No rest for the wicked or the innocent alike

In Judeo-Christian tradition, three days are set aside for the dead to find their way to heaven.  This is also a time for the families of the departed to grieve, but to grieve knowing that members of their family or community are guarding them against prying eyes or other grave-robbers in their moment of vulnerability while they deal with the tragedy that has befallen them.  The impulse is to put on a brave face for the public, to try to keep it together, as if one should be able to shrug off such a horrible loss with nothing more than a mannerly tear or two.

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, and the generalized addiction America has to outrage, this period of grief has been streamlined to about three minutes.

Earlier today, a terrible tragedy befell a town in Connecticut.  A young man, for reasons unknown, stormed into an elementary school in Newtown and viciously murdered 26 people – twenty of those small children, none more than ten.  This is a monstrous act, and one that we may never be able to understand.  I want to make clear that my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families touched by this horrible act – whether their children lost there lives, or merely their innocence.

Within hours of the shooting, I received emails from two different political organizations asking for my help in using the tragedy to push through laws favoring strong gun control – and donations were more than welcome.  I also received email from an organization opposing gun control, asking for similar assistance.  I have no reason to believe this is the last I will hear of these requests, but the fact that they were sent out before the dead had even all been positively identified – that their deaths were being politicized even before their bodies had gone fully cold – is also a monstrous, ghoulish act.  Less than six hours after the shootings, Mark Kelly, who is familiar with tragedy, being the husband to former Congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords, issued a statement offering condolences to the families who lost children, and in the same breath calling for gun control hearings, saying “This can no longer wait.”

Forgive me for disagreeing with you, Mr. Kelly, but I think it could have waited at least a day.  I think it could have waited until the parents of the children that were lost had time to draw a breath that didn’t immediately catch in their throat.  I think it could have waited until the children who survived finished crying themselves to sleep.

I think it could have waited until the families had a little time to mourn.

We’ve become addicted to sensationalism – we’re obsessed with more, with bigger, with better.  This is the culture that produces interviews like WTNH’s Erin Logan interviewing a young girl who survived unharmed, asking her what it was like – and when the answer wasn’t as sensational as she wanted, as we have come to expect, prodded her further and asking if everyone was “…crying, scared, wanting their parents to come get them?”

Pardon the vulgarity, but what the hell do YOU think? Is it really good journalism to poke at a victim clearly in emotional shock, and demand to know just HOW freaked out everyone was? Do you really need to push a small child into making a horrible, terrible tragedy worse by recounting the screams and cries of terrified children?  Is it truly newsworthy that children in danger will be upset?

There’s a difference between reporting the news, and manufacturing the news – and inappropriate questions like that plainly cross the line.  It’s obvious that the children were terrified – what next, shall we ask for direct quotes of the screams?  Recordings of the crying?

When does it cross the line?  As far as I can see, that’s long past.  Let them react on their own schedule, Ms. Logan.  Don’t pry the gory details out of a child.  Don’t pick at the scab before it’s even started to form.

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Rolling Jubilee

Recently, I read about the Rolling Jubilee – an offshoot of the OWS organization that focuses on buying up debt and forgiving it entirely – giving random Americans in crisis a surprise that could spell the difference between prosperity and a lifetime of poverty.  (News article here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/9666748/Occupy-Wall-Street-campaigners-buy-up-debt-to-abolish-it.html , read more about the organization here http://rollingjubilee.org/ .)  An idea struck that by attaching a significant tax benefit to this, we could encourage wealthy Americans to invest a small amount of their resources in America itself by helping its most financially vulnerable citizens on the road to solvency.  Rolling Jubilee estimates that with $50,000, they can buy up one million dollars of debt and forgive it, no strings attached.  That is a remarkable return on investment.  If the IRS considered debt forgiveness of this nature a charitable donation valued at the full value of the debt being forgiven, that would give debt forgiveness a compelling tax incentive for those in a position to donate.  To this end, I have sent the following letter to my Senators and Representatives, and to those entering office:

 

Recently, I read about the Rolling Jubilee project ( http://rollingjubilee.org/ ) – an effort by citizens to buy up debt of Americans in crisis for pennies on the dollar, and forgive it – giving a much-needed hand up to Americans working hard to maintain solvency.  This is a bailout of the people by the people – and it’s not costing Uncle Sam one dime.

I have a proposal that could make this charitable option very attractive for those Americans blessed with more disposable income than most – categorizing no-strings debt cancellation as a charitable donation for tax purposes, valued at the full value of the debt, not the price paid to purchase it.  This would allow wealthy Americans to see an immediate tax benefit to voluntarily sharing their wealth to assist those less fortunate, at a much greater return on investment than traditional charitable donations.

This would, of course, represent less tax revenue for the federal government over the short term.  However, the assistance this would provide to Americans in financial crisis would allow them to step out of poverty and rely less on government-funded social programs and community-funded charities, and perhaps allow them to use their resources to become small business owners – thus decreasing the cost of social programs, and increasing tax revenue overall in the long term.

I urge you to consider proposing legislation that would give wealthy Americans a strong tax incentive to cancelling debt.  It benefits the wealthy, it benefits those less fortunate, and it benefits America.

