and there we were all in one place

Funny things happen to Washington DC when you drop half a million people or more on it.  We basically took over most of downtown, streets were shut down, the National Mall was packed solid, and the Metro was so far beyond capacity that station managers gave up trying to get everyone to pay and just focussed on getting them through. If your card didn’t beep after a couple tries, well, whatever, go on through.

And yet there were no arrests – at the inauguration, which I wouldn’t have gone to for any amount of money, there were 217 arrests.  Assaults, rioting, protesters crossing the line.  Drop three times as many folks at least in the same space only a day later, and you’d expect bedlam – but there was not a single arrest.

There was instead an air of relentless positivity and radical peacefulness – even the signs displayed this.  For every sign that boiled down to ‘oh SCREW THIS GUY’ there were a dozen more that were messages of positivity and support. “Never forget you are valuable, powerful, and deserving of opportunity.” “Love is love.” “No human is illegal.” “Women deserve equal rights.” “Black lives matter.” “Refugees welcome.”

It’s resistance, but joyful resistance.  It’s the happiness of returning to fulfilling work – a vocation, a Calling, instead of just a job – after a too-long sleep.  America is waking up.

Excited people swapping tales of the people they were marching for and interspersing them with sightings of the faces of the previous and greatly missed administration. A woman with a Hillary pin tells a man with a Shrek sign (Get out of my swamp!) about seeing John Kerry walking his dog.  A man holding a sign announcing that Trump’s approval rating (32%) is less than the Rotten Tomatoes score for Paul Blart: Mall Cop (33%) talking to someone with a pussy hat about his mother with an aw-shucks smile.  People telling each other about their friends and loved ones who couldn’t make it to DC but they’re at a sister march in Boston, or in Seattle, or in Paris.

Reassuring themselves and each other that none of us are alone, that this is a fight we will keep fighting, that if their feet get tired there’s a million more pairs marching in lockstep.

Given the tremendous amount of people dropped on the Capitol, and the crap that went down at the inauguration, the DC police and various federal agencies freaked out a little – I spotted a division of mounted officers (horses!) and several sniper nests atop tall buildings which became more frequent the closer we got to the White House.  But every DC cop and uniformed Secret Service agent and National Guard member seemed surprised and relieved at the radical positivity – I lost count of the number of times I marched past and saw an officer chatting with someone who’d stopped to take a rest or ask for directions.  Every time, without fail, they were smiling – not the uniform, move-along-citizen sanitised smile of official positivity, but a genuine happiness at seeing democracy taken to the streets without the chaos.  Unrest without unruliness.

And that’s how we’re going to win this one, and every other fight we’ve got coming in the next however long.  Hate is strong, and scary, and has long sharp teeth.  But love is stronger, fearless, and has hide too thick for any fang to pierce.  They’re going to try to bring us down and get us mired in negativity and goad us into violence so they can point and shriek and call us all criminals – because that’s the only way they can win.  They can never defeat us if we don’t follow their script.

Write your own story.  Don’t let them hand you one.  Be excellent to each other, I love you all.

what now?

