Friday, August 28, 2015

A Lack of Shared Humanity

NRA radio host Cam Edwards
Leave it to the NRA to use the latest senseless gun massacre by yet another delusional hate-filled American with a handgun, mental issues and a massive chip on his shoulder to try and silence public calls for tougher gun laws.

As Timothy Johnson reported on yesterday, just hours after Vester Flanagan's cowardly murder of two innocent television journalists in Roanoke, Virginia on live television, the NRA was already in full media crisis mode accusing relatives of the victims, advocates for gun control and political leaders of "politicizing" the tragedy.

As Johnson reported, the NRA's Cam Edwards (pictured above) is virtually swimming in the Kool-Aid: 

"Later that same day during an afternoon broadcast, Cam Edwards, host of the NRA radio show, Cam & Company, lashed out at people who consider this latest incident of shocking public gun violence as more evidence the nation needs stronger gun laws. Edwards complained, "Before we know any of the details, we are seeing anti-gun politicians, anti-gun activists trying to turn this tragedy into some sort of political advantage," and went on to characterize calls for new gun laws as "the wrong response to take here. I think it shows a lack of shared humanity." 

So let's get that particular NRA position clear.

Advocates of reasonable gun control laws that might help prevent these heinous public massacres are demonstrating a "lack of shared humanity"?

Clean up on aisle six? Shopping in The Home of the Brave
Just for perspective, Cam Edwards was one of the right-wing extremists calling for an investigation into the activist group Moms Demand Action - For Gun Sense in America for calling on Kroger and other chain stores to ban idiots like this clown pictured to the left from openly carrying loaded weapons around grocery stores. 

Edwards was also active earlier this year when as many as ten different states were actually considering legislation that would make it legal for college students to carry concealed loaded weapons around on campus. (We see you ALEC.)

As Dan Burns reported back in March on MN Progressive

"National Rifle Association radio and television host Cam Edwards claimed that people who argue against concealed carry as a solution to rape on college campuses are "OK with" sexual assaults that could supposedly be prevented by guns."

I swear if some nut-bag with a gun shot up a bunch of preschoolers and people held a candlelight vigil, people like Edwards would call them "opportunists".

Victim Allison Parker's dad Andy Parker [Photo - People]
On a more positive note, it's both touching and inspiring to see reporter Allison Parker's father Andy Parker (pictured left) step up and call out apathetic tone-deaf politicians for refusing to take action on legislation that would enact reasonable and sensible gun control laws supported by a vast majority of American citizens.

It's both remarkable, and a sad commentary on the state of 21st century America that a morally tone-deaf organization like the NRA wields so much influence on Capitol Hill and strikes such fear into the hearts of both Republican and Democratic Congressmen alike based on a simplistic and incredibly warped interpretation of the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution. 

There's nothing Constitutional about a group that is fond of boasting a total membership of over 5 million people (numbers that have been questioned) using political threats and intimidation, smear tactics, manipulation of facts and a flood of lobbyists to put the safety of a nation of over 300 million at risk from the horrific gun violence that has claimed the lives of over 8,566 people in the United States this year alone.

According to updated statistics posted on the Website, there have been 222 mass shootings this year, 488 children between the ages of 0 and 11 have been killed or injured by gunfire, 17,465 injuries and a stunning 33,510 gun incidents this year alone.

Out of those 33,510 incidents, how many times were guns used for "defensive" purposes? 787.

You do the math. The NRA certainly won't.

They're too consumed with accusing the millions of average Americans begging our politicians for reasonable gun control laws of having "a lack of shared humanity."

The Ding of August

You know that well-worn American adage about the month of August being "slow" because summer is coming to an end?

Or "not much really gets done" because all the (circle one: Executives / Managers /
Decision  Makers / Other) are all on vacation?

Well I wish that were true in my line of work.

It's been a rough week and I feel like my batteries are running low. I mostly write at night, and as I've mentioned before I work in residential leasing by day.

Here in the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania region, rental traffic may occasionally spike during the winter but the busiest time for apartment leasing generally takes place between late spring and early fall.

There's a rhythm to it that coincides with the cycle of the seasons.

As winter finally starts to loosen it's frozen grip, traffic starts to pick up in March and April as the days get longer and the temperatures rise; before things really start humming in May.

There's a logic to it. Most people prefer to move in the warmer months and the economy generally sees a spike in home sales and construction during the summer as well.

June and July are like a blur, then just about the 1st or 2nd week in August you're cruising along when things suddenly start to gear down.

It's like that moment when you're on a long airplane flight staring off into space when the comforting drone of the engines suddenly changes tone, the plane shifts, your ears pop and you hear that "Ding!" as that little 'Fasten Your Seatbelt' light above your head comes on and the captain's silky-smooth voice comes on the intercom saying, "Ladies and gentlemen were preparing to make our final descent into_______ as you can see we've turned the fasten seat belts light on and we request that you bring your seats into an upright position as we prepare for landing."

One moment the plane cabin is quiet and still and the next you can hear other passengers around you stirring, yawning, looking for their shoes as the stewardesses or stewards make their way down the aisle with their plastic bag policing up napkins, food wrappers, plastic cups and empty cans and bottles.

