Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A false patriotism

I guess Melissa Jacobs of Sports Illustrated just can't help herself. She is so oblivious to the world around us that she buys into the notion that patriotism conflates with support for the military.

I understand that the world of professional sports (and college to a large degree) spews this trope by parading veterans and soldiers in front of crowds and by dressing athletes in camouflage gear and flag decorations. The message is quite clear - to be patriotic you must go all-in with the military.

I hate to break it to you, Ms. Jacobs, but that message is bullshit.

Patriotism has nothing to do with support for the military. In fact one could make the argument that not supporting the military in its current state is the most patriotic thing one could do. You see every military action since Harry Truman committed two of the worst war crimes in history has been unconstitutional.

The last declaration of war by Congress occurred in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After that Congress just said fuck it and let the President do whatever the hell he wanted to do with the military.

In the meantime the United States military has become an occupying force in over 100 countries. The United States military has propped up some of the worst right-wing dictatorial governments in history. The United States military has murdered innocent men, women and children all over world - from the Korean peninsula to southeast Asia to the Middle East. Members of the United States military have been sent to advise right-wing forces around the world on how to unseat leftist governments who get in the way of money-hungry U.S. corporate interests.

Take a look at a map of U.S. military interventions since World War II and you will see a path of destruction with people of color as the target. Go to the library and do a little reading of Latin American history and see what good has come out of U.S. militarism.

The United States military is nothing more than the advance arm of American capitalism and it points its weapons at those who oppose the onrush of imperialism.

Besides, Ms. Jacobs, why would anyone support an institution that sends a nation's young people off to die for the benefit of corporate interests and an older generation that rejects peaceful coexistence? It's an incredibly stupid concept if one stops and thinks about it for a second.

But that's exactly why the NFL and other sports leagues glorify the military.

Take off the rose colored glasses, Ms. Jacobs, and wake up to the real world.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Taking a stand by sitting down

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

 -- Colin Kaepernick

It would appear that San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has sent flag-waving pro football fans into a tizzy with the stand he made on Friday night.

If you somehow missed the shitstorm on Twitter, at Friday night's game, Kaepernick remained seated on the bench when the National Anthem was played. When asked he said he would not show pride in a flag for a country that has for centuries oppressed people of color.

Apparently his willingness to take a stand when young black men are being shot dead by police while the officers go on paid leave has left white football fans in the dark. Professional football (along with baseball and auto racing) at times seem nothing more than delivery vehicles for a pro-militaristic, pro-imperialist philosophy that we are all expected to bow down before.

In the eyes of professional sports (and to some extent college sports), true patriotism means supporting military operations overseas - regardless of the reason young men and women are being sent to another country (generally one populated by people of color) to kill, rape and destroy.

On occasion we hear a hue and cry for athletes to take a position on some hot button topic of the day. But that would seem only to apply when the athlete takes the position that the mainstream wants them to take. Pat Tillman is lionized because he walked away from football to join the army in order to invade a sovereign nation. Colin Kaepernick takes a stand against racism and racial violence and he is pilloried by the ignorant masses.

And, speaking of the ignorant masses, you might want to take a gander at this article by The Intercept's Jon Schwartz. It seems that if you listen to more than the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner the symbolism gets a bit complicated and messy.

Francis Scott Key was a slaveowner when he penned the song. For those who don't remember your history, Mr. Key wrote the anthem after the attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 - a war that was fought because the United States decided to invade Canada. During the war the British promised a life of freedom for any black man who enlisted to fight on their side. They also made promises to the Native Americans (who were already learning that the US government was not to be trusted).

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

-- Star Spangled Banner

Of course I could write many more posts about the intellectual dishonesty of the phrase "land of the free" but I'll save them for another day.

Colin Kaepernick may not be the best quarterback in the league - he may not be the best quarterback on his own team - but he is the most courageous. By taking a stand against racism and racial violence in America he is risking his own livelihood. If he is cut by the 49ers he may find he isn't welcome by any other team in this proto-fascist league.

