Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: encountered in Vineyard woods

They just sat there, forlornly, under a light dusting of snow. No, I don't know where they came from or why either. Click to enlarge.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday cat blogging: stalking the wild Emerson

Let me out, please.You can open doors ...

Hey, I'm busy. I'm hunting.

I'll just settle here and be beautiful, thank you very much.

Ferguson from a little closer in

It's so easy, from afar, to observe the killing of Michael Brown and the exoneration of the white cop who shot him as just another episode in the long story of black lives being treated as disposable by a white supremacist system. I've done that. And I certainly think that generalization is irrefutable.

But each such outrage takes place in a particular place and time and those circumstances also bear exploring. Over the last day, I've sought to do that by reading a short e-book by Jeff Smith, Ferguson in Black and White. Smith is a white guy, a Missouri politician whose career was cut short when he ran afoul of campaign finance law. But before his fall, he represented suburban areas north of St. Louis, the kind of towns that Ferguson is. His account of the particular economic history, political structures and culture of these inner ring suburbs is enlightening.

The secession of the City of St. Louis from surrounding St. Louis County by voter referendum in 1877 set the region up for fragmentation driven by white flight as the central city's river economy lost its vitality. From early in the 20th century:

Whites were leaving in droves , moving to St. Louis County and forming new municipalities without considering the long-term inefficiencies inherent to tiny towns; some of the new villages contained fewer than 100 people. These villages embodied St. Louis parochialism; every neighborhood seemed to want to carve out its own niche, its own identity, and anyone who didn’t fit was simply drawn out of a town as boundaries were determined. ...

And it carved St. Louis County into 90 separate towns with 60 police departments and more than 60 municipal courts, many of which have been accused of being incompetent and racist. Within the county but outside of those 90 municipalities are another 300,000 people who live in unincorporated areas governed by the county, leading to scenarios in which county police sometimes must drive several miles to patrol areas not more than a few square blocks. One of the only threads uniting nearly all of these tiny unincorporated areas and municipalities is the fact that they steadfastly refuse to merge with one another, or with St. Louis City.

These mini-communities had no way to pay their bills; many of them, including Ferguson, turned themselves into speed traps, dependent for more than 30 percent of their budgets on the take from ticketing minor traffic offenses. Black citizens were the prime target for hyper-enforcement. Local courts turned this extortion racket into an efficient business rivaling the practices of gangland loan sharks.

“You just know when you go through [Ferguson], you better be right. Otherwise , they’ll get you on a taillight or a seat belt or a rolling stop, and once they get you, it just multiplies: Your plate expired, your insurance late, your registration old… it’s always something. All of a sudden, you got five tickets, man. And that’s if you don’t got warrants! ’Cause if you didn’t pay every cent on all the tickets the last time the shit happened, then you goin ’ to jail. Look, man, I got a good gig now; I can pay a fine. But a lotta these people ’round here… a lotta my friends, man… well, I mean, you can end up owing $ 1,000 from a single stop the way they pile it on .… Then if you can’t pay that, you’re on the installment plan, and then one day you choosing between food and keeping up, so you let it slide, then you drive to work to get the money to get back right on your plan, but they get you for the taillight that you couldn’t afford to fix ’cause you didn’t have no money to pay the ticket in the first place! Or what about when they get you for expired license, and you suspended, but then you supposed to do what , fly to court on a damn magic carpet? You scared to get another ticket, so you stay home… or if you try to go and they stop you, now you really fucked ’cause you goin’ to jail ..."

By the middle of the 20th century, segregated areas of St. Louis proper became too valuable to allow them to be occupied by their Black inhabitants; urban renewal broke up established communities.

Today’s urban researchers recognize the intentionality behind these development patterns. “St. Louis has spent enormous sums of public money to spatially reinforce human segregation patterns,” preservationist Michael Allen said. “We tore out the core of the city around downtown, just north and south and west, and fortified downtown as an island, by removing so-called slum neighborhoods. Then we demolished… historic black neighborhoods. These were not accidents. These were inflicted wounds.”

Like whites before them, Blacks who could moved to close-in suburbs for bigger houses and a better life. But their arrival did not displace the existing white power structure. Schools in the county were re-segregated after the newcomers entered them. Property values plummeted. Within the City, African Americans had enough numbers to organize themselves and attain a substantial measure of political power. The tiny municipalities of the inner ring might seem to offer prime targets for take over by their residents, but in fact their small size and poverty failed to attract ambitious Black politicians to the task (except for a few con men profiting from government contracts.)

Consequently, poor and young people in Ferguson had little legitimate community leadership to turn to when Mike Brown's killing thrust them into the media spotlight. Most office holders and the police department remained white in two-thirds Black Ferguson. Some Black leaders were self-critical.

Mike Jones, a former City alderman and then top official in both City and County governments, was especially candid. In a column for the St. Louis American, he wrote: "My view is the circumstances that created the events that resulted in tragedy of Michael Brown’s much too early death can be placed squarely at the feet of black leadership, or I should have said at the failure of black leadership to fulfill the only moral imperative of leadership— protecting and advancing the interest of the people you lead. Competent public leadership is not showing up in church praying and giving speeches for the benefit of TV cameras. It requires showing up every day, educating and organizing the community to protect and advance its interest. It means when you’re in the room you represent the interests of the people who sent you, not acquiescing to the wishes of those you are negotiating with."

