Saturday, June 24, 2017

How Congress Failed Kingston Frazier

6-year-old kindergartner Kingston Frazier 
As Republican lawmakers work feverishly on Capitol Hill to strip access to healthcare for millions of Americans and cut taxes for the wealthiest individuals and corporations (God knows they're struggling...), it's doubtful the name Kingston Frazier means much of anything to them.

Kingston was a 6-year-old boy from Jackson, Mississippi who was all set to graduate from kindergarten on Thursday May 18th.

But three teenagers decided they needed to steal his mother's car from a Kroger's grocery store on Interstate 55 around 1am that morning, and when they broke into it, according to members of his family, Kingston was asleep in the back seat.

These heartless teens later abandoned the car 12 miles away in rural Madison County, but not before shooting young Kingtson in the back of the head and leaving him to die alone on a lonely dirt stretch called Glukstadt Road behind a warehouse.

It's Saturday and I slept in late this morning, but I'm tired - for a number of reasons.

I'm tired of some African-Americans preying on one another in a demented cycle of criminal violence that plays out like some kind of nightmarish extermination campaign of self-inflicted racial genocide.

Like many Americans I'm tired of the almost unrestricted flow of firearms in this country.

I'm tired of right-wing nutjobs like Alex Jones propagating the loony conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in 2014, in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother before driving to the school and shooting 20 six and seven-year-old children and six adults, was a hoax intended to strip gun owners of their right to bear arms.  

And I'm tired of Republican politicians opposing any reasonable measure to keep deadly firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them - let's not forget that on the day that Rep. Steve Scalise was shot in the hip in Virginia recently, Republicans were scheduled to debate a bill that would make it easier to transport silencers across state lines and ease restriction on ammunition that pierces the body armor worn by many police officers.

The three teens charged in Kingson Frazier's death
from left, Wakefield, Washington and McBride 
How did Dwan Wakefield 17, DeAllen Washington 17 and Byron McBride 19, the three teens accused of stealing Kington Frazier's mother's car, get a hold of a gun in the first place?

How did Dylan Roof get the handgun he used to mercilessly gun down nine innocent people at a Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina?

In my view Congress owes us answers to those questions.

The recent string of high-profile shootings in this nation is a constant reminder of the failure of House Republicans responsible for drafting laws that protect Americans to take action to pass and enforce sensible federal restrictions on the purchase and ownership of firearms.

Do I believe Americans have a constitutional right to own firearms? Absolutely.

But at the same time those three teens pictured above had no business with a loaded handgun at 1am in the morning when they decided to steal Kingston Frazier's mom's Toyota Camry.

Are those three knuckleheads old enough to face responsibility for their actions?

Of course they are, and should considering the heinous nature of their crime.

And as young black men in Mississippi you can rest assured the full weight of the law is going to come down on them hard.

Particularly in a deep-south state like Mississippi where blacks and Hispanics are consistently overrepresented in prison populations, while whites are consistently underrepresented.

Take a look at the chart to the left published by the Prison Policy Initiative compiled from data from the 2010 U.S. Census.

African-Americans made up about 37% of the population of Mississippi in 2010.

But they comprised about 57% of the state's prison population.

Whereas whites made up about 58% of Mississippi's population in 2010, but made up only about 30% of the prison populace.

As Colleen Curry reported in an article for Vice News in 2015, if Mississippi had been a country in 2013, it would have had the second highest incarceration rate in the world.

But, as Curry's article notes, in all fairness to Mississippi state legislators, lawmakers enacted a series of prison reforms in 2014 that reduced the state's prison population by a remarkable 14% in just a year.

Given the years of heavy-handed and racially-biased conservative sentencing polices that caused the state's prison population to triple between 1978 and 2013, those law makers had a lot of ground to make up to balance the proverbial scales of justice - but they do deserve credit for taking concrete steps towards sensible prison and sentencing reforms.

But to get back to the issue at hand, Congress is empowered by the Constitution to write federal laws.

So I also hold them collectively responsible for Kingston Frazier's death for having consistently and actively blocked the kinds of gun control legislation that might have prevented those teens from getting their hands on a firearm in the first place.

But it's also important to look at the socio-economic angles to the death of Kingston Frazier.

Perhaps those three teens being out at 1am on a Thursday night trying to steal a car has something to do with the fact that Mississippi consistently ranks near the bottom in categories like health, education and personal income; at least half the population lives below the poverty line.

Cotton is one of Mississippi's major crops and
agriculture is one of the state's biggest employers
Back in February, the state's Chief Economist Dr. Darrin Webb published a detailed report showing the state of Mississippi ranked 49th out of 50 states with an anemic workforce participation rate of 53% in 2016.

As the report states, a mere 56% of people in Mississippi were actively looking for work or working in 2016.

Again, it was about 1am on a Thursday when the three teens stole the car in which Kingston Frazier was killed.

So I'm guessing none of them were employed; I don't know that for sure.

According to an article in the Clarion-Ledger by Therese Apel and Sarah Fowler, 19-year-old Byron McBride, tentatively identified as the shooter, claimed to be a manager at Wal-Mart but a company a spokesperson told the paper they had no record of his being employed at any of their stores.

