Friday, April 29, 2011


It took would-be presidential candidate Donald Trump only about 25 seconds to prove how non-presidential he really is. Listen to what he said to a group in Las Vegas last night:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


If you’re homeless in America, and you have kids, what do you do about putting them in school? Most of us never thought about that until last week when news reports told Tonya McDowell’s story. McDowell is a homeless mother who enrolled her son in a good elementary school, using the address of a friend who lived in government subsidized housing. Once it was discovered that McDowell had perpetrated this ethically confounding offense, she was arrested on charges of grand larceny and conspiracy to commit first degree larceny after enrolling her son in Brookside Elementary, in Norwalk, CT. McDowell and her son reportedly live alternately in her van and in a homeless shelter. And get this: The school in which she enrolled her 6-year-old, wants her to pay them $15,000 for stealing their services.

To add insult to injury, Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia (below, right) issued this statement about the McDowell issue: “This now sends a message to other parents that may have been living in other towns and registering their kids with phony addresses.”

Indeed it does, Mr. Mayor. It sends this message: ‘If you’re homeless in America, don’t bring your kids to our schools. You’re not wanted here. And if your children are uneducated because you are homeless, that’s not our problem.’ Mr. Mayor, does that about sum up your message?

Here’s my message: Where is the compassion? Are we really prepared to marginalize children whose parents are homeless? I don’t think so. Shame on you, Norwalk, CT. Are we truly going to write off the Tonya McDowells of the world simply because they live in a van? And before you get too high and mighty, how many of you out there are one paycheck away from being Tonya McDowell? Fess up. What’s that they say at times like this? Oh, yes…”There but for the grace of God go I.”

We could fixate on all of the usual arguments – you know the ones – racism, welfare, responsibility – but let’s not. Instead, once again, I’d just like to ask, “Where is the compassion?” At six, most of us remember how exciting it was to be starting school. At six, if you’re homeless, what are you allowed to get excited about? Or, maybe by six you, too are excited about going to school, because your homeless mother has always been determined you were going to go to school – somewhere. And someday you will understand why she did it – because education is your ticket out of life in a van.

This story has already gone national. It’s all over everything online and off. I’m anxious to see how America reacts to what Tonya McDowell did. I think she’s a wakeup call for all of us. Instead of viewing the American homeless as a deviant population segment, let’s look at why they’re homeless. The buzzwords: Divorce, unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy, addiction, mental illness, domestic violence. Do I need to go on? Contrary to the worn out stereotype of homeless people being degenerates, they are you, and they are me.

The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that the U.S. is experiencing a steady increase in the number of homeless families. Families with kids who need to get an education. In 2007, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that 23 percent of homeless people in America are families with children. Single mothers with children make up a significant number of these families. In a 2009 Coalition report, it was estimated that 600,000 families a year will experience homelessness in America. Right here. In your America.

Let’s break this down: If you are a child whose homeless family has already been disenfranchised by the rest of society; and, if you can’t go to school because you don’t have an address; and if the statistics are true that at least once a month you may have to go without food – what happens to you? If you are exceptional, you rise above it, eventually. It is more likely that you grow up navigating poverty. And what do we get when we add poverty and lack of education together? We get homelessness. We get a never-ending cycle.

So, take that, Mayor Moccia, and Brookside Elementary and Norwalk, CT police department. By not giving Tonya McDowell and her young son a leg up, you are probably contributing to the continuing upsurge of homeless families, even in toney Connecticut suburbs. On the other hand, if your city would get behind job training programs for women like McDowell, and provide decent, temporary housing and universal public education for the children, it seems likely that some of the disenfranchised would smartly work their way back into productive society. It is a no brainer.

It is sickening that in America in 2011, any parent has to sneak their child into school. McDowell’s child was dismissed from the school as soon as her transgression was discovered. Try to explain that to a six year old. And keep in mind the child now has to live with the humiliation of being kicked out of school because he is poor, for the rest of his life. It is a memory that will not fade and one that should never have been inflicted on Tonya McDowell’s son.


Saturday, April 23, 2011


If you have followed the John Ensign story over the past couple of years, you can now chalk him up as one more elected official who has walked away in disgrace. Ensign (right), the Republican Senator from Nevada, resigned as he was under heavy investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. Allegedly, Ensign had an affair with a campaign worker, and steered big contracts of some sort in her husband’s direction. Sleazy and convoluted as it was, Ensign had managed to hold on to his Senate seat, until this week. After Ensign announced the resignation, the two Senators who head up the Ethics Committee, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) issued a terse statement which said only this: “Senator Ensign has made the appropriate decision.”