And suddenly your mind fills with thoughts of connecting flights, baggage pick-up, catching the air-shuttle to the parking lot or train - or the fact that this leg of the journey is nearly over and you'll arrive at your destination soon.

It sneaks up on you. Like the office in August, you can see the change ahead of you.

One day the phone just isn't ringing as much, fewer e-mails appear in the In-Box and people stopping by the office becomes less frequent; it's about this time of year that I start to look out through the blinds of my office at the well-trimmed landscaping and carefully-kept flower beds and wonder:
"Where did the summer go?"

Tonight I don't feel like thinking about Vester Flanagan's madness, or Rush Limbaugh blaming the murder of Allison Parker and Adam Ward on diversity initiatives; or the insanity of Donald Trump being the Republican front-runner.

The sun set before 7:45pm tonight, the evenings are cooler and I'm starting to see some leaves turning.

Like the chime on the airplane I've heard the 'Ding!' of August and I'm leaving a busy work week behind me - next week September arrives and a new cycle will begin.

That's all I'm thinking about tonight.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Courts Giveth & Courts Taketh Away - Legal Reforms in Ferguson & 'Unstructured Settlements' For Lead Poisoning Victims in Baltmore

Ferguson Judge Donald McCullin
The recent changes to the way in which the much-derided municipal courts in Ferguson, Missouri fundamentally operate illustrate that while the wheels of the dysfunctional American justice system may be slow to turn, they can indeed rotate in response to the demands of citizens, politicians, activists, clergy and the legal professionals who advocate on behalf of the disadvantaged.     
The internal gears of Ferguson's court systems are slowly beginning to grind against ingrained injustice, but it's a positive sign that they no longer grind exclusively against the poor and citizens of color.

It's not a magical cure-all, but perhaps it will lend some measure of meaning to the senseless death of unarmed American teenager Michael Brown at the hands of former Ferguson PD officer Darren Wilson.

On Monday recently-appointed 74-year old Ferguson municipal Judge Donald McCullin (pictured above) ordered sweeping changes to overhaul a court system that was essentially functioning as a revenue machine fueled disproportionately by the targeted persecution of working class and poor black citizens for a laundry list of minor legal infractions unfairly enforced by the Ferguson Police Department.  

McCullin ordered all warrants issued prior to December 2014 to be voided, and also radically altered sentencing for minor infractions like traffic violations with carefully structured payment plans based on defendant's income, or community service options in lieu of fees.

The legal changes, including revoking arrest warrants for 'failure to appear' charges based on minor infractions, represent significant and concrete legal reforms that could serve as a model for other communities in America.

While a number of news outlets covered the story, the coverage paled in comparison to the recent televised coverage of the street protests that accompanied the one year anniversary of Michael Brown's killing.

Does that which might be seen as the potentially negative hold more attraction for mainstream media than the sorts of positive systematic changes to the Ferguson court system ordered by Judge McCullin?

Sample of recent American "riot" headlines - [Photo - AJR]
The old media adage "If it bleeds it leads" seems to hold true these days.

In almost any American city where the potential for civil unrest or protest in the wake of the death of frequently-unarmed citizens of color occurs, a swarm of news trucks, photographers and reporters is quick to materialize; ready to beam carefully-edited images of people of color "rioting" out across the globe and chronicle chaos. 

That coverage is not always objective.

The ghosts of the devastating riots that erupted in cities across the nation in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 still haunt this nation; spawning something of a morbid cautionary fascination with many segments of mainstream media who always seem prepared to cover the worst of urban America when citizen outrage spills over into the streets.

On Monday, Judge McCullin's changes represented an important step in addressing some of that citizen outrage which still simmers in Ferguson.

Anger which can't be expected to simply vanish after decades of no legal redress and no prosecution for Darren Wilson for shooting and killing an unarmed black teen.

McCullin was unanimously appointed by the Ferguson city council back in June to replace Judge Roy Richter who'd been appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court in the wake of the release of the scathing review of the Ferguson courts and police department conducted by the Department of Justice.

McCullin's appointment was part of the comprehensive purge of the Ferguson court system to remove those who'd overseen its years of systematic and targeted abuse of the legal rights of thousands of African-American citizens.

On the law enforcement side, long gone are former Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson and other top officers from the department.

On the court side, also gone is the infamous Ferguson court clerk Mary Ann Twitty, the internal functionary who piously wielded her Magic Wand to make tickets disappear for friends and relatives, or processed the paper work for the thousands of bogus unjustified tickets (for crap like "Manner of Walking"), arrest warrants, inflated court fines and car seizures that overwhelmingly impacted black citizens. 

But while Judge McCullin's overhaul of the Ferguson courts illustrates an example of positive legal reform in an age where the issue of mass incarceration has now come under increased scrutiny, there's clearly still a long way to go.

The wheels of the court system's still grind against justice too.

Lead poisoned Baltimore row houses [Photo-Washington Post]

Terrence McCoy's truly disturbing article in yesterday's Washington Post chronicles how companies specifically target and profit of the lead poisoning of mostly poor African-Americans from Baltimore is an unfortunate reminder that the dysfunction of the American court system runs deep, and in many cases still functions as an accomplice to systematic discrimination based on race and ethnicity.

