Archive for the ‘Political Activism’ Category

Photo: Iowa State Daily

The demonstrations in Madison are manna from heaven.

Aside from the very welcome spectacle of thousands joining together to block the Republican putsch against the middle class, the demonstrations also remind America and the world that pissed-off, middle-aged white people thrusting misspelled anti-Obama signs into the sky are not the only politically active voices in America. Not by a long shot.

Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to crush Wisconsin unions has given America the unvarnished, accurate picture of today’s Republicanism in all its selfish, bullying arrogance and American workers have responded with a resounding “Eat Me!”  With over 70,000 protesters in Madison on Saturday alone, and other protests planned for tomorrow in every state capital and major city in America, it appears more members of America’s middle class are recognizing who the real enemy is… and it ain’t Obamacare.

Republican DNA

Just how stupid do Walker and the Forces of Darkness think Americans are? Nobody’s buying the fiscal responsibility song and dance so earnestly crooned by Walker and his fellow union-busting governors. Like demagoguery and giving tax breaks to the rich, everyone understands that union crushing is part of Republican DNA. It’s one of the many ways they say, “We love you” to big business. So, to anyone paying the least bit of attention, Walker and pals not only come off looking like union-busting extremists, they come off looking like lying and opportunistic union-busting extremists.

Listen in on the inspired prank call between Governor Walker and ersatz magnate David Koch (played to smug perfection by Buffalo Beast’s Ian Murphy) and you hear the very definition of plutocracy at its union-busting worst. Like an aide-de-camp in full, simpering toady mode, Walker assures “mon generale” that the attack on unions is going according to plan–as he smooches away at what he thinks is Koch’s billion-dollar behind.

Backlash

It appears this latest bit of Republican arrogance has launched a backlash from American workers that in sheer numbers will continue to dwarf last summer’s Tea Party tantrums in a big way–while giving the press better looking people to photograph in the bargain.

Perhaps no symbol better captures the feeling of community and the “we’re all in this together” spirit of the demonstrators than the thousands of pizzas being anonymously ordered for them by supporters all over the planet. As of today, 30,000 slices of pizza have been ordered for the protesters from every state in the union and such far-flung places as Antarctica and Egypt. So selfless, so caring, so cooperative and collaborative… so un-Republican.

John Buchanan taking on the funeral industry

A friend wrote the other day to ask if my dad had been on the Blacklist.

My friend had been reading about America’s waltz with fascism during the 50s when demagogic politicians and rightwing zealots attempted to ruin the lives of show folk, teachers and other public figures — sometimes with great success– for being a little too free in the Land of the Free. Dad was a professor and locally high-profile lefty political organizer/activist, and my friend figured my father had at some point endured the wrath of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s merry band of commie hunters. He hadn’t. Dad did have problems with cops and feds later on, but in the 50s he was still in his pre-activism stage, just settling into his new job teaching at Pacoima Junior High in the San Fernando Valley, going to grad school and helping mom raise my sister and me.  The activism that would become central to his life was still a few years off. My buddy’s email got me thinking about my father’s life choice, though. What changed? What inspired this mild-mannered, soft-spoken, Mr. Chips-type academic to become a full-throated crusader for peace and social justice?

