Saturday, April 30, 2016

Flight For Diversity in West Windsor, New Jersey?

My last blog looked at the cultural impact of gentrification and the economics of real estate on some sections of New York City.

Today let's switch gears and turn our focus 68 miles south of New York City to the rapidly-changing suburbs of West Windsor, New Jersey where demographic shifts that fall along racial and ethnic lines are giving rise to a different kind of community tension.

I graduated from West-Windsor-Plainsboro High School South back in 1987, my family lived there from August, 1985 until about September 1996 after we sold our house just off of Village Road in the wake of my father's passing in June of '96. 

When my family moved to West Windsor in the summer of 1985, the demographics of the community and the schools at the time were mostly white, but given the upscale nature of the area, even then it was still fairly diverse.

In real estate, the old adage "location, location, location" pretty much sums up West Windsor.

The Township sits on about 26 square miles of flat former farmland about 10 or 15 minutes from downtown Princeton, and the Princeton Junction train station makes it an ideal location for professionals who commute to work in New York City, New Brunswick or Philadelphia via Amtrak or New Jersey Transit.

My mother earned her masters degree in education and worked in the public school systems in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Maryland over the course of her career, and was also very actively involved with parent organizations in West Windsor when my younger brother Steven and I were students there.

She estimates that in 1985 West Windsor-Plainsboro schools were about 88% white, 6% African-American, 4% Asian-American and maybe 2% divided between Hispanic-Latino, Native American and what would be considered two or more races or "other" - an inaccurate term I don't like to use.

West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South
Today it's estimated that a culturally diverse mix of Asian-Americans make up well over 50% of the resident population of West Windsor, including the Township's current Chinese-American Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh.

African-Americans now comprise about 3% of in a sprawling upscale suburban community that boasts a nationally-recognized, high-achieving public school system with about 9,700 students.

According to data from a 2014  US News & World Report ranking of the nation's top 100 STEM high schools, WWP South HS ranked 19th and the student population was 58% non-white; breaking down to 45% Asian-American, 42% white, 6% African-American,  6% Hispanic and 0.1% categorized as "two or more races".

The rapid demographic shifts sparked by the huge influx of Asian-American families into the community of West Windsor in recent years have changed the cultural fabric of the community.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge advocate of the value of diversity for any community, my intent here is to try and convey a sense of how fast and significant the cultural changes in West Windsor have been.

When my family moved there in 1985, if you drove around West Windsor or went to the store or the gas station, most of the people you saw were white. Today, if I drive through West Windsor, it's common to pass some of the sprawling developments with large houses and see people of Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or Korean descent walking along the sidewalks or working in their yards.

Princeton Junction Train Station
About a year and a half ago I drove to the Princeton Junction train station to pick up my sister who'd taken a New Jersey Transit train in from New York City.

It was the rush hour when the driveways are packed with vehicles picking up family members and friends who commute in from New York or Philadelphia.

When the train arrived and passengers began emerging from the stairs to waiting rides, the vast majority of people were Asian-American.

It was an almost total reversal of the racial / ethnic make-up of West Windsor back in the late 80's, the same kind of reversal that you see in local stores like Wegman's or Shop-Rite.

In recent years this demographic shift has caused conflicts between parents of West Windsor students about the nature, purpose, expectation and quality of education in the public school system.

These tensions made national headlines last fall when the superintendent of the West Windsor school district David Aderhold sent a 16-page letter to parents warning them that the quality of life and health of the students was being negatively impacted by the exponential demands of increased homework and academic pressure to keep up with the demands of parents for students to take more Advanced Placement (AP) courses, supplemental advanced math courses and extracurricular activities to improve student's chances to get into the nation's top colleges; for example between 2013 - 2015 at least 16 different WWP South seniors were accepted at M.I.T.

WWP School District Superintendent David Aderhold
Aderhold (pictured left), rightfully concerned that West Windsor might potentially become like communities such as Palo Alto, California where large numbers of students taking their own lives in response to academic pressure to succeed was creating "suicide pockets", called for steps like homework free nights and limits on the numbers of AP courses students could take in a given semester -he also eliminated midterm exams.

Many Asian-American parents, some of whom intentionally exert pressure on their children to succeed academically, were upset over the letter and as Kyle Spencer reported in a December 25, 2015 article in the New York Times a contentious school board meeting was held.

As Spencer's article details, at that meeting white parents occupied one side of the room and Asian-American parents occupied the other side; a symbolic representation of the cultural divide that's taking place in West Windsor.

Click the link above and read the article to get a better sense of how the increased nature of the hyper competitiveness in the classrooms and the rifts being caused within what's traditionally been a tight-knit community.

I wanted to share an interesting discussion I had with my best friend Will the other week.

