Sunday, July 28, 2013

If you have to tell me, it ain't so

One of Curmie’s maxims is “if you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” I find myself saying that a lot, mostly to students who don’t quite have the confidence they need, who demand rather than command respect. If you’re a director and you have to tell your cast you’re in charge, you aren’t. Same goes for a teacher in a classroom. But there are other manifestations, as well.

I saw two headlines yesterday to prove my point: “Olympic Committee Assures Gay Athletes They’ll Be Safe In Russia” and “U.S. assures Russia Snowden won't be executed or tortured.” All these assurances! Even Curmie isn’t cynical enough to believe that these proclamations mean that gay athletes won’t be safe at the Sochi Olympics this winter, or that Edward Snowden, should he be extradited back to the US, will definitely be tortured and/or killed just because Eric Holder says he won't be. But they do mean that Russia and the US share the unenviable position of having to say what shouldn’t need to be made explicit: that they’ll act like grown-ups (at least this once). Why do they need to say so? Because Russia’s treatment of gays is barbaric and the US has a recent history of torture and execution of prisoners.

OK, Gentle Reader. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know what Curmie thinks of the IOC and their various minions. Almost exactly a year ago, I called the organizers of the London games “arrogant, inefficient, and venal”; a couple days later, I described their activities as “heavy-handed and frankly Stalinistic” and quoted Ken at Popehat that “The Olympic brand is about athleticism only in the sense that iTunes is about music: it is a vehicle for monetizing it.” When the IOC are the good guys in a story, the bad guys are very creepy indeed.

And, of course, they are. Vladimir Putin thinks he’s still in the KGB, and nobody in Russia has the combination of courage and clout to make him re-evaluate that position. A month ago, Putin signed into law a bill which criminalizes the “propagation” of homosexuality to children, with fines up to 100,000 rubles (about $3000) for those who use the internet or mass media to propagate homosexuality to minors. That’s about 10 weeks’ salary for the average Russian: a pretty steep price to pay for a “crime” so obviously intentionally ill-defined as to allow virtually any activity to lead to arrest… leading, of course, to prior restraint, which is the whole idea. Less than a week later, Putin tacked on another law, not merely forbidding gay Russians from adopting, but also preventing foreign adoptions of Russian children by anyone but married heterosexual couples.

In the immediate aftermath of the conviction of Pussy Riot’s Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, I described Putin as “both a repressive homophobe and an amoral tactician.” I stand by that description, although I still have not come to a determination as to which of those elements is dominant: is he such a homophobe that he will do anything to suppress gay rights, or does he (probably correctly) believe that he can solidify his political status by playing to his countrymen’s (and –women’s) basest prejudices? Probably a little of both. Either way, it’s not good news if you’re one of the estimated 10 million or so Russian homosexuals… or one of the 600,000 parentless Russian children.

But let’s get back to the present. Playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, among others) may exaggerate the case a little in his opinion piece in the New York Times, but he’s certainly right that:
Historically this kind of scapegoating is used by politicians to solidify their bases and draw attention away from their failing policies, and no doubt this is what’s happening in Russia. Counting on the natural backlash against the success of marriage equality around the world and recruiting support from conservative religious organizations, Mr. Putin has sallied forth into this battle, figuring that the only opposition he will face will come from the left, his favorite boogeyman.
He’s right, too, that the imminence of the Sochi games makes the Putin regime (and I do choose that term intentionally) more open to outside persuasion than it is likely to be for years to come. It would take a level of political courage we’re not likely to see from the likes of Obama or Cameron or Merkel—and certainly not from the pompous hypocrites at the IOC—to actually boycott Sochi, but certainly there are opportunities for persuasion.

I think it’s probably true that Putin and his goons will stay away from enforcing their new repressions while the assembled multitudes are gathered in Sochi and environs. This strategy of pretending to an openness and a tolerance that doesn’t in fact exist has become standard procedure for authoritarian regimes hosting international events: think of the 1980 Olympics, for example, which managed to be a success despite not only the American boycott but the widely-acknowledged sweeping up and re-location of all the undesirables—from prostitutes to alcoholic derelicts—just to get them out of sight. No, there probably won’t be any problems while the games are actually going on. Which is why we really do need to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

My “hook” on joining these two stories together was provided by this Facebook status update by a friend (I won’t identify him further, as it was a “friends only” post):
A national section headline in today’s Los Angeles Times: “U.S. Says it will not torture Snowden.” I remember a time when such statements would not be necessary. When did we become the country that had to reassure RUSSIA we wouldn’t torture people? Would you send your kids to a school with a sign “Our teachers say they will not molest your children.”? My first question would be, why are you reassuring me about this? Has it been a problem in the past? Neo-cons can call it “enhanced interrogation” all they want and spin out the tired ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. But we are now a nation that has tortured people. I am a proud Eagle Scout, ashamed of what scouting has become; I am a proud Catholic, ashamed of my church and its protection of pedophile priests; and now I am a proud American, ashamed of what my country has become. No jokes here today, folks, just an immense sadness at this once-great country.
My friend is right, of course. We do torture people, even though all the expert testimony suggests that such tactics are less likely to achieve the desired results—accurate and useful information—than other methods. And we’ve done it to our own citizens. Just ask José Padilla.

And we do execute people. We’ve done it over 1300 times since SCOTUS lifted the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 1976. That works out to about one every ten days or so. Texas Governor Rick Perry has presided—if that is the term—over 261 of them. The chances that at least one of those cases resulted in the execution of an innocent man or woman approach ontological certitude. Indeed, no less than a member of the Supreme Court seems not the slightest bit concerned by that eventuality: Antonin Scalia wrote, in a dissenting opinion on the Troy Davis habeus corpus appeal in 2009, that “actual innocence” (his scare quotes) is insufficient to overturn a conviction. “This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.” True, Scalia was thrown out of Grinchville for being too heartless, but come on.

The chances that a good number of those executed were themselves victims of overzealous prosecutors, jury-stacking, racial bias, and/or incompetent defense attorneys, of course, is roughly equal to the likelihood that the sun will continue to rise in the east and not decide that it’s bored with that routine and try rising in the southwest for a change.

Curmie, to be sure, is ambivalent about the death penalty. As I wrote about the Troy Davis case a couple of years ago, “there are those of our species whom, to be frank, we’d be better off without.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that we ought not to be extremely circumspect in applying the ultimate punishment. And the propriety of the death penalty is not the issue here: it’s the fact of its existence.

Where Edward Snowden falls on the continuum from heroic whistle-blower to self-righteous traitor is the subject for debate, and the opinions of people whose intellect and ethics Curmie respects cover a wide spectrum on this issue. What should not be under discussion, however, is whether he should be tortured or executed. He should not, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. Period. End of discussion. Nor will he be, I suspect, even if Russia (or some other country) extradites him. You will forgive me, however, Gentle Reader, if I’m a little less confident of that statement than I was a couple days ago. Not (merely) because Eric Holder is a serial prevaricator, but because he had to tell us.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Remember When the 4th Amendment Mattered?

Mark this date and time, because Curmie is about to say something unlikely ever to be repeated: Louie Gohmert is on the right side of a controversial issue. Yes, really. And so are Doug Lamborn, Dana Rohrabacher, Mark Sanford, and Jim Sensenbrenner. Meanwhile, Tammy Duckworth, Steve Israel, Marcy Kaptur, Jan Shakowsky, and Louise Slaughter are wrong on this one. OK, could we just have one big chorus of “WTF?”

The issue at question was an amendment sponsored by two very different Michigan Congressmen: Justin Amash (above right), a sophomore Tea Party favorite, and John Conyers (above left), an old-school Democrat who was on Richard Nixon’s enemies list a decade before Amash was born. Strange bedfellows, and all that. What Amash and Conyers agree on—if on little else—is that the Bill of Rights, specifically the 4th amendment, is a good thing. Or, given the wholesale sellout of civil liberties by power elites of both parties, perhaps “was a good thing” would be the more apt descriptor.

