Category Archives: News and Current Events

I Owe My Life to White Privilege

by Jay Parr

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Who‘s the armed gang here?

I had a nice article from Carrie all ready to publishabout foodperfect for the holiday season that basically begins this week. But then the grand jury decision over the Michael Brown shooting was announced and Ferguson, Missouri erupted into a new wave of outrage and protests and tear gas and pundit commentary, and my news feed became a discussion of racial inequality both in Ferguson and beyond (because I’m fortunate to have a friends list of mostly thoughtful people), and that was when I realized I needed to drag out this post I was too busy to finish back in the weeks after the shooting.

The killing of yet another unarmed black teenager at the hands of the police really had me thinking about the persistent and serious problems in our ostensibly “colorblind” culture. I mean, I’m glad it opened up a little bit of discourse about racism, and classism, and access to education, and the role of law enforcement, and the unfortunate necessity of code-switchingat least for a couple of weeks, anywaybut at the end of the day, yet another teenager is dead. Let me repeat that. Yet another teenager is dead. For the oh-so-grave offense of acting like a teenager. I felt like I needed to write something about that, but I hadn’t been able to find the right approach. Then it occurred to me.

Had I grown up black, I would probably be dead.

Seriously. Given my own teen years, had I been black instead of white, I probably would have ended up dead. Or in prison. Or both. I certainly wouldn’t have a master’s degree and a steady (if unglamorous) job in academia. No, I can thank my white privilege for all that.

Let’s take a look at the factors, here.

The house in Shepherd Park.

The house in DC. Just a city bus fare from the Smithsonian.

I was poor. When I was fourteen and my parents divorced, my father left the ministry and Washington DC to go do cabinetmaking in southwestern Virginia, and then ended up severely disabled after he broke his neck in a motorcycle wreck a few months later. He never provided a dime of child support that I’m aware of. The church in DC had provided our housing in a manse next door, but as it was part of my father’s compensation and he was no longer their pastor, it was decided that after the end of the school year, if my mother and brother and I were going to stay we would have to rent the house at market value. My mother had just finished nursing school in her late forties, and had almost no work experience (she had spent most of her adult life raising seven children), so there was no way we could afford to stay in that three-bedroom, two-bath house, or even in the racially- and ethnically-diverse, well-educated, upper-middle-class DC neighborhood of Shepherd Park. So my mother moved us down to Virginia to be near my father, and we bought a run-down fisbo in the crappy neighborhood where my father was renting an apartment. Even after she managed to get her Virginia nursing license, my mom had a hard time finding anything but casual work for quite a while. So that was how she supported my little brother and me for years. As a nursing temp. Finally she landed a steady job at a nursing home, but the pay was far from glamorous, and the benefits were nonexistent. None of us had health insurance for many years.

Mine is the white house left of center. That porch has always been a busy place.

Ours was the white house. That porch next door has always been busy.

I lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Let me put it this way: The first night we spent in that house, a couple of the neighborhood punks got into a scrap right out front, and one of them ended up in the hospital with stab wounds. I have bleary memories of red and blue lights, squawking radios, and a line of people a few years my senior sitting on the curb in handcuffs, right below my window. That was our first night there. We would soon discover that anything not chained down would walk away, and that locked doors just meant the windows would get broken when someone wanted to come in and look for valuables. And every once in a while one of the old fire-trap houses would burn down. As if that weren’t enough, among school administrators and law enforcement personnel, my address itself was sufficient cause for them to assume my criminality. Thing is, we could afford to live there (well, sort of). My mom bought the house for $9,000 in 1980, and the sellers even financed it with no down-payment. They were a working-class family accustomed to doing things informally, so when we couldn’t make a house payment, a simple phone call was all it took to put matters right. With all that, buying that house was more affordable and more secure than even a crappy little apartment somewhere else in town. In short, we were trapped.

Whereas the neighborhood in DC was educated and genteel (and maybe even a bit pretentious at times), most of the adults in the new neighborhood had not finished high school. Those who worked had the kind of jobs that involved polyester uniforms with embroidered name patches, but much of the local economy was welfare, theft, and the black market of drugs and “hot” merchandise. Even with all that, the culture of racism was such that the mostly-white denizens of that neighborhood would have referred to my old neighbors with a plethora of xenophobic slurs and held themselves above their more educated and well-off counterparts by virtue of their skin color alone.

I had an undiagnosed and untreated mood disorder. Clinical depression and bipolar disorder both run in my family. I’m fortunate to have been blessed with the lesser of those ills, but left untreated (see “uninsured” above), in a hormonal teenager, it led to all sorts of fun. I was prone to sudden fits of self-destructive rage (e.g., hurling a broken bicycle chain at a motorcycle cop—thank heavens I missed, and he didn’t see it), and equally self-destructive apathy (“So suspend me. I’ve got a book I’d rather be reading anyway”). Sometimes my affect was so flattened that people thought I was on drugs when I wasn’t, which was merely a little awkward when that was the school guidance counselor, but could be a little more dangerous when it was some gung-ho rookie cop who was obviously scared shitless of the neighborhood he was patrolling.

Mixing a gig in high school. The collared shirt was a total fluke.

Mixing a bar gig in high school. The collared shirt was a total fluke.

I looked like a tweaker. That’s a meth addict, for those of you who haven’t been educated by Breaking Bad. I was scrawny, partly from genes and partly from poor nutrition. Food was scarce at times, and I never had lunch money at school (I spent it on smokes instead). I had a tendency to chain-smoke and drink a lot of iced tea when I was hungry, leaving me hangry and over-caffeinated. So not only did I look like a tweaker, scrawny with the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, but I was also twitchy and cranky. Especially if I was out of smokes. Add that to a strong sarcastic streak and a complete lack of respect for authority, and it was a recipe for trouble.

