Thursday, April 9, 2015

To Start The Revolution This Country Needs, We Need More Taverns

The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston.

City Tavern in Philadelphia.

Michie Tavern in Virginia.

Three establishments with intimate ties to the political movement that founded a new nation.  

The first provided drink, food, and shelter to The Sons of Liberty, the group of malcontents who plotted, planned, and executed The Boston Tea Party, the first salvo in a Revolutionary War that would wrest control of the thirteen American colonies away from Britain.

The second hosted gatherings of men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and others who met in Philadelphia that fateful summer in 1776, to draft a Declaration of Independence and pronounce to all the world that the indignities perpetrated upon them and their countrymen by a distant king and unresponsive parliament would no longer be tolerated.

The third was founded by Corporal William Michie, a Virginian who, in 1779, when support for the embattled Revolutionary Army was flagging, signed the Albermarle Declaration of Independence and encouraged patrons at his tavern to do the same, thus renewing their allegiance to the cause of the fledgling nation.

Though separated by long distances and primitive roads, each tavern served the same functions for their locales, the most essential of which was providing access to the latest news as patrons consumed their grub and ale.  At a time when printing presses were few and far between, and a good portion of the general population was illiterate, educated patrons served as the broadcasters of their day, reading aloud from newspapers, broadsides, fliers, and any other printed material available at the tavern.

More than one historian has argued that without the exchange of ideas, opinions, and strategies that occurred at those public meeting places, neither the war that started the Revolution, nor the Constitutional Convention that brought the warriors' efforts to a successful conclusion, would have been possible.  That James Madison and the states that ratified the Constitution believed this as well, is evident in their insistence that the right to a free press and right to assemble be protected in the clearest possible terms in the very First Amendment to that Constitution.

Today, electronic gadgets make information on virtually any topic readily available to anyone with access to the internet.  Theoretically, given the speed and ease with which everyday citizens in this country can communicate, it should be possible to start and fund a modern revolution to overthrow the growing plutocracy without firing a single musket round.  Yet the political influence of the wealthiest "One Percent" continues to grow, at the expense of governmental, social, and economic policies that could benefit the increasingly disenfranchised, and much less monied, 99%.  The reason for this disparity is also, paradoxically, the internet.

The internet has created a culture of anonymity in which opinions are offered, rebutted, argued, and ridiculed without the authors ever coming face to face.  Gone are the days when a disrespectful or offensive rejoinder leads to a punch to the jaw, a knife in the gut, or a pool cue upside the head.  Freed from the restraints of decorum in furtherance of self-preservation, commenters on today's websites too often devolve into hate-filled, sociopathic trolls who do nothing but shut down any type of constructive conversation. 

While intelligent citizens seeking political change and invective-free discourse are chased away from the electronic gathering space that is the internet, the "One Percent" continues the old-school method of planning strategy and peddling influence through in-person assemblies.  Whether at $25,000-a-plate luncheons, or invitation-only conferences, the operatives at the top of the political food chain continue to use face-to-face meetings to further their goals.

It would be simplistic to argue that more tankards on the table would cure this country's current political ills.  Yet even a cursory view of human history demonstrates that our specie's most notable achievements required in-person strategizing and action, whether those achievements involved the hunting and take down of the day's dinner, or the take down and vanquishing of a political foe.  Perhaps it's time to take a page from the Founding Fathers' playbook and start mixing in-person political activism with the consumption of lattes and frappucinos at the local internet cafes.

Friday, December 12, 2014

It's Only A Short Step From Police Killing Dogs to Police Killing Black Males

Before you go getting all offended by the title of this post, hear me out.

Way back when, before the choke hold death of a black man in New York, before the gunning down of a black almost-college-freshman in Ferguson, Missouri; before the fatal shootings of young black boys in a WalMart and Cleveland playground. . .

Before all those tragic examples of what happens when police officers view some citizens as less than human, there were repeated accounts of tragic encounters between cops run riot and family pets, specifically family dogs.