If you click the link above it's actually a difficult article to read.

As McCoy reveals in his article, companies like Access Funding methodically scour public court records of the financial court settlements awarded to mostly black victims of serious life-altering lead poisoning, then send smooth-talking representatives out into the streets of Baltimore to track them down like prey.    

Many of these lead poisoning victims suffer permanent, diminished intellectual capacity and debilitating mental side affects after years of exposure to the toxic lead paint common in row houses in poor sections of Baltimore like the ones seen in the photo above.

These unsuspecting victims are mislead and manipulated into signing away guaranteed-for life monthly settlement payments in exchange for sketchy one-time 'unstructured settlements' replete with complex contractual language and vague explanations of the financial terms.

In short, many are duped into signing away life-time benefits worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for paltry lump sums that translate into pennies on the dollar.

It's a moral, ethical and legal disgrace, but the companies do it routinely by filing legal documents in courts outside of Baltimore where there's less scrutiny of the terms allowing these companies to rip off people's medical benefits.

McCoy's Washington Post article is Pulitzer Prize-worthy material and not to be missed.

But more importantly it sheds light on the dark corners of the American legal system which continues to be an accomplice to the financial and legal victimization of people of color; a legal system that in this case, truly is blind.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Laughing While Black: Women's Book Club Booted Off Napa Wine Train For Excessive Cheer

Book club members after being kicked off the train Sat. 
I'm still scratching my head about the incident that took place over the weekend where a group of eleven women, ten black and one white, all part of the "Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club" that's been meeting for 17 years and regularly takes annual excursions to Napa Valley, were all paraded through all six cars of the Napa Valley Wine Train and kicked off on Saturday afternoon for being too loud.

The story started on social media but has quickly become a mainstream national news story covered by newspapers and media outlets from coast to coast.

According to Lisa Renee Johnson, an African-American member of the group who first posted the story on her Facebook page on Saturday afternoon as it was happening, it all started when another white female passenger became annoyed by their laughter and complained that the group was being too loud. 

After the woman complained to the staff, an employee came over to inform the women that the level of noise they were making was making other passengers uncomfortable.

Eventually they, including the 80-year old lady (pictured above left in the blue scarf) were all escorted off the train in St. Helena, California before the train reached it's destination where they were met by a group of four St. Helena police officers.

Now as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed late last night before going to bed, people kept referring to this story and I wasn't sure I was reading it right - but yes, a group of cops were there to meet this menacing, overly cheerful ladies book club.

"All aboard!"
Of particular interest in this case is the woman who admonished the group that the train was "not a bar" - which is rather odd considering that the Website for the Napa Valley Wine Train not only shows said train stopping in front of a winery, it shows photos of tables in the train car with wine glasses at each setting as well as a photo of a smartly-dressed couple enjoying themselves as the man holds a glass of red wine.

So it's "not a bar" but this promotional photo (pictured left) from the Website's photo gallery shows a waiter pouring a glass of wine.

Now I obviously wasn't on this Saturday afternoon California rail excursion, so it's not fair for me to judge whether this group of women were being overly "loud" inside the train car or not; so let's not be too hasty and condemn the poor Wine Train without learning a little about it.

According to the 'Winery Tours' info page on the Website:

"The Napa Valley Wine Train’s Winery Tour packages provide a complete Napa Valley experience. Fill your day with a multiple course gourmet meal on the Wine Train and an exclusive tour and wine tasting at one of our many outstanding partner wineries. Relax as we transport you to and from the wineries and through the Valley with seamless transfers. Our fine dining service, winery tours, and beautiful scenery is a sample of everything Napa Valley has to offer."

As you can see, the words 'wine', 'winery' or 'wineries' appear no less than seven times in that descriptive three-sentence paragraph (I helpfully underlined those) so it's probably safe to assume that drinking alcohol is part of the whole experience.

I can assure you I've been to Napa Valley to do the whole winery-gourmet meal buy some wine-thing; so when I read the words "...complete Napa Valley experience." sobriety and silent reflection do not come to mind.
I mean, if I'm an average person looking to book an enjoyable day trip on the ol' Napa Valley Wine Train, when I read that paragraph above, I'm under no illusion that the passengers on this train will be sitting silently in their seats staring out the window, or wordlessly reading Nietzsche as they sip wine and ponder their place in the universe; I'm guessing it's going to be fairly lively in that train car after it stops at a couple of those wineries.

\Look at this photo (pictured left) of the ceiling of one of the cars on the Wine Train; yes those are racks of wine glasses lining the ceiling.

Seriously, this thing puts the Amtrak "Amcafe" car with it's overpriced beers and airplane bottles of liquor and soul-less plastic molded booths to shame.

At this point I'm literally craving a glass of wine just from posting the photos from the Napa Valley Wine Train Website into this blog.

But all kidding aside, I think this story is a perfect example of how race defines us as a nation; and affects our perceptions of people and situations.

Millions of people have read this story on social media and thousands more have formed opinions of what happened.

