True stories of life off the grid

— Well, it’s that time again. Every four years, like clockwork, the big talk pronouncements begin: the promises soon to be left unfulfilled, the bellicose hype that months from now will be long gone and gladly forgotten. All the chest-thumping and jingoism that we are seeing right now will just melt away and we will go back to business as usual.

You know what I’m talking about. The Summer Olympics? Nope. Guess again. Wait — is LeBron James leaving Cleveland again? No. (Well, let’s see how the playoffs go first. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Go Warriors!)

What I am actually referring to is all the declarations from people saying, “If such and such candidate wins the election, then I’m going move to (insert name of country with a way more strict immigration policy than the speaker realizes).”

Admittedly, most of these empty proclamations come from the left. The right doesn’t usually threaten to leave the country. When the right feels threatened, it just declares it is going to invent a time machine to take the country back so that America can be “great again.” But the upshot of this desire isn’t wanting to live in another country — it’s wishing to untether yourself completely from reality or at least from the reality of the direction this country is moving in.

If you are threatening to leave or know someone who is, then this week’s “United Shades of America” is for you. In this episode, we head to Asheville, North Carolina, and to the hinterlands of Tennessee to experience life off the grid. To be off the grid is to be disconnected from most of America’s infrastructure without having to cross any border.

For some of the reported 180,000 American families who are doing it, being off the grid means living in a 265-square-foot home not connected to a sewer system, a city’s electrical grid or gas utilities. I had a great time meeting Natalie Pollard, who showed me the tiny home she owns. Her self-described “minimalist” house was sturdy and comfortable, but at the end of the day, as cute and (here’s a weird word to use about a tiny house) impressive as it was, I don’t want to have to think about what to do with all my bodily fluids (and worse) that have piled up throughout the day.

For others, living off the grid — outside the reach of “the Man” — is a form of ultimate patriotism. It means building a home way outside of town where nobody knows where you are — away from the government (and its taxes, building permits and firearms licenses). And of course then you have to load up on all the guns and ammo that you can find, so in case somebody does happen to stumble upon you they will think twice about asking to come in for dinner. While filming the episode, we got to hang out with one such man, who told me his name but wouldn’t show us his real face on camera (and I’m not holding my breath that it was his real name, either).

And still other people define off the grid as living simply, if not so cleanly. I met a guy named Tod Kershaw. (Yup, Tod is so off the grid he only uses one “d” in his name.) Tod decided years ago to strip away all the distractions, complications and frustrations of modern life (and I would say, a lot of the fun, too).

Tod is truly living off of the land. He lives in a thatch hut on the side of a hill in the forest, eating mostly whatever he can forage — though he does still throw an occasional latte into the mix. He is human after all.

I had some of Tod’s forage. And while I totally applaud his commitment to this way of life, I’m not ready to trade in my Yelp app for Tod’s bear meat. (Not that my phone would have made any difference in most of these places. Off the grid almost always means “no service.”)

And then finally in this episode, I met with people at The Farm. They went full on off the grid, and kind of ended up building their own grid in the process. It started out west in San Francisco with just a few people. Then they recruited a larger community and headed back East, out to the hinterlands of Tennessee, where they bought up acres of land and built a whole new town and intentional community, The Farm Community. And when they realized they needed an industry of some sort to sustain them, they came up with two things: tofu and babies. The Farm has a world-renowned midwifery program. If this sounds like a 1960s hippie vision of peace and love, I can confirm that it pretty much is.

All told, this off the grid thing is a messy business. And it is a business. In most major cities, you can find stores for urban homesteaders. They sell everything you need so that you won’t need anything. Sort of a “Take This Civilization and Shove It” starter kit.

Where do I fit in all of this you ask? Well, I don’t. While I too am often tired of the reach of the Man, I am appreciative of what the Man has to offer: GPS, WiFi, the Internet, my apps (Yelp, Lyft, Words with Friends, and well, pretty much everything on my phone that keeps me connected).

And to all my liberal friends out there talking tough about packing up and moving if a certain candidate becomes the next president, just know you aren’t truly off the map until you are off the grid.

W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian featured on “Kamau Right Now!” on KALW radio in San Francisco and CNN’s “United Shades of America,” which airs at 10 p.m. ET/PT Sundays. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

The crisis of ineffective and occasionally murderous policing

— On Wednesday a federal grand jury indicted former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager on charges of violating the civil rights of Walter Scott. Scott was a 50-year-old black man who had been pulled over in North Charleston by Slager for a broken tail light last April. Apparently at some point after Slager pulled Scott over, Scott ran.

The officer fired eight bullets at Scott, while the unarmed man ran away. Slager hit Scott in the back five times, killing him. To my mind, Scott probably ran because he was afraid of getting killed by a cop. Irony is nowhere near deep enough a word for this.

Let’s be clear. Michael Slager is being charged with a federal crime, after already being charged with murder by the state of North Carolina. And without a doubt much of the reason for these charges is the fact that the incident is easily seen on cellphone video. Without that video Slager’s initial story of fearing for his life because Scott had taken the officer’s Taser would have certainly been believed. But we all know that video evidence of police killing (or assaulting) unarmed, non-threatening people rarely leads to those officers doing any significant prison time.

