TagFerguson

Selma Revisited

Typewriter With Special Buttons

Last Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 600 protestors, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., began marching from Selma to Birmingham in support of voting rights. They were met on the Edmund Pettis Bridge by Alabama State troopers dispatched by segregationist Governor George Wallace, who attacked them with tear gas, leather whips, and billy clubs, an unprovoked act of violence whose bloodshed outraged most Americans and was a major factor in the subsequent passage by Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When I picked up my newspaper on the following Monday, the front page featured coverage of the celebration of that anniversary, highlighted by a photo of President Obama hugging Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who marched alongside MLK, Jr., and was bloodied during the tragic events of that historical day. And as my mind flooded with memories of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the question Have we overcome? also trailed into view and set off an intense reflection.

Well, we have done better, I concluded. After Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, we further reduced discrimination in commerce and transportation via the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and with respect to voting courtesy of the Voting Rights Act. And, I noted with a smile, in that photo my eyes were focused on the President of the United States—an African-American. That’s something I wasn’t sure I’d ever live to see, flowed my next thought, so yes, we have progressed, some positive change has occurred. But, Have we overcome? still lingered to narrow my smile.

In view of recent events, the answer to that question is a resounding no! First off, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, removing the Federal Government’s authority to supervise electoral requirements in our states and insure that discriminatory practices were not in play. Then, further, as David Love reported in via the Tribune News Service, “the Tea Party-led Republican Party has made voter disenfranchisement and suppression a top priority. Voter ID laws across the country have put up obstacles for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the elderly, young people, and others. Some state legislatures have reduced voting days, including the Sunday before Election Day, when black churches organize campaigns to go to the polls. Moreover, as Al Jazeera has reported, Republican officials in 27 states have initiated a program that could purge 7 million voters from the rolls, particularly brown and black Americans.”

And, why? To prevent voter fraud is the answer provided, despite the fact that study after study after study reveals that voter fraud is so insignificant as to be almost non-existent. The real reason is that the voters sought to be removed from the polls overwhelmingly vote for Democratic Party candidates!

So, a new version of the poll tax, calling into mind the phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And what is truly tragic is that most Americans, including most of our citizens who identify themselves as Republicans, are not in favor of retreating from the racial progress America has made, but are witnessing a regression fostered by a small, highly vocal, and extremely well funded right-wing minority that has hijacked the Republican Party and is dictating dangerously undemocratic policies that threaten to undermine the fundamental right to vote of millions of their fellow citizens.

No, indeed, we have not yet overcome. Race remains a huge problem in America, and if anyone doubts that sad fact, recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, make the truth of that assertion clear and undeniable.

In a community that is 67% black, the police department is almost exclusively white. An accident? No. And after a thorough investigation of the events and the culture surrounding the Criminal Justice System in Ferguson, on March 5th the Justice Department issued a scathing report, describing the Ferguson police and Municipal Court “as a system whose primary function was to make poor African Americans pay as many fines and fees as possible for petty offenses, real or invented.”

After reading accounts of this report in The Oregonian, once again that haunting phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same, echoed into mind and triggered a vivid memory of the first jury trial I was involved in when I was a Deputy Public Defender in Compton, California, almost half a century ago. Depicted in detail in my novel, Gideon’s Children, the main character, Matthew Harris is defending a male African American charged with having been drunk in public. And when the jury panel of 200 persons from which twelve would be selected for trial is seated in the courtroom, Matt is stunned by his observation that not one of them is black, even though the community from which they are drawn is upwards of 80% African American.

The good news is that while Matt Harris was defeated by the stacked deck a half century ago, today the outrageous situation in Ferguson is being corrected. In the past few days, the officials responsible for the conspiracy of discrimination at work there have resigned or been removed, including the city manager, the police chief, and the municipal court judge. Unfortunately, the anger from years of persecution has unleashed violence from a few members of the community, resulting in two police officers being shot. Most hopefully calm will prevail so that plans for a new and better government in Ferguson can be implemented. I also believe that it would be helpful if those persons responsible for the utterly despicable actions in Ferguson were prosecuted for civil rights violations, thereby sending a message to all who would engage in like actions.

