Friday, July 31, 2015

Lifting the Blue Shroud of Secrecy

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell
Last night I watched an extended segment during The Newshour on PBS which summarized the latest on the indictment of former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing and his brief courtroom appearance.

If anything positive can come out of unarmed civilian Samuel Dubose's gruesome death, it's that Tensing's reckless and unjustifiable actions took place at a time when what has traditionally been known in America as the 'Blue Wall of Silence' is being dismantled by a combination of reforms in policing, technology and organized peaceful demands for change.

Gwen Ifill's guest on The Newshour  was Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell (pictured above), whose progressive and innovative approach to urban policing has helped transform the department by (in part) reducing instances of CPD officers using excessive and deadly force against citizens, reducing injuries to officers and making policing more transparent by holding members of the force accountable through investigations conducted by a Civilian Complaint Authority and keeping close track of all traffic stops which are taped by an in-car video system.

Blackwell's leadership has earned him respect and national recognition, back on February 13th of this year he outlined his approaches to effective community policing in detail during a presentation in Phoenix, Arizona at the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. 

Blackwell not only advocates the mandatory use of body cameras for all police officers, he emphasized that such technology is a critical component of transparent policing, saying:   
"We've got to stop this shroud of secrecy among police officers"

President Obama after meeting with the Policing Task Force
The good news is that efforts at the national level like the President's Task Force, the growing national movement to address inequities in sentencing and the mass incarceration of African-Americans, as well as the many high-profile cases of unjustified police killings that have been so prominent in the media over the past few years, are collectively driving a growing momentum to enact fundamental changes in policing at the local community level in cities across America.

This movement is the product of a lot of work by activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, MoveOn.org, church groups, politicians, as well as journalists and average citizens with the help of the White House and the Department of Justice.

This movement is beginning to tackle a wide range of community policing issues that fall all along the spectrum of police misconduct, from discrepancies in officer-involved shootings to unfair ticketing practices.  

Tampa City Council Chairman Frank Reddick
For example, in an article in The Tampa Tribune yesterday Keith Morelli reported that it was a Department of Justice investigation into the ticketing of African-American bicyclists by the Tampa Police Department that prompted Tampa City Council Chairman Frank Reddick (pictured left) to invite the newly-appointed Chief of the Tampa PD Eric Ward to "come before the Council at its next meeting to talk about the possibility of creating a citizen's review board."

The investigation was prompted after an examination of Tampa PD statistics for 2014 showed that 81% of citations issued to bicyclists in Tampa were given to black bike riders; even though blacks only make up 25% of the Tampa population. 

Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor and current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn initially called for the DOJ to assist in the investigation into the unfair ticketing practices after a rash of complaints by members of the community.

As Morelli reported, the calls for the creation of a citizen's review board with some degree of oversight authority over the Tampa police came from a broad coalition of groups including the Florida chapters of both the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

But getting back to the technology angle, it's clear from a number of high-profile cases of excessive use of force by police against unarmed American citizens that video is beginning to lift the shroud of secrecy that has shielded the actions of bad cops who make bad decisions for decades.

The use of video has increased exponentially in this nation, and it was a body camera that prevented former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing from using lies to hide his actions behind the shroud of secrecy that has allowed some police officers in this country to get away with murder by claiming a dead suspect who can't testify on their own behalf was "threatening".

But it's not just murders either, video is also exposing bad cops who try to hide behind their badges after beating up people and then lying about why they did it.

Falsely accused Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, center with glasses
Take the case of former Clayton County, Georgia police officer Ryan Hall, which has made national headlines this week.

Back in May of 2014, a 69-year-old black man named Dhoruba Bin-Wahad (pictured left) was moving into his new home during broad daylight when someone mistakenly called police to report a burglary in progress.

Three cops responded to the scene and found Bin-Wahad in the process of moving his things in to the house.

The shocked homeowner tried unsuccessfully to explain that he was, in fact, the owner of the home and not a robber trying to burglarize it. Not surprisingly an argument of some kind ensued and at some, point Hall grabbed the 69 year-old man and slammed him down onto the concrete. 

In a police report, Hall claimed that that Bin-Wahad was argumentative and uncooperative during the conflict that escalated outside the home; moving is stressful enough, can you imagine the cops showing up as you're lugging boxes into a home you just paid for and accusing you of robbing it?

When cell phone video of the incident taken by a neighbor across the street later emerged, police began an internal investigation and last week a grand jury indicted Hall on misdemeanor charges of simple battery after the video evidence showed that the former officer lied about Bin-Wahad's behavior.

Watch the video for yourself, when you watch Bin-Wahad's head being slammed against the concrete, remember he's an innocent man and that's his own home.

