Sunday, March 29, 2015

Balancing Faith & Practicality In Contemporary Society

People place candles at a makeshift memorial for the Sassoon children.
This time last weekend the headlines were filled with news of the horrific house fire in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, New York that killed seven children from the same Orthodox Jewish family on March 21st.

The focus of the "24-Hour News Cycle" may have moved on but the aftermath of this tragedy is still being felt.

By now seven of Gabriel Sassoon's eight children, Eliane, 16; David, 12; Rivkah, 11; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; Sara, 6 and Yaakob, 5, have been laid to rest in Jerusalem.

His wife Gayle, 45 and daughter Siporah, 15 survived the fire and remain hospitalized in critical condition.

Obviously this tragedy has touched people on multiple levels, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or nationality. The contemplation of losing so many members from one family in a fire that could have been prevented is as universal as it is unthinkable.

It's been hard for me to get this incident out of my head, and it's been on my mind all week.

When I lived in New York City, my friend Shane lost his life back on the night of October 31, 2002 in a fire that he was responsible for setting after he went home and fell asleep on a couch in his apartment with a lit cigarette in his hand.

Obviously the scope and cause of these two different tragedies are quite different, but the knowledge that the fire was preventable has always haunted me.

Last week, in the days following the Brooklyn fire, a lot of media coverage was devoted to important issues this accident brought into focus.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and other community leaders brought attention to the fact that there is no specialized trauma burn center unit in any hospital in Brooklyn and that serious burn victims must be transported to hospitals in Queens, the Bronx, or Manhattan.

The tragedy also sparked an interesting debate on the practices followed by observant Jews who must (in accordance with Jewish law and tradition) abstain from working on the Sabbath.

This includes the burning of fires, cooking, any use of electronic switches, buttons or anything that alters the flow of electric current on the Sabbath (or Shabbos), or during certain religious holidays.

For example, some multistory buildings in New York (and elsewhere) have designated Shabbat elevators that are programmed to automatically stop at each floor of a building during the Sabbath, so that Jews observing traditional law do not have to physically touch the buttons of the elevator in order to come and go as they please.

The balance between faith and modern technology was at the heart of the tragedy in Midwood.

A typical hot plate used to keep food warm during Sabbath
As you probably heard, the fire in Brooklyn last week was caused by a hot plate in the kitchen of the house that had been left on to keep food warm during the Sabbath.

Investigators are still not 100% sure whether the hot plate itself malfunctioned, or if there was a problem in the wiring of the house itself.

Regardless of the exact cause, the fire was complicated by the fact that there were no smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors in the kitchen, stairwell, or on the upper floors of the home that could have alerted the Sassoon family to smoke in the house and given them a chance to escape.

Last Wednesday Josh Nathan-Kazis wrote an interesting article in The Jewish Daily Forward looking at the challenges observant Jews face in balancing religious law with trying to serve hot meals during the Sabbath; if you scroll through some of the reader comments below the story you can get a sense of the complexity and debate surrounding observation of Jewish law in a contemporary society.

There a was really informative radio interview on The Brian Lehrer Show last week with Jewish Daily Forward reporter JJ Goldberg. It's worth a listen if you want to gain some deeper insight into rules governing behavior on the Sabbbath and how this most recent "Shabbos fire" has impacted the Jewish community in New York; and their perceptions about some of the public criticism non-Jewish people have leveled at the Orthodox Jewish community in particular.

As someone who's had some first-hand experience seeing Orthodox Jews balance faith and technology, my sense is that there's been a lot of misunderstanding over the past week.

When I lived in an apartment on 112th street and Frederick Douglas Blvd in New York, my upstairs neighbor was an Orthodox Jew who worked as an NYPD officer. He was a super nice guy who always went of his way to say hello, was never judgmental and had a way of making you feel good about yourself just by talking with him. He was just a cool guy.

One day, I was in my apartment and there was a knock on the door and he was standing there in the hallway with his usual smile, and he asked me if I would mind doing him a favor.

