Barney Fife Я Us

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This just in: citizens of Gaza have tweeted advice to citizens of Ferguson, Missouri on how to deal with tear gas. The tweets included such sage advice as…

Don’t Keep much distance from the Police, if you’re close to them they can’t tear Gas. To #Ferguson from #Palestine

Solidarity with #Ferguson. Remember to not touch your face when tear gassed or put water on it. Instead use milk or coke!

And one tweeter, Mariam Barghouti noted…

It feels so weird using my experience from #Palestine and Israeli oppression to give advice to #Ferguson. Much love and solidarity!

Indeed, it is weird, but when you consider that former Police Chief Tim Fitch studied Counter-Terrorism in Israel with the Israeli Defense Forces in April 2011, and that the weapons and tactics deployed in Ferguson in the last few days closely match weapons used in military occupations from Iraq to Afghanistan to Gaza, than it’s not so much weird as inevitable. In fact, many US veterans of those conflicts are tweeting that Ferguson police are ‘better armed’ than the initial invading troops for Operation Desert Storm.

To put this in context, Ferguson is a small town that spans just six square miles. It has a population of 21,203 people, and one ZIP code. Ferguson has about 40 robberies per year, a couple of homicides, almost no arson cases and a crime rate only a bit higher than the national average. Nevertheless, last night, Wednesday, August 13, some 70 SWAT officers showed up to ‘quell’ the unrest surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen killed by a Ferguson police officer. They arrived in full body armor with machine guns atop mine proofed personnel carriers trained on the crowds. Now, even I, unschooled in the most rudimentary of police work would know that this is not how you pacify a crowd or win hearts and minds. The opposite would seem to be the case: this is how you escalate a situation. Naturally, chaos ensued. An alderman was arrested, Washington Post and Huffington Post journalists were arrested. The Al Jazeera news team was harassed and tear gassed and after they fled, the police decided to ‘confiscate’ their equipment. Local citizens had to contend with rubber bullets and rounds of wooden pellets that “aren’t as lethal as live rounds”….always good to hear.

According the Riverfront Times, tear gas was so ubiquitous that reporters said they could not go from the police station on one side of the town to their cars on the other because of tear gas en route. Officers reportedly marched down streets ordering protesters to leave as they fired tear gas into the backyards and homes of individuals who stood on their own property with their hands up.

That a small town police force might be incompetent is not especially surprising—I always think of Barney Fife on these occasions. A periphrastic buffoon, Fife, played by the inimitable Don Knotts on the Andy Griffith show delivered a comic version of a small town police deputy so enthralled by the gadgetry of law enforcement that to give him live ammunition was to risk accidental death and mayhem. The sheriff of Mayberry wisely never allowed him to carry a loaded weapon. Like Fife, the police of Ferguson appear to be knuckle heads—they blew the situation in their hometown by over reacting. This morning the Governor of Missouri stepped in and said that the Ferguson police force would no longer be in charge of protecting Ferguson—which will come as some relief to those who have been ‘protected’ thus far. What is surprising, or sad, or just plain weird, is that we should be giving a small town police force enough military equipment to lay siege to their own township and a half dozen municipalities, besides. It’s like giving Barney Fife a bazooka, with sufficient live ammunition to level Detroit.

Unfortunately Ferguson is part of a nationwide trend where local police forces are supplied with surplus military equipment, a process that started back in the 90s when the ‘war on drugs’ was in its prime, and escalated dramatically after the 9/11 attacks. Now up to 4.3 billion dollars worth of military equipment is in the hands of our indomitable Barney Fifes. Among the gear transferred: tanks, aircraft, and machine guns, as well as 181 grenade launchers, for all those times when cops just have to launch a grenade at someone. And since they have all this equipment, our Barneys feel obligated to use it, too, otherwise, of course, all that deadly goodness is just going to waste. So now, fully outfitted ‘SWAT’ teams equipped with canons and grenade launchers and AR-15s and armored personnel carriers carry out such mundane tasks as serving warrants to skin flint husbands skipping out on alimony payments and so forth. Which might not be so bad, except when you’re walking around with half a million dollars worth of equipment whose sole function is to kill something, sometimes bad things occur.

For example, this April, a SWAT team badly burned a toddler when they dropped a flash grenade into his crib while searching for a relative they thought might be carrying drugs. And in 2010, a SWAT team shot and killed a 7-year-old girl when they accidentally raided the wrong house. Even when innocent humans don’t die, it’s common for police in these raids to shoot pet dogs on sight. So despite the millions of dollars of equipment, we are not getting any safer. On the contrary, an ACLU report released this summer – examining just 800 incidents of the estimated 45,000 annual Swat team deployments in America– found the opposite: seven people were killed and dozens were injured– and 61% of people impacted by drug-case Swat raids were minorities.

Kara Dansky, the chief author of the ACLU report, said that “the unnecessary use of paramilitary policing tactics tends to escalate the risk of violence to both civilians and officers.” But there is no central tracking system of the military equipment going out to local police departments – just as there is no oversight on how the equipment is used, or any reporting requirements other than hitting drug-enforcement numbers that bring in more cash—to pay for more weapons, of course.

To add to the mix, since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged further militarization of police through federal funds for “terrorism prevention.” The armored vehicles, assault weapons, and body armor borne by the police in Ferguson are the fruit of turning police into soldiers. According to the ACLU, police training material encourages departments to “build the right mind-set in your troops” in order to thwart “terrorist plans to massacre our schoolchildren.” According to a Mother Jones report, it is possible that, since 9/11, police militarization has massacred more American schoolchildren than any al-Qaida terrorist.

There’s been almost no public debate on police militarization: it was part of our overreaction to 9/11 which has whittled away our civil liberties, started two unnecessary wars overseas, while transforming our own neighborhoods into war zones. In many ways, our reaction to those attacks have done more to destroy ‘our way of life’ than any destructive fantasy Osama bin Laden might have dreamed. The result? Well, I’d say, imagine Mayberry RFD with Barney Fife in charge, but you don’t have to imagine– just watch what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Telegenic Dead

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JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images “Video cameras set up by International and Israeli media crews point toward the Gaza Strip from their vantage point on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border….”

It is the last insult, of course. Not only must the over-worked Israeli government and its military arm deal with recent uprising in the Gaza strip, they must now contend with the televised facts of dead Palestinians. Despite getting a unanimous vote of support from the US Congress –a miracle of politics, in and of itself—there appear to be some gaps in the media coverage of current events such that—no matter who is fired and who is forced off the air because of an unfortunate interest in truth-telling– dead Palestinians are still showing up.

Dismayed by this turn of events, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to reporters, tersely, that Hamas uses “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”

Now English isn’t his first language, so I suppose this might excuse the awkwardness of the phrase, but I suspect Netanyahu’s pronouncement, unfiltered by a prescient press agent, was exactly what he wanted to say. Something like, “We are losing the public relations war because the Palestinians we kill have the temerity to show off their dead bodies as, well … dead.”

Of course, they have a shortage of dead Israelis as well, but apparently that’s a problem they don’t have a keen interest in fixing. What are you going to do?