Let's be honest, a group of predominantly women of color on a wine excursion are probably not the typical demographic in Napa Valley on a given day; what, if any, role did that play in the decision of the white woman who complained about their being noisy and the train staff's decision to put the women off before the train reached it's destination?

Was the woman who complained simply more comfortable with this image (pictured left) taken from the NVWT Website of what she considers "the average Wine Train passenger"? 

Thankfully this wasn't a case where anyone got hurt or anything, but how humiliating was it for a group of educated adult women of means to be escorted off the train like a bunch of inebriated sorority sisters?

When I visited Napa Valley back in 2011, I found it to be very a welcoming and laid back atmosphere in the cultural sense.

I didn't sense any tension related to my being African-American and I'm fairly hyper sensitive about that kind of thing.   

The story has gone mainstream by now, so I look forward to hearing in more detail from some of the members of the Book Club to hear more details about their account first-hand.

As Johnson told The Napa Valley Register regarding the Wine Train management:
“They need to look at their own policies. I feel like we as a group were made to bear the consequences of their not having policy on seating their customers,” she said Sunday afternoon. "They need to give sensitivity training to their staff immediately. We want a public apology for how they treated us and for the public humiliation, which is unacceptable for anybody.”

Sometimes it seems like a sister just cannot get a break in these United States.

First Lady Michelle Obama and screenwriter / executive producer Shonda Rhimes are just two of the more successful high profile African-American women who've found themselves at the center of global media attention for being painted with the all too common stereotype of the "angry black woman".

Now you have a group of educated black women from a book club being accused of being too happy and too loud; and not only are they kicked off the train, they are met by members of the local police.  

Apparently "Laughing While Black" can now be added to the ever expanding list of things black people do which can be perceived as threatening, disruptive, and or potentially dangerous. 

As for the Wine Train, the company posted this message on Facebook in response to the incident which they later took down:
“following verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved. … When these celebrations impact our other guests, we do intervene.”

There's absolutely no evidence of any kind of physical abuse on the part of the eleven women (including an 80-year old member), and the staff of the Wine Train arranged for a van to take the group back to the Napa train station and also refunded the money for their excursion.

But that's not going to be enough in this case and it certainly doesn't answer the group's accusations that they were singled out because of their race.

While the Napa Valley Wine Train has issued an apology, they're still insisting the group being kicked off the train had nothing to do with the color of their skin; as the LA Times reported: “It wasn’t an issue of bias,” train spokesman Sam Singer said. “It was an issue of noise.”

Regardless, it offers a fascinating glimpse at the power and reach of social media to force larger mainstream media outlets to cover a story they probably wouldn't have paid all that much attention to.

Those women are definitely making noise now.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

'Anchor Babies' & Walls: Toxic GOP Debate Clouds Real Issues

Did you read Daniel Politi's article about members of the crowd at Donald Trump's rally in Mobile, Alabama repeatedly yelling out "White power!" during his appearance on August 21st?

Other reporters in attendance at the Friday night event from other media outlets, including one from DailyKos, also heard the phrase yelled out multiple times during Trump's speech.

For the conservative-leaning readers who read this blog, audio of that phrase being yelled out was clearly caught on tape and posted on Youtube, click here and give it a listen if you suspect some kind of progressive-leftist media trickery. 

Many people on both sides of the political fence in this country have been wondering when the novelty of Donald Trump's toxic blend of reality TV showmanship, racist immigrant bashing and rambling substance-free speech is finally going to wear out - fortunately there are signs that the curtain is being pulled back to reveal just what the little man behind the control panel pulling the levers is really all about.     

How Trump's immigration policy would hurt the U.S. economy
Like the fact the fact that Trump's ludicrous proposal to round up and deport every illegal immigrant in the U.S. would come with an astronomical price tag and actually cost the economy $1.2 trillion in tax revenue and consumer spending.

George Stephanopoulos made media headlines today when he exposed the vacant reactionary rhetoric behind Trump's delusional anti-immigration policies during a live interview on ABC's "This Week" earlier this morning.

When repeatedly pressed for specifics, Trump couldn't explain how the estimated $400 to $600 billion needed to construct a wall thousands of miles across the southern border of the U.S. and arresting, processing and deporting millions of immigrants and their families would be paid for by American tax payers.

Trump's vague assurances that his magical "deal making" abilities will somehow miraculously solve any problems are starting to come off like some old carny huckster trying to peddle a miracle cure-all potion in a bottle.

It may earn him cheers from the conservative caucus voters in sparsely populated red states like Iowa in the short-run, but when held up to the scrutiny of facts and truth; it's exposed for what it is - total B.S. intended to distract voters from the real Republican agenda designed by the secretive conservative billionaire rainmakers like the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

That agenda ain't new either.

Another GOP legislator brought to you by ALEC
Remember when former Florida Republican state legislator Rachel Burgin (pictured left) introduced a resolution back in fall of 2011 calling on the federal government to reduce corporate taxes but forgot to delete the ALEC mission statement at the top of the document she copied word for word from the ALEC Website?