He asked me if I could come up to his apartment, so I grabbed my keys and followed him. He was the only one of my neighbors in that building I really talked with, and certainly the only one whose apartment I ever visited.

We walked up one flight and went in his apartment and he lead me into his bedroom and asked me to open a drawer next to his bed and take his cell phone out for him. It was the Sabbath and he was strict about not using electronic devices.

As an NYPD officer, he had to check in with his sergeant. So he asked me to turn on the phone and find her name in the contact list; we lived in Manhattan but the precinct he worked in was in Brooklyn and his sergeant was a Hispanic female.

So I dialed the number and she picked up and I explained who I was and that my friend had asked me to call her to check in because it was the Sabbath and he couldn't use the phone. She understood and I relayed a couple mundane "cop things" about a shift start time from him to her and vice versa.

And that was it. He thanked me generously and I went back down to my apartment feeling sort of impressed at the depth of his faith and adherence to his religious law. He was intense, but open and non-judgmental about it.

Jewish law allows Jews to have what's called a Shabbos goy perform certain tasks for them on the Sabbath. Things like turning lights on or off, switching on devices; that kind of thing. But a Shabbos goy is not supposed to do like carpentry, or contracting-type work. 

Shabbos goy is a combination of the word Shabbos which is Sabbath and goy, which means a non-national or non-Jew in Mishnaic Hebrew. I've never heard of female Shabbos goys, but he (or she?) is a gentile or non-Jew who can use machinery or electricity on the Sabbath.

When I lived out in LA, my roommate Mitch was a non-religious Jew who told me many synagogues around the country hired African-Americans as a designated Shabbos goy on the Sabbath or for specific holidays.

Some Shabbos goys also work as security personnel or janitors in the synagogue; and they are paid for the service.

A number of famous people worked as Shabbos goys when they were younger including Colin Powell, Martin Scorcese, Mario Cuomo and even Elvis Presley.

I was more than glad to perform the Shabbos goy task for my friend the cop in New York that day, to me it was a neighborly thing to do and that's what neighbors do.

It's too bad the Sassoon family didn't have someone who could have stopped by to turn their hot plate on or off for them last Friday, but in New York, most Orthodox Jews tend to live in neighborhoods populated by other Orthodox Jews, so the complexities of geography (and expense) doesn't really make a Shabbos goy practical for some folks in New York who live in private homes or apartments.

But whether it's a hot plate or lights that operate off a preset timer, or a Shabbos goy, the fire in Midwood lends insight into some of the complexities of modern Jewish life. 

But if you take the time to read Josh Nathan-Kazis' article in The Jewish Daily Forward (click the link above), some of the reader comments reflect a questioning of what not working on the Sabbath really means.

Most of the comments suggest the majority of Jews do believe it means no working and thus no use of machinery or electronic devices and switches.

I'm not Jewish obviously, but in the aftermath of a fire that took the lives of seven children, I can't help but wonder if God would really mind it all that much if a mother or father simply took the time to switch off a hot plate before going to bed in the interests of safety.

Jewish law makes exceptions for Jewish physicians to work on the Sabbath if a life is at stake, maybe such an exception should extend to a designated family member in the interest of home safety as well.

As we now know, a simple switch on a hot plate was indeed the difference between life and death for the Sassoon family of Brooklyn.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Asia Ford Crosses the Finish Line

Asia Ford flanked by her son Terrance and Lt. Aubrey George
The inspiring story of Asia Ford and Louisville, Kentucky police officer Lt. Aubrey Gregory represents a welcome change in the tone of what has often been a strained relationship between American police and the communities they serve. 

I was on the treadmill at the gym during my lunch break earlier today when I happened to catch a live interview on CNN with Ford and the man she emotionally called her "angel".

As you may have heard or read, Ford was nearing the end of a 10-K race in Kentucky recently and was starting to struggle when Lt. George saw a couple EMT's walk over and ask her if she could make it and she insisted she would; so he decided to walk over, introduce himself to her and her son Terrance, took her hand and helped her finish the final 1.2 miles to the finish line.

