Category Archives: Courts and Judges

Drivers Beware: The Deadly Perils of Blank Check Traffic Stops

The Fourth Amendment was designed to stand between us and arbitrary governmental authority. For all practical purposes, that shield has been shattered, leaving our liberty and personal integrity subject to the whim of every cop on the beat, trooper on the highway and jail official. The framers would be appalled.

— Herman Schwartz, The Nation. August 16, 2012

We’ve all been there before.

You’re driving along and you see a pair of flashing blue lights in your rearview mirror. Whether or not you’ve done anything wrong, you get a sinking feeling in your stomach.

You’ve read enough news stories, seen enough headlines, and lived in the American police state long enough to be anxious about any encounter with a cop that takes place on the side of the road.

For better or worse, from the moment you’re pulled over, you’re at the mercy of law enforcement officers who have almost absolute discretion to decide who is a threat, what constitutes resistance, and how harshly they can deal with the citizens they were appointed to “serve and protect.”

This is what I call “blank check policing,” in which the police get to call all of the shots.

So if you’re nervous about traffic stops, you have every reason to be.

Trying to predict the outcome of any encounter with the police is a bit like playing Russian roulette: most of the time you will emerge relatively unscathed, although decidedly poorer and less secure about your rights, but there’s always the chance that an encounter will turn deadly.

Try to assert your right to merely ask a question during a traffic stop and see how far it gets you.

Juanisha Brooks—black, 34 years old and on her way home at 2:20 am—was pulled over, handcuffed, arrested and charged with resisting arrest, eluding the police, reckless driving and failure to use headlights after repeatedly asking police why she had been stopped. When Brooks—a Department of Defense employee—filed a complaint, prosecutors conceded that the traffic stop had been carried out without “proper legal basis” and dropped all charges.

Caron Nazario, a uniformed Army officer returning home from his duty station, was stopped for not having a rear license plate (his temporary plates were taped to the rear window of his new SUV). Nazario, who is Black and Latino, pulled over at a well-lit gas station only to be pepper sprayed, held at gunpoint, beaten and threatened with execution.

Zachary Noel was tasered by police and charged with resisting arrest after he questioned why he was being ordered out of his truck during a traffic stop. “Because I’m telling you to,” the officer replied before repeating his order for Noel to get out of the vehicle and then, without warning, shooting him with a taser through the open window.

Despite complying with all police orders when ordered to show his identification and exit his parked vehicle, Jeriel Edwards was subjected to excessive force and brutality, including being thrown to the ground, tasered, and placed in a chokehold that rendered him unconscious and required his hospitalization for three days. Although dash cam video of the arrest confirms that Edwards was peaceful, did not defy police orders, and did nothing to provoke police, a federal court ruled that Edwards’ trouble understanding police directions during the encounter constituted “resistance” that justified the force used by the four police officers involved in the violent arrest. Edwards is African-American.

Gregory Tucker, also black, was stopped by police for a broken taillight, only to be thrown to the ground, beaten and punched in the face and body more than 20 times, then arrested and hospitalized for severe injuries to his face and arm, all for allegedly “resisting arrest” by driving to a safe, well-lit area in front of his cousin’s house before stopping.

No wonder Americans are afraid of getting pulled over by police.

Mind you, all of these individuals complied with police. They just didn’t do it fast enough to suit their purposes.

At a time when police can do no wrong—at least in the eyes of the courts, police unions and politicians dependent on their votes—and a “fear” for officer safety is used to justify all manner of police misconduct, “we the people” are at a severe disadvantage.

Add a traffic stop to the mix, and that disadvantage increases dramatically.

According to the Justice Department, the most common reason for a citizen to come into contact with the police is being a driver in a traffic stop.

On average, one in 10 Americans gets pulled over by police.

According to data collected under Virginia’s new Community Policing Act, black drivers are almost two times more likely than white drivers to be pulled over by police and three times more likely to have their vehicles searched. As the Washington Post concludes, “‘Driving while black’ is, indeed, a measurable phenomenon.”

Historically, police officers have been given free range to pull anyone over for a variety of reasons.

This free-handed approach to traffic stops has resulted in drivers being stopped for windows that are too heavily tinted, for driving too fast, driving too slow, failing to maintain speed, following too closely, improper lane changes, distracted driving, screeching a car’s tires, and leaving a parked car door open for too long.

Motorists can also be stopped by police for driving near a bar or on a road that has large amounts of drunk driving, driving a certain make of car (Mercedes, Grand Prix and Hummers are among the most ticketed vehicles), having anything dangling from the rearview mirror (air fresheners, handicap parking permits, toll transponders or rosaries), and displaying pro-police bumper stickers.

Incredibly, a federal appeals court actually ruled unanimously in 2014 that acne scars and driving with a stiff upright posture are reasonable grounds for being pulled over. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that driving a vehicle that has a couple air fresheners, rosaries and pro-police bumper stickers at 2 MPH over the speed limit is suspicious, meriting a traffic stop.

Equally appalling, in Heien v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court—which has largely paved the way for the police and other government agents to probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance—allowed police officers to stop drivers who appear nervous, provided they provide a palatable pretext for doing so.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone objector in the case. Dissenting in Heien, Sotomayor warned, “Giving officers license to effect seizures so long as they can attach to their reasonable view of the facts some reasonable legal interpretation (or misinterpretation) that suggests a law has been violated significantly expands this authority… One wonders how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening, and humiliating encounters could do so.”

In other words, drivers beware.

Traffic stops aren’t just dangerous. They can be downright deadly.

Remember Walter L. Scott? Reportedly pulled over for a broken taillight, Scott—unarmed—ran away from the police officer, who pursued and shot him from behind, first with a Taser, then with a gun. Scott was struck five times, “three times in the back, once in the upper buttocks and once in the ear — with at least one bullet entering his heart.”

Samuel Dubose, also unarmed, was pulled over for a missing front license plate. He was reportedly shot in the head after a brief struggle in which his car began rolling forward.

Levar Jones was stopped for a seatbelt offense, just as he was getting out of his car to enter a convenience store. Directed to show his license, Jones leaned into his car to get his wallet, only to be shot four times by the “fearful” officer. Jones was also unarmed.

Bobby Canipe was pulled over for having an expired registration. When the 70-year-old reached into the back of his truck for his walking cane, the officer fired several shots at him, hitting him once in the abdomen.

Dontrell Stevens was stopped “for not bicycling properly.” The officer pursuing him “thought the way Stephens rode his bike was suspicious. He thought the way Stephens got off his bike was suspicious.” Four seconds later, sheriff’s deputy Adams Lin shot Stephens four times as he pulled out a black object from his waistband. The object was his cell phone. Stephens was unarmed.

Sandra Bland, pulled over for allegedly failing to use her turn signal, was arrested after refusing to comply with the police officer’s order to extinguish her cigarette and exit her vehicle. The encounter escalated, with the officer threatening to “light” Bland up with his taser. Three days later, Bland was found dead in her jail cell. “You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?” Bland asked as she got out of her car, after having been yelled at and threatened repeatedly.

Keep in mind, from the moment those lights start flashing and that siren goes off, we’re all in the same boat. However, it’s what happens after you’ve been pulled over that’s critical.

Survival is key.

Technically, you have the right to remain silent (beyond the basic requirement to identify yourself and show your registration). You have the right to refuse to have your vehicle searched. You have the right to film your interaction with police. You have the right to ask to leave. You also have the right to resist an unlawful order such as a police officer directing you to extinguish your cigarette, put away your phone or stop recording them.

However, there is a price for asserting one’s rights. That price grows more costly with every passing day.

If you ask cops and their enablers what Americans should do to stay alive during encounters with police, they will tell you to comply, cooperate, obey, not resist, not argue, not make threatening gestures or statements, avoid sudden movements, and submit to a search of their person and belongings.

Unfortunately, there are no longer any fail-safe rules of engagement for interacting with the police.

In the American police state, compliance is no guarantee that you will survive an encounter with the police with your life and liberties intact.

Every day we hear about situations in which unarmed Americans complied and still died during an encounter with police simply because they appeared to be standing in a “shooting stance” or held a cell phone or a garden hose or carried around a baseball bat or answered the front door or held a spoon in a threatening manner or ran in an aggressive manner holding a tree branch or wandered around naked or hunched over in a defensive posture or made the mistake of wearing the same clothes as a carjacking suspect (dark pants and a basketball jersey) or dared to leave an area at the same time that a police officer showed up or had a car break down by the side of the road or were deaf or homeless or old.

More often than not, it seems as if all you have to do to be shot and killed by police is stand a certain way, or move a certain way, or hold something—anything—that police could misinterpret to be a gun, or ignite some trigger-centric fear in a police officer’s mind that has nothing to do with an actual threat to their safety.

