Category Archives: Corruption

Our Carceral State

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French philosopher, Michel Foucault once famously argued that society operates as a vast prison. While Foucault’s concerns were with an individual’s freedom constrained in such a system, maybe a more direct analogy to our current situation is how our judiciary and police force is used to control and literally imprison a vast swath of our lower classes.

It is no secret that in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, much of the city’s income was derived from fines and court fees for minor traffic violations, essentially converting area police work from “public safety” officers to revenue collectors. These violations disproportionately fell on poorer individuals and minorities who may not have had the money to keep their hedges trimmed and their vehicles perfectly equipped. In effect, the tickets and citations amount to a regressive tax on members of our society least able to afford it.

In the wake of the Brown killing, Governor Jay Nixon signed a broad municipal court reform bill that capped court revenue and imposed new requirements in an attempt to end what the bill’s sponsor called predatory practices aimed at the poor. Good. The bill’s primary sponsor, Senator Eric Schmitt, said people have the right “not to be thrown in jail because you’re a couple of weeks … late on a fine for having a taillight out.” He called the current system in place in Ferguson, “taxation by citation.”

“Under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops,” Nixon said.

This is all good, too, and certainly the caps on revenue collection by police is a step in the right direction, but in the larger scheme of things, I’m not nearly as sanguine as Governor Nixon is about “cops going back to being ‘cops.’”

…in Southern states groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same.

For one thing, the historical precedent that they might ‘go back’ toward isn’t exactly edifying, especially in Southern states where groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same; that is, ensuring the safe keeping of property for the wealthy. In the North, police officers often functioned as barriers between the wealthy elites and the immigrant “hordes.” The history of industrialization and unionization in this country is rife with struggles between union supporters and police officers or private firm surrogates operating in their wake (such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency –fun fact, at the height of its existence, the Pinkertons had more agents than the standing army of the United States of America).

We like to think of police officers as neutral arbiters of the law, itself a neutral amalgam of well thought out rules for living, but whether rounding up runaway slaves or busting union organizers, the police have historically found themselves on the side of property owners. What this means in contemporary America is a focus on things like illegal drug use and sale, vehicle violations, public disturbance rules, and zoning laws that disproportionately hit the poorest members of our society first and hardest. If we run back through just the most noteworthy police shootings in the last year (topping 1,000 according to an unofficial list compiled by the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/08/us/fatal-police-shooting-accounts.html?_r=0), most of the precipitating causes involved minor infractions, expired inspection stickers, broken signal lights, or tail lights, unpaid fines or alimony. Public service, protecting humans from harm to themselves or to others might be a nice ancillary outcome of a police officer doing his job, but it’s not the main event.

In fact, the idea that police are here to protect us is not much more than a happy slogan. In its landmark decision DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services,the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “the Constitution does not impose a duty on the state and local governments to protect the citizens from criminal harm.” The United States Supreme Court, in the 2005 case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales upheld that decision and extended it to include a state or municipality’s police force– codifying what many folks in poorer neighborhoods had long since suspected: neither the state nor the police have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm.

Strictly speaking, the police are law enforcement officers, they are present to make sure the laws as passed by city, county, and state legislators are followed. Towards that end they write tickets, and citations for breaking the law, make arrest and testify in court about their actions. This narrow interpretation of their duties is often clarified in training on the so called ‘public duty’ doctrine that provides that a “governmental entity owes a duty to the public in general, not to any one individual.”

Police are also warned—constantly—to look out for themselves. According to ex-Officer, Seth Stanton, writing in the Atlantic Magazine, “police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance.” Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. One slogan that is bandied about squad rooms sums up the mind set: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

Police are trained to fear the public they are nominally intended to serve. During their training “they are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance.” Writes Stanton, “in most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”

“In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”

If you happen to peruse Police Magazine, you’ll find that the majority of the stories are about violence against police—and the weapons or tactics they can use to keep themselves safe. This month’s issue features a large photo of an Armalite AR-10 20-Inch Tactical Rifle that was initially designed for the US military. To drive home the point, Police magazine’s logo shows the O in policeman segregated by cross hairs, like a target.

Of course, in addition to the protect-thyself-first attitude, there’s also an underlying racial bias; probably because police officers fear blacks more than whites. In 2015, The Washington Post documented 990 fatal shootings by police, 93 of which involved people who were unarmed. “Black men accounted for about 40 percent of the unarmed people fatally shot by police and, when adjusted by population, were seven times as likely as unarmed white men to die from police gunfire.”

“The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black,” said Justin Nix, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville and one of the report’s authors. “This just bolsters our confidence that there is some sort of implicit bias going on,” Nix said. “Officers are perceiving a greater threat when encountered by unarmed black citizens.”

The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black…

The report noted that officers may unconsciously develop biases over time. “In other words, the police — who are trained in the first place to be suspicious — become conditioned to view minorities with added suspicion,” according to the report.

So we have a fearful police force, over trained for self-protection with an underlying bias against minorities whose main job is not to protect citizens but to enforce legal codes that order society for the benefit of property owners (that will likely make a poor person’s life more difficult). Add to the brew, the over militarization of our police force (do we really need armored tanks on civilian streets?) and the fact that most police officer shootings are investigated by the police departments themselves and it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand how deeply dysfunctional the whole shebang is. I had one friend suggest that, given the stress our minority communities are under, it was surprising incidents like Dallas hadn’t happened more frequently.

