Saturday, April 14, 2018

Lost In Detroit: Assumptions Over Common Sense?

14-year-old high school student Brennan Walker
Crossing the street, driving, riding a bicycle, walking along the side of the road, even sitting on a bench after work waiting to pick up your kids.

The list of what most people consider fairly normal activities, but that innocent African-Americans can be arrested, beaten or even shot and killed for, is alarmingly long considering we're in the 21st century.

Sandra Bland died of asphyxiation after failing to signal for a lane change.

But it's a fairly disturbing commentary on the current state of American society that a 14-year-old boy named Brennan Walker almost lost his life for simply knocking on a stranger's door to ask for directions to his high school on Thursday morning.

As you may have heard or read, after waking up late and missing his school bus, Walker decided to walk the four miles to Rochester High School, but he got turned around on some streets in a part of the Rochester Hills, Michigan neighborhood that were unfamiliar to him.

He knocked on the door of the home of 53-year-old former firefighter Jeffrey Zeigler to ask for directions and as Scott Anderson reported for WXYZ, a woman inside the home came down the stairs yelling at the high school freshman as if he was trying to break into the house.

According to Walker's mother Lisa Wright, she viewed a section of CCTV footage obtained by police from Zeigler's home that caught the incident on videotape revealing the woman inside wondering aloud "why did these people choose my house" - leaving no doubt in Wright's mind that the incident was racially motivated.

And as Wright told reporters, this is a kid, trying to get to school, whose father, her husband, is an active-duty Army special forces soldier serving his country overseas in operations in Syria right now.

But the Zeigler's didn't see that - all they saw was a scary black guy trying to hurt them.

53-year-old Jeffrey Zeigler's arrest photo
Walker told a WXYZ reporter he tried explaining that he was just a Rochester HS student looking for directions, but the woman in the house just kept yelling until Jeffrey Zeigler came downstairs, grabbed a shotgun and pointed it at Walker through the window.

The 14-year-old put up his hand reflexively and ran as fast he could from the house, but turned around to see Zeigler firing a round from the shotgun at him.

Fortunately the shot missed Walker, but the Zeigler's reactions brings to mind the kind of deadly hair-trigger reactions of some members of law enforcement who seem not to see what's actually happening.

Instead they seem to be responding to some kind of pre-recorded track that's running inside their minds, one rooted in deeply ingrained assumptions about race and ethnicity.

To be fair to the Zeiglers, an unexpected knock on the door early in the morning can be alarming if you're half-asleep or not expecting anyone.

But it was broad daylight and we can assume that their front door had a peephole, and obviously there was a window near the front door since the woman who first saw Walker standing there knocking clearly reacted to his being African-American.

If she didn't know who he was, why not simply call through the door and ask what he wanted?

Jeffrey Zeigler hearing the woman (I don't know if it was his wife) yelling would understandably prompt him to run down and see what was going on - but grabbing a loaded shotgun, chambering a live round and then firing it at someone who was running away from the house?

As Jacey Fortin reported for the New York Times earlier today, Oaks County (Michigan) Sheriff Michael Bouchard said of Zeigler's decision to fire the weapon, "It's disgusting, it's disturbing and it's unacceptable on every level."

Theodore Wafer fatally shot 19-year-old Renisha
McBride in the face after she knocked on his door
When I read about this incident on Twitter on Friday, it was hard for me to believe that it was just four years ago that I blogged about Theodore Wafer being found guilty of second-degree murder, manslaughter and a felony firearms charge in the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Renisha McBride.

If you recall that shooting, the circumstances were alarmingly similar to what happened last week in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

Let's quickly review for perspective.

McBride was intoxicated and speeding when she struck a parked vehicle and wrecked her car in a Detroit neighborhood back in the early morning hours of November 2, 2013.

A resident who saw the accident called 911 and went out to check on her and noted that she was "discombobulated" and couldn't even recall her phone number or speak lucidly - he told her he'd called EMS but she didn't seem to comprehend and walked away.

Likely suffering from a concussion, shock as well as the lingering effects of alcohol and weed in her system, she wandered for almost three hours, eventually making her way to the front door of Theodore Wafer's home in the Dearborn Heights neighborhood of Detroit about a mile from the accident at around 4:40am

She knocked on the front door and he opened the door and immediately fired a shotgun blast through the screen door directly into her face, killing her instantly.

Possibly believing that Michigan's "Shoot First" law (MCL 780.972) passed back in 2006 could be used as a defense, Wafer initially lied to police investigators claiming his shotgun discharged accidentally - then he claimed he thought McBride knocking on his front door was a burglar trying to break into his home.

Renisha McBride's parents react during court testimony
But that Michigan law clearly states that a citizen not in the act of committing a crime can discharge a firearm against someone only if they believe they are about to be harmed, killed or raped.

In 2014 a jury concluded that an intoxicated 19-year-old woman who'd just been in a car accident knocking on his door did not represent a threat to his life and they found him guilty and sentenced him to at least 17 years in prison.

McBride's death happened one year and nine months after the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, so clearly the question of how race affected Wafer's decision to shoot McBride in the face hung over the entire trial.

In the context of all this, I think it's fair to ask: if an intoxicated 19-year-old white blond girl had knocked on Wafer's door at 4:40am in the morning on that November night back in 2013, would he have immediately fired a shotgun blast directly into her face at point blank range?

It's not clear that Jeffrey Zeigler thought he was justified in firing his shotgun at Brennan Walker while the 14-year-old was running away from the house last Thursday morning.