Thank you, Colin, for taking a stand.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Round peg, square hole, health care edition

So Aetna is pulling out of Obamacare exchanges because the Department of Justice wouldn't approve of their merger with fellow healthcare provider, Humana.

This is what happens when you construct a system in which for-profit companies control health care delivery. Until someone has the fortitude to fight for a system in which the healthcare companies are taken out of the equation, health care will remain a privilege and not the right it should be.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Just go sit at that other table and wait your turn

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Democracy Now! and heard a replay of a debate between Pulitizer Prize winning journalist and author, Chris Hedges, and economist and former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, Robert Reich, about the upcoming election.

The debate first aired a day or two after Bernie Sanders betrayed his supporters and endorsed Hillary Clinton. Right around that time, Dr. Jill Stein, the current nominee of the Green Party offered to drop out of the race for her party's nomination if Sen. Sanders would run as the Green Party candidate. He declined the offer (raising questions of why he even bothered running in the first place).

The question before the panel was what should progressives do in the upcoming election.

While Mr. Hedges urged progressives to support the Green Party instead of the pro-corporate Democratic Party, Mr. Reich raised the alarm and claimed that the only way to save America was to elect Hillary so that Trump would be defeated. He told the listeners that they had to abandon their convictions and vote for Clinton because the alternative was so much worse.

Mr. Reich stated over and over that now was not the time to launch a third party bid for the White House. He said he would work to jump start a progressive movement in time for the 2020 election. Bullshit, I say.

In 2020 Mr. Reich will make the same old tired arguments that now is not the time, that progressives need to be patient and wait... and wait... and wait.

To be fair to Mr. Reich, he's not the only one spouting this garbage. Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP and now an investment banker, says the same thing.

Mr. Reich and Mr. Jealous are mere mascots for the Democratic Party who are trotted out to convince voters who are sick and tired of the way the party abandoned the working class for Wall Street money. They will continue to tell their flocks of listeners that now is not the time to exercise one's conscience. They will continue to tell them that they have to hold their noses and flip the lever for the Democratic candidate because the alternative is so much worse. They will continue to tell them to wait another four years.

And then they will rinse and repeat.

If you think that you can work within the existing system to reverse three decades worth of economic policy that has hammered the working class and poor, you are deluding yourself. If you think that you can work within the existing system to stop the continuing rape of our environment by oil, gas and coal companies, you are deluding yourself. If you think that you can work within the existing system to make health care a right and not a privilege, you are deluding yourself. If you think that you can work within the existing system to reverse the tide of the corporatist state in which we live, you are deluding yourself.

President Obama is every bit the shill for corporate interests, the oil companies and the warmongers that George W. Bush was. He may talk a big game, but when the chips are on the table he's not willing to shove them in the middle.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Revealing ignorance

The purpose of investigative journalism is to peel back the layers to a story or an event so that the world can see it for what it is and not what someone spins it to be. Good investigative journalism helps you understand what's going on and why. Bad journalism merely contributes to the increased stupidity of society.

The Center for Investigative Journalism has a podcast entitled Reveal. It's usually pretty interesting and the format allows for incredible depth and breadth of reporting. You will generally walk away having learned something.


But not the latest installment of the podcast.

In "Dropped and dismissed: Child sex abuse lost in the system" reporter Tennessee Watson tells her own story of being sexually abused by a gymnastics coach when she was 7 and her decision to report it to the police when she was in her 30's.

After contacting the police and telling them her story, the coach is then arrested and charged with aggravated sexual battery based on nothing more than her story of what happened a quarter of a century earlier. To make a long story short, on the eve of trial the prosecutor offered the coach a deal - plead guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor, go on probation for a year and get the case dismissed. He took it.

