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Lies, Damned Lies and Police Reports


I spent some time in the last few weeks hanging out at the beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle (nee Lee Monument) that a prominent and well-designed sign tells me has been liberated by the people in this year of our Lord, 2020 (in Roman numerals, no less: MMXX). I went there to get a true sense of what was happening on Richmond’s most prominent avenue—and also what was going wrong. The Marcus-David Peters Circle is now a place for families to hang out, play basketball, throw footballs, barbecue, play music, wave flags, practice art, shout in grief over murdered citizens, and even celebrate marriages. It is also, alas, a place to get shot with rubber bullets, pepper sprayed, and tear gassed.

If you have been paying attention the last few weeks, the title of this article should not surprise.  Nearly a month ago, on June 1st, police tear gassed peaceful protesters at around 7:30 pm at the Marcus-David Peters Circle.  The nominal reason for tear gassing a bunch of folks hanging out, posing absolutely no threat to anyone was declared in this 8 p.m. tweet from the Richmond Police Department (RPD):

“Some RPD officers in that area were cut off by violent protestors. The [tear] gas was necessary to get them to safety.”

But there were at least two drone video recordings that directly contradict this report. One of them is linked below. Check out the black vehicle / truck at 4.08. Near the end, check out the cop, cheerfully waving goodbye to the protesters. This occurred well before the 8 p.m. curfew.

Richmond Times Dispatch reporter, Katy Evans even rebutted the official narrative, saying: “This contradicts what I saw. I did not see any violent protesters or anyone cut you [police] off. I was among those standing closest to you all [police] at this time.”

Another video, shared multiple times, from Virginia Public Media (VPM) illustrates how vicious and arbitrary the use of pepper spray was. Check at about .20 seconds. Also note the police holding up their pepper spray in symbolic victory as they ‘take back’ the circle.

There were also attacks on the press. VPM reporter, Roberto Roldan gave this account:

“After showing my badge and yelling “I am with the press” a Richmond Police officer sprayed pepper spray in my face and shoved me to the ground. [He] had “3397” on his helmet. I’m out.”

It’s apparent neither the Richmond City police nor the Virginia State police liked the press that evening. NBC 12 Olivio Ugino was dragged out of her car when she tried to video tape the police riot.

“Police seem to be swarming vehicles and arresting those out past curfew. I attempted to get out of my car to shoot video and was approached by officers with guns pulled and was told to get on the ground.”

Even with protestors fully subdued, (literary tie cuffed at their feet), the police behavior was incredibly vile. This video shows an officer spitting on a detained protester.

The video was sent to the Richmond Police Department who initially denied they had arrested anyone, and that the video was not filmed that day. After finally acknowledging it was in fact accurate, the police said the officers did not spit on the protestor, but just in the grass beside the protester.

But VPM had their own video of the incident which they released. It shows multiple officers spitting on the same detained person.



The Richmond Times Dispatch also posted a video. It is heavily edited and does not show what the others show; neither the drone footage nor the direct use of pepper spray on protesters. Rather, it shows folks initially berating the officers and then, weirdly shaking their hands.

So I suppose this is a tale of two protests; but only one of them is true.


After being confronted with the drone coverage, and caught in an obvious lie, the Mayor subsequently issued an apology and said there would be an investigation. He declared that he would march with protesters to show solidarity.

“Every peaceful protester should be allowed to protest, that is your right. That’s the bottom line, and we violated that,” Stoney told the crowd at City Hall.

Then Police Chief William Smith also apologized and also took a knee briefly after being invited to do so by a woman in the crowd.

“I apologize for the mistakes that we have made,” Smith said.

This didn’t exactly mollify the throng of people, many of whom had been tear gassed for no apparent reason, shot at with rubber bullets, and spit on. They called for resignations.

Not three days later, a Richmond Police SUV plowed through a crowd of activists at the Marcus-David Peters Circle — no one was seriously injured but there was considerable outrage. The mayor said in a tweet that the driver of the Police SUV was placed on leave pending an investigation.

Not satisfied with that response, the activists moved their protest to the hornet’s nest itself, directly outside the Richmond Police Headquarters. They demanded the release of arrested protesters and to hold officers accountable for the tear gassing and driving their SUV through the crowd—and getting spit on, of course.

By Monday night the situation got out of hand—not by the protesters who remained non-violent, if agitated – but by the police. That evening the Richmond police said they declared the group of activist an ‘illegal assembly’ and began firing pepper spray and rubber bullets at protesters. Yet a person who shot the video of protesters being tear gassed said they did not hear the message that they were an ‘unlawful assembly’  before officers sent the canisters flying.

Activist Jimmie Lee Jarvis charged that “It turned violent, but the first act of violence was from the police.”  Prior to being gassed, the activists were peaceful and nonviolent. According to Jarvis, the police officers were “very eagerly deploying pepper spray at people who were not doing anything” other than yelling at the police.

“I saw many protesters who were vomiting, crying,” Jarvis added. “I saw people kind of collapsing on the ground.”

Councilman Mike Jones and Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch had joined protesters on that Monday evening and afterwards, Councilman Jones simply tweeted “Can’t believe what I saw this evening.”

“I’ve marched before, protested before,” Jones noted. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever encountered that number of police in riot gear and with the big guns out.”

“People were crying and screaming and vomiting and running for their lives,” observed Stephanie Lynch.

The two council members both deemed the show of force unnecessary. Jones called the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on Richmond protesters “anti-American,” while Lynch added that it’s the latest example of inappropriate response and brutality.

“There has to be another way to deescalate a situation so that innocents are not impacted by something as impactful as tear gas, chemical irritants and flashbangs,” Jones said.

“Using it on civilians, as we saw [Monday] night, is just a completely inappropriate response,” Lynch added. “Many would share the same sentiment that it has had the opposite impact of coming to a peaceful resolution.”

Following the unrest, Mayor Stoney requested Richmond Police Chief Will Smith’s resignation. Chief Smith turned it in.

“He has served this city with grace but we are ready to move it in a new direction”, Mayor Stoney said at press conference on Tuesday. Stoney also vowed a slate of reforms for the department.

Then without community input, the Mayor appointed William ‘Jody’ Blackwell to be the interim police chief for Richmond.

That was a bad move. Shortly after being appointed by Stoney, details about a fatal shooting in 2002 involving Blackwell resurfaced.

Blackwell never faced charges in the case but an investigation was launched and a grand jury heard evidence, including details that 26-year-old Jeramy Gilliam was reportedly shot in the back, and that the alleged weapon he pointed at Blackwell was found 35 feet away from him and lacked fingerprints.

This would be exactly the kind of thing BLM activists would protest, so let’s say, it was not a nuanced decision; and hardly one concerned about community input as Stoney had promised.

When he was introduced to the city by the Mayor Stoney, Blackwell was asked about the fatal shooting of Gilliam but evaded the question, saying he would not “go into any details associated with it.” But he did promise “we’re going to get the city back.” To what, or for whom, he did not say, but it turned out to be a phrase that was far more portentous than prophetic. Blackwell lasted just a little over ten days.


Jody Blackwell began his short tenure by trying to close down the heart of the protest at beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle. Shortly after he took office, on June 22, Virginia State Police, Richmond Police, Capitol Police and Virginia Division of General Services announced “important public safety changes” that closed the Marcus-David Peters Circle from sunset to sunrise.

Apparently, there were noise complaints (admittedly police helicopters, police flash bangs, police tear gas shots, and police pepper pellets are very loud—so maybe a good solution would be for the police to not be there?) and at least one person complained of the avenue “wreaking of urine as she walked her dog”—which, frankly, I never noticed, and I’ve walked my dog all around that circle; and up and down Monument avenue.