We graduated high school together and he grew up in West Windsor, in fact he lives in the same neighborhood where I lived in West Windsor.

Will knows two different families who've made the decision to move out of West Windsor because they believe the demographic changes combined with an alarming obsession on the part of some parents eager to see their children succeed in a highly competitive environment are having a negative impact on their children's social development, learning environment and esteem as students.

To be clear, the hyper-competitive nature of the West Windsor school system is now actually motivating some families to sell their homes and move to communities with solid schools with more racially and ethnically diverse student populations.  

Will is paying an average of $17,000 a year in local taxes.

He's got a neighbor, a white guy with a family that includes an older daughter near high school age and a younger child in elementary school who recently sold their home in West Windsor to move to New Hope, Pennsylvania just across the Delaware River to a smaller more diverse school system with lower property taxes.

Not because the West Windsor school system is becoming majority Asian-American, but because he wants his children to attend schools with a more racially diverse population rather than one that's almost all Asian-American.

Would the same guy make the same decision 20 years ago when West Windsor was majority white?  I don't know, I doubt it, but interestingly Will has another friend he knows who made the same move.

Now this guy is a very successful Korean-American guy who works for a large European-based global bank who decided to move his family from West Windsor to nearby Princeton in order for his son to have a more racially diverse class environment.

What's interesting is that as a 2nd generation Asian-American born in Queens, he is concerned about the fact the bulk of his son's classmates are Asian-American and he wants them to grow up in a community that is more racially diverse and more reflective of the overall U.S. population.

Now I found this pretty fascinating - high-achieving White and Asian-American professionals with the means to live where they want to, making the decision to move their families away from West Windsor to nearby communities that are more racially diverse.

No one, including Will, is going to fault parents for wanting the best for their kids.

But I know Will's son Joey. He's a smart, well-adjusted kid who, along with other kids in his elementary school class, are dealing with pressure from the parents of Asian-American classmates who send their kids to extracurricular advanced mathematics courses in order to prep them for AP classes in high school.

Joey is in 3rd grade.

There are Asian-American parents of kids in Joey's class who send their kids to after-school programs to study advanced mathematics who literally complain to the teacher (during class) that "they already know" the age-appropriate math that's being taught to the class.

So Will's son is dealing with pressure from parents who feel that their 3rd graders are being "held back" by teachers who are teaching a normal 3rd grade curriculum in a school system that's above the national average.

So literally, Joey, and other kids in his class, are finding their self esteem as students being impacted in a negative way by students who's parents are pushing them to master math skills that are one and two years ahead of their actual age.

As a result, Joey and other kids like him, are being made to feel awkward in their own classroom environment - for doing the work appropriate for their age level.

Now I'm not writing this to lambaste Asian-American parents in West Windsor; no way am I going to criticize parents who want the best for their kids.

But when I read New York Times article that quotes parents like former West Windsor PTA president Catherine Foley as saying that their fourth graders complain that "I'm not going to amount to anything because I have nothing to put on my resume.", it's clear that something is out of balance.

My impression is that the imbalance has less to do with racial-ethnic make-up than it does with the cultural expectations of a newly relocated populace comprised of people who are at once upwardly mobile and first generation middle-class American.

A lot is being written about how wonderful West Windsor schools are, in fact, Will tells me that adult peers have told him that West Windsor schools are actually being marketed to professionals in China, India and other countries as a desirable place for Asian-American professionals to live because of the quality of the schools.

That's not wrong, no more than people who've been priced out of living in Manhattan wanting to live in more affordable neighborhoods in Brooklyn creates demographic shifts.

But it does contribute to distorted perspectives, and in the same way people are forced to move from neighborhoods in Manhattan or Brooklyn, some people are making the choice to move from West Windsor, New Jersey.

Not because of the lack of diversity, but interestingly, to seek it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Gentrification, Rezoning & 'Redevelopment' in New York

West 81st St. &Amsterdam Ave - my old block in NYC
Real estate and housing have been on my mind more than usual as of late, and not just because my day job is leasing residential apartments for a property management company.

Oft mentioned on this blog over the years, is the fact that I lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 years, where I formed relationships and bonds with people there that transcend time and geography.

I enjoy my spacious one-bedroom in Hamilton, NJ and I like the community where I live and work, but over the past few months, I've been feeling nostalgic for New York.

Not the exorbitant rents and lack of closet space mind you, but the energy, the convenience of mass transit and the ability to just stroll the streets, or parks and people watch. Most of all, as an artist, I miss some of the creative relationships I had there with friends who who are writers, actors, painters, singers, comedians or poets.

A couple of weeks ago I took the train into New York City to catch up with a couple of my good friends who still live on the Upper West Side (where I lived from 1996 until 2002) and just across the east river in Long Island City respectively.

