Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Car That Can't Turn Left

As I watched race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya win this year's Indy 500 the other day, it occurred to me that today's Republican party runs in the opposite direction of American auto racing.

When Indy and NASCAR drivers race on the oval track, they travel counter clockwise and always turn left; whereas today's GOP seems to run around a circular track and only turns right.   

Republicans are 0-2 in the past two presidential elections and not by thin margins either; despite widespread efforts on the local, state and national level to illegally disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, Hispanics, legal immigrants and college students from their right to vote.

It's highly doubtful that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum's recent announcement that he's jumping into the crowded 2016 GOP presidential clown car for another run will do much to erase the Republican o-fer.

Not only is the field of 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls already top-heavy with candidates seeking the coveted blessing of the Religious Right and it's fundamentalist Christian following, it's just not likely that a member of Opus-Dei who home schools his children is going to appeal to mainstream American voters.

The Republican National Committee, conservative media spin doctors and the party's power brokers and rainmakers have allowed the GOP to drift so far to the political right that they've effectively decoupled themselves from the American center - and, some might argue, reality.

For example, last week House Speaker John Boehner pushed through the Republican-majority Congress' umpteenth anti-abortion bill; one that would effectively ban all abortions past 20 weeks.

Given the GOP's current slavish devotion to the far right wing, one might imagine that members of the crowded field of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls might take a page from Bill Clinton's successful campaign strategy and stake out the moderate middle of the electorate by moving the party closer to the center of the American political spectrum to broaden their party's narrow appeal.

But if recent headlines are any indication, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has effectively empowered wealthy ideologues with hyper-conservative agendas to dictate the Republican party's platform; so appealing to far right extremists is like a job requirement for any conservative seeking the party's nomination.    

As a press release from the People For the American Way (PFAW) reported recently, last Wednesday May 20th the Gun Owners of America (GOA), a pro-gun rights group that considers the NRA a bunch of pansies, sent an e-mail to it's membership informing them that they would be conducting "tele-town hall meetings" with 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls this week to vet them on their positions on gun laws.

GOA executive director Larry Pratt
To understand GOA, you need to know a little about their rather outspoken executive director Larry Pratt (pictured left), who was forced to quit his position as co-chairman of Pat Buchanan's unremarkable 1996 presidential campaign after the Center for Public Integrity released a report in February of 1996 showing that Pratt had attended numerous meetings and spoken at events attended by neo-Nazis and white supremacists aligned with the American militia movement.

Not surprisingly, Pratt was not only an important figure in the formation of the militia movement in the 1990's, he's also active in the anti-immigrant movement having founded groups such as English First (an "English-Only" group) and U.S. Border Control.

Pratt has shrewdly updated his bizarre anti-immigrant hysteria as a means to smear President Obama too, according to the PFAW, Pratt accused the President of seeking to "enlist undocumented immigrants into a private 'Praetorian guard'" (Cue cuckoo clock sounds) 

According to the PFAW, Pratt is also the guy who said members of the US Congress were right to have "a healthy fear" of assassination because it motivates them to "behave."

Now I'm not at all suggesting that Larry Pratt doesn't have the right to exercise his 1st Amendment rights and enjoy freedom of expression.

But if any 2016 Republican candidate wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for the highest office in the land, participating in a "tele-town hall meeting" with a racist, anti-Semite nut-bag like Pratt is probably not the way to do it.

Any GOP candidate worth his or her weight in salt who wants to win the White House in 2016 is going to have the guts to grab the wheel of the Republican clown car and turn it to the left; away from divisive purveyors of hate like Larry Pratt and back towards a semblance of sanity.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Michael Brelo's "Constitutionally Reasonable Effort"

Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo
Imagine if members of the police in a Russian, Chinese, North Korean or Iranian city sent more than 100 officers in pursuit of a car with two occupants inside in a chase that lasted over 22 minutes and stretched over 20 miles.

Now picture what the reaction of the American public and the politicians who represent us might be if, once that car was stopped and cornered in the parking lot of a middle school, at least 13 of those police officers pulled out their hand guns and fired 137 shots at the unarmed couple inside, who it turns out, were being mistakenly pursued after the muffler of their 1979 Chevy Malibu backfired and someone mistook it for gunshots. 

It's fair to say that there would probably be a lot of righteous indignation and moral outrage expressed in mainstream and social media.

Op-ed writers, talking heads on television and average Americans alike would more than likely condemn such an act as a flagrant human rights violation.

If, as my hypothetical above suggests, such an act had taken place in a city like Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang or Tehran, US politicians in Washington would likely be on the floor of the Senate or House, or on the Sunday morning news programs condemning such an act as an example of the need for more "Democracy" and criticizing the respective nation's leaders for oppressing their citizens.

But as you've probably heard by now, that event actually took place in the city of Cleveland, Ohio just after the Thanksgiving holiday back on November 29, 2012.

Victims Malissa Williams (left) and Timothy Russell (right)
The two occupants of the car, driver Timothy Russell and his passenger Malissa Williams (pictured left), were not only unarmed, from the evidence presented in court they hadn't actually committed a crime or violated a law; aside from fleeing from the 100 police officers who were chasing them.