But they haven’t– and perhaps that’s a testimony to what many police departments are coming to recognize—the necessity for retraining and community engagement. In fact, it’s a sad irony that the Dallas Police department has done an exceptional job in just this area. It’s obvious that Police Chief David Brown –whose own life is rife with personal tragedy—is dedicated to a community outreach program. Just hours before the killings began last Thursday night in Dallas, his officers took time to chat with protesters, even taking selfies with them.

“We saw police officers shaking hands and giving high fives and hugging people and being really in the moment with us,” demonstrator Sharay Santora said.

But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting. All of this should tell us that police forces in this country are as diverse as their leaders and the communities that they serve. Our own city, Richmond, Virginia, much like Dallas, has done excellent work in reaching out to the various communities here—including, surprisingly, the LGBT community. So it’s not hopeless, but no one solution will fit all the municipalities across the nation, and maybe one of the questions we should be asking is how well our expectations of police service match the reality? After all, as Chief Brown has noted, “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve”

But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting

Many of our poor neighborhoods have a nearly round the clock police presence—from squad cars anyhow. Police appear, write up infractions, and arrest vagrants, keep an eye on shifty characters, “gangbangers” and the like. They do what they are trained to do. But the result isn’t a working society. The result, as I suggested in the beginning of this essay, is a carceral state.

Right now, if you are an Afro-American male, your odds of being in jail at some point in your life are 1 in 3. I doubt this is because 1 in 3 Afro-American males are genetically predisposed to periodic episodes of violence and criminal behavior. More likely, it has to do with the incredible dearth of job prospects made infinitely worse by a rap sheet and applying while black.

Police officers can’t solve that problem. They aren’t social workers or teachers or medical service personnel, as Brown correctly points out—but the nature of the system we have put in place allows all the problems of our society to flow downward to the cop on the beat whose one job is to enforce the law, but who we mistakenly believe can somehow catch all the detritus of a dysfunctional system and keep it working.

In Michel Foucault’s famous work, Discipline and Punishment, the ruling metaphor is society as a vast prison; a kind of panoptic nightmare—a word derived from Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon which was a prison designed so that every cell is view-able from a raised central location, like a watchtower plunked into the middle of a cell block. The point was to understand and react to the behavior of the individuals in the surrounding cells so as to control them. But even at this rudimentary level we are failing, for it’s obvious we don’t understand the individuals caught in our system and we aren’t really controlling behavior, we’re merely holding them in our prison cells precisely because we don’t know what else to do with them.

You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell.

Our criminal justice system is trying to repair something it simply isn’t equipped to mend. You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell. Perhaps if we, as a society, decided that the carceral state was a bad idea; if we decided, instead, to fund jobs programs and provide secure housing for those in need, if, indeed, we provided drug treatment programs instead of felony convictions we might resolve many problems before they become statistics. We can tinker with police community outreach, provide stricter guidelines for engagement and the use of force and institute better ways of policing the police (oh, please let us have a uniform standard for conduct and an external agencies that review police shooting across the nation), but in the end the panacea we are looking for won’t come from a guy or gal on the beat– with or without a gun. They will come from providing adequate resources to all our public workers,  developing jobs programs and training for individuals from all walks of life, and from our own personal engagement with the community in which we live. Maybe it’s time to stop looking to the police to solve the problems of our deeply dysfunctional system. Rather, we should restructure the system so we don’t need the police—or not nearly as much. Maybe it’s time we all signed up.

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I Was an Eighth Grade Communist (and Other Reasons to Vote for Bernie Sanders)

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This really happened. In the eighth grade, prodded by Ms. Spiver, an enthusiastic teacher with an enlightened vision for an open classroom, I had the opportunity to research different governing systems.  I chose communism because the name sounded cool and appeared to frighten everyone. I read about Marx and Lenin and the proletariat of the state and the main idea which I glommed  was to ensure everyone’s basic needs were met. This seemed grand, generous and even beautiful. I quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica at length, and with a flourish, scribbled out three pages in long hand, ending the paper with a makeshift version of the iconic hammer and sickle.

I thought Ms. Spiver would be proud.

The next day I was called into a parent/teachers conference.  This was in Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976 when the rabid anti-communist Senator Jesse Helms graced the Channel six news editorial spot which my father listened to every. single. night.

Ms. Spiver was all ‘tender mercies!’ and ‘Lord child!’ and ‘where did you get such ideas?’ and I wasn’t sure if she was as concerned about my paper and my education as the possibility that Mr. Creigh, who  substituted as an insurance agent on days when he wasn’t playing the principal, might take serious offense. But I explained, and even defended as best I could the idea of equality, and everyone getting what they needed, these all seemed like fine goals. What was the problem?  Ms. Spiver, to her credit, did not try to correct my initial interpretation, but merely advised that my opinion on the matter was somewhat out of step with the adult population of Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976. Mom and dad ushered me home, silent in their Buick. Dad finally parked the car in the lot and turned and proceeded to give me the low down. “Communists are bad because they represent a totalitarian system. They don’t allow freedom.  You understand?”

I nodded my head.

“Okay?”

“Okay.”  That sounded like something to avoid. And the tone in my father’s voice was enough for me to forget my flirtation with alternate political systems until high school when we began looking at the social democratic governments, and I found myself once again intrigued by the idea that a government would be based on people getting what they absolutely needed; regardless of their jobs, social stations or life situations.

Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, to a lesser extent, Germany and Spain. If all these countries pursued such programs, why didn’t we?

My father, with the patience of Job, once again explained what he thought should have been obvious.

“What if I just gave you a dollar every week instead of letting you earn a dollar by mowing the lawn? Hmmmm?”

“I’d have a dollar but I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn.”