Well maybe. I hope Mike Jones is right. But early reports of surging Black voter registration proved to be mistaken. Organizing is slow work and needs money and leadership to succeed. People who've just been knocked down, again, by the County prosector tuning the police shooter's fate over to a grand jury proceeding that was always sure not to result in a real trial aren't likely to be eager to do the boring work of getting folks ready to vote. But unless the people at the bottom manage to take some measure of power in Ferguson and surroundings, Black lives will continue not to matter.

Municipal elections will take place in April 2015. Will we still be paying attention to Ferguson?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Mission District Thanksgiving

In this unquiet season, let's enjoy those who are present and give thanks as well for those who did not survive.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Because it isn't just #Ferguson

All over the country, the lives of young Black and brown men just don't matter.

"This decision seems to underscore an unwritten rule that Black lives hold no value; that you may kill Black men in this country without consequences or repercussions. This is a frightening narrative for every parent and guardian of Black and brown children, and another setback for race relations in America," Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) said in a statement [after the no-indictment decision].

The congresswoman called it a "slap in the face to Americans nationwide who continue to hope and believe that justice will prevail" and expressed solidarity with "the loved ones of all the Michael Browns we have buried in this country."

I'm just not feeling like writing much this morning.

FYI Alex Nieto. Oscar Grant.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In transit today

Waiting to board the ferry to Martha's Vineyard after a pleasant enough overnight flight and a two hour bus ride.

We scarcely notice the omnipresent signs. There's a Nor'easter bearing down and last night legitimate rage burned in Ferguson.

For the moment, the waters we cross are calm.

Monday, November 24, 2014

#Ferguson: How a prosecutor gets what he wants

No True Bill from Stlfilmmaker on Vimeo.

An experienced Missouri law professor and a former prosecutor now in private practice explain how grand juries usually work and why the process in the case of Officer Darren Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown was massaged into nothingness by the DA..

H/t Think Progress.

Should we leave our future to the machines?

It would be easy, but far too simplistic, to write off Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, as mere cheerleaders for our new digital masters.

Though there is plenty of cheerleading, this is nonetheless a fascinating, very clear exposition of where our technologies are taking human societies (climate collapse always excepted; these authors make no mention of that dire probability). They contend that we are in the midst of an historical "inflection point." For most of our existence, the conditions of human life did not change much: we struggled along to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves in relatively small societies. In the last 200 years, the steam engine -- a marker for the increase in mechanical power that we call the industrial revolution -- led to a take off in human well-being, population numbers, wealth, and a better life for far more us us (especially if you don't factor in mass extinctions and pollution of the planet). Today the digital revolution -- the exponential, embedded expansion of machine power and capacity -- is driving us to a new plane of existence.

These authors survey some of what is possible: driverless cars, effective translation and writing as good as humans produce, 3-D printing. The goodies are wonderful. We want them!

And then they take up what they call "the spread" -- the fact that innovations with the power and capacity they describe will lead to societies in which a few people (I'd call them the one percent and their sycophants but they don't) have wonderful lives and most of a growing human population is superfluous. And they make recommendations: suddenly we're back in the drab land of imaginable (almost) public policy: universal pre-K and a negative income tax.

I find it impossible to believe that their remedies are nearly up to the tasks assigned to them. Maybe our digital masters can figure out to do with superfluous humans? Somehow that prospect doesn't look good.

This is a worthwhile book, for what it describes of where we are going. Making the digitized society livable for most is another matter; that isn't going to come from the business schools these authors derive from.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

An Obamacare rant: fix your own damn market!

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad we have Obamacare. A lot of people, millions of us, have some kind of health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Nobody has proved that people are any healthier because of this, but the best study shows that the newly insured are more likely to get medical care when they are sick and far less likely to be bankrupted by a sudden illness. That's all to the good.

But that does not mean that by succumbing to the political and economic pressures to preserve our cruel and wasteful private market health system, Obamacare isn't a jerry-built Rube Goldberg edifice. Margot Sanger-Katz explains that the Department of Health and Human Services is proposing a regulation to "encourage" people who buy coverage through the insurance exchanges to go through the laborious process of re-evaluating which plan will be cheapest and will give them the medical access they want every year.

Now cheap is good. But changing insurance companies can often mean changing doctors, hospitals, relationships, maybe medications -- why would we want people to have to go through all that every year?

The proposal highlights a key feature of the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces, which has both benefits and drawbacks. It relies on competition between private health plans to keep prices low. That means that shoppers in many markets can find good deals, but only if they’re willing to stomach the disruption of switching insurance every year.

That is, unless individual citizens are willing to unsettle their medical arrangements annually, there will be less competition between insurers. If people are loath to change insurers, they'll settle in with one that more or less suits them and only change if they have to.