Sincerely,

 

 

If you think this is good for America, I strongly urge you to send a letter (feel free to use the above) to your Senators and Representatives asking them to please consider it.  This could benefit us all.

If you need help finding out who your Senators or Representatives are, visit http://www.senate.gov/index.htm and click the Find Your Senators area in the upper right of the page.  For Congresspersons, visit http://www.house.gov/ and type your ZIP code into the ‘Find Your Representative’ area in the upper right of the page.

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Time For A New Dream

Here’s the thing.

The American Dream has been twisted around and built up and made so impossible that not only is it something that can never really happen for most Americans, but it also lends itself to poisoning our sense of community. After all, if ‘you can do anything you want if you set your mind to it’ is true, then those less fortunate must not have tried, right? If the only thing required for reward is ambition, then the homeless must just be lazy. The jobless must not want to work, and the working poor must find it easier to complain about their lot in life than try to improve it. This is all self-evident from the ‘effort equals reward’ concept that lies at the core of the current American Dream.

And that dream is bull.

We simply don’t live in a world where all efforts are rewarded, where you can do anything you want in life if you want it badly enough and try your best, where we have fairytale endings. We just don’t. We live in a world where you can study hard, throw yourself into your education, and finish the first in your class – but still accomplish nothing because you’re not able to get enough scholarships to cover college expenses and your parents are working-class citizens who simply don’t have the resources to help. We live in a world where you can refine your craft and be the hardest worker in your field, and still never be taken seriously because you’re a woman in tech. We live in a world where you can do years of soul-searching to find out who you really are, find that one special someone who makes you feel complete, and still not be able to marry them because your state doesn’t think gay people deserve rights. We live in a world of random chance, bigotry, and institutionalized injustice. We live in a world where the original American Dream can only come true for you if you are either born rich and white, or born very, very lucky.

We need a new dream. We need to admit to ourselves that sometimes effort does not equal reward (though reward does still require effort), that the world is not a fair place, and that only a few dozen people will ever be astronauts, and chances are one of them isn’t going to be you. We need to admit to ourselves that the less fortunate didn’t do anything to cause or deserve their situation in the vast majority of cases. We need to admit that many who lose themselves in alcohol or drug abuse don’t choose their lives, they wind up there either through mental illness or the entirely understandable desire to just escape for a few minutes, and never realizing until it is too late the lasting cost of their escape. We need to understand that the woman selling her body to afford food and shelter for her child needs options, not a sex offender rap (Thanks, CA Prop 35). We need to finally admit to ourselves and to our next generation that sometimes, no matter how hard you try or how much you want to succeed, sometimes it isn’t going to happen, and that it is not a personal failure. It’s just how it is sometimes.

We need to make our American Dream a little more real if we want to pass it on to future generations without setting them up for failure and misery. We need to reach out to those less fortunate instead of shunning them for imagined offenses. We need to remember that we are members of a society, and that we all benefit when ‘yucky’ problems like fiscal injustice and worker exploitation are fixed. We need to remind ourselves that not everybody needs to be a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman. After all, someone’s got to be the sanitation worker or the electrician, and these are also worthy careers – and in fact pay pretty darn well if you have the skill and drive. And as long as you are succeeding by whatever ambitious but realistic goals you set for yourself, and you’re being a helpful member of your community by helping who you can, how you can – well that sounds like something worth dreaming about.

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On The Wrong LePage

(in response to the article found at http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/23/maine-governor-orders-labor-mural-takedown/ )

I grew up in Maine, and though we do have a few tall buildings, it is by no means a ‘city’ sort of state. You will not find the concrete jungles of New York, nor will you find the miles and miles and miles of sprawling city that California is so proud of, nor will you find the home offices of international powerhouses of finance or industry.

What you will find is about 1.3 million regular folks (roughly the population of San Diego spread over approximately 95 times the space), trying to get by as best they can in an area known for not a whole hell of a lot. Maine’s biggest exports are blueberries, toothpicks, and Stephen King novels. Common activities involve cursing Mother Nature, enjoying the outdoors, and working your fingers to the f*#$ing bone.

Much – perhaps even most – of Maine’s economy is labor-intensive. Fishing and logging, two of the most labor-intensive and dangerous jobs in the world, are responsible for a lot of the money made and spent there. Shipbuilding, leatherworking, agriculture – you name it, if it’s a pain in the ass to do and doesn’t pay near as well as it should, it’s probably responsible for the economic survival of at least two dozen towns and villages in Maine. The point I am trying to make here is that the vast bulk of folks from Maine fall solidly in the ‘labor’ camp and not that of ‘management’.

Enter Paul LePage, the new Republican governor whose politics are fairly typical of the post “oh crap those Tea Party guys are SERIOUS” Republican Party.

If there’s one thing the Maine government has fairly consistently gotten right, it is appreciation – or at least lip service – for the thousands and thousands of people who bust their humps from dawn to midnight, day after day, to keep the state working. The headquarters of the Department of Labor, for instance, has a gorgeous mural, spanning eleven panels and 36 feet, telling the history of the labor movement in Maine and some of its many conflicts. Students of labor history might remember reading of the massive strikes in 1937 at shoe mills sparked by ridiculously unsafe working practices and discriminatory management, or the strike in 1987 at the paper mill caused, among other reasons, by International Paper’s refusal to address environmental concerns and its attempt to eliminate the only holiday the mills granted its workers.