Time, and a court of law will eventually answer that question - Zeigler was charged with assault with intent to murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony on Friday.

But given all the global media attention that surrounded the Renisha McBride shooting almost five years ago, one would think that as a gun owner Zeigler would have exercised some degree of restraint before pointing the barrel of his shotgun at someone running away from his house and pulling the trigger.

Instead, at least right now, it appears that deep-seated assumptions about race overshadowed common sense, and a 14-year-old boy, the son of an active-duty U.S. serviceman serving in Syria, could have been injured or even killed for knocking on the door of someone's home to ask for directions to get to school.

As Renisha McBride's father told a reporter after Theodore Wafer was found guilty of killing his daughter back in 2014, "That could have been anyone's kid."

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Awkward Aroma of Authoritarian Reach

Bad timing? Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert
It's not always easy to discern the specific ways in which the decidedly-authoritarian approach to oversight of local American law enforcement under Trump's Attorney General Jeff Sessions is impacting the U.S. justice system on the community level.

But there've been some pretty eye-opening examples lately.

For example, a lot of national media attention has been devoted to the questionable fatal shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark by two Sacramento police officers back on March 18th.

Far less national media attention has been focused on Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert receiving a $10,000 donation from the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA) for her re-election campaign just two days after Clark was shot eight times in the back while he was in the backyard of his grandmother's home - holding his cell phone.

As the top prosecutor in Sacramento, Schubert's office is responsible for determining if the shooting warrants the filing of criminal charges against the two SPD officers.

And as Darrell Smith reported for the Sacramento Bee on April 6th, she also received another $3,000 donation to her re-election campaign from the Sacramento County Alliance of Law Enforcement on March 23 - less than seven days after Stephon Clark was shot.

That's not to cast suspicion on all 7,000 members of the CSLEA, as their Website clearly shows, their thousands of members are committed to the safety of Californians in a wide variety of ways.

Teri Cox, communications dir. for the
CA Statewide Law Enforcement Assoc.
But writing a $10,000 check for the DA responsible for determining whether a questionable shooting of an unarmed citizen warrants criminal charges, two days after the shooting?

It raises legitimate questions about the ability of local prosecutors to fairly investigate police officers accused of serious misconduct resulting in the death or bodily injury of civilians.

In no way am I suggesting that Attorney General Jeff Sessions directly influenced two Sacramento police unions to make large campaign donations to a DA handing a police brutality case.

But the optics make it look sketchy.

Particularly given the reluctance of local prosecutors to file criminal charges against police officers even in cases of flagrant use of unnecessary deadly force against unarmed people who hadn't actually committed a crime.

Teri Cox, the director of communications and public affairs for the CSLEA tried to explain the timing of the $10,000 campaign donation as mere coincidence. As she told the Sacramento Bee:

"There was no timing involved. We've been for (Schubert) from the very beginning, it's unfortunate that the check had to happen at that time."

And maybe that's true, but it does call into question the objectivity of a DA who could arguably be seen as being in ethical and professional conflict by accepting large campaign donations from two police unions within days of two SPD officers shooting an innocent man in his own backyard.

Is that an example of authoritarianism?

The Oxford dictionary defines authoritarian as: favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority.

The new American authoritarianism?
Not only was the United States founded on the principle of questioning authority, but placing a system of clearly-defined checks and balances on the three major branches of the federal government lies at the very heart of the U.S. Constitution.

By extension, that principle applies to local government in my humble view.

But what happens when you have an attorney general like Jeff Sessions?

A man whose personal cultural and racial bias places him on the fringe of the American mainstream.

Someone who clearly runs the Department of Justice as if the concept of justice is based not on the Constitution, but on an adherence to the narrow, hyper-conservative ideology favored by the erratic POTUS?

What happens when individual representatives of federal law enforcement branches begin to police people based not on criminal acts or violations of laws, but rather on what they think and write?

Like the Department of Homeland Security seeking bids for an outside contractor to compile a massive database of hundreds of thousands of "media influencers" (including journalists and bloggers) so the federal agency can supposedly monitor the content.

Is that for actual "homeland security"?

Or is it simply a means to try and validate Trump's loony paranoia about what he calls "fake news"?

Civil rights activist and journalist Shaun King
Did you read the recent story about how activist and journalist Shaun King and his family were subjected to harassment by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after they landed at JFK airport?

As he wrote on his Twitter feed, ICE agents called him and his family out of line at JFK after they returned from a recent trip to Egypt.

He was questioned about his leadership role with the Black Lives Matter movement and asked about his activities in Egypt.

In recent years King has emerged as a leading voice on unjustified police brutality against people of color and the systematic racial bias of the American justice system.

He's covered everything from stories about racially-biased policing by the NYPD, to Bronx courts railroading young men of color into jails and he's become a leading social media presence advocating for justice and policing reforms.

If you've never read any of his stuff before, check out his recent story back in January in the Intercept about police officers in Cartersville, Georgia arresting 70 people ranging in age from 15 to 31, mostly African-Americans (including veterans, college students, and at least one pregnant woman) because they found less than an ounce of weed at a party.

(And yeah, Georgia cops really arrested 70 people and hauled them all to jail for a bag of weed - click the link above)

He's begun using his influence and reach on social media to encourage broader political activism, becoming a co-founder of a political action committee called Real Justice PAC to bring national attention (and money) to smaller local political races for offices like district attorneys that have massive influence over mass incarceration in an effort to address America's broken justice system.