And Ms. Watson is upset. She's upset because there was no trial. She's upset because the prosecutor made the decision to plead out the case without consulting with her. She's upset because she didn't get to testify against her former coach in open court. She was more upset because other prosecutors refused to file cases like this with only the word of a supposed victim.

And I was upset because of how stupid Ms. Watson was and how she was making the listening audience just a little bit more stupid with her ignorant views on the law. I was also upset because the Center for Investigative Journalism put this out for public consumption.

Perhaps Ms. Watson needs a lesson in how the Bill of Rights works. Perhaps she needs to be reminded that the right to trial is conferred upon the accused, not the accuser. Perhaps she should think about whether filing felony charges based on nothing more than one person's testimony about an event that happened 27 years earlier is a good idea.

I feel bad about what she says happened to her as a child. It wasn't right. No child should have to go through that. But neither should we deprive the accused of their rights just because we think they did something awful. Don't give me the crap that it's all about the kids. The Bill of Rights is there to protect the accused from the mighty power of the State. A "victim," no matter how sympathetic, is just another witness.

But neither should anyone have to listen to the ignorant drivel of a reporter masquerading as an expert in criminal and constitutional law. The CIJ should have either aired a disclaimer or should have had commentary from someone with a little familiarity of the law.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Window dressing

Back in April of this year Harris County received a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reform its criminal (in)justice system. According to county officials, the immediate goals were to reduce the population of the Harris County Jail (the state's largest mental health facility) by 20% over the next three years. There was talk of more personal bonds and diversion programs. There have also been a multitude of committees set up to discuss ways to make this happen.

It's all a mirage, however.

Currently 48% of the inmates at the Harris County Jail are black while African-Americans make up only about 19% of the population in Harris County. Those numbers alone tell you a lot about they manner in which "justice" is meted out in Harris County. Throw in the fact that almost 70% of the inmates haven't been convicted of a crime and you get a better picture of the way things work down here.

Our system of mass incarceration has nothing at all to do with reducing crime. It's all about social control. We arrest and lock up folks for drug use instead of providing treatment. Judges set bonds at rates that folks can't pay and so they sit at the jail and wait for their court appearance where an appointed attorney will work out a deal with the prosecutor for them to get out of jail - with a permanent conviction on their record.

So long as the government continues to carry out its mission of marginalizing minorities and the surplus labor pool, ain't nothing going to change on that front.

What does the county propose? Form a committee, and several sub-committees, and hold a series of meetings about making the criminal (in)justice system more efficient. Efficient for whom? Certainly not for those accused of violating the law. Certainly not about decriminalizing drugs or making low-level drug offenses a ticketable Class C offense.

Nope. What the county wants to devise is a system in which cases move quicker through the courts, reducing the courts' dockets and increasing the number of pleas. The diversions Devon Anderson (Harris County DA) talks about are just another way of placing folks under the thumb of the criminal (in)justice system.

Specialty courts such as drug courts, DWI courts, mental health courts, veteran's courts (and whatever flavor of the month court is next up on the list) are little more than an illusion. If we were rally interested in helping these folks out we wouldn't be prosecuting them and holding the threat of jail or prison time over their heads. If we really wanted to help them they would receive the treatment they need without the coercive power of the state standing behind the curtain.

If the county were serious about reducing the number of folks sitting on their hands in the Harris County Jail awaiting the disposition of their cases, we would issue personal bonds for everyone charged with a non-violent misdemeanor or any drug possession offense. If we were serious we would eliminate a bond schedule that serves only to enrich bondsmen and coerce pleas.

If we were serious about this we would stop law enforcement agencies from acting as occupation forces in minority communities and enforcing the law in a disproportionate manner. And we would certainly stop arresting and jailing folks for status crimes. Taking an addict to jail instead of providing treatment does nobody any good. Let's treat drug addiction for what it is - a public health issue (just look what Congress did when it turned out a lot of white folks were being arrested due to opioid addiction).

