Saturday, June 23, 2018

Art All Night: The Iron Pipeline Flows Into New Jersey

Police tape still surrounds the Roebling Wire Works
in Trenton after last Sunday's shooting at Art All Night 
As an American fed up with Trump and the do-nothing Republican-majority Congress, it was encouraging to hear billionaire Michael Bloomberg announce that he will personally donate $80 million to help Democratic candidates retake the House of Representatives this fall.

Since 2014, Bloomberg has put his money behind ending gun violence by bankrolling Everytown For Gun Safety; the non-profit that campaigns for gun control laws across the U.S.

With the Republican-majority House and Senate refusing to draft legislation to strengthen gun laws and control the loopholes that put illegal guns in the hands of people who shouldn't have them, the need for grass roots organizations like Everytown For Gun Safety, and it's associated groups Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has never been more urgent.

By now, the standard script for leading Republican politicians in Washington following horrific mass shootings is all too familiar; meaningless "thoughts and prayers" followed by the pious insistence that new laws restricting access to firearms aren't needed in America - "we just need to enforce the existing laws."

Laws which Republican politicians constantly undermine at the behest of the NRA and the gun lobby.

But with a staggering 6,795 Americans having been killed by firearms this year already, it's clear to most people that those laws are not being properly and consistently enforced.

Case in point: the terrifying shooting that took place at the annual 24-hour Art All Night festival in Trenton, New Jersey early last Sunday morning; one of the preeminent arts festivals in the Delaware Valley area that attracts as many as 20,000 people from 3pm Saturday when it opens, to 3pm Sunday when it closes.

I snapped this photo of an artist creating
glass designs at Trenton's 2017 Art All Night
While I make it a point to post statistics on gun violence in America on this blog as often as time permits, last Sunday's horrifying shooting in Trenton, which took place in the midst of hundreds of people, hit a little too close to home for me.

After moving back east from Los Angeles in 2011, my mom originally told me about the 24-hour festival that celebrates creativity, art and brings diverse crowds of people and a much-needed safe and engaging sense of nightlife to downtown Trenton - and I've been attending Art All Night since 2012.

Last year, after touring the hundreds of paintings, murals, sculptures and displays featuring crafts like live metalworking and glass blowing, I left the festival just after 2am clutching a styrofoam container full of takeout Caribbean food from one of the many food trucks and vendor stands parked just outside the massive Roebling Wire Works building where the event takes place.

My last memory of being at Art All Night last summer is still vivid - a warm, humid evening with the sounds of a band playing onstage filling the area, as I strolled out through the crowds (some still coming in at 2am) to the parking lot with a light rain starting to fall.

Not to be overly dramatic, but over the past few days I keep thinking about the fact that last year I was leaving at just about the same time that the shooting last Sunday morning took place.

This past Saturday night I actually had every intention of going to Art All Night, but I had problems with my internet service after installing a new cable modem I purchased.

After about 30 minutes on the phone with an Optimum Online tech support guy, he figured out the issue and reset my internet service, but I had to disconnect the new modem I'd bought and installed, and then reconnect the old one.

At that point I was frazzled and just wasn't in the mood to get dressed and drive into the city because I'd worked that day, had gone to the gym, and was just feeling too turfed - I figured I'd try and go Sunday morning instead.

Art All Night Shooting suspects Tahij Wells, 32,
and Amir Armstrong, 23; Wells was killed by police
So, I opted to just stay in and work on the blog I published last Sunday and then watched Netflix; and I'm glad I did.

The shooting outside Art All Night made national headlines, and while the incident itself is still under investigation, some strange information about what happened before the shooting has surfaced.

According to news reports, Mercer County prosecutors are investigating a Facebook post that appeared hours before the shooting warning people not to go to Art All Night because "They will be shooting it up."

On Tuesday afternoon I watched a TV news update on the investigation on WABC-Philadelphia while I was at the gym, the reporter said that the woman who posted that message is a school teacher here in Hamilton, NJ where I live.

Apparently, she'd left the area and driven down to North Carolina before the shooting happened, but it's still not clear how she knew there might be a shooting at the festival - she did speak with the Mercer County Prosecutor's office and has also apparently retained an attorney.

Like many, I'm curious to know why a school teacher wouldn't contact the police (or the organizers of Art All Night) if she had some kind of knowledge that a shooting was going to take place in a crowded public place.

And how did she know about it in the first place?

My mom has been attending Art All Night for years, and she was there earlier last Saturday evening until about 10pm with my sister about four and a half hours before the shooting happened.

She said there was definitely conversation inside the venue about groups of young guys wandering through the crowded festival who looked a little suspicious - multiple reports have said Trenton PD had asked festival organizers to shut down the event earlier than usual because the mood was supposedly turning dark.

Investigators are now saying the shooting was some kind of local neighborhood beef over gang territory, and that's really sad because Art All Night is one of the bright spots of a sadly-neglected city with a rich history that's been decimated over the years by loss of a once-vibrant manufacturing sector that used to support a thriving middle class in Trenton.

The Roebling Wire Works building in Trenton
where Art All Night is held each year
As I've blogged about before, Trenton's gradual decline is a story familiar in places like Detroit, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Indiana or places like Allentown and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

So-called "rust belt cities" where the decline of  middle class communities was brought about (in part) by the closure of large industrial manufacturers who required vast pools of labor - employers like the massive Bethlehem Steel operations in the Lehigh Valley.

In the same way that steel produced in Bethlehem, PA helped to fuel America's war effort during World War II (Bethlehem Steel's 15 shipyards around the country produced 1,121 ships for the U.S. Navy in WWII, more than any other company), Trenton's Roebling Wire Works also had a lasting footprint on American industry and culture.

The Roebling Wire Works building where Art All Night takes place (pictured above), was originally one of seven different buildings that made up the massive Roebling Steel Co. complex in Trenton.

The enormous strands of woven steel wire strung between the massive towers of the Brooklyn, Golden Gate and George Washington Bridges were all manufactured by Roebling Steel in Trenton.