Now you can make all kinds of excuses to justify these shootings, and, in fact, that’s exactly what you’ll hear from politicians, police unions, law enforcement officials and individuals who are more than happy to march in lockstep with the police.

However, to suggest that a good citizen is a compliant citizen and that obedience will save us from the police state is not only recklessly irresponsible, but it is also deluded and out of touch with reality.

To begin with, and most importantly, Americans need to know their rights when it comes to interactions with the police, bearing in mind that many law enforcement officials are largely ignorant of the law themselves.

A good resource is The Rutherford Institute’s “Constitutional Q&A: Rules of Engagement for Interacting with Police.”

In a nutshell, the following are your basic rights when it comes to interactions with the police as outlined in the Bill of Rights:

You have the right under the First Amendment to ask questions and express yourself. You have the right under the Fourth Amendment to not have your person or your property searched by police or any government agent unless they have a search warrant authorizing them to do so.  You have the right under the Fifth Amendment to remain silent, to not incriminate yourself and to request an attorney. Depending on which state you live in and whether your encounter with police is consensual as opposed to your being temporarily detained or arrested, you may have the right to refuse to identify yourself. Not all states require citizens to show their ID to an officer (although drivers in all states must do so).

As a rule of thumb, you should always be sure to clarify in any police encounter whether or not you are being detained; i.e., whether you have the right to walk away. That holds true whether it’s a casual “show your ID” request on a boardwalk, a stop-and-frisk search on a city street, or a traffic stop for speeding or just to check your insurance. If you feel like you can’t walk away from a police encounter of your own volition—and more often than not you can’t, especially when you’re being confronted by someone armed to the hilt with all manner of militarized weaponry and gear—then for all intents and purposes, you’re essentially under arrest from the moment a cop stops you. Still, it doesn’t hurt to clarify that distinction.

While technology is always going to be a double-edged sword, with the gadgets that are the most useful to us in our daily lives—GPS devices, cell phones, the internet—being the very tools used by the government to track us, monitor our activities, and generally spy on us, cell phones are particularly useful for recording encounters with the police and have proven to be increasingly powerful reminders to police that they are not all powerful.

Knowing your rights is only part of the battle, unfortunately.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the hard part comes in when you have to exercise those rights in order to hold government officials accountable to respecting those rights.

The post Drivers Beware: The Deadly Perils of Blank Check Traffic Stops first appeared on Dissident Voice.

A Very British Case: Postmasters and Miscarriages of Justice

British justice is a splendidly odd animal.  Its miscarriage is one of those wonders of institutional repetition.  When textbooks are written on the subject, one will feature prominently.  On April 23 this year, the convictions of 39 former sub-postmasters were quashed by the criminal division of the Court of Appeal.  They had been accused, and convicted, for theft and dishonesty after the UK Post Office installed the wonky wonder of the Horizon IT system.

There were figures such as Seema Misra, convicted for stealing £74,000 in cash from the Post Office branch under her stewardship in West Byfleet in 2010.  At the time, the press delighted in calling her the “pregnant thief”.  Her husband was assaulted by locals.  Della Robinson, who ran the Dukinfield, Greater Manchester Post Office, could not account for £17,000 by 2012.  She was suspended, reported to the police and faced a community service sentence.

The reason for their convictions lay in the accounting nightmare produced by the Horizon system.  It had ominous beginnings, growing up from a contract between the computer company ICL, the Post Office and the Benefits Agency, all part of what were termed private finance initiatives (PFI).  Developed by Japanese company Fujitsu, Horizon featured a swipe card system for paying pensions and benefits via the counters of Post Office branches.  The venture proved calamitous, ailed by chronic mismanagement, weaknesses in the technology and general human incompetence.  The cost of that endeavour to the British taxpayer: £700 million.

Refusing to wipe the slate clean, the Post Office beefed up the Horizon project, using it to convert accounting done through paper format into an electronic system.  Over time, this made it the largest IT contract in Europe not connected with the military.   But the stench refused to go away.  “Serious doubts over the reliability of the software remained,” warned the Post Office board of directors in their minutes in September 1999.

Glitches duly mounted.  Variations in revenue in some branches were noted.  Two months after Horizon began operating, the Post Office branch in Craig-y-Don in Wales showed up a “variance” totalling £6,000.  In time, these proliferated. In some cases, sub-postmasters, seeing these errors as not occasioned by computer error but their own, sought to cover revenue discrepancies with their own resources.  Their contracts did mention that shortfalls be covered in instances of “carelessness or error”.

Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office, with witch-hunting zeal, prosecuted a stunning 736 sub-postmasters, seeking convictions for false accounting and theft.  Many were financially ruined.  A number took to addiction, suffered ill-health and premature death.  The sheer number facing charges raised an obvious question: how could there have been so many copy-cat crimes perpetrated by supposedly upstanding workers? (The Post Office itself admitted to investing time identifying and recruiting appropriate candidates.)  The more troubling, and logical reason: the continuing, near manic refusal to acknowledge the gremlins in the Horizon system.

The sub-postmasters fought back.  In December 2019, the Post Office agreed to settle with 555 claimants, accepting that it had previously erred in its “dealings with a number of postmasters”, agreeing to pay £58m in damages, with claimants receiving a £12 million share after legal fees.

Battle that year was also waged in the High Court through several trials.  The Post Office, remarkably, attempted to tar the presiding judge Sir Peter Fraser in one case with the brush of bias, suggesting he step down.  The failed effort to recuse him had arisen because of a previous ruling that over 500 sub-postmasters had been wrongly held responsible for Horizon’s accounting bungles.   In another of Justice Fraser’s judgments handed down in December 2019, the Post Office was accused of showing “simple institutional obstinacy or refusal” in considering “any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary.”  Reality was ignored.  “It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) proceeded to refer 42 sub-postmaster cases to the Court of Appeal.  The judges were charged with considering whether the prosecutions had been an abuse of court process and whether the convictions were unsafe. The salient consideration was whether the Horizon accounting system, already damned by Fraser, was reliable or not.

To the last, the Post Office, rather than conceding in full error, fought.  It did concede that 39 of the 42 former sub-postmasters “did not or could not have a fair trial.”  But in 35 of those 39 cases, it objected to the claim that the prosecutions were “an affront to the public conscience”.

In the criminal division of the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Holroyde and his fellow judges found the “failures of investigation and disclosure were in our judgment so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.”  The Post Office had effectively reversed the burden of proof by firstly assuming that the Horizon system was reliable and placing the onus upon the sub-postmasters to show why shortfalls had been registered.  “Denied any disclosure of material capable of undermining the prosecution case, defendants were inevitably unable to discharge that improper burden.”  Their prosecutions, convictions and sentences were pursued “on the basis that the Horizon data must be correct, and cash must therefore be missing, when in fact there could be no confidence as to that foundation.”

The snarling ugliness of conduct by the Post Office was laid bare.  It refused to comply with its own obligations when prosecuting the sub-postmasters using Horizon data.  It doggedly insisted that the sub-postmasters “make good all losses and could lose their employment if they did not do so.”  This was all done despite the selection of those very same individuals as trustworthy occupants of their positions.  The Post Office also dismissed claims that the shortfalls had arisen because of “an error or bug in the system”.  Internal documentation dealing with the explanation by one sub-postmaster that a system error had occurred was contemptuously swatted as “jumping on the Horizon bandwagon”.

Of the 42 original appellants, only three – Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain – failed to achieve their aim.  Their convictions were found to be safe, as “the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case”.  For the rest, a grotesque, wearing chapter of British injustice had been reversed.  An unquestioning faith and dogma, alloyed with some venality, had been repudiated.  Sadly, the Post Office executives, board members and those at Fujitsu, remain at large, ready for the next erring.

The post A Very British Case: Postmasters and Miscarriages of Justice first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Arc of the Moral Universe?

On April 21, police in Elizabeth City, North Carolina executed Andrew Brown. According to a private autopsy, he was shot five times, including the “kill shot” to the back of his head whil;e his hands were on the steering wheel of his car. Seven officers equipped with body cameras were at the scene but only a 20-second snippet was provided to the family. Based on what we know so far, the official story has zero credibility.

This unfolding story, along with many others, prompts me to once again pause and think about the metaphor, “The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But Bends Toward Justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently employed the above phrase as did Barack Obama. King was paraphrasing a portion of a sermon delivered by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker who said in 1853 “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. … a long one. My eye reacts but little ways; I cannot calculate and complete the figure by experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Given this context, I think we can read the longer statement as more nuanced, more equivocal than the abbreviated more popular version. And here it’s worth remembering that Rev. Parker was a Transcendentalist who believed there was a natural morality in the universe that would eventually triumph. Because slavery was such a terrible evil, that would happen sooner rather than later and, if necessary, God himself, would intervene.