But this is not what's going to be done. Instead our county officials (and their lackeys and stooges) will stand up on a stage and announce proudly that they've re-arranged the deck chairs on the Titanic.

After all, it's a lot easier to dress up a window than it is to fix a problem.

Friday, August 12, 2016

What's in a number?

Just to let y'all know, there is no constitutional crisis because there are only eight justices sitting on the US Supreme Court.

There is nothing magical about the number 9.

Here is Article III, Section 1 of the US Constitution:

The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.

See? There is nothing in the Constitution that says there have to be a certain number of justices on the Supreme Court. And, in fact, there is nothing in the Constitution about the qualifications of the justices, either.

There were only six justices when the Court first sat (and only four of them sat). Over the years Congress increased the number of justices when new federal circuit courts were created. The number peaked at ten in the 1850's. That number was winnowed down to seven when Congress passed a law stating that the next three seats to open through death or retirement would not be filled. The number was then increased back to nine when two new circuits were created.

Franklin Roosevelt caused a stir when he proposed appointing a new justice for each sitting judge who was over the age of 70. That proposal never got off the ground as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress opposed it.

Whether or not the Republican-controlled Senate should hold hearings on President Obama's nominee to fill the seat held by the late Antonio Scalia, is merely a political question, not a constitutional crisis. There is nothing to prevent the remaining eight justices from hearing cases and issuing rulings. A tie just means that the lower court ruling stands.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Two sides of the same coin

For the past couple of weeks about all we've heard from the presidential campaign are attacks on the personality and temperment of the candidates. There have been few mentions of actual policy differences (with the notable exception of immigration). Why is that?

I would posit that it's because there isn't a dime's worth of difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While they speak in generalities about economic, foreign and social policy, neither of them is going to challenge the basic tenets upon which American capitalism rests. Neither one of them is willing (or able) to acknowledge that we must rethink what passes for an energy policy. Drilling more holes in the ground will only make matters worse when it comes to the climate and our sustainability on this planet.

Neither candidate is going to change our petroleum driven foreign policy. Neither one is going to abandon autocrats and and dictators who either do our bidding or from whom we are dependent upon for resources (be they oil fields, minerals or landing rights).

Both candidates are beholden to the corporate ruling class - Clinton because she is dependent upon their campaign dollars and Trump because he is one of them.

Both candidates will sit and watch as our protections under the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments are watered down even further in the name of keeping the streets safe.

Oh, wait, you say. Now you're talking about the Supreme Court - there's where a difference exists between the candidates. Clinton will appoint judges who are left of center and Trump will appoint judges who are on the right. Those choices will affect jurisprudence for a long time to come.

Or will they?

The change in the composition of the court has done nothing to stop the constant erosion of the Fourth Amendment. The fact remains that bad facts make bad law. Most of the decisions that helped to eviscerate the Fourth Amendment were on cases in which the defendant had either done something really bad or had a lot of bad stuff in his possession. Lower courts (in which judges face the voters) will bend over backwards not to throw out the conviction. And, by the time the matter gets before the Supreme Court, the justices can find almost any justification for further restricting our rights.

And then there is the nagging little fact that what is constitutional or not is determined by the votes of nine men and women who attended Ivy League law schools and have little (or no) experience working in the trenches. What is a constitutional protection today could be gone tomorrow and put back in place a year from now. Let us also not forget that no one party is going to control 2/3 of the Senate. That means anyone who is nominated is going to go through a grueling process (and, by the way, the same holds true for other federal judicial appointments).

Let's not give in to the fear-mongering from both sides. The republic will not collapse upon the election of either Clinton or Trump. The Constitution will remain a document upon which a group of fallible men and women decide what the government can and cannot do.

Don't settle for the candidates being sold to us by the ideologically and morally bankrupt major parties. Go out on election day and vote your conscience. A vote cast for one candidate in order to prevent the other one from winning is a tacit surrender to a corrupt corporate system.

