Saturday, September 29, 2007

September 22

Updated It turns out that the feds are keeping far more extensive records on travelers than they have previously admitted,
retaining data on the persons with whom they travel or plan to stay, the personal items they carry during their journeys, and even the books that travelers have carried, according to documents obtained by a group of civil liberties advocates and statements by government officials[, the Washington Post reported].

The personal travel records are meant to be stored for as long as 15 years, as part of the Department of Homeland Security's effort to assess the security threat posed by all travelers entering the country. ...

The Automated Targeting System has been used to screen passengers since the mid-1990s, but the collection of data for it has been greatly expanded and automated since 2002, according to former DHS officials.
John Gilmore, a civil liberties activist in San Francisco whose records were requested on his behalf by The Identity Project, accused the feds of "trying to build a surveillance society," especially after discovering that his own file
included a note from a Customs and Border Patrol officer that he carried the marijuana-related book "Drugs and Your Rights."
Officials from the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland insisted the government is not interested in travelers' reading habit. Really, they mean it. Really. In the words of spokesman Russ Knocke,
We are completely uninterested in the latest Tom Clancy novel that the traveler may be reading.
Apparently, though, if your reading habits run to something a bit more unusual than right-wing Cold War potboilers, well, that's different.
Knocke said, "if there is some indication based upon the behavior or an item in the traveler's possession that leads the inspection officer to conclude there could be a possible violation of the law, it is the front-line officer's duty to further scrutinize the traveler." Once that happens, Knocke said, "it is not uncommon for the officer to document interactions with a traveler that merited additional scrutiny."

He said that he is not familiar with the file that mentions Gilmore's book about drug rights, but that generally "front-line officers have a duty to enforce all laws within our authority, for example, the counter-narcotics mission." [Emphasis added.]
Which means, if it means anything at all, that having a book about the legal aspects of drug use is an "indication" of a violation of "narcotics" laws legitimately provoking a "document[ed] interaction."

What's more, not just what you read but what you write can be of considerable interest to the protectors of all that is good and decent, and not just if you're a software salesman-novelist on a plane:
Zakariya Reed, a Toledo firefighter ... has been detained at least seven times at the Michigan border since fall 2006. Twice, he said, he was questioned by border officials about "politically charged" opinion pieces he had published in his local newspaper. The essays were critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, he said. Once, during a secondary interview, he said, "they had them printed out on the table in front of me."
The so-called "passenger name record" (PNR) information stored in the DHS database - and often provided to airlines and other companies when reservations are made - are extensive. They routinely include name, address, credit card info, telephone number, email, itinerary, hotel and rental car reservations, and even the type of bed requested in a hotel. And, we're now learning, they may contain much more besides, including your race, your profession, where and with who you have traveled, contact phone numbers, and even the name of your travel agent along with alternate itineraries the agent may have examined.

Edward Hasbrouck, a civil liberties activist who was a travel agent for over 15 years,
said that travel records are among the most potentially invasive of records because they can suggest links: They show who a traveler sat next to, where they stayed, when they left. "It's that lifetime log of everywhere you go that can be correlated with other people's movements that's most dangerous," he said. "If you sat next to someone once, that's a coincidence. If you sat next to them twice, that's a relationship."
In an unintentionally revealing statement, Stewart Verdery, formerly a top official at DHS, said the data
should be considered "an investigative tool, just the way we do with law enforcement, who take records of things for future purposes when they need to figure out where people came from, what they were carrying and who they are associated with. That type of information is extremely valuable when you're trying to thread together a plot or you're trying to clean up after an attack."
Or, put more bluntly, it's a data vacuum aimed at gathering and storing as much data on as many people as possible just in case they might want to use it later because, ultimately, everyone's a suspect.

Footnote: The Identity Project explains how you can request a copy of your own DHS travel dossier here.

Updated with some links, some additional sorts of information that might be in a file, and the Footnote.

September 20

Again to Indiana and the Indianapolis Star, which wrote that
[s]tudents attending last Friday’s Carmel High School football game received an alcohol breath test before they entered the game.

Students have been Breathalyzed at proms and homecoming dances for the last three years, but it was the first time for a football game, said Superintendent Barbara Underwood. ...

“That (Friday’s game) was the trial period to see if logistically we could do it,” [Amy Skeens-Benton, dean of students and activities,] said. “It worked out just fine. It was a lot easier than we thought.”
As a result, school and district administrators are considering requiring such tests for all student attendees at every football game from now on. Not because it proved to be necessary, but because it proved to be easy. Again, being tested, being checked, being searched, being told by officialdom "we're watching you," is being made a normal part of life, something to be accepted without question.
No student has ever tested positive at any school event, including dances, Skeens-Benton said.
Which, bizarrely, does not give rise to the notion that maybe such testing is unnecessary but rather to the idea that it should be done even more. What a wonderful example of the bureaucratic, power-wielding mindset.

August 15

The Wall Street Journal reported that
[t]he U.S.'s top intelligence official has greatly expanded the range of federal and local authorities who can get access to information from the nation's vast network of spy satellites in the U.S.

The decision, made three months ago by Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, places for the first time some of the U.S.'s most powerful intelligence-gathering tools at the disposal of domestic security officials. The move was authorized in a May 25 memo....
Before, the only other agencies that could get the data were a few federal civilian ones such NASA and the USGS, and then only for scientific and environmental research. Now, however, everybody from The Department for the Security of the Fatherland to local police can seek access to the most powerful satellite surveillance technology available, secure in the knowledge that
[u]nlike electronic eavesdropping, which is subject to legislative and some judicial control, this use of spy satellites is largely uncharted territory. Although the courts have permitted warrantless aerial searches of private property by law-enforcement aircraft, there are no cases involving the use of satellite technology.
Which to cops, as a general rule, translates to "no restrictions."
"You are talking about enormous power," said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel and director of the Project on Freedom, Security and Technology for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit group advocating privacy rights in the digital age.
The WSJ notes that some military experts have suggested that such domestic use of military spy satellites violates the Posse Comitatus Act. But so what? Who cares that some stupid law says it's illegal? That's just really so very September 10th thinking.

August 12

The Boston Globe let it be known that
[t]he Department of Homeland Security is funneling millions of dollars to local governments nationwide for purchasing high-tech video camera networks, accelerating the rise of a "surveillance society" in which the sense of freedom that stems from being anonymous in public will be lost, privacy rights advocates warn.
Federal money is helping localities large and small watch their citizens (and visitors) ever-more closely. The article mentions places ranging from major cities like New York and Chicago, through Baltimore, Boston, St. Paul, Madison, WI, and Pittsburgh, down to small towns like Scottsbluff, NE (population 14,000) and Liberty, KS (population 95). In at least New York, Chicago, and Boston, the police surveillance systems link with private (i.e., corporate) security systems, both extending their reach and potentially giving private companies access to information intended solely for police.
[P]rivacy rights advocates say that the technology is putting at risk something that is hard to define but is core to personal autonomy. The proliferation of cameras could mean that Americans will feel less free because legal public behavior - attending a political rally, entering a doctor's office, or even joking with friends in a park - will leave a permanent record, retrievable by authorities at any time. ...

As this technological capacity evolves, it will be far easier for individuals to attract police suspicion simply for acting differently and far easier for police to track that person's movement closely, including retracing their steps backwards in time. It will also create a greater risk that the officials who control the cameras could use them for personal or political gain, specialists said.
As an exclamation point to that: The 1974 Supreme Court decision in US v. Nixon ordered Richard Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes to prosecutors. In the course of that ruling, the Court found that there is a Constitutional basis for a claim of executive privilege but rejected the assertion that there is an absolute claim to privilege, i.e., such claims are subject to review and can be overridden - as Nixon's were. The point here is that in writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger said that
[h]uman experience teaches that those who expect public dissemination of their remarks may well temper candor with a concern for appearances and for their own interests to the detriment of the decisionmaking process. (Page 418 U.S. 683, 705) ...

A President and those who assist him must be free to explore alternatives in the process of shaping policies and making decisions and to do so in a way many would be unwilling to express except privately. (Page 418 U.S. 683, 708)
Who could reasonably argue that an ordinary person on the street, aware that anything and everything they do may be observed and recorded by officials, would not likewise "temper candor" (or, more appropriately, any potentially unpopular behavior) "with a concern for appearances?" That is the true threat presented by the sort of pervasive, sweeping, surveillance being found in more and more places.

