Our Umpteenth Effort to End Racial Murder and Abuse

June 28, 2020

I wanted to deliver this last week but Trump’s use of the military against domestic protestors had me fear for the future of our republic and I put this off.

But I want to talk about these horrible scenes of murder of African-Americans by police. People killed who posed no threat, where the police had everything well under control, and it wasn’t even clear if the victim had done anything meriting police attention, let alone murder. Breonna Taylor, an EMT, was killed in her bed in Louisville.

This reminds me of the Civil Rights Movement I grew up with. People in prayer outside boards of election that wouldn’t let them register. 14-year- old Emmet Til killed on a visit to Mississippi relatives, accused of whistling at a white woman. Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker shot in her car. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, an integrated trio of civil rights workers, released by police in front of thugs who followed, murdered and buried them where they were not expected to be found.

The murders and lynchings stayed in front of our eyes until we hurt, just as we are hurting for George Floyd, choked to death in Minneapolis; Walter Scott, over a brake light in Charleston, SC; Ahmaud Aubrey, killed for jogging while Black in Georgia; Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old, in Cleveland; Stephon Clark, killed for holding a cell phone in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard;  Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner, in Staten Island; Tony McDade in Tallahassee; and Trayvon Martin, a teenager, killed by a neighborhood vigilante who thought he didn’t belong, compounded by the jury’s acquittal. Their stories, and so many more, are unacceptable. The police are supposed to protect us. But they kill too. African-Americans have learned not to call the police in order to protect their own families. I can’t forget the acquittal of four officers here in Albany for killing Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, in a barrage of forty-one shots for trying to put a key in his door.

The U.S. Supreme Court enabled a century of lynching in 1876 by holding that a U.S. Attorney had no authority to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre.[i] After that, police and the Klan, which also infiltrated the FBI, acted with impunity in much of the country. The Court now does its best to restore the worst abuses of that century of intimidation and impunity.[ii] I recently worked on a brief in support of the family of a Mexican boy, in a cross-border shooting by American officers for playing too near the border. The Supreme Court protected his killer. As Pete Seeger asked, “When will it ever end”?

And yet we can’t get tired, we can’t stop, we can’t let all the abuses this country has tried to stop elsewhere define life for a third of our citizens at home. No one is free when anyone is in chains. I don’t want to have the deaths of thousands of decent people on my conscience. I don’t want my darker skinned friends, colleagues, clients, neighbors, essential workers, athletes, entertainers or any other good people and their families having to worry day and night about eluding people who want to kill them or think they aren’t worth living?

When Yugoslavia started to come apart, we had an exchange student living with us who was from Belgrade. She cried about what was happening to her country – the whole country, Yugoslavia. There was intermarriage, friendship, strong neighborhoods, business partnerships, and none of that protected people. When things start to fall apart, there is no safety. We need to stand up for decent people of all backgrounds. And remember that none of us and none of those dear to us are safe when shooters are empowered, with or without a badge.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on the WAMC Northeast Report, on June 30, 2020.

[i] LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (Oxford Univ. Press 2008); Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction (Henry Holt & Company 2008); and United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876), the case that turned a massacre into a century of intimidation and impunity.

[ii] Stephen Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 189-208 (2016).


To Reinvent the Cops, Disarm Them

June 15, 2020

The Governor wants us all to reinvent policing in our own communities. Let’s pull that apart. He wants each separate community to have a conversation about policing and reset everything. Sounds good. Community is a lovely warm word. But I think the reality is a lot different than it sounds.

Lots of folk assume what academics say is just theory. But the difference is addition. Academics add up all the examples. They take what Google calls the satellite view. They don’t necessarily interview people like cops and lawyers. They want the big picture – what’s happening. And when you do all the examples and add it up, what you discover are vast numbers of communities engaged in keeping everybody else out – using everything from acreage requirements to zoning. So, Governor, are you telling us all to rebuild segregation by having each of our communities use policing to keep everyone else out? “Looks like he doesn’t belong here; get rid of him.” Some communities will try to protect everyone, but they’ll be surrounded by rules and cops that say keep out.

