Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cruel and Unusual

Did you ever make a mistake when you were 13 years old? Hang around with the wrong people? Go to the wrong places? Take risks with your behavior?

Well, imagine that in addition, you're a black or brown 13 year old who has lived a lifetime with neglect, abuse, poverty, crime, and drug abuse. Imagine the kinds of "mistakes" you might make.

Do you deserve to spend the rest of your life in prison?

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Well, in this United States of America, that's exactly what has happened to 73 children who were sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for crimes that were committed when they were 13 or 14 years of age. All of this according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Here's just one of their stories from an article in NYU's Office of Public Affairs:

Antonio Nunez was 14 when, in April 2001, he left a party in California with two men nearly twice his age. One of the men later claimed to be a kidnapping victim. When police chased their car and shots were fired, Antonio — along with the 27-year-old driver — was arrested. No one was injured, but Antonio was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole. Just a year before, Antonio was shot multiple times while riding his bicycle near his house in South Central Los Angeles. His brother, 14, was fatally shot in the head when he ran to help Antonio.


And some data from the report:

The U.S. is the only country in the world known to have condemned 13- and 14-year-old children to imprisonment until death.

Most of these young children were accomplices to adults or older teens who were more culpable for the crime.

Most of the 73 suffered years of severe abuse and neglect. Some tried to commit suicide as young as age eight.

Children of color are disproportionately sentenced to die in prison. Of the 73 children identified, roughly two-thirds are people of color; nearly half are African American.

Most of these kids are from poor families and received grossly inadequate legal representation. Court-appointed attorneys failed to file post-conviction appeals and never challenged the death-in-prison sentence in most of these cases.

All of the 73 have been sent to adult prisons, where many are the target of horrendous physical and sexual assault by adult inmates.


In terms of international standards of decency, the U.S. finds itself alone on this one. In a United Nations resolution calling to abolish life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children, the vote came out 185 to 1—the U.S. was the lone dissenter. 

But here's the potential for some good news about all of this: the Supreme Court has decided to review two such cases this fall, both are from Florida and neither one involved murder.

One of the cases to be considered, that of Joe Sullivan, clearly demonstrates the horrendous nature of this practice.

In 1989, someone raped a 72-year-old woman in Pensacola, Fla. Joe Sullivan was 13 at the time, and he admitted that he and two older friends had burglarized the woman’s home earlier that day. But he denied that he had returned to commit the rape.

The victim testified that her assailant was “a colored boy” who “had kinky hair and he was quite black and he was small.” She said she “did not see him full in the face” and so would not recognize him by sight. But she recalled her attacker saying something like, “If you can’t identify me, I may not have to kill you.”

At his trial, Mr. Sullivan was made to say those words several times.

“It’s been six months,” the woman said on the witness stand. “It’s hard, but it does sound similar.”

The trial lasted a day and ended in conviction. Then Judge Nicholas Geeker, of the circuit court in Escambia County, sentenced Mr. Sullivan to life without the possibility of parole.

“I’m going to send him away for as long as I can,” Judge Geeker said.


As to Joe's representation in this case:

Mr. Sullivan’s trial, for instance, lasted a day. He was represented by a lawyer who made no opening statement and whose closing argument occupies about three double-spaced pages of the trial transcript. The lawyer was later suspended, and the Florida Bar’s Web site says he is “not eligible to practice in Florida.”

There was biological evidence from the rape, but it was not presented at the trial. When Mr. Sullivan’s new lawyers recently sought to conduct DNA testing on it, they were told that the state had destroyed it in 1993.


Joe Sullivan, now 33 years old, has served 20 years of his life sentence so far. I don't know about you, but it doesn't take much empathy for me to see that this is cruel and unusual. Even if he committed this crime (which looks very suspicious to me), we don't even consider 13 year-olds mature enough to drive cars. How can we think that they should be held responsible FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES for something they did as children? Leonard Pitts answers that question in his Open Letter to African American Men.

I'm weary of the truth in that old Richard Pryor line about how he went to court looking for justice and that's what he found. Just us.

Contrary to what society has told us, to what so much of our music claims and to what too many of us have internalized, the reason isn't that we carry some kind of criminal gene. No, it's that we don't get second chances, don't have the same margin for error a white guy would. One strike, and you're out.


