Friday, November 28, 2014

"Until Justice Rolls Down Like Waters"

Once again we find ourselves reckoning with the reality that we live in a country where justice is applied unequally. But the truth is - unequal justice is no justice as all. To keep our "eyes on the prize," it might be helpful to step back and envision just what it is we mean by the word "justice."

Back in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the memorial service for the four little girls who had died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Imagine with me for a moment if he had said these words about the killing of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice.
And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
When Dr. King quoted the scripture that says "Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," he was referring to something much bigger than what one police officer or one prosecutor does. And it was something much more audacious than what happens in a court room.

Now don't get me wrong. Dr. King said we should not "merely" be concerned about the murderers. Holding people accountable for their crimes is certainly a part of justice. But the truth is...he had a finger to point at all of us for our complicity.

Too many of us in this country have bought into the idea that jail = justice. If we just send the perpetrators to prison, we can wipe our hands clean and assume that justice has been done. That's one of the reasons this country has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yes, I know that its also because of the failed "war on drugs." But that war was based on the idea that we can effectively deal with a problem by locking people up. So it is our addiction to prison as the solution that is at the root of the problem.

The idea that jail = justice is not something that is simply embraced by conservatives. It finds a home with liberals when we step away from what happens to the poor and start thinking about the crimes of the wealthy. For example, Bailey Miller writes: Can We Please Put Some Bankers in Jail Now? In it, Miller doesn't grapple with what justice would mean for the activities that led to the Great Recession. The assumption seems to be that - until the bankers are put in jail - justice has not been served.

But Miller does point out that for then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (and eventually the Bush administration), the idea of justice went beyond sending the specific perpetrators to jail.
One clue might be the contents of a memo written by Holder in 1999, during his stint as deputy U.S. attorney general. The document, “Bringing Criminal Charges Against Corporations,” urged prosecutors to take into account “collateral consequences” when pursuing cases against companies, lest they topple and take the economy down with them. Holder also raised the possibility of deferring prosecution against corporations in an effort to spur greater cooperation and reforms...
I would suggest that Holder's concept of justice is more in line with the one articulated by Dr. King. First of all, it took into consideration what justice would mean for all of the innocent people who would be impacted by the prosecution of a corporation. But secondly, more than sending perpetrators to jail, he had his eyes on reforming "the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced" the crimes.

I'll leave it to another day to discuss the role prisons should play in our search for justice. Suffice it to say, I agree with Al Giordano.
Prison should always be a last resort, and only for someone who will put others at risk with predatory behavior. It doesn't work as a deterrent. As a punishment, it is barbaric. My concept of a just and better world has almost nobody in prison, not even people I hate or who have done bad things. The whole thing has to be rethought...
A re-thinking of what justice means would require us to consider the affirmative rather than simply the reactionary. One place to start might be with the words of Bryan Stevenson: "The opposite of poverty is not wealth. Its justice." When I think about what that means, it gets the brain synapses going in a whole different direction than jail = justice. And I can begin to imagine what it would mean for justice to roll down like waters.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

I'm grateful for the sun!

Today is one of those days that we pay a price for living in "the tundra." Its 3 degrees outside with hardly a cloud in the sky. My thermostat is set at 66, but its 71 degrees inside because all my windows face south. 

For the last few months I've been chronicling the journey of the sun to the south through this window. Here's what it looked like in August.


In October, I had to change the angle to get it all. 

Only 24 days till the sun begins its journey back to the north. But who's counting? LOL

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Someone we should all be listening to: Bryan Stevenson

Today I was in my car running some pre-Thanksgiving errands and listening to Minnesota Public Radio between stops. I was absolutely blown away by a speech they were airing and kept wondering "who IS this guy?" It wasn't until the end that I heard it was Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Once I got home, I located the speech on MPR and listened to the whole thing uninterrupted.

I know you are all going to be busy with family and loved ones over the next few days. But if you have an hour to spare, I can't imagine a better way to spend it that listening to this one. Here's a link where you can do that.

Bryan tackles all the difficult issues we face in this country around race and the law enforcement/criminal justice system. But he doesn't just bring facts and he doesn't simply fuel our rage. He inspires with his heart and his own stories. In a most meaningful way, he tells us what we can all do to make a difference. Prepare yourself...these are no easy, quick-fix answers (there's a reason we call it "the struggle"). But I promise that you will not regret a single minute you spend listening to what he has to say.

I first became aware of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) years ago when I was appalled by the fact that we live in the only country in the world that sentences children/youth to die in prison.  EJI has been on the forefront of raising awareness about this and fighting it in our courts. These are the kinds of things to which Bryan has dedicated his life and work. Perhaps that's why he doesn't spend as much of his time pontificating in front of a camera. He's been in the trenches and brings that kind of perspective to us.