You remember the 4th amendment, don’t you, Gentle Reader?
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This simple and direct affirmation of individual rights, like so many other Constitutional guarantees, has been eroded if not annihilated by post-9/11 hysteria, the insidious PATRIOT Act, and fear-mongering pols of both parties.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of NSA spying into the lives of millions of people who had done precisely nothing to arouse suspicion, Amash and Conyers introduced an amendment to a defense bill. Unlike the thousands of pages of turgid legalese that often characterize legislation, this amendment, barely over 100 words, is pretty clear:
None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to execute a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order pursuant to section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1861) that does not include the following sentence: ‘‘This Order limits the collection of any tangible things (including telephone numbers dialed, telephone numbers of incoming calls, and the duration of calls) that may be authorized to be collected pursuant to this Order to those tangible things that pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation described in section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1861).
In other words, you need a reason to gather private information on a law-abiding citizen. Stated otherwise, we have a right to be secure in our persons, papers, houses, and effects against unreasonable searches… That phrasing seems strangely familiar, somehow…

The amendment failed, of course, because the movers and shakers of both parties like power. All the “limited government” rhetoric on one side and the “civil liberties” aphorisms on the other are simply a load of crap for the majority of the politicians in Washington. The fact is, politicos in general like to exercise power, and they’ll defend their dubious claims to the legitimacy of these displays even in the face of obvious problems like, say, the fact that they’re freaking unconstitutional. There is consolation of sorts to be found in the narrowness of the margin, 217-205, and by the fact that party lines meant little: 57% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans voted in favor of Amash/Conyers. Indeed, the amendment would have passed if just half of the Democrats who voted against the re-authorization of the PATRIOT Act and also against this amendment had stuck to their alleged civil libertarian principles. Among those who didn’t: Nancy Pelosi, who is credited—if that’s the word—by Foreign Policy’s John Hudson with “[saving] the NSA surveillance program.” She was joined in voting for the NSA and against the people by such prominent Democrats as Steny Hoyer, Joe Kennedy, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Let’s face it: Curmie voted for Obama twice, and—given the opposition—doesn’t regret those votes. But in the realm of civil liberties, the Obama administration has been absolutely as horrific as its immediate predecessor. And they did everything in their power, apparently, to prevent the amendment from even being brought to the floor. In one of the most notably ironic statements ever to emerge from a press secretary’s lips, Jay Carney actually urged defeat of the amendment because it is a “blunt approach [and] is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.” As opposed to the laser-like focus and utterly transparent processes one has come to associate with NSA operations, one presumes.

Of course, the GOP leadership is just as culpable: they, too, tried to prevent a vote. And consider the list of leading Republicans who decided that neither small government nor the Constitution, hitherto their two most strident rallying cries, were quite as important as fear-driven oppression: Michele Bachmann, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Virginia Foxx, Jeb Hensarling, Darrell Issa, Peter King, Steve King, Mike Rogers, and Paul Ryan, among others.

In short, as the New York Times reports, “Conservative Republicans leery of what they see as Obama administration abuses of power teamed up with liberal Democrats long opposed to intrusive intelligence programs. The Obama administration made common cause with the House Republican leadership to try to block it.”

Importantly, the Amash/Conyers amendment was remarkably modest in its goals: it didn’t seek to shut down NSA surveillance. It didn’t even demand that such intrusions into privacy should require a warrant (which would have been a better idea, but perhaps a bridge too far, given the curious blend of megalomania and paranoia which currently infects both parties). No: all the NSA would have needed to do was to be able to connect the dots, however tenuously, between a specific problem and a specific person before dredging up every detail of that person’s private communications. Not “probable cause”; some cause. Doesn’t seem an unreasonable hurdle. I mean, if Jim Sensenbrenner, the principal author of the PATRIOT Act, thinks we’ve traveled a little too far down the road of intrusion, perhaps—just perhaps—we ought to listen.

There’s a “Myth vs. Fact” sheet apparently coming out of Representative Amash’s office. Among its arguments:
The amendment does not defund NSA. It does not defund all NSA surveillance under the Patriot Act’s Sec. 215. It does not require a warrant for NSA to get Americans’ car reservations, hotel receipts, or telephone records. NSA does not even have to suspect that a crime has occurred. The amendment simply requires that there be a reasonable connection between the documents sought and the person under investigation. Far from blunt, the Amash-Conyers amendment is narrow and modest and is only a first step towards protecting Americans’ records from NSA surveillance….

If proponents of NSA blanket surveillance are right, if Americans lose constitutional protections when they make a call or send an e-mail, then any data stored in “the cloud” is fair game for the government without a warrant. Do we think it’s good policy to have every iPhone picture stored in iCloud subject to warrantless government confiscation? Is that reasonable?
Well, no. No, it isn’t. But the leadership of both parties seems perfectly fine with it… as long as it’s the other guy who’s being investigated.

The week’s events could represent a harbinger of things to come: a moment in time when libertarians of the left and libertarians of the right join to cast off the fusty devastation of Business as Usual in favor of a society capable of balancing legitimate national security issues with civil liberties. Or, more likely, they will simply ratchet up the iron-handed modi operandi employed by the Obamas, Pelosis, Boehners, and similar authoritarian jackasses. Keep those free-thinkers in Congress under control! Mustn’t let their interest in liberty interfere with our pet projects, after all.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Visit of the Young Lady

A knowledge of dramatic literature comes in handy sometimes. There have been murmurs around my adopted state of Texas that a Lysistrata-like sex strike might be the only way to convince the privileged white males of the state that treating women a little worse than barnyard animals might not be the most effective strategy. Surely even intelligent opponents of abortion balk at the bullying and disingenuous tactics employed by Rick Perry, David Dewhurst and their minions to finally ram a bill through the Texas legislature to severely restrict the availability of not only abortions, but mammograms, pap smears, contraception, and other basic women’s health services.

Now it appears that a variation on the theme of the Friedrich Dürrenmatt classic Der Besuch der alten Dame (literally The Visit of the Old Lady, but generally translated into English simply as The Visit) might seem to be in order. Whereas people in Curmie’s business ought to know the play, this is not necessarily true for you, Gentle Reader, so here’s a quick synopsis.

The little town of Güllen (literally, to spread liquid manure) is struggling, but the fabulously wealthy Claire Zachanassian, a former resident, is paying a visit, and the townspeople hope she’ll come to their rescue. Anton Ill, her former lover, is enlisted to head up the appeal. Gradually, however, we learn that young Claire had left the town in disgrace, impregnated by Anton, who suborned perjury from two witnesses to evade justice and to be free to marry the shopkeeper’s daughter.

Claire was forced into prostitution, but a series of alliances to increasingly wealthy men who died and left her their fortunes turned her into a billionaire. We learn, too, that she is primarily responsible for the town’s financial struggles: she’s been buying up businesses and shutting them down, that sort of thing. Her traveling entourage includes a butler (the judge in her paternity suit who ruled against her) and two eunuchs (the perjured witnesses). She offers the town a billion (well, the unit of currency isn’t made clear, if I recall correctly, but we’re talking a lot of money), half to be given to the town per se, half to be divided among all the town’s families. There’s one condition: someone in the town must kill Anton Ill.

At first, it seems like bluster, and the townspeople reject the offer. Claire then calmly intones one of the most chilling lines in dramatic literature, “Ich werde warten.” (“I’ll wait.”) Inexorably, the town becomes obsessed by the money and Ill realizes that there is no escape. The mayor announces that the town’s imminent wealth is all due to Ill’s generosity. Ill is indeed killed by a townsman, but the doctors are quick to pronounce it a heart attack: he “died of joy.” Claire keeps her promise, writes a check, and boards the next train out of town. In the original production, the scenery shifted before the audience’s eyes from the dreariness of the first 99% of the show to clean and shining splendor. And… curtain.