Finally, and I'm tempted to say "of course," while such cameras do serve as sources of expanded control, they are not good at doing what they are pitched as doing.
[S]ome homeland security specialists point to studies showing that cameras are not effective in deterring crime or terrorism. Although video can be useful in apprehending suspects after a crime or attack, the specialists say that the money used to buy and maintain cameras would be better spent on hiring more police.
Or, sometimes, on something as simple and low-tech as better lighting. But that's not as sexy, is it? I also bet you can't get grants for it.

August 3

A federal judge ruled that the CIA can force Valerie Plame to remain silent about the length of her time at spook central, even though that information is already publicly available in places including the Congressional Record. The net effect is that information can be labeled classified even when it's already public. This, according to US District Judge Barbara Jones in New York, is "sound policy."

I say it's more of a way to punish people for stating facts that government doesn't want us to know. For one dramatic example, back in November 1979 The Progressive magazine published "The H-bomb secret: How we got it - why we're telling it." The article argued that there was no "secret," that the information was available to anyone, including any foreign agency or power, that wanted to find it.

However, the article had been subjected to an injunction in a rare case of imposing prior restraint on publication on the grounds that it contained classified information, the release of which would be dangerous to national security. That injunction was lifted only after another researcher within just a couple of months duplicated the original author's work, proving the original point.

Note, however, that by Judge Jones' ruling, the fact that the info was publicly available would not have mattered: The restraining order still could be maintained and anyone who did publish the information might face charges of unauthorized distribution of classified materials.

August 2

Updated According to the Indianapolis Star, screeners from the Transportation Security Administration engaged in a morning "VIPR" operation at two downtown bus stops.
"It's called Visual Intermodal Prevention Response. We have plainclothes inspectors, blue-gloved uniformed security officers who are checking baggage, the behavior detection officers, and federal air marshals, which are the law enforcement arm of TSA,"
said David Kane, the local federal security director for TSA.
Some passengers were patted down or submitted to having bags checked.

TSA said the searches were “by-permission,” meaning patrons could decline to be checked. Those who did would not be turned away, an official said, unless they otherwise appeared to be a security threat.
Oh, it was "voluntary," so no harm no foul, you say? Leaving aside the issue of just how free people felt to refuse, if it's all and truly voluntary, why do it except either as 1)a dress rehearsal for a time when it will be a requirement for using public transportation or, as seems to be happening more and more, 2)a means of getting people used to the idea of being stopped, frisked, and searched as a normal experience?

Updated with a Footnote: In 1998, a federal appeals court ruled in the case of a "voluntary" search of passengers on an interstate bus, that
a reasonable person traveling on this bus would not have felt free to ignore the search request.
But in another example of how far down the slope we have slid, in June 2002 the Supreme Court reversed, saying that those who were searched allowed it entirely of their own free will and that the situation of sitting on a bus with a cop at the front, another at the back, and a third going down the aisle contained no element of coercion or intimidation.
In fact, Justice Kennedy said, the incident was reassuring, inviting cooperation between passengers and the police. Bus passengers commonly cooperate, he said, ''not because of coercion but because the passengers know that their participation enhances their own safety and the safety of those around them.''
He even claimed that "it reinforces the rule of law" for citizens to be put in the position of having to challenge police in order to maintain their rights rather than for the police to have to justify their actions. In a fine example of judicial restraint, David Souter said in dissent that there was ''an air of unreality'' to Kennedy's description.

There's been a lot of that going around.

July 26

A student at Southern Illinois University named Olutosin Oduwole was arrested on a charge of "attempting to make a terrorist threat" because of a note found in his abandoned car that
demanded $50,000 - to his PayPal account! - to avert a "murderous rampage" at a "highly populated university."
I'm wondering how you "attempt" to make a threat. The threat was never made, the note was never sent, never shown to anyone, and the demand really was rather bizarre. Even if I could figure out how one "attempts" to make a threat (as opposed to making one), where here lies the attempt? Does this go back to the student who was arrested in Kentucky for making a terrorist threat because he wrote a fictional story that involved zombies attacking an unnamed high school? (Just to head off one possible reaction, if Oduwole had in some way publicized the note, that is, if he had actually made a threat, I would not object to his being charged with that.)

By the way, on August 3 a federal judge sided with prosecutors and refused to reduce Oduwole's $1 million bond.

July 2, 2004

Yes, this item is a few years old and in fact I've mentioned it before, but it's so clearly relevant I'm going to repeat it. It's from a piece in the Houston Chronicle by a software salesman named Charles Green, describing his run-in with TSA.

While on a flight from New Orleans to Dallas, he scribbled a line of potential dialog for a novel he was writing in the margin of a crossword puzzle he was working on. The passage contained the word "bomb." A passenger sitting next to him saw the line, panicked, and told a flight attendant.

When Green got to Dallas, he was taken into custody and questioned, first by airport security and then by the TSA. He was lectured and scolded, told his choice of dialog was unfortunate and life is not a stage play and anything can set people off. He was told he hadn't crossed the line, whatever line that may be and wherever it may be, but he had walked right up to it. As a result, he was placed on TSA's watch list.

Get that? He was put on the watch list because he happened to write the word "bomb" in a crossword puzzle magazine while on a plane - even though no one else was even supposed to see it and even though both the security guard and the TSA goon admitted after hearing his explanation that its use was totally innocent and he was no threat. But he stood out - he got noticed - and for that he must be punished with a future of hassles and delays every time he tries to fly anywhere.

Some civil liberties-related posts

The responses to my two recent posts about Star Simpson got me thinking again about the fact that we are losing a very important something, something which can sometimes be hard to describe exactly, but which is still important to us: a certain sense of freedom, a certain awareness of privacy. I have no desire to re-argue the issue of Star Simpson, but looking back on the debate from a day or two away, it still strikes me how some seemingly fair-minded people insisted, sincerely, that drawn machine guns were not only a rational response, but in fact the only rational response to a funny-looking gadget that in a less-fearful time would very likely not have gotten a second glance except to say "hey, look at the funny-looking gadget."

Oh, and please, don't anyone argue "yeah, but times have changed." Times may have changed, but the physical appearance of a suicide bomb has not, at least not that much. If you justify the police response on the grounds that the times are different, you in fact are admitting that the thing did not look like a bomb and it's only that undercurrent of fear which we've pumped into our collective nervous system that would turn it into one in anyone's mind and so drive the official response and our reaction to that response.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about in this series of posts. I asserted more than once in comments on the Simpson case that the climate of fear that exists is a far greater risk to our civil liberties than the terrorists are. I thought I should back that up some by noting a few of the events and actions chipping away at our civil liberties and privacy that have been going on recently under cover of "protecting" us. I am of course not claiming this is any kind of extensive overview and even less that this has only just started (I would argue rather the opposite on that last point), especially since I've posted about privacy issues before (what's at that link being far from a complete list), but only that these are a few recent, illustrative examples.

And even those do not include the Congressional collapse on FISA or the serious charge by Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) that
congressional Republicans promoted “bogus” intelligence about a reputed terror threat on Capitol Hill last summer, inflaming debate over the Bush administration’s proposal to dramatically expand the U.S. government’s electronic surveillance powers. ...

In the days before the vote on the surveillance bill in early August, the U.S. Capitol Police suddenly stepped up security procedures, and one top Republican senator, Trent Lott, seemed to allude to the report when he claimed that “disaster could be on our doorstep” if the Congress didn’t immediately act. Inside the Congress, “there was a buzz about this,” Harman told NEWSWEEK. “There was an orchestrated campaign to basically gut FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], and this piece of uncorroborated intelligence was used as part of it.”
In fact, the report was quickly discredited and never taken seriously - but that didn't prevent it from being bandied about as, it appears, a means of instilling fear.

And yes, there has been some good news, some push back, on the civil liberties front recently, and if I feel up to it later, as I hope I will, I will get into that. But for right now, I want to get this up and out, so here in a string of short items are some quick jabs to the body of our freedoms.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Another thing to get before it slips too far away

Something that the arrest of Star Simpson got me thinking about was the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer notoriously wrongly convicted of treason in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. Specifically, that there is one way in which the cases overlap.

No, I am not comparing Star Simpson to Alfred Dreyfus and I am not comparing the Boston jail to Devil's Island. Pay attention. I said in one way, which I am about to explain.

