An American hero – Bryan Stevenson

Who is Bryan Stevenson you may be asking yourself? Per Wikipedia:

“Bryan A. Stevenson is an American lawyer, social justice activist, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and a clinical professor at New York University School of Law. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, Stevenson has challenged bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system, especially children. He has helped achieve United States Supreme Court decisions that prohibit sentencing children under 18 to death or to life imprisonment without parole.”

He is an American hero who has helped free over numerous death-row prisoners who were wrongly convicted. Some of these people should not have ever come to trial. They were guilty by being Black. The DAs did not bother with ballistics tests, even when later challenged. The juries, judge and prosecutors were almost always white.

Stevenson got a new trial which freed one man who had been on death row for 30 years. Earlier attempts years before failed because a line of DAs would not take the time do a ballistic test. The man has still not received an apology for giving up 30 years of his life for a wrongful conviction.

Per the HBO documentary “True Justice:”

“Stevenson has argued five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including one that resulted in a ban on mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 and under. He and the EJI have won reversals, relief or release from prison for more than 135 wrongly condemned death-row inmates.” 

He has now helped establish a Civil Rights museum in Montgomery, AL. Part of this museum includes several shelves of jars of soil gleaned from beneath trees where Black men were lynched. And, there are two monuments for every county in America where lynching occurred. The second monument is for the county to take back to remind us of what evil intent can do. He is strident in his view that the death penalty following a pre-determined trial outcome is a legal way to lynch someone, so he feels it is imperative to link this to the lynchings.

In the HBO documentary, Stevenson noted how we do a terrible job in our country of admitting and learning from our mistakes. Germany has many places where plaques note the atrocitues of Nazism. Here, we try to whitewash history, including the “genocide” of Native Americans, a term which is rarely used, but is apt.

We need more heroes like Stevenson. He is very earnest and speaks with a thoughtful and quiet voice. It is refreshing to see such a man where substance matters over perception.

 

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In memoriam

My father passed away in 2006. He was a veteran of the Korean Conflict. For some reason it was not worthy of being deemed a war, but still many people died.

My father was a sailor on board an aircraft carrier during the Conflict. He did not talk much about the fighting, but I do remember two things he shared – the limited 25 second showers and the Blue Nose Society.

The former was divided up as five seconds of water. Stop. Lather up. Stop, Then, rinse off with the final twenty seconds. The latter is a card given to the sailors for morale purposes when the ship crossed the Arctic Circle. It was the Navy’s way of saying, it’s cold, so here is a card.

War or conflict is difficult. People are in harm’s way and too many do not survive or are impacted physically and/ or mentally. Often, harm comes to people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think of this when I read articles on D-Day. Death was random.

Today, I read of a sailor who let men off on shore at Normandy. As soon as he let the gate down, the bullets riddled in and soldiers were killed before they got out of the boat. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” captures the randomness of those who gave up their lives on that beach.

Yet, to honor these men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice, we need for our leaders to do everything in their power to avoid conflict. They need to do everything in their power to staff and supply our people. And, they need to have a clear goal for success. The soldiers and sailors deserve that.

Let’s think good thoughts for our friends and relatives who fought and died on our behalf. And, let’s say an extra prayer for those in harm’s way today.

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

I have always appreciated when excellent word smithing matches up with equally marvelous music. And, the pairing need not come from one person, as Elton John and Bernie Taupin demonstrated time and again.

One of their clever songs came off John’s 1972 “Honky Cat” album. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” is John’s matching Taupin’s direct lyrics about a time in New York City, when it was less safe than it is today. The story is Taupin heard a gun shot outside his hotel room and penned a song to reflect his angst. John wrote sad, but reminiscent music which he sings so well.

Here is the middle portion of the song including its famous chorus.

“This Broadway’s got
It’s got a lot of songs to sing
If I knew the tunes I might join in
I’ll go my way alone
Grow my own, my own seeds shall be sown, in New York City

Subway’s no way for a good man to go down
Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown
And I thank the Lord for the people I have found
I thank the Lord for the people I have found

While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night
For unless they see the sky
But they can’t and that is why
They know not if it’s dark outside or light”

Several references stand out. The commuters of all persuasions not knowing if it is dark or light. While they may have Mona Lisa painted smiles or the hypertension of a Mad Hatter, they do feel safety in numbers or in a cadre of friends who serve as a port in the storm.

