Tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest the recent deaths of several unarmed Black men at the hands of law enforcement officers. Carrying signs such as “Black Lives Matter,” the protesters sought to raise awareness of what they see as malignant anti-Black racism saturating American society.

The sparks for the demonstrations came from two cases where Black men who were not indicted for any crimes died at the hands of police. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., Brown was shot to death resisting arrest under suspicion of robbery, and Garner died after being placed in a choke hold while being apprehended for selling untaxed cigarettes.

Family members of several others killed by police or vigilantes turned out as well: The family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy killed in Ohio as he played with a pellet gun in a park; the mother of Amadou Diallo, who in 1999 was shot and killed in the Bronx by four New York City police officers; and the family of Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., in 2012.

The nationwide protests were mostly peaceful, with only a handful of minor arrests. In Washington, D.C., where more than 20,000 people gathered, there were no arrests over the weekend as speakers urged the need for constructive dialogue to bring a greater appreciation of the inequalities in the American justice system.

But to combat a problem, you need to understand it, and you can’t understand something if your perceptions and opinions are based on anecdotes and emotions. You can’t craft solutions without sound evidence. To do so is to foment distrust from those who are singled out to alter their behavior.

And that’s part of the problem with the recent string of high profile incidents of Black men unnecessarily dying. There is no hard evidence about how many times police shoot suspects, under what conditions these shooting occur, who gets shot and how many people die.

The Washington Post reported in September that the Justice Department does not keep a comprehensive database or record of police shootings. Instead, the nation’s more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies self-report officer-involved shootings as part of the FBI’s annual data on “justifiable homicides.”

With data from just 750 law enforcement agencies, the Justice Department pegs the annual number of “justifiable” uses of deadly force at 400. Some independent analysts put the number at 1,000. Nobody knows for sure, though we do keep close track of how many law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty each year.

We can and should do both, because without adequate data, it’s difficult to establish programs that might reduce the number of unnecessary shootings.

“The way we improve practices is to take information about what’s happening in the field to make those improvements,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonpartisan think tank in D.C. told the Post. “The more we know about (the number of officer-involved shootings) the better off we’ll be.”

Skeptics suggest the reason for the lack of information on police shootings is because law enforcement officials don’t want it to be made public out of concern it may create a public backlash. Well, it’s too late to worry about that now.

Whether it can be accomplished administratively — or if Congress needs to approve legislation to get it done — the country needs begin the thorough tracking and analysis of all lethal and nonlethal police shootings so that the tragic incidents that have brought Americans into the streets can be avoided at all costs.

The Nashua Telegraph

Newly-built NASA tower astronomical waste

According to a story in The Washington Post, NASA is shutting down a $350 million laboratory tower in Gulfport, Miss. The facility will cost $700,000 a year to maintain in mothball mode.

Construction of the state-of-the-art facility just barely finished up, in June, of this year. It will never be used because “the rocket program it was designed for had been canceled in 2010,” the Post reports.

After Congress killed the program for which the tower was built, the feds kept building because “bureaucrats didn’t want to stop the construction on their own authority. And then Congress — at the urging of a senator from Mississippi — swooped in and ordered the agency to finish the tower, no matter what.”

The shuttered tower, promised as a next-gen wunder-facility from which trips to Mars would launch, is now an expensive metaphor for bureaucratic waste, abuse, confusion, inefficiency and incompetence.

The Caledonian Record of St. Johnsbury (Vt.)

Yielding to hackers a step backward for democracy

Maybe James Franco and Seth Rogen should have pitched Sony executives a script about the unintended consequences of making a supposedly satirical movie about assassinating the young, unstable ruler of North Korea.

Because that’s the scenario unfolding from “The Interview,” the movie the two actually made, which now is unlikely to be shown anywhere.

The fallout from Sony Pictures’ capitulation to the demands of the hackers — now generally acknowledged by several sources to be the cyber-terror arm of the North Korean government — will have a disturbing ripple effect.

It sets an ominous precedent. It’s a direct attack on every democratic society’s freedom of expression. Now we’re open to blackmail threats from every repressive regime or group of anarchists that might be offended by any form of criticism.

Can corporate interests be so easily cowed by this isolated country that can’t even feed its own people?

As one expert on North Korea told Fox News: “Sony was stupid to make a movie about killing Kim Jong Un, but it was even more stupid to cave into pressure.”

Obviously, these threats, on the heels of the deadly hostage siege at a Sydney, Australia, cafe, were seen as significant enough for Sony to pull the film.

Plus the images of the July 2012 mass murder of moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., by a lone gunman that left 12 dead and 70 injured have not faded away.

And while Sony Pictures’ headquarters are in Culver City, Calif., its parent company’s base is in Japan — uncomfortably close to the Korean Peninsula.

Considerations, while valid, wildly overstated the actual threat.

While the hackers certainly showed their prowess in exposing sensitive emails of Sony executives, their ability to coordinate Sept. 11-style attacks was slim and none. “Zero” is how one security expert described it.

Even President Obama, in an interview with ABC News, encouraged Americans to go to the movies.

So it appears we can chalk this up to the realities of the post 9/11 world in which we live.

It’s another challenge leveled by those who despise everything about us.

We can either continue to carry on as citizens of a free society, or allow ourselves to be intimidated by forces hell bent on degrading our way of life in any way they can.

In this case, we took a step backward.

College degrees vital, but cost stifling

Loan debt is now as much a part of the college experience as frat parties and all-night study sessions, but it wasn’t always so. In fact, in the 1980s, tuition made up less than a quarter of funding for higher education. With state and federal money paying the bulk of the costs, students graduated with minimal debt, if any at all.

That has changed in the last 30-plus years, as public colleges and universities around the country began relying less and less on public funding, and more on tuition and fees from students. The trend only accelerated during the Great Recession, even as more people left the sour job market to seek degrees, forcing schools to either raise tuition or cut valuable programs.

As a system created to provide access to higher education for everyone, regardless of economic status, that is unacceptable, and unsustainable.

The shift in funding, taking place through less than four decades, is remarkable.

According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, tuition accounted for less than 24 percent of higher education funding nationwide in 1988. By the start of the Great Recession in 2008, that number had risen to more than 35 percent. Now, it is 47 percent.

In Maine, the same has happened, only worse. In 1988, the average student in the University of Maine System paid less than a quarter of the total sticker price of their education. By 2008, however, students were picking up half the tab, and by 2013, almost 58 percent of higher education funding came from students.

This increasing reliance on tuition has helped push the cost of state universities and colleges up 230 percent since 1980. Meanwhile, programs such as Pell grants meant to help low-income students afford college have failed to keep up; Pell grants once covered 70 percent of the costs of going to a public institution, but now only cover 30 percent.

And through this same time period, real income, especially at lower levels, has remained almost unwaveringly static.

So in the same time that a college degree has grown increasingly critical to one’s future employment and earnings, it also has become more out of reach for low- and middle-income families.

There was some hope in the last fiscal year, when state funding for higher education ticked up slightly after four years of decreases following the 2008 crash. In Maine, last year brought a slight increase in state funding coupled with a small decrease in tuition, when adjusted for inflation.

But it will take continued investment to reverse a now decades-long trend that has weakened public colleges and universities, left many graduates with stifling debt, and kept others from pursuing higher education altogether. If public higher education is going to remain a great instrument for building the middle class, that has to change.

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