I smoked. Duh. I started smoking at fourteen, because to not smoke in that neighborhood was to be a pariah. A misfit. A narc. A pussy. Better to learn to smoke than to invite the all-too-often-physical disdain of the abused and abusive teenagers who were my peers in that neighborhood. But the thing is, nicotine is also ridiculously addictive, so I was a smoker everywhere I went. Even when I was somewhere that my smoking only further labeled me as worthless trash (i.e., pretty much anywhere that wasn’t my neighborhood).

Later on, I switched to hand-rolled cigarettes, which had a tendency to look like joints. Especially when you got down to the dry crumblies at the bottom of the pouch. That got me into quite a few shall we say, conversations with law-enforcement personnel.

The corner where the local hoods hung out.

The corner where the local hoods hung out.

I got suspended, and skipped school, on a regular basis. Smoking got me suspended from my junior high school several times. Losing my cool with a teacher got me a vacation from my first month of high school. Sometimes I would just skip school with a pack of the other neighborhood kids, and we would shoplift and/or get someone to buy us beer. Then we would go wander along the railroad tracks, or trespass in derelict buildings or desolate industrial areas, and vandalize stuff, and just generally act like young hoodlums. Other times I just wouldn’t wake up in time (see: untreated depression), so I would just stay home and read books.

I dressed like a hoodlum. Most of what I wore came from charity bins or through some other hand-me-down channel, and I wore it long past the point that pretty much anyone else would have thrown it away. To give it some character other than just hand-me-down rags, I would decorate everything with magic markers, safety pins, scraps of random fabrics, and anti-mainstream (or anti-establishment depending on how you saw it) buttons, slogans and symbols. I got into punk rock a little bit, and the “fashions” that went along with that scene gelled fairly well with what I was already doing, so I added a few re-purposed dog chains and some metal spikes to my style somewhere along the way. This was the ‘80s, in southwest Virginia; it wasn’t a style that was cute and retro then. It was generally viewed as a pretty loud “f*** you” to people in positions of authority.

I usually carried a knife. Part of it was the influence of the neighborhood. Part of it was because in high school I got into theater tech, and a knife is a handy tool there. But it still meant that pretty much every time I came in contact with law enforcement (see: neighborhood) I had a knife in my possession. One of them kind of looked like a switchblade. Among my peers, a knife was just another accessory, as essential as smokes or a light (butane, matches, a Zippo if you were really swanky). But I can’t tell you how many times I was interrogated about what I was “planning to do with that knife.”

Clearly the only reason anyone would ever carry a knife.

Clearly the only reason anyone would ever carry a knife.

One of those times I was walking to get smokes and found a cop behind an old VW Beetle with his headlights pointed at the open engine cover. I knew a bit about old Beetles by then; we’d had several, and my mom had long since enlisted me as her designated VW mechanic (see: poor). So I went over to see if I could help. Turned out it took me five minutes to figure out the problem and a twist of a knife blade to fix it, but the cop had been obviously suspicious of me since he saw me approaching in the dark, and after that girl drove off in the convertible Beetle her daddy had bought her, the cop turned on me and interrogated me about that knife. For a little while I honestly wondered if I was about to spend my first night in jail. I will tell you that the whole time I was excruciatingly careful not to make any unexpected moves. I’ve tried to write that story several times, but it always just sounds too contrived.

I took suspicious shortcuts. Before I got my motorcycle, I walked pretty much everywhere I went, and I was always trying to shave a few steps off my route. I would cut through brownfields, derelict service alleys, along railroad tracks, between houses. My neighborhood had a lot of abandoned spaces that made good shortcuts, but merely being there was suspicious. And trespassing.

I rode a barely-legal motorcycle. When I got a little older and could gather the means, I got my hands on a cheap old ugly motorcycle for transportation. It turned out the mufflers were too rusted to pass inspection, so I fixed it the least expensive way I could, which was with a set of little loud rattle-cans. So even my “car” shouted that I was trouble.

Sometimes I would hang out with some other young rat-bikers. I’ll never forget the time a gaggle of us were hanging out around our bikes at a roadside parking area in the city park not far from my house, when a preschooler  came running past us on a bee-line for the road. I reached down and snatched her up before she could get run over, then scanned for an adult only to see the horror in her mother’s eyes. I played it cool, with a smiling “Is this yours?” But I can only imagine how that could have played out if nothing else were to change but that I had been a young black man.

One of my old bikes (not the first, but a similar aesthetic).

One of my old bikes (not the first, but a similar aesthetic).

I was a smart-ass to cops. Or really, to anyone who was pushy about wielding authority. I could get into my complicated relationship with my authoritarian (but also rebellious) father, but I’m just going to own it instead. I had problems with authority. Specifically, I had problems with authority being wielded in any way that I considered inequitable or arbitrary. I still do, for that matter, but these days I’m older and mellower, with better outlets for venting my frustrations. And better mood-stabilizing pharmaceuticals. In those days, I was more prone to fume in silence right up to the bursting point, when I would lose my temper right at the teacher or vice-principal or cop I was being confronted by. As I mentioned, It got me suspended more than once. How it never got me in handcuffs, I have yet to explain.

The list goes on. For example, I got all my binge-drinking out of the way before I was of legal age (which was 19 at the time). I stole road signs and decorated my room with them. Pretty much all my friends were holding weed at any given moment, and most of my acquaintances in the neighborhood were holding something strongermeth, or acid, or pills, or hash, or sometimes heroin. Between insomnia and my involvement in theater tech, garage bands, and bar gigs, I was often out and about in the ungodly hours, either walking the crappy part of town or out on my ratty motorcycle. I had the vocabulary of a sailor. And I had a strong sense of social justicea strong sense of the injustices often perpetrated by those with more power on those with lessand I wasn’t good at hiding or tempering my outrage at those who had the power. Even though they were also the ones with the power to make my life much more difficult.