The other reference is to Broadway which offers a glitzier image of New York, a polished apple, so to speak. New York has been reborn, but there was a time when the city needed its underbelly to match the hype. It took a lot of effort through leadership and consistency but is once again quite the destination. I am reminded of the story of a paint crew who would paint over graffiti overnight, then do it again. The consistent effort was symbolic revealing more than an attention to detail,

Maybe we should update the song to reflect our Mona Lisa smiles and Mad Hatter hypertension on social media.

Question for gun owners

Since legislators are more concerned with keeping their jobs than doing their jobs, I felt the need to pose the issue on better gun governance to gun owners. Doing nothing is obviously not the answer, although that seems to be the course too many advocate. My newspaper was kind enough to print the following letter to the editor, with a few edits. Please feel free to adapt and use if you concur.

“After yet another mass shooting in America (this time in my home town), in addition to three shootings over two days in Charlotte, doing nothing to address this issue is not working. I believe we can still honor 2nd Amendment rights and enact better gun governance. I have shared with legislators the suggestions that have majority support in the country. My question is for gun owners – what do you suggest we do to govern the ownership of a device designed to kill? We govern car ownership to keep the driver, passengers and others safe. Surely we can add better governance to gun ownership.”

Since I wrote this, there was another shooting incident in Charlotte this morning at an elementary school. Fortunately no one was hurt. Our law enforcement do a highly credible job, but stopping gun violence is extremely difficult in America.

We should listen to rational experienced voices

In 2002, Jim Webb penned an op-ed in The Washington Post cautioning the US about going into Iraq. Who is Jim Webb? He is a former Marine, Secretary of the Navy and US Senator from Virginia. He has a law degree from Georgetown and has been a member of both political parties serving under multiple Presidents.

Two paragraphs from his pre-invasion op-ed piece are telling:

“The first reality is that wars often have unintended consequences — ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days. The second is that a long-term occupation of Iraq would beyond doubt require an adjustment of force levels elsewhere, and could eventually diminish American influence in other parts of the world….

Other than the flippant criticisms of our ‘failure’ to take Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, one sees little discussion of an occupation of Iraq, but it is the key element of the current debate. The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years.”

It should be noted we have been in Iraq for  over fifteen years. Maybe, the chest beaters should listen to those who have fought and have experience rather than people who understand less what fighting and occupying a country mean.This was a crossroad moment in our history and we have not been the same since. Many thousands of American and allied troops died, even more Iraqi troops and civilians died, our reputation has suffered and our debt is much higher. Plus, he was right on the money about American influence being impacted around the globe. Lying to allies and others about weapons of mass destruction has that kind of effect, not to mention misunderstanding the landscape.

Right now, almost 200 former military and intelligence officers have penned letters being critical of the US President’s decision to withdraw security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan. This follows earlier criticism of the same President on his siding with Russia over his intelligence officials or not heeding the advice of his more experienced folks.

Call me crazy, but maybe we should listen to the more rational and experienced voices? They may be telling us something we need to hear. We owe it to Amercans fighting for our county to take the time to get it right.

From the mouths of those who ardently support the US President

I must confess, I do not expect many pearls of wisdom to come from a Donald Trump pep rally. The purpose is to get a supportive crowd riled up. The use of truth is irrelevant and unimportant. I am certain some truths find there way in, but per The Washington Post, at a rally in Montana, the rate of lying was a whopping 76%. That is actually higher than his recurring rate of 69% as measured by Politifacts.

Many of Trump supporters are fine people. To say otherwise is unfair. But, the blind acceptance of anything the man says does give me pause. The blind acceptance that all criticisms of the man are fake is equally troubling. Then, there are the more strident people. The Guardian interviewed several at last week’s Wilkes-Barre pep rally.

Among several interviewed, who felt the President was doing an “A+” job noting his accomplishments without a lot of context, there was one that stood out. One man, who will remain unnamed is very happy with how Trump is treating the rest of the world. I will leave off an extra pair of quotes and refer to him by (the man), but the next three paragraphs are from the article, with the offensive words modified.

