Bob Schwartz

Category: Crime

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.

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The NFL and Ferguson

Roger Goodell NFL

NFL player Ray Rice beat his then-fiancée/now-wife unconscious inside an elevator in Atlantic City. Police officer Darren Wilson shot dead an unarmed teenager in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Missouri.

(To Rice’s credit, he had the courtesy to drag her body out of the elevator, while the Ferguson police left Michael Brown’s body on that street for hours.)

These two incidents are so much the same and so different. They tell us things we don’t want to hear, know, or think about. They also tell us one surprisingly good thing. The establishment interests can be just as committed to privileging a black American as killing him ruthlessly, under the right circumstances. Especially if there’s big money at stake. So we learn that ignominy is race neutral at last.

Until yesterday there was no publicly available video of the beating, though it was apparently available and seen by various authorities. The only public video until then was from the outside of the elevator, merely showing Rice dragging the body, not beating it. As one journalist now explains his defense of Rice’s mere two-game NFL suspension and not being charged with a felony:

The inside-the-elevator video shows Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, provoking, brutally assaulting and then casually and callously standing over his knocked-out fiancée (who is now his wife). His actions are sickening in their depravity and confirm a worst-case-scenario narrative I was reluctant to believe after seeing only the previously released, outside-the-elevator video.

I thought the full video would explain why: Why police originally charged Ray and Janay with simple assault. Why the prosecutor allowed Ray to enter a diversion program. Why Janay apologized for her role. Why Janay chose to marry Ray. Why the Ravens enthusiastically supported Rice and used their facilities in helping him rehabilitate his image. Why Goodell suspended Rice for only two games.

I wrongly and naively thought that she was the aggressor in the attack, that Rice reflexively shoved her to fend her off and she slipped, fell and hit her head [emphasis added]. I did not think a man could sucker-punch a woman on tape and have the police, a prosecutor, the victim and the image-conscious NFL all work to treat the assaulter in a sympathetic fashion.

Fell and hit her head. That reminds us of nothing so much as the stories reported by battered children (and wives and girlfriends) who “run into doors.” Except this is a journalist using his best investigative and inferential skills to draw an “obvious” circumstantial conclusion. He could be forgiven for drawing the same ridiculous conclusion as law enforcement, the NFL, and the Baltimore Ravens. Except that some or all of them had the inside the elevator video or at least more detail, and still came to the same conclusion, at least publicly.

There is no video of exactly what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, though there are witnesses to pieces of it, an audio recording, and more than one autopsy. There the instinct on the part of vested interests and the establishment was to wait and see, but really to stonewall, cover up, and put the best light on the situation. That turned out to be a disastrous approach, but at least it got people talking about former unmentionables. Small consolation.

How is this any different than what is going on with Ray Rice? The vested interests tried to put the best light on his situation, and despite outrage, almost got away with it. How are the people who up until yesterday circled the wagons around Ray Rice, giving him the benefit of the doubt and a slap on the wrist, any different than those who have been circling the wagons around Darren Wilson, giving him the benefit of the doubt?

One difference is that Ferguson is a small predominantly black town with a small almost entirely white police force that appears to have some race issues, while the NFL is a huge enterprise predominantly owned and run by white people with a pro game substantially played by black men that appears to have some race issues. It’s those issues, along with other social, legal and moral ones, that have us all talking. About policing. About the NFL. About race.

The victims were both black, one a kid possibly involved in petty crime (there’s a video of that), the other a woman engaged to a professional warrior who could have easily killed her, rather than just beating her senseless after she “provoked” him (there’s now video of that).

Maybe from the first, Ray Rice should have taken the approach that will certainly be at the center of Darren Wilson’s defense, assuming he is charged: I was in fear for my life. Up until yesterday, lots of people would apparently have been willing to accept a story like that, if it served their interests. Thankfully, they now all have to stop pretending, and we can start asking what it all means.

Man Arrested after Attempting Sex with ATM and Picnic Table

ATM

This is a test. It is an actual news story about a man who tried to have sex with an ATM and a picnic table.

Place and name have been deleted, and no link to the story is provided. There is more than enough embarrassment already. You can no doubt find the story if you are so moved.

