Friday, December 08, 2017

The Wheel Turns Slowly

Ex-cop Michael Slager and victim Walter Scott
"Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness He grinds all." 

Those are the words of the German poet and nobleman Frederich Von Logau, born in the Polish city of Niemcza in 1605.

It's a variation on a theme written by the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus back in the 1st century AD based on Plutarch's writings.

It's the origin of the oft-quoted phrase, "The wheels of justice turn slowly but exceedingly fine", and that was the first thought that came to mind when I heard the news that former North Charleston PD officer Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday for the unjustified April 4, 2015 shooting death of unarmed motorist Walter Lamar Scott.

The shocking cell phone video taken by bystander Feidin Santana showing the unarmed 50-year-old African-American man (a gainfully-employed U.S. Navy veteran) being shot five times in the back as he was running away from Slager after being pulled over for a broken taillight, was viewed millions of times and sparked outrage around the world at a time when a number of high-profile cases of unarmed black men and boys being shot and killed by members of law enforcement were making headlines.

Incidents which continue to cloud the state of race relations and justice in America; and undermine trust between local communities and the police who serve them.

That trust was further eroded when Slager walked last year after his first murder trial ended with a hung jury, but as journalists Andrew Knapp and Brenda Rindge reported in an article in the Charleston Post and Courier on Thursday, U.S. District Judge David Norton rejected Slater's claims that his use of deadly force was justified based (in part) on the video evidence showing Scott trying to run away - as well as the fact that Slager intentionally tampered with evidence at the scene of the incident and lied to police investigators about what happened.

Judy Scott being comforted by North Charleston
Mayor Keith Summey during a 2015 ceremony 
As the Post and Courier reported, it was an incredibly emotional scene inside the courtroom as Walter Scott's mother Judy Scott turned to face Michael Slager and told the former policeman, "I forgive you." 

Her comments were part of heart-wrenching "impact statements" delivered by members of the families of both the officer and the victim before the judge delivered his sentence.

Members of both families wept openly as she forgave her son's killer.

Slager's 20-year sentence for violating Scott's civil rights represents one of the most significant examples of the American judicial system holding a police officer accountable for taking the life of an unarmed African-American citizen, but there are clearly no "winners" in this case.

Scott's family and fiance lost a loved one, and Slater is the father of a child who will now have a parent incarcerated in prison.

If there's any positive that can be taken from Slager's decision to pull Scott over for a broken tail light two years ago, it's the fact that North Charleston became the first municipality in the nation to enact a law requiring all of its police officers to wear body cameras.

As the Scott family's lawyer Chris Stewart said after the decision, "I hope the entire nation understands how big this is and what this means for everybody. This is all people crave, accountability. If the death of Walter Scott... can make one officer think one second longer before pulling the trigger and changing an entire nation, then it was all worth it."  

It's quite plausible that the decision of the federal judge to impose such a significant sentence was partially influenced by the tone of the Trump administration's divisive rhetoric on race, Trump's constant berating of federal judges, and Attorney General Jeff Session's decision to drastically scale back the involvement of the Department of Justice in holding local police departments shown to engage in systematic patterns of racially-biased policing responsible for their actions.

It's clear that Trump, Sessions and many of the right-wing advisors who are the architects of their public policy positions have decided to try and put the brakes on criminal justice reforms to reduce the incarceration rate in the United States.

Rensselaer County (New York) DA Joel Abelove
But those actions are not aligned with where many politicians, judges, prosecutors, state attorney generals and legal scholars currently stand.

A number of legal professionals, including members of the law enforcement community, have recognized the need for broad reforms in prosecutions and sentencing to reduce incarceration rates.

I think one could argue that the Trump administration's stubborn ideological opposition to those reforms may well have partially influenced U.S. District Judge David Norton's decision to impose a 20-year sentence on Michael Slager.

Consider the case of Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel E. Abelove.

As Max Rivlin-Nader reported for Injustice Today last Friday, a grand jury in New York State indicted Abelove on charges of official misconduct and perjury for repeatedly interfering in the investigation of a police shooting that resulted in the death of a 37-year-old African-American man named Edson Thevenin - an investigation being conducted by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

So get this: According to Rivlin-Nader's article, a police sergeant named Randall French pulled Thevenin over for suspected drunk driving on April 17, 2016, and not unlike Walter Scott, some kind of chase ensued that ended with French firing eight shots into Thevenin's windshield - killing him.

When AG Schneiderman's office contacted the Rensselaer County DA's office (just hours after the shooting) to request that he hold off on convening a grand jury to rule on the case while state AG's office considered the evidence to determine if it should intervene as required by an executive order signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Abelove ignored him.

Abelove brought the case before a grand jury just four days after the shooting even though the autopsy report hadn't even been completed to determine whether Thevenin had been drunk as sergeant French claimed in his assertion that Thevenin had tried to run him over during the chase.

37-year-old victim Edson Thevenin
Not only that, remarkably, Abelove failed to present the eyewitness testimony of two different witnesses who contradicted sergeant French's claims - including with cell phone video.

As Rivlin-Nader reported, the only witness testimony the grand jury heard was from (wait for it...) two police officers.

Now 37-year-old Edson Thevenin might not be a familiar name to many Americans, but that doesn't mean his death at the hands of an apparently overzealous cop didn't warrant a fair review by a jury of his peers.

Based on the evidence that Abelove presented, (not surprisingly) the grand jury cleared French.

By contrast, Rivlin-Nader notes that the grand jury in the Eric Garner case in Staten Island (where Garner was heard repeatedly pleading "I can't breathe" while NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo choked the life out of him after multiple officers confronted him for selling loose cigarettes in broad daylight) took four months before it came to a conclusion.