So I don’t expect anything constructive to come out of the Governor’s mandatory conversations. Breaking us down into our little private sanctuaries, the game is already stacked.

Forgive me for repeated something I’ve said before, but guns should need an excuse and a warrant before they’re pulled out in public, because guns make bullies of us all. My cure for police misbehavior? Firearms aren’t always used, but to change the culture, to motivate people to use their heads, I’d put an unarmed force between the police and the public and call for arms only when necessary. Guns and ammunition can do a lot of harm – even if only by intoxicating the officers with a sense of power.

An unarmed force would need to use their heads, to de-escalate conflict instead of aggravating it with belligerent language and a show of force.

I was asked to speak to a group of high school students alongside a policeman about relations with the cops. He told them to show respect and everything would be OK. What about the adult? The police also have an obligation to show respect for people, old and young, upset or calm. Those guns make bullies of us all – cops included.

I have no objection if the cops think wireless video connections should be provided so the department could rush help if there really is any danger. But a video stream would be more effective than a gun in convincing people to cool it. I’d put officers on the street without their guns.

I helped do a memorial for a friend a few years ago – we were both on the NYCLU Board when Jerry died. Forty years before that he was in charge of a group of attorneys in Mississippi during Freedom Summer 1964. A historian, Thomas M. Hilbink, had done a study of that group of lawyers and, reading his paper while preparing for the memorial, I discovered that Jerry had been in numerous life or death situations. Down there, by the way, the police were closely allied with the Klan. But Jerry came back healthy and strong – one of the best litigators the Civil Liberties Union had. He used his head. He de-escalated. And he protected everyone working with him.

OK, Jerry was extraordinary. So was Mississippi that summer. Jerry was truly brave, not just filled with the bravery of firearms. And he wasn’t so foolish as to pack or pull heat.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on June 16, 2020.


Cops, Blacks, Presidents and Stereotypes

June 2, 2020

After practicing law, it’s hard to stick to stereotypes about people, whether the police, the looters, whites, presidents or anyone else. Lawyers see the best and the worst, Mother Teresa and Jack the Ripper. The good and bad aren’t predictable.

We have lots of stereotypes about African-Americans. I’ve worked in and for the Black community but I’ve never met the stereotype. Instead I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderful people at all levels of American society.

Police? Actually I think the police are like rest of us in all other walks of life, comprised of everyone from the best to the worst. We stereotype the police. Since they’re brave, we stereotype them all as good people. Americans don’t like to call people they despise brave, but if risking death is brave, the cops share that honor with lots of the people they pursue – gangsters, gang members and terrorists. So it’s pretty obvious that I don’t see the connection between bravery and decency. There are police who heroically track down dangerous people and rescue the innocent. But there are other police convicted of everything from fraud to the murder of women and children as well as unarmed and peaceful African-Americans.

Presidents? It had to happen that we would have one who’d try to preserve his power against the wishes of the American people. He fans the flames and encourages chaos so that he can gather the military and pretend to put out fires that he fanned, using the military against domestic dissent. He stripped many of the finest military men from command to quote “work” in his White House, and when they discovered they could not behave intelligently and patriotically they resigned. Monkeying with military leadership is dangerous. And Trump is using his die-hard armed supporters with their “Second Amendment rights” as Storm Troopers in disguise. It couldn’t be clearer that he wants to become dictator. That’s the route they take – encourage violence, create chaos and then pose as the savior.

The men who created our country knew that power corrupts. They made no assumptions but tried to create checks and balances to counter against the certainty that it would happen. They didn’t figure out how to control the Senate before it made a mockery of the impeachment process. Yes, he’s guilty of lying and a cover-up, but no matter, that’s not serious enough. Is abandoning world leadership to the Russians and Chinese disloyal enough? Is a daily string of lying to the American people and making up fake quote “facts” serious enough? Is threatening insurrection with what he refers to as “Second Amendment rights” serious enough? Is there a Second Amendment right to storm state houses and threaten governors with their weapons? Is that serious enough? Is trying to poison Americans with fake so-called “cures” serious enough? Is the slaughter of a hundred thousand Americans because he dithered in dealing with disease serious enough?