Taken as a whole, these steps are beginning to make a difference, not only in terms of holding police officers accountable for their actions, but also in terms of restoring community confidence in law enforcement and raising the standards of police professionalism - which is good for both civilians and the police.

But there's clearly a long way to go in this nation.

America leads modern industrialized nations in police killings and according to statistics being tracked by a coalition of journalists and volunteers, with the killing of Samuel Dubose, 558 people have been killed by police this year.

While advocates for justice and human rights can take heart that these steps are slowly beginning to remove the bricks in the Blue Wall of Silence and lift the shroud of secrecy that surrounds police misconduct, sadly these efforts have come too late for Samuel Dubose and hundreds of others.

For now, we can only hope that if real changes to 21st century policing that are both meaningful and lasting can come about as a result of the tragic deaths of people like 12 year-old Tamir Rice, then perhaps their loss will have a deeper impact on the human condition - and make a difference for those in the future who might otherwise join ranks of The Counted.   

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Unnatural Instinct - Ray Tensing's Coverup Exposed

Tensing NOT being dragged as he shoots Dubose with hands up
While I already knew the horrifying outcome of the deadly encounter that took place last Sunday July 19th between unarmed African-American motorist Samuel Dubose and white University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, I still felt a sense of anxiety and fear in my gut as I watched the unedited video footage of the incident taken from Tensing's body camera.

After watching it carefully a few times and listening to the audio there's something terrifying about it.


Not only because of the knowledge that during the tussle that takes place during a few shaky frames of video a man is being shot in the head. If you watch the approximately 6-minute stretch from the time Tensing is casually driving along until he radios in that he's making a traffic stop, stops and confronts Dubose then shoots him - there's no time that Dubose is threatening.

Look at the still image from the video above; both of Dubose's hands are clearly up, Tensing is positioned in front of the driver's seat - and he's not being dragged by the car as he and his attorney have claimed.

As the Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters made clear in a statement on Wednesday, Dubose's Honda Accord didn't start rolling forward until after he'd been shot in the head at point blank range and slumped over the wheel and "he fell forward and must have pressed on the gas."

Ray Tensing charged with murder
Tensing's decision to take out his gun over a traffic stop because of a license plate not being displayed correctly is disturbing in and of itself.

But what's more chilling to me is that even after killing an unarmed suspect who wasn't threatening the officer in any way, even as Dubose lifeless body is slumped over the wheel and his car is rolling down the block; Tensing has the presence of mind to begin yelling his cover-up into his radio as he runs after the car.

Literally seconds after shooting an unarmed man, Tensing is trying to concoct a lie to conceal what he just did.

As an article posted on The Guardian Website reports, their analysis of the 28 minutes of Tensing's body camera clearly also shows at least one and possibly two other members of law enforcement standing near the scene corroborating something that did not actually happen.

As if it was a professional instinct ingrained into them as part of their training.

That's chilling. Tensing didn't just think that up seconds after shooting an unarmed man in the head, someone trained him to do it. Instinct. Unnatural instinct.

Remember back in April when North Charleston police office Michael Slager shot unarmed African-American motorist Walter Scott after another minor traffic stop? Same deal.

The cellphone video shot by a bystander not only showed Slager shooting the unarmed and fleeing motorist who didn't threaten him.

After shooting him five times he doesn't stop and render any kind of aid or check to see if Scott was still alive; he immediately runs back, picks up the taser that was dropped during the chase and brings it back over near where the victim is lying and drops it next to his body to try and stage a scenario that never happened.

Like Slager, Tensing's concocted story has been eradicated by video evidence proving officer was lying; about killing an unarmed human being who didn't threaten him. And now he's been indicted for murder.

To Serve and Protect is the motto, but the video makes clear that about the only thing Tensing was trying to protect was his own ass.

An unnatural instinct.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bad Seeds - The Withering Republican Leadership

Holocaust references? Mike Hucakbee's cool with that
What's even more remarkable than Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee comparing the Obama administration and the State Department signing a deal with Iran to taking "Israelis and marching them to the door of the oven." is the tepid reaction to the comment itself by leading Republicans.

Over the course of his political career Huckabee has said some truly stupid things that must be read to be believed, but his invoking images from the Holocaust to characterize a diplomatic treaty drags the already soiled perception of the Republican party even lower.

Was he was simply trying boost his sagging approval ratings by "out-Trumping" Donald Trump's dimwitted inflammatory comments?

Or was he intentionally looking for an opportunity to get some quick free press to boost his chances to be selected as one of the ten GOP candidates who make the cut for Fox News' upcoming Republican presidential debate?