So, with all this, how did I never end up in jail? Or dead? Or with a criminal record? Given the times I argued with cops, or got pissed off and threw something in the presence of a cop, or failed to restrain my body language from letting a cop know I thought he was being completely unreasonable, had I been a black teenager, who lived in a black neighborhood (or worse yet, who lived in a white one), the statistics show that I would have been much more likely to have been detained, arrested, imprisoned, or even killed. By the authorities whose job is ostensibly to ensure our safety.

But I was white. I had grown up in the rural Midwest and mainstream D.C., so I didn’t have to code-switch to sound like the people on TV. Or the white cops I encountered. I wasn’t rich, but I was still given a certain benefit of the doubt in some situations, simply because I was white (I really don’t like to think about what might have happened had I been a black teenager when I pulled out my knife under the hood of that old VW). When I got a little older, I could cut off my ponytail, put on a collared shirt, and blend right in with the country-club-and-beach-house set (or at least the country-club-and-lake-house set). Because I was white. Had I been black and tried to do that, I’m pretty sure someone would have assumed I was an employee.

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But in a more general sense, my whiteness meant that, clean-cut or not, flat-broke or not, in an industrial brownfield or a moneyed neighborhood, I could smile at a cop and say hi, and have it be assumed that I was innocently taking photographs, or taking a walk, and not that I was “up to something.”

The population of Ferguson, Missouri is 67% black. However, the mayor is white, and the police chief is white, and 94% of the police force is white. Black citizens are subject to 86% of the traffic stops, 93% of the arrests, and 92% of the searches (despite the fact that of those searched, whites were 65% more likely to have contraband). Another report shows that black citizens in Ferguson are about twice as likely to be searched, and about twice as likely to be arrested, despite the fact that whites are half-again more likely to be carrying contraband. Nationally, black citizens are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their white counterparts, according to NAACP data, mostly for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.

Don’t tell me we’re a colorblind society. The numbers prove otherwise.

When I was thirty and divorced, and finally managed to escape that neighborhood, I moved up to New York City for a while. One of the things I though I was escaping, in my naivete, was the racism of the South. I had been there a few weeks when one day I saw a black teenager on a pay phone, having what was obviously some kind of lovers’ quarrel. He stopped mid-sentence, and having apparently been hung up on, got flustered and slammed the phone down. As a passerby having only witnessed what I had overheard, I thought it was a perfectly normal response to what appeared to be happening. Too bad there also happened to be an NYPD cruiser passing by at that exact moment, because within seconds the poor kid, still keyed up about his relationship drama, found himself slammed over the hood of a squad car with his arms pinioned behind his back, and two white cops labeling him as a criminal. My relationship with my first wife having been what it was, I couldn’t begin to count the times I had slammed down a phone, public or private, every bit as hard as that poor kid had just done. But I can count the times I found myself handcuffed over the hood of a police car for having done it. Precisely zero.

___

Further reading: “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men”why-cops-shoot

Ebola, Kaci Hickox, and Fort Kent, Maine

by Carrie Levesque

ABC_hickox-fort-kent-edit

Let’s be honest, what small town doesn’t love a little drama? A little controversy? The pot stirred? Something to keep the conversation hot as another cold winter approaches?

Normally, there’s nothing my hometown  of Fort Kent, Maine loves so much as some good gossip. But the media circus that has recently engulfed our isolated community of about 2,500, on Maine’s northern border with Canada, has been a lot for even the most seasoned gossips to handle. While the locals respect and admire the service that nurse Kaci Hickox has provided to Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, many are a bit less enthusiastic about her refusal to abide by a state-imposed quarantine to ensure that she has not been exposed to anything that could bring such a horrific disease to a small community with limited resources for fighting such an outbreak.

fort-kent-bigmap

Let me first say that I understand that Kaci Hickox is extremely unlikely to pose any threat to those around her. She is asymptomatic, and as numerous authorities on the issue have vigorously insisted (including the Centers for Disease Control and the New England Journal of Medicine), there is no scientific basis for ordering quarantine for asymptomatic healthcare workers returning from West Africa. Kaci Hickox, at this time, is not contagious.

But it seems to me that what Kaci Hickox is, is her own worst PR headache.

In her defense, her actions over the last week are understandable. She has been through an exhausting, emotionally draining experience that few of us could ever imagine—and that was before she touched down in Newark. What has happened to Hickox since she revealed to airport personnel where she had been and what she had been doing would certainly anger, frustrate and demoralize any of us.

hickox-atty-norman-siegel

She was detained for hours at the airport and interrogated repeatedly, sometimes, according to her account, by people who didn’t bother to introduce themselves. She was tired and hungry from a transatlantic flight and given a granola bar and water for her troubles. After four hours of this, her temperature, recorded by a forehead scanner, registered 101. Her doctors at University Hospital in Newark would later concur: her ‘fever’ was the likely result of being flushed and upset. At all other times during her confinement, Hickox’s body temperature was normal.

I imagine you know much of the rest of the story. Her ordered confinement, her vow to sue for the violation of her civil rights, the invitation from the eloquent humanitarian Gov. Chris Christie: “Whatever. Get in line.” Her eventual release and escort back to Maine, where she first went into hiding in an attempt to avoid the networks that had already schlepped cameras and crew hours through the Maine wilderness to the town where the road ends, to her rural home in Fort Kent, ME.

hickox-home-ft-kent-trooper-car

But here is where my empathy for Hickox’s story is tested. Not because she disagrees with the recommended 21-day home quarantine (Yes, “science,” I understand), but for her combative insistence on the rightness of her actions and for her repeated threats at litigation. For what I perceive as a failure to defend her laudable and legitimate interests while also addressing the concerns of the community with a bit more sensitivity.

