Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Helicopters Over Brooklyn

Teenager Michael Brown (left) and his killer, officer Darren Wilson (right).
Last night I was on the phone talking to my sister in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

During our conversation my 12 year-old niece emerged from her room.

At that hour she should have been asleep, but she was troubled by the incessant sound of helicopters hovering over the Brooklyn Bridge just a few miles from their apartment on DeGraw Street and she wanted to know why they were there.

My sister had to explain to her daughter that the helicopters were hovering over one of the many nationwide protests that are now taking place all over the country in response to the failure of the prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch to hold officer Darren Wilson accountable for taking the life of an unarmed teenager after shooting him six times with a gun.

My niece absorbed this troubling explanation and retreated back to her room to go back to sleep.

She was unaware that as early as 8:45pm last night, multiple groups of protesters in New York City began gathering in an attempt to shut down the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Tri-Borough Bridges as a result of Darren Wilson facing no charges for killing Michael Brown.

Now it's 5:50am as I write this and I'm not finding it so easy to sleep. Like my niece last night, I emerged from my room to find out what's going on.

Like many around the nation, I'm once again trying to process the reality that another court of law has made the decision that the life of a black male in this nation is worth less than that of a white person.

I don't blame the grand jury for their decision.

As numerous legal scholars and experts have made clear, by taking the highly unusual step of laying out all the evidence in exhausting detail to the nine white and three black members of this grand jury (that doesn't seem quite so grand in many people's eyes), Robert McCulloch essentially tried the case in secret, acted more like a defense lawyer for Darren Wilson and absolved himself of the responsibility of seeking justice for the death of an unarmed 18 year-old boy.

Perhaps Congressman John Lewis is right that this case will take on a larger historical context.

But right now the message it sends is that police officers are not only allowed to treat people with dark skin differently, they can feel confident that if they gun them down and kill them there will be no legal repercussions. Even if the victim was innocent and unarmed.

The message this case sends is clear. If you have white skin in this country and are holding a loaded weapon, just being afraid of a black male is grounds to use deadly force against someone.

As the George Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin case showed us, you don't even have to actually BE a police officer to shoot and kill an innocent unarmed black male.

You simply have to use the excuse that, "he made me afraid" and the legal protections which all Americans are guaranteed by the Constitution (right to fair trial, right to a trial by a jury of peers, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law) simply dissolve into the air and magically vanish.

But the results of this travesty of justice and perversion of human rights are not yet written.

 The scope and frequency of the protest movement taking shape in cities and towns all over the country make it quite clear that the grand jury decision in Ferguson was not the will of the people.

For now, please take a moment to link over the ColorOfChange.org website and add your voice to their online petition urging the President and the Attorney General to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on federal criminal charges as a step to begin addressing the systematic bias in policing in this nation.

This is a human rights issue and a justice issue and stems from a very simple fact that some, including the prosecutor Robert McCulloch doesn't seem to understand.

If you shoot an innocent person in this country who is unarmed, there must be at least some legal repercussions.

If there are not, then we as a nation have much bigger problems than unchecked police brutality; we have a populace who does not believe that the rule of law protects them.

And that represents a dangerous marker of the decline of civilization.

People all over this country of all backgrounds, religions and races are troubled and are asking the question of whether or not this is a civilized nation bound by laws.

The decision in Ferguson on Monday night would suggest that we are not.

For if the law cannot protect the least of us, it doesn't protect any of us.

That's why there were helicopters hovering over Brooklyn last night.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Accidents" and Rookie Cops

2014 NYPD rookie graduates swearing their oaths at Madison Square Garden
It's not easy for civilians to imagine what's going inside the mind of a rookie police officer.

You're new on the job, fresh from the academy, trying to impress your more experienced peers and superiors while learning the ins and outs of a highly stressful occupation.

Surely you must be mindful of the immense power to enforce the law.

A power manifested in that gun on your hip.

When do you draw it from your holster? Who do you use it on and why?

I guess many civilians like myself who've grown up watching movies and television shows tend to imagine police bravely exchanging shots with sinister bad guys who've just robbed a bank, assaulted an innocent victim, or are fleeing from the scene of a grisly murder.

Do rookie cops imagine themselves doing that too? Do some of them secretly look forward to doing that?

There were two different instances of the use of deadly police force this week that make me wonder.

If you're reading this you've most likely heard about 28 year-old Akai Gurley, an innocent, unarmed African-American who was shot and killed late last Thursday night.

The father of a two year-old daughter was shot in the chest by 27 year-old rookie NYPD officer Peter Liang in the darkened stairwell of an eight story building located in the Louis Pink housing projects, comprised of 22 different eight-story buildings set on 31.1 acres in East Brooklyn, New York.

The Brooklyn housing project where Akai Gurley was shot and killed.
The East Brooklyn precinct is considered a high crime area with a mostly black population, but that doesn't mean everyone who lives there is a criminal.

