Monday, September 29, 2014

THE NEW NORMAL: THE POLICE AS PUBLIC ENEMY


Levar Jones, 35, an assistant manager at a Subway store, was stopped in his hometown of Columbia, SC on September 4 for a seatbelt violation. After Officer Sean Groubert, 31, a State Trooper instructed Jones to produce his license, Jones, who was standing outside the vehicle, reached in the front seat to comply with the order. When he turned around, Groubert fired four shots in rapid succession, one hitting Jones in the hip. Nobody knows why Groubert fired, but other citizens will not have to worry about him, because once the powers that be saw the videotape from Groubert’s dashcam, Groubert was fired and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature for the shooting. He faces 20 years in prison if convicted. He will likely also face civil charges for assault or even federal civil rights charges over this incident. It bears mentioning that Groubert is white, and Jones is black. Here is the video from Groubert’s dashcam.



What you just witnessed could happen in your town or my town; in Peoria just as easily as in Poughkeepsie. Detroit, Provo, Anchorage, St. Louis, Galveston, Jersey City, you name it. Nationwide, urban, suburban and state police forces are hiring young people (mostly male), who complete what many might consider minimal training before being let loose on the streets, with firearms and a type of authority with which most people their age are unfamiliar.  State Trooper training in South Carolina lasts 17 weeks. That’s it. Poof.  Four months and you’re a cop. No college required, just a high school diploma or a GED. Oh, and you can do all of this at the tender age of just 21. Some of these rookie cops are so young they still live with mom and dad.

For the moment, let’s travel north to Brooklyn, NY, where that same 21-year-old can become an officer with the NYPD with six months of “intensive” training. Presumably, the unnamed Brooklyn officer who tackled a very pregnant Sandra Amezquita to the ground on a city street had undergone that training. Amezquita was trying to intervene as officers arrested her 17-year-old son. Before she was violently forced to the ground, she was struck in the abdominal area with a police baton. Another woman, who tried to help Amezquita was forcefully pushed to the street by another officer.  Again, there is a video. Watch:



Of course both of these incidents come just weeks after Officer Darren Wilson, 28, shot and killed Michael Brown, 18 in Ferguson, MO, after Wilson considered Brown a suspect in the theft of some cigars. Wilson is a four-year “veteran” of the Ferguson police department, having served two years before that on the Jennings, MO police force. Wilson started his career at 22 years old.

While I cannot authoritatively comment on the personal lives and backgrounds of Groubert, the unnamed Brooklyn cop or Wilson, let’s just say there is an obvious pattern of brutality and abuse in these cases, and they are not isolated incidents. Jones was complying with Groubert’s order; Amezquita was visibly pregnant, and Brown, unarmed, allegedly had his hands up in the air when he was shot. 

As usual, the numbers tell the story: 
  • The FBI reports that a white police officer shot a black citizen on an average of twice a week in the seven years from 2005 to 2012 in the U.S.
  • ·Between 2003 and 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 4,813 people died while in the process of arrest or in the custody of law enforcement.
  •  The FBI stats indicate about 400 U.S. citizens each year are killed by police officers in acts of “justifiable homicide.” Compare that statistic to six in Australia, six in Germany and two in Australia.
  • As opposed to those citizens killed each year, in 2012 (the most recent year stats are available), 48 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty.
  •  The Lavar Jones incident is the 32nd officer-involved shooting in South Carolina in 2014, according to the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division.
  •  Black Americans are killed by law enforcement officers in an inordinately higher percentage than white Americans. Case in point: Chicago. In 2012, there were 57 police shootings in Chicago. Fifty of those shot were black, according to the city's own published statistics.
Former S.C. State Trooper Sean Groubert
Having chewed on these and many other statistics for the past several days, there are a number of elements of this street war culture that occur to me.  First, every local and state police organization requires officer applicants to go through a psychological evaluation, but none of them make the details of the evaluations or the individual results available to the public. Just how deeply are we delving in to the psyches of these 20-something, over-testosteroned males who are patrolling our cities? Are they being adequately tested for behavior traits such as impulse control? Are they being deeply questioned and investigated as to their beliefs about racial issues? What do the hiring agents at these agencies know about the applicants’ family and peer influences as it regards race? Why are there so many instances of police brutality and over-use of excessive force that go unpunished?

As mentioned earlier,Grouber has been heavily charged in the South Carolina case, and the buzz now is that his attorney will use Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a defense. We have no way of knowing if he suffers from PTSD, but the big question will be whether the South Carolina State Police even monitor their officers for PTSD. Is it even a topic of consideration? And if there is a rash of PTSD permeating our local and state police forces, how many other disordered, heavily armed cops are freely roaming our streets in or out of uniform?

To add to all of this, there appears to be a type of arms race between citizens on the street and law enforcement officers. There is an increased availability of firearms to almost everyone in this country, at the same time there appears to be a diminished respect for human life on both sides. That disturbing trend certainly showed itself in Ferguson, MO, when law enforcement produced military style weaponry and defense vehicles in preparation for violent rioting which never came.

I see our current cultural shift this way: Once everyday Americans become fearful of the police, rather than trusting, fewer and fewer will depend on law enforcement when the need arises. Already   
Former NOPD Officer Joshua Colclough and Wendell Allen
some citizens in heavily populated urban areas express their fear of calling the police. At the same time, once police begin to view citizens as alternately enemy combatants and expendable, no one is safe even in their own homes. Best evidence? In 2012, in my town, New Orleans, police executed a drug raid on a local home. One of the officers, Joshua Colclough, was walking up the stairs in the house when resident Wendell Allen appeared at the top of the stairs. Allen was unarmed and shirtless, and his hands were visible. Officer Colclough instantly shot Allen dead. After two years of legal wranglings, Colclough backed out of a plea deal to plead guilty to negligent homicide and was ultimately found guilty of manslaughter. His sentence? Four years in prison. Said Allen’s mother of her dead son: “He was my everything. He was my superstar.”