Shaun King represents one of the emerging grassroots leaders in the fight against the flagrant authoritarianism trumpeted by the current presidential administration.

Small wonder he and his family were stopped in JFK airport and questioned by ICE, even though he's an American fighting for the values enshrined in the Constitution.

It's not always easy to discern the specific ways in which the decidedly-authoritarian approach to oversight of local American law enforcement under Trump's Attorney General Jeff Sessions is impacting the U.S. justice system on the community level.

But you can certainly smell the aroma these days.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The Caravan & The Wall: Fact Versus Trump's Fiction

Weary Central American refugees from the "Caravan"
lining up at a soccer field in Mexico    
[Photo - AP]
As an American raised to believe in the idea of a country that welcomes refugees seeking safety and freedom from violence or political persecution within our borders, it's not easy living with a president who promotes lies and fiction over the truth.

It's been hard enough seeing the images of hundreds of Central American refugees making their way north through Mexico in what's being described as a "caravan" in an effort to flee violence and destabilized government authority in their homeland to seek asylum in the U.S.

It's difficult to even imagine the kinds of circumstances and human suffering that would compel people to pack up only what they can carry, take their children and start a treacherous journey hundreds of miles north on foot just for a chance to enter the U.S. to join family members already here, or apply for residency or asylum.

Donald Trump's efforts this past week to seize on their plight and use it as some kind of media prop to ruthlessly cultivate anti-immigrant hysteria in order to selfishly promote his politically-dead-in-the-water border wall, is low even by his almost nonexistent standards.

None were lower than his attempts to resurrect, exonerate and defend his widely-condemned 2016 claims that Mexican migrants were "rapists" - which he used to kick off his presidential campaign.

As was widely reported, during off-script remarks last Thursday, Trump made the absurd claim that women in the caravan "are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before".

Unsubstantiated claims which even drew criticism from the likes of former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, who himself was famously fired for repeated sexual harassment. 

WH Press Secretary defending Trump's made-up
claims of a fictional mass rape of refugees 
Trump seemed oddly unaware that the entire purpose of hundreds of refugees banding together in one large group was for their own security - to prevent such things from happening.

On Friday, when astonished journalists demanded an explanation from Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, (whose job now seems to entail defending and justifying Trump's almost non-stop lying) she cited a newspaper article on which her erratic boss based his bizarre claims of mass rape.

The article in question, an LA Times article published on Tuesday by Kate Linthicum, while referring to a 2010 kidnap and massacre of 72 Central American migrants in northern Mexico, mentioned that in Mexico, "Rapes, assaults and robberies of immigrants are common."

It said nothing about a single member of the current caravan being raped.

Let alone the fictional mass rapes Trump seemed to be referring to, without even having any first-hand information to back up his claims - a reflection for his utter disregard for the truth.

Kudos to CNN president Jeff Zucker for using his network's vast resources to try and fact-check Trump - take a look at this clip posted on of CNN's Leyla Santiago reporting live as some of the hundreds of Central American immigrants making their way north exit a bus that has brought them to the Mexican city of Puebla.

Where immigration personnel from the Mexican government as well as volunteer immigration legal experts from the U.S. were on hand to help advise the refugees on their status and options.

Some of the hundreds of people Trump tried to
paint as security threat 
Santiago asks a woman holding her child if any of the women in the caravan have been raped and she said none of the women have been assaulted. Not one.

Now that's not to suggest that border security isn't important.

But much of the current chaos is a direct result of Congressional Republicans blocking multiple attempts to pass comprehensive border legislation over the past decade.

It's not just U.S. domestic policy either.

Many of the hundreds of refugees in this caravan are from Honduras, where anger over the disputed election of the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez as president last November prompted a wave of criticism at the U.S. after the State Department (under former Sec. of State Rex Tillerson) sanctioned the elections despite widespread evidence of election fraud.

The Organization of American States announced the election results to be invalid as well.

Based in part on accusations that Hernandez had used his power to place his own supporters on Honduras' Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

The Tribunal declared Hernandez the winner over popular opposition challenger Salvador Nasralla by a margin of 1.66%

They also altered the Honduran constitution to allow Hernandez to run for a second term.

Opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla
at a political rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras 
Many Hondurans felt Nasralla had won the election and the results plunged parts of the country into violence as police cracked down on anti-Hernandez demonstrators - at least 24 demonstrators were killed by police.

The point is that the people in the caravan fleeing north were justifiably seeking asylum from the kind of authoritarian violence that has claimed so many innocent civilian lives in Central American countries like El Salvador or Nicaragua.

Yet Trump pronounced the refugees a security threat, and in yet another poorly-planned and seat-of-the-pants policy decision, used the caravan as an excuse to request that National Guard troops be deployed to the southern border for some kind of undefined mission until his precious wall is funded and built.

The silence from Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is deafening at this point.

It bears mentioning that there a couple things about Trump's lingering obsession about building a wall along the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico that are both fascinating and disturbing.

Let's start with the facts: as Susan Ferriss of the Center For Public Integrity reported on Wednesday, data from both the U.S. Border Patrol and the Pew Research Center clearly show that illegal border crossings from Mexico into the U.S. have been declining for years - in fact they're at a 50-year low.

Refugees cling to the side of a freight train heading
north through Mexico known as "The Beast"
So it's actually not surprising to watch Trump try and paint a caravan of hundreds of men, women and children from Central America openly making their way to the U.S. as some kind of invasion force.