Here is how you can read those words – “has made the appropriate decision” – with some X-ray vision. The Ethics committee was probably about to unload some real dirt on John Ensign. He was informed of this and decided to bow out. By doing that, the Ethics Committee is not required to release the information about him. Whatever the case, Nevada is sick of the John Ensign story, as evidenced by a recent column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal in which writer Jane Ann Morrison says of Ensign’s announcement, "This is all about his ego, his arrogance and saving his reputation. It's about the threat of more embarrassing publicity and his inability to raise money.”

Unlike other politicians, Ensign can wipe his brow and breathe a sigh of relief. He may have dodged an embarrassing bullet. (The Ethics Committee still has the right to release its findings, but most likely will not). Here’s the question, though: Why do so many politicians and government officials put themselves in the line of fire? Why do they continually believe they can get away with it, whatever “it” is in their individual cases. Sometimes (okay, most times) it’s sex. Other times it’s political shenanigans. And sometimes it’s greed. But every time it is about power. There is something about D.C. style power that seems to overwhelm some men. Men who otherwise seem like they’ve got a level head on their shoulders just lose their sense of order and right and wrong.

Since we’re talking about once-powerful bad boys, here’s the update on John Edwards (left), the 2008 would-be Democratic candidate for President, who allegedly steered campaign funds in the direction of his mistress, who later became the mother of his fourth child. Misuse of campaign funds is a Federal offense, so he is being investigated on that level right now. Edwards, who carried on the affair as his wife was dealing with terminal cancer, was later outed by the National Enquirer and that was the end of his political career. Edwards, now a widower raising his and Elizabeth Edwards’ children, faces possible jail time if convicted. Recent reports indicate Edwards is terrified of going to prison, to the point of being suicidal. Hell of a guy, that John Edwards. He has two small children who only months ago lost their mother, and he considers taking his own life, so that the kids will have lost both parents.

If some of these scandals seem to drag on forever, it may be that the alleged perpetrators of wrongdoing keep doing wrong. Take Jesse Jackson (right), for example. Ten years ago, married family man Jackson had an affair with a staffer that produced a child. Much like the Edwards affair, there were ongoing reports of money paid to the child’s mother for questionable services. Now, a decade later, a gay male staffer has filed a discrimination suit against Jackson, claiming, among other things, that he was ordered to bring women to Jackson’s hotel room, and then clean up the room after Jackson had sex. Oy. Sleazy, huh? The Windy City Times detailed the charges in an explosive article last week. The above-mentioned charge is tame in comparison with other charges in the discrimination complaint. In fairness, it should be said that Jackson has a history of supporting gay rights, but as mentioned several paragraphs ago, so often it’s about sex. And as we all have learned, where there’s smoke….well, you know the rest.

The old saying goes like this: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." That phrase has unknown origins, but it sure says a lot. What are these guys all about, really? Do they seek power positions to satisfy their other needs in life, or does power truly corrupt absolutely? I guess we’ll never know, but the evidence sure stacks up if you just keep your eye on politics, big religion and big business.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


By now you have no doubt heard about the California GOP official who sent out an email with a doctored photo that depicted President Obama and his parents as chimpanzees. The caption: "Now you know why no birth certificate." I could post the picture here, but I won’t. Why should I? For that matter, why should anybody post it anywhere? It’s disgusting and sophomoric. If anything, we should all post the picture of the idiot who sent the email. Okay, just did. It is the lead photo for this story. Marilyn Davenport is originally from Kansas, but is now a resident of Orange County, one of the whitest counties in California. The U.S. Census bureau puts the black population in O.C. at two percent. Davenport issued a half-assed apology after her transgression became public. Too little, too late, Marilyn.

Why should we allow the Marilyn Davenports of the world to denigrate an entire segment of the U.S. population? And if she does so in keeping with her Constitutional right to freedom of expression, why should her job as a public official remain intact? I don’t get it. Do you? There seems to be some disagreement about whether Davenport should be fired. That baffles me. As a society, we have collectively moved forward from the days of “anything goes,” as it refers to insulting each other based on religion, skin color, race, ethnicity, or sexuality. Oh, it still happens, but these days it can cost you. Hey, it cost Kobe Bryant $100,000 the other day when he called a referee a faggot. It cost acerbic radio host Don Imus (left) his job with CBS a couple years back when he referred to the women of Rutgers basketball team as “nappy headed hos.” Let’s not forget widely acclaimed fashion designer John Galliano of the House of Dior who was fired after a video surfaced that showed his anti-Semitic outbursts at a Paris bar. And in case you're wondering what ever happened to "Seinfeld" alum Michael Richards, you can see his racist swan song on Youtube.