Don't wave the white flag in November.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What I've been listening to

I discovered a new podcast a couple of weeks ago that takes a very interesting look at the U.S. Supreme Court. It's called More Perfect and it's a spin-off from Radio Lab. The podcast is available on the NPR ONE app.

So far I've listened to an episode about attempts to abolish the death penalty, Earl Warren's favorite case, the Indian Children's Welfare Act and how plaintiffs get picked for test cases.

I recommend giving it a listen or two.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Taking a stand

The very existence of public defender offices highlights one of the greatest contradictions in our criminal (in)justice system. We like to put up the facade that our system is fair because everyone, not just those who can afford it, has the right to legal counsel if they are charged with a criminal act.

But not everyone can afford to hire an attorney. So some sort of safety net has to be erected so that those folks have the benefit of legal counsel when facing the almighty power of the state. In some places courts contract out with private attorneys to represent indigent defendants in exchange for a paycheck. In some places judges appoint private attorneys to represent indigent defendants. In some places there is a public defender's office who represents those who cannot afford to hire an attorney.

Of course someone has to foot the bill. And that is usually the county or state. In some places, such as Galveston County, if a defendant is convicted or pleads guilty he or she is charged the reduced fee paid to the attorney by the county.

Here's where the inherent problems a public defender system being. In a criminal prosecution, the government initiates the case against the defendant. The judge, however, is also a government employee who, in places like Texas, faces public scrutiny over his or her decisions (well, that, of course, assumes that the people who vote in judicial races know anything more than what party the candidate is a part of). And, for an indigent defendant, his attorney is also a government employee whose office depends on the government for funding.

In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon made the decision to cut funding to the public defender's office. He has repeatedly slashed funding for the office - despite reports that the attorneys are overburdened with their case loads.A 2014 study found that the office needed an additional 270 attorneys just to cover the existing case load. The state spends less than half of the national average in per capita public defense spending. The state ranks 49th of 50.

In a time of budget cutbacks, just who is going to stand up and demand more money for the public defender's office? Who's their constituency? What governor would ever listen to those who advocate for indigent criminal defendants when it comes time for allocating government funds?

But Michael Barrett, the director of the state's public defender office, had an idea. Relying on an obscure Missouri law, Mr. Barrett ordered the governor, an attorney, to represent indigent defendants in Missouri. That took some balls.

We'll have to wait to see if Mr. Nixon actually has to get his hands dirty dealing with the public. But, even if he finds a way to wiggle out of his obligation under the law, the symbolism of Mr. Barrett's actions speaks volumes.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Another one bites the dust

You can now add Delaware to the list of states that have effectively abolished the death penalty. Earlier this week the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that the state's method of deciding who gets murdered by the state was unconstitutional.

Delaware was one of three states (Florida and Alabama are the others) in which the judge, not the jury, decided who got the needle and who got life in capital cases. The Florida law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court which held that under the Sixth Amendment, it is the jury who is to make the decision. Florida then passed a new law that allowed the death penalty to be imposed on a 10-2 vote by the jury - that statute is being challenged as well.

With the decision by the Delaware Supreme Court, the death penalty has been abolished in 19 states. Executions in other states have been placed on hold due to an inability of the states to obtain the drugs necessary to kill inmates.

Last year, in an effort to keep their ability to murder inmates, Utah re-imposed the firing squad. As barbaric as it is, at least the use of a firing squad shows the world the brutality involved in killing someone deliberately.

There is one problem, however. In Utah there are five volunteer members of the firing squad. Only four of the shooters have live ammunition in their rifles - the fifth shooter has a blank. The purpose is so that the members of the firing squad can all go home afterward and tell themselves they didn't fire the fatal bullet.

And that's a tacit admission from everyone involved that the death penalty is wrong. If Utah really believed it was right, then they wouldn't give someone a blank - they'd give everyone live ammunition.