The Bandleader and the Bastard

Though dad and I never talked much about his political awakening period, I’m pretty sure it began during the civil rights era. I was about six years old when I began hearing dad talk about the plight of Negroes. Even at my tender age I noticed that TV images of Dixie cops and clan types beating up dark-skinned people would send my father into a funk. He would get very quiet. Then he’d talk to my sister and me about how immoral it was to mistreat people because of their skin color. He told us that we should always stand up to bullies of all kinds, whether they were attacking us or others. To illustrate his point he would often tell us about the time during World War II when he and mom went to see the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in mom’s hometown, Great Falls, Montana. While the band was playing, someone in the audience yelled “nigger” at Dorsey’s only black musician. Dorsey stopped the orchestra mid-song and the crowd went silent. He called out into the microphone, “You! Hey you. Yeah, you in the yellow tie.” The heckler was trying to scamper away into the crowd but couldn’t get around the throng in front of the bandstand. He finally looked up at Dorsey, who was shaking with anger and pointing down at him like a vengeful god with a trombone. Unfortunately for the yellow-tied bigot, the black trumpeter happened to be a good friend of Dorsey’s and had just returned from duty in the Pacific, where he’d been wounded. According to dad, Dorsey went crazy, yelling into the microphone about his friend’s heroism, then verbally filleting the bigot, whom he called a stupid, un-American bastard. At the end of his rant, Dorsey ordered the guy out of the dance hall and refused to continue the show until he left. Whether for noble cause or the fact that the crowd was ready to jitterbug and had shelled out good money to see Dorsey’s whole show, many in the audience sided with Dorsey, booing and hissing the guy out of the dance hall. The show went on. Though the full meaning of the tale was over my 6-year-old head, I never got tired of it. I loved hearing dad do the Tommy Dorsey parts. “Yeah, you with the yellow tie,” dad’s baritone rumbled, as he pointed at some imaginary racist in the living room. I also got a bang out of hearing dad say the word “bastard,” a word rarely heard in our house–a word I probably assumed meant bad man in a yellow tie. For my sister Pam and me, the story was a great example of someone using his position to stand up to a bully. For dad, who knows? Tommy Dorsey’s wrath might have been an important inspiration. After all, it was the kind of thing dad would soon be doing full time, only on a larger, relentless scale, against bullies ranging from Richard Nixon to the funeral industry. Inspiration or not, by the time the 60s started, dad was taking on the bullies of the world with a vengeance.

The Art of Activism

The first piece of dad’s activism I remember–helping a black family move into our whites-only neighborhood–was relatively small-scale and personal. For months after the Holmes moved in, it was dad’s job to protect the house from vandals when the family was away. There wasn’t much he could do about the rocks thrown through the Holmes’ front room window during the night, or the cross burned on their lawn one very early morning. But during dad’s watch, just the sight of him sitting on the Holmes’ front porch, grading his students’ papers, was all it took to keep the Bubba brigade off the property. I don’t know how long dad had been at it before I realized that threatening phone calls in the middle of the night and flat tires from tacks and nails scattered on our driveway weren’t part of everyone’s hearth and home, but I gradually came to understand that dad’s dedication to fairness was not shared by everyone. As for the 3 AM phone calls, we discovered that the cardboard stick from a Sugar Daddy sucker made a terrific telephone bell dampener when jammed through the proper hole in the phone’s access plate. My contribution to the struggle, of course, was to eat the Sugar Daddy. Ah, the sacrifices of activism. Sometimes dad’s protests verged on street theater. During his quixotic run for the California Assembly in the mid-60s he delivered a campaign speech at a local shopping center while stomping a bathtub full of grapes. This might have been a fine way to draw attention to the farm workers’ strike and grape boycott raging at the time, but the sight of dad in the tub, wearing his trademark Petrocelli business suit with the pant legs rolled up for the fruit-stomp, did not sit well with my teenaged notion that parents should always strive to be invisible. For weeks after, I was known to my rotten buddies as “Grape.” To dad’s supporters, though, it was a beautiful sight to behold–and it worked. Lots of people gathered to see the lunatic in a bathtub, and wound up learning why they should support Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers and stop eating grapes. Dad lost the Assembly race in a rout, of course, but his son’s embarrassment over his father’s unusual forms of activism soon morphed into pride and admiration. His low-key protest of the Vietnam War was particularly memorable. Every day during his lunch hour he would set up a card table full of anti-war literature next to the college flagpole. For that hour he stood silently next to the flagpole wearing an armband featuring the number of GIs killed that week. For two years.

Dad’s Final Years

Dad started in the 60s and never let up. He was still active in the Memorial Society — a consumer activist group — well into his 80s, fighting the good fight against the predatory practices of the funeral industry. A 1992 L.A. Times interview about the Memorial Society found dad in top form.

“You have to look at death as part of life,” Buchanan said. “‘If people looked at it that way, they wouldn’t need the limousines, the caskets and the tons of flowers, the embalming and all the other barbarities that go on at a so-called traditional funeral.’ ‘The hoopla is undignified,’ he said. ‘The other indignity is putting so much emphasis on the body, which is not a person.’ Buchanan has not made the trip to his mother’s gravesite in Spokane, Wash., in years, he said. ‘That grave site does not mean anything,’ he said. ‘What does mean something is that the dead still live in our minds,’ he added.”