But I must say, Israel, with the help of many a media outlet, has done yeoman’s work in channeling their message. Just looking back over the last few days, we can see how fast someone called NBC News shortly after a journalist reported on four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach who were shelled into oblivion by a naval bombardment. The unfortunate journalist made the mistake of actually reporting what he saw. For this act of actual journalism, he was relieved of duty in the Gaza strip and brought home—ostensibly for security reasons—even though a less seasoned reporter (and one presumably less inclined to report the actual news) was shortly put in his place. After much media exposure, the deactivated reporter was sent back to cover Gaza, but half the world had to know about NBC’s decision before the matter was set straight.

So it goes. CNN pulled correspondent Diana Magnay from covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reassigned her to Moscow on Friday, a day after she tweeted — and then deleted — that Israelis who were threatening her and were cheering at the bombing of Gaza were “scum.” Apparently, she made the mistake of having a conscience while reporting these events.

One final incident, last week, on ABC News, Diane Sawyer misidentified scenes of the aftermath of Israeli missile strikes in Gaza as destruction caused by Palestinian rocket fire. As Sawyer segued into the segment, she said, “We take you overseas now to the rockets raining down on Israel today as Israel tried to shoot them out of the sky.” Next to her was video footage not of Israelis or even Israel, but of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. Sawyer then incorrectly described an image of a Palestinian family gathering belongings in the smoking debris of a missile-hit home in Gaza as “an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can.”

For a grace note on that report, Sawyer described another Palestinian woman surrounded by destroyed homes as “one woman standing speechless among the ruins,” with the implication that she was Israeli. It was a beautiful portrait. And a nearly perfect propaganda victory for Israel. You really can’t buy that kind of press.

Later, Diane Sawyer apologized and said it was an accident, wouldn’t happen again, and please don’t concern yourself with my multimillion dollar contract.

The real problem is that  these are not isolated incidents. Mistakes curiously pile up in favor of the ‘current news frame’….But social media is slowly making inroads. Communications are as fast as a twitter feed, so it becomes that much more difficult for state propaganda operations, or major news outlets with politically weighted boardrooms to slant the news. Eventually, the truth outs.

Israel is well aware of this, too. Like our own military, the IDF is concerned to present a good face to the general public. But if you look at their internal reports, abuse of Palestinians or Arab nationals is common place. The dehumanization of the Palestinian people takes place at the ‘edge of the sword’, where the military first makes contact with the population, and this attitude works its way back through their society. It’s been this way for years, and it’s a sad case. Israel knows it’s losing the propaganda war. That’s why they’ve been carpet bombing the web with complaints about media bias, and why Netanyahu complains about Hamas using dead Palestinians to promote their cause. But, you know, they can only do that when Israel provides the dead.

In the Dark Cave of the Court

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Next to the Supreme Court that gave us the indefensible Dred Scott decision, this court  may be the worst.  One irony–and God, are there ironies to choose from here — is that the lifetime sinecure provided to the court, saving them from the influences of the ‘real’ world in a failed attempt at objectivity is probably enabling their agonized legalize. Their historically misguided Citizens United decision was the shot over the bow. That ruling purported to advance the cause of ‘free speech’ by allowing corporations the right to fund partisan politics—something which had been limited by the McCain–Feingold Act, essentially saying, “Um, no Wal-Mart, you can’t carpetbomb a locality with ads for or against a particular candidate.” But the majority apparently live on a different planet, or in an especially dark and warm place, where corporations — legal entities that have no purpose outside of profit-making—should be allowed the same rights as an individual.

But, of course, corporations are not individuals. They’re not even just groups of individuals. They aren’t social clubs, or coffee klatches, nor are they rock bands or churches. Corporations have one purpose—to make money, everything else they might do is ancillary. They have no morality, no feelings, no loyalty to anything but the bottom line. Unlike humans, they have limited liability, a perpetual life, and the ability to span the globe with resources at their disposal in some cases equivalent to a nation-state. One may as well confer individual speech rights on an ATM. But in the view of the majority, corporate players are just another grouping of citizens, the core of their legal purpose of no more concern than the human rights of a black man, like Dred Scott, say, circa 1857. We’d excuse a five-year-old for the easy confusion. But that the top legal minds in our country should be thus baffled? That’s an intellectual embarrassment.

And the confusion at the core of Citizen’s United just got amplified with the recent Hobby Lobby decision. Again, the majority plows the same field, this time assigning morality to  its favored legal construct, and now adding improved super powers in addition to speech; we confer on corporations the ability to have faith!  But, of course, Hobby Lobby the legal entity doesn’t believe in God or Allah or anything. It has no capacity for belief. Now the owners of Hobby Lobby may have religious beliefs, but the legal entity called Hobby Lobby is designed to make money without regard to religious beliefs. And, in fact, it does exactly that. Investing in contraceptive firms and trading with China which, in fact, has some of the highest incidents of abortion—government funded and occasionally mandated– in the world today. Even if we entertain the dubious concept that Hobby Lobby as a corporate entity can enforce its owners beliefs on its employees—or somehow use the corporate entity Hobby Lobby to channel those beliefs, we’d find ourselves with some glaring inconsistencies when we discover how those ‘beliefs’ actually played out in the market place. If “sincerely held beliefs” are the test for refusing to abide by Federal law, do they need to be even remotely consistent?

Apparently, Hobby Lobby gets it both ways: I refuse to fund contraception through Obamacare, but I will invest in a company for profit that produces those contraceptive devices.  That’s what you get for conflating an owner’s ‘moral taste’ with a legal entity that they happen to helm. Does moral inconsistency disqualify ‘deeply held’? Who determines what’s deep and what’s not? More importantly, who determines what’s religious and what’s not? The owners of the company? Would they perhaps be influenced to shade this opinion based on their own legal requirement to make money?

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a sweeping dissent raises the same issues, noting, rather drolly that “the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities.” As Stevens has noted as well, “Corporations have no consciences, no thoughts, no feelings, no beliefs, no desires.” Furthermore, the actual ‘harm’ to the religious believer is nebulous at best—the employer is not required to provide contraceptives, the insurance company is—along with a slew of other services. If the employer or employee doesn’t want to use contraceptives for religious reasons (or any reason, really), there’s no requirement that they do so. In fact, the coercion works the other way, forcing employees of a for profit corporation to essentially cow-tow to the religious beliefs of their owners. If an employer’s religious beliefs don’t mesh with the employees in this instance and they would want to take advantage of a universally available Federal program with direct health benefits, the owner’s religious ‘beliefs’ now trump all: the employee’s own religious beliefs, the employee’s right to healthcare and the force of Federal law.

Ginsburg rightly notes that the decision opens up a floodgate of questions and possible challenges, “Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious beliefs is offended by health coverage of vaccines? Or paying the minimum wage?” What about Scientologists? Christian Scientists? Rastafarians and Wiccans? Do they get to weigh in? Where exactly does it end? If the Court must decide which religion is valid and which is not, favoring one over the other, won’t that in fact touch on—and violate– the Establishment Clause? Only if you live in a very dark place, would you assume that a “sincerely held religious belief” –whatever that might mean–should trump the government’s own interests in fairly representing the people.

But maybe that’s the whole point of this exercise, at least for the majority. Maybe it’s all about a particular flavor of religion that they would like to see ascendant.  After all, Alito tried to tailor the ruling so just folks agitated by contraceptives are defined as ‘religious.’ Not peyote eaters or Rastafarians to be sure, but those guys with the swell beanie caps, who get little shivers of horror that a woman should have access to contraceptives regardless of her marital status; now that’s morality!

