Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bias and Brutality In Bakersfield

19-year-old Tatyana Hargrove: Misidentified, 
beaten & bitten by Bakersfield PD
The reluctance of the mayor of Minnesota, the Minnesota PD and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to release more details about the killing of 40-year-old Justine Damond by MPD officer Mohamed Noor on Saturday night has drawn even more global media scrutiny on the epidemic of American law enforcement killing innocent civilians.

The officer is now claiming he was "startled by a loud sound" before shooting and killing Damond.

While we wait for more concrete details to emerge from the city of Minnesota (including why both officer's body cameras were conveniently turned off at the time of the shooting), let's turn our focus west to the city of Bakersfield, California and the disturbing case of a 19-year-old girl named Tatyana Hargrove.

Another case of egregious and unnecessary police violence committed upon an unarmed woman that happened five weeks ago, but only began receiving national media attention after the Bakersfield chapter of the NAACP posted a video of Hargrove describing the incident (including being punched by at least one cop and bitten by a police K-9 dog), in detail on the group's Facebook page.

This is another case of social media driving a story that flew under the radar of mainstream media.

Granted it happened on a Sunday during a summer Father's Day weekend in which the horrific news about the Grenfell Apartment fire in London, a brutal heat wave in the Southwest U.S. and the latest news about Trump's ties to Russia were dominating the headlines here in America.

As CNN reported last Friday, the story really didn't start gaining serious media traction until early last week as the NAACP's Facebook video started racking up millions of views and people began to learn her horrifying account of the encounter that Bakersfield PD officials initially tried to dismiss.

Bakersfield PD officer Chris Moore and Hamer, the
K-9 police dog he unleashed to bite Hargrove
By the time you're reading this, you've likely heard about, read or seen something about Hargrove's story, and the specifics once again shine a spotlight on the reality of racially-biased policing in America.

Part of what's particularly disturbing in this case is that with 3 police cruisers and multiple officers on the scene, Officer Chris Moore instructed his police K-9 dog to attack and bite a lone, unarmed 19-year-old woman on her bike.

A citizen who was not breaking the law at the time she was stopped.

The use of the dog is reminiscent of police sicking dogs on peaceful African-American civil rights protesters in the 1950's and 60's - images which shocked the nation and the world.

Granted, the Bakersfield PD officers were responding to a report of a 5'10" bald black man with a goatee wearing a white shirt who was between 160 - 170 pounds who'd threatened a store employee with a machete.

According to an article published on Tuesday on by Harold Pierce, Moore was the officer who initially questioned and tried to detain Hargrove; who asked him why she was being stopped and justifiably asked if he had a warrant to search her backpack before the situation escalated and got physical - so presumably he was the one pointing a weapon at her.

He later claimed to have mistaken Hargrove for the bald man with the goatee because she was black and wearing a white shirt - but she is 5'2", weighs 120 pounds, has hair, no goatee and, obviously, is not a man.

A photo of the K-9 dog bites on Hargrove's leg 
So why didn't Moore, or Officer G. Vasquez, the man who got into some kind of physical tussle on the ground with Hargrove, bother to ask her name and request some ID?

What confuses me is how this escalated so quickly into this violent physical confrontation.

She'd taken a pause on a really hot day to take a drink from her water bottle when they saw her.

Wasn't it obvious she wasn't wielding a machete?

I mean, not to be flippant, but this was a 19-year-old girl who'd biked to a local store to get a Father's Day present for her dad, found the store was closed, and turned around to bike back home.

On Sunday June 18th the temperature in Bakersfield hit a sizzling 105 degrees, so it was probably at least 100 degrees outside when they stopped her - it's not like she was wearing a bulky overcoat that made it seem like she was hiding a machete.

And it doesn't take extensive police work to see that she could't have grown hair, grown 8 inches, shaved off a goatee, put on 40 to 50 pounds and changed sexes from the time they received the police description of the "transient type" who'd pulled the machete.

Hell, the local store owner who'd reported the apparently elusive, bald, machete-wielding transient ran out and told the cops they had the wrong person, but they told him to go back inside the store and kept right on pummeling Hargrove.

Were the Bakersfield cops just cranky and short-tempered because it was so hot outside?

It just seems like a few questions, a measure of common sense, some patience and a little bit of respect might have solved this in a peaceful manner.

Bakersfield PD Chief Lyle Martin
It was only two weeks before the incident that a Stanford University report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offered clinical evidence showing that American police officers (regardless of race) tend to treat people of color with less respect than whites in identical situations.

Hargrove's treatment certainly bears that out.

But there are some positives to come from this still evolving incident.

In an interview with The Californian Bakersfield PD Chief Lyle Martin did acknowledge some wrongdoing on the part of the officers:

"From the policy and technique standpoint, in my opinion, I think we missed on this one in regards to the use of the K-9," 

And to his credit he did calm some community tensions by having the respect to call Hargrove's parents to personally apologize for the incident:

"I told them that I think we as an organization are better than this, and if we're not better than this, then it's my job to make it better."

Time will tell, as a troubling 2015 report from The Guardian reveals, the Bakersfield PD was considered one of the deadliest in the nation per capita in terms of police killings of civilians.

So in light of that history, it's a positive that Hargrove was not killed - and I know it sucks to say that but it's true given what's taken place in this country between some police and people of color.

The Bakersfield PD have also initiated an internal investigation of the incident, but given their violent history as a police department, it's unlikely anything of consequence is going to come of that.

But you never know, pressure from outside organizations including the NAACP for the officers to be reprimanded and disciplined is growing and a GoFundMe page set up to help Hargrove and her family with legal and hospital costs has already raised over $12,000 in just 7 days from people from around the world.

Minneapolis PD officer Mohamed Noor
Pressure from civilians, legal rights groups and outside organizations including the NAACP for  the officers to be reprimanded and disciplined is growing and a GoFundMe page set up to help Hargrove and her family with legal and hospital costs has already raised over $12,000 in just 7 days from people from around the world.