Maybe he'd just tossed back a couple scotches before the interview and pulled a "Jimmy the Greek",
I don't know.

Ovens at Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland
Regardless of his motivation, Huckabee's choice of words demonstrate a remarkable lack of historical understanding of the scope of the Holocaust in Europe during WWII; and the suffering endured by it's millions of victims and their families, friends, co-workers and countrymen.

His willingness to callously refer to something as horrific as the bodies of innocent people being incinerated in ovens on a mass scale simply to make the point that he disagrees with a foreign policy decision that involved diplomacy rather than war, belies an insensitivity that is all too characteristic of the tone of today's Republican party.

 To me, it's an affront to decency and an insult to Jews.

The tepid response from the Republican candidates themselves about Huckabee's comment also says a lot about the current incarnation of the GOP leadership; which is defined as much for it's open embrace of bigotry and intolerance as it is for it's undisguised misogyny, immigrant bashing, and rejection of science in favor of baseless rhetoric.

As Juliet Ilperin reported yesterday in an article in The Washington Post, during a press conference in Ethiopia on Monday, President Obama spoke thoughtfully and at length about Huckabee's comments, saying:

"The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are just part of a general pattern that would be considered ridiculous, if it wasn't so sad. We've had a sitting Senator call John Kerry Pontius Pilate. We've had a sitting Senator, who also happens to be running for president, suggest that I'm the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are the leaders in the Republican Party."  

Leaders indeed.

RNC Dir. of Comm. Sean Spicer
As Josh Israel reported on ThinkProgress.org earlier this morning, Sean Spicer, (pictured left) the RNC's Chief Strategist & Communications Director told CNN he would neither condemn Huckabee's comments, nor characterize them as inappropriate; saying only that "they can speak for themselves."

Thanks for clearing that up for us Sean, in the wake of the silence from the Republican Party leadership after Donald Trump's recent racist comments about Mexicans we weren't sure about that.

Oh and speaking of the leading Republican presidential candidate, Trump shrugged off Huckabee's controversial comments in an interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, saying: "I mean, I'm OK with it."

Which isn't all that surprising considering Trump also just announced in an interview on Monday that he'd like to see marginalized former VP candidate Sarah Palin appointed to a cabinet post if he gets elected, insisting, "She's really somebody who knows what's happening."

Except of course, that Africa is a continent, not a country, or which newspapers she reads.

I'm guessing The Donald never got a chance to watch the movie chronicling the 2008 presidential race 'Game Change' HBO.

While Rick "Opus Dei" Santorum also sprang to Huckabee's defense, Jeb Bush was actually the only top-tier candidate to buck the GOP and come out and say Huckabee's comments were "wrong", but it was more a gentle slap on the wrist than a scolding.

Dr. Ben "Obamacare is like slavery" Carson
Earlier this afternoon while I was riding the exercise bike at the gym during my lunch break, I watched CNN's Jake Tapper doing a live interview with Republican Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson.

When Tapper asked Dr. Carson about his thoughts on Huckabee's "oven" comment, Carson carefully ducked the question.

Instead he seemed to sympathize with the media backlash against Huckabee by admitting that he himself had been "misunderstood" when he compared the Affordable Care Act to the institution of slavery.

So what's it all mean? Right now the Republican Party is so outside the fence, it's hard to tell.

Do GOP rainmakers want another Bush in the White House?
The political cynic in me believes all this headline-grabbing right-wing buffoonery from these intellectual clowns is carefully and intentionally crafted to set up Jeb Bush as this reasonable-looking moderate front-runner when the smoke finally clears, all the suckers, hucksters and opportunists are cleared out from this field of seventeen candidates, and the race really gets down to business.

The political cynic in me thinks the GOP has intentionally taken the leashes off and let the dogs run wild so Jeb Bush, who's raised more cash than anyone, can eventually emerge as the "moderate" one who stood up to "the crazies" as Senator John McCain aptly described them.

But if all this offensive hate-speak is not a front, and people like Huckabee, Trump and their ilk really DO think the way their offensive media soundbites make them sound, then it's a clear indicator that the Republican Party is not a legitimate, issues-based political party anymore.

It's a paid-for husk that's been stripped of decency, compassion, reason and genuine American values. Thanks to its willingness to allow itself to be hijacked by a fringe extremist wing, the GOP has been reduced to a political party that is devoid of actual ideas, or forward-thinking policies.

As Huckabee's comments and the ho-hum response from the Republican leadership to them demonstrate, this is a political party that only knows how to deal in the currency of fear, ignorance, hysteria and hatred.

These days that's about all it's cultivating, and given the shifting demographics of America's diverse populace, that's not something you can take to Washington, plant in the White House garden and expect to see grow.