For the record, the white Colclough was 27 at the time of the murder (my word), and the black Allen was 20 years old.

Colclough’s case is not unique to New Orleans. Until law enforcement agencies make applicant requirements more stringent, require more education for recruits and take psychological testing and monitoring more seriously, how many more Wendell Allens and Michael Browns will there be? And why are people like Darren Wilson and Joshua Colclough immune from murder charges in cases like theirs? Sure looks like cold blooded murder to me.

Fortunately, the citizenry is beginning to demand to be heard. On Friday, September 27, a citizen rally was held in Brooklyn (right)  to protest police violence.
This came just after the pregnant Sandra Amezquita incident. In Ferguson, MO, marchers recently held rallies demanding the resignation of Police Chief Thomas Jackson. In New Orleans, still a hotbed or violent crime, Police Chief Ronald Serpas recently resigned his post. Earlier this year, San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne resigned amid a number of controversies, some involving officers’ unwarranted use of excessive force. One notable case involved an officer who shot and killed a 25-year-old mother in her kitchen because he believed she was about to attack him with a meat cleaver that turned out to be a vegetable peeler with a six-inch blade. 

Marchers at the New York rally demanded the resignation of NYPD Chief Bill Bratton, carrying signs that said such things as “100 Chokeholds, 0 Cops fired; Who Runs this Town?”  Who, indeed.

Friday, September 26, 2014


You may not know it, but you could easily be on a government watch list for individuals who pose a terrorist threat.  I know; I know. It’s laughable to you that you and your infant child and overworked spouse or partner  may be a threat to humanity as you board a plane to go see your in-laws that you probably don’t want to see anyway. But your name may be front and center on a watch list. In fact, hundreds of thousands of ordinary American citizens have made the “blacklists.”

But have you heard of whitelists? These are the lists of certain Americans, such as legislators, Senators, judges, Defense Department employees, Homeland Security advisors, national intelligence workers and others who are eligible for expedited screening at airports, simply by virtue of the nature of their employment.  The assumption seems to be that no one who occupies any of these positions could ever snap and put a bomb in his shoe.

The reality of our government watching every move we make, monitoring our behavior and deciding if we’re good guys or bad guys has gone awry.  Get this: The FBI uses the term “reasonable suspicion” to call attention to any American deemed even slightly risky. The problem is that such everyday things as a Twitter or Facebook post can pile the “reasonable suspicion” label on your shoulders for the rest of your life. I, for example, write this blog about sometimes rather controversial topics, and sometimes I take somewhat unpopular stands on issues that I feel are unjust. Over the past five years I have written pieces  about such topics as police overstepping their authority; the citizen movement for secession from the U.S.; judges who make rulings based on their personal biases; citizens who have been physical attacked by law enforcement  for videotaping arrests, and many others.  Does that make me “reasonably suspicious?”  I think not. It makes me one who honors the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Therein is the rub: You can exercise your rights in this country and easily be the subject of government scrutiny.  In July, the Associated Press reported that over the past five years, more than 1.5 million people have been added to the U.S. government’s terrorist watch lists. 
Really?  Well, you have to understand how easy it is go make the list. And once you’re on a list, other problems may confront you. If you are stopped for speeding, for example, the officer has the ability to tap into a database that indicates if you are on watch list. If you are on a list, the officer will many times dig a little deeper into your life, and that traffic stop that might have lasted 10 minutes turns into 30 minutes. I don’t know about you, but my boss isn’t real impressed when I show up 30 minute late for work.

What you also might not know is that if you’re on a watch list, screeners at the airport have the right to peruse your belongings in a much more invasive way. For example, they are allowed to look at the titles of any books you may be carrying.  So, if I’m carrying “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, and/or the Q’uran, and if I happen to have made the cut for a watch list because of my controversial views expressed in this blog, I can be detained. The guidelines for screeners also indicate that when looking at these books, they should examine the condition – “e.g., new, dog-eared, annotated, unopened." If you feel inclined to wade through the full guidelines, clickhere.

Meanwhile, just as our government continually upgrades its capacity and authority to peek into our private lives, so do other entities, such as credit card companies and insurance companies. Exhibit A: Have you seen those little credit card reading devices that mobile vendors use to accept your payment for services?  Some drivers of cars for hire use them, as well as landscapers, home improvement workers, etc. They swipe your card in the hand held device and have you sign with your finger and the transaction is complete. What you may not know is that not too long ago, the makers of Square Reader, a highly popular device quietly and unceremoniously sent a change of terms to vendors using their device.  The terms now read, in part:
“…you will not accept payments in connection with the following businesses or business activities; sales of firearms, firearm parts or hardware, and ammunition; or weapons and other devices designed to cause physical injury.”

So don’t look for a Square Reader at your local gun show. Did someone fail to mention to Square Reader that we have a little something called the Second Amendment, which clearly protects your rights to keep and bear arms? Is it just me, or are we teetering on a slippery slope here? What’s next? Should Square Reader stop accepting payments for soft drinks with lots of sugar, or cigarettes, or vodka, or marijuana in states where it is legal, or sex toys that offend some people?  Since when do makers of these modern day cash registers decide what everyday Americans can and cannot purchase?

Under my same “what the hell is going on” category, I’d mention subprime loans for cars. If you’re a responsible, well-healed citizen you may not be familiar with subprime loans. These are loans that are made to people who may be high risk for repaying, such as unemployed people or people with very low credit ratings, or people with a lot of debt or a history of sluggishly paying their debts. And yes, the interest rates are crazy high.

