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“We’re Not There Yet”: On This Martin Luther King Day, How Far Have We Really Come?

Martin Luther King Day honors the birthday of our nation’s 20th century conscience. MLK Day also serves as a benchmark against which to measure the extent to which three plagues cited by King — racism, poverty and war — have been eradicated.

Some judgments come easy. George Wallace’s cry, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” is a sound of the past.

The Martin Luther King-led civil rights movement changed the political landscape of the United States. When the landmark Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, seven months after King launched the Selma march that spurred its passage, African American political office holders in southern states were near zero. By 2013, the number of southern black elected officials had blossomed to more than 300.

Since January 2010, a president who is African American has delivered the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.

Without question, there has been change and forward movement in the political arena. But we’re not there yet. Yes, Wallace, is off the scene. However, today we have Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

There have been other achievements in the uphill struggle for equality. More African American students are graduating from high school and college since King’s assassination. The black middle class has grown. African American professionals are contributing to virtually every aspect of society.

Progress against racial oppression, however, does not equal victory over the inequalities that prevent African Americans from assuming a rightful place in this country. Glaring disparities exist. Academic achievement, graduation rates, health-care status, employment, incarceration — vast racial gulfs persist.

Then there’s war.

Vietnam broke King’s heart.

What would he think of the more than 6,000 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of U.S. civilians dying due to direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan between October 2001 and April 2015? How would he view our 21st century flooded with millions of war refugees? Could he come to terms with an Iraq war federal price tag of $4.4 trillion?

But I believe that man of peace would be most troubled by the extent to which our scientifically advanced world has outdistanced our moral values.

Sixty-two years ago, in a sermon at his uncle’s church in Detroit, King delivered a sermon in which he said the great danger facing us was not so much the nuclear bomb created by physical science, but “that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls … capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness.” A perfect reference to the toxic violence of Islamic terrorists such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — and haters here at home.

How far have we really come?

 

By: Colbert I. King, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 18, 2016

January 18, 2016 Posted by | African Americans, Martin Luther King Jr, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Capital Punishment On Hold, For Now”: Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida’s Death Penalty System

The future of the death penalty in the United States is murky, and we know there are some justices who believe the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment necessitates the policy’s end.

The resolution of that debate, however, remains on the horizon. Today’s decision on Florida’s death penalty isn’t entirely what it appears to be at first blush.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declared Florida’s death penalty law unconstitutional because it requires the trial judge and not the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose capital punishment.

That’s at odds with a string of Supreme Court cases which held that facts that add to a defendant’s punishment – known as aggravating circumstances – must be found by a jury.

It was an 8-1 ruling, the entirety of which is online, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” she wrote for the majority. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

The sole dissent in Hurst v. Florida was written by Justice Samuel Alito.

So now what happens? The defendant, Timothy Lee Hurst, will see his case go back to the lower courts, while lawyers scramble to review the convictions of other inmates on Florida’s death row.

For opponents of capital punishment, it’s certainly a victory, but it’s worth emphasizing that it may be short-lived.

In this case, Florida’s current law was struck down, but the ruling focused on criminal procedure in the courtroom. The question of whether the law is cruel or unusual is left for another day.

The Miami Herald reports that state lawmakers are already preparing to “fix” what the Supreme Court said is broken.

Florida lawmakers are prioritizing a fix to Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures after the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a state law giving judges the final say on capital sentencing.

House Criminal Justice chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said his committee will take on a bill to address the Supreme Court’s problems.

The article added that another member of the Republican-run legislature intends to use this opportunity to consider broader reforms to the system, including a proposal to “require jurors to unanimously find that there are aggravating circumstances in a case, which would warrant a death sentence. Right now, it only takes a simple majority – 7 of 12 jurors.”

Capital punishment in Florida is, for now, on hold. That may not last long.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 12, 2015

January 13, 2016 Posted by | Capital Punishment, Death Penalty, Florida | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bill Cosby, Tamir Rice, And The Power Of Prosecutors”: The Discretion Of A Single Unaccountable Prosecutor

What do Bill Cosby and Tamir Rice’s have in common? Their cases reveal the immense power of prosecutors.