It quickly became obvious to many observers that Dreyfus was innocent, especially when the French military stonewalled the case of the man who proved to be the actual traitor, one Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Emile Zola became interested in the case, leading to the publication of one of the most famous open letters ever written. The title was "J'accuse!" and it shredded the official story.

The point of this digression is that at one point, discussing the "evidence" presented against Dreyfus at his court-martial, Zola wrote
He knew several languages: a crime! He carried no compromising papers: a crime! He would occasionally visit his country of origin: a crime! He was hard-working, and strove to be well informed: a crime! He did not become flustered: a crime! He became flustered: a crime!
Zola's clear point being that once the decision had been made that Dreyfus was guilty, everything was interpreted that way, everything became proof of guilt.

A surprising amount of the commentary about Star Simpson has taken the same tack: The assumption has been made that she is guilty, apparently simply because the police say so, and everything about the case is described based on that assumption - so everything she did or didn't do is taken as evidence of her guilt.

And - I'm tempted to say "of course" - the story grew in whatever way was necessary to maintain that notion. In reading various responses and comments on them I was struck by how many times, how disturbingly, disgustingly, distressingly, disconcertingly many times, the police version was simply swallowed whole and washed down with a glassful of imagined details. Over and over, Simpson was described as having "a fake bomb." She was blamed for having "snubbed" the clerk and it was claimed she was "edgy" and "nervous," none of which appeared in a single news account I saw and are terms which Major Pare did not use in his news conference after the arrest. In a response to my post below, it even became that she "avoided security when questioned."

And the psych 101 devotees had a field day with her statement that she wore the device because she wanted to stand out at career day at school. That, in their minds, became clear proof that she "just wanted attention" and in fact wanted to provoke an incident at the airport with her "fake bomb."

Which brings up the other point I wanted to address on this: The underlying message is that she brought all of it on herself. Whether deliberately or accidentally, it doesn't matter - she brought it on herself by standing out from the crowd. By being noticeable. By being noticed.

There is a renewed drive, one riding the wave of carefully sown and reaped fear, toward socially-enforced conformity. Because that's how you stay safe, that's how you avoid getting into trouble. Don't stand out, don't be different, don't attract attention, don't do anything that might upset anyone - because if you do you run the risk of being thought a threat, of being faced with guns, and if you panic, get flustered, freeze up, or otherwise refuse to instantly "comply with instructions" you can get shot down and if you are it's all your fault for not being sufficiently unobtrusive and compliant. So much of what is being said about Simpson, obvious even from a cursory look, comes down to "she should have known better." If not that she should have known better than to try to provoke a reaction with her "fake bomb," then that she should have known better than to think her artwork wouldn't cause an official panic. Or, expressed positively, she should have known that it would cause an official panic and so not worn it.

That is, she should have anticipated that a plastic circuit board with some blinking LEDs would flip out authorities. She should have realized that anything out of the ordinary would have the machine guns coming out. She should have looked herself over, carefully and methodically, to eliminate anything that any official could possibly construe as maybe somehow suspicious - and upon arrival she had to make sure that her behavior was equally unnoteworthy. That, we were told in multiple cases, would have been the "reasonable" thing to do. Embrace the fear. Make it yours.

(Parenthetical question: If this device was so suspicious, how come it appears that no one in the entire freaking airport other than this one clerk thought it worthy of notice?)

But of course, and showing how stupid this whole thing is, not standing out is exactly what any successful bomber is going to want to do. Blending in, being unworthy of particular notice, is precisely what they are after. So we close in on ourselves, point with suspicion to the oddballs, the ones who stand out, the ones who seem, we say through narrowed eyes, "strange." We limit our options, cast doubt on eccentricity, declare self-expression a security risk - and in thus crippling our souls still don't do a damned thing to make ourselves one bit more secure.

Footnote One: Why am I not surprised by this from the Boston Herald for Sunday:
Prosecutors plan to pursue charges against the MIT sophomore who triggered Friday’s security scramble at Logan International Airport, but may face daunting odds obtaining a conviction, according to legal analysts.

“I don’t think you could get 12 out of 12 jurors to agree this student actually meant for people to think she had a bomb,” said Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense lawyer. “A suicide bomber is going to hide the bomb, not wear it on the front of their shirt.”

“It could be quite difficult to obtain a conviction,” agreed Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
There were a few other things in that article worth mentioning. One is the remark by Rose that the cops may well have had probable cause "to stop and search and maybe arrest her if she’s someone wearing wires at an airport and doesn’t answer questions.” Arrest her? Since there is no legal requirement for you to supply a cop with any information other than your name, on precisely what charge is someone arrested for "wearing wires?" The truth is, I'm not overly impressed with the MCLU; it too often seems too willing to go "well, maybe to cops have a case" on some civil liberties question. I was really upset with them back in 2004 when the Boston transit police announced they were going to start random searches of people riding the T (the Boston bus and subway system). At the time, Rose said the policy was "deeply flawed" but said well, sure, she understood the need for security. In another quote not included in the linked post, the group said they thought the searches would be okay so long as they were truly random. So, yeah, violations of the Fourth Amendment are okay so long as they're "random." I'm deeply impressed.

Also in the Herald piece there was retired Superior Court Judge Robert Barton, who allowed as how Simpson "shouldn’t have to live forever branded as a terrorist" but called her a "fool" who needs to "gets her head screwed on straight" - apparently endorsing the official storyline that the incident was something she knowingly provoked - before suggesting that
it has to be the right time before (prosecutors) give her a break because they can’t set a precedent too soon after the incident.
Right. She can be called a fool, publicly denounced, mocked and ridiculed as either a boneheaded provocateur or a clueless airhead, but god forbid the prosecutor should be a touch embarrassed by bringing these insane charges.

Oh, but the best was Jake Wark, spokesman for DA Daniel Conley, who said without a hint of irony,
Like it or not, we live in a world in which a person might target an airport.... There’s a reason why police patrol that area with canines and machine guns. This wasn’t a cartoon character she was wearing.
Considering how Boston police reacted to LED-lit cartoon characters in January, why are we supposed to think that would make a difference?

Footnote Two: An excellent illustration of what I've been talking about is on the same page as that Boston Herald story. (Although it may not be there later, I believe this is changed every day.) The "Herald Pulse" poll has this question:
How do you interpret Star Simpson's actions at Logan International Airport?
- She was making an artistic statement.
- She was making a political statement.
- She was looking for attention and she got it.
- She must have missed the news reports on Sept. 11 2001. Otherwise there's no excuse.
That is, she either was making a "statement," just trying to get attention, or mind-bogglingly unaware of the world around her. There is no option under which the official reaction could be other than reasonable. The paranoid reaction of the desk clerk, the panicked grabbing for the heavy artillery, the official sigh of relief that they didn't have to blow her fucking head off - all absolutely rational, exactly what we should want, and eminently, oh yes very eminently, reasonable.

The times are getting darker.

Before this slips too far away

Those who want to insist - and, depressingly but not surprisingly, they do exist - that there was nothing racial involved in the case of the Jena 6 have something else to dismiss now, as reported by CNN on Friday:
Authorities in Alexandria, less than 40 miles southwest of Jena, arrested two people who were driving a red pickup Thursday night with two nooses hanging off the back, repeatedly passing groups of demonstrators who were waiting for buses back to their home states. ...

The truck was circling around town, repeatedly driving past groups of demonstrators, the [police] report said. The officers pulled the pickup over and arrested two after searching the vehicle. ...

An entry in the report lists "Bias Motive: Racial Anti-Black."
The driver was 18, his passenger 16. The driver was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, DUI, and inciting to riot.
The passenger told police he and his family are in the Ku Klux Klan and that he had KKK tattooed on his chest, the police report said. He also said that he tied the nooses and that the brass knuckles [found in a cupholder on the dashboard] belonged to him, the report said.
Whether that's true or if he's saying that to shield the older boy (since he, at 16, is a juvenile) doesn't really matter to me. I also don't care if they were trying to make a serious threat of a lynching or if they just decided it's be real good fun to go scare themselves some darkies and for the moment I'm not concerned with what would be proper legal penalties. I'm concerned with the fact that it is vile.

To his credit, Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy came out to apologize to the crowd and later said he is looking into whether the incident was a hate crime.