But now comes new technology that allows lenders to essentially control the vehicles for which they have loaned you money. It is an ignition device that the lender can activate if you’re late with one of your loan payments. They can disable your ignition from afar until you pay what you owe.  Not only that, a few days before your payment is due, the device begins to beep, and the beeps get louder and more frequent the closer you get to your payment due date. And there’s more: the devices have tracking devices, so that if you don’t pay your bill on time, the lender can easily and instantly find you. Perhaps they will find you in the middle of an Interstate highway, or on your way to a hospital to deliver a baby, or at a stoplight at a busy intersection, with cars behind you blasting their horns because you are unable to move your car. Watch:


Said one friend of mine in her ultimate wisdom, “Everybody and their brother is in our shit now.”

That brother she mentioned is “Big Brother.” As far back as 1977, a commission charged with examining privacy among U.S. citizens stated, “The real danger is the gradual erosion of individual liberties through automation, integration, and interconnection of many small, separate record-keeping systems, each of which alone may seem innocuous, even benevolent, and wholly justifiable.” Remember, this was pre-personal computing, pre- digital communication and pre-electronic tracking devices. How prescient.

In the meantime, citizens need to speak up about the loss of their rights, because history teaches us that once a right is lost in this country, it never comes back. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to  get “everybody and their bother” out of our shit, as my friend would say? I think we do. Our long-departed buddy, Benjamin Franklin said it this way:

“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”

Just be prepared that when you indeed do question authority, you may quickly be added to some watch list, somewhere, and you may never, ever know it.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

NFL: DAYS OF RAGE


Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson wants you to know he is “not a child abuser.” Peterson took to Twitter this week to say this: "I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. I am not a perfect son. I am not a perfect husband. I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser ... Regardless of what others think, however, I love my son very much and I will continue to try to become a better father and person."

These comments came after Peterson, 29, beat his son with a wooden switch, resulting in his indictment for “reckless or negligent injury to a child” on September 12, 2014. True to its own often negligent form, the NFL announced Peterson would indeed still play in the following Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints. After pictures surfaced of the child’s injuries from his father’s disciplinary action, the public outcry swelled. Along with all of the other recent NFL scandals, finally some advertisers began to either pull out or express their concern. It was only then that the Minnesota Vikings management announced that Peterson was suspended.

Adrian Peterson
It has subsequently been reported that this was not the first time Peterson faced accusations of child
abuse. In June 2013, another of his children reportedly showed wounds that were inflicted by his father. When asked by the mother how those wounds on his forehead came to be, Peterson told her the child had hit his head on the car. The mother asked if he was hitting the child at the time, and Peterson said, “Yep.” No charges were filed in the 2013 incident. Peterson was not so fortunate this time.

The NFL, to put it mildly, has been lax in its approach to its players’ bad behavior. ESPN’s Tom Jackson summed it up nicely: “We started the week with players beating up women and we ended it with players beating up children. We are in a very serious state here in the National Football League.” So, what are we really dealing with here? From my perspective we are dealing with an industry – professional football – that necessarily includes a violent infrastructure. Watch football today compared with football 30 years ago, and the game is far more aggressive. There was some discussion of this on ABC’s “The View.” Here is what co-host Rosie O’Donnell said, and it makes
sense to me.

Now, if you are a hardcore NFL supporter, and/or if you don’t particularly care for Rosie O’Donnell, you may have had some trouble hearing what she just said. But don’t shoot the messenger. Here we have an entire league made up largely of 20-something-year-old men, flooded with testosterone, making way too much money for any 20-something to handle. The NFL has really taken a sort of “boys will be boys” approach to these guys, and often turned a blind eye to their mistreatment of women, their abuse of alcohol, their use of performance-enhancing drugs and even their mistreatment of their own children. As stated above, shortly after Peterson’s indictment became public, the Vikings had still planned to play him in Sunday’s game.

And therein is the essential problem: The NFL is all about its image, to the detriment of many people in the lives of its players. Not until something surfaces publicly does the NFL do anything about anything bad in their ranks. Not until the Miami Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin walked off the field and quit the team did the issue of bullying even enter the consciousness of NFL execs, even though they knew what went on in locker rooms coast to coast. In the Martin case, the chief bully was Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito, who had a history of overly-aggressive behavior on and off the field. In fact, he had become known as the NFL’s “dirtiest player.” With full knowledge of Incognito’s “issues,” the Dolphins did nothing until Martin walked. What “issues,” you ask? Well, shortly after being suspended by the Dolphins, Incognito attacked his Ferrari, valued at $295,000, with a baseball bat. By February of this year, Incognito was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. In August, the mentally disturbed, serial harasser was cleared by the NFL to play again, and he is free to sign with any team. The buzz is that he and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are pretty chummy right now.

 And of course, not until Ray Rice, 27 punched his then fiancé (now wife) to unconsciousness in an elevator did the NFL suddenly show a social concern about domestic violence. Just days later similar
Ray and Janay Rice
news emerged about Greg Hardy, 26, who has been charged with throwing his girlfriend in a bathtub and onto a sofa covered with guns before threatening to kill her. Then came word that Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer, 25, was arrested for aggravated assault against his wife. That was just before we learned that San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, 29, was arrested on a felony charge of domestic violence. Earlier this month NY Jets rookie Quincy Enunwa, 22, was arrested on a domestic violence charge of “grabbing the victim by her ankle and pulling her off a bed causing her to strike and injure both her head and finger,” according to the police report.

All of this follows the long-reported legal battle between the league and former players who suffered head injuries that in many cases debilitated them. Some even committed suicide. In the end, the Federally tax-exempt NFL, which reportedly takes in $9-10 billion dollars a year, settled the case for $765 million. If that sounds like a lot, it’s not. There are roughly 4500 players involved in the suit, many suffering from dementia, depression or Alzheimer's that they blamed on blows to the head. Once again, the NFL did nothing until the situation was made public. The suit alleges the NFL knew about the proliferation of head injuries, concealed the information and routinely sent injured players back onto the field.