At any rate, no matter how trivial the complaints, the protesters complied. They marched to Richmond City Hall to stage a teach-in and named the area Reclamation Square. They used traffic barriers to block off the 900 block of Marshall Street, North of City Hall so they could have their sit in without fear of getting run over by a rogue SUV.  They were going to watch a movie, and discuss police violence, and talk tactics, draw up a list of demands–including reopening the Marcus-David Peters case; defunding the Richmond Police Department; dropping charges against arrested protesters; removing Confederate monuments; establishing a civilian review board with subpoena power to investigate police misconduct; and releasing the names of Richmond police officers under investigation for excessive use of force—so everyone would know why they were out there. Alas, they didn’t get that far.

According to Blue Virginia, shortly after midnight “approximately 100 police officers from Virginia State and Richmond Police showed up at 12:30 AM. They marched to the corner of Marshall and 10th at 12:45 AM and held formation in riot gear for approximately 45 minutes. During this time, a loudspeaker repeatedly announced that the protest “had been declared an unlawful assembly” and that “failure to disperse will result in arrest and the use of chemical agents.”

For the record, “‘unlawful assembly’ declarations require a group of people committing violence or a clear and present danger of imminent violence, but the protesters did not move and did not engage in any violence. Nevertheless, at 1:27 AM, Richmond and Virginia State Police brutally attacked them.”

You can get a sense of how brutal from the video below.

Ultimately, a good protest will show how broken a system is. When British soldiers march horses through passive Indians, clubbing from their horse mounts, or when ‘Bull’ Conner unleashes his dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, we see at once the injustice, the unfairness, and the terrible vapidity of official violence.

At Reclamation Square, the police showed everyone exactly what they were. The Virginia State Police and Richmond Police gave a brilliant performance of the now classic ‘police riot.’

According to Blue Virginia, reporting from the ground: “The police start running and grabbing people who are trying to get away as clouds of gas rise to envelop the City Seal on City Hall. Half a block to the right is Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s home.”

“It becomes a horror scene. You can hear blood-curdling screams from victims. The light has changed as if there’s a fire. I try to film the screams and the police come at me though I’m far away from the protests. White privilege kept me safe while others were brutalized for their political views. It went from peaceful to this in less than three minutes.”

There was actually a strobe light used as an anti-assembly device by the Police, hence the nightmarish lighting.

Breanne Armbrust, who arrived at the demonstration around 8 p.m., said there was no sign of police for hours. She said some of the protesters had used their cars to block the intersection around 11:45 p.m. to prevent anyone from driving into the area where they were gathered. Police SUVs arrived shortly thereafter, she said, but officers were wearing typical uniforms — not riot gear.

It wasn’t until roughly 12:30 a.m. that Virginia State Police officers clad in riot gear arrived.

“Not one person was prepared or expecting there was going to be an incident with police,” Armbrust said.

At the time, civilians, two of whom were using wheelchairs, were sitting at a nearby GRTC bus stop, but Armbrust said that officers did not alert the bystanders of their intent to use chemical agents.

After arriving, officers attempted to make an announcement while pointing strobe lights at demonstrators. Amid the flashing lights, Armbrust said that she and others present could not comprehend what was being announced. Officers began firing tear gas canisters — oftentimes at a close range — around 1 a.m.

“I’ve been protesting for a long time and I’ve never seen what I’ve been seeing,” said Armbrust, who is the director of a nonprofit organization in the city. “There was just complete chaos that was happening.”

Between 1 and 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, officers released several waves of tear gas on demonstrators, she said, also using rubber bullets and pepper pellets to disperse the crowd. Since she joined the protests May 29, Armbrust said she has never seen “the volume of tear gas” deployed as it was that Tuesday.


Chased from Reclamation Square, the protesters moved back to beautiful Marcus-David Peters circle. That next Friday, June 26, Blackwell made his ‘last stand.’

Initially, the Virginia Capitol Police said they “arrived at the Lee monument at 10 p.m. Friday, declared the gathering illegal and all 100-plus people inside immediately left.”

Apparently the activists didn’t ‘leave’ fast enough for the Richmond police or State police, however.

The following first hand account is from Blue Virginia:

“At roughly 10:25 PM, officers were using paintball guns to take potshots at protesters far outside of Lee circle. There [outside the circle] many dozens of people who were not protesting but were lining the streets enjoying what had been a beautiful Friday evening. Thirty seconds later, police launched an unprovoked attack with tear gas, Skat Shells, and flash bangs. The recording can only pick up so much noise, but you can see the ground shake in this residential neighborhood filled with families and elderly people.”

“The opening salvo inevitably wounded people. You can see and hear a Black man writhing in pain being treated by medics. He gets on his feet perhaps a hundred yards away from the officers and screams and is met with more militarized violence. It is impossible – impossible – for anyone to maintain the officers are fearful and this is reasonable force.”

“Richmond Police left the Circle and walked en masse about a quarter mile to the corner of Allen and Park by Bethel Assembly of God Church. They appeared to be packing up their cars to leave when one officer told another: “Grab somebody. Get a hold of somebody.” An officer sprinted about 15 yards and assaulted and arrested a man peacefully standing on the sidewalk (video from woznyphoto). Every lawyer reading this knows how egregiously illegal this is.”

“The officers form a ring around the innocent victim. When they lift him up you see he is dazed. A woman tries to speak with him and she is assaulted. An officer deploys pepper spray, and dozens of people on the street start to cough during a pandemic.”

“In the area where this person was arbitrarily arrested, there was no declaration of unlawful assembly; the Richmond Police had already started their engines and were leaving. These individuals were doing nothing more than exercising their constitutional rights to political speech and to film police.”

In short, this is a false arrest, no doubt, one of many. The Richmond Police wrote up the incident saying the individual was arrested for “unlawful assembly and obstruction of justice” and “an RPD officer deployed pepper spray one time, due to ongoing assaults from the crowd.”

There’s a word for this kind of police report. It’s called a lie.


William “Jody” Blackwell resigned the following day. A few hours after his resignation, apparently fearing a leadership vacuum, Mayor Stoney announced the new head of the Richmond Police Department.

His name is Officer Gerald Smith.

Mayor Stoney said that “He is a reform-minded change agent who I think is going to be able to bring the reimagining of policing and public safety we need here in the great city of Richmond.”

But again, the facts are not in favor of the official narrative.

Gerald Smith was most recently Deputy Chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

You might have heard of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police because they are in the middle of an ugly lawsuit over their use of “riot control” agents against protesters they had entrapped during a peaceful June 2 rally.  In fact, a judge is temporarily restricting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s use of riot control agents (like tear gas and pepper spray) following the incident.

The lawsuit accuses Police Chief Putney of organizing a formal plan to end peaceful protests with a “deliberate show of force in an apparent frustration that the protests would not cease.”

That story has unfortunate echoes close to home.

I’m not sure what — if any — lesson Deputy Chief Gerald Smith may have drawn from Chief Putney’s failed effort at suppressing free speech, or his time at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, but let us hope it is one that does not involve rubber bullets, tear gas or pepper spray.


Yesterday, June 30, Governor Northam extended a state of emergency which promises more funds for Virginia State police and Richmond police and Richmond City and likely signals an even more permissive attitude toward violence with regard to protesters. The order also includes activation of the Virginia National Guard. When questioned about the activation, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the administration has “absolutely no plans to deploy the National Guard,” and said a reference to it in the order is standard language.

The ACLU noted that Northam’s “actions show no understanding of the anti-Black racism that infects our civil and social structures, accepts the police version of the facts and demonstrates an unwillingness to recognize that treating people as enemy combatants invites violence rather than quells it,”

Later, in the evening on June 30, the ACLU lost a request for a preliminary injunction on the use of tear gas in a law suit brought against the Virginia State Police and Richmond Police for violating protesters first amendment rights to speech and assembly.