From a geographic standpoint, Trenton was well positioned to become an industrial hub with it's proximity to the more than 130 miles of nearby canals offered by the Delaware & Raritan and Delaware Canals - and of course it's position right next to the Delaware River.

As Kelsey Wojdyla reported in an article for the Trenton Times, starting with the first gristmill built by Mahlon Stacy in Trenton back in 1679, the city forged a reputation as an industrial hub that eventually produced everything from iron, steel, and rubber, to flour, pottery, fine ceramics, cement and candles.

The influence of Trenton's industrial manufacturing sector expanded well beyond the Delaware Valley region and northeastern United States to impact the country as a whole.

Steel manufactured in Trenton is in the dome of
the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
For example, weapons for the Revolutionary War were manufactured in Trenton in the 1700's.

As were components for the cockpit of the American-made P-51 Mustang fighter plane which helped turn the tide of WWII for the Allied effort to defeat Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Japan - one of many items produced in Trenton for WWII in the 1940's.

The Trenton Iron Company, once the largest iron manufacturer in America, produced wrought iron beams for the U.S. Capitol dome, as well as the Treasury building in Washington, D.C.

So the five buildings that remain of the Roebling Steel complex aren't just structures, they serve as remnants of a past era when Trenton supported thousands of manufacturing jobs - monuments to America's days as a global industrial power.

The fact that one of those buildings has now been repurposed as a public events space where thousands of people from all over the Delaware Valley can come to celebrate art and bring a much-needed sense of life back into the city is one of the things that makes the shooting last weekend such a tragedy.

Something as petty as a senseless feud over gang territory overshadowing the efforts that go into making Art All Night a success is an unfortunate blow to the ongoing efforts by citizens, politicians, business owners, clergy, teachers, police officers and volunteers to transform and revitalize Trenton as a city worthy of being the state capital of New Jersey.

A city with access to mass transit that can start to lure working professionals back to the inner city, and with them the critical tax revenue that's essential for funding the kinds of city services that are that are the basis for any successful and thriving urban center.

A photo I took around 1am inside Art
All Night back in June, 2017 
The success of Art All Night is proof that art can serve as a catalyst to urban renewal as it has in New York City, and frankly it's a miracle more people weren't killed and injured in the shooting last Sunday morning.

According to the latest data from, as of June 23rd there have been 142 different mass shootings in the United States.

But the number of bills passed by the Republican-majority Congress to control gun violence stands at zero.

Republican politicians who refuse to pass new federal gun control legislation argue that existing gun control laws need to be enforced.

But New Jersey already has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, and as Democratic Governor Phil Murphy noted last week in the wake of last week's shooting, the "iron pipeline" continues to bring a flow of illegal guns to New Jersey.

As the editorial board of the Newark Star-Ledger observed in an editorial back in May after Murphy held a press conference with Gabby Giffords announcing new measures to control gun violence in New Jersey, 77% of the guns used in crimes in this state come from other states - particularly Pennsylvania where gun control laws are far more lax.

Those guns arrive via the "iron pipeline" that brings weapons purchased in states with lax gun control laws (and Republican-majority state legislatures) like Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania up the I-95 corridor where they're then sold and purchased illegally without any kind of federal background check or oversight.

As the Star-Ledger editorial reported:

"Just this month, New Jersey cops arrested a Pennsylvania man for trying to sell an AK-47 [assault) rifle, three AR-15 rifles, high-capacity magazines and more than 100 rounds of ammunition to buyers here."

Fortunately, with a Democratic Governor now in office, New Jersey politicians are working on bipartisan measures to close the loopholes in gun control laws put into place by former NJ Governor Chris Christie to improve his standing with conservative American voters in other states.

Gabby Giffords with NJ Gov. Phil Murphy (right)
announcing new gun control measures in May
For example, Christie remarkably spent years obstructing a bill to limit access to firearms to people convicted of domestic violence or who are under restraining orders.

And he only reluctantly signed S2483 into law in January 2017 in the final months of his last term in office after the Democratic-controlled state legislature threatened to override his veto of the legislation supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

But in the meantime, Republican lawmakers in Washington refuse to act to close gaps in gun control laws.

As long as they refuse enact to pass legislation to close loopholes that put illegal guns in the hands of those who shouldn't have access to them, people will continue to be killed and injured.

And remember, a staggering 6,795 Americans have been killed by firearms and 12,858 injured this year already - and it's only June.

In the wake of these horrifying instances of terror, one of the most common reactions heard from bystanders, witnesses, relatives of the victims or members of the community where mass shootings have taken place is both sad and prophetic:

"I never imagined that it would happen here."

But within the past year, especially among some of the students whose schools have been the site of mass shootings, more and more the phrase being heard is, "I knew it was only a matter of time." 

There's something deeply troubling about that kind of grim resignation that extreme gun violence is now simply a part of the American landscape.

People enjoy some of the paintings at Art All Night
As if it's perfectly normal for thousands of American civilians to be killed by firearms in  homes, schools, streets, malls and churches across the country.

Personally speaking, those kinds of thoughts have passed through my mind as I watched or read news coverage of the Art All Night shooting - incidents which occur with such startling regularity these days.

As a current resident of Hamilton, New Jersey, and as someone who's lived in the Mercer County area on and off for 33 years, I have no illusions about the challenges facing Trenton.

With limited tax revenue for properly-funded public schools, after-school programs, youth job initiatives and even libraries, it's not surprising that shootings and gang activity have been an unfortunate part of the landscape of the city of Trenton for decades.

But those incidents don't have to define Trenton, or the people who live and work in the comunity.

And neither will right-wing assholes like NRA-TV host Grant Stinchfield - who had the nerve to theatrically (and Trump-ishly) dismiss Trenton as a "hell hole overrun by gang violence" in a video commentary after the shooting last week.

The enduring success and popularity of Art All Night is proof positive that art can be a catalyst for meaningful positive change in a community facing so many socioeconomic challenges.

In five months the midterm elections take place, and Americans will have the chance to elect politicians to Congress who will have the courage to pass laws that will shut down the kinds of loopholes that currently allow illegal guns to flow into Trenton through the "iron pipeline" along the I-95 corridor that runs along the east coast.