Because Obamacare seeks to use competition between insurers to keep prices down while upholding basic quality, without churn in the market the exchanges will become uncompetitive. If people find a plan that works for them and just stick with it, there goes competition between insurers. So to keep this private marketplace working, users have to be pushed to jump between insurers. The job of keeping the insurance market healthy is to be pushed off onto individuals, many of whom are poor or sick.

Sick people are not consumers making choices like which new electronic widget to buy. When serious illness hits, our lives are at stake. As was the case before Obamacare, what chance we have of receiving good care should not be determined by how good we are at jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Health care really is a human right; preserving the health of a dysfunctional profit-seeking market is just the detritus of an anti-human social system.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Uber and its discontents

All spotted within one city block on lower Potrero Hill:

Lots of signage.

Friday, November 21, 2014

This is a bet on the economy ..

Let me jump into the risky and foolish prediction business. I read a lot of commentary on the President's order to give a substantial number (4 million? -- we won't really know for awhile) of our undocumented population a deferred deportation status. Watching the capricious and cruel workings of immigration law in our neighborhood, I could only cheer and wish for more, the more that Congress could give but Republicans won't.

There's lots of wailing and fury in response from some people. There will be more of this. Maybe Republicans will shut down the government over giving work permits to parents of citizens? Seems crazy, but we could go there.

But whether this action seems more than a blip in our memory of this period will depend on something that neither President Obama nor the Republicans seem to have (or want?) much of a grip on. If the weak economic growth currently underway leads to growing perceptions of prosperity for a majority of us, this immigration initiative will be forgotten. If, as has been the case for more than a decade, the promised economic improvement never comes, maybe Obama will go down in history as an aspiring tyrant, oblivious to the constraints of law.

It's still about the economy, stupid!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Equality then and now

Our Declaration by Danielle Allen, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, has been sitting next to my computer for a month, reminding me to write about it. Something held me back. What?

I reveled in this book -- I highly recommend it -- yet I'm conflicted because it did not quite succeed at convincing me that the Declaration of Independence should be read as a ringing endorsement of human equality. (I have linked to the document's text because, as Allen points out, most of us have never read the entirety of this short document; we invoke it, but our education seldom includes reading it.)

Allen acquired her understanding of the Declaration through teaching and discussing it with University of Chicago students and adult, working, night students. Their discussions formed her vision of what this founding document might mean to us today.

By and large all we were doing was reading texts closely, and discussing them. ...

As I worked my way through the text with those students, I realized for the first time in my own life that the Declaration makes a coherent philosophical argument. In particular, it makes an argument about political equality. ... What exactly is political equality? The purpose of democracy is to empower individual citizens and give them sufficient control over their lives to protect themselves from domination. In their ideal form, democracies empower each and all such that none can dominate any of the others, nor anyone group, another group of citizens.

Political equality is not, however, merely freedom from domination. The best way to avoid being dominated is to help build the world which one lives -- to help, like an architect, determine its pattern and structure. The point of political equality is not merely to secure spaces free from domination but also to engage all members of a community equally in the work of creating and constantly re-creating that community. Political equality is equal political empowerment.

Ideally, if political equality exists, citizens become co-creators of their shared world. Freedom from domination and the opportunity for co-creation maximize the space available for individual and collective flourishing. ...

As a mixed-race woman, Allen is perfectly well aware that the Declaration's authors -- John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the other propertied gentlemen of the Continental Congress -- could not envision freedom or equality that included her. Yet she is certain that their creation -- their collective "democratic writing" -- nonetheless speaks philosophical truths that go beyond their particular circumstances and very much to include all of us.

I just can't follow Allen to this conclusion. By instinct and by education, I think like an historian, determined to understand as much as possible the context that shaped a document from the past in its particular time. The past was then; this is now. My thought emerges from now and it is through the vantage point of now that I see the past. Knowing this, I deeply distrust my own instinct to assimilate the actions and thinking of people in the past into my contemporary reality.

Allen is a philosopher; she looks for the principles that undergird the temporal particularity of the Declaration.

Although the study of history is riveting and awakens us to contingency, this book treads lightly on the historical side of the tale of the Declaration. While history can serve to help us understand many things much better it can also function as a barrier to entry. This book is intentionally philosophical; it focuses almost exclusively on the logical argument of the Declaration and the conceptual terrain of its metaphors.

And so, for her, the Declaration becomes a grand testimony to equality.

The Declaration of Independence makes a coherent philosophical argument from start to finish. it is this: equality has precedence over freedom; only on the basis of equality can freedom be securely achieved.

I want to believe her, but I can't locate this insight in the Declaration. I can agree with the conclusion here, but I have to get there through the struggles of my own time, not through this more than 200 year old document. Fortunately, no time lacks struggles toward justice for all, if we dare to see them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not something I'm happy about ...

We're getting a present from Jerry Brown.

The number of signatures required to put an initiative on the California state ballot looks to drop by hundreds of thousands in 2016. That's because the state constitution calls for valid signatures amounting to 8 percent of the gubernatorial ballots cast in the previous election to put on a constitutional amendment and 5 percent for a mere statute.

John Myers of KQED points out that, with Jerry's waltz over a hapless challenger in 2014, participation in the race was way down. it is likely that it will become possible to qualify a ballot measure with a mere 325,000 signatures as opposed to slightly over 500,000 in the last cycle.