There's a reason that both Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate didn't allocate the tens of billions of dollars in the recent budget bill needed to undertake such a massive project.

Neither party wants to be associated with it, or pay for it because the facts show it isn't needed, won't actually be an effective deterrent to illegal border crossing and is politically unpopular.

Whether it's people clinging to the side of a freight train (pictured above) to make their way north through Mexico into the U.S., refugees will find a way to cross borders.

Second, the whole idea of the wall isn't based on some kind of sound policy analysis or strategic research cooked up by some think-tank.

The idea for the wall was one of many political themes first analyzed as part of test language used by the controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica as it explored themes that potential conservative voters for Trump would go for by presenting them to focus groups.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix and
co-founder Chistopher Wylie
As journalist Jason Le Miere reported in an article for Newsweek in March:

"The focus groups were also asked to respond to the idea of a border wall to prevent illegal immigration, as well as attitudes to race, including so-called 'race-realism', which trumpets the fact that races should be considered different from one another."

So the reality is that Trump's wall wasn't an idea developed by military strategists in the Defense Department.

It was one of the intentionally-divisive political wedge issues (including "draining the swamp") cooked up by Cambridge Analytica's data-crunchers as they looked for ways to sell Trump to American voters in 2016.

Who was one of the top executives at Cambridge Analytica when all this data was being harvested?

Former Trump campaign manager and senior White House advisor Steve Bannon.

So there's a reason Trump never stopped talking about the wall during the campaign, and was perfectly willing to flagrantly lie about mass rape of refugees last week in a desperate ploy to try and drum up for support for something the majority of American people don't want, and even Republicans have no intention of funding.

It's just a shame that outrage over Trump's concocted fiction seems to overshadow the brutal realities many of these caravan refugees are fleeing - and obscure the larger issue that Congress needs to get it's act together and come up with a way to draft and pass meaningful immigration reform.

Until then, the ever-more erratic Trump will continue to sew chaos where order is so desperately needed - and spread his fiction in an attempt to subvert facts that don't fit into his narrow ideology.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Oklahoma & Kentucky: Teaching Democracy

Tulsa, Oklahoma elementary school teacher Janie
Mitchell at an April 2nd rally at the state capital 
On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it's difficult to know exactly what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might think about the current state of America.

Particularly given the polarized nature of our politics, a two-tier justice system rife with racial and economic bias and the growing socioeconomic inequality between American citizens exacerbated by legislative policies passed by Republican-majority state legislatures and the GOP-majority House and Senate. 

But if Dr. King were still alive today (he'd have turned 88 in January), it's fair to speculate that he'd be among those fighting for the causes that he believed in and fought so hard to achieve in the 1950's and 60's - including the right to a good education and fair pay.

The essence of Dr. King's spirit, including his embrace of Mahatma Ghandi's belief in the power of peaceful non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, and the courage to speak truth to power, can  arguably be seen amongst the striking public school teachers across the nation.

Inspired by West Virginia teachers, whose nine-day walkout in early March captured global attention and forced state lawmakers to grant them a 5% pay increase, thousands of Oklahoma public school teachers, administrators and other supporters descended upon the state capital in Oklahoma City on Monday morning.

They rallied in front of the state capitol building, then broke into groups to confront state lawmakers in hallways and offices to demand significant increases to Oklahoma's education funding. 

Since the Oklahoma state legislature slashed public school spending by more than $200 million in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008, the number of students in Oklahoma public schools has increased by more than 40,000 - placing huge demands on public school administrators and teachers and forcing some schools to eliminate funding for programs like art, music and athletics.

Thousands of Kentucky public school teachers
packed the state capital in Frankfurt on Monday
As the sign (pictured above) held by Tulsa elementary school teacher Janie Mitchell demonstrates, Oklahoma public school teachers are fed up with being ranked 49th out of 50 states in terms of salary.

And at the same time, the draconian education cuts have led to some 1,500 teachers being removed from the ranks of Oklahoma public schools.

Those cost are impacting the lives and futures of both students and teachers.

Some public schools in Oklahoma have four day school weeks due to a lack of teachers and money - a situation that plays out in Kentucky as well where thousands of teachers closed schools to fill the halls of the state capitol building on Monday morning to protest under-funded public schools and a sneaky legislative maneuver by state lawmakers to pass cuts in teacher pension benefits on the sly.

Part of what would rankle Dr. King is that the reality is that there's money in the Oklahoma state budget to fully and properly fund public schools and pay teachers a competitive salary.

But as in other states controlled by Republican state legislatures (like Kansas), lawmakers have used anti-union rhetoric and irrational ALEC-driven vilification of public schools to justify shifting money from education in order to fund (drum roll please...) tax breaks for corporations and the 1%.

For example, consider the $300 million tax break for new oil and natural gas drilling Republican Oklahoma legislators and Republican Governor Mary Fallin tucked into the fiscal 2018 state budget.

Republican Oklahoma Gov. Mary Falin
Oklahoma is one of the biggest producers of oil and natural gas in the nation, and U.S. petroleum companies already benefit from a host of federal subsidies for oil and natural gas exploration and drilling.

Yet Oklahoma Republican lawmakers authorized moving $300 million in taxpayer funds to oil and gas companies as many public school classrooms go without sufficient teachers, books and other basic school supplies - it literally borders on criminal.