“The hoopla is undignified” and “…all the other barbarities…” Dad had a way with words.

*

I’ll never know whether a big band leader’s outburst in the 40s inspired dad to help save the world. But damn, it was inspiring to hear him tell that story. Actually, there wasn’t a lot about John Buchanan that wasn’t inspiring. Though less active, dad still followed the news during his final years. I wish he had been spared America’s rightward drift during the 90s and new millennium and all the intentional unfairness it has thus far meted out. Mercifully, he wasn’t around to see the bully renaissance in full flower. If he were still alive, news of such bad-guy victories as the passage of voter suppression laws and the Citizens United ruling would have put him in a funk. He would have gotten very quiet…for a while.

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Opposition to the planned building of mosques in New York City and Temecula, California has oozed firmly into bigotry territory.  But, don’t worry…it’s just anti-Muslim bigotry.

An ad produced by the National Republican Trust PAC  proclaims the proposed N.Y. City mosque as a “celebration of the murder of 3,000 Americans.”  In a CNN interview, majordomo of the PAC and producer of the ad, Scott Wheeler, confirmed his belief that the people establishing the mosque are doing so to honor the “19 martyrs” who leveled the Trade Center Towers. In other words, Wheeler is saying for all the world to hear that NYC Muslims–some of whom not only lost family and friends in the tragedy, but also put their lives on the line as first responders to the attack–not only condone mass murder, but also hold the 9-11 murderers in the highest esteem.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles to the left, anti-Muslim bigotry is running full tilt in the rolling hills of Southern California wine country. Muslims in Temecula, CA, who have been saving for over a decade to build a new mosque and community center, are getting the same kind of treatment.

“The Islamic foothold is not strong here, and we really don’t want to see their influence spread,” said Bill Rench, pastor of Temecula’s Calvary Baptist Church. “There is a concern with all the rumors you hear about sleeper cells and all that. Are we supposed to be complacent just because these people say it’s a religion of peace? The two religions mix like oil and water, it would create a confrontational atmosphere,” Rench added.

Sadly, the good reverend is not the only Islamophobe in town. Members of a conservative group called Concerned Community Citizens are circulating a petition to stop the mosque.

Leaders of the town’s Muslim community are surprised by the level of opposition to the center, telling the L.A. Times that their current makeshift mosque and community center — a converted industrial warehouse — has been in town for more than a decade and members always have felt welcome in the community. “Our children go to the same schools their children go to. We shop at the same stores where they shop,” said the mosque’s Imam Mahamoud Harmoush. “All of a sudden our neighbors wake up and they’re opposed to us building the Islamic center there, the mosque. I hope it’s a small group,” he said.

Imam Harmoush will find out how large the group is at next week’s planned protest in front of his current mosque/warehouse. According to Temecula Valley News, an e-mail blast was sent out last week by a local “conservative coalition,” announcing that a one-hour “singing – praying – patriotic rally” would be held and that participants should “bring” their Bibles, flags, signs, dogs and singing voices to the rally. The email explained that singing voices would be needed because “Muslim women are forbidden to sing.”  Why the dogs? You guessed it — Muslims “hate dogs.” If these concerned citizens could only find some singing dogs they might be able to frighten Temecula’s Muslims into abandoning the mosque altogether. “If we see so much as a shovel at that site…we un-muzzle the hounds!”

Zero Tolerance of Intolerance

Planned Temecula mosque

The words “ignorance” and “lack of understanding” have popped up in a number of articles about opposition to the planned mosques. Conspicuously absent are words like “bigotry,” “scapegoating” and “hateful.”

To their credit, major networks are refusing to run Wheeler’s ad condemning the New York mosque on the grounds that it is offensive, and the Temecula Interfaith Council, a group of local religious leaders, has endorsed the proposed Temecula mosque, saying “It’s important for people to see our neighbors, and for them to be part of our community,”

As admirable as the networks’ refusal is, their characterization of Wheeler’s ad as “offensive” should also have included the words “stupid, “hateful” and “dangerous.” The Interfaith Council’s similarly welcome-but-tepid endorsement of the Temecula mosque  is sorely lacking a stinging repudiation of the bigotry spewed by fellow minister Rench and the singing dog-wranglers.  “The Islamic foothold is not strong here, and we really don’t want to see their influence spread” sounds like Rench is defending his community from an outbreak of malaria rather than a faith practiced by 6 million Americans – the vast majority of whom are as peaceful as the vast majority of Baptists. His “oil and water” line is frighteningly reminiscent of the old “birds of a feather” mantra howled by 60s era segregationists. Poisonous statements like these should be attacked mercilessly at every opportunity.