This is about money. Ballot petitions are gathered by companies that specialize in hiring canvassers for the job of collecting the signatures. When time is short or the measure hard to sell, the companies pay the workers up to $2 a name or more. Run of the mill propositions pay less. People are employed ... niche enterprises make a profit ... and voters get a long ballot. As a rough rule of thumb, the previous threshold for qualifying a measure meant that it took at least $1 million to qualify a statute and much more to qualify a constitutional amendment.

It is likely to be more attractive to both billionaires with an axe to grind and to grassroots groups with an idea to go to the ballot, as it just got cheaper. Our ballots will be longer and likely more off-putting than ever.

But hey -- how about an initiative to make Election Day a state holiday, perhaps coupled with same day registration and incentives to vote? Now that would be a useful contribution to popular democracy.

H/t Daily Kos Elections.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Defending homes

A determined group from northern California took to the sidewalks of Market St. in San Francisco today to demand that the U.S. Army Engineers honor their obligations to the Pomo tribe and rein in Caltrans. See previous post.

Singing raises spirits.

Priscilla Hunter from the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians spoke with the media.

A few demonstrators blocked doors.

Taking a stand can be a tiring business.
Around a corner, a few blocks away, another protest was going on.

The outcry from the dispossessed was not really that different.

For these tenants as much as the Pomos, the legal system seems rigged against them.

Bulldozing Native history

Another day, another demonstration in San Francisco to deter official malfeasance. After watching Caltrans bungle construction of the new "signature" Bay Bridge for 25 years, it is not hard to believe that they've bungled again and run afoul of their own rules for protection of historic Native sites while constructing a highway bypass near Willits in Northern California. Pomo Indians are coming to town to protest.

This ABC news report is remarkably clear on what is taking place.
Local tribes say seven Indian villages once dotted the Little Lake Valley all over the area being torn up by construction along the six mile freeway route. Then in the mid-1800's European settlers changed everything. Hunter says, "They brought the army in and took our land and killed our people."

The native people who survived were forced out, but the ground around Willits is full of things they left behind -- 5,000 years of history protected by federal law. Now Indian artifacts are turning up all over the construction site and on Caltrans property that's being dug up to comply with environmental requirements.

... The local tribes say Caltrans is playing catch up with sacred history because the staff did not do an adequate job finding or protecting Native American sites before construction started last year. Fitzgerral said Caltrans "hired all these experts and they failed."
If they can build a bridge whose fundamental construction flaws are still coming to light now that it is open, it is no great surprise that they don't follow the rules about preservation of tribal history.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Torture travel interrupted by popular eruption

Erudite partner was supposed to fly to Mexico this week to talk about torture with philosophy and education students at the UNAM -- the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. She's not going; her hosts are teachers of education students and, like much of the country, they'll be on strike the day she was to give her talk. The short video from AlJazeera+ narrated by our friend Francesca Fiorentini gives a sense of how high inflamed feelings are running in Mexico and around the world. As well they should.

But Rebecca Gordon is still actively spreading the word about torture here at home. Tonight, Monday November 17 at 7 pm, she is talking at Folio Books on 24th Street in Noe Valley.

On December 10 (that's a Wednesday) she's participating in a national webinar along with Professor Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, sponsored by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to mark Human Rights Day. Registration required.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Morning glory in the MIssion

Sunrise over the BART plaza at 24th Street this morning. Too busy to write today. Back tomorrow.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reflections on law and U.S. history

It turns out Louisiana -- and thus New Orleans -- really is different. During the bookapalooza, Rebecca spoke at the law school at Loyola. Our hosts gave us a strange little gift -- it looks almost like a children's book -- from the Louisiana Bar Foundation.

So I actually read it. Apparently the civil law in the Bayou State is

almost as different from the rest of American law as the metric system is from the English system of measurement.

Because of its French history, the state has inherited a Civil Code that expressed the drive of the French bourgeoisie to upend and replace all vestiges of feudal and religious ordinances that encumbered private property. That's one way of describing what the French Revolution of 1789 was all about. By the time an embattled France sold off Louisiana to President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, a civil code expressing the bourgeoisie's optimistic rationalism had become the region's law. Proponents of this sort of Code, called "civilians" in this little book, look to statutes to deduce and order how citizens (male property owners, really) ought to organize their affairs. The rest of U.S. law which derives from the English common law tradition, building a frame for legal behavior inductively out of accumulated generations of particular instances or "cases."

The civilians' debate with common lawyers about the best way to make law reflects their antithetical assumptions about the power of generalized rules over men's lives. These assumptions, in turn, are linked to the civilian's preference for deduction and the common lawyer's attachment to induction as ways of reasoning about legal issues. The civilian, unless he assumed that the code stated generally valid standards, could not deduce a result by manipulating its provisions. By contrast, a common lawyer would not bother with close analysis of individual precedents if he thought their meaning could be captured for all time in a terse code provision. The differing assumptions about the power of inductive and deductive reasoning are linked to contrasting assumptions about the unfolding of history. As we have noted already, a civilian must believe that history is orderly enough to permit terse generalization. A common lawyer is much less confident than his civilian counterpart about the predictability of history.