As Alex Seitz-Wald reported on in 2012
 "As the government transparency group Common Cause reports, “Burgin quickly withdrew the bill hoping that no one had noticed and then re-introduced it 24-hours later, with a new bill number (HM 717), but now without the problematic paragraph.” Apparently no one noticed until this week. While it’s no secret by now that conservative lawmakers in state capitals everywhere have used ALEC’s legislation to tear down environmental and labor regulations, curb voting rights, and coordinate a business-friendly agenda nationwide, it’s rare to see it on display so clearly."

Rachel must've skipped ALEC's "Substituting ALEC's Model Legislation For Your Own 101"

In more recent days, the leading GOP candidates are further fracturing their divided party and alienating the Latino voter base they need to win the White House in 2016 by spending their time arguing about the right to use the inherently racist term "Anchor Baby" to describe the children of immigrants born in the U.S. as they trip over each other trying to "out-Trump" one another.

Bobby Jindal's mother was three months pregnant with him when his parents came to this country from India, so he's got no business calling anyone an 'Anchor Baby'.

Don't get me wrong, it's important for both mainstream and more independent media to call people like Trump out for exactly who they are, but my sense is that Trump has already been given huge amounts of free national media exposure when it's already common knowledge that his campaign, political platform and his candidacy are nothing more than a self-serving platform intended to increase his own brand.

Civilians searching rubble after Saudi air strikes in the Yemen capital of Sanaa
Sadly, with so much of our mainstream American media focus given over to the meaningless extremist conservative rantings and concocted policy debates of the leading Republican presidential candidates, it's unfortunate that far more important and substantive humanitarian issues are being pushed to the proverbial back burner.

Like the growing humanitarian crisis going on in Yemen right now.

The same Republican candidates who seized on intentionally-edited "sting" videos of Planned Parenthood employees discussing the costs of fetal tissue samples to pontificate on the sanctity of unborn fetuses (the same candidates calling for ACTUAL babies of immigrants to be deported...) seem remarkably silent on how they might address the children who actually are being killed as a result of a combination of months of relentless air strikes by the Saudi air force, and the disease, infection and hunger caused by Saudi blockades of Yemeni coastal ports that are preventing much-needed fuel, medical supplies and food from reaching the Yemeni people.

If you haven't already, I highly recommend you take some time to read Matthieu Aikin's gripping piece in Rolling Stone entitled, 'Yemen's Hidden War'.  

Aikin hired smugglers to get into Yemen where he spoke with the Shiite Houthi rebels who, back in March, seized control of this country of 27 million people located just below Saudi Arabia on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

He also toured cities and villages across the war-torn landscape of Yemen with locals and representatives from Doctors Without Borders; virtually the only humanitarian aid group left on the ground in Yemen to deal with the estimated 1.25 million civilians displaced as a result of the escalating war.

Over 3,700 Yemenis have been killed since this civil conflict with regional implications began; including for example, 19 civilians who were sitting in their vehicles in line to get desperately needed gasoline at a gas station in the city of Sadaa when a Saudi plane bombed the station, incinerating the people in their vehicles.

Results of civilian air strikes in village of Sabr [Photo - Reuters]
Or the village of Sabr located about 30 minutes outside Sadaa where a Saudi air strike on June 3rd destroyed eight houses and killed 51 civilians; 36 of them children - as Aikin reported, there were no actual Houthi rebels in the village.

To put those 3,700 deaths in perspective an estimated 2,996 people (including 19 hijackers) were killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

 Just think about the U.S. response to those deaths from 911.

After years of American involvement in the costly ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it's understandable that U.S. citizens have grown weary of American involvement in the seemingly endless conflict gripping the middle east.

But as Aikin's Rolling Stone article illustrates, the complexities of the civil war crisis in Yemen are staggering; and also a direct result of the destabilization of power that took place in the mid-east region when the 2nd Bush administration decided to invade Iraq.

Surely if the mainstream American media was devoting even a fraction of the attention being given to a divisive self-serving charlatan like Donald Trump to the crisis in Yemen, it might help to push for wider demands to an end to Saudi air strikes on civilian targets, UN intervention to prevent a humanitarian crisis and the channeling of more charitable aid from Americans.

Americans who would be moved to give if they were made more aware of what's actually happening in what Aikin calls the "Hidden War".

For the time being, mainstream American media seems more interested in the endless cycle of toxic soundbites from a field of Republican presidential candidates who don't seem to be talking about the substantive difficult-to-solve issues affecting most Americans.

Typified by Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal cutting off state Medicaid funds to Planned Parenthood clinics even though those clinics in Louisiana don't actually provide any abortion services to women.

An essentially meaningless gesture justified by a video that was recorded under false pretensions and intentionally edited to misrepresent what Planned Parenthood actually does that will simply make it harder for impoverished women in Louisiana to access basic health services like cancer screenings.

Or, to quote Shakespeare, "Sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Friday, August 21, 2015

Every Single Word Spoken - Dylan Marron Calls Out Hollywood's Casting Diversity Issues

Every Single Word creator Dylan Marron
It's one thing to talk or write about the appalling lack of cultural diversity in mainstream Hollywood film roles in terms of casting, but without a doubt artist Dylan Marron has come up with one of the funniest and most effective ways to illustrate it with wit and clarity.