Which brings up something else that should be noted: Perhaps some are, but I am not, saying that every white in the area, or every white in Jena, is a racist. However, I am saying that there is racism there, racism is involved in these events, and those people who close their eyes to it, who refuse to confront it, while they perhaps are not as guilty as the actual racists, neither are they excused.

Then again, some people are just outright guilty. The Washington Post said on Saturday that
FBI agents are looking into a neo-Nazi Web site, which has listed the home addresses and phone numbers of the six black teenagers charged in the beating of a white schoolmate in Jena, La., a bureau spokeswoman said last night.

The Thursday posting on the site that lists the information also encourages readers to "get in touch, and let them know justice is coming."

The FBI is investigating to see whether the posting violates federal laws, special agent Sheila Thorne said from New Orleans.
The website is the work of a peace of shit named William White who heads a white-supremicist group based in Roakoke, VA. He's apparently well-known in the area, as indicated by this from the Roanoke Times:
White has a penchant for inserting inflammatory rhetoric into racially charged incidents that attract national attention, as the Jena Six case has done this week.

"He has done this kind of thing routinely, but probably never in such an outrageous way as this," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.

"It's appalling, but it's not surprising."
Appalling, yes, but not as appalling as the fact that according to a report at Bay Area Indymedia, CNN had White on, on Friday, during which time it
allowed him to broadcast a specific threat or call for attack against the Jena 6.
This, I suppose, is what passes for "balance" in the news: Cover a demonstration condemning racism and then interview someone celebrating it. If this report is accurate, that is almost a definition of appalling.

Another shocking tale

I found this through the blog A Sense of Urgency and tracked back to the original source, a report in the Houston Chronicle from last Wednesday:
Electronic control device producer Taser International Inc. said Wednesday it received an order for 700 devices and related accessories from the U.S. Forest Service for an undisclosed sum.

The Forest Service is the latest federal department to place an order with Taser. The departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Interior and Agriculture have previously order Taser devices.

The order will ship by the end of the year.
Deb at A Sense of Urgency wonders, legitimately enough,
Who thinks this is a good idea? Is it for protection against the proverbial lions, tigers and bears?
Personally, I figure it's for necessary protection against some rowdy redwoods somewhere. They can get pretty uppity, y'know.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Be afraid, be very afraid

Updated Increasingly, however, the proper response is to ask "Afraid of who?" This is from today's Boston Globe:
An MIT student wearing a device on her chest that included lights and wires was arrested at gunpoint at Logan International Airport this morning after authorities thought the contraption was a bomb strapped to her body.

Star Simpson, 19, was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and approached an airport employee in Terminal C at 8 a.m. to inquire about an incoming flight from Oakland, according to Major Scott Pare of the State Police. She was holding a lump of what looked like putty in her hands. The employee asked about the plastic circuit board on her chest, and Simpson walked away without responding, Pare said.

Outside the terminal, Simpson was surrounded by police holding machine guns.

"She was immediately told to stop, to raise her hands, and not make any movement so we could observe all her movements to see if she was trying to trip any type of device," Pare said at a press conference at Logan. "There was obviously a concern that had she not followed the protocol ... we may have used deadly force." ...

"Thankfully because she followed our instructions, she ended up in our cell instead of a morgue," Pare said.
Okay, follow along here. She was surrounded by machine guns, threatened with being shot down in cold blood - and if she had it would have been all her fault for not following "protocol" - and arrested. The reason for all this? Some paranoid ticket clerk flipped out over a circuit board with blinking lights on the front of a sweatshirt! Oh yeah, sure, like some terrorist suicide bomber is going to light themselves up like some department store Christmas tree.

As just as the script demands, when it developed that Simpson was no threat and the device was harmless (and the "putty" proved to be Play-doh), she was arrested, the better to cover the cops' collective ass. The charge was possessing a "hoax device" - this even though there was no hoax, she never pretended or gave any indication the device was anything other than what it is, neither made nor even vaguely hinted at any threat of any sort.

If that seems silly remember that Boston is the city that in 2004 laid the same charge against a student re-enacting the famous photo from Abu Ghraib of the hooded prisoner on a box. In his case, the "hoax device" consisted of wires dangling from his wrists down to an empty milk crate. The charges were later dropped.

The city did it again in January of this year in the notorious "Mooninite scare" when the city went into a panic over some LED ads in the shape of cartoon characters. Again, the charge was "hoax devices" and again the charges were later dropped, although in this case the city managed to extort a $2 million settlement from Turner Broadcasting to pay for official costs supposedly incurred in the incident and wring some hours of community service from the two defendants. (Sidebar: The devices were also put up in nine other cities - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Francisco, and Philadelphia - without incident.)

Still, still, Minor Pare called Simpson's actions
"a serious offense ... I’m shocked and appalled that somebody would wear this type of device to an airport."
Oh, grow up, you wimp. What's shocking and appalling here is your Keystone Kops approach to security and your petulant, childish attempts to push the blame for your own panic onto someone else.

I mean, this is beyond maddening, it is outright frightening. Frightening that so many are so ready, even so eager, to see constant danger all around us and that so many police are so ready, even so eager, to whip out the threat of deadly force at the least provocation - and then blame the terrorized victim when the official paranoia proves unwarranted.

Naomi Wolf has a new book out suggesting that the US is slipping toward a dictatorship on the grounds that the Bush administration is undertaking every one of the 10 steps she identifies as having in prior cases been necessary to destroy political freedoms. Number one on that list and clearly visible here, is "invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy." And if it develops you're not an enemy, well, dammit, you could have been so be grateful that we only imprisoned you instead of killing you.

Updated with a Footnote: A footnote that I meant to include last night and forgot.

I thought about Pare's statement that Simpson was told to stand still so cops could "see if she was trying to trip any type of device." It took me literally less than 10 seconds to see a flaw in that procedure.

Suppose I'm a suicide bomber. (I wonder if that phrase is going to set off any alarms at some web-scanning computer somewhere in officialdom.) I've decided that if I can't get to my target, if I'm stopped, I'll set the bomb off where I am and take as many people with me as I can.

The bomb is triggered by a switch released by pulling a pin. That pin is attached to a cord that is in turn fixed, perhaps by tape, to my arm in such a way that the very act of raising my hands pulls the pin. Cops catch me, I put up my hands in "surrender," and boom.

If I could think of that almost immediately, what makes anyone think that people who spend weeks or longer planning a bombing couldn't?

Sympathy for the devil

I want to pause a moment to express some degree of sympathy for the Democratic leadership in the Senate. The GOPpers there have made filibusters so routine that pretty much anything of consequence that has any chance of passing needs not just a majority, but the so-called "supermajority" of 60 votes, the number needed to force cloture and move to a vote on the bill itself.

That sympathy is tempered by the fact that Majority Leader Harry Reid has repeatedly capitulated to this bullying and withdrawn bills immediately after a first failed cloture attempt instead of, as he could have, keeping the bill on the floor and testing the GOPpers stomach for a real filibuster with cloture votes day after day after, if necessary, day, going out every single day and declaring "Once again, a handful of Republicans have prevented the Senate from doing what the American public wants it to do. Once again, this handful of obstructionists have declared their fealty to George Bush is more important than their fealty to the good of the nation." That's what he should have done and still should do. But be that as it may, here's my basis for my degree of sympathy:

Consider two recent bills that got some fair amount of attention. One was the one introduced by Senator Jim Webb which would have required soldiers returning from Iraq to have as much time home as they did in-country before being sent back. The other was the Leahy-Dodd bill to amend the heinous Military Commissions Act to restore habeas corpus protection. The former lost a cloture vote with 44 nays, the latter lost with 43 nays.

A total of 41 Senators voted "nay" both times. (It might have been 42 but one who voted against cloture on the Webb bill didn't vote on the habeas restoration bill). Those 41 include 40 GOPpers and "Independent" Joe Lieberman, who, it appears, has decided against running for re-election since it's unlikely voters in decidedly blue Connecticut will find his ass-kissing to their liking.

That is, there appears to be a solid bloc of 41 (and maybe 42) Senators who are prepared to use parliamentary maneuvers to block passage of any bill disfavored by the White House. They are reactionary, sycophantic, lapdogs who have given up even the pretense of representing their consciences or their constituents in favor of embracing as El Leader this smirking, incompetent frat boy who cheated his way into office, and who have made satisfying his every whim their solemn duty and upholding his every claim to greater and greater power their utmost obligation.