The 13 Cleveland police officers who actually fired the 137 shots at the car were all white, save for one Hispanic officer; while the unarmed couple were African-American. 

As was widely reported around the globe yesterday, Cuyahoga, Cleveland Common Pleas Judge John P. O'Donnell acquitted police officer Michael Brelo of two charges of manslaughter in the deaths of Williams and Russell.

Brelo was also found not guilty of the lesser charge of felonious assault even though he personally fired an astounding 49 shots from his Glock 17 pistol, Judge O'Donnell ruled that there was inconclusive proof that any of Brelo's shots were the ones that actually killed the couple.

Bear in mind that after all 13 officers had finished firing 122 shots at the car, it was officer Brelo (who'd already fired 34 shots into the vehicle), who then reloaded his Glock 17, jumped up onto the front hood of the car and fired 15 more shots directly into the vehicle at both passengers.

In his closing remarks to the court, Judge O'Donnell said Brelo was legally excused from responsibility for his actions because the harm he caused the two victims was done in a "Constitutionally reasonable effort."  

As an article on the shooting in yesterday's New York Times noted, a 2014 study by the Department of Justice found "a pattern of 'unreasonable and unnecessary use of force' within the department."

A pattern that includes the deaths of two unarmed African-Americans in November of 2014; Tamir Rice, a 12 year-old boy who was shot and killed by Cleveland police while brandishing a toy gun in a park, and Tanisha Anderson, a 37 year-old woman who suffered from bi-polar disorder who was in police custody when, according to the New York Times, she "died after being placed face down on the pavement. The medical examiner ruled her death a homicide."     

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker
As someone fascinated by history, it is of interest to note that yesterday, the day the acquittal of officer Brelo was announced, was the 81st anniversary of the famous police ambush of outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker on an isolated road deep in the woods of Bienville Parish, Louisiana back on the morning of May 23, 1934.

"Bonnie and Clyde", as they are widely known, had been eluding police for months after committing a high-profile string of robberies and holdups across five mid-western states and the murder of at least nine different people; including Oklahoma police deputy Eugene C. Moore on August 5, 1932.

When the couple drove into the ambush, a posse of four Texas lawmen and two police officers from Louisiana fired about 130 rounds from automatic rifles, shotguns and handguns at their car.
 
According to the official coroner's report filed by Dr. J.L. Wade in 1934, Clyde Barrow was shot 17 times and Bonnie Parker was shot 26 times; some historians say it was more.

When police searched the bullet-ridden car they found a cache of automatic rifles, shotguns, handguns and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Cleveland police fired 137 shots at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were unarmed and had committed no actual crime to warrant the police pursuit.

So here we are in the 21st century and for now, no Cleveland police officer has been found guilty of any charge whatsoever after they fired more shots at an innocent unarmed African-American couple than were fired at Bonnie and Clyde who'd committed a string of robberies and nine different murders across five states in 1934.

Interestingly, Judge O'Donnell ruled that even though Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams hadn't actually fired a shot from the car and didn't even have a gun in the first place, officer Michael Brelo's fear that they had done so was enough to warrant his use of deadly force on two innocent unarmed people.

It's a rather peculiar interpretation of the law, and a sad one for the families and friends of these two victims who never had a chance to testify on their own behalf.

The US justice system has ruled (once again) that the perceptions or fears of a police officer, whether they're actually right or not, outweigh the value of the life of an African-American citizen.

Fears that in this case, were triggered by a muffler backfiring, and so tragically proved to be both completely "unreasonable and unnecessary."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

In Baltimore They're "Thugs", In Waco They're "Clubs"

Bikers on lockdown after the brawl in Waco, TX on Sunday
Between the streets of West Baltimore, Maryland after the funeral of Freddie Gray and more recently the parking lot of a restaurant in Waco, Texas, it's been quite a spring for violent social unrest in America.

But disparities in mainstream media coverage and the response by police to both events offers valuable insight into how race affects perception in this country. 

Take a look at the picture to the left as two officers casually stand next to a large group of bikers being detained after a huge brawl that included weapons like hand guns and brass knuckles; contrast that response with the highly militarized police presence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore where police in riot gear, helmets and body armor walked in phalanxes like soldiers next to heavily armored vehicles amidst clouds of tear gas.

I count about 23 or so bikers in that photo above and I don't see police pointing weapons at them as they did at protesting citizens (including women and children) in Ferguson who were unarmed.

Is it fair to compare the examples of civil unrest that took place in Ferguson and Baltimore and Waco?  Did they merit different levels of police response and media characterization of those taking part in the unrest?

The recent news about the deadly biker brawl between rival gangs that took place both inside and outside the Twin Peaks restaurant on Sunday was pretty scary stuff, but after the initial reports and video clips of the deadly aftermath of the incident that were replayed on cable and broadcast news, it's taken a couple days for the facts to start to get out.

Earlier this evening on a rebroadcast of today's "On Point", the progressive news analysis program with host Tom Ashbrook on NPR, the first segment titled, 'The Biker Gangs of Texas', covered the Waco biker incident in detail and offered some really fascinating insight into not only what actually happened on Sunday; but the deeper causes that led to the incident. 