Ford trained for the race as part of her courageous effort to loose weight in an effort to make changes for a healthier lifestyle for the sake of her kids. She's lost 217 pounds already.

During the interview on CNN, George said as helped her to the finish line, he took her mind off her exhaustion by talking to her about her son Terrance and telling her about his own mother's struggle with diabetes (she died fourteen years ago) and assured Ford he would see her through to the finish line. 

I was really touched as I watched her tear up recalling his gesture of kindness; George said he was personally inspired by her efforts to complete the race.

When CNN host Brooke Baldwin asked Ford the obvious question about whether George had changed her mind about police interactions with the community, she said she didn't really see his badge or uniform, she simply saw the humanity he extended to her when she needed help. 

Too often in the history of this nation, seeing the humanity in one another has proved elusive.

Over the course of the past couple years, media headlines that highlight the unfortunate schism that exists between some members of American law enforcement and communities heavily populated by racial and ethnic minorities, have often overshadowed the positive exchanges police have with civilians.

Clearly many of those stories (Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice or Michael Brown) deserved the extensive media coverage and analysis they received; particularly those concerning the use of excessive physical violence or even deadly force against unarmed or innocent people.

Just today the Justice Department criticized the Philadelphia Police Department in a report released today for an unusually high number of shootings of unarmed men, mostly African-American over the past eight years; the report recommends changes in training in tactics to curb unnecessary police violence.

So after everything that's happened in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and elsewhere, it's uplifting to see a story make national headlines because a selfless police officer and a mother came together in a moment that's captured the hearts of millions of people around the nation - and around the world too.

Ford's son Terrance said it best in an interview with a local TV news station, when he summed up the feeling that's made this story blow up nationally; "...with all the stuff that's going on with police it's nice to know there're good people out there." 

It is nice.

A story like this offers hope and a positive glimpse of what relationships between police and civilians should be like. Let's hope it inspires both.
   

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Strange Fruit in Claiborne County?

Actor Theo Rossi as "Juice"
I count myself among the ranks of those who've opted to "unplug" from cable, not just because of the ridiculous monthly fees for channels I don't even watch, but because I like to watch what I want, when I want without being bombarded with commercials - so I'm all about Netflix.

Last evening as it snowed (on the first day of Spring), I was watching an episode of 'Sons of Anarchy' from season four when the character named "Juice" played by Queens, NY-born actor Theo Rossi (pictured left) tries to hang himself with a chain from a tree because he's consumed with guilt over learning that his father was African-American (which he never knew because he never met him) and SOA biker gang rules only allow white men to be members; just like the Hell's Angels and many other biker gangs.
  
Juice was raised thinking that his father was Puerto Rican. He's a loyal SOA member and loves the club, but he's internally torn and justifiably terrified about what they'll do to him if they find out his dad was black.

At the end of the episode, series co-star Katey Sagal, who used to play Peg Bundy on the series "Married... With Children", sings a pretty powerful and touching acoustic cover of the anti-lynching anti-racism protest song 'Strange Fruit' made famous by Billie Holiday's haunting 1939 version written by teacher Abel Meeropol - watch her sing it.

Sagal definitely does the song justice, which is not really surprising considering that she was a well-known backup singer for years in the music industry, (she's sung with the likes of Bob Dylan, Tanya Tucker, Bette Middler, Gene Simmons and Olivia Newton John) before she became an actress.

54 year-old victim Otis Byrd
The song and the imagery of Theo Rossi's character hanging from a tree got me thinking about the strange case of Otis Byrd (pictured left), a 54 year-old man who was recently found hanging from a bed sheet tied to a tree in the woods about 500 yards from his home in Claiborne County, Mississippi after he went missing on March 2nd.

Local authorities and investigators from the FBI are still trying to determine if Byrd committed suicide, or if he was lynched by unknown assailants.

No one should die like that, but Otis was no angel.