Like many "expatriate" New Yorkers spread across the nation, I wrestle with my fondness for the city and the reality of the costs of living there.

Lately I've been listening to the ongoing podcast series on WNYC, "There Goes the Neighborhood"; a multi-part series jointly produced by The Nation and WNYC that explores the complexities surrounding the issue of gentrification and it's impact on East New York and the rapidly gentrifying areas of Brooklyn.

I met up with my friend Mark at an Irish pub on 14th street for a quick drink before we walked a block and hopped the L-train a couple stops into Brooklyn to the Bedford Avenue stop.

From September 2005 until August 2007, I lived half a block from the Montrose Avenue L-train subway stop on the edge of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I was astounded at the changes that have taken place around Bedford Avenue in Greenpoint in the nine years since I was last in the area.

The other friend I went to visit, Johnny, manages a 6,000 square-foot bar-beer garden called Spritzenhaus on Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint not far from Bedford. Mark and I hung out at the bar for the evening while Johnny worked and over the course of the night I got a chance to talk with a couple 30-somethings who live locally.

Based on just a few casual conversations the rents are just astronomical, and unfortunately for many long-time residents of Brooklyn, that wave is coming and it's sweeping a lot of lower and middle income residents out of neighborhoods they've called home for years, decades and even generations in some cases - click the link above to the There Goes the Neighborhood homepage and listen to just a few minutes of the 1st podcast.

Artists rendering of redeveloped Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn
Last Friday morning I listened to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio being interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC.

It's no secret he's a big affordable housing advocate and he spoke optimistically about a controversial new development plan for East New York (Brooklyn) that he says will bring new construction, new jobs and new affordable housing to areas of Brooklyn that have been neglected in terms of city, state and federal funding for decades.

But the definition of "affordable housing" in New York City is relative.

While the rezoning plan does contain funding for new schools and legal aid for local residents who may find themselves facing attempts by landlords to evict them from rent-controlled apartments, ultimately, the plan is going to end up pushing lower income residents out of communities now coveted by higher income residents who can no longer afford rents in Manhattan and already-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods like Cobble Hill and Park Slope.

One of the most interesting things I've learned from the There Goes the Neighborhood podcast series is that while demographic shifts like the ones taking place in Brooklyn are basically driven by the almighty dollar in collusion with banks, real estate developers and politicians, the "where the rubber meets the road" impact skews heavily along racial and ethnic lines.

Protests against the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn 
Don't get me wrong, there's no doubt there are plenty of long-time white Brooklyn residents who have been, and will be pushed out of the city by gentrification or the realities of rising rents in New York; I know some of them personally.

But the coming "wave" in Brooklyn is going to crash hardest on populations residing in neighborhoods that have traditionally been occupied by people of color; and the mass displacement that's going to happen is going to be concentrated on blacks and Hispanics.

As a guy who works in the industry, I can tell you that real estate is a fickle thing and the place where for-profit companies who deal in housing collide with the reality of human nature can be at once a magical and explosive mix.

The factors that motivate people to pack up and move to a different community span a range of issues.

New jobs, loss of jobs, the beginning of relationships, the pursuit of relationships, the end of relationships, births, deaths, sickness, injury, sudden windfalls and sudden downfalls, disagreements with landlords, issues with pets - sometimes simple curiosity.

I've rented hundreds of apartments and you'd be pretty surprised at what makes people want to move; I really need to write a book about it.

But again, while chiefly driven by economic factors in one way or another, what's interesting about housing and real estate issues in America is that race and ethnicity are so often found at the center - and not just in urban areas like Brooklyn either.

Tomorrow I want to take a look at how racial and ethnic diversity is impacting a different kind of demographic shift in a suburban New Jersey town that I know well.

For tonight, I'm simply thankful to have a roof over my head.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Mind of Steve Loomis

Tone deaf? CPPA president Steve Loomis
Want a snapshot of just how little the culture of the Cleveland Police Department seems to have absorbed the larger societal implications of the unjustified killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice back in 2014?

The absurd comments made by Steve Loomis, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association are instructive.

In a CPPA press release issued yesterday after the city awarded Rice's family a $6 million settlement that absolves the officer who shot and killed Rice of any responsibility for his death, Loomis suggested the following:

"We can only hope the Rice family and their attorneys will use a portion of this settlement to help educate the youth of Cleveland in the dangers associated with the mishandling of both real and facsimile firearms."

It might have been more helpful for Loomis to direct his apparent zeal for youths being exposed to firearms on the National Rifle Association and their efforts to weaken gun control laws in the state of Ohio and elsewhere around the nation.

No doubt the still-traumatized members of Tamir Rice's family appreciate Loomis' advice on how to spend the money awarded as a direct result of the incompetence and flagrantly unprofessional actions of the two members of the CPD who took their child's life.