As Senator Jim Webb has said, there are many reforms to our so-called "criminal justice system" that are necessary. I strongly support his efforts and in the meantime hope that this fall the SCOTUS finally gets this one right.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Sotomayor/Alito comparison exposes privilege

This week Glenn Greenwald did us all a huge favor by breaking the story about how Alito's "empathy" for his own roots exposes the hypocrisy of the right's attacks on Sotomayor for saying essentially the same thing. After all, why is it that Alito can draw on the experience of his immigrant grandparents, but when Sotomayor talks about drawing on her experience as a Latina, she's labelled an "activist judge?"

There is a one-word answer to that question...privilege.

For too long, the experience of people like Alito has been assumed to be THE experience. So it doesn't really need to be understood or named, it just IS. But when Sotomayor's experience is different, it becomes problematic. It's not that she brings something additional to the judicial process. It's that we are not used to talking about the fact that he does too.

This is how white people obtain privilege in this country. Our world view is assumed to be the norm by which all things are judged. It becomes so accepted as the norm, that we don't need to define it - but it's no less there.

Years ago I had a profound experience that brought this home to me. I attended a three-day conference on "Undoing Racism." On the second day, the facilitators told us that one of the exercises for the final day would be for each of us to bring something to share with the group that expressed our cultural heritage. Many (though not all) of the white people in the group panicked...what cultural heritage???? The take-away from that experience was that our culture is the default by which "difference" is measured. And in the process, we don't even recognize or claim it.

As a white person, I am too often ignorant of the ways I make assumptions about my experience being the norm. Over the years, kind and patient people of color have given me hints about how that happens. As an example, yesterday LaAbogada gave us all the gift of a couple of examples from her own life in a diary titled What the War On Sotomayor Means to a Young Latina Lawyer. Please follow the link and read what she's written if you haven't already. She does a far better job of explaining things than I can.

I'm sure we could all tell our stories about how we slowly...painfully learn that our experience doesn't necessarily translate into a world view that incorporates ALL. I'm also sure that people of color get VERY tired of having to help us learn those lessons. And sometimes, as Nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican says, we just have to come to the place where we do the hardest thing of all...admit we don't, and maybe even can't, know.

Mi novia says that it really frustrates White people that no matter how much they know or want to know, there may be an area of experience or knowledge that they cannot access. <...>

This is another way of saying White Privilege.

How dare the world harbor some sort of Thing that I cannot experience! How dare you insinuate that you possess knowledge I may have to ask you about in humility! How impertinent of you to even imagine that I cannot, with study and great wisdom and effort, also know what it is like to grow up Brown™ in America! The voice of privilege thinks no seat is unavailable, no land unconquerable, no food untasteable, no right deniable, no experience out of reach.


Now there's some words that are hard for us to hear, right? But yes, there are some things that Sonia Sotomayor knows (from experience) about what it's like to be marginalized in this country that Sam Alito will never know. And that's why a voice like hers (added to her tremendous education and experience) is so needed on the SCOTUS.

It's also why we need to listen as much as we can to the voices of people with experiences that are different from our own as we try to craft answers to the problems and issues that challenge our country. Our vision needs to be open to incorporating a world of experiences that we haven't lived.

And while sometimes the process of learning that can be painful, it is certainly a fierce way to live. Again, I'll quote Nezua:

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking.<...>

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too.<...>

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the cycle of fear and brutality

As we all know, the fear-mongering from Republicans about the possibility of Gitmo prisoners being transferred to federal prisons in the U.S. worked to convince all but 6 Democrats (Durbin, Harkin, Leahy, Levin, Reed, Whitehouse) to vote against funding for shutting it down. Apparently, Harry Reid was so completely terrorized at the prospect that he had trouble explaining himself clearly without the help of reporters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) declared in a press conference today, “We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States.” In several tense back and forths with reporters, Reid said he opposes imprisoning detainees on U.S. soil, saying flatly, “We don’t want them around the United States”:


And now, just in time to play on that fear, we get the story of four Muslims who were arrested in New York for trying to blow up synagogues and shoot down airplanes.

The men, all of whom live in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City, were arrested around 9 p.m. after planting what they believed to be bombs in cars outside the Riverdale Temple and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center, officials said. But the men did not know the bombs, obtained with the help of an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were fake.<...>

The charges against the four men represent some of the most significant allegations of domestic terrorism in some time, and come months into a new presidential administration, as President Obama grapples with the question of how to handle detainees at the Guantánamo Bay camp in Cuba.


And we can certainly count on our media to ramp up this story, including the part about how these men were "radicalized" during their time in prison.

The four men accused of plotting to blow up synagogues and shoot down a plane all did stretches in state prisons - a major breeding ground for Islamic radicalization.

At least two of the suspects, James Cromitie and Onta Williams, entered the system as Baptists and were paroled as Muslims.