That would be an important step towards revitalizing Trenton and helping it to once again become an attractive destination to live, work and play - to help it to thrive in the way it once did years ago. 

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, people will be able to look back and point to Trenton as an example of how art can be both transformational and healing.

For both the city, and the people who live there.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

In Bocca al Lupo: Italy's Resurgent Nationalism

Fall, 2017: Dejected Italian players after losing 1-0 to
Sweden to miss Italy's 1st World Cup in 60 years 
Last Thursday night I stopped by my local pub after work to have a couple beers and catch some highlights of the first World Cup match and the first round of the U.S. Open.

Apparently it had been a lively happy hour so I came in on a "customer shift change" when a number of people who'd been there since late afternoon were getting ready to take off, and a couple regulars, like myself, were just stopping in.

I was still sipping my first beer when my friend Franco came in and took a seat at the bar next to me.

Franco is first generation Italian-American, he was born in a small coastal town in Italy and his parents emigrated here to the U.S. when he was still very young; if you met him in person and heard him speak, you wouldn't know he speaks fluent Italian.

Franco and I lamented the fact that both Italy and the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but given their long soccer tradition, it's a much bigger deal that a World Cup power like Italy isn't on the pitch this year.

The Italians have won four World Cup titles (1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006) and they played in the finals in 1970 and 1994; for perspective, perennial power Germany has four cups, and Brazil has five.

As someone with an interest in both history and cinema, over the past couple years I've used this blog as a platform to reflect on both the broader impact of World War II on Italian society, and the lasting influence of the Italian neorealism film movement.

Stunned Italian soccer fans watch as Italy loses to
Sweden and fails to qualify for the 2018 World Cup
Such as my October 4, 2016 blog on PTSD and director Roberto Rossellini's 1946 film Paisan, the second film in his masterful trilogy on WWII. 

So I genuinely both sympathize and empathize with how many Italians must be feeling as the excitement of the 2018 World Cup gets underway in Russia with their beloved "Azzurri" not taking part in the planet's most preeminent soccer tournament for the first time in 60 years.

In a country where reverence for soccer takes on an almost religious fervor, Italy's heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Sweden back in November, which eliminated the Azzurri from World Cup contention, still reverberates across the nation.

Especially in a politically tumultuous country that is still reeling from the repercussions of the 2008 global financial crisis, a fragmented European Union, and the divisive, ongoing debate over the undocumented immigrants that have poured across Italy's borders over the past few years.

As Turin, Italy resident and noted Italian soccer fan and podcaster Fabrizio de Rosa told reporter Sintia Radu last week in an interview for US News:

"There is a feeling in Italy that we are living in decline. And this was also reflected in the way we play soccer. People would always try to draw comparisons between how we play soccer and how the country's doing. In reality, in 2006, (when) we won the World Cup, people were happy and politicians were talking about the renaissance of Italy, but then that never really came. Actually, we had the (financial) crisis in 2008." 

Trump's immigration policies have sparked dozens
of protests across the US in June
[Photo Spence Platt/Getty] 
That same gnawing sense of internal frustration over stagnant economic growth and flat wages for the poor and middle class that drove millions of angry white American voters to cast votes for Donald Trump in 2016, is felt across Europe  as well.

Whether you chose to call the reckless and hyper-partisan brand of politics that now define America's Republican party "populism", or "nationalism", it's rooted in the same kind of division and chaos that defines the current White House agenda.

For example, while Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and white supremacist White House advisor Stephen Miller are responsible for revoking DACA and initiating a "zero tolerance" policy on immigration that instructs U.S. Border Patrol agents to separate the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents, Trump took to Twitter to blame Democrats for the policy.

But as Miller told the New York Times in an interview last week, "It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period."

So given that Trump's own senior advisor acknowledges that the policy was a "decision by the (Trump) administration", either Trump is lying to try and deflect the growing criticism his administration is facing for incarcerating young children - or he doesn't fully grasp that the Republican Party controls both the House and Senate, and therefore Republicans are responsible for introducing and passing legislation to be sent to the president to sign into law.

In my view, Trump is lying, and his childish attempts to blame Democrats for his own racist, anti-immigrant policies is little more than a chaotic and desperate ploy to try and bully Congress into authorizing $25 - $30 billion of taxpayer funds for the construction of the "wall" he promised his supporters Mexico would pay for.

Ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon and French National
Front leader Marine Le Pen at a press conf. in March
The toxic fumes of that foul political wind blew across the Atlantic in the wake of the 2016 Trump campaign, fanning an already-surging Brexit movement in Britain that saw 51.9% of participating Brits vote to leave the European Union in 2016.

Even though some recent polls suggested many later regretted the decision, and a recent CBI study suggests 18 of 23 British business sectors want to remain in the EU.

The Trump phenomenon and the UK Brexit vote arguably encouraged the rise of the right-wing (and decidedly-authoritarian) National Front during the 2017 presidential elections in France - but that ultimately ended with the centrist, pro-EU former economic minister Emmanuel Macron trouncing his conservative, anti-immigrant opponent Marine LePen (pictured above).

Two weeks ago the same anti-immigrant hysteria that Trump regularly uses as a tool to fire up his base (as if parents with young children seeking asylum represent a national security threat), prompted a strange coalition of right-wing political parities to assume control of the Italian government in a strange kind of "non-majority majority".

Neither the Northern League, or the Five-Star Movement (also known as M5S) had enough of a political majority to assume leadership of the government, but together, after some tricky negotiations, the two parties (along with other minor parties) cobbled together a coalition government that has a shaky mathematics-denying 67-seat majority in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies.

(Think House of Representatives but with 195 more seats and dozens of different political parties that must form alliances to form coalition governments to achieve a functioning majority.)

Fake resume? So what! Italian PM Giuseppe Conte
This latest "populist" coalition is essentially rooted in lashing out at the existing political establishment, pushing back against European Union control of Italian monetary policy, and stoking the fires of nationalism.

And of course, exploiting growing frustration over mass migration from North Africa and the Middle East.

The leader of this strange coalition is Giuseppe Conte, a rather obscure 53-year-old law professor.