Most of us are so steeped in a world shaped by the common law's assumptions that utilitarianism and pragmatism come naturally. Might this be a different country if the ideological assumptions of the Code Civil -- the belief that legislators can prescribe a right society -- had shaped our laws?

Friday, November 14, 2014

UN review puts US on the hot seat about torture treaty

Over the last two days, US State Department representatives have tried to answer questions from a United Nations expert panel in Geneva about our compliance with our obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (often called CAT).

Their job hasn't been easy. It's hard to put lipstick on a pig.

Legal advocates who have long represented Guantanamo prisoners and other human casualaties of our global war on our fears raised the resort to torture the Prez has admitted, the use of brutal force-feeding on inmates, and indefinite captivity.

Advocates for US domestic prisoners charged that widespread use of solitary confinement violates our treaty obligations. So does police brutality.

Numerous civil society groups who know perfectly well that they are not heard within the United States -- gays subjected to "reparative therapy," transgender people, homeless citizens, Chicago youth members of We Charge Genocide (pictured) -- seized the opportunity to make their case.

Mike Brown's parents came from Ferguson to testify to the brutality of militarized law enforcement.

The best account of the two-day hearing I've seen is from Newsweek. Extensive excerpts follow:

  • Where does the U.S. think it is restricted by its CAT obligations?
    Alessio Bruni, one of the committee’s experts, asked the U.S. representatives to elaborate on whether the government believes the prohibition on torture applies to its officials “abroad without geographic limitation.” But in answering the question, the U.S. reiterated its vague position.

    Representatives responded that the CIA no longer operates secret detention facilities and clarified that the U.S. understands the CAT obligations to only apply “where the U.S. acts as a governmental authority,” by which they meant on U.S. soil, in Cuba, and on ships and aircraft.
  • What parts of CAT does the U.S. adhere to abroad?
    The experts cited instances in which the U.S. violated CAT abroad, and asked for clarification “as to whether the U.S. considers all aspects of the convention to be applicable.”

    Bruni wondered how the U.S. was able to reconcile the force-feeding of Guantanamo prisoners with the terms of the treaty, and how it could claim it was not operating secret facilities when it fails to register detainees, calling registration “a first step to prevent torture since his or her identity and location are a sort of deterrent against any form of ill treatment, which needs secrecy to be carried out with total impunity.”
  • Has anyone been prosecuted for torture?
    Since the U.S. last reported to the committee in 2006, more evidence of violations have been reported by the media or alleged by human rights groups. But the U.S. has done little to demonstrate that it is holding the top officials who gave the orders to torture accountable. Groups like the Advocates for U.S. Torture Prosecutions say that the United States is shielding those responsible, which is in direct violation of its CAT obligations.

    “It’s is at the heart of everything,” Deborah Popowski, a clinical instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and a member of Advocates for U.S. Torture Prosecutions said in an interview with Newsweek.
  • Do U.S. domestic prison conditions align with CAT?
    The committee brought up the U.S. prison system and inquired as to how current practices can be justified in light of the country’s CAT obligations. Among the concerns were the use of solitary confinement, the treatment of minors and those with mental health disorders in particular, the lack of accountability for prison officials who have been accused of sexual abuse, and the sentencing of those who have committed nonviolent offenses to life without parole.

    U.S. representative Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Bitkower said that solitary confinement is not imposed with the intention of inflicting psychological harm on inmates. The U.S. could not provide a number of inmates in solitary confinement.

    The U.S. representatives also touched upon minors in prison, saying that 7,400 juveniles were in adult prisons in 2011 and followed with the claim that sexual assault is higher in juvenile facilities than in adult prisons. The delegation also assured the committee that if states do not adhere to federal standards regarding the sexual abuse of prisoners they lose funding.
  • What about police brutality and militarization at home?
    Jens Modvig, another expert serving on the committee, asked whether anything was being done to prevent police from using excessive force or if any steps were being taken to review the distribution of military equipment to local law enforcement, especially in light of the events that occurred over the summer in Ferguson, Missouri or the prolonged gun violence in Chicago.

    Voicing concerns about the treatment of black people in the U.S. is a rare occurrence at the U.N.

    As the U.S. delegation skirted around these questions about police misconduct, youth from Chicago staged a silent protest to commemorate those killed by law enforcement.

The United States Human Rights Network took the lead in this country on organizing community groups for this periodic review.

Friday cat blogging

As colder weather arrives, Morty hunkers down amid the cushions.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

From the 'hood: life amid death

Over Dia de los Muertos, a lovely memorial to Gloria Anzaldua hung in the window of a gallery on a corner.

Near Buena Vista/Horace Mann school where he had studied, the family of this murdered young man asked us to speak up in his memory. Details here.

Our local oracle posts his wisdom on the parking signs.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sending a message; throwing down a challenge

After an election won, in some part, through successful Republican efforts to prevent African Americans, Latinos, poor people and young people from voting, this seems a statement.
President Barack Obama announced 19 recipients Monday of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including three civil rights workers killed by the KKK in Mississippi in 1964.