Consider the fact that in 2005, Andrea Constand told police that Bill Cosby gave her drugs and sexually assaulted her. Why wasn’t he charged? The prosecutor didn’t think there was enough evidence.

Ten years later, Cosby is charged. Why? Partly because of new bits of evidence—Cosby’s admission that he sometimes gave women drugs in order to have sex with them, and at least 50 other accusations against him. But mostly, because now there’s a different prosecutor, Kevin Steele.

These are judgment calls, in 2005 and 2015.

Now consider the cases of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. None of the police officers responsible for their deaths were ever charged—not convicted—charged. In all three cases, prosecutors practically told grand juries not to indict.

In Ferguson, Robert McCulloch decided to simply present all the evidence to the grand jury, rather than make a case against Officer Darren Wilson. In Staten Island, Darren Donovan, a Republican with extensive ties to the police department, failed to secure an indictment against Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death. And most recently, in Cleveland, Tim McGinty stated openly that he didn’t believe anyone should be charged in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Set aside, for the moment, the facts of these cases. What’s striking in all of them is that county prosecutors and district attorneys, singlehandedly and without oversight, decide the fates of the accused. More judgment calls, unreviewed and unreviewable.

True, there is some oversight: most of these prosecutors are elected. If voters don’t like how they’re doing (or not doing) their jobs, they can vote them out of office. Indeed, in the case of Bill Cosby, then-D.A. Bruce Castor’s decision not to indict in 2005 became an issue in his election battle with Kevin Steele this year.

But is this really “oversight”? As The Daily Beast reported last September, voters often know next to nothing about the candidates running for positions as prosecutors or judges. Turnout is extremely low, especially in off years. And when voters are paying attention, they are bamboozled by the only campaign message that seems to work: “tough on crime.”

This year, for example, Steele ran on his “98 percent conviction rate” and “tough sentences for sexual predators.”

That’s what people want, right? They see prosecutors as agents of the criminal justice system, and everyone wants less crime.

This leads to two perverse incentives for prosecutors. First, they have an incentive to over-charge criminal defendants and secure convictions more than justice. Second, they have an incentive not to charge police officers, who after all are fighting crime every day, and with whom they work closely on a daily basis.

In principle, if Officers Pantaleo, Wilson, and Loehmann violated the law, then they are criminals. But in practice, they are policemen, and perceived as the opposite of criminals. Voters who want to get tough on crime do not want to get tough on cops.

So not only is there no meaningful oversight of prosecutors, but the oversight that does exist is skewed to specific outcomes and behaviors, not impartiality and performance.

Now back to Cosby. If you pay close attention to what Steele said this week, you’ll notice that he went out of his way to mention the new evidence that has come to light in the last twelve months. “A prosecutor’s job is to follow the evidence wherever it leads and whenever it comes to light,” he said, announcing the arrest.

In part, this was to explain the nearly twelve-year gap between the crime and the charge. But in large part, it was to explain why Cosby is being charged in 2015, but wasn’t in 2005.

And what is that new evidence? Only what is known as “habit evidence”: that Cosby admitted to drugging and having sex with other women. But not Constand—however ludicrous it may seem, Cosby’s position is that she consented.

Is habit evidence really enough to reopen a closed case and file charges? Again, that’s another judgment call. Like Judge Robreno’s decision to unseal the damning deposition records, Steele’s decision was basically up to him.

Of course, Steele chose to make it an election issue as well. He’d look foolish if, having just accused Bruce Castor of doing nothing, he did nothing too. But again, that was Steele’s decision. Just as prosecuting “America’s Dad” in 2005 might have made Castor look bad, prosecuting America’s Rapist in 2015 makes Steele look good.

We imagine that district attorneys and other prosecutors are motivated by truth, justice, and the American way. But in fact, they are elected officials who paint in broad strokes for a mostly-ignorant public; who, unlike judges, cannot be held accountable for their misconduct by oversight boards; and who exercise discretion so broad that the disposition of justice often lies entirely within their judgment.