Take a few minutes to read the Injustice Today article for yourself.

Now I'm not for a moment suggesting that Abelove's conduct is typical of all district attorneys - but as the Injustice Today article observed, "Longtime Suffolk County DA Thomas Spota and one of his chief aides on Wednesday, October 25, 2107, were indicted on federal charges that they were involved in a coverup of former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke's assault of a suspect in 2012."

Again, to be fair these cases don't define the American justice system.

But they do make a mockery of Attorney General Jeff Session's assertions that local police departments shown to have engaged in systematic racial bias would be better served if the Department of Justice pulled back from the oversight of said police departments and local judicial systems.

Now Michael Slager has a right to appeal his 20-year sentence, and the outcome of charges of misconduct and perjury against Rensselaer County DA Joel Abelove remains to be seen.

But as poet Frederich Von Logau wrote over 390 years ago, "The mills of God grind slowly".

And as these cases demonstrate, despite the efforts of the Trump administration to pretend that the federal government has no responsibility to oversee and remedy systematic racial bias within (some) local police departments and courts, the mills do grind.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Sit or Stand? The NFL's Quiet Splash

Ka-ching! - NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
Well there's little doubt that it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell following the news that he's signed a hefty five-year contract extension that could potentially be worth an estimated $200 million if incentives are met and bonuses kick in.

As ESPN's Adam Shefter reported earlier this evening, his yearly base salary will probably be somewhere in the $5 to $8 million range - nice work if you can get it, right?

But Goodell's new package, negotiated by the six-member NFL compensation committee, means the bulk of the "$40 million per year" figure being bandied about the press will actually come in the form of bonuses triggered by meeting specific financial and revenue goals.

Sure, fans and sportswriters alike may debate the merits of some of the decisions he's made on a range of rocky issues including the League's handling of player-involved domestic abuse situations, and policy and compensation related to concussion-related injuries of current and former players.

But given Goodell's overall performance as NLF commissioner, particularly the League's steadily growing revenues (Forbes estimated NFL revenues topped $13 billion in 2016) based in part on his efforts to develop new revenue streams, he's demonstrated pretty steady leadership.

The NFL is by far the most valuable sports league on the planet, and frankly speaking he's a pretty cool character and very shrewd - I used to work as a low-level copywriter in the NFL's old Ad Design Department in New York and I sat across a desk from him and talked with him in private in his office back when he was the NFL's VP of business development.

(My good friend Jimmy, who I mentioned in the opening of my blog back on September 10th as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida, went to high school with Goodell and knows him well.)

It's a pretty good bet that Goodell is going to be clocking a lot of that bonus money over the course of the next few seasons, and the overwhelming majority of NFL owners are clearly pleased with the job he's doing.

Jacksonville Jaguars' members kneel in protest
To say nothing of the money they're making, and WILL make if the Republican members of the House and Senate and reconcile their versions of the GOP tax scam bill and send it to Trump to sign.

Speaking of which, did you see the video of Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren trying to read one of the last-minute handwritten "edits" to the nearly 500-page tax bill that Republican Senators had the gall to drop late Friday night an hour before the senate was scheduled to vote on it? 

Disgraceful. A low-point for America.

But to get back to the NFL, while the sideline protests during the national anthem before NFL games continue, in many ways its faded from the mainstream media focus to a degree.

That's due in part to network game broadcasts not devoting live camera coverage to the peaceful protests - remember, outside of special occasions like the Super Bowl, normal network game day NFL broadcasts don't really cover the national anthem.

On average, it takes about one minute and forty seconds for someone to sing the national anthem, players are only kneeling silently with arms locked during the song, so if you're watching a game it's more likely that you're seeing a commercial on your television screen when the national anthem is being sung on the field.

In addition, over the course of the fall a number of events have simply pushed the sideline protests out of the American media spotlight to a degree.

The devastating hurricanes that struck Houston, Puerto Rico and parts of Florida, the mass shooting in Las Vegas back in October, the ever-growing and escalating chaos of the Trump administration and the ongoing fallout from the special counsel investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and Congress' efforts to pass some kind of meaningful legislation before the end of the year, have all had more of a cultural impact in terms of the "spotlight" of mainstream media coverage.

Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcom Jenkins and other
members of the Players Coalition last week
But the issue at the root of the NFL sideline protests certainly hasn't disappeared.

Interestingly, the news of Goodell's new contract extension seemed to make much more of a media splash than the news last Thursday that a group of approximately 40 current players (led by Malcom Jenkins and Anquan Bolden) and the NFL had reached an agreement for the League to contribute $89 million over seven years to support national and local organizations focused on issues such as police-community relations, criminal justice reform and educational reforms.

As Jim Trotter and Jason Reid reported for ESPN last Thursday, the funds, which NFL owners agreed to, are slated to be geared towards charitable and non-profit organizations that can directly impact some of the root causes related to the epic of unjustified use of deadly force and excessive physical violence against people of color by some members of law enforcement in this country.

According to ESPN, a quarter of the funds will go to the United Negro College Fund, and a quarter will go to Dream Corps, the non-profit founded by Van Jones in 2014 that seeks to promote bipartisan support to reduce America's prison population by 50% over ten years, boost opportunities for people of color in America's tech sector, and build an inclusive green economy.

Fifty percent of the NFL's slated funds will go to the Players Coalition, who collectively decided to hire The Hopewell Fund, a non-profit that assists individuals and organizations with directing charitable funds to causes they support, to oversee how the money is distributed to various organizations and charities.