I thought about this play when reading about the plight of Katie Barnett, an Ohio woman whose house was repossessed for non-payment of her mortgage… trouble is, the idiot repo guys went to the wrong house. They didn't want Ms. Barnett's house at all; they were supposed to go to the place across the street. Undeterred by competence, they removed, which is to say stole, all her possessions, which were either sold, given away, or simply trashed. Ms. Barnett remained remarkably calm under the circumstances. She called the police, but the chief, weeks later, declared the case closed because the culprits were the First National Bank of Wellston. Exactly why that matters is beyond my feeble ken, but I suppose it all makes sense if you’re an idiot small town police chief (as usual, apologies for the redundancy) like Tony Wood.

So Ms. Barnett assessed her losses, estimated at a little over $18,000, and went to the bank for reimbursement. The bank president, Tony Thorne (a lot of jackasses named Tony in those parts), admits that the situation was the bank’s fault—at least indirectly, in that they hired the moron repo crew—but still doesn’t want to pay up: “We’re not paying you retail here, that’s just the way it is,” quoth he (according to her, at least). He also whines that the “written list of items that she provided to us ... is inconsistent with the list and descriptions of items removed that was prepared by the employees who did the work.”

OK, two things. 1). I think we’ve already determined how competent and trustworthy those “employees” are. 2). as of now, she’s being nice, but Ms. Barnett owns your future as surely as Claire Zachanassian owned Güllen’s. Why is it that the assholes and the idiots are so often the same people, and they’re so often in positions of power in petty and parochial small town settings? Do you really think any jury in a civil suit is going to care whether the list of items Ms. Barnett claims were illegally confiscated from her legal residence without the slightest cause conforms to what the clown show you hired for the repo wrote down? The circumstances all point in one direction: Ms. Barnett is an aggrieved party, and you, sir, are dumber than a stack of burnt toast. As she says, “I’m not running a yard sale here. I did not tell them to come in my house and make me an offer. They took my stuff, and I want it back.” And that seems reasonable enough, to the extent that the “stuff” is replaceable… and there ought to be a little penalty for destroying what is not replaceable, too.

You might, might, have a chance to get out of this for the 18 grand she says you owe her. But if I were her, I’d put some punitive damages onto that lawsuit I’d be virtually certain to win… say, 100 times the value of the items taken. Call it $1.8 million. And here’s where The Visit comes in. Tomorrow, O Bank Board of Directors, you can settle this for $18,000. Next week, it’s $18,000 and Tony Thorne is fired (killing him would be a bit much). The week after that, the dollar figure doubles, and it keeps doubling until the bank settles. Thorne? He had his chance. He’s gone, or we jump straight to seven figures. I kind of get the feeling the board of directors, being corporate types, after all, would be perfectly willing to throw Thorne under the bus if given half a chance. If I were Ms. Barnett, I’d be interested in finding out. (I might be tempted to sue the city, too, with Wood’s job as a bargaining chip.)

But Ms. Barnett is no doubt much nicer than Curmie. She’ll probably just take what she’s owed and try to get on with her life. For now.

[Note: there’s a Daily Kos petition about this, but the recipient is one Eric Emmert. He’s listed as President and CEO of Midwest Bancshares, the First National Bank’s parent company, in one place, as CEO of the bank in another. But it certainly seems to be Thorne who’s the idiot at front and center.]

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Curmie Wannabees: Punishing Heroes

To say that Curmie is behind in his writing is roughly akin to saying that NFL nose tackles tend to be rather large men. And there’s a backlog of Curmie contenders to get through. It will take a while to catch up, but let’s start with two variations on the same theme: a student reprimanded (or worse) for being a hero.

We look first to Florida (where else?), where, in late February, a 16-year-old student at Cypress Lake High School disarmed a 15-year-old football player who was pointing a loaded .22 caliber revolver at a teammate and threatening to kill him. The incident occurred on a school bus, apparently the aftermath of an argument during practice. (They practice football in February?) The names of most of the leading characters in this little drama haven’t been released because of their ages, so Curmie is going to refer to them as Perp (yes, he was later identified, but this keeps it simple), Hero, and Victim—you can follow that, right, Gentle Reader? Idiots #1 and #2 will make their entrance shortly.

Anyway, Perp is upset with Victim and pulls out a loaded handgun. Hero and a couple of his friends wrestle the gun away from Perp, apparently saving the life of Victim and quite possibly others. Who says so? Well, Victim, for one, and apparently other witnesses as well.

Jeffrey Nadel, the president of the National Youth Rights Association, gets this one right: “This student should be hailed as a life-saving hero.” Indeed, anyone with a lick of sense is praising this young man.

So, what was the school’s response, specifically that of Idiot #1 (that would be Principal Tracey Perkins)? Why, to suspend Hero, of course! You see, he “was involved in an incident where a weapon was present.” The school later changed the rationale (about the time, one suspects, when people started talking about how fucking stupid the idiots running that school are) to the fact that Hero was “uncooperative” with the investigation—under duress, without access to his mother or an attorney, in shock, raised not to be a ”snitch,” fearful of retaliation…—gee, I can’t understand why he might not be a nice, compliant little narc.

Even if Hero’s reluctance to cooperate, whatever his motivation, were to be a legitimate cause for suspension, the fact is that there’s that pesky document with… you know… photographs of it and stuff (left) that shows that all that was needed to suspend Hero was the fact that rather than allow a fellow student to be shot at point-blank range, he intervened. Well, that and having a principal who doesn’t have the brains to be a speed bump.

Let’s face it, Idiot #1, if you know he was there, you also know what he did, and if you have the brains God gave a turnip, you know that suspending Hero sends every possible variety of wrong message to the students in your charge. Yes, yes, I know. Under Florida law, you had the legal right to issue an “emergency suspension” without having to deal with all those messy due process issues. Idiot #2 (district mouthpiece Alberto Rodriguez) told us that: “Florida law allows the principal to suspend a student immediately pending a hearing.” But presumably even the assembled cretins in Tallahassee didn’t anticipate that you’d suspend a kid for stopping the potential for gun violence. The fact that you can do something colossally moronic doesn’t mean that you should.

Principal Perkins, I think it’s a safe bet to call you an early front-runner for the Curmie Award. I truly do hope you win, because for someone to beat you, they’d have to invent a whole new kind of stupid, and I really don’t want to see that.

It saddens me to note, however, that Florida doesn’t have a monopoly on this particular kind of insanity. There are idiots running schools in Canada, too: in Calgary, to be precise.

This time, the incident took place in a classroom in May, and the weapon of choice was a knife instead of a gun. Otherwise, I suspect that Stevie Nicks would call the story “hauntingly familiar.”

Briar MacLean (right), age 13, heard the “flick” of a knife (and that means it wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout knife, if you catch my drift) and heard someone say that a bully indeed had a knife. The teacher was on the other side of the room. So he stepped in, pushing the bully away. The situation didn’t escalate… until young Briar was summoned to the principal’s office and not allowed to leave. The police were called in; his locker was searched; his mother was called.

The mother, Leah O’Donnell, was rightfully puzzled at why her son was in trouble for doing what everyone in the world other than a school administrator would recognize as the obviously right thing. The school does not “condone heroics,” she was told. She asked the logical next question: “I asked: ‘In the time it would have taken him to go get a teacher, could that kid’s throat have been slit?’ She [the vice-principal] said yes, but that’s beside the point. That we ‘don’t condone heroics in this school.’”

What is most terrifying about this incident is not that a 13-year-old kid would carry a flick-knife to school and apparently be prepared to use it; it is not even that another boy should be reprimanded for doing the right thing. No, it is that that vice-principal has no freaking idea how stupid she and her boss look.