Lest we forget, Rice was playing with a toy gun in a park.

Timothy Loehmann
After officer Frank Garmback pulled the patrol car up to less than 20 feet from where Rice was standing, officer Timothy Loehmann jumped out and shot and killed Rice within 35 seconds of pulling up to the scene; (if Loomis has helpful suggestions on how CPD cops might prevent the "mishandling" of such situations in the future no doubt they'd be welcome).

Loomis' snide press release failed to mention that Loehmann was ripped apart as incompetent and unfit to serve as an Independence (Ohio) police officer in a training evaluation written November 29, 2012.

An eerily prophetic evaluation, written almost exactly two years to the day before Loehamnn shot and killed Tamir Rice, by Independence PD deputy police chief Jim Polak, who wrote of Loehmann's conduct and performance during live fire training:

"Due to this dangerous loss of composure during live training and his inability to manage this personal stress, I do not believe Ptl. Loehmann shows the maturity needed to work in our employment....I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies." 

The Cleveland Police Department hired him anyway, and that's the guy who ended up jumping out of a police car to confront a 12-year-old with a toy gun in the middle of a public park in broad daylight.

The deplorable efforts by Loomis to suggest Rice was responsible for his own death aside, the Cleveland PD had been under federal investigation for the habitual use of excessive force for well over a year by the time Rice was shot in 2014 - including the punching of a 13-year-old who was in handcuffs for shoplifting.

Rice family attorney Jonathan Abady
On a segment of The Brian Lehrer Show earlier this morning, the Rice family's lead attorney, Jonathan Abady (pictured left) sat down with Brian for a really insightful and eloquent summary of the larger implications of the settlement with the city of Cleveland.

If you're interested in a really sharp legal observation on the prosecution of police officers for the flagrant misuse of deadly force, click the link above and give the segment a listen - it runs about 20 minutes.

Abady spoke with conviction and restrained passion about what the settlement awarded to Tamir Rice's family means for the outrageous frequency of unjustified uses of deadly police force against unarmed black and Hispanic suspects in this country.

Abady observed that ultimately, the dollar amount of the settlement means very little to Tamir Rice's family compared to the loss of their child's life before his thirteenth birthday.

He echoed the need for courts and prosecutors around the nation to begin to hold officers like Timothy Loehmann legally accountable for their actions.

$140 million for Hulk's privacy?
One of the most interesting observations during the segment came when host Brian Lehrer, who rarely spoke during Abady's comments, took a call from a listener who observed that former wrestling star Hulk Hogan was recently awarded $114 million in damages by a jury for the invasion of privacy he suffered when posted a sex tape that showed him doing the deed - the same jury also awarded him an additional $25 million in punitive damages for a total of $140 million.

As the caller noted, that amount will likely be reduced on appeal.

But it says something about the American legal system that a guy who's famous for being a fake wrestler is awarded $140 million for a tape of him having sex getting posted online - but the family of a 12 year-old African-American boy who was shot killed by police is awarded $6 million.

It begs the question, do black lives matter?

The remarkably insensitive press release comments of the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association Steve Loomis offer insight into what some members of the Cleveland PD think about that - as does the fact that Tamir Rice is dead and the officer responsible for killing him won't face legal responsibility for it in a court of law.

But perhaps more importantly, the mind of Steve Loomis offers us valuable insight into how the subconscious thoughts inside the heads of some members of the law enforcement community can influence the split-second decision to serve and protect, or simply pull the trigger when circumstances clearly don't warrant such an irreversible choice.

In that sense, the mind of Steve Loomis is instructive.

Sadly misinformed and clearly biased, but instructive.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bernie vs. Hillary, the Democratic Establishment & Delegate Math

If the increasingly-heated tone of comments fired back and forth between the two leading Democratic candidates over the past couple days is any kind of indicator, it's clear that there's a lot at stake with the upcoming New York Democratic primary on April 19th.

It's been awhile since a presidential primary in the state of New York was this relevant to the White House aspirations of both parties.

As nationally-recognized Democratic political figures,both Hillary and Bernie lay claim to deep ties with the Empire State, and there's little doubt they're both feeling the pressure to win bragging rights for notching a victory in the media capital of the world.

The delegate count is obviously important, but the prestige factor is in play too as both Bernie and Hillary can arguably view New York as a "home" state considering Bernie was raised in Brooklyn and Hillary is a former New York senator who's called Westchester home for 16 years.

Hence the colder-than-normal exchanges between the two as of late.

It's not quite a "war of words" yet, but in the past week the verbal attacks and soundbites from the two remaining Democratic front runners (and members of their respective campaigns) has begun to veer into a much more "gloves off - politically ruthless" kind of territory.