The unavoidable fact is, whether there is a scientific basis for it or not, many people are concerned for their own safety and for the safety of their loved ones. Concerned for the “what ifs” in this situation which, while unlikely, are, as of this writing, still possible. In the absence of any guarantees, these concerns are understandable. Even if they should not be what drives policy—even if, in an ideal world, we could reason them away—it is not unreasonable to expect Hickox to acknowledge the feelings of the community when she makes choices about where she goes, and when.

mooseshack

Having lived now in another culture for 2 years, it’s hard not to see the situation as characterized by a very American attitude that my individual rights are more important than the community’s peace of mind, that I will insist on my individual rights whatever the social consequences. As someone in my town said to a journalist friend of mine, “She’s holding this small Valley town hostage to a point of principle.” I think it’s worth asking why doctors returning to other countries are willing to submit to quarantine, but it becomes a civil rights battle in our country.

At the end of August, a Norwegian newspaper reported on the experiences of a doctor who had just returned home after serving with Doctors Without Borders in Liberia. He quietly quarantined himself at his family cabin for three weeks, waiting out the incubation period.

No drama, no fuss, no lawsuits, no government. Just simple concern for the community around him in an uncertain time.

Gunnar-Hasle

After all the fear that the media have stirred up around ebola (yes, even in Norway), including an article linked to the one cited above that ran with the headline “WHO: Ebola epidemic can infect 20,000 people,” is it honestly so surprising that people are not putting aside their fear so easily?

What’s more, as Hickox has witnessed firsthand the hell that so many others in less economically-developed parts of the world live every day, I have a hard time accepting the idea that home quarantine is a serious civil or human rights issue. That seems pretty insulting to the people who experience oppression (and global indifference) in their lives every day, circumstances that endure for much longer than 21 days. While we often discuss in my BLS courses the unfairness of comparing or ranking oppressive situations, I also think if we throw around the term “civil rights violation” too liberally, it ceases to be taken seriously. It becomes just another media sound bite.

kaci-hickox-sierra-leone

Yes, the situation is unfairly tough for Hickox because she is one of the early cases of her kind and states are still figuring out how to proceed. Yes, I support her demands that governors craft policies based on science and not fear, and that she be allowed reasonable freedoms, like her recent bike ride. But in the meantime, her situation is not Guantanamo Bay, and the current discourse has done little locally but escalate the drama and rhetoric, and, once again, distract us nationally from real human rights violations taking place every day.

My friend Julie Daigle, the local journalist mentioned earlier, said something that seemed to me very fair. “The thing is, she may in fact be making a point that needs to be made in the bigger picture, and in the long run, we may all be better off for her refusal to allow her behavior to be affected by the fears of those around her. But to castigate people for a very predictable response to having to face a sizable fear (again, regardless of how reasonable that fear is) and their clear understanding that she is choosing to ignore their fears is as demonizing an action as those seeking to cast her in the role of the witch.”

hickox-quarantine-selfie

I understand Kaci Hickox’s anger. I understand that she feels that she has already given enough—and in all fairness, she has given far more than any of us. She’s right. At the same time, especially in a small community, it is sometimes better to be generous and patient with a difficult situation. Even when we’re right.

___

Author’s update: Hickox responds to a judge’s order lifting the quarantine, and members of the Fort Kent community respond to the whole debacle.

I think my main concerns are still valid—that this whole media circus is avoided in cultures where people just put the concerns of their neighbors first from the start. What do you think?

BLS386-women-war-terror

Miscarriages of Justice

by Jay Parr

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

This past Tuesday, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated of the brutal rape and murder of a preteen girl, a crime for which they had been falsely convicted, condemned, and imprisoned for thirty years. One of them spending the entire time on death row. McCollum was released on Wednesday morning, after spending over half his life facing execution. Brown, his half-brother, was released from his life sentence at a different prison later in the afternoon.

Both of these men were convictedand condemnedbased on confessions that were wrung out of them when they were teenagers (McCollum 19 and Brown 15), after many hours of high-pressure interrogation. Confessions which were written by others for them to sign, despite the fact that neither of them was functionally literate or intelligent or educated enough to read and understand what they were signing, or legally astute enough to understand the consequences of signing it (in an interview from death row, McCollum says he signed believing that if he did they would finally let him go home). These menscared teenagers at that time, who had only recently come to North Carolina and who had never had a run-in with the police beforewere convicted and condemned based on confessions which they signed with no defense counsel present, and which they have both consistently recanted from that point on.

Brown at the hearings.

Leon Brown at last week’s hearings.

Based on those coerced confessions, these two men have been imprisoned, removed from society, forced to live in the sterile and hostile environment of the penal system for decadesas men convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl and then thrust in among a population that is notoriously unfriendly to child sex offenders. Both of them have spent years on death row, and both of them have endured a long series of trials and retrials. Hearings in which their very lives were at stake. Literally.

A cell in North Carolina's death row.

A cell in North Carolina’s death row. (WRAL)

There are two distinct miscarriages of justice here.

The first happened 30 years ago, when two naive teenagers were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. That miscarriage of justice was exacerbated when the system that was supposed to afford them a fair trialthe system that was supposed to presume their innocence until the evidence proved their guilt beyond a reasonable doubtfailed to recognize that there was not a scrap of physical evidence tying them to the scene of the crime (that in fact there was evidence implicating another man who lived near the crime scene and who had been arrested for a very similar crime), and that their confessions were wrung out of them under conditions so flawed as to render them utterly invalid.

That miscarriage of justice has been perpetuated anew every time someone in the political and legal sphereincluding a Supreme Court justicehas trotted these men out as examples, as heinous criminals who brutally raped and murdered a preteen girl, as justifications for keeping the death penalty active, or as reasons their political rivals (who may have been so ridiculous as to point out flaws in the case) were “soft on crime.”