If anything good has come out of the NFL’s inexcusable “business model,” it may be this: The Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal re-ignited the national conversation about violence in relationships. Within two days of the Rice story being made public, The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported an 84 percent increase in phone calls. The Adrian Peterson child abuse case has resulted in a firestorm of discussions about neglect and mistreatment
Brett Favre
of children. Hyper-awareness of potential long-term consequences of a football career has caused some players like Denver Broncos guard John Moffit, and Cincinnati Bengals guard Jacob Bell to quit football for fear of ending up physically damaged or dead. Even veteran NFL player Brett Favre came forward to say if he had a son he would hesitate to let him play the “violent game of football.”

Let’s get real about the NFL. The league’s management certainly encourages overly-aggressive playing and often poor sportsmanship. Young guys just out of college are being paid exorbitant salaries, with no guidance in how to handle sudden fame and unlimited cash. Very bad behavior off the field is routinely overlooked, as long as the players bring money and attention to the franchise. Even criminal behavior is sometimes tolerated, so long as it doesn’t make headlines. The NFL is now the emperor who has no clothes. We all know its dirty secrets and we are beginning to pay attention. The good news? Sponsors are speaking up – sponsors like Nike, Radisson Hotels, Verizon Wireless, Pepsico, Federal Express, Marriott and Cover Girl has all issued statements questioning the values of the league.

And the NFL knows it’s in deep trouble, when none other than Anheuser Busch says this: “We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.”

 I smell radical change in the air. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 15, 2014

HANDS UP, HEADS BOWED

Here’s a tough question for you: What do the late Michael Brown, a young black man of Ferguson, MO and I, an older white man living in New Orleans have in common? Give up? The answer is simple: We went to the same high school and we grew up about 10 minutes from each other’s neighborhoods. Michael and I both attended Normandy Senior High School, albeit more than 40 years apart. I graduated in 1971 and Michael was a recent graduate. So what, you might ask.

 I started Normandy in 1968, at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, which is generally held to have taken place from 1954 to 1968. 1968 was the year both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were killed. It was also the year that 10 white highway patrol officers opened fire on black protestors in Orangeburg, South Carolina, killing three teenagers who were about Michael Brown’s age, and injuring 28 others. In Orangeburg, authorities tried to justify their use of excessive force by claiming the protestors were armed. When the dust settled, no evidence was ever presented that they were armed. As “they” say, the more things change…

 When I was a senior at Normandy in 1971, the majority of the student population was white. But the black student population was increasing year by year, and there was an emerging undercurrent of racial tension on the multi-building campus. It played out this way: One morning in the cavernous cafeteria a chair went flying across the room and hit a young white girl in the head. From there the conflict escalated into a black vs. white uprising.
It was violent and somewhat prolonged. Another day when my school bus pulled into the massive parking lot behind several other busses, a school administrator approached the bus and would not allow us to disembark. We found out that a large group of black students had staged a “sit-in” in East Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Fearing violence, the school administrators decided to send us all back home. Another day a standoff between white and black students began early in the morning in the parking lot, and rapidly became an out-of-control situation that required St. Louis County police officers to surround the parking lot – again we were sent home. These incidents kept happening that year.

Normandy High, once a relatively calm institution became a racial battlefield with armed security guards in each building. Much like Ferguson in 2014, the underlying racial tension in the school community would inevitably surface and permeate the culture. But unlike Michael Brown in 2014, those of us in 1960s St. Louis County (home to Ferguson and Normandy) never expected to fall victim to a street war with law enforcement. Here is the major difference between my moment of youth and Michael Brown’s: When I was 18 years old, young black men were not being shot dead on pavements coast to coast.

 Does that sound like an exaggeration to you? Well, I could mention the obvious – Trayvon Martin – but let’s focus on those who have actually been shot by over zealous cops:
 • Inexplicably lesser reported is the case of Kimani Gray, 16, shot four times last year by New York cops after he left a friend’s birthday party. He was unarmed.
• Just a few weeks ago Eric Garner (right)
was choked to death by a white police officer in broad daylight on a New York sidewalk, after being suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner was unarmed.
• While riding his bicycle earlier this month, Dante Parker, 36, was tasered to death by police who were on the trail of a robber who was reportedly riding a bicycle. Parker was not that man. He was unarmed.
• After an investigative traffic stop in South L.A., Ezell Ford, 25, was shot by police when he was reportedly face down on the ground. He later died during surgery. He was unarmed.

 And then came Michael Brown. And then came late nights of demonstrations in steamy Ferguson, MO. Ferguson Police Department somehow became armed with equipment from the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which runs a program called 1033 that has provided law enforcement agencies around the country with military style weapons.
What the hell are police officers doing with armored vehicles, grenade launchers and M-14s? By arming urban police officers with the same equipment that might be used in a military operation, there is an assumption made that all police officers are mentally, physically and psychologically prepared to use the weapons properly. Do we citizens honestly believe that the same cops who shot Erica Garner, Kimani Gray, Dante Parker, Ezell Ford, Michael Brown and scores of other young black men are to be trusted with the most high-powered weapons available in war efforts? I think not, and evidently I am joined in this skepticism by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder who told USA today, "It makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it.”

Only about 20,000 people live in the six-square-mile municipality of Ferguson. The unemployment rate is considerably higher than the national average and the average income is substantially lower. The population is more than 60 percent black, but of the 53 police officers in the town, only three are black. That perfect storm of stats makes Ferguson ground zero for the renewed national debate about race relations. It is a sticky debate, because most of the participants have already made up their minds about how they view race in America. It is often difficult to persuade people to change their attitudes about race, but the debate that has been raging for hundreds of years has resulted in moderate societal change, albeit at a snail’s pace.