The article also quotes 17-year-old suspect Dwan Wakefield's mother as saying that her son, a senior in high school, quit playing football to work a summer job selling cards with his father.

But I'd say it's probably fair to "guestimate" that all three teens were part of the approximately 44% of people in the state of Mississippi not currently working or actively looking for work.

While manufacturing, gambling and tourism all employ significant numbers of people in Mississippi, agriculture or agriculture-related jobs employ almost 30% of the state's population of approximately
3 million people - large industrial farms dominate the industry.

Nothing can excuse what those three teens did, but they are the living byproducts of one of the worst educational systems in the country in a state with lackluster job growth that's still trying to recover from the Great Recession; while there has been modest economic growth it lags far behind the national average.

Kingston Frazier
With deep state cuts to social safety net programs and education since 2007, coupled with the steep drops in federal spending on public school education since the 1950's, the pathway to college, trade school or meaningful full-time employment was probably a steep one for those three teens.

After the midterm elections in 2010 when Republicans re-took the House of Representatives in a landslide, they pretty much spent the rest of President Obama's terms in office blocking his proposals for large infrastructure spending bills and jobs legislation to expand employment.

That adds up to an awful lot of poorly-educated, under-employed teenagers in Mississippi, and it's a heart-breaking tragedy that three of them happened upon poor Kingston Frazier the night before he was to join his classmates from North Jackson Elementary School for kindergarten graduation.


Anyway I'd like to wrap this rather somber Saturday entry up by noting that like most southern states, Mississippi has some of the most lax gun control laws in the nation.

According to Gun.Laws.com, there is no law requiring a permit to buy a handgun or a long gun in the state of Mississippi, and people aren't even required to register their firearms either.

Republican politicians, who've basically prostituted themselves out to the NRA and the gun lobby, are quick to extol the righteous virtues of the 2nd Amendment, and what they consider an almost sacred right to bear ams has morphed into millions of unregistered and illegal firearms in the hands of people all over the country.

While some see that as the extension of an abstract right enshrined in the Constitution, as the tragic killing of 6-year-old Kingston Frazier illustrates, the actual reality is far more violent, bloody and horrifying.

Given that the state of Mississippi's gun laws are totally inadequate, Congress failed Kingston Frazier, one of its youngest citizens.

When Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is done stripping millions of Americans of their access to healthcare and gutting Medicaid to provide billions of dollars in tax cuts for America's wealthiest families, maybe he can find the time to take a trip down to Jackson, Mississippi to explain the virtues of the 2nd Amendment to Kingston Frazier's family and the classmates who didn't see him at their kindergarten graduation.

But I doubt it, it's unlikely Speaker Ryan even knows his name.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Innocent Minnesota Cops & Vern the Dog

Anthony Promvongsa
If you haven't seen it, you really need to watch a couple minutes of the recently-released dash cam video of Jeronimo Yanez stopping and then fatally shooting motorist Philando Castile in Minnesota.

It's simply baffling how quickly Yanez unholsters his weapon and starts firing into the car after Castile politely informs him that he has a licensed gun on him - how Yanez was acquitted is beyond me.

It's caused quite an uproar in the wake of the St. Anthony PD officer's acquittal, and there's been a renewed focus on the conduct of members of Minnesota law enforcement.

Earlier today the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU announced that it is calling for an investigation into the conduct of Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force Agent Joe Joswiak during a routine traffic stop that took place in Minnesota in 2016.


After work I was trolling through my Twitter feed while cooking dinner and saw the story about the incident posted on the ACLU's national feed - they asked people to share it.

There's nothing excessively bloody about this 3-min. 38- sec. video clip taken from the dash-cam of a police cruiser after a man named Anthony Promvongsa was stopped for a traffic violation in the southwestern Minnesota town of Worthington.

But it's really disturbing to watch how Agent Joswiak jumps out of the car with his gun drawn and immediately starts screaming at Promvongsa.

Take a minute to click the link above and watch it.

The 32-year-old Joswiak is screaming for Promvongsa to get out of the vehicle before he even tells the driver why he's being stopped, and more troubling is how the agent reacts when he reaches the driver's side door and sees the Laotian-American man sitting behind the wheel.

Promvongsa doesn't even have time to say anything, put up his hands, remove his seatbelt or comply with Joswiak's orders before he is being violently grabbed, punched and even kneed by the irate officer - who looks totally out of control.

Agent Joe Joswiak beating Anthony Promvongsa
as Sgt. Tim Gaul comes to assist
Now I could maybe see an officer reacting that way after a lengthy chase of someone who'd just robbed a bank or shot someone, but Promvongsa is just being stopped for a traffic violation - and watch how he immediately pulls over.

Take care to notice how Sergeant Tim Gaul, the uniformed officer who approaches the passenger side of the vehicle to back Joswiak up, can be clearly seen switching off the audio from his police radio as Joswiak is cursing, punching and elbowing Promvongsa.



According to the ACLU, Gaul has had two previous civil lawsuits filed against him for excessive force, so it's actually pretty disturbing how quickly he starts tampering with evidence by shutting off the audio.

So what set Joswiak off like that? Was it because of Promvongsa's ethnicity?

Remember folks, this beating (pictured above) took place in Worthington, Minnesota on July 28, 2016.