What worries me is that if the regressive forces at work are allowed to prevail, and millions of people of color are disenfranchised, and other Ferguson-like conditions are not ferreted out and remedied, then violence of a more significant magnitude will occur. For if a huge segment of our populace is not allowed to participate, and also feels that the Criminal Justice System is targeting them for grossly unfair treatment, then the respect for the Rule of Law necessary for it to govern disappears.

All of us lead busy lives. But each of us needs to make the time necessary to contact our local,  state, and federal representatives, and let them know that we are adamant in our desire for a new Voting Rights Act that insures voter participation by all segments of our society, and urges them to foster and nourish programs designed to promote excellent relationships between police and the communities which they serve.

Jim Crow: Yesterday and Today

In two separate blog posts, on January 19th and February 17th, I discussed the issue of race and its cancerous affect on American Society. Most of us are aware of the laws, both written and unwritten, that arose after the end of the Civil War with the purpose of ensuring that the newly freed slaves remained the lowest class in our society. However, most likely very few of our citizens are aware that under the guise of The War On Drugs, a new Jim Crow arose out of the ashes of the old.

With the discussion on how to fix our broken Criminal Justice System growing daily, I want to strongly recommend an outstanding book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. A highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar, Ms. Alexander not only possesses top-flight credentials to write about racial issues, but also the ability to write, and in this dramatic exposé of the War On Drugs and the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color by mass incarceration she makes an invaluable contribution to recognizing the need for reform.

In a crisp clear style, Alexander first provides the reader with the historical background of racial discrimination. Then, with passion, she sets forth the painful reality of what has occurred since Brown versus the Board of Education outlawed segregation, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 were enacted during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Yes, after 250 years of slavery, followed by 150 years of Jim Crow laws enacted and enforced to keep people of color in the lowest class of American Society, progress had been made. However, those elements of the White Power Structure that made Jim Crow possible in the first place did not give up. No, with great cunning they devised a strategy for a New Jim Crow.

Fully aware that a glaring weakness in communities of color is the fragility of the family structure, a product of slavery and the old Jim Crow, the opponents of social justice and equality devised a plan for magnifying that weakness, cleverly giving it a positive name: The War On Drugs. And then under the guise of protecting our society from drugs, the proponents of this so-called war turned loose the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of young black males, which in turn increased unemployment and poverty within communities of color. Brilliantly and dramatically detailing how this plan was formulated and executed, Alexander’s book is a must read for anyone seeking a full understanding of the problems facing communities of color, problems which further fuel the rage following the recent events from Ferguson to New York City to Cleveland to Los Angeles and threaten the fabric of the Rule of Law which founds American Society.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day: A Time For All Of Us To Reflect, Then Renew Our Resolution To Expand Freedom and Equality

King Memorial, Hopes and Dreams Today we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great leader of the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement. And living in the decade that marks the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous 1960s, fresh traumatic events, from Ferguson to New York City to Cleveland to Los Angeles, mandate serious reflection on both eras.

For despite the progress in civil rights that has been achieved, race remains the foremost social, economic, and political issue that divides America and threatens to tear holes in the fabric of our society.

In a timely OP-ED in the New York Times last August 27th, Nicholas Kristof raised the portentous question: Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? And the honest answer is: YES! For “research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who also harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.”

Wow, I thought, could that be me? Could I, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement as a Public Defender, and who recently authored Gideon’s Children, a novel arguing for fair treatment and justice for individuals of all colors in the Criminal Justice System, harbor such an unconscious attitude?

After much soul searching, I concluded that the answer was sadly: YES! And I think that if most of my fellow Americans are scrupulously honest with themselves, they will come to the same unhappy conclusion.