I suspect there are people like Bryan Stevenson working in the trenches all over this country. That's what brings me hope.

News from the insurgency

A few days ago it crossed my mind to think about what the 2015 State of the Union speech will be like. Given the results of the recent midterms and the way the GOP rhetoric has been ramped up in response to President Obama's action on immigration, it occurred to me that the disrespectful "You lie!" from Rep. Joe Wilson during the 2009 SOTU speech might be child's play.

But honestly, I never even contemplated this possibility.
“Yes, there’s a risk to overreacting, but there’s a risk to underreacting as well,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “And I fear that’s the way the congressional leadership is leaning.”

Mr. Lowry suggested one way Congress could react. “If I were John Boehner,” he said, referring to the House speaker, “I’d say to the president: ‘Send us your State of the Union in writing. You’re not welcome in our chamber.’”
Apparently, this is becoming "a thing" within the tea party confederate insurgency. What better way to cast the President of the United States as illegitimate than to deny him the opportunity that has been accorded to all modern presidents to address Congress at this historic event?

I keep going back and forth with myself saying, "the GOP leadership will squash that idea." And then wondering, "will they?" Worse yet, "can they?"

President Obama talking about race

CNN has put together this video with snapshots of the many times President Obama has talked about race.

Its a helpful reminder - even though the clips really can't give you the depth of what he said on those occasions. But make no mistake, President Obama has been clear about his views on racism and how we can move forward as a country. This might be a good time to go back and listen again to his speech on the topic during the 2008 primaries.

I'd like to highlight one part of that speech where he got specific in terms of recommendations.
But I have asserted a firm conviction — a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people — that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances — for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny...

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination — and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past — are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds — by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
The other thing that most of the great religions teach us is that engaging in the struggle is redemptive. In the Christian tradition, the gospels tell us that "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." God is therefore not one to keep his distance. The life and death of Jesus chronicle the story of his willingness to "walk in our shoes"... to suffer the pain of isolation and rejection.

And so, it should come as no surprise to us that President Obama had a special message for the young black men at Morehouse.
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share...

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy -- the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you're not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers...

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern -- to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table.

The path of hope and change does not come from nursing our grievances. No matter our ethnic heritage, it comes from acknowledging the pain and letting it open us up to gain some understanding of the pain of others. That's not just a spiritual imperative...its a political one as well. As David Simon said, we are on the verge of "the death of normal."
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying, thank god, and those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"The most intense, aggressive face I've ever seen" (i.e., black)

From Darren Wilson's testimony, after the altercation in the car was over and Michael Brown had started to run away, he says this:
When he stopped, he turned, looked at me, made like a grunting noise and had the most intense, aggressive face I've ever seen on a person. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon. That's how angry he looked.
According to Wilson's testimony, that's when he started shooting.

It sounds an awful lot like South Carolina State Trooper Sean Groubert's initial testimony about why he started shooting at Levar Jones after pulling him over for a seat belt violation.
Before I could even get out of my car he jumped out, stared at me, and as I jumped out of my car and identified myself, as I approached him, he jumped head-first back into his car … he jumped out of the car. I saw something black in his hands.
The only problem for Groubert is that in that case, that there was an actual video of what happened.

In the case of the murder of Jordan Davis, Michael Dunn's basic defense was pretty much the same: Davis made him fear for his life. At least there was a jury trial on that one and Dunn was convicted of first degree murder (even though it took them two tries to do it).

In discussing the Groubert shooting, Leonard Pitts sums up what's going on in all three of these minimum.
So let us accord him the benefit of the doubt because in situations like this, people always want to make it a question of character. And the shooter’s friends always feel obliged to defend him with the same tired words: “He is not a racist.”

He probably isn’t, at least not in the way they understand the term.

But what he is, is a citizen of a country where the fear of black men is downright viral. That doesn’t mean he burns crosses on the weekend. It means he’s watched television, seen a movie, used a computer, read a newspaper or magazine. It means he is alive and aware in a nation where one is taught from birth that thug equals black, suspect equals black, danger equals black...

The Groubert video offers an unusually stark image of that fear in action. Viewing it, it seems clear the trooper is not reacting to anything Jones does. In a very real sense, he doesn’t even see him. No, he is reacting to a primal fear of what Jones is, to outsized expectations of what Jones might do, to terrors buried so deep in his breast, he probably doesn’t even know they’re there.
When I read Darren Wilson's words, it seemed obvious to me that he was also reacting to that primal fear buried deep in his breast. That's what most racism looks like these days. And that's why so many unarmed black boys are dying.