 For several nights after Brown was shot six times and mercilessly left face down on the August-hot street for four solid hours before being moved, I watched reports of police in full riot gear patrolling Ferguson. It was as if media [read: “CNN”] were waiting for an inevitable outbreak of violence. That violence never came. There were some tense moments, but overall it was peaceful. The only thing not peaceful about it was the sight of those cops and their tank-like vehicles and high powered weapons. The resounding mantra of the protestors, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
will haunt all of us for a long time to come. At this point, I say, put your hands down, bow your heads and think hard about where we are in our cultural racial division, and about where we came from. Ask yourself why no one is requiring greater diversity among the police forces in places like Ferguson? Why is there no-training in multi-cultural communication happening in those same forces? Why are we trusting officers with two to three years of policing experience with M-14s? How deeply are we really vetting individuals who decide to craft a career in law enforcement? And where will the inevitable next Michael Brown meet his untimely death? Perhaps in your town?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

WHY JOAN RIVERS MATTERED


Let me get this out of the way up front:  I loved Joan Rivers.  I really did. I followed her career since she was on The Ed Sullivan Show -- way, way back in 1967.  Watch for yourself:
Even in that early routine you could already see what was happening. Joan Molinsky, a gutsy, irreverent fireball of a person, had invented Joan Rivers, a character she would carry with her for the next half century.  She would streamline the character’s delivery over time, and she would glamorize the exterior, but Joan Molinsky was always in charge. She ran the show. By her own admission, Joan Molinsky was a driven, goal-obsessed laser of a human being who was going to win big.  And she was going to do it via the character she invented, Joan Rivers. She would much later in her life admit publicly that she was probably absent too much as a mother, although certainly loving and devoted. And she would also admit that in her adult household, her husband and her daughter and she were always, all about “the career.”

Whether you loved Joan Rivers as so many of us did, or not, one thing is indisputable: She was a constant voice in the American culture for most of our lives. She was more than a comedienne. She was a cultural commentator. That’s what comics are, really. They chronicle what we see right in front of us, but they find a way to build joy into it. As Americans struggled to determine what brand of extremist Sarah Palin really was, Rivers alternately referred to her as “a Nazi,” or “retarded.”  As former vice-president Dick Cheney publicly touted the wonders and appropriateness of “enhanced interrogation techniques” [read: “torture”], Rivers pondered his humanity by posting this on Facebook: “I’m surprised Dick Cheney got a heart after lasting all these years without one.” When the FBI itself was offering $25 million for the capture of Osama Bin Laden, Rivers brought him down to size with humor:  “How can we not find Osama? He’s on dialysis. There’s one outlet in all of Afghanistan, find it and follow the cord.”

Nothing was out of bounds, and to Rivers, there was never occasion to look at an audience and ask,“Too soon?” She survived in her battleground of an industry by being constantly topical, strictly au courant. She was one of the first comics to inject humor into 9/11. And she was roundly blasted for it in the press. As a woman who had clawed her way through a jagged, uneven career, she had
little patience with those who were famous just for being famous. She was merciless with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.  She had things she wanted to get off of her chest, and she early on discovered the glory of free speech. It has often been said of her that she simply said what the rest of us were thinking. That may be a bit of a stretch, but she did verbalize all that was commonly forbidden, and we laughed until we cried.  You know we did.  As Rivers would often say, “Oh grow up!”

I have never witnessed the outpouring of grief, internationally, for an entertainer, as I have since Joan Rivers died. And I get it. Smart people knew Joan Rivers was a finely-crafted, carefully evolved character created and managed by her inner Joan Molinsky, the plainer, softer launching pad for the fiercely driven star. Smart people knew there was a genuinely loveable core underneath the take no prisoners, seemingly ruthless exterior.

Here are three things I know for sure about Joan Rivers: 1) Joan Rivers made all of us – even those who purported not to like her brand of comedy -- laugh at ourselves and our world, for 50 years;  2)  In a room full of people, Joan Rivers was among the smartest minds in the room; 3) What Joan Rivers brought to the table was nothing more or nothing less than joy.  

On behalf of about a bazillion people, thank you Joan Rivers.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

THE DREADED J-WORD: JOURNALISM

Melissa Harris-Perry models tampon earrings.  Really.
It was a very embarrassing -one might say “humiliating”- week for journalism. One reporter wore tampons as earrings, live on air. Another tweeted a photo of himself almost nude, and a third reporter asked a highly respected scholarly researcher how he, a Muslim, could justify writing a book about Jesus.

Could it get any worse for the broadcasting business? Well, yes it could. In addition to all of the above, which I’ll detail in a moment, there was beleaguered, way-past-his-expiration-date Rush Limbaugh who said this of Huma Abedin, wife of serial sexter Anthony Weiner: "It's relevant to point out here by the way ... Huma is a Muslim. In that regard, Weiner ought to be able to get away with anything.

“Muslim women don’t have any power, right?” he continued. “Muslim women are beheaded, stoned, whatever, if they drive, have affairs. In certain countries, Muslim women, if they’re raped, are killed -- it’s their fault."

Hmmm..did you know we behead Muslim women in America? I did not know that. Oh, and did someone forget to tell Rush that Huma Abedin was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan?

Meanwhile, none other than anti-journalist Glenn Beck rented a series of rooms in a downtown Salt Lake City hotel to display his collection of Nazi memorabilia, including hooded KKK cape, a swastika banner that was used at Nuremberg, a copy of Mein Kampf signed by Adolf Hitler, the love letters of Hermann Göring, a satin handkerchief with Hitler’s blood.

Oy.

If you’re already starting to hyperventilate at all of the above, calm yourself and read on. First, about those earlier-mentioned earrings. Melissa Harris-Perry, a relative newcomer to the cable news circus, hosts a Sunday round table talk show on MSNBC. After state troopers confiscated tampons, maxi pads and other potential projectile items from those entering the Texas state capitol building recently, Perry made light of the civic debacle this way:
                       

Upon seeing Harris-Perry don tampons on her lobes, satirist and cultural commentator Dennis Miller tweeted, “David Brinkley turning over so rapidly in his grave you could make chicken shawarma in it.”