Professor Conte has held no government office, has no political experience and is the country's 5th unelected prime minister in a row, but Italian President Sergio Mattarella asked M5S leader Luigi Di Maio and the Italian Parliament to back him as sort of a "compromise prime minster" that would be acceptable to the members of the fragile center-right populist coalition.

As The Economist reported back on May 24th, the new PM was elected despite the fact that:

"Mr. Conte had padded his professional CV with courses abroad that he had neither taken nor taught. His curriculum stated that he had 'perfected his legal studies' at numerous seats of learning, including New York University, the Sorbonne, and an 'International Kultur Institut' in Vienna. But NYU had no record of Mr. Conte. Nor had the Sorbonne. And the seemingly august Austrian Institute turned out to be a language school." 

So Mr. "perfected his legal studies" will now lead the Italian government during a critical time in the country's post WWII history.

Italy's new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini
But fear not, Conte won't be alone to tackle the challenges facing Italy.

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, a former radio host who has made a career out of stirring up resentment over undocumented immigrants, was tapped as the Ministry of the Interior and quickly set off on a tour of the country promoting his desire to close Italy's borders and begin mass deportations.

As the BBC reported two weeks ago, at a League rally in northern Italy, he announced that it was time to tell undocumented immigrants seeking asylum and work in Italy, "Get ready to pack your bags."

To be fair there's little doubt that Italy, like other Western European nations, are facing a range of political, social and economic issues related to the unprecedented waves of undocumented immigrants that have poured into Europe in the past few years.

But I'm not sure electing the Italian version of Trump or Rush Limbaugh to handle the immigration crisis is really the answer either - after all, Matteo Salvini (like Trump) is a man who plays to stereotypes, fears and ethnic and racial hatred as a means to consolidate his own power.

It's not just anti-immigrant views either, two weeks ago global markets and bank stocks didn't react well to the news that the right-leaning 81-year-old Paolo Savona was tapped as the Ministry of Finance by both the League and M5S.

Italian President Mattarella quickly rejected him as markets panicked over the fact that Savona was a staunch opponent of the Euro who advocates Italy leaving the EU and reintroducing it's own currency - despite the fact that debt consumes a staggering 132% of Italy's Gross Domestic Product.

The question for many Italians is should such views be the basis for forming a new government?

Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler take in the
sights in Germany, June, 1940
And can such a fragile coalition government based on those ideas realistically last?

From a historical standpoint, it's disturbing that Italy, which birthed an early 20th century Fascist government (eventually led by Benito Mussolini) that aligned itself with the delusional nationalistic aspirations of Nazi Germany, now seems to be touting similar elements that birthed the Fascist Spanish government under dictator Francisco Franco starting in 1939.

In these volatile times it should be pointed out that the militaries of both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy used the bloody three-year Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1939) as a proving ground for some of the weapons, aircraft, munitions and battlefield tactics that would be used in WWII starting in September of 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.

The countries may be different, as are the names of the political parties that have embraced a distinctly far-right agenda, but the staunchly conservative policies, including an embrace of anti-immigrant hysteria, the scapegoating of minority populations for the nation's problems and a disturbing flirtation with authoritarianism (jailing and killing writers, teachers and journalists etc.), are basically identical.

Again, while I'm not Italian and respect the right of Italians to elect who they want to office, casually dismissing the thousands of men, women and children who've risked their lives to flee famine, war, drought, poverty and repressive governments in northern Africa and the Mid-East as "violent African migrants" as some conservatives have done on social media, is a dangerous road to start down.

Time will tell whether the new fragile "populist" coalition in Rome will actually govern on behalf of the Italian people - or if it simply becomes an outlet for irrational anti-immigrant hysteria, crass bigotry and indifference to human suffering.

But it's sad to think how quickly some seem to forget the massive human and economic ruin of WWII that devastated Italy and so many other nations - a horror brought about in no small part by the rise in "populist" governments and creeping authoritarianism sewing division across the European continent today.

Sadly, for Italians, their beloved Azzurri not playing in the 2018 World Cup could be the least of their problems - depending on which direction the newly appointed leaders of their fragile governing coalition decide to take the country.

Based on Trump's chaotic year and a half in office, to the Italians I can only say, In bocca al lupo.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Marco Munoz & Republican's Ignoble Cause

39-YO Honduran father Marco Antonio
Munoz committed suicide on May 12th 
For many Americans, it's been jaw-dropping to listen to Republican Attorney General Jeff Sessions try and use border security to justify the Trump administration's heartless decision to order U.S. Border Patrol agents to separate children from their parents when undocumented families cross into the United States.

Few cases illustrate the intentional cruelty of that policy more than Marco Antonio Munoz, whose death in a Texas jail cell has sparked outrage.

As initially reported by the Washington Post, after Munoz crossed into the U.S. with his wife and three-year-old son at the border in Granejo, Texas on May 12th, he turned himself into Border Patrol agents and requested asylum for his family.

After the three family members were taken into custody and brought to a processing center in McAllen, TX, about nine miles away, Border Patrol agents informed them that they would be separated, and Munoz, understandably upset and likely exhausted after traveling hundreds of miles north from Honduras, became enraged.

Unable to calm him down, agents took him to the Starr County, TX jail where he was eventually found dead in a pool of his own blood on the floor of a padded cell with some cloth wrapped around his neck on the morning of May 13th.

That horrifying scene (Border Patrol agents reportedly had to physically pry Munoz's three-year-old son from his arms) seems totally devoid of compassion, more like a chapter from a dark dystopian sci-fi novel than a snapshot of 21st century America.

Munoz's death is so far removed from the words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

Even Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked
Jeff Sessions to stop separating migrant families
Scores of Democratic Senators and members of Congress (including some Republicans) called on the White House to halt the draconian  "zero tolerance" immigration policy announced by Sessions in early May.

In response, Trump had the gall to blame Democrats for a policy that he himself initiated in order to fire up the loyal right-wing base of support that feeds off his xenophobia and bigotry.