The perversion of a grand jury process

Years ago I sat on a federal grand jury. Over the course of 12 months, we heard evidence on dozens of cases. At the end, I was totally frustrated by the process and completely understood why former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” We were even told by one of the prosecutors that we could count on never being seated on a trial jury because defense attorney's don't trust someone who has been a member of a grand jury.

When we think of jury duty, we normally envision the kinds we've seen in the news or on TV dramas - complete with a judge who ensures fairness and two opposing lawyers who present their case. What we need to remember about a grand jury is that, first of all, there is no judge present. Secondly, there is no adversarial process. Only the prosecutor gets to present evidence. Witnesses are not even allowed to have their lawyer present.

Under those circumstances, in the dozens of cases I heard, the grand jury never once questioned the prosecutor or failed to provide him/her with the subpoenas or indictments s/he asked for...unanimously. If you'd like to hear how that process affected the Darren Wilson grand jury, watch this video.

No True Bill from Stlfilmmaker on Vimeo.

If your aim was to ensure that Darren Wilson never faced trial on criminal charges (he's very likely to still face civil charges), a grand jury presided over by Robert McCulloch was the perfect venue. The prosecutor's office is making a big deal about the fact that they shared all the evidence with the grand jury (which the lawyers in the video above point out is highly unusual). But that means the members of the jury had to sort through it all on their own - including 4 hours of testimony from  Darren Wilson - with no adversarial process to highlight an opposing position.

Of course people are outraged. This is not a process that produces justice!

Monday, November 24, 2014

4.5 Minutes of Silence for the Protection of All Children

Here is the statement from Michael Brown's parents:

God bless them and God bless the children.

Just SAY IT, Charles Blow

In many ways, Charles Blow nailed it it his column titled: Bigger Than Immigration.
Don’t let yourself get lost in the weeds. Don’t allow yourself to believe that opposition to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration is only about that issue, the president’s tactics, or his lack of obsequiousness to his detractors.

This hostility and animosity toward this president is, in fact, larger than this president. This is about systems of power and the power of symbols. Particularly, it is about preserving traditional power and destroying emerging symbols that threaten that power. This president is simply the embodiment of the threat, as far as his detractors are concerned, whether they are willing or able to articulate it as such.
But does anyone else get the feeling like he's trying to say something while walking on egg shells? His message is basically the same one I talked about in: Understanding the Threat of a Confederate Insurgency. But he hides behind words like "systems of power" and "power of symbols" and never gets around to saying anything about what those systems and symbols represent: racism.

Perhaps there's a method to his madness because everyone knows what kind of reaction the use of the "r" word gets these days. But lets be real...we all know exactly what he's talking about.

What Hillary Clinton Could Learn From Al Gore

Now that the 2014 midterms are over, it is - of course - off to the races for 2016. I find myself amused by a lot of the "advice" that Hillary Clinton is getting about how to position herself for another presidential run.

For example, Dylan Scott suggests that Sec. Clinton faces a dilemma between distancing herself from President Obama and appealing to what has become known as "the Obama coalition."
They are of course linked: If Obama is unpopular, a Clinton campaign will be tempted to present a sharp contrast. At the same time, the President will likely remain popular with the core Democratic base that she needs to harness. But the record tells us that, however the Obama presidency is faring like in its final months, it's going to influence his aspiring successor's White House ambitions.
Former Clinton staffers Douglas Schoen and Patrick Caddell make no bones about where they come down on that one. They weigh in with: Obama is Damaging Hillary's Chances.

I am reminded of the fact that Vice President Al Gore faced the same dilemma when he decided to run in 2000. President Bill Clinton had actually been impeached by the House of Representatives and it was unclear whether his involvement in a Gore campaign would help or hurt. As we all know now, Gore chose to "position" himself by staying mum on the issue.

What I think Hillary Clinton could learn from all of this is to avoid the whole idea of "positioning" yourself based on how the electorate might react. An awful lot of us cringed at the lack of authenticity in Al Gore's presidential campaign. That's why - whether they were true or not - stories about advice he got from Naomi Wolf about being a "beta male" rang true.  And when, in 2003, Gore let loose of all that and gave a barn-burner speech on how the Bush administration was trampling on civil liberties, we all wondered "Where was this guy in 2000?"

Of course running a presidential campaign requires positioning. But rather than catering to what someone thinks the electorate wants to hear, it has to be based on an answer to the question "Who is this candidate?" Looking back on how she ran in 2008, I'm not sure that Hillary Clinton has answered that question. That was highlighted by the fact that some people even thought that the tears she shed on the trail in New Hampshire were contrived.

If Hillary Clinton can find her core and speak to us from that place, she can toss out all the advice she's getting from folks about how to position herself vis a vis President Obama and his coalition. Whether or not she can do that...we'll see.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Odds & Ends

Here are some stories that caught my eye today.