Yes, he conceded, okay, but that’s not the point. The point is if you give people something for nothing they’ll take advantage of it. Like all those welfare queens.

By this time, Ronald Reagan was running for high office and was denouncing shady welfare queens that rode around in Cadillacs and bought caviar with tax payer’s money. This activity rankled the hell out of Jesse Helms who never missed an opportunity to denounce the welfare moochers.

Do you want to be a welfare queen?

I decidedly did not want to be a welfare queen. I gathered from my father’s tone that I was not supposed to like the idea of riding around in a Cadillac, eating caviar at the tax payers’ expense, no matter how much fun it might appear.

By the time I entered college, Reagan was in his second term. Taxes had been slashed and the poorer residents of mental homes were dumped onto the city streets.  Despite the loss of tax revenue, billions were being funneled into such patently absurd pursuits as an armed space shield; a so called ‘star wars’  shield that would provide cover for the Western Hemisphere by shooting down missiles aimed to blow up our cities. Since there were none and since billions were being funneled into a useless and unworkable program while the homeless and mentally handicapped were left to fend for themselves, (many times I stood in line with them at the local 7-Eleven), I wrote a few college paper editorials suggesting this kind of activity was ill-advised. I proudly signed my name.

My college Spanish teacher, a middle aged Cuban exile, caught up with me one day.

“I have read what you have written,” she whispered, “You are part of this nuclear freeze movement, too, no?”

“Yes.” I said. Sure I was. Who wouldn’t  be opposed to nuclear weapons lying around waiting to obliterate the world 200 times over?

“Are you a communista?”

Of course I wasn’t a communista! What had that to do with the nuclear freeze movement? But, for her, the nuclear freeze movement was loaded with fellow travelers and communist sympathizers and what not. I tried to ease her mind by telling her I wasn’t a communist, closer to a  democratic socialist, really. This did not appear to help matters.

“You know I come from Cuba. There, when Castro came to power, he forced my family into exile. We had a mansion and servants in Cuba, but when I came to this land, I had to cut my hair and sell it, just to survive. Can you imagine?”

I really couldn’t. “So you were very rich,” I said, “That must have been nice.”

“They stole everything!”

“Right. But now Cuba has much better infant mortality and death rates. It has one of the best medical systems even by Western standards. Cuban doctors help poor people all over the world.”

“So you are a communista!”

“No, I’m not. If I’m anything, I’m a social democrat, like in Finland.”

“It’s the same.”

“No, they’re really different.”

And so I went on to explain to her that one could be a social democrat without falling in lockstep with state run economies like in Cuba or the Soviet Union.  In fact, one of the best examples of social democracy operates as the capitalist heart of Europe: Germany. “They have what they like to refer to as a social market economy. They try to combine the virtues of a market system with the virtues of a social welfare system. You can get a free education, even free higher education, free healthcare and free retirement. Some of your basic essentials are guaranteed by the government, but other stuff, like where you work or what you make is dictated by a private sector economy. Of course, you pay taxes for these things, but the government operates to redistribute the money so it benefits everyone. That is social democracy in a nutshell.”

“It will never work,” she advised me, predicting Germany’s downfall by the end of the decade.

That was 1987. Germany’s still around. It’s 2015. Germany still provides free healthcare, free retirement and free higher education and it is still one of the strongest economies in Europe.  Our economy, conversely, is dogged by huge gaps of inequality, a dysfunctional healthcare system moderately improved by the ACA, insanely expensive higher education costs, and a retirement system whose paltry offerings are even now threatened by reactionary politicians. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Our homicide rate is one of the highest. Our infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba’s and is comparable to Serbia. You read that right, Serbia. None of these things are natural or necessary. They are by design because we refuse to grow up like the rest of the civilized Western world and insist on the fairy tale version of capitalism that doesn’t require any funding for public infrastructure or social services beyond the absolute bare essentials. The only thing we want to pour money into is our vastly over sized military which has caused many more problems in the last few decades than it has solved.

The  majority of the Western industrialized world embraces some form of socialized democracy. In our own country the most successful government programs are inherently socialized: Medicare, Social Security. And, of course, our own Defense Department is an almost entirely socialized bureaucracy.  We have patches of socialism all over the place, but the rightwing has done an excellent job demonizing the term. In fact, the last time someone claiming to be a socialist ran for President was nearly a 100 years ago.   His name was Eugene V. Debs. He famously said when he was convicted of violating the Sedition Act in 1918, that “while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Ringing words that beautifully encapsulate a social democrat’s world view.

It’s become increasingly obvious that a strictly free market agenda is disastrous for a people and an economy. One only need look at Kansas under Brownback’s ideological leadership. The state’s surplus has been turned into a catastrophic black hole of debt through a combination of tax cuts for the wealthiest and slashing of public funds. One could see the same disastrous pile up under George W. Bush’s leadership.

The Spanish teacher who accused me of being a communist told me that I needed to ‘grow up.’ The nice thing about Bernie Sanders candidacy is that it  is already grown up.  It assumes responsibility for everyone in the nation, not just those that manage to make the cover of Forbes.  He has tirelessly advocated for the poor and the underclass and, unlike the vast majority of American politicians, assumes it’s okay to travel coach class.  But don’t take it from me that Sanders knows what he’s talking about or that social democracy is a mature governing principle. Take it from that flagship of capitalism, the Economist. In a 2013 article, that magazine declared the social democratic Scandinavian countries, “probably the best governed in the world.”

So there’s no need to carry on with this charade that the ‘socialist’ option cannot win.  We can. Actually, in many areas, we already have. Si, se puede, baby. The only real question is, how soon before the rest of us grow up?