According to Claiborne Sheriff Marvin Lucas, Byrd was 19 years-old and already on probation when he robbed the Trim Grocery Store in Port Gibson, Mississippi in 1980 to get money to pay a $15 monthly "probation officer fee".

During the robbery he shot and killed the store's owner, a 55 year-old white woman named Lucille Trim; Byrd made off with $101 and served 25 years after being convicted of capital murder before being paroled in 2006.

Bryd enjoyed gambling and his niece drove him to Vicksburg Mississippi to the casinos the morning of March 2nd. Byrd came home, then went back to the casinos later that day and a friend dropped him off at home at around 11pm that night - that was the last time he was seen alive.

Does it seem likely that Byrd, an ex-con in his mid-50's who'd served over 25 years in prison, came home from a trip to the casino, walked over 500 yards into the woods behind his house in the middle of the night and hung himself from a tree using a bed sheet?

Byrd was described by friends who knew him locally as a quiet man who attended church and was not known to be suicidal; he has a large number of family members who live scattered about in the immediate area too.

Anything is possible, but the statistics don't seem to support his having killed himself.

According to CDC statistics on victims of suicide over 10 years-old broken down by race and ethnicity, African-Americans are the least likely to kill themselves.

Statistically speaking, suicide actually occurs much more often among Native Americans followed by non-Hispanic white Americans, Hispanics then Asians.

Because of the lack of local police resources in Claiborne County, and the dark legacy of lynching in the state of Mississippi, over 30 FBI investigators along with law enforcement personnel from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) are currently taking part in the investigation of Byrd's death.

Of the 581 people known to have been lynched in Mississippi between 1882 - 1968, at least 539 of the victims were black; the highest number of people of color of any state by far.

Investigators are still trying to determine the exact cause of death, but if turns out Byrd was lynched, it not only brings to light a dark chapter in American history, it would link to an unsettling rise in overt demonstrations of bias and bigotry in this nation in recent years.

We all certainly heard about the leaked video of the racist chant enthusiastically sung by members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of SAE which included words mentioning the lynching of black people.

Earlier today ThinkProgress.org's Erica Hellerstein reported that just last Thursday employees at a Raleigh's restaurant near the campus of North Carolina State University found a green notebook that was left behind at a table by members of NCSU's chapter of Pi Kappa Phi.

The notebook contained hand-written notes detailing not only sexual assaults on women and under-aged girls, it also contained disturbing observations like, "Man, that tree is so prefect for lynching."
 
It's disturbing to think that the Greek fraternity system on the campuses of America's institutions of higher learning are breeding grounds for misogyny and racism; but the evidence keeps surfacing, suggesting these aren't isolated incidents, but a troubling trend.

It was just last year in February when it was announced that officials at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) had expelled three members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity after their involvement with the placing of a noose and a Confederate flag over a statue honoring James Meredith; the school's first black student.

Or the Penn State University chapter of Kappa Delta Rho that was recently suspended after it was learned that current and former members maintained a Facebook page with photos of girls (presumably PSU students) passed out and unconscious in various states of undress with comments suggesting that sexual assault was fairly common.

The large stately frat houses with their manicured lawns and coveted parties have symbolized a "campus elite" for decades at many colleges.

But the idea that inside some of those houses some of those young men casually talk of "Strange Fruit" and dehumanizing women is abhorrent to the ideals of higher education and the laws of a civilized nation.

And we can only wonder about the meaning behind their disturbing fascination with the noose, given its historical significance and what it symbolizes in this country. 

Time will tell if "Strange Fruit" was indeed growing in the woods of Claiborne County, Mississippi, but we already know those seeds are growing inside the American Greek fraternal system.   

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sticker Shock in Austin

Sugar Mama's employee April Jensen with offensive sticker
These days the city of Austin, Texas is known for it's vibrant arts community which includes nationally recognized eclectic music and film scenes, highlighted by the SXSW Festival taking place this week at multiple venues, and the Austin Film Festival that kicks off October 29th.

