Sunday, March 25, 2012


Americans, who seem to like to tie up controversial historical periods in neat little packages, tend to call the years 1955 – 1968 the “Civil Rights Era.” Giving the struggle for racial equality a timeframe with boundaries allows many people to believe that some level of equality was achieved. The parents of the late Trayvon Martin would undoubtedly disagree.

On February 26, Trayvon Martin, 17, a Sanford, FL high school student, left his father’s gated community to walk to a nearby store. George Zimmerman, 28, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who was not affiliated with any official law enforcement organization, murdered Trayvon Martin because he thought the boy looked “suspicious.” You can safely substitute the word “black” for suspicious. Trayvon Martin was guilty of nothing more than walking to the store….and being black. His death fully supports the contention of many of us who lived through the “civil rights era” that racism in America is not only alive and well, but it is far more aggressive and dangerous than it was from 1955 to 1968.

There are many unanswered questions about this murder. First, why was an un-appointed “neighborhood watch captain” carrying a gun in a suburban neighborhood? Second, why has the murderer, George Zimmerman,
(left) not been arrested and imprisoned for first degree murder? Further, when a 911 operator asked Zimmerman if he was following Martin, Zimmerman said he was. The 911 operator clearly told Zimmerman not to continue pursuing Martin, but he did, until he murdered him. Why did Zimmerman continue his vigilante pursuit after law enforcement instructed him not to? Are we a nation of laws or does anyone now have the right to pursue anyone on the streets of America? Martin was unarmed and in possession of two items when police found his body – a package of candy and a can of iced tea. Zimmerman claims he killed Martin in self-defense. The police did not test the killer for drugs or alcohol, and took his word for it that it was self defense. He was not detained or arrested. Why?

The United States Department of Justice has strict guidelines for neighborhood watch personnel. First, they are to be trained for their work by law enforcement officials. But more importantly is this passage from the Neighborhood Watch Manual, published by the DOJ in 2010: “Patrol members should be trained by law enforcement. It should be emphasized to members that they do not possess police powers and they shall not carry weapons or pursue vehicles. They should also be cautioned to alert police or deputies when encountering strange activity. Members should never confront suspicious persons who could be armed and dangerous.” There is no disputing the facts that George Zimmerman defied these rules by carrying a gun and by confronting Trayvon Martin. So, again, why is he not in jail charged with first degree murder?

Similar incidents happened during the defined Civil Rights Era. In 1955, Emmett Till, (below, right, with his mother, Mamie Till