Waco Police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton at a press conference
As you've probably heard by now, highly-quotable Waco Police Department Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton (pictured left) said in a press conference that the large gathering of bikers was actually an organized meeting of the Texas chapter of what's known as the Confederation of Clubs & Independents, or COC that erupted into a "turf war."

Sgt. Swanton also said the incident was the most violent he had seen in his 34 years as a police officer.

If you Google the word "COC's," pretty much every state in America has one; some states, like Pennsylvania or California have more than one chapter.

As the guests on "On Point" explained, COC's are essentially coalitions of regional biker clubs that meet regularly to advocate on behalf of bikers.

In some ways they're like any other social organization. They pay dues, conduct social events, do charitable work, monitor local, state and national legislation that impacts bikers - and they discuss other issues related to the interaction between different biker clubs and the "rules" that govern them.

For example, if you take a look at the Website for the Texas Confederation of Clubs & Independents, the group that was meeting when the brawl broke out on Sunday in Waco, there's a fairly balanced and reasonable public statement that affirms the group's purpose as benevolent and social; and expresses regret over the "senseless violence" that occurred.

But as Tom Ashbrook's guests (including Steve Cook, Executive Director of the Mid-West Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs Investigator Association) explained, while COC's do allow "weekend" bikers, independent bikers not affiliated with "1%-er" clubs, or purely social biker clubs to join, they are essentially umbrella organizations that enable the nation's largest biker clubs to control biker activity in a given region.

They're not unlike regional Mafia families.

I was surprised to learn that you can't just buy a Harley, put a "patch" for a motorcycle club on the back of your jacket and go riding; if you wear a patch (or "colors"), you have to have permission from the biker club that controls the region in which you live to do it; or you'll face serious problems. 

In the case of the Texas COC, they are controlled by the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, one of the largest biker clubs in the world and rivals to the Hell's Angels.

According to the experts on tonight's panel on "On Point" as well as from some informed callers, the trouble on Sunday started when members of The Cossacks, a biker group that is not a part of the Texas Confederation, showed up at the meeting uninvited.

The Cossacks are allegedly aligned with, or trying to align with, the Hell's Angels; which does not sit well with the Bandidos, who are more dominant in Texas, the southwest and west coast; Bandidos exert huge influence inside the California prison system.

The majority of those 9 people shot and killed in Waco outside Twin Peaks on Sunday were members of the Cossacks.

Rumors are swirling that the 18 to 22 SWAT and state police officers who were stationed outside the restaurant before the meeting happened somehow instigated the brawl in order to intentionally shoot down bikers, but Jimmy Graves, the head of the Texas COC&I (and a national officer of the Bandidos...) who was leading the meeting on Sunday has said publicly in an interview with Texas TV station KXAN that there is no truth to rumors that Bandidos plan to take revenge on police officers in response to the shootings on Sunday.

A member of the Bandidos MC sports his colors
Despite their Mexican-sounding name "Bandidos", (or bandits to those with rusty Spanish), the Bandidos are actually comprised of white men of Anglo-Saxon descent just like the Hell's Angels; but they will admit some Hispanics with white lineage.

They were founded in San Leon, Galveston County, Texas in 1966 by a dock worker named Don Chambers, who named the group after Mexican outlaws.

Chambers was a US Marine who served in Vietnam and he patterned the club's distinctive colors (pictured above) after the Marine Corps emblem.
 
Like many other biker groups, Bandidos and Hell's Angels have strict rules about race in terms of who can be a member; they do not allow blacks, Hispanics or Asians to join.

Bandidos members in Austin, Texas
Many members of these outlaw biker groups are former military serviceman and some are aligned with white supremacist organizations.

The name "Confederation" of Clubs is not unintentional and versions of both the traditional "Stars & Bars" Confederate flag and the Nazi swastika (pictured left) are sometimes seen on the jackets of "1%-er" members of Bandidos, Hell's Angels, Outlaws, Pagans, Nomads or any number of other biker clubs that exist in America and around the world.

As the events in Waco showed on Sunday, many bikers are heavily armed - and remember the remarkably conservative Texas legislature recently approved a bill that would make it legal for people with concealed handgun permits to openly carry hand guns on shoulder or hip holsters in Texas.

So try and picture what happened in that restaurant in Waco on Sunday except with dozens of bikers legally armed with handguns thanks to Texas Republicans and Tea Partiers.

For me the interesting thing in the media coverage of the violent brawl that started in the bar area of the restaurant and spilled into the parking lot and included bikers fighting with chains, brass knuckles, clubs and guns, is how different the tone of the news coverage of the violence is.

It's certainly true that the wide-scale civil unrest that erupted in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's funeral resulted in far more damage in terms of buildings, cars and local businesses that were destroyed, burned or looted by some protesters.

But the actual damage was caused by a fraction of the total number of protesters; the vast majority of whom were peaceful.

Some members of the media as well as the President were quick to condemn the groups of enraged young people in Baltimore as "thugs". Others called them "criminals".

But what's interesting in the coverage of the violent biker brawl that took place in a crowded restaurant where there were families (including women and children) present, is that I haven't seen the media, or any leading politicians or pundits condemn the bikers as "thugs" or "criminals".