Okay here’s the scoop.
Let me preface this by pointing out that the National Suicide Hotline exists, its number is 800/273-8255, it is open 24 hours a day, and exists to talk to you if you or someone you know are in crisis. They are not going to laugh at you or preach at you, they are not going to dismiss your concerns. If you’re thinking of hurting yourself, or worried that someone close to you is, please call that number. Won’t cost you a dime. There is help.
Regardless of whether you were disconsolate or elated by last night’s results, the last few months have made one thing extremely clear: Our political system is sort of broken. We’ve lost the ability to see our neighbor as a person with hopes and ideas if we see them with an opposing political candidate’s sign in their yard. We’ve stopped treating each other like fellow citizens of a nation and started treating them as potential enemies. All sides are guilty of this, and I’m not excluding myself from the path of this wide paintbrush either, we’ve all done it.
This has gotta stop.
For good or ill, Trump is the president-elect, and whether this makes you scream in terror or delight, we all still have a job to do: Making the next four (or eight) years go as smoothly as possible for everyone. Whether you want to support him or battle him, the answer is the same: Participate in our government. You don’t have to brush up your resume and run for local office or anything like that, but take a few minutes a day and read the news, national and local. Pay attention when they say an election is coming up, no matter how local or miniscule. If you’re not happy with either of the two parties, well, starting from the bottom is how a new political party gets going.
Stein or Johnson didn’t exactly have a hope of winning the election last night, but at least they were on the ballot – because a lot of hard work by a WHOLE lot of people brought their parties up from the bottom. That same effort could apply to any new political party, and heck, more work from more people and they could easily have a shot in four (or eight) years.
Voter turnout went up this election – but a whoooole lot of people stayed home. This worries me. I hear from a lot of people who refuse to vote because they think the system is broken – and, well, if we’re being honest with each other, it is. But the way to fix it is to vote out the jerks that broke it, and vote in the people to fix it.
Please, please, PLEASE participate in our government. It needs you more than ever, no matter which side you fall on, or whether you fall on no side at all. I’m not asking you to agree to political ideas you hate, or make compromises – all I’m asking is that you make your ideas known at the ballot box. None of the candidates for a given race satisfy you? Write someone in, or don’t pick anyone at all. I’ll bet you a Snickers that there’s SOMETHING on the ballot you have an opinion on, you don’t have to fill out the whole thing.
To close, I’ll fall back on the words of Ben Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Be excellent to each other, I love you all.

matthew 25:40

I want you to do me a favor.  It won’t take long and won’t cost a penny.  Think back to when you were five years old, and try to remember what the biggest worries in your life were.  The sort of things that kept you up at night.  For the vast overwhelming number of people fortunate enough to have the internet connection required to be reading this in the first place, it’s probably stuff like ‘I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow so I can go play on the swings’ or ‘I wonder what I want for my birthday’.  Simple worries from small times, nothing too earth-shattering, despite the fact that at five, those were definitely Big Concerns.

And then there’s Omran Daqneesh.

I’m sure by now you’ve seen That Photo – if not, here’s a New York Times article that has That Photo right at the top.  That’s Omran – he’s a five year old boy living in Aleppo.  For pretty much as long as he’s been alive, his homeland has been the site of a brutal and hard-fought civil war.  He has literally never known the sort of peace required for one’s biggest concerns to be ‘I hope Mom doesn’t make me eat brussels sprouts again’.  I obviously don’t know the family, but it’s probably safe to assume that the parents do their best to try to make their children’s lives as happy and fulfilling as possible – but needs must, and happiness necessarily takes a back seat to simple survival; so I can only imagine that despite their best efforts, Omran and his siblings have had to see and experience the sort of things that you and I couldn’t imagine even in our worst nightmares.

There’s a video, if you can bring yourself to watch it.  In the video, Omran is sitting alone in the back of an ambulance after having been pulled free from the wreckage.  He’s covered in dirt and blood – blood that he only notices when he wipes some off his face, and looks at it with only mild surprise.  A world where a five year old kid is only barely surprised by blood coming out of his head is troubling.

A few days after that iconic photo of Omran was taken, his brother Ali died.  So now Omran has one less shoulder to cry on when the blasts get too close, one less set of arms to hug him and tell him he is loved and that he will be safe, and one more hole in his life when he already has so many.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Ali is one of a hundred children that have died in Aleppo since July 31.  As of the time of this writing, that’s 22 days.  A little more than once a day, one more Ali closes their eyes forever; one more Omran learns far too soon the meaning of grief and loss and that the world is not fair; one more family tries to figure out how to move on, like a car missing a wheel.

We’re lucky.  We can get through a basic day without worrying about our homes being blasted to ash or roaming death squads shooting us to ribbons because we go to the wrong church.  For all of its problems – and it does have problems – America truly is a land of plenty.  We need to use these gifts for the greater good.  We need to house and feed and clothe and care for as many refugees from Syria and all other places, as best we can, as many as we can, for as long as we can.  It’s on the Statue of Liberty, for sanity’s sake:  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We need to do it, otherwise we’re all talk.  We owe it to ourselves, so we don’t have to feel ashamed of the missed opportunity.  We owe it to our children, to show them the meaning of compassion.  We owe it to fellow nations, if we have any hope whatsoever of the favor being returned should we need it later.

We owe it to Omran, for reasons I wish I had the words to express.  Just look at that picture again, and look in his eyes, and try not to shed a tear.