There's also a petition demanding that the ludicrous charges that the 5'2" Hargrove assaulted the officers be dropped.

Anyway, be sure to keep an eye on this story, particularly in light of developments in the investigation into the shooting death of 40-year-old Justine Damond by Minneapolis PD officer Mohamed Noor on Saturday night.

Based on the many cases of use of deadly force by police that I've read and written about over the years, to me it's a troublesome sign when the very first comment from a police department about a flagrantly unjustified killing by a police officer is something about what the officer's justification was.

In Moore's case, the Minnesota Bureau of Crime Apprehension is now claiming that a loud noise startled him just before Damond, who'd dialed 911 to report a possible assault, approached the police cruiser in her pajamas and was shot and killed;

(The Daily Mail is reporting that Noor is also being sued by a woman named Teresa Graham for false imprisonment, battery and negligence.)

For the sake of justice, many are hoping that such an admission by BCA officials is not the cornerstone of the same kind of "Oops!" defense that allowed former NYPD officer Peter Liang, (who was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide for shooting and killing unarmed Akai Gurley in the stairwell of the Brooklyn housing complex where he lived) to walk away with five year's probation for taking the life of a man who was simply walking with his girlfriend Melissa Butler.

In light of the recent high-profile deadly shootings of innocent people by Minnesota police officers, if Noor is found responsible for wrongfully killing Justine Damond, let's hope the justice system issues more than a dismissed case, hung jury or probation.

The value of a human life merits more than that.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Minneapolis PD - Bullets Over Common Sense?

Justine Damond, 40, shot & killed by a
Minneapolis cop on Saturday - why?
Well it's been all of 25 days since my last post about the alarming rate of unjustified fatal shootings and use of unnecessary physical force by police officers in Minnesota, and once again members of the Minneapolis Police Department are making global headlines for what appears to be yet another killing of an unarmed civilian.

The latest victim is Justine Damond, a 40-year-old woman from Sydney, Australia who was engaged to be married in August to a Minneapolis man named Don Damond.

When I read Gerry Mullany and Isabella Kwai's article in the New York Times this morning it left me feeling sickened and frustrated.

Not at the thousands of members of Minnesota law enforcement who risk their lives to protect the public in accordance with standards of a code of conduct and a sense of professionalism.

What's upsetting is that despite all the media attention and public outrage generated from multiple officers from various police departments in Minnesota choosing to fire their weapons and use deadly force in instances where it was not justified or necessary, innocent people who are unarmed and not threatening the lives of police officers (or anyone else) are still being killed by those sworn to serve and protect.

Remember, in 2015 multiple witnesses claimed that Jamar Clark had both his hands handcuffed behind his back and was lying face down on the ground after a scuffle with paramedics when one of two Minneapolis PD officers, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, shot him in the head at point blank range.

Just ten days ago it was announced that the city of St. Anthony, Minnesota had agreed to pay former St. Anthony PD officer Jeronimo Yanez a $48,500 severance package as part an agreement for his having been fired for his role in the highly-publicized fatal shooting of school cafeteria manager Philando Castile in 2016 - one of 13 fatal police shootings in Minnesota in 2016.

While Castile did have a handgun on him when he was stopped for a non-working brake light, it was inside the pocket of his shorts and he politely informed Yanez he had the gun on him before Yanez began firing shots directly into the car 74 seconds after pulling Castile over after misidentifying him as a robbery suspect - the permit for the handgun was also found in his pocket after Yanez had fired seven shots.

Despite the video evidence and audio recordings of the shooting, a mostly-white jury found Yanez not guilty and sadly, it looks like race and ethnicity are going to play a role in the death of Justine Damond as well.

Minneapolis PD officer Mohamed Noor
According to an article from local Twin Cities affiliate KSTP, the officer who pulled the trigger and fired the fatal shots has been tentatively identified as Mohamed Noor - a college graduate who joined the force back in 2015.

As many of you know, for years the Minneapolis area has been home to a large population of Somali-born people who've immigrated to the United States.

Noor is reportedly the first police officer of Somali descent to join the Minneapolis PD.

Frankly, having seen so many instances of race playing a factor in the legal outcome of cases of unjustified police shootings when the victim was African-American, it will be interesting to see how the fact that Noor, who is of African descent, and the civilian he shot and killed was a blond-haired white woman, will impact the investigation.

Don't get me wrong, I've made it clear on this blog that I'm of the belief that all police officers should be held legally responsible in cases where a fatal shooting or beating was not justified - particularly in cases where the victim was innocent.

By all accounts, Damond called 911 around 11:27pm Saturday to report a possible assault in an alley near the home she was in - when the squad car arrived, Noor was in the passenger seat when pointed his weapon and fired across his the driver, officer Matthew Harrity, striking and killing Damond.

Did he mistake the cell phone found near her body for a weapon?

Why fire shots at all if he was still sitting in the car?

Minneapolis PD Chief Janee Harteau & Mayor
Betsy Hodges at a press conference
The circumstances of the case are different but it reminds me of 24-year-old college student Jonathan Ferrell being tasered and shot ten times by Charlotte PD officer Randall Kerrick back in 2014 after Ferrell crashed his car.

He saw Kerrick's squad car arrive and walked towards it thinking he was there to help and ended up dead.

Did Damond see the Harrity and Noor's squad car arrive on Saturday night and walk towards it thinking they were there to help her?

Despite calls from outraged neighbors calling for a federal investigation into the shooting, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it abundantly clear that the resources of the Justice Department under Trump will not be used to investigate wrongdoing by local police officers.

So this investigation will be conducted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Minneapolis PD itself.

One question on many people's minds is why officer Noor's police body cam was turned off at the time of the shooting - 600 of the cameras were issued in the wake of the high-profile police shootings that have taken place in Minneapolis since 2012.

What good are those cameras if police officers simply turn them off whenever they want to?