Huckabee and Trump make clear the kinds of seeds the Republican leadership has sewn; it's spawned a spoiled crop that's just going to wither on the vine.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Train In Vain - Delays, Politics & The Hudson Rail Tunnel Project

Passengers await a delayed NJ Transit train in 2012
Yesterday July 25th was my niece's fourteenth birthday, an important milestone on her path towards becoming a young woman.

To me, the age of fourteen marks a critical turning point between childhood and young adulthood; after fourteen, there's no turning back.

She just "graduated" from middle school and was accepted into one of NYC's most prestigious high schools in Brooklyn where she'll start this fall.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, on Friday afternoon my niece and two of her close friends took a subway from Brooklyn to Penn Station and then caught a New Jersey Transit train out to Hamilton, New Jersey where my mother picked them up to host the three of them at her place in Lawrenceville for a birthday party weekend.

"Grandmom" has an extensive premium cable package, a 48" flat screen television, Wi-Fi and access to a private pool, so it was a nice summer excursion for three whip-smart teens from Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The following morning (Saturday) my sister came out from Brooklyn to join the birthday party, and I drove over to pick her up from Hamilton station; her train was scheduled to arrive at 12:30pm but it didn't pull in until about 12:55pm.

Now in the grand scheme of things, a 25 minute train delay is not a life-altering event, but just consider the small slice of life I illustrated above and magnify that by thousands and you can start to get a sense of how the recent rash of train delays have impacted the lives and plans of thousands and thousands of average everyday commuters who traveled back and forth between New Jersey and New York this past week.

Those delays made national headlines across a nation wrestling with crumbling infrastructure issues.

As I write these words the U.S. Senate (during a rare weekend session) gathers to vote today on an absurd amendment tucked into the long-delayed highway infrastructure spending bill by Republican Senators that would (drum roll please...) repeal the Affordable Care Act. 

As Jeff Goldman reported on the NJ.com Website on Friday morning, NJ Transit was still announcing train delays of at least 30 minutes going in and out of Penn Station even after the delays that disrupted commuter service on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) line on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

As commuter Jeff Schneider told New York TV station WCBS-2 during an interview on Friday about NJ Transit's response to the delays, “They raise fares 9 percent and then they say they have delays. ‘It’s Amtrak trouble,’ it’s always the same excuse,”

Hudson rail tunnel? Not a priority for Gov. Christie [Photo - AP]
In response to a flood of similar passenger complaints, on Thursday, a day after NJ Transit issued a public apology to thousands of outraged rail passengers, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie refused to answer a New York Times reporter's question about whether or not he cared about the NJ commuters impacted by the delays.

Frankly speaking, he doesn't care.

And it's not just because politically acitve billionaires like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and the other deep-pocketed Republican rainmakers whose campaign money Christie covets use private planes instead of NJ Transit trains.

During Christie's two terms he's had ample opportunity to work with the New Jersey legislature to authorize spending to start construction of the long-delayed project to build a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York, but he's flatly refused to do so.

In October of 2010, Christie canceled the start of construction on what was then known as the ARC Tunnel project because the cost of the project (estimated to be as high as $20 billion) would have meant increasing state taxes to help fund the state's share of the construction.

Grover Norquist, Republican architect of fiscal disaster
NJ taxpayers already pay some of the highest taxes in the nation and the rail tunnel project could have been financed with a modest increase of about 15 cents a gallon on gasoline, or through other proposed revenue growth methods.

But Christie, like so many other Republican governors, state legislators and at least 279 members of Congress, has quietly signed onto the bizarre "no new taxes" pledge of extremist anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform organization.

Republican governors like Sam Brownback of Kansas, or presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have literally dragged their state economies to the brink of fiscal disaster over their refusal to violate a pledge not to raise taxes to create much-needed state revenue.

But they stubbornly cling on to their "pledge" to Grover Norquist - a non-elected fringe "starve the beast" anti-tax advocate whose economic theories have been dismissed by actual economists like Christina and David Romer of the National Bureau of Economic Research, William Niskanen, chairman emeritus of the Cato Institute and Princeton economist, author and Princeton University professor Paul Krugman.

So instead of demonstrating visionary leadership to meet the infrastructure needs of NJ citizens, Christie has chosen to put his doomed presidential ambitions over the needs of the constituents he was elected to serve in order to be able to tell a fringe wing of the Republican party that he didn't raise taxes.   

In a statement last week, Christie even had the gall to try and pass blame for the train delays onto President Obama and the obstructionist do-nothing Republican-led Congress that has blocked the President's requests for a comprehensive infrastructure spending bill for the past seven years.

