The news, like the spy balloon, is all over the place today. Let’s see (like the spy balloon!) if I can weave it into a coherent narrative before we drift (…you get it) into the weekend.
The Big Takeaway
Some background, for anyone living under a rock (a prescient choice, in these nefarious inflatable times): Federal officials confirmed Thursday that the military had been monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon hovering over Montana, home to more than 100 intercontinental ballistic missile silos. Defense leaders said they had considered shooting it down, but opted against it for fear that the resulting debris could injure people on the ground.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry apologized for the incident on Friday, telling the State Department that the balloon was for civilian research and had “deviated far from its course.” (By Friday afternoon, it had “deviated” all the way to the middle of the country.) U.S. officials said they had confirmed that the device, which looks like a satellite attached to a white fabric bubble, does not interfere with aviation and is not capable of collecting sensitive information.
But the situation was still unsettling for officials in Montana, who had already been wary of attempts by foreign adversaries to encroach on the state’s infrastructure. Just last week, lawmakers considered a bill that would prevent hostile nations from purchasing land in the state, the Daily Montanan reported. With a surveillance bubble hovering over the state, the proposal took on new urgency, proponents said.
“This is yet another example of the seriousness of China's interest in operating asymmetrically within the U.S.'s borders,” state Sen. Kenneth Bogner, a Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “My bill … is important to pass so that nations like China cannot gain a physical foothold in our state.”
A Senate agriculture committee has yet to vote on the legislation, which would ban governments or residents from certain countries from owning, leasing or renting agricultural land or critical infrastructure in Montana. But no one opposed the bill at a Jan. 26 legislative hearing, where it drew supportive testimony from farmers, ranchers and real estate agents. Bogner said then he was mulling several potential amendments, including an enforcement mechanism and a method for identifying entities who purchase land via shell corporations. The protection is a proactive move for the state, he added.
“We need to be securing our borders against those countries that want to do us harm,” he said.
Of course, America does plenty of surveillance on its own. A Black lawmaker in Oregon was stopped twice by police on his way home from the state Capitol this week, an all-too-familiar occurrence he said highlights the tendency of law enforcement officers to disproportionately target people of color.
“I’m not saying these cops were racist, right?” state Rep. Travis Nelson, a Portland Democrat and a nurse, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle. “I’m not saying that they pulled me over saying ‘Hey, I’m gonna get that n-word.’ But I am concerned that there may have been some unconscious bias there, and I am concerned for other Black people who aren’t legislators, who aren’t nurses, who are getting stopped by police.”
The Oregon State Police had legitimate reasons to pull him over, Nelson said. On Monday, it was for speeding (though Nelson said he was driving more slowly than other cars) and not staying in his lane (which he disputes). The next day, he gave a floor speech about Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man beaten to death by Memphis police officers after a traffic stop. The night after that, as Nelson attempted to reconnect to a Zoom call while driving home, police lights once again flashed behind his car.
“It’s the first day of Black History Month, and I’m getting pulled over. Again,” an exhausted Nelson said in a video he recorded after pulling to the side of the road. “Second time in a week.”
Each time, police let Nelson off with a warning. A spokesman for the Oregon State Police said the agency had spoken to Nelson about both stops, as well as reviewed video to evaluate the officers’ conduct. The footage did not reveal any problems, Capt. Kyle Kennedy said.
“We take any allegation of racial bias seriously and are committed to eradicating racism from our profession,” he added. “We seek to understand how our enforcement efforts impact the communities we serve.”
As in virtually every other state, criminal justice reform is a mixed bag in Oregon. State police disproportionately stopped and cited people of color in 2021, according to an analysis from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. But a subsequent report found no statistically significant disparities in stop rates for people of color and white people.
But for many Black Oregonians, it doesn’t feel that way. After tweeting the video of his second traffic stop, Nelson heard from multiple Black people who related similar experiences with police. (He heard from white people, too. Most of them said they’re rarely pulled over, even when they speed or use their phones.) The experience isn’t even unique among lawmakers — state Sen. Lew Frederick, another Portland Democrat, said last year he’s pulled over in his own neighborhood at least once a year for small infractions like malfunctioning tail lights.
The experience isn’t unique, period. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus reiterated that message Thursday at the White House as they urged President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to use executive power for police reform. The plea followed murder charges for the five police officers who beat Nichols to death in Memphis, our national bureau reported.
“The death of Tyre Nichols is yet another example of why we do need action,” U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) told Biden in the Oval Office. “We need your help to make sure we can get the legislative actions that are necessary to save lives and to make public safety the priority that it needs to be for all communities.”
Biden was amenable to the idea, which is largely meaningless, because there’s not much he can do on his own. Substantive criminal justice changes would need to be approved by Congress, and that’s probably a nonstarter too, because Congress is … Congress. House Republicans tend to vote against police reform measures that attempt to actually reform policing. Democrats are sometimes able to push those measures through anyway, but that just prolongs their inevitable death in the Senate. Usually that’s because of the filibuster, but other times, it’s because there is no bipartisan consensus on anything important, ever.
And that’s where we are now. U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) had been hammering out the details of a potential policing accountability bill, but those talks fell apart on Thursday due to a fundamental disagreement of the definition of “accountability.” Specifically: Booker seemed to want … you know, accountability, whereas Scott just wanted to send more cash to police departments.
“I’ve been working toward common ground solutions that actually have a shot at passing,” Scott wrote on Twitter. “Solutions to increase funding and training to make sure only the best wear the badge.”
“The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we care more about tribalism, posturing, and preserving the status quo?” he continued, seemingly without irony. “Or do we care about actually doing our jobs and restoring faith in our nation? Put me down for the latter.”
The problem is that Congress has already approved those types of “solutions,” which have solved exactly zero problems. Last year, Biden signed into law a bill allocating $124 million for law enforcement agencies to implement de-escalation tactics developed by the Department of Justice. That was separate from four House bills that provided extra funding to police departments for mental health professionals and crime-solving technology. The funding boosts were approved in a year when law enforcement officers killed at least 1,192 people. More than a quarter of the victims were Black people, who comprise just 13% of the population nationwide. Put another way, Black people were three times more likely than white people to be killed by police in 2022 — despite being less likely to be armed.
By itself, funding does not appear to be the answer, though no one seems to know what the answer might be. Traditional reform measures were in place in Memphis, where police wear body cameras and are governed by a civilian oversight board. None of that prevented five officers from killing Tyre Nichols. And no one, including Biden, has an explanation for that or an idea to fix it. They have plenty of platitudes, though.
“My hope is this dark memory spurs some action that we’ve all been fighting for,” Biden said. “We gotta stay at it as long as it takes.”
From The Newsrooms
One Last Thing
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