What's disturbing about this incident is that officer Liang, who had his gun and a flashlight drawn in a dark stairwell, wasn't physically threatened. He wasn't in pursuit of a suspect.

He never warned Akai Gurely and never even announced that he was a police officer.

Gurley and his girlfriend Melissa Butler opened the door to the stairwell and Liang, 12 feet away, just fired a single shot from his gun. As an article by Wilson Dizard on Al-Jazeera.com reported:

“The cop didn’t present himself, he just shot him in the chest,” a distraught, tearful Butler told The New York Times. Butler stayed with her boyfriend until the two rookie cops, continuing down the stairs, reached them moments later. Neighbors and the officers called for an ambulance. Doctors at Brookedale hospital pronounced Gurley dead at about 11:55 p.m.

Thus a man's life was taken seven days before Thanksgiving.

Bill Bratton, the commissioner of the NYPD was quick to call it an accident even though no official investigation has taken place; was it an accident?

If Liang was frightened and inexperienced, what was he doing patrolling a high-crime area with partner Sean Landau, also allegedly an inexperienced rookie, instead of with a veteran officer?

Gurley and his girlfriend were taking the stairs down because the elevator was notoriously slow; why were the lights out in the stairwell of an apartment building owned by the city housing authority?

Especially one named after Louis Heaton Pink, an altruistic businessman and humanitarian born in 1882 who fought to forge a public-private partnership to eliminate city slums.

It was Pink who laid out the plan and introduced a bill that led to the founding of the New York City Housing Authority; and I wonder what he would think about the stairwells being unlit in a public housing apartment building that bears his name?

If we consider all these different factors, can Gurley's death really be dismissed as an accident?

On Saturday afternoon, the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in 1963, there was an "accident" in Cleveland, Ohio involving a 12 year-old African-American boy.

Cleveland park where police killed a 12 year-old boy on Saturday.
According to an article on Cleveland.com Someone called 911 to report a man with a gun in a park/recreation area on the West side of Cleveland (pictured left).

When a rookie police officer and a fifteen-year veteran officer pulled up to the park and saw a group of people under a pavillion, a 12 year-old boy took a gun off a table and tucked it into his pants.

The rookie officer got out of the car and ordered the boy to drop the gun, the boy reached for it, which he had to do in order to actually comply with the officer's order to drop it.

The officer didn't wait to see if the 12 year-old boy would comply, instead he fired two shots; one of which struck him in the stomach.

Turns out the gun was a BB gun with an orange sticker scraped off that ID's it as a fake weapon.

The boy was taken to the hospital and later died from his wounds. The Cleveland police officers involved have both been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. 

There's no question it was impossible for the two officers to have known the gun wasn't real, or that the person wielding it was only 12 years-old; but they must have known that their department is already under investigation by the Department of Justice for habitual excessive use of force. 

In all fairness the officers were probably already on edge after a Saturday morning press conference just hours before by Cleveland police chief Calving Williams who announced the tragic news that a 41 year-old mother, her unborn child, a 60 year-old man, a 19 year-old man and a 17 year-old woman were all shot and killed in a home late Friday night by an unknown assailant or assailants.

A 9 year-old girl was wounded but survived and there's no question that the community (not just the Cleveland community) needs to be as outraged about the unknown assailant killing five people and wounding one as they are about a 12 year-old boy being shot in a park.

The rookie officer had to have been thinking about that incident when he and his partner responded to the 911 call about someone wielding a gun in a park.

Was his shooting of the 12 year-old boy an "accident"? Or the tragic result of a series of incidents and factors that can't possibly be simply chalked up to any one identifiable "thing" we can point to?

As the nation and the world anxiously await the soon-to-be announced decision of a grand jury in Missouri on whether or not to charge officer Darren Wilson with the death of black teenager Michael Brown, the incidents in East Brooklyn and Cleveland take on a much larger meaning that goes beyond the deaths of Akai Gurley and the as yet unnamed 12 year-old boy in a Cleveland park.

There is an urgent need to address and acknowledge that many (not all) law enforcement professionals in this country disproportionately resort to the use of deadly force or excessive violence in encounters with people of color - a critical human rights issue America needs to understand before effective solutions can be found.

But we damn well better start figuring it out, because innocent unarmed people are paying for our not understanding with their lives.

Perhaps if more resources, expertise and training were devoted to understanding what's going on inside the mind of a police officer before they find themselves in some of these encounters, innocent lives could be spared - maybe that's what the meaning of "To Protect and Serve" is really all about.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Power of People - Lessons from 'The Godfather III'

Listening to President Obama announce executive action to grant deportation reprieves for up to five million undocumented immigrants brings the massive power shift taking place in Washington into focus.

It's a pretty gutsy call for a President that fully understands the power granted to him by the Constitution, even if it did make Republicans even angrier than they normally are on any given day.