Ginsburg concludes with a statement that may well turn prophetic: “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield”… perhaps it’s because for far too long this Court has made decisions as if living in a cave.

New EPA Regulations: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in conjunction with the Obama Administration, has released their plan for regulating carbon emissions standards in the U.S.. This new plan would cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. These new regulations will target the U.S.’s single largest contributor to carbon emissions, which are a leading cause of climate altering pollution.

There has been plenty of talk from a number of groups as to whether these regulations are acceptable. Some are concerned that the new regulations will reduce jobs in the coal industry and increase energy costs for Americans, while others are concerned that these regulations aren’t doing enough and need to elevate the standards and broaden the scope of regulation.

The Democratic Party voter base is especially divided on the EPA’s new regulations. While some are advocating for the importance of combating global climate change, others are concerned for the inevitable decrease in jobs in current workforces.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has publicly announced their disapproval for the new standards.

“The new rules would in effect stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States by enforcing emission-reduction goals that just aren’t realistic using today’s technology for carbon capture and sequestration,” IBEW president Edwin Hill said in a statement.

So, with that, we will inevitably build new, more sustainable power infrastructure while developing new technology to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants even further. Sounds good to me. It is imperative to set regulations for carbon emissions coming from our power plants. Responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution, energy generation is the single largest source of climate altering greenhouse gases in the U.S.. We currently limit mercury, arsenic, lead, soot and other pollutants from our energy generators, but not carbon pollution. Carbon emissions cannot continue to exist unregulated.

But others disagree. “Clearly, it is designed to materially damage the ability of conventional energy sources to provide reliable and affordable power,” wrote Scott Segal, a lawyer with the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, “which in turn can inflict serious damage on everything from household budgets to industrial jobs.” Segal, who represents members of the coal industry, plans to sue over the rule.

But these new regulations give energy producers plenty of time to transition to cleaner forms of energy production which will greatly reduce increases in energy prices due to infrastructure costs. As we move beyond coal, we cannot ignore the fact that jobs related to the coal industry will disappear. With the growth of renewable energy in the future, we have the opportunity to transition those individuals displaced by the shrinking coal industry into the renewable one. Areas that are optimal for both coal and wind harvesting, such as the Appalachian Mountains, can make the conscious effort to retrain workers to help smooth the transition to renewable energy.

While some may find the new proposed regulations to be too strict, there are others who feel that it is not enough and that we should be working harder to make our energy industry cleaner and safer. There are concerns that we have not widened the scope of regulation enough, leaving some less than desirable energy options radically unaffected. “Although all options for cleaner power generation are on the table, it’s clear that nuclear power plants also offer an opportunity for the utilities to support long-term demand growth while avoiding increased carbon emissions,” wrote S&P analyst Judith Waite.

Nuclear has always been a point of contention among those concerned about carbon emissions. While nuclear power plants do emit less carbon than coal-fired power plants, their safety record, or lack thereof, makes it difficult to endorse.

Given that current global carbon emissions are set to increase in the future, there is a growing number of individuals and organizations that would like to attack carbon emissions and dirty energy generation more head-on.

“These modest measures to cut power plant pollution are not enough to address the worsening climate crisis,” said Bill Snape, chief counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We see the signs of climate chaos around us every day, whether it’s catastrophic storms or shattered temperature records. If we don’t get our act together now and make serious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll put our country at risk and damage our climate beyond the ability of future generations to repair.”

We need to do more to mitigate the effects of the impending climate crisis. However, these things can only move so quickly. We can pass these regulations and work to modify and elaborate the standards. These regulations are a good start and will send a message to the global community that we need to act in unity to find answers.

“This momentous announcement raises the bar for controlling carbon emissions in the United States,” said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, a Washington research organization, “These new standards send a powerful message around the world.”

“I fully expect action by the United States to spur others in taking concrete action,” said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change.

President Obama would likely agree and had a message for the American people in his weekly address on June 1st: “I refuse to condemn our children to a planet beyond fixing. In America, we don’t have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children.”

On June 23rd the United States Supreme Court voted 5-4 to restrict the EPAs ability to regulate some of the nation’s largest polluters. It doesn’t affect proposed regulations limiting emissions from existing power plants, and also preserves the agency’s continuing authority over non-greenhouse gas pollutants. The Court ruling revisits the EPAs interpretation of the Clean Air Act. The EPA, despite this ruling, is still confident in the ability of the new regulations to make a dent in our nation’s carbon emission from fossil fuel fired power plants, says the EPA in a statement:

“Today is a good day for all supporters of clean air and public health and those concerned with creating a better environment for future generations. Today, the Supreme Court largely upheld EPA’s approach to focusing Clean Air Act permits on only the largest stationary sources of greenhouse gases such as power plants, refineries, and other types of industrial facilities.”

As the importance of mitigating climate change and the growing interest in renewable energy increases, we will see great paradigm shifts in the U.S. and the world. That renaissance will be of a clean, safe, reliable, affordable, renewable and sustainable energy industry. We have yet to find the answer, but we’re starting to find the pieces to that puzzle.

By Stefan Reed

The Latest in Virginia Politics or… a Layman’s Guide to Hell

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Dante Alighieri had a tough life. Exiled from Florence because of political machinations and with no timely news network to convey his fury, he decided to seek his revenge by penning what is arguably the greatest poem in world literature: The Divine Comedy. The poem provides a road map to heaven, purgatory and most importantly hell, where Dante, with suitable venom, positioned the political hacks of his day on various rings. Each ring was characterized by moral deficiencies in the human temperament. There was lust, greed, gluttony, pride, hypocrisy and so forth. Not unsurprisingly these faults are still with us today, and so are the politicians who — with great disregard for the quality of their souls, much less their constituency – still manage to provide food for the devil’s banquet.

Let’s begin with the low hanging fruit right here in Virginia, Senator Phillip Puckett, a nominal Democrat. A week or so ago he decided to resign his position as state senator for a number of reasons, none of which are especially edifying: to allow his daughter to be confirmed as a judge and to potentially receive a lucrative position as deputy director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission. Whether this is legal remains to be seen, the FBI is sniffing around, and Puckett appears to have turned down the deputy position out of concern for his ‘legacy’ and the negative publicity it has garnered, at least for the short-term.

But the problem isn’t so simple. Puckett might get away with a stint in purgatory for that bit of venality, but the context in which he resigned points to a much larger ethical failure. For the last five months, Governor McAuliffe and state Democrats have been fighting to expand Medicaid through the budget process. Despite its even split of 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, the Senate made its move, passing a budget with the Medicaid expansion earlier this year. But, with its large Republican majority, the House of Delegates refused to budge, and has passed a budget without the expansion.

By resigning, Puckett gave control of the Senate to Republicans, who have now passed a budget without the Medicaid expansion. This in turn forces Governor McAuliffe’s hand. He can sign the budget and break his campaign promise, or he can preside over the first shutdown in Virginia’s history.