Sure, if Hero in Florida or Briar in Calgary hadn’t intervened, there might have been a couple of dead bodies, but rules are rules. And this is where, yet again (as here, here, and here), Curmie invokes the wisdom of Confucius, who always advised against rules and in favor of a wise arbiter.

Now, it is only fair to grant that there is a certain amount of consequentialism at play here: important elements of these stories would be very different had Hero been shot or Briar stabbed. But in a very real sense, nothing would have changed. Demonstrating the courage to stand up for those in danger ought to be regarded as a virtue worthy of considerable praise. It is not by accident that Briar MacLean’s story is linked to a “related” story by the editors at the National Post to the tale of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the middle-aged woman who talked down the heavily armed killers of that British soldier on the streets of London a few days earlier.

This is obviously not an appeal for more weapons or more laws or more enforcement. This is, rather, a straightforward statement of fact: heroes are real and we need more of them. Not vigilantes, not rulebook-toting nanny-staters, not legalistic regulation-parsers. Heroes. We also need fewer stupid people in charge.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Tokens, Talismans, and... Tampons?

Curmie has long argued that there’s nothing like the Republican Party in Texas to make anyone with an IQ over room temperature into a card-carrying Democrat. It certainly worked for me. A lifelong Independent who moved to Texas in 2001, I saw about enough of George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, and similar politicos whose stupidity was matched only by their immorality: even my distaste for political parties in general was ultimately overcome. I became a Democrat in 2008, and even voted in a primary for the first time in the nearly 35 years I’d been registered to vote (N.B., this period included one presidential election in New Hampshire and two in Iowa, where voting in primaries or caucuses would have had an impact).

Of late, the parade of GOP charlatans has included Rick “Governor Goodhair” Perry, Loony Louie Gohmert (Curmie’s very own Congresscritter), and the insufferably inane Ted Cruz. In this company, conventional party hacks like John Cornyn look positively enlightened by comparison.

For all this, however, I’d never witnessed anything quite so—what? arrogant? stupid? tone-deaf?—as the recent display in Austin when the carefully gerrymandered Republican supermajority was in the process of cramming through an unpopular, unconstitutional, and unnecessary (even if you agree with them) bill in the second completely wasteful and self-indulgent special session of the legislature this year to restrict not merely federally-protected abortion rights, but women’s health in general. After all, shutting down the majority of the state’s abortion clinics is one thing, but those facilities are also the only place many Texas women could go for contraception, pap smears, mammograms, and similar services related to women’s health.

As the ultimate vote loomed—the GOP having been too inept twice to pass a bill they all, in typical mindless lockstep fashion, agreed to—citizens (women) had tampons and maxi pads confiscated before being allowed to enter the state capital to witness the vote that would deny them and their colleagues across the state access to basic reproductive health care (again: yes, abortion rights was one issue, but frankly only one among many). They’re potential “projectiles,” you see. Meanwhile, those with conceal carry permits were still allowed to bring loaded weapons into the chamber. Curmie fancies himself reasonably creative, but he couldn’t make this shit up.

This makes sense to Texas Republicans, even if to no one else. The fact is, it is even sillier to regard a tampon as a potential projectile than it is to treat allergy medicine as meth in potentia. More to the point, anything can be a projectile, including the bullets in one of those oh-so-legal handguns. To be blunt, if someone is going to throw something at me from the balcony, I’d much rather it be a maxi pad than a battery, a bullet, or a quarter.

Never ones to succumb to the powers of logic, however, the Texas GOP, led by Idiot in Chief Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, set about to secure their misogynistic credentials by choosing a particularly gender-specific set of prospective “projectiles” to forbid. After all, the legislation under consideration might possibly (albeit disingenuously) have been construed as the product of legitimate moral concern about abortion and/or sincere interest in the medical well-being of women seeking abortion services. And Texas Republicans simply cannot allow for the possibility that they might not be regarded as woman-hating monsters. Nope. Confiscate those feminine products, irrespective of whether some of those citizens might… you know… have a completely innocent, gender-specific reason for carrying those items in their purses. So, according to a report from the Associated Press/Huffington Post, “Troopers tossed tampons, perfume bottles, moisturizers, pencils and other things into the garbage.”

Now, Gentle Reader, don’t get me wrong. Had any of those women indeed used those items as projectiles, they would and should have been subject to removal and/or arrest. That’s as it should be. But to forbid carrying a feminine product, some moisturizer, or a pencil, in the absence of any indication whatsoever that the citizen in question intends to hurl it at a legislator, is stupid in the extreme… roughly equivalent to arresting one of those gun-toters for contemplating armed robbery despite a dearth of evidence to support the claim.

The GOP, then, unsatisfied with being perceived as misogynistic merely by the liberal women assembled at the Capitol building, chose to screech their hysteria (yes, Gentle Reader, Curmie is aware of the irony of that particular term in these circumstances) from the rafters. One is also bemused at the prospect of a State Senator otherwise oozing with pseudo-machismo cravenly cowering in the corner lest he be struck by a maxi pad hurtling towards him at nearly 20 mph.

Of course, the right-wing blogosphere was abuzz with allegedly corroborated reports that pro-choice advocates attempted to bring jars of urine, feces, and paint into the gallery. If true, obviously, this would be serious, and Curmie is not so naïve as to believe that those who share his views on a particular issue are inherently above doing something stupid. Trouble is, that whereas there are pictures of the Great Tampon Confiscation, there’s not a shred of actual evidence that anyone really did try to disrupt the proceedings in this manner.

Needless to say, with about a gazillion news reporters and twice that many activists on both sides of the issue on site, the chances that somewhere amongst the “one jar suspected to contain urine, 18 jars suspected to contain feces, and three bottles suspected to contain paint” allegedly confiscated by DPS (the state Department of Public Safety), there’s not a single photograph, not a single statement from an officer that he or she had personally made such a confiscation.

Rather, numbers of officers expressed surprise that such rumors had circulated, noting that they were in the Capital that night and had heard nothing of the kind. To justify the lack of evidence, DPS proclaimed that it hadn’t really confiscated anything, after all, and noted that because “no crime had been committed… it would be unreasonable to document names of visitors based on what they might or might not do.”

Chief among the disingenuous GOPsters was Senator Kevin Eltife, from right up the road from Curmie in Tyler, who somehow, apparently, was able to maintain a straight face while intoning that “nobody has a reason to make up a story about this.” Well, no one but lying little weasels like you, Senator, who would cheerfully fan the fires that enable the likes of Freedom Outpost to decry the “Degenerate Pro-Abortion Supporters,” a term, of course, implicitly applied to all opponents of the bill, whether or not they were guilty of the slightest impropriety (remember, DPS excuses the complete lack of evidence for its assertion based on the fact that no crime was committed).

But the salient point is this: even if there were some over-zealous opponents of SB2 (the erstwhile SB5), no one committed a crime—perhaps because they were prevented from doing so, perhaps because they never intended to do so. The fact is that thousands of Texas women—and men who think women are people—gathered in Austin last week to protest a bill they knew they couldn’t stop. That, my friends, was the spirit of the defenders of the Alamo: a defeat that rallied supporters after the fact and ultimately brought about a new age in Texas history. We might just be seeing that again. If so, the GOP’s smirking pride in its misogyny is far more responsible for that revolution than either Wendy Davis or the protesters at the Capitol. One day, they may awaken enough to proclaim, à la Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Curmie Goes Contrarian (again): Don't Blame the Jury

Curmie is about to break with personal tradition and just rant. The key word here, of course, is “just.” Curmie rants a lot, but this time there are no links to news sources or other blogs, because you, Gentle Reader, either already know the relevant facts or don’t care.