While I will occasionally suggest, I do my best not to tell you folks what to do, but if you really want a good laugh, visit Marron's Tumblr page, 'Every Single Word Spoken'.

The premise of Every Single Word is so simple it's brilliant.

Marron goes through different mainstream Hollywood films and he painstakingly edits out only the lines of dialog spoken by non-white actors of color.

Seriously, check out a few of these on YouTube, they're hysterical and also sad.

Like his amazing edit of the entire Harry Potter film series which reveals that people of color speak a total of 5 minutes and 40 seconds out of 1207 minutes of all the films.

Or his brutal 7 second clip of the musical "Into The Woods", or the clip of Woody Allen's highest grossing film, "Midnight in Paris". Priceless.

I was at work on my computer when I first heard about this guy on yesterday's (August 20th) edition of The Leonard Lopate Show and I was literally cracking up in my chair when they played one of the clips; I had to put the sound on mute when someone came into the office.

Marron (pictured above), who is bi-racial, was born in Venezuela and grew up in New York.

He's been acting, performing and writing for years, but he just started posting the videos on YouTube back in June as a way to channel his frustration over the difficulty he faces getting cast for rolls because of his ethnicity - and it's quickly earned him a global recognition. 

While the videos are funny, it's wicked sharp social commentary on race as well and Marron is remarkably insightful on the subject.

As in this observation he shared with Mahita Gajanan in an interview in the The Guardian back on July 8th:

“When you have people of color as protagonists, the story is about their color. With white people, it’s never about their whiteness.”

Think about that for a moment. Just reflect on some of the white characters you've seen in movies you've watched lately; can you think of one where the character was essentially about their being white?

The only thing that comes to mind to me would be Woody Harrelson's character Billy Hoyle in the hysterical 1992 hit comedy "White Men Can't Jump" directed by Ron Shelton that also featured Wesley Snipes as Sidney Deane.

Or maybe Rod Steiger's small-town southern sheriff character in the 1967 classic crime drama directed by Norman Jewison, "In The Heat of the Night" with Sidney Poitier.

But even in both those cases, the character's race was only one aspect of a complex multidimensional role.

But regardless, I think it's really cool to see a talented young artist of color who's relatively low on the Hollywood food chain use humor and insight to generate original media content that educates in a way that's not preachy, entertains and brings attention to an issue that's extremely important in a multicultural society like America.

Marron is rapidly gaining a huge following on social media and and The Washington Post are just a sampling of the media interviews he's done in recent weeks; I've unplugged from cable but if hasn't yet been on one of the network late night talk shows, I'd be surprised.

Seriously, 'Every Single Word Spoken' could be a really funny half-hour weekly comedy variety show on Comedy Channel, HBO or one of the OTTP digital streaming services like Netflix if the right executive had the balls to put it on.

Anyway, go to Youtube and check out some of Dylan Marron's work when you get a chance before he blows up and goes mainstream.

In this case, truth truly is funnier than fiction and knowing Hollywood executives are watching some of these clips and squirming uncomfortably makes it all the funnier. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Chris Christie Conundrum

Being a resident of New Jersey can be really confusing sometimes.

You got Giants fans in the north and Eagles fans in the south (I'm a Washington fan) and a mostly-absent Cowboys fan-governor like Chris Christie whose insatiable desire to placate his conservative critics seems to come at the price of serving the constituents that he was elected to serve.

Now it doesn't take a seasoned political expert to see that Christie's presidential ambitions for 2016 are pretty much done.

Earlier this afternoon I was watching CNN's Jake Tapper doing a political roundup segment showing the latest results from a new CNN/ORC poll of the leading 10 Republican presidential candidates.

Donald Trump currently leads the field by double digits at 24% (which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the Republican party...) followed by Jeb Bush with 11%, Ben Carson at 9%, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker tied at 8%, Rand Paul at 6%, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and John Kaisch all tied at 5% and Mike Huckabee at 4%.

Christie isn't even in the top ten. His image wasn't even on the fancy interactive digital screen with the candidate's faces and their poll numbers; you know that thing CNN's John King loves to play with?

Worse, Christie's name wasn't even brought up.

No disrespect to Christie, but I don't think you can really serve two masters in the national political arena and expect to succeed on both fronts.

Politically speaking if you're the governor of a state like New Jersey, New York, California, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, it's pretty much a "national" position that can serve as a launchpad to the White House - if you're focused and IF have your political shit together.

Christie seems to have neither at this point.

With an unsolved pension reform mess, stagnant job growth, flat wages, the Bridge Gate scandal still unresolved, truckloads of pissed-off NJ homeowners who're still waiting for federal relief funds for homes damaged by Superstorm Sandy on his plate, Christie has enough to deal with here in the Garden State.

And being out of the state more than 220 days this year isn't going to solve any of those issue any faster,

Say what you want about former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, but even she was able to recognize that it wouldn't be fair to her constituents to serve as governor AND give 100% to a national presidential campaign - so she resigned.

It ended up hurting her politically but at least she faced up to it.