Yes, along with decent and heroic officers, there are some who are intoxicated by the power of their weapons, corrupted by their stereotypes of African-Americans, and protected by a culture of silence and solidarity. But their faults are encouraged by a pretender in the White House for whom nothing is too much to keep him in power.


No Time for Moderates

May 27, 2019

We’re suffering a worldwide attack on tolerance, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all peoples, and the principles of democracy and equality that make it possible to share the country and much of the globe in peace. The results, from Brexit to White Nationalism, the resurgence of Nazism in Europe, intolerance in India and China and ethnic warfare over the scraps of economic failure endanger us all. America, founded on tolerance, equality and democracy, should be leading the world out of this dangerous morass instead of smoothing the path to hell.

Commentators have long seen and feared the separation of national politics from the needs of the great mass of working people. Both national parties partook of that separation. Republicans revere Reagan but he crippled the unions, the organizations of working men and women. And claiming that government is the problem, not the solution, Reagan crippled efforts to address their problems. Democrats followed national economic trends without paying enough attention to the dislocations among working people. That combination made white working people feel left out, instead of uniting us in pursuit of a better world for everybody.

That’s recent history. Much further back, Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French nobleman, toured the U.S. in the 1830s and had the genius to see far into this country’s future. Tocqueville told us that democracy required widespread economic well-being.  The very first paragraph of the U.S. Constitution talks about the “general welfare” but many poo-poo it as merely precatory language, not authorizing government to take care of the people. Those who poo-poo that language think the Constitution is merely about freedom from government rather than the creation of a government capable of providing for the people. Their misreading of history is perverse and dangerous.

Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the twentieth century’s great political scientists, pointed to the world-wide connection between democracy and economic welfare. Germany, which had been a great economic power, lost its illustrious and democratic Weimar Constitution after going through economic hell between the world wars.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told America that he was saving capitalism by protecting the great mass of Americans from the ways capitalism went awry. The big shots of industry couldn’t understand that their behavior wasn’t sacrosanct. They couldn’t understand that capitalism too has to operate by standards of ethics and principles of sharing. Roosevelt was the architect of American economic success for the next half century precisely because he put in place the rules by which it could operate for the benefit of the entire country, not merely the captains of industry and finance. We have forgotten and dishonored Roosevelt’s legacy of making government serve the people. He rescued this country from the Great Depression, “promote[d] the general Welfare,” as the Constitution provided, and set the country on a sound economic keel, a legacy that would honor any leader.  Fools now sneeze at his accomplishment so they can promote something new – poverty for all.

There’ve been plenty of warnings. Now we have a chance. It’s not enough to beat Trump. We need a victory for the principle that everyone counts and everyone needs to be protected. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “socialism” or something else. The idea that it’s a bad idea to take care of each other has got to go – permanently – and all the conservative nonsense about the damage of helping each other. Either we care for each other or we will suffer a war of all against all regardless of what you call it – fascism, communism, totalitarianism – the results won’t be good for anyone except the oligarchs.

Forget “moderate” Democrats. If “radical” describes the philosophy of taking care of each other, we need it NOW. Bless all the people with the decency and humanity to care about their neighbors, fellow citizens and fellow human beings. The blessed are those who care.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 28, 2019.


Guns make bullies of us all

April 8, 2019

We often use the tool at hand for whatever we’re trying to do. Got aspirin or alcohol? Drink it down ‘cause everything feels like a pain. Got a wrench? Everything looks like a pipe. Got a hammer and everything looks like a nail. Pete Seeger sang If I Had a Hammer he’d have used it to hammer out justice. It’s a wonderful song but it seems like the wrong tool.

