Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson grand jury verdict probably not racist, but policing strategies and judicial system are

By Marc Jampole

According to Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, the altercation that led to him pulling the trigger of his gun and killing Michael Brown last August started when either Brown or his friend said “Fuck what you have to say.”

Let’s be clear: everyone in the United States has the right to say “Fuck you” to a police officer. I’ve done it myself a time or two, and every single time, the police officer has stood there passively and taken it, or returned the conversation to the subject, likely my jay-walking or breaching of a police barrier.

Now at the point at which Brown or his friend “fuck-you’d” Wilson, no one had committed a crime. All these kids had done was walk in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk, something I remember doing all the time when I was a teenager in Miami, Florida. 

There seemed to be no reason for the interaction to turn into an altercation, just as there seemed to be no reason for the altercation to have turned into the killing. We can only imagine the deeply felt emotions both Wilson and Brown must have had inside them that spurred this deadly incident.

But as no crime was committed and Wilson proved clueless as to how to cool down the situation, he should at the very least have lost his job or been suspended for using poor judgment. Except for one thing—hassling Black youths is a tried-and-tried-again police tactic throughout the United States. Everywhere it seems as if young Black men have targets on their backs when it comes to being stopped in the streets by the local constabulary.

Our indictment should start then not with Wilson, but with the Ferguson police department and the exceedingly racist if widespread idea that hassling young Black men helps to prevent crime.

As to the grand jury, I’m inclined to believe that the members did a proper job of weighing the evidence before them and that they bent over backwards not to reach a knee-jerk decision in favor of Wilson. But even if the grand jury appears to have come to a proper decision given all the evidence, Michael Brown remains a victim of institutional racism. Even if the grand jury had indicted Wilson for manslaughter, Brown would still be dead, still a victim of a system that treats minorities and the poor much more harshly than it treats whites and rich folk.

The protests in the wake of the decision not to indict were thus not about the decision not to pursue a criminal case against Darren Wilson. The uprisings, both those planned and those spontaneous, were about the system that routinely produces police shootings and beatings, virtually always of minorities.

Sadly, since the Michael Brown case there have been incidents of police shooting innocent bystanders in Los Angeles, Cleveland and New York. In the Cleveland case, a child was killed after he pulled out a fake gun. In a New York case, someone late at night in a public housing complex entered a darkened stairwell at the very moment a rookie police officer was walking up the steps. The police officer saw the body—but no gun—and shot. In what looks like a complete whitewash, the New York police department is calling it an “unfortunate accident.” Funny, the panicking rookie still had the presence of mind to shoot to kill. In fact, the ironic but tragic coincidence in all these cases is that the police officers are good enough shots to kill but not good enough shots to hit the leg or arm or in some other way disable the victim. Perhaps police departments should not teach their officers to shoot to kill.

There is of course the possibility that the incidence of police violence is actually low when you take into account the large number of guns on the streets and the crime rate, which by the way has been falling steadily for the past 25 years. For all we know, a hypothetical study might prove that the number of police killing of innocent victims was actually quite low. That still wouldn’t explain the fact that the innocent victims are almost always minorities. 

To say that more African-Americans are involved in violent altercations with police because more of them commit crimes is a crude lie based on a misreading of statistics. More whites than Blacks commit crimes, just as more whites than Blacks are on welfare. Even if the percentage of criminals is higher among Blacks than whites (to be expected since there are always more criminals among impoverished groups), there are still more white criminals committing more crimes.

So how come the victims of these police shootings or other acts of violence such as death by chokehold are virtually always African-American? For the same reason that I can say “fuck you” to a cop after crossing the street on the red and my African-American male friends (all professionals and graduates of Ivy League or Ivy League level schools) routinely get stopped by police while driving their late model cars by for absolutely no reason.

It’s called racism. And people of all social, ethnic and racial backgrounds are sick of it. That’s why people protested last night and why they’ll return to the streets next time a police officer mistakenly kills an African-American, be it by gunfire, chokehold or beating. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Should we mourn end of the American holiday of Black Friday or celebrate new holiday of Black Friday Week?

By Marc Jampole

How long is Black Friday? A day? A weekend? A week?

Now that American retailers have freed themselves from the taboo against shopping on Thanksgiving, Black Friday can mean anything one likes. With more and more stores offering discounts and revving up advertising right after Halloween, the holiday shopping season threatens to consume the entire fall, much as the harvest, processing and storage of the crops used to do before the industrial revolution. Instead of sickles, threshers and canning equipment, we wield credit cards and smart phones.

I wonder how traditionalists feel now that Black Friday sales begin the Monday before Thanksgiving and earlier? Do they miss the week-long anticipation of a one-day bacchanalia of shopping bargains and surging crowds? Do they sob in dismay as presales drain the true meaning out of Black Friday—the official kickoff to a month-long potlatch of buying and consumption? Or do they embrace the greater opportunity for celebration, as the de facto number of shopping days swells? Perhaps some even welcome the expansion of Black Friday, as it swallows Thanksgiving and diminishes the imperatives of that competing holiday of an older culture. After all, why should a family meal impede the imperatives of consumer culture?