It also happens to be the location of the main campus of the University of Texas, one of the largest colleges in the nation.

So employees and owners of several different small business in East Austin were shocked to find stickers with the message "Exclusively For White People" affixed to the front windows of their establishments when they came into work early Wednesday morning.

The stickers initially caused a lot of confusion as the city of Austin's official logo and colors were printed on them, right beneath the words "Maximum of 5 colored customers, colored BOH (back of house) staff accepted."  

Apparently someone walking by one of the businesses early Wednesday morning saw one of the stickers, took a picture of it and posted it on Facebook where it quickly circulated before the story was picked up by local media outlets and eventually garnered national media attention.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler quickly condemned the stickers as "appalling and offensive" and a city spokesman made clear the city had nothing to do with them.

Police are investigating but the mindset that would take the time to produce such a sticker and attach it to local businesses is unfortunately familiar to us in this country.

The offensive stickers were placed on a cupcake shop called Sugar Mama's (see picture above), a restaurant a block away, and a bike shop among other businesses that were targeted.

Artist Stromae performs live at Stubb's on day two of SXSW 2015
Austin is a diverse and progressive community with a deserved reputation as an intellectual hub, so a bunch of stickers aren't going change the character of the community and its residents.

Nor will it overshadow the SXSW Festival which features rap, punk, country, rock, alternative, metal, and soul artists that span the spectrum of musical acts and draw people from all over the nation and around the world.

A sticker is not going to change what Austin has become.

And the message printed on it, plus the fact that the braniac who put them up placed them on several businesses that are owned by minorities, pretty much tells you all you need to know about who did this:

A coward steeped in ignorance and consumed by hate; that's not what Austin is about.

It's not what America is about either, but it reminds us what lurks in the shadows.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Republican Math - Schock Resigns, Jindal Courts Grover & The GOP's Fantasy Budget

Congressman Aaron Schock lecturing on Capitol Hill
As much time as Republicans spend lecturing Democrats, American voters and even themselves about fiscal discipline, runaway spending, bloated budgets and the ubiquitous "government waste", it seems like they have an awful lot of politicians who struggle with basic math.

Aaron Schock, the 33 year-old conservative 'wunderkind' Republican Congressman representing the Illinois 18th District, announced his resignation effective March 31st in the wake of embarrassing Congressional spending scandals that first surfaced after a Washington Post article detailing the thousands of taxpayer dollars he spent redecorating his Congressional offices in a lavish "English country manor" motif inspired by the PBS series 'Downton Abbey'.

After ducking awkward questions from reporters for weeks about his stays in expensive hotels, flights on private planes and dinners in fancy restaurants improperly billed to the American people, Schock finally relented after a well-researched article on Politico.com by Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer and John Bresnahan showed that Schock requested mileage reimbursement for 170,000 miles racked up on his Chevy Tahoe that only had 80,000 miles on the odometer when he sold it.

Oh, and as the Politico.com article notes, "In November 2009, less than a year after Schock took his seat in Congress, the lawmaker bought the 2010 Tahoe from Green Chevrolet in Peoria. The dealership is owned by Jeff Green, a contributor to Schock who has flown the congressman around his district in his airplane and helicopter."

When the story started to break last month, it was like manna from Heaven for progressive bloggers.
I too feasted upon it back in a February post, but not to make light of Schock's personal troubles.

Part of what drew the media to this story of financial excess was the fact that Schock positioned himself as one of those spend-thrift conservatives who treat any kind of government spending as taxpayer waste - yet view tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans paid for by the same taxpayers, like some kind of religious mantra.

Surfs up! Aaron Schock hangs ten
So while Schock was supporting Republican bills to cut spending for education, IRS enforcement, food stamp assistance for families and Medicare; he was using his own Congressional expenditure allowances to live some kind of fantasy rock-star life style (pictured left).

Seriously, you gotta read the Politico.com piece; it's almost like he's a character right out of the Netflix series 'House of Cards'. 