King’s version, with its historical determinism and preordained justice undoubtedly provides comfort to many people, including those harboring the belief in American exceptionalism, that we are on an odyssey of continual progress. Barack Obama liked King’s version so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. Cynically, I suspect he did so because looking at it allowed him to abdicate responsibility for doing anything.

However, the unrelenting trajectory of racial animus and white supremacy, going back 250 years, suggests the statement is magical thinking and even dangerously naive. And to those lacking the certainty of religious belief, it’s even more problematic.

I want to think it’s possible that white people can be anti-racist, that racism is not an unchangeable character deficiency, that Americans can divest themselves of white supremacy. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I want to take issue with the Afro pessimistic claim that most white people (not only cops) see Blacks as not fully human subjects. I want to believe that UC-Irvine Prof. Frank Wilderson errors in positing a structure of anti-Black violence in this country that lies under the surface of leftist dreams of a universal humanity and intersectional solidarity.

I want to dismiss out of hand that whites are incapable of seeing that this country was built on genocide, stolen land, violence and Black slave labor. And along with activist Bette Lee, I want to think it’s possible that white Americans will eventually agree that “Only an honest reckoning with its history of settler colonialism and its toxic legacy of systemic racism, white supremacy and grinding poverty will lead to real social change and the transformation of America to where justice can prevail.” I want to think it’s possible that whites will grasp that this responsibility is entirely on us.

To this last point, the editors at Black Agenda report (April 21, 2021) remind us that “Black people cannot change white people’s warped perception of the world, although, Lord know, we’ve tried.” As such, housing and school segregation are more entrenched than ever; incarceration functions as a “Black-erasure machine;” White people continue to believe they are the “primary victims of racial discrimination;” and white supremacy is “impervious to any legal recourse.”

I think it’s important to see things as they really are before proceeding to respond. And that means that it will take more than reforms because, as the saying goes, “culture eats policy.” And that begs questions about the origins of our culture and who benefits from it?

Finally, given all of the above, there are days when it feels like our legacy of ghettoization, marginalization, the entire criminal justice system, mass incarceration, warrior cops, massive structural violence and rest means that pessimism and feelings of hopelessness can’t be dismissed. It remains an open question whether most white people are committed to lending their weight toward bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. That said, in the spirit of Gramci’s pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, I’ll conclude with a quote from Edward Said: “Where cruelty and injustice are involved, hopelessness is submission, which I believe is immoral.” For me, assuming this responsibility is tantamount to saving our secular souls.

The post The Arc of the Moral Universe? first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Murder of Daunte Wright Ruined Derek Chauvin Show Trial

The fix was in. The U.S. state was determined to demonstrate to the world that its system was able to render “justice” to its captive African/Black population.

So, unlike in the handful of cases where charges were brought against police officers for killing a Black or Brown person, the prosecutors this time did not pretend to follow the demands of the ill-informed public to bring charges of first degree or second-degree murder that would set a bar for conviction so high, it could not be met. That is a favorite strategy of prosecutors when conviction is not what they are looking for.

The prosecutors in the Derek Chauvin case did the opposite. They stacked the charges in a way that would make it impossible to escape a conviction. And everyone fell in line because the stakes were so high. Could the Shining City on the Hill, whose leadership was now associated with the “decent” Democrats, render justice for the killer of George Floyd? The answer to that question was going to be an emphatic yes. The press committed to gavel-to-gavel coverage and everything was ready for one the greatest show trials of U.S. history.

But the intractable, racist nature of the relationship between Black people and the U.S. settler-colonial state reared its ugly head again and everything went off script right in the middle of the international production. That is because another young Black male was gunned down, ironically in the same metropolitan area where Floyd’s life was snatched from him.

Everything was now confused again. What would justice mean for Floyd and any other Black individual murdered or assaulted by agents of the state even if Chauvin is convicted? Would the call for “justice” now just mean a demand for a trial since it is clear cases of Black murder will continue, as they have since the inception of this nation? Is that not what made the U.S. “exceptional” as the first republic ever established on the basis of race in human history?

The ruling class response to Covid-19 demonstrated how cheap life is in the United States, but the lives of Black people are even lower on the scale of human value. Yet, the charade continues. U.S. authorities gun down Black people in the United States, while its armies kill Black and other colonized peoples and nations around the world in the name of advancing democracy.

Everyone knows, really, that the murder of George Floyd was no more an aberration in U.S. society than the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was. Extreme, systematic, murderous violence has always been at the heart of the white supremacist settler project. The Chauvin show trial was just supposed to help us to forget that for a moment.

It did not matter that no one was held accountable for the murder of Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, or the now countless murders where local prosecutors failed to bring charges and the government under the Obama and Trump administrations made political decisions not to launch federal investigations.

This case was different. It could not be ignored or explained away. The world had seen the gruesome snuff film of George Floyd that evoked global revulsion. An inflection point had been reached in which the U.S. brand was potentially damaged beyond repair—so a sacrifice was required.

With the killing of Daunte Wright, a mistrial may not be the result and Chauvin will probably be convicted. That conviction, however, will not have the effect that the plan had originally imagined. Out of the confusion around what is to be demanded when the killings continue, is the slow awakening to the unavoidable reality that unless African/Black people are able to self-govern and exercise authentic collective self-determination, the degradation and dehumanization that is built into the white supremacist DNA of settler-colonialism will continue to produce Breonna Taylors, Eric Garners, mass incarceration, and crimes against our collective humanity.

And how do we shift that power? Malcolm X gave us a direction from the radical Black human rights tradition. He said you must be ready to pay the price required to experience full dignity as a person and as members of a self-determinant people.

And what is that price?

The price to make others respect your human rights is death. You have to be ready to die… it’s time for you and me now to let the world know how peaceful we are, how well-meaning we are, how law-abiding we wish to be. But at the same time, we have to let the same world know we’ll blow their world sky-high if we’re not respected and recognized and treated the same as other human beings are treated.

That outcome cannot be scripted by Hollywood or the state propagandists.

The post Murder of Daunte Wright Ruined Derek Chauvin Show Trial first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Peoples Coalition Helps Elect New Orleans Progressive Prosecutor

On December 5, 2020, New Orleans elected its first ever progressive District Attorney.  Jason Williams, who was a criminal defense lawyer for over 20 years before being elected, replaced former DA Leon Cannizzaro, described by New Orleans papers as a traditional tough on crime prosecutor.  An unprecedented coalition of grassroots justice organizations came together over a year before the election, as The Peoples DA Coalition, to help make it happen.

The Peoples DA Coalition, made up of over 30 local justice organizations, worked for over a year to “create a District Attorney’s office that is ethical, equitable, compassionate, and accountable to all of its constituents so that we may end the era of mass incarceration in New Orleans.”

Immediately upon taking office, New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams showed why he is on the way to becoming a progressive prosecutor.  He established a vigorous civil rights unit to review questionable convictions, began to reduce the instances where the prosecution required cash bail, quit using Louisiana’s habitual offender law, mostly stopped prosecuting juveniles in adult court, dismissed hundreds of low level drug cases, and granted new trials to dozens of people convicted by non-unanimous juries. More changes are coming.

How did such a progressive candidate get elected in Louisiana, a deep south state which has for years been locking up more of its citizens than any other?

There were three keys to New Orleans electing its first progressive prosecutor.  Two were traditional.  The third was unprecedented.   First, the winner of the race, Jason Williams, was an excellent campaigner and a well-known and respected candidate.  But he faced challenges because he had run and lost before and he faces uncertainty because of outstanding federal criminal tax charges.  Second, it helped that the incumbent retired at the last minute.  But other incumbents have retired before and no reform prosecutor emerged.  Third was the remarkable emergence of a vigorous nonpartisan grass roots coalition of dozens of organizations and scores of activists who identified the important issues, educated the community, and activated people to vote for big time reform in the criminal legal system.

The organization that led the New Orleans community nonpartisan efforts to elect a reform prosecutor is the Peoples DA Coalition.  It brought a surge of grass roots organizing and energy for major reform into the criminal legal system in New Orleans in their focus on this election.

The idea started 14 months before the election.  A few criminal justice advocates wondered if it just might be possible to create a broad-based community coalition to educate and activate voters to make the fall 2020 election for New Orleans District Attorney a referendum on dramatic changes in the criminal legal system?  There had been some statewide progress on reform in the past few years, why not push for stronger reform locally?   They quickly decided that no one organization could quarterback such an effort so they brought together a wide range of other organizations to dream and plan and work for real change.

The Peoples DA Coalition grew to include over 30 community organizations and hundreds of activists.  Their shared goal was to elect a District Attorney who was serious about changing the criminal legal system and to be responsive to the people of New Orleans.  The organizations involved included those led by formerly incarcerated residents, crime survivors, people who were wrongfully convicted, families with incarcerated loved ones, immigrant rights, and others focused on criminal justice reform in New Orleans.

