Déjà Vu

Oppression and injustice, not unlike revolutions, always begin small. A cadre of like-minded individuals gain influence among a modest group of people, then they establish policies and doctrines that cement their authority over others, frequently minorities.

In South Africa, for example, the National Party started out as a disgruntled band of Afrikaners who wanted to assert power over the native blacks who had inhabited the land for hundreds of years. To be fair, the National Party also considered themselves natives (without the barbaric and uncivilized connotations), since their Dutch ancestors had arrived at the Cape in the sixteen hundreds. Without being too simplistic, their history was the same as every other colonial power: a conquering country arrives and steals the land of the native people, claiming it for their own.

From the vantage point of the Afrikaners, they built the country, bringing modern technology and western civilization to the natives. Of course, their concept of civilization did not include any measure of equality such as sharing the land or the resources or the wealth. Their building of the land depended on enslaving the natives, eventually corralling them into townships and so-called homelands.

It is tempting to forgive people who claim that that kind of slavery and injustice are over. It is part of our past, they say. Not our present. Even in the United States the Supreme Court, i.e. the Republican appointees, have begun defanging and stripping significant power from the civil rights legislation claiming that it is no longer needed. Even where voting rights have been historically denied or curtailed in the offending southern states the Court now says there is no longer a need for protections. Equality has come to the land they say. It is not so tempting, however, to forgive those five justices—they should know better. In case there is any doubt regarding the blatant blindness of the Court, we have Ferguson, Missouri.

Not unlike the Afrikaners, a cadre of white individuals has staked a claim over the city, controlling its power structure and policing. As happens all-too-frequently in the U.S. an unarmed black man was killed by a white cop. Missouri, by the way, is a southern state.

You’ve got to hand it to Ferguson, though. At least in South Africa the government hired and bribed black policemen to kill black citizens. That’s too subtle for Ferguson. Just let a white man do it. In the open. In broad daylight. In fact, shoot him six times with one of the bullets entering the head execution style. If this sounds as though I am playing a race card or fanning the flames of discontent, consider:

Michael Brown, as we all know, was unarmed. Initially the city officials gave little information about the shooting and when they did, the statements were inconsistent and incoherent, sometimes even flat out contradictory. We were told the officer knew Michael Brown was a suspect in a convenience store altercation. Then we were told the officer knew nothing of the kind. We were told that Brown was stopped for walking in the street, apparently a very serious crime in Ferguson,k one that can lead to death.

For one week the name of the officer, Darren Wilson, was withheld. As is typical in these cases we were told how wonderful and highly regarded the officer is. Apparently Wilson is a good guy who just shoots unarmed people. In the Old West it was called “circling the wagons.” Today it is just called protecting your own. Hmm. And I thought the police were supposed to protect the civilians.

This satirical tone is rooted in the fact that this kind of incident is not unusual, and achieving justice has become nearly impossible. Juries are reluctant to convict a police officer for shooting a suspect—even when the citizen is not suspected of do anything wrong. The officer simply claims he was in fear of his life. Apparently, too many white cops are afraid of unarmed black civilians. This is unfortunate, for there are more than enough examples of officers shooting in true self-defense. And no one wants to see police killed in the line of duty. Hence the jury tendency to give the officer the benefit of the doubt. But…

One has to wonder how the police department and city officials would react if a black officer killed an unarmed white citizen? It was not that long ago that black men were routinely and unjustly lynched after being falsely accused of raping a white woman. Maybe the Supreme Court is wrong and racial prejudice and injustice are not just memories. Wait a minute. No. Not maybe. The Supreme Court
is wrong.

My earlier reference to the Old West is underscored by the fact that Wilson shot Brown at high noon. At least in the movie of the same name, Gary Cooper shot people who were really trying to kill him! At the very least, police officers need to know that unlike Marshall Kane, or Wyatt Earp; unlike James Bond even; being given a badge and a gun is not a license to kill.

Note to the Supreme Court, to Congress and to the authorities in Ferguson. We can no longer tolerate this kind of déjà vu.

A Supreme Mistake

Money talks. This is an old aphorism in American culture and probably among people the world over, for human history has demonstrated that the rich generally get whatever they want. The haves never have enough and the have-nots never get enough. This is sufficiently problematic in the world of finance. But when that world intersects politics, the result is generally disastrous.

Democracy, certainly the American version of it, is predicated upon the principle of one person, one vote. No one individual possesses a greater claim than any other on the outcome of an election. At its core, democracy is essentially egalitarian. But this guarantee of equality is eroded when elections are determined by the amount of money available in a campaign. That is a lesson we should have learned in the 1970’s.