Frankly I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for the Minnesota BCA or the Minneapolis PD to answer that question, their conclusions in cases of unjustified police shootings usually boil down to finding no wrongdoing on the part of officers who choose to use deadly force over common sense.

Whether that trend changes, or a jury feels differently based on the race of both the officer and the victim in this case remains to be seen.

Either outcome could potentially be problematic.

Regardless, Don Damond's son Zach Damond summed up the feelings of millions people about unjustified used of deadly force by police officers both here and around the world when he told reporter's, "This has got to stop. This has got to stop."

Justine Damond, Philando Castile and others deserved better - and members of law enforcement in Minneapolis and around the U.S. need to start holding their professional training and conduct to a higher standard.

The excuse that an officer "feared" for his or her life as a blanket excuse for a bad decision didn't cut it in the case of Philando Castile, and won't cut it in the case of Justine Damond either - yet another death caused by poor decision making and a rush to fire bullets rather than using some common sense.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Aloha Hawaii: Ethnic Diversity & 'Whitewashing' In Hollywood

Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim
It wasn't exactly front-page news last week but the recent decision by Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim and Canadian-American actress Grace Park to leave the highly-rated CBS reboot of Hawaii Five-O is a stark reminder to the entertainment industry that the issue of pay equity based on ethnicity and gender is not going away anytime soon.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence deserves credit for letting the pay gap-genie out of the bottle with her widely-publicized essay in Lenny Letter in October 2015, but Kim and Park are putting their money where their mouths are.

Since its debut back in 2010, Hawaii Five-O, a smart update of the classic 70's TV series starring Jack Lord that ran from 1968 to 1980, has been a consistent ratings and popular success for CBS - and Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park have been a big part that.

So their decision to both leave the show after contract negotiations failed to bring their salaries up to parity with the two main stars means they're not only exiting a high-profile show; they're walking away from big salaries as well as lucrative money from residual profits from the show being rebroadcast in syndication.

Granted, after seven years on the show there's little doubt they'll both be getting checks in the mail from Five-O for years, but it says a lot that they're both willing to place the principal of being fairly compensated regardless of their ethnicity, over profits.

As Variety TV critic Sonia Saraiya pointed out in her article last week, for 14 out of the past 15 years more Americans have watched CBS than any other network, and while the two leading (white) actors Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan are the highest paid on the show, the storyline of the rebooted Five-O is very much centered on Kim's character Chin Ho Kelly and his fictional cousin Kono played by Grace Park - both characters were in the original series.

Saraiya notes that Kim's character is the only member of the fictional police unit that actually speaks Hawaiian on an Island where almost 60% of the population have some Asian ethnicity.

The Asian characters are central to the show's storyline, and promo and marketing materials often feature Kim and Park alongside O'Loughlin and Caan as a foursome.

CBS marketing campaigns promoted the group as a foursome from the very beginning of the show, as shown by the promo poster (pictured left) from the first season of the show.

It's also important to point out the fact that both Kim and Park were successful actors who'd stood out in ensemble casts on widely-popular television series before being cast in Hawaii Five-O in 2010.

It's fair to say that they both had achieved popularity, and their own fanbases, in front of mainstream American audiences as well.

They weren't just draws for an Asian audience.

Fans of the hugely-popular reboot of the television series Battlestar Galactica will remember Park as Sharon "Boomer" Valerii (and other subsequent "Sharons" the series).

In a large critically-acclaimed cast that included heavyweights like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, as well as brilliant performances by Katie Sackhoff (who rocks in Longmire), Park definitely stood out in terms of the range of her talent - and obviously her looks, the American-born actress of Korean descent is a former model.

Starting in 1994, Daniel Dae Kim had put together a pretty extensive television resume of his own before he was cast as Jin-Soo Kwon in the ABC hit Lost which aired from 2004 until 2010.

Like Park, he too stood out in a large ensemble cast on a hugely popular show, and he would eventually become one of the more popular and interesting characters on a series with a massive cult following and an enormous cultural footprint.

If you were a fan of Lost you remember his character Jin-Soo Kwon as the lowly fisherman who married way above his station only to become enmeshed in the evil doings of his ruthless corporate crime lord father-in-law.

Kim's character only spoke Korean on the show after being something of a silent enigma initially in a role that had subtlety and depth - it was clear on the show that he was destined for bigger roles.

So CBS deserves credit for casting both him and Park on Hawaii Five-O, but the network has justifiably been on the defensive lately after receiving widespread criticism last week in the wake of Kim's Facebook post in which he essentially announced that he was leaving the show because CBS was paying both him and Park a reported 10 to 15% below what O'Loughlin and Caan were earning.

Lincoln Perry as Steppin Fetchit 
Don't get me wrong I liked Caan in the Ocean's Eleven films, and while CBS had cast the Australian O'Loughlin in a few different series that never quite hit before casting him as the lead in Five-O, outside of his role on The Shield, I'd argue that in terms of overall mainstream popularity, Kim and Park were just as well-known to American audiences as he and Caan.

So it makes CBS's decision not to up their compensation accordingly all the more puzzling - particularly given the network's decision to launch a diversity initiative to nurture and promote more minority talent within its own ranks.

This is not a new battle for the entertainment industry or America for that matter.

And it didn't start with the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign launched after the 2015 Oscar nominations.

It stretches back to the complex film legacy of African-American actor Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known to audiences by his theatrical stage name "Steppin Fetchit", who became the first person of color to achieve major Hollywood success in the 1930's by playing a character that many considered a degrading racist caricature that promoted negative stereotypes about blacks.

Rex Harrison was cast as the lead in the 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam, which would famously be rebooted in the film version of Rodger's and Hammerstein's musical The King and I with Yul Brynner playing the lead - as much as I've admired Harrison's performances in films like My Fair Lady and Dr. Doolittle, it's painful to watch him in Anna and the King of Siam because he plays the role as a tired cliche, relying on awkward ethnic stereotypes.