Today, July 1st, an all night vigil is planned for beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle.


 Note: This article is based on multiple eye witness accounts many of whom wish to remain anonymous. I’ve also sourced published articles, public twitter and media accounts and commentaries where available, including VPM news media, Blue Virginia, the Commonwealth Times, Jimmie Lee Jarvis, various other local news outlets, and the ACLU.


Virginia Code on what constitutes and ‘unlawful assembly’

  • 18.2-406. What constitutes an unlawful assembly; punishment.

Whenever three or more persons assembled share the common intent to advance some lawful or unlawful purpose by the commission of an act or acts of unlawful force or violence likely to jeopardize seriously public safety, peace or order, and the assembly actually tends to inspire persons of ordinary courage with well-grounded fear of serious and immediate breaches of public safety, peace or order, then such assembly is an unlawful assembly. Every person who participates in any unlawful assembly shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. If any such person carried, at the time of his participation in an unlawful assembly, any firearm or other deadly or dangerous weapon, he shall be guilty of a Class 5 felony.

Code 1950, §§ 18.1-254.1, 18.1-254.3; 1968, c. 460; 1971, Ex. Sess., c. 251; 1975, cc. 14, 15.





A Hidden History: General Robert E. Lee (or what old Virginia History Books Leave Out)


Thanks to the tireless efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other proponents of the “Lost Cause” narrative, I grew up reading about the kindly General, Robert E. Lee.

I knew it was weird, but I didn’t know how weird at the time. There was a kind of breath taking apotheosis of the man. Here’s a sample : one of Lee’s ex-generals, Jubal A. Early wrote two years after his death: “Our beloved Chief stands, like some lofty column which rears its head among the highest, in grandeur, simple, pure and sublime.”

But, of course, once you get past that delusional reverence and read his actual history, you realize that Lee’s treatment of his own enslaved people, and blacks, in general, could well fall into the category of plain old evil.

Let’s begin with his attitudes about race. He was a proponent of white supremacy: that was one of General Lee’s most fundamental convictions—and his fatal flaw; it was not ancillary to his efforts as general of the Confederacy; it was core.

Some folks point out that he once wrote a letter to suggest slavery was a moral and political evil. There’s some truth to that, but read the full letter (, Lee considered it a greater evil to the white master than the enslaved black. In short, slavery was another of the white man’s “burden.”—an institution he quite usefully employed himself, presumably for profit as well as the ‘uplifting of the black race.’

Here are some examples of his general attitude.

Lee told Congress that black people lacked the intellectual capacity of white people and “could not vote intelligently,” and that granting them suffrage would “excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.” Lee explained that “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.”

“Well,” his defenders might say, “Lee was a man of his time and place: that was the current attitude back then. He was just misguided, but truly, he `was a good Christian man, and gentle man to his slaves.’”

No, alas, he may have been Christian, but he was neither kind nor just to his enslaved people, even by the letter of the South’s own oppressive laws on the matter.

In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on his estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.”

Pyror notes that the way Lee treated his enslaved people nearly led to a slave revolt. They had expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death.

John Reeves, a historian and author of the book, “The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon,” said that Lee wanted to work the slaves beyond the five-year limit stated in his father-in-law’s will. Lee fought in court to keep the slaves working because he didn’t know if he would be able to pay off his legacies otherwise.

Wesley Norris was one of those slaves. He was born a slave on the plantation that Lee managed after his father-in-law died. Norris testified during the court fight that Lee beat him when he tried to run away. Wesley Norris recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”

It wasn’t just his own slaves that Lee fought tooth and nail to keep enslaved. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” to the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

According to Adam Serwer writing in the Atlantic, “Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander, A. P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

Even as President of Washinton and Lee College, Lee’s unflagging white supremacist attitude held sway. According to Pryor, students at Washington formed their own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools. There is no record of Robert E. Lee ever disciplining students for this activity, or ever publicly denouncing the KKK, which was initially founded in 1866 for the specific purpose of terrorizing freed blacks.

As the debate about Lee’s monument rages, it might be advisable for those who attempt to defend the monument’s place on the avenue to read and understand that they are defending a slave holder, a racist, and a rather ugly white supremacist. For those who continue to argue historical context, we should point out that he tried to avoid the laws of his own time to enslave lives that should have been freed. He whipped and tortured enslaved people that tried to escape his control. He allowed his men to slaughter defeated black soldiers, when he didn’t parade them before a mocking crowds of angry white southerners. He turned a blind eye to terrorist organizations formed against the black community, and ignored the rape of innocent black girls.

Ultimately, he is a moral, political and military failure who denied blacks’ humanity to the detriment of his troops, even as he ignored his own white student’s gross moral turpitude. If he was a ‘Christian’ he certainly did not show it to the black men and women of his day. If he deserves to be remembered any place as a ‘Christian man’, it might very well be in hell; certainly not on a public avenue where he caused so much harm to so many of our brethren.

It’s time to say good bye — not to erase history — but to embrace it, because he should have never been put on that pedestal in the first place.






“I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This”

A CNN journalist and his entire camera crew were arrested by Minnesota state police Friday morning on live television while covering riots in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd. The lead reporter, Omar Berman, carefully asked where he should be, what he should do, and deferred obsequiously to the state police who, nevertheless, arrested him.

When he asked what was going on, he was told by a nearby state trooper, “I’m just doing my job, man.” (That last phrase, of course, has interesting historical echoes, but we’ll leave that thread for another day)

Attorney Midwin Charles noted the rich irony of arresting a CNN reporter for reporting the news “but not Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd on camera.”

As Omar Jimenez and others were led away, CNN anchor John Berman—back in the studio watching the arrests happen live—gasped, more than once, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Maybe Berman hasn’t seen anything like it, personally, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time reporters have been ‘blocked’ from reporting sensitive topics. Especially when it comes to America’s seemingly ubiquitous cops (usually white, usually unapologetic) who kill minorities that cause subsequent riots (usually non-white, usually furious).

You might recall one of the first riots in Alabama was really a ‘police riot’ featuring the relatively infamous officer, James Clark, who liked to wear a ‘never integrate’ button on duty (not too dissimilar from Derek Chauvin, I would imagine.)

Clark stood among his fellow state troopers in February 1965 outside the Zion’s Chapel Methodist church, waiting for 500 or so civil rights activists to file out. When the doors to the church opened, police shot out the streetlights, sprayed black paint on the lenses of reporters’ cameras and charged into the crowd. The New York Times reported “loud whacks rang through the square”… The police chased some of the protesters into a place called Mack’s cafe, overturned tables, lunged at patrons.

Jimmie Lee Jackson rushed to defend his mother from a beating. State Trooper James Fowler pumped two bullets into Jackson’s stomach. He died eight days later. This sparked the Selma march and subsequent violence and riots. “He [Jimmie Jackson] was murdered” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “by the irresponsibility of every politician from governors on down who have fed constituents the stale bread of hatred, the spoiled meat of racism.”

The detail that strikes me in this account, among many, is spray painting the camera lenses with black paint and shooting out the street lights. Is this different, really, from arresting a CNN reporter? Doesn’t it serve the same end?

Much has changed since that day in 1965, of course, but apparently in none of the regards mentioned above.

We need something like the 1965 Voting Rights Act to control our police force—the CNN reporter should never have been arrested, of course. George Floyd should never have been murdered, as so many others have been murdered for years and years now. Much like the rotten core of Alabama’s state police, circa 1965, our contemporary police force needs cleaned up; needs to be ‘demilitarized’, and needs retraining. If you can only control a populace with rifles, teargas and billy clubs; you’re not a peace officer, you’re an occupying force. I’ll add, that you only need an occupying force when you also have a disastrously unfair and inequitable system.