It’s been well under 24 hours since the verdict in this month’s Trial of the Century, but everyone and his great-aunt Tillie has by now weighed in on the George Zimmerman acquittal. Most of Curmie’s left-leaning friends (which is to say most—not all—of Curmie’s friends) have opined about “justice” and the “racist society” and similar high-sounding but ultimately hollow catch-phrases.

No one—correction: none of the principals—looks good in this case. Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms has repeatedly called this an “ethics train wreck”; sometimes Jack errs on the side of understatement. (I promised you no links—you are adept with net browsers, Gentle Reader: employ one at your discretion.) Trayvon Martin was not the angelic youth he was portrayed as being. His girlfriend lied before changing her story (or, possibly, told the truth and then lied because it was more efficacious to do so). Martin’s parents politicized the case, suggesting with little evidence that the lack of prosecutorial vigor was purely based on race, and far too many politicians—up to and including the POTUS—rose to that bait.

The police who first investigated the case glanced at a dead teenager and released his admitted killer after a few perfunctory questions, failed to conduct an appropriate investigation, and generally screwed up at every conceivable opportunity. Their stupidity, sloth, and general lack of commitment may or may not have been grounded in racism. There are racist cops. But not every case involving people of different races—or religions, or sexes, or whatever—is specifically about that difference. And racism is only one of many forms of stupidity.

The media incompetently and quite likely intentionally distorted the case—remember when the doctored tape of Zimmerman’s call to the police made it seem like he volunteered information about Martin’s race, when in fact he was responding to a question? There are other examples, but that one, to me, was the most egregious.

The DA’s office dithered, punted, and was ultimately over-ruled by authorities who, it could be readily and credibly be argued, were at least as interested in advancing either their own political careers or at least their political agendas. The prosecution in the actual trial appears to have been roughly akin to that in the O.J. Simpson trial: utterly incompetent. (I say “appears to be” because, frankly, I do not share CNN’s obsession with this case. I’d look at news reports suggesting that the prosecution had lost ground on a particular day, but, frankly, there are a lot more important things in the world than whether one guy in Florida “gets away with murder.”) Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it: it’s an emblem for a larger problem. I’m not arguing that point. But comparisons to Emmett Till and Medgar Evers? Give me a damned break.

On the other side, there are the idiotic post-trial pronouncements by the lead defense attorney that Zimmerman wouldn’t have been prosecuted had he been black. Even if true (and I doubt it), this is in an utterly irresponsible thing to say, one which aggravates an already tense situation with no concomitant upside unless we think of lawyerly narcissism as a good thing.

All of which leads us to George Zimmerman. Was the death of Trayvon Martin directly attributable to his actions? Definitely. Could this situation have been avoided if Zimmerman weren’t such a jerk? Yep. Did Zimmerman’s actions stem from some combination of racism, arrogance, paranoia, and self-entitlement rather than conscientiousness? Almost certainly. Did he profile Martin, stalk him, precipitate the confrontation, and aggravate the situation on numerous occasions when he could have released rather than increased the pressure? Again, almost certainly.

OK, now the big questions. Is George Zimmerman morally and ethically responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin? I think so, yes. Is he legally, under Florida law, guilty of a felony? Probably. And the distance between “probably” and “yes” is known as “reasonable doubt.”

The cops were inept. The DA’s office was nearly as bad. The prosecution couldn’t convict a roast beef sandwich of containing meat. But the jury? From where I sit, they got it right. (Side note: when I wrote about the Casey Anthony trial—you can look that one up, too, Gentle Reader—I said I’d never question an acquittal. I meant it.) The foundations of the criminal justice system are the presumption of innocence and the abiding belief that it is better to free the guilty than to convict the innocent. Is George Zimmerman “innocent”? Nope. Is he “not guilty”? Yes. Yes, he is: legally, at least.

The howls of my friends are largely about “justice” for Trayvon Martin. He certainly deserves it, but his chance for that disappeared over a year ago, with the bumbling of every authority figure involved. To suggest that the verdict yesterday confirms anything is silly. The acquittal was simply the result of the jury’s doing the job they were charged to do. The legitimate resentment of those who believe that Martin was denied justice is properly channeled elsewhere. George Zimmerman deserves justice, too, simply by being a human being. He will probably—à la OJ—face a civil rights charge and a civil suit. Chances are, with a lower burden of proof in the latter, he won’t escape scot free. Does that constitute justice? No, but it’s as good as we’re going to get. And that is not an indictment of the system.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

When Curmie and the Insurance Companies Agree...

Curmie is a great believer in expertise. That doesn’t mean that those who lack it should automatically and uncritically submit to authority, but given a choice, and the proverbial all other things being equal, I’ll trust my mechanic to fix my car and my doctor to explain that pain in my chest. [Curmie doesn’t really have a pain in his chest. That would imply he has a heart.]

I’ve been talking about this phenomenon for a long time, e.g., this commentary on the Palin candidacy in ‘08:
Nor do I see the advantage to having someone “like me” in positions of responsibility: I don't want that in my plumber, my arborist, or my dental hygienist: why should I want it in a Vice President? Worse yet, why should I be interested in someone less knowledgeable about the issues than I am? If I'm better with an axe than anyone I could hire would be, I'll chop my own damned firewood.
More recently, I differentiated between two definitions of “authority,” suggesting that deference to a skill-set makes sense, but bowing to power doesn’t:
If I were on the [Texas] Board [of Education], I’d yield to child development experts on when certain ideas should best be introduced; I’d yield to historians and other social scientists on who’s more important than whom and what’s more important than what; I’d yield to elementary and high school teachers on what works in their classrooms. To the right-wing indoctrinators who, alas, comprise the majority of the TBOE, however, I’d yield on not one damned thing. Which, my friends, is why I have no future in politics.
One incident I didn’t write about was shortly after one of those innumerable times (can’t remember which one) when the Fox/GOP mouthpieces bellowed yet again that some action by the Obama administration would destroy the American corporation. You know, all that Kenyan Marxist Muslim crap. The same day, I received e-mails from a brokerage and a mutual fund company—you know, people whose job it is to make money for their clients (and who know they’ll be out of work if they don’t)—talking about what great new opportunities the new policy presented. Turns out, they were right. The Dow is up over 90% since President Obama took office; the Nasdaq is up over 141%; the Standard & Poor’s index is up just under 103%. Worst damned socialist ever. But that’s not what this piece is about.

What this is about is a recent story in USA Today by Victor Epstein of the Des Moines Register: it turns out that the people whose job it is to determine risks and attempt to make money by predicting that risk accurately—insurance companies—are refusing to renew the policies of Kansas schools which allow teachers and custodians to carry firearms under a new state law that the escapees from the lunatic asylum state legislature passed last winter, ostensibly to make schools “safer.” The new policy went into effect last week.
It's not a political decision, but a financial one based on the riskier climate it estimates would be created, the insurer said.

“We've been writing school business for almost 40 years, and one of the underwriting guidelines we follow for schools is that any on-site armed security should be provided by uniformed, qualified law enforcement officers,” said Mick Lovell, EMC's vice president for business development. “Our guidelines have not recently changed.”
EMC insures between 85 and 90% of Kansas schools; two other companies, Continental Western Group and Wright Specialty Insurance, have taken similar stances.

Bob Skow, the chief executive officer of the Independent Insurance Agents of Iowa, said, “It's one thing to have a trained peace officer with a gun in school; it's a completely different situation when you have a custodian or a teacher with a gun. That changes the risk of insuring a school and magnifies it considerably.” Yes, “Magnifies it considerably.”

What this means, in simple terms, is that companies whose financial stability depends on an accurate assessment of risk are overwhelmingly of the opinion that arming teachers increases the risk of casualties in the school environment. If there’s one industry that isn’t going to be accused of abandoning the profit motive, the insurance business would have to be it. If the professional assessors at EMC and other companies thought they could make money by insuring schools under the new statute, you can bet they’d do so. But they think the new policy so significantly increases risk that even raising premiums isn’t enough.