What’s going on here? In two words – social change. Commonly heard today among those stuck in 1950: “I’m sick of everything having to be so politically correct. Who knows what you can and can’t say anymore?” Well, I do, and so do you, if you think about it. First we are working hard to evolve certain words out of the language. The word “nigger” is no longer passively overlooked. Still, the other day I found myself in a back and forth written tussle with a Facebook friend who is black. She said, “We call each other nigga and that has nothing to do with you.” I said, “Well, I think it does. So many of us are trying to get rid of that word once and for all, and we can’t do it as long as you say it’s okay as long as it is said between two black people. What makes it okay?” She said, “It doesn’t offend me at all.”

We’re stuck hard on cultural versus historical context. Historically, for example, “nigger” has never been used in any culture as a positive expression. Culturally, however, my Facebook friend seems to think it’s endearing if said among black people. You can’t really have it both ways. Just as we have to distinguish the relative weight of humor versus racism in the Marilyn Davenport debacle. Some people who would never consider themselves racist can see the humor in the photograph. But as soon as the brain cells all line up inside their heads they realize the real issue here is not how funny it looks, but the historical racism it represents. Equating black people with monkeys has long been understood to connote racial bigotry. It doesn’t matter if it looks funny. It matters that it perpetuates a stupid stereotype that contributes nothing to a civilized society. We are a civilized society, aren’t we? Aren’t we??

Let’s break this down: Calling a black person a “nigger” reduces him or her to nothing more than skin color, which suggests anything else that they are doesn’t count. Calling a woman a “cunt” reduces her to nothing more than her sex organs, which does much the same thing as calling a black person a nigger. Calling a gay man a “faggot” reduces him to nothing more than his sexual calling, which means that anything else he is or does will never really rise above his sexuality.

If you are one of those people who routinely uses words like these to categorize whole segments of humanity, what do you really get out of it? It is not elevating you or them. It only accomplishes holding both of you down in a place that prevents you from being bigger than what you are now. If you belong to one of those population groups that is routinely denigrated through language, and you start using the language among yourselves, all you have really done is re-appropriate the offensive terms, and thereby granted your oppressors license to use the same words. It’s a lose/lose situation.

I’m shaking my head in disbelief at those individuals who have come to Marilyn Davenport’s defense. “She didn’t mean anything by it,” they say. “It was never her intention to sound racist,” others contend. You know what? It doesn’t matter – at all – what her intention was. What matters is the result of her socially unacceptable, ignorant communication. That matters. Marilyn Davenport needs to turn in her GOP pass and go home.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The first time I ever became aware of the word “Oprah” I was in mid-flight in 1986, reading People Magazine. Someone was quoted, outrageously predicting that Oprah Winfrey, the dynamo Chicago talk show host who was about to go national, was going to give Phil Donahue a run for his money. I was a die hard Phil Donahue devotee, so the idea of anyone outdoing him in the talk show genre was unfathomable to me. Donahue had dominated the morning airwaves for 15 years by then, tackling subjects as edgy as white supremacy, the death penalty and gay rights -- way before there was anything remotely acceptable about that. Sisters, strippers and stars had chatted live with Phil, the likable prematurely gray, Irish Catholic everyman. We loved us some Phil here in America.

But the dynamo that is Oprah did indeed end up giving our Phil a run for his money. After 29 years, Phil (left) retired, but by this time Oprah was fully immersed in the viewing public’s consciousness. At first, she seemed to be carrying on the predictable “pregnant nuns who smoke and drink” variety of talk show topics. It was entertaining, if not groundbreaking, but there was something eminently watchable about Oprah. She was eternally smiling, strong of voice and highly relatable. She was very much her own person and compelling to watch. You must understand that talk shows in the mid to late 20th century were usually along the lines of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin or Johnny Carson. Lots of laughs, highly entertaining and light chat. Donahue invented the topical, audience participation talk show format. Oprah carried it forward.

Donahue was a white man in a white guy’s America. But Oprah was an overweight, overdressed, over coiffed black woman, on national television in white America. If her early shows were sometimes mundane in topic, she never was. She broke new ground simply by being on daily television. It took her several years to truly understand the power that came with her position on TV, and how to use it to make some changes in the world.