... The medal will be awarded on Nov. 24 to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed on June 21, 1964, near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered while organizing black citizens to vote in the town of Philadelphia in Neshoba County, Mississippi.

Another president took notice of those murders. Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign at the Neshoba County Fair. Former Times columnist Bob Herbert described the scene:
The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

... Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.
The current President undoubtedly knows he is making a statement for our times by including the murdered civil rights workers among the medal recipients.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day 2014: how many more?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated 22 veterans died of suicide every day in 2010, according to a 2013 report that reviewed suicide rates in 21 states between 1999 and 2011.

The number is likely even higher. Not every state tracks whether a deceased person was a veteran. Even that most recent and comprehensive federal review of veterans suicide was missing complete data from large states such as Texas and California. The review had only partial data from Ohio.

... an investigative journalism project by college students, found veterans committed suicide at more than twice the rate of the civilian population. The review of 48 states between 2005 and 2011 found 30 suicides for every 100,000 veterans compared with 14 suicides for every 100,000 civilians.

Veterans who died of suicide tended to be older, between 54 and 59 years old, than those in the civilian population who committed suicide, who averaged 43 years old at death, according to the VA report.

Jessie Balmert, Ohio Gannet News reporter

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states that the nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly 8% being female. The majority are single; live in urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About 12% of the adult homeless population are veterans.

Roughly 40% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.

Homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. Approximately 9% are between the ages of 18 and 30, and 41% are between the ages of 31 and 50. Conversely, only 5% of all veterans are between the ages of 18 and 30, and less than 23% are between 31 and 50.

America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. ...

...the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night.

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

We honor veterans by not making more of them.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Belief stripped down; essences remain, or do they?

In an extraordinary opinion piece in the New York Times, historian and commentator James Carroll, a faithful if questioning adherent of the Roman Catholic Church, ponders Pope Francis' broad appeal and the contemporary vocation of his church. He wonders where people from his branch of the Christian tradition can locate spiritual, intellectual and moral authority in these times.
More than a century ago, the church was thrown for a loop by the mind of modernity, and even now struggles to assimilate the established ideas that change is essential to the human condition; that truth is always seen from a particular point of view; that all language about God falls short of God.
Carroll propounds answers for himself: he takes seriously the witness of Jesus, both as God and as a man with and for others, especially the poor and suffering, and finds meaning in the community of humankind. That all sounds a little vague compared to the baroque edifice of Vatican courts and curia, of rubrics and ceremonies, but it works for him.

This echoed a book I've been reading which explores another spiritual terrain. This book throws its author into a somewhat similar space despite exploring what might seem different problems. Here too intellectual inquiry fails to deliver certainty but an uncertain faith remains. In Feminist Edges of the Qur'an, Professor Aysha A. Hidayatullah describes the rigorous intellectual struggle of Muslim feminist scholars to elaborate readings of Islam's revealed text that affirm justice and equality for women. She sympathetically, but cogently, points out the limitations of their readings. Yet she holds out hope for women and men within Islam to reconcile contemporary understandings of justice with their tradition.
I imagine that for many Muslim women, it is their belief in the divinity of the Qur'an that so passionately motivates them to try to redeem the text from sexist interpretations in the first place. The starting point is that God is just, and that the Qur'an is the word of God, so then the Qur'an must also be just (in a way that upholds the absolute equality of men and women).

But if, as it turns out, we cannot be sure that the text upholds the justice we seek, then we are left to question whether the Qur'an is really a divine text. If we do not question the divinity of the Qur'an, then we are left to question whether God is just (in a manner that upholds female-male equality). Both questions are, of course, deeply disturbing, even unbearable for some ...

There have been times in the past when I have feared that questioning the certainty of the Qur'an's justice for women would send me headlong into an abyss of uncertainty that would inevitably result in the end of my faith and my demise as a Muslim feminist. It was unthinkable to admit that feminist exegetical thought had reached dead ends in some places. It was only after allowing myself to ask questions that were once unthinkable, reassessing many of the most basic principles of feminist exegetical thought, that I have been able to look into the abyss of uncertainty and see it as a place of life and not only death. ...

Embracing "an unknowing" is always a risk, as I am confronted with "a beyond that I cannot ever fully construct, author, or control," but this confrontation might also be the best way to think the unthinkable...In the journey of writing this book, I have come to see uncertainty as a mercy in the face of the daunting finality of certainty and the permanence of its limits. ....
This is an almost unthinkably brave assertion in the current context in the United States. Ordinary Muslim citizens have to worry about recurrent abuse and even physical threats from bigoted or ignorant neighbors. Muslim-haters are quick to try to co-opt the idea of "liberating" Islamic women to attack the religion. Public honesty about spiritual uncertainty might seem to betray family and community under siege. But Hidayatullah seems impelled to go where inquiry leads her, without repudiating her faith. I hope there will be more from this scholar ...

Full disclosure: Hidayatullah teaches at the same university where my erudite partner works; I have had the privilege of hearing her speak on these issues.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Catalan independence?