Speaking of things that don't quite add up, Republican Louisiana Governor/presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal is making some news of his own, and it's not good.
 
Jindal has dutifully played the good little Republican soldier with the hopes the GOP's rainmakers would bestow their ble$$ings upon his presidential aspirations.

In any kind of international crisis he's always been good for a generic anti-Obama quote when Republicans want to undermine the Commander-in-Chief's foreign policy decisions and need someone to make soundbite-worthy cheap shots to replay for the Fox News audience.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal
Back in 2013 Jindal was quick to weigh in on the 'Duck Dynasty' debate when cast member and family patriarch Phil Roberts came under fire for his controversial remarks in an interview about homosexuals and African-Americans.

Even though most Americans were pretty shocked at Roberts' comments and A&E suspended the show, Jindal quickly joined the ranks of conservatives who viewed the backlash against Roberts' comments as an attack on his religion.

Jiudal publicly defended Roberts' right to use his unusual interpretation of Christianity to act like a homophobic bigot.

But Jindal set himself up for fiscal problems when he signed up for non-elected anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist's draconian "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" to never raise taxes under any circumstances.

As reported by Politico.com, Louisiana is now facing a daunting $1.6 billion budget shortfall and even Republican members of his state legislature are at odds with his stubborn refusal to raise tax revenues because of his allegiance to Grover Norquist.

According to the Politico article, Jindal even consulted with members of Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) on how to solve the revenue gap without violating his "pledge" to Norquist; who elected Bobby anyway, Grover or the people of Louisiana?

Even though Norquist's "TPP" pledge is akin to a revered Holy Grail for conservatives, the economics behind Norquist's tax policy simply don't work in the real world; as numerous economists have proved.

The "TPP" is more of an ideology, or a philosophy (Utopian fantasy?) than it is a viable economic strategy, but that hasn't stopped over 279 Republican Congressman and Senators from signing it.

The "Starve the Beast" economic model delights Tea Partiers as an affirmation of the enduring Republican myth that Ronald Reagan's "Trickle Down Economic" theories worked; but they actually didn't - Republicans seem to have forgotten that Reagan actually raised taxes in his 2nd term and left enormous federal deficits when he left office. 

As Wikipedia notes: "Historian Bruce Bartlett, former domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan, has called Starve the Beast "the most pernicious fiscal doctrine in history", and blames it for the increase in US government debt since the 1980s.

Republican Kansas Governor Sam Brownback unleashed the Norquistian tax nonsense on his own state with absurd tax breaks on businesses and wealthy individuals that have left the state crippled financially, woefully short of revenue and lagging far behind neighboring states in job creation and job growth. In short, a disaster.

But now the music has stopped in Louisiana and Bobby Jindal is struggling to find a chair.

The same inter-party squabbles that Jindal is facing in his own state, are reflective of massive disagreement over federal spending in Washington as well.

The budget proposal that the Republican-majority House of Representatives released yesterday was filled with sweeping cuts to government spending so absurd in scope, it not only has zero chance of passing; even a number of Republicans are flabbergasted John Boehner had the nerve to release it.

President Obama promptly rejected it and stopped just short of mocking the loony Republican proposal to trim a staggering $5.5 TRILLION in Federal spending through savage cuts in food stamps, Medicaid and privatizing Medicare; THAT should go down with well with seniors in the 2016 elections.

Where did they even come up with that? Maybe Paul Ryan left it in his locker in the Congressional gym.

Even Republican Senators, many of whom are up for re-election in 2016, blasted Boehner's House budget as out of step with reality. But as the nation and the world have seen with the new Republican Congressional and Senate majorities; being in step with reality is not a GOP strong point, or a priority.

You can't govern if you can't do the math.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Henry McCollum & Leon Brown: 31 Years & Still Waiting For Gov Pat McCrory's Pardon

When will Gov Pat McCrory pardon 2 innocent men in NC?
Less than two weeks after Rolling Stone published a searing expose by Paul Solotaroff about the wrongful conviction and incarceration of Philadelphia's Tony Wright for a crime DNA proves he didn't do, a similar case of disturbing injustice is making headlines.