That's just 22 days after St. Anthony PD Officer Jeronimo Yanez fired seven shots at Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota after a routine traffic stop.

Trump's racially divisive rhetoric was at fever pitch at that time - was that a factor in the mindset and over-the-top aggressiveness in terms of how these officers reacted to minority drivers stopped for minor traffic violations?

According to Dave Orrick's article about the incident posted on TwinCities.com, the Worthington police are claiming that Promvongsa had followed another officer in his Honda Pilot and verbally threatened the officer prior to the traffic stop.

But does that really seem likely? A small Laotian-American guy by himself using his Honda SUV to menace and then verbally threaten multiple cops in the middle of the day in a mostly-white town in southwestern Minnesota?

Regardless, Worthington PD are apparently going with that story - cranking up what had been a reckless driving charge to assault with a deadly weapon - the weapon being the Honda Pilot Promvongsa was driving. (Really)

But what about Agent Joe Joswiak?

24-year-old Jamar Clark 
According to the executive director of the Minnesota branch of the ACLU Teresa Nelson:

"Thus far Agent Joswiak has received no punishment for this abhorrent treatment of Anthony. This sends a message that the department condones the officer's behavior, which it should not."

"Received no punishment" is becoming a pretty common phrase in Minnesota for those members of law enforcement who've clearly stepped over the line of professionalism.


Remember the controversial shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, MN on November 15, 2015?

Multiple witnesses at the scene claimed that Minneapolis PD officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze shot Clark in the head at point blank range while he was on the ground with his hands handcuffed behind his back.

But despite weeks of protests over the shooting, the state and federal government declined to press charges against the two officers.

At a press conference on October 21, 2016, just about three months after Anthony Promvongsa was beaten by Agent Joswiak, the chief of the Minneapolis Police Department Janee Harteau announced:

"The officers will not be charged criminally and we have concluded that there were no violations of MPD policy."

But as a number of people on social media have been up in arms about recently, no police officers in the case of a number of recent high-profile shootings of people of color, including former North Charleston PD officer Michael Slager for shooting unarmed 50-year-old veteran Walter Scott in the back on April 4, 2015, have been held legally responsible for their actions.

Vern the dog, killed by Officer Rodney Price
Yet a Glen Burnie, Maryland man named Michael Reeves was recently awarded $1.26 million by a jury.

Not because he was shot, they found that Anne Arundel County Officer Rodney Price was not justified in shooting and killing his dog Vern in 2014.

Glen Burnie isn't that far from Baltimore where a judge found that six officers were not legally responsible for Freddie Gray dying from a severely broken neck while in BPD custody in April of 2015.

But yes, as remarkable as it may seem, it was the shooting of Vern the dog that prompted the justice system in Maryland to find that a police officer was not justified in taking a life.

After the verdict, Reeve's attorney Cary J. Hansel said:

"The verdict sends a strong message to the police about community expectations. The duty to protect extends to our animal family members as well."

It is, to say the least, interesting that judges and juries around this nation so often rule that it's not legally or ethically necessary to send such a message to the police when the lives of human beings with dark skin or different nationalities are unjustifiably taken for no reason.

And on that note I'll leave you to ponder the value of human life in these United States.

Oh, by the way take one guess what the race of Rodney Price, the officer found responsible for killing Vern the dog is?

Some prefer to say All Lives Matter, indeed they do. Rest in peace Vern.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Anti-Muslim Violence & Deep State Quackery

Finsbury Park van driver Darren Osborne
The popular Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter this morning to issue a strong condemnation of the van attack that took place early Monday morning; reaffirming Canadian support for London and the UK.

But while Donald Trump was quick to condemn the London Bridge attack, there's been relative radio silence from America's most obnoxious famous Twitter user about the Finsbury Park attack.

Which, given the fact that Trump's outrage is entirely conditional on the ethnicity of the victims and the terrorist, isn't surprising.

According to the BBC, 47-year-old Darren Osborne, a father of four from Cardiff, Wales, has been tentatively identified as the man who intentionally drove a white van into a group of innocent people standing in front of a building in the Finsbury Park section of north London.

His target? A group of Muslims who'd just left evening Ramadan prayers at their local mosque, who, according to some reports, were helping an elderly man who'd fallen when Osborne plowed into them.

Lately it seems like the people of poor old London just can't catch a break from the dark reach of hate-filled terrorism that has claimed so many innocent lives and left so many injured in recent weeks.

Osborne (a neighbor described him as "a complete C***") added to that gruesome tally by killing one and injuring at least 11 before he was hauled out of the van by stunned onlookers who held him and fended off a mob of outraged bystanders who were trying to tear him apart while he reportedly yelled, "I'm going to kill all Muslims!"

Did Osborne think his decision to attack innocent Muslims, would somehow "even the scales" or bring some measure of righteous retribution for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester?

17 YO Nabra Hassanen & Darwin Martinez Torres
If he did he apparently wasn't alone.

On Sunday, just a day before Osborne's van attack in London, the body of a young girl tentatively identified as 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen, was discovered in a pond in Fairfax County, Virginia.  

According to an NBC.com article by Kalhan Rosenblatt, Hassnen had been reported missing after she was attacked by 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres.