The Watergate scandal toppled an administration and led to the only Presidential resignation in U.S. history scarring the reputation of Richard Nixon, arguably a great statesman. But it did more. At the time, the scandal awakened Congress and the American people to the corrupting influence of money in politics, proving that this corruption is not just theoretical. The buying of politicians and political influence is intrinsically perverted and leads inevitably to a political and social landscape that is as dark as the night that follows the day.

The U.S. Supreme Court, at least five Justices, appear ignorant to historical reality. In yesterday’s decision McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” Ironically, and not just a touch cynically, that is exactly the right that the Supreme Court has now stripped from most Americans.

I am baffled by one aspect of this decision: Why didn’t the Supreme Court just abolish elections altogether and merely put candidates up for auction? Oh, come to think of it, they did. How many Americans have $3.6 million to contribute to an election? People might do well to ask themselves whether their individual votes equate with participation compared to that kind of wealth.

There is an element of incomprehensibility in the court’s decision. Money is a tangible object, but the Justices want us to believe that spending it to influence elections is an exercise of free speech. This suggests that some people are more free than others because they possess more wealth. It also makes slaves of the poor, reducing the average American to a plantation worker. And if I am not mistaken, we already fought a war over that.

America is quickly falling, if it hasn’t already, into a world of oppression. An abyss where the oligarchy control all aspects of government—legislative, executive and judicial. We’ve seen this before, throughout history and around the globe. And we know the result. People will put up with oppression for only so long before they revolt. We did it ourselves over two hundred years ago. The last line of defense should the Supreme Court, but it has now fallen prey to the power and whim of the wealthy. As such, more and more citizens will begin to realize how powerless and disenfranchised they truly are.

I fear we are nearing a new revolution. Since the court’s ruling in McCutcheon infringes on the fundamental rights of the governed, maybe it is time to revisit our own Declaration of Independence. That founding document states, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government…” Then again there might a less drastic solution.

In American democracy the government is the people. That’s why we have elections in the first place: to vote in and out of office those who, respectively, do or do not represent us. It is a reality today that running a campaign costs money. Perhaps the time has come for the government to equally fund all campaigns—the federal government for federal candidates and state governments for state candidates—and to eliminate all private funding. This is money that belongs to all the people, not just a privileged few. I realize that such a proposal will fall on many a deaf ear. But elections should be determined by the power of a candidate’s ideas and convictions, not the size of his or her bank account.

Money talks, but it is not speech.

Miscarriage of Justice? The Zimmerman Verdict

The old saying comparing opinions to the human anatomy is true. Everybody does have one. And when verdicts are handed down, as in the George Zimmerman case, the opinions fly. These trials create mirror-like reactions. Had the judgement been reversed so would have been the responses. There would still be an outcry.

One need only look at the O. J. Simpson trial to recall a miscarriage of justice. In the Zimmerman case, the jurors are being denounced as racist because he killed a young black man. In the Simpson trial, they were accused of pandering because Simpson, himself, is a black man.

We might do well to step back from the actual trials and verdicts and look at the broader picture. If any truth is to emerge from this case, it is tragically simple: The justice system in modern America is broken. At least the jury element. At least in Florida. And yet…

This goes way beyond Florida. It just seems that Florida has a perverse desire for headlines, which seems odd given its specific racist history. Mind you, I am not trying to say that George Zimmerman should have been found guilty of murder. The prosecution overreached in its initial charges, necessitating the late addition of a manslaughter charge. That prosecutorial decision had to have influenced the jury and raised doubts. Maybe the prosecutors were not so sure of their case and were just grasping at straws.

Nor am I saying that George Zimmerman is innocent. Certainly his intent and motives are questionable, if not despicable. He was told by a 911 operator to cease his pursuit and let the proper authorities handle the situation. But Zimmerman lives in a fantasy world and has long been an incident waiting to happen.

Nor am I passing judgment on Trayvon Martin. He may have been innocent enough, initially. He may have defended himself too vigorously after being accosted. He may have done nothing wrong whatsoever. We certainly know he was unarmed.

What I am saying, is that Florida is the latest--and perhaps worst--example of a justice system incapable of justice. One that is still mired in prejudice, because we, the people, are still mired in prejudice. We pretend that we have put the divisions of the past behind us. After all, we have a black president. But that reality has not buried racism nor healed the racial divide. In fact, at the risk of veering off topic, much of the opposition that President Obama faces in Congress is rooted in racism. There is honest difference of opinion on some policies, but he would not be facing the same obstruction and ad hominem attacks if he were white.