How can that be? How can such a subconscious condition originate? were the next questions I asked myself. And while I am not a psychologist, sociologist, or philosopher, after due deliberation Human Nature is the answer that tumbled into mind, a quick review of history then confirming it. For throughout the long story of mankind, someone or some group has always needed to rise above another, to be on top and hence better. And while this need to set ourselves apart from our fellow beings, to make ourselves feel special and better can, of course, produce constructive achievement if guided and guarded by conscience, if the rising is accomplished by pushing and keeping others down, while shelving conscience’s dictate to act appropriately, then a tension is created that leads to trouble with a capital T.

Most of us lead ordinary lives, and are not directly involved in the higher levels of the power structure that governs our society. However, that human need to be special, to be better, is still present and can unconsciously form attitudes that lead to harmful discriminatory policies and behavior.

So, to truly honor the great man whose birthday we celebrate today, I would like to suggest that amidst our environment of busy-busy-busy, fast- faster-and-faster-yet, leading to information overload and shrinking attention spans, that we stop for an hour or two, and honestly consider how we think and feel about how we relate to our fellow beings.

Then, let us resolve to do better. As Lincoln advised, let us summon the better angels of our nature, and taking one tiny step forward each day, be the change in the world we want to see.

Happy Birthday, Martin! And God bless!

The Public Defender Crisis, Part II: Possible Solutions

As I outlined in my last Blog Post of December 3rd, 2014, 50 years after the Gideon decision mandated representation for defendants in criminal cases, Public Defenders across the United States are as underfunded and overwhelmed as the initial wave of PDs represented by the cast of characters in my novel, Gideon’s Children. And as I also  indicated, the following Post would be devoted to possible solutions.

Okay, to begin, let’s understand that complex problems defy simple solutions, and that  while the ideal of absolute perfection is a worthy goal indeed, significant steps in that direction that can be accomplished and which enhance the performance of our Criminal Justice System are no less valuable.

Step One is to address “underfunded.” There are simply not enough Public Defenders to handle the tremendous volume of cases, so even in an era of tight budgets, legislative bodies need to adjust priorities and provide the funding necessary to adequately staff Public Defender Offices. As detailed in my last Post, in New York, Governor Cuomo has seen this and is pushing his legislature to provide the required funds.

So, to those of you reading this Post, I urge you to take a minute and email your federal and state representatives and express to them your desire to see these funds provided now! Remind them of that the Rule of Law is based on the respect of our citizenry, and that if minorities and the poor can no longer believe that they can receive proper representation when charged with a crime, then a large hole is torn in the essential element of respect that founds the Rule, and violence such as experienced in Ferguson will reoccur on a growing scale.

Step Two is for the enormous number of the minor cases that clog the criminal courts to be reduced by legislation, and the exercise of executive, judicial, and prosecutorial discretion.

Numerous states have legalized the use of marijuana, which eliminates untold numbers of simple possession cases. In other jurisdictions that have not legalized marijuana such as New York, in New York City, Mayor DeBlasio unveiled a plan whereby people found with a small amount will typically be cited for a violation instead of being arrested and charged with a crime.

Actions such as these not only help unclog crowded court calendars, thus freeing Public Defenders to work on cases involving serious crime, but they also allow the police to focus their efforts likewise.

Further, as illustrated in Gideon’s Children, Prosecutorial Offices, particularly at the City and County level, often file minor cases such as Drunk In Public (not driving under the influence). The Police, particularly in minority areas, are prone to arresting on this charge because it allows them to then conduct a search incidental to arrest in hopes of discovering drugs. And District and City Attorneys are pleased to file this misdemeanor, because they are most often plea-bargained, i.e., the defendant pleads guilty and receives a sentence for the amount of time he or she has already been incarcerated by the time of trial, and is given credit for time served and immediately released. The heads of District and City Attorney Offices are elected officials, and it is helpful come election time if they can point to the number of successful prosecutions that their administrations have produced.