Hillary & de Blasio joke about "CP Time" Saturday night
It remains to be seen whether Hillary's taking part in what some have perceived as an awkwardly-timed racist joke between her and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio at the Inner Circle Dinner on Saturday night will really impact Hillary's chances in the NY primary.

But according to the results of a recent Monmouth University poll , Hillary currently leads Democratic primary voters over Bernie 51% to 39%

For the record, I don't know if you heard about the joke, but I don't see it as racist.

Black people do openly laugh and joke about "colored people time" or CPT, (or BPT) and we generally have a sense of humor about it, but frankly a white politician joking about it in the middle of a heated presidential primary season probably wasn't the best strategic move. Just sayin'.

Overall Hillary obviously still has a significant delegate lead, and her clear advantage in Democratic "super delegates" who've pledged to support her presents a real problem for Bernie.

But she's lost seven straight primaries and arguably (for the moment at least) the momentum has shifted to his campaign.

Where did the love go?
Unfortunately for Bernie, the battle for New York's delegates isn't the only uphill battle he has to climb to reach the nomination.

Hillary is a highly-intelligent and shrewd politician, and her recent comments about Bernie's stance on immigration and gun control will definitely resonate with some Democrats who are still on the fence.

Hillary's efforts to begin to attack Bernie on his core issues, like banking are going to have an effect - especially in New York.

As Mark Binelli observed in a March 9th article in Rolling Stone titled Hillary vs. Bernie Sanders: The Good Fight', thus far Bernie and Hillary have distinguished themselves from their Republican counterparts by engaging in actual policy discussion that's been substantive and revealing about what their ideas for the presidency and the direction for this nation will be in the next 4 years.

Republicans on the other hand, who were already deeply divided before the 2016 presidential campaign even started, are headed towards an epic implosion; a trajectory that hasn't been helped by their frequently-buffoonish televised presidential debates over the course of 2015 - 2016.

Paul Ryan announces he won't seek the presidency in 2016
House Speaker Paul Ryan running around the country giving policy speeches and waving the flag of party unity in what some journalists have described as his "mirage campaign" is not only too little too late to address the unwelcome disastrous monster that Donald Trump's campaign has become for the GOP.

It's also further evidence of subdivisions within the conservative voting bloc in America

Earlier at the gym today, I watched some of Ryan's press conference announcing that he won't seek or accept the GOP nomination for president and it was about as anti-climatic, predictable and uninspiring as his unrealistic budget proposals.

All that manufactured "suspense" is political theater. As for his speaking in front of all those perfectly-folded American flags, Ryan is running for the 2020 presidential nomination, and today's press conference was about distancing himself from Trump and Cruz, who are both about as popular with establishment Republicans as Jimmy Carter.

Ryan's efforts to stand up for Republican principles should have been done last summer when Trump was degrading Mexicans and preening like a nincompoop - too little, too late.

And that goes for the conservative billionaires who're now pouring their greenbacks into anti-Trump efforts - where the Hell where they last summer when Trump was making a laughingstock of the Republican brand?

Anyway, I digress.

DNC Chair & Hillary-backer Debbie Wasserman Schultz
To wrap up, I like Bernie but he's got a tall order in front of him.

Members of the Democratic establishment, like DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz who's currently in a race to keep her Congressional seat in for Florida's 23rd District, clearly prefers Hillary and that's affecting his grass roots campaign efforts in ways that the public doesn't always see.

For example, my sister is doing a lot of volunteer work for the Sanders campaign at their Brooklyn headquarters in Gowanus. She told me the Democratic party blocked Bernie's campaign from opening offices in the South Bronx and in Queens.

Last weekend my friend Geoff sent me this link to Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog which breaks down the details of the delegate math that the Sanders campaign is facing - if you take a look at the analysis, it's sobering for Sanders and his millions of supporters.

There's no two ways about it. momentum is good, but from here on out Bernie is going to have to win key upcoming primaries in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the big kahuna California - and he's going to have to win them big.

After all, Hillary has been in this game before and she's only just started bringing out the big political artillery - her master politician husband Bill Clinton.

The former president remains hugely popular in the eyes of Democrats and it's another advantage that's going to be hard for Bernie to match; even if he is able to score a big endorsement from someone like Oprah or Bruce.

For now he's got a tough fight in front of him in New York and it's going to be a challenge for him to keep his campaign focused on the issues and avoid the temptation to get personal and go after the more sordid corners of Hillary's track record.

After all, the ultimate goal for Democrats is to win the White House and challenge for the Senate; a cause that won't be helped by using the kind of ammunition on Hillary that Republicans will surely be firing in the fall.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Jeanie Ditty's Creepy Kodak Moment

U.S. soldier & accused killer Jeanie Ditty
It goes without saying that none of us are without fault, but sometimes it's difficult to fathom the choices that some human beings make in this life.

