Thursday, August 13, 2015

Grand Juries Aren't the Problem: Pressing Charges Against Police Officers

On August 11, 2015, California enacted SB 227.  This law prevents the use of grand juries in cases related to law enforcement officers' use-of-force prosecution.  What this means is that now, when a police officer fatally shoots a civilian, the decision on pressing charges is up to prosecutorial discretion.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

The prosecutors are the ones in charge of getting an indictment from a grand jury.  In an environment where you could "indict a ham sandwich" these same prosecutors failed to obtain an indictment for the murder of Eric Garner in New York.  In Ferguson, Missouri, the prosecutor decided to overwhelm the grand jury with any possible piece of evidence related to the murder of Michael Brown, and in doing so, managed to not get an indictment.

The grand jury system was a convenient way to allow the district attorney's office to wash their hands of the decision of whether or not to press charges.  In reality, they could have gotten the indictments if they had actually been trying to get them.

Under the new law in California, prosecutors no longer have to go through such a charade.  Now, they can simply choose not to press charges when a police officer murders a person of color, and are not required to give any sort of reasoning for the decision.

A large part of the systemic racism in the criminal justice system revolves around who the prosecutors choose to bring charges against.  Somehow, when a black person is arrested for possession of cocaine, they find themselves in federal court, facing federal charges.   When a white person is arrested for possession of cocaine, they find themselves in state courts, facing state charges.  All of this is up to the sole discretion of the district attorneys.  And due to the decision in United States v. Armstrong, you have to prove that there was intentional racism before you're allowed to subpoena the records from the district attorney's office.  But, of course, those records are what is necessary in order to prove the racism.  (Michelle Alexander has a great discussion of this in her book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness")

Getting rid of the grand juries in the use-of-force cases against police officers isn't the answer.  They're going to find that charges still aren't brought against police officers, and people of color are still being abused and murder by people with immunity to any kind of repercussions.  Police officers need to be held to a higher standard.  Yes, it's a very dangerous job.  But that doesn't mean that police officers should be allowed to shoot people because they feel threatened, or slam their heads against the concrete because they didn't instantly follow any and all orders, or conduct a forcible cavity search in the middle of gas station parking lot.  Any time that a police officer uses force, that officer needs to be held accountable for it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Donald Trump and War Heroes

I don't think that there are many people who will argue, in hindsight, that the Vietnam war was a good idea.  There's much that can be said about the history of colonialism in Vietnam, and the oppression of the native people that led to the kind of uprising that feeds so well into communistic regimes.  But this is a separate issue from Trump's statements about John McCain's status as a war hero.

I find myself trying to define a war hero during this time period, 2015, compared to the late 1960s and early 1970s, and even earlier from the 1940s and 1950s in the wake of WWII.  Defining a war hero in any of those contexts is murky at best. defines a war hero as "a person who is admired for bravery in war", which is a definition that can be fairly liberally applied.  Historically, I think that anyone who served and got any kind of decoration was considered to be a war hero.  Many people currently consider anyone who served in the military in or near a combat zone and was discharged honorably to be a war  hero.  They served their country by following orders, without shirking their duty or refusing to do it.

There are, of course, conflicting opinions on military service and the draft.  Several news articles have brought up the question of what was Trump doing while McCain was serving in Vietnam.  This brings up several separate lines of thinking to the issue.  What of the men who were able to use college as an out from the draft?  Or the men who fled to Canada?  At the time there were many reasons that a person would not want to go to Vietnam to fight.  Not wanting to die is a very good reason ("cowardly" though people may consider it), just as believing that killing other human beings is wrong.  But there was also no tangible, imminent threat to Americans.  There was no attack on Pearl Harbor, nor a dictatorship pillaging its way across Europe committing atrocious acts of genocide, to incite the need for Americans to shed their own blood for the cause.  The "threat" of communism spreading in Asia was the reason for entering this war.  Not wanting to fight in that war was not unreasonable.  Men who avoided the draft (through legal or "illegal" means) should not be judged harshly for it.