But not all conservatives are comfortable seeing children ripped from the arms of parents seeking asylum in the U.S. - or the effect it's having on the image of the Republican Party.

Last week Jeff Sessions sat down for an interview with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Knowing how much damage Trump's policy is doing to undocumented immigrant families as well as the image of the Republican Party just five months before the November midterm elections, Hewitt pleaded with the notoriously anti-immigrant attorney general to at least stop separating children from their families. 

Sessions' response was to self-righteously insist that he's bound by the law - even though there is no existing law mandating that Border Patrol agents separate families who enter the country illegally.

As if separating children from their parents wasn't already making him seem like some kind of soulless monster who crawled out of a primordial ooze, earlier today Sessions insisted that fleeing deadly gang violence or domestic abuse from a spouse or family member in another country is not grounds for an asylum claim in the United States.

DHS Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen & Sen. Kamala Harris
Back on May 15th, the embattled Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sat before a Senate Committee and got into a heated exchange about the Trump administration's demand that the children of undocumented immigrants be separated from their parents.

As the Denver Post and other news outlets reported, Nielsen got an earful from the no-nonsense California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris.

The former California Attorney General, whose reputation for unrelenting questions and demanding answers in Senate Committee hearings has riled more than one Republican on Capitol Hill, grilled the Trump cabinet member on the reasoning behind ripping parents from their children.

"What we'll be doing is prosecuting parents who've broken the law, just as we do every day in the United States of America." Nielsen insisted.

As if she's proud of that.

As if Border Patrol agents literally pulling Marco Antonio Munoz's terrified three-year-old son from his arms in an immigration processing center in McAllen, Texas is making the country safer.

As if immigration authorities currently housing some 11,500 undocumented immigrant children away from parents who came here to seek asylum is a noble cause that must be defended.

When in fact, she and Sessions (at Trump's behest) are in effect, twisting U.S. immigration policy to churn out death, injury, terror and heartless family separation to justify the xenophobic hysteria of a man who didn't even know the words to God Bless America at a fake "Eagles fans rally" on the White House lawn last week that no actual Eagles fans attended.

That's the guy claiming that ripping children from their parents arms in the name of  border security is a noble cause as he blunders his way through the G-7 summit in Canada by insulting our allies and embarrassing Americans with his ignorance of diplomacy and foreign affairs.

The November midterm elections can't come soon enough, and as Mr. Munoz's death demonstrates, lives are literally at stake.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

New Jersey: Primed for the 2018 Midterms

The scene outside my NJ voting site on Tuesday

It felt good taking a positive step towards the November midterm elections at my local polling location in the 4th Congressional District of New Jersey on Tuesday morning.

Aside from the fact that it was gorgeous outside (always a plus on election day), overall the primary results looked pretty good for Democrats here in the Garden State.

2nd-term NJ Democratic Senator Bob Menendez got a wakeup call in the form of challenger Lisa McCormick.

Despite being a virtual unknown candidate who spent almost nothing on ads, and ran a below-the-radar shoestring campaign, the life-long Jersey resident still managed to grab an eye-opening 38% of the Democratic Senate primary vote - grabbing the attention of the ethically-bruised Menendez.

McCormick might not have name recognition, but if you take a quick look at a summary of her political views and policy positions posted on her Website, she aligns with the kind of progressive platform that skews more towards Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren ("eliminate the corrupt influence of dirty money in politics") and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ("paid family leave, universal health insurance, free tuition at public colleges and universities.")

My sense is that her receiving such a large chunk of the primary vote is more reflective of the fact that the progressive political block that was largely sparked by the energy and momentum of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, is not only highly motivated, it's expanding in races across the nation.

On Wednesday morning, New York Times political reporter Kate Zernike and LA Times columnist and author Patt Morrison joined the first segment on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC to discuss the results of the various primaries that were held in eight states around the country on Tuesday.

Trump ogles Bob Hugin at a White House meeting
of pharmaceutical executives
The consensus on the show seemed to be that Menendez only got 62% of the Democratic primary vote because many NJ voters were turned off by the political corruption charges he was on trial for last year.

(We'll circle back to that in a minute...)

But a caller from north Jersey offered an interesting observation on why McCormick scored 38% of the vote.

Bob Hugin is a die-hard Republican Trump supporter and pharmaceutical company exec.

He's become known for raising prices on a cancer drug by 20% and stashing profits overseas, not surprisingly, he's been tapped as the Republican candidate who will try and unseat Menendez for the NJ Senate seat in November.

The caller noted that Hugin (and the national GOP) have been running a steady stream of nasty attack ads on television and radio against Menendez.

Menendez, who served as the Mayor of Union City, NJ before serving in the state legislature and state senate before being elected to six terms in Congress, is a powerful political fixture in NJ politics and the dominant political player in Hudson County.

With Trump extremely unpopular here in NJ, and Hugin hanging his political hat on the whole "Make America Great Again" thing, his only option really is to attack Menendez relentlessly.

And as the aforementioned Brian Lehrer Show caller on Wednesday morning noted, Lisa McCormick benefited from Hugin's anti-Menendez ads by simply being an option on the primary ballot for voters to chose someone other than Menendez.

 (And without spending a dime of her own money on pricey television commercials I might add.)

But politics in the Garden State not a debutante ball (Chris Christie was governor here for Pete's sake...), and my sense is that most Jersey voters are politically savvy enough to know that the federal corruption charges filed against Menendez back in 2015 could arguably be considered borderline "garden variety" abuses of political power from the standpoint of Washington, D.C.

NJ Sen. Bob Menendez votes in Tuesday's primary
election at a polling site in Harrison, NJ 
Let's review: Menendez faced federal scrutiny over a $60,000 campaign donation received from his long-time personal friend Saloman Melgen.

A Florida ophthalmologist and businessman whose company stood to benefit after Menendez used his position as the (then) Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ask State Department officials to try and pressure Dominican Republic officials to approve a port-security deal that would have financially benefitted Melgen.

Over the course of his lengthy political career, Menendez also accepted a variety of other campaign contributions and personal gifts (totaling about $750,000) from Melgen; including airplane trips on Melgen's private plane and hotel rooms, some of which Menendez didn't declare as required by law.