In the 1950's it manifested in Hollywood's decision to cast John Wayne as the 13th century Mongol warlord Genghis Kahn in the 1954 film distributed by RKO, The Conqueror - still widely regarded as one of the film industry's epic casting fails, the big budget Howard Hughes production is ranked as one of the worst films of all time

Remarkably, Wayne actively campaigned hard for that role.

Perhaps he'd been in so many Hollywood westerns where Native Americans had been played by white actors in brown makeup (like John Ford's 1956 masterpiece The Searchers) that he didn't think twice about the broader cultural impact of a white actor donning make up and prosthetics to play an iconic Asian conqueror.

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi 
Actor Mickey Rooney was cast as Audrey Hepburn's comically-frustrated (some say racist) Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi in the brilliant 1961 film adaptation of Truman Capote's 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's.

A role that director Blake Edwards obviously intended as over-the-top comedy that's now seen by many as an extension of the kind of degrading "Yellow menace" stereotypes of Japanese people that were so common in print, cartoons and films in America during World War II.

White actors playing Asian characters has come to be known as "Yellowface".

A play on the term "Blackface" used to describe white actors who used to play black people by putting on black makeup.

In various forms, Yellowface continues to be an ongoing issue in major Hollywood productions, spurred not by any lack of qualified and talented Asian or Asian-American actors.

It's largely the result of the mostly white male directors, producers, casting agents, marketing executives and agents responsible for making the decision to cast more well-known white actors in roles written for people of Asian descent on the premise that it will "boost box office draw for mainstream audiences."

You may recall the controversy that surrounded director Cameron Crowe's decision to cast Emma Stone as Allison Ng in the 2015 film Aloha; a character who was Hawaiian and 1/4 Asian with a father who was half Chinese.

Josh Duboff's June 3, 2015 article in Vanity Fair offers an excellent summary of the controversy as well as the text of Cameron Crowe's heartfelt apology and explanation for the casting decision that generated such negative buzz for Aloha and led to it bombing at the box office for Sony.

As much as I admire Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper (who co-starred in Aloha) as actors, the reality is that the both of them are A-Lister's who are going to get the lion's choice of the quality scripts that come down the pipeline in Hollywood; based not only on their talent and looks, but on the fact that the bulk of the roles in those scripts are going to be written for white people.

So given the startling lack of quality roles for Asian-Americans and Asians in mainstream Hollywood films and television, one would think that Sony would have actively looked to cast an actress of Asian descent for the role of Allison Ng - because it would have served the story better in terms of authenticity and because it's good for the industry as a whole.

Tilda Swinton & the Ancient One, the Asian character
she was
cast to play in 2016's Dr. Strange  
More recently the issue came up again in 2016 with the release of the box office smash film adaptation of the Marvel comic Dr. Strange.

The powers that be at Walt Disney Studios and Marvel Studios made the decision to cast the enigmatic British actress / performance artist Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One.

An ancient Asian sorcerer who taught Dr. Strange who is central to the story.

For years the character in the Marvel comic book has been an elderly Asian man, and certainly there are scores of Asian male actors who could have owned that role in the film.

But Marvel Studios decided to cast the Nordic-blonde Swinton, and make the Ancient One a somewhat androgynous Celtic character.

Which, in terms of cross-gender casting is fine, but why?

Did making the Ancient One a Celtic woman make Dr. Strange a better story?

It'll be a long time before we see an elderly blond female character be played by a young Asian male actor in a major Hollywood production.

Margaret Cho
Comedian / writer Margaret Cho penned an open letter to Swinton accusing her of being complicit in the 'Whitewashing' of a character who should have been Asian.

The letter was published in the Hollywood Reporter and offers a piercing critique and insightful analysis of how the film and television industry perceives and treats Asians - maybe CBS execs should have read it before letting Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park go from Hawaii Five-O over a few measly dollars.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the executives at CBS responsible for this were being intentionally racist or ethnically insensitive.

But I do believe the current state of diversity in mainstream film and TV should have better informed their decision.

Interested in some more perspective on this issue?

Read "What It's Really Like to Work In Hollywood (If You're Not a Straight White Man)", an article in the New York Times by Melena Ryzik from 2016 that offers some unique insights from 27 different men and women who've that found success in the industry is a complex and often rocky road.

Their real-life observations bring home the harsh reality of the specter of ethnically diverse casting decisions that reflect the broader diversity of the American film audience that has loomed over Hollywood for years.

Compensating talent fairly regardless of gender or ethnicity is yet another unpleasant chapter of a long story that has thus far had a decidedly non-Hollywood ending.

Perhaps the courageous decision by Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park will mark a change in a story arc that needs a major plot change.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Kris Kobach's Ministry of Voter Suppression

Voter suppression czar, Republican Kris Kobach
In the cruel pantheon of the modern American Republican Party ideology, aside from a fetish-like obsession with lowering the tax burden on the wealthiest 1%, no idol is more worshiped than the suppression of the right to vote.

Content to abandon their supposed allegiance to Constitutional principles, many Republicans have now gone full tilt and embarked upon a crusade to aggressively block access to the ballot box on a nationwide scale.

No that long ago these reprehensible voter suppression tactics were generally engineered from the state level in those states with majority-Republican state legislatures and Republican governors mostly working off of scripts, media talking points and model legislation courtesy of our old friends at the American Legislation Exchange Council (ALEC).

Check out the Center for Media and Democracy's 'ALEC Exposed' Website to learn more about how ALEC helped Republican politicians lay the groundwork for massive voter suppression by enacting ludicrous, overly-burdensome voter ID laws in at least 37 different states following the 2010 mid-term elections.

To most Americans it's an affront to the basic principles of democracy, but as you've likely heard over the past week couple weeks, Republican efforts to target the voter rolls of the entire nation are now being orchestrated from the federal level - directly from the Trump administration.