Conservative Republican Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who many already considered something of a ideologically right-wing nitwit, epitomized the simplistic, condescending, uninformed Republican contempt for public education on Tuesday when she told CBS News that:

"Teachers want more, but it's kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car."  

Now when you read a dismissive, idiotic, Trump-like statement like that, just remember that the public school teachers Fallin is talking about have gone without pay raises for a decade, rank 49th out of all 50 states in salary, and are teaching more students with less funding in an era when education is as critical for global competitiveness as it's ever been.

Who sounds more like the teenage kid?

Fallin and other state legislators moved to sign an education funding and teacher salary increase, but it's way below what teachers are looking for - and her Betsy DeVos-ish "teenage kid" statement only gives teachers more fuel to keep pressuring Republican lawmakers to cough up the money.

Dr. King with other leaders of the 1963 March
on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 
Unfortunately for Fallin, she's too politically one-dimensional to realize that her statement only validates the striking teacher's demands, and paints Republicans as even more tone deaf than most Americans already think they are.

And it only increases the chances of a Democratic Blue Wave this fall when these thousands of voters head for the polls in November for the mid-term elections.

These grassroots protests are demonstrating growing widespread support for public education.

Teachers, administrators, parents and educational professionals are building political momentum across the country - including way out in Arizona where teachers, fired up by the strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, are moving closer to a strike in one of the most reliably politically Red States in the nation - one with an open Senate seat in the fall too.

This despite years of Republican legislators working to curb collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public sector employees, and trying to shift public education funding to private and charter schools with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

But thousands of teachers across the country (and thousands of students protesting gun violence) are showing that real voices matter - and that there is real power in numbers.

This is what Democracy looks like, and Dr. King would be proud to see civil disobedience and organized protest making a difference and moving the needle in the 21st century.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Mireille Knoll and the Spirit of Unity

85-Year-old French Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll
For many, days like Easter Sunday help to reinforce the importance of spending time with love ones, while remembering those who are no longer here with us.

As millions of people around the globe gather with family to observe one of the holiest times of the year for both Christians and Jews, the children and grandchildren of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll were cruelly denied the chance to celebrate Passover with their beloved mother and grandmother.

Her partially-burned remains were found on Friday March 23rd after two assailants brutally stabbed her eleven times then attempted to set fire to her body in a frantic effort to cover up the evidence of their heinous and cowardly attack on an elderly woman with Parkinson's Disease who lived alone. 

Because the assailants, one of whom was her neighbor, specifically targeted her because they believed she possessed large amounts of valuables or money in the apartment because she was Jewish, French investigators are calling it a hate crime.

"Hate crime" is probably putting it lightly, but perhaps it best summarizes the wanton criminal violation of someone's person or property based on assumptions or stereotypes about their religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

However you wish to define it, the accused attackers who took Mireille Knoll's life two weeks ago displayed a remarkable contempt for human life.

A contempt rooted in the anti-Semitism based on time-worn stereotypes that have dehumanized, marginalized and vilified Jewish people based solely on their faith and customs since before the 1st century AD - when the Roman emperor Hadrian outlawed the Jewish tradition of circumcision because it offended some ancient Romans concept of the natural body.   

Thousands of French citizens turned out to honor
Mireille Knoll and oppose anti-Semitism
The thousands of people who marched in Paris last Wednesday to honor the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor know all too well that the ugly face of anti-Semitism is not an unfamiliar one in France.

In the same sense that Americans still struggle to reconcile with the institutionalized racism that fueled slavery, or the ethnic hatred and xenophobia the led to the forced internment of Japanese-American citizens into American concentration camps during World War II.

The murder of Mireille Knoll serves as a violent reminder that France as a society still faces the ethical challenge and moral responsibility of reconciling the French motto "Liberte´, Equlite´, Fraternite´ " (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) with the fact that some French authorities cooperated with occupying Nazi forces during WWII to deport some 75,000 French Jews to German concentration camps where some 72,500 were eventually killed. 

The fact that Mireille Knoll was able to narrowly escape that fate in the summer of 1942 as a young girl because her mother had Brazilian passport only compounds the sense of outrage that accompanied her brutal death.

The same hatred that led to the death of millions of Jews, Roma and others during WWII at the hands of the Nazis eventually caught up to her inside the small apartment where she lived alone in the 21st century.

As Lelia Dessante, the home-care aide who cooked and cleaned for the Parisian grandmother who lived alone observed to a New York Times reporter:

"She survived the Holocaust in the last century, I think she had a happy life, and yet she was killed at home, frail and defenseless. What world are we living in?"

Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen at a conference
held by French far-right National Front party 
It's a world in which right-wing political parties which embrace xenophobia and quietly (or openly) tolerate anti-Semitic views have gained footholds in legislatures across Europe.

It's a world in which the current American president refused to condemn a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia where some brandished flags with the swastika and chanted "Jews will not replace us."  

Those kinds of repugnant views aren't just relegated to the sidelines of global politics or in the dark corners of the internet either.

If you recall, back on Saturday March 10th, just about two weeks before Mireille Knoll's murder, former Trump campaign manager and senior White House adviser Steve Bannon was in Paris to address a conference of the French far-right political party National Front.

Bannon famously told the cheering crowd, "Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor."

Now I'm not suggesting that Bannon appearing alongside former right-wing French political candidate Marine Le Pen to encourage white supremacists to embrace being called racists directly led to Mireille Knoll's murder.

But there's little doubt that his championing of racist and xenophobic views as the basis of political policy, and the hatred that led to her death, are inexorably linked.