Together these thirty plus organizations recognized the opportunity to create a new vision for the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office.  They demanded “a reform Prosecutor who embraces fairer, safer, more effective approaches to criminal justice.”

The coalition refused to back or oppose any specific candidate.  They were clear.  Their goal was to listen to and organize with grassroots organizations and to bring about serious change in the way the criminal legal system worked in New Orleans.  How?  By educating the city-wide community and activating people to turn out and vote for serious reform in the race for prosecutor. Their plan was that whoever was elected was accountable to the people.

Former Criminal Court Judge Calvin Johnson was asked to lead the coalition.  Judge Johnson is a highly regarded justice leader who served as a law professor, former chief judge of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and after retiring from the bench, criminal justice coordinator for the City of New Orleans.

Judge Johnson has been aware of the need for dramatic changes in the criminal legal system for over 50 years.  “In 1962, when I was just 14 years old, a young football player in my hometown of Plaquemine was accused and prosecuted for allegedly assaulting his white girlfriend. I remember sitting in the balcony of the courthouse and watching as this Black teenage boy was denied anything close to a fair trial. It was then that I realized how tragically flawed the system is. That moment sent me on my life’s journey toward advocating for a system that doesn’t punish people simply for being Black.”

Why did Judge Johnson agree to lead this specific effort?  “As a former judge who has spent most of my adult life operating within the system, I can state unequivocally that the district attorney is the single most powerful person in the criminal justice system. If we are serious about fundamentally changing the trajectory of a system that over-polices, over-prosecutes and over-incarcerates, then we must elect a district attorney who is actually for reform.”

The Peoples DA Coalition established itself as a tax-deductible non-profit, said Johnson, and from the beginning did not endorse any candidate.  It was able to raise some local and national funds from individuals and foundations to hire two staff.  They asked Louisiana native Victoria Coy to come on as coordinator.  Color of Change, a national racial justice advocacy organization, partnered to help on several levels including helping create the organization’s website, strategizing, and running the technology for online forums.

The hardest and most important early work of the coalition was hammering out a shared policy agenda that people could get behind.  Creating a comprehensive policy platform which reflected the transformative vision of dozens of organizations was challenging. Over eight months of meetings, members organized themselves into twelve different working groups, each working on one criminal justice issue, developing detailed lists of concerns and demands for action.

During these months, the Peoples DA Coalition continued to grow and broaden.  More organizations joined.  Ministers joined. Lots of young people.  Judge Johnson observed “It was exciting to see all these young committed smart people and be in the room working with them.”

Ultimately the Peoples DA Coalition agreed on a twelve part policy platform which included over 70 specific demands for reform.  Every one of the candidates running to be elected DA would be asked for their positions on each.  The community insisted that going forward the DA of New Orleans operate their office in dramatically new ways.  For example, would the DA promise not to seek the death penalty? Would the DA dramatically reduce requests for cash bail and pretrial detention? Would the office use restorative justice processes where possible?  Would the DA listen to, inform and communicate with survivors of crimes?  Would the DA stop the school to prison pipeline by refusing to prosecute behavior which can be handled through the school system?  Would the DA create an internal wrongful conviction review process?  Would the DA train all prosecutors and staff on an ongoing basis about racial bias?  And dozens more.

In the summer of 2020, five people were frequently mentioned as candidates.  The incumbent DA Leon Cannizzaro, Jason Williams, and three former Judges Arthur Hunter, Keva Landrum, and Morris Reed.

As qualifying approached, the Peoples DA Coalition stayed nonpartisan.  Even though some members of the coalition preferred one or more of the candidates, the coalition itself focused on issues and refused to get behind one candidate.  The coalition had to do that, stressed Judge Johnson, because “regardless of who was elected, we wanted accountability. Whoever is elected, we will have accountability of the elected candidate to the people.”

On the last day to qualify for the election, the sitting District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro announced he was not going to run for reelection.

“We were surprised when the sitting DA dropped out, but we continued forward,” said Johnson.

On August 18, 2020, the Peoples DA Coalition publicly announced their detailed 70 part platform. “It’s time for us to have a prosecutor, a DA who recognizes that the purpose of the justice system is to make people better,” said Judge Johnson at the online unveiling of the platform. “To make our city better. To make the justice system better. That’s the prosecutor’s role. That’s the prosecutor’s job. And the People’s DA Coalition is going to hold the prosecutor to it.”

In September, the coalition held an online forum for the candidates to respond to the policy platform.  Victoria Coy said 900 people attended.  The candidates all pledged to “actively root out wrongful convictions, stop bringing criminal charges against sex workers, ditch the use of habitual offender laws and reserve jail before trial for the most serious offenses.”

The focus on reform of the system was not always viewed kindly.  Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor and the president of the Metropolitan Crime Coalition, a conservative tough on crime watchdog, when interviewed by Matt Sledge of Nola.com, “expressed some skepticism of all the “reform” talk. “‘Reform’ doesn’t necessarily mean better,” Goyeneche said. “The candidates need to realize that they’re no longer going to be criminal defense attorneys, their obligations are not going to be to the defendants but to the public, to the victims and citizens.”

In the weeks running up to the election, the coalition targeted precincts for education and outreach.  Members knocked on doors, made thousands of calls and texted to get the word out about the importance of the election and the important issues in the DA race.

Political observers expected the reform vote to be split between Jason Williams and Judge Arthur Hunter, a retired progressive criminal court judge.  The more traditional vote appeared to be going to retired Judge Keva Landrum who landed far more endorsements than any other candidate.  Judge Morris Reed remained on the ballot but did not really campaign and was not expected to contend.

The election on November 3 ended up with former Judge Keva Landrum winning 35 percent of the vote and Jason Williams edging out Judge Hunter 29 to 28 percent.

Local media characterized the runoff as “a choice between a defense attorney who rarely fails to denounce what he sees as a racist criminal justice system and who also serves as at-large city councilman, and the more measured reforms touted by an experienced former prosecutor and judge.”

Landrum was seen by many as “the more moderate candidate” while Williams “cast himself as a progressive who has been fighting for a more just and humane criminal legal system for his entire career.”

In other media reports both candidates “talked about advancing reforms, but their positions and records reveal a divide in how they would likely approach being a DA.  Williams has promised more of a clean break with the office’s punitive past and embraced the People’s DA platform enthusiastically.”

Members of the coalition continued to work hard to educate people about the candidates and work for voter participation.  Pastor Gregory Manning, a member of the Peoples DA Coalition, strongly urged people to vote. ““We are at a crossroads in our community,” said Manning, a pastor in the Broadmoor neighborhood. “It cannot be simply that we continue to lock people up and allow the criminal justice system and the jail system and the bail bondsman to benefit financially off of the incarceration of our people, especially African American people, people of color.”

Ultimately, members of the Peoples DA Coalition made over 90,000 calls, knocked on hundreds of doors and sent thousands of texts to potential voters, according to Coy.

On December 5, 2020, Jason Williams won the race by a convincing margin, 58% to 42%.  

The fact that Williams, the most progressive candidate, won came as a surprise to many.  His fundraising trailed his opponent by over $150,000.  He had many fewer endorsements from city power brokers.  New Orleans had never elected a progressive prosecutor.

Since taking office, as noted above, District Attorney Williams has taken action.  He has not opposed requests for new trials for those convicted in New Orleans by 10-2 jury verdicts.  He has dismissed hundreds of minor drug and outdated cases.  He has created a new Civil Rights Unit to investigate cold cases and reverse wrongful convictions.  He has reversed the policy of the office and is not seeking life in prison for juveniles convicted of murder.

Despite the overwhelming mandate from the voters, traditionally conservative tough on crime critics like Rafael Goyeneche, who were not fans of reform plans before the election, are really worried now.  “This is a grand experiment and only time will tell how this experiment plays out,” Goyeneche said. “I think that you are taking real risks with the public and public safety.”

The Peoples DA Coalition goal remains the same. “Our mission is to create a District Attorney’s office that is ethical, equitable, compassionate, and accountable to all of its constituents so that we may end the era of mass incarceration in New Orleans.” The focus should be on safety, not on jail and prison.

But even though the election is over, organizing for real and lasting change is not. The Peoples DA Coalition and Color of Change are following through on their promise to hold the winner of the race accountable.

On Thursday April 8, Color of Change and the Peoples DA Coalition have scheduled their first forum with District Attorney Jason Williams.  They intend to discuss bail, pretrial detention, transparency, accountability and juvenile justice, just like they promised.  Readers can register to join that discussion online.

While it is impossible to say exactly how much impact the Peoples DA Coalition had on the race, Judge Calvin Johnson summed it up.  “I will be 74 shortly.  To see where we are in terms of how this community thinks about justice and people?  That was amazing.”