Of course, the NRA, whose smirking and stolid physiognomy can be readily perceived, only partially hidden by the shadows surrounding this legislation, has never paid any attention to reality, but this ought to at least dampen their Wild West-style rhetoric about how arming everybody is somehow going to make us safer. They won’t, of course: they’ll blat all the louder. In the unlikely event that they present any actual evidence to support their claims, I’ll listen. But I strongly suspect I won’t have to worry about making good on that promise.

Finally (almost), we turn to one Forrest Knox, the state senator who sponsored the bill in question. “I’m not an insurance expert, but it's hard for me to believe that if schools and other public buildings allow law-abiding citizens to carry that that increases risk—it’s news to me.” No, sir, you’re not an expert—you don’t have to tell us that; as I tell students all the time, I don’t care what you believe—tell me what you think; and if it’s really “news to [you]” that the evidence doesn’t actually support your position, then you have raised ignorance to an art form. Either that, or you’re a flat-out liar. Probably both.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

On Cops and Pets (sort of)

Curmie is proud of being an educator and therefore hosts the Curmie Award for the teacher or administrator who most embarrasses the profession. Similarly, he acknowledges that there are thousands of selfless, hard-working and compassionate police officers—unfortunately, I got to see a couple of them perform a particularly grim duty last week—but that makes it all the more important to remember that wearing a badge and a gun doesn’t make one a good policeman (or –woman) any more than standing in front of a classroom makes one a good teacher.


There have been a lot of disturbing stories of late about overly testosteronic cops and pets (well, one of the stories isn’t about pets per se, but about partially-domesticated kittens. Close enough for jazz). What’s newsworthy and disturbing about these incidents isn’t necessarily directly linked to the animals involved, but that motif does give us an opportunity to examine some of the worst (we hope) in police behavior over the past few weeks. I’m even skipping two cases from California: the shooting of five caged (but at least aggressive) pit bulls by a Selma cop in January and the recent incident in Hawthorne in which the police were certainly at fault for escalating what needn’t have been a tense situation, but may indeed have ultimately acted appropriately (considering the position they had put themselves in) in shooting and killing an 80-pound Rottweiler.

We start, then, with a story out of Miami in late May. Police assaulted, handcuffed, and choked a 14-year-old boy with little if any provocation. The boy, Tremaine McMillian, had apparently been “roughhousing” with friends. Although they quickly realized “there was no sort of altercation or fight going on,” police nonetheless wanted to talk to McMillian’s parents.

But that’s when things turned bad, and when descriptions begin to diverge: he was walking away, or he was leading police to his mother, who was nearby. I’m going to pretend for a moment that I believe a single word of the police description: if for no other reason than that my raised eyebrow of skepticism might be interpreted as a “de-humanizing stare,” which is apparently enough to get you slammed to the ground and choked by a gaggle of over-stimulated jackasses working on their machismo merit badge. Well, of course, young Mr. McMillian has, shall we say, a darker complexion than I, so I might have been fine.

Anyway, the police don’t seem to dispute the claim that the teenager was carrying his six-week-old puppy in one hand and was bottle-feeding it with the other. The best they can do is argue that after police “[grabbed] him,” McMillian’s “body language, of stiffening up, closing the fist, flaring his hands, trying to pull away, well, now, you’re resisting an officer at that point.” Presumably, this is intended to constitute a defense of the officers’ stupidity and brutality. “At this point, we’re not dealing with, or concerned with the puppy,” quoth Prevaricator in Charge Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, “what we’re concerned about is the immediate threat to the officers.” Seriously, he said that.

Here’s the best-case scenario for the police account. McMillian was doing nothing illegal and the police were being a little over-officious. They then grabbed him, although he had committed no offense and was under no obligation to cooperate with them. He shrugged them off, telling them not to “touch [him] like [he’s] done something,” all the while holding the puppy. While doing so, he apparently sprouted another set of appendages, complete with clenched fists and flaring arms (whatever the hell that means), and constituted an “immediate threat” because… um… well, he did. Seriously, if a 14-year-old kid holding a puppy in both arms makes a police officer afraid in any way, maybe we ought to be looking for some cops with backbones made of sterner stuff than overcooked linguini.

Oh, wait. I forgot about the “de-humanizing stares.” Snort. These people should be writing trashy novels. They sure as hell shouldn’t be cops.

We move now to North Ridgeville, Ohio, where a police-attached Human Officer reporting to the Police Department shot and killed a litter of kittens in the presence of a group of children, and the idiot Police Chief decided there was no problem. Move along. Nothin’ to see here.

There seems to be little dispute about the facts. A homeowner called the police to see if they could do something about a litter of feral kittens that had taken up residence in a woodpile behind her house. Enter one Barry Accorti, retired police sergeant and current part-time Humane Officer (yes, Gentle Reader, Curmie is aware of the irony of the job title). According to WKYC television,
He allegedly told the homeowner that shelters were full and that the cats would be going to kitty heaven. He then pulled out his gun and shot to death the five, 8- to 10-week-old kittens.

Accorti allegedly told the homeowner that he isn't supposed to do this, but it was justifiable. The woman ran into the house to shield her children who were screaming and crying.
There are some minor discrepancies with the details, but what isn’t in dispute is that Accorti used a gun to “euthanize” kittens no more than 10 weeks old. Interestingly, the police department’s defense of Accorti’s stupidity and arrogance cites the proximity of the woodpile to the house and presence of children in the home as reasons why the kittens would have to be killed to begin with. Presumably, it never occurred to him that firing a gun into a woodpile is inherently unsafe (lots of opportunities for ricochets in a residential area) and that traumatizing children might not be the best available option. No, correct that, he just didn’t care. He’s been carrying this gun around for a while and hasn’t had the chance to show off what a tough guy he is by firing it to the admiration of all. After all, nothing says “manly” like shooting a kitten.

Here’s the deal. He’s got cages, heavy gloves, catch-poles, all that stuff available to him. These are kittens. The fact that they hissed at someone doesn’t mean they’re dangerous. And he’s supposed to be a professional. Assuming it’s true that euthanasia was the only (or best) option—hardly a given, by the way—then there are a lot of safer, more humane means of dealing with the situation… not to mention avoiding the possibility virtual certainty of giving those kids nightmares for months.

Most disturbingly, nothing a cop ever does seems to be questioned by those in authority, whether it’s pepper-spraying innocent people or doing something transcendently stupid like firing a gun in a residential neighborhood to deal with a feral cat problem. (Note: the photo at left purports to be of the kittens in question, meaning a). they're partially domesticated and b). the alleged complaints about a chronic problem are either fabricated or disingenuous.)

Here are the key sections of the official police statement by Chief Mike Freeman:
Research and other animal organizations accept shooting as an acceptable means of euthanasia.

After visiting the scene, talking with the responding officer and re-interviewing the complainant, I have decided his actions were appropriate and have decided not to impose any disciplinary measures for the incident.
OK, Chief. So show me that research and at least two (you used the plural, after all) “other animal organizations” that consider using a handgun an acceptable means of euthanasia. I’d suggest that you not start with the Ohio SPCA, however. Here’s the statement on their Facebook page:
No HUMANE organization would recommend that non-threatening animals be shot as a method of euthanasia. The use of gunshot to end an animal's life should only be used when an animal is attacking or has been injured so seriously that ending suffering must be immediate. The 8 to 10 week-old kittens posed no immediate threat to anyone. Trap, Neuter, and Release Programs (TNR) have been in place in a multitude of cities and towns throughout Ohio and the United States for years. Humane societies and shelters not choosing TNR as an option, should only be using Euthanasia by Injection (EBI).
Karen Minton, Ohio director of the Humane Society of the United States, agrees: “it is hard to fathom any circumstance where fatally shooting young kittens is necessary or justified.” So—given the pretty strong dissenting statements from representatives of the two universally recognized “animal organizations” in the country, the SPCA and the HSUS—please produce anyone with a quarter as much credibility. Or admit that you’re a lying asshole and resign. Your choice.