Finally, of course, Tamir Rice and Bill Cosby have more in common than under-zealous prosecutors: both African American males, one quite young and one quite old, operating in a system in which 95 percent of prosecutors are white and local police forces are 88 percent white.

For decades, Cosby was protected by his wealth, celebrity, class, and connections, particularly at Temple University. But he is the exception, not the rule. Black men comprise 6 percent of the U.S. population, but 35 percent of the prison population. They receive sentences roughly 10 percent more severe than white defendants convicted of identical crimes. And when they are perceived to be older than they are, bigger than they are, more dangerous than they are, or more violent than they are, their 88 percent-white police officers and 95 percent-white-prosecutors exercise “discretion” in remarkably similar ways.

The United States is the only country in the world that elects prosecutors based on sloganeering and then holds them to no standard other than majority whim. After nearly 12 years, Bill Cosby has indeed been charged with a crime. But only because a prosecutor decided to do so—this time.

 

By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, January 1, 2016

January 3, 2016 Posted by | Bill Cosby, Prosecutors, Tamir Rice | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“I’m No Neophyte”: How Racists Talk About Tamir Rice

A little time has passed since a grand jury in Cleveland refused to indict two white police officers responsible for the November 2014 death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was black.

One minute this child was playing in a city park with an air pellet gun. Seconds later, after a police squad car swooped up next to him, he was on the ground — alone and mortally wounded.

After 13 months of waiting for any sign of justice, the reaction from too many white people to the grand jury decision has severed me from my will for diplomacy. I am a 58-year-old white woman, and I am sickened by how many people who look like me talk about race.

I’m no stranger to their way of thinking. My father struggled with race until the day he died, but his fear of black people he never knew could not gain traction with me. By age 6, I knew he was wrong. Whenever he pounded the table and called them those awful names, I saw the faces of exactly half of my classmates. They were my friends.

As I wrote last year for The Atlantic, “it was not the natural order of things to be so young and know your father had no idea what he was talking about.” It framed our relationship for all of his days.

I share that story not to dishonor my father, whom I loved and miss to this day. I just want to make clear that I’m no neophyte when it comes to knowing what some white people believe about black people. Sometimes I think I’ve spent much of my career trying to make up for the harm the people I come from have inflicted on the lives of innocent strangers.

For as long as I’ve been a newspaper columnist — 13 years and counting — I’ve been on the receiving end of angry mail from white readers. One of their favorite cut-and-paste missives in emails and social media posts criticizes and even mocks what they call “black English.” How they love to spew their racist rants about dialect. It makes them feel so shiny-white superior.

Their hate is couched in white English, which has nothing to do with accents. White English is a state of mind. It turns words into weapons to dehumanize an entire population of people, and it is bubbling up like pus in a dirty wound after Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty convinced a grand jury that the police were justified in killing a black child playing with an air gun.

White English casts Tamir Rice, for the first time in his short life, as an equal among men — rather than as a 12-year-old boy limited by the judgment of his years.

He “should have known better.” He should have “listened to the police,” as if there’s no reason to doubt their claim that they yelled three warnings to this child in less than two seconds.

White English repeats, over and over, that this child was “big for his age.”

He’s not 12-year-old Tamir; he’s “Mr. Rice.” Even in his grave, he grows. He is no longer 5 feet 7 inches tall.

He was 5 feet 9.

He was 5’11”.

He was 6 feet tall.

He was a man.

He was a menace.

He was a thug.

White English is the language of the Superior White Parents club, where perfect children raised by perfect parents now raise perfect children of their own who would never jump around in a park and pretend to be shooting a toy gun. They know this because they have special powers that allow them to see what their perfect children are doing every minute of every day. If you dare suggest this is not possible, they will turn on you in a hot minute. How dare you question their parenting as they pick apart Tamir Rice’s mother?

