Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ben Stein Summons the Ghosts of the Southern Strategy

Fox News business analyst / actor and commercial pitchman Ben Stein made headlines earlier this week when he uncorked some rather bizarre views on the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

During an interview  with Newsmax's Steve Malzberg on Tuesday, Stein made the absurd suggestion that Brown's shooting was justified because (...drum roll please...) Brown was "armed with his incredibly strong scary self".

Aside from the wacky assertion that Brown's body was in itself, a deadly weapon, Stein further embarrassed himself by suggesting that Brown, a teenager with no record who was preparing to start college, could be considered armed because of (in Stein's view) his resemblance to former heavyweight boxers "Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay." Really.

Aside from the fact that Liston  had a lengthy criminal rap sheet and also worked as a part-time mafia enforcer and strike breaker during his boxing career and Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammed Ali 39 years ago back in 1975 when he converted to Islam - Stein's attempt to compare a teenager of Brown's stature and age to two different grown men who were world-class heavyweight boxers says more about Stein than it does Michael Brown.

Now I take particular offense at the monumental stupidity of his words because I myself am a large black guy. I'm 6'7", go to the gym regularly and probably tip the scales at 260 or 265.

Say I'm walking down the street on the way to the store minding my own business, by Stein's bizarre quasi-racist logic, a trigger-happy police officer would be totally justified in shooting me and killing me simply because from his perspective, I look big and "scary."

Bear in mind I'm a college-educated, tax-paying, law-abiding American; I own a cat, like to write, watch Netflix and drive a Honda. To Stein, and others of his Fox News-ish mind-set; having darker skin and being tall makes me "scary." How sad. How utterly trite.

Obviously deep-thinking, simple analysis and open-mindedness are NOT traits commonly found amongst the perpetually-terrified Fox News audience Stein has sunk to pandering to in order to earn a paycheck.

The thing is, Stein isn't stupid or senile. He graduated from Columbia and Yale Law School. His recent dimwitted comments simply tap into the undercurrent of bigotry that runs deep in the veins of this relatively young country of ours; and obviously within the recesses of his own mind as well.

To try and make some sense of Stein's senseless comments, it might help to remember that he was a lawyer and speech writer for Richard Nixon; he's also a Nixon apologist who believes Nixon got a raw deal. The collective brain trust that got that man elected to the White House eagerly embraced and employed the notorious "Southern Strategy".

The basis of the Southern Strategy was simple - tap into the deep-seated bigotry and internalized prejudices of white voters in order to use fear and ignorance to manipulate them into voting for Republican candidates.

So from that perspective, Steins statements do make sense. He dredged up racist bullshit to frighten people for a living for one of the most corrupt politicians of the 20th century; why not use it now to try and smear the character of a dead teenager who can't defend himself? 

So is it really all that surprising that he went on television to suggest that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting an unarmed teenager with no criminal record because his skin was dark and he was physically bigger than average? No, not really.

Stein may be a lawyer and an economist, but his signature low-key droll delivery and bemused demeanor belies a man haunted by internalized fears.

Ben Stein dwells in a house where the ghosts of the Southern Strategy still reside.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ezell Ford, 25, Unarmed and Killed by the LAPD - Is Our Society Devolving?

Ezell Ford, 25, killed on August 11th
Is being an unarmed black man grounds for immediate execution without even being charged or arrested? It's starting to look like there are a lot of police officers in America who think that way.

An article published last Sunday on the DailyKos Website suggests that local and state police as well as Federal authorities including the FBI intentionally do NOT track and analyze statistics on how often police shoot and kill unarmed black Americans.

Think about that for a moment. Take a few minutes to click the link above and read the article, it's pretty disturbing.

Ezell Ford's death on August 11th at the hands of LAPD gang enforcement officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas fits right into a trend that's been far too common this summer.

The 25-year-old African-American citizen was walking along a street, was confronted by police, exchanged words, and was beaten before being shot and killed; he was unarmed at the time.

His death is further complicated by the fact that he was mentally ill.

To make matters even worse for his family, friends and the outraged members of the South Los Angeles community where he lived, the LAPD held off releasing the names of Wampler and Villegas for over two weeks while the department conducted what they termed a "threat assessment" to determine that the two veteran police officer's lives would not be endangered.