In either case, the prospect for Medicaid expansion has become incredibly dim. An estimated 400,000 Virginians will likely not get health insurance or access to needed health services like check-ups, medicines, surgeries, and cancer treatments. Worse than what Puckett has done to his party, is what he has done to his own constituency. He represented the 38th District, which draws from 10 counties in southwestern Virginia: Tazewell, Pulaski, Russell, Buchanan, Dickenson, Wise, Radford, Bland, Smyth, and Norton. According to Jamelle Bouie writing in Slate, “This is one of the poorest corners of the state. The poverty rate in Russell County, for instance, is 20.4 percent, compared to 11 percent for the state writ large. Even worse is Buchanan County, where 25 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Not only is it one of the poorest counties in Virginia, it’s one of the most impoverished in the entire United States. And according to a recent analysis from the Commonwealth Institute, it contains a chunk of the estimated 20,170 uninsured adults in Puckett’s district who are eligible for coverage under the Medicaid expansion.”

Puckett didn’t just sell out his Democratic colleagues, he sold out the lives and well-being of thousands of his constituents for what amounts to a bag full of silver and a nepotistic arrangement. Dante, who did not fool around, would probably not assign him to the fourth circle of hell, the ring reserved for those who hoard and squander wealth, so involved in their acquisitive cycles they lose their identities. No, Dante would assign him an honored position in the ninth circle of his inferno, the one reserved for those who betray a special relationship of some kind—like the relationship between a politician and those who vote for him, hoping he represents their interests. Dante used the word treachery to describe this particular circle of hell. The punishment that is meted is especially convincing. Traitors are immersed in ice up to their chin for eternity. In Dante’s ninth circle, it’s always a cold day in hell.

Puckett, of course, didn’t act alone. Working in concert with him are the state Republicans, pretty much en toto, although there are a few Republicans who manage to stand out even in this bleak landscape.

At the point when Medicaid expansion was still in play, three state Republican senators, Emmett Hanger, Walter Stosch and John Watkins, nominally supported Medicaid expansion. Up until the primary results were in for another Virginia Republican—majority whip Eric Cantor, in the US House of Representatives. As everyone knows by now, Cantor lost his primary bid to newcomer Libertarian and Tea Party acolyte, David Brat who won 56 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for Cantor. “Political earthquake” is the cliché making the rounds for Brat’s victory. As of last week, when Medicaid expansion received its death-blow, the conventional wisdom was Brat won because of an overwhelming tide of tea partiers coming to the polls and shoving through their agenda—an agenda that included a rabid denunciation of Obamacare, of course. That conventional wisdom likely shocked the three state Republican senators and turned tepid support for Medicaid expansion to outright denial.

Unfortunately, the ‘conventional’ wisdom may very well be wrong. Approximately 18,000 more votes were cast in Tuesday’s primary than in 2012, when Cantor easily defeated another Tea Party-backed challenger, Floyd Bayne. Some of those votes look to have come from precincts that were Democratic leaning. Why does that matter? Because not only were Republicans voting in the primary which defeated Cantor, so were Democrats. The open primary law allowed this, and Democratic operatives like Brian Umana had been working for years to put a coalition together to defeat Cantor: a coalition of Democratics and populist Tea Party Republicans disaffected with the Cantor brand.

Said Umana, “Anyone But Cantor” mentality was beginning to take hold in central Virginia and the Richmond suburbs. In this heavily Republican district, many Democrats and Republicans told me in conversations that they saw Cantor as a disingenuous political insider looking out for his own self-interest above the interests of his constituents. …. Put succinctly by one journalist on the scene, “Cantor lost because he was a ‘dick’.”

After the election results were in, the campaign strategist for Brat, Tammy Parada, emailed Umana, writing: “This was the direct result of active participants working together across party lines. An unpopular but honest truth in [the] VA7 victory: Mr. Umana and Mr. Stevens, even as their political ideology is far left of conservative, were important players, offering strong analytics behind ‘the numbers’ that eventually led to Cantor’s defeat.”

So it looks like the state Republican senators flipped their votes based on the fear of a Tea Party ‘tide’ that is more speculative than real. They were willing to prevent 400,000 Virginians from receiving decent healthcare rather than risk a few votes at the polls—votes that may never be cast in any case. According to Dante, such cowards dither at the gates of hell, neither aligned with the demons or the saints, their punishment is to eternally pursue a banner of self-interest while stung by wasps and hornets; the sting of conscience. One last, vivid note. To illustrate their stagnant moral state, maggots drink their blood and tears.

Of course we would never wish such a fate on anyone, and Dante’s writing was speculative in the extreme. But the fate of 400,000 Virginians without medical care is all too real.

Inside Baseball, Act II

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There are times when the best way to understand a phenomena is to tell it slant, suitably dressed up in fictive garb lest the venality of the topic (and persons represented) put us off understanding altogether. City Council and the Mayor’s machinations in the last week or so is such a time. Last week, City Council voted 5-4 to strip the Mayor’s proposed 13 million for improvement to the bottom to make way for a stadium, and reallocated those funds for public schools and city infrastructure. A blow to the Mayor’s plans! But then, Monday, May 12, at an early afternoon budget meeting, City Council effectively reinstated those same funds, less 3 million for Richmond Public schools. Whether this will stand or not remains to be seen, and the forthcoming weeks will be decisive in determining where, exactly, a base-ball stadium will be built, or if there will even be one. To lighten the anxiety, and guard our dear reader’s sensibilities we thus present an encore of Happy and Hal who first made their appearance in a previous episode of our blog. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the play did not end there, and did, as promised, continue:

Act II, Scene I

Signs reading “Loving RVA” adorn the windows and walls of a bar in Shockoe Bottom. Happy and Hal sit in deep consultation at a side table while drunken guests stumble by. Occasionally someone yells, “Three Cheers for Baseball in the Bottom!” and the crowd roars their approval.

Hal: Well, they seem happy enough, Happy. Nice work!

Happy: Sure, so long as we supply the drinks.

Hal: Why so glum? It’s a great idea giving out free drinks to boost the stadium plan. This is the future I envision for the bottom, Happy! I am here surrounded by my dream demographic. Rich singles, unfettered by cares of raising children and the like, focused solely on immediate gratification. That’s my kind of living. Eat, drink and be merry –the perfect thought-free lifestyle for the condos we will soon build.

Happy (philosophically): You know, even with all the good I’ve done for this city, even with Redskin fans cheerfully enjoying their training camp six weeks out of the year, our city still has problems.

Hal: Geez, Happy, that’s hard to believe…What are they? Maybe there’s not enough money to seed our Baseball in the Bottom plan? That would be a problem! By the way, I saw those kids marching on City Hall demanding better schools—you didn’t give them any money for better schools, did you? That would be a problem.

Happy: Worse than that.

Hal: Worse than that, really? I heard it was pretty bad. One of the school board members said she wanted to throw up. How much worse can it get?

Happy: How much worse? Pfft, those kids were just bellyaching. What do they know about sacrifice? About setting priorities? 4 years, 5 years, they’ll be gone, but the city will still be here. You get me? We’ve got to think long-term. That’s why this thing I’m about to tell you is so much worse than a bunch of kids crying about tar water and snakes.

Hal: So what is it?

Happy, lowering his voice: Some schlep developer in Chesterfield made a counter offer.

Hal: What? A counter offer!

Happy: Shh, keep your voice down.

Hal: Geez, that is worse! That’s really worse.

Happy (whispering): It gets worser…

Hal: No!