In an effort to deflect anger at his own refusal to use his political clout to address the rail infrastructure issue, Christie said: “We have tried again and again to work cooperatively with Amtrak to resolve these issues, but in the face of this repeated and unacceptable failure, I am calling on the Obama Administration and Congress to step up to their responsibility to the people of New Jersey and to the largest and most important regional infrastructure system in the nation.”

It's absurd.

Not because of Christie's politics, he's simply not a visionary leader capable of inspiring hope.

It's absurd because the train delays inconveniencing thousands of commuters are not a complex problem that just popped up out of nowhere, it's a fixable one. Let's go back to the rail tunnel project.

Construction of the North Tunnel 1905
As anyone who has taken an Amtrak or NJ Transit train between New Jersey and New York knows, commuter trains that travel back and forth between New York's Penn Station and the state of New Jersey pass through a pair of massive underground tunnels known as the North River Tunnels.

The tunnels sit side by side about 37 feet apart, they start on the west side of Manhattan near 11th avenue, pass underneath the Hudson River and end at an entry-exit point in Weehawken, New Jersey.

They were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and construction to dig the two shafts for the tunnels started in 1904.

They were first used to carry train traffic in 1910, so the current tunnels have been in use continually for 115 years in a regional rail network that's one of the heaviest traveled in the world.

During peak hours on weekdays at least 24 different trains per hour pass through the inbound tunnel in the morning, or the outbound New Jersey-bound tunnel in the afternoon-evenings.

The recent travel delays that affected so many commuters last week, stem from two basic facts, both of which are related to the age of the tunnels.

Pantograph on the top of an Amtrak train car
Most NJ Transit and Amtrak trains are powered by electricity which passes from the overhead catenary wires that run directly over the tracks through a series of those folding hinge mechanisms you see attached to the top of train cars called pantographs (pictured left).

During super storm Sandy, one of the two tunnels was flooded for the first time causing damage to the tunnel's structure, the drainage systems designed to prevent flooding and the overhead catenary wires that power the trains.

The overhead wires are over 80 years old.

The corrosion of the overhead catenary wires from the flood damage, combined with the strain on the system from overuse and extreme temperatures in summer and winter are what led to the disabled passenger train that got stuck in the tunnel last Monday when the temperatures were at least 100 degrees outside with the humidity.

It isn't just something that can be "fixed" by sending some workers into the tunnel and doing repairs.

Passenger rail traffic on the NEC line has increased exponentially over the years and the 115 year-old tunnels with their 80 year-old overhead wires simply weren't built to handle that kind of volume; not without major renovations and certainly not with the flood damage from Sandy.

And the clock is ticking. In 2014, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman went on record as saying that within 20 years, at least one of the tunnels would have to be shut down for an extended time period to conduct major repairs.

The only real "fix" is to begin construction on a new set of tunnels under the Hudson River as soon as possible so that rail service is ready to be switched over to the new tunnels before the current tunnel is forced to be shut down.

It's the kind of large-scale project that needs active broad-based support from a coalition of public and private interests, and co-financed by a combination of federal and state spending; including the sale of bonds.

The federal government has already committed billions in funds to the project but cost over runs would be the responsibility of the state of New Jersey and that means raising taxes and Chris Christie won't violate his pledge to Grover Norquist.

Sound absurd given the scope of the problem and how many people are affected? It is.

Construction should have started years ago but unfortunately we're stuck with the most unproductive and politically polarized Republican Congress in American history and a Republican Governor in New Jersey who lacks the vision, guts and political will to get the project started.

The costs? An estimated $20 billion. Amtrak already has engineering, planning and environmental impact studies underway for what's currently being called the "Gateway Project".

But what's sad is the reality that the federal government was willing to squander over $1 trillion on a failed, decade-long war in Iraq that killed thousands of people but didn't make us any safer.

$20 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to the tax dollars spent in Iraq on George W. Bush's un-financed war; remember, he flatly refused to raise taxes for the war.
 
In the meantime it's taxpayers who use Amtrak and NJ Transit to get in and out of New York who are paying the price for politicians who just keep passing the buck and burying their heads in the sand from the inevitable truth.

The commuter delays we saw last week will seem like nothing compared to what happens if one of the current rail tunnels is forced to close in the next ten to fifteen years.

If one of those tunnels is closed, the resulting increase in vehicular traffic in and out of New York City will have an equally nightmarish effect on commuters and could have totally unforeseen effects on the economy.

What if the commute becomes such a nightmare that some large employers decide to pack up and relocate from New York because it's already too expensive for their employees to raise families there and getting to and from work would become next to impossible?