Did it raise ethical questions? Sure it did, but like it or not, and many people don't, the reality is that kind of thing is standard practice on Capitol Hill amongst many (not all) lawmakers.

And if Congress wants to change the laws and penalties for those sketchy kinds of political shenanigans (which millions of Americans think they should) then they should roll up their sleeves and do so - and if they don't, then American voters need to show up at the polls and vote people into office who will.

But it's not fair to use situational ethics to pick and choose who gets criminally charged for it, especially a Cuban-American Senator like Menendez who's one of four Hispanic politicians currently serving in the U.S. Senate.

Frankly it reeks of ethnic bias, and that's just one of the reasons his trial ended in November of 2017 with a hung jury, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial - and the Justice Department dropped all charges against him in January of this year, though he was "admonished" by the Senate.   

If you take issue with the suggestion that Menendez being Hispanic was a factor in the charges being filed against him, remember, back in December of 2015, as Menendez was being charged, Republican (white) Tennessee Senator Bob Corker was found to have failed to properly report millions of dollars in personal income he'd received (while serving in the Senate) from commercial real estate properties, three hedge funds and various other investment vehicles.

Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker
And don't forget the infamous "Corker Kickback" last December as Republicans tossed out the rule book, ethics and their Obama-era hysteria about the federal deficit in a frantic effort to pass a massive 500-page tax bill at the last minute so they could go home for Christmas with a "victory" and Donald Trump could preen for his wealthy political donor base.

That epic legislative con-job was drafted in secret, there were no public hearings, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) didn't even get a chance to analyze and score it to see how it would actually impact the U.S. economy.

And it was famously released in the middle of the night - literally hours before a scheduled floor vote with hand-written notes scribbled in the margins (drain that swamp, right?)

If you recall, in the face of an irate public and the Senate wavering, Bob Corker famously announced that he would not support the GOP tax bill; potentially dooming its passage in the Senate.

But on Friday December 15th, Corker (the 4th wealthiest U.S. Senator) miraculously changed his vote after a provision was literally inserted into the tax bill at the last minute.

"The Corker Kickback" as it quickly became known, would allow people who keep vast amounts of real estate holdings in s-corporations (like Corker, Trump and First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner), to save millions in taxes on the "pass through" income they receive from profits and revenue derived from their massive real estate portfolios.   

That's just one example of how it works on Capitol Hill, Corker was never charged for failing to report millions in income from investments he bolstered (in part) by the legislation that he helped to pass - and he was actually rewarded for flipping his vote on the tax bill.

So as far as I'm concerned, Bob Menendez being charged for accepting a $60,000 campaign donation and $750,000 in other donations and gifts over the years from a lifelong friend is like issuing speeding ticket to a driver doing 70 mph during the Daytona 500.

Especially when you consider that the Koch brothers spent almost $900 million of their personal fortune on the 2016 elections, much of it poured into Republican political operations and conservative PACs in the form of untraceable "Dark Money". 

NJ Democratic candidate (NJ 11th) Mikie Sherrill
The Kochs very well could've spent more. 

Here in the NJ-4th Congressional District where I live, 38-year-old Trenton-born U.S. Navy veteran Josh Welle (a self-described centrist Democrat) beat the more progressive Jim Keady for the right to try and unseat the longtime Republican incumbent Chris Smith.

Tuesday was a good day for Democratic Navy veterans in Jersey.

In a widely-watched race in the NJ 11th Congressional District up in north Jersey, former Navy helicopter pilot and one-time federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill won the Democratic nomination to vie for the seat being vacated by long-time Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen; one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress (and one of the wealthiest too.)

You may remember him as the guy who sparked a steady progressive uprising of sorts by a grass roots organization called NJ 11th For Change in the reliably conservative 11th District by refusing to hold town hall meetings to avoid confronting voters angry with Donald Trump's policies and behavior.

Freylinghuysen supported Trump, voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and has opposed gun control and same sex marriage during his tenure in Washington.

Members of NJ 11th For Change protesting outside
He hasn't held a town hall meeting since 2013 and NJ 11th For Change members began organizing events to protest his refusal to address his own constituents - including delivering petitions to his congressional office. 

They made national headlines by staging events where some held "Where's Rodney?" sign.

They even held town halls with an empty chair representing Freylinghuysen.

In 2017, as Republicans tried to repeal Obamacare following Trump's inauguration, hundreds of members of NJ 11th For Change began showing up at Freylinghuyen's office each Friday with baked goods to express their anger at his support to snatch healthcare from millions of people.

In response, he famously sent a letter to the board of the local Lakeland Bank complaining about the group's "liberal" tactics and he "outed" Saily Avelenda, a member of NJ 11th For Change who worked for the bank.

Forcing her to resign from her position as a senior vice president.

Freylinghuysen, facing heat over his actions, announced he would retire back in May, opening the door for Democrats to flip a congressional seat that's been Republican since 1980 after Republicans gerrymandered the 11th District by moving it's center from Essex County to Morris County.

A suburban district that's 87% white and one of the wealthiest districts on the nation by median income.

The rise of Fascism in America?

The same grassroots energy that saw millions of people marching in protest of Trump's inauguration in 2017 has only continued and intensified.

That energy is reflected in Tuesday's primary results which have set the stage for Democrats to flip the 24 seats they need to win back the House.

With Donald Trumps lawyers now floating Constitutionally-questionable theories that the president cannot legally obstruct justice, or that he could simply pardon himself in the event that he's found guilty of criminal activity, the disturbing breeze now blowing from the White House reeks of authoritarianism.

Rudy Giuliani telling the Huffington Post on Sunday "If (Trump) shot James Comey, he'd be impeached the next day." to suggest that the 45 is completely immune from being held legally responsible in a court of law for actions that violate the law, is genuinely disturbing.

As CNN political reporter Manu Raju noted on Twitter on Sunday:

"(Republican) Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley just told me this, 'If I were president of the United States, and I had a lawyer that said I could pardon myself, I think I would hire a new lawyer'."