This is a test not unlike an inkblot test. Listen to the police officer’s report. Then listen to your own thoughts. What are you thinking when you hear this? Are you laughing? Saddened? Disgusted? Confused? All that and more? What stories are you telling yourself? You might find that just as interesting as the original story.

A man was arrested Friday night and charged with public intoxication.

The police officer said, “He entered the bar and walked to the ATM. Once at the ATM, he pulled down his pants and underwear exposing his genitals, and then attempted to have sexual intercourse with the ATM…Once outside he again exposed himself and engaged in sexual intercourse with the wooden picnic table.”

The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

Kennedy Monore Kennedy
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Director John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez is about the heinous and now-legendary murder of Matthew Shepard. It obliquely brings three people to mind: John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

All three are legends apart, so maybe it is not surprising that legends have grown up about all three in various pairings, and even all together on at least one purported occasion. Whether or not Monroe had an affair with either or both of the Kennedys, whether Bobby was with her on the night of her death, whether evidence of those affairs was covered up or destroyed, is almost certainly never going to be incontrovertibly established. Some will say that some of it appears near certain while other of it is sordid and unsubstantiated conjecture. For the most part, we’ve reached a general consensus that none were saints, none were complete role models, but that we liked some of what they did, and we liked them for what they did, including inspiring us, and the rest is just shades of humanity. JFK helped prevent a nuclear war, Bobby Kennedy helped end the Vietnam War, and Marilyn was just Marilyn. If they didn’t live like saints, they died as complex and heartbreaking lessons.

Jimenez has investigated the Matthew Shepard murder for more than a decade. He concludes that this was not a vicious hate crime against a young gay man. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about the epidemic of methamphetamine. According to this report, Shepard was troubled, and was involved in the Laramie meth scene. The killer, who knew Shepard, was a meth head who had been up for a week, and was trying to get information from Shepard about a meth deal. He intended to coerce the information from Shepard, but out of his mind, simply beat Shepard mercilessly and insanely. The killer and his accomplice pled guilty, which kept details of the local meth market and the killer’s gay dealings with Shepard—trading meth for sex—secret.

The police investigation never involved a hate crime. The now-infamous imagining of Shepard being trussed up on a fence in a crucifix position never happened; he was found on the ground, hands tied behind his back. The anti-gay angle for the horrific event was soon added.

This might present a problem.

Jiminez has found himself in an odd position. He is accused of being anti-gay, though he is gay himself, in which case he is accused of being a “traitor” to a cause. He is accused of being a tool of the reactionary right wing, though he himself is far from being a right winger. What he is, he repeats, is a journalist who wants to do what he is supposed to do: find and tell the truth, as best as it ever can be found and told.

Matthew Shepard has become very important to the movement for gay rights. It is a powerful story: the young man who did nothing wrong, who only wanted to live a free and openly gay life, who had the misfortune of running into a black-hearted, hate-filled, intolerant stranger—the sort that fifteen years ago, and today, you can meet anywhere.

If it turns out that some or more than some of what Jimenez concludes is true, what happens to Matthew Shepard, the young man and the legend? In essence, Jimenez says that nothing happens. The issues remain the same, the good fight remains the good fight, but we will be fighting it armed with a little more truth about the story, convenient or not.

That sort of complication should be welcome, but it may not be, at least not everywhere. We like our stories simple, because so much of life is convoluted and mysterious. There are lines that are clear, but simple stories are mostly for children. Grownups have to work and stretch. This is a warts-and-all age, so we take our big characters as they come: flawed but still valuable. People work every day, their entire lives, on establishing equality—some of those people under the Matthew Shepard banner. That cause isn’t going away, and if we have to accept a little bit of historical adjustment, that’s the price we pay for having our eyes open.

The Marijuana Dilemma: It’s About Age

Marijuana
This was going to be a note about the Gallup poll showing that 58% of Americans think that the use of marijuana should be legal, and that 38% have tried it. It would include arguments about how pot stands in relation to other legal intoxicants—alcohol, tobacco, firearms (sorry, that’s the federal law enforcement agency)—and about how our justice system is distorted and how lives are ruined by reflexive, thoughtless, moralistic public policy.