News media report that one million residents of the Catalonia region of Spain have participated in an unsanctioned, non-binding referendum on independence today. That is, they've been part of a highly organized, non-violence protest led by civil society organizations.

I don't claim to understand much about the drive for Catalan independence. The region is more industrialized and more prosperous than much of the country. Many people believe they pay more into the central state than they get back. The area has a somewhat distinct history from some other parts of Spain having resisted fascism longer and been more viciously repressed by last century's Franco dictatorship. Or so Catalans say.

The BBC tries to explain the area's strong independence sentiment:

There is also a pervasive sense that the central government never listens to Catalans and treats them with contempt - menyspreu, a much-repeated [Catalan] word here.

And the Catalan language really is distinct from either Spanish or French. Signs are often in both Spanish and Catalan or even just Catalan. This banner we spotted on a public building in Girona last year reveals something of the contradictions in the situation.

Pro-independence Catalans very much want to be part of Europe and are willing to express themselves in English to promote the cause -- the cause of maintaining local distinctiveness. I don't think that Catalans are alone in our global society in struggling to navigate these contradictions. In fact, I suspect they are more sophisticated than most of us.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

A reminder that what's coming could be worse

It's a precarious place, the Big Island of Hawaii.

"Ultimately anything we build on the volcano will be consumed by Kilauea..." Hawaiian volcanoes are not like any images you may have formed of the destruction of Pompeii by the unexpected eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. When they erupt, the destruction moves slowly. But their lava just keeps on pushing inexorably toward the sea. The video is very much worth your time.

H/t Hattie who is watching and chronicling the current flow into the Puna region from an adjacent slope outside the danger zone.

Dumb and dumber

The Prez is sending more U.S. troops into harm's way in Iraq. What's he going to do when someone blows them up? For that matter, do we even have a clear enough understanding of who is friend and who is foe to figure out who the bomber was?

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is authorizing the U.S. military to deploy up to 1,500 more troops to Iraq as part of the mission to combat the Islamic State group. ...

The White House says the troops won't serve in a combat role, but will train, advise and assist Iraqi military and Kurdish forces fighting IS.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest says Obama has also authorized the additional personnel to operate at Iraqi military facilities outside Baghdad and Erbil. Until now, U.S. troops have been operating a joint operation center setup with Iraqi forces there.


Last thing the guy needs is another war; he's already got one in Washington.

Friday, November 07, 2014

San Francisco: we revert to the mean

Going forward, it seems I will be represented in the California legislature by the best Assemblyman that real estate developer and tech money could buy.

This will be a bit of a shock. San Francisco has long been fortunate to produce quite a few politicians motivated by some necessity in addition to their personal advancement -- especially gays and people of color. They were individuals who couldn't emerge from anywhere else. Our retiring Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, has been the finest exemplar of the type. Oh, we've sent off our share of colorful crooks (looking at you, Willie Brown) and the US Senate's sanctimonious grande dame (our former mayor Diane Feinstein). But these characters were at least interesting, even when doing evil.

In this election we've apparently elected the little man of no accomplishment but great ambition who sucked up to the money. How ordinary.

Chart by way of Mission Local which, despite being some kind of offshoot of the SF Chronicle, occasionally produces interesting neighborhood journalism.

Correction: Mission Local was formerly a project of the UC Berkeley Journalism School; now is on its own and asks our support.

Friday cat blogging

This bold creature seems to think I've intruded on his/her 'hood. Encountered in the course of my San Francisco precinct photography project.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

One more anomolous election item

Spotted in a San Francisco precinct
The one group that appears to have shifted significantly compared to the last midterm were members of “other religions” — Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc. In 2010, three out of four voted Democratic, while this time around it was two out of three. And given that their proportion of the vote increased from 8 percent to 11 percent, that was not a trivial number of votes.

You’re wrong, however, if you think that this shift came from Jewish voters disillusioned with the Democratic Party. Jews voted Democratic by 65-33 yesterday, as compared to 66-31 in 2010. Its the other Others who shifted.
What's this about? Members of those "other religions" usually qualify as Those People among Republicans.

Frustratingly, mainline Protestants and evangelicals are lumped together in these findings -- though since most are older white people, both groups likely voted Republican, probably at somewhat different rates.

Election afterthoughts

So I read a lot of pundits today and I learned very little.

Click to enlarge.
Yes -- turnout was very low and the electorate skewed old. Because the Boomer demographic bulge is moving into the over 65 category, we can expect that segment to get somewhat larger than in past elections. But on Tuesday this, the most white, segment of the electorate was seriously disproportionally represented and called the tune. In 2012, young voters more nearly equaled the proportion of elders; this time the young were one third as large a fraction of the whole. And those older voters don't like Democrats in power or even their own kids.
... what this represents is a backlash against a change that is coming anyway – a vote by the older generation against the America that the younger generation seems to represent and want. Or a rising up of white America against the browns and blacks.
Communities of color still voted for Dems, but this election showed some weaknesses among those supportive constituencies that may point to greater future problems than the normal low midterm election turnout.
Even among African-Americans, the target of highly visible voter suppression measures, the GOP percentage increased from 6% in 2012 to 10% in 2014. Among Latinos, the GOP vote share jumped from 27% to 35%. And most startling of all, among Asian-Americans Republicans improved from 26% in 2012 to 49% in 2014. Add all these numbers up, and they begin to matter.
Republicans have been allowing their high profile bigots to drive off any people of color who might be be attracted to rapacious "free market" policies. They elected some new prize specimens yesterday; think Ernst of Iowa and Cotton of Arkansas. But even numerically small moves toward the GOP threaten the Democratic coalition.