White English has no words to acknowledge that Samaria Rice loved her son. That she banned toy guns from their home. That she didn’t know he had his friend’s air gun that day.

Two months ago, in an interview for Politico, Samaria Rice told me she watches the video of the last few moments of her son’s life — when he was still very much alive. She studies it, over and over, searching for any sign of what he may have been thinking right before the bullet tore through him.

“He didn’t have a lot of suspicions about people,” she said. “I look at him in that video and I’m wondering: ‘What are you thinking right now? Do you know what’s about to happen to you?’”

She was certain there would be no indictments for those police officers, she told me. She was waiting for God to tell her what comes next.

Which is worse, having your hopes dashed or knowing you will never see justice from a system that insists your child had it coming?

He was a boy.

He was a boy.

He was a boy.

 

By: Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist; The National Memo, December 31, 2015

January 1, 2016 Posted by | Black Americans, Racism, Tamir Rice, White Americans | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Not Outright Guilty, But Not Innocent Either”: Republicans Dance Close To Line In Regards To Planned Parenthood

Our question of the day: Who — or what — should take the blame?

The reference is to last week’s act of domestic terrorism at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs. Authorities say three people were killed and nine wounded by Robert Dear, an eccentric, 57-year-old recluse.

After his arrest, he is reported to have muttered something about “No more baby parts,” an apparent reference to a controversial hidden-camera video purporting to prove Planned Parenthood harvests and sells the organs of aborted fetuses for a profit, a charge the organization has strenuously denied.

So who is responsible for this atrocity?

It’s a question asked with numbing frequency in a country where you can pretty much set your watch by the random shootings. Nor are answers ever in short supply. We frequently hear that someone’s rhetoric is at fault.

This happened four years ago when a mentally ill man killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson. Jane Fonda blamed Sarah Palin.

It happened last year, when a deranged man ambushed and executed two police officers in Brooklyn. Erick Erickson, a Fox “News” contributor, blamed President Obama.

So one is hardly surprised, in the wake of this latest shooting, that Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president, blamed the “toxic environment” created by Republican presidential candidates.

Truth is, if you want to blame someone for this shooting, start with the man who pulled the trigger. You might also investigate what roles were played by the mental health system and the legal system that allowed him access to a weapon of mass destruction.

Point being, in the rush to draw the larger moral lesson, one should be wary of absolving the guilty of their crimes, even if only by inference. That said, let us note that Laguens’ criticism is qualitatively different from that leveled by Fonda against Palin or Erickson against Obama. Meaning that it’s not absurd on its face.

After all, while one has a constitutionally guaranteed right to express one’s opinion, one has no such right to threaten or incite violence. There is, in other words, a fundamental difference between saying “Joe is a terrible person” and saying “Somebody should teach Joe a lesson” or “Joe needs to get what’s coming to him.”

Have Republicans crossed that line with regard to Planned Parenthood?

Probably not. But they have danced uncomfortably and undeniably close to it. When you habitually refer to abortion providers as criminals, butchers, Nazis, barbarians, and baby killers, you cannot be surprised if someone sees them as less than human — and acts accordingly. Carry lit matches through dry tinder and every now and again, you will start a fire.

One is reminded of how, years ago, before he himself became a TV cop, rapper and heavy metal singer Ice-T was asked if he thought his songs expressing hatred of police might cause acts of violence against them.

He said no. If somebody aspired to kill cops, he said, “All I did was make him a theme song.” He was right, except that he seemed to think himself morally exonerated by that reasoning.

But if you create an environment where violence against some person or group seems righteous — even if you don’t explicitly call for that violence — are your hands wholly clean when the violence comes? If you give hatred a theme song, what is your responsibility when a disaffected soul starts singing along?

You’ll find no pat answers here — only a question worth pondering for people of conscience in general and the Republican contenders in particular. No, they did not cause this shooting. They are not guilty.

Problem is, they’re not innocent, either.

 

By: Leonard Pitts., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, December 2, 2015

December 3, 2015 Posted by | Domestic Terrorism, Planned Parenthood, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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