Which is interesting considering that (according to eye witness testimony) the two officers initiated the confrontation, exited their patrol car, chased Ford into a corner area, then savagely beat him before shooting him multiple times while he was laying on the ground.

Too bad the two officers didn't stop and conduct a "threat assessment" before they got out of their vehicle, beat then shot and killed this young man; he might still be alive if they'd bothered to do so.

According to an article on ThinkProgress.org by Nicole Flatow, members of Ford's family say that local LAPD officers knew he was mentally ill; and they insist that because of his mental illness he was a loner who had absolutely nothing to do with gangs.

So why was he killed? And what about the autopsy results of his death? According to Flatow, the LA Times reports that:

"Police have also placed a security hold on Ford’s autopsy to prevent coroner’s officials from publicly releasing information about Ford’s wounds,”

A "security hold" on the truth? Did Ezell Ford's death impact national security?

Remember the death of Ford came just a week after LAPD officers stopped 37 year-old  Omar Abrego for driving erratically in the same area of South Los Angeles. When Abrego jumped out of the car and fled on foot, officers caught him but according to police reports Abrego managed to suffer a "laceration" while in custody inside the police car. According to the LA Times, Abrego had a severe concussion and multiple facial and body contusions - so essentially he was beaten to death for erratic driving and trying to evade capture.

The callousness and rapidity with which some police officers around this nation seem to resort to deadly force when confronting black and Hispanic men is deeply disturbing. As if the mere sight of dark skin on a male body triggers some kind of internal fear-attack reaction that instantly renders the concept of innocent until proven guilty meaningless in the minds of some police officers.

It's interesting that if Jihadists or people the United States labels "Muslim extremists" stop innocent people on the streets of countries thousands of miles away and execute them with guns, our politicians profess moral outrage and demand we spend billions of dollars to ship American servicemen and women overseas with American equipment and arms to kill in the name of restoring "Democracy" and "the rule of law".

But right here on the streets of our own country in places like Ferguson, Missouri or Staten Island, New York, or Los Angeles, California we've got police officers doing the same thing - and they call it law enforcement.

In the case of Ezell Ford, Michael Brown or Eric Garner, the podiums on the Senate or House floor are strangely silent. Maybe the moral outrage just depends on who you're killing.

Is that an indicator of an evolved society?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tall Airline Passengers Strike Back With the 'Knee Defender'

The harsh reality of airline travel for people over  6'3" (Photo - Core77.com)
Being a rather moody nostalgic sort, I enjoy this time of year as the days begin to shorten, the nights get cooler and America begins the transition from summer to fall.

Autumn is my favorite season and even though the Fall Equinox officially begins on September 22nd, with college football kicking off and school starting, it really starts next Tuesday.

As one of those lucky enough to be working the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I am relieved of the stress of scrambling to get on a crowded highway or get to an airport or train station.

Even though there are no travel plans on my schedule, I thought this story about a device called the 'Knee Defender' might be interesting to anyone traveling this weekend.

It's been getting a lot of media traction over the past few days after an AP article posted on Monday about a recent United Airlines flight that was forced to divert and land when two passengers got into a beef because a man used his Knee Defender to prevent a woman in front of him from reclining her seat.  

The 'Knee Defender' is a simple device anyone can purchase for $21.95. It's basically two molded plastic clamps that you attach to the bars of the slide tray in front of you. When locked in place, they prevent the passenger in front of you from reclining their seat back and cramping your knees.

I first read about this device in a NY Times article by Damon Darlin last night.

But according to a blog posted on the industrial design Website Core77 back on February 21, 2013 the Knee Defender has been around since 1993. As we all know the comfort and "wow factor" of airline travel has given way to less leg room and more cramped cabin conditions as airlines put profits over passenger comfort.

Overbooked flights, charges for checked baggage and fees for aisle seats and exit row seats (really?) make airplane cabins even tighter spaces than they already are. As a guy who is 6'"7 tall, let me tell you the mere idea of flying in economy literally fills me with anxiety.