They are a disgrace to their offices, a disgrace to Congress, a disgrace to our republic system of representative government. And unless and until they start being both addressed and treated that way - plus as hypocrites, since you can be assured that as soon as Bush leaves office their devotion to unlimited presidential power will vanish along with him - it is only going to get worse.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More demonstrations

Updated On Saturday, I suggested that the favorable decision regarding Mychal Bell was unlikely to change anyone's intentions about attending today's rally in support of the Jena 6. It appears I was right. Reuters brings the news.
Tens of thousands of black Americans descended on a small town in central Louisiana on Thursday to protest what they say is injustice against six black teen-agers charged over a high school fight.

Protesters arrived in buses and cars from cities as far away and apart as New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New Orleans for a rally in support of the "Jena 6."
AFP adds that
[w]earing black clothing as a sign of mourning, protestors bused in from across the country chanted "No Justice! No Peace!" and swarmed the grounds of the town's high school, many bending to touch the stump of a tree cut down after it sparked months of racial tensions. ...

"The Department of Justice in Washington's gone silent," [Jesse] Jackson told the crowd. "We are intent to have hearings on the matter of criminal justice in Jena because there is a Jena in every town, a Jena in every state."
And AP said that
[a]t times the town resembled a giant festival, with people setting up tables of food and drink and some dancing while a man beat on a drum.

[Rev. Al] Sharpton admonished the crowd to remain peaceful, and there were no reports of trouble. State police could be seen chatting amicably with demonstrators at the courthouse.
AP also reported that state police estimated the crowd at 15,000-20,000 while organizers said it might be as many as 50,000. My own experience has been that in such cases a reasonable estimate can be obtained by averaging the claims and shading it some toward the organizers' figure (i.e., officials tend to undercount somewhat more than organizers tend to overcount). By that method, the crowd numbered in the range of 35,000-38,000. By any count, even the police figure, a whole lotta people that at least met the organizers' hopes.

What's more, there were protests elsewhere, in at least New York, Washington, Oklahoma City, and Baltimore, each drawing some hundreds of people.

A fair amount of the coverage compared the march to the civil rights marches of the '50s and while such comparisons are often either flip or a lazy way to have a hook, there were echoes not only in the fact of, and reasons for, the march but also in the reactions of those criticized, up to and including the insistence that there really isn't a problem even as the evidence says otherwise.

For example, both local US Attorney Donald Washington and local DA Reed Walters insist, in Walters' words, the case "is not and never has been about race." Washington even claimed
there was no direct link between the noose incident and the December fight, which he said was motivated by "male bravado" rather than race.
Yep, no "direct link," nothing racial involved at all. Totally separate. And the denial gets even more direct than that. In a pretty good overview in Newsweek about Jena, it says that
[m]any whites in Jena deny that the town has a race problem. Frankie Morris, a barber at Doughty's Westside Barbershop, says: "There's a bunch of country boys around here. They're not prejudiced."
This was said despite the fact that, as the article immediately goes on to say,
Morris's boss, Billy Doughty, has never cut a black man's hair because "the white customers, they might say something about cutting their hair with the same stuff," he says.
That refusal to see, the refusal to face what is and has been going on, becomes clear in the hometown newspaper's timeline of events. The Jena Times claimed in that timeline that the original question about blacks being able to sit under the tree was a "joke" intended to "invoke laughter" and everyone knew it. It insisted that there was "no racial motivation" for the nooses, something I fail to understand how anyone can be expected to believe. It repeatedly blamed "the media" for the problems, saying it was "flam[ing] the racial winds," which is something of a mixed metaphor, and "promoting racial tensions." And it also tossed off the attack on the black student in a single line but went on at length about the attack on the white student. (Note that at the link you have to scroll down to get to the timeline.)

[s]ome black community leaders in Jena said the case was an example of wider problems in the town, which they said was effectively segregated and had few opportunities for blacks more than 40 years after laws were passed to end segregation.

"Blacks live on one side of town. Whites live in another side of town. We live in a segregated city. We've done it all our lives. It's not something that we want but it's something we can't do anything about," said B.L. Morgan, pastor of Antioch church in the town and a rally organizer.
But oh no, there is nothing wrong, nothing to see here and
"[o]utsiders need to stay away," says [Billy] Fowler, the white school-board member. "Let local black and white people sit down and solve these problems."
Just like they did when they had a "whites only" tree at their school. Just like they did when nooses were considered a "prank." Just like they did when they decided it was a misdemeanor punished by probation when a black was the victim and attempted murder when a white was the victim. Just like they have done all along. And would continue to do in the absence of the spotlight of publicity and national attention.

Just to repeat what I have said before, the issue to me is not that the Jena 6 are being prosecuted, it is the grossly disparate legal treatment set against a background of segregation and racism. And I celebrate the moves to present Jena (and any- and everyplace else) with the reality of its racism.

Footnote: AFP includes some unsettling facts from the Urban League.
African-American men are three times more likely than white men to face jail once they have been arrested: 24.4 percent of blacks arrested in the United States in 2005 ended up in jail compared with 8.3 percent of white men.

They also receive jail sentences that are on average 15 percent longer than whites convicted of the same crime.

The biggest disparity is among men convicted of aggravated assault: black men were sentenced to an average of 48 months in jail, which is 33 percent longer than the average sentence of 36 months received by white men, according to the League's annual State of Black America report.
Jena is not alone. It is merely the current example.

Updated to include the reference to the Baltimore demo and the paragraph about the Jena Times' timeline.

A big footnote to the preceding

A week ago Monday, on September 10, right on schedule, Ashley Casale and Michael Israel, who I previously wrote about back in August, completed their four-month, 3000-mile cross-country walk to protest the Iraq War.
[L]ooking cheerful despite their disintegrating shoes [they] ended their pilgrimage amid a group of 20 supporters who helped them silently hoist a "March for Peace" banner in front of the White House[, the Chicago Tribune reported].

The teens acknowledged that their march might not have changed the course of the war, or gained much of the nation's attention, but they hoped they had at least galvanized the people they met along the way. ...

Though they had once hoped to rouse the nation and inspire thousands to rise up in opposition to the war, Casale and Israel walked for weeks alone through the Nevada desert and over the Rocky Mountains. They eventually enlisted six other long-distance traveling companions, five who trudged through the grueling 25-mile daily hikes and a sixth person who drove a support car. But the teens met countless others who offered free meals, new pairs of shoes, shelter for the night or just an encouraging word. "The most important thing was the individuals we talked to," said Casale.
For his part, Israel, talking by phone to his California hometown newspaper, said the pair encountered random, angry shouts but on the whole,
the group experienced encouraging reactions including the day they walked into one Colorado town and were stopped "every five minutes" to receive well-wishes from supporters. As more people found out about the marchers' quest, they opened their homes and offered beds for the night. Others drove alongside with food and water on hand or provide additional supplies.
Wisely, Israel doesn't expect the march to turn things around.
"I don't think a few people walking across the United States is enough to get the U.S. government to end war in Iraq," Israel said, but added that he hopes Americans take a more proactive role in the decisions that effect them instead of leaving it up to lawmakers. ...

"Any small thing an individual can do to make the world a better place, that's what counts," Israel said. "When people start thinking like that, it can make a big difference."
Seems to me I said that a while back, the poster said with a smile.

By the way, the marchers followed up by participating in a 20-hour vigil at the Capitol punctuated by occupying Nancy Pelosi's office for seven hours in an attempt to deliver 4000 postcards calling for impeachment. Other stuff about the march, including links to press coverage along the way, is at its home page.

Better late than never

What with being so out of it, one of the things I wanted to write about but just couldn't find the energy to was the antiwar demonstration last week. But like the title says I should, I'm going to go ahead and do it now.

Put together by ANSWER and largely and foolishly ignored by most of the rest of the antiwar community (I'm looking at you, United for Peace and Justice) as a result of age-old and to those outside of them incredibly boring turf wars, it brought a hefty number of people to DC to (my words) keep the spirit of resistance alive.

Those turf wars become especially galling when obvious demands for unity or at least comradeship are ignored. The week before the demo, AFP reported that
[m]ounted police charged in to break up an outdoor press conference and demonstration against the Iraq war in Washington on Thursday, arresting three people, organizers and an AFP reporter said.

"The police suppressed the press conference. In the middle of the speeches, they grabbed the podium" erected in a park in front of the White House for the small gathering, Brian Becker, national organizer of the ANSWER anti-war coalition, told AFP.