Reverse view of death-row cell. (WRAL)

Reverse view of the cell. The ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger. (WRAL)

The second miscarriage of justice happened this past week, when after thirty years, these two men were exonerated and then simply released, with not so much as a mention of compensation for the decades of which they had been robbed. Think of the opportunities that were lost along with those decades; to have that crappy first job; to have that young-and-foolish relationship doomed to fail from the start; to finally stumble into that long-term (if unglamorous) job, and to meet that certain someone who would end up becoming their companion for decades to come; to know the joys and frustrations of being fathers, and likely grandfathers by this point. To live, that is, something resembling normal lives. In something resembling a normal world.

These men don’t have the decades of experience that is going to be taken for granted by everyone, given their ages. They’ve never used an ATM or a debit card. One article I read mentioned McCollum gushing to his parents recently about getting on the internet for the first time. But I have seen nothing about the justice system assuming any responsibility for helping them acclimate to the lives they’ve been denied. As a representative of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation points out, these men don’t even have the minimal support offered to ex-cons who exit the penal system under normal conditions. “It’s not like being on probation or parole. It’s just—good luck.”

The same article points out that there are processes by which the men could seek a pardon of innocence from the governor—essentially a statement that they had been wrongly convicted and sentenced—at which point they could then go on to seek some unspecified compensation from the state.

The death row day room; McCollum's world for decades.

The death row day room; McCollum’s world for decades.

These men, McCollum at 50 and Brown at 46, have never had the opportunity to learn the skills they would need to make it on the outside. They’ve never had to keep a job, or pay rent, or keep track of a variety of utility bills, or make their income cover their expenses, or plan a week’s meals and shop for them. They haven’t been in a grocery store in thirty years. If either of them ever learned to drive, it has been at least that long since they’ve done it. Not only will they be living in new, unfamiliar towns, the very concept of getting around in any town is going to be foreign at this point. Partly because it has been so long since they’ve done it and partly because so much has changed in the meanwhile. As adults, they’ve never been in the regular presence of women, or mingled with the variety of people who make up any normal public place. In fact, for the past three decades, their only regular company has been the other (male) inmates on death row and the uniformed corrections officers assigned as their guards. Their worlds have been the prison blocks and complexes where they have been housed, with occasional forays out into the world (most likely in shackles) for court appearances. For thirty years they haven’t had the option to decide where to go at a given moment, or to close their own doors, or to turn off their own lights. For thirty years they haven’t had a moment of true privacy. Having lived in the penal system and on death row for so long, and having been thrust there at such young ages, they literally have none of the skills and none of the experience they need to function in the everyday world. One article points out that McCollum, climbing into his parents’ car upon his release, didn’t even know how to fasten the seat belt.

McCollum faces reporters outside. What awaits in the outside world?

McCollum faces reporters upon his release. What awaits in the outside world?

It is no more in the interest of justice to release these men into the world so unprepared, and so uncompensated, than it is to keep them incarcerated in the conditions that, horrid as they may have been, are the conditions to which these men have spent the majorities of their lives being acclimated.

These men have spent three decades fighting to prove their innocence. They have spent decades fighting for their very lives. They shouldn’t have to fight anymore. It has been proven that their convictions were invalid and that their incarcerations were unjust. It is obvious at this point that the state of North Carolina owes these two men very comfortable retirements.

Something like this.

Something like this. With a staff.

If we can afford the cost of keeping these men as inmates, one of them on death row and the other for life, we can afford a roughly equivalent sum as pensions, in exchange for the lives that have been wrongly stolen from these men. If we can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, spent repeatedly condemning them to die in prison on the basis of inadmissible, coerced, and disprovable confessions, we can afford to provide them with the guidance, the training, and the support to manage their lives in a world for which we have prevented them from being prepared. If the state of North Carolina were to take the initiative, to arrange for that level of compensation to be awarded and implemented quickly, without requiring anything further from these men or their tireless advocates, then it just might be possible to claim that justice has finally been served. Maybe.

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

Note: Thanks to Saundra Westervelt (who literally wrote the book on this topic) for taking the time during a busy weekend with Witness to Innocence to read and offer valuable feedback on this article.

BLS Student Featured on UNCG Home Page

by Jay Parr

Nargiza Kiger featured on the UNCG home page. Photo: Brian Kiger

Nargiza Kiger featured on the UNCG home page.

I generally like to keep this blog about things other than the BLS Program, lest we be accused of navel-gazing. This is going to be one of those exceptions.

If you open the UNCG Home Page in the next two weeks, the first thing you’re going to see is our very own BLS student Nargiza Kiger smiling at you from a field in West Africa. Though she’s technically an in-state student (she and her husband live here in the Triad), I know of no other student who brings a more international perspective to the BLS Program. A native of Uzbekistan in central Asia, where relatively few women manage to achieve higher education, Nargiza traveled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan to attend a university. It was there that she met her husband Brian, and after finishing her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Tech, she had to reconcile her desire to continue her own education with Brian’s career in international development. The BLS Program allowed her to do just that, continuing her education at an American university while stationed with him in Nigeria and then in Ghana. She’s on track to graduate in December.

Nargiza greeting an elephant in Ghana.

Nargiza greeting an elephant in Ghana.

Nargiza came to my attention last fall, shortly after she had moved to Ghana (one downside of my mostly-administrative role is that I’m not as in touch with all our students as I was when I was their academic advisor). I think it may have been infrastructure issues—unreliable power and internet connections—that brought her to my attention. Always on the lookout for BLS students who lead interesting lives, I asked her if she would be interested in writing a post for our blog. Given her history, which you can read in her cover story, I expected her to write about her own experiences. Boy, did she ever turn that on its head.

The post she gave me starts out on the frustrations of being an online student in an African city with tentative infrastructure—with the nerve-wracking image of taking an online test with a glitchy internet connection and having the power go out (yet again) in the middle of it. But then, after getting the reader sucked into her frustrating circumstances, she immediately turns around and points out that in Ghana, she is the privileged one. In a country with a per-capita income of roughly $2.00 a day, where education beyond 9th grade costs real money, and where placement into professional programs is rife with corruption, she can afford tuition at an American institution that costs more than most of her neighbors will make in a year. And yet, despite all these challenges—her own and others’—the post she gave me is ultimately the inspirational story of a security guard who is paying for his siblings to go to school, and who aspires to become a nurse so he can help others.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Nargiza and Ibrahim, the security guard.