Furthermore, many of its conference rooms are named after heroes of the labor movement from all over, like the César Chávez room (if you don’t recognize that name immediately, you are doing yourself a great disservice by continuing to read this instead of Googling him), the Frances Perkins room (the Secretary of Labor under Franklin D Roosevelt – and the first woman to hold a department head position in the Federal government), and the William Looney room (a local boy from Portland who grew up to be the chairman of the House Committee on Labor and sponsored a bill limiting working hours for women and children in factories in the late 1800’s).

Governor LePage, however, has forgotten the thousands and thousands of people he attained his position on the very backs of, and is ordering the mural removed and the conference rooms renamed. It’s not as friendly to businesses as it should be, you see. Gives the message that Maine cares more about workers than it does about businesses, after all, and we can’t have that.

LePage, even though I no longer live in Maine, I grew up there and spent around two decades in it. I am still enough of a Mainiac to deliver this message to you without the slightest hesitation:

Get the hell out of our state.

For someone who cares so much about business, you certainly have none attempting to quiet the contributions of millions of hard working citizens who built this state from a blank forest to the burgeoning economy it is. You would not have your job if not for the hard working people in the Great State of Maine. The very house you live in, the Blaine House, was built by an old ship’s captain – someone who needed to really understand the delicate balance between labor and management, or risk being chucked overboard by the crew. How do you sleep at night within those walls, given how little you care for the people that put you there? Granted, nobody’s going to be tossing you over the side of a ship anytime soon, but you may find yourself woefully short of friends the next time the ballot boxes come out.

If there is one thing I learned after growing up in Maine, it is never, ever, ever anger someone – much less an entire population – near the tail end of a long, cold winter. Cabin Fever and other frustrations are at their peak, and folks from Maine have long memories. This won’t be forgotten for a long time, and 2015 is not as far off as you think. For that matter, we haven’t tossed a governor out early yet, but since you see no need to hold fast to history and tradition, why should we?

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Professional Courtesy

Welp.

My wife, Mimi, had been in communication with a recruiter for some job up in Connecticut, and the topic of salary came up. She was countering his offer with a request for a higher wage, because after all, as she put it, ‘a girl’s gotta eat’.

His response was a picture of a half-naked anorexic girl – anorexic to the point where her abdomen was hideously deformed and the contour of her organs were visible. He apparently thought this was funny.

After she finished her immediate reaction (shock and horror, to be precise), she called the company’s front desk to get to HR. It was shortly after 5PM, however, so they were closed. She replied to the email he sent with a request to have his supervisor call or email.

Within moments, her phone rang. It was the person who had sent the email, trying to talk her out of getting him in trouble because hey, it was just a joke, right?

I’m not sure exactly what he said, but it must have been good, because Mimi decided to leave it at that provided he didn’t contact her anymore. She also commented that she was no longer interested in the position, as if that were not obvious enough.

What sort of person thinks sending an image like that in professional communication is acceptable in any way? Unfortunately, this happens all the time: Far more often than any statistics will tell you, women and minorities are harassed, marginalized, and oppressed in ‘professional’ environments all over the place. Let’s analyze the event and really see what it COMMUNICATES from a psychological perspective.

The context of the event is a discussion of salary for a potential new job. The recruiter has made a salary offer, the potential employee is countering with a request for a slightly higher salary, with the lighthearted comment ‘A girl’s gotta eat’. The recruiter responds, agreeing to the higher salary, attaching the aforementioned image. The image is not referenced in the body of the email. The potential employee responds, asking what the image was about, and he replied "You said a girl’s gotta eat, the one below doesn’t look she has to eat" [sic] . One assumes he meant to say that the girl did not look like she had to eat.

At best, at absolute best, he is being sarcastic and was trying to indicate that she would not starve on the wage. However, even if we assume the best, we are still faced with the fact that we are dealing with a person who thinks that a crippling disorder is funny. We are still faced with someone who looks at the plight of young girls driven to mental illness by the culture of misogyny, whose illness manifests in literally starving themselves to death for fear of being fat and therefore ‘unpersoned’ by our culture – a person who looks at that and finds it amusing, and sees nothing wrong with referencing that in professional communication with a woman.

I want to be clear here that there is nothing wrong with having a peculiar sense of humor – myself, I have a very dark sense of humor. I laugh at things that many people find broadly offensive, and that’s fine, because I am not forcing my idea of what’s funny on people in a professional environment. There is a certain level of etiquette that is expected in the workplace – and discussing the particulars of a potential job with a recruiter counts as ‘the workplace’ – that is expected to be followed. This isn’t even merely an issue of politesse, this is federal law.

Furthermore, the fact that the recruiter called her directly instead of putting her in touch with his supervisor is also questionable – when a line has been crossed like that, you forfeit your right to make it better on your own. When you are the problem, and have offended someone that profoundly, you must not make it worse by inflicting yourself on them any longer. Even if you suddenly understand your offense, and are granted a moment of clarity so you are certain you will not be offensive again, your mere presence in the conversation can be seen as oppressive or offensive by the person you offended. If I punch you in the face, and then tell you that I’m very sorry and promise not to do it again, you’re still going to be paying more attention to what I am doing with my hands than what I am saying with my mouth. So it is with offensive communication: If I confront you with an offensive image, and then apologize for it, you’re going to be thinking more about the offense I committed than what I am saying.

