposure to the elements, and terrible living conditions.  Almost half (45 out of 102) died; only four of the remaining were women.

They made contact with the Wampanoag tribe in March.  The tribe taught them how to grow corn and donated food to the colony.  Thank to their help, the pilgrims were able to celebrate a harvest, or thanksgiving, that fall.  It was attended by the 53 remaining pilgrims and 90 indigenous Americans.

That’s why this Red Bull commercial is so annoying.  In the final 12 seconds, you see four pilgrims and two Indians, three women and three men. So, by pure numbers, reversed and heavily female.  The turkey is served by a pilgrim, sending the message that the pilgrims were feeding the Indians and not vice versa.  It’s a woman, of course, but likely most of the food preparation would have done by men, since they were 77% of the colonist population.

But, it nicely lines up with how we apparently think the world should be today: multicultural but majority white, with women cooking, and everyone paired up in same-race, heterosexual monogamy.

It’s the little things, you know.

Thanks to Jeff S. for the tip!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Death Penalty, Race, and the Victim

There is much to be worried about when one considers the role racial discrimination plays in delivering the death penalty.  Scholars are newly looking to the way that the race of homicide victims, instead of the defendants, shape outcomes.  It turns out a disproportionate number of people who are executed under the death penalty have been convicted of murdering a white person (Amnesty International):

“[H]olding all other factors constant,” Amnesty International summarizes, “the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.”

Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.