It made me think of a quote from the 'The Godfather III'.

Even though the first two Godfather films are both cinematic masterpieces that would be hard to measure up to, III is clearly not the best Godfather film.

(In all fairness to Francis Ford Coppola, Paramount paying Robert Duvall the money he deserved to reprise his role as Tom Hagan and casting Winona Ryder as Michael Corleone's daughter instead of the-then theatrically inexperienced Sofia Coppola might have helped, but that's another blog.)

In the 3rd act, just seconds before a loyal Corleone family assassin named Calo prepares to execute Don Lucchesi, the chief enemy of the family (by plunging a pair of eyeglasses into his neck), he whispers to the victim:  

"Power wears out those who do not have it."

Aside from Michael's tearful confession of guilt over having murdered his older bother Fredo, and his reconciliation with his ex-wife Kay, for me Calo's quote was the most important takeaway from 'The Godfather III'.

For those Americans who deal with the day to day struggles of existing paycheck to paycheck in a still fragile economy with a recovery that's been limited to large corporations and the wealthiest 20% of the population, it's easy to feel worn out by what's taken place in Washington in recent years. 

A Republican Congress that's been the most unproductive in history have spent their time in office opposing the President at every turn, shutting down the government, blocking important legislation from being voted on and passing useless ideological legislation like voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act more than fifty times.

These days the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the right wing legislative think tank fronted by the Koch brothers, wields far more influence on Capitol Hill than average Americans do.

The news this morning that House Speaker John Boehner and his Republican cohorts are using their new majority to sue the President over his Constitutionally-guaranteed use of executive power to implement aspects of the Affordable Care Act makes it pretty clear that we can't depend on this Congress to work on relevant legislation that's actually going to make a difference in the lives of average Americans.

The GOP are masters of illusion. They've succeeded in creating unprecedented gridlock in Washington then espousing a false narrative that government is dysfunctional, overreaching, burdensome and needs to be "tamed".

They've manipulated voting districts through questionable gerrymandering and illegal voter ID laws to make it easier to elect conservative candidates with numerical minorities that don't actually represent the demographics of geographical areas - remember about 31% of the population elected this Republican majority into office.

If you never read it, check out Tim Dickinson's excellent November, 2013 piece in Rolling Stone entitled, "How Republicans Rig the Game".

The end result? Many Americans are turned off by politics and feel too discouraged to even bother casting votes or participating in the election process.

Far too many Americans have bought into the myth that they are powerless, when in fact it's the average citizen who wields the real power - people just need to recognize the power of their voices and their actions and choices.

The evidence is all around us. Let's look at a couple examples.

The abuse of civil forfeiture laws by police around the nation has gotten increased scrutiny by media and average citizens as people push back against law enforcement abusing the right to seize people's personal property without a warrant or just cause. HBO's John Oliver explained it brilliantly on a recent episode of his show.

As the Washington Post reported, just this past Tuesday the D.C. city council voted to overhaul the civil forfeiture policy of the nation's capital by granting property owners new rights and taking away the right of police to bank the proceeds into their own departments to eliminate the motivation for officers to over use their authority.

Or take worker's rights. Republicans may have struck hard at the power of unions and fought to support a federally mandated increase in the minimum wage, but average citizens can express support for fair wages and workers rights by choosing not to shop at places that abuse those rights.

As Think Progress.org reports, twelve different major retailers will be open this Thanksgiving to get the jump on Black Friday holiday shoppers, but at least eighteen other major retailers have responded to public pressure to respect and support the American family by granting employees time off on the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

As Bryce Covert reports in today's ThinkProgress.org article:
"Instead of shopping at Macy’s or J.C. Penney, for example, consumers have the option to go to Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus. Instead of Walmart, Kmart, or Target, they can go to GameStop, Barnes & Noble, or Bed, Bath & Beyond. Instead of Sports Authority, shoppers can get outdoors gear at Patagonia or REI."

Click the link above to see the list of retailers.
Is this what we want holiday shopping to be like?
We may live in a market-driven economy, but Americans have a choice not to be a part of the insane frenzy of people trampling each other to get inside a store to get a shopping bargain that will still be available in the same store or online the next day.

We can have a choice on what kind of country we want to be.

By simply taking some time to carefully look at how the major retailers treat their workers in terms of wages, benefits and time to spend with families on major holidays, average Americans can change the way even the largest retailers operate.

It may take a little time but sharing that information with friends and family, or spreading the idea on social media or maybe driving just a little farther can have a huge impact.

There's nothing wrong with heading out to shop for bargains on the day after Thanksgiving, but we don't have to act like crazed stampeding animals with no civility when we do it. 

Those are just a couple examples. But the power and the responsibility starts with each of us.

If the Republican party continues to duck their Constitutionally mandated responsibility and use their legislative power to draft laws on behalf of and for the benefit of ALL Americans, that power is going to wear them right back out of office in 2016. 