 

The post Peoples Coalition Helps Elect New Orleans Progressive Prosecutor first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Home Invasions: All the Ways the Government Can Lay Siege to Your Property

“How ‘secure’ do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and … foricibly enter?”

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lone dissenter in Kentucky v. King

Americans are not safe in their homes.

Not anymore, at least.

This present menace comes from the government and its army of bureaucratized, corporatized, militarized mercenaries who are waging war on the last stronghold left to us as a free people: the sanctity of our homes.

The weapons of this particular war on our personal security and our freedoms include an abundance of laws that criminalize almost everything we do, a government that views our private property as its own, militarized police who have been brainwashed into believing that they operate above the law, courts that insulate police from charges of wrongdoing, legislatures that legitimize the government’s usurpations of our rights, and a populace that is so ignorant of their rights and distracted by partisan politics as to be utterly incapable of standing up to the government’s overreaches, incursions and power grabs.

This is how far the mighty have fallen.

Government agents—with or without a warrant, with or without probable cause that criminal activity is afoot, and with or without the consent of the homeowner—are now justified in mounting home invasions in order to pursue traffic violators, seize lawfully-owned weapons, carry out knock-and-talk “chats” with homeowners in the dead of night, “prevent” individuals from harming themselves, provide emergency aid, intervene in the face of imminent danger, serve as community caretakers, chase down individuals suspected of committing misdemeanor crimes, and anything else they can get away with.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on the many ways the government and its corporate partners-in-crime may be using surveillance technology—with or without the blessing of the courts—to invade one’s home: with wiretaps, thermal imaging, surveillance cameras, and other monitoring devices.

However, while the courts and legislatures have yet to fully address the implications of such virtual intrusions on our Fourth Amendment, there is no mistaking the physical intrusions by police into the privacy of one’s home: the toehold entry, the battering ram, the SWAT raid, the knock-and-talk conversation, etc.

Whether such intrusions, warranted or otherwise, are unconstitutional continues to be litigated, legislated and debated.

The spirit of the Constitution, drafted by men who chafed against the heavy-handed tyranny of an imperial ruler, would suggest that one’s home is a fortress, safe from almost every kind of intrusion. Unfortunately, a collective assault by the government’s cabal of legislators, litigators, judges and militarized police has all but succeeded in reducing that fortress—and the Fourth Amendment alongside it—to a crumbling pile of rubble.

Two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this term, Caniglia v. Strom and Lange v. California, are particularly noteworthy.

In Caniglia v. Strom, police want to be able to carry out warrantless home invasions in order to seize lawfully-owned guns under the pretext of their so-called “community caretaking” duties. Under the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment, police can conduct warrantless searches of vehicles relating to accident investigations and provide aid to “citizens who are ill or in distress.”

At a time when red flag gun laws are gaining traction as a legislative means by which to allow police to remove guns from people suspected of being threats, it wouldn’t take much to expand the Fourth Amendment’s “community caretaking” exception to allow police to enter a home without a warrant and seize lawfully-possessed firearms based on concerns that the guns might pose a danger.

What we do not need is yet another pretext by which government officials can violate the Fourth Amendment at will under the pretext of public health and safety.

In Lange v. California, police want to be able to enter homes without warrants as long as they can claim to be in pursuit of someone they suspect may have committed a crime. Yet as Justice Neil Gorsuch points out, in an age in which everything has been criminalized, that leaves the door wide open for police to enter one’s home in pursuit of any and all misdemeanor crimes.

At issue in Lange is whether police can justify entering homes without a warrant under the “hot pursuit” exception to the Fourth Amendment.

The case arose after a California cop followed a driver, Arthur Lange, who was honking his horn while listening to music. The officer followed Lange, supposedly to cite him for violating a local noise ordinance, but didn’t actually activate the police cruiser’s emergency lights until Lange had already arrived home and entered his garage. Sticking his foot under the garage door just as it was about to close, the cop confronted Lange, smelled alcohol on his breath, ordered him to take a sobriety test, and then charged him with a DUI and a noise infraction.

Lange is just chock full of troubling indicators of a greater tyranny at work.

Over-criminalization: That you can now get pulled over and cited for honking your horn while driving and listening to music illustrates just how uptight and over-regulated life in the American police state has become.

Make-work policing: At a time when crime remains at an all-time low, it’s telling that a police officer has nothing better to do than follow a driver seemingly guilty of nothing more than enjoying loud music.

Warrantless entry: That foot in the door is a tactic that, while technically illegal, is used frequently by police attempting to finagle their way into a home and sidestep the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

The definition of reasonable: Although the Fourth Amendment prohibits warrantless and unreasonable searches and seizures of “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” where we run into real trouble is when the government starts dancing around what constitutes a “reasonable” search. Of course, that all depends on who gets to decide what is reasonable. There’s even a balancing test that weighs the intrusion on a person’s right to privacy against the government’s interests, which include public safety.

Too often, the scales weigh in the government’s favor.

End runs around the law: The courts, seemingly more concerned with marching in lockstep with the police state than upholding the rights of the people, have provided police with a long list of exceptions that have gutted the Fourth Amendment’s once-robust privacy protections.

Exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement allow the police to carry out warrantless searches: if someone agrees to the search; in order to ferret out weapons or evidence during the course of an arrest; if police think someone is acting suspiciously and may be armed; during a brief investigatory stop; if a cop sees something connected to a crime in plain view; if police are in hot pursuit of a suspect who flees into a building; if they believe a vehicle has contraband; in an emergency where there may not be time to procure a warrant; and at national borders and in airports.

In other words, almost anything goes when it comes to all the ways in which the government can now invade your home and lay siege to your property.

Thus we tumble down that slippery slope which might have started out with a genuine concern for public safety and the well-being of the citizenry only to end up as a self-serving expansion of the government’s powers that makes a mockery of the Fourth Amendment while utterly disregarding the rights of “we the people.”

Frankly, it’s a wonder we have any property interests, let alone property rights, left to protect.

Think about it.

That house you live in, the car you drive, the small (or not so small) acreage of land that has been passed down through your family or that you scrimped and saved to acquire, whatever money you manage to keep in your bank account after the government and its cronies have taken their first and second and third cut…none of it is safe from the government’s greedy grasp.

At no point do you ever have any real ownership in anything other than the clothes on your back.

Everything else can be seized by the government under one pretext or another (civil asset forfeiture, unpaid taxes, eminent domain, public interest, etc.).

The American Dream has been reduced to a lease arrangement in which we are granted the privilege of endlessly paying out the nose for assets that are only ours so long as it suits the government’s purposes.

And when it doesn’t suit the government’s purposes? Watch out.

This is not a government that respects the rights of its citizenry or the law. Rather, this is a government that sells its citizens to the highest bidder and speaks to them in a language of force.

Under such a fascist regime, the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declares that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation,” has become yet another broken shield, incapable of rendering any protection against corporate greed while allowing the government to justify all manner of “takings” in the name of the public good.

What we are grappling with is a government that has forfeited its purpose for existing.

Philosophers dating back to John Locke have long asserted that the true purpose of government is to protect our rights, not just our collective rights as a people, but our individual rights, specifically our rights to life, liberty and property. As James Madison concluded in the Federalist Papers, “Government is instituted no less for the protection of the property than of the persons of individuals.”

What we have been saddled with is a government that has not only lost sight of its primary reason for being—to protect the people’s rights—but has also re-written the script and cast itself as an imperial overlord with all of the neo-feudal authority such a position entails.

Let me put it another way.

If the government can tell you what you can and cannot do within the privacy of your home, whether it relates to what you eat, what you smoke or whom you love, you no longer have any rights whatsoever within your home.

If government officials can fine and arrest you for growing vegetables in your front yard, gathering with friends to worship in your living room, installing solar panels on your roof, and raising chickens in your backyard, you’re no longer the owner of your property.

If school officials can punish your children for what they do or say while at home or in your care, your children are not your own—they are the property of the state.

If government agents can invade your home, break down your doors, kill your dog, damage your furnishings and terrorize your family, your property is no longer private and secure—it belongs to the government.

If police can forcefully draw your blood, strip search you, probe you intimately, or force you to submit to vaccinations or lose your so-called “privileges” to move about and interact freely with your fellow citizens, your body is no longer your own—it is the government’s to do with as it deems best.

Likewise, if the government can lockdown whole communities and by extension the nation, quarantine whole segments of the population, outlaw religious gatherings and assemblies of more than a few people, shut down entire industries and manipulate the economy, muzzle dissidents, and “stop and seize any plane, train or automobile to stymie the spread of contagious disease,” then you no longer have a property interest as master of your own life, either.

This is what a world without the Fourth Amendment looks like, where the lines between private and public property have been so blurred that private property is reduced to little more than something the government can use to control, manipulate and harass you to suit its own purposes, and you the homeowner and citizen have been reduced to little more than a tenant or serf in bondage to an inflexible landlord.