The death of Jimmie Lee Jackson led to the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As I write, protestors and activists are not only marching in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd, they are also marching all across the country, even here in Richmond, Virginia. One can only hope something equally positive, like a law that addresses the gross inequities in our legal system,  redefines down the limits of police power and the use of force, and readdresses the penalties when those limits are breached, will come out of this monstrous injustice.

We might begin with two simple, conjoined tasks:

1) Disarm/ demilitarize the police force and limit the police use of force. The police are still receiving surplus military supplies from our overseas adventures. Personally, I’d love a country with no police force, but if we must have one, than I want one that operates with very limited firepower. No one needs Rambo in their hood. Maybe a bobby with a silly hat, if we must have police at all.

2) Establish a public citizen’s board to oversee police and their use of force completely separate from the police hierarchy or the attorney general’s office. A large part of the current problem is an implicit prosecutorial bias baked into the structure of our justice system. An attorney general has no real motivation to out bad behavior if their success on prosecutions rest on the very police who may be acting badly. Take police oversight out of their hands entirely and let a separate, publically formed citizens board review police behavior–and penalize appropriately.

An equitable legal system; a non-militarized, non-racist and defanged police force–maybe a state in which a police force is hardly noticed at all. That’s something we’d like to see for the first time.




April 9th, Covid-19 News Round Up

John Prine died two nights ago. Ellis Marsalis died a few days earlier.  Thus far, an additional 95,000 other individuals have also died, some under exceedingly awful conditions.  Despite this, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to postpone or even allow for mail in ballots in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Here is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent on the Wisconsin decision that forced these voters to the polls in the middle of a pandemic:

“…the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.” “The majority of this Court declares that this case presents a “narrow, technical question”
“The Court’s suggestion that the current situation is not ‘substantially different’ from ‘an ordinary election’ boggles the mind…” “The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic. Under the District Court’s order, they would be able to do so. Even if they receive their absentee ballot in the days immediately following election day, they could return it. With the majority’s stay in place, that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety, or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own. That is a matter of utmost importance—to the constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s citizens, the integrity of the State’s election process, and in this most extraordinary time, the health of the Nation.”

Additionally, as if they couldn’t reach any lower, ethically, the Supreme Court of the United States voted for this decision, remotely.  They voted from the comfort of their homes  to force poor people in Wisconsin to vote in person in the middle of a pandemic.

So there’s that. But in addition to the GOP, and the Supreme Court, we have the President—Trump– waging an all-out war on independent oversight.

First, he fired the intelligence community’s Inspector General Michael Atkinson on Friday night in clear retribution for Atkinson’s handling of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint. Then, he went after Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm for her office’s report detailing pervasive testing delays and supply shortages at hospitals across the country. The report revealed the extent to which hospitals were struggling to meet the health care demands associated with treating COVID-19 patients. The thorough review included interviews from 323 hospitals across 46 states and stood in stark contrast with the rhetoric coming from the president. Naturally, Trump labeled the report a “Fake Dossier” and suggested “politics” influenced it, and that it was “just wrong”.

And today, he removed Glenn Fine, the inspector general who was tapped by his peers to lead the panel of federal watchdogs tasked with overseeing the execution of the coronavirus relief package.

As Robert Reich has said, “If this isn’t abuse of power, I don’t know what is. Independent oversight is critical for every administration; for an administration as thoroughly corrupt and amoral as this one, it’s absolutely paramount.”

But wait, there’s more.

FEMA is apparently rounding up medical supplies but no one knows where they are going (

The Trump administration is also using federal dollars to buy supplies from China, off loading them to private companies and having states bid against each other for these supplies. (

Talking Points Memo is reporting that “a pattern is coming into view: the White House seizes goods from public officials and hospitals across the country while doling them out as favors to political allies and favorites, often to great fanfare to boost the popularity of those allies. The Denver Post today editorialized about one of the most egregious examples. Last week, as we reported, a shipment of 500 ventilators to the state of Colorado was intercepted and rerouted by the federal government. Gov. Jared Polis (D) sent a letter pleading for the return of the equipment. Then yesterday President Trump went on Twitter to announce that he was awarding 100 ventilators to Colorado at the behest of Republican Senator Cory Gardner, one of the most endangered Republicans on the ballot this year. As the Post put it, “President Donald Trump is treating life-saving medical equipment as emoluments he can dole out as favors to loyalists. It’s the worst imaginable form of corruption — playing political games with lives.”

Not only is this ripping off the states when they are being crushed economically,  people probably died for this incandescent bit of political favoritism– and may still be dying.

“It’s hard to know whether President Trump even knew in this case that his pandemic task force had swiped away five times as many ventilators just days before. Indeed, we still don’t whether this is all a central part of the White House’s crisis strategy – grabbing supplies from blue states to hand out to endangered Republicans or red state allies – or simply a layering of corruption over the general chaos.”

Here’s more from Talking Points:

“For all the confusion, what is clear is that the federal government is demanding that states, localities and hospital systems find their own supplies while systematically interdicting those they do purchase and rerouting them in other directions while providing no explanation of what standards are being used to distribute them. At the same time, Republican officeholders keep turning up announcing windfalls of medical supplies courtesy of the President. In many cases, like Gardner, they’re Republicans within blue or purple states.”

Ladies and gentleman, I believe we are in the middle of a pandemic, and also, apparently, a slow motion coup.



March 22, Covid-19 News Round Up

Today, Rand Paul announced that he tested positive for Covid-19, the first U.S. Senator to be diagnosed with the ailment.

Sen. Paul will get the best care that our society can engineer. Unlike millions of other Americans, he will not need to be concerned with a shortage of ventilators and a lack of health insurance coverage. As a member of congress, all those details will be handled by doctors concerned for him and attentive to his needs. He will be treated to the finest health service our country has to offer.

Despite his good fortune, his father seems not to care. Last Monday, Ron Paul,said, “People should ask themselves whether this coronavirus ‘pandemic’ could be a big hoax, with the actual danger of the disease massively exaggerated.”

Neither of them have said anything during this crisis to indicate they’ve changed their perspectives in the face of an international health crisis. Their libertarian ideology — a decidedly selfish view of the world and of humankind, in general, seems firmly in control. Even as Rand Paul was awaiting test results for Covid-19, he availed himself of the Senate gym, essentially contaminating it for all the other Senators. Nor did he practice any reasonable form of self-quarantine, meeting with multiple colleagues on the very day he was taking the test. But beyond his personal venality in the matter, there is also his callous political obstruction. Senate leaders were scrambling Tuesday to pass coronavirus legislation as quickly as possible, but Sen. Rand Paul put a damper on those plans, forcing a vote on an amendment he authored, which would “require a social security number for purposes of the child tax credit, and to provide the President the authority to transfer funds as necessary, and to terminate United States military operations and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan.”

The amendment was a purely political play, with no hope of passage. Even so it delayed effective legislative response for two days. Ultimately, Paul was also a sole “no” vote on the $8.3 billion coronavirus spending bill. Paul was seeking an equal amount of cuts in unspent foreign aid money to pay for the medical aid, because, apparently, spending extra money to prevent millions of people from dying just isn’t good enough.

His ideology, which weighs everything on the scales of a ‘free market’, could not even relent in the middle of a pandemic. As Maya Angelo has noted, “when people show you who they are, believe them.”

As tendentious as Paul’s record and attitude in this crisis has been, it’s not as vile as Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina who chairs the Senate Intelligence committee.

He sold off about 1.72 million dollars worth of stock soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus. The country was nowhere near ready, of course, and the fact that he sold off his stock as the result of insider information makes him a serious candidate for worst person of the week, if not the decade.