As it stands, Mimi is no longer considering employment with that firm. If she had been put in touch with the supervisor as she requested, the recruiter would definitely have been called onto the carpet for his actions, sure. But having a third party to discuss her concerns with may have allowed Mimi to regain some comfort, and not only soothed the damage, but also saved the business deal. For the recruiter to smooth things over himself saved his own skin, but sacrificed the business deal. It also subconsciously reinforces to the recruiter that his actions were acceptable, and that Mimi overreacted. Because after all, if he talked her down, that means everything’s okay, right? Perhaps getting disciplined by his human resources department – or undergoing mandatory sexual harassment sensitivity training – would have given the recruiter a much needed wake up call, and forced him to reconsider such actions in the future. I guess we’ll never know.

This isn’t the first or even the hundredth time I’ve been shown evidence that professional courtesy is anything but, but the sheer audacity of it was surprising. I can only hope the recruiter had simply started drinking a little early, and this was a result of temporarily impaired judgment instead of chronically impaired judgment.

It’s pretty sad when your best case scenario involves likely alcoholism.

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There but for the grace of somebody

The other day, I was out shopping with my wife and son – my father had sent him some bookstore gift cards for Christmas, so we were taking advantage of post-holiday sales. On our way in to the store, an older guy in a beat-up Army jacket got my attention and asked if I knew where the local homeless shelter was. I gave him directions to the PORT program down by the shipyard, and he thanked me profusely and said that he’d been asking for hours, and I was the first person who had even bothered to reply. We talked a little while, I gave him a visa gift card I had left over from the holidays that had five or ten bucks left on it, and told him where he could pick up a bus to the shelter.

While we were talking, a number of people passed by and gave me a look of… annoyed sympathy? ‘You’re not supposed to talk to those people, and I’m sorry you got roped into it’, that sort of thing. It was being made clear to me that I had broken the social contract by acknowledging someone that is supposed to be invisible – especially near a ‘nice’ shopping area where poor people aren’t supposed to exist at all.

Despite all our claims that America is a land of equal rights and freedom for all, despite all our grandstanding about how caste systems in other cultures are Bad and Evil, there are very clear lines between Us and Them in American culture. The dark side of the American Dream – ‘You can do anything if you try’ – is the assumption that those who can’t do something as simple as feed and shelter themselves just isn’t trying. The assumption is made that they WANT to live under a bridge and eat out of a dumpster. We justify ignoring them and not sparing them some change by convincing ourselves that they’d just spend it on drugs or booze and not food or shelter.

The problem with homeless people is that lingering second word there – ‘people’. Despite all our handwaving about how they’re a bunch of violent drug addicts who will follow you home and rob you blind if you give them the change from your frappucino, despite all the election-season hollering by politicians promising to ‘get those homeless OUT of our fair city’, despite Hollywood painting them alternately as schizophrenics or Magical Negroes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_negro), homeless people are just that – people. Sure, some are drug addicts, but most aren’t. Sure, some are violent, but most aren’t. Sure, some are homeless by choice, but the VAST MAJORITY are not. The vast majority of homeless people are far, far more similar to you and me than we are comfortable with. Just regular folks who had something happen – got laid off perhaps, got thrown out by a partner or a family member, got hurt and lost everything to medical bills – and now they can’t afford their basic needs. Yes, there are shelters and soup kitchens, but they are woefully underfunded and undermanned. I have yet to find a single place in America where the number of beds in homeless shelters exceeds or even matches the number of homeless people who need them.

I’m not asking you to donate your time and money to homeless programs in your area (though it would be nice). I’m not asking you to donate money to homeless people directly (though that, again, would be nice, and if you’re worried about it being used for drugs or booze, keep a couple $5 gift cards to grocery stores in your wallet for this purpose). All I’m asking is for you to stop treating people as invisible because their existence is threatening to your worldview. That right there, that simple change in your outlook, will go further toward ‘solving the homeless problem’ than you’d expect. It’s a lot harder to treat someone like garbage when you actually see them as a person.

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Fear and Loathing for Sanity

Driving to our nation’s capital from Southern Virginia, you pass by a whole lot of military and governmental installations: Belvoir, Quantico, Alexandria, and others. I was driving near Richmond, looking at the fog collecting over the swamps by the side of the interstate, and listening to Simon and Garfunkel singing about finding America. I had expected to write a pithy piece about how the Rally to Restore Sanity would show Washington that the loose assortment of hipsters, internet geeks, and slacktivists that they had previously largely ignored (with few notable exceptions) had suddenly become the Next Big Voting Pool, and write a message of hope for the future and an admonishment to not lose the momentum.

In the interests of covering all my bases, however, I came equipped with a flask of bourbon, a packet of cigars, a cell phone with still and video camera, and my trusty laptop. I’d forgotten the condoms, but was otherwise perfectly equipped to commit acts of journalism. A good friend had suggested I leave my ever-present knife at home, so I stashed it in the car. Sanity and all that, and besides, this wasn’t expected to be too bonkers.

Over the next twelve hours, I was proven wrong in more ways than I could have ever imagined, and a couple times I mourned the absence of the knife.