Some of you may remember the late Congressman Steve Solarz. We went to high school together and I always remember a conversation we had about brotherhood – in student government I headed the brotherhood commission. Steve understood my passion and commented we can’t hammer brotherhood into people. Indeed, we can’t. Instead I had the privilege of inviting Jesse Owens to our school and introducing him to the assembly. Owens, an African-American, had won four medals at the 1936 Olympics in front of the Nazis in Berlin, Germany. We gave him our brotherhood award and then had the privilege of hearing him deliver an impressive and very powerful talk about brotherhood – a great alternative to using a hammer.

In the afternoon before I drafted this commentary, I read about a recent incident of abusive policing in Albany. In the evening, my email was filled with a discussion among law professors about an example in Louisville. Look at Washington and see international sabre-rattling. I looked over some draft commentary and read one about Israel’s reliance on force. And I realized there is a theme. Everybody has the same hammer with a barrel and a trigger. Much too often, from Albany to Louisville to Israel, the Philippines and many other places, the people with the guns don’t bother using their heads or their manners. They don’t have to. Them guns ‘ll make people shut up.

I don’t want to be simplistic about it. Policy changes often lead to overreaction. Focusing on domestic law enforcement, the public somehow has to support the police while also controlling it.

Nevertheless, mappingpoliceviolence.org/ tells us “There are proven solutions. Police Departments that have adopted these use of force policies kill significantly fewer people. But few departments have adopted them.”

Of course, if we could hang them up or put them away except when necessary, we could eliminate a lot of mistaken killing of innocent and unarmed people. There’s lots that police do that don’t call for guns.

Guns also don’t belong in cities. It’s one thing to use a gun for hunting but it’s another for people like George Zimmerman to think they are protecting the community by carrying a gun and killing an unarmed 17-year-old African-American who was heading away from, not toward, Zimmerman.

Guns do not belong in the hands of people who are convicted of domestic violence or any other kind of violence – only the manufacturers could truly like selling guns to people likely to use them on their families. Guns enable people to act out their worst instincts.

I support the Second Amendment right to carry a muzzle-loading-single-shot-18th-century device deep in the woods. That’s the strict construction that conservative judges have been trying to teach us to use. Claims about the breadth of the Second Amendment come from people’s prejudices, not the Constitution. Guns should need an excuse and a warrant before they are pulled out in public because guns make bullies of us all.

— Addendum – four excellent podcasts and web sites:

Shots Fired Part 1: https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/shots-fired-part-1

Shots Fired Part 2: https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/shots-fired-part-2

https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/

http://useofforceproject.org/#project

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 9, 2019.


Democracy Needs Generosity

January 22, 2019

What’s wrong with our politics is its too common don’t-tread-on-me selfishness.

“What’s-in-it-for-me” politics in the early republic held up roads, canals and other internal improvements for decades until we learned to share. Democracy needs some generosity.

After 9/11, Congress passed appropriations for local safety and security. I spoke with a former congressman from this area about New York City’s share. He responded about his district’s various rural areas. I pointed out that the people in his district had important ties to New York City – family or friends there for jobs or schools. Others with close business ties. He responded that he hadn’t thought of that. Frankly that’s what’s wrong with our politics. We need to think about what binds us together instead of what splits us apart. And yes, even the subways New York City depends on. If we starve the subways because it’s there, not here, we starve ourselves; and vice versa.

The same connections are true of our ethnic, racial, religious and gender groups. Some hate paying for anyone else’s schooling. Yet it’s even costlier to clean up after or imprison people who’ve never been given the tools to pull their weight in society.

Should God forbid equalizers like Social Security or Obamacare, though they’re cheaper than the costs imposed by inequality?

The alt-atrocious white supremacists would give us a war of all against all, which makes only corpses and refugees, leaving no one safe – not supremacists, minorities, family, men, women or children.