Some of the thousands of people who marched to honor Mireille Knoll last Wednesday felt so too.

Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, whose anti-immigrant hatred and bigotry helped propel Emmanuel Macron to victory in the French presidential election back in May of 2017, was openly booed by some as she marched in the parade last Wednesday.

Lassana Bathily attends a memorial service for
Mireille Knoll in Paris last Wednesday
Some even chanted "N is for Nazi!" as she walked past in an expression of contempt for the intolerance and anti-immigrant hysteria she cultivates as a tool to boost her political power.

Those kinds of public reactions to her presence echo the overwhelming majority of the country who voted against her in the 2017 French presidential race.

Now obviously there's no changing the brutal circumstances of Mireille Knoll's horrific death.

But there are some positives that have come about as result of it - including a broad and diverse cross-section of French people, including many non-Jews, who came out to honor her memory last and march against anti-Semitism.

As Cnaan Liphshiz reported in an article for the Times of Israel, 27-year-old Lassana Bathily (pictured above), was one of many non-Jews who attended a vigil prayer service at the Tournelles Synagogue in Paris last Wednesday.

Bathily, an African Muslim from Mali, was the employee working inside the stockroom of a kosher store called HyperCacher in France back in January, 2015 when a radicalized Islamist terrorist named Amedy Coulibaly entered the kosher store and murdered four people.

He bravely guided twelve Jewish shoppers who were inside the store to safety and helped them hide inside a refrigerated room until the attack was over.

Mourners place flowers and candles at a makeshift
memorial outside of Mireille Knoll's apartment
The African immigrant was recognized as a national hero for his actions and granted French citizenship.

And as Liphshiz reported, Bathily was warmly received at the ceremony for Mireille Knoll last Wednesday by some of the French Jews in attendance - many of whom crowded around him to shake his hand or hug him to thank him for his actions.

As Liphshiz reported, a Jewish man from Sarcelles, France named David Mechal who attended the vigil on Wednesday, told reporters:

"The Minister is here and Mayor Anne Hidalgo is also here, and that's important because their commitment to the values of the French Republic is imperative for the survival of Jewish life here. But real change us not up to them. It's up to people like Lassana, so it's moving to see him with us here, standing with us in solidarity in our hour of need." 

That kind of spirit of cross-cultural unity is one way to respond to the hatred and anti-Semitism that has reared it's ugly head in France, America and other countries - but it must be accompanied with a justice system that demonstrates a willingness to treat hate crimes as the threat to law and order and personal human rights that they are.

That spirit of unity won't erase the brutal act that took the life of Mireille Knoll in Paris, but it shows that people of different races, ethnicities, religions and nationalities are willing to step forward and stand up for the rights of all - regardless of who the victim is.

Perhaps that's the most meaningful embodiment of the Easter and Passover season.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Reasonable and Justified Manner? A Profoundly Bigoted Lens

Stephon Clark, 22, another unarmed American citizen
shot and killed by police
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra's announcement on Tuesday, that his office will step in to oversee the investigation into the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark by two Sacramento Police Department officers last Sunday night, does address some concerns expressed by outraged community members about the ability of SPD to conduct an impartial investigation into its own officers.

But it's hard to say how much comfort that's going to bring Clark's family members considering he was shot multiple times for holding a cell phone.

As more detailed information about this incident begins to trickle out, a familiar narrative from the Sacramento Police Department is already beginning to unfold - the now familiar claim that the two officers who fired 20 shots at Clark (including shots fired when he fell to his hands and knees) did so because they feared for their lives.

The two officers were reportedly called to the scene in response to someone reportedly breaking the windows of cars in the neighborhood, when they confronted Stephon Clark in the backyard of the home where he lived, they claim he advanced or moved towards them with something in his hand.

Seconds later an officer yelled "Gun!" and the two officers fired 20 shots; the object in Clark's hands turned out to be a cellphone.

He was shot about 60 seconds after the SPD officers on the ground first encountered him - adding to the already-suspicious fatal shooting is the fact that one of the officers can be heard telling another to mute the sound on his body camera immediately after the shooting, right before the audio cuts out.

The arc of this investigation is obviously going to take a long time, especially given the growing media attention, mounting public outrage, and the involvement of the state attorney's office.

But one of the things that troubles me about this shooting is that the officers themselves claim that they were sent to the scene in response to reports of a man breaking car windows.

21-year-old Isaiah Malailua 
Now that's clearly a crime warranting a quick police response, but is that the kind of situation that calls for discharging a weapon?

The violent response of the two Sacramento PD officers to a black man holding his cellphone in his own backyard is remarkably different from the Chicago PD's response to an armed white man arrested in Chicago's Union Station on Friday.

According to an article by Chicago Tribune reporter William Lee, a California man named Isaiah Malailua (pictured left) was arrested at an Amtrak ticket counter wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying a 9mm handgun.

Authorities quickly apprehended him after police K-9 dogs detected the odor of explosive residue on a duffel bag that belonged to Malailua that was found in another part of the station.

Now obviously I'm not suggesting that Chicago authorities should have just yelled "Gun!" and started firing in the middle of a crowded train station - they did the right thing, they located him, surrounded him and took him into custody.

The point I'm making here is that the officers who arrested Malailua in Chicago knew he was potentially dangerous because a Greyhound bus ticket with his name on it was found inside the duffel bag with the explosive residue on it that was detected by the K-9 - they also found police SWAT gear inside the bag that he'd apparently stolen from the NYPD.