I feel like our little online program is all grown up, out there on the front page of the university’s website. And I can’t think of many people to better represent us than Nargiza, wearing her UNCG colors in Tamale, Ghana, and constantly doing the little things she can do to make the world a better place.

Why All Babies Deserve to Die: Science and Theology in the Abortion Debate

by Matt McKinnon

The debate rages on…

The debate rages on…

Just a few of the headlines on the abortion debate from the last few weeks:

I would say that the Abortion issue has once again taken center stage in the culture wars, but it never really left. Unlike homosexual marriage, which seems to be making steady progress towards resolution by a majority of Americans that the freedom to marry of consenting adults is basic civil right, the abortion debate continues to divide a populace who is torn between adjudicating the priority of the basic rights of both mother and “potential” child.

I say “potential” child because herein is where the real debate lies: exactly when does a fertilized human egg, a zygote, become a “person,” endowed with certain human if not specifically civil rights?

Is it a person yet?

Is it a person yet?

Dougherty’s main point in his article on liberal denial focuses on the “fact” of the beginnings of human life. He claims that liberals tend to make one of two types of arguments where science and human life are concerned: either they take the unresolved legal issue regarding the idea of personhood and transfer it back to the “facts” of biology, concluding that we cannot really know what human life is or when it begins, or they acknowledge the biological fact of the beginning of human life but claim that this has no bearing on how we should think about the legality of abortion.

Both sorts of arguments, he claims, are obscurantist, and fail to actually take into account the full weight of science on the issue.

But the problem, I contend, isn’t one of science: it’s one of theology—or philosophy for those less religiously inclined.

The problem is not the question of “what” human life is or “when” it begins. Dougherty points out:

After the fusion of sperm and egg, the resulting zygote has unique human DNA from which we can deduce the identity of its biological parents. It begins the process of cell division, and it has a metabolic action that will not end until it dies, whether that is in a few days because it never implants on the uterine wall, or years later in a gruesome fishing accident, or a century later in a hospital room filled with beloved grandchildren.

Two-cell zygote.

Two-cell zygote. Is this a person?

So basically, human life begins at conception because at that point science can locate a grouping of cells from which it can deduce all sorts of things from its DNA, and this grouping of cells, if everything goes nicely, will result in the birth, life, and ultimate death of a human being.

He even gets close to the heart of the problem when, in arguing against an article by Ryan Cooper, he claims that many people are not fine with the idea that an abortion represents the end of a life, nor are they comfortable with having a category of human life that is not granted the status of “humanity”—and thus not afforded basic human rights.

The problem with all of these discussions is that they dance around the real issue here—the issue not of “human life” and its definition and beginning, but rather the philosophical and often theological question of the human “person.”

If we look closely at Dougherty’s remarks above, we note two distinct examples of why the generation of human life is a “fact”: (1) we can locate DNA that tells us all sorts of things about the parents (and other ancestors) of the fetus and (2) this fetus, if everything works properly, will develop into a human being, or rather, I would argue, a human “person.”

For there’s the distinction that makes the difference.

After all, analyze any one of my many bodily fluids and a capable technician would be able to locate the exact same information that Mr. Dougherty points out is right there from the first moments of a zygote’s existence. But no one claims that any of these bodily fluids or the cells my body regularly casts off are likewise deserving of being labeled “human life,” though the sperm in my semen and the cells in my saliva are just as much “alive” as any zygote (believe me, I’ve looked).

No, the distinction and the difference is in the second example: The development of this zygote into a human person. My sperm, without an egg and the right environment, will never develop into a human being. The cells in my saliva have no chance at all—even with an egg and the right conditions.

Nope, not people.

Nope, not people.

So the real force of Doughtery’s argument lies in the “potential” of the zygote to develop into what he and anti-abortion folks would claim is already there in the “reality” of a human person.

The debate thus centers on the question of human personhood, what we call theological or philosophical anthropology. For one side, this personhood is the result of a development and is achieved sometime during the embryonic stage (like “viability”) or even upon birth. For others, it is there at conception. For some in both camps it would include a “soul.” For others it would not.

So the reason that the abortion debate is sui generis or “of its own kind” is because here the issue is not the rights of a minority versus the rights of a majority, as it is in the debate about homosexual marriage, or even the rights of the mother versus the rights of the child. Rather the real debate is about when “human life” is also a human “person” (note this is also informs the debate of whether or not to end the life of someone in a vegetative state).

Is this a person?

Fetus at four weeks. Is this a person?

To this end, Mr. Dougherty is correct: We can and do know what human life is and when it begins. And he is correct that many are uncomfortable with the idea that abortion means the death of a human life. But he fails to recognize that the reason this is the case is that while those on one side regard this “life” as a human person, others do not. Potentially, perhaps, but not a “person” yet. And certainly not one whose “right to life” (if there even is such a thing: nature says otherwise—but that’s another blog post) trumps the rights of the mother.

So what does all of this have to do with all babies deserving to die? It’s simple: this is what the (necessary?) intrusion of theology into public policy debates entails. Once theological ideas are inserted (and note that I am not arguing that they should or shouldn’t be), how do we adjudicate between their competing claims or limit the extent that they go?