That being said, those who served in the military did so bravely.  It took bravery to go through training, and go out into a war zone.  They followed orders, whether the orders were morally right or not, and they served their country.  That service should not be swept aside because the President and Congress foolishly ordered them into a conflict.
The news articles that try to undermine Trump's statements by saying that he avoided going to war while McCain went and served are missing the point here.  Trump's college attendance and upper class business pursuits are not what is needed to counter his war hero statements.  Re-hashing the discussion of the draft and who served and who didn't will not make anyone feel better, nor will it solve any current debates.  The issue here is that Trump is praising soldiers who were not taken prisoner during a war, at the expense of those who were.  Maybe the point he was trying to get around to was that he didn't think that McCain has done enough to support veterans.  That's a point worth discussing.  But that's not what he said.  No matter how much back-peddling he does now, Trump cannot avoid having conveyed his opinion of POWs, and his perception that they are not as good as soldiers who are not captured and taken prisoner.

I think it's necessary to say that it is not a soldier's fault for being taken prisoner.  If a mission goes bad, or an order is given that leads to soldiers being taken prisoner, maybe you can start to have a discussion about culpability around a bad order that led to bad things happening.  But that is an incredibly serious charge to make.  Especially during the Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese were trying to take as many prisoners as they could to use for bargaining power.  This was not a situation where prisoners could only be taken when something very badly went wrong.  This was a situation where prisoners were taken fairly regularly, due to no gross errors in judgement.  The conditions for the POWs in North Vietnam is described in detail in numerous war memoirs and by the government, and simply surviving those conditions required heroic effort.

I cannot abide anyone who summarily dismisses the experience of a POW and implies that they are not as much of a war hero as a soldier who was not taken prisoner.  That kind of perspective displays an inherent lack of knowledge of (first hand or second hand) and interest in the military experience of a service man/woman.  While he was trying to say that McCain hasn't done enough for veterans, what he actually said was that he doesn't understand military service and veterans, and he has no interest in doing so.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Cage of Oppression

The analogy comparing a bird cage to oppression has always stayed with me since reading the essay on oppression by Marilyn Frye.  When you look at only one little thing, one wire of the cage, it's not something that oppresses you all by itself.  But once you take a step back and look at all the wires put together, it becomes apparent that all the wires come together to create the oppression and trap you inside.

Frye was discussing this idea in relation to sexism and the oppression of women.  But I think the analogy can be applied to the systemic racism that is becoming more and more apparent thanks to the national news coverage of police brutality.

While waiting in a doctor's office, the TV in the waiting room was tuned to Fox news.  After a segment covering the protests and riots in Baltimore, the receptionist commented "I don't know why they can't just stop when the cops say stop".  Even when the victim has their spine severed while in police custody, this woman was saying that it was the victim's fault.  These young black men who have been killed are immediately painted by the media and public officials as having deserved it.  They are transformed from being victims to being criminals.

Part of the problem is that most white people don't see the cage of oppression, and they don't understand how much systemic oppression faces black people every day of their lives.  I'll never know what it's like to be black, but I have chosen to look at what has been happening with open eyes.  I wonder why it is that it's only black people being killed by cops.  Numerous studies have shown that different races commit crimes at the same rate.  Black people aren't more violent or more inclined to be criminals than white people.  But somehow, blacks make up the majority of arrests made in this country.  Prosecutorial discretion somehow plays out so that black people get harsh sentencing, while whites get minimal sentences or the charges dropped entirely.   The Supreme Court has ruled that statistical evidence of a pattern of racially biased sentencing does not prove racism in any one case, and that you have to prove there was specific conscious, discriminatory intent for a case to be made (McCleskey v. Kemp).

Police officers choose which communities to target looking for crime, having been granted sweeping authority and financial incentives to make drug related arrests.  Though all the statistics show that drug use and drug dealing is committed by all races at about the same rate, the police target black communities for raids and arrests.  It results in a disproportionate number of black people being discriminated against for their criminal record.