At this point, as reported back in March, hiring an established top lawyer is no easy feat for Trump - many top legal guns have said they simply won't work for him, especially after he fired respected DC lawyer Ty Cobb.

Sad and pathetic as it may be, there's a reason the unhinged Giuliani is now Trump's most visible lawyer, and it's only served to fire up Democrats, independents, progressives and even some Republicans who've had enough of Donald Trump.

As Tuesday's primary results showed, New Jersey is primed for the 2018 midterm elections.

There's a long way to go to reach November, but the results in California, New Mexico, Iowa and New Jersey clearly demonstrate there's a path to get there.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Hail Marys From 1600

Rudy Giuliani getting booed in Yankee Stadium
Could White House efforts to try and deflect attention from the mounting evidence surrounding the Trump administration's numerous ties to the Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign possibly get any more desperate?

Rudy Giuliani's unhinged appearances on network and cable news programs over the past couple weeks haven't exactly boosted Trump's credibility.

Or his own for that matter.

While attending a Yankees game in the Bronx last Monday, Giuliani was loudly booed by a Memorial Day crowd when he was introduced on the PA system as the camera panned about for celebrities in attendance.

The 74-year-old crackpot Trump supporter / lawyer tried to pass the unmistakeable slight off as the Yankee fans showing him "love", but as I've mentioned on this blog before, I lived in New York City for 14 years and have attended dozens of Yankees games over the years.

Just to be clear, when Yanks fans boo you in Yankee Stadium, it ain't love.

Giuliani's efforts to try and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation have gotten so bizarre, it's actually getting embarrassing for Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Particularly given that mid-term elections, which are clearly shaping up to be a referendum on Trump's first two chaotic years in office, and the divisive, mean-spirited tone of his administration, are now only four months off.

Top Republicans Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and
Trey Gowdy all support the Mueller investigation
In today's social-media-influenced 24/7 news cycle, that's like a two-minute warning in the 4th quarter of a close football game.

For those nervous, legacy-cognizant Republican members of Congress who haven't already announced that they won't seek another term in office (in an effort to avoid the humiliation of being in the same party as Trump) the stakes are high heading into summer.

The week before last, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading Republican members of Congress, including the dependably right-leaning Hillary-basher, Representative Trey Gowdy, publicly stated their firm support for the ongoing investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller of intentional interference in the 2016 U.S. elections ordered by Vladimir Putin.

In political terms, that's a pretty revealing indicator of how Republican politicians preparing to face  a fired-up voter base are trying to re-position themselves.

But it's more than that.

For example, obviously I don't agree with a lot of the policy positions of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but I respect his mastery of the arcane rules of the Senate chamber.

And don't think for a second that he's forgotten Trump's loudmouth support for failed pedophile Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore last fall - who ran on a platform that was partially based on checking the power of the "Republican Washington establishment", calling out McConnell by name repeatedly.

Trump in Nashville telling one of the 35 lies or
factually-misleading statements he told.
Politically-savvy Republicans running for office in November don't want to get caught calling the ongoing investigation into Russian interference a "witch hunt" as Trump has taken to characterizing an investigation that's already filed more than 100 criminal charges against 19 different people and 3 companies.

Five of those indicted have already plead guilty.

As the New York Times reported, "Thirteen are Russians accused of meddling in the 2016 elections."

True to his bombastic nature, Trump's response to members of his own political party publicly supporting the Mueller investigation even as he desperately tries to undermine it, has been predictable.

He took it as a snub from the same mainstream Republicans that he gleefully eviscerated like dead fish during the 2016 campaign and, as he's done consistently when he's getting bludgeoned by the mainstream press and social media, he took to the road Wednesday night.

Heading down south to try and rally his shrinking, but loyal base of support.

As USA Today and other news organizations reported, Trump used an appearance at a "Make America Great Again" rally in Nashville, Tennessee to meander through at least 35 different false or misleading statements on his favorite topics including provably false statements on the Affordable Care Act championed by President Obama, taking credit for wage growth that began under Obama and of course Trump's central theme - irrational immigrant bashing.

Even the local caught Trump, once again, lying about the size of the crowd there.

His blundering, back-and-forth foreign policy efforts, including on-again, off-again negotiations with North Korea and the announcement of 25% tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from some of America's closest allies - including France, Canada and Mexico - have further fractured already-tenuous relationships with some the country's biggest global trading partners.

To say nothing of the fact that such tariffs will likely increase steel costs for U.S. manufacturers

Dinesh D'Souza being arrested for illegal campaign
contributions back in 2014
Costs which will inevitably translate to higher prices for American consumers.

The tariffs in particular were so reckless, it's possible they were meant to overshadow Trump's decision to help Chinese electronics maker ZTE after the Chinese announced they would invest hundreds of millions in an Indonesian project from which Trump would personally profit.

The ZTE decision even irked Republican politicians in Washington.

And it certainly didn't help that the announcement coincided with China approving additional trademarks for profiteering First Daughter Ivanka Trump, who has shamelessly helped herself - as has her husband Jared Kushner - to unabashed financial feeding at the trough during their questionable tenure in the White House as roving "senior advisers" to their quasi-delusional daddy. 

But unquestionably, Trump's most bizarre effort to rally his right-wing base and deflect from the reality of his disastrous presidency, was his decision to issue a presidential pardon last week to the textbook homophobic bigot Dinesh D'Souza (pictured above).

As an op-ed by the New York Times editorial board on Thursday titled "Dinesh D'Souza? Really?"

"On Thursday, Mr. Trump pardoned Dinesh D'Souza, the right-wing troll known for, among other things, posting racist tweets about President Barack Obama, spreading the lie that George Soros was a Nazi collaborator and writing that 'the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.' "

Trump's decision to pardon D'Souza for funneling $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Republican Senate candidate Wendy Long back in 2012 seems intended as yet another petty swipe in Trump's bizarre obsession with President Obama.

Particularly given D'Souza's many racist attacks on Obama over the years, including a widely-panned and unsubstantiated book and calling Obama "boy" on Twitter among other assorted classless, low-rent nonsense.