If we continue down this road, the analogy shifts from property owners to prisoners in a government-run prison with local and federal police acting as prison guards. In such an environment, you have no rights.

So what can we do, short of scrapping this whole experiment in self-government and starting over?

At a minimum, we need to rebuild the foundations of our freedoms.

What this will mean is adopting an apolitical, nonpartisan, zero tolerance attitude towards the government when it oversteps its bounds and infringes on our rights.

We need courts that prioritize the rights of the citizenry over the government’s insatiable hunger for power at all costs.

We need people in the government—representatives, bureaucrats, etc.—who honor the public service oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

Most of all, we need to reclaim control over our runaway government and restore our freedoms.

After all, we are the government. As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, “we the people” are supposed to be the ones calling the shots. As John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, rightly observed: “No power on earth has a right to take our property from us without our consent.”

The post Home Invasions: All the Ways the Government Can Lay Siege to Your Property first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Masking Up under Biden: The Perils of Tribalism, Bureaucracy and Lawsuits

One crackling theme streaking through the US elections of 2020 was the issue of mask wearing.  Critics initially felt that face masks were of the too important category in combating the novel coronavirus: purchasing and using them was tantamount to prizing valuable protective equipment from doctors and front-line workers.  But COVID-19 continued to rage, and various public health bodies including the World Health Organization revised their initially cautious approach.  Masks, manufactured in abundance, could be an affordable non-pharmacological method of halting the spread of the pandemic.

The face mask became the symbol of the now departed Donald Trump’s view of the world: to don such a covering was an admission of weakness, an effete alternative to the rugged, at times idiotic notion of pioneer individualism.  Had he stuck to a debate on scientific literature (causation not being correlation and vice-a-versa), he might have been on firmer ground.  Instead, he preferred to dismiss mask wearing as an act of political correctness.

Joe Biden, in contrast, promised to scotch any such reservations on coming to office.  On August 20, 2020, he declared in accepting the Democratic nomination that his COVID-19 plan would involve a “national mandate to wear a mask.”  He called it “a patriotic duty” rather than an onerous burden.

The logistics for any such national policies would always be challenging and potentially imperilling.  Trump, scoffing at the validity of such measures, suggested in a press briefing last year that Biden was incapable of identifying “what authority the president has to issue such a mandate or how federal law enforcement could possibly enforce it or why we would be stepping on governors throughout our country, many of whom have done a very good job and know what is needed.”

A prevailing conventional view is that the province of public health and safety remains the purview and power of state governments.  In 1905, the Supreme Court in Jacobson v Massachusetts held by 7-2 that states have the power to enact compulsory regulations in regulating public health.  The justices were particular interested in mandatory vaccination laws, and found that states had “the police power … to enact a compulsory vaccination law, and it is for the legislature, and not for the courts, to determine in the first instance whether vaccination is or is not the best mode for the prevention of smallpox and the protection of public health.”

In July 2020, James Phillips of Chapman University and John Yoo of UC Berkeley expressed the view that the constitutional republic would find vast federally imposed measures, even those protecting the health of the populace, problematic and undesirable. “Our founders established a national government of limited, enumerated powers, and reserved the authority over everything else to the states.”

There was no shortness of irony in this, given Yoo’s advice to the George W. Bush administration when serving in the office of Legal Counsel advocating vast executive powers justifying, among other things, the use of torture and warrantless surveillance.  During times of national emergency, the executive power expands.  Not, it seems, during a public health crisis.

For all that, the authors do make valid points.  Biden would have to rely on Congressional measures that he himself could enforce.  One source of authorising power can be found in the Commerce Clause, empowering Congress to “regulate Commerce … among the several States.”  Mask wearing protocols might be tagged to interstate travel, though it would be problematic compelling non-travelling citizens to wear them.

According to the authors, wearing a mask might not be commercial in nature, but mandating mask wearing would increase commerce.  But Supreme Court jurisprudence on the subject, notably in the Obamacare case, has held that “Congress cannot create commerce in order to then regulate it.”

David Carillo of the California Constitutional Centre at UC Berkeley’s School of Law notes that Biden is on safe ground when it comes to mandating the use of masks in federal buildings and on federal property via executive order.  Such a power would not extend to mandatory mask wearing “on interstate buses and trains because only the US Congress can regulate interstate commerce by law, not the president by directive.”

Legal challenges are inevitable, and Quinnipiac University School of Law’s William Dunlap sees litigants pressing courts to “look and see what Congress has done and compare the president’s rules with existing congressional rules to see whether they contradict each other or support each other.”

On January 20, 2021, the new president signed an Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing, enacting regulations very much in line with Carillo’s advice.  “Put simply, masks and other public health measures reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when communities make widespread use of such measures, and thus save lives.”

The order also encourages a “masking across America,” with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tasked with engaging “as appropriate, with State, local, Tribal, and territorial officials, as well as business, union, academic, and other community leaders, regarding mask-wearing and other public health measures”.  The aim of such engagement is to maximise “public compliance with, and addressing any obstacles to, mask-wearing and other public health practices identified by CDC.”

A second Executive Order requires mask wearing on certain domestic modes of transportation covering airports, commercial aircraft, trains, public maritime vessels, intercity bus services and “all forms of public transportation as defined in section 5302 of title 49, United States Code.”  But Biden also acknowledges that consultation shall take place between the heads of agencies and “State, local, Tribal and territorial officials” along with “industry and union representatives from the transport sector; and consumer representatives.”  The fangs of the regulation seem, if not missing, then distinctly blunt.

Both orders, in other words, amount to a national mask framework of sorts but point to a grand suggestion rather than an imperative for mask wearing.  The orders do little to clarify the machinery of enforcement, and how strictly the task will be pursued.  Agencies will be given the lead, but this entire effort risks crumbling before the twin forces of confused bureaucracy and dedicated tribalism.  Republicans are already promising derailing lawsuits.  Representative Chip Roy (R-Texas) preferred the more vulgar alternative.  “On day one,” he tweeted in December in response to Biden’s promise, “I will tell you to kiss my ass.”

The post Masking Up under Biden: The Perils of Tribalism, Bureaucracy and Lawsuits first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Neo-fascist Legacy of Donald Trump

After the US Capitol was attacked by his supporters, Donald Trump has become the first president of America to be impeached twice. Regardless of how he leaves the White House – the Senate won’t act on the impeachment before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021 – the neo-fascist seeds he has sown won’t stop germinating.

Even after the brazen attempt to overturn election results, there is ambiguity among Americans on Trump’s impeachment – 38% oppose his impeachment and 15% have no opinion. These percentages are in line with the support enjoyed by him for false claims regarding rigged elections.  Polls carried out December 2020 showed that almost 40% of Americans, including 72% of Republicans believed that the November election was rigged against Trump. The acceptance of these allegations came in the backdrop of overtly anti-democratic efforts to overturn the results of a contested election.

Trump put 234 federal judges into office, hand-picked according to ideological leanings. He appointed three Supreme Court justices, with his party taking unparalleled measures to push them through against popular mandate and in violation of certain procedures.

Republican Realignments

After the spectacle at the Capitol, the Republican Party has split into True Trumpists and Back-to-Businessers. Mike Pence, Tom Cotton, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, Jim Lankford and even Kelly Loeffler have sided against Trump. According to Mike Davis, this split reflects “a realignment of power within the Party with more traditional capitalist interest groups like NAM [National Association of Manufactures] and the Business Roundtable as well as with the Koch family, long uncomfortable with Trump. There should be no illusion that ‘moderate Republicans’ have suddenly been raised from the grave; the emerging project will preserve the core alliance between Christian evangelicals and economic conservatives and presumably defend most of the Trump-era legislation.”

For Post-Trump Republicans, the lucrative potentials of Trumpism have been exhausted: they’ve already extracted their justices, their tax cuts, and their anti-immigration credentials. Now, they have got the perfect excuse to step off from the Trumpist bandwagon. True Trumpists, led by Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, find themselves in another political space – captains of a de facto third party that is mostly concentrated in the House of Representatives and state legislatures. Already, Trump lackeys are trying to redirect the frenzy of the fascist mob into a crusade against Big Tech which – to their chagrin – has banned Trump from almost all platforms. For instance, Rep. Jim Jordan defended Trump with the farcical claim that impeaching him was simply an expression of “cancel culture” and a further attempt to silence conservatives.

The Spread of Neo-fascism

As is evident from the Republican split, an alt-right political faction will ensure that Trumpism does not wither away. At this point, it is necessary to ask how neo-fascism percolated through the pores of American society. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies reported that far-Right and White supremacist terrorist attacks in the US increased dramatically in 2017 (one year after Trump’s Election win) to 53 attacks and another 44 in 2019 – an evidence of the cultural rootedness of neo-fascism.