But no. This is about a simple solution. It won’t make everybody happy, particularly those hypocritical it’s-all-bad-for-you-and-society Puritans who apparently missed the Sunday School class where Jesus mentioned getting the log out of your own eye before criticizing someone else’s splinter. But this might work.

Add marijuana to the list of acceptable American intoxicants. Then take the three biggies—alcohol, tobacco and marijuana—and make their distribution to children, particularly younger children, an even bigger deal than it is, so that the jail cells currently filled with marijuana-guilty adults could then be filled by real bad guys. Draconian punishment. Because while adult use of these intoxicants may be equivocal, childhood use of them is not.

We did not need American alcohol prohibition to learn that nothing will stop people using intoxicants. (Another hint: sex, at least if you’re doing it right, is also an intoxicant, the world’s most popular and, yes, one that the Puritans have also tried to circumscribe.) In another missed Sunday School lesson, Jesus did not smash the jars at the wedding at Cana, as he did the moneylender tables at the Temple; he actually made more wine for the celebrants. The poor we have with us always; so too the wine drinkers.

It is widely agreed that none of the three intoxicants are perfect: all of them are abused, all of them have real potential for ruining life and health. (America’s other big intoxicant, coffee, is excepted from this discussion, in part because any regulation of coffee would start a national revolt that really would prompt a new party, the Coffee Party, and in part because it is coffee that makes posts like this possible.) But as much as adolescents want to indulge, and as much as they already find a way to do it, if there’s a beneficial bargain to be made, this may be it. Let the grownups smoke/drink/smoke, let them explain to their kids why it isn’t a good idea for the younger set.

If you are currently a pre-teen or teenager yourself, or you once were, and you indulge in weed or once did, this may seem silly, arbitrary and unworkable. Here’s the news: all social policy is ultimately unworkable, or at least challenging and perplexing. The truth is that marijuana abuse by adolescents, just like alcohol and tobacco abuse by them, really is a bad thing, and really can cause irreversible damage. Adults should be free to get blissed out or ruin their lives (with minimal harm to others); kids shouldn’t be. If we are going to have some sort of marijuana policy, it ought to be a lot more sensible than the one we have now, even if the solution isn’t perfect.
10:39 AM 10/23/2013

TMFG: Too Many F***ing Guns

.TMFG

People are dying from politeness about guns.

We are a nation of laws, and especially of constitutions, so we talk and write about the Second Amendment. Rich, smart and safe people debate in really fancy buildings, but nothing gets done about guns. The Naval Shipyard shooting, for example, is supposed to demonstrate problems with our mental health system, or with our veterans affairs system, or with a lack of communication between our law enforcement agencies.

But we are also a nation of plain talk. Just ask Joe Biden and others. So it is time for polite and respectful people to speak openly and plainly. Constitutional arguments and political realities have their place, but so does this: There are too many f***ing guns. That is why and how too many are killed and injured—in our homes, on our streets, in our schools, in our movie theaters, in our military facilities.

Feel free to engage in extended discussion and political action; that is what we do in a democratic society. But sometimes, it can be therapeutic to speak truth to nonsense.

Four words. Four letters. TMFG. If you believe it, say it.

Relying on Ourselves and Not Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone - Tsarnaev

This is what upsets us? This magazine cover is our biggest problem?

As of today, some retailers—of those retailers who actually sell paper magazines any more—are refusing to the carry the new issue of Rolling Stone with a cover showing a youthful and attractive photo of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. They, along with maybe millions in the socialsphere, are making a statement.

But what exactly is that statement, and why are they making it?

If it’s about not giving any more publicity to him, along with any coverage of the Boston bombing and the upcoming trial, you can make a case that that might be healthy for all of us. But since there’s been no call for less coverage, that can’t be it.

If it’s about continuing the coverage, but making sure the coverage only reflects one particular approach, what approach would that be, exactly? And if it’s about not “glamorizing” him, where is the directorate that is going to make sure that all photos, cover and otherwise, of the most despicable people look suitably evil and ugly?