Maybe that's why I don't travel that much, I don't know. I love Amtrak with the ample leg room and easy ability to get up and take a stroll to the snack car, but these days the airline industry sees travelers as components of profit rather than human beings - I'm surprised you don't have to swipe your credit card to use the bathrooms on a plane.

If you want to dive deeper into the economic realities and harsh truths of why airline manufacturers and airline companies don't offer more leg room on flights, you should check out Arianne Cohen's "The Tall Book". It's a fascinating study of the realities of being a tall person in a society that generally doesn't design things like car seats and airplane seats to accommodate tall people.

The countless people who have walked up to me and gushed how great it must be to be tall have no idea what it's like to fly economy from Newark International to LAX.

Anyway good luck if you're flying this weekend and drive safe if your taking a road trip. As for me, I'm for the guy on that United flight who used his Knee Defender to defend his right to what little room he does have. Kudos to Ira Goldman, the inventor of the Knee Defender.

It's a pretty sad state of the airline industry today (and what kind of priority they put on passenger comfort) that such a device even exists, but If I do decide to fly in the near future, I'll go online and buy a Knee Defender and just take my chances of getting into a dispute with another passenger.

It's a small price to pay not to be cramped, stiff and uncomfortable for the duration of a flight that truly does cost "an arm and a leg".

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ferguson Police Officer Justin Cosma Unmasked by Huff Po - Officer Dan Page Suspended After Pushing CNN's Don Lemon

1st Amendment Foe & Child Wrangler Officer Justin Cosma-(Photo/Huffington Post)
The harassment, assault and arrests of journalists by police for simply being present to cover the Ferguson protests was pretty disturbing. 

So kudos to the Huffington Post for publicly identifying and naming Justin Cosma, the Ferguson police officer seen confronting and arresting Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly and Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery the night of Wednesday August 13th.

While a number of journalists from different media outlets were videotaped or photographed being tear-gassed by members of law enforcement, no incident (aside from Michael Brown's shooting) garnered more attention than the arrests of Reilly and Lowery.

They were both just sitting in a McDonald's charging their cell phones and discussing the protests when heavily-armed police (led by Cosma) wearing tactical SWAT gear with their names and badge numbers intentionally concealed walked in, ordered everyone out of the restaurant and demanded ID's from both reporters.

The reporters subsequent assault (Lowery, an African-American, was slammed against a glass wall and a soda fountain) and arrests quickly made global headlines and they were soon released after the story blew up on Twitter. 

Today's Huff-Po story also reveals that Justin Cosma is also the subject of an ongoing lawsuit that stems from a 2010 incident when he was with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in which he and an officer named Richard Carter allegedly confronted a 12-year-old boy who was at the end of his driveway getting the mail out of his family's mailbox.

The shirtless 12-year-old was eventually hogtied by Cosma and Carter after the incident escalated, leading to injuries to the child and a pending lawsuit filed in Missouri Federal Court in 2012. It says a lot about officer Cosma.

But it also paints a pretty disturbing picture of the types of officers in Ferguson and St. Louis whose recent behavior is tarnishing the reputations of the members of law enforcement who treat people with respect and operate within the confines of the law.

Kudos to CNN too. Have you heard about St. Louis County officer Dan Page who pushed CNN anchor Don Lemon on live TV? Turns out Page is a right-wing Birther, and his bizarre misogynist, homophobic, racists rants got him suspended after they were released on video and shown to his superiors by CNN.

I watched some of the video highlights of Page's rants and he's a cultural dinosaur with a death-fetish and a huge chip on his shoulder who's mind has been warped by hate. The idea that this man carries a gun and a badge is troubling and makes a mockery of the image of a trained law enforcement professional.
 
The positive thing is that mainstream media outlets like Huffington Post and CNN are starting to use their considerable influence and reach to show men like Cosma and Page for who they are; deeply disturbed individuals prone to violence and using their badge as a shield for their hate and behavior that is simply inexcusable for anyone charged with enforcing the law in a modern society.



 





   

Friday, August 22, 2014

Kajieme Powell Died For Two Stolen Sodas and a Danish

Believe me, I'd like nothing better than to use my Friday off to post a quirky tongue-and-cheek blog about the latest examples of Republican stupidity; and there are many.