To Build a Fire

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Scandals have no life on their own. Like fire, they need fuel to survive; and the hotter they burn, the faster that fuel goes. This week we saw at least three scandals race across our national attention spans with all the fury of a California blaze. Only they petered out so fast they may as well have been a boy scout’s first effort doused with morning coffee.

But that’s not for lack of trying. According to Dick Cheney, who is quickly acquiring the status of The Crazy Uncle In The Attic, Benghazi was one of the worst incidents that occurred in his career, gracefully eliding the fact that his career encompassed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that precipitated– with his direct supervision– two disastrous wars, one of which has still to end – at the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghanistan lives.

But whatever. It’s not like you would expect someone nicknamed ‘Darth Vader’ to actually tell the truth. Should anyone be interested in the truth, it’s not hard to come by. Read the recently released emails and the story is less one of ‘scandal’, and more one of interagency infighting with a little SOP confusion tossed on top for good measure – something military types would reclassify as a SNAFU. Hardly nefarious in the Dark Empire way that stalwarts of the GOP would have you believe. The only real scandal here is the fact that the GOP faked the emails they handed off to news organization which naturally reported this out without so much as a simple, ‘Hey, are you sure?’… much less an apology for taking the American public for a useless ride for the last six months. To quickly recap: the GOP edited the emails to agree with their allegations that the White House had edited talking points about Benghazi. I’m not even sure there’s an appropriate metaphor to capture this level of duplicity. Really, it’s something that ought to be studied in one of those Ivy League classrooms the rightwing loves to hate. Doctoral thesis: Republican Meta Narratives and the Birth of Red Herrings in Benghazi

Unfortunately, it’s not like the American Public has ever kept track of these things. Say, remember back when the Republicans burned through a few million tax payer dollars investigating Whitewater and came up with a completely unrelated Monica Lewinsky scandal? Do you suppose they’re pulling that same nonsense again?

The next scandal to flicker forth this week managed to get some traction for a day or two, and then like a backyard fire on a suburban track lawn, it died from lack of fuel. Not only did Steve Miller, the relevant agency director, resign, but Obama was in front of it before Hannity managed to check his cue cards and stop shouting ‘Benghazi’! As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, “there’s no there there”. Seriously. This is about some poor schmucks in the Cincinnati offices of the IRS who were told to keep an eye out for words like Tea Party, Patriots, Constitution and 9/12 on the mostly correct theory that such groups had a hard-on for advocating tax delinquency, if not outright fraud, and were scooping up money from the Koch brothers faster than Imelda Marcos in a shoe shop. The IRS SHOULD of course be watchful of these groups, but none of that seems to have penetrated rightwing zeitgeist. Sometimes, you just want to take these folks aside and explain that screaming at 3000 decibels that the taxes are un-American, that you’re not intending to pay said taxes and that you think the IRS is, itself, unconstitutional, may not be the wisest choice when you’re trying to earn the IRS good housekeeping seal of approval.

But whatever. By week’s end, the scandal du jour had become the AP email scandal which didn’t make the right nearly as happy as it made the left angry; even though the ‘scandal’ really wasn’t one, at least not in the sense that Boehner had hoped it might be. You know, where you get to “send someone to jail”. No, none of the scandals really took hold, mostly because they asked the wrong questions. For Benghazi the problem wasn’t personalities –Hillary had zip to do with this—it was procedural. But you’d have to be after something beyond pure politics to actually understand the problem. Ditto the issue with the IRS whose guidelines for approving 504c organizations was confusing and became exponentially more difficult when Citizens United opened up a floodgate of applications that the agency had to process.

Finally, the AP email scandal isn’t so much a scandal as a symptom of bad law in need of repeal. Namely, the Patriot Act, passed under Bush and re-upped under the Obama administration which has subsequently made notions like a right to personal privacy, a really free press and due process utterly quaint like a Swanson TV dinner. Or an I Love Lucy episode. Or a boy scout’s first attempt to start a campfire.

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Here’s one reason the IRS might be especially interested in the Tea Party types:
Judge rules tea party group a PAC, not a nonprofit

Out of Many, One!

The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one. ~ Heraclitus’s 10th fragment

Gentleman’s Magazine Flowers Motto. America was originally likened to a bouquet of different flowers, where unity and individuality coexisted.

In 1782, the Great Seal of the United States said E Pluribus Unum – “Out of Many, One”.

I’ve always liked that a lot. Solidarity is what perpetuates the rule of the American people.

“Divided we fall” is pretty basic and understandable.

Then in 1956, Congress passed and President Eisenhower approved of a Joint Resolution of the 84th Congress declaring “In God We Trust” the national motto of the United States. However you feel about the intention to erect a wall of separation between church and state, on that day it went legislatively and divisively over the dam.

But here’s the thing: In 2011, our lawmakers (Forbes, R-VA) wasted all the time it takes and taxpayer dollars to reaffirm “In God We Trust‟ as the official motto of the United States. Why did they do that when it was already a law on the books? They were pandering to a voting bloc – the religious right. It served no other purpose.

Laws without cause are a rip off and they’re dangerous. If there’s no realistic purpose for a bill, it should go to File 13 and the bill’s sponsors should go with it. There’s too much else that needs to be done for us to put up with dubious bills and legislators with hidden agendas. Examples of that are so prevalent today it’s sickening. And meanwhile, needed legislation is ignored.

Iris Scanning – As Occupy Arrestees Arraigned, Iris Scans Affect Bail

Protesters “and their legal advisers were surprised yesterday to learn that the size of their bail was being affected by whether defendants were willing to have the distinctive patterns of their irises photographed and logged into a database.”