"Then, mounted police charged the media present to disperse them," Becker said.

The charge caused a peaceful crowd of some 20 journalists and four or five protestors to scatter in terror, an AFP correspondent at the event in Lafayette Square said.
Police had previously threatened to fine ANSWER at least $10,000 if it didn't take down posters announcing the march, claiming the group has used unapproved adhesives. The press conference attacked by the police was intended to show that the adhesives used did meet regulations.

Now, frankly, in this case I don't give a tinker's damn if ANSWER used "approved" adhesives or not. (Back in the day, we were known to do things like put antiwar posters on the windows of military recruiting stations using toothpaste. If they weren't removed before the toothpaste dried, they had to be scraped off with razors.) The point is, other antiwar groups should have responded by jumping into the fray and issuing an emergency call to their members and supporters to get to DC. They could have taken the tack that "We don't support everything that ANSWER stands for but we cannot remain silent in the face of this overt, this literal, attack on the right of dissent. In solidarity, we will stand with them." But they didn't, to their shame.

As for the march itself, as always, the numbers game got played. Media accounts tended to stick with the vague "several thousand" while ANSWER claimed the turnout hit six figures, a number I frankly expect to be highly optimistic: While I was not at the action, my experience with ANSWER is that they routinely grossly inflate their numbers. I recall one time being at an ANSWER demo in Boston which got a decent turnout but still small enough to do a rough headcount, which I did and came up with around 350. In the next day's news reports, ANSWER was claiming something like 2000-3000.

Relying of pictures of the event such as those above, my own guess is there were 20,000-30,000 present. Which was a good turnout, particularly considering the near blackout of planning of the event among the supposedly "antiwar" portions of the mythologized "netroots."

Interestingly, the report whose numbers came closest to my own was one from the Middle East Times, which rather acidly referred to what it called "a skimpy crowd of 25,000 protesters" and complained that
[w]hat ought to have been the most massive protest ever in Washington, DC Saturday turned into a 1960s love fest, with leftover agendas and slogans from an earlier war.
I'm not exactly sure what that reporter was expecting, perhaps the turnout of one million ANSWER originally proposed as the goal, but since the article groused that Lafayette Park, where the march began, was "hardly the right venue" for the protest since the part contains a war memorial and "one monument celebrates military instruction" and it described the "motley crowd of 1960s peaceniks" as "definitely gray," I imagine overly-high hopes were part of their pre-march agenda. (The bit about the "motley gray crowd" was particularly noticeable since it came quite literally immediately after stating that half the participants appeared to be college-age folks attending their first march. There must have been a fair number of prematurely gray students there.)

Surely the most dramatic part of the event was the "die-in" of - depending on who you ask - somewhere between several hundred and a few thousand people at the Capitol. Initially, police took no action, so people started climbing over a low wall and a fence erected by police, getting arrested as they did so. Something approaching 200 people, including a number of Iraq War veterans, were arrested. In fact, Indymedia says that
[t]he civil disobedience was large enough that the Capitol police tried to stop arresting people and someone in charge yelled that the protestors had made their point. The police at the wall began to push back anyone trying to get arrested, and sprayed chemicals from a small red cannister on two people who tried, and finally succeeded, to get arrested.
There were, of course, counter-protestors, who look at the 60+% of Americans who want to troops out rapidly if not immediately and screech that those constitute a "vocal minority." There were - again depending on who you ask - somewhere between a few and several hundred of them. While their message is clearly one the public stopping buying some time ago, their presence did serve to point up a real difference between "us" and "them." Raw Story described how during the rally
a counter-demonstrator made his way onto the stage at one point, saying, "I'm not scheduled to speak today, but I do want to bring a different point."

The crowd listened attentively as he began, "I stand before you with respect for your convictions," but the moment he announced, "I'm a conservative," the microphone was shut off amid a chorus of boos. The boos, however, quickly changed to chants of "Let him speak, let him speak," and after some discussion onstage, the microphone was turned back on.

"All I'm about is protecting our soldiers, alright?" said the counter-demonstrator. "Now, all of you believe war is bad, but unfortunately, sometimes that bad is the best American defense. There is an enemy at our doorstep that wants us dead, and they will do everything that they can in their power ..."

When the crowd heard those over-familiar arguments, the boos broke out again, more loudly, cutting off the speaker. Then Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus - who was injured in an altercation with Capitol police last week when he tried to get into the Petraeus hearing - hobbled up on crutches. Yearwood put his arm over the shoulder of the counter-demonstrator, who put an arm around him in return.

"This is awesome," Yearwood stated. "This is what democracy looks like. ... We might not agree on philosophy, but I'll be damned if I kill this man."
By comparison, the Washington Post said that
[a]nti war protesters who approached the fringes of the counterdemonstration on the Mall were quickly chased off. One man in a tie dye t-shirt was surrounded by several screaming counterdemonstrators who called him a traitor. He replied, "Is this what we've come to," before being escorted away by police.
I would have liked to have asked the man who crashed the ANSWER rally what he thinks would have happened if one of the protestors had tried to do the same thing among the pro-war folks a few blocks away. In fact, Democracy Now! has an answer to that question. It's coverage for September 17 had an item about Carlos Arredondo, who has been "crisscrossing the country pulling a flag-draped coffin" in memory of his son Alex, who died in Iraq three years ago.
He marched with the coffin on Saturday and then left the march to return the coffin to his truck. That's when a pro-war supporter tried to rip a photo of Carlos' son from the coffin. When Carlos tried to save the photograph, he said a group of pro-war activists attacked him. ...

"I was assaulted by a group of pro-war people. They come into the ground, and they kicked me and punched me. As a citizen of this country, it’s my duty and my responsibility to participate. As a father, who I lost my son in Iraq, I got to honor my son."
Honor him, that is, in the best way possible: By speaking out, by raising his voice, by demanding an end to the carnage. That is in stark contrast to the raging counter-protestors, their eyes and veins bulging with the fury of their fears, their lips frothing with cries of "traitor," their darkened hearts and decayed consciences wishing death and destruction on foreign innocents in whatever measure is required to ease their trembling nightmares - and in even starker contrast to the cold-blooded, calculated manipulations of such as the so-called "Freedom's Watch," populated with Bush acolytes, whose ads exploit wounded veterans to proclaim, contrary to Mr. Arredondo, that the way to "honor" the dead is to kill more, the way to "respect" the wounded, the mutilated, the ruined, is to wound more, multilate more, ruin more, the way to have their "sacrifice" not "be in vain" is to impose more vain sacrifices on more thousands, more tens, hundreds of thousands, both American and Iraqi, and to do it for years on end.

Shame on me for not being in DC to say in whatever tiny way my presence would have, "no."

A Few Footnotes: Eli at Left I On the News was the source of the photos up top of this post and also has video of several of the speakers. One speaker not in those videos was Michael Berg, whose son Nick was the contractor in Iraq whose beheading spawned a multitude of conspiracy theories.

And by the way, Washington was not the only place that saw demonstrations last weekend; even "the heartland" got involved with protests in Lincoln, Nebraska, St. Paul, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Kansas City, Kansas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Are you shocked?

Everybody, it seems, is talking about the incident at the University of Florida when a student named Andrew Meyer who was aggressively questioning speaker John Kerry was arrested and tasered.

About half of the focus has been on the student and about half on the cops with some room left over to sneer at Kerry for what more than one called "sonorously droning on" as the incident unfolded. Dealing with those in reverse order and so getting to my real concern last (wait for it), I first want to offer a mild defense of John Kerry.

There are a number of news accounts of the incident, but they tend to start at different points and so some things get lost. One is that when Meyer first went to the mike - and apparently he did push to the head of the line - he vocally complained that members of the audience did not have enough time to question Kerry, which may well have been true: After Kerry spoke for 45 minutes, there was a time of, if you will, official questions from one person, leaving the audience no more than 25 minutes for Q&A. At that point, campus police went to remove Meyer but Kerry intervened, saying he should be allowed his question. He answered a question from across the hall and then went back to Meyer.

Meyer asked three questions - why did Kerry concede the 2004 election in the face of evidence of foul electoral play (referring to Greg Palast's noteworthy book Armed Madhouse), why is there no move to impeach Bush to prevent an attack on Iran, and was Kerry in the Skull & Bones Society at Yale along with Bush - but did so at considerable length and even at that point seemed in no mood to relinquish the mike. His mike was cut off, campus police moved in on him, and the struggle began. At that point, Kerry can be heard on various videos saying "It's all right, let me answer his question."