Even though Bandidos are regarded by the FBI and INTERPOL as one of the largest organized crime groups in the United States known to be involved with manufacturing and distribution of crystal meth, prostitution, murder, and the trafficking of guns, cocaine and marijuana in cooperation with Mexican cartels - media pundits are still calling their organization a club.

These violent biker's public "turf war" that erupted on a sunny Sunday in a restaurant ended with 9 people dead of gunshot wounds, many injured and over 192 individuals arrested - many were injured but no one was killed in the unrest in Baltimore that lasted six days until May 3rd when the curfew was lifted.

But the enraged young men in the streets of a Baltimore City that has marginalized them and their communities for decades, people who've seen years of excessive abuse of authority by the same police department that took the life of a innocent young man in police custody who almost had his spine almost severed - they are labeled the "thugs".

Thugs or clubs? In America I guess it's all a matter of perspective.
 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Gov Larry Hogan's Tax Cuts & Kids

Saraia Collins, 9, victim of school bus beating [Photo - WJLA]
When I read Breanna Edwards heart-breaking story posted on The Root.com earlier today about a little nine year-old student from Highland Park Elementary school named Saraia Collins (pictured left) suffering a concussion after being punched and kicked repeatedly by a group of students on a school bus - my initial thought was; What the Hell is wrong with these kids?

But then I remembered, these are kids.

They're young, prone to mistakes and are in school not just to get an education and expand their minds, but to learn how to get along with other kids - and of course, not to do stupid S#@% like gang up on a nine year-old on the bus, taunt her mercilessly, then beat the crap out of her.

So my next thought was; Okay, where the Hell was the supervision? Turns out there was none.

Well, there was but there wasn't. According to a report by Maryland television station WJLA, the driver of the bus made no effort to stop the bus and break up the fight, warn the kids to stop or even call the cops.

Said driver is currently under investigation by the Transportation Department after Saraia's outraged parents demanded answers from the Prince George's County Police Department and Highland Park Elementary school officials.

Of the remarkably disinterested driver of her school bus, young Saraia was surprisingly insightful, telling WJLA during an interview, "Even if it’s not his job to break up fights, it’s still his job to try to prevent it,”

Aside from the fact that a nine year-old elementary school student should NOT have to be the one who lays out the basic tenets of an adult school bus driver's basic responsibility for student safety, I'm interested in how it could have happened in the first place.

Now we all took the school bus at some point in our lives. After school, it can get pretty rowdy on a bus full of students brimming with pent up energy and excitedly blowing off steam after a long day spent in the classroom.

But I went to elementary, middle and high school in Montgomery County Maryland myself. And I clearly recall that if ANY student ever got up out of his or her seat while the bus was in motion; the driver, male or female, would glare back through that big-ass rectangular mirror with an icy look, and slow or stop the bus and demand that the offending wandering kid get his or her butt back in their seat immediately.

Boys were usually the offenders, girls were so much more socially mature at that age. I remember that a look from the driver through the mirror was like a warning, the bus slowing down was strike two - and if the driver stopped and got up out of his or her seat? Fuggeddaboudit.

An offending wanderer dumb enough to test the mettle of a bus driver was either getting thrown off at the next safe intersection; or they would be reported to the principal and suspended from the bus for a period of time.

Example of modern school bus seat belts
These days some schools have drivers AND a bus security monitor or a chaperon on board to ride along to watch the kids.

By now many states have voluntarily adopted policies to ensure that all school buses are equipped with seat belts (pictured left) and many are equipped with security cameras mounted on the ceiling to record any incidents.

So I'm confused about not only why the driver didn't do anything to help poor Saraia while she was crying and pleading for her attackers to leave her alone; why was it that a cell phone video taken of the incident is the crucial evidence of what happened?

It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback (and maybe I'm naive) but wouldn't it have been just as easy for the kid who took the time to click the record button on his or her cell phone to take video of Saraia getting pummeled to use it to dial 911?

Did the bus driver have training on what to do in the event of a fight on board the bus?

Governor Larry Hogan (R) Maryland
If you recall, during the recent civic unrest in Baltimore in the wake of the funeral of Freddie Gray, Republican Governor Larry Hogan didn't waste a whole lot of time authorizing the deployment of members of the National Guard "...in order to restore order."

Now I'm not saying he shouldn't have intervened with resources to help the city of Baltimore during that recent unrest over Freddie Gray; which wouldn't have happened in the first place had BPD cops not broken his spine and killed him.

But what I am suggesting is that maybe one of Governor Hogan's priorities should be to take responsibility to assign someone in the Department of Education to "restore order" in the Prince George's County public school system so kids can attend school (and travel back and forth) in safety without worrying about getting the crap kicked out of them.


It's not just elementary schools either.

For example, the WJLA Website reports that just six months ago back on November 15, 2014, a 16 year-old high school student named Drequan Yates was severely beaten into unconsciousness by a group of students while they were inside the school; he suffered a concussion and a broken jaw and other injuries including broken bones and had to be taken to Children's National Medical Center for emergency center according to WJLA.