In the Terror of the Unforeseen, Henry Giroux neatly lists all the elements comprising Trumpism: “the cult of the leader, the discourse of the savior, white nationalism, a narrative of decline, unchecked casino capitalism, systemic racism, silence in the face of a growing police state, the encouragement of state endorsed violence, the hallowing out of democracy by corporate power, a grotesque celebration of greed, a massive growth in the inequality of wealth, power and resources, a brutal politics of disposability, an expanding culture of cruelty, and a disdain for public virtues”. From this compendium, we can observe that it was neoliberalism combined with violent xenophobia and anti-intellectualism which created a fertile ground for Trump’s political hegemony.

In the age of Trump, Giroux sees the emergence of neo-fascism in “an unceasing stream of racism, demonizing insults, lies, and militarized rhetoric, serving as emotional appeals that are endlessly circulated and reproduced at the highest levels of government and the media.”  “The United States has a long history of racist language leading to cruel and harmful practices and, in some cases, violence aimed at groups targeted by such language.” Giroux says that “the language of white nationalism and racial resentment” creates “a discourse that annihilates social codes and restrains political behavior and undermines the rule of law.”

Trump’s public pedagogy does not operate just through his tweets or statements but also through his performative silences. This was clear in the case of the 2017 Charlottesville rally where White supremacists gathered in opposition to the removal of a US Civil War statue. During the rally, a White supremacist killed the anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer. This act was heavily condemned across a broad political spectrum within the US. However, the Charlottesville rally and the killing of Heyer were initially met with silence from Trump, who otherwise is quick to tweet his opinions on similar situations. When he broke the silence with a press conference, he said that “there are two sides to a story” and asked “what about the alt left?” Even though he later condemned the racist elements in the Charlottesville rally, the initial silence and the narrative of “both sides” had already impacted the public discourse.

Ultimately, Trump’s entire political project rests on irrationality. Only in this way can he simultaneously further the capitalist class’ agenda. “The bourgeoisie,” Henry Lefebvre says in Mystified Consciousness, “doesn’t need ideas too refined and metaphysical. Carefully instigated banalities are usually more useful than metaphysics. It needs only to utilize old everyday sentiments, sentiments whose fragrance is ‘all natural’ and ‘simply itself’: faith, hearth, race, heroism, purity, duty – banalities inscribed in all our hearts.” These emotionally powerful banalities serve to craft a false sense of collective identity in a neoliberal environment of hyper-individualization. As Hannah Arendt writes in Origins of Totalitarianism, “men in the midst of social disintegration and atomization will do anything to belong”.

A Socialist Response

Neo-fascism in USA can be eliminated only through socialism. As long as neoliberal capitalism reigns supreme, potentialities for a project like Trumpism will continue to abound. Therefore, a socialist response needs to be carefully constructed. Socialist political praxis needs to emphasize protecting the population in the immediate present while working toward the long-run revolutionary reconstitution of society at large. Such a multi-temporal dynamic will allow the Left to ideologically defeat the Right on the terrain of hegemony.

The post The Neo-fascist Legacy of Donald Trump first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Fearing the Palestinian Narrative: Why Israel Banned Jenin Jenin

On January 11, the Israeli Lod District Court ruled against a Palestinian film-maker, Mahmoud Bakri, ordering him to pay hefty compensation to an Israeli soldier who was accused, along with the Israeli military, of carrying out war crimes in April 2002, in the Palestinian Jenin refugee camp located in the northern occupied West Bank.

The case, as presented by Israeli and other media, seemed to deal with typical legal matters such as defamation of character and so on. To those familiar with the massive clash of narratives which emanated from that singular event, known to Palestinians as the “Jenin Massacre”, the Israeli court verdict is not only political but historical and intellectual, as well.

Bakri, a native Palestinian born in the village of Bi’ina, near the Palestinian city of Akka, now located in Israel, has been paraded repeatedly in Israeli courts and censured heavily in Israeli mainstream media simply because he dared challenge the official discourse on the violent events which transpired in the Jenin refugee camp nearly two decades ago.

Bakri’s documentary, Jenin Jenin, is now officially banned in Israel. The film, which was produced only months after the conclusion of this particular episode of Israeli violence, did not make many claims of its own. It largely opened up a rare space for Palestinians to convey, in their own words, what had befallen their refugee camp when large units of the Israeli army, under the protection of fighter jets and attack helicopters, pulverized much of the camp, killing scores and wounding hundreds.

To ban a film, regardless of how unacceptable it may seem from the viewpoint of the official authorities, is wholly inconsistent with any true definition of freedom of speech. But to ban Jenin Jenin, to indict the Palestinian filmmaker and to financially compensate those accused of carrying out war crimes, is outrageous.

The background of the Israeli decision can be understood within two contexts: one, Israel’s regime of censorship aimed at silencing any criticism of the Israeli occupation and apartheid and, two, Israel’s fear of a truly independent Palestinian narrative.

Israeli censorship dates back to the very inception of the State of Israel atop the ruins of the Palestinian homeland in 1948. The country’s founding fathers had painstakingly constructed a convenient story regarding the birth of Israel, almost entirely erasing Palestine and the Palestinians from their historical narrative. On this, late Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, wrote in his essay, Permission to Narrate, “the Palestinian narrative has never been officially admitted to Israeli history, except as that of ‘non-Jews,’ whose inert presence in Palestine was a nuisance to be ignored or expelled.”

To ensure the erasure of the Palestinians from the official Israeli discourse, Israeli censorship has evolved to become one of the most elaborate and well-guarded schemes of its kind in the world. Its degree of sophistication and brutality has reached the extent that poets and artists can be tried in court and sentenced to prison for merely confronting Israel’s founding ideology, Zionism, or penning poems that may seem offensive to Israeli sensibilities. While Palestinians have borne the greatest brunt of the ever-vigilant Israeli censorship machine, some Israeli Jews, including human rights organizations, have also suffered the consequences.

But the case of Jenin Jenin is not that of routine censorship. It is a statement, a message, against those who dare give voice to oppressed Palestinians, allowing them the opportunity to speak directly to the world. These Palestinians, in the eyes of Israel, are certainly the most dangerous, as they demolish the layered, elaborate, yet fallacious official Israeli discourse, regardless of the nature, place or timing of any contested event, starting with the  ‘Catastrophe’ or Nakba of 1948.

Almost simultaneously with the release of Jenin Jenin, my first book, “Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion”, was published. The book, like the documentary, aimed to counterbalance official Israeli propaganda through honest, heart-rending accounts of the survivors of the refugee camp. While Israel had no jurisdiction to ban the book, pro-Israeli media and mainstream academics either ignored it completely or ferociously attacked it.

Admittedly, the Palestinian counter-narrative to the Israeli dominant narrative, whether on the “Jenin Massacre” or the Second Palestinian Intifada, was humble, largely championed through individual efforts. Still, even such modest attempts at narrating a Palestinian version were considered dangerous, vehemently rejected as irresponsible, sacrilegious or anti-Semitic.

Israel’s true power – but also Achilles heel – is its ability to design, construct and shield its own version of history, despite the fact that such history is hardly consistent with any reasonable definition of the truth. Within this modus operandi, even meager and unassuming counter-narratives are threatening, for they poke holes in an already baseless intellectual construct.

Bakri’s story of Jenin was not relentlessly attacked and eventually banned as a mere outcome of Israel’s prevailing censorship tactics, but because it dared blemish Israel’s diligently fabricated historical sequence, starting with a persecuted “people with no land” arriving at a supposed “land with no people”, where they “made the desert bloom”.

Jenin Jenin is a microcosm of a people’s narrative that successfully shattered Israel’s well-funded propaganda, sending a message to Palestinians everywhere that even Israel’s falsification of history can be roundly defeated.

In her seminal book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Linda Tuhiwai Smith brilliantly examined the relationship between history and power, where she asserted that  “history is mostly about power”.

“It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others,” she wrote. It is precisely because Israel needs to maintain the current power structure that Jenin Jenin and other Palestinian attempts at reclaiming history have to be censored, banned and punished.

Israel’s targeting of the Palestinian narrative is not a mere official contestation of the accuracy of facts or of some kind of Israeli fear that the ‘truth’ could lead to legal accountability. Israel hardly cares about facts and, thanks to Western support, it remains immune from international prosecution. Rather, it is about erasure; erasure of history, of a homeland, of a people.

A Palestinian people with a coherent, collective narrative will always exist no matter the geography, the physical hardship and the political circumstances. This is what Israel fears most.