Later, Freeman defended Accorti’s actions as legal: “there were no children present outside the home when this occurred.” Oh, well, that’s all right then. As long as they were looking out the window instead of… you know… there, then everything is just peachy. And besides, behaving stupidly, arrogantly, recklessly and probably dishonestly is just fine as long as it’s legal. I doubt that what Officer Accorti did actually was legal, although it might have been. But it’s certainly grounds for firing. The idiot police chief and the pompous and disingenuous mayor ought to be on the unemployment line, too.

Note: it is now being touted as a silver lining that the city has revised their policies, will no longer kill cats, and will form an alliance with the Friendship Animal Protection League to develop new procedures. Of course, this move is founded more on petulance than on pragmatism: the police will now do nothing to help. You see, if they can’t go around firing pistols at kittens, this game just isn’t any fun anymore.

And so we move on to South Holland, Illinois. This incident took place nearly a year ago, but a related lawsuit is moving through the system now, so it’s making news again. Last July, Randy Green’s dog, Grady, somehow popped his chain and apparently ran around the neighborhood for a while before settling down on the front porch of the Green residence.

Here’s what happened, at least according to the lawsuit (I’m tightening up some of the paragraphing):
Upon information and belief, a caller had identified the dog at large as ‘a big old gray dog runnin' around.’ The caller made no mention of the dog being dangerous, vicious, or aggressive....

The two South Holland officers arrived while plaintiff Randy Green and his family were asleep inside of their home, and where Mr. Green’s Cane Corso dog, Grady, was sitting on the front porch. Upon information and belief, the chain holding Grady in the Green family backyard had popped, allowing Grady to be off leash on and around Mr. Green's residence.

Both South Holland officers were equipped with dog-catching poles in the trunks of their vehicles, but neither attempted to use the dog-catching poles to capture the purported dog at large. South Holland officer Chad Barden stood, with his gun drawn, near the Green family home while the dog Grady sat on the front porch. The accompanying South Holland officer stood, leaning against his own police vehicle, approximately 100 feet away from Officer Chad Barden.

The dog Grady walked past both officers on more than one occasion without incident, thereafter lazily returning to the front porch of the Green residence. At no time did the dog Grady make physical contact with either officer.

The South Holland police officers stood outside the Green family home for approximately twenty minutes. At this time, the dog Grady approached Officer Barden again as he was standing nearest the Green family home. Shortly thereafter, Officer Barden shot the dog Grady three times for no reason.
OK, so far it sounds like Mr. Green is behaving a little defensively: surely his beloved canine wouldn’t act threateningly, right? Trouble is, he says he’s got an expert report on video evidence.
"…video surveillance footage from the Green family residence revealed the absence of any charging, lunging or showing of teeth by the dog Grady and instead showed the dog Grady seeking ‘greater distance between the officer and himself,’ displaying ‘calming [body] signals’ by ‘looking away from the officers and showing his [Grady's] flank,’ and moving in a ‘trot.’ (Brackets in complaint.)
You see, the thing is, no lawyer would make, or let her client make, claims that can’t be backed up. The chance are really, really good that the video shows exactly what the plaintiffs in this case claim it shows: a lazy, smug, self-entitled cop shooting a harmless dog because he can. I can find no evidence that Barden or his partner were as much as given a private scolding. And then, of course, the assholes at the police station, a month later, charged Green with having a “dangerous dog.” Yeah, I’m calling bullshit on that one.

Finally—I’m sure there are dozens more cases to choose from, but I’m already over 2000 words—there’s this case from El Monte, California in which a policewoman shot a German shepherd and then—based on all the available evidence—lied about the details.

Police were an hour late to a scheduled meeting with Cathy Luu and her husband Chi Nguyen at their home. They claim to have followed procedure for entering premises where dogs might be present, but they sort of neglected to think through the possibility that people who can afford to live in that neighborhood just might have their own security cameras, which back up their claim that the cops just barged into the enclosed yard area without either calling the house to announce their arrival or making any reasonable attempt to determine if there were dogs about. That huge orange-on-black “Beware of Dog” sign smack in the middle of the damned gate shown in the photo at left might have been regarded as cautionary by an average person. Not by El Monte’s finest, apparently.

And then there is the usual chicken-shit “no choice” justification. Barking is barking. Attacking is attacking. They’re different. It’s impossible to tell from the evidence available to us which was the case here. As in the Hawthorne case mentioned in passing earlier, there are two separate questions to be answered: could this situation have been prevented by more competent police work? And, in the moment it happened, was shooting a large, potentially aggressive dog justified? The answers in both cases are “yes” to question #1 and “maybe” to question #2. So why write about this one instead of the other? Because in the Hawthorne case, the police are only probably lying (about the cause for the arrest of the dog’s owner), whereas in this case the video footage apparently indicates clearly (“beyond reasonable doubt” and all that) that the officers didn’t follow procedure (their jackass boss, of course, believes them rather than the actual evidence, but no one else does). If they’re willing to lie about X, they’re willing to lie about Y.

The good news is that, unlike in the Ohio kitten-shooting incident, at least the mayor in question seems to have some sense, even if the police power structure doesn’t:
[Mayor Andre] Quintero reached out to the family to talk about working something out to find them another German shepherd or other type of dog, even offering to pay for vaccinations, sterilization and any other fees associated with getting a new dog.

“There is no question, we cannot replace Kiki. We know that,” Quintero said as he read a statement during Tuesday night's City Council meeting. “But we would like to do what we can to help fill the void that has been left by the death of this family's pet.”

Quintero called for a “quick and appropriate solution” to the internal investigation into the incident.

“Our community and the Luu/Nguyen family deserve answers and closure quickly,” Quintero added.
You see, this is a good man, or at least an intelligent enough politician to understand that spending a few hundred dollars that might avert a law suit is probably a good idea.

So what do all of these incidents indicate? Well, certainly a handful of cases across a country this size don’t indicate much of anything. But there’s a troubling undertone emerging:
• a lot of cops really like to shoot things and beat people up
• police chiefs and captains and such will lie to cover up for their idiot underlings
• whereas “animal rights” proponents often go too far, they’re right about most of this kind of cases
• there are far too many police who think their job is to swagger around with a gun
• even female officers seem to have testosterone poisoning
But enough of that. Time to scritch my cats’ ears.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

SB5: Some Thoughts from a Male Texan

Curmie doesn’t cry much. Wednesday, a little over a week ago, was an exception.

There was the goodbye scene towards the end of Godspell, which had its first dress rehearsal in the morning and its second in the evening: these were tears of emotion, and of pride that the cast and crew had done such excellent work.

There was the devastating news that a friend and student—and the fiancé of a Godspell cast member—had been killed in a car crash. Those tears were all about pain… I struggled, reasonably successfully, to keep them from hitting my cheeks: I needed to be the strong one for a couple of hours. I blubbered like an infant the next morning, but no one saw me.

Early Wednesday, there were the SCOTUS decisions on DOMA and Prop 8. They brought a tear to my eye, too, especially that this court would align itself on the right (as in “correct”) side of history instead of (as I feared) the right (as opposed to “left”) side.

But the story that made me sob with pride was what transpired in Austin, Texas on Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning. Most readers of this blog will know the basics already, but I suspect this made fewer headlines nationally than it did here in Texas, so…

Like all the other GOP politicos who pretend to favor small government but are all about intrusion into the lives of anyone who isn’t rich, white, heterosexual, Christian, and male, Texas Governor Rick Perry sure does love to impose his ideological and theocratic will on the populace. Obviously, in the state that has the worst record in the country for job creation relative to changes in the workforce, that has the lowest voter turnout in the nation, that places last in healthcare and in percentage of the population with a high school diploma… surely in such a Utopia, there can be no issue more urgent an issue than regulating the state’s uteruses. After all, if contraception were to be readily available and abortion services within the financial and geographical reach of the state’s women, how could we remain #1 in teen births, let alone let them fillies know who’s boss? And who cares if the bill’s sponsor in the Texas House doesn’t know what a rape kit is? Right? ‘Murica.