Since Revolutionary America, colleges kept inviting broader, more diverse groups of students in order to sustain themselves. Industry learned production required people working together regardless of language or faith. Commercial firms learned that lesson to sell their products. The military learned that successful missions required soldiers to support each other regardless of color, origin, language, faith or sexual orientation. Whenever diversity looked problematic, it ended by strengthening American institutions.

America IS great, not in spite of diversity but because of it. Our ideals have led Americans to work well together. The lesson of brotherhood has been our great strength.

Meeting and introducing my classmates to an African-American Olympic champion who won four medals in front of a fuming Hitler did me no harm. Befriending fellow law students from every faith and continent hurt none of us! Just the contrary as we became comfortable with and learned from each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson we all learned is that both lovely and nasty people come in all colors, cultures and tongues.

Climate change, terrorism, threats of war, and economic collapse truly threaten to embitter our lives. Pulling together will be essential to combatting them. Prejudice is a distraction and an obstacle. No children should be left behind. We all have to take care of each other. From federal workers to the homeless, we all have to take care of each other.

Remember President Kennedy’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Some of what we do has to benefit others. Without sharing the gains, there may be no gains to share.

The second President Bush turned Kennedy on his head. He wanted us to counter terrorism by shopping. Bush’s vision was victory without blood, sweat, tears, money or sacrifice. After all we’re number 1. But that’s a fantasy. People unwilling to take pains for the benefit of America and its democratic inheritance cannot enjoy its gains.

It’s broader than that. We must care about the welfare of the European Union, Mexicans, Hondurans and each other, or reap the whirlwind.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2019.


Another Black man shot in the back by police

January 15, 2019

Albany’s DA recently decided against prosecuting anyone in connection with police shooting of a Black man and paralyzing him. He may have had a hunting knife. But police first charged that he was  charging them. So the apparent justification was that the police were scared. Then reports of a video showed that he was running away and was shot in the back.

I have no inside knowledge of this case but, unfortunately, it’s part of a pattern. Police claim that a Black man was charging them when a video shows that the guy was running away with his back turned. Or the police acknowledge that he was running away but claim to be scared because he was carrying something, maybe a knife or the keys to his apartment. One Black man after another has been shot in the back by police who claim to be scared that he would turn around, too scared of Black men to hold their fire when they have no reasonable fear of his behavior.

Actually it’s systematic partly because police are trained that they have no time. So they shoot first and ask questions later. Shooting is a first, not a last, resort. As a result of that training, even some Black officers have bought into it.

Think about it. If you were charged with shooting a man in the back and you told a jury that you were scared because the man was carrying something, you’d be convicted of manslaughter at the least. You and I have no right to shoot on the basis of speculation of what could be. You can’t mow people down because one of them might turn around revealing an unseen weapon, perhaps a gun in his briefcase. That’s not reasonable behavior; it’s not a rule we can live with. A rule of fear would put us all under ground. The law properly requires more before you can kill. But put on a badge and strap on a holster and suddenly there are no rules.

If this were the Philippines or Indonesia we’d call it “impunity.” When big shots over there act with impunity it means they are not accountable for their behavior. It’s here too when police treat Black men as if their lives do not matter.

The public seems to think that brave people must be honest and decent. But what do you do with the bravery of athletes who abuse women? I don’t know the percentages, but what do you do with the regular revelations of police who commit crimes, frame people for crimes they didn’t commit, and abuse women and Blacks? In addition to repeated revelation of Black men shot in the back by police, we’ve had revelations in New York about police ordering women to strip on the highway and revelations about frame-ups on the southern tier. We know that prejudice compounds the message of training that drives police to shoot African-Americans in the back. Should we assume that badges and guns will produce honorable behavior, make police feel empowered to take advantage of others, or both?

I would make it illegal to shoot anyone in the back unless they are in fact armed and dangerous. Or I’d require a warrant before police get to strap on weapons. A free country cannot have armed men acting with impunity, with or without badges. It is totally unacceptable. You can’t correct death.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 15, 2019.


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