I generally wear a three-day shave, a Hulk Hogan moustache, dark glasses, a purple paisley do-rag, and a Popeye squint when out in public because that way the sort of people who aren’t worth talking to will leave you the hell alone on the subway. I immediately fell into a discussion on labor unions with a photojournalist, his wife, and a guy who looked like the love child of Steve Buscemi and Vinnie Barbarino. When the immensely crowded train lurched to a halt at L’Enfant Plaza and issued forth its passengers, we were directed toward the Mall by cheerful, lucid volunteers. I began to wonder if maybe my suspicions of madness were unfounded, and then I turned a corner to see a guy holding a sign demanding no amnesty or guest worker visas for immigrants, and immediate deportation of anyone found here illegally. I asked him what exactly he meant by that, and he replied in heavily accented English that if you weren’t born here, you shouldn’t be here. I asked him where his ancestors were from and he didn’t seem to understand the relevance of the question. The point that basically everybody but Native Americans were immigrants to America, and we were pretty uniformly dicks to those guys sailed straight over his head, and he stopped paying attention to me at that point.

Over the next few hours, I was vomited on twice by people I assumed to be unrelated, witnessed an old man in wizard robes lick the back of a policeman’s hat (the policeman was distracted by screaming at a very stoned young man who had climbed one of the trees in the Mall), listened to a surprising assortment of excellent musical acts, had my phone stolen a couple times (luckily everyone was immobilized by the crowd so retrieval was a simple matter of snatching it back and threatening the thief with anatomically unlikely retribution), and witnessed unholy anarchy as the local cellular networks were completely destroyed by sheer force of numbers and everyone tried their calls, text messages, and Qik uploads over… and over… and over again. AT&T never had a chance.

By the time the rally was over, the National Mall east of 7th and every possible surface for a couple blocks in every direction was UTTERLY jammed with a seething mass of humanity. On my way out, I saw people had climbed the portable toilets – some looking for their comrades, others jeering and preaching to the crowd, and a couple folks doing jumping jacks. The toilets, including the impromptu exercise yard, were still in constant use despite the rapidly disintegrating roofs. I can only imagine some poor jerk trying to answer nature’s call got a surprise.

Discarded signs, flyers, food wrappers and water bottles, assorted effluvia and bodily fluids, and the occasional demolished cell phone littered the ground, and the word on the street was WHAT’S NEXT – afterparties, pub crawls, and the never-ending quest for illicit substances. However, just as much as that was chatter about the midterm elections – who was secretly or not-so-secretly a tea party stooge, who was trying to do the right thing but bogged down by the politics game, who was a pretty good incumbent but should step down to make room for a rising star with some good ideas and enough political capital to make them happen.

My God, I thought, maybe I was right all along and this WAS the slacktivist voter pool captured in the act of becoming. Its birth – or perhaps baptism – was just a little dirtier than most. I kept those particular stars in my eyes right up to the point where I finally punched my way onto the exiting subway, and an unknown but very friendly gentleman in his twenties squeezed my genitals, along with the genitals of several other folks on the subway, before somehow wriggling through the crowded train and escaping the wrath of the groped.

I love Washington.

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Citizen Journalism: Alive and Well

There’s an unfortunate attitude among many members of law enforcement organizations that they are themselves above the law. You need look no further than a cursory Google search on abuses of power by police officers, evidence mishandling by prosecutors, or corrupt judges to see that. Law enforcement officers are, after all, human, and just as fallible and prone to hypocrisy and excess as you or I.

Enter the rise of technology. Video recording equipment has gotten smaller and cheaper, with cameras in teddy bears to help spy on the babysitter, built into mobile phones to let you take video snapshots anywhere, and helmet-mounted cameras to record adventures. Staff Sgt Anthony Graber (MD Air Nat’l Guard) has one of the latter, and used it while riding his motorcycle on March 5th (and admittedly driving VERY irresponsibly). He was pulled over by Trooper J. D. Uhler of the Maryland State Police – not in uniform or wearing any identifying clothing whatsoever – who displayed his sidearm BEFORE properly identifying himself as a member of law enforcement, a gross violation of departmental policy. ( http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-police-cameras-graber-20100903,0,5148683.story )

Fortunately for Graber, he captured every detail of the traffic stop with his camera, and uploaded it to YouTube. The Maryland State Police found it, and executed a search warrant on his home, seizing cameras and computers, stating that his recording of the traffic stop was a violation of the Maryland Wiretap Act ( http://mlis.state.md.us/asp/statutes_respond.asp?article=gcj&section=10-401&Extension=HTML ), claiming that the interaction between Trooper Uhler and Staff Sgt Graber was a ‘private conversation’ and therefore protected under the Act.

Judge Emory Pitt Jr of the Harford County Circuit Court threw out those charges in a 20 page decision ( http://www.scribd.com/doc/38308423/State-of-Maryland-v-Anthony-John-Graber-III ), explaining not only that the Act as written did not cover this situation, but that police officers do not have an expectation of privacy when executing their duties in public, nor should they. Quote: "Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public. When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation. ‘Sed quis custodiet ipsos cutodes [sic]‘ (Who watches the watchmen?)"