Beyonce Knowles presents Colin Kaepernick with
the 2017 SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award
Six days after the announcement of the agreement between the NFL and Players Coalition, the sideline protests against police brutality were in the news again.

At Tuesday night's Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Show, Beyonce Knowles brought some added media attention to the issue by coming onstage to present ex-San Francisco 49er's quarterback Colin Kaepernick with the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.

An issue she's spoken out on before.

She was criticized by some police unions for her Super Bowl halftime performance in February of 2016 as well as her video "Formation" - which some members of law enforcement and conservative talking heads viewed as "anti-police" and linked with the imagery of the Black Lives Matter movement

As NBC reported earlier this morning, the award she presented to Kaepernick last night honors Ali's dedication to social change by recognizing the "athlete who uses their platform to further change."

Fans and observers can debate the merits of Kaepernick's decision to start the national anthem protest back in 2016.

But there's no question that it has changed American society by bringing the issue of unjustified systematic police brutality against people of color back into the media spotlight.

Co-founder Alicia Garza with other members
of Black Lives Matter
Especially after conservative media and Republican politicians (like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani) spent months using the divisive rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign slandering the BLM movement as some kind of black terrorist anti-police plot.

When in reality, BLM was started by organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opel Tometi in response to the 2013 acquittal of the violent racist psychopath George Zimmerman.

That was after a Florida jury let him walk after he'd followed, stalked and then attacked and killed 17-year-old unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin who was walking home from a store to his father's house with a bag of Skittles and a drink.

But while the NFL's decision to dedicate $89 million over seven years to issues that impact the African-American community is significant and meaningful, it's not magic fairy dust that's going to address the entrenched systematic racism that lies at the heart of unjustified use of force against people of color in America by some members of law enforcement in conjunction with a dysfunctional court system in which racial bias remains deeply embedded.

As The Nation and other media outlets have reported, the NFL's financial agreement has also divided some NFL players who see the money as a "payment" by the owners to get players to stop kneeling and sitting during the playing of the national anthem before games.

The agreement doesn't say anything about the money being tied to an agreement that the sideline protests end; Roger Goodell has made clear players have a right to express themselves.

But it remains to be seen whether the $89 million will lead to other players deciding to stand for the national anthem once again - after all, NFL owners are made up of multi-millionaires and billionaires who didn't get where they are by giving away their money for nothing.

And if they pledge to give away $89 million over seven years, they expect something for it - whether that means NLF players to decide to play ball is another question.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Inside the Republican Playbook

Alec Baldwin as Trump being visited by the ghost
of Michael Flynn on Saturday Night Live
Kudos to the staff writers of Saturday Night Live, last night's episode hosted by the talented Irish actress Saoirse (pronounced like 'sayer-shia') Ronan was pretty hysterical.

Ronan was really impressive (and earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination) in the critically-acclaimed and genuinely touching 2015 romantic drama Brooklyn, but she displayed a genuine natural talent and flair for comedy and improv on SNL that was impressive - not all actors have that gear.

The opening skit with Alec Baldwin returning to skewer Trump in a twisted political take on "A Christmas Carol", in which 45 is visited by a chained Michael Flynn as "the Ghost of Witness Flips" as well as former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton, must have had the real Trump seething.

The faux girl-group video performance of "Welcome to Hell" was a pretty brilliant use of biting social satire to highlight the shocking absurdities and prevalence of sexual misconduct in American society.

It certainly didn't hurt that U2 played two live songs either.

Like the millions of other people who tuned into SNL last night, I really needed a few good laughs for a change, and welcomed a light-hearted break from the mind-numbing cacophony of ethical corruption and devise politics that have become the hallmark of Republican politicians this week.

In Washington, Alabama and beyond.

Trump using a racist slur in front of members of
the Navajo Code Talkers in the White House
In what has by now become an intentional and calculated (albeit disturbing) media strategy by the White House, Trump once again made an overtly racist and inflammatory comment in an effort to shift media focus away from the growing fallout from the special counsel investigation as well as the absurdities of the Republican tax scam.

He decided to honor surviving members of the Navajo Code Talkers by setting up the podium in front of the portrait of the controversial 7th president of the United States, Andrew Jackson.

Don't think it was some kind of random coincidence that he used the occasion to (once again) derisively refer to Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas" either.

An offensive racial slur that, according to a CBS News article lastTuesday, left families of the Navajo Code Talkers totally "dumbfounded" after Trump said it at a ceremony meant to honor Native American Marine Corps veterans .

Decorated heroes whose ability to use the Navajo language to send and receive indecipherable classified radio transmissions in combat were critical to American military victories against the Japanese Army in the Pacific during World War II.

Trump's use of the slur in front of the portrait of Jackson earned him widespread criticism.

An artistic rendering of the "Trail of Tears"
Remember when the unhinged, resident Republican fear-meister Rudy Giuliani described Trump's 2016 election victory as "One of the greatest victories for the people of American since Andrew Jackson." ?

In 'A People's History of the United States', historian Howard Zinn notes that, "Jackson was a land speculator, merchant, slave trader and the most aggressive enemy of the Indians in early American history."

Jackson's decision to sign the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law engineered the systematic ethnic cleansing of multiple Native American tribes from their ancestral lands in the southeastern United States to lands west of the Mississippi River between 1830 and 1850.

A blight on the tapestry of American history commonly known as "The Trail of Tears" during which members of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee and Muscogee tribes were systematically removed from their lands and forcibly-marched hundreds of miles west in a brutal, mass forced-exodus that lead to the deaths of approximately 3,000 - 4,000 indigenous people along the way.

As in many examples of the displacement, enslavement or slaughter of indigenous peoples the real number will never be known.