After breaking the ritual fast of Ramandan, Hassanen and a group of friends were walking to an all-night prayer vigil when some kind of confrontation ensued that prompted Torres to jump out of his vehicle, assault Hassanen with a baseball bat, then throw her in the car and drive off.

While Loudon County Sheriff Michael Chapman expressed shock over the killing at a press conference, police investigators are not yet confirming that the incident was motivated by Hassanen's race or religion - but I'm not buying that.

This was a teenager with her friends observing one of the most scared religious holidays of the year on her way to a prayer wearing the traditional Hijab (head covering).

Frankly the idea that Torres stopped his car, jumped out, assaulted her with a bat and threw her into the car with a group of witnesses watching because it was some random assault is ludicrous.

Particularly given the current anti-Muslim rhetoric in this country being peddled by the Trump administration, many Republican politicians and right-wing media.

Lately the conservative talking heads who pump content into the bowels of right wing media have been far more obsessed with the mythical entity they've christened the "Deep State" than they are with the hate-based killings of Muslims and people of color both here and abroad that have dominated headlines recently.

Fox host & conservative quack Sean Hannity
As MediaMatters.org reported today, on Fox & Friends this morning, Fox's David Bossie is just the latest conservative figure to try and float the fringe-theory that the investigation into Russian interference with U.S. elections and Russia's ties to the no less than 11 members of the Trump administration, are all part of a Deep State plot.

Which is starting to have a rather unpleasantly familiar stench to it.

Increasingly this Deep State nonsense is sounding suspiciously like Senator Joe McCarthy's paranoid fear-mongering about communist infiltration of the U.S. government in the 1950's.

Last Friday the Hill.com reported that increasingly-unhinged Fox host Sean Hannity did a whole monologue about how left-leaning figures within various department of the U.S. government are somehow plotting to leak information to media outlets that's damaging to Trump in order to promote a Russia investigation that some right-wing conservatives dismiss as "fake news".

Hannity further prodded his conspiracy-friendly audience by warning them that the Deep State isn't just a danger to Trump, "These people have now become a clear and present danger to this country and to you."

(Seriously, ya gotta love the "These people" coded-reference and the Tom Clancy reference all in one easy-to-digest soundbite - no wonder this delusional wind-bag is bleeding advertisers.)

Personally I think all this Deep State drivel is nothing more than a bunch of unsubstantiated bunk being promoted by right-wing media as a desperate attempt to undermine the multiple investigations into Russian interference and ties to the Trump administration.

Aaron Zebley
Investigations being conducted by both Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate in addition to the FBI and special independent counsel Robert Mueller.

As Mueller, a seasoned federal investigator with impeccable credentials, assembles what Wired.com's Garret Graff described last week as an "Investigatory Dream Team", the right-wing rhetoric about the Deep State gets more desperate and loony.

If you get a chance, check out Graff's Wired.com piece on crack investigator and former FBI agent Aaron Zebley - those rumors about panicky Trump officials looking into ways to fire Mueller start to make more sense.

The deaths of innocent Muslims here and in England are clearly far from the radar of the Trump administration these days.

Lately he seems far more interested in yelling at his TV, tweeting nonsensical fakery about how his poll numbers are better than President Obama's were, and acting almost clinically detached from the deaths of seven U.S. sailors on the U.S.S. Fitzpatrick.

No, the right-wing apparently has bigger fish to fry than at least having the decency to even acknowledge the deaths of innocent Muslims - unspeakable tragedies that simply don't fit into the current conservative narrative.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Republican's Steve Scalise Moment

Shooter James T. Hodgkinson 
Make no mistake, violence against innocent people in any form is wrong in a modern civilized society.

But violence fueled by ideological and political differences in a democracy rooted in a Constitution that holds the Freedom of Expression as one of the pillars on which the foundation of the country is built?

That's a threat to the values most Americans consider sacred, regardless of one's political views.

As we've learned over the past 48 hours, 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson was opposed to, and upset by Donald Trump and the policies of the Republican Party.

As are millions of people here in the United States and around the globe; evidenced by reports that White House officials are considering cancelling or delaying his visit to London.

But not liking Trump, or the policies of the Republican Party for that matter, doesn't give Hodgkinson or anyone else a right to use a gun to shoot people.

Now I certainly hope that Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise recovers from the serious gunshot wound to the hip that he received in Alexandria, Virginia on Wednesday morning.

But after watching and listening to a number of Republican politicians react to the shooting in Virginia over the past couple days, I think it's really important to remember that Republicans themselves bear a huge responsibility for the incendiary political rhetoric in this nation since the election of President Obama in 2008 - to say nothing of their efforts to block gun control laws.

The last time I blogged about Steve Scalise was on New Year's Eve back in 2014.

This was after the 3rd most powerful man in Congress made headlines after a blogger trolling through the white supremacist Website Stormfront uncovered posts revealing that Scalise had attended and spoken at an event in 2002 which, as reported in a ThinkProgress.org article by Ian Millhiser:

"was hosted by an organization called the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, which was founded by David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan."

As Millhiser reported, during the white supremacist rally Scalise railed against "graft" in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and tried to characterize it as "an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race." 