Indeed, the day that the killing in Ferguson grabbed the spotlight, I was planning this post in response to the increasingly common news stories of law enforcement officials gunning down dogs who were doing nothing more than protecting the residences of their human families.  These were not junk yard dogs, or drug dealer dogs, or attack trained dogs.  These were dogs who happened to be in the residences entered or yards traversed by cops pursuing alleged criminals.  The dogs had the audacity to growl and bark at uniformed officers who entered the dogs' domains, domains that their human families relied upon them to protect and give notice of intruders.

In each and every case, the dogs were deemed "dangerous" by the trespassing officers and shot dead.  Never mind that the houses  belonged to law-abiding citizens whose yards the suspects just happened to cut through while fleeing capture.  Or, in other cases, the houses belonged to law-abiding citizens whose homes were erroneously targeted in no-knock warrant sweeps that had would-be stormtroopers crashing through front doors, to be challenged by the resident canis lupus famillaris.

Now, I have seen dog fights.  When a new male collie challenged our alpha female collie, I could not believe that the two beasts battling it out in front of me were the same beautiful, tame, friendly pets who followed us around and played with us like the big, overgrown puppies they were.  Jaws opened to improbable widths.  Fangs slashed with dizzying speed.  Roars that had no relation to typical barks or growls thundered from throats raised high above the ground as the challengers jockeyed for position and a maiming bite.

Three times I was witness to the savage ferocity of these cousins of the wolf.  The contests ended only when our human pack leader exerted his authority during the third fight, firmly ensconcing the female above the male in pack hierarchy.

These fights between our Lassie lookalikes made clear that every dog is both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  In every playful, fuzzy puppy romping with its human family lurks the cunning, fierce, dangerous protector of the pack.  To a dog, every human who has not been accepted as a friend by its family is a threat to the pack.  Every human who enters the pack's domain without permission presents a danger to be kept at bay.

In short, dogs can be fiercesome creatures, capable of eliciting the most primitive response of fear with nothing more than a curled lip, flattened ears, raised hackles, or throaty growl.

While I can appreciate that a cop confronted by a protective dog can feel threatened, too often it is the dog who pays the price for a cop's arrogant -- yet wrongful -- fear-induced assertion of power in the dog's domain.  And too often, the cop gets away with slaughtering the family pet, because no one has told them they may not kill dogs with impunity, with no repercussions, and no accountability.

Dogs are, after all, just dogs.

Right?

Those first ten amendments set forth in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution requiring warrants, prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures, and protecting against cruel and unusual punishment don't apply to dogs.

Right?

Do you see where I'm going here?

When a cop adopts a "shoot first and ask questions later" attitude in dealing with black males, two things are going on deep within that human's psyche.  First, as in dealing with a protective dog, the cop is reacting on a visceral level to a whole host of fear cues.  Sometime, somewhere, somehow, the cop learned to associate black males with imminent, mortal danger.  Second, the cop is reflecting a societal norm in this country that ranks blacks somewhere way, way below Caucasian males in the right to be treated with respect; to be protected by the full panoply of due process rights set forth in the Constitution; and to be deprived of life or liberty, only after a judge or jury -- and not some random individual or lynch mob or cop -- has found sufficient evidence of an actionable offense.

But something else is going on as well.  Just as there has been no national consensus that the indiscriminate killing of family dogs by marauding cops must end, there has -- until Ferguson -- been no national outcry against cops treating citizens of the United States as enemy combatants and deaths of those citizens as collateral damage in the war on crime.

As news coverage of the Ferguson riots demonstrated, the militarized police forces terrorizing minority neighborhoods are as far removed from the homespun wisdom of a Sheriff Office run by Andy Griffith, or a Sparta, Mississippi, Police Department run by Carrol O'Connor, as the Hubble telescope is from the Earth's atmosphere.  The Constable On Patrol (COP) who used to diffuse sticky situations with nothing more than words and a whistle has been replaced by ex-Army, ex-Special Forces, ex-Marine veterans-turned-cops, whose attitudes about perceived enemies are as much a barrier to communicating with the people they are supposed to "protect and serve" as the storm trooper gear they don at the least provocation.