The concern about prisons incubating jihadists has been heightened in the debate over releasing Guantanamo terror suspects to facilities across the U.S.


This week Deoliver47 wrote a powerful diary about all of this and I want to credit her with much of what I am posting here. I was struck by how much this story brings together many threads in what we are facing as a culture and country.

Deoliver47 tells us a little about the town of Newburgh - where these young men are from, and Camp LaGuardia, where one of them lived.

Newburgh, and other small towns above NY city have become a dumping ground for the poor, the homeless, the dysfunctional members of our society, many of whom are black or latino. There has been a shift in the demographics in recent years, with an increasing number of people who can no longer afford to live in NYc, even in the depressed sections. Gentrification in the South Bronx, Harlem, The Lower East Side and sections of Brooklyn that formerly housed the cities poor, has driven more families out of the city; settling in counties upstate, but still in a 2 hour distance from the metropolis. During the Guiliani administration, his efforts to "clean-up" New York, resulted in a wholesale sweep of homeless residents, many of whom were shipped "upstate" to camps like one located in Orange County, Camp LaGuardia, where residents have been vocal about there area become a dumping ground for NYC's social ills.


Then she goes on to explain how it is NOT Islam that is radicalizing our prisons...but the prisons themselves.

Am I surprised that they "converted to Islam" while in prison. Nope.
I've worked with incarcerated folks, and on prison reform since the 60's.
Our nations prisons are warehouses for the poor, and disproportionately full of cullard folks. If any of you have ever done prison time, you will understand that the prison experience in America is a nightmare. Survival in most men's prisons has little to do with the rules or the guards, but requires joining a group that will literally protect your ass.

And BTW, yes there is torture practiced in US prisons, not just GITMO. The entire experience is torture, but that is a subject for another diary.

Many of you are familiar with the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and know that he converted to the NOI in prison. In later years black Muslim groups were able to secure better food for their converts, and to provide protection from "booty bandits" who prey on "new fish" entering the systems. Since that time, protection groups in prison have proliferated, often along racial and ethnic lines. La Familia, The Netas, The Latin Kings, The Mexican Mafia, the Black Guerrilla Family, The Aryan Brotherhood, The Maras Salvatrucas (aka MS-13) all have large memberships in prison society.

You join a group, or you may die. Period. You may still die, since inter-group warfare is rampant, but you may avoid being raped, by other inmates or guards. (Yes "corrections officers" are part of the problem too)


All of this reminded me of what David Simon, creator of HBO's series "The Wire" has been saying for years now.

I am wholly pessimistic about American society. I believe The Wire is a show about the end of the American Empire. We...are going to live that event. How we end up...and survive [and] on what terms, is going to be the open question... There will be cities. We are an urban people...What kind of places they will be are...dependent on how we behave toward each other and how our political infrastructure behaves<...>

We are in the postindustrial age. We do not need as many of us as we once did. We don’t need us to generate capital...to secure wealth. We are in a transitive period where human beings have lost some of their value. Now, whether or not we...can figure out a way to validate the humanity of the individual...I have great doubts...We (America) haven’t figured out the answers to these questions.<...>

I didn’t start [out] as a cynic...,but at every given moment, where this country has had a choice...its governments...institutions...corporations, its social framework...to exalt the value of individuals over the value of the shared price, we have chosen raw unencumbered Capitalism. Capitalism has become our God... You are not looking at a Marxist up here...But you are looking at somebody who doesn’t believe that Capitalism [can work] absent a social framework that accepts that it is relatively easy to marginalize more and more people in this economy...[Capitalism] has to be attended to. And that [this attending] has to be a conscious calculation on the part of society, if that is going to succeed...


If you'd like to hear the whole speech by Simon, you can find it in three episodes on Youtube here, here, and here. I highly recommend it!!!

So here we have four young men of color who were cast aside as worthless. Certainly they hold responsibility for what they did with their lives. But the options weren't all that available. They were treated brutally and responded in kind. And now we seem to be wanting to use them again to scare us into more brutality.

At what point do we decide to stop that cycle?...to stand up and say that we will no longer allow our fear and our desire to maintain our own comforts perpetuate this cycle of brutality? I want to be more optimistic than Simon is. And for me, as good a place as any to start is by looking in the eyes of these four young men. Yes, we need to hold them accountable for their actions. But we should also have the courage to take the time to see what we've done to them (collectively) and demand something different. And we certainly shouldn't buy into any ideas about using them to perpetuate yet more fear and brutality.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Divide

I think Obama summed up the reason why so many in the progressive blogosphere are having trouble with his administration in his Saturday video address this week.