Racial targeting, racially based sentencing, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, police brutality, the list of wires in the cage goes on and on.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Holiday Party Dress Code - An Exercise in Sexism

      I received an email invite for my corporate holiday party, and there was some fascinating information provided.  They were helpful enough to provide two different links for men and for women to help them understand appropriate cocktail attire.  The stark contrast between the link for the men and the link for the women was staggering and infuriating to me.  I have copied the links to the websites and provided my own summaries further down.

      Of course there is the basic issue that clothing requirements are different for men and women, and women are judged far more harshly for any choice that is made in terms of what they wear.  Men can wear a button down shirt and slacks everyday and it is accepted that he is appropriately dressed.  If a woman wears only button down shirts and slacks everyday, they're odd and stuck in a rut, and not as professional as other women or as the men.

      But in putting these two links in the email, they took it further than that basic issue.  In the link that my company provided for the men, it's very straightforward, discusses color choices and shoes choices, and that's about it.
      In the link for the women, there's a whole guide about how a woman should present herself and manners, and for those plus sized women, how to look slimmer.  A woman's appearance is considered and judged first and foremost, and it is a woman's duty to present herself well.

What do these links in the invite tell me?
  - First, the organizers what people to dress in a very particular way.  Instead of just saying that the dress code was cocktail attire, they provided these specific links.
  - Second, they thought that these links were appropriate and helpful.  They didn't think there was anything wrong with telling "plus size women" that they need to do everything they can to look slimmer, or that all women must wear a classic little black dress and idolize Audrey Hepburn.

      I am making the assumption that the organizers agree with all the sentiments in the articles, otherwise they would not have sent the links.  This means that they embrace a double standard of requirements for men and women.  They find a woman's appearance to be her best attribute, and there are strict guidelines as to what is acceptable for her.  They also believe, and are trying to enforce, the idea that there are only two genders and everyone must fit into one of these defined roles.  Pants for men, dresses and make up for women.  Any deviation is inappropriate and unprofessional.

      The organizers of this event sent me a ten page long article telling me that I, as woman, will only be dressed appropriately if I wear a little black dress that accentuates my best feature and is slimming, high heel shoes, modest accessories and a small clutch.  They believe that this standard is normal and appropriate, and never gave it a second thought.  Why would a woman want to wear pants after all?  Never mind the fact that high heels are bad for your health and safety.  Never mind that men aren't judged on every aspect of their clothing everyday of their lives, but women are.  Never mind that women are required to adhere to a male defined dress code in order to even get a foot in the door while men are judged first on merits.  Never mind that women get paid less than men for doing the same work.  Never mind that an assertive woman is called a ball-busting bitch, while an assertive man is called a good businessman.  Never mind any of it, and just keep putting on that makeup, and wearing those dresses and losing weight until your ribs show.


      The men's link discusses different types of fabrics, the colors of the clothes and shoes, accessories such as rings and lapel pins, and fabric patterns.  There's brief mention of having a "proper hair cut" and being clean shaven.  it's maybe a page long not including the 50's style illustrations.


      The link for the women however, is more like 10 pages long.  It starts with a discussion of the cocktail dress.  The dress that allows you to recreate a vintage style worthy of the ultimate elegance of Audrey Hepburn.  Of most importance is the defined waistline, because you want to draw attention to your best feature.
      Next we discuss the more flirtatious type of cocktail dresses and dresses that have a more figure enhancing style.  To add sophistication and femininity, one could add a ruffle or some lace at the neckline.  Equally important is to have good manners, because those never go out of style.
      Now there is a discussion of attire for women over 40, because we all know how one must not only act their age, but dress for it as well.  This section seeks to address some of the apprehension that older women might feel about what to wear for cocktail attire.  Of course the iconic little black dress is the best option, with a variety of accessories and handbags to switch it up for different events.  But for shoes, you should really leave those high heels for the younger crowd, and if you choose to wear open toed shoes make sure you get a pedicure prior to the event.
      Another important category is for the plus size women.  Cocktail dresses should be dark colors, which help by creating a slimming effect.  Also to achieve a slimming effect, choose a floor length dress of one color, because large patterns, stripes and ruffles can make you seem even larger.  There is a lengthy discussion of how to choose accessories to make certain features look slimmer.  Here we also have another discussion on manners and decorum, and an emphasis on how plus size women should not drink too much alcohol.
       The last sections provide all the detail that wasn't provided before on manners and etiquette, as well as guidance for several themed events.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