Texas (surprise!) Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert's absurd dimwitted theory that President Obama can't protect the nation from ISIS militants because US foreign policy is being guided by "Muslim brothers" is a blog unto itself.

But the release of the cell phone video of the recent shooting death of Kajieme Powell by St. Louis police officers warrants discussion.

The news the other day that St. Louis PD officers had shot and killed another African-American man in the midst of the massive ongoing protests against the police shooting of Michael Brown almost defied belief.

If you're reading this blog, like me you heard the mainstream media quickly repeat the initial police narrative offered by the police chief at a press conference that Powell had shoplifted from a local store, was seen acting "erratic" outside the store and that a woman (allegedly) reported he was wielding a knife; which the police said he supposedly thrust at officers in a threatening manner.

But the validity of that narrative has been totally called into question with the release on Wednesday of cell phone video of Powell walking around outside the store, his confrontation with police when they arrived at the scene and his subsequent shooting.

So you decide for yourself, if you haven't seen it you need to watch this. This is a shorter version that shows the actual shooting of Powell and the subsequent reaction of bystanders and police.  Don't worry, it's far enough away that you can't see blood or anything like that, but you can clearly hear Powell dare the police to shoot him and the number of shots fired. It's not gruesome.

There's a much longer version that the shows the initial scene as the man who shot the cell phone video walked up because he heard there was a guy who stole a couple sodas and was walking around acting crazy. At first the man shooting the video is amused. You can see Powell walking around outside the store sort of talking to himself. Is he acting "erratic"? Yes. But people are just walking by or standing there watching him. The clerk from the store is just standing there looking at him.

Powell had placed the two cans of soda on the sidewalk and was just walking around them. After taking the sodas he went in and grabbed a danish or a honeybun too. But watch for yourself. Powell clearly has some sort of mental issue going on, maybe he's on something, I don't know. But he does not have a gun and he was NOT wielding a knife. And does not look threatening.

But then he walks up the street about fifty feet and a St. Louis police car pulls up. Watch what happens after that - and listen to the reaction of the bystanders in the background. Look closely, do you see Powell raise his hand and thrust a knife at the two officers?

Does it look like the officer's lives are endangered to the point where they need to pump 12 bullets into him? They were shooting him after he was on the ground; and then put handcuffs on him after he was dead. Is that the kind of nation we've become? Who's training the St. Louis Police Department?

Are two cans of soda and a danish really worth a man's life?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What About Bob?

Fair & balanced?
Let's say someone walked up and told you that one of the leading attorneys handling the Michael Brown case was a man whose father, brother, uncle, cousin and mother all worked for the St. Louis Police Department.

You'd figure that's who trigger-happy Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson selected as his defense attorney right? You'd be wrong.

The man described above is the county prosecutor in charge of trying the case against Wilson and his name is Bob McCulloch (pictured left). The idea of this man leading the prosecution of one of the most explosive cases of the use of excessive police force (and bad judgment) in Missouri history already has protesters and members of the Ferguson community up in arms.

As of 11:09pm ET, 53,791 signatures have been collected on a MoveOn.org petition started by Jamilah Nasheed, a Missouri State Senator. The petition calls on McCulloch to recuse himself and the county prosecutor's office from the case and instead have a special independent Federal prosecutor handle the case.

I truly regret that McCulloch's father (a St. Louis policeman) was killed by a black man in 1964 when McCulloch was 12, but I would hope that he has sense enough to recognize that his deep family ties to the St. Louis PD and failure to bring charges back in 2000 against two white policemen who fired 20 shots into a parked car killing two unarmed African-American suspects in a drug operation (in a press conference McCulloch later called them "bums"...) represents a conflict of interest that should be fairly obvious to all.

Speaking of people doing stupid shit with guns, I'm getting pretty fed up with individuals who feel compelled to flaunt their 2nd Amendment rights by carrying loaded weapons around openly in public places like grocery stores.

Seriously, WTF is this guy thinking?
There's a new petition up on the Everytown.org Website calling on Kroger's, the largest grocery store chain in the nation to protect it's customers by banning people from carrying loaded weapons around in their stores.