One of the most frustrating things about Republicans over the last few years is their adoption of "post-policy" positioning." That's why Kimberly Strassel's op-ed is revealing. She's having some fun positing that if President Obama can claim the kinds of powers she identifies, why not the next Republican president too? And then she unleashes what the agenda would be. Holy cow!!!! Suffice it to say, "Social Security? What Social Security?"

All I can say is...please Bibi, don't do it!

The good news of the day is that the incoming Nevada House Speaker Ira Hansen has decided to step down after his racist/sexist remarks were made public.

While everyone is distracted, slowly but surely the Obama administration is transferring detainees out of Gitmo.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, their 2016 field of hopefuls is not as popular with the general public as they are with their base.

And finally, we can now replace all the other things we've been told to freak out about lately. The truly terrifying news of the day is that the earth is running out of chocolate.

Are Americans "Stupid" or Uninformed?

Republicans are making hay out of Jonathan Gruber's suggestion that those who crafted Obamacare thought the American public was stupid. While that was a politically incorrect (and stupid) thing to say, we've all seen enough "man on the street" interviews where too many people don't know which party controls Congress or who the current Vice President is to simply dismiss it as untrue.

But a more relevant question would be to ask whether or not the American public is "stupid" (inferring a lack of intelligence) or uninformed. That is the question sparked by this recent Gallup poll. They found that - while the violent crime rate has dropped dramatically since the early 1990's (from 80 incidents of violent crime/1000 people to 23/1000), 63% of Americans think that violent crime is increasing.

Back in the 1990's I attended a workshop on the effects of television on young people. The presenter asked the audience, "What is the purpose of television?" After a lot of responses that focused on entertainment, the presenter said that the purpose was to produce eyeballs...for advertisers. I would suggest that the same thing is now true of our news media. The perception of an increase in violent crime is likely a direct result of the old adage: "if it bleeds, it leads."

Media Matters recently produced a report showing that both cable and network news reporting on Ebola spiked in the days leading up to the 2014 midterms and then simply went to almost nothing afterwards. I don't buy the idea that this was some collusion between the media and Republicans. I suspect it had more to do with the way that fear of the disease spreading grabbed everyone's attention, and then a total elimination of coverage once it was clear that wasn't going to happen (at least not in this country). In other words, success at containing the spread of Ebola doesn't produce eyeballs.

Circling back to the subject of Obamacare, its interesting to note the effect all this has on the perceptions of the public.
Jon Krosnick, Wendy Gross, and colleagues at Stanford and Kaiser ran large surveys to measure public understanding of the ACA and how it was associated with approval of the law. They found that accurate knowledge about what’s in the bill varied with party identification: Democrats understood the most and liked the law the most, independents less, and Republicans understood still less and liked the law the least. However, attitudes were not just tribal. Within each party, the more accurate your knowledge of the law, the more you liked it.
These researchers found that in the unlikely event that the public had a perfect understanding of the law, approval of it would go from 32% to 70%. That's the price we pay for an uninformed public.

Its true that technology has allowed partisans and ideologues to chose media sources that confirm their beliefs. But those who simply want "the news" are pretty regularly fed a diet that inflames more than it informs. If you doubt that, take a look at one retired anchorman's reaction to the movie "Anchorman."

If we want this to change, we'll need everyone to think twice about what they do with their eyeballs.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

More good news

Regular readers here might want to take a look at the Political Animal blog at The Washington Monthly. You might recognize a new writer there.

Just saying...


"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs"

I'm going to give Colbert King the benefit of the doubt and assume that he had the best of intentions when he wrote The lessons of November 1963. But seriously...comparing our current situation to the moments after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated is WAY over the top and dangerously inflammatory.

Right now, President Obama and the Democrats are going about the business of governing in a terribly polarized political environment. On the other side of the isle is a party with no solutions that is having a massive freak-out. Some of their people are comparing temporary relief to 5 million undocumented immigrants to Japanese internment camps, suggesting the possibility of ethnic cleansing and warning of violence and anarchy. Instead of all the hype, these guys could simply do what President Obama has suggested over and over again...Pass A Bill (i.e., try governing themselves).

The very last thing we need right now is for people to start comparing all that to a presidential assassination and transfer of power. It invites us to join in the hysteria rather than provide an alternative. In other words, it inflames rather than enlightens.

A much better approach is the one that embodies exactly how President Obama tends to handle these kinds of things. It comes from the poet Rudyard Kipling.

If, A Father's Advice to His Son

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools...

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Response From POTUS :-)

Anyone remember that last summer I wrote a letter to President Barack Obama?

Well...hold on to your hats. Because he just wrote me back. OH MY!!!!!

If my letter kept him going for just one tiny moment in time, I am over-the-top THRILLED.

So yeah, this is me right about now.