Especially the actions of depraved adults who victimize innocent children; like the four derelict scum bags arrested for gang-raping a 9-year-old girl at a home in Vernal, Utah while her mother was in the garage with a friend smoking crystal meth - on Easter Sunday no less.

On numerous occasions I've ranted about justice and the rule of law in various essays on this blog over the years, but when I read about stuff like that poor child in Utah, or the creepy story about a disturbing murder that took place in Spring Lake, North Carolina back on December 4, 2015, the idea of the rule of law can seem secondary to a desire for retribution.

Unfortunately, parents who neglect or intentionally harm their own children is a troubling and difficult-to-understand fact of life that just happens in this world.

As Christopher Mele reported in a story in the New York Times last Wednesday, 23-year-old active-duty soldier Jeanie Ditty's bizarre decision to hire a Pennsylvania photographer to use Photoshop to superimpose an image of her deceased 2-year-old daughter Macy Grace Ditty onto a picture of Ditty sitting on top of her child's grave was strange enough.

But the knowledge that Ditty herself was arrested on March 24th and charged with the murder of her daughter adds a truly disturbing element to the photo that makes it one of the creepiest things I've seen in awhile.

Last week I read this story on The NY Times Website and I spent awhile scrolling through all the reader comments trying to make sense of it by reading other reader's thoughts on it; but I just couldn't get this creepy image out of my head.                            

Photoshop image of Ditty on the grave her murdered child
One of the things that struck me was the level of anger readers directed at Sunny Jo, a 22-year-old photographer from Hazelton, PA who created the bizarre photo image (pictured left) after being contacted by Jeanie Ditty about a month after her daughter Macy died.

Ditty brought Macy to the Caper Fear Valley Medical Center on December 2nd where medical personnel discovered the 2-year-old had extensive bruising all over her body.

Police were called to the scene as is standard in such cases.

The child was transfered to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill where where she died of her injuries two days later on December 4th.

A month later, Ditty sent photos of herself sitting on the child's grave to Sunny Jo, who, according to the NY Times, runs a service called One More Time in which he uses Photoshop to add images of a deceased relative to an existing photo, asking him to create the image above.

For the life of me, I look at that photo-image of Ditty above and I just can't figure out what the Hell was going though her mind. Did she have the photo created to try and cover up the physical abuse and subsequent death of her child?

Victim Macy Grace Ditty
It suggests something truly diabolical if she did try and use that photograph as some kind of prop to cover up a homicide; using it to intentionally manipulate the emotions of her loved one's and friends to gain sympathy is also really disturbing on a number of levels.

Some psychiatrists ascribe complex mental or emotional causes that motivate parents who want to kill their children, Janelle Dumalaon wrote an interesting article in The Daily Beast about it back in 2014.

But I don't think there are nearly enough facts known about Ditty's case yet to know if there were mental sickness issues involved in this horrific crime.

Regardless, Ditty, an active-duty member of the U.S. Army's 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, is currently being held without bond on charges of murder and negligent child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury for the death of her daughter (pictured left).

Her boyfriend Zachary Earl Keefer was also arrested but it's still not clear what happened in this case yet, and it will be some time before we know why this poor child was beaten to death - and who did it.

It's not my place to tell anyone how to mourn the loss of a loved one, and I don't blame the photographer Sunny Jo for creating that bizarre image for Jeanie Ditty; it's a paid service he provides and he had no idea she wanted the image to help cover up the death of a child.

But to me, the idea of using Photoshop to create an image of a deceased relative touching you from beyond the grave totally creeps me out - that's like beyond Kardashian-level tackiness.

Jeanie Ditty's image is like the ultimate anti-Kodak moment; and a sad and troubling reminder of the senseless death of an innocent child.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Periods For Pence: Backlash Against Conservative Dogma In Indiana

Indiana Republican Governor Mike Pence 
What is it with Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence and spring?

It's like he's some kind of right-wing ideological farmer who views the spring as an ideal time to "plant" extremist conservative legislative overreach and watch it grow.

If you recall, it was just about this time last year when Pence was making global headlines after signing into law the controversial legislative measure known as SB 101, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

A law that would have extended religious rights to businesses.

Not to worship or pray, but in order to allow ideologically conservative business owners to discriminate against LGBT customers by permitting any "business" to use their "religious beliefs" as a legal defense in court in the event they get sued for denying an LGBT person services or goods.

It was discrimination pure and simple and the public backlash by civil rights groups, legal advocacy groups, corporations / businesses and members of the LGBT community and heterosexual people alike was immediate - the reaction on social media was severe and in the face of pressure the legislature had to amend the law and tone it down.