But it's not a one-way street. As American citizens we have a responsibility to use our power to cast our votes during elections for school boards, local town and city councils, state legislators, state ballot initiatives, governors and especially Congressional representatives; as this past election has taught us.

It's not just politics either. We can vote with where we choose to spend our hard-earned dollars and shop, adding our voices to petitions, giving money to charities, or just contacting businesses or companies when feel something they're doing isn't right.

Remember the loyal Calo's quote, "Power wears out those who do not use it."

Diversity - Republican Style!

Remember all that conciliatory electioneering rhetoric BS from the Republican party just a few weeks ago?

Blaming Democrats for being insensitive to women after the President supported initiatives to help mothers seeking to get back into the workplace?

Remember all the abstract wistful talk of wanting the GOP to appeal to a "wider demographic" while Republican candidates who'd supported archaic "personhood" amendments pretended they hadn't supported granting a fetus Constitutional rights in order to present themselves as less extreme?

On Tuesday the GOP raised the curtain and gave Americans a glimpse of what they can actually expect from Congress in 2015.

The Hill.com reports that House leaders unveiled their new list of committee chairs for the 114th Congress - (drum roll please) all of them are men.

Not one woman. 

No doubt American billionaires were dancing a little jig in response to learning that Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan was tapped as the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

The soul-less former VP candidate and slavish devotee of Ayn Rand's tome to institutionalized selfishness, "Atlas Shrugged", was the chief architect of some of the most heartless budget cuts ever conceived by a sitting Congress.

In the event you were in a coma during the last presidential race, Paul Ryan is the man who dreams about privatizing Social Security and offering tax relief to the top 10% despite the fact that between 1980 and 2008 a staggering 98% of income growth in the US went to the top 10%; while at the same time a mere 2% went to the bottom 90%.

Don't take my word for it, visit the State of Working America Website and do the math for yourself.

As the chair of the House and Ways Committee, Ryan will be responsible for drafting the Republican vision of "Tax Reform" - code for shifting even more of the overall tax burden onto the shoulders of the poor and working class while making sure the wealthiest Americans pay even less of their income in tax.

He'll make sure those long-suffering "job creators" increase their net worth exponentially.

Speaking of "ways and means", two Texans were given the top spots for the powerful Agricultural Committee (Mike Conaway) and Armed Services Committee (Mac Thornberry).

Recent reports reveal Republicans are already calling for hefty increases in defense spending and you can bet your last dime that the new Farm Bill will be rife with absurd tax breaks for wealthy landowners who don't actually farm the land, and all kinds of goodies for large agricultural companies like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto.

Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Charlie Dent was selected as Chair of the Ethics Committee, take a look at his Congressional voting record.

Among other things, he opposed Federal funds being used for construction of hi-speed rail in California. But because he represents a state with cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that depend on effective mass transit service, he declined to vote on a bill to reduce appropriations to Amtrak.

He voted to prohibit federal funds from being used to implement a Housing & Urban Development plan, he voted against a bill that would have prevented pending pipeline permit applications from receiving automatic approval.

He voted for House Amendment 1098 that prohibited the District of Columbia from imposing certain firearm restrictions. He also voted for House Resolution 676 which would authorize suing the President for actions Republicans deemed "Inconsistent with Their Duties Under the Constitution of the United States".

And that's the new chair of the Ethics Committee. Read more about the new GOP House Committee chairs yourself; or just try and picture their legislative plans for the American people.

Enjoy your holidays, stay tuned, and remember; this Congress was voted into office by 31% of the American people. 



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Confronting Hate Online - Anonymous Unmasks the KKK

We could all tick off any number of ways that the Internet and social media have changed our daily lives, but observing the way that it functions as an online portal for hate and intolerance in the modern world offers us valuable insight into the human condition.

ISIS fighters in the Middle East may not have satellites, Tomahawk missiles, or aircraft carriers, but their use of online video to quickly spread horrific images of beheaded captives around the globe constitutes a weapon of almost unimaginable malevolence.

This week the BBC News morning report has featured interviews with young Muslim men from countries like Egypt and Jordan who've spent time in Syria or Iraq fighting for ISIS.

Many of them and their peers were indoctrinated into radical Islam after being exposed to online propaganda portraying Israel, the US and our allies in the fight against ISIS as crusaders bent on slaughtering innocent Muslims.

It's altered life in places like Mosul in northern Iraq where ISIS is using their foothold in the region to try and create an Islamic caliphate.

For some of these young converts, Websites and online videos made getting information on the different Jihadist groups to join almost like ordering clothes or books online.

One kid from Jordan talked about how his former passion for soccer was replaced by violent radical Islamic Jihad; he fought in Syria and now wants to travel to the Caucus region to join Russian separatists.

Viewed from a certain angle, the Internet is like nuclear power, or the media.