"70 is the new 50"...Not
Oh and about that above-referenced journalist who tweeted an almost-naked shot of himself: That would be Geraldo Rivera, 70, of Fox News. Rivera, whose checkered career spans five decades, tweeted the selfie with the tag line, “70 is the new 50.” No Geraldo, based on what we see in the photo,
70 is 70, and my unsolicited advice goes like this: Get dressed.

Compounding the tasteless episode were Rivera’s own words of attempted justification. He began by explaining he had had a long day at work, and he had a couple of drinks before breaking out the camera. Then he said, "And I never do tequila when I'm alone, but I had this new bottle that someone had given me. That second my fate was sealed. I said, 'Dammit, I like that picture.' I had learned how to use Twitter a couple of weeks ago and there I was."

Yes, Geraldo, there you were, but what about us? Do we really need to know that when you’re alone you like to do tequila shots and take naked self pics?

Then there is the case of Lauren Green, also of Fox News, who conducted an on-air interview with religious scholar Reza Aslan. Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life &; Times of Jesus of Nazareth, thought he was to be interviewed about the research he did and the content of the book. But Green inexplicably decided to interview him about how odd she found it that he, a Muslim would write about Jesus. Watch:
The Twitterverse exploded following Green’s disastrous interview. Tweeted one viewer: “Me: ‘I’m an oceanographer.’ Green: ‘But you live on land.’”

It bears mentioning that all of the broadcasters mentioned herein are experienced adults who were most likely hired in part based of their editorial judgment (except perhaps Harris-Perry, who has no background in media, according to her own bio). Of course one can also be fired for editorial judgment issues – does the name Don Imus ring a bell? Why then, would any of these professionals say or do what I have described here?

In part, this can be explained by a lack of oversight on the part of news directors and the editorial brass. The game today is all about attracting and retaining viewers or listeners. Watch cable news networks often and long enough and you will see a plethora of incidents just as tasteless and unprofessional as the ones I have described here.

You are observing the pioneer days of the 24-hour news cycle. It may not seem that way, but consider that even the granddaddy of all round-the clock news, CNN is only 33 years old. Others, like Fox and MSNBC didn’t arrive on the screen until 1996. By then, the average household in America was either wired for cable or just about to be, which meant the American viewer was on the threshold of remote control roulette. After decades of having just three or four stations from which to choose, suddenly we were in the TV driver’s seat with up to 200 channels. Heady stuff.

From there, cable news stations went into what we could term a “cultural decline.” And now, this many years later, a host is wearing tampon earrings, another is naked on Twitter and a third evidently hasn’t read her interviewee’s book, so she decided to try to discredit the author instead of discussing his work. Ugh.

According the a new Gallup poll, Americans’ confidence in TV news is down to 23 percent of those who responded. That matches our lack of confidence in newspapers. To give you an idea of how bad the numbers look, in 1996 our confidence in TV news was at 46 percent. In 1980 our confidence in newspapers was at 51 percent. (These figures area based on responses when asked if consumers have “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in these entities.)

Jon Stewart -- The New Cronkite?
If that doesn’t disturb you, you should also know that among young people, high profile news broadcasters are not trustworthy. Who will ever forget the TIME Magazine poll in 2009 that found Jon Stewart of The Daily Show the most trusted newscaster in America. Huh?

Therein is the danger of cable news networks putting people like Harris-Perry, Rivera and Green front and center. As if the journalism profession were not sullied enough by its own historical missteps, by promoting individuals who value entertainment over substantive content, the viewing public comes to equate their broadcasts with any other white noise that comes from our increasingly technologically- sophisticated televisions. The technology is at an all-time high while the content of what it projects is in the gutter.

I remember about a zillion years ago when I was in journalism school, NBC anchorman John Chancellor came to speak to us. He said, “You are about to enter the most noble profession there is. Keeping the citizenry informed about the issues that directly touch their lives is as important as any job can be. It’s a big responsibility that carries with it a rich history to which you will now contribute.”

Those were some wise words. Compare that with a quote from Geraldo Rivera: “I’m old, but I’m still cute and strong…and very butch.”

Fellow TV viewers..we’re doomed.

Monday, June 24, 2013

BUTTER AND BIGOTRY: THE PAULA DEAN STORY


http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_cIC17_FAHhQ/TIEaE0an4DI/AAAAAAAACgk/A4B2J0PS0ok/s640/PaulaDeen.jpgOh Paula. Paula, Paula, Paula. What fresh hell hath y’all wrought now? First it was you pushing high fat and cholesterol cooking when you knew you had diabetes, and now you’re slinging the word nigger. Some of us out here – okay, many of us out here are not having it.  I, for one, am not having it.

About 30 years ago I moved to the deep South from the Midwest. Where I grew up, we didn’t hear the word nigger much, and I did not use it at all. I know for sure I never heard either of my parents use the word, and neither did our neighbors or family friends. So all the people out there who keep asking the question, “Come on, how many adults have never used the word nigger?” should listen up. Many, many, many people know the demeaning, condescending and fully non-productive nature of the word, and we do not use it, ever.

  Paula Deen would have us believe that she used it because she’s “old” (66 is old?) and she’s from the South.  The latter, while certainly not an excuse, is something I semi-understand.  When I moved to New Orleans in the 1980s, where I have been ever since, I was stunned at the frequency at which the word is thrown around in daily conversation.  I remember going to a very upscale cocktail party in a private home when one of the blue blazered, white shirt and khaki-pants (the Southern gent’s casual uniform) guests told me to “Get yourself a drink – there’s a nigger walking around with a tray full of ‘em.” I also remember a sales director I worked with in a luxury hotel saying to me, “I told that stupid nigger I needed copies of this document for the meeting, but of course she’s too lazy to run copies.”  I also remember eating in that same hotel’s employee cafeteria, when one of my co-workers said, “You’ll be lucky if you can find anything edible in here – they cook nigger food mostly.” All of this happened. And so much more.