Christie doesn't seem able to do that and I'm not sure an unpopular governor with plunging approval numbers in his own economically-stagnant state can really make a case for the Republican nomination; especially with a closet full of Bridge Gate skeletons waiting to tumble out.

Look at the image up at the top of this post, I didn't just pick that image to pick on Christie, that's taken from a July 5th open post by the Monmouth Watchdog on New Jersey's Marlboro-Coltsneck Patch calling on Chris Christie to resign as governor - the opening sentence pretty much sums up what many New Jersey residents think of Christie:

"We face big problems in this state. Our credit rating is a disaster. Our unemployment rate is high. Our economic growth is slow. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our pensions are in crisis. Our schools are underfunded. And now our governor has abandoned the job  to campaign for the job he really wants."

So what does Christie do in the face of his not-even-mentioned-on-CNN low single percentage in the presidential and plummeting popularity in his own state? Wait for it...wait for it.....

Anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist has Christie on board
Last Tuesday August 11th he announces he's signing fringe anti-tax anti-government zealot Grover Norquist's diabolically stupid "Tax Payer Protection Pledge" to never raise taxes if elected president!

What happened to Christie? Did someone force-feed him the Kool-Aid?

Have you seen the other Republican governors who've followed Norquist into the abyss of fiscal reason and signed onto the TPP? 

How about Kansas Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas and Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana?

Both of these ideological bubble-heads have driven their respective state's tax revenue-starved economies to the brink of insolvency, now Christie thinks that's a good idea for a presidential candidate?

Grover Norquist certainly does, as an August 12th article on quoted him as saying after Christie signed the TPP:  

"By signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to the American people, Governor Christie continues his commitment to protect American taxpayers," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans For Tax Reform. "Governor Christie understands that government should be reformed so that it takes and spends less of the taxpayer's money," he said. "(He) will oppose tax increases that paper over and continue failures of the past."

Now I truly wish I could've been a fly on the wall at the meeting that took place this morning at NJ Senator Corey Booker's office in Newark as the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, NJ Senator Robert Menendez and Governor Christie sat down to hammer out a way to get a new Hudson River rail tunnel project off the ground. (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was a no-show)

If you want a pretty good recap on this sudden about face (or should we say save face...) for Governor Christie, check out this segment from this morning's Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC with NJ Spotlight reporter Meir Linde and Jessica Gould of WNYC.

According to a New York Times recap of the meeting by Emma Fitzsimmons, the group claimed it was a productive meeting and said in a joint statement:

“The State of New Jersey supports the Gateway Project and is committed to developing a framework with the federal government to begin it,” the statement said. “We all recognize that the only way forward is equitable distribution of funding responsibility and the active participation of all parties.”

By "active participation of all parties" I'm guessing that's a nice way of saying "Andrew Cuomo better get his ass to the next meeting" but the operative phrase there is "equitable distribution of funding responsibility".

That means New Jersey has to kick in it's fair share to this project and despite Grover Norquist's meaningless, non-specific anti-tax rhetoric, this tunnel project IS in the interest of ALL tax payers; so even though we already pay some of the highest taxes in American, folks in New Jersey are going to have to pony up to get this thing built.

I'm willing to do that, I don't like the idea of paying more taxes but the tunnel is necessary.

As I blogged about back on July 26th, the federal government has already committed funds to the project, we know what's going to happen if the project isn't started ASAP and the current North River Tunnels aren't going to just stop deteriorating anytime soon.

The only question seems to be if Governor Christie can put the needs of millions of transit riders and the future of effective mass transit along the northeastern rail corridor ahead of his dwindling presidential ambitions. Which one will he attach his name and legacy to?

Therein lies the conundrum.


Monday, August 17, 2015

19-Year Old Zachary Hammond: Unarmed Teen Killed By Police On A First Date

Zachary Hammond - another U.S. teenager killed by police
Zachary Hammond was just 19-years old when he was fatally shot by police Lt. Mark Tiller in the parking lot of a Hardee's restaurant in Seneca, South Carolina back on Sunday July 26th.

His parents are making national headlines because they're suggesting the media doesn't seem to be paying much attention to their son's death because he was white.

As an amateur citizen-journalist, I blog under the proverbial radar of mass media so I certainly can't speak for the mainstream media, but I do consume quite a bit of it so I wanted to share a couple thoughts.

First off, the media IS paying attention to this story.

And not just here in America where The Washington Past and The New York Times are both on this story, but over in the UK where the Independent is just one of the British media outlets covering it, to as far away as Russia where has been covering the story as well.

While I absolutely agree with the teenage victim's parent's Paul and Angie Hammond that their son's story didn't morph into a major story in the week after the incident occurred, I don't view it as a case of the media (or the public) not caring about the story at all.

Ten-year Seneca PD Lt. Mark Tiller and his K-9 dog
The Media has been proactive in trying to uncover and share more information about Lt. Mark Tiller (pictured left) and his record as a police officer, as in this article posted on on August 10th.

But in terms of the amount of media coverage, and how quickly it materialized, it's true it didn't immediately blow up into a front-page national story in the days immediately following the incident, but I think that was more of a case of really bad timing.