According to an NPR report, Burr had confided to attendees of a wealthy luncheon held at the Capitol Hill Club: “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history … It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

He warned that companies might have to curtail their employees’ travel, that schools could close and that the military might be mobilized to compensate for overwhelmed hospitals. All true and useful information, but none of it was publically available at that time. Only his wealthiest constituents got this advance notice.

The luncheon was organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a club for businesses and organizations in North Carolina that are charged up to $10,000 for membership and are promised “interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration, and the private sector.”

So what his wealthy constituents got to hear in a private luncheon was the truth as Burr understood it at that time. What everyone else got to hear was another matter entirely.

In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, Burr assured the public that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” He wrote, “No matter the outbreak or threat, Congress and the federal government have been vigilant in identifying gaps in its readiness efforts and improving its response capabilities.”

This was a lie, of course. But he sold his stocks and let the wealthiest individuals in his social bracket know the truth of the matter—so they could prepare themselves and their businesses, as well.

In 2012, Congress passed a new law making it illegal for members of Congress to use inside information they gain through their official positions to buy and sell stock. Only three senators voted against the 2012 bill. Burr was one of them.

Meanwhile, our President has made such an inarticulate buffoon of himself that people are begging for him NOT to do anymore press conferences and let someone with a semblance of intelligence and compassion, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, take care of all public communications. The strong sense of disgust toward our erstwhile leader hasn’t prevented William Barr our sycophantic and deeply power mad Attorney General from floating a request to ‘suspend constitutional rights’ during the pandemic. Because how else will they maintain order when everything they do and don’t do brings us closer to eminent death?

If our legislative and Presidential leadership expresses itself with utter moral turpitude and an ethical perversity that makes Nixon’s excesses childishly quaint; the less powerful members of our society appear to be doing what needs to be done. In short, portions of our country are actually rising to the occasion, even as our executive leadership wallows in their incompetence. Local and state governments are mostly doing well (with a handful of exceptions— Florida, I’m looking at you- and local community efforts are also blooming like Aster flowers in the Spring.

A group that has been on the front lines of climate change, Extinction Rebellion, has formed a Mutual Aid Society and are calling for donations in Richmond, Virginia to help those less fortunate. (

A relief fund for restaurant workers has also been started in the local community.


Internationally, Cuba has sent doctors to Italy, which says more about the values their society holds dear than anything our own country has said about them in the last 50 years.

And Chef José Andrés has even repurposed his restaurants in the Washington, DC area as community kitchens. He told MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, “We cannot leave the communities alone … The idea is that when people are in the neighborhood, they may need food.” Adrés mentions that Congressional help for the restaurant industry will be needed “because America needs to be fed.”

Excellent sentiment, though, as they saying goes, I would hope for the best, but plan for the worst.  The House may come through with help, and, paradoxically, with Rand Paul’s absence thanks to his Covid-19 diagnosis and reckless behavior–that has helped to quarantine five Republican senators–we might actually get some decent legislation pushed through the Senate. Sometimes, it seems, Karma can be a good thing.

Remember to wash your hands!

Below is a continously updated list of Covid-19 resources specific to Richmond, Virginia.

Penny Lane gofundme page

Patrick Henry gofundme page


Laura Lees gofundme page

PennyLane gofundme page

Cross Roads gofundme page



Social Democracy and FDR’s Second Bill of Rights

Image result for fdr second bill of rights

In 1944, just as World War II was coming to a close, and victory in Europe was in the offing, Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined what he called the 2nd Bill of Rights.  In his 1994, State of the Union Address, he argued that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and original Bill of Rights were insufficient, or in his words, had proved “inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”

From that premise, he pivoted to a Second Bill of Rights that he carefully enumerated in his speech. The main points were:

FDR explained that a “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” he argued,

“People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

So the purpose of the Second Bill of Rights or Economic Bill of Rights was really both economic and political. By guaranteeing a reasonable environment to ‘pursue’ happiness, he hoped to stabilize our democracy and banish the attraction of dictators and authoritarian strongmen who used economic distress to bolster their popularity.

“All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”

“America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

Even though FDR urged Congress to consider vesting citizens with these eight new rights, a Second Bill of Rights was never formally introduced in Congress and never was interpreted by the Supreme Court. Promises of basic human dignities—such as guaranteeing the right to housing or to be free from monopoly power, for example—historically have not blended well with raw capitalist economies.

As Jill Priluck writes in Lapham’s Quarterly, “Elite American political culture traditionally has favored a form of Adam Smith individualism in which the pursuit of self-interest, the sanctity of private property, and the right to be left alone are paramount.” These folks would be the market-fetish neoliberals of today.

I suspect our less elite political culture suffers a kind of Stockholm syndrome in this regard. Not only are they deprived of decent living standards and healthcare and retirement, they are told it’s their own fault. Sadly, too many believe this cruel tripe.

Despite our gross negligence in this matter, other countries across the world took FDR’s words seriously—and have benefitted as a result. These countries are largely what we now call Social Democracies: Nordic countries, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark. To lesser degrees, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Most of the western industrial world, in fact.

As Cass Sunstein notes in The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever, countries developing constitutions coming out of World War II were also quick to embrace FDR’s concept. The South African and Iraqi constitutions guarantee a right to education, health care, social security, and housing. Finland’s establishes that everyone has “the right to basic sustenance.” Norway’s requires the state “to create conditions enabling every person capable of work to earn a living by his work.” In Spain’s constitution, ratified thirteen years before Roosevelt’s speech, the nation “shall assure to every worker the conditions necessary for a fitting existence,” including “economic sufficiency through adequate and periodically updated pensions” to citizens in old age.

Constitutions in Portugal, Brazil, Poland, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, Peru, and Egypt all recognize some form of Roosevelt’s economic rights. Mexico’s 1917 constitution included social-welfare provisions years before the Second Bill of Rights was proposed. U.S. state constitutions recognize aspects of the bill, such as the right to education.”

After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, his ideas informed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Article 25, for example, you can find many of FDR’s tenants summarized:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

It was the foundation for two covenants adopted by the UN General Assembly: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which, along with the declaration, are known as the International Bill of Rights. The two covenants are binding in countries that have ratified them. The treaty protects the right to work; the right to organize; the right to bargain collectively; the right to social security; the right to social and medical assistance; the right to social, legal, and economic protection of the family; and the right to protection and assistance for migrant workers and their families. Ultimately, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was ratified by 167 countries—but not by the United States.

Social Democracies like Sweden, Finland or Norway that have implemented FDR’s Second Bill of Rights have built amazing economies and wonderfully sustainable systems for their citizens. Maybe it’s time we learned from our own history, and did the same for our own people?  In the end, maybe we, too, deserve what FDR promised for us nearly a century ago.

Below is a link to archived footage of FDR’s speech on the Second Bill of Rights:

By Jack Johnson



A Brief History of the Second Amendment

Gun activists often claim that the original intent of the Second Amendment was to give them an absolute right to own any weapon they might choose. Historically, they couldn’t be further from the truth. A contextual reading of the Second Amendment suggests that its main purpose—if not sole purpose– was to protect the rights of states to maintain and arm militias. It’s pretty obvious if you read the plain English: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Chief Justice Scalia’s 2008 Heller decision is a departure from nearly 200 years of jurisprudence which suggested that the Second Amendment was written to allow states to build militias for themselves separate from Federal interference. Since state militias of the time were made up of individual citizens who often kept their weapons home with them, the language made perfect sense. Here’s another way to word the Second Amendment: “The State has the right to provide for its security, and therefore, you can’t disarm individuals who will make up the State’s militia.” It conveys exactly the same meaning, but the difference in emphasis is important. Frankly, the stretch that Scalia and other ‘gun rights’ activists have to make when arguing for an individuals’ right is surreal by comparison.