It has immense power to shape society and change the destiny of people and nations. The actual limits of it's power are still unknown, and it can be used for good - or for evil; depending on who's using it.

Closer to home, last week in Ferguson the global hacker collective Anonymous used it's power and resources to confront an unsettling resurgence in domestic hate group activity here in the US that's spiked in response to the racial unrest over the shooting of Michael Brown.

Local residents of Ferguson, Missouri were nervous enough about the possibility of public unrest once the grand jury releases its decision on whether or not officer Darren Wilson will be indicted for killing the unarmed teenager earlier this summer.

Then suddenly members of white supremacist/ domestic terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan threw their hood into the ring.

Coy of the KKK flier handed out in Ferguson last week
Not only did KKK members start showing up in Ferguson, this past weekend they also began handing out fliers (like the one pictured left) printed with warnings threatening potential protesters with violence should they take to the streets in the wake of the highly anticipated decision which is expected any day now.

Any number of homemade videos showing Klan members ranting about Ferguson and spreading absurd false rumors about plots concocted by people of color to embark on a campaign of raping the wives of white police officers began to surface on Youtube.

Those were the exact same kind of rumors the Klan used to spread back in the 19th and 20th century to justify their violent domestic terrorism and murder of innocent black people.

And sometimes Jews and Italians as well - Like the lynchings of Italians in New Orleans after police chief David Hennesy was murdered on October 15, 1890.

Go to Youtube and type in "KKK Ferguson" if you've got the stomach to watch these morons spouting off about Ferguson. I checked a few out, but I won't post links to that crap on my blog.

Here we are in the 21st century and the Klan is still trying to fan the flames of hatred and bigotry by slinging a fictional narrative of violent, sex-crazed African-American males plotting to set out across the countryside raping white women. Will they ever get over themselves?

Members of Anonymous were as outraged as other citizens of all races and backgrounds over the Klan's attempt to use the tragedy in Ferguson as a staging ground for some kind of white supremacist thuggery.

As a warning, Anonymous quickly began publicly posting the identities of Klan members online via Twitter, including individual's addresses, places of work, names of their children and links to their social media accounts.

Apparently NOT getting the message (or possibly understanding who Anonymous is and what they are capable of), some Klan members then began using their social media accounts to mock the efforts of Anonymous' online attacks.

So Anonymous seized control of the KKK's Websites and Twitter accounts.

They began using those same social media platforms and Web portals that normally channel hate, to post images like this one of a unicorn under a rainbow (pictured left) that Anonymous posted on the KKK's Twitter account.

Kudos to Anonymous for using their special blend of creativity, progressive politics and technological mastery of "all things Web" to put the Klan on notice that the demands for justice and human rights in Ferguson will not be used as some kind of KKK photo opp or membership drive. 

The Klan has a lot of balls calling the protesters outraged at officer Darren Wilson's shooting of an unarmed black teen with no criminal record "terrorists".

The Klan practically invented the word terrorism with their campaign of savagery, torture and lynchings in America.

The protesters in Ferguson are gathered there for one thing; justice. They're not there to pillage, rape or murder.

They, along with millions of people around the globe, are waiting to see if the legal system in in the state of Missouri will grant Michael Brown some measure of the due process he was denied when Darren Wilson shot him in the street like an animal.  

The Klan, or any other hate group for that matter, have no seat at that table; a table where citizens of all races, religions, backgrounds and nationalities are waiting to see that justice is finally served. 


Monday, November 17, 2014

Coal Miner's Slaughter?

Listening to the chorus of Republican Congressional leaders outlining their legislative priorities for the new year last week was like witnessing the unrolling of the Koch brother's Christmas wish list.

If you read Tim Dickinson's exhaustive and scathing expose on Koch Industries and the alarming political agenda of Charles and David Koch in a recent issue of Rolling Stone, you know that list is long and scary.

Repealing the Affordable Health Care Act, curbing the enforcement authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and creating more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans rank pretty high on the to-do list of newly elected (or newly re-elected) members of the GOP - many of whom took campaign contributions from the afore-mentioned brothers Koch.

Some of them also ran on the Tea Party ticket; the infamous Koch-funded front which masquerades as a political party. 

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that the post-election GOP rhetoric is genuine, and Republicans really do want to work with the President and other Democrats to pass bipartisan legislation that will benefit the American people; why not act on coal mine safety?

Republicans are all but salivating over an upcoming Congressional vote on the Keystone Pipeline and the opportunity to make the US even more energy independent by relying on natural resources found in the land and waters of North America.

Lord knows Republican candidates ran enough political TV ads this past election cycle financed by the coal industry from groups like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).

Many of us take it for granted that the lights come on when we walk in and flip the switch on.

But we also assume an industry that bill's itself as "America's Power" takes responsibility to both ensure the safety of it's workforce and comply with the federal regulations designed to protect those safety standards.    

According to an in-depth series of reports released last week that were jointly-produced by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News, that's not always the case.