Happy: Shhhhh….Yes!

Hal: How much worser??

Happy: Lots worser. The offer is competitive.

Hal: No!

Happy: (solemnly, nodding head) Yes.

Hal: How competitive?

Happy: Glancing around the bar, nervously …the offer is….promise to keep this a secret?

Hal: Yes.

Happy: Okay. The offer is free.

Hal (shocked): Free? Like nothing?

Happy: Right, the city would pay nothing.

Hal: Free…(angry as he realizes the import of these words) Oh, Jesus Mother of God! You’re joking, right? That’s un-American!

Happy (Shaking head, sadly): No, the pitch is to build the stadium on the Boulevard from entirely private funds. No city funds involved.

Hal: Holy Jesus Mother of God! Free! What’s this country coming to?

Happy: I’ve decided to respond in the only reasonable fashion. I had my man Jack Berry on Venture Richmond rip this yokel a new one.  Giving away a stadium! Who ever heard of such a thing? We accused him of being disrespectful of city leadership. We called him divisive, a hypocrite and a liar!

Hal (changing expression, cheerful): Yeah! Exactly!

Happy: We’re not going to let anybody shove a free stadium down our throat! We have self-respect here in Richmond!

Hal: Here, here! I like the way you think, Happy my man! That is just excellent!

Happy: (lowering drink, thoughtful)…Yes, Hal, and that seemed to work, up to a point… they withdrew their offer,  but then, the other shoe dropped…City Council decided to strip my budget of all funds for the stadium plan to go forward. 5 to 4, can you imagine?

Hal (aghast): No!

Happy: (to himself, staring vacantly at an overhead TV screen) Yes… It is as the scripture says, dear Hal, vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

Hal: (nodding soberly) That it is, but I think it’s more of an emptying sensation. I see zeros fleeing my bank account before my eyes.

Happy: It is a short walk from the hallelujah to the hoot, Hal, that is all I am saying.

Hal: (glancing at the overhead television where Happy is staring) What is that anyhow?

Happy: City Hall news. Since that mess about the schools, and the vote, I want to keep close tabs on them. See, the way it is, I am like Jesus Christ and they are like my apostles. You follow me? But of late, I am concerned that I may have a Judas or two…

Hal: I think you might have at least 5.

Happy: That’s what I’m saying.

Hal: I told you, you should have bribed them…A million here, a million there, makes it hard to say no.

Happy: Well, City Council did say no. After those young pups protested their lousy schools, City Council stripped 13 million worth of funding for the stadium in the bottom. I’ve never been so mad in my life. And hurt! After all I’ve done for them!   I thought I was going to kick.

Hal: Like a death-blow.

Happy: Like a death-blow. …but…. (lights dim in the bar, crowd grows quiet and music begins –the harmony for “My Way”)

Happy: All funding yanked.

Hal: All funding yanked.

Happy: The end was nigh.

Hal: The end was nigh.

Happy: All we could do.

Hal: Was quiver or cry!

Happy: Yet there was this; some meager chance to make them feel my political lance. I told them straight, you screw with me, you’ll need six votes, or I’ll be free. I’ll veto everything you try to pass. I’ll be on you, like green on grass. And when you fail to override, you’ll get my budget, and then you’ll cry. And that next day, they folded their hands. They dropped their cards…. Yo, Hal, I kicked their cans!

We lost three million, but ten million saved for the stadium that’s here to stay! And why is this?

Hal: And why is this?

Drunken girl: Yeah, why ish this?

Happy: Because….. I did it MYYYY WAAAAAY!

Drunken Crowd chorus:  He did it HIS WAAAAY

(music fades, lights dim)

Hal: So everything is set?

Happy:  You’re in Real Estate, Hal. You know nothing is set until the deal is closed. The next few weeks will be make or break. That 10 million can get reallocated pretty quickly too….we’ll need all our folks here out in force — our drunken empty nesters need to make their needs known, or else those students might come back with more demands for safe schools. Or someone else might come up with another scheme for the stadium. It sends shivers down my spine to imagine all the better ideas that are out there. That’s why it’s up to us to keep them drunk and happy, Hal, so they never question our motives or our numbers.  And a prayer or two might help.

Hal: Yes, drunk and happy, that’s the ticket!

Happy: (solemnly) Amen.

To be continued…unfortunately.

 

If you want to help activists trying to stop baseball in the bottom, here’s a handy link:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/shockoe-resistance-donate-now

Here are relevant  upcoming committee meetings thanks to Scott Burger:

Thursday: 2. Ord. No. 2014-108 (Patron: Mayor Jones) – To authorize the Chief Administrative Officer, for and on behalf of the City of Richmond, to enter into the Shockoe Development Cooperation Agreement between the City of Richmond and the Economic Development Authority of the City of Richmond for the purpose of providing for the development of a proposed project in the Shockoe Bottom area of the city. (COMMITTEES: Finance and Economic Development, Thursday, May 15, 2014, 3:00 p.m.; Land Use, Housing and Transportation, Tuesday, May 20, 2014, 3:00 p.m.)

If you’re interested in learning more as this story unwinds, here are some other resources and local articles.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/194667710704832/

http://bprva.tumblr.com/post/77933802268/bprva-had-its-roving-reporter-at-city-hall-last

http://terrypbrock.com/2013/12/below-the-bottom-historical-significance-archaeology-and-public-engagement-at-shockoe-bottom/?fb_action_ids=10203418698614711&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%5B217468568435769%5D&action_type_map=%5B%22og.likes%22%5D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D

http://architecturerichmond.com/2014/02/24/opinion-a-stadium-in-shockoe-bottom-no/

http://www.quailbellmagazine.com/3/post/2014/02/politics-open-letter-to-richmond-city-council.html

http://www.change.org/petitions/mayor-dwight-jones-we-are-boycotting-flying-squirrels-shockoe-stadium-proposal

http://www.timesdispatch.com/special-section/sports/baseball-in-richmond/unearthing-richmond-s-slave-trading-history/article_3c18bdde-e1ca-56f9-b271-53e5fd0a4de2.html


http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/gambling-with-gold/Content?oid=1975872

The Losing Streak

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Top of the ninth for the Mayor and things are not looking great. His no good, very bad losing streak started a few weeks before the month began in late April when the Wing Nut Collective posted an odd item regarding Mayor Jones’ real estate taxes. According to the City of Richmond’s Property Search and Tax Assessment data, the assessed value of the land that Dwight Jones’ house sits on has dropped $64,000 in the past year. No big deal, only all of his neighbors’ land increased in value–which makes you wonder. A city ‘revaluation’ was called in. That’s just a little awkward note to preface the streak to be, but it gives you the general flavor.

Meanwhile, last Monday, April 28th, Open High students Levi Bane along with Aaron Greene, Isabella Arias, Quante Barnes and Gillian Hogg organized a walkout of the student body over the lousy condition of Richmond Public Schools. Roughly 200 students altogether ended up leaving their classroom as part of a “Walk Out” protest—most of them from Open High, the remainder from Thomas Jefferson , John Marshall, Community, Albert Hill, Lucille Brown and Maggie Walker . They headed straight to City Hall to talk with Mayor Jones. The structural problems for the schools—covered nicely in this Style Weekly article – include tar diluted water oozing in “foul-smelling drops” into classrooms and hallways in Thompson Middle School, and black water-soaked ceiling tiles dropping from the ceiling. School Board Vice Chairman Kristen Larson said the environment there made her “want to throw up.” At Carver Elementary School, the skeletal remains of dead rodents crunched underfoot. Worse was Armstrong High where there were so many live rats that “snakes have become a problem as well.” It’s the kind of thing no one should have to deal with, much less high school students.