We have reached a point, not unique in history but maybe more now than ever, where reaction to everything is often overtaking thought about everything. The theory of “the wisdom of crowds”—that individuals can be wrongheaded, but heads put together are self-correcting and frequently right—needs to be reconsidered, if not thrown out the window.

If this Rolling Stone cover is a threat to anything, we have a problem. If we think that this cover makes mass murder look “cool” and is a contributor to our social difficulties, we really don’t know what those difficulties are. If we think that we shouldn’t have magazine covers with social and political miscreants, the Magazine Cover Authority will have to make a much broader review of all publications, before they pass them on to the Magazine Content Authority.

We have to start relying on our own thoughts, and when that careful thinking leads to conclusions, on our own abilities to directly address what we find. If a Rolling Stone cover with Tsarnaev is emblematic of anything, it is that Tsarnaev is here, he did what he did, and we should be working on that, and not on choices that magazines make.

For more on self-reliance, you might read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic essay of the same name. There was a time when Emerson’s essays were widely taught in schools—back in the Stone Age, before America got so smart and well-connected, before we realized that science and technology were the key to the future, and that the musty, fusty words of some old fart from Boston really had nothing to offer us.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Self-Reliance (1841)

George Zimmerman: Not Guilty. Responsible? Sorry?

George Zimmerman
It’s easy to see how we’ve come to confuse the legal and the moral. Here and everywhere, laws are put in place that offend a general or specific sense of what is right, so we tend to connect the two. We’re also so used to seeing the legal system in media that it occupies a lot of our thinking. Even though those movies and shows try to include moral dilemmas for lawyers and clients, it’s the law that intrigues and entertains us. We have not yet had a hit television show featuring a team of super-attractive philosophers hammering out the fine points of moral right and wrong.

George Zimmerman is not guilty, at least of the crimes charged in Florida. We are awaiting possible federal civil rights charges or a wrongful death civil lawsuit. But we have no official moral court, and so we can consider where he might stand before that bench.

Every minute, people around the world, people you know, maybe even you, cross some pretty bright moral lines, and we don’t put them in jail. Not that they don’t deserve to somehow be punished, but the legal system doesn’t fit the deed, and anyway, our prison overcrowding would be exponentially more critical.

There are lots of killings we allow or sanction, including self-defense, war and capital punishment. (It would be disingenuous and dishonest not to include abortion—not because it is or isn’t killing, but because from the moral perspective of some, it is killing that we legally allow, and we can’t have the already underserved moral discussion without at least mentioning it.)

George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. It is an unrefuted, admitted fact. The legal system, in its first but maybe not last swipe at the situation, has found him not guilty of a particular crime. For the record, for those who think the justice system failed, be aware that it was never enough for the jury to believe that Zimmerman was a liar and that his version of the scenario made no sense at all. The jury could only convict on the basis of another, more damning scenario—a scenario many of us could easily imagine, but a scenario the prosecution could never paint from the evidence they had to work with. The jury is allowed to draw inferences but can’t just use their imagination the way we can.

George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, and many of us have come to the reasonable, non-legal conclusion about how it happened. People who reach that conclusion want him to be punished, not just for retribution, but to prevent something like this every happening again. Even if further legal proceedings don’t end up punishing him, many have the clear sense that he crossed a moral line and he was very wrong. That’s something that gets lost in all the fascinating legal discussion. You don’t have to be guilty to be wrong. And ever if there isn’t some sort of moral jail, that is still a big deal.

Which brings us to the apology. Even giving credit to the Zimmerman account, the killing happened, he did it, and all the legal exoneration can’t take it back or make it better. Apologies have gotten an increasingly bad name; just look at how the Republicans used it as pejorative in describing President Obama’s early “apology tour” of the world. (It does make you wonder what home life is like for some of those politicians, who in the face of expected apology refuse, not wanting to seem weak or ineffectual. Marriage counseling alert.)

George Zimmerman should apologize to Trayvon Martin’s family. Fully and sincerely. In legal terms, he can’t, of course, since there are still proceedings possible or likely. In moral terms, though, experts say that the need to confess is the best friend of police and prosecutors, because truth is a heavy weight that needs lifting. He is actually half-way to a confession anyway, since we know he shot Trayvon Martin. He doesn’t even have to detail the circumstances in any way different than he has, even if it’s not true.