But that portrait of Jackson was apparently a small but sketchy part of Republican efforts to ram through a "tax reform" bill which is essentially one of the largest transfers of wealth to the richest 1% and corporations in U.S. history.

One which will add a staggering $1.4 trillion to the deficit over ten years and eventually force serious cuts in bedrock social spending programs like Medicaid, it's hardly surprising Trump would try and use his own bigotry to shift media attention away from what Republican Senators are trying to do behind closed doors.

Good governance? Handwritten notes on a page of
the Republican tax bill
Trump, and the Republicans who hold legislative majorities in the House and Senate, are so desperate to produce some kind of measurable achievement (even one which will raise taxes on the poor and working and middle class), that they not only blocked Democratic Senator's requests to allow time for the nearly 500-page tax bill to actually be read and analyzed.

They're actually trying to hide what's in it from the American people.

The version Republicans brought to the floor late Friday night actually had hastily-scribbled and almost indecipherable handwritten notes scrawled on some of the pages concerning obscure provisions like modifications to s-corporations.

S-corps are just one of the sketchy ways the super-wealthy in America pay tax on their income at rate far below the rate at which the average Joe or Jane pays tax on his or her job income.

As defined by Investopedia, S-corps "allow a corporation with 100 shareholders or less the benefit of incorporation while being taxed as a partnership. The (S) corporation can pass income directly to shareholders and avoid the double taxation that is inherent with the dividends of public companies."   

Like other experts, I sure can't decipher exactly what those notes (pictured above) mean, but you can bet some high paid lobbyist or corporate tax attorney wrote them to throw in a little something extra for America's struggling top earners.

Edgar Welch, the man who stormed Comet Ping
Pong in D.C. based on the fake Pizzagate story
So it's pretty clear that the timing of Trump's willingness to publicly use petty, divisive racist comments to stir up controversy is intended to keep members of the American public from focusing on the massive tax swindle Republicans are trying to pull off - as well as the special counsel investigation.

It's the reason he continually uses the words "fake news" over and over and over in order to sew distrust of fact and information among his supporters.

It's the same Russian counter-intelligence strategy that pro-Trump conservative organizations, big Republican donors and Russian operatives, who used technology and social media to turn a fake news story about Hillary Clinton being part of a pedophile ring that conducted satanic rituals in the basement of a family restaurant in Washington, D.C. called Comet Ping Pong, to stoke anti-Clinton sentiment to manipulate voters.

A bogus story re-tweeted millions of times by thousands of gullible Trump supporters including Michael Flynn, Jr. and comedian-actress Roseanne Barr - who Tweeted about it to her 400,000-plus followers on Twitter back in February.

If you get a chance, take some time to check out journalist Amanda Robb's in-depth analysis of the unfolding of the fake "Pizzagate" story, "Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal" published in the November 30th issue of Rolling Stone.

Inside the real Comet Ping Pong
As Robb notes, "The original Pizzagate Facebook post appeared on the evening of October 29th, 2016, a day after then-FBI Director James Comey announced that the bureau would be reopening its investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state."

The story, which was stoked by kooky conspiracy theorists like Douglas Hagmann, Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince (the brother of secretary of education Betsy DeVos), InfoWars host Alex Jones.

As Robb reported in her RS article, after Prince falsely accused the NYPD of investigating claims that the Clintons "went to this sex island with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein" during an interview on Breitbart Radio, an enraged Alex Jones seized on it as evidence and told his audience that "Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped" children.

Which would be funny if it hadn't prompted 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch to pack a loaded assault rifle and a handgun and drive from his home in North Carolina up to D.C. and walk into Comet Ping Pong to "self investigate" last December.

Fortunately there was no actual basement, no children being held prisoner and no one was hurt when he fired his gun - Welch was eventually taken into custody without incident - he was sentenced to four years in prison this past June.

And that's where he'll languish, a disturbed and gullible by-product of a fake internet conspiracy story that was a part of a massive international effort to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 elections, elect Trump president and undermine American's faith in democracy in the United States.

All with the help of members of the Trump campaign in violation of U.S. law.

Almost sounds like something out of an overly long Saturday Night Live skit, but it's straight out of the Republican playbook.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lifting the Veil & 'Broadchurch'

Matt Laurer and Charlie Rose 
Watching the news unfold this week has been an even more surreal experience than usual in the post-inauguration era.

Lately it seems like every time the alert sound on my iPhone pings, another hole gets punched in the fabric of the media-driven reality in which many of us live here in America.

Rape, sexually-related assault, harassment or inappropriate contact against anyone is obviously a heinous violation against one's body, mind and spirit - to say nothing of one's personal rights.

But to me there's something deeply unsettling about watching the fleeting veil of money, power, fame and influence being lifted from the steady parade of American media icons who've wielded such a grip on our mainstream popular culture.

Revealing them to be serial sexual predators who knowingly and repeatedly (over the course of years) used their positions to cajole, intimidate or force women into dubious encounters of a sexualized nature.

These are men, arguably vain to varying degrees, who've made careers and fortunes by being arbiters of taste, popular entertainment, intellectual achievement, political power - and often morality and ethics.

Knowing a little something of the darker side of the Hollywood film industry, the allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein were disturbing, but they weren't "surprising" in the conventional sense.

Los Angeles is rife with sleazy dirtbags who play on the fears and desires of those they perceive to be weaker than they are in order to incorporate sex into a kind of sick power dynamic that functions like a narcotic for some people - Harvey was one of them.

Charlie Rose interviewing Natalie Portman
But the disturbing allegations of serial sexual misconduct with subordinates and co-workers leveled against people like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose is a deeply troubling look into the extent of the mistreatment of women in the workplace in America.