Now, what Kerry should have done at that point is gone down off the stage, up to the cops, and said "I said it was all right!" and insist they let Meyer go - and then he should have said to Meyer that he will answer his questions but in return Meyer had to agree to surrender the mike when he, Kerry, was done.

He didn't. But he did enable the questions to be asked at all and did at least make some objection to the police action by saying that it was okay and he would answer them. He indicated later that "I believe I could have handled the situation without interruption," which at least implies he thinks the police overreacted.

One other thing: Some have written about Kerry "droning on" (he was actually answering the question about the 2004 election) while Meyer was "screaming in pain." Okay, but remember that the videos are taken just feet from Meyer. Kerry, who was using a sound system, can barely be heard in the background. What makes anyone think that Meyer's cries were any more noticeable or intelligible where Kerry was than Kerry's voice was where Meyer was?

Enough of that. There has also been some commentary about Meyer himself. Some of it, as Jon Swift astutely pointed out, came from conservatives denouncing the Left's suppression of free speech until it sank in that Meyer is to the left of Kerry, at which point all bets were off and all of the commentary from all sources, it seems, was intended to label him just a troublemaker who got what he deserved. Well, yes, he was an obnoxious loudmouth - the screaming for help that began when the cops tried to hustle him out of the hall, i.e., even before he was actually arrested, and the subsequent appeals to onlookers to follow the cops because otherwise they'd kill him made him look particularly boorish to me - but no, no way did he get what he deserved or deserve what he got. The police acted hastily, stepped in unnecessarily, were overly aggressive and violent, and bottom line were responsible for creating an incident where there need not have been one.

On Countdown, Rachel Maddow was asked if upon first seeing the video, she thought "overzealous campus police who went too far or loudmouthed activist looking to make trouble who was dealt with?" She answered "Yes." That's exactly my take on it, which is why my real focus, my real concern, is one one particular point:

The taser.

The goddam em-effing taser.

Once again we see the police whipping out a taser like some cliché old-West gunslinger to intimidate and punish rather than to protect. There is no doubt from the multiple videos that Meyer was first threated with being, and then was, tasered for nothing more than failure to cooperate. In fact, while it's hard to be certain, this video seems to show that he was already handcuffed when he was tasered; clearly he was on his stomach with his hands behind his back. He was handcuffed and shocked despite his clear statement that if released we would leave quietly (which getting him to do was the original point, supposedly). They tasered him not because they had to but because they could.

But maybe they couldn't. According to the Ocala Star-Banner's account, University Police Department Captain Jeff Holcomb
said there would be an investigation into whether the officers used force appropriately, adding that employing a Taser gun would only be justified in a case where there was a threat of physical harm to officers.
Which there very clearly was not. He was very painfully shocked with 50,000 volts not because he was a threat, not because of any danger he presented to the six campus police on him, but because he refused to actively cooperate, meekly and submissively, with police demands. This was the deliberate infliction of physical pain not in self-defense but as punishment for resistance. And frankly if it was up to me the cops responsible would not only be fired, they would be prosecuted for criminal assault. Perhaps we can at least hope for some kind of reprimand, although the University may be trying to fashion an out: One report which I can't locate now (so no link) said one cop was injured - so we may well be treated to a claim that the six of them feared for their safety in the face of this one kid lying face down on the floor.

It's far from the first case where tasers have been used in such a way. Sold by the manufacturers on the grounds that they offer an alternative to potentially lethal violence, they have from the beginning been something else. They very first time I mentioned them, 31/2 years ago, I declared that
[w]ith the increasing availability of tasers ... will come the increasing temptation to use them routinely, no longer in lieu of lethal force but in lieu of persuasion and patience, no longer against someone posing a physical threat but against someone giving "a hard time," no longer for protection but for dominance.
That is, they would become weapons not of protection but of convenience, used not to save lives but to save effort, to secure not public order but passive obedience. And that, in fact, is exactly what they have become, as incident after incident after incident has shown.

From AP last month:
In a confrontation captured on videotape, a hospital security guard fired a stun gun to stop a defiant father from taking home his newborn, sending both man and child crashing to the floor. ...

"I've got to wonder what kind of moron would Tase an adult holding a baby," said George Kirkham, a former police officer and criminologist at Florida State University. "It doesn't take rocket science to realize the baby is going to fall."

[William] Lewis, 30, said the April 13 episode began after he and his wife felt mistreated by staff at the Woman's Hospital of Texas and they decided to leave. Hospital employees told him doctors would not allow it, but Lewis picked up the baby and strode to a bank of elevators.
He was confronted by security guards, one of who, within 40 seconds of the encounter, prepared to use his taser. The hospital defended the guards, claiming Lewis "became verbally abusive by using vulgar expletives," behavior it called "threatening." Yes, oh my gosh, he used vulgar expletives! I'm sure they were things neither guard had ever heard before!

And, as it all too typical in this case, who got charged? Lewis, of course, charged with endangering a child, I assume by dropping it when he was tasered. That was so bogus that a grand jury refused to indict him.

More recently, this is from the New York Daily News for Monday (via AmericaBlog):
A retired 20-year veteran of the NYPD said yesterday that cops used excessive force against his son when they zapped him four times with a Taser, hit him 15 times with a nightstick and put him in a choke hold.

Retired Lt. Alexander Lombard said his son, Alexander Lombard 3rd, 17, was beaten by cops after they arrived at a "community sponsored" barbecue at 126th St. and Park Ave. last month. ...

But Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne said in a statement that a police sergeant "employed a Taser against the suspect's ankle" to subdue him after responding to a large disturbance at about 3:30 a.m.
Which is curious since the photo accompanying the story shows what sure as hell looks like taser burns on Lombard's side. If the cop didn't know the difference between Lombard's ankle and side, I strongly suspect there are two other more traditionally-compared parts of his own body about which he is equally confused.
[Noel] Leader, [co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care,] who went with the father and son to file a complaint with the Internal Affairs Bureau, pointed out that disorderly conduct was the sole charge against Lombard.

"The mere fact that he was hit with a Taser four times," Leader said, "and there's no resisting arrest charge, no criminal possession of a weapons charge - it's evident to me that this incident did not justify use of a stun gun."
An amazing number of them don't. Far, far too many. Tasers have become (if they were not always) exactly what I predicted from the start they would be: Weapons not of last resort save guns, but of first resort, weapons used not for self-protection but for securing passive obedience, weapons of control and cruelty that express not a cop's concern for their safety but their inability to control their own frustration. They should be banned.

Footnote: Perhaps an unnecessary one since this seems to be getting spammed into comments on this, but under the heading Frontiers of Free Enterprise comes a website (to which I will not link) that the day after the incident at the University of Florida was hawking "shirts, hats, buttons, stickers and more" reading "Don't Tase Me, Bro'" and "What Did I Do?"

On this day, Geek Div.

On September 19, 1959, physicists Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published the first scientific paper on the idea of using radio waves as a means of interplanetary and interstellar communication.

Six months earlier and quite independently, astronomer Frank Drake began work on Project Ozma based on a similar idea. But if a particular day is going to be assigned, then September 19 is the birthday of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

A personal note

I have for a while now been almost literally out of it - struggling to focus, to keep up with day-to-day matters that despite everything seem still to remain uncompleted, able to guarantee only that the necessities, the requirements, will be met - and both my blogging and my attention to the news from which it is drawn have suffered. There's really no point in apologizing for that, although I do, and sincerely, because it is by no means the first such period I have gone through, nor, I have no reason to doubt, will it be the last.

The real point of this brief note is to thank those, what, 10 of you? who have been regular enough readers of this thing to keep coming back despite my meager output of the last week or more - what has it been, three posts in nearly 10 days?

I can't swear I'm back full force and I can swear that this will not be the last time I'll seem to almost disappear for days at a time. But keep faith with me and I will do my very best to return the compliment.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

One small victory in the struggle

A bit of good news - just a bit - regarding the "Jena 6," a group of six black teenagers in Jena, Louisiana, charged with two felonies in the wake of a school brawl in a time of racial tension in the little town in the central part of the state.