I have always believed that it is better to talk than not to talk; that it is far more productive to reach over a divide than to shake your fist across it. This has been an alien notion in Washington for far too long, but we are seeing that the ways of Washington are beginning to change. For the calling of this moment is too loud and too urgent to ignore. Our success as a nation – the future of our children and grandchildren – depends upon our willingness to cast aside old arguments, overcome stubborn divisions, and march forward as one people and one nation.




Since its inception a few years ago, the role of the progressive blogosphere has been to "shake our fist across the divide." That was certainly what initially drew me to these kinds of conversations back in 2003/04. First of all, it helped us not feel so alone in our rage. And secondly, that's about all we could do. It was clear that Bush and Cheney weren't interested in anything we had to say. And Congress, even after the 2006 elections, wasn't paying much attention either.

Obama is right that shaking fists across the divide is what those in Washington have also done. Its been interesting to watch the Republicans as they sometimes have to work to position the divide so that they can continue to shout across it.

But one of the things I have questions about these days is "where exactly is the divide we should be shouting across?"

As many have noted over the last few weeks, the Republicans are in a death spiral and shaking fists at them seems to only give them a form of credibility that they wouldn't otherwise have.

So we are increasingly seeing folks develop the divide between themselves and Obama. From the standpoint of many of the issues we care about as progressives, that makes some sense. Obama has provided fodder for that in many instances, just as the Democrats in Congress have been doing since 2006.

The one thing that I'd like to challenge about all of that though, is that we all need to recognize that there is validity to the different roles that insiders like politicians and outsiders like bloggers play.

Obama, as President, is tasked with getting things done - not just espousing his ideals. If you want a look at his ideals, read the commencement speech he gave this week at Arizona State University. When it comes to actually getting things done, he not only has Congress to deal with, he has a huge entrenched system to challenge and move with him...not to mention years of sludge to clean up from the last administration.

I also think that Obama is looking for long-term lasting change - not short-term fixes. That not only means bringing the system along with him, it means doing so in a way that doesn't continue one of the biggest challenges to our constitutional democracy that was left as a legacy of Bush/Cheney...the unitary executive. 

We have heard Obama state clearly on a few occasions that he prefers for change to come legislatively rather than from executive orders. He is well aware that executive orders can be altered in the future at the whim of the person in office. But changing legislation is a different matter.

And this week, NCrissieB wrote a very thought-provoking essay putting forth a theory about why Obama might be sending many of the executive privilege questions back to the courts for a ruling. If he simply negates them by executive order - the framework of a unitary executive is still in place for future administrations to exploit.

The only way to restore our constitutional system of checks and balances is if the other two branches of the government are empowered to weigh in on these issues and do their jobs. Its interesting to me that the framers of our constitution seem to have understood the value of partnership in a representative democracy in ways that we have sometimes forgotten.

As for us progressive bloggers, I think that its our job to hold on to our ideals and shout them from the rooftops- all while recognizing that its a different task altogether to get them implemented. For me, that means paying close attention to judicial nominees and working to get Congress to stand up and do their job. Shouting across the divide means restoring the checks and balances that are provided for in the separation of powers - not just focusing on a President who is but one of those branches.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mothers in the Shadows

Mother's Day is usually not a big deal for me. I don't have children and let's just say that my mother and I have managed to put together the best superficial relationship that is possible, given what we have to work with.

But this Mother's Day, I'm thinking of the thousands of mothers I've come to know over the years who are battling the odds, usually in the shadows, to do the best they can to heal broken lives (including their own).



For example, there's someone I'll call "Nora." I don't know much about her childhood, except that I expect she didn't grow up dreaming of becoming a prostitute and drug addict. But that's what happened. Along the way she had three children who were physically abused and sexually assaulted by the myriads of men who came in and out of their lives.

I met Nora shortly after she got out of prison and was reunited with her children. Its hard to describe the woman I saw without sounding hyperbolic. She was a force to be reckoned with and had a fierce determination to be the mother her children needed. 

There was no pretense with Nora and she was clear about all the damage she had done. But she wasn't about to sit around and wallow in guilt either. She was like a sponge wanting to learn all she could about mothering and how to get her family at least moving on a different track. She knew the road ahead was going to be difficult. But she took it all on with a strength and courage that I have rarely seen in any human being. It was a pleasure just to be around her and try to keep up with her momentum.