As Madeline Conway reported yesterday in an article for, written requests from the Presidential Advisory Commission On Election Integrity for individual states to provide detailed information including voter's full names, the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, party affiliation, voting history since 2006, and information on felonies and military status, were met with widespread outrage - and not just from traditionally blue states either.

Mississippi Sec. of State Delbert Hosemann
After reviewing a copy of the letter sent from Trump' widely-panned commission, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said his response would be:

"They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from." 

And he's a Republican from Mississippi.

As Chris Cillizza reported for CNN yesterday, at least 45 states have already refused to provide at least some of the information to the commission.

Democratic Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe got to the heart of the matter when he said in a statement:

"This entire commission is based on the specious and false notion that there was widespread voter fraud last November. At best this commission was set up as a pretext to validate Donald Trump's alternative election facts, and at worse is a tool to commit large-scale voter suppression."
The blowback for the Trump administration's "voter integrity commission" and it's chief architect Kris Kobach has been swift, but what's really bizarre are their attempts to justify and defend it.

Despite serious pushback from dozens of secretaries of state and governors, Kobach simplistically dismissed the media's efforts to question the commission's motives "fake news."

And predictably, Trump took to Twitter to suggest that anyone who doesn't comply has something to hide.

What else can you expect from Republicans who know they can no longer win the mainstream American vote based on the issues?

Whether it's gerrymandering of political districts or voter suppression, they must cheat to win.

What real voter fraud looks like courtesy of Crosscheck
What's particularly troubling is that if you take some time and go back and read Greg Palast's meticulously-researched article "The GOP's Stealth War Against Voters" published in Rolling Stone back in August of 2016 in the lead-up to the November elections, Trump's outrageous information request is really nothing more than a souped-up version of Kris Kobach's widely-condemned voter data collection system known as Crosscheck.

As Palast noted, based on the algorithms and search parameters within the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program as it's formally known, the program "disproportionately threatens solid Democratic constituencies: young, black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters" by incorrectly listing certain ethnic-sounding last names as inherently suspicious.

Click the link above and read some of the flagrant ways in which thousands of mostly-minority Americans were improperly and unfairly "flagged" by Crosscheck and denied the right to vote.

It's truly Third-World authoritarian stuff, and this big data request by Trump's "commission" (ostensibly headed up by Kobach) is nothing more than an attempt to create a "Crosscheck 2.0" in time for the 2018 mid-term elections.

If you missed it, check out Ari Berman's profile of Kobach that was published in the New York Times Magazine back on June 13th.

Kobach is a genuinely dangerous individual, heading up a hyper-partisan "voter integrity commission made up of a cast right-wing zealots summoned up from the putrid depths of authoritarian bigotry.

Voter suppression zealot Hans Von Spakovsky
No member of Trump's "commission" embodies that more than the widely-reviled Hans Von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission who oversaw the division of the Justice Department that monitored voting rights during the Bush administration.

If there is a Creature From the Black Lagoon of Republican voter suppression, it's this guy.

His mission in life is clear:

Use arcane misinterpretation of data, racist and xenophobic fear-mongering and the flagrant manipulation of existing federal and state laws to prevent as many people of color, the elderly, students, legal immigrants and people with foreign-sounding names from participating in the voting process as possible.

If you're not familiar with this guy, take some time to read Leon Neyfakh's recent feature on Von Spakovsky published on titled, "The Dark Prince Of Voter Fraud Alarmism Is Joining the Trump Administration".

Kris Kobach may be the evangelist of Republican voter suppression in America but Hans Von Spakovsky is arguably the high priest - a man who has literally spent years trying to make it harder for non-white people to vote in the name of mass voter fraud that simply does not exist.

Trump is far too self-obsessed, uninformed and shallow to realize the degree to which Kobach and Von Spakovsky are true believers in the Ministry of Voter Suppression.

He embraces them and their so-called commission only because he thinks it will help legitimize his continuing delusional fiction that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because 3 to 5 million illegal aliens cast votes in the 2016 presidential election.

Make no mistake, men like Kobach and Von Spakovsky need Trump too in order to lend an air of credibility to the dark and arcane arts they practice - Trump's concocted unproven lies about fictional "busloads" of illegal aliens costing him the popular vote in 2016 are right up their alley.

And their "presence" in the White House under the guise of a presidential advisory board is indeed a boon to the likes of Trump policy advisors like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller - and proof positive that a cabal of white nationalists eager to create a 21st century version of Apartheid in America now runs the presidency.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Christie's July 4th Jersey Debacle

Chris Christie and his family enjoy Island Beach
State Park while the public is shut out
"I understand that that's because the governor has a residence at Island Beach. Others don't. That's the way it goes. Run for governor then you can have the residence." 

That was Republican NJ Governor Chris Christie responding to the wide-spread criticism he received after aerial photographs showed him and his family relaxing on Island Beach State Park over the weekend.

Normally the governor chilling out on the beach wouldn't be a big deal.

But last week Island Beach State Park, like other NJ state park and recreational facilities, the Motor Vehicle Commission, the Department of Health and a host of other state government services were closed to the public for the weekend leading into the July 4th holiday.

A crucial day to the hundreds of small business owners whose livelihood is dependent on the thousands of Independence Day beachgoers who flock to the Jersey shore.

Part of what enraged New Jerseyans about the photo of Christie enjoying Island Beach State Park over the weekend with his family while it was closed to the public stems from the fact that this unprecedented state government shutdown wasn't caused by any actual government crisis.

It was the result of Christie trying to blackmail the normal state budget process over his efforts to bully Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield (a not-for-profit and the largest insurer in the state) into diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from its surplus fund in order to fund opioid abuse and other programs that have become Christie's focus in the final months of his term in office.

Regardless of whether of one's political party, if you're the governor and you want $300 million for a program, you have to go through the normal budget and appropriations process and work with the state assembly to fund it.

Signs Christie had posted that blame
Speaker Prieto for NJ park closings 
You don't circumvent that process by passing a bill that authorizes the state to essentially seize funds from a not-for-profit to pay for initiatives that you want.