Once that also forces all of us to look at ourselves - and ask how it is that people in positions of power can mistreat others when so many are aware of their actions.

I mean if even half the allegations against Lauer and Rose are true, and this sordid business was going on within large and influential media institutions (NBC and PBS), how bad is it in smaller offices and workplaces across America?

Places where the media spotlight is far less likely to shine the light of truth.

I can't even count the number of quiet evenings that I've tuned into PBS and watched Charlie Rose sit across that dark round table and interview the famous and the influential.

Over the years I've gained genuine insight into so many people and ideas watching Rose use his particular interview style to coax usually elusive people into revealing things about themselves and what they do and think - in part because they are aware of the cache of his show.

But learning about the way he was treating female staffers - or the fact that he surrounded himself with younger female subordinates - it leaves me feeling untethered from reality.

It's not like I thought Rose was some kind of media demigod without personal flaws, but he certainly struck me as an evolved intellectual who respected people.

Olivia Colman & David Tennant in Broadchurch 
It's clear that something of a Pandora's Box has been opened and more people of power and influence are sure to be named.

But too often lost in the public being "shocked" at these revelations and the subsequent toppling of careers and reputations, are the ways in which their behavior affected the lives of the people they mistreated and in some cases abused.

This week I've sought refuge from the news and Trump's incessant tweets by watching season three of the brilliant Netflix series Broadchurch starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman as Detectives Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller.

If you haven't seen it, the show is a detective procedural - mystery set in the fictional town of Broadchurch on the English coast.

The first two seasons focused on the tragic murder of a local boy and the ways in which the killing disrupted the lives of the people who inhabit the small town - and the toll it took on the personal lives of determined detectives Hardy and Miller as they worked to solve the case.
But the third, and sadly, final season focuses on the rape of a local woman and the detectives' efforts to track down a serial rapist.

Jodie Whittaker as the rape counselor and  Julie
Hesmondhalgh as the victim in Broadchurch
The beautiful setting and camera shots contrast with the disturbing nature of the crimes that have taken place in the seemingly tranquil seaside town.

But it's a first class procedural and I was genuinely moved as the first episode literally walks the viewer through the ways the detectives investigate the crime of rape. 

Including graphic scenes as the victim goes through treatment at a rape crisis center and the ways in which evidence is carefully cataloged.

While I'm only four episodes in, the storyline has forced me to sit back and view the allegations against people like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose not from the shock of what they did - but to try and view their actions from the perspective of their co-workers and subordinates who were their victims.

Broadchurch, while obviously just a fictional TV show, has helped me, as a man, gain some degree of insight into just how devastating the crime of sexual assault is and how it impacts the lives of those who are affected by it.

And during a time when people like the delusional Republican "activist" James O'Keefe has the temerity to pay a woman to go to the Washington Post to lie about being sexually assaulted just to undermine the credibility of women who've come forward with allegations of sexual abuse against Republican senate candidate Roy Moore, I think that's important. 

The scope of the crime, and the shock of learning who allegedly committed it, should not overshadow the victims of their behavior - nor should their suffering be used as some kind of political tool.

Rape isn't Republican or Democrat, it's just rape.

And as the veil is lifted on people once viewed as media icons, the truth of just how extensive sexual assault is, is finally being revealed - and there's nothing political about it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Trump's Situational Outrage & The Real Doug Jones

Addie Mae Collins, Carol McNair, Carole Robertson & Cynthia Wesley: 
killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963
By 10:27am this morning, Donald Trump had already sent out a message via Twitter condemning the horrific terrorist attack that killed at least 235 Muslims who were worshipping at the Al Rawda mosque in the Northeastern Egyptian town of Bir al-Abed during Friday prayers.

He made no Twitter comment about 43-year-old Kevin Neal's shooting spree in Tehama County, California last week that left five dead and ten wounded.

45's preachy situational outrage was also illustrated in the comments he made to reporters on Wednesday as he prepared to leave the White House for Thanksgiving Vacation - when he all but endorsed Republican Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore by flagrantly lying about Democratic Alabama senatorial candidate Doug Jones being "soft on crime". 

As Joan Walsh shrewdly observed in an article in The Nation on Wednesday, Doug Jones was the U.S. Attorney for Alabama who successfully tried and convicted two of the white supremacist terrorists responsible for the heinous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama back on Sunday September 15, 1963.

The bombing killed four girls (pictured above), 11-year-old Carole Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and injured 22 - including Collins' 12-year-old sister Sarah who lost an eye when 21 shards of glass were embedded into her face during the explosion.

The aftermath of the 16th Street Church bombing
The four girls were in the basement of the church putting on their choir robes preparing for Sunday service when the 15 sticks of dynamite (triggered by a timing device that had been placed under the steps of the church early that morning) were detonated at 10:22am.

An FBI investigation concluded two years after the bombing found that KKK members Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry were all responsible for the bombing.

An FBI informant named Gary Rowe was suspected but never charged.

All four men were members members of a violent KKK faction known informally as the Cahaba Boys - a group associated with other local violent factions associated, and linked with, the KKK (including the Robert. E. Lee Klavern *) that had actively bombed homes and churches as part of a terrorist campaign to intimidate desegregation and voting rights efforts in rural areas of Alabama since the 1950's. 

[* It is of interest to note that some of the militant offshoots of KKK organizations (known as "klokans") in Alabama named themselves after Confederate heroes like Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest in an effort to link the re-emerging white supremacist movement of the early 20th century with the historical legacy of the Confederacy.