I previously wrote about the case in June; here's a quick backgrounder: A black high school student asked school officials for permission to sit under a tree traditionally reserved for whites. The school replied sure, he could sit anywhere he wanted. But the next morning, three nooses painted in school colors were found hanging from the tree, an action ultimately dismissed by school authorities as an adolescent prank.

That, of course, didn't sit well with blacks in town and it set off months of escalating tensions, with incidents involving both blacks and whites attacking each other. In one case, a white student beat a black student on the head with a flashlight. He was charged with simple battery, a misdemeanor. Subsequently, a group of black students went after a white student, knocking him down and kicking him. Even though that student's injuries were minor enough that he attended a school function that same evening, the six black students were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit the same - both felonies. The charges were later reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy, less serious charges but still both felonies.

The first to come to trial was Mychal Bell, who was quickly convicted on both counts by an all-white jury and faced 30 years in prison. So things stood in June.

Now, however, both those convictions have been overturned. On a technicality, but overturned. First, the trial judge vacated the conspiracy charge on the grounds that Bell, who was 16 at the time of the incident, was improperly tired as an adult - but he let the more serious charge of aggravated battery stand on the rather curious grounds that
Bell could be tried in adult court because the charge was among lesser charges included in the original attempted murder charge,
a charge that was not pursued in the court. It was left to the state's Third Circuit Court of Appeal to find that the remaining charge was likewise improper because while
[t]eenagers can be tried as adults in Louisiana for some violent crimes, including attempted murder ... aggravated battery is not one of those crimes, the court said.
So once the attempted murder charge disappeared, the aggravated battery charge had to go with it.

It is a small legal victory but still a victory. The reason it's small is three-fold: One, local District Attorney Reed Walters, who in the course of events told students - quite possibly specifically black students - "I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen" (and who labeled the tennis shows the accused boys were wearing "potentially lethal weapons"), says he intends to appeal the reversal to the state Supreme Court. Two, even if that fails Walters could pursue the case in juvenile court. Most importantly, three, it doesn't affect the other defendants, who were 17 and for these purposes legal adults.

The case has become something of a cause célèbre.
Nearly 200,000 people have signed petitions criticizing the prosecution of the black students and calling on Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to intervene in the case. Bus caravans headed toward Jena have been organized at scores of churches across the country and organizers had predicted more than 20,000 protesters might show up in the town of 3,000
for a major civil rights demonstration next Thursday, the day Bell was to have been sentenced. Some have wondered how Bell's changed circumstances will affect the turnout, but precisely because the victory is a small one and the issue is still very much alive, it's unlikely to seriously affect anyone's plans.

Not unexpectedly, there have been some attempts to be artificially even-handed, to go the "nobody's entirely innocent" (And what, therefore nobody's in any way guilty?) route. The New Orleans Times-Picayune takes that tack, calling the story "an evocative tale, trading on every trope of race," which "[i]n the retelling ... has bled from breaking news into bluesy ballad." It even suggests that the town of Jena
finds itself victimized by the same mob emotion, prejudice and rush to judgment of which it stands accused, with perhaps ominous implications for the protest.
Ah yes, the ever-threatening hordes of outsiders.

But let's face some facts here. This is a town with a traditionally whites-only tree at its school. It has school officials who treated nooses as a "prank." It has a local DA who threatened to ruin students' lives (again, quite possibly specifically black students' lives) and who regards a white student beating a black student as a misdemeanor but the reverse as attempted murder.

That's the issue. The issue is not that "no one is completely innocent." The issue is not even per se that the Jena 6 are being prosecuted - in fact, I suspect that had the six been charged with simple battery, as was the white student, this case would never have achieved the notoriety it has. It is, rather, the patent, undeniable, continued existence of racism found in the tree, the official attitudes, and the grossly disparate treatment meted out. And, as always, in the face of such as this, silence is not an option.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Updated On Tuesday, the Boston Globe published an op-ed by one Peter Feaver, a polisci prof at Duke University, in which the former NSC staffer vociferously attacked MoveOn over its "General Patraeus/Betray Us" ad. MoveOn was accused of McCarthyism and of being "part of an elaborate effort to undermine" support for the Iraq War, apparently in cahoots with Congressional Dems.
Precisely because [the ad] is so vicious, so public, and so deliberate, the attack on Petraeus cannot be ignored by either side in the Iraq debate. Supporters of the war are duty-bound, like Joseph Welch, to rise and ask of war opponents, "Have you left no sense of decency?" Antiwar members of Congress, like Senator McCarthy's allies, are obliged to answer. ...

This is a defining moment for the antiwar faction. They can continue on the path on to which they have veered, repeating some of the worst mistakes in American history. Or they can make a clean break with the past, police their own ranks, and promote a healthy, critical, public debate about the best way forward in Iraq.
I have written to the Globe in response. This is the text of the letter I sent:
Peter Feaver's hyperventilating reaction to's ad about General David Patraeus (Globe, Sept. 11) would have carried some weight if it could have been laid on a less-tipped scale. As it is, the column reveals less about the verbal excesses of any part of the left than it does about the partisan amorality of war supporters.

Feaver doesn't contest a single factual assertion made in the ad; indeed, he doesn't even acknowledge such assertions are made. Instead, he wants to pluck one word out of the headline as a means not only to ignore what the ad actually argues but to aggressively distract attention from it, insisting that, it would appear, the entire left half of the American political spectrum must now devote its energy to "policing its ranks" and answering the plaintive cry, "have you no decency?" rather than talking about the war.

This is because, he declares grandly, it is "not legitimate" and "corrosive" to "question the general's patriotism when his views differ from yours."

Well golly gee whillikers. Where were Feaver and his ilk when right-winger Glenn Beck said on national television just recently that Democrats in Congress "have the blood of our soldiers on their hands?"

Where were they when Fred Thompson told Sean Hannity that Congressional Democrats are "dangerously close" to "rooting for our defeat" in Iraq?

Where were they when then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that critics of Bush's Iraq policy are "encouraging terrorists?" When Tom DeLay recently accused Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi of "getting very, very close to treason?"

Where were the right-wingers, oh so interested in "a full and frank exchange of views," when Michelle Malkin was calling the New York Times "traitorous" and saying "al-Qaeda thanks you?" When David Horowitz proclaimed that the United States is at war and "the aggressors in this war are Democrats, liberals and leftists?" When top-ranked right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds claimed that the American media is "empowering the terrorists?" When Michael Reagan said that Howard Dean "should be arrested and hung for treason?" When Ann Coulter accused Jimmy Carter of treason (along with every "liberal" in the nation)? When Oliver North said criticism of Bush's foreign policy is "nurturing America's enemies?" When cartoonist Michael Ramirez accuses Democrats of advocating "surrender" in Iraq on almost a daily basis, even doing one cartoon portraying a soldier with a knife labeled "Congress" buried in his back?

Accusations of treason and similar spoutings of verbal bilgewater laid against opponents of Bush's war are an everyday occurrence in the fetid hallways and conference rooms of the right. But let them get one-tenth, one-thousandth, of what they dish out aimed back at them, and suddenly they get the vapors, fanning themselves madly and going on at length about "decency."

Questions about "policing ranks" and "decency" are indeed relevant, Mr. Feaver. But it is the supporters of the war, not its opponents, who need to answer them.
Personally, I think the ad was foolish not for what it said but because it gave the wingnuts an opening to launch the kinds of bogus attacks they have, successfully diverting some on the left into wasting time and energy going "oh no no, I'm not with them" (which only legitimizes the original attack by treating it as something requiring response) instead of getting on with opposing the insanity that surrounds us - that being a tendency on the left about which I have griped for years. So I will not be apologizing for or answering for MoveOn or its ad and beyond the tactical criticism I just made I will not be criticizing it. I'm just going to keep saying what I think in my words and for those I take full responsibility.

I noticed that at the Betray-Us hearing one GOPper waved the ad around and said he was giving committee Democrats the "opportunity" to distance themselves from it. Someone on the other side, I don't know who, shot back "Point of order, Mr. Chairman: It's not necessary to disassociate yourself from something you were never associated with," to which the GOPper could only reply "okay, calm down." That Dem gets it: Don't get distracted.

I have said this so many times, but it bears repeating: Slicing away your friends and supporters will not help you! And spending time apologizing for things a)that you didn't do and b)in fact require no apology is self-defeating and politically foolish.

Updated because I forgot to say: Cross-posted at The Core 4 and the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus.
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