So the Open High folks organized a walkout last Monday in protest. The walkout is strikingly similar to a boycott organized nearly half a century earlier by Barbara Johns, when she took it upon herself to publicize the loathsome conditions in Prince Edward County public schools. Her actions eventually led to the Supreme Court decision overturning the specious doctrine of separate but equal. As a consequence, integration was enforced across the country—something white Virginians in particular opposed organizing themselves behind the banner of Massive Resistance. This ultimately led to white flight, which subsequently turned the screw on budgets for the Richmond Public School system. Why? Because when integration threatened, the General Assembly removed the city’s ability to annex surrounding communities, stifling its tax base and piling on a mountain of debt. Henrico and Chesterfield counties were left to enjoy the region’s economic growth alone. Richmond public schools were left to starve.

Underneath this movement, of course, lies the logic of gentrification. Something you would think Mayor Jones would be hesitant to embrace, but you would be wrong.

By way of background, a little over two weeks ago, Mayor Jones made the mistake of echoing Louis Salomonsky in a Sunday Richmond Time-Dispatch article. In an interview with Open Source (WRIR.org), Salomonsky openly lamented the city’s “ghetto of people making $30k-50k a year”, suggesting it’s the reason the city keeps asking developers for more and more luxury condos. Salomonsky, it should be noted, has done time in federal prison for conspiracy to commit extortion for bribing a City Council member and also, notably, has a stake in the Mayor’s baseball in the bottom plan. Politically tone-deaf, the Mayor essentially seconded Salomonsky’s opinion arguing that minorities moving to the counties because of a “declining school system” would finally bring rich, childless empty-nesters into the city. Or, put another way, get rid of couples interested in quality schools for their children. Too late, the Mayor realized that political acuity wasn’t his strong point, but he did manage to get the newspaper to pull his quote from their website—though it’s still available in the printed edition.

So it’s within this context that Mayor Jones deigned to meet with the boycotting Open High students; a PR moved that failed. That Monday afternoon (April 28th), Mayor Jones made his intentions clear: new schools are the way forward, maintenance of existing facilities not so much. He insisted that investments needed to be made in revenue generating schemes rather than existing schools: baseball stadiums, Redskin training camps, things like that. Only, the actual revenue generation part of such schemes falls abysmally short. As an example, the Redskins training camp has turned into a net loss for the city. In fact, activist and former School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf had to prod City Council to collect the $100,000 owed to them from Bon Secours for the leasing of the property—funds that were to be paid directly to the Richmond Public School system. By February of this year, Richmond School Board member Kim Gray said “We have yet to see a dime.” That eventually turned around, but the city tax revenue still falls far short. The promised boon to local business is pretty much a mirage. Retail sales in Richmond during August, the month in which the bulk of the Redskins training camp was held, declined 6.8 percent compared with the same month last year. Whoops. According to Style Weekly, “during the training camp, many restaurant owners complained that the camp had done little to increase sales, with only a nearby McDonald’s reporting a significant increase in customers.”

So Mickey D’s gets a leg up, but that doesn’t really translate into the 3.8 million dollar revenue shortfall that the mayor slashed from the school board request for fiscal year 2015. Last Monday, in face of the Open High protests, City Council finally promised to restore that amount. But even that promise had a hidden caveat. As structured in the budget, the money will not go toward maintenance needs, but rather towards operation funding, which covers day-to-day expenses. Rats, snakes and black water dripping from the ceiling will remain the foreseeable norm. The Mayor tried to cheer the students by suggesting that his other big idea, the Baseball Stadium in the Bottom, could help close the revenue gap. Unfortunately said stadium plan would require capital investments from the city of 76.5 million over the course of thirty years. And the revenue projections are shaky at best. Not to mention, the chosen location would bury historical slave sites that Preservation Virginia decided to list as one of the top endangered historical sites in the country – the day after the students’ walkout: Tuesday, April 29th. Ouch. But really, the students weren’t buying the happy talk, either way.

Said Levi Bane, “The children of our city are this city’s future and it is high time that they be treated as such. A stadium which will hopefully provide more money in the future is not what our money should be spent on or invested in. Richmond Public Schools have thousands of children to invest in and thousands of children who, if provided for properly, will benefit the city of Richmond much more than a baseball stadium could ever hope to do.” The students are right, of course. But that was only the beginning of Mayor Jones’ losing streak.

**

Last Thursday, May 1st, the other shoe dropped. What would be excellent news for the citizens of Richmond, was plain old bad news for the Mayor. Developers with The Rebkee Co. offered to fund the building of the Stadium privately on the Boulevard. All of it. No public funds involved. Under the broad outlines of the proposal, an 8,000-plus capacity stadium would be built entirely with private money on about 10 acres of Boulevard land. The first phase would involve a small amount of residential, retail and restaurant development. The developers also would have the option of building out the rest of the 60-acre Boulevard area. Now that’s a sweet deal. But the Mayor didn’t like it. Make your plans public, he said. After he kept his plans for a stadium in the dark for well over a year. Never mind that! Now we must have transparency in our projections! The Mayor’s good buddy at Venture Richmond, Jack Berry, sent out a nasty letter to Venture Richmond’s board where the Mayor presides as President: “Beware when a Chesterfield politician (Mr. Gecker) and a suburban strip shopping center developer from Midlothian (Rebkee) tell you they know what is best for your city,” Berry wrote. “Does Gecker’s involvement and approach strike you as a conflict of interest, and disrespectful of city leadership, even offensive?” Apparently, Jack Berry flunked out of charm school.

But there was worse news for the Mayor. That Thursday night, in light of the proposal, City Council voted 5-4 to remove $12.6 million of the $13.6 million that Jones had budgeted for infrastructure improvements needed for the publicly financed Shockoe stadium plan. The council kept $1 million for any infrastructure work necessary for the slave heritage site, “seeking to decouple the museum from the stadium proposal.”

In all, the council reallocated $3.25 million for school maintenance, $3 million for the riverfront plan, $4.5 million for projects in council members’ districts such as sidewalk repairs, and $1.5 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Jones would have none of it. He threatened to veto the move and said the council’s action last week sent the “wrong message” to the General Assembly, “The business community has said that they would help us raise a certain amount of money, but they’re not going to do it if it’s not going to be a part of the complete package,” Jones said. But it’s not like you can take his word to the bank. As Paul Goldman, former state Democratic Party chairman noted, “… the politicians have not leveled with anybody.”

Yes, that would seem to be the case.

**

The losing streak continued this week when Rebkee Co. responded to Venture Richmond and the Mayor’s nasty gram: “The mayor has made it abundantly clear that he does not need or want an alternative in the event the land acquisition and developer contracts for the Shockoe Bottom project do not materialize… While we don’t agree this is in the city’s best interest, we respect that decision. We also recognize that no plan can go forward without the support of those in control of the city. A transaction of this scale is difficult with parties who share the same goals; it is impossible between those that do not.”