That 2014 incident happened in Suitland High School; another school in the Prince George's County Public School system. What was the reaction from the PGCPS officials?

According to the WJLA article, "Prince George’s County Public Schools released a statement Friday saying, “There was an altercation at Suitland High School today. An investigation is underway. This is an isolated incident.”

Isolated incident. Right. Tell that to nine year-old Saraia, I'm sure she and her parents will be relieved to hear that as she recovers from the concussion she received during the beating she got on the bus.

Now I'm not just harping on Larry Hogan because he's Republican (well I sort of am but...), after all, before he ran for Governor, Larry created a group called "Change Maryland".

Change Maryland is a 527 non-profit anti-tax group Hogan founded in 2011 that supposedly functions as a "watchdog group" that monitors the Maryland state government for fiscal waste and promotes cutting taxes; raising money from big donors and businesses.

It essentially functioned as a "shadow campaign" operation to get Hogan's run for Governor off the ground that was also cited for improper use of campaign funds; including a payment of over $35,000 to Hogan's own campaign manger for consulting and polling services performed on the campaign's behalf as reported by The Washington Post.

The group's actual function was to blast former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's administration for raising taxes on gas, tolls and bridges in an effort to bring in much needed revenue to the state.

Once he was elected, Hogan quickly went to work repealing taxes across the board. At a recent press event marking his first 100 days in office, Governor Hogan was non-committal about whether or not he will authorize a request for an additional $68 million in funding for Maryland counties with higher education costs; putting himself at odds with the teachers union and state legislators who insist the funding is necessary.

Given the disastrous anti-tax experiments by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and Governor Chris Christie here in New Jersey, you can probably guess where Governor Hogan will end up on funding Maryland school districts facing increasing costs to provide educational services to the children they serve.

But I doubt any of that will make much sense to nine year-old Saraia Collins as she recovers from her concussion and her parents weigh the decision of whether to send her back to the school.

Maybe additional funding from the state might have paid for a better trained bus driver who would have known how to protect her from being beaten up on a school bus that had just left the parking lot of Highland Park Elementary School.

Maybe some additional funding could have paid for a chaperon on the bus so the driver could concentrate on the road while another adult monitored the children.

Maybe some additional funding would have paid for the kinds of productive and engaging after school activities that might have given the bullies who taunted and attacked Saraia on the bus a more constructive outlet for their energy.

During the unrest in Baltimore one thing I heard over and over in interviews with both regular folks on the street and from former and current law enforcement officers was the lament about how state funding had been slashed so severely over the years in West Baltimore that many of the engaging kinds of after-school activities like recreation centers where kids could go after school to socialize in supervised environments, learn skills or simply have someplace besides the street to look forward to going to - those types of places have all but disappeared.

Ex-police officers talked about how the Police Athletic Leagues (PAL) used to offer chances for kids in at-risk communities to regularly interact with members of the Baltimore Police Department in a more fun and constructive environment.

So cops and kids could get to know each other rather than just fear each other.

But those types of opportunities in West Baltimore have dwindled along with funding for both police departments and summer jobs programs; even as millions of tax dollars have poured into development of the downtown Inner Harbor area, new football and baseball stadiums and other tourist attractions.

Meanwhile the talking heads and experts will point their fingers and marvel at the destruction caused (largely) by disenfranchised Baltimore youths who, for years now, have been cut off from programs designed to engage, teach and nurture them.

And a little nine year-old girl in Prince George's County will grip her book bag a little tighter and look carefully over her shoulder as she gets back onto the school bus where she was attacked so recently; if she decides to get back on at all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ted Cruz Gets "Foxed" by Mark Halperin

Writer Mark Halperin
We interrupt the normally liberal fare of this humble blog to rise in defense of Texas Senator and 2016 GOP Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz.

And lest you wonder, no that's not a misprint and yes, I am decidedly sober.

Unlike our friends over at Fox News, I firmly believe in treating all political candidates with a basic measure of respect and decency; and I do my best to limit my contempt for a politician to his or her political stances or policy views rather than their race, ethnicity or sex.

As past blog posts will attest, I may not agree with Ted Cruz's obstinate brand of fiery conservative rhetoric, and at times I have no idea what the Hell he's talking about (remember his 'Green Eggs & Ham' filibuster speech?), but I do respect his right to express his own political beliefs.

So I think it's totally inappropriate for any reporter to use Cruz's heritage or racial identity like some kind of punch line during an interview.

As Ian Millhiser reported in an article on ThinkProgress.org, writer and former television news producer/correspondent Mark Halperin is catching serious heat for doing just that in a recent on-camera interview he conducted for Bloomberg Politics.

As Millhiser observed, "Though Halperin begins the interview by raising a legitimate topic — a speech Cruz gave to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce — his conversation with Cruz quickly goes off the rails. “Your last name is Cruz and you’re from Texas,” Halperin asks Cruz. “Just based on that, should you have appeal to Hispanic voters?”"

It got worse.

Halperin had the temerity to ask Cruz if he identified himself as "Hispanic" on his application to Harvard before grilling the Texas Senator on substantive political issues like his favorite Cuban singer, and his favorite Cuban food.