For the two great Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, representing the two dominant trajectories of traditional Protestant Christianity, humans are, by nature, sinful. We are conceived in sin and born into sin, and this “Original Sin” is only removed in Baptism (here the Roman Catholic Church would agree). Furthermore, we are prone to keep sinning due to the concupiscence of our sinful nature (here is where the Roman Church would disagree). The point is that, for Protestants, all people are not only sinful, but are also deserving of the one chief effect of sin: Death.

romans_6-23

“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23

 

Calvin was most explicit in Book 2, Chapter 1 of his famous Institutes:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s wombs: they suffer for their own imperfections and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

Since babies, like all of us, are sinful in their very nature, and since they will necessarily continually bear the fruits of those sins (anyone who’s ever tried to calm a screaming infant can attest to this), and since the wages of those sins is death, then it’s not a far-fetched theological conclusion that all babies deserve to die. And remember: “they suffer for their own imperfections.”

But they don’t just deserve to die—they deserve to go to hell as well (but that’s also another blog post). And this, not from the fringes of some degenerate religious thinker, but from the theology of one of Protestant Christianity’s most influential thinkers.

A sinner in the eyes of God (or at least Calvin).

A sinner in the eyes of God (according to John Calvin, anyway).

Of course, it should be noted that Calvin does not imply that we should kill babies, or even that their death at human hands would be morally justifiable: thought he does argue (and here all Christian theology would agree) that their death at the hand of God is not just morally justifiable, it is also deserved. It should also be noted that the Roman Catholic theology behind the idea that children cannot sin until they reach the age of reason is predicated on the notion that this is only the case once their Original Sin has been removed in Baptism (So Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu kids would be sinful, unlike their Christian counterparts).

Again, this is not to argue that philosophical and theological principles should not be employed in the abortion debate, or in any debate over public policy. Only that (1) this is what is occurring when pro-choice and anti-abortion folks debate abortion and (2) it is fraught with complexities and difficulties that few on either side seem to recognize.

And contrary to  Mr.Dougherty, this is beyond the realm of science, which at best tells us only about states of nature.

But the only way we have a “prayer” of real sustained dialogue—as opposed to debates that ignore our competing fundamental positions—is to take seriously the philosophical and theological issues that frame the question (even if my own example is less than serious).

But I’m not holding my breath. I would most certainly die if I did.

Earth Day Is a Sham

by Matt McKinnon

1

I am very fond of the earth. I live here, and have now for almost five decades. It’s the only home I have ever known, and I plan on retiring here and someday giving back to the earth by, well, decomposing and becoming dirt.

Ashes to ashes and all that.

I also love to garden. I love the feel of dirt between my fingers: the rich, dark stardust that collected after the Big Bang and has nourished the origin and descent of our species, of all species, since the beginning of life.

In fact, my favorite part of gardening is not the planting, which is a close second. Or the harvesting, though I enjoy the fruits of my garden immeasurably. No, my favorite part is composting: Meticulously collecting all the bits and scraps from the kitchen as well as the garden to supply generous amounts of “greens” for nitrogen, shredding junk mail (and when I taught face-to-face, unclaimed papers) to add the proper amount of “browns” for carbon, assembling them all in my composter, and religiously turning and stirring to get the desired result of rich, black, humus.

2

The good stuff.

(The sweet smell of a properly-proportioned compost pile is actually quite intoxicating.)

So my favorite part of gardening is not just sticking my hands in the earth, but making it.

I have always loved the earth, literally, for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories is getting home from church on Easter Sunday, brightly arrayed in my new pastel-colored Easter suit, and making a mad dash for the dirt, new plastic bulldozer in hand to play in my beloved earth.

I must have been maybe five years old.

And all through my childhood the place my friends and I played most regularly was a lower, barren part of my neighbor’s backyard that we endearingly called “down in the dirt.” As in: “I’ll be back later mom; we’re going down in the dirt.”

And when my wife was a teacher, I would happily assist her in making the annual “Earth Day Cake,” complete with crushed Oreos and gummy worms. Not too dissimilar from the mud pies I used to make in my own backyard.

So it is with much pain and anguish that I proclaim Earth Day to be a sham. A fraud. A ruse. Perpetrated by both well-meaning environmentalists (like myself) and corporate interests with ulterior motives.

3

The problem, of course, is not the idea or intent: Celebrating the earth that sustains all that we are, as well as raising awareness of exactly what we humans are doing to our planet.

No, the problem is that Earth Day, far from being a rousing success, has actually been an abject failure.

Though this, of course, depends on how you look at it.

From a PR perspective (is there any other where public policy is concerned), Earth Day has been wildly successful. First proposed in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell to honor the earth as well as peace, and celebrated annually on April 22nd, Earth Day has grown from its initial celebration mostly in schools and colleges across the United States to become the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by some one billion people in over 192 countries.

But from a practical perspective, the movement has not had the desired effect of meaningfully arresting the manner in which we are still destroying the earth. Even more so than in 1970. Heck, it hasn’t even managed to convince most Americans that we are experiencing an ecological crisis.

Though perhaps it makes us feel better about it, at least one day a year.

And therein is the problem. Couched in terminology of honoring the earth, and even cleaning it up a bit, Earth Day domesticates what is arguably the greatest catastrophe to ever befall humanity: the impending collapse of an environment that is hospitable to human survival.

There have, of course, been other extinction events before—five in fact, with the largest being the “Great Dying” (or Permian-Triassic extinction event for all those biogeeks out there), some 252 million years ago, which resulted in the extinction of an estimated 90% of all species. The most famous, arguably, is the last major extinction, the Cretacious-Paleogene extinction event around 66 million years ago that resulted in the loss of 75% of all species, including everyone’s favorite—all those non-avian dinosaurs. This of course was followed by the rise of mammals (and birds) as the dominant land vertebrates. Which has ultimately led us to the precipice of a sixth extinction event.

4

Many scientists (PBS reports 70% of all biologists) predict that we are now in the beginning of another extinction event, the first (and probably last) ever to be caused by humans. (The same humans, incidentally, who celebrate Earth Day every year.) The result of this current extinction may compete in magnitude with the Great Dying, resulting in the extinction of nearly 90% of all living species. And potentially in a much quicker manner than the previous five extinction events of the past.