The report details how some of the nation's largest coal producers routinely violate federal mine safety regulations, ignore recommendations to address flagrant violations that put workers at risk, then are allowed to simply keep on operating; even when they owe hefty fines and penalties.

Ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship
The stunning report coincided with the news that former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (pictured left) was indicted in federal court on four charges last week; including numerous and flagrant violations of US mine safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia where 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion back in 2010.

Blankenship resigned as CEO of Massey Energy in December of 2010 just three weeks after an article in Rolling Stone written by Jeff Goodell profiled the notorious coal executive. 

He was widely reviled as seen in this ABC News segment and interview that aired back in April, 2014, in which he tried to deflect blame for the Upper Big Branch explosion on the miners who died, rather than his own well-documented orders to his own mine managers to warn workers about upcoming inspections so that safety violations like the one that killed those 29 miners could be covered up.

But the Don Blankenships of this world can only operate when federal regulations are not enforced.

With control of both houses of Congress, Republican lawmakers could actually do something about the lax enforcement of coal mining regulations if they really wanted to.

They have the power to call hearings, subpoena witnesses and draft legislation that Democrats could support and the President could sign.

But it's not likely Charles and David Koch would like that very much.

Regulating the fossil fuel industry to keep workers safe is something they've spent millions lobbying against for years, because pesky regulations that might have kept the 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine safe get in the way of profit margins.

And as Tim Dickinson's recent article in Rolling Stone makes clear, the Kochs worship profit above human lives, the environment, the law and even the integrity Charles Koch is so fond of saying lies at the heart of the industrial behemoth he and his brother have created.

So even though House Speaker John Boehner is from Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is from Kentucky (both coal producing states) chances are slim that they will deviate from the agenda set by the Koch brothers and their privately-financed legislative factory the American Legislative Exchange Council.   

Republicans could do something about mine safety in the next two years, but they won't. Their policy wonks would find some reason to label such talk "pro-union" or "anti-business"; or "anti-freedom".

In the meantime people like Jack Blankenship (no relation to Don) will pay the price.

Injured miner Jack Blankenship [Photo courtesy - NPR.org]
According to the NPR investigation, Jack (pictured left) was working a mile underground in the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia when a 300-pound slab of rock fell from the ceiling, struck him in the back and pinned him to the ground and left him permanently disabled and in constant pain.

The Aracoma Alma mine had been cited for 120 violations for falling rock over the previous two years before Jack's accident; Aracoma was owned by none other than Massey Energy.


According to the Rolling Stone expose on Koch Industries, Danielle Smalley was seventeen when she and her teenage friend Jason Stone smelled gas in her family's mobile home 50 miles from Dallas, Texas near a town called Lively.

Danielle Smalley, victim of Koch Industries
Danielle (pictured left) told her dad, then hopped into his 1964 Chevy pickup truck with Jason to go tell the authorities about the aroma of gas. 

When the truck stalled in the driveway near a creek bed that was filled with the vapor from liquid butane that had spilled from a ruptured, badly corroded pipeline owned by the Koch Pipeline Company, Danielle turned the key in the ignition and ignited a spark and the truck went up in a ball of flame killing her and her friend Jason.

That was August 24, 1996 - the day before she was supposed to go away to college.

She's not the only victim of Koch Industries relentless drive for profit either, there are many others.

She won't be the last either. Somewhere, in some small town or city there's a section of pipeline, or a valve, or damaged roof support in a mine somewhere - accidents waiting to kill innocent people.

Accidents that could have been prevented if companies like Massey Energy or Koch Industries simply complied with the law instead of pretending that they are somehow above it.

Sadly, their obsession with financial profit will blind them to the need to comply with the law.

If they don't agree with the law, they've pretty much already bought the Republican party; and with a GOP majority controlling both houses, they'll simply have ALEC draft up a new law to be presented on the floor of the House or Senate.

One that does away with pesky things like the sanctity of human life, respect for nature and the environment and a sense of moral responsibility.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Eternal Sunshine of Haley Barbour's Mind

Republican strategist Haley Barbour
Looking at Haley Barbour's latest media gaffe, it's hard to tell which is more sad.

A former White House political director, former chair of the Republican National Committee and the governor of Mississippi from 2004 to 2012, actually using the term "tar babies" during a nationwide conference call with more 100 clients of his BGR lobbying firm - or his efforts to brush aside the controversy he generated by arguing the term was not meant to be used in a racist context.

The story's been a pretty big blip on the media radar so you've probably heard about it, but let's quickly recap.

In the wake of the Republican victories last Tuesday, Barbour held a Thursday morning conference call with at least 100 clients of his conservative lobbying firm the BGR Group.

During a Q&A session, while trying to explain to the participants of the call that it was very unlikely that the country would vote for a presidential candidate from the same party as a two-term president leaving office, according to Politico.com a witness who was on the call claims Barbour said that a Democratic presidential candidate would never endorse President Obama's policies because his policies are "tar babies".