Though the judge’s ruling is not binding to other judges (as it is just a circuit court), it sets the beginnings of a precedent, and is based in a solid interpretation of both the law as written and existing case histories, so it is unlikely that the ruling will be overturned in a higher court. This is the beginning of the end for opacity in law enforcement, and the rest depends on the citizens of our nation to carry this further. Would the Rodney King beating have happened if the officers involved knew there was a good chance they would be recorded, and that the recording would turn up in court? If George Holliday, the man who videotaped King’s savage beating, hadn’t been around to videotape it, or if he had been scared of police reprisal for submitting the recording, would any of us have even heard of the abuse?

There are a number of ways you can help. If you have a mobile phone with onboard camera, use it. There is software available for almost any camera-equipped smartphone that will share recorded video and sound to Youtube, Facebook, or a number of other sites. One free software package called Qik ( http://www.qik.com ) offers an option for streaming your camera’s video live to the internet and keeps a copy of the video on the site regardless of what happens to the phone – very useful if you worry about your phone being confiscated by an angry law enforcement officer trying to hide evidence of their misdeeds. Note that in this case, it would also capture the confiscation itself on video. (Full disclosure: I use Qik, but have no ownership stake in their company or any vested interest whatsoever in their success or failure.)

Video isn’t the only way you can contribute to ‘watching the watchmen’ – never underestimate the power of the written word. If you witness something happening that shouldn’t be, commit as much as possible to memory, and write down the details as soon as you can, even if it’s just a quick note. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or even coherency, you can worry about that later. Submit tips to local news agencies – you might not be an anchorman or anchorwoman on the six o’clock news, but they don’t get their stories just from being in the right place in the right time. That’s your job.

Public meetings of local governmental organizations are also worth attending, you’d be surprised at the amount of graft and other nonsense that goes on simply because nobody spares an hour or two once a month to attend a public council meeting. Be warned, though, taking an interest in local politics can swiftly turn into an interest in participating in local politics – but that’s another article.

Not every judge can be counted on to do the right thing, unfortunately. Felicia Laverne Gibson, of Salisbury NC, is currently appealing a ruling upholding her arrest for ‘resisting, obstructing, or delaying a police officer’ for videotaping a traffic stop from her front porch. ( http://www.salisburypost.com/News/082110-Felicia-Gibson-guilty-resist-arrest-Mark-Hunter-qcd ) The judge who issued the ruling is currently seeking re-election, while Gibson and her attorney are seeking an appeal. As a sidebar, this is a problem that can be made slightly better by participating in local elections and making sure you’re putting the right judges on the bench.

On a final note, it’s worth stating that the vast, overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are honest – they go out and do their jobs intending only to serve the public need. It’s a tough, thankless job that I wouldn’t take for any amount of money – they are not the problem. The particular nature of law enforcement, however, means that the comparatively low number of ‘bad’ cops – or even good cops that make mistakes – have a seriously detrimental effect. If a bus driver has a bad day and takes it out on you, you might be late to work. If an armed police officer has a bad day, you get another news article about an unarmed man being murdered in a subway station ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10565543 ) or another unarmed man being brutally beaten at a traffic stop ( http://www.wfaa.com/news/crime/Dallas-officers-under-investigation-for-police-brutality-102479674.html ). This will only stop happening if law enforcement officers know that chances are good that anytime they abuse their powers, they will be watched, and the watchers will not be silenced.

"The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state." US Supreme Court, City of Houston v. Hill, 1987

http://supreme.justia.com/us/482/451/case.html

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Are we sliding towards (National) Socialism?

Back in 1919, a German gentleman named Anton Drexler and five associates founded the German Worker’s Party, hoping to represent the downtrodden workers of Germany: the poor, the unrepresented, the working classes sick of a government ignoring their needs and complaints. Fairly early on, it was infiltrated by a member of the German army sent to spy on the group and subvert it, largely to keep it harmless and stupid. Drexler and his associates swiftly found their party, which was intended to benefit all Germans by empowering and fortifying its lower classes, turned into the nightmarish Nazi Party, one of the very few groups in all of history who qualifies for the descriptor ‘evil’.

Ninety years later and five thousand miles away, another group of citizens was becoming displeased with what they saw as a government that had ceased to represent their interests. Protests were popping up all over the country, with a core message of holding the American government accountable for what the protesters saw as blatant disregard for the needs and concerns of the working classes. Over time, the Tea Party drew more and more supporters – many of which didn’t seem to fit in, like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, hardly working-class material. Accusations of their true motives have been bandied about ( http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/opinion/13krugman.html?_r=1 ), but as yet no real resistance has been put forth to keep outside interests from steering the Tea Party movement from its stated course.

I do not at all intend to compare Tea Party members with Nazis – I simply draw the parallel because both started as populist, working-class social and political movements, and both were or are being subverted to other ends. One ended up causing World War Two and being responsible for the deaths of millions. What will the other accomplish when it becomes a perverted version of itself?

Back in Germany after the end of the First World War, many were placing the military defeats and national weaknesses largely at the feet of social groups considered ‘Un-German’: Jews, Socialists, and people not showing sufficient amounts of patriotism. Pluralism – or the idea of cultural or ethnic groups inside a host country keeping their cultural or ethnic identity – was coming under fire as an example of insufficient national pride. After all, shouldn’t they be Germans first, and Jews or Russians or whatever second?