Life has begun imitating art when it comes to policing in America.  All those movies and television shows that have helmeted, body armoured, jackbooted SWAT Teams spilling out of massive personnel carriers, smashing through front doors with battering rams, and tossing flash-bang grenades through windows have become the civics classes for too many law enforcement officials.  The policing reality painted by Hollywood writers has replaced more than 200 years of due process law that forbids exactly the kind of mayhem being loosed upon our citizenry, especially our black, male citizenry.

It is time our police return to school to be reminded that this country was founded by people who fought a Revolutionary War to assure that they could enjoy the same rights and privileges that officers routinely promise to preserve and protect during their swearing in ceremonies.  A different generation, in a different Civil War, fought to assure that those rights and privileges would be enjoyed by all black citizens.  And an entire movement was launched in the 1960's to demand the immediate adherence to the series of constitutional amendments adopted after the Civil War, specifically intended to guarantee those rights for all citizens regardless of race.

As Section 1 of the 14th Amendment makes clear:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Police officers, whether employed by a city, state, or federal law enforcement agency, are representatives of "the State" when acting in their official capacity.  When they kill a citizen, or detain a citizen, or destroy the property of a citizen without first adhering to the requirements of due process, those officers violate the Constitution and, thus, their oath of office.

It is past time that our law enforcement officials learn exactly what "rights" they have sworn a duty to preserve, and stop killing the citizens they have been entrusted to protect.  And while they are at it, perhaps police officers can learn that it's not OK to deprive citizens of their property, i.e., the family dog, merely because it is more expedient to kill a perceived threat and, after all, a dog is just a dog.

Right?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Lessons in Voting from the Patty Duke Show

The Patty Duke Show once aired an episode in which Patty was running for class president against her twin cousin Cathy.  As the contest between the two intensified, their campaigns assumed all the nasty hallmarks of modern politics: name-calling, name-calling, and more name-calling.  And while the two former bosom buddies battled it out on stage, behind podiums, and around campus, another person went virtually unnoticed: a third candidate who had neither the good looks, sparkling personalities, nor popularity of the contentious cousins.  Nevertheless, it was the third candidate, the ugly duckling, the girl whose entire platform consisted of three words--"Vote For Me"--delivered in a quiet, respectful manner, who won the election in a landslide.  

Right now, as I watch Democrat Natalie Tennant and Republican Shelley Moore Capito battle it out for Jay Rockefeller's (D. W.V.) seat in the United States Senate, I am feeling the kind of disgust that made the fictional voters in that long-ago show choose a virtual unknown over the back-biting cousins.  Unfortunately, there is no third choice in the upcoming election.  Thus, while I can, by voting for Tennant, send Capito a clear message that I am offended by the shenanigans perpetuated by her Republican Party for the last 14 years, there is no third person for whom I can vote to send an equally clear message to Tennant that I object to her running as "Capito light."

If a candidate running for office as a Democrat wants my vote, I expect the candidate to run on the accomplishments of that party.  The last thing I want the candidate to do is parrot the protestations of her Republican opponent that she has done everything she could to thwart any and all governance by the first black President of the United States.  A Republican candidate can protest all she wants that the opposition is coming to take my guns away, but I expect a Democrat to reject such hysteria and instead advocate support for intelligent and reasoned measures that will assure that guns are kept out of the hands of criminals, wife beaters, and the dangerously mentally ill.