Reactions to the 9-11 tragedy in particular and Muslim extremism in general have led to a dangerous new tolerance of intolerance. Though most Americans would find Rev. Rench’s remarks to be out of line if he were talking about, say, a Jewish community center, many are giving him a pass because, after all, it was a group of Muslims who caused 9-11.

Therein lies the danger. That a Christian leader is attempting to drive a faith-based wedge between Americans is sad enough, but worse is his implicit belief that he can make anti-Islamic statements with impunity and by extension, question the peacefulness and motives of the 150 to 200 families that have been quietly practicing their faith in Temecula for years.

Are Rench’s parishioners OK with his views? How about the op/ed pages of the local press? What about his church’s governing body? How do Temeculans feel about it?

Or is it now OK to make public statements disparaging entire groups because of the actions of a few of their members?  Is it now acceptable to bash the whole of American Mohammedanism because a group of Muslim zealots believed mass murder was their ticket to glorious eternity? If so, let’s tar Protestants for their witch-burning indiscretion years ago and the anti-Constitutional stance on gays currently taken by many in their number. While we’re at it, let’s pillory Catholics for their pedophile priests and the Inquisition.

Pastor Rench and Scott Wheeler’s widely disseminated us-against-them remarks are not only divisive, unfair and decidedly un-American, they also play directly into the hands of Muslim extremists looking to paint all Americans as crusading anti-Islamists.

Rest assured that comments like his are being played over and over in the world’s madrassas. Who knows? Rench’s “oil and water” reference alone might have been good for two or three Al-Qaeda recruitments today.

It’s time to call this anti-Muslim crap what it is…plain old, unadulterated hate.

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Though death sentences nationwide are on a steady decline, Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside Counties are keeping California firmly rooted in the Dark Ages with 2009’s record number of execution orders.

California in the Lead

According to a recent ACLU study, even “Hang’em High” Texas with its 11 death verdicts couldn’t keep up with L.A.’s 13. The difference, of course, is that Texas actually kills condemned people while California has been on a temporary death hiatus since it executed Clarence Ray Allen in 2006.

Apparently, the state can’t find a licensed doctor willing to violate the Hippocratic Oath by intentionally killing a human by lethal injection. It seems many doctors find the Oath’s #1 precept, “First, do no harm,” to be at odds with the job’s #1 requirement, “First, pump the patient full of poison until his heart stops,” so this position continues to be one of the very few jobs remaining on California’s “help wanted” list.

But, doctors aren’t immune to California’s current unemployment crisis. We are just one unemployed doctor’s rationalization away from polishing up the gurney and clearing the IV tubes.

According to the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state also leads the nation with 701 prisoners on its death row. If L.A. and her sister counties continue to hand out death verdicts at their 2009 rate, and the job of executioner remains unfilled, San Quentin will be forced to add a few wings to its already severely overcrowded death row.  Chowchilla, the state’s death row for women, is holding steady at 16, with the most recent addition of Cathy Lynn Sarinana in 2009.

Nationwide, there are about 4,000 people on death row. With Belarus the only European nation still employing capital punishment, and the rest of the Americas carrying out zero executions in 2009, the Killer Countries Club’s membership has been reduced to such bastions of human rights as China (the world leader), Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and us.

The Innocence Problem

According to Amnesty International, since 1973 over 130 people have been released from American death rows because they were proved to be innocent. Nine were exonerated in 2009 alone. These were the cases that happened to catch the attention of someone or organization that gave a damn. What about the others who weren’t lucky, or literate enough to bring attention to their cases?

All arguments regarding the death penalty—efficacy, racial disparity, deterrence, morality, etc.— pale in comparison to the inescapable conclusion drawn from these exoneration stats: The United States has executed—and continues to execute—innocent people.

For those who claim that the “timely” exoneration of death row innocents proves that the system works, consider the following story.