So they knew who he was, and when they found him at the ticket counter he had a handgun on him and was wearing a bullet-proof vest - that's got "potential mass shooter" written all over it.

Considering recent events and the fact that Malailua was inside a crowded major urban transit hub, authorities on the scene could have been justified in shooting him, but they didn't.

What role did Malailua's skin being white have to do with how the Chicago authorities treated him?

Stephon Clark's brother Stevante leads a protest chant
during a City Council meeting Tuesday night
Contrast his arrest with the Sacramento PD's response to reports of someone breaking car windows in a neighborhood last Sunday night - where they shot and killed Stephon Clark about a minute after encountering him.

In Sacramento, the SPD had no idea who Stephon Clark was - they saw his skin color and flipped the fuck out.

Now if I was a cop, and I'm not, a report of a suspect breaking car windows on the street could sound like garden variety juvenile vandalism.

Or worse, maybe someone under the influence of heroin, crystal meth or crack desperately looking for a quick score to sell something to get high.

It's hardly the modus operandi of a professional car thief, so someone breaking car windows sounds either desperate or stupid - it makes a lot of noise, attracts a lot of attention in a neighborhood after 9pm at night, and it increases the chances of getting busted by the cops.

Does that sound like a situation where you go in with a gun drawn ready to fire shots at the first person you see?

Or does it sound like the kind of situation where it's better to ascertain who it is and what's going on?

Granted it was dark out, but responding SPD officers had a police helicopter hovering overhead that had guided them to the general location, and based on the audio that was released, the SPD officers didn't identify themselves as police officers when they encountered Stephon Clark.

If you haven't already seen it, take a look at this body cam footage when the two SPF officer come upon Clark in his grandmother's backyard - it's not bloody or anything, you can't see the actual shooting.

No charges: Baton Rouge PD officers Blaine Salamoni
and Howie Lake, II
The officer's first words at 9 seconds into the video sound like "Show me your hands! Gun!" 

He's out of breath and says the words so fast it's hard to hear what he's saying - plus the police helicopter is hovering overhead.

About 6 seconds later the officer yells, "Show me your hands-Gun-Gun-Gun!" and both officers just start firing shots.

It's the initial contact that's troubling.

In some ways it reminds me of the initial contact that Baton Rouge PD officers Blaine Salamoni and  Howie Lake, II demonstrated when they first encountered 37-year-old Alton Sterling in front of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the early morning hours of July 5, 2016.

The two officers were responding to an anonymous caller alleging a man was waving a gun around in front of the store, they pulled up, approached Sterling (who was known to sell CD's outside the store), interrupted a conversation he was having with two women and told him to put his hands on a car.

Not having done anything illegal and not knowing what the officers wanted with them, Sterling protested and tried to pull away - at which point one of the officers pointed their loaded gun at Sterling and said:

"Bitch, I'm gonna kill you." 90 seconds later Alton Sterling was shot dead at point blank range while on the ground pinned on his back by both officers - Salamoni fired six shots from his weapon.

There was no, "Police officer, we need to speak with you." or "Show me your hands!" or "Freeze! Police officer!"

Alton Sterling seconds before
being shot by Salamoni
They literally pulled up, pointed a loaded handgun at his head and said, "Bitch, I'm gonna kill you."  - and they did.

The last time I blogged about Salamoni and Lake back on May 5, 2017 was just after the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions announced they would not pursue criminal charges against either man.

As you likely heard, on Tuesday Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announced that the state would not be filing criminal charges against either Salamoni or Lake.

This despite the store owner Abdullah Muflahi saying that Sterling was not waving a gun or threatening anyone, and never brandished a gun or threatened the two officers with it at any point.

Muflahi, who witnessed the shooting, says Sterling had no idea why the two policemen were even there when they threw him on the hood of a parked car and tasered him before wrestling him to the ground.

In an April 15, 2012 op-ed in the New York Times published two months after the violent racist psychopath George Zimmerman stalked, attacked then shot and killed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, journalist and author Brent Staples observed:

"Young black men know that in far too many settings they will be seen not as individuals, but as the 'other', and given no benefit of the doubt....Society's message to black boys - 'we fear you and view you as dangerous' -  is constantly reinforced. " 

In his lengthy statement to the press on Tuesday, after stating that probable clause (rather than an actual crime), the presence of drugs in his system and resisting an arrest for something which he was never informed, were all contributing factors in Alton Sterling being shot and killed, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry concluded "that both officers acted in a reasonable and justified manner in the shooting death of Mr. Sterling."

Writer Brent Staples
The question now facing the Sacramento City Council, the California State Attorney's Office and the Sacramento Police Department is one which members of the community who protested during a City Council meeting on Tuesday night have already raised:

Were the two Sacramento PD officers who fired 20 shots at Stephon Clark while he was in the backyard of his own home acting in a "reasonable and justified manner"?

The answer, which must come from a court of law, will obviously take time to articulate and materialize.

But it should be viewed in the context of the words of Brent Staples from his op-ed written in the wake of Trayvon Martin:

"Very few Americans make a conscious decision to subscribe to racist views. But the toxic connotations that the culture has associated with blackness have been embedded in thought, language, and social convention for hundreds of years. This makes it easy for people to see the world through a profoundly bigoted lens without being aware that they are doing so."

It's that lens that lies at the heart of the death of Alton Sterling, Stephon Clark, Trayvon Martin and so many other men of color in this country.