An honest evaluation of the Zimmerman trial must conclude that if Trayvon Martin had been white, Zimmerman would never have followed him in the first place, nor engaged him in a physical confrontation. Consequently, he would not have shot him and there would have been no trial.

The truth is, much of white America is threatened by black men--whether they be 17 our 52, slight or muscular, educated or not. The great paradox of this mentality is that it is delusional, yet very real.

Whether or not Zimmerman was innocent or guilty is almost beside the point. The inequity in the justice system can be demonstrated by looking at another, less publicized Florida trial that concluded two months ago, in May.

Marissa Alexander, a black woman, picked up a gun and fired two warning shots to ward off an abusive husband. She did not fire at him. She had no intent to kill. He was not wounded. Marissa was clearly in physical, possibly life-threatening, danger. Not only was she arrested and brought to trial, she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

George Zimmerman provoked his altercation. At least initially, he had no reason to fear, other than what arises from his own racial prejudice. There was no evidence that he was ever in life-threatening danger, even during the scuffle. Yet, after killing Trayvon Martin, he was released by the police and eventually acquitted by a jury.

One often hears whites accuse black people of always claiming racism when things go wrong. That is too easy and simplistic. If blacks in America were accustomed to an equal share of justice, they would never have celebrated the Simpson verdict. If blacks in America were treated as equal persons, there would not have been a Zimmerman trial. If blacks in America were valued and treated like whites, Marissa Alexander would be free today.

I suppose we can continue to delude ourselves. But until we move beyond the ignorance that fuels the racism of people like Zimmerman, we will probably have to suffer more such trials, and justice will remain merely an illusion.

The Governor Brown Vetoes--a Loss for Justice

Jerry Brown possesses one of the most interesting and certainly the most unusual political histories in the State of California. From a member of the Los Angeles Community College District, to California Secretary of State, to Governor, to Mayor of Oakland, to Attorney General and back again to Governor. Agree with him or not, his career has been characterized by principles of equality and justice. Personally, I have long been one of his supporters.

I admired then, and still do today, his principled stand against the death penalty. His veto of legislation to reinstitute capital punishment, along with his commitment to the environment and to workers’ rights were the kind of risks one expects from a leader; from a man of vision; from a governor committed to equality under the law and justice for all. This was the man who championed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, even calling a special session of the legislature to pass the act which he signed into law on May 29, 1975. Fast forward to September, 2012.

The mainstream media has failed to cover one of the most spectacular stories in the state. Governor Jerry Brown is the victim of a Sci-Fi movie. “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is no longer just an escape of fiction. That is the only explanation I can concoct for the disappearance of the principled politician who used to inhabit Brown’s corporeal form. After all, the values instilled in him through his Jesuit education proved of inestimable value in his political career--until now.

The Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act--vetoed. This act would have made it a misdemeanor crime, punishable by jail time and fines, to not provide appropriate water or shade to workers laboring under high conditions. To use a popular expression, that should be “no-brainer.”

The Farm Worker Safety Act--vetoed. This would enabled workers to sue employers who repeatedly violate the law. Such lawsuits are the only guaranteed method of enforcing the state’s heat regulations.

The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights--vetoed. This act would have included domestic workers in basic labor protections. Such things as overtime pay, meal and rest breaks. And who are these domestic workers? Childcare providers, house cleaners, caregivers for California’s families.

The Trust Act--vetoed. In a society that is struggling to maintain faithfulness to its immigrant roots and seeking ways to keep families, the governor’s veto will enable law enforcement officers to continue their assault on immigrants. More than 80,000 persons have been deported for minor, non-violent offenses. There is a reason that boundary lines separate California from Arizona. We don’t want the likes of governor Brewer and Sheriff Arapaio.

These vetoes are outrageous. What happened to the Jerry Brown who stood for justice and equality? The United Farm Workers put it in perspective: “It’s unacceptable that immigrants and Latinos in California will continue to live in fear of attacks like Arizona’s SB 1070. It’s appalling that 200,000 domestic workers will continue work without rest or meal breaks. It’s outrageous when abuse of a farm animal is taken more seriously than abuse of a farm worker.”

There is a new outcry in the State of California: “Shame on you, Governor Brown.” If it were only a matter of shame, that would be his problem. It is much deeper than that, however. This is a scandal for the entire State of California. It reduces us to the level of Arizona. I wonder if Brown’s next action will be to wag his finger in disrespect at the President of the United States!