So while a part of me wanted to be happy that Slager was indicted, another part of me knows that indictments — even as rare as they are — often mean nothing. Which means I — and people who look like me — walk around generally feeling like we are just one seemingly innocuous exchange with a police officer away from ending up a hashtag.

All of this was going through my mind when I re-watched the latest episode of “United Shades of America.” This episode focuses on policing in America, and not surprisingly, it was really not fun to make … and even less fun to watch again. I’m a comedian, therefore this show is sorta, kinda supposed to be a comedy show. And while there are certainly funny moments in this episode — I’m especially proud of my joke comparing cops to mountain lions — the material is not funny at all.

When we taped the episode last year, it felt like America as a whole was in the middle of actually talking about the crisis of ineffective, oppressive and occasionally murderous policing in this country and how that kind of policing especially affects the black community. A year later we are still in the middle of that conversation. And this is a conversation that the nation has seemingly been having forever in various ways.

The only thing that makes it regularly front page news now is the advent of cellphone video. But I’m old enough to know that video evidence of police wrongdoing doesn’t always make a difference. When video of the LAPD beating Rodney King into the ground was released, there was a feeling in the black community of “FINALLY! AMERICA WILL SEE WHAT WE’VE BEEN TELLING THEM FOR YEARS! THE POLICE ARE NOT TREATING US FAIRLY!”

OK, yes! The black people I knew said things much more explicit than, “The police are not treating us fairly,” but I figured CNN wouldn’t want me to quote the entire NWA song “F— tha Police” in this article.

By the end of the episode, I just felt cold. “Protect and Serve?” is about policing in America. And we talk about it by spending time in Camden, New Jersey, a city of slightly under 80,000 residents just across a bridge from Philadelphia.

Camden is like a lot of American cities, in that the police force and the community do not have the best relationship. But unlike in a lot of American cities, the Camden police force is actually trying to do something about it. And in the wake of community actions against police brutality like #BlackLivesMatter, protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the hunger strike by my hometown’s Frisco 5, I am happy to finally see a police department openly admit that they can do a much better job and to also hear them promise they will.

Law enforcement in Camden is turning back the clock to a style of policing that I’ve seen only in black and white movies. It’s called community policing. The idea is that the cops walk the beat, get to know the residents and therefore (hopefully) feel connected to the community. It used to be that in this situation, police actually had to live in the community. And while many officers do live in Camden, many don’t.

The idea behind community policing is that if the police force are members of the community — or at least spend lots of time in the community before the s— hits the fan — that maybe a future officer Slager isn’t just pulling over a random black guy. He’s pulling over Walter, a guy he knows or is at least familiar with enough to know that he is a good guy who is maybe going through some rough times. And maybe Walter knows this fictional officer enough not to freak out and run from him. Seems like a crazy dream … but a necessary dream to dream.

Many residents in Camden seem hopeful but tentative in fully turning their trust over to the cops. And on the other side, the cops seem equally tentative. By the end of the episode, I feel like I don’t know if this is going to work. It’s too soon. In the episode, I say it is a good start, but sitting here watching it a year later, I don’t know what “a good start” even means.

Camden seems like it could be Ground Zero for changing the way police operate in black neighborhoods, but it also seems like Ground Zero in that there are blocks and blocks that look like they were set designed for the sequel to “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

All that means is that it is critical that good things happen in Camden. There is a lot of civic pride in Camden. And, if anything, that is why I feel like Camden could return to being the healthy and thriving city that it once was. It is, however, going to take a ton of help to bring Camden back. And a lot of the help is going to have to come from the police department. I appreciate that, unlike most police departments, the Camden police understand that improving the relationship with the community starts with them.

My question in this episode is, “Are these the right cops?” When I walked the streets of Camden everyone felt tentative. The police were trying to connect with the residents, but I could tell that it was a directive from on high as opposed to a natural instinct. And many of the residents reacted the way you might react to a poisonous snake who says, “I promise. This time I won’t bite you.” “WHY SHOULD I BELIEVE YOU? AND WHY ARE YOU TALKING?” I understand that this is a process, but since lives are at stake I am nervous it won’t move quickly enough.

I sincerely hope for Camden that these are the cops for the job, but after watching the episode again, I honestly don’t know. If they are, we can use them in North Charleston; New York City; Ferguson; Oakland; Cleveland; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Waller County, Texas; Beavercreek, Ohio … and honestly, every city in this country.

A few years ago, when I was in New York City working on a TV show, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and saw a police officer. I must have jumped a little, because the cop looked a little surprised and said, “I … I just wanted to tell you that I like your show.” I smiled quickly and said thank you, and the officer left. Meanwhile my heart was still doing a Lars Ulrich-style drum solo in my chest. A person nearby who saw the whole thing go down observed, “I think he wanted a picture, but he changed his mind.”

Weirdly, I felt bad. I love taking pictures with people who like my work. I’m happy to do that easy thing for anybody; at least that’s what I thought until that moment. Apparently, the officer saw a TV star, and I saw nothing but blue. In that moment, I forgot that I was even a comedian. I just knew I was a black man, and cops (especially ones from New York City) have reputations for taking more than black people’s pictures. I felt myself tense up. I was preparing for the worst in that moment. Which seems crazy to me, but it’s not, because plenty of black people have been killed at the hands of cops in situations not much different than that.

W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian, featured on Kamau Right Now! on KALW in San Francisco and CNN’s “United Shades of America,” airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.