So the alternative is scuttled, yes? Well, no. Not exactly. The Mayor equivocated. Shortly after his stern veto threat and Venture Richmond’s ill-timed letter, the Mayor tried to sound reasonable. Here’s what Jones had to say as of Tuesday, May 5th in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “…. [the] administration is still open to receiving more information from the development team behind the recently floated proposal for a privately financed baseball stadium on North Boulevard.”

So maybe it’s okay, after all? That talk about being disrespectful of City leadership? Conflict of interest? Nothing to worry about! Jack Berry had a case of the bowels. And so it goes. The Mayor may be looking for a lifeline, or he may just be saving face. The next few weeks will show how his losing streak shakes out.

Meanwhile, at the School Board meeting at City Hall this week, Open High students were at it again.

Kevin Tyler: “The buildings are still in disrepair…Today a tile fell from the ceiling and almost hit a student in the head.” He said that when they had talked with the Mayor, he told the students they needed to speak with their School Board to make their needs known. Of course, weeks after an article about dead rats, live snakes and ceilings oozing with black goo you’d think the school board would have figured it out. But the Mayor likes this dance because after the students go to the school board, the school board gets to come back to City Council to ask for the funds the Mayor insists are earmarked for things like his Baseball Stadium in the Bottom. Which may or may not be funded any longer, depending on how willing the Mayor is to follow through on his veto threat. Is that clear, everyone?

Despite the bureaucratic maze, the students have remained persistent. “So here we are,” said Tyler, “asking the School Board to make our needs known.”

In a voice tight with frustration, Sydney Pollard asked, “How do we improve the conditions of our schools? How do we make them safe schools?…’Safe schools’…why is that a question we even need to ask?”

And finally, Isabella Arias insisted that everyone was responsible for the current impasse, but she ended on a cautiously optimistic note, “If government officials are able to work together then there is hope for Richmond public schools,” which may be less cause for confidence than she thinks.

~Jack R. Johnson

City for Sale! Everything Must Go!

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The main event in Richmond last Monday wasn’t, as one might suspect, at the National, nor at the Mosque, nor even the Diamond where the Squirrels played baseball well past 9 p. m. No, if you wanted real entertainment Monday evening in this ex-capital of the Confederacy, nothing could beat the exquisite interplay of egos and angst, and downright old town villainy that was on display at City Council Monday eve.

At issue was a resolution put forward by the council at the behest of Mayor Dwight Jones and certain powers behind the scene (hint: VCU) that wanted to ‘better’ Monroe Park. The idea was to lease Monroe Park (the city’s oldest park) to an entity called the Monroe Park Conservancy and thus create a private/public partnership with 3 million coming from the city and another 3 million that the Conservancy will “attempt to raise from private sources” to spruce up the place. The lease would run for 30 years. Sounds great, except the lease, that is the money the city would get out of this act of singular munificence runs to—wait for it –one dollar a year. Let’s repeat that for those of you just joining us: that’s one dollar a year, for thirty years. Or, thirty bucks. Or the price of a dinner for two at one of Richmond’s less stellar establishments. Without a bottle of wine, either.

So city real estate, assessed at 9 million dollars, or so, is leased to a private conservancy in a deal that will net the city exactly -2,999,970. Note that this is a negative figure.

There’s more, of course. The Checkers House which will be renovated to accommodate a restaurant/cafe will in turn be rented out….and that rent (possibly $100,000.00 or more per year) will not go to the city to help pay off the 3 million the city chipped in for renovations, but rather, it will go to –wait for it– the Monroe Park Conservancy! And no, even though the Conservancy will be sitting on real estate valued at 9 million dollars, it will pay exactly zero (0) in property taxes back to the city. Now, in all fairness, Mayor Jones, in a rare display of fiscal sanity, actually tried to work property taxes into the deal, but VCU, et. al. said ‘meh’ and so sadly, he folded because there was no other entity besides the Monroe Park Conservancy that would happily take such a deal, right?

Well, no. That’s not right, either, actually. There are probably hundreds of entities that would take such a deal. I would, for example. So would Enrich Richmond. So would Renew Richmond. So would activist, Mo Karnage, who tried to put in a bid on the park to delay the vote. The competing bid(s) for Richmond’s oldest park were all summarily rejected without explanation or notable delay. So there is the faint whiff of a sweetheart deal here, which, of course, tends to embolden activists. Or, just citizens concerned that the city is selling their public wares off faster than a street hooker who has decided to pay a really high price for the privilege of getting screwed.

Nevertheless, City Council President Charles Samuels assured everyone at the meeting that the park will remain open for all. As a passing note, Samuels is the district councilman for the park and he co-patroned the resolution to lease Monroe Park to the Conservancy along with Mayor Dwight Jones who is, yes, on the Board of the Conservancy himself, soon to be joined by councilman Samuels, if he so chooses. Funny how all this works out.

Despite such assurances from Samuels about public ‘openness’, the writing on the wall (and in the lease) is not nearly so blithe. The Conservancy will establish a list of “acceptable activities” in the park. If you qualify under their policy, you may apply for a permit to pursue said “acceptable activities” which costs $35 per event/activity. The Food Not Bombs folks, represented by activists like Mo Karnage, who regularly feed the homeless in the park, are not especially rich and $35 a pop to do volunteer work in a quasi-public park is not exactly a step in the right direction for them. That is, of course, if the Conservancy views their humanitarian efforts as an “acceptable activity” which it may very well not do because many on the board consider the presence of the homeless in the park to be a “security issue”; one of the main reasons for establishing the Conservancy in the first place.

Now, if you were to read the press accounts of these events you would be forgiven for taking a dim view of the activists who were reported to have ‘disturbed’ and ‘frustrated’ the smooth running of our erstwhile Democracy. Here’s Channel 8’s big takeaway: “Richmond City Council was supposed to vote on the future of Monroe Park, but people continued disrupting because they didn’t like the plan. Things got so out of order that at one point, council members got up and walked out.” Right. And the reason for this unruly disturbance of order? “All the commotion stemmed from disagreement over a plan to allow a non-profit to manage Monroe Park. People against the ordinance are worried about what will happen to the homeless people who live in the park.” Well, yes, that and the fact that the city is once again involved in an alliance with private entities to strip away control of public property for the satisfaction of the already quite well to do; and they are using approximately 3 million dollars worth of public funds to do it. And the fact that the City of Richmond apparently has yet to have a successful audit of property it’s already leasing and may be as much as a million dollars or more in the hole. And that the Mayor’s budget cuts the city parks’ budget by 7%. And that every single public commentator allowed to speak was against it, including ex-council person Martin Jewel who said, “You are creating an environment in which the people will revolt… And I’m going to join them.”

Activists shouted, one person was handcuffed and dragged away. Disruptions occurred throughout the meeting. Mo called council person Samuels a dingo or dingus when he tried to cut off her public comment, and council person Mosby pleaded for the attendees to show more respect, accusing them of wanting people in Richmond to remain homeless; which honestly made no sense at all. Not that the rest of the meeting was a profile in lucidity.

In the end, none of it mattered. City Council finally went on to approve the plan. Unanimously, I might add (which brings up another oddity: why were there no dissenting votes? Not one?)