I didn't need anyone to tell me why so many of us are in a "throw the bums out" mode: we are assured that we are in an "economic recovery," but somehow our prospects and those of our young people feel as if they've gotten worse, not better, since we elected a Democratic president in 2008. And we are not deceived. No one except the plutocrats is really doing well.

This is not particularly President Obama's fault; it is not even entirely the Democratic Party's fault, though the one percent certainly have their Dem accomplices. Republicans have done everything they could to ensure that the government failed to give people an economic leg up. But this underlying, appropriate, sense that people have been fooled sure made it easy for the billionaires to channel popular discontent against a leader for whom many citizens harbor racial disdain.
How dissatisfied was the electorate? According to the national exit poll, fifty-nine per cent of voters said that they were angry or disappointed with the Obama Administration. Seven in ten said that the economy is in bad shape, and just one in three said it is improving. Sixty-five per cent of respondents said that the country was seriously off-track. That last figure is twelve points higher than the equivalent finding in the exit poll taken during the 2012 Presidential election.
We're a very unhappy (very rich, very privileged) country and on Tuesday Republicans and billionaires took advantage. So there we are.

It doesn't have to be this way. But getting better results from our democracy is going to take work.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

A good result amidst the bloodbath

Shanthi Gonzales was handily elected to the thankless post of member of the Oakland School Board from District 6 yesterday. She won the old fashioned way: she talked with every voter she could find for six months; she won endorsements from organizations that care about the schools, especially the teacher's union; and she rallied her friends and neighbors to spread the word about her to voters. There wasn't any big money in this one, so she took it with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Why do I care? Because I've known Shanthi ever since she was a young person in public school campaigning to push back against the wave of racist state initiatives in California in mid-1990s. (California looked more like North Carolina and Georgia do today in those days than we wish to remember, suffering election after election driven by older white voters' fear of demographic change.)

Now she gets to try to make some of our suffering public schools work.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

And the winners are ...

On this nasty election night, it seems appropriate to share my friend Sarah Lazare's insightful piece from Common Dreams:

In an election marked by record outside spending, including "dark money" sources, a clear winner has already emerged: the corporate television stations making windfall profits from political advertising.

Cable news stations have nearly doubled their sales in political ads since the last midterm elections in 2010, according to figures from Kanta Media ad tracking firm, which were provided to Reuters. TV stations across the U.S. will bring in approximately $2.4 billion from local, state, and federal elections ads, they report. These numbers are just slightly behind the 2012 presidential election, which saw $2.9 billion spent on TV ads.

A recent Pew Research poll finds that, for local TV stations—which remain one of the sources people in the U.S. depend on most for their political news—the 2014 elections could turn out to be one of the most profitable ever.

According to Cecilia Kang and Matea Gold writing for the Washington Post: "This year’s deluge of political ads is being driven largely by super PACs and other independent groups seeking to shape the hard-fought battle over control of the U.S. Senate."

An estimated 908,000 TV ads regarding the U.S. Senate elections aired through late October, the Center for Public Integrity reports. In seven key Senate races, dark money groups are behind 20 percent of all TV ads. A new analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project finds that only 26 percent of these Senate ads are positive.

Michael Beckel, reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, told Common Dreams that the 2010 Citizens United ruling was a "game changer" for political campaign spending. "That ruling has enabled non-party groups to become ever more prominent and we have seen a proliferation of super PACs and politically active nonprofits that endorse candidates and sling mud in attack ads. This election is on pace to be most expensive midterm in history."

TV stations are mandated to offer candidates their lowest rates, but the same rule does not apply for outside organizations. Therefore, the proliferation of super PACs is boosting profits, because TV stations can charge them more for their ads. "Some news stations have been airing additional news programs in order sell more ads," said Beckel. "Selling political ads has been very lucrative."

Ahead of the 2014 elections, media companies bought up local stations, anticipating these windfall profits. This resulted in "massive" media consolidation, contributing to the national trend of growing conglomerates and a "narrowing" news perspective, argues Reed Richardson in the Nation.

"To elect our nation’s leaders, wealthy 1-percenters and mega-corporations have been given carte blanche to secretly fund organizations that spend obscene amounts of money advertising on TV stations owned by other mega-corporations and wealthy 1-percenters," writes Richardson. "In short, our political finance system has become little more than an income redistribution model for the ultra-rich and a no-lose proposition for big media corporations."

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

I suspect, when the dust settles that careful students of elections will discover that television advertising has declining importance in determining winners and losers. The medium is losing its dominance. Concurrently, there is so much money floating around that well-financed campaigns can run out of useful things to do with it.

But for both political consultants and broadcasters, this is where the easy profits are to be found.