There is no law on the books for the ongoing use of Iris Scanning. Peaceful, non-violent, Occupy protesters in New York have once again been arrested and are being subjected to a hand-held scanning device that photographs and collects distinctive biometric information to be logged into a national database.

According to Paul J. Browne, chief spokesman, “a legal review by the department had concluded that legislative authorization was not necessary.”

Really?

In America, if there’s no law on the books, there can be no penalty for non-compliance. When someone hasn’t been charged with a crime, much less convicted, it seems to me that a “policy” leveraging the amount of the people’s bail and time spent in jail would be considered an issue worthy of the time and resources necessary for lawmakers to do their jobs and determine its legality.

The voting bloc for that is all the American people.

“This is an unnecessary process,” Mr. Banks said. “It’s unauthorized by the statutes and of questionable legality at best. The statutes specifically authorize collecting fingerprints. There has been great legislative debate about the extent to which DNA evidence can be collected, and it is limited to certain types of cases. So the idea that the Police Department can forge ahead and use a totally new technology without any statutory authorization is certainly suspect.”

Suspect? The NYPD is the world’s seventh biggest army! With that kind of power, I would have to say this policy is more than suspect, and that it needs to be yanked until legislated and the American public can catch up with the massive shift in private data handling that is progressing at an uncanny pace without public debate.

“Out of Many, One” is a fearful concept for those who would deem the power of the people a threat. We, all together, are the voting bloc that counts – and the one lawmakers and police departments are expected to protect and serve.

The many ways in which we’re being divided into subgroups as election pawns is counterproductive to our freedoms, our rights and true national interests.

“Divided we fall” is pretty basic and understandable.
DCKennedy

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The Invisible Hand Pummeling Public Schools

 

I can’t think of a more despicable or far-reaching example of ideology being forced on Americans than the money-grabbing obsession with dismantling our time-honored public school system. School choice, vouchers, corporate scholarships, educational freedom – call it what you like – the privatization of public schools is a movement on steroids. Every day the states are hit with new bills to aid neoliberals in their goal to educate Americans “their” way. The means to that end vary for different blocs of support, but all roads meet where powerful people control and market information.

A generation or two down this widening road to schools with selective entry and exit for students, religious indoctrination and poorly regulated online learning for the masses, the real people of America, our strength, will rely on the free market crumbs that fall from the learning opportunities available to the elite. Trickledown education is in the making.

Bit by bit, new interpretations change the meanings of our laws. Remember how that happened in Orwell’s Animal Farm?

No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.

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No public school shall proselytize except by students.

Remember when public schools were not missionary fields? Just yesterday, the Florida Senate advanced a bill to allow prayer led by students. Proponents of religion in schools call this one “a God-given loophole” – peer evangelism. And of course, as religion gains ground in public schools to appease the religious right (a targeted voting bloc), separation of church and state, a main and valid objection to privatization is being overcome. As the separation objection loses its punch, vouchers allowing taxpayer money to be funneled into private schools become six of one, half-dozen of the other.

In How religion is infiltrating public schools, Katherine Stewart highlights this Animal Farm type “modification” made by the Supreme Court differentiating school-sponsored speech from student speech, allowing students to proselytize on federal property.

In New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, South Carolina:

School-sponsored prayers routinely opened and closed assemblies and performances. Religious messages made their way into lesson plans, and religious iconography decorated the walls. Students were punished for minor infractions by being told to write out sentences proclaiming their faith in God.

A number of these activities … appear to be violations of the clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution intended to maintain separation between church and state. And the school board admits as much in its proposed settlement of the ACLU case. Yet an even greater number of religious activities in public schools have recently become legal as a result of novel interpretations of the Constitution handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, had the administration of New Heights been a little smarter, it could have achieved its apparent goal of using the school’s position of authority to spread the word of God among its captive students without running the risk of being sued. Thousands of other schools across the country do just that.

All taxpayers shall contribute to public education unless they don’t.

Diverting funds away from the public schools through vouchers and other means will exacerbate every problem in the system, effectively breaking it. Defunding, attacking teachers and unions, etc., is the means. The golden rule in the neoliberal sweep to privatize the public good is: First, break it. Second, get paid to rebuild it in your own image. Third, funnel the money and benefits up to the top.

Money talks, regulation walks – The Cash Cow for Now  

How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools by investigative journalist Lee Fang, points out the astonishing amount of investment capital flowing into online education. The rush to privatize in this way by businesses and “philanthropists” like the Koch brothers, is pretty transparent. Rupert Murdoch called it “a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN) have been the pivotal organizations aiding in the campaign for virtual schools.

Since 2005, ALEC has offered a template law called “The Virtual Public Schools Act” to introduce online education. (…)

SPN has faced accusations before that it is little more than a coin-operated front for corporations. For instance, SPN and its affiliates receive money from polluters, including infamous petrochemical giant Koch Industries, allegedly in exchange for aggressive promotion of climate denial theories.

It’s not a leap to assume that when corporations are in control of education, so will be information.

Typical of neoliberal fancy, virtual schools lack regulation and public debate. And without sufficient oversight or quality control, most online learning companies receive the same amount of taxpayer funding per-pupil as brick and mortar schools. Saving on the teacher-to-student ratio, costs for classrooms, transportation, meals, security, equipment, maintenance and other building support staff – and many other expenses associated with traditional learning, the profit margin for virtual education companies is so seductive that obscene amounts of their money is spent to lobby our lawmakers.