The post Fearing the Palestinian Narrative: Why Israel Banned Jenin Jenin first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Feminist Contradictions

Former radical and Black Panther advocate, now prison abolitionist, Angela Davis, is “very excited” that Senator Kamala Harris is a Vice Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the current US election.  She admits there may be “problematic areas” with Harris’ political record, like her support of the death penalty, (or perhaps her opposition to a California bill when she was attorney general that would have had her office investigate all fatal police shootings?) but Davis has said feminists have to make “pragmatic compromises” and Harris might be “amenable” to future “progressive radical pressure.”  Davis then explains that it’s “a feminist approach to be able to work with these contradictions.”  When you are a Black “radical progressive” woman who has devoted years to abolishing mass incarceration and the police state—that’s one massive contradiction!  A radical for Black and Brown and female rights should not support such a candidate, especially a Black candidate like Harris.  It is not “a feminist approach” to totally deny everything for which a feminist—especially a “radical” feminist—stands.

Feminism is a philosophy of human rights, equality, democracy and justice.  Feminists do not, as Harris did as San Francisco district attorney, punish Black mothers for their children’s truancy by jailing them when they couldn’t pay the fine.  Feminists who support prison abolition certainly should not.  President Trump’s lunacy does not change Harris’s cruelty.  She, like Hillary Clinton, is no feminist, and should not be someone supported with on-line fund-raisers.  She, just like Vice President Joe Biden, who was a major architect of the present police/prison industrial complex, is not “palatable” if you’re a feminist or radical or any sort of dissenter against a police state.

The American police state has jailed dissenters since its beginnings, and it certainly shows no sign of ending that enterprise with the capitalist oligarchy now in control.  The longest-jailed woman political prisoner for fighting against police brutality, Reverend Joy Powell, wrote me a few weeks ago that for Black Americans, “the system is working exactly the way it was meant to work.”  It was meant “to keep their feet on our necks, by either killing an individual based upon the color of their skin. . . or trumping up charges on one with a voice and making tag team efforts to silence us.”  Joy Powell knows all about that.  And so do all the hundreds of women political dissenters today.

To highlight just a couple of recent cases, and there are way too many to choose from, we have only to look at the Denver police/district attorney repression of the organizers of the ongoing protests against the police murder of Elijah McClain, and the arrest of a Black female Kentucky legislator at the protests erupting in outrage after no justice was achieved for Breonna Taylor, killed in her bed.  On September 17th, a number of organizers of the Elijah McClain protests were arrested by Denver police, including Eliza Lucero and Lillian House of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.  Lucero thinks the district attorney has a personal vendetta against them, as they were refused a bail hearing, and held for eight days. The women observed the unsanitary and cramped conditions that existed for themselves and their fellow women prisoners, who, if menstruating, could, without supplies, bleed through their pants, and have to wait for the weekly laundry day to do anything about it.  In a week, Lucero and House were allowed one anti-virus mask, and no shower. The Denver women only got a bail hearing after an international outcry fueled by social media.  They’ll have a preliminary trial on November 10th to face bogus felony charges including “inciting a riot,” “kidnapping” (encircling a police precinct during a demonstration—apparently the police felt threatened), obstructing a highway, and stealing a sign.  They face up to 40 years in jail.  Their crime is to publicly and loudly object to the police torture and murder of the very young and innocent Elijah McClain.

As with the protests surrounding Daniel Prude’s killing in Rochester, NY, people took to the streets a few days ago to show their outrage about yet another documented case of murder over compassion in the case of Walter Wallace, whose family had requested an ambulance and instead got men with guns, more than ready to kill another young Black man who posed little threat.  His mother and others were trying to defuse the situation, but the police have other much more deadly ways of dealing with situations.  During the resulting protests, a video was shown on social media which highlighted an officer arresting a young Black woman.  He wrestled her to the ground and “punched her repeatedly.”  This is the police state in action.

To say that protesters against the lack of accountability for the killing of Breonna Taylor are frustrated, despairing and very angry, is to put it mildly.  Many have been arrested in numerous demonstrations, some with felony charges threatened as in Denver. At the end of September a grand jury– two of whose number, in an extraordinary action, spoke out against the charges not made—led along by the (Black) Kentucky attorney general, declined to bring charges against any police officer for killing Breonna Taylor.  Even knowing by now the lack of influence they would have, people took to the streets.  Two of those people were Kentucky representative Attica Scott and her college student daughter Ashanti.  Scott, the only Black female in that body, has submitted “Breonna’s Law” to the legislature to forbid “no-knock” warrants.  She felt she needed to be part of the demonstration after no charges were brought.

Scott was, with her daughter, seeking sanctuary in a church before curfew.  A few minutes before curfew began, they were arrested.  She had been taking pictures with her phone, always an impetus to anger cops.  She asked the arresting officer, “Where did you want us to go?”  He only told her to turn off her phone “so it doesn’t get broke.”  They were held overnight and Scott said she was “traumatized.”  But, she said, she has “the responsibility as a woman, a Black woman, a mother, to keep the fight going.”  As a Black woman, and a mother, Representative Scott needs to keep the fight going.  Senator Kamala Harris (also a Black woman and a mother) is very definitely on the other side of that fight. Harris jailed Black women and is a staunch friend of the police. Is it “palatable” enough then, for feminists, for radicals and leftists, to vote for Biden/Harris?

A few years ago (quite a few), I wrote a book about militant feminist suffragists called Iron-Jawed Angels. These were women political prisoners who lost jobs, husbands, and reputations; who were beaten, jailed and forced fed:  all to gain the constitutional right to vote, a step on the road to full equality with men.  That success was going to be quickly followed by a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment, clearly recognizing female equality.  Well, that hasn’t worked out as yet.  Who knows what a strange Christian rightist/female inferiority advocate, the new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, may harbor regarding the Equal Rights Amendment.  But even the vaunted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg did not believe the unprecedented ratification time limit that ERA campaigners faced should be set aside, meaning perhaps they should start over.

So women have their right to vote, if not citizenship without rights forbidding sex discrimination.  What did years of campaigning for woman suffrage, including violence and jail time, glean for women?  They can vote in a 2020 election that presents them with no choice at all:  one out-front lunatic candidate of the capitalist-controlled nation, or another better-mannered candidate, scion of traditional Clinton/Obama Wall Street/imperialist/Big Lobbies.  Both campaigns applaud the police/mass incarceration state. Both shudder at the thought of “defunding the police” and out-man each other to make China/Iran/Cuba (and on and on) pay for daring to challenge American hegemony in any way.  Both support jailing political dissenters—especially dissenters who reveal the “contradictions” of the great US of A (Julian Assange), or dissenters against the police/mass incarceration state (Joy Powell, Eliza Lucero…).”Liberal” social media censors any word against Joe Biden’s obvious long-time influence peddling, done alongside Trump’s deal-making.  Biden, like Trump, has numerous women who have accused him of sexual wrongdoing.  Just as establishment feminists were willing to overlook that side of Bill Clinton’s character, so are they willing to ignore, vilify and eventually silence Biden accuser Tara Reade.  Not a lot of choice here for actual feminists.

Except that the Democrats have Kamala Harris, who spent a career  “locking up Black and brown people.”  Harris refused to reduce prison overcrowding.  She fought “tooth and nail” to uphold wrongful convictions because of “official misconduct” and opposed the use of police body cams.  Unabashedly capitalist, she wanted prisoners kept locked up to use them for cheap labor.  Senator Kamala Harris is the poster girl of the police/mass incarceration state.  But radical Angela Davis, who has called Obama part of the “black radical tradition,” argues:  “Perhaps she will be amenable to the kind of progressive radical pressure that we can exert in the future.”  Maybe.  And maybe this is one of Davis’s “pragmatic compromises.”  And feminist contradictions.

How about, as a radical feminist, or real leftist, forgetting the compromises and contradictions?  There are choices:  leftist third party choices who have managed to get on a number of state ballots.  Gloria La Riva is running for president as candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the party of Denver’s Eliza Lucero and Lillian House.  La Riva has travelled from protest to protest:  from Rochester, NY to Portland, OR.  She finds “resistance and dedication” in these demonstrators.  She advocates free healthcare, adequate housing, a guaranteed annual wage and social equality.  She is a good feminist/leftist female candidate.  Then there is Angela Walker.  Walker is the African American running mate of Green Party/Socialist Party’s Howie Hawkins.  Walker, a bus and truck driver at present, describes herself as a “Fred Hampton/Assata Shakur socialist.”  She’s been a civil rights activist from an early age, in Occupy and union fights.  She ran as a socialist for sheriff in Milwaukee in 2014, raising issues of systemic racism and mass incarceration, and got 20% of the vote.  Walker is “a fierce advocate for the rights of Black, Brown and indigenous people, the LGBTQA community, Labor and the Earth itself.”  Here is another good feminist choice, with no compromise, no contradictions.

I am a radical feminist and I vote.  I voted for Howie Hawkins and for Angela Walker, the fierce advocate for human rights.

The post Feminist Contradictions first appeared on Dissident Voice.