So basically Congressman Stevie was caught flagrantly tapping the subconscious fears and racial prejudices of the Republican base by using the tried and true Republican rallying cry that "Black people are getting free stuff" (of course the billions in corporate oil subsidies that Scalise helped doll out in Louisiana over the years are exempt from his righteous indignation over government waste.)

Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise
So it's a bit ironic that the two Capitol Police officers who were wounded saving his life were both African-American.

One of those brave officers is Crystal Griner, a lesbian who's married to her wife Tiffany.

Did she refuse to do her job even though back in 2009 Scalise voted against enforcing laws against anti-gay hate crimes?

No, she did what she was trained to do and put her own life on the line to protect Scalise.

Despite the fact that he's spent no small portion of his political career trying to pass laws that discriminate against same-sex couples.

In fact, as an article posted on the DailyKos yesterday reported, Scalise authored a constitutional amendment to "protect marriage" in May of 2008, and voted to amend the Constitution to define "traditional marriage" a month later.

Crystal Griner was shot in the ankle trying to save the gay-bashing Scalise, so I wonder what she would think of the fact that in 2013 Congressman Stevie was one of the 138 Republican House members who voted no to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act?

From what I've read, listened to and watched in the news the past couple days Republican politicians were genuinely and understandably shaken by this incident, some members of the House reportedly want to move their local Congressional offices to court buildings to protect them from the same shooters that are empowered to access guns because of Republican opposition to reasonable gun control law.

Yet remarkably, they still don't seem to be able to reconcile their being shills of the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby with the terrible toll that gun violence continues to take on people in this country.

Capitol Police heroes David Bailey & Crystal Griner 
A toll that's not unique to Alexandria either.

According to statistics compiled by GunViolenceArchive.org, James T Hodgkinson's unprovoked attack on Wednesday morning against members of the House Republican baseball team was just one of approximately 157 mass shootings in the United States this year.

And of course the response by Trump to this tragedy is actually laughable.

Particularly considering that one of the first executive orders he signed after being sworn into office was to reverse the executive order put into place by the Obama administration after the San Bernardino shooting in 2015 that ordered the Social Security Administration to provide the records of mentally disabled people who'd applied for SSA benefits to the database used by the FBI to verify that someone is eligible to purchase a firearm.

One of Trump's first actions was to use his authority to weaken a federal rule that might have made it harder for someone like James T Hodgkinson to get a gun in the first place.

So all of his weepy public boo-hooing about the seriousness of Scalise's wounds and his photo-op 
trip to the hospital to visit the wounded Congressman in the hospital ring pretty hollow to me.

Is he really as concerned about the aftermath of gun violence as he wants us to think he is?

Then maybe he ought to use some of that bluster and bombastic energy he's used to level bogus accusations that the current investigations being conducted by House and Senate committees as well as the independent special counsel Robert Mueller are all "phony", into passing some meaningful gun control legislation.

Remember folks, on the day that this attack took place Congress was scheduled to debate a Republican bill that would have made it easier to transport silencers across state lines and ease restrictions on ammunition that pierces body armor - think about that for a moment.

All these Republican legislators on the federal and state level enamored with the 2nd Amendment who are now going through their "Steve Scalise Moment", politicians who've consistently worked to weaken and even eliminate gun control laws that protect people, don't seem to understand that people like James Hodgkinson don't just use firearms to shoot innocent people because they're crazy.

They do it because in America they can.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Character Assassination & The Specter of Police Bias

Jeronimo Yanez and his attorney Tom Kelly
On Monday afternoon, long-time Minneapolis community activist Mel Reeves used twelve words to sum up efforts by defense lawyers for St. Anthony PD officer Jeronimo Yanez to try and portray motorist Philando Castile as some kind of depraved delusional stoner too high to obey a simple police command.

"And now they are blaming a dead man for his own death."

As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, defense attorney Earl Gray used his final argument to try and convince a jury of five women and seven men that Yanez was forced to shoot Castile seven times (including two shots in the heart) because the cafeteria supervisor was so high on marijuana that he tried to grab a gun in his pocket.

But that contradicts eyewitness Diamond Reynolds who live-streamed on Facebook from the car for ten minutes moments after the shooting while calmly explaining to a hysterical Yanez that Castile was only reaching for his wallet to get his ID out as Yanez had ordered him to do before firing seven shots.

In fact, after getting pulled over for a broken tail light, Castile had politely explained to Yanez that he was carrying a gun, which he had a legal permit to do - so he wasn't breaking a law by having a gun in his pocket.

But as the Tribune article reports, Yanez's attorneys basically used the same kind of subconscious racial bias and flagrant stereotyping to assassinate Philando Castile's character in court that the panicky cop used when he pulled Castile over in the first place.

Transcripts of a radio call made to his partner before pulling Castile over on July 6, 2016 reveal Yanez saying that Castile's skin color and "wide-set nose" matched a description of an armed robbery suspect who'd held up a convenience in the same area store on July 2nd.

George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin 
Both the defense and the prosecution delivered their final arguments Monday afternoon and the jury was scheduled to reconvene Tuesday morning at 9am.

When they will decide whether the 29-year-old will face any legal repercussions for shooting and killing an innocent man in his car in front of a woman and a 4-year-old girl.

Now if the defense arguments sound familiar they should.