“Moe has worked for almost fifteen years at converting the K-12 education system into a cash cow for Wall Street. A veteran of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, he now leads an investment group that specializes in raising money for businesses looking to tap into more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent annually on primary education.” (…)

“In March, while busting the teachers unions in his state, Walker lifted the cap on virtual schools and removed the program’s income requirements.
State Representative Robin Vos, the Wisconsin state chair for ALEC, sponsored the bill codifying Walker’s radical expansion of online, for-profit schools. Vos’s bill not only lifts the cap but also makes new, for-profit virtual charters easier to establish.

Online learning in K-12 schools is still growing explosively, and public support for this arm of privatization is just baffling. Early on, it was promoted for computer literacy and otherwise unavailable courses, but that’s a distant memory. In 2006, Michigan stepped forward to become the 1st state requiring online learning for high school graduation, regardless of need.

If the public has been reticent in its opposition to online education, it may be because information on its success or failure to actually educate is hard to come by and often skewed. Its promotion has been framed to cover the bases, appealing to the voting blocs of rural communities, urban communities, home schoolers, the parents of children with special learning needs, and a myriad of “bully” and other social issues, including student acne. But the bottom line is profit for the few, poor education for the many.

While different issues continue to plague the most basic requirements for virtual schools to actually educate, they are not without some easily understood merit in the cases of some students. But one-third of our high school students drop out, and truancy issues usually precede throwing in the towel. Obama would like for the states to enforce education requirements to age 18. I think that would force many students into online study (a boon for business) where truancy is already a problem for students who have left traditional schools in favor of virtual classes, and where there’s no viable way to track online attendance.

To me, this doesn’t sound like an honest effort to educate; it sounds like a get-rich-quick scheme at the expense of education and the taxpayer:

“By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing.
Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.

By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.
(…)
The state audit of the Colorado Virtual Academy, which found that the state paid for students who were not attending the school, ordered the reimbursement of more than $800,000.

With retention a problem, some teachers said they were under pressure to pass students with marginal performance and attendance.
Students need simply to log in to be marked present for the day, according to Agora teachers and administrators.” (emphasis mine)
Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools

So, yes. Online learning would reduce class sizes in traditional schools. But as the public school system is being privatized, who is that intended to benefit? Corporations! And another neoliberal offering we hear a lot about these days would have the same effect: repealing child labor laws. I think it’s clear that the motive behind these efforts aligns less with the people of America caring for and educating our children, and more with washing our hands of the responsibility. Every relationship of ‘hegemony’ is necessarily an educational relationship. ~A. Gramsci

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~DCKennedy

Apple, Martin Luther King, the Wright Brothers and Bernie Sanders?

People don’t buy what you do – they buy why you do it. ~ Simon Sinek

Senator Bernie Sanders, December 8, 2011
The Saving American Democracy Amendment

The Petition to Support the Saving American Democracy Amendment

One of the 10 most watched TEDTalks of all time:

DPKennedy

How They Roll

Good news?

On Thursday, December 1st: “Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is suing five major US banks for allegedly seizing properties unlawfully and failing to help struggling borrowers keep their homes by lowering mortgage payments.”

State sues five big US lenders

AG alleges banks skirted rules, sped foreclosures

It is the first major legal action taken against the nation’s biggest banks since they started foreclosure-settlement negotiations with the 50 state attorneys general in the spring. The talks began after the attorneys general launched an investigation into reports of fraudulent and sloppy foreclosure-related practices by the banks. (…)

Coakley said she was forced to sue because negotiations had stalled. The banks taking part have failed to offer any meaningful restitution, she said, but insist on broad immunity from liability for the nation’s foreclosure crisis.

‘‘They have had more than a year to show they understood their role and their need to show accountability for this economic mess and they failed to do so,’’ she said. ‘‘Whether through the courts or negotiations, we will accept only one result, obtaining accountability from these banks and getting real relief for homeowners.’’

Bad news?

On Friday, Dec 2:  Mortgage Lender GMAC Retaliates Against Massachusetts Lawsuit By Ending Most Lending In The State ThinkProgress

Good news?

Shortly thereafter, Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP ) Inspector General Neil Barofsky tweets that GMAC parent company Ally’s behavior is disgraceful:

… and Coakley’s office raised the bar on the “rule of law”:

“In order to do business in Massachusetts, GMAC has to follow the law before foreclosing on homeowners,” Coakley said in a statement. “With today’s action, it appears GMAC has acknowledged it has a problem following those laws and being held accountable for doing so.” – BizSm@rt

… so Ally broadened its threat:

Ally, GMAC’s parent, said “that it plans to limit its purchases of mortgages from lenders across the country. The firm received a taxpayer-funded bailout of about $17 billion during the 2008 financial crisis, and is now mostly owned by the US government.”

~~~~~~

Okay. So … after all that, where do the people stand? Forcing accountability by enforcing the rule of law is good. Law suits take forever. The people are losing their homes everyday. Banks continue to hold back on lending, and with this new development, “GMAC is trying to get other big banks to follow suit.”

And what about this? If we the people – the U.S. government, own most of Ally, then isn’t there anything more that could be done to aid homeowners and borrowers during the period of litigation?

The best answers I could find this morning come from Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, who finds a good comparison in what took place in Georgia in 2003, and has suggestions on how to apply some direct pressure on lenders. With typical candor, she concludes: “The insolence of the securitization industry continues to be astonishing. They act as if they have an imperial right to dictate to governments, and refuse to admit any role in a disaster of their own creation. I hope those of you who do business with Ally close your accounts immediately and tell the bank that it is due to their Mafia style move in Massachusetts.”

For background information, this is great: Le Show Interview with Yves Smith.

Occupy’s next move regarding home foreclosures is here: Occupy Wall Street Goes Home

We at APV hope you have a great weekend.
DCKennedy

Patriots’ Dream

Bill Moyers: “Our Politicians Are Money Launderers in the Trafficking of Power and Policy”

If you haven’t seen this heartfelt speech until now, it might be because it was hacked shortly after it went up on Thursday. The culprit probably wasn’t an Arlo Guthrie critic, so my guess is someone feeling protective of a broad group of plutocrats. Anyway, take the time while it’s still up to read this well-respected, time-tested gentleman’s assessment of what has happened to our country, and the lyrics he looked to for inspiration.

He speaks passionately about America’s plutocracy, “where political power is derived from the wealthy and controlled by the wealthy to protect their wealth.”

Moyers and many others believe it was a plan that got its big kick-off from Lewis Powell, Jr.’s confidential memorandum, Attack of American Free Enterprise System. A copy of it is in an earlier post remembering the manifesto’s fortieth anniversary. It’s surprisingly short for all the damage it’s done, whether or not Powell realized its horrific potential.

Another interesting, infamous memo, sent only to its wealthiest customers, was from Citigroup in 2005. In The Plutonomy Symposium Rising Tides Lifting Yachts, global strategist Ajay Kapur came up with the term “Plutonomy” describing our massive income and wealth inequality. He discusses the advantages for the wealthy almost gayly, advising patrons that “… these wealth waves involve great complexity exploited best by the rich and educated of the time.” The arrogance in the two-part memo is deafening:

This imbalance in inequality expresses itself in the standard scary “global imbalances”. We worry less.

Also, in part 2, on March 5, 2006, some of the no-nos for their beloved “Plutonomy” are shared. Though it wasn’t intended for the 99% to see, it’s interesting how their risk list stacks up today.

RISKS — WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Our whole plutonomy thesis is based on the idea that the rich will keep getting richer. This thesis is not without its risks. For example, a policy error leading to asset deflation, would likely damage plutonomy. Furthermore, the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfranchisement remains as was — one person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation on the rich (or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous [home-grow] laborers, in a push-back on globalization — either anti-immigration, or protectionism. We don’t see this happening yet, though there are signs of rising political tensions. However we are keeping a close eye on developments.

Copies of the Citigroup memo disappear quickly from the internet, but I found them for now. (Part One, Part Two) If those are taken down, there are excerpts in The Wall Street Journal and Daily Kos.

And then, of course, the lovely lyrics and song by Arlo Guthrie ~ Patriots’ Dream

DCKennedy

Dangerously Set Aside

Silencing Dissent

I’ve started several posts in the past week, then put them aside hoping a better idea would develop, something more inspiring. But punctuating the news nearly every day is a report that American citizens exercising the right to peacefully express dissent, have been met with an episode of government-sanctioned intimidation or violence. If that’s continuing because people disagree with the protesters, we’re being precariously short-sighted.

Yes, we’re politically polarized and that’s a big issue, but for this – what difference does it make? Violent revenge for expressing one view today will be the same for tomorrow’s variances, and will be fine tuned over time into our government’s unopposed economic and legislative overreach. Bipartisan support for the First Amendment, now, could prevent the fearful, imposed illusion of solidarity in the future.

Whatever our values, beliefs, and principles may be, whether as individuals, small groups or as a people, whether religious, political or societal … we need to be able to express our feelings peacefully without any expectation of violence from our government. We have a guarantee for that, and it has worked just fine for the 30,000 pickets, in all 50 states, in over 500 cities and towns for the Westboro Baptist Church, even though as a society we’re overwhelmingly aligned against their expression.

But we’re so stubbornly partisan over the yet to be defined objectives of recent protesters, that protecting our constitution is being dangerously set aside in favor of petty name calling. If you have surmised the demands of the Occupy protesters and are against them, so be it. But think for a minute about what else you wouldn’t support, or better still, consider something you find completely unacceptable that your great-grandchildren could face. That’s my point … we can’t know right now how the American people will be affected by the seemingly systematic violence used to deny our right to protest what is perceived as corruption or faulty governmental policy.

Enforcing local curfew ordinances? If that’s what you think this is about, step back and take a look at the big picture. Military style attacks on unarmed citizens are taking place across America. For what? It shouldn’t matter.

Willful suppression of the people’s voice is a side issue that has nothing to do with the Occupy movement’s purpose, your politics or mine. Today, we should all have at least two things in common – red blood and the desire for Americans now and in the future to be able to express dissent without being shot at or gassed. It’s that simple, and that should be inspiring enough.

DCKennedy

Bated Breath

On Tuesday night, as if Thomas Jefferson had been waiting to exhale for 235 years, we seem to have won a debate that would give him the go-ahead. The question posed was: Is the US Declaration of Independence illegal?
In the winning argument, American lawyers concluded:

Under basic principles of “Natural Law”, government can only be by the consent of the people and there comes a point when allegiance is no longer required in face of tyranny.

The legality of the Declaration and its validity is proven by subsequent independence movements which have been enforced by world opinion as right and just, based on the fundamental principles of equality and self-determination now reflected in the UN Charter.

For this century, though, a better question might be: How is independence declared at all, and especially in a way that does not involve violence?