Tried, convicted, sentenced and executed in a span of minutes - far from any court of law, denied the right to legal counsel guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and brutally silenced before having the chance to testify on their own behalf.

And as the cases of Alton Sterling and Trayvon Martin both demonstrated, found complicit in their own deaths and cruelly forced into the unfathomable role of being silent witnesses for their own prosecution by a judicial system that views plaintiffs and defendants through "a profoundly bigoted lens."

There's nothing remotely reasonable or justified about that.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Are Republicans Indoctrinating New Democrats?

A civilian after a Saudi airstrike in Yemen [Reuters] 
Journalist Nicolas Niarchos' gripping New Yorker Radio Hour segment on WNYC, titled "The American Bombs Falling on Yemen", sheds light on a dark corner of American and British foreign policy.

The role of the U.S. and U.K. governments in the systematic bombing campaign against Yemen being carried out by Saudi Arabia.

The ongoing conflict has claimed an estimated 12,907 civilian lives.

But Niarchos' New Yorker Radio Hour piece focused on the death a highly-regarded Yemeni politician named Abdulqader Hilal Al-Dabab during a Saudi airstrike on a funeral in Sana'a on October 8, 2016 that killed 140 civilians and injured over 500 people.

The Saudi government blamed the airstrike on poor intelligence - one can only wonder what the reasoning is for the disturbing number of innocent people killed by airstrikes at weddings in Yemen.

Aside from the shocking civilian death toll, as an American, one of the most troubling aspects of "the forgotten war" is that most of the bombs, missiles, rockets and aircraft being used by the Saudis in Yemen are made by American, British and French defense contractors.

U.S. military aircraft also conduct airborne refueling operations for Saudi military aircraft and assist with targeting in Yemen for the 100-plus airstrikes per-day that currently take place - airstrikes that have destroyed homes, hospitals, markets, roads, schools, airports and port facilities.

Niarcho made the troubling observation that one of the long-term costs of America's role in what some experts are calling the world's worst humanitarian crisis, is that untold numbers of young Yemenis angered at U.S. support of the Saudi's, are being indoctrinated by radical Islamic terrorist groups eager to use the war as a recruiting tool.

Saturday's March For Our Lives protest in Washington
Given the borderless, asymmetrical nature of terrorist attacks by splinter groups associated with or funded by ISIS, the idea that the U.S. military and American defense contractors' engagement in a destructive proxy war in the poorest nation in the mideast is having the unintended effect of bolstering the ranks of ISIS (who may in turn attack innocent western civilians) is a truly frightening irony to ponder.

I was thinking about that on Saturday as Americans took to the streets in support of stricter gun control laws.

Members of Congress may be on their spring break, but the hundreds of thousands who turned out in cities and towns across America and the world for the March For Our Lives protests over the weekend left little doubt that Republicans have their homework cut out for them.

Given the numbers of people who turned out over the weekend, it's pretty clear that the Republican Party's worn rhetoric about protecting American's 2nd Amendment rights is not going cut it when it comes to the upcoming mid-term elections.

Saturday's protests made it clear that people are fed up with the Republican-majority Congress refusing to pass gun control legislation despite the thousands of Americans killed by gun violence over the past eight years that the GOP has controlled the House.

The recent spending bill passed by Congress (once again passed at the last minute with little in the way of public input or feedback) did contain goodies for both conservatives and liberals, and it rebuked the Trump administration's efforts to gut federal agencies like the State Department and EPA by underfunding them.

But there was little meat on the bone in terms of the kinds of meaningful gun control legislation that a majority of Americans now support.

Including reinstating a ban on selling semi-automatic rifles, banning large capacity ammunition clips and bolstering federal background checks for firearm purchases.

You've seen clips of some of the emotional and impassioned speeches made by young Americans mobilized in support of gun control to stop the senseless mass killings that are making America less safe.

Republicans are not going to hold onto a congressional majority by placating the NRA and the tiny fraction of the American populace who view any type of reasonable gun control law as some kind of blasphemy against the 2nd Amendment.

Mainstream Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike support the 2nd Amendment.

But they want students to be safe in schools and colleges and people to be safe in public places like churches, movie theaters and clubs.

Bottom line: a majority of the American people, including licensed gun owners like myself, people of different ethnicities and religions, Republicans and Democrats, old and young - all support stricter gun controls.

A WWII U.S. Army vet who fought under General
George Patton at the Battle of the Bulge
To me it's like the U.S. backing the Saudis' war against Yemen having the effect of indoctrinating people into a radical Islamic, anti-American mindset.

By dragging their feet on gun control and refusing to respond to calls for reasonable legislation that will help stem the flow of civilian deaths by firearms in this country, Republicans are inadvertently indoctrinating a whole generation of young people into the Democratic Party.

That's not good for the long-term prospects of a political party whose average voters are older than average Democratic voters.

A party who aren't attracting as many new members either.

Republican members of Congress sitting at home watching Trump implode and quietly hoping the March For Our Lives protestors are going to slowly fade out would do well to think about which party those young activists are going to register for when they turn 18.

Aside from the odd reflexively-right-wing Tomi Lahren wanna-be, Saturday's protests gave an awful lot of soon-to-be voters a master class in influencing the legislative agenda of the congress that represents them.

And they're going to be voting the issues that directly impact their lives.

Many of them have already been indoctrinated into the Democratic Party, not necessarily because of what Democrats did, but for what they stand for.

And for what Republicans ignored.