“I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” – Matthew 25:40

thought police

The Intercept, a news and commentary outlet not known for fabrication, recently published an article about four citizens of Detroit who were arrested for social media postings.  None of the four have been named or formally charged.

Three of the accused – or is that even the term for a person arrested but not charged? – allegedly made posts that, on their face, appear to be legally actionable.  The first was “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.  Kill all cops.”  I was behind him one hundred percent until those last three words, but those last three words don’t take a particularly creative prosecutor to wangle into an incitement charge.  The second was less eloquent but similar – “It’s time to wage war and shoot the police first.”  Again, incitement, and pretty clearly actionable.  Number three allegedly posted photos and videos of police officers being shot and said “This needs to happen more often.” Incitement.  Then we get to the fourth.

The fourth referred to Micah Johnson as a “hero”, and stated that “He inspired me to do the exact same thing”.  This one’s a little… less clear.  Since the author isn’t commanding or even suggesting that others act, incitement doesn’t apply.  A clever prosecutor could still turn this into a terroristic threat, though.

My issue isn’t with the first three being arrested for fairly unmistakable incitement, or even really with the fourth being arrested for something that might or might not be a threat.  My issue is that all four of these men were arrested first and then attempts made afterward to determine if a crime took place.  Two of the men have been released for now with warrants pending, the other two remain in custody due to outstanding warrants.

Police Chief James Craig said (according to this Detroit News article) that ‘it should be a crime to make threats to kill police officers’ (quote from reporter) “Especially now, in this current climate […] I don’t think that’s protected speech.” (quote from Chief Craig)

Here we see the meat of the problem.  By saying it SHOULD be a crime, he’s implicitly saying it MIGHT NOT be a crime, and if it might not be a crime, why the arrests?  Last I checked, in order to be arrested, a law enforcement officer needs to have a probable cause to believe that you have committed a specific crime.  Even people who get pulled over for ‘driving while black’ are ticketed for a busted taillight (which just might have been busted when the officer ‘accidentally’ ‘tapped’ it with their nightstick) or ‘erratic driving’ (which is so far from a subjective judgment it’s impossible to prove or disprove) or something like that.  There’s at least the appearance of an actual specific infraction.

Furthermore, I’m pretty sure deciding what is and isn’t protected speech is for a judge to decide, not a law enforcement officer.  That deals with constitutional law, and that’s for high courts to decide.  There’s putting the cart before the horse, and there’s setting up the cart while you wait for the horse to be born.

Here, the four men – all black men, which should surprise precisely no one – have been arrested because ‘well, we’re pretty sure that the things we say they did shouldn’t be allowed.  We’re totally gonna check with the higher-ups to make sure, though.  We promise.’

Sure you are.  ‘Kill this cop’ – a clear and specific threat.  ‘Kill all cops’ – a clear but nonspecific threat, and generally left up to a judge to determine actionability.  ‘A cop died, I liked it, I was inspired to do the same’ – inspired isn’t the same as planning to.  I get inspired to do a lot of things I never do.  Worth keeping an eye on, sure, but arrest? And what’s next?  Are the surviving members of NWA to be arrested for their hit ‘Fuck Tha Police’ because the lyrics included nonspecific threats?  If so, is someone posting ‘fuck the police’ to twitter to be arrested because they are referencing the song’s lyrics? Or perhaps because the cops don’t like it and think it’s rude?

It doesn’t take a particularly creative mind to see where this leads.  The back-and-forth between law enforcement and civilians has long been a story of expansion and resistance – law enforcement attempts to re-interpret laws in ways that grant them more power (and honestly, they often have the best of intentions, but we all know what they say about the road to Hell…), and they keep pushing it until the citizenry (or a higher office) pushes back and gets it in front of a judge.  We’ve seen this play out time and time again from Prohibition to Jim Crow to profanity laws to speeding cameras to any number of issues where law enforcement has pushed and pushed until they get their hand slapped by a judge.

And now they’re pushing on the First Amendment.  This isn’t something we can afford to spend a decade getting cranky about before we do anything – because the nature of the issue means that if we give it time for it to be clearly something we need a judge’s input on, it could well be illegal to argue.

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