As Vox reported back in August, that was around the same time that groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy were actively promoting a nation-wide campaign to try and systematically re-write the history of the Confederacy in school textbooks and place Confederate statues and monuments in towns and cities - even in states that didn't even exist during the Civil War - to reinforce the ideology of white supremacy by creating a mythology that supported and justified it.]

Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss
Even though the FBI gathered thousands of documents and hours of undercover recordings of suspects and witnesses over the course of their two-year investigation into the bombing of the 16th Street Church, Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the investigation closed in 1968 and all evidence gathered by federal agents sealed.

In a reflection of the deep-seated racial bias embedded within the U.S. justice system, it wasn't until November of 1977,  a remarkable fourteen years after the bombing, that former U.S. Attorney William Baxley was able to successfully convict Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss of the murder of Carol Denise McNair.

Chambliss admitted to having purchased a case of dynamite from a local area store two weeks before the bombings took place under the pretext of needing to clear a field.

Baxley had been a young law student when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in 1963, and he actively fought to reopen the case starting in 1971 after becoming a federal prosecutor.

Now to circle back to Joan Walsh's observation in her article in The Nation, when Donald Trump simplistically dismissed current Democratic senate candidate Doug Jones as "soft on crime" last Wednesday, was he aware that Jones was the man who successfully indicted and convicted Thomas Edwin Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry  in 2001?

Jones' efforts were aided by the fact that in 1995, the FBI finally unsealed reams of evidence it had gathered about the bombings in the 1960's.

As Kevin Sack reported in a May 4, 2001 New York Times article, after William Baxley wrote an op-ed in the New York Times accusing the FBI of having intentionally covered up evidence in the 70's that could have aided in his prosecution of the four men, a spokesman for the FBI, Craig Dahle, claimed that the reason the Bureau kept the evidence under lock and key could have been due to
"a combination of possible factors, including changes in personnel and filing systems, the bureau's unwillingness to expose confidential informers, and lingering distrust between federal agents and Alabama law enforcement that dated from the days of Jim Crow." 

Evidence that Doug Jones, then the U.S. Attorney for Alabama, and his office used to indict and convict Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002 months after Cherry's lawyer unsuccessfully tried to argue that he was not mentally competent to stand trial.

The other suspect, Herman Frank Cash died in 1994 before the FBI unsealed the evidence that may well have led to his conviction.

Doug Jones speaks at a dedication of a memorial
for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings in 2011 
Both Blanton and Cherry were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for their roles in a crime shocked the nation and world.

An act that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity."

Given the FBI's suspicious concealing of critical evidence, and the years that had passed between the time of the bombings, Doug Jones' successful indictments and prosecution of Blanton and Cherry to time, patience, guts, prosecutorial skill and a genuine desire to see justice done in what is arguably one of the most heinous crimes in American history.

So how can Trump call Doug Jones "soft on crime"?

Now I don't believe Trump is totally brain-dead, he was 17-years-old when the bombings took place in 1963, so there's no way he doesn't at least understand the horrific nature of what happened.

Given his grandfather's involvement in the KKK in New York and his father's efforts to prevent black people from moving into apartments owned by the Trump Organization, what Trump thinks about those bombings is another story.

Even if he doesn't know Doug Jones' role in bringing two of the killers to justice, at least one of Trump's advisors has made it clear that part of Jones' appeal as a candidate for the senate is his involvement in the case.

Republican senate candidate Roy Moore 
So Trump's decision to back Roy Moore, who is arguably guilty of having committed multiple crimes for having engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with girls as young as 14 and 16 when he was a 32-year-old district attorney, on the grounds that (in part) Doug Jones is "soft on crime" really doesn't hold water.

To paraphrase a recent comment made by a guest on NPR, Trump supporters have a right to vote for him.

But if Trump supporters who live in Alabama are going to compromise their ethics and morals simply to support a candidate who is going to back Trump's divisive ideology and legislative goals - it's a truly troubling sign for modern American politics.

Regardless, Trump has a lot of cojones lecturing anyone about being soft on crime given the slew of his own campaign officials (including Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn) who already have been shown to have broken laws - to say nothing of the fact that he granted a presidential pardon to former Maricopa County sheriff  Joe Arpaio who was found guilty of multiple crimes in a court of law.

Given that the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, filed a complaint against Kellyanne Conway for violating the Hatch Act when she used her non-elected position as a "senior White House counselor" to publicly advocate for Roy Moore, and that the president is the person who would have to hold her accountable, we'll see if his talk about being "soft on crime" is just that - talk.

Seems more likely that it's just another example of 45's selective and situational outrage.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Three UCLA Players & The Other Side of the Sword

UCLA's Codey Riley, LiAngelo Ball & Jalen Hill
After work last evening I stopped by my local ACME to pick up a few things - it was truly crazy in there. Epic.

Even though a display of artificial Christmas trees and wreaths greeted me at the entrance, like millions both here and around the globe, I'm looking forward to spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends.

While carefully weaving my way through aisles filled with anxious shoppers pushing laden grocery carts filled with their Thanksgiving Day needs, my mind kept wandering to Codey Riley, LiAngelo Ball and Jalen Hill - the three UCLA basketball players who made global headlines a couple weeks ago after getting arrested for shoplifting in a Louis Vuitton store in the city of Hangzhou, China.

Now ironically, as the BBC reported the Bruins were overseas for their season opener against Georgia Tech as part of what's called the "Pac-12 Global Initiative, aiming to boost international recognition and the personal experience of players."  

If you look at the PAC-12 Global Initiative webpage, the UCLA basketball team's recent trip to China was about a lot more than just a season opener.

It was part of a five-year partnership between a large west coast American university, the government of a major Asian power and a major foreign corporation that involved the efforts and participation of administrators, high-profile alumni like former NBA All-Star Bill Walton and members of UCLA's cheerleading team leading clinics for local kids.