And that was before he asked Cruz to demonstrate his mastery of Spanish by asking him to, "...welcome your colleague Senator (Bernie) Sanders to the race and I’d like you to do it, if you would, en EspaƱol.”

Halperin may as well have asked Cruz to do a Ricky Ricardo imitation for good measure.

Now I don't dislike Mark Halperin, in fact we both attended the same high school in Bethesda, Maryland, Walt Whitman Senior High School (Go Vikes!)

He's been around the ring of the political media circus, cut his teeth in the trench warfare of presidential campaign coverage and been a (mostly Democratic) talking head on television; during his career he's served in various roles as researcher, producer and correspondent for ABC and MSNBC.

But he's not blindly Democratic in the way most Fox News hosts tend to be about Republican candidates or politicians.

For example,  according to a Wikipedia.org article, in 2011 Halperin was suspended from MSNBC for a month after saying that President Obama had come off as "kind of a dick" during a press conference on the program Morning Joe.

Halperin is supposedly earning seven figures for his current political analysis gig with Bloomberg but is perhaps best known as the co-author of the book chronicling the 2008 presidential election, "Game Change" - which was made into a highly-acclaimed HBO movie of the same name starring Ed Harris as Senator John McCain and Juliane Moore as Sarah Palin in 2012.

So while he's a fairly shrewd political observer, Halperin's particular brand of reporting and political commentary can land him in hot water.

Washington Post writer Phillip Lump wrote an interesting piece for The Washington Post yesterday chronicling Halperin's somewhat superficial political coverage/analysis of the 2016 GOP Presidential race with his curious report-card grading system; which according to Lump seems to have very little to do with substance and more to do with Halperin's own perception of their style.

Personally I thought "Game Change" was a brilliant movie (I've never read the book) but in my opinion, the substance of some of Halperin's Bloomberg interview with Cruz came off less the tongue-in-cheek casual interview he claims it was meant to be, than a buffonish, racially insensitive example of a poorly prepared interview.

It's hard to know what Halperin was going for in that interview.

Was it a klutzy not very well-thought-out attempt to juxtapose Cruz's Cuban heritage with the staunchly anti-immigrant position of the Tea Partiers who deify Cruz?

Was it a poorly planned effort to get Cruz to embrace his Cuban-ness to create some kind of usable sound-bite to serve as digital fodder for liberal social media?

Whatever Halperin intended it to be, it offended a lot of people. To be fair he did post a public apology, but that cat is already way out of the bag.

In fact the the interview itself was broadcast more than a month ago and might very well have gone unnoticed if not for a powerful op-ed piece that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on May 9th written by Reuben Navarette.

Navarette, himself of Hispanic heritage, is the real reason the story has blown up and while larger more mainstream media outlets have picked up on the story, Navarette's piece cuts to the chase and it's most definitely worth a read if you have a few minutes to click over and check it out.

As Navaretter observes, "Watching Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Politics interview Cruz recently, I wasn't just uncomfortable. I was actually nauseated." 
 
What's ironic in all this are the various talking heads of conservative media getting all riled up at Halperin touching on Cruz's ethnicity in a way that's inappropriate.

Some of the same people who've spent eight years aping Fox News by calling President Obama everything from a radical Muslim, to a lying "uppity" so-and-so, to a gun-grabbing socialist are suddenly offended at the idea of a member of the media using a Republican candidate's racial heritage in ways that are inappropriate?

Maybe now they know how it feels to be "Foxed."

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pamela Geller's Contest

Anti-Islamic activist Pamela Geller, 2011
The spread of radical Islamic philosophy amongst young Americans via teachings, lectures and videos depicting violence in the Mid-East via the Internet has created a new brand of self-radicalized "home grown" Muslim extremist.

Disturbing media reports of American teenagers being stopped at airports while trying to travel to places like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to join ISIS fighters, and reports of sleeper ISIS agents embedded around the nation fuel concerns about extremists attacks within the United States. 

Janet Reitman's article "The Children of ISIS" in the March 25th issue of Rolling Stone, an analysis of the three American Muslim teenagers from Bolingbrook, Illinois who were caught trying to join ISIS fighters in Syria, offers excellent insight into this troubling trend. 

These home-grown American Jihadists are creating an equally disturbed reaction amongst a growing American extremist mindset that's staunchly anti-Islamic. Case in point: last week's killing of two would-be Jihadists at an event in Texas.

In light of that shooting last weekend, this week's George Lincoln Rockwell Award goes to Pamela Geller (pictured above), the controversial conservative blogger and co-founder of a group known as the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

It was Geller, a rabidly anti-Islamic activist born in 1958 to a well-to-do Jewish family in Long Island, who came up with the brilliant idea to stage an event on May 3rd at the Curtis Cullwell Cultural Center in Garland, Texas.

The event was held by Geller's group the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the British government.

AFDI event keynote speaker Geert Wilders
Geller bristles at the idea of her group being labeled a hate group, instead she calls it a "pro-free speech" organization. 

The keynote speaker at her AFDI event in Garland last week?

Geert Wilders (pictured left), a Dutch politician and leader of the Dutch Party For Freedom; the PVV as it's known in the Netherlands is the fourth largest political party in the Dutch parliament.