When I was a kid, I was repeatedly told I had good “verbal skills.” I wondered what that would do for me in the world. By the time I found Donahue, I realized one could build a whole career using his voice to address issues that mattered. But Oprah built an entire empire using words as the foundation. She gave voice to people who needed to be heard for the greater good. Of all the voices she brought forth, the one that really mattered the most to me was that of Mattie Stepanek, a young boy with Muscular Dystrophy and wisdom way beyond his tender years. Mattie, even when his age was still in single digits, was a poet, a best-selling published author, a public speaker, an ambassador for Muscular Dystrophy Association and an inspiration to many people. Mattie and Oprah became fast friends – an inspirational power couple, if you will. When Mattie died at 13, Oprah spoke at his funeral, as did President Jimmy Carter. Oprah’s interviews are proprietary material, so I can’t show them here, but here is a short tribute video Oprah did after Mattie died:

Randy Plauch was another voice Oprah amplified for the masses. Plauch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Melon University. In his 40s, Plausch was stricken with pancreatic cancer. Told by his doctors that his medical options were exhausted, Plausch, the married father of two small children decided to live a lot until the end. He became widely known for “The Last Lecture.” The real title of the speech was “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” Plausch reinforced my belief in the true power of words. His speech is riveting. On Oprah’s show, he delivered a abbreviated version. Please watch:
Voices like Plausch’s need wide distribution. That is what Oprah did for us. If Plausch’s words have meaning for you, you can watch the entire speech by clicking here.

There were so many others whose own life experiences taught us how to appreciate or improve our individual lives. There was the mother who lost all of her limbs to a flesh-eating bacteria, and decided to rise above it and just keep on keeping on. There was a 17-year-old boy who spent his early childhood encased in wire and locked in a closet, who told us the important thing to remember is to do good for others every day. Sounds simplistic? Not from somebody who grew up in a closet. I remember a guest who survived a plane crash in which the other passengers died. He was trapped in his seat so he actually watched people burn and die. He said he watched their “auras” leave their bodies. Some, he said, were brighter than others. He said what he learned was to live a good life, so that when his aura left his body it was as bright as possible. Oprah gave all of them, and thousands of others, a chance to use their voice to teach and inspire us.

Everybody’s voice counts. But many times when Oprah spoke, I was compelled to really listen. Over the years she said things like, “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” She told us, “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.” And this: “Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.” And one of the most important things I learned from Oprah Winfrey: “"When you undervalue what you do, the world will undervalue who you are."

We live in a cynical, skeptical culture. We often tend to resort to sarcasm rather than clearly communicate what we feel. So, many people would hear words from Oprah and dismiss them as just the ramblings of a talk show host. Their loss, I’d say. What makes Oprah valuable to the rest of us is her imperfections, her recognition of her own personal challenges, and the lessons she has taken away from all of it. Those lessons she has translated into teachings for us. You don’t have to agree with her when she says, “"Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different," but you have to admit it sure makes you think. Oprah makes us think sometimes. Count the people who truly make you think – I bet you can do so on one hand and have fingers left over.

In the coming weeks, as we count down to the end of the Oprah Winfrey Show, you will read all kinds of tributes, reviews, editorial valentines, etc. They’ll tell you how much they are going to miss her on daytime TV. Not me. Instead I am acting on one of the lessons she offered. Over the years, Oprah encouraged us to live in the moment, be the best we could be, so that the next moment(s) would be even better. That is what she is doing. At 57, hopefully she still has many productive years to expand on what she started with the talk show. She redefined broadcasting, making it into something it had never been. The important thing is that she did it, not that she is ending it.

In Time Magazine’s 2010 Time 100,none other than Phil Donahue had this to say to Oprah Winfrey: “…you leave a legacy of responsible TV stewardship, a program that brought light to dark places and made us laugh, often at ourselves.” He also called her a “once in a century woman.” I agree. Thank you, Oprah. You matter.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Three years ago when I started this blog, I asked myself what the ongoing themes/topics would probably be. The first item that came to mind was justice. If you look at the top of the page under the title, you will see “Justice” prominently mentioned. Maybe that has to do with the fact that I live in New Orleans and justice is often served cold here, rather than warm and fuzzy. Last week, we saw two instances in which the New Orleans brand of justice was ice cold.