What's a "tar baby"?

In terms of an American cultural reference, the word tar baby is most commonly associated with the image seen at left on this example of product branding that was frequently used in America in the 19th and early to mid 20th century.

"Tar baby" is essentially a derogatory term or image based on historically racist depictions of African-American children; usually depicted with black (not brown) skin, exaggerated, clown-like, red lips and hair bound up in cornrows that stick up or are bound by tiny ribbons.

Think 'Buckwheat' from the little rascals.
Actor Billie Thomas as 'Buckwheat'
(Quick Fact: Did you know Bill Cosby was so fed up with the racist imagery of 'The Little Rascals' that he purchased the rights to the series to ensure they would never be broadcast on television again?)

One of the interesting things about Haley Barbour's unconscious racism is that it's so deeply ingrained in his psyche, he's intellectually not aware that what he's saying can be construed as racist.

Remember, Barbour is from Yazoo City, Mississippi and is on record for defending the actions of the notoriously racist Citizens Councils back in 2010.

Citizens Councils, comprised of a town's leading white citizens, clergymen, business owners, judges, bankers, teachers, politicians and members of law enforcement, sprang up across the south in response to the Civil Rights movement as a means to reinforce segregation, suppress voting rights and enforce Jim Crow-era laws - in some cases, members of these Councils also moonlighted as members of the local chapter of Ku Klux Klan.

That's the kind of environment in which Barbour was raised and this latest verbal gaffe isn't the first time he's used terms that have a definitive racist context when describing President Obama.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, during the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, while expressing a desire to see NJ Governor Chris Christie help deliver the state to Mitt Romney, Barbour said,

"I would love for Christie to put a hot poker to Obama's butt..."

Bear in mind that the use of red hot iron pokers inserted into bodily orifices as a barbaric, agonizing and horrifying method to punish slaves in the American south is well documented.

Barbour isn't the only white Republican politician to openly use the term "tar baby" either. As the Brotherpeacemaker blog reported, Conservative Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn caught flak when he said, in reference to working with President Obama on the debt ceiling:

“Now, I don’t even want to be associated with him. It’s like touching a, a tar baby and you get it,”

Oh we get it alright Doug.

Senator John McCain, Mitt Romney and former White House press secretary Tony Snow have all used the term publicly; and caught heat for it.

Regardless of his personal views, which he is entitled to, Barbour is a slick political operator.

In response to the media blow-back from his "tar babies" slip, he was quick to acknowledge he did use the term during the BGR conference call and issued an e-mail apology to Politco.com and "those who may have taken offense" at his use of the term.

Barbour claims his latest use of a historically racist term in reference to the President was taken out of context, according to Politico.com he claims:

“The Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as ‘a difficult problem, that’s only aggravated by attempts to solve it.’ This is exactly what I meant and the context in which I used the term,”

Yeah, sure you did Haley.

By now it's pretty clear to most Americans that the Republican Party has a 'difficult problem' with a leadership that has a nasty habit of reducing almost anything having to do with the President back to his racial identity.

Or reducing the President's complex policy stances to simplistic, one-dimensional one-liners that tweak the Obama-haters cultivated by Fox News and right-wing media - like intellectual lightweight Senator Ted Cruz calling the President's support of net neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet". (Thanks for the deep insight Ted, try reading a book not written by Ayn Rand.)

The same party that trumpets the election of a female woman of color to Congress (Mia Love in Utah) and talks about "expanding the Republican voter base" to include a wider demographic, consistently demonstrates a remarkable insensitivity to people of color, Hispanics, same sex couples and those who have immigrated to this nation from other countries - D'nesh D'souza excepted from the latter of course.

Remember, Haley Barbour isn't just some dude sitting in a bar with a glass of whiskey in front of him using racist terminology to refer to President Obama.

This is a man widely seen as one of the top Republican strategists in the country on a conference call with more than 100 people listening to him. A man who other Republican STRATEGISTS pay to tell them what moves to make, how to access the power players in the GOP to raise money and what policies will help them win elections.

So if Barbour uses terms like "tar babies" on a weekday morning conference call in a professional environment, what kinds of terms does he use when it's just a handful of Republican power players sitting by the fireside in some restricted country club drinking whiskey and smoking cigars with the door closed?

We certainly don't need to pay a strategist $500 an hour to tell us that.

The sad part, besides Barbour apparently being blissfully unaware of when he's being an offensive bigot, is that his phone number will be on speed dial of the cell phones of the members of the new Republican majority in Congress for the next two years when they need advice.

So don't take offense when Haley Barbour uses the term "tar babies" to describe the President's policies, his words give us real insight into the mindset of today's Republican Party.