To this day, at almost 60 years old, I’m still taken aback every time I hear the word used.  I don’t get it.  I don’t want to get it. I don’t want you to get it either. But I feel compelled to write a few things that I do get about the ramifications of categorizing an entire population segment with one ugly, unforgiving word:
  •        Words are symbols. As symbols, words are painfully powerful. By calling a black person a nigger, the speaker instantly sets himself or herself up as superior to the person they are targeting. It is a false superiority based on a culturally historical misconception that one population group is superior to another population group. Key word: misconception.
  •       Having lived through the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement, I know that what followed that movement was a decades-long effort to evolve the word out of the English language. We who were fostering that effort were making great progress until about the 1980s when hip hop music evolved. The music insisted on using the word “nigga” routinely in lyrics. That use of the word among black entertainers served only to perpetuate its use among other population groups and to mainstream its use well into the 21st century. So to the many, many white people who ask the same question over and over again – “Why is it okay for a black person to use the word, but it’s not okay for us to use it?” – the answer is simple: It’s not okay for anybody to use it.
  •       The word nigger is used as a symbol for “less than.”  The user is essentially stating, “You are less than I.” What I know for sure is that nobody has the right in this life to decide if another person is less than anyone else. And that applies to any number of other English words that need to be trashed – faggot, queer, cunt, spick, kike, retard – shall I go on?  I think not.
So, back to “old” sweet Paul Deen.  I do not believe Paula Deen is a bad human being because she said “nigger.” I don’t even believe Paul Deen is a bad human being if she ran a business in which
certain employees were treated differently because they are black. I believe she is a flawed human being just like you and I are flawed human beings. But there are consequences for bad behavior, and Paula will now be subject to those.  I heard a guy who had been in prison for 21 years for a crime he did not commit,  say something very wise: “What I have learned over all these years,” he said, “is that revenge doesn’t work. Accountability does.”

Paula Dean knew that exercising institutional racism and false superiority was bad behavior. She knew all along that living in the South was no excuse for categorizing black Americans as “less than.” She knew that it was not okay to consider planning a plantation-themed wedding with all black male waiters in white jackets, that the very idea was unacceptable, and a twisted, ill-conceived tribute to a moment in American history of which we are all rightfully ashamed. She knows that apologizing for her bad behavior and “begging” (her word) for our forgiveness will not wipe out decades of subtle and not-so-subtle racist behavior on her part. And rest assured, she is now being held accountable for all of it.

Deen is a much-beloved figure among a lot of her faithful fans. They, and believe it or not, I, do not want to see her lose her career.  What I do want to see is Paula Dean working to regain her career, rather than simply stepping back into it once we are all on to the next big story in America. FOOD Network has dropped her, and so has Smithfield hams. Rumor has it that QVC, Kmart and even her publisher are considering doing the same. But contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in America, but they come with an uphill climb. I would point out that it was fully seven years ago that Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) was banned for life from The Laugh Factory (left)
after going on a much-publicized racial tirade after being heckled by a black audience member. You haven’t heard much about or from Richards since, have you? Only now, all these years later is he slowly re-emerging in the entertainment industry.  The uphill climb and all that, you see? What about Mel Gibson? Remember him telling his girlfriend he didn’t care if she was “raped by a pack of niggers?” Gibson, one of the biggest movie stars in the world prior to his crazy rants, is now pretty much on the Hollywood D-list.

http://img.foodnetwork.com/FOOD/2007/05/03/pa1001_brownies_lg.jpgWhat I have learned about racism is this: Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. If Paul Dean said she used the word “nigger” in the past and that her husband still does, and if employees in her business say she makes some business decisions based on the color of their skin, my instincts tell me somewhere in there is some truth.  I have also observed that otherwise really fine people can be racist." That is their major flaw. And I have made a decision for myself that the racism flaw is not acceptable to me. So I will not be spending any disposable income on Paula Dean products. I will forgo learning how to make Paula’s white chocolate cherry chunkies. That’s my choice. Others will choose otherwise, and I predict Deen will rise again, but perhaps not to the exalted, buttery level she once enjoyed.

I won’t patronize Paula Deen because I get who she is. I have met her a thousand times in a thousand different faces and places in the South. Racism runs way deep down here at the bottom of the United States. It is alive. I often say that I believe racism right now is much worse than it was in the mid-20th century.  Teenagers who try to “act black?” Racism. White collar execs who perpetuate the white man’s executive level in corporate America? Racism.  Broadcast and cable networks that rarely cast a black actor in a lead role? Racism.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of doing away with the Voting Rights Act? Racism at the highest level possible.

My personal decision is not to receive it in my life.  What is your decision?

Friday, June 14, 2013

OF CAFFEINE, COMICS AND SEINFELD


When you are at work wasting time on your computer --- notice I said “when,” not “if” and you know who you are – you truly need to be watching Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” GreenbergRants first clued you in about this series last year in a sidebar (those short takes we run in the left hand column on this page), and I wondered if the show would take off. Not only has it taken off, but it scored a second season on line, and it has a bigtime sponsor, Acura.

Seinfeld is widely known to be a car enthusiast, so it makes sense that an upscale motorcar company would underwrite the series. If for some reason you still have not watched this series, just know that the premise is simple: Each episode features Seinfeld and one of his famously funny friends riding in a car hand selected by the host, on their way to a coffeehouse destination to have coffee and just talk.