The first story that jumped off the page is that of former death row inmate John Thompson (below with wife, Laverne Thompson), who was wrongfully convicted of the 1984 murder of a hotel executive. Thompson was released in 2007, after it was revealed that two former New Orleans prosecutors withheld blood evidence that may well have exonerated Thompson almost three decades ago. Thompson sued the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office and was awarded $14 million. The D.A.’s office objected to the award, on the grounds that it should not be held accountable for the two prosecutors who hid the evidence. To make a very long, drawn out legal story short, the D.A. won. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the current D.A., Leon Cannizzaro, cannot be held accountable for the actions of two prosecutors who worked for former D.A. Harry Connick.

Connick, for his part, went on the a New Orleans radio talk show and defended himself, contending that even if the blood evidence had been made available, it would not have cleared Thompson. How he knows that is a mystery. Connick (right) has a history of defending the D.A.’s office even when there is no clear defense. For example, back in 1991, Dino Cinel, a former Catholic priest admitted he videotaped and photographed sexual trysts with young boys in a church rectory. He also admitted that he and the boys smoked pot together. It’s all on tape. Connick declined to prosecute Cinel. Connick, a devout Catholic, later told Vanity Fair magazine that he did not bring charges against Cinel because he did not want to “embarrass the Mother Church.” Although wildly popular in New Orleans – he served as D.A. for 30 years – Connick nonetheless has a questionable track record when it comes to justice.

Current D.A. Cannizzaro claims the judgment against his office would have shuttered all current and near future legal work, because the money was not there to pay Thompson. In a news conference after the Supreme Court ruling was released, Thompson said, “I’m not worried about their money. I want them to be held accountable.”

As it stands, Thompson receives a measly, mandatory $150,000 from the state, and not one cent from the office that stole 23 years of his life. Essentially, the Supreme Court has implied in its ruling that prosecutors are independent agents, even though they report to the D.A. The two prosecutors who withheld evidence were not charged, and the office to which they reported was not held financially accountable. That is New Orleans justice. It bears mentioning that Thompson spent fourteen of his incarceration years on death row and was prepared for execution seven times. Further, there is precedent for this type of case. In Brady v. Maryland (1963), the Supreme Court held that prosecutors must turn over to the defense any evidence that would tend to prove a defendant's innocence. Failure to do so is a violation of the defendant's constitutional rights.

It also bears mentioning that Justice Clarence Thomas – he of questionable integrity – wrote the decision on behalf of his fellow justices. Thomas wrote the decision knowing full well that Gerry Deegan, a junior assistant D.A. on the Thompson case, confessed as he lay dying of cancer that he had withheld the crime lab test results and removed a blood sample from the evidence room.

In a second New Orleans case that made big headlines, two New Orleans cops were sentenced for the shooting of Henry Glover, 31, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Former police officer David Warren was sentenced to 25 years, while former officer Greg McRae got 17 years. (photo below: Warren is on the left; McRae, right) While Glover did the shooting, Warren is guilty of burning the car with Glover’s body in it. Supposedly, Warren shot Glover in the chest because he believed Glover was guilty of looting at a shopping mall. Clearly, the reason McRae burned the vehicle was simply to hide the evidence, while a third officer was found guilty of filing a false police report.

Observers in New Orleans are left to wonder why Warren was not sentenced to life in prison. Glover’s family is outraged. Under Louisiana sentencing guidelines, Warren could legally be sentenced to life, and McRae could legally be sentenced to 50 years. If those maximum guidelines do not apply to the two defendants in this case, to whom will they ever apply? Glover was unarmed and not the aggressor here. There is no justification for excessive force or murder in this case.

Recently, the Department of Justice severely dressed down the New Orleans Police Department, accusing the Department of racial profiling. Among the laundry list of items the NOPD has to answer to the DOJ for, is this:
"NOPD use of force data also shows a troubling racial disparity that warrants a searching inquiry into whether racial bias influenced the use of force at NOPD.”
"Of the 27 instances between January 2009 and May 2010 in which NOPD officers intentionally discharged their firearms at people, all 27 of the subjects of this deadly force were African-American," the report stated without specifying if any -- or how many -- were fatally wounded.
A review of "resisting arrest" reports documenting use of force over the same period found blacks were the subjects 81 out of 96 times.

We have a crisis of injustice in the city of New Orleans. Whether improvement comes as a result of the DOJ’s severe criticism of the NOPD remains to be seen. For John Thompson and Henry Glover, justice simply did not happen.