"War on Coal" rhetoric is to be expected from a Republican whose path to the Senate is paved with the gold of coal company CEOs seeking to install a puppet who will look the other way as they blast apart mountains, foul streams, pollute drinking water, violate safety regulations, decimate unions, and kill miners.  But a Democrat who spouts off against "Obama's War on Coal" in a thinly veiled attempt to curry favor with the racist redneck portion of the electorate is in danger of losing the support of any voter who recognizes that the needs of the almost 2 million people who live in West Virginia should outweigh the wants of the less than 10,000 miners who are still employed in this state and the few coal companies that still operate here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Out Of The Mouths Of Racists....

My, my, my.  Where to begin?

Within the space of two weeks, the news cycle has treated us to one rich white cowpoke and one fabulously rich white octogenarian spouting racist rants about "the Negro" that would make a ku klux klan member blush with pride.

Finally.

Oh, come on.  Admit it.  No matter which side of the racial divide you find yourself on, you have to admit that hearing such racist tirades spoken in public is music to your ears.

The Confederates among you celebrated the "bravery" of white dudes who would not be cowed by political correctness into towing the racial line.  And by "Confederate," I don't mean the inhabitants of the Old South.  Southerners never had a monopoly on denigrating an entire group of people based upon race alone.  The desire to keep African-Americans out of neighborhoods, housing, churches, schools, employment, and political institutions and offices once dominated by white, anglo-saxon males was never, ever a monopoly enjoyed only by caucasians living south of the Mason Dixon line.

Heck, 40 years ago my little brother's best friend boasted that, by joining the Philadelphia Police Department, he'd be able to beat up blacks with impunity.  Can't get much more Northern than Philadelphia.

And as for the non-racists among you, you who really do care more about character than melanin, who have twisted in agony every time some white schmuck yells "You lie!!" at our first black president, who have feared for President Obama's safety when militia wannabes come fully armed to his public appearances, who have bristled with anger every time a Republican governor wags her finger under the President's nose as though addressing an errant schoolboy, the recent incidents have vindicated your conviction that the new subset of Republicans known as the Tea Party is populated by racists.`

Many other U.S. presidents and political candidates have been excoriated with vitriolic sentiments comparable to those levied at President Obama.  Heck, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with arch rival Aaron Burr.  Can't get much more vitriolic than murder.

But even that deadly argument was played out by "gentlemen" on a level playing field.  Political differences, not class or racial distinctions, underlay the contest.  Viewpoints, opinions, beliefs may have created a sharp divide, but no matter the issue, each contestant knew he was the societal equal of his opponent and commanded the respect due an equal.

In contrast, the Tea Party has made it abundantly clear that its membership occupies a higher social strata than President Obama.  As a consequence, its members believe they may disrepect with impunity the man who they contend is disqualified by race to occupy the Oval Office.  This belief is clearly evident in the insulting and racist signs and banners displayed by Tea Partiers at their rallies, which portray: Obama as a monkey and his spouse and children as a family of chimpanzees; a hangman's noose hanging from a tree, reminiscent of lynchings suffered by African-Americans; the White House as a plantation with Obama as its "massa"; Obama as a tribal witch doctor, complete with a bone through the nose and feathered adornments; calls to not "re-Nig" in 2012; cross burnings attended by white-sheeted KKK members; references to Obama as a "tar baby"; a business owner's sentiment that "I don't support the nigger in the white house"; a skunk, with the sentiment: The skunk has replaced the eagle as the symbol of the President. It is half black, half white, and almost everything it does, stinks."

Now that Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling have been recorded expressing their real feelings on race, they have done what none of the above examples of racism accomplished: they have forced Fox News and its ilk to back pedal on the implicit succor and support they have been providing to racists inhabiting both the Tea Party and TeaPublicans.  And that is something to be celebrated--even if short lived.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Oso, Washington Landslide: Too Bad There Was No Advance Warning. Oh, Wait--There Was.