You don’t have to swap too many nouns around in that previous paragraph to strike a chilling resemblance to the rising movement of ‘America for Americans’. Again, I cannot stress strongly enough that I am not comparing the rank-and-file Tea Party members, or any man or woman acting on their conscience and protesting what they see as mistreatment by their government to Nazis. I draw these parallels to show how easily the movement was subverted from a populist movement demanding the return of government to its roots of representative democracy to a plutocratic (in the case of the Tea Party) or fascist (in the case of National Socialism) coup.

A recurring theme in my writing, and much of my philosophy, is that one should do one’s own thinking, and never ever allow someone else to do their thinking for them. My problem with the Tea Party has nothing to do with its actual members, and everything to do with how it is being exploited by corporate and other interests to enact policy change designed to benefit not the working class, but the upper class. Tax cuts for the rich benefit only the rich, after all.

Now, we have the Department of Defense spending untold amounts of money to purchase an entire print run of an Army Reservist’s memoir, only to destroy it – claiming that the information contained therein was a threat to national security. ( http://us.cnn.com/2010/US/09/25/books.destroyed/index.html ) This is despite the fact that the author and publisher were exceedingly careful to make sure the book had no classified or sensitive information in it, even going so far as to submit a copy to the author’s military chain of command for review, and proceeded with printing only when the Army Reserve Command gave its blessing.

A second printing is on the way ( http://us.macmillan.com/book.aspx?isbn=9780312603694 ), rife with DoD-requested changes and line after line of blacked-out redactions. Free-journalism superheroes Wikileaks claim to have an unedited copy, and I hope for America’s sake they do.

Also, in submitting a request for dismissal of a federal suit ( http://static1.firedoglake.com/28/files/2010/09/100925-Al-Aulaqi-USG-PI-Opp-MTD-Brief-FILED.pdf ) demanding that the US not assassinate a US citizen without due process, the CIA, Secretary of Defense, and the President himself state in so many words that "not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are "state secrets," and thus no court may adjudicate their legality." (Glenn Greenwald, salon.com, link http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/09/25/secrecy ) One of the arguments in the request for dismissal I found interesting was that the case should be dismissed because it wasn’t brought to the court by the assassination target himself – after all, it would only make sense for the target of an assassination plot to walk into the den of their would-be murderers and ask them nicely not to hurt him.

We have a government banning books and attempting to murder its own citizens under the aegis of national security, and refusing to explain any further, as if the words are a magic spell that ends any line of questioning. President Obama was elected largely on a platform of change in government, an end to the opaque decisionmaking and stone walls preventing American citizens from being allowed to see the inner workings of American government. Although only a fool believes all of a politician’s campaign promises, I had hoped that this one at least would bear more fruit than it did.

A functioning military demands a certain amount of secrecy, this much is obvious. You can’t exactly attack an enemy by surprise if they know where you are and what precisely you’re going to throw at them, after all. But bypassing due process for American citizens – a right insisted upon in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution – is something that demands further explanation than a weak ‘national security’ handwave. Mr. President, if you or those you choose to lead other departments are intending to murder one of your citizens without granting him the fair trial guaranteed by the document you swore to uphold, then you have some explaining to do.

It is worth noting that Anwar Awlaki, the alleged assassination target, is a dual US – Yemeni citizen, and allegedly a key decision-maker in Al-Qaeda. It is also worth noting that there has not yet been any concrete evidence shown to prove Awlaki’s involvement in Al-Qaeda. No matter how terrible the man’s crimes may be, he – like any other American citizen – has the right to due process. The fact that the man stands accused of treason does not remove his right to due process – in fact, the Constitution specifically demands due process in cases of alleged treason, in Article III, section 3.

Article I, section 9 of the Constitution also forbids the use of writs of attainder – in a nutshell, an act of a governmental body declaring someone guilty and demanding a punishment without benefit of trial. There are multiple reasons why Awlaki’s assassination without trial cannot be allowed to happen while we as a nation claim to uphold our Constitution. Regardless of whether or not the man is guilty of working with Al-Qaeda, the very founding documents we claim to hold sacred demand we grant him the rights he has as an American citizen. As he has not yet forfeited his American citizenship, nor has he satisfied the conditions for having his citizenship revoked ( http://travel.state.gov/law/citizenship/citizenship_778.html ), we as a nation are forced with a choice: Grant him the rights he deserves, or turn our backs on our nation’s most sacred beliefs.

Are we allowing fear and hate to infiltrate our national conscience and subvert it, as the German Worker’s Party turned into the Nazi Party and the Tea Party is slowly but surely changing into an astroturf movement for corporate interests? Are we going to wake up one day to find that our nation no longer resembles what we thought it was? Or, even more horrifying to consider, has that day already come?

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Of the Devil? The Beam in Terry Jones’ Eye

“Say: O ye unbelievers!

I worship not that which ye worship,

And ye do not worship that which I worship;

I shall never worship that which ye worship,

Neither will ye worship that which I worship.

To you be your religion; to me my religion.”