In 1981, Leonel Herrera was convicted of killing a police officer in Texas, and sentenced to die. Twelve years later, Herrera, who had professed his innocence from day one, was put to death.  His last words were, “I am innocent, innocent, innocent. I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight.”

One year before the execution, convincing new evidence surfaced, strongly indicating that the actual killer was Herrera’s brother, Raul. The evidence included affidavits from eyewitnesses and the recantation of original trial witnesses.

One affidavit came from Raul’s attorney, who swore Raul had confessed to him that he was the cop killer, and one was written by Raul’s son, Raul Jr., who, though nine years old at the time, clearly remembered seeing his dad shoot the policeman.

This is how the system worked for Leonel: Texas determined that the new evidence was discovered too late because in Texas new evidence must be presented within 30 days of sentencing.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Herrera was not eligible for “federal relief based on newly discovered evidence of actual innocence, when the defendant’s original trial had been free from procedural error.”  In other words, Leonel Herrera was put to death on technicalities.

For more examples of likely mistaken executions, check out the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s (NCADP) “Shouting From the Rooftops.”  Granted, NCADP is clearly an anti-death penalty organization, but the stories here are troublesome, to say the least, and have a mighty loud ring of truth.

Sacrificing Innocent Folks in the Name of Justice

This begs the question at the very heart of the death penalty debate: Is it morally OK to sacrifice a few innocent people for the societal benefit of the death penalty? Maybe there’s an acceptable ratio; say, one innocent life for every 700 guilty; 4 innocents for every 2,000 guilty. Higher? Lower?

If you think sacrificing an innocent person now and then is acceptable, you probably have lots of company. You definitely have a kindred spirit in Steven D. Stewart, Prosecuting Attorney for Clark County, Indiana.

“Our system of justice rightfully demands a higher standard for death penalty cases,” writes Stewart on his web page ,  however, the risk of making a mistake with the extraordinary due process applied in death penalty cases is very small, and there is no credible evidence to show that any innocent persons have been executed at least since the death penalty was reactivated in 1976. The 100+ death row inmates ‘innocent’, ‘exonerated’ and released, as trumpeted by anti-death penalty activists, is a fraud. The actual number of factually innocent released death row inmates is closer to 40 [italics mine] and in any event should be considered in context of over 7,000 [italics mine] death sentences handed down since 1973.”

Stewart closes with this interesting comparison: “The inevitability of a mistake should not serve as grounds to eliminate the death penalty any more than the risk of having a fatal wreck should make automobiles illegal.” Stewart’s car crash metaphor omits the fact that there is an alternative to his “fatal wreck” called “life with no possibility of parole.”

But, he has found an “acceptable” innocent-to-guilty, killing ratio: 40 innocents to 7,000 guilty sounds about right to him. I wonder if that ratio would still be OK if one of those 40 innocents happened to be Stewart’s son or brother, or maybe Stewart himself.

We read about prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct regularly—everything from brutally forced confessions, witness intimidation, to planted evidence and beyond. We know about jailhouse informants—people whose relationship with the truth is strained enough without prosecutors offering lenient treatment in exchange for the right testimony. We’ve heard stories about defense counsel in capital cases falling asleep during proceedings, or showing up drunk in court. If you believe for one moment that there have only been 40 innocent people sentenced to die in America since 1973, then you either pay no attention to current events, or you’re running for D.A. in some Indiana county on a “tough on crime” platform.

The Only Option

National statistics show that Americans are growing suspicious of the death penalty, and getting tired of paying for it. When asked if they would do away with capital punishment if life without parole meant “permanent imprisonment with no chance of getting out–ever” the majority answered “yes.” Intriguingly enough, there are a number of states that refuse to give juries that option.

On the other hand, there are 15 states that have no death penalty or resultant spikes in capital offenses.

I love my family and friends far too much to support any system that would give known, vicious sociopaths a chance to get anywhere near them. But, I can’t support a penalty that kills innocent people. Fortunately, we have the option of life with no parole in our state. We also have the comforting fact that in 25 years, not one California prisoner sentenced to life without parole has gotten out of custody; not one. In California capital cases, life with no parole means exactly what it says, and should be the only option.

Our justice system is just too imperfect for such a perfectly final punishment.