The almost cartoonishly conservative North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory's name is back in the national headlines again, only this time it's not for repressing votes.

He's facing pressure for dragging his feet on issuing pardons to two innocent North Carolina men wrongly jailed for 31 years for a rape and murder they did not commit.

It puts the spotlight and pressure on a conservative governor at a time when police departments, courts and America's massive prison industrial complex all face increased scrutiny for the kind of entrenched racial bias exposed in Ferguson, Missouri.

Henry McCollum & Leon Brown celebrate with their sister in Fayettville, NC
Alan Blinder's revealing piece published in today's New York Times focuses on the story of Henry L McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown (pictured left with their sister).

The two were arrested, tried and convicted for the 1983 sexual assault and murder of an eleven year-old girl named Sabrina Buie.

But they didn't commit the crime and DNA evidence proved it.

Unlike the still-jailed Tony Wright in Philadelphia, both McCollum and Brown have been freed by the North Carolina courts after spending the bulk of their adult lives in prison, but they cannot petition the court for financial restitution for being wrongly convicted and jailed by the state until Governor McCrory issues them an official pardon.

When McCollum walked out of Central Prison's Death Row and Brown left Maury Correctional Institution, the two men were each given $45 by the state of North Carolina.

$45 after 31 years behind bars for something they didn't do.

Based on the DNA evidence that exonerated them, they are legally entitled to compensation by the state of North Carolina; but could any amount of money possibly make up for being incarcerated for 31 years knowing you were innocent?

To get a deeper glimpse of the human cost and impact of being wrongly incarcerated for 31 years, read the article on the case published on January 31, 2015 by Joseph Neff in the Charlotte Observer. As he reports in wrenching detail, McCollum and Brown are currently living with relatives and struggling with the transition back to civilian life until Governor McCrory completes what his spokesman Ryan Tronovitch called, "an extensive review" that is "ongoing".

"Ongoing" meaning the petition for the gubernatorial pardon for McCollum and Brown was submitted to McCrory's office on September 11, 2014 - over six months ago.

If DNA evidence proves conclusively that McCollum and Brown are innocent (which it does), how extensive does a review to grant a pardon to these two men really need to be?

Time will tell and the pressure on McCrory to make a decision will only be ratcheted up with the publication of Alan Blinder's piece in the Times.

According to his own Website, McCrory has granted pardons before, at least one was for a man who actually DID do the crimes he was convicted for - so one would hope the case of Henry L McCollum and Leon Brown would be a no-brainer.

It'd be nice for McCollum and Brown if Governor McCrory showed the same zeal for their pending pardon as he did for enacting legislation that undermined key provisions of the 1964 Voting Rights Act and prevented thousands of eligible North Carolina citizens from casting votes in the 2014 elections.

The last time McCrory was mentioned in this blog was back on September 6, 2014 when a Charlotte-Mecklenberg police officer arrested voter rights activist Ty Turner for handing out voter education leaflets in a North Carolina park.

That was back in the fall when North Carolina was just one of many states with Republican governors and Republican majority state legislatures who'd enacted draconian voter repression laws to intentionally suppress the votes of ethnic and racial minorities, the elderly, college students and legal immigrants ahead of the crucial November elections.

McCrory's active support of and participation in efforts to violate the rights of (some) Americans to participate in the Democratic process pegged him as a member of the new breed of ultra right-wing Conservatives who's political philosophy and legislative agenda is driven more by an ideology shaped by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) than it is the actual needs of voters.

Let's just see if that rigid sense of righteous justice Governor McCrory cited as the reason he so strongly supported voter ID legislation applies equally to two innocent men who've spent the bulk of their lives in jail for a crime they didn't commit.

$45 isn't going to cut it. Not even close.