And then there was Jackie. I don't know a whole lot about her childhood either, except that on a couple of occasions she alluded to abuse that was almost beyond my comprehension. Jackie had found some healing in her life and wanted to pass that on to other children. So she adopted two little girls who had experienced similar things.

When I met them, her daughters were 14 and 10 years old. During our first meeting, I remember thinking about confronting Jackie with how insensitive she was with her daughters. But something told me to pay a little more attention before doing that. Boy, was I wrong!!! Over time I watched as these two girls threw their pain at her in moments when she was most vulnerable. But instead of responding in kind, she embraced them. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life to watch her and marvel at her love and strength.

At our last meeting, Jackie presented me with something that has become my prized possession...a poem. I'd like to share it with all of you as a testament to those mothers who demonstrate their strength in the shadows - away from the spotlight of our attention. Every day women like Nora and Jackie do the small quiet work of healing the brokenness that has too often been passed on from mother to child. And today, I'd like to honor them.

First there was the pain.
Sharp, searing and rushing through our lives.
Pain calls us you know,
some pains carry our name
from generation to generation.

We brought it in with us,
blaming, yelling and desperate for some relief.

We opened our mouths and spit it at you,
yelled it at you
and you found the reason to smile.
Each blow was warded off
and placed where it belonged.
Like a puzzle where slowly
the pieces begin to fit.
Not just one puzzle but three.
Not yet put together,
but beautifully begun.

First there was the pain,
and the ache of a thousand years of mothers.
Then slowly came the wonder
and some days even the joy.

- Jackie

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A feminist revolution

The other day I stumbled on a Kid Oakland diary titled for a women's century that I had initially read almost 2 1/2 years ago, but has even more relevance to me today.

Here's a few highlights.

...I think the feminist values of context, consensus and community will form the crux of how feminism will help move our society from one based, essentially, on war and greed...those twin obsessions of the the militarized state...to one based on sustainability and mutuality, on democratic community and interdependence on all levels. As we can see from around the globe, the current wave of feminism is very much about "fact-based" and "reality-based" pragmatism; the world powers must see that and understand it. This is a project as bold and necessary as any yet undertaken in our short history on this planet, even if, at the end of the day, it won't look like 'revolutions' past.

Men throughout our history have priveleged a kind of rhetoric for change that is essentially full of machismo. Without dismissing the validity and heroism of previous sturggles for change, it is essential that we envision the possibility of a different kind of struggle, a different, and perhaps, more pragmatic way of making progressive change. Motherhood, femininity, and womanhood represent a direct connection to a kind of continuity, a sense of connectedness that for women is simply not abstract. It is those values we see in the worldwide movement for women's empowerment. Continuity and connectedness are not 'known traits' of most previous movements for change, which privilege seismic shifts and dramatic breaks...It is high time that feminism and women's empowerment help us look at the bigger picture and move our politics into one of making long term change based on a long term vision.


The interesting thing is that this was Kid Oakland's response to the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. And here we are today with another opening on the court being discussed. Here's what Obama said about the kind of person he would be looking for to fill that vacancy.

Now, the process of selecting someone to replace Justice (David) Souter is among my most serious responsibilities as president, so I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives, whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation. I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.


This isn't the first time that Obama has addressed what he sees as priorities for a Supreme Court Justice. Here's what he said in a speech to Planned Parenthood in July 2007.

I also think it's important to understand that there is nothing wrong in voting against [judicial] nominees who don't appear to share a broader vision of what the constitution is about. I think the Constitution can be interpreted in so many ways. And one way is a cramped and narrow way in which the Constitution and the courts essentially become the rubber stamps of the powerful in society.

And then there's another vision of the court that says that the courts are the refuge of the powerless, because oftentimes they may lose in the democratic back-and-forth. They may be locked out and prevented from fully participating in the democratic process.<...>

You know, Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire. But the issues that come before the court are not sport. They're life and death. And we need somebody who's got the heart to recogni-- the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges.


As a matter of fact, as has been demonstrated by the folks at Progressive Spirit, Obama has been talking about empathy for a long time now. They have produced a video that documents the history of Obama talking about our "empathy deficit" and why its so important to correct that imbalance.

So as I hear all of the talk and controversy about Obama's focus on empathy as a primary charactaristic for a Supreme Court nominee, I can't help but think of the pragmatic change movement Kid Oakland described as the foundation for a "women's century" based on context, continuity, and connectedness. It's a perfect example of the slow steady righting of the ship that Obama has been steering all along. But because it happens without the seismic shifts and dramatic breaks, we too often fail to recognize it as a revolution.