You can sign it here! The petition is addressed to W. Rodney McMullen the CEO and Michael Ellis, president/COO of Kroger's.

 Other stores like Target, Chipotle and Starbucks have already listened to concerned citizens across the nation in the wake of the 74 (yes, 74) school shootings that have taken place since Sandy Hook.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Disparities in Justice in America - A Renewed Discussion

One nation, two justice systems? (Image courtesy - twitter@DerrickJaxn)
If anything positive can come about as result of the senseless death of Michael Brown at the hands of an overzealous police officer, it's a renewed national dialog on the disparities that exist within America's justice system.

The community outrage over the shooting and the subsequent street protests, riots and the accompanying police reaction that have captivated the nation didn't just materialize out of nowhere.

As a well-written article published in the New York Times yesterday  pointed out, the reaction in Ferguson stems from long-simmering tensions that result in large part from patterns in housing discrimination, sharp disparities in community policing and the unequal application of the law based on economics and race.

As officials from the Department of Justice prepare to undertake an independent Federal autopsy on the body of Michael Brown, egregious examples of excessive use of police force against unarmed people of color remind us that this is the 21st century and the color of your skin can often determine how a policeman will treat you.

Michael Brown was jaywalking, he was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.

Back on July 1st a homeless grandmother named Marlene Pinnock was walking along a highway in Los Angeles in broad daylight on her way to find a place to sleep when a California Highway Patrol officer confronted her, threw her to the ground and savagely beat her in the head with a closed, gloved fist.

Fifteen days later Eric Garner was standing on the street in Staten Island, New York where he lived selling loose cigarettes when members of the NYPD confronted him, a bystander videotaped one of the officers restricting Garner's airway with an illegal choke hold while other officers piled on top of him - Garner was pronounced dead a short time later.

These are just a few examples of violent police responses to very low-level infractions that happened in broad daylight. In each case there were witnesses who saw what happened. (How many incidents happen across America at night when there are no witnesses?)

The disparities in the application of the law impact all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. The statistics are startling. According to StopMassIncareration.net, the United States has 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prison population - 60% of those prisoners are black or Latino. (Give or take a few percentage points, blacks make up about 12.1% of the total US population).

A joint research project released in 2012 by the Pew Center on the States and Vera Institute's Center on Sentencing and Corrections and Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit calculated the annual cost to American taxpayers for running the US prison system was a staggering $39 billion. States on average spend 2.8 times more per prisoner than they do pupils; math that only leads to a perpetuation of the system of mass incarceration in this country - an industry unto itself that lobbies for more prison construction.

Remember it's not just a cost measured in tax dollars alone. We're talking about the creation of a massive underclass of convicted felons and ex-prisoners (many of who were imprisoned for low-level drug offenses) who re-enter society barred from voting and taking part in the civic process of electing people to represent them, face barriers and discrimination in the hiring process, lack of access to health care and are relegated to a permanent 2nd class status that leaves them on the fringes of society.

The issue of disparity stretches way beyond the prism of race; it's goes to the very heart of the US justice system and the definition of who we are as a nation. Remember the "Affluenza" case of wealthy Texas teenager Ethan Couch?

It was a big story last December when Texas District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced the then-sixteen year-old Couch to probation after he slammed into a disabled vehicle while legally drunk. He killed the driver of the parked vehicle and three people (a mother and daughter and a youth pastor) who'd stopped to help her; he also paralyzed one the passengers in his truck and seriously injured another.

Judge Boyd's bizarre reasoning was that Couch had grown up so insulated from personal responsibility as a result of being so spoiled by his parent's immense wealth - so he couldn't be held legally responsible for his actions. We all know where a poor sixteen-year-old in Couch's shoes would've ended up.    

Responsibility lies at the heart of the Michael Brown case in Ferguson. The details of the autopsy reports and the conclusion of the investigations into the shooting will tell us more about whether or not Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will be insulated from personal responsibility for his actions.

Maybe it will also give us some insight into exactly what that blindfold covering the eyes of the symbol of justice in America (with her sword and scales) is blinding her to.