All facetiousness aside, I find it fascinating to see how different vendors are approaching the start of the holiday shopping season now that the rigidity in start date imposed by the obligations of celebrating Thanksgiving has eroded. I applaud the many national retailers such as Costco, Marshall’s, Barnes & Noble, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s and Burlington Coat Factory who are staying closed on Thanksgiving. I wonder if they ran the numbers and realized that keeping the doors closed for Thanksgiving does not cost them any overall sales. I’m sure they have happier employees, and happier employees are usually more productive. 

Walmart has opened its doors on Thanksgiving for almost 25 years now. It currently intends to treat Black Friday like an invasion—phasing in different sales events as if they were deploying tank divisions to breach a border at several points. At the chime of midnight on Thanksgiving, Walmart starts a blitzkrieg of sales on its website. While Walmart will have its doors opened all day Thanksgiving, it will offer a round of special sales at 6:00 pm and another at 8:00 pm. Then comes the main event—the traditional 6:00 am Black Friday opening with its own set of special sales.

Walmart, by the way, is far from the only retailer to desecrate Thanksgiving. Macy’s, Kmart, Sears, Penney, Target, Kohl’s and Best Buy are just a few of the many national retailers who think they can make extra bucks by getting a head start on the holiday shopping season.

For my household, Black Friday week started when the mail came today, and we saw the New York magazine holiday gift guide—551 gift suggestions ranging in costs from one penny to $4 million, virtually all of which are completely frivolous and inessential. Some of the more conspicuously useless of the gifts under $50 include “Yoga Joes (G.I. Joes doing Yoga instead of waging war), an evil-eye key chain, a bottle of water from the so-called fountain of youth, Japanese KitKat bars, socks from the tailor who supplies the pope and a banana slicer.

Unlike the traditional magazine gift guide, the New York guide is an interactive tool. All you have to do is download a free app and then scan the image of the products you want to buy by holding “the smartphone steady 4-6” away from the printed page and let your camera focus until you hear a chime,” as a full-page ad in the publications tells us. The third step—since it’s as easy as one, two, three, like everything else in the dreamland called American commerce—is to buy the items from the e-commerce page.

We somehow finagled a year’s free subscription to New York, but some people are actually paying money to get this special issue, which conveniently arrived on the first day of the new American holiday of Black Friday Week.

I must have somehow become an obstinate old codger. I proclaim the virtues of diversity all the time, and yet the diversity in Black Friday celebration that we currently have by the various national churches of commerce such as Walmart, Macy’s and Costco leaves me uneasy. I find it unseemly that in generating Black Friday Week we are naming a week after a day. I also wonder what meaning there can be left in the shared traditions of camping out overnight, pushing together to break through a logjam of people and sending different family members with lists to different departments or stores—all the fun stuff we associate with Black Friday and remember from our childhood—all of it must lose some meaning knowing that you could have picked up the same hand-held computer or hot toy earlier in the week. I should instead marvel at the fact that in the United States, you have so many options for buying meaningless crap—that is provided, you have the money.

LOL or COL (crying out loud).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Selections from the December 15, 2014 issue

Whose butt gets kicked?

Editorial: Whose Butt Gets Kicked?

When Republicans gained the Senate majority in the recent midterm elections to consolidate congressional leadership under the GOP, it became apparent that, come January, either President Barack Obama’s butt will get kicked, or new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s and House Speaker John Boehner’s butts will get kicked. President Obama has to decide whether he will be the kicker or the kickee.

It’s too late for Obama to summon his inner Franklin Roosevelt. Now he needs to summon his inner Harry Truman and give the Do-Nothing Republicans Hell — or at least follow the example of Bill Clinton, who lost his Democratic congressional majority in 1995 — two years into his term — and had to show the new GOP congressional leaders that his veto pen worked before they would sit down for serious negotiations. And even then it took two government shutdowns before the Republicans got serious.

Obama already has faced down the Republicans over a shutdown in October 2013 after Teabag Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), resisted adoption of a continuing resolution for appropriations. The Senate takeover emboldened Teabagger extremists who think the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 didn’t go far enough in rolling back the Obama menace. And many of them figure that, since they won in the midterms, the shutdown worked!

Obama faced the first of his first challenges on Nov. 20 when he announced that he would implement some immigration reforms by executive order after a bipartisan Senate bill was bottled up in the House for the past year and a half. His next challenge is to try to get Congress to approve a continuing resolution on appropriations by Dec. 11 to keep the government running into the new year. Republicans warned that Obama's executive orde to defer deportation of four million undocumented immigrants with family ties to citizens or green-card holders will poison his relations with Republicans in Congress. As if there were any good faith among those Republicans, who plotted on the night Obama was inaugurated to obstruct him at every turn. One of the conspirators, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) even suggested the GOP follow the model of the Taliban in its legislative insurgency.