Zachary Hammond was shot and killed on the evening of Sunday July 26th, just seven days after African-American motorist Samuel Dubose was shot in the head at point blank range by former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing.

The media headlines that week were totally focused on the body-cam footage of the incident that had been released at the behest of the prosecutor, who was so shocked at Tensing's actions that he insisted the body-cam footage be released publicly - in no small part to make clear that these were the actions of an individual campus cop and not the Cincinnati Police Department.

By Thursday July 30th when I posted a blog about the Dubose incident, that was THE focus on social and mainstream media that week as the clip of his death was viewed millions of times on Youtube and was being mentioned in national, local and global media day and night.

It's also important to note that two weekends before Hammond was killed in South Carolina, the death of Sandra Bland took place in Texas on Friday July 10th.

By the time I blogged about that story a week later on July 17th, again, video footage taken from the dash-cam of Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia's cruiser revealing both video and audio of what led to the confrontation and Bland's arrest was THE story of the moment - millions of people around the globe were watching, sharing and commenting on the video which clearly showed trooper Encinia's demeanor and actions.

That's one of the major differences in these three cases.

Police tape surrounds the scene in SC where Hammond died.
It's not like people aren't shocked and saddened to see yet another American teenager gunned down and killed by a member of the law enforcement community.

But the night Zachary Hammond was killed in the parking lot of that Hardee's (pictured left), America was already riveted by two different cases of police misconduct in which innocent, unarmed motorists had lost their lives.

Given the fact they have insisted that he was out on a first date and was unarmed, it's completely understandable that Hammond's poor parents would be upset that the death of their son didn't garner the kind of attention Sandra Bland's death received.

But remember, no video of any part of this incident has been released as of yet. No security camera footage from the Hardee's that might have shown what happened in the parking lot.

Nor has the public yet had a chance to see police dash-cam or body-cam footage from Seneca police officer Mark Tiller either.

That footage might shed some insight and perspective into what happened between the time that Toni Morton (the 23-year-old girl Hammond was with at the time of the shooting) tried to sell the small amount of marijuana she had in her possession to undercover agent of the Seneca PD - and the time that the officer approached the car and shot Hammond twice.

As I write this, there's been no definitive comprehensive statement from the officer who shot Hammond about what happened and the sequence of events that led to his killing the unarmed teenager.

Was he "threatened" by a 19-year old teenager sitting in a car where a tiny amount of weed had just been sold by a 23-year old girl?

Did it really make sense for Seneca PD to have some kind of undercover "sting operation" set up for under 10 grams of weed that could easily fit in your pocket?

Regardless, Tiller is claiming self-defense.

Seneca police claim Hammond tried to run Tiller down with his car as the officer approached the vehicle, but the results from a private autopsy requested by Hammond's parents show that the teenager was shot in the side and in the back - so how could he have been driving towards officer Mark Tiller when he was shot?

Remember, Ray Tensing said nearly the same thing about Samuel Dubose - claiming Dubose was dragging him along as he tried to escape; until the body-cam showed Dubose had his hands up when he was shot and the car only moved after Tensing shot him in the head.

When 50-year old Walter Scott was shot in the back multiple times by South Carolina police officer Michael Slager back in April, his initial claims of feeling "threatened" were quickly exposed as lies when not only dashboard video of the incident showing the initial traffic stop was released - a bystander happened to be nearby filming the pursuit and caught the image of Slager shooting a man in the back as he ran away.

So while Hammond's grieving parents want answers, I respectfully think it would be far more productive for them to devote their energy and actions towards demanding the release of any dash-cam or body-cam video from the Seneca Police Department; or any parking lot video taken by a security camera at the Hardee's.

I just don't think it's fair for them to "expect" some kind of public reaction when the public hasn't seen what happened; or make the kind of judgment that the public or the media doesn't care because Zachary Hammond wasn't African-America - we care and we want to know the facts.

Public outrage and civic action needs to start at the local community level, and the Hammonds have expressed disappointment that they haven't seen more from people in their local community or local politicians weigh in; a rally for justice for Zachary Hammond scheduled for August 15th was being organized by a group called Put Down The Guns Now Young People - so there are people standing up.

Like so many other teens whose lives have been cut short by the actions of police officers in recent months, Zachary Hammond was unarmed when he was shot twice and killed.

And like so many other cases that have garnered national attention, the only reason the Seneca police even encountered Hammond in the first place was because of a relatively minor completely non-violent violation.

To me this incident is not only highlights the need for national reforms of use-of-force procedures and the mandatory use of body-cams for all police officers, it also bolsters the argument for legalization of marijuana in this country.

Do we really want police shooting people for under 10 grams of weed in this country?

The world hasn't yet been able to see video of the incident, but the world is getting tired of seeing American police officers fatally shooting unarmed suspects for things that shouldn't even warrant a ticket.

We'll know more when video of the incident is released to the public, but regardless of skin color, no unarmed American teenager out on a first date on a warm July evening with a girl who has a little bit of pot on her should end up dead; let alone at the hands of an officer of the law.

That's not protecting and serving anyone.