At any rate, the evening was quite entertaining, in a gallows way, for a Monday, that is; a kind of opéra bouffe which was much better than the Squirrel’s game, whose stadium, by the way, the Mayor wants to move to Shockoe Bottom through another public/private partnership, I hear. Yes, Virginia, there are many people making money on these deals, but it’s not the City of Richmond.

So, maybe in lieu of all these ideas about private partnerships taking over our historic urban parks and plunking stadiums on slave auction sites and slave jails and draining our public coffers for the benefit of a very few, maybe we could just sell tickets to City Council meetings?

Ten dollars a head. Ten dollars and you, too, can bear witness to great theatrics, deep lessons on human greed and venality and cowardice. All in one night.

Now there’s a public/private partnership I could get behind.

~Jack R. Johnson

The Money Storm

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A day earlier it would have been April Fool’s day and everyone would have understood the McCutcheon decision that recently came down from the Supreme Court was a joke. Now, it’s still a joke, only no one is laughing.

How bad is it? Striking down the aggregate limits will flood our political system with new cash, but the seven-figure checks will go directly to candidates instead of super PACs. Without aggregate limits, one candidate, through the use of joint fundraising committees, can solicit contributions of more than $3.6 million from a single donor. For the record, $3.6 million is more than 70 times the median family income in America. Effectively one person will have the ‘voice’ of 70. This isn’t free speech, of course, it’s very expensive speech, and those with large bankrolls will continue to wield unwarranted influence throughout our political structure—only now it will be legal.

In the romantic version of our culture, we like to think that the United States will eventually get it right, but our nation has spent a long time maintaining income inequality and allowing our politics to reflect a kind of infantile belief in the ultimate goodness of aggregate cash. Steinbeck once famously said that there are no poor people in this country, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires, which at least explains the voting patterns of red states whose dire poverty levels should make them keen on redistribution, but who, inevitably, side with the wealthiest members of our society that so delicately place the boot upon their throat.

The justices—at least the five who voted out this decision—have no such conflict. They appear to earnestly approve of our growing plutocracy. “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

McCutcheon, of course, has partnered with the Republican National Committee to bring this case before the Supreme Court, and fittingly, the Republican worldview is the ultimate winner. The message from the bench is pretty clear: if you want to have a voice in our society, become a millionaire. For those not lucky enough or ruthless enough to acquire wads of extra cash, your voice will be drowned to a whisper, and your wishes and needs will be addressed if and when they align with the needs of your friendly neighborhood Robber Baron.

Ari Berman writing in The Nation notes that the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are also the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.

From the Nation magazine, consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:

“• The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.

• Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.

• It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.

That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

Now consider what’s happened since the Shelby County decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to the New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”

So we live in a country that expands the rights of the wealthy and powerful to dominate the political process, but does not protect fundamental rights for all citizens to vote. We live in a country that applies a legal veneer to this duality under the ridiculous assertion of “free” speech, or conversely voter ‘fraud’ (where none exists). Dos Passos said this years ago in his epic USA trilogy and I’ll pass it along as a reminder to those temporarily embarrassed millionaires: “America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out, who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul.”

The legal wrangling at the Supreme Court obfuscates what’s happening on the streets of this country, so it’s past time to speak plainly again. We can start where Dos Passos ends: “all right we are two nations.”

Field of Dreams

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About the Oscars, Billy Crystal once famously quipped, there’s nothing quite like being in an economic recession, watching millionaires giving each other gold statues. But this year, there was one bright spot from the overindulgent marathon – Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress. In it, she conjured the ghost of Patsey, a slave she portrayed in the heartbreaking drama, 12 Years a Slave. She saluted her spirit, saying, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” and later, “I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I.”

So what if all the hundreds of thousands of slaves processed through Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom district were brought back to life and could say a word to our Mayor about his recent plans to plop a baseball stadium in the middle of their Devil’s Half Acre?

Mayor Dwight Jones, a graduate of Virginia Union University, which was built on land leased by the widow of Robert Lumpkin, says there’s no need to worry, as the baseball stadium will not be built on Lumpkin’s jail. True enough. According to a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the proposed baseball stadium will cover Goodwin’s jail and many of the ‘trading’ areas that bought and sold humans like so many tobacco shucks in the area. In other words, it won’t be built on Lumpkin’s jail, but on the very jail where the hair-raising story of Solomon Northup originates. Ever defiant, Jones still claims that the baseball stadium, “will in no way impact the sacred ground.”

This, of course, all depends on your definition of ‘impact’ and ‘sacred’ and ‘ground.’

I have to wonder what a reified Solomon Northup would have to say about this word parsing?

Sadly, we live in a culture that tends to honor winning over everything else. Even the arguments about the baseball stadium’s location are carefully couched in the language of economic efficiency, pro or con. As though Richmond’s families and descendants of slaves were no more a factor in this decision than acquiring, by hook or by crook, a suitable number of parking spaces. We like to think of ourselves as a practical people and all practical people know the past is dead. The future insists on primacy, and today is simply a moving dream we must temporarily span. But the past influences the present and the South—in particular, this region of the South—has gone out of its way to revise its history. That’s why all those statues of dead Confederate Generals line Monument Avenue. That’s why Lumpkin’s jail and Goodwin’s jail have laid buried and ignored for the last two centuries. They are unpleasant reminders that the revisionist’s narrative of a heroic Confederacy held in its dark heart some pretty gruesome sins.

So the baseball stadium is really a double threat. It bears all the hallmarks of an economic boondoggle, much like the other boondoggles we’ve seen embraced by the Richmond City government. There’s no reason to believe that a baseball stadium occupied three to four months out of the year will provide more of an economic stimulus to the area than the small businesses already growing there. A new traffic study suggests a stadium in that location will be a logistical nightmare. The promise of state matching funding for the museum and slave trail has evaporated, slashed by Virginia’s state legislature in this year’s state budget. Yet, proponents of this scheme keep insisting this is the ONLY road to development in the bottom. As if development isn’t already occurring, or that the development couldn’t be enhanced with flood mitigation plans that could be done at a fraction of the cost of the full-blown stadium roll out.

In some ways, the proposed stadium in the bottom is an inverse Field of Dreams: build it and they won’t come. The locals will be shut out; and who could imagine that any ghosts arriving from that hallowed ground will be looking for a baseball stadium? Recall that Solomon was an educated black man, kidnapped and sold into slavery, and processed through Richmond’s ignominious trading centers like a package of Perdue Chicken. He had to hide his education and intellect under threat of physical violence because Southern landowners couldn’t countenance the idea that a black would be educated. They feared education and knowledge as the real threat to their hegemonic control of ‘property’ and wealth. Thus, Solomon didn’t play sports when he was finally rescued from slavery. He wrote a book to preserve his long-buried history. He understood the importance of history –how what has occurred inevitably influences what will occur. The reactionaries that built the Confederate Statues understood the same lesson. A resolution in the Virginia legislature recently memorialized the progenitor of massive resistance, Harry Byrd. He has a statue in front of our state house for much the same reason. Given Virginia’s history in these matters, is it any surprise that no strings were attached as his name was emblazoned across the state? No one needed to build a minor league baseball stadium in a back room deal with developers to gin up the funds to honor him. Wouldn’t it be nice if Solomon Northup, and the millions who passed through Richmond’s slave processing center could finally get the same deal?

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