If Obama gets that continuing resolution, the current suspension of the debt limit, expires on March 15 under the new Congress. The US Treasury may be able to meet the government’s obligations for a few months after that, but at some point Republican leaders will have to talk sense into the Teabaggers who are itching to shut down the government, impeach the President and/or repeal Obamacare at all costs.

Michael Tomasky noted at TheDailyBeast.com (Nov. 15), we shouldn’t expect much from the Republicans. “Their idea of a ‘negotiation’ is not ‘you give us Keystone, we’ll give you a few green-energy programs and tax credits.’ Their idea of a negotiation is, ‘you give us Keystone, and we won’t impeach you.’ Or ‘you give us Keystone, and we may refrain from throwing the world financial markets into turmoil.’ There’s very little point in Obama even trying to deal with them.”

One thing Obama can do is tell Boehner and McConnell not to bother sending him bills that don’t have the support of a majority of Democrats in their respective chambers, as Boehner for the past four years has refused to allow votes on bills that don’t have the support of a majority of his Republican members. And Democratic members of Congress shouldn’t be afraid to oppose Obama if, as expected, he pursues approval of the Trans Pacific Partnership “free trade” deal.

Republicans claim their majority in the midterm constitutes a mandate to stop Obama. They think the 37.3 million Americans who voted for Republican congressional candidates in the midterms, a 52% majority of the 36.4% of the electorate that actually turned out to vote — in the lowest turnout for a general election since 1942 — overrules the 65.9 million Americans who returned Obama to the White House in 2012. That was a 51.1% majority of the 58.7% who turned out for that presidential election.

The midterm was the first election since the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision last April, which removed overall federal limits on contributions to political candidates, parties and political action committees. With the 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed the proliferation of “dark money” super PACs that can run political ads but don’t have to disclose their donors, those two right-wing rulings altered the political landscape and made political candidates even more dependent upon monied interests.

The Center for Responsive Politics expects that this year’s midterm election cost $3.67 billion, a slight uptick over the price tag of the 2010 midterm. Counting all forms of spending — by candidates, parties and outside groups — “Team Red” is projected to have spent $1.75 billion for Republican candidates, while “Team Blue” spending was projected to ring in at $1.64 billion.

But spending by candidates actually went down, from $1.8 billion in 2010 to $1.5 billion this year. The cost of the average winning campaign in both the House and Senate declined, as measured by the money spent by the candidates themselves — even as the total cost of the election increased. That’s because this year outside groups did much of the heavy lifting, outspending the candidates in 36 races, CRP’s Russ Choma noted at OpenSecrets.org. “That’s a new dynamic in elections: These groups — dozens of them devoted to a single candidate — are increasingly buying ads, getting out the vote, doing opposition research and taking on other activities that have usually been up to campaigns to execute.”

Republicans dramatically reduced their reliance on small donors who gave $200 or less, while Democrats leaned on them slightly more than in 2010. But Washington-based consultants, in the hopes of keeping the door open to big-money contributors, may have stifled many Democratic candidates from making more populist appeals to the working class.

The most expensive congressional contest was in North Carolina’s Senate race, where Sen. Kay Hagan (D) was defeated by state House Speaker Thom Tillis. As of Oct. 25, that race cost $113.4 million, led by $81 million spent by outside groups. That shattered the previous outside spending record of $52.4 million in the 2012 Virginia Senate race. Two other Senate races also bested that earlier outside spending record: Colorado ($69.2 million of $97 million total) and Iowa ($61.7 million of $85.3 million total).

CRP also noted that while outside groups supporting Hagan in North Carolina spent a reported $37.2 million, besting the $33.1 million reported for the other side, Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) dark money group, claimed to have spent at least $9 million on “issue ads” targeting Hagan that never had to be disclosed. Unreported spending by outside groups almost certainly exceeded $100 million, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

The election also showed how poorly the electorate is served by the corporate media, which allowed Republicans to peddle disinformation about the economic recovery under President Obama, which has gone about as far as it can without the sort of public works program that could put millions more Americans back to work. The media also ignores the success of the Affordable Care Act, which has helped 10 million Americans get health insurance and has held down premium increases while Republican governors prevented five million working poor from getting health care from Medicaid, which contributes to the deaths of as many as 17,000 low-income Americans annually. And, in the weeks before the election, the corporate media were complicit in GOP demagoguery over the government’s handling of the Ebola virus, which was mocked until after the election, when it turned out there really was no cause for panic.

Under the constant drumbeat of misinformation that blamed Obama and the Democrats for the gridlock that almost entirely was engineered by the GOP, it’s not that much of a surprise that two-thirds of the electorate stayed home from the midterms, and the two-thirds who showed up voted for what they were told was change.

It’s going to be a tough two years, but Obama and the Democrats need to do a much better job of explaining what the battles are about and showing white working-class voters who have abandoned the Dems over the past 20 years that Democrats will fight for their interests over those of the corporate executive class. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2014

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