But let’s talk context a little bit. Remember that prior to the Constitution with its attendant Bill of Rights where we find our tiny, one sentence, Second Amendment, our country was organized around something called the Articles of Confederation. In the Articles, states were required to maintain their own “well regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered” with “a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.”

The echoes of the language of the Second Amendment “well regulated” are not by accident. The implication is that this is not a pack of hooligans, out for a Saturday night Trump rally, or a thousand white supremacists descending on a university town, but a serious, disciplined militia, trained, drilled and so forth.

Under the Articles, the states would appoint all officers under the rank of colonel. The confederation Congress was permitted to “requisition” these militias for the “common defence,” but only “in proportion to the number of white inhabitants in such State.” Note the color designation, “white”: this will become important later on.

The Articles were short lived. In the subsequent Constitution of 1787 the federalists made their move and asserted for themselves powers once allocated to the states. The newly designed Federal Congress could declare war, raise an army, or both, by a bare majority and without consulting the states; Congress was in charge of training and arming the state militias, and could call the militia into service without state permission or even state consultation.

Whoa! As you might imagine, there was some push back on this matter. Especially from the ever sensitive Southern states with their peculiar institution of slavery that needed the expertise of state militias to keep potential insurrections in check. There was also the small matter of arming the white “paddy rollers” or slave patrols, generally semi-deputized poor whites paid some meager amount to round up individuals fleeing the depravity of enforced slave labor. So language was inserted to appease the Virginia Governor. His name was Patrick Henry; that same ‘give me liberty or give me death’ Patrick Henry who, at the time of his death owned 67 slaves. The freedom he defended so eloquently was about his white money, not, apparently, his black slaves.

To be succinct, Patrick Henry feared that without some checks written into the Constitution, the Federal Congress could undermine the ability of militias in Virginia and elsewhere in the South to suppress slave uprisings and pursue runaway slaves. The militia issue was important enough for Patrick Henry to see it as grounds for opposing ratification of the Constitution. The power Congress had over militias, Henry reasoned, could easily be turned into restrictive power. “By this sir, you see that their control over our best defence is unlimited,” Henry warned his fellow Virginians.

Patrick Henry even argued that southerners’ “property” (slaves) would be lost under the new Constitution, and the resulting slave uprising would be a disaster for them: “In this situation,” Henry said to Madison, “I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone.”

I suspect James Madison thought Patrick Henry was a bit paranoid, but, as Thom Hartmann noted, Madison did go on to alter the Second Amendment’s final form to satisfy the slave holding states.

Madison’s  first draft for what became the Second Amendment read: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country [emphasis mine]: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

But Henry, Mason, and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government. So Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State [emphasis mine], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

So Madison’s careful wording of the Second Amendment was deliberate. He drew a connection between militias and the right to bear arms rather than simply defending the individual right to bear arms. James Madison, it should also be noted, was a slave holder himself and, of course, was speaking for his state’s ruling powers. He also knew, as anyone did at that time, that, as Nicholaus Mills has noted, “only white men in the Virginia militia had the right to bear arms.”

Libertarians who so acerbically defend individual gun rights ought to take note of why that amendment was written as it was, and justified—to dispossess an entire class of people of their life, their liberty, and their labor. You don’t necessarily need guns to be free, but you absolutely do need them to prevent others from being free. That’s a bit of the historical rationale behind the Second Amendment we all should understand; and then, perhaps, we can begin an honest discussion about its modern practicality.

by Jack Johnson

Rooted in Reality


Recently, President Obama, who has tactfully remained silent as the Democratic primaries have progressed, decided to voice a note of caution. On Friday of last week, he said he felt compelled to weigh in because he didn’t think some of the loudest and most strident voices, particularly on social media, were “representative” of most folks in the party.

He said, “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality,” he said, indicating that some independents and moderate Republicans may be put off by certain “left-leaning twitter feeds.”

This may come as a shock, but, for the record, I agree with President Obama. I, too, want to be “rooted in reality.”

But what exactly does that phrase mean? Whose reality was he talking about?

Maybe he was talking about the millions of millennials currently drowning in student debt—those poor suckers who must pay $60,000 to $150,000 for an education that you used to be able to shuck out a few thousand bucks a semester at a decent state school to cover? Of course, most Western countries are far more generous with higher education funding and enrollment costs. The list of developed nations that offer free or heavily subsidized university enrollment should stand as an embarrassment to our untaxed wealth hoarders and an indictment from our struggling middle class. But since no ‘moderate’ Democrat or Republican has thought to offer a plan to adjust the cost or help out these students, I suspect that’s not the ‘reality’ he’s indicating.

Perhaps he was referring to the people who somehow manage to fall through the cracks of Obamacare and must suffer silently without healthcare and dental care for months and years at a time—or bankrupt themselves to pay for healthcare that every other developed nation on earth funds as a matter of right? That’s unlikely as well, since, conventional wisdom among our donor class suggests that only a far left candidate would be interested in a plan that would duplicate what every other industrialized nation on earth offers: comprehensive coverage to everyone, young or old, healthy or infirm, regardless of their ability to pay insurance premiums. In fact, most other national plans rightfully exclude the insurance middle man whose sole purpose seems to be to extract profit from human suffering.

Possibly he was talking about our current ‘Hoovervilles’ of homeless individuals near Oakland, San Francisco or Los Angeles—tent cities whose populations dwarf many rural municipalities? But with no federal legal framework for rent control, housing ridiculously priced, and minimum wage hikes politically unacceptable to ‘moderates,’ those ‘Hoovervilles’ are just the cost of living in America, I guess.

Speaking of the West Coast, could he possibly be talking about those individuals whose electricity was turned off by PG&E recently to avoid sparking fires because their corporate board thought it was wiser to pursue profit over decent maintenance plans for the utility? I don’t think that’s likely since forcing a private utility to actually maintain the public works for which they are getting paid would smack of Socialism. Definitely that’s not our moderate Obama’s reality.

Then again, he might be talking to the hundreds of home owners whose property has been confiscated to make way for pipelines whose existence threatens our survival as a species? Unless, of course, you belong to those sage individuals who still deny climate change. Is that what he means by ‘rooted in reality?’ Perhaps, since so many moderate Democrats and independents enjoy campaign contributions from energy behemoths like Dominion Power, who hope to profit from those very pipelines –like our own blue Virginia Governor, our Virginia Attorney General, and our Virginia House Speaker Elect.

In fact, I find it difficult to understand what ‘reality’ Obama is describing. Unless, he, too, is only thinking narrowly, and speaking to a precious audience of wealthy individuals and donors that might not understand the risible reality so many of his ‘base’ are now suffering? Is that the case? Is he warning us against things like taxing the rich, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, which is wildly popular among ALL Democrats, and reasonably popular across all parties (with majority positive ratings) because he doesn’t understand or care about what everyone I know experiences every single day? He’s made it clear from his speech that Lefties should not mention the continuing daily deaths from lack of healthcare, the ongoing bankruptcies, suicides and the lost opportunities for education and the extermination of our environment because of ill-conceived plans like fracking natural gas pipelines. Does he suppose that talking about these problems, and advocating viable solutions means ‘tearing down the system’? If so, is the alternative, a stoic, and frankly dumbed down silence?

Apparently, to call such individuals out, to reject those who scheme to rip off underprivileged people or poison our environment with incredibly dysfunctional ideas is, at best, in poor taste. At worst, a radical call to ‘tear down a system.’ Yet, each ‘Lefty’ candidate is working well within the parameters of the existing system. In fact, I suspect the reason Obama decided to put his thumb on the primary scales is precisely because they are doing this so well. So here comes our ‘hope’ hero cautioning respectful silence from the left, please. Maybe he’s got a clever plan? But I don’t think so. His message appears simple: let the wealthy donor class maintain their dark blinders. Don’t bother them with your problems—they’re really not interested. His words are like a seductive whisper….speak no evil to them and you will possibly beat Trump, the wicked one … don’t make the bankers nervous, keep the cash flowing…and allow me to explain your reality to you.