What if one of the tunnels is forced to close ten years before construction starts on the new tunnel?

What if Chris Christie put as much energy into forging a lasting political legacy built on being the governor who got the high-speed tunnel project started?

What if he put the same energy into improving the lives of commuters and improving New Jersey's infrastructure as he does enacting revenge on politicians who oppose him, or lambasting teachers and union members who question his policies on pension reform?

What if Christie had just gone ahead and approved the start of the project back in 2010? The shafts for the new tunnel might have been half-way to New York by now and Christie might have been viewed as a presidential candidate unafraid to tackle the kinds of large-scale challenges other politicians shirk from.

But as it is, yesterday my niece turned fourteen years-old and she may very well be thirty four by the time the new Hudson rail tunnels are completed.

Maybe starting construction on the new tunnels is kind of like turning fourteen; once you do there's no turning back. And though that comes with a whole new set of challenges and obstacles, ultimately it's a good thing.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Witness That "Really Couldn't See Anything" & Edited Video That Wasn't Edited

NYPD arrest protesters on 34th street in NYC (Photo Scott Heins)
"I’m still just at a loss for words, honestly, about this whole process. How this switching lanes with no signal turned into all of this, I don’t even know."

That's a quote from the transcript of a newly-released voice-mail that 28 year-old Sandra Bland left for a friend after being arrested and  booked for an illegal lane change in Hempsted, Texas back on July 10th.

Frankly, like many around the nation I'm still at a loss for words myself and the questions in this case outweigh the answers.

Despite statements from Waller County, Texas officials claiming autopsy results prove that Sandra Bland's death while in custody was a result of suicide, vigils, marches and protests like the one (pictured above) that took place in mid-town Manhattan last night reflect a deep skepticism of local Texas authorities' account of how an African-American woman pulled over for failure to signal a lane change ended up asphyxiated by a garbage bag tied around her neck.

State trooper Brian Encinia
The release of the dash cam video showing Texas state trooper Brian T. Encinia (pictured left), who previously worked for a dairy and as a fireman before becoming a state trooper in 2014, escalating a confrontation with Bland during a questionable traffic stop only adds doubt about the quick conclusions reached by Waller County officials.

Conclusions which of course absolve the police and blame Bland, her mental state and traces of marijuana found in her system for her own death.

During the video, Encinia can be heard and seen getting unnecessarily confrontational and aggressive with Bland after asking her to put out her cigarette; and that's before he pulls out a taser and threatens that "I will light you up" if she does not comply with his orders to exit her car.

Several sections of the dash cam video appear to have been clearly and intentionally edited, though local officials on Wednesday chalked that up to unspecified problems uploading the approximately 52-minute video to YouTube.

Officials later re-released yet another version of the video. Which is almost as sketchy as making easily detected edits to the original version then denying it had been edited.

Now another woman named Alexandria Pyle who had been jailed for unpaid parking tickets at the same time that Bland was being held has come forward to tell a local ABC affiliate station that she believes Bland committed suicide.

The problem with the opinion she gave during the interview is that Pyle is not an expert, nor was she sworn in to give testimony or cross-examined.

Cell where Sandra Bland was found dead on July 13th
Pyle wasn't even in the same cell with Bland.

During the interview she also admitted that the only way she could see or communicate with Bland was through a very small rectangular opening in the door of the cell; as she herself said, "So I really couldn't see anything."

So it's kind of interesting that she appears on television as a "witness" to a suicide she admits she didn't actually witness.

Waller County officials better hope Pyle's unpaid parking tickets didn't "magically disappear" - it certainly wouldn't surprise me if Waller County has it's own version of Ferguson, Missouri's Mary Ann Twitty.

Remember what her magic wand did to tickets issued to friends of municipal employees in Ferguson?

Personally, I join many others in remaining unswayed in the opinion that something wrong happened in that jail between the confrontation caught on dash cam and the time she was supposedly found on the morning of July 13th.

This is far from over though, and thus far it's clear that there a lot more questions than answers.

But the FBI is still investigating the incident and Sandra Bland's family still intends to conduct an independent autopsy of her body with a different medical examiner.

In the meantime protests are continuing in Hempstead, Houston and even New York City where  a large group of protesters made their way through mid-town Manhattan last evening and 14 people were eventually arrested by members of the NYPD for staging a peaceful sit-down at 34 street and 6th ave in Herald Square just next to Macy's and a block from Penn Station.

As 23 year-old Celeste Russell of Dallas, Texas told Gothamist reporter Scott Heins during the march last night in New York City: "It's heartbreaking. Because as a black body in this country, you're never allowed to be innocent until proven guilty." 