The PVV is one of the many nationalistic / anti-Islamic political parties across Europe that have grown in response to extremist Muslim attacks and the rapid growth of non-indigenous Muslim populations in Europe as a result of immigration and a rapidly-shifting demographic.

But the most disturbing part of Geller's Garland event that has drawn global attention was the now infamous contest featuring a $10,000 prize to the cartoonist or illustrator who could draw the "best" caricature of the Prophet Muhammad.

As the event was concluding in the evening, two American gunmen pulled up in front of the Curtis Cullwell Cultural Center in Garland, Texas and began opening fire; wounding a security guard before being shot and killed by a police officer. 

Before last Sunday most Americans had probably never heard of this small Texas town, and Geller didn't choose it randomly.

Protesters in Garland, Texas in January, 17 2015 [Photo - AP]
Less than a week after the attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killed twelve people in Paris, an event called 'Stand With the Prophet in Honor and Respect' took place at the Cullwell Cultural Center in Garland back on January 17, 2105.

The event drew protesters (pictured left) who picketed the event, even though it was actually a peaceful fundraiser intended to raise money to build a center dedicated to countering negative perceptions of Muslims in mainstream media in the wake of the violent acts committed by radicalized Muslims.

Acts that garner so much media attention and tend to distort the perception of peaceful Muslims both here abroad.   
 
The two shooters at the AFDI event at the cultural center in Garland last week had certainly been radicalized online by ISIS and other radical Islamic propaganda, and their plan to use weapons on innocent people at a peaceful event was heinous and criminal.

But they were motivated by Geller's plan to intentionally slander the image of the Prophet Muhammad at a public event.

Geller claims her organization the AFDI advocates freedom of speech. But given the violent reactions to caricatures of Muhammad in recent years, is her decision to stage an event where such depictions will be rewarded an exercise in free speech, or a deliberate attempt to provoke Muslim outrage?

It's not easy to understand what goes on in the mind of someone like Pamela Geller.

After a comfortable upbringing in Long Island, she graduated high school but dropped out of Hofstra University before earning her degree then went on to work on the business and advertising side of publishing at The New York Daily News in the 1980's before becoming an associate publisher at The New York Observer for five years.  

But the 911 attacks awoke something in Geller. She began putting her energy into anti-Islamic efforts, including a major role in opposing the construction of an Islamic community center called Park51 near the site of the former World Trade Center.

The title of her blog, not surprisingly named Atlas Shrugs (reflecting Geller's Ayn Rand-ian philosophy), exploded in popularity in 2006 after she published controversial images of Muhammad that had been published in a Danish newspaper; most mainstream media organizations decided not to publish the images - but she did.

Her blog has also published highly controversial claims including the claim that President Obama's mother was involved with pornography and defending Bosnian war criminals Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karavic against their campaign of genocide against Bosnian Muslims; and raising doubt of reports of the existence of concentration camps during the Bosnian war. 

In 2013 the British government banned her from entering the country to speak at an anti-Islamic event because of her association with AFDI and what some prominent Jewish figures claim is her overt bigotry against Muslims; according to Wikipedia, in April, 2013 Rabbis Michael White and Jerome Davidson opposed her presentation on Shariah Law at a Long Island synagogue because of her bigotry and the event was eventually canceled because of concerns it would anger Muslims who might target the synagogue.

She opposed the creation of an Arab language school in Brooklyn.

An example of an anti-Jewish caricature
Obviously bigotry and intolerance takes many forms in this nation, but I can't help but wonder how it is it that someone raised in a Jewish family like Geller could so easily forget the widespread persecution of Jews by the Nazis in Europe in the 20th century; and how the distortion of the Jewish religion and Jews themselves contributed to the Holocaust.

Anti-Semitic groups in Europe in the early part of the 20th century used the same kinds of tactics her own ADFI group uses against Muslims.

Including the widespread promotion of caricatures and other distorted images of Jews (like the one pictured at left) that were used by Nazis in Germany to stigmatize, stereotype and spread false beliefs about Jewish people.
 
Does Geller simply consciously choose to ignore the fact that caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad are as offensive to Muslims as anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish people are to Jews and non-Jews alike?

Or does her intense hatred of Muslims simply reflect her own warped vision of an America where people of different religions can be persecuted, mocked and marginalized in the name of free speech?

I didn't know the framers of the Constitution personally, but I studied them (and the Constitution) in college. Pamela Geller's contest to create an intentionally offensive caricature of an important religious figure revered by over 1.7 billion people was hardly what they had in mind when they enshrined the freedom of speech in the Constitution.

Geller's views on Muslims have less to do with the Constitution than they do with an embittered fear-monger who can't see past her own ignorance and intolerance.

Her stupid "contest" didn't make us any safer, it's just going to lead to the deaths of more innocent people at the hands of ideological reactionaries like Geller; people who've been brainwashed and blinded by the moral depravity of their own hatred.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Leaders Step Up To the Plate in Baltimore

Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby
Perhaps nothing illustrated the welcome of a quieter Baltimore today more than the strange sight of the Orioles playing a daytime game against the Chicago White Sox in a stadium with no fans in the stands.