From Selma to Ferguson

How far have we come since the 1960s?
It's well past time to join the struggle for equal rights, rather than sitting in silent sympathy on the sidelines.  People, children, are being racially profiled, harassed and killed by police officers, and there should be widespread public outcry everyday from every person regardless of race or creed.  If one of us is not equal, then none of us are equal.

Ferguson, MO 2014
 Selma, AL 1963

Ferguson, MO 2014
 Selma, AL 1965

Oakland, CA 2014
 Selma, AL 1965

Ferguson, MO 2014
 Selma, AL 1965

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

When did religion become so angry and aggressive?

  Now, I know that we can go back to any point in history and find the wars started or sustained by religion, hate crimes done in the name of religion, and all sorts of less than pleasant things done in the name of religion or faith.  It's a very broad topic, so I will narrow my scope to the U.S. and Christianity for now.
  Westboro Baptist church is the extreme example, but many other Christian congregations and/or pastors have been highlighted in the media because of their aggressive stance on one issue or another.  People using the Christian bible and their beliefs as vehicles for hateful actions against other people.  This has manifested in businesses using their profits to fund anti-gay groups and campaigns, lobbyists arguing for laws and regulations based on their interpretations of religious texts, parents sending their adolescent childern to ex-gay therapy, and even direct violence against people of other faiths, skin colors, or sexual orientation.
  Where did all this hate and aggression come from?  The church I grew up in was nothing like that.  It's possible that as a child and younger teen, I didn't notice this kind of rhetoric.  But, I don't remember ever hearing one of the ministers preach about how one group of people were evil, or how we should hate anyone who is this, or does that.  The sermons talked about God in our lives and in our world.  They told stories about how we all mess up, but how God has a hand in our lives, and it was our responsibility to be good and to act out of love and to help those around us.  The summer Mission Trips were all about community service and strengthening our relationship with God and build relationships by loving our fellow men.  There was no going out to convert people, or preaching to others about our faith.
  I don't have a problem with people talking about their faith or inviting others to join them and to learn about their religion.  But there's a big difference between saying to someone "Hey, I believe this and this, and I'd like to share that with you because I think it would benefit you"  and "You are a terrible and evil person who is going to hell if you don't change your way of life to be in line with my beliefs". 
  Now, is all that we're hearing about in the media in the past couple years actually indicative of an increase in this kind of thinking and action?  Or is it just more widely publicized?  I think it's probably a little of each.  There's a lot of social change going on, and with change comes fear.  When people are confronted with something new, they sometimes freak out about it, because they don't know how to handle it or how to incorporate it into their lives.
  I know that there are so many loving and compassionate congregations out there of every faith/denomination, and it's hard to remember that sometimes.  In the gay community there's an undertone of dislike and anger when Christians or Christianity is mentioned, because of all the horrible things that have been done to and said about gays in the name of this faith.  And this is one of the real tragedies.  Just as gays are sterotyped and lumped into one category, we are starting to do the same to Christians.
  I don't identify with any religion, because I have my own issues with the Christian religion and the idea of one all powerful deity as a singular being, among other things.  That's one of the reasons why it's so fascinating to me that I have such a strong reaction to these two opposite and opposing sides of Christianity.  It's not my faith, but it is a part of my life because it's what I grew up with and significantly influenced my life.  The texts concerning Jesus show him talking about love, and not judging one another.  That's the heart of Christianity, and yet so many have lost sight of that.