When Mother Nature pitched a fit in 2004 and sent a massive tsunami thundering across the Indian Ocean, creating 100-foot waves that killed over 230,000 people in 14 countries, humanity  hung its head in sorrow and lamented the lack of an early-warning system that could have given victims the time to reach higher ground.  Since that tragic event, multiple nations have worked together to create a tsunami warning system similar to those that exist in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Ten years later, a new catastrophe has struck, this time in Oso, a small community on the banks of the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County, Washington State.  So far 60 people are known to have been killed by a mile-wide wall of mud, rocks, and trees that slumped off the hillside dubbed "The Hazel Landslide" by geologists.

I don't know about you, but if I was looking to buy a piece of property on which to build a house, the last place I would look is anywhere near anyplace with the word "landslide" in its name.  Given the human penchant for self-preservation, it's a pretty sure bet that the Oso victims would feel the same.

So, the question is, did the victims know they were building their houses in a danger zone?  And if not, why not?

I fear the answer to why the victims would not have known of the danger boils down to money.  As in taxes the local community and county would have collected from the homeowners.  The money the contractors would have made by building the homes.  The income the real estate agents would have earned by selling lots.  The millions the developer would have received for developing the raw acreage into a subdivision.  And, of course, we cannot forget the loggers whose livelihoods depended on cutting down the trees located on top of the Hazel Landslide.

Geologist Dan Miller, like the rock hounds and engineers who came before him, was well aware of the danger posed by Hazel.  In a 1999 report prepared for the Army Corps of Engineers, Miller detailed Hazel's history of  landslides dating back to 1949.  Between 1949 and 2006, major hillside avalanches slumped off the mountain five different times: in 1949, 1951, 1967, 1988, and 2006.  Interspersed among these major events were more frequent, though less devastating, slips.  Miller prepared other reports detailing Hazel's instability for the federal government, the State Department of Ecology, and a timber company.

Miller's warnings were preceded in the 1950's and 1960's by other engineers' reports detailing the danger posed by the sandy soil that underlay Hazel's surface, and the river erosion that undercut her base.  Plans in the 1950's to reroute the river were scrapped in the 1960's, because the lands of the new route were already divided into lots for summer cabins.

Despite all these warnings, county officials continued to issue building permits for homes in Hazel's danger zone.  Indeed, when Miller returned to the area after the 2006 landslide, he couldn't believe the county was still allowing houses to be built right across the river from the slide.

To say that the various governmental entities with knowledge of Hazel's penchant for thundering off the mountain failed the Oso victims, would be an understatement--and a clear indication that those entities have forgotten what the Founding Fathers of this country knew so well: that the purpose of government is not to act as a chamber of commerce, but to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...."

I'd say the officials in Washington State failed the Oso victims on all counts.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission: Ignoring Precedent

The five justices of the Supreme Court appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan (Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy), George H.W. Bush (Clarence Thomas), and George W. Bush (Samuel Anthony Alito, John G. Roberts, Jr.), issued a decision today striking down another aspect of the campaign finance reform law that Congress enacted after determining that such regulation was needed to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption in the electoral and political process.

No doubt the punditsphere will be rife with commentary on the type of regulation upheld (base limits), versus the type of regulation outlawed (aggregate limits).  The cynical will conclude that the five justices upheld the type of limit that restricts the amount of money regular joes can contribute to a candidate, while throwing open the floodgates for the multimillions that millionaires and billionaires can funnel into the campaigns of the politicians who tow their corporate lines.

But concentrating on the guts of Chief Justice Robert's opinion totally ignores the more egregious flaw in that decision, a flaw that would earn any first year law student a resounding "F" in constitutional law class.

Any fledgling law student, after poring over case after case after case during the first year of law school, learns one basic truth of the relationship between the Supreme Court and all lower trial courts: i.e., unless the question presented to the Supreme Court for decision is purely a matter of law, the Court will require that the lower courts conduct evidenciary hearings to develop adequate factual records upon which the courts can base their decisions.