But Christie did, and he tried using that as leverage to get him to sign the state budget.

When State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto refused, the government went into shutdown ahead of the weekend, not only shutting down essential state services, but disrupting the holiday plans of thousands of people.

Christie even had the gall to try and blame Prieto.

In a remarkably pathetic attempt to try and absolve himself of responsibility for his own refusal to sign the state budget into law, Christie actually had color flyers printed up with a photo of Prieto on it that blamed the government shutdown on the state assembly.

But it was the photo of Christie and his family casually enjoying the beach that was closed to NJ tax payers who pay for it that blew up nationally, further tarnishing the image of the man who famously demonstrated a willingness to shutdown access lanes on the NJ side of the George Washington Bridge in order to "get back" at a mayor who refused to endorse him.

Part of what's amazing is that Christie seems almost clinically detached from the optics of what an insensitive asshole he looks like for taking his family to a public beach that he closed to taxpayers.

He even tried to deny that he'd been on the beach sunning himself with his family in front of reporters during a government shutdown, bristling at the suggestion that he'd been hanging out on the beach until the photo of him sitting in a beach chair went national and blew up in mainstream and social media.

Last Friday afternoon I stopped by my local the Franklin Tavern and the consensus of regulars there, both Republican and Democrat alike, was that Christie's government closure was an outrage - take a listen to some of the comments from NJ citizens who called into The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday morning for a segment discussing the impact of Christie's actions.

A banner from a plane flown over the beach in NJ
Uncaring "let them eat cake" hypocrisy like that?

From a despised governor who spent the bulk of his two terms in public office absent from the state focused on his own presidential ambitions before shilling for Donald Trump in the hopes of scoring himself a cushy position in the federal government?

Low rent.

It should give you an idea of why Christie literally has the lowest approval rating (15%) of a sitting governor ever recorded by a Quinnipiac University poll.

Let's be clear, I'm not saying that opioid abuse isn't a major public health crisis that needs to be dealt with on the state and federal level (frankly it's been a major public health issue in urban and rural communities for years, but that's another blog).

But Christie had seven years as governor to work with the state assembly to try and secure budget proper funding for what's become his pet project, during that time he opposed the Affordable Care Act that provided federal subsidies through Medicaid to help pay for opioid abuse treatment.

So his efforts to use the final year of his two years as governor to remake his soiled public image into the "caring opioid abuse czar" reeks of self-serving hypocrisy.

The vast majority of people in New Jersey recognize it little more than a desperate attempt to avoid being branded for life as the "Bridgegate Governor" who backed Donald Trump, failed to bite the bullet and secure tax revenue to pay for the ARC train tunnel project, and accomplished almost nothing of substance.

Christie defending his shutdown to reporters
And that's how he's going to be remembered.

That's his self-created political legacy.

Tom Moran, the politically-plugged in columnist for both the Newark Star Ledger and called the needless government closure the 'Seinfeld Shutdown' because it's a government shutdown based on nothing except for Christie's own arrogance.

While the beaches and state parks were finally opened in time for July 4th after Christie finally yielded and signed the $34.7 billion budget late Monday night, the sense of public outrage is still simmering.

As Marianne Tennpenny, a resident of Bayville, New Jersey who's family shelled out $175 for a season pass to Island Beach State Park told, the beaches may be open but people from New Jersey aren't going to forget Christie's three-day shutdown that ruined many people's weekend holiday plans.

Tennpenny actually tried to track Christie down on the boardwalk where he's often spotted in the summer to give him a piece of her mind, but he was nowhere to be found.

"I know he didn't want to show his face. This is the biggest blunder since Bridgegate. It's just unbelievable how arrogant he is. He's just plain arrogant. It was inconsiderate and selfish. He's not thinking about the people he represents."

I'm not sure Christie has ever has thought about anyone other than himself as governor.

The beaches and state parks may be open, but his last July 4th as governor was a total debacle.

An Independence Day that's going to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many and a blight on the already tarnished legacy of Governor Chris Christie.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Presidential Material & Zabar's On a Friday

Dan Rather talks with CNN's Don Lemon
Earlier this morning I was watching an excerpt of former CBS News anchor Dan Rather's Friday evening interview with CNN's Don Lemon.

In the same calm, rational and analytical manner that made him one of the most influential and trusted television journalists of the 20th century, Rather explained why Donald Trump's childish insults about MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski are damaging to the nation.

Rather expresses his disappointment with top Republican political leaders for their willingness to ignore the deeper repercussions of Trump's irrational and boorish behavior, particularly with regards to the damage it's causing to the institution of the presidency and America's global reputation.

As he has so often in the past, Rather effectively summed up the feelings of a majority of Americans when he observed, "It's a humiliation for President Trump, it's a humiliation for our country."

This morning Democratic Senator Mark Warner told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that Trump's widely-condemned tweets about Brzezinski were "frankly, beneath the office of the presidency." and criticized the comments as insulting to women.

Trump's response was predictably shallow.

Did you see the doctored video clip Trump posted to his Twitter account this morning with a CNN logo superimposed onto the head of a man he body-slammed during a Wrestlemania event years ago?

It speaks volumes to the question of presidential material.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was particularly taken with Mark Binelli's recent in-depth Rolling Stone interview with Democratic Minnesota Senator Al Franken.

Senator Al Franken
Franken is a stark contrast to Trump's lack of impulse control, delusional narcissism and inability to grasp the basic subtleties and minutiae of the office he occupies and its roll in the federal government.

Binelli's RS piece reveals Franken as an intelligent, thoughtful and principled politician who clearly views the office in which he serves as a platform to serve the interests of the people he represents - regardless of their political leanings.

When Trump does bother to venture out of his hermetically-sealed White House - Mar-a-Lago cocoon to meet directly with his constituents, it's not to discuss policy with them or hear their concerns.