Members of UCLA & Georgia Tech's teams,
coaches and cheerleaders in China
To say nothing of the sponsorship involvement of Alibaba, the massive Chinese e-commerce company (think "Asian"), with a market capitalization of over $486 billion, it's now the world's sixth largest internet company - and owner Jack Ma is the wealthiest man in China.

But thanks to the three aforementioned players, the trip has been branded by the actions of three people.

UCLA's recent visit certainly boosted "international recognition" and player's "personal experience",
but probably not quite in the way that the Pac-12 probably intended.

As a former Division I college athlete, and a young man of color who played football on a high-profile athletic team on a predominantly white campus, I watched and read the news reports over the past couple week with interest.

Partly because I certainly made errors in judgement that many college students make while trying to fit in, or appease others  - or while just acting stupid or careless.

Believe me, I definitely did some things that wouldn't have looked good being reported as a lead story on ESPN's Sports Center - things I still think about and regret

But I certainly never took advantage of, or hurt anyone - and definitely never even thought about stealing anything.

When the members of major Division I college sports teams (particularly football and basketball) travel to bowl games or special exhibition games, these are big high-profile events that usually involve some kind of network television coverage.

College football National Championship games
have become globally-televised spectacles
I was fortunate enough to experience those kinds of events at Penn State where I played in a Kickoff Classic season opener at the Meadowlands and in four different post-season bowl games including the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.

I can tell you that virtually every single minute of the player's time is choreographed according to a strict itinerary.

That's partially intentional to keep young guys out of trouble and focused on the game.

Between meals, travel to and from practices, studying film, publicity events, scheduled trips to places like theme parks, awards dinners - there's scarcely a moment that one is not under constant scrutiny from team coaches, administrators and the media.

The scope of the event follows you everywhere you go, even the lobby of the hotel where teams stay is a hangout for reporters, alumni and the members of player's families who are lucky enough to be able to afford to travel to see their son or daughter play - and of course, fans and curious strangers.

The only time you're not in the spotlight is when you're in your hotel room, and the little bit of free time you do get to explore the city you're in is a rare commodity that's limited by a curfew.

You are constantly reminded that as a player, you are a representative of the college or university and that your behavior reflects that.

TV news graphics like this were replayed for days
after the arrests were first reported
So when I heard the news about those three UCLA kids getting arrested in China, I cringed reflexively.

Part of me was pissed, part of me had sympathy for them, and part of me was genuinely confused.

What part of their brains was thinking that shoplifting sunglasses from an expensive store in a pricey downtown shopping district in China was a good idea?

Let's be honest here, the specter of race cannot be separated from this whole incident - in fact it helped drive the story.

These are three young African-American men in China, how could they not realize they wouldn't be under constant scrutiny no matter where they went given the authoritative nature of the Chinese state and a tightly-controlled culture that lacks the kind of racial diversity found in America?

While head coach Steve Alford announced that he was suspending all three players from the team indefinitely, their futures are very much up in the air - and that's an unfortunate thing to consider when you're talking about three college undergrads with their whole lives ahead of them.

What they did was an embarrassment to themselves, the UCLA students, faculty and alumni and the Bruins basketball team - Bruin' even has a snap poll where members of the UCLA community can weigh in on what kind of penalty the players deserve.

But I guess I'm writing all this because even though I feel what they did was stupid and they must each face the consequences for it, my heart goes out to their families.

When egos collide: Donald Trump v. LaVar Ball
Playing major college sports is a bit of a many-sided sword - and the hyper-scrutiny is one of the sides that can cut deeply.

Friends, classmates, former teachers, members of your family and even total strangers know all kinds of things about what you're doing and how you're performing on and off the field.

That's why I kept thinking about those three UCLA players while I was shopping.

Amidst all the Thanksgiving rush last evening I kept wondering: What's Thanksgiving going to be like for those three players with the truth of what they did now a global story that hovers over each of them like a personal cloud?

When young men like that reach the Division I level in any sport, the members of the communities where they come from already know all about them and their athletic achievements - those same people will know all about their having been arrested for shoplifting in China too.

Especially since the whole affair has taken on a surreal circus-like reality-TV feel as, predictably, Donald Trump has used the situation to start yet another petty public spat with LiAngelo Ball's father LaVar - another textbook narcissist who views virtually anything that happens from the perspective of his own gargantuan ego.

LaVar Ball is the guy who claimed he could have beaten Michael Jordan one-on-one on the basketball court back in August (Yeah, OK LaVar...), Jordan responded by saying Ball couldn't have beaten him if he (Jordan) was "one-legged."

Trump is still Tweeting about it two weeks after it happened like some maladjusted 15-year-old who just can't let go - check out Vann Newkirk's piece in The Atlantic Monthly, "Donald Trump's Eternal Feud With Blackness".

And so it goes, stupidity is cheap, shoplifting is still a crime, and a lot of people are scratching their heads wondering what three talented college basketball players with athletic scholarships that pay their college tuition were thinking trying to steal sunglasses from a store in China.

It's a question they (and their families) will be wrestling with over Thanksgiving and beyond as they try and heal the cuts from the other side of the sword.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Keystone XL - TransCanada's Unwelcome Intrusion

Ariel view of Thursday's 210,000 gallon TransCanada
pipeline spill in Amherst, South Dakota 
At this point, one could basically have a blindfolded monkey throw a dart at a large poster on the wall with the photos of all the major figures in the Trump administration on it and hit any number of examples of government gone wrong.   