All he has to say is this: I shot him I killed him. Whatever the law says, I was wrong. I’m sorry.

Notes for a George Zimmerman Sermon

Pulpit
This is Sunday, the day after the night before when the George Zimmerman verdict was reached and announced.

There will be countless sermons preached in churches today about the meaning of the crime, the trial and the verdict. The quick take of the media has focused on black churches for obvious reasons. In a case easily seen as having a racial component, the anger and frustration has been color-blind, but members of the black communities have reason to have special interest, if not to take it personally.

That still leaves a large number of churches that are not predominantly black. or more broadly, not non-white, or more plainly, white churches. This isn’t a monolith, nor is this an easy case and verdict to digest. There will be pastors who openly question how well justice was done, others who distance themselves from judgment, and maybe others who find a vindication of something in the verdict. Many more will not touch it at all, either because it has nothing to do with what goes on in church or because even if it does, the right words aren’t yet found to be spoken.

Whatever the identity of those in the pulpits or the pews, here are a few points that might belong in a George Zimmerman sermon.

The laws written by people and the higher laws (whether you call them the laws of God or something else) are two different things. Human imperfection extends to our inability to do perfect justice. Not only is it impossible to do perfectly, it is impossible for people to conceive of how it would be done perfectly in some other “better” realm. If there is a heaven or heaven/hell combination, exactly what are those trials like and what do the statures and rules of evidence look like? Whether you picture the 10 laws, or the 613 laws, or however many laws and interpretive regulations being litigated against you or those you love or despise, how does that case go?

There are some suggested solutions that are widely preached but, let’s say, inconstantly practiced. If we admit we don’t know everything, can’t build everything, can’t “correctly” judge everything, then we might be stuck with just some one-size-fits-all answer: forgive. This doesn’t mean, in the case of George Zimmerman, giving up on changing the laws, or not pursuing further legal tactics such as a federal civil rights suit or a civil wrongful death suit, or being friendly to George Zimmerman if you see him on your street or on your tv screen. Those are the worldly things we should feel free to pursue if that is what’s in our hearts. But in our hearts, where those higher laws are supposed to find a home, we are better off working on the compassion and forgiveness stuff. Especially with a tragic death, when we are the living, still capable of making things better.

Imperfection. Compassion. Forgiveness. Especially in light of this case. Oh God, that is so hard to take.

What Sorts of Weapons Might George Zimmerman Now Carry?

Bandolier
Robert Zimmerman says that his brother George will now be “looking over his shoulder.” There has been plenty of angry and overheated rhetoric aimed at George Zimmerman in the wake of the not guilty verdict in the case of his killing Trayvon Martin. Whether or not he needs to be in fear of his safety and life, that is something he is going to have to reasonably decide—a decision he has experience with.

In case he does decide he needs extra protection, Florida statute gives him lots of options:

Title XLVI, Chapter 790
WEAPONS AND FIREARMS

790.06 License to carry concealed weapon or firearm.—
(1) The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is authorized to issue licenses to carry concealed weapons or concealed firearms to persons qualified as provided in this section. Each such license must bear a color photograph of the licensee. For the purposes of this section, concealed weapons or concealed firearms are defined as a handgun, electronic weapon or device, tear gas gun, knife, or billie, but the term does not include a machine gun as defined in s. 790.001(9). (emphasis added)

So now that George has gotten his handgun back, he doesn’t have to stop there. He is free to add a bigger handgun, a Taser, a tear gas gun, a knife or billie club—or all of them. This is Florida, right on the edge of the subtropics, so it is almost literally a jungle out there. If he chooses not to stay in Florida, which he might deem a good idea, he may feel more comfortable out West, where there are states with conceal carry laws even more accepting of the Zimmerman philosophy, and where standing your ground while armed to the teeth is historically a way of life on the frontier. He might begin a new career writing cowboy fiction, where phrases like “you got me!” would not be out of place.

That was the 19th century, of course, and this is the 21st, but unfortunately for the sometimes glacial advance of civilization, some things never seem to change. If anything, they can look like they are moving backward.