Friday, March 13, 2015

More Ferguson Fallout As Two Officers Shot & Resignations Continue

The helmet of a Ferguson PD officer shot in the face
About the last thing the community of Ferguson needed was some cowardly deranged nut-bag (or nut-bags) shooting two members of the Ferguson Police Department after a peaceful protest the other night.

No question it was wrong and the overwhelming majority of people outraged over the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent Department of Justice report were horrified by one or two deranged gunmen attacking police officers.

Fortunately, the two officers have been released from the hospital, let's hope they recover and those responsible are found and brought to justice.

What hurts about the two officers being shot, aside from the injuries these men suffered and the idea of law enforcement professionals being attacked, it's that the cities of St. Louis and Ferguson and the state of Missouri were in the process of taking concrete actions to address these wrongs and start to restore a measure of trust between the community and the police department.

Ferguson PD Sgt. William Mudd
The remarkably unaware police chief Tom Jackson has already announced his pending resignation as head of the embattled Ferguson Police Department, and Sgt. William Mudd (pictured left) and Captain Rick Henke have resigned as well.

It's painful, but fair to ask the obvious question:

Would those two police officers have ever been shot had the original investigation of Michael Brown's death and the flawed prosecution of former officer Darren Wilson been conducted in a manner consistent with basic judicial procedures and fairness in the first place?

Probably not.

But that said, the actions of one or two people don't erase the need for massive systematic change in Ferguson.

The DOJ report, the ongoing peaceful protests by Ferguson citizens, the global media scrutiny, the intervention by the federal government and the anger that sparked a mentally disturbed gunman (or gunmen) to shoot those two officers didn't happen in a vacuum.

They're all direct results of years of entrenched and intentional bias on the part of police, and a court system that placed the rampant use of that bias as a means to boost municipal revenue over fair judicial oversight of Ferguson citizens.

The efforts to dismantle the dysfunctional elements within the Ferguson court system are well underway as well; as evidenced by the firing of Court Clerk Mary Ann Twitty.

Ex-Ferguson judge Ronald Brockmeyer
Ferguson municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer (pictured left) resigned after the Missouri State Supreme Court assigned Roy L. Richter, a judge from the St. Louis County Circuit Court to take over Ferguson's pending municipal court cases.

St. Louis Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell expressed confidence in Richter's appointment, stating; "He is able and willing to implement needed reforms. Extraordinary action is warranted in Ferguson, but the Court also is examining reforms that are needed on a statewide basis."

Brockmeyer came under intense criticism in the wake of the release of the DOJ report for his questionable handling of municipal court cases.

The report specifically noted that Brockmeyer used his position as a judge and familiarity with municipal laws in a 'creative' manner to ensure that African-American defendants payed fees, court costs and penalties that far exceeded the seriousness of the relatively minor municipal infractions Ferguson PD officers aggressively targeted them for on a routine basis - at the same time that he was helping to make tickets issued to his friends or associates "magically disappear" with the help of Court Clerk Mary Ann Twitty.

Brockmeyer also announced his resignation as the prosecutor in the neighboring communities of Florissant and Vinita Park.

If you were to ask the average person, being a judge in one city, while also serving as a prosecutor in two different neighboring communities sounds pretty sketchy.

But from interviews I've heard on NPR, people simultaneously serving as judges and prosecutors in multiple communities surrounding the metro St. Louis area is not unusual, or illegal.

Based on details in the DOJ report it is ethically questionable and ripe for the kinds of systematic abuse that stirred so much outrage in the Ferguson community and around the globe.
   
It's likely that other police officials and municipal employees associated with the racist e-mails and other conduct identified in the DOJ report will resign or be fired as well in an effort to not only restore trust.

But to bring balance and fairness to the enforcement of law in a community still reeling from unarmed college-bound high school graduate Michael Brown (who had no prior record) being shot and killed by a policeman who used a vague "manner of walking" code violation to initiate a confrontation not for purposes of public safety; but to boost revenue for the city's coffers.

Months later innocent people, including two Ferguson police officers, are still paying the price.