So it's not surprising that Trump used his executive power to pardon someone like that (Hell, he pardoned ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio), anything to distract from the ongoing disaster that is his presidency.

Another Hail Mary pass lobbed from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - not to score, but to distract.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

ABC Changes the Channel on Roseanne

Roseanne Barr posing for the 2009 "German" issue
of the now-defunct satirical Jewish magazine Heeb
In some parts of America, there will inevitably be some individuals who view ABC's decision to cancel the successful reboot of Roseanne Barr's 1/2 hour sitcom this morning as an example of "the liberal media" trying to silence the voice of the pro-Trump conservative perspective.

I am not one of those people.

Roseanne's bizarre decision to wake up this morning and use Twitter to compare President Obama's former African-American senior advisor Valerie Jarret to an ape belongs to her, and her alone.

Roseanne is a big girl and while she's always taken a peculiar, juvenile pleasure in basking in the afterglow of the shock value of her frequently-controversial public opinions (like posing as Hitler taking people-shaped cookies out of an oven for a magazine article in 2009), she isn't stupid.

She understood exactly what the historical racial connotations of comparing an African-American to an ape were when she tweeted "Muslim brotherhood & Planet of the Apes had a baby = VJ" earlier this morning.

While there's absolutely nothing about those words that strike me as even remotely funny, and it's her right to say or write that if she wants to, no one made Roseanne say it, and no one made her do it.

Like her now-cancelled sitcom, it's her show, she owns it.

And she's quickly reaped the harvest of the offensive seeds she's sewn by pandering to the lunatic fringe of American conservatives who idolize the incompetent con-man-slash-failed businessman-turned reality show star who now occupies the White House.

ABC Entertainment Group Pres. Channing Dungey
Disney, the family-themed media behemoth and parent company of ABC, dispatched newly-tapped ABC Entertainment Group President Channing Dungey (pictured left) to drop Roseanne's show like a bad habit within hours of the toxic tweet going public.

Her statement this morning left little confusion about what ABC brass thought about the face of one of the networks most-watched shows in 2018 using her platform to spout the kind of racist nonsense that 45 has used to try and divide the nation:

"Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show."

Disney / ABC wasn't the only organization that scrambled to disassociate their brands with Roseanne either.

Her LA-based talent agency ICM quickly dropped her as a client.

On the same day that Starbucks closed 8,000 coffee shops across the U.S. in order to conduct racial sensitivity training for its 175,000 employees in response to a since-fired white manager who called the police to arrest two African-American customers waiting for a third person to arrive back in April, other media companies responded quickly to Roseanne's tweet as well.

As the Hollywood Reporter noted earlier this afternoon, Disney's content and programming rival Paramount announced that they will pull planned reruns of the Roseanne reboot from the schedules of three of its Viacom channels; TV Land, Paramount Network and CMT.

Streaming giant Hulu also announced reruns of the show will be pulled from their content list; so in terms of residual payments from the broadcasting of reruns, Roseanne cost herself and the leading members of her cast millions of dollars.

African-American comedienne Wanda Sykes, who served as a writer and consulting producer on the first season of the Roseanne reboot also announced she would not return.

Former Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett
Now at this point there's little need to tune in to watch the conservative talking heads on Fox News complain about whiny "snowflakes" or how political correctness is ruining America.

By now the usual suspects of extremist, right-wing media like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones are likely raging to their audience that Roseanne being blacklisted by Hollywood within the space of a day is some kind of anti-Trump conspiracy theory.

After all, it was only two months ago back on March 29th that a gloating Trump told a live audience about the rebooted Roseanne show:

"Look at Roseanne's ratings they were unbelievable, over 18 million people and it was about us!"

Let's also just remember who the woman Roseanne Barr compared to an ape is.

Valerie Jarrett (pictured above) was born in Iran to an African-American father, James E. Bowman, who was a geneticist and pathologist who ran a hospital for Iranian children in 1956 during the reign of the former Shah of Iran.

Her mother (who is 1/4 African-American) Barbra T. Bowman was a prominent child education advocate, professor and author who co-founded the Erikson Institute.

Valerie Jarrett with the Obamas in happier times
Jarret spoke English, French and Farsi as a child, earned her B.A. from Stanford and her law degree from the University of Michigan.

She worked for former Chicago Mayors Harold Washington and Richard Daley, was chairwoman of the Chicago Transit Board and later served as the CEO of a real estate management company - she's also served on the board of trustees of several high-profile organizations including the University of Chicago Medial Center and the University of Chicago.   

That was before serving as a senior advisor to a sitting president of the United States.

So in this age of #MeToo and the repercussions of Harvey Weinstein's treatment of women, Roseanne's decision to compare Jarrett to an ape says less about Jarrett than it does about Roseanne's desire to pander to the base-level ignorance and bigotry of the same extremist right-wingers to whom she retweeted about the widely-discredited Pizzagate conspiracy.

In the past, when she was a media behemoth and one of the biggest stars on television, some of Roseanne's controversial public statements generated negative publicity that her fame, power and money insulated her against.

She's notorious (and on the record for saying) that she doesn't care what people think.

But in this age of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, Roseanne finally jumped the shark - and with midterm elections just six months away, brand-conscious major media organizations want nothing to do with that in the age of Trump.

ABC's decision to cancel her show is a reflection of how fed up most Americans are with the moronic bigotry, ignorant prejudice and baseless conspiracy theories that Trump just can't seem to shut up about.

It was Roseanne's decision to peddle that kind of nonsense, and pander to that kind of thinking; whether it's her promoting quack theories like calling 911 "an inside job", or calling Israel a "Nazi state", she's been spouting that quasi-delusional crap for years.

Today it caught up with her, people have had enough - and I'm hoping that's a reflection of how Americans will vote at the polls this November.

Unfortunately for the many hardworking people who work behind the scenes on Roseanne who will now lose their jobs, their boss' delight in appealing to the lowest common denominator has had consequences that extend far beyond Roseanne's now-deleted Twitter account.

Roseanne chose to use her lofty public platform to weigh in on politics (unfortunately it was the politics of the absurd) and within a day, the mainstream media changed the channel.