Resulting from a deportation conflict with the U.S. government in 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono tried it this way:

Looking back at their agenda and the motive behind the deportation effort, uncomfortable thoughts of negligence and procrastination came to mind and I wondered if anything has changed at all.

Injustices around the world prompted Lennon to use “his popularity for fund raisers, voter-registration drives, and anti-war rallies and concerts. These activities were planned to take place in many of the presidential primary states in 1972, and this deeply troubled Richard Nixon and the Republican Party. Consequently, many Republicans feared that Lennon, through these motivated activities, would jump-start the anti-war movement, resulting in the majority of young Americans voting against Nixon in the upcoming election.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, it was revealed that on February 4, 1972, Senator Strom Thurmond wrote a memo, classified as secret, citing Lennon as a danger to the Presidents’ 1972 reelection campaign. So what could the Republicans do to prevent this? Easy they thought – just revoke Lennon’s visa. Thurmond said further that “if Lennon’s visa is terminated, it would be a strategy counter-measure.” He further advised that “caution must be taken with regard to the possible alienation of the so-called 18-year-old-vote if Lennon is expelled from the country.”

[…] Was John Lennon successfully deported – no. However, in 1975, the chief counsel of the INS resigned, and after doing so, publicly stated that the United States government, i.e., the Republican Party, spent millions of tax dollars, and conducted a more vehement attempt to deport John Lennon than it did in trying to throw out Nazi war criminals. It should be noted too, that all activities involving Lennon, or his intended activities, were protected under the First Amendment, which extends this protection to both citizens and non-citizens alike. John Lennon broke no laws in trying to fight for the many injustices he believed in. ~by John T. Marck, I Am The Beatles, John Lennon the Immigrant


(click to enlarge FBI files)

So … in spite of taxpayer-funded dirty tricks, they were actually successful – a comparatively irrelevant gain, though, ending in the tragic loss of a dearly precious life. But can we conclude that John Lennon’s deportation experience and the declaration of Nutopian independence demonstrate that standing symbolically and nonviolently against injustice, corruption, secrecy and abuses of law enforcement is a noble endeavor worthy of us all? I believe so. And I think we’re headed in the right direction.

But what about entire nations declaring independence? According to one American historian:

The source of the powers of congress is to be sought solely in the acquiescence of the people, without which every congressional resolution, with or without the benediction of popular conventions or state legislatures, would have been a mere brutum fulmen; and, as the congress unquestionably exercised national powers, operating over the whole country, the conclusion is inevitable that the will of the whole people is the source of national government in the United States, even from its first imperfect appearance in the second continental congress.. Cyclopædia of Political Science. New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co., 1899.

In theory, then and now, the people rule collectively – at least in America. As surely as the American lawyers argued Tuesday night, “Under basic principles of “Natural Law”, government can only be by the consent of the people….” We either legitimate our congress, our popular government, or their decisions are mere inert thunder.

That’s a nice theory, but unfortunately somewhere along the line, and especially with corporate personhood, the rule of the people was given over to the rule of the money, and inert thunder is accepted as the law of the land.

Looking to the Tibetan people’s struggle for independence (a people who have positively moved in the direction of non-violence), returning to an independent sovereign state has proven to be a futile effort in the “principles of equality and self-determination” that validate a Declaration of Independence – this also argued by our lawyers.

“China’s policy of occupation and oppression has resulted in no more or less than the destruction of Tibet’s national independence, culture and religion, environment and the universal human rights of its people. But having no representation in the United Nations, the world largely stood by and allowed China’s occupation and destruction to happen.” Issues facing Tibet* today describes the human rights and environmental atrocities that afflict a nation of once proud and self-determining people – and frankly, some of it is way too close to home.

And so, our lawyers argued for validity on the basis of “subsequent independence movements which have been enforced by world opinion as right and just”, and are “now reflected in the UN Charter”, but that was more or less a convenient and exclusive argument reserved for the elite nations backed by a document that is neither abided by nor enforced by our own government. It was certainly not a point inclusive of what is “right or just” for the people of Tibet.

When people’s rights, values and money are consumed by states and corruption, of course the pattern for violence is more concentrated in recovery efforts well after the fact than in efforts to regulate and prevent a corrupt government’s economic and legislative overreach.

Of the many examples of violent recovery efforts from such overreach, the people of Southern Sudan have been plagued with civil war on and off since 1955. Two million are dead and four million have been displaced since 1983, resulting overall in the mass destruction of a lovely people and culture. Whether or not nonviolence will last in a nation fraught with war for generations of citizens is questionable, as also exemplified in areas like Israel and Palestine. Attrition ensures that the people themselves have no standard for living in peace. Chronically bad situations during the prolonged catastrophe of war with its societal disorganization, malnutrition and disease, crime and overwhelming fear, often result in a people characterized as living almost for safety alone. The natural rhythm and balance afforded a life in peace and safety is unrealized, and even after the danger subsides, our human preference for the familiar tends to render the people of those war-torn nations as unsafe children in their desire for safety, and in that way they remain vulnerable, abused children of violence and war.

On the other hand, and more recently, a better result will come for the people of Iceland, who have been standing up together to face the economic and social injustices brought on by their corrupt state. Being progressive, they’ve taken “the bull by the horns”, and their noble and nonviolent correction is ending that economic injustice and the ruining debt imposed on the nation’s people in a way that will serve and protect generations to follow. And the Icelandic people have written a new constitution, independent of their parent country, Denmark.

When social and economic injustice come to the people of a nation and they do not stand together and act to correct it, if inequality results in abuses and the exploitation of social weaknesses, if the flow of information is controlled, if the validity of elections is questionable, if the allegiance of elected officials can be purchased, … and all while knowing that violence and war can be the default result of the people’s negligence and procrastination in facing those abuses, then generations to come, tomorrow’s children and theirs, are not being given a fair opportunity to live in peace … whether or not a congress or a declaration of independence is legal or approved by the oppressors.

DCKennedy