As a New York Yankees fan, I've watched dozens of games in Camden Yards on television over the years but it was truly strange to hear the crack of a bat as the O's hit a three-run homer and not hear the crowd erupt in cheers.

Despite the gates of Camden Yards being closed to fans for another day because of safety concerns, a number of Oriole's fans did show up to line the gates which offer a view of home plate; though said gate is 600 feet from home plate.

More than a few of the orange-clad faithful were heard to complain on NPR radio that the park should have been open on such a beautiful spring day, but given the unfortunate situation on Monday night, maybe it was for the best - and the O's did win 8-2.

Earlier this evening I watched Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby being interviewed on CNN and came away impressed.

While I've been to the city a number of times over the years, I don't really know it's internal politics very well, but I can say that out of all the city leaders I've seen speak in the past few days (including the mayor and police commissioner) Mosby seems to have the most comprehensive understanding of what is actually happening in Baltimore.  

Mosby represents the city's 7th District in West Baltimore and has quickly emerged in the national media spotlight after he totally schooled Fox News television reporter Leland Vittert on the deeper socioeconomic causes of the unrest that shook the city on Monday night.

It's been so impressive to see how quickly members of Baltimore's hardest hit districts have come out in large numbers to show the nation and the world that the vast majority of the city's residents oppose the destruction of property, incidents of looting and isolated displays of violence against police that took place Monday night.

A Unity Line of citizens in West Baltimore [Photo Getty Images]
Everyday average citizens from all walks of life came out in the street yesterday to pick up debris, sweep up streets, throw away trash and perhaps most impressively; stand shoulder to shoulder in what have been called "Unity Lines" - literally forming lines of citizens creating human barriers between groups of restless protesters and the police.

I saw one woman who works as a librarian in a local elementary school standing next to her teenage daughter. The mother said she was there to lead by example by showing her students and faculty members watching on TV at home that their librarian was out there in the streets trying to bring calm to the city; and also to teach her daughter a lesson about civic responsibility and the importance of social activism.

Even though the Unity Lines were there to keep the rowdier groups of younger protesters from attacking the police or escalating violent confrontation, the librarian's daughter said she wasn't there to protect the police; she was there to protect her community.

It was something that really moved me.

"Baltimore Mom" Toya Graham stops her son's foolishness
Like the now infamous "Baltimore Mom" Toya Graham seen in the video that's gone globally viral of her chasing down her son to keep him out of the unrest taking place near a mall on Tuesday April 28th.

As my dearly departed "Gram" would have said; she "'bout snatched him bald".

In doing so this recently laid-off care giver perhaps single-handed, altered the false national media narrative of African-American parents in Baltimore (and elsewhere) as absent, unsupervising and non-caring. 

Perhaps the human condition in this nation would be a better place if more parents (of all races mind you) went "Baltimore Mom" on their wayward kids; I'm not the only one who's been out in public and seen some unsupervised kids acting the fool who could have used a "Baltimore Mom".

Maybe she should have a show?

Speaking of shows, earlier this morning Washington Post Op-Ed writer Jonathan Capeheart was a guest on a segment of The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss his observations of the unrest that's gripped Baltimore.

Among other things, Capeheart talked about something I tried to express in my previous blog entry; that the media was devoting the bulk of it's coverage to the tiny fraction of the protesters responsible for setting fires and throwing rocks at policemen and were ignoring the vast majority of Baltimore citizens who were engaged in peaceful protests over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Even as six BPD officers sit uncharged on paid leave, innocent until proven guilty I guess; unlike the violent way they treated Freddie Gray the weekend before last when they began chasing him for reasons that still haven't actually been made clear.

During Capeheart's radio appearance, a couple callers made some truly eloquent observations about the situation and the segment is really worth a listen if you have a few minutes; just click the link to hear it.   

I'm gonna keep this short by my blog standards (I really need an editor...) by just reiterating how impressed I am with average citizens stepping up to take control of the city and responsibility for their community.

By doing so they're proving a lot of the mainstream media coverage on Monday wrong by showing that the vast majority of folks in Baltimore do NOT condone the destruction of property and that most people continue to be engaged in peaceful demands for accountability and justice for the death of Freddie Gray.

And as Councilman Nick Mosby has said, this unrest was about more than Freddie Gray.

As he pointed out, the unemployment rate in Western Baltimore is a staggering 30%. 30%.

The Baltimore Police Department also has a lengthy and controversial history of violent incidents of police brutality against communities of color; incidents which have cost the city well over $5.7 million in settlements since 2011.

Think Monday's unrest was simply about Freddie Gray?

Read Mark Puente's September 28, 2014 Baltimore Sun investigation entitled "Undue Force" that chronicles just some of the most disturbing examples of police brutality and violence against citizens of Baltimore.

Maybe President Obama should have read Puente's article before he stood at a podium at a news conference and dismissed the hundreds of outraged youth in Baltimore as "thugs."

No one is excusing arson, looting or violence against police or anyone else, but it didn't just flare up in a vacuum out of thin air - and some of the "thugs" in Baltimore are wearing police uniforms.