What should occur is that if no evidence of a more serious crime is recovered at the time of arrest, the police should simply release the arrestee after he or she has dried out during the overnight stay in jail, and if the police persist in pressing charges, the District and City Attorneys should not file a formal complaint. In that the obsession with building  statistics is present, however, judges then need to pressure prosecutors to drop the charges at the time of arraignment, their argument from a position of power being that there is an array of more serious cases that need attention. And if cooperation is not forthcoming, then the judges need to dismiss these cases on their own motion.

Step Three is to cut down on the rate of recidivism, which is far, far too high. Numerous programs are being introduced into our prison systems to provide convicts with vocational skills and even college degrees so that upon release they can find employment and rebuild their lives. In addition, working toward the same goal, many states have programs to curb bias against ex-cons.

These programs must be enlarged. If society does not want repeat offenders, employment opportunities commensurate with their education and skill levels must be available, or a return to crime appears as the only other option. In a future Blog Post I will detail these programs, as they are so important as to deserve a separate Post.

Also requiring a separate Post is judicial bias against Public Defenders, and I will address this extremely difficult problem in my next offering.

As always, thanks for listening. And let’s chat again soon.

The Public Defender Crisis

As I indicated in my opening Blog Post, subsequent additions would focus on separate parts of the Criminal Justice System. As the first Post also emphasized, our democratic society is based on the Rule of Law, and as the sad situation in Ferguson demonstrates, when trust in that basic concept of justice breaks down, order is threatened.

Even sadder is the fact that while Ferguson clearly has tragic implications, this incident is far outweighed by the current crisis in the Public Defender System, because Ferguson is a single event, while every single day across the width and breadth of America Public Defenders struggle to provide representation and insure fairness in the operation of our Criminal Justice System in thousands of cases, with the potential for erosion of the respect for law and order obviously magnified.

As my novel, Gideon’s Children, illustrates, the first wave of Public Defenders created by the 1963 Gideon decision’s mandate for representation were underfunded and frequently overwhelmed. What’s truly frightening is that today, 50 years after the landmark Gideon decision, working conditions are as bad or even worse. As the brilliant commentator Leonard Pitts, Jr. pointed out in his syndicated newspaper column of March 17, 2013, a single Public Defender in many jurisdictions “can be expected to try 400, 500, 600 cases a year,” a burden that makes full investigation and proper representation impossible (http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-03-17/news/bal-gideons-promise-still-unfulfilled-20130315_1_clarence-earl-gideon-attorney-criminal-court). Further substantiating this dire situation, on February 19th, 2014, The New York Times reported “that defender agencies in Missouri and Miami have won, in state Supreme Courts, the right to refuse cases they cannot responsibly handle” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/19/us/public-defenders-turn-to-lawmakers-to-try-to-ease-caseloads.html?_r=0 ), and on October 21st, 2014, the same source reported that in New York, Governor Cuomo “has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused New York State of failing to provide adequate legal defense for the poor in several counties, committing the state to paying for bigger and better public defender offices” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/22/nyregion/in-new-york-cuomo-pledges-more-aid-for-indigents-in-court.html).

Now, you might ask, is the Public Defender Crisis limited to large and heavily populated cities and states? And the answer is, no, it is not. Similar conditions to those detailed above exist nationwide, and like the violence connected to Ferguson, threaten to tear far larger holes in the fabric of our society unless corrected.

In my next Blog Post I will set forth a multi-tiered program for alleviating the serious problem outlined today. In closing, however, I want to stress the fact that while it is uncomfortable for all of us Americans to address, in the richest society in world history, we nevertheless have a significant number of our fellow citizens living at or below the poverty line. And if we expect our economically stressed class of citizens to maintain respect for the Rule of Law, and act accordingly, then we must insure that they can honestly believe in the ability of our criminal justice system to perform fairly for all citizens. And, I would add for your consideration, that it was never more necessary for this essential value to be preserved and strengthened than during an era of ever growing economic inequality.

As always, thanks for listening. Please feel free to respond. And let’s chat again soon.