I awarded Pence an un-coveted George Lincoln Rockwell Award in my March 31, 2015 blog for his actions.

Well as you've probably heard, Governor Pence is once again back in the media headlines for passing HEA 1337, one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the nation; a law that not only bans women from getting abortions based on the race, gender or abnormalities within the fetus, it requires women to listen to the heartbeat of the fetus and look at an ultrasound of the fetus 18 hours before getting an abortion - out of the 92 counties in Indiana, only 4 have abortion clinics.

Do the math on travel costs for an Indiana woman to obtain an abortion under HEA 1337.

In a remarkably narrow-minded attempt to undermine fetal tissue research, the law also mandates that any miscarried fetus, regardless of the stage of development, must be buried in a grave or cremated.

In response, last week a clever Facebook page called Periods For Pence was created that's encouraging women to contact the governor's office directly to express their opposition to the bill.

Indiana state rep Casey Cox
Under the guise of not wanting to be in violation of HEA 1337, in a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek fashion, women are clogging the phone lines of Governor Pence's office (317-232-4567) to share detailed updates on their periods - since women can unknowingly lose a fertilized egg without knowing it during their monthly cycle.

They're also clogging the phone lines of the office of Casey Cox (pictured left), the Indiana state representative of the 85th House District who authored the bill, (317-232-0863).

The P4P Facebook page already has 41,880 "Likes" and women are posting details of their calls to Pence's and Cox's offices as well as clever snippets.

They're not only detailed, some of them are pretty funny; here's an example of a transcript of a call to Casey Cox's office from the FB page:

Me: "Good Morning! I just wanted to let Mr. Cox know that the eagle has landed. I repeat, the eagle has landed."
Them: "Ummm...okay? Is there anything else he should know?"
Me: "I have awful cramps."
Them: (Very pleasant but desperately wanting me to shut up) "Okay I will pass that along."
Both offices seem to have brought in new people to field calls. I still miss Trace and Katie; my vag feels rejected. : /

Women are now also posting personal messages directly on Governor Pence's Facebook page asking him for detailed gynecological advice on a number of women's health issues.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo
According to an article last Tuesday by Katie Heinz of local Indiana ABC affiliate Channel 6, women in Poland have even picked up on the Periods for Pence social media movement and have begun bombarding the office of conservative Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo with similar calls to express their opposition to Szydlo's calls for a total ban on abortions in heavily-Catholic Poland.

An article in the UK's Independent yesterday reported that Szydlo's announcement last week about her support for a total ban on abortions prompted mass protests outside of the main government building in Warsaw.

Polish women have also begun using the Twitter hashtag #TrudnyOkres (which translates to "tough period") to share details on their menstrual cycles with Szydlo and express their support for abortion rights.

Back in Indiana, it's once again remarkable to watch conservative Republican male politicians who are neither gynecologists or experts on women's reproductive health draft draconian anti-abortion measures so restrictive as to undermine the right to abortion affirmed by the Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade.

HEA 1337 falls far outside the boundaries of mainstream thinking on abortion and women's reproductive rights; and during a critical phase of the presidential campaign season, it also reflects the kind of contempt that many Republicans have for women and the law could end up boosting support for Hillary Clinton.

As I mentioned the social media reaction to the law has been swift, and in a year in which he's up for re-election, Governor Mike Pence seems to be once again alienating female voters by spending his time trying to use the state's legislative process and responsibility to turn extremist conservative dogma into law.

Mississippi Republican Gov Phil Bryant
It's the latest example of this ideologically-dangerous combination of a majority-Republican state legislature and a Republican state governor working together to pass the kind of legislation that is not reflective of what the vast majority of Americans think, or support - we've seen this in Kansas, North Carolina and other states as well.

Earlier this week, Republican Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed a similar law permitting people to discriminate against LGBT citizens in the name of protecting the rights of people's "religious freedoms"; Tennessee is trying to pass a similar law in an effort to undermine the Supreme Court's affirmation of same-sex couple's right to marry.

It's an illusion.

Backed up by voter repression and gerrymandering intended to create conservative majorities where they don't actually exist.

It's also an example of Republican hypocrisy with regards to their incessant whining about the dangers of "Big Government" that were so prevalent during the legislative fight to pass the Affordable Care Act.

If there's a more textbook example of government overreach than Indiana's HEA 1337, I don't know what it is.

But like the dizzying array of Republican-backed gun rights legislation passed by state legislatures around the nation, Indiana's anti-abortion law demonstrates that Republican outrage over excessive government intrusion is situational at best.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Panama Papers - Where Are the Americans?

Former Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson
The fallout from Sunday's release of information contained in a staggering 11.5 million documents obtained from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca by a large group of journalists pooling their resources (known as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) has landed hard in Iceland.