Think Mia Love, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) or D'nesh D'Souza were on that conference call?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ferguson Police Impound the "Accountability Truck"

The Color Of Change "Accountability Truck" in Ferguson, MO
Police in Ferguson, Missouri may not have shot any unarmed people lately, but they're still up to some pretty sketchy tactics.

The mainstream media attention of the past summer has faded, but hundreds of citizens, activists and clergy members have been engaged in ongoing peaceful protests in Ferguson, Missouri to end police brutality - and hold the department accountable for the death of Michael Brown.

As part of their peaceful protest strategy, the activist group Color Of Change uses a small truck (pictured above) that serves as a mobile billboard with an open message painted on the side to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.

They've nicknamed it the "Accountability Truck" and it drives alongside protesters when they march along the streets of the community, or parks near stationary protests etc. The words imprinted on the side pose a pretty simple question to Governor Nixon: "What will YOU do in this moment with the world watching?"

According to an online article by Lindsey Toler, editor of the River Front Times blog, the incident happened last Wednesday night November 5th when a larger than usual number of protesters turned out in Ferguson for the Million Mask March organized by Anonymous - the activist hacker collective that openly warned Ferguson police weeks ago that they would undertake actions to support the protesters.

As Toler reported, the Million Mask March takes place on Guy Fawkes Night, the anniversary of the failed 17th century Gunpowder Plot.

Guy Fawkes was a member of a group of Catholics who planned on assassinating the Protestant English King James I by blowing up the House of Lords in London back in 1605. Fawkes was arrested on November 5, 1605 while guarding the explosives.

The March organized by Anonymous takes place in cities all over the world and in a way this story is reflective of how fiction inspires reality - and a determination to seek the truth.

Fawkes' real-life aborted explosive political statement was widely popularized in the 2006 Warner Brothers film "V For Vendetta" by the title character "V" (played brilliantly by Hugo Weaving), who wears a Guy Fawkes mask throughout the film.

In the story (based on the 1982 graphic novel of the same name written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd) V inspires thousands of people in England to don identical masks as a form of mass protest against a bleak totalitarian English government in the future after war has devastated the planet.

While protests in Ferguson had been peaceful for weeks, the appearance of large numbers of outside protesters on Guy Fawkes night last Wednesday elevated the energy of protesters who'd gathered in front of the Ferguson police department. 

According to witnesses at the scene, when the group decided to march towards I-270 to block traffic, police moved to block the protesters. Apparently an unmarked Ferguson police car followed the truck and literally pulled the driver out of his seat, arrested him, towed the truck away and detained him for several hours.

According to various media accounts of the incident including the St. Louis Post Dispatch, police claimed they arrested the driver and impounded the truck because it was "blocking traffic".

A police spokesman said the Accountability Truck blocked an ambulance from responding to an emergency call, but witnesses dispute that; claiming the ambulance flashed it's light as the truck went by and protesters immediately gave way to let the ambulance through. 

Police are getting increasingly anxious with the approaching decision of the grand jury on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

The decision is expected soon and is causing anxiety amongst local residents of all races. Some are worried of the aftermath if the grand jury decides not to charge Wilson; gun sales have increased even though the protests recently have been relatively peaceful.

People on the scene in Ferguson sharing live updates on Twitter are reporting a large increase in media presence preparing to report the grand jury decision; some have reported seeing up to three tanks parked in the area.

Regardless of the decision, the case has created anxiety in many police officers; not just in Ferguson but around the nation as well. There have been rallies around the country to support Darren Wilson even before all the facts of the shooting have been determined.

But police arresting the driver of a truck with a message painted on the side is troubling.

As if the mere expression of the idea of the Governor being asked how he will handle the most controversial event of his political life is something to be feared. And arrested. Removed from view.

Speaking of the Freedom of Expression, did you hear about the mural of Michael Brown that was painted on a security gate in Trenton, NJ?

Back in October the Trenton Downtown Association removed the image of Brown in his high school graduation cap at the request of Trenton police who said they were concerned an image of Brown sent the wrong message about community relations between local residents in Trenton and the Trenton Police Department.

Actions like that remind us that the shooting of Brown is indicative of much deeper problems that affect the entire nation; Ferguson just happens to be the focal point.

In the coming days the media coverage of Ferguson will intensify as the grand jury reaches it's decision, but in the meantime the Accountability Truck is back on the road carrying its message to Governor Jay Nixon around town.

Organizations like Color of Change are continuing to pressure Nixon to appoint a special prosecutor to the case. But whatever the result, let's just hope it leads to a deeper understanding of what led to the events that left Brown dead in the street; and better communication and interaction between Ferguson police and members of the community.

Above all, let's hope the grand jury decision doesn't provoke the same kind of explosive protest that Guy Fawkes and his rebellious Catholic co-conspirators were seeking in England back in 1605.

Speaking truth to power works a lot better than explosives. Plus you can't arrest the truth, or impound it in a fenced-in lot; or sand blast it off of a wall. Or shoot it.