Of course, the data is not conclusive and the consensus is not unanimous, as it rarely is in science, or anything else for that matter.

But what is clear is that, regardless of what the population believes about “climate change” or “global warming,” we humans have polluted and destroyed parts of the earth to the extent that they may never recover—at least not in terms of being able to support life as we know it. (And by that I mean human life as well as those things that support human life.)

More so than the recent coal ash spills in our own neighborhood or the release of toxic chemicals in West Virginia, the oceans are perhaps the best example of how much humans have destroyed and are continuing to destroy the earth’s environment.

5

Floating islands of trash in the Pacific Gyre.

So let’s be clear in a manner that climate change or global warming cannot: the oceans are dying at an alarming rate. And by “dying” I don’t mean metaphorically. I mean literally. As in, studies suggest that all of the world’s corals may be extinct by the end of this century due to the acidification of the oceans caused mostly by the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity. And once the oceans die, well, human survival becomes more than a little tenuous.

And yet instead of debating what best to do about the great damage we have already caused to the earth, we are instead debating how to regulate fracking (if at all), whether to institute a “carbon tax,” and whether or not to build a pipeline from the oil sands in Canada to refineries in the United States. Rest assured: such debates are moot. For if we succeed in burning all of the oil available in those sands as well as the natural gas and coal we extract from the ground here in the US, then our fate is sealed. Along with that of anywhere upwards of 90% of the species who inhabit earth along with us.

6Oh, I almost forgot:

Have a Happy Earth Day.

 

The Hidden Cost of War

by Carrie Levesque

© Airborn Guy

A shadow of a soldier contemplating suicide (photo © Airborne Guy).

I haven’t been able to get the statistic out of my mind: 22 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States. How can such a number not rattle us all? How would we respond if 22 teachers a day were committing suicide? Or doctors? Or police officers?

I think we would want answers. We would talk about this daily in our communities. We would seek action. Do we? Are we?

Not including veterans.

…and that’s not including veterans.

At this rate, every four and a half months, veteran suicides exceed the death toll from 9/11, the event that triggered our two most recent wars. What will it take to get the same leave-no-stone-unturned, spare-no-expense commitment from our government to address this tragedy?

It’s important to clarify that the numbers on military suicides are not easy to interpret. With PTSD so much in the news due to the recent shootings, it’s easy to assume that most of these cases are those recently traumatized by their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A soldier in Iraq.

A soldier in Iraq.

Yet according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (PDF), 69% of veterans who have committed suicide are over 50, and have presumably been out of the military for some time. According to the LA Times, “Many older veterans are killing themselves for the same reasons that other civilians in the same age group kill themselves: depression and other mental health problems coupled with difficult life circumstances.”

Nevertheless, other studies estimate that among younger veterans and active duty personnel (the other 31% in that VA study), the suicide rate is twice that of the civilian population. While it’s true that studies on this issue have many limitations, one thing they all agree upon is the high likelihood that suicide among young veterans and active personnel is underreported.

In addition, many young veteran fatalities that would not be included in this statistic involve those who survive combat only to perish through alcoholism, drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior. Between 2006 and 2011, young veterans in California “were twice as likely to be a victim of a fatal motor vehicle crash and a quarter more likely to suffer other deadly accidents,” a pattern also seen in a 1987 study of veterans who had served in Vietnam and again in the mid-1990s among Gulf War veterans (LATimes).

Whatever the age of these veterans, however recent or distant their service, these numbers are alarming. No one disputes that our nation has a serious problem. “An epidemic,” Senator John Walsh has called it.

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

So why do we tolerate this problem? My guess is, its invisibility. Most of us don’t see soldiers every day, like we see teachers, doctors, policemen; soldiers are out, isolated elsewhere, doing what they do. Deployed to faraway lands or secluded on bases, behind well-guarded fences. As veterans’ advocate Jeff Hensley explains in “The High Cost of Doing Nothing,” these victims “were men and women who stood watch while our nation went about its business, blissfully unaware of their sacrifice.”

If soldiers are invisible, their families are even more so. Beyond the drama of “Army Wives” is a world we civilians have little genuine understanding of. In large part, we have no understanding of this world and its suffering because it is so taboo for them to talk about it.

A soldier and his daughter.

A soldier and his daughter.

In my class Women, War and Terror, we discuss Carol Cohn’s theories about “the ways in which gender discourse intertwines with and permeates” our thinking about war. “The impact of gender discourse…is that some things get left out.”

“What is it that cannot be spoken?” Cohn asks. “First, any words that express an emotional awareness of the desperate human reality behind the sanitized abstractions of death and destruction.” When we talk about war, “Weapons’ effects may be spoken of only in the most clinical and abstract terms, leaving no room to imagine a seven-year-old boy with his flesh melting away from his bones or a toddler with her skin hanging down in strips…. Psychological effects—on the soldiers fighting the war or on the citizens injured, or fearing for their own safety…all of these are not to be talked about…. What gets left out, then, is the emotional, the concrete, the particular, the human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity—all of which are marked as feminine in the binary dichotomies of gender discourse” (“Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War”).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Soldiers, regardless of their sex, more than any other group, have it ingrained in them to take their suffering silently, “like a man.” The same is expected of their families.

“Be strong. Don’t complain. Never worry or distract your warrior when he’s on deployment. Defend the home. Liz [Snell] doesn’t remember anyone telling her how a good military spouse behaves. It was just understood,” goes the story in CNN’s “The Uncounted,” a powerful, in-depth look at the issue of suicides among military family members. It’s worth reading every word.

Snell and her daughter in "The Uncounted"

Snell and her children in “The Uncounted”

We are currently preparing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan that may or may not materialize, and are somehow always on the lookout for more conflicts to get involved in to keep our military-industrial complex going. But there is no more urgent conflict for our military to take on than the one of its own making: reinforcing an inadequate and overwhelmed system for providing desperately needed services for our servicemen and women and their families.