“He said ‘grab ’em by the p***y’. And I get exactly what he meant by that. Grab these countries where they’re weak. Take them down if they want to think we’re weak. Grab ’em by the p***y,” (the man) said.

The Guardian pointed out that Trump was talking about women when he was recorded making those remarks, but (the man) was steadfast.

“Well, they thought so. But I took it in other ways. Grab the whole world that’s against us by the p***y bring them all down if they don’t like us, fight us. Grab them by the p***y. Get them in their weak spot.”

I am greatly offended by this man’s remarks. Like the offensive US President, after being pointed out that he was mixing metaphors, he doubled down on the insulting (and off base) language. I recognize fully this is one man. And, while  he is more offensive than others would or might be, the sentiment is probably widely felt in that audience.

Yet, let me focus on the meaning of the man’s words. Bullying and placing tariffs on our allies does not make America great. It makes America alone. We cannot shrink to greatness, which we will continue to see in the many months ahead, if changes are not made. As I have said before, bullying our friends is far worse  than the actual tariffs, so just fixing the tariffs won’t undo the damage of breaching good faith and trust. So, this metaphor is not only offensive, it is misguided. It causes other leaders and businesses to consider non-US options for customers and suppliers.

But, this metaphor goes beyond the bullying. This man is saying it is OK that Trump can speak of doing this to women. Per twenty women, this type of sexual misconduct is an example of what Trump did to them. One or two accusers is one matter, but twenty is more than a trend. And, he is on record (after denying it repeatedly), that he is aware of at least two payoffs for affairs on his current wife. So, using Trump’s highly offensive “locker room talk,” which I have never heard in any locker room, but especially ones which Trump might frequent, is flat out insulting.

These folks may think Trump can do no wrong. I strongly disagree. He is a daily embarrassment to decorum and the office of the President. He chooses to demean anyone who dares to criticize him, including the press. Then, there are his policies and actions, when reviewed in context, do not paint the same picture as these supporters contend, with or without offensive metaphors.

Let’s fix the larger gun death problems

Mass shootings are very tragic and heart wrenching. Homicides are also tragic. Yet, the biggest gun problem and another tangible and avoidable problem make up between 60% and 70% of annual gun deaths in America. The lion’s share of gun deaths in America are suicides. Last year, over 23,000 of the 38,000 plus gun deaths were suicides. This ratio is not unusual and tracks pretty well year in and year out.

The other much smaller, but more avoidable gun death problem is accidental shootings. And, tragically the ones doing the shooting or getting killed are children who come across a weapon. To lose a child is the worst nightmare I could possibly imagine. But, to lose one because you did not put away your gun, is even more traumatic. The gun owner has to live with the guilt. While accidental shootings are about 2% of gun deaths, they seem to be ones we should be able to avoid irrespective of one’s fervor for the 2nd Amendment.

After each mass shooting, there is concern registered by kids and parents about not letting this happen again. The people for and against more gun control go into camps with some saying now is not the time, while the others asking when is the time. I must give a huge amount of credit to the Parkland kids and others around the country who are forcing action. But, outside of a little lip service in Washington, nothing tangible happens. They may regret inaction come November.

These past few months, the barest of minimum change was done, but there was the President of the United States speaking before the NRA convention last week. He was the one who taunted Congress representatives for not standing up to the NRA. These were obviously just words, which we should be used to by now. With this said, I do give kudos to Florida who acted a little more demonstrably than DC.

To prevent more suicides, background checks on all sales with elongated waiting periods are needed. Doctors must be permitted to ask patients if there is a gun in the house as the propensity for suicide is much higher than one without. All it takes is an impulse and it is over. We must add more psychologists and counselors to schools. The greater gun risk is a depressed student taking his or her life. And, we should expand Medicaid in the remaining 18 states along with its mental health benefits.

As for the accidental shootings, the majority of states require guns to be locked up at home, but why do not all states have such a requirement? I have shared this before, but I asked my father-in-law to lock up his weapon, as I did not want his grandkids around a loaded weapon. He did so. One idea that has merit is requiring a finger printed trigger, where only the owner can use the weapon.

Please note that none of the above speaks of taking weapons away. These steps would help reduce the number of suicides and accidental shootings. Even if the number is only 100, 500 or 1,000, those are lives saved. Isn’t this what it’s all about?