As the deaths of Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and so many other members of The Counted at the hands of police officers attest, these days the concept of "innocent until proven guilty" are words that seem to apply selectively. 

Words that certainly didn't apply to many of the 648 The Counted has identified as having been killed by members of American law enforcement this year.

Time and evidence will tell if Sandra Bland gets added to that list.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Trumpiness & Republican Hypocrisy

I'm certainly not the only person wondering when the Republican party is finally going to decide to disassociate themselves from conceited pontificating egomaniac huckster Donald Trump.

After having the temerity to criticize Arizona Senator John McCain for having been shot down over Hanoi during a bombing mission in October 1967, captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and then held in captivity as a POW for five years during which he was brutally and continually tortured and beaten, Trump has finally begun to irk even some prominent members of the GOP.

In all honesty, is THAT what it really took for conservatives to crack down on Trump's fringe lunacy?

His tiresome and demeaning verbal tirades were aptly characterized as "Trumpiness" earlier this morning by WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer during an interesting discussion with Wall Street Journal reporter Elizabeth Williamson on The Brian Lehrer Show.

It was remarkable that leading Republican presidential candidates pretty much ignored or tolerated Trump's divisive and flagrantly racist comments about Mexican immigrants. Some even agreed with him.

South Carolina Lindsey Graham was really only the one of them to publicly condemn the comments and suggest the Republican party needed to repudiate Trump once and for all.

But as an article by Judd Legum posted on ThinkProgress.org observes, some of the very same GOP candidates who were so quick to cloak themselves in righteous patriotic outrage over Trump's delusional dismissal of Senator McCain's service in Vietnam, also openly supported the Swift Boating of Secretary John Kerry's service during Vietnam.

2005 letter from Jeb Bush thanking Swift Boaters (Peter Daou)
In his article, Legum gives props to blogger Peter Daou for posting a copy of the 2005 letter from then Florida Governor Jeb Bush to Colonel George Day that actually thanks the Swift Boaters for their "service" to his brother George W. Bush's efforts to get elected in 2004.

Day was one of the vets who appeared in the notorious Swift Boat TV ads that trashed John Kerry's Vietnam service record using accusations that were later proved to be inaccurate or completely false.
 
So when someone is tarnishing a Democratic politician's Vietnam service record to score political points for a Republican candidate, it's okay.

But when someone tarnishes a Republican's Vietnam service record it's an outrage?

As Legum's article and Daou's blog post show, it's like hypocrisy on steroids.

But what's even more offensive in my opinion is that these same Republican presidential candidates who need Latino support to win the White House in 2016, showed none of the outrage over Trump's zenophobia, racism and immigrant fear-mongering that they voiced over Trump's comments over McCain's war record.

It tells you a lot about today's Republican party, who seem quite content to allow Donald Trump to represent their brand as he stumps for the primary vote; even when he's denigrating people because of their country of origin.

Trumpiness indeed.

Right about now Hillary is cracking her knuckles and laughing her ass off.

Friday, July 17, 2015

What Really Happened to Sandra Bland?

Sandra Bland known as "Sandy" to her family
July 17, 2015.

It's been one year to the day since NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo used an illegal choke hold on an already-subdued Staten Island resident named Eric Garner as he pleaded "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" before dying in the street like an animal.

Despite video evidence taken at the scene, a Staten Island grand jury heard the evidence and failed to indict Pantaleo and he's still on active duty with the NYPD to this day.

Sadly, today also marks one week since Sandra Bland, a 28 year-old African-American woman from Napersville, Illinois (pictured left) was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for failure to signal a lane change at about 4:30pm on July 10th.

What happened between the time the trooper approached her vehicle and Bland and the trooper got into some kind of verbal disagreement still isn't clear, but video footage of a portion of the traffic stop that was taken by a bystander shows Bland face down in the grass on the side of the road with a member of law enforcement on top of her with his knee in her back holding her down while other unidentified officers stand around over her.

Sandra Bland on the right with an officer on top of her
In the video Bland can be heard arguing about having been slammed to the ground by the trooper and according to an article in The Chicago Tribune posted last evening, Bland's older sister Sharon Cooper stated:

“We understand that she was stopped,” Cooper said. “We understand that she felt that she was handled very harshly. That she was handled in a way that was overzealous from her perspective.”

How Bland's failure to use a turn signal to make a lane change elicited that kind of response still isn't clear either, but according to a statement by a spokesman for the Texas Department of Safety, Erik Burse, Bland was about to be released with a warning but she allegedly kicked the officer at the scene.