The defense strategy in the Yanez case sounds exactly like the arguments that lawyers for the deranged, racist murderer George Zimmerman used as legal justification for their violence-prone client stalking, confronting then shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin back on February 26, 2012.

In that trial, Zimmerman's defense lawyers famously tried to slander the high-school student as some kind of violent drug-addicted thug based on the fact that he'd been suspended from school for ten days after some marijuana residue was found inside his backpack.

Like Jeronimo Yanez, just before the killing Zimmerman also radioed police to relay his suspicions, heightened by Matin's race, after seeing the kid walking home to his father's house with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea he'd bought at the store - Zimmerman called 911 to report seeing a "suspicious person".

In both cases, it's almost as if a kind of internal character assassination took place in the mind of the killer before the crime - before a legal character assassination in the courtroom to assign blame for the killing on the person who's not there to testify on his own behalf.

There is a growing body of data on police traffic stops that is starting to shed light on how perception and internalized bias impacts the disparate ways that some members of law enforcement treat drivers they stop.

The recent New York Times article by Jonah Engel Bromwich about a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that American police officers who stop African-American drivers tend to treat them with less respect and use ruder language than they do with white drivers, offers insight.

When I first read the article last week, my first thought was admittedly a rather cynical one.

Was a scientific study really needed to validate complaints about biased policing based on race made by people of color for decades?

Now I freely confess that my initial reaction was probably related to pent up emotions I've internalized for years over specific incidents where I was unfairly targeted and pulled over by white police officers in New Jersey and New York City simply because of the color of my skin - not because of any vehicular violation like speeding or failure to use a turn signal.

Anger over high-profile incidents where African-American motorists ended up being killed after being stopped by police under legally questionable circumstances (Sandra Bland in Texas, Walter Scott in South Carolina to name a couple) probably contributed to my cynicism too.

But after taking a couple deep breaths and reading the rest of the article, I have to give a lot of credit to the Oakland, CA police department for having the guts to allow researchers to access and study hundreds of hours of video footage taken from police body cams and dashboard cams to study the body language and verbal interactions of their officers.

Especially when they knew that some not-so-nice aspects of policing were going to be caught on tape.

Clearly it's a positive thing that concrete scientific data analyzed in detail offers concrete proof of biased policing based on race, but the analysis can't stop there.

24-year-old father and husband John Hernandez
Given the recent murder indictment of Harris County (Texas) Sheriff's deputy Chauna Thompson and her husband Terry for the vicious beating and strangulation of a 24-year-old Hispanic father named John Hernandez, I think it's fair to say that deeper psychological analysis of the thinking that permeates the minds of some members of law enforcement is needed.

Watching that tape of Terry Thompson strangling Hernandez outside of a Denny's left me sickened and confused.

I mean even if, as witnesses claim, Hernandez was drunk and urinating on the side of the building, what would posses Terry Thompson to beat him to the point of unconsciousness, THEN jump on top of the guy and put him in a choke hold so he couldn't breathe?

His wife Chauna Thompson, a local sheriff's deputy, isn't just standing by while it happened.

She can be seen on the videotape taken by a bystander actually pinning Hernandez's left arm to the ground while he's being choked as the man's wife and daughter scream for them to let him go.

Clearly not all the facts are known in this case, but there seems to be little question that both Terry and Chauna Thompson seem almost clinically detached as Hernandez's face literally starts to turn purple from lack of oxygen.

The National Academy of Sciences' report doesn't tell us what is going through the minds of those members of law enforcement who seem so quick to resort to violence or deadly force during encounters where neither are called for.

Terry and Chauna Thompson
But the dehumanizing ways in which some members of law enforcement treat ethnic minorities is clearly at issue in the case of the incident at Denny's.

Did the Thompsons feel entitled or empowered to treat someone that way for public urination because she was a sheriff's deputy? (which is scary in and of itself)

Frankly I think it's also important to ask how their perceptions of Hernandez's ethnicity affected how they treated him.

Would they have treated an inebriated white, blond-haired college frat boy that way had they seen him urinating behind a Denny's late at night?

It's not just the Thompsons either, a lot of questions are now surrounding the actions of the local law enforcement officers who responded to the scene as well.

As an article posted on CNN.com reported, Hernandez's wife, who along with their young daughter pleaded with Terry Thompson to release Hernandez and stop beating him, was detained in a police vehicle for four hours at the scene and had her cell phone confiscated.

And the officers who responded initially tried to file assault charges against Hernandez after he'd been transported to the hospital unconscious and not breathing - he later slipped into a coma and died from lack of oxygen to the brain and having his chest and lungs compressed.

While this story is still gaining traction and more information is sure to come out about the incident, the Thompsons have been released on $100,000 bond - Chauna Thompson has been reassigned to desk duty pending an investigation.

Terry Thompson's lawyer is already hard at work assassinating the character of John Hernandez - telling reporters that Thompson was choking the life out of Hernandez in self-defense.

What's seen on that videotape doesn't look like self-defense, it looks like 2nd degree homicide.

Regardless, Minneapolis community activist Mel Reeves words best sum up the defense strategy that the Thompson's attorneys will likely pursue in court to absolve their clients of legal responsibility for choking a man to death: "And now they are blaming a dead man for his own death."