And so it was that when Governor Goodhair’s minions couldn’t get their act together to pass the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in the country (at the time… Ohio may have since lurched even more emphatically into a previous century), there needed to be a special session, right? After all, the fact that there is nothing wrong with the status quo except the under-funding of women’s health services shouldn’t be taken to mean that there isn’t an emergency to be solved only by paternalistic intervention, right? Indeed, a bipartisan poll suggests that the majority of the Texas citizenry doesn’t want the bill passed, at least under these circumstances (in much the same way, one suspects, that the attempts to recall hugely unpopular Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker failed: people might not like the status quo, but they don’t like to feel like they’re parties to the manipulation of the system, either).

And let’s be real: there was no real purpose to the special session other than to pass this one bill, outlawing abortions after the 20th week and imposing a series of restrictions on abortion centers and the medical staff who work there. The first part of the bill may have merit, but it is patently unconstitutional (at least in the opinions of SCOTUS, who collectively represent the only opinions that matter); the second half of the bill, like so many causes championed by 21st century Republicans, creates an utterly fictitious problem and solves that phantom dilemma through the most repressive means imaginable, in this case de facto shutting down over 88% of the state’s abortion facilities. But the GOP, for all their gerrymandered supermajority, couldn’t get it done. Oh, sure, the bill sailed through the House, but it got stalled just long enough in the Senate for a Hail Mary pass by a 50-year-old pink-sneaker-clad Senator named Wendy Davis.

Davis announced her intention to filibuster the bill, and then made good on her promise. And off she went. Now, the thing is, Texas filibuster rules are different than those at the national level. You aren’t allowed any breaks at all—not even to pee. You aren’t allowed to as much as lean on your desk for support (one wonders about how someone with a certifiable disability would be treated). You’re not allowed to take even a sip of water. And you have to stay on topic. Jimmy Stewart was a wimp by comparison.

Naturally, there was a cat and mouse quality to the exercise. Davis, needless to say, was searching for anything vaguely on-topic to talk about; the GOP establishment eagerly pounced on anything that might constitute a violation of the rules. The most impressive thing about Davis’s performance wasn’t that she held the floor for nearly 11 hours (she used a catheter to prevent the need to leave her post to obey the proverbial call of nature): it’s that she went that long without straying from the topic even a little. Both of the “violations” cited by Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, who is trying very hard to be as stupid and corrupt as his boss, were marginal at best: discussions of required sonograms and of Planned Parenthood funding would strike me as germane… but then, I’m not an ideological jackass (a jackass, yes, but not an ideological one). The other “violation” in the three-strikes-you’re-out policy was when a colleague helped her adjust a back brace. It’s a technicality, but at least it’s real.

So Davis’s filibuster didn’t work. The goal was to talk through midnight, when the special session would be officially over. She got shut down at 10:03 pm, after an impressive but nonetheless insufficient 10 hours and 45 minutes. What Davis did, however, was to bring the finish line within sight.

The Guardian (time to ask once again why the best reporting on American politics comes from British newspapers) reports the ensuing events as follows:
A rush of procedural motions and inquiries by Democrat senators delayed the final vote on the bill. [Letitia] Van de Putte asked for a summary of previous points of order, saying she had been away from the senate attending her father's funeral.

The leader of the Democrats in the senate, Kirk Watson, began what amounted to his own filibuster.

With less than 15 minutes to go until midnight Van de Putte asked what a female member of the senate had to do to be heard over her male colleagues. She believed she had raised a motion earlier but was not heard.

It was at this point the crowded public gallery began chanting and cheering. A vote was called on the SB5 bill but the noise was at such a level that voting was suspended until order was restored.

The gallery appeared to take this as an invitation to ramp up their noise for the remaining 15 minutes, with encouragement from Democrats on the floor. The session ended in chaos and confusion, and without the vote being completed by midnight.
Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst promptly declared that the vote had indeed been taken and that the motion had passed. Then he claimed that there was some sort of special time-out—similar to the ones employed by 8-year-olds on the playground, one presumes—that meant that the fact that although the vote wasn’t really taken until after midnight, it should count, anyway. There is considerable evidence that the GOP honchos doctored the official record, which was originally (and accurately) timestamped shortly after midnight, to pretend the vote was taken just before instead of just after the witching hour. When I went to bed that night, it looked like they were going to get away with it. But when I awoke on Wednesday, it was to the news that Dewhurst, confronted with incontrovertible proof that his assertions were… erm… bovine feces, had conceded defeat in the wee hours of the morning.

It didn’t take long, of course, for the GOP to re-group. Governor Goodhair called yet another special session to begin this Monday. The bill will almost certainly pass this time, because the idea that a Texas Republican might actually exercise a little intellect, discretion, or restraint is roughly equivalent to suggesting that a hungry piranha might save a little food for later. And Davis has already said she won’t filibuster this time, acknowledging that “you can’t have a 30-day filibuster.”

My response on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page follows:
To the surprise of absolutely no one who has paid the slightest bit of attention to his ultra-partisan, ideologically-driven agenda, his complete lack of basic human decency, his serial corruption, and his often illegal and almost always unethical political maneuverings, Texas Governor Rick Perry has called yet another special legislative session to ram through the restrictive and patently unconstitutional abortion bill that was derailed last night.

He'll probably get away with it in the short term, too, but even a quick read of Texas history leads inevitably to the realization that the greatest rallying cries are often born of defeat. Or perhaps, given his dim-wittedness, Governor Goodhair thinks the Alamo was a victory for Texas.

There will be repercussions. The attempts to tamper with official records will get publicity. Wendy Davis is already a household name in this state. And the GOP's obeisance to their religio-corporate masters will indeed be chronicled for all to see.

Yes, he'll probably “win” in the short term, but that “victory” won't be out of the public view. We will indeed see the fraud that is the man behind the curtain, and we will be the better for it.

As Curmie's cast sings “Save the People” in dress rehearsal of Godspell tonight, he'll be paying attention to the words:

“Will crime bring crime forever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father
That men shall toil for wrong?

“‘No’ say thy mountains
‘No’ say thy skies
Man's clouded sun shall brightly rise
And songs be heard instead of sighs...”

We'll be fine, everyone. Some fights take longer than others. We shall overcome someday.
Indeed, whereas the bill will probably pass this time around, it will not do so to the deafening yawns of the corporate media, which studiously avoided coverage of… you know… actual news.

And that is really the most important element of this contretemps: the entrenched establishments of both parties really aren’t fans of allowing citizens to have any real influence over political decision-making. Want to find out if a politician is honest? Ask about the events in Austin last week. Then ask about similar events with Tea Partiers in the roles of the orange-clad (mostly) women. See if one of those events is “what democracy looks like” and the other an “unruly, screaming mob.” Conversely, are we just trying to conduct the “people’s business” or to “suppress actual citizens”? Are our tactics fine until (gasp!) the other guys try them?

All that said, this was an impressive display by opponents of the bill, and I am very proud of the level of civic engagement evidenced by at least four of my former students, who were in the crowd that night. The fact that I agree with them on this issue helps. But part of my job as an educator is to inspire students to engage with the world, whether I agree with their perspectives or not. If I can turn out a theatre person or two, that’s nice. But Job 1 is to help create independent-minded, skeptical, informed, citizens. Spring, Kelli, Meghan, and Mercedes (there may be others who were there, but I’m sure of these) can represent me and my work any time. Even Especially if they’re a little less than polite.