Waller County Jail where Sandra Bland's life ended
Bland was eventually handcuffed, placed in a cruiser and taken to the Waller County Sheriff's Office & County Jail located in Hempstead, Texas about 50 miles northwest of Houston (pictured left).

Bland was booked for "assault on a public servant" and placed in one of two "tanks" inside the jail facility specifically reserved for women; and it was there she was found dead about 9am Monday morning less than three days after her roadside confrontation with the trooper.

What happened to Bland inside that jail is still a mystery but her death has sparked global outrage and demands for answers from citizens, politicians (including Texas State Senator Royce West and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee), clergy and activist organizations including the local Houston chapter of the NAACP.

Tricia Bentley, a spokesperson for the Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences in Houston where an autopsy of Bland's body was conducted on Tuesday, said the cause of death was ruled suicide by hanging.

Statements from Waller County officials indicate Bland was given breakfast at 7am Monday morning and the last time guards saw her alive was about 8am when she asked them about using a phone through an intercom. She was later found about 9am with a garbage bag tied around her neck that had been secured to a partition in the ceiling of the jail cell.

But it's not just the strange circumstances of Bland's death, it's also the county where it occured.

According to an article by St. John Barned-Smith published in The Houston Chronicle earlier this morning, "Waller County has a complicated racial history. With a largely rural population, the county still ranked among the state's highest in a study from the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative that tallied lynchings from 1877 to 1950, with 15 documented cases. And the current sheriff was suspended as Hempstead police chief in 2007 for racist behavior."

Waller County Sheriff Glenn R. Smith
The Sheriff in question, Glenn R. Smith (pictured left) who also spoke at a press conference about the incident last week, is part of Waller County's "complicated racial history" too.

According to an article by Eric Hanson published in The Houston Chronicle back in April, 2008, Smith was fired from his job as Hempstead police chief following allegations leveled against him and four officers of police misconduct towards African-Americans during a "mistaken drug raid and a strip search conducted on area youths by Hempstead police."

After being fired as police chief Smith was selected as the Republican candidate for Waller County Sheriff and won.

When his removal from office was brought up by a reporter at a press conference on Thursday, Smith dismissed the allegations of racism as being politically motivated and insisted that "Black lives matter to Glenn Smith." 

Interestingly Smith isn't the only official involved in the investigation of Sandra Bland that seems to be part of Waller County's "complicated racial history" either.

Waller County DA Elton Mathis
District Attorney Elton Mathis, the Waller County prosecutor handling Bland's case, was publicly accused in June of sending some troubling and threatening text messages to Reverend Walter Pendleton according to an article by Bobby Blanchard posted on The Houston Chronicle Website on June 3rd.

Whether the text messages are threatening or not isn't clear, but they are rather disturbing considering they were sent by a DA in response to a request that he provide information to clarify allegations that he tends to prosecute African-Americans at a much higher rate than whites in Waller County.

Mathis did announce that he will request that a grand jury review the evidence to see if charges should be brought in response to regards to Sandra Bland's death.

Regardless it's not any one single thing in this case that makes it so controversial, after all Waller County is near the campus of the predominantly-black Prairie View A&M and in the past there have been allegations that county officials actively blocked black college students from voting.

It's a combination of the fact that two major officials involved with the investigation in Waller County have had charges of racial bias leveled against them before.

Plus in comments made in interviews and during a press conference held by the members of Bland's family, and in a number of messages posted on social media by her friends and former college classmates, all who knew her insist she was not suicidal or prone to the kind of deep depression that would lead her to take her own life by hanging herself with a garbage bag.

She was a gifted and active student and a graduate of Prairie View A&M, and she'd just gotten a new job at her alma mater; which is where she was headed when she was stopped by the Texas state trooper last Friday.

To add to the intrigue, she was also an active supporter of Black Lives Matter and used her Facebook page to protest against police violence against, and mistreatment of people of color.

Given the fishy circumstances of her death and the intensity of global media attention to this case at a time when the high-profile deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of overzealous police is already such a major domestic issue, we can expect to hear much more about the facts of this case in the coming days as members of Bland's family and their attorney head to Hempstead to get answers about what happened inside the Waller County Jail last Monday morning.

In the wake of media pressure, demands for answers from politicians and petitions signed by thousands of people around the nation, the Texas Department of Safety has called on the FBI to review the evidence as it emerges.

Regardless it's yet another case of members of local Texas law enforcement reacting with excessive physical force against an unarmed African-American woman that is totally disproportionate to the relatively minor infraction for which she was stopped.   

Frankly it's a disgrace that a minor traffic citation like an illegal lane change would lead to someone being arrested, let alone loosing their life.

It's a sad statement about where we are as a nation as Sandra Bland becomes yet another member of The Counted.