Saturday, June 10, 2017

74 Seconds: Jeronimo Yanez & The Philando Castile Trial

School cafeteria supervisor Philando Castile was
shot and killed by officer Jeronimo Yanez in 2016
74 Seconds.

If you've kept up with the current trial of  St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez for the unprovoked shooting death of motorist Philando Castile back on July 6, 2016, you may know that 74 seconds is the amount of time that transpired from the time that Yanez pulled Castile over for a broken taillight, until the time that he fired seven shots at point blank range into the car.

According to an article by Chao Xiong in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Thursday, a defense expert testified that Yanez's decision to fire his weapon was "objectively unreasonable".

'Objectively unreasonable' is probably putting it lightly.

It took the-then 28-year-old Yanez, an officer of Mexican descent with 4 years experience, all of 74 seconds to pull out his handgun and fire seven shots into a car with a woman (his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds) in the passenger seat and her 4-year-old daughter in the backseat.

As Xiong's article reports, Yanez's defense team is pursuing a strategy that has become typical of many unjustified police shootings involving men of color who weren't actually doing anything illegal.

They are trying to portray Castile, a cafeteria supervisor at a local school who was well-liked by students, parents and co-workers alike, as somehow being negligent and responsible for his own death because he used marijuana recreationally and allegedly failed to comply with Yanez's orders.

But as you most of you reading this likely recall, Diamond Reynolds, the passenger sitting in the car who witnessed the shooting, began live-streaming the incident over Facebook 103 seconds after the car was stopped just after Castile was shot - a ten-minute video that was viewed millions of times by people around the world.

Officer Jeronimo Yanez
In the video, a visibly-unhinged Yanez can be seen standing next to the driver's side window with his handgun pointed at Castile's motionless bloodied body yelling "Fuck!" repeatedly.

He can clearly be heard complaining that he told Castile not to move, but Reynolds calmly explains that he'd ordered Castile to show his identification - and that he only reached into his pocket to get his wallet.

As has been widely reported, Castile was stopped in the St. Paul, Minnesota suburb of Falcon Heights.

Where remarkably, he'd previously been stopped by police at least 52 times for various minor traffic violations; which tells that you that either a) there's a high concentration of black people in Minnesota who are incredibly bad drivers, or b) there is some seriously off-the-chart racial bias in terms of police traffic stops in Falcon Heights.

But it was a mere 74 seconds after the 53rd stop that he was shot and killed for having a broken tail light and complying with Officer Yanez's order to show his identification.

74 Seconds is also the name of an ongoing NPR podcast produced by Minnesota Public Radio that has tracked the Castile shooting and the subsequent trial - check it out if you haven't heard it before.

Taking the stand in his own defense yesterday, a tearful Yanex told the packed courtroom that he thought "he was going to die" when Castile reached into the pocket of his shorts to get his ID.

To be clear, Yanez is claiming that a respected cafeteria supervisor with his girlfriend and a 4-year old child in the car was about to reach into his pocket and pull out a handgun which he was licensed to own and carry and shoot a police officer after being stopped for a broken tail light.

Is a jury going to buy that?

The defense has rested it's case in the trial of Jeronimo Yanez, I know I'm not the only one waiting to see if the justice system is going to hold him accountable for the decision to take Philando Castile's life just 74 seconds after stopping him because his Oldsmobile had a broken tail light.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Remembering Hans Von Themsche - And a Small Victory

Luna Drowart, Oulemata Niangadou & Songul Koc:
 the victims of Hans Von Themsche
"These horrific, cowardly murders are a form of extreme racism. It should be clear to everyone now where extreme right can lead to."

Were those cryptic words of warning uttered by a principled American political leader in response to the violent killings that have taken place in recent weeks across the U.S.?



No, that's actually a quote from the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt commenting on the heinous shooting spree of then-19-year-old Hans Von Themsche back in May of 2006.

He was responsible for a senseless and violent racist killing that may have faded from the collective memory of many Americans, but it was an event that shocked Europe and the world when it took place 13 years ago - a killing spree sparked by a disturbed individual's internalized racial hatred.

From my perspective, one of the most troubling aspects of the aftermath of the recent killings in New York, Maryland and Portland are the efforts by conservative and right-wing media outlets and talking heads to attempt to downplay their significance and dismiss them as random acts of violence rather than as intentional acts of racial hatred.

Check out Corey Pein and Nigel Jaquiss' article in Williamette Week on how the alt-right movement in Portland is suddenly trying to distance itself from Jeremy Christian's violent attack two weeks ago - many on the right are trying the same stunt.

I'm talking about the same quasi-delusional conservatives, politicians, pundits and journalists alike, who tried to insist that Dylan Roof killing nine innocent African-Americans at a Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015 was not an act of racial hatred.  

Dylan Roof poses with a handgun and Confederate flag
As Jeet Heer reported in an article for New Republic back in June of 2015, the GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum tried to paint Roof's actions as an attack upon "religious liberty".

Heer noted that during a discussion of Roof during an appearance on Fox and Friends in the wake of the killings, quack fear-meister Rudy Giuliani told host Steve Doocy:

"We have no idea what's in his mind. Maybe he hated Christian churches."