The Qur’an, sura 109

There’s a church in Gainesville, Florida ( http://www.doveworld.org/ ) that’s planning on burning as many copies of the Qur’an as they can find on September 11. They’ve even set up a Facebook group to boost participation all over the globe. They claim that although they realize their actions will offend millions – many to the point of armed protest and military response, if General David Petraeus’s warnings are to be heeded ( http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/09/07/florida.quran.burning/index.html ) – they feel their message is more important than its possible consequences. They claim that their message, aimed at radical Muslims only, is not one of hate, but one need look no further than their own website ( http://www.doveworld.org/blog/ten-reasons-to-burn-a-koran ) to see that their reasons to burn the book are based primarily on xenophobia and hate – and if you dig a little deeper, bald-faced hypocrisy.

Their reasons include such gems as number six, decrying Islamic law as being totalitarian – that those under its rule, willingly or not, must obey without question or criticism. This is particularly interesting, given that in an interview, Emma Jones, daughter of Dr. Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center, stated in an interview with the Gainesville Sun that “they used mental violence. They’d say, ‘If you’re not obedient, God will punish you.’” (http://www.gainesville.com/article/20090719/ARTICLES/907191005 ) Jennifer Engel, who moved from Germany to work with the church, had this to say after leaving the church: “We had no friends, and also everything was very controlled. We aren’t allowed to say any critical things. […] They started to preach about total obedience. No matter what they say, we have to do it.”

It’s also worth noting that Engel and her husband left the church after they discovered grave financial inconsistencies. Dr. and Mrs. Jones, the leadership of the church, also own a furniture business in Gainesville named TS And Company. During the Engels membership in the church, they handled finances and bookkeeping. There were regular payments from the furniture business to the church, and also unexplained payments from the church to the furniture business of at least $15,000.00. What’s more, the furniture business is staffed entirely by ‘volunteer’ labor from the church, much of that from the Dove World Outreach Academy. Students at the Academy live and work on grounds owned by the furniture company, and their curriculum includes material intended to “break their pride” and “humble themselves not only under God’s mighty hand but under the hand of man” ( http://www.dwocacademy.com/about ). Part of that, apparently, is working long hours for the furniture company without pay, and without the ability to contact friends and family outside the church for any reason whatsoever, according to an academy rulebook acquired by the Gainesville Sun and verified as legitimate by Pastor Stephanie Sapp, VP of the Academy.

That’s not all – the furniture company also purchased properties in low-income housing projects to house their unpaid workers. In a city where 13.2% of the population lives below the poverty line and a county where nearly nine hundred people are homeless, is it truly just for profit-seeking businesses to buy up low-income housing? (2008 census estimate, http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ACSSAFFFacts?_event=Search&_cityTown=gainesville&_state=04000US12 , and 2010 data from annual report on homeless conditions in Florida, http://www.dcf.state.fl.us/programs/homelessness/docs/2010%20Homeless%20Conditions.pdf ) Furthermore, the Lisa Jones House, described by the church as an outreach program to the poor, provides meals for at least some of the unpaid workers for the church and, by extension, furniture company. Where does the Lisa Jones House get the food for these meals? Why, the local food banks, according to the Gainesville Sun. A request to DWOC for rebuttal on this point was not answered.

So let’s get this all straight – a church sends its youth to study at a private academy, whose curriculum is based in large part in working without pay for a for-profit furniture company owned by the pastor and his wife. Other members of the church also chip in, working long hours to sell furniture, pack and ship orders, and handle bookkeeping (which could generously be described as creative writing). Many of the workers are put up in low-income housing – bought and paid for by the furniture company (which, by the way, is looking for an apartment manager! http://www.christiancareercenter.com/jobs/job/management/1675 ) – and fed with food appropriated from local food banks. Instead of providing service to the community, they are in fact draining limited resources intended to help the poor – not boost profits for a company that has figured out how to avoid paying its employees. In addition to all of that, much of the furniture company’s activities happen on land owned by the church, and therefore tax-free. If a scenario like this were used as a backdrop for a television show, it would be dismissed as unbelievable. And yet this is the church claiming that Islam is “of the devil”, claiming that the prophet Muhammad was “corrupted by power and worldly ambitions”, and that Islam is “not compatible with democracy and human rights”.

Given that this is a nation based on democracy and human rights (though we are far from perfect in either regard), I want to make my position clear: I am strongly against the burning of the Qur’an, but I do not challenge DWOC’s legal right to do so as a form of free expression. I am strongly against the burning of any book, because it is an attempt to destroy an idea. Any idea has a right to exist and be discussed, even and especially those we find distasteful and monstrous. By discussing and considering ideas we may not agree with, we gain enlightenment and understanding of our own ideas on a deeper level. I am not calling for the legal right of the Dove World Outreach Center to burn the Qur’an to be limited; I am only trying to shed some light on their motivations and some of their other, potentially illegal activities they would rather not discuss.

On the flip side, the hate and xenophobia being spread by the Dove World Outreach Center is inspiring a flood of counter-protests all over the country. Churches, interfaith groups, and secular organizations nationwide are organizing events to help calm the fears of their communities. Qur’an readings, interviews and discussions with imams and other Muslim clerics, and explorations of Islam in America are popping up all over. What will I be doing on September 11? Instead of burning a Qur’an, and trying to silence an idea that will surely outlive me, I will be reading it. Though I do not share the Islamic faith, I respect its right to exist and its role as a part of American culture, and wish to know more about it.

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