If you work in a cubicle, be careful when watching, because you are going to be laughing out loud and you may spit your own coffee all over your computer screen. It was during the first season that Seinfeld’s pal Larry David said, “You’ve finally made a show about nothing.” Who knew “nothing” could be this funny? The second season will feature the likes of Sarah Silverman, David Letterman, Chris Rock, Don Rickles and Seth Myers, among others.

Recently, BRAVO TV’s Andy Cohen spent a half hour talking with Seinfeld about the show. Even there Seinfeld was funny – the guy can’t help it. As a New Orleanian I’m especially keyed into Seinfeld right now because it was just announced he will do two shows to re-introduce the famed Saenger Theatre to the public this coming Fall. The Saenger was badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina and is now finally re-opening after eight years. Meanwhile, I’ll satisfy all Seinfeld cravings by watching “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You can too - go to www.crackle.com  Watch this:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

ZACH'S STORY

Last December, Zach Sobiech, 18, posted a video on YouTube of a song he wrote called “Clouds.” Each day, thousands of kids all over the world post videos, but this one somehow caught the attention of more than four million people, once his story was revealed. Zach was diagnosed with bone cancer that spread throughout his body.

Zach’s story would be predictably tragic, were it not for his indomitable spirit and his true recognition that life is indeed a gift. Told he only had a few months to live, Zach decided to do just that – live. What follows is a short documentary about his last days of life, complete with a family that embraced every second, a girlfriend who risked her own emotional upheaval and friends and musicians who rallied to make every moment count. On Sunday, May 20, Zach died. His story is not so much about death as it is an affirmation of life. In the end, it's a joyful story. Watch. Please watch.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

THE UNITED STATES OF BOSTON

There are a lot of us Americans out here who believe what happened in Boston is really indicative of a much more pervasive threat in America. The simple truth is that there are way too many human beings of varying nationalities who abhor all things American. We are roundly hated in many corners of the earth, and our one-time “impenetrable” borders are now anything but. Everybody is fully exposed now. We American citizens are seemingly dangerously exposed to unknown individual enemies with psychopathic intentions, and those very enemies are exposed to unprecedented law enforcement technology and countless cameras. We’re all naked in the worst way.

 Those of us in my generation trace one of our earliest memories to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. From that moment, we progressed on through a number of other mid-to-late-20th century bloody assassinations, and right into the ongoing carnage of the Vietnam war. In between it all was the civil rights struggle that saw eruptions of street rioting coast to coast. We were raised on violence and mayhem. As children we saw our President shot through the brain. As teens we watched blood and guts in Vietnamese rice paddies every night on Walter Cronkite’s evening newscast. As young adults we were already inundated with unnatural acts of horror. By the time we were full adults, the Murrah Federal Building (left) was blown up in Oklahoma City. This time the carnage was the work of a disgruntled American angry at the government for another violent confrontation in Waco, TX two years earlier. And then the road winds around right into 9/11.

And now…Boston.

The day JFK was murdered, the U.S was about as low-tech as a developed nation could be. When the riots happened late at night in Washington, D.C. and Harlem the night Martin Luther King was murdered, many of us had no idea it was happening until the next day. Vietnam happened on our TV screens, but generally not in real time. Even so many years later when Oklahoma City happened, and later when the planes hit the buildings in NYC, although we watched it happen live on TV, there was not much social media happening and cameras in phones were not widely available yet.

But Boston? The world is so high tech now that not only did law enforcement rely heavily on private citizens’ phone photos, but the second suspect was caught after a helicopter used infrared imaging technology (right) to determine that he was hiding under a sealed canvas in a boat. Those in the know explained it to us laypeople as technology that senses heat
to indicate there is an animal or human being in the targeted region. X-Ray vision, 21st century style. Technology did in the Tsarnaev brothers. As one network reporter put it, the phrase “lost in a crowd” no longer exists in 21st century America. If not technology, what other explanation is there that the Tsarnaev boys were identified and targeted by law enforcement within 24 – 48 hours of the marathon bombings?

 But there are other differences between Boston and the history-making violent events through which we have lived. Chief among them may be the fact that Chechnya, a country of just over 1.2 million citizens could be a threat to the mighty USA. It speaks to the undeniable shift in world security that these two boys were able to pull this off. Another meaningful difference between Boston and past violent incidents is the complex fact that although they caught us by surprise with the bombings, we are no longer fully shocked that it could happen. We know now that terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, anytime. Three days after the Boston bombings a bomb threat at the New Orleans Marriott hotel forced its officials to evacuate the entire 41 floors and 1300+ guest rooms. Right here in New Orleans – we’re not a major U.S. center of commerce; we’re not a national government seat; we’re not even a tremendously populated city, compared to our more cosmopolitan sister cities. Yet even we have bomb threats.
The difference between Boston and other events we’ve witnessed is simply that now we know terrorism has no geographical preferences or boundaries. So – we are Boston. And Boston is us. And that “new normal” that you hear bandied about in contemporary vernacular is real. The new normal can be summed up this way: We are not necessarily safe in America. We know that, and we navigate our way through life with that sort of hanging over us each day.

It is still the freest country in the world, but freedom has been somewhat redefined. It now means we are on camera most of the time that we are not at home. It means there is even technology being used that can determine if someone is indeed in their home at any given time. The new normal holds that we Americans are not internationally adored. In many places just the opposite is the case. And the new normal holds that those who would commit violent mass attacks walk right among us. The surviving Tsarnaev brother is described by some of his American high school and college classmates as a great guy, fun, and just “one of us.” So far, to a person they describe someone who they would never have known had it in for Americans.

 Those are the necessary lessons of Boston. We are now the United States of Boston. I remember not so many years ago when we were all called upon to be the United States of New Orleans. It was a powerful feeling. The larger lesson I take away from these moments? That would be that unity is our true, best shot at national security.