Such thinking suggests to me that perhaps the symbol of the Republican Party should be an ostrich with its head in the sand rather than an elephant.

One of the most puzzling aspects of modern conservatism in America is the willingness of many Republicans to cultivate, capitalize on and openly traffic in the kinds of internalized racial and ethnic prejudices and fears that divide people based on religion and skin color.

Yet at the same time, Republicans peddle a weird kind of unified theory that supports a detached parallel reality where racism doesn't exist - exemplified by Donald Trump's silence about high-profile racist or ethnic hatred killings when the victims are non-white, and their killers are clearly motivated by the same divisive rhetoric he used throughout his campaign.

(Have you noticed how Trump has ruthlessly attacked the Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn, a Muslim, after the terrorist attack that killed seven on Saturday night, but said nothing about the Mayor of Manchester Carl Austin-Behan, who is white, after the Manchester terrorist attack that killed 23?)

It's like Republicans want to harvest the political fruits from the 21st century version of the Southern Strategy (e.g. bigotry and intolerance), but they chafe at acknowledging that they planted the seeds in the first place - knowing full well what would grow.

Sean Urbanski stabbing Richard Collins on the campus of the University of Maryland on May 20th was not a random attack, nor was James Harris Jackson stabbing 68-year-old Timothy Caughman with a sword a couple months earlier in March on a street in New York.

Those killings were part of a distinct and disturbing pattern, not just in this country either.

Hans Von Themsche
That's why I think Hans Von Themsche's unprovoked racist spree killing in Belgium eleven years ago is important to remember.

It offers valuable context on the current global political environment.

Especially given the movement towards the mainstream of once-fringe right-wing political parties steeped in the cloak of nationalist populism - and the more overt extremism that has flared up from Europe to the United States.


Extremism fed, in part, by frustrations from the global austerity of the recession that decimated the poor, working and middle classes around the world.

Frustrations fueled by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria whipped up by so-called political leaders like Donald Trump, or the Netherlands' Geert Wilders - individuals who cultivate the hatred of others simply as a means to satisfy their own lust for power.

In fact, it may well have been right-wing Belgian political leaders like Frank Vanhecke or Filip Dewinter, leaders of Vlaams Blok, the now-disbanded extremist political party that embraced Flemish nationalism, that motivated Hans Von Themsche's murderous racist killings in 2006.

Von Themsche was only 17-years-old when the the Belgian High Court ruled that Vlaams Blok was racist and discriminatory in violation of Belgian law and it was eventually disbanded.

It was an opposition party with concentrated support in the northern part of Dutch-speaking Belgium where it's emphasis on Flemish nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric fueled it's rise in popularity starting in the 1990's. (Perspective: the Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh took place in 1995.)

After Vlaams Blok was outlawed, the party reformed as Vlaams Belang, and it's important to note that Von Themsche's father helped to found Vlaams Blok, and his aunt served as an MP for Vlaams Belang - a dark influence that would prove deadly.

Nanny Oulemata Niangadou and Luna Drowart
On the morning of May 11, 2006, Von Themsche purchased a hunting rifle and ammunition and dressed in black and with his hair closely shaved (he later told police he was a skinhead) he walked into the city center of Antwerp, located in the northern Flemish region of Belgium where Vlaams Blok was popular.

He took aim and shot Songul Koc, a woman of Turkish descent, in the chest as she was reading a book - wounding her severely.

He then saw Oulemata Niangadou, a 24-year-old nanny from Mali taking care of her charge, a 2-year-old Belgian girl named Luna Drowart.

Von Themsche shot Niangadou in the back, when young Luna began crying, he shot her in the back too - killing them both.

He told friends before the shooting that he was intentionally looking for people who were not white to kill - and he likely would have killed more innocent people if not for a passing Belgian policeman who shot Von Themsche in the stomach and arrested him.

As a Wikipedia article on the killing reported, when police later questioned him about why he decided to shoot the 2-year-old girl who was white, he said her "presence near a black was sufficient reason."

As The Guardian reported, the killings horrified Belgians, having taken place in the wake of a number of violent racist attacks on black people and foreigners around the country.

Thousands march against racism in Belgium on
May 26, 2006 after the killings in Antwerp
Tens of thousands came out to march in silence to protest the killings of Niangadou and Drowart.

Antwerp Mayor Patrick Janssens said:

"It cannot get any worse. It cannot be fathomed that his happens in clear daylight in Antwerp."

17 months later on May 11, 2007 a jury rejected Von Themsche's lawyer's insanity argument and found him guilty.

He was sentenced to life in prison.


It's been just over ten years since that day in a Belgian court, and given the horrific rise in violence associated with racism and ethnic hatred here in America, we would do well to heed the words of former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt:

"It should be clear to everyone now where extreme right can lead to."

While that's become painfully clear to many of us in this country, I'm not sure how clear it is to members of the Republican leadership in Washington and conservative media - some of whom are pretending it's not even happening.

As the BBC reported, the lawyer who represented young Luna Drowart's parents during the trial of Hans Von Themsche told reporters that after the verdict in the court was read:

"I saw Luna's parents hug a black man from the family of the babysitter. I watched and saw Luna's mother shut her eyes. And when it was over and she came to kiss me...she said it's a small victory. Luna won't come back, but this is justice."