Which means, as the four remaining justices emphasized in their dissenting opinion, because the lower court arrived at its decision before a full evidentiary hearing was held, the Court should have sent the case back to the trial court so evidence could be collected and a factual record made.  According to the dissenters: 

In the past, when evaluating the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions, we have typically relied upon an evidentiary record amassed [in the lower court] to determine whether the law served a compelling governmental objective. And, typically, that record contained testimony from Members of Congress ... explaining why Congress ... acted as it did ... If we are to overturn an act of Congress here, we should do so on the basis of a similar record ...

Determining whether anticorruption objectives justify a particular set of contribution limits requires answering empirically based questions, and applying significant discretion and judgment.  To what extent will unrestricted giving lead to corruption or its appearance? What forms will any such corruption take? To what extent will a lack of regulation undermine public confidence in the democratic system? To what extent can regulation restore it?

These kinds of questions, while not easily answered, are questions that Congress is far better suited to resolve than are judges. Thus, while court review of contribution limits has been and should be “rigorous,” ... we have also recognized that “deference to legislative choice is warranted.” ... And that deference has taken account of facts and circumstances set forth in an evidentiary record ...

The plurality rationalizes its haste to forgo an evidentiary record by noting that “the parties have treated the question as a purely legal one” ... But without a doubt, the legal question—whether the aggregate limits are closely drawn to further a compelling governmental interest—turns on factual questions about whether corruption, in the absence of such limits, is a realistic threat to our democracy. The plurality itself spends pages citing figures about campaign spending to defend its “legal” conclusion ... The problem with such reasoning is that this Court’s expertise does not lie in marshaling facts in the primary instance. That is why in the past, when answering similar questions about the constitutionality of restrictions on campaign contributions, we have relied on an extensive evidentiary record produced below to inform our decision ... 

Without further development of the record, however, I fail to see how the plurality can now find grounds for ... a decision that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform....

Four justices of the Supreme Court appointed by Bill Clinton (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer) and Barack Obama (Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan) joined in the dissenting opinion.

You can draw your own conclusions regarding the significance of the justices' split along party lines.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

What would Matt Dillon do?

Protesters in Ukraine have managed to wrest the world's attention away from the Olympic Games in Sochi, and direct it a bit to the west, to their capitol in Kiev.  There, at the cost of at least 77 lives cut short by police sniper fire, citizens in that country ousted the president who planned to link them to Vladimir Putin's new "Eurasian Union," the latest iteration of the old Soviet Union.  Memories of their treatment by the old Russia fueled protests against the politician who planned to climb into bed with the new Russia.

All of which makes me wonder: How many people would have died at the hands of the police in this country, if the citizenry had decided to  protest the Republican engineered "Brooks Brothers" riot that ended the Florida recount vote, essentially installing George W. Bush as president. (See  http://www.salon.com/2000/11/28/miami_8/ ) Or to demand that Congress act to legislatively overturn the Citizens United decision, which held that inanimate corporations are entitled to the same First Amendment right to free speech as actual people.  Or to protest the lack of prosecution, imprisonment, and impoverishment of the bankers, brokers, and other Wall Street types whose greed manufactured the Great Recession of 2008.

If real life were a Gunsmoke episode, Marshal Matt Dillon would defend the right of townsfolk to have a fair election.  The mean spirited and avaricious cattle baron who attempted to intimidate voters with hired thugs would be defeated by the marshal and his band of citizen-deputies, hauled before the judge for trial, and sentenced to a lengthy stay in the territorial prison.

The power hungry politician who tried to squelch the opposition by having his minions torch the local newspaper and destroy the printing press, would find himself on the wrong side of the marshal's posse.

And the outlaws who robbed the stage coach and stole the company payroll would have their bullet-riddled bodies slung over their horses' saddles and brought back to town for burial by the undertaker.

Unfortunately, history demonstrates that government police power is rarely exercised on behalf of those who seek to change the status quo.  The law abiding marshal who seeks to protect the underdog makes for good Hollywood theatre, but in today's world of SWAT Teams and militarized police forces, the people who decide when and where force will be used are not the Matt Dillons of this world, but are those who Matt Dillon would have arrested or shot.