It's simply an occasion to stand at a podium and talk about himself and denigrate those he considers his "enemies".

In Binelli's RS interview, he describes accompanying Franken to a meeting with members of the Minnesota Farmers Union in Dakota County, Minnesota on a rainy April morning.

"Inside, Franken takes questions from a roomful of farmers, mostly men, many of them senior citizens wearing plaid shirts. Franken speaks fluently about Canadian milk subsidies, crop insurance, ethanol support, potential changes in the farm bill, and Trump's secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, whom Franklin, in a rare kind word for the president, considers an excellent choice."

In the article Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren describes her admiration for Franken as a political wonk who fastidiously studies and researches policy and considers it his duty to dive into the weeds of legislation.

I've yet to hear Trump comment intelligently or meaningfully on anything, let alone policy specifics.

Dan Ackroyd as chef Julia Childs in the classic
Saturday Night Live skit written by Al Franken. 
But more importantly to me, the quality that impresses me most about Franken is his razor sharp wit and piercing insight.

The kinds of things a politician must have in his or her tool bag if they plan on being president.

What stood out for me in Binelli's article was his description of how Franken's gift for comedy and his eye for humor are attributes that have helped him to stand out as one of the leading progressive voices on Capitol Hill.

The qualities that served Franken as a writer and occasional performer on NBC's Saturday Night Live for 15 years, and as the author of books like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, also make him uniquely positioned in the Senate to serve as one of the politicians willing to confront and fact-check the idiocracy that is the Trump presidency.

As Binelli observes: "The man with a sixth sense for bullshit taking on the da Vinci of bullshit artists...Franken has weaponized the gifts that proved so useful for comedy a sharp eye, a sharper tongue, the ability to tease out the essential absurdity of a given situation and deliver the goods with maximum impact"

I can personally attest to Franken's sharp tongue and uncanny ability to tease out the essential absurdity of a given situation having witnessed it first-hand in New York City.

This would have been sometime between 1998 and 2000 when I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

It was a sunny Friday afternoon in late spring or early summer and I'd stopped by Zabar's grocery store on the west side of Broadway between West 79th Street and West 80th Street after working out at the Crunch gym that was located above H&H Bagels on West 80th Street.

A Shabbat dinner 
Now as some of you may know, many religious Jews observe Shabbat, or the Sabbath, from just before sunset on Friday, until (according to Wikipedia) three stars appear in the sky on Saturday evening.

Zabar's, an Upper West Side institution since 1934, is a specialty grocery store that not only has all kinds of really good pre-cooked and pre-made foods, it offers a huge selection of gourmet cheeses, coffee, breads and baked goods, an amazing fish counter - and an array of Kosher foods.

So if you go into Zabar's on a Friday afternoon, it's going to be packed and busy, with many Jewish folks running around picking up stuff for Shabbat; often hurrying to get home by sunset.

In my years of experience shopping there people are usually very polite (especially the people that work there) but they're often rushing and on occasion, manners can fall by the wayside.

Zabar's has different entrances, and I was on the far left side of the store where there are big refrigerated shelves lined with all kinds of pre-made foods in containers that you just have to take home and warm up -it's a bit pricey but the quality is really good and it's convenient for the busy New York lifestyle.  

So I'm standing in front of this refrigerated shelf that has all these gourmet pre-made sandwiches and wraps, it was only about 3-feet wide so only 1 or 2 people could comfortably stand in front of it at one time.

I waited for this younger woman to grab something and as she scooted off, I walked up to check out the selection holding my little basket in my left arm.

By rights, I was clearly the next person and it's an unwritten rule of conduct in Zabar's because it's a bit tight in there - you wait for people to grab their thing, then you step up.

Zabar's on Broadway in New York City
So I'm looking at the sandwiches, all of a sudden this tiny little elderly Jewish lady literally elbows in front of me and positions her body in front of mine so she can inspect the sandwiches.

She's kind of squinting at the selection, and she looks it up and down with a frown, elbows her way past me and walks off sort of muttering to herself as if she couldn't find what she was looking for her or didn't like what she saw - she didn't pay any attention to me at all, didn't glance at me once or say excuse me.

Now I'm always a polite and considerate person, and will always make way for someone older, but what she did was so rude that I just stood there stunned, because most people in Zabar's are usually pretty nice.

Being a college-educated African-American man in Zabar's on a Friday surrounded by white people, I also remember being suddenly conscious of not only my race, but of the complex social invisibility that black Americans often face that writer Ralph Ellison wrote of so eloquently in Invisible Man, his National Book Award-winning work of fiction-social commentary published back in 1952.

I was sort of looking around wondering if anyone had seen what had happened, and I'm thinking to myself, "Oh my God, did she really just do that? Did she not see me, or did she just not care?"

Just as I was beginning to think that maybe I was overthinking it, I saw this dark-haired man with glasses appear next to me on my left and heard this deep voice yell out, "EXCUSE ME!!" 

The voice sort of stunned me because it had this tone of sarcasm and pointed anger in it - and I understood that this man had seen what had happened in the middle of this store and he was so appalled at the rudeness of it that he yelled out so the old woman would hear him.

I turned around and recognized that it was Al Franken; same guy I'd seen on SNL for years.

Customers at Zabar's fish counter
He was standing there glaring at the old woman (who was hustling off into the crowd pretending she hadn't heard him) and when I say yelled, I mean he YELLED that out so that everyone within earshot heard it.

Al Franken saw the absurdity of the situation and though I was a total stranger to him, he stuck up for me - but I also sensed that he was partially in disbelief that I hadn't said something to the little old lady because of her rudeness.

But as I said, I was too stunned to do anything.

I was also conscious of the fact that if I, a 6'7" black man had said something to the little old lady, people would look at me askance - and I just didn't want to fight that battle, I just wanted to get my food and get the hell out of there.

But Al Franken didn't hesitate, however small it might be, he saw a wrong and felt obliged to say something about it; in fact he was so annoyed by what he saw he didn't say anything to me.