The news that Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson has submitted his resignation heralds the hidden wealth of some pretty high-profile figures (on both sides of the law) around the globe about to be dragged into the uncomfortable light of public scrutiny.

Gunnlaugsson resigned in the wake of a disastrous interview in which members of the press confronted him over revelations that an offshore company controlled by his wealthy wife was never properly disclosed to the Icelandic government as part of assets the couple owns.

The documents contain detailed information on 40 years of offshore banking records for some of the wealthiest and most prominent figures on the planet and at least 12 current and former prime ministers,  and a mix of kings, emirs, athletes and actors and according to news reports, it's only the tip of the iceberg.

Officials in Pakistan and Australia have already called for investigations into individuals and companies from those nations being named in the leak as well. The fallout also landed in Russia - and rather close to President Vladimir Putin too.

Putin pal, wealthy Russian cellist Sergei Roldugan
Given the small circle of Russian billionaire oligarchs that control the country who've all enriched themselves through their close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it's been laughable listening to a spokesman for Putin from Moscow dismissing links to the offshore banking activity to Putin himself.

Especially considering documents from the Panama Papers show that Putin's influence helped enrich his lifelong friend Sergei Roldugan, a cellist who introduced Putin to his wife Lyudmila.

As chance would have it, Roldugan is also the godfather of Putin's oldest daughter Maria, and according to an article in The Guardian, the documents link a complex trail of suspicious loans made by Russian state bank Rossiya (controlled by Putin and his oligarch homies) to an array of large financial stakes in companies that are in Roldugan's name - to the tune of $100 million.

He must be one Hell of a cello player. Putin's spokesman dismissed any suggestions by the media that Putin's ironclad grip on Russia had anything to do with a relatively obscure cellist from St. Petersburg amassing enormous wealth from highly-complex offshore holdings as an example of the media's "Putin-phobia."

A fear that members of the Russian press and political opponents are well acquainted with by now; including Russia Today (RT) founder Mikhail Lesin.

Eton-educated UK Prime Minister David Cameron
There are volumes of information yet to be released, so I'm not going to get too deep on this yet as new revelations are coming out moment by moment.

Including news that British Prime Minister David Cameron's father Ian and a number of conservative members of the British parliament and wealthy conservative political backers have been linked to offshore accounts to avoid the UK taxman.

Now the obvious question is where are all the Americans on the list?

Earlier today on the NPR program On Point, one of the ICIJ journalists responsible for the cooperative  analysis of the Panama Papers reports that the journalists wanted there to be some kind of context to the released information rather than just dumping it all out at once.

He claims that the initial release was centered on world leaders, and that soon information on figures in entertainment and athletics with ties to offshore accounts handled by the Mossack Fonseca law firm will be released publicly.

It is interesting to note that the journalists have already leaked the names of Chinese actor Jackie Chan and Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi who's already been in the spotlight for tax evasion; but no American, French or British actors, entertainers or sports stars?

The journalist said that there are a number of well-known Hollywood producers on the list - no mention of their names? Hmmm.

David and Charles Koch
Given the actions and hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the political system by the consortium of activist, anti-tax crusading Republican and Libertarian billionaires like Charles and David Koch, we know there are U.S. businessmen and controllers of the American corporatocracy whose names are in the Panama Papers.

With the release of the Panama Papers regarding Mossack Fonesca's role in creating hundreds of offshore "paper companies" for the express purpose of helping the wealthiest individuals evade paying their fair of taxes and to conceal their wealth with the aid of shell companies, lawyers and sketchy accounting schemes, a huge hole has been poked in the Republican's political rhetoric on the massive wealth inequality in this nation.

Over the past few years as the growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else has become more of a mainstream issue and topic of discussion, Republicans have tended to try and dismiss any kind of rational debate on the topic of wealth inequality as "divisive" or "pitting Americans against each other" - some conservatives even accused Democrats of engaging in a "war on success".

As if trying to talk about why wages for the middle-class and working class have remained stagnant for over 30 years is in itself anti-American.

Obviously the discussion on this topic is just getting started, but if the release of the Panama Papers reveals anything, it's the inner workings of a quiet war.

A war against the poor, working class and middle class of the world that's been going on for decades with the help of a complicit global banking system, lax regulations, a shadow financial system, clever accounting trickery - and here in America, a false Republican-Libertarian political narrative that's brainwashed millions of angry working class supporters of the GOP to buy into the idea that wealthy people and bloated corporations paying their fair share of the tax burden in this nation is a violation of "freedom."

As the Panama Papers have shown us, the wealthiest individuals and companies across the globe have been enriching themselves with a financial freedom unbound by laws, ethics or regulation that most people aren't permitted access to - and up until now, many didn't even realize existed.