But from my perspective, one of the most glaring examples of government absurdity in 21st century America can be found thousands of miles away from the nation's capital in the state of Nebraska.

Now you heard about that TransCanada pipeline spill last Thursday?

As Richard Gonzales of NPR reported on Thursday, TransCanada shut down a stretch of pipeline that runs from Hardesty in the Canadian province of Alberta, south to Cushing, Oklahoma and eventually to a massive oil storage and transport facility 75 miles east of St. Louis in Pakota, Illinois known as the Pakota Oil Tank Farm - which already receives oil from the Enbridge and Capline pipelines.

According to Gonzales' NPR report, a drop in pressure in the TransCanada pipeline early Thursday morning revealed that approximately 210,000 gallons of Canadian Tar Sands oil had leaked below the surface in the town of Amherst, South Dakota.

That's about 5,000 barrels of thick Canadian diluted bitumen sludge leaking underneath the ground in America - take a look at the ariel photograph above to see what that looks like.

Unlike crude oil which floats, the toxic diluted bitumen sinks - so try and picture the impact 210,000 gallons of that stuff slowly leaking down into the ground is going to have on the ecosystem.

While it is important to note that the Amherst spill last Thursday did not take place on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline which made headlines in 2015 and 2016, it is operated by the same owner, TransCanada - and a 17,000 gallon leak already took place in April 2016 along the Keystone XL pipeline.

So this morning I read Alexander Kaufman and Chris D'Angelo's Huffington Post article which reports that last Thursday's leak in South Dakota comes just as the Nebraska Public Service Commission is set to meet on Monday morning to make a final decision on approving the stretch of the 1,179 -mile Keystone XL pipeline that will pass through the state.

Nebraska landowners and citizens united in
opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline
According to the Website, the Nebraska PSC was initially established back in 1885 to regulate railroads, but its mandate has since expanded to a wide range of sectors including private water company rates, telecommunications carriers, major oil pipelines, natural gas jurisdictions, modular home construction and more.

The NPSC is composed of five commissioners who serve six-year terms, each of them represents one of five districts in the state - the elected position pays a tidy $75,000 a year.

The NPSC has been holding public hearings on the decision to allow the Keystone XL pipeline for years where the people of Nebraska have been expressing opposition to Keystone XL and for good cause.

According to an informative op-ed in the Scotts Bluff Star Herald back in August, if approved by the NPSC, the Keystone XL pipeline "will cross 250 intermittent streams and rivers and 350 will be within 500 feet of 270 water wells and 325 irrigation pivots."

As the op-ed notes, the diluted bitumen being pumped through the pipeline contains the carcinogen benzene and small amounts of xylene and polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons - "prolonged contact with these compounds has been associated with the induction of skin and lung tumors."  

Perhaps most disturbing, the Keystone XL pipeline would cross the Ogallala Aquifer - one of the largest fresh water supplies in the United States which provides freshwater to millions of Americans and untold numbers of animals and plants.

Despite baseless claims made by politicians who support the Keystone XL pipeline, it will only create 15 full-time jobs once it's completed.

Nebraska State Senator Annette Dubas
Given that it's owned by a foreign company and would be transporting hundreds of thousands of gallons a day of a highly dangerous toxic sludge to oil terminals in Port Arthur, Texas for transport to tankers where it will be sold overseas, one would think the decision to deny the project in the interest of public safety would be an easy one for the Nebraska PSC.

Especially given that approval of the pipeline would essentially be granting a foreign company rights and eminent domain over private land owned by Nebraska citizens.

But as the Huffington Post reported, remarkably, Nebraska's Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act of 2011 does not allow the NPSC to "evaluate safety considerations, including the risk or impact of spills or leaks from the major oil pipeline." 

It defies all logic that a state organization tasked with regulating oil pipelines is not allowed to consider "safety considerations" in deciding to approve a major oil pipeline project that could potentially have devastating consequences on Nebraska's environment.

But when you consider the fact that Nebraska State Senator Annette Dubas is the politician who introduced the Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act in 2011, it kind of makes sense.

As the Lincoln Journal Star reported back in 2011, Dubas took an undisclosed amount of money from TransCanada to allow them to park construction equipment on farm and ranch land owned by she and her husband.

It's a troubling example of government gone wrong when safety can't be considered in evaluating a project that could impact the lives of millions of people.

And if you're the politician who inserted that clause in the law, regardless of whether you're a Republican or Democrat, it's clear that the safety and well being of the people of Nebraska and the environment they live in mean less to you than the undisclosed money you got from TransCanada.

Anyway we'll see soon enough, the NPSC is scheduled to meet at 10am tomorrow morning.

And even if the law prevents them from considering the safety considerations when deciding to approve or deny the Keystone XL pipeline from passing through Nebraska, the five commission members can't be brain dead.

They know damn well 210,000 gallons of diluted bitumen Tar Sands sludge spilled in the neighboring state of South Dakota last Thursday.

And if they don't they've got no business making decisions that impact the health and safety of the people they're elected to serve.

Yesterday I was pulling for Penn State to beat Nebraska on the football field, but tomorrow I'll be rooting for the the people and environment of Nebraska not be reduced to a secondary consideration to the profit needs of TransCanada by a government agency tasked with regulating industries that impact their lives.

Not because I have anything personal against TransCanada's right to make money, but because people and the environment have rights too - and as I blogged about back in January days after the inauguration, the United States is already criss-crossed with a complex web of oil and natural pipelines.

We don't need Keystone XL to heat our homes, power our vehicles or boost our energy independence, and it's a project that puts American lives and our environment at risk simply to produce profit for a foreign company.

It's just not worth the risk - let's hope the Nebraska Public Service Commission feels the same way tomorrow.