I've never forgotten that incident in Zabar's, in fact this is the first time I've written about it, and I understand that Al Franken ran for political office because he genuinely cares about sticking up for what's right.

If the 2016 presidential elections showed us anything, it's that the establishment of the national Democratic Party worked to quash the populist progressive movement that Senator Bernie Sanders started.

My sense is that the progressive voice that was so loud in 2016 is going to be even louder in 2018 and 2020, and as a Democrat I think that voice just might be best served by Al Franken - I firmly believe he could earn the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

It's often said that the character of a man can be judged by how he treats the person who can do the least for him or her, as a guy who was working as a bartender and dreaming about being an actor and a writer, there wasn't much I could do for Al Franken.

But he stuck up for me that day in Zabar's, and that's the quality of a real president.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Epic Mar-a-No-No: Al Franken 2020?

Mika Brzezinski's Twitter response
to Trump's buffoonery
After reading about Donald Trump's remarkably juvenile insults earlier this morning aimed at MSNBC Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, I'm officially turning my focus to the 2020 presidential race.    

It's a bit early, sure, but why not?

America's resident liar-in-chief stunned political observers by holding a $35,000-a-plate campaign funding event on Wednesday evening just over four months into his so-called presidency.

An event Norm Eisen, who served as the top ethics lawyer under President Obama, called a clear violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution because it was held at a Trump-owned hotel located in a building he leases from the U.S. government.

Maybe Republicans define "Making America Great Again" as totally ignoring laws that govern ethics?

If you're reading this you've likely heard that Trump's trite misogynistic comments were widely criticized by leading Republican and Democratic politicians - and Brzezinski herself shot back with a tweet (pictured above) featuring a box of Cheerios that served as a not-so-subtle shot at 45's notoriously tiny hands.

The whole debacle was made worse by Scarborough and Brzezinski's revelation this morning that Trump's politically-inexperienced lackey-son-in-law Jared Kushner personally relayed his delusional father-in-law's threat to use his ties with David Pecker, the owner of the company that owns the sleazy grocery store gossip rag National Inquirer, to prevent a piece trashing the MSNBC duo from being published if they would publicly apologize to the astonishingly thin-skinned president.

While most people would consider it beneath the dignity of the office of the president to engage in crass blackmail, is hardly a surprising tactic for Trump.

And for all the outrage Trump's latest tweet has generated, there's little question it was intended to do one thing only - to distract.

Especially given the bombshell report by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday about a May interview in which former conservative political operative Peter W. Smith admitted working with Russian hackers to try and hack Hillary Clinton's email server in order to give the information to Michael Flynn - who was serving as the national security adviser for the Trump campaign.

"Opposition researcher" Peter W. Smith
Political wonks may recall Smith, described by Wall Street Journal reporter Shane Harris as "a private equity executive from Chicago active in Republican politics",  as one of the ideological sleaze-bags responsible for dredging up unproven accusations by former Arkansas State Troopers of marital infidelity by former President Bill Clinton in the 90's.

Did Smith really sink to the same level of partisan obsession to try and actively work with Russian hackers (during the 2016 presidential campaign no less) in order to try and illegally access Hilary Clinton's private emails in order to intentionally torpedo her chances of being elected?

The WSJ, owned by Rupert Murdoch and hardly a bastion of liberal political perspective, certainly thinks so based on Harris' article published on Thursday.

I'm ready to get behind a candidate now.

And based on the political calendar, the 2020 presidential race isn't actually that far off.

Considering the disaster that befell the American people last November and the terrifying ramifications of the loony political agenda of the current Republican-majority House and Senate, 2020 is quickly shaping up to be one of the most important presidential elections for the Democratic Party in decades.

One of the more interesting political profiles I've read lately was Mark Binelli's piece on the progressive Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken in the June 15th issue of Rolling Stone.

From my perspective, the former Saturday Night Live writer and occasional cast-member is quickly shaping up to be the progressive front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Think that's far-fetched?

Remember one of the normal prerequisites of any American presidential candidate (the afore-mentioned Trump excepted) is the publication of a memoir that reveals something substantive about who they are, where they come from, and what their vision for the country is.

Democratic Senator Al Franken
Franken has already checked that box having lately been out and about promoting his appropriately irreverently-titled new memoir Al Franken, Giant of the Senate.

The other morning Franken was interviewed on the Brian Lehrer Show to share his insights on the pending Republican healthcare bill, why voters are attracted to Trump and his reflections on the bedrock values of the Democratic Party.

I think this guy is the kind of president this country needs now more than ever.

Franken is a well-informed intellectual progressive policy-wonk who has acknowledged the former Democratic Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone as a political mentor and who knows and understands the minutiae of the policy that lies behind political legislation.

As his deft handling of the questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee during recent hearings on Russian influence in the 2016 presidential elections demonstrates, this guy can hold his own in complex investigations on Capitol Hill.

From a progressive political standpoint this guy is the real deal.

During the Republican-engineered government shutdown in 2013, he donated his Senate salary to a Minnesota-based hunger relief organization called Second Harvest Heartland.

As Mark Binelli wrote in his June 15th Rolling Stone piece, Franken has effectively utilized his more than ten years as a comedy writer for SNL to help "shape the modern comedic voice of lefty dissent - pointed fact-checking as mocking entertainment - that would become de rigueur on shows like The Daily Show and its many spawn."  

From a progressive standpoint he can arguably be called a visionary of 21st century politics.

But more importantly, this is a guy who stands up for the common man, not because he's checking off some box, but because it's the right thing to do, it's what he believes in, and because that's the kind of man he is.

So let me close out the month of June by saying that Al Franken is the kind of man that Americans could get behind as the Democratic candidate for president in 2020 - and for what it's worth I don't say that lightly.

In my next blog, I'll share a story about a personal encounter I had with him in New York City that illustrates his natural inclination to stand up for the little guy.