I must say, it is refreshing to hear complete sentences from a President again, but I think I’d rather allow one of those ‘Lefties’ the last word. In the end, they use their language with more discernment, and to a much greater effect.

“When I talk about health care being a human right and ending the embarrassment of America being the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care for every man, woman and child, that’s not tearing down the system,” Bernie Sanders said, “That’s doing what we should have done 30 years ago.”

To my ears, that sounds remarkably real.

By Jack Johnson

Pipelines Agonistes


This is the way the world ends….

Not with a bang but a whimper       –The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot


The maddening thing about the pipeline discussion, of course, is that it shouldn’t be happening at all.  People who understand the science do not entertain the idea that even a little pipeline would somehow benefit Virginians, much less the dual monster pipelines – the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline– that are daily discussed with the feckless calm of oblivious passengers sipping martinis on the Titanic.

Late in the evening, I try to work up metaphors that can adequately capture the insanity of this moment. I keep coming back to an old New Yorker cartoon: man in disheveled suit, sitting beside a group of other survivors around a campfire in some obviously post-apocalyptic landscape.

“But for a brief, shining moment,” says the man in the suit, “we managed to create enormous value for our shareholders.”

I suspect this sums up the position of Dominion Power, EQT and other investors in the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipeline projects, and apparently our own state government from the Governor on down to the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board. Heedless of the demonstrable long term and short term damage such pipelines will cause to the environment, and ultimately, human civilization, these corporate and state entities use every possible legal and political weapon to advance the pipelines’ construction. It’s as if they live on a different planet from the activists I know who are increasingly alarmed by the obfuscation and outright lies being handed to them by state government at almost every level.

I had an opportunity to talk with some of these activists over the weekend and they were justly infuriated at the latest dodge by the State Water Control Board. Especially, the most recent move not to revoke MVP’s permit. Here’s a little background.

Before construction started for the Mountain Valley Pipeline in 2017, the State Water Control Board, under Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, (which ostensibly has authority over the project), voted 5-2 in December 2017 to certify the project’s path through Southwest Virginia, finding a “reasonable assurance” that digging trenches for the massive buried pipe along steep slopes would not contaminate nearby streams and rivers.

But, according to the Roanoke Times, in August, the Department of Environmental Quality found multiple failures of erosion and sediment control measures. By December 2018, the board decided to take the unprecedented move of convening a hearing to consider revoking MVP’s certification, one of several permits that allowed construction of the 303-mile pipeline through Virginia.

Rather than carry through with the revocation, based on over 300 violations that the Mountain Valley Pipeline had rung up in the previous year, the State Water Control board decided to undo that process last Friday, March 1st.

On a unanimous vote, the State Water Control Board withdrew its earlier decision to hold a hearing to consider revoking the water quality certification it issued for the pipeline in December 2017. Coming after a four-hour closed session, the vote shocked and angered activists.

“Shame on you!” One pipeline opponent shouted at the board members as others joined in. “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Several people were escorted out of the room.

One board member claimed they did not have the authority to revoke federal permitting for the MVP. Another was concerned about what they saw erosion-wise while visiting the pipeline right of way, but wasn’t concerned enough, apparently, while yet another board member promised “vigorous enforcement” of the requirements MVP agreed to for controlling soil erosion and runoff.

According to one activist, officials from the Mountain Valley Pipeline told DEQ that they would continue with construction regardless of whether their permit was or was not revoked, and the State Water Control Board decided that they would leave the permit in place. It remains to be seen whether the State Water Control Board and DEQ will enforce any of the permit conditions, or whether the suit brought in early December against MVP by Attorney General Mark Herring will have any effect on a corporation that says it will continue to do whatever it wants.

Those are the public stories, presented for the average reader, skimming lines of newsprint, not aware that this decision, along with hundreds of others like it, are sealing their children’s fate, such that, within the next 100 years or so, life on earth, as we currently understand it, will be a remote, idyllic dream.

The backstory, if you are interested in how civilizations are destroyed by the callous and the powerful, comes from a sweet little political maneuver by Governor Ralph Northam.

The terms of two members — one who voted for the pipeline and the other against it — expired, and their replacements accounted for the flip in the panel’s position.

Roberta Kellam was the member who was deeply concerned about the pipeline’s violations.  She was subsequently replaced.

In an op-ed to the Roanoke Times, she wrote:

“Based on what I observed along 30 miles of MVP construction, it continues to be unclear to me why the DEQ has not instructed MVP to stop work in accordance with its authority.

“My tour of the MVP corridor traversed areas of very steep slopes, floodplains and freshwater wetlands. I observed situations that were clearly a threat to water quality, such as unprotected steep slopes, pipeline segments floating in water and erosion and sediment control measures in disrepair.

“But what struck me even more than the environmental impacts was meeting the people dealing with the pipeline construction and its failed erosion control measures on their own properties — farmers and other land owners who graciously invited me to visit their properties and see for myself.

“It was clear that many people felt that DEQ was not protecting their water quality to the extent promised during the water quality certification hearings and that they had lost faith in the DEQ.

“From time to time during 2018, I saw photographs taken by local residents of situations on the ground that appeared to threaten water quality.

“In response to my inquiries about site conditions, I was repeatedly told by DEQ Director David Paylor that the local residents are “untruthful” and their photographs were “misleading.” In the week before Hurricane Florence, when weather forecasts indicated potential catastrophic rainfall in the region, Director Paylor told me that work had stopped even though video and photographs provided by local residents showed otherwise.

“When I further questioned Director Paylor about apparent water quality impacts, he accused me of “working for the opposition” with such ferocity that I felt compelled to defend myself in writing, referring to our responsibilities to protect water quality.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Roberta Kellam’s replacement, James Loften made the motion to hold the hearing that ended up affirming MVP’s permit. The motion was supported by Paula Hill Jasinski, a newbie appointee as well, who was attending her first formal board meeting.

In lieu of revoking the permit, some pipeline opponents called for immediate stop- work action. Said Lara Mack, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, “We now call on the DEQ to do what’s necessary — and has been necessary for months — and issue a stop-work order for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

According to Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s water permitting director, there is no need for such a stop work order, because many of the 300 violations have already been mitigated or don’t rise to the level that would require work to stop. But that’s not what Roberta Kellam or any of the activists on site are saying. Quite the opposite. Each new day of construction brings new environmental damage, new runoff, new water pollution.

All this happens within the small bubble of state law, state environmental experts and an enormously influential and powerful state utility. Yet, the stakes in Virginia pale by comparison to the larger stakes at play, of which Virginia is just a microcosm. In other words, Virginia is just one more nail in the global climate coffin we are building for ourselves. That it is a coffin is indisputable. The most recent IPCC report makes it eminently clear that to build anything like a pipeline to carry natural gas is a bad idea. Building massive infrastructure to produce slightly less carbon and slightly more methane (another greenhouse gas) is, at minimum, a dysfunctional tradeoff.  It’s not nearly as effective as building a true carbon free infrastructure (solar, wind and other renewables) posited by something like the Green New Deal. What’s worse, environmentalists are concerned that continued pipeline approvals will lock in U.S. dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come.

“Building pipelines that are not needed will lead to billions of dollars of stranded assets and slow down our process to building cleaner energy solutions,” Gillian Giannetti, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.

With the rapid decline in the cost of renewables, the economics of building gas pipelines that are meant to last 40 to 60 years no longer adds up, Jonathan Peress of the Environmental Defense Fund said. “In 15 or 20 years, it is clear that alternatives to gas are going to be more economic than building pipelines, but yet these pipelines will still be under contract, people will still be paying for them,” he said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by former FERC chair Norman Bay, who warned of overbuilding the pipeline system and burdening future ratepayers before he stepped down from the commission in 2017.

Since 1999, FERC has approved approximately 400 natural gas pipeline projects while rejecting only two. Under current Republican control, FERC is, in the words of many activists, a rubber stamp agency. When the Governor defers to FERC authority over DEQ, he is simply rubber stamping the pipeline’s approval, while trying to avoid political heat. All of which adds up to more carbon, more methane and more global warming.

According to the IPCC’s most recent report, the future disasters predicted for ten years down the road, are already here. We are already “experiencing the impacts of rapid and unequivocal global warming: coral reef decline, sea level rise, Arctic sea ice loss, biodiversity loss, declining crop yields, more frequent heat waves and heavy rainfall.” It will get much, much worse,  not within a hundred years, but within 5, 10 or 20 years, such that, if you have young children, the politic decisions made now, behind closed doors, for the advantage of a handful of short sighted and powerful individuals, will likely seal your children’s lives and the lives of their children for generations to come. History will judge these politicians and corporate chiefs harshly, as well they should.

Dominion Power CEO, Tom Farrell; Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam;  DEQ  Director, David Paylor. Just a few names that will ring in infamy as future generations learn of their grotesque behavior. I’m sure there will be more added to the list, but for now, this will suffice. They should all be ashamed.


~Jack R. Johnson

Black Face State, Black Face Nation


Susan Sontag’s book length essay, “On the Pain of Others” opens with a description of Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas” in which Woolf asks a male pacifist who wishes to enlist her aide in preventing future wars to look at photographs of war. The idea is by studying images of war, they will be so thoroughly repulsed that war will no longer be a viable alternative. “For a long time,” notes Sontag, “some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.” Fundamentally, there was a belief that it was merely a failure of imagination that caused war to occur; and given the certainty of such images, if we were to see it clearly, we would never make war again.

Although Sontag is less than sanguine about its efficacy, there can be no doubt that when horrific images are finally brought to the public’s attention—especially the American public—things that were previously acceptable become forbidden. It wasn’t the sworn testimony about Abu Ghraib that caused that horror show to be shut down, but images of American soldiers taking delight in the pain and humiliation—in some cases quite explicit sexual humiliation— of their prisoners. To suggest that the constant replay of bloody images from Vietnam made the war effort almost impossible has become conventional wisdom; and indeed the paucity of photographic evidence of our seventeen-year-old war in Afghanistan speaks directly to that truth. The Pentagon has learned from its past failure, and part of getting over the so called ‘Vietnam syndrome’ is erasing the act of war itself; its pain and horror and monstrous cycles of dehumanization.

Except for those directly involved, Americans are typically shielded from the realities of these wars. If they hear about a bombing or other event, details may be discussed, but dead or wounded American bodies are carefully screened from view. This ‘cleansing’ of the American vision is carefully followed in domestic situations as well, so that we never really see the gore left behind by one of our many mass shootings, but only the tearful anguish of survivors.  It is all quite antiseptic. Presumably, this is in the interest of presenting a dignified and civilized front for what is, in fact, a relatively barbaric reality. At some level, there’s a decorum to this which is understandable. ‘Not too direct’ as Joyce Carol Oates warns. We all presume we know what’s happening in Afghanistan, or at a school shooting, and don’t want to offend hurt family members with violent photographs, whose consumption feels almost pornographic. And yet, we don’t really understand or thoroughly imagine what is happening, and it’s allowed barbarities both new and old to continue apace.

One of the turning points for the American Civil Rights movement happened well before Martin Luther King Jr. took to the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. An Afro American boy named Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi in 1955. He was accused of making lewd advances to a white woman, Carol Byrant, at a local store. Byrant’s husband heard of this and he and his brother-in-law J.W. Milam forced Emmett into their car. They took him away and beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River.

Three days later, his corpse was recovered but was so disfigured that Mose Wright could only identify it by an initialed ring. Authorities wanted to bury the body quickly, but Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, requested it be sent back to Chicago. She decided to have an open-casket funeral so that all the world could see what racist murderers had done to her only son. Jet, an African American weekly magazine, published a photo of Emmett’s corpse, and soon the mainstream media picked up on the story. Her decision focused attention on U.S. racism and the barbarism of lynching and Till’s murder was ultimately seen as a catalyst for the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. In December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott began in Alabama and lasted more than a year, resulting eventually in a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.

What Till’s mother did was refuse to erase her son or the barbarity that a white supremacist society had inflicted. In a word, she bore witness and wanted the world to bear witness. Did the photographs of the tortured son help bring home the point? Undoubtedly. Just as photographs of U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in the thick mud of Khe Sanh turned public opinion against that war. It allows the unimaginable to be imagined. To be image-ed-in.

But if you take a moment and scan the publicly available photos from Khe Sahn (link here), they are instructive, showing the suffering of our troops, and in some instances the suffering of the Vietnamese, yet they are not the whole picture. There were many images that are too scurrilous for public consumption—images of genitalia butchered from the enemy’s body and shoved into the enemy’s mouth. Images that will never be made public of enemy combatants tossed from helicopters while still alive, or tortured with car batteries and jumper cables attached to bare nipples. These images are rarely made public because they are so horrific or pornographic in their obvious intent to shock and dehumanize. Yet, they tell a different kind of story about war and the way images are used. They tell you what we all understand at bottom, that war is about dehumanizing. In some cases, about mocking the enemy as a form of dehumanization, mocking them before death with torture, or after death with butchering.

There’s a kind of cultural mockery that we all understand as well, yet rarely talk about. This, too, has photographic evidence. Mockery is a stand in for physical intimidation, which itself is a stand in for direct violence, and finally murder. They are all levels of erasure; of denying humanity.

Imagine for a moment that someone has taken an image of an American soldier, let’s say one of those wounded American soldiers from Khe Sahn, and superimposed on that image, a clown’s nose and mop of red hair, like a later day Ronald McDonald. This is mockery, no doubt, something that you might expect an enemy to carry out; an enemy that in earlier times or even contemporaneously might want to kill you.

Imagine for a moment that someone has taken an image of a holocaust survivor, one of those horribly ghostlike, yet sentient, starved images from Auschwitz and presented them in some mocking manner, smiling in a foolish way, big ears, extra big nose, of course. We’d understand immediately the cruelty of the image, its obvious anti-Semitic intent; the lurking death wish underneath such derision.

The photograph at the beginning of this article was taken during the Jim Crow era. The Jim Crow era was named for the eponymous minstrel show performer whose real name was Thomas Dartmouth (“Daddy”) Rice, an itinerant white actor. Rice first introduced the character who would become known as Jim Crow between acts of a play called The Kentucky Rifle, in which he performed a ludicrous off-balance dance in black face while singing “Jump Jim Crow,” which described his actions (“Weel about and turn about and do jis so/Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow”). He portrayed the character principally as a dim-witted buffoon.

The intentional cruelty of the photograph above is self-evident; what’s not self-evident perhaps is the contemptuous cruelty of those who dress in ‘black face’, mimicking the mockery of Thomas Rice, aka Jim Crow that suggests it’s okay to deride and dehumanize blacks because they are merely caricatures; not humans who have suffered enormous historical wrongs, in many cases as horrific as Auschwitz survivors.

For our institutions and our leaders, educated individuals, people who have gone to the best schools our nation has to offer, none of this should have been necessary to write or explain. But they have not bothered to learn their own history or care. With such people, who lack both imagination and empathy, it’s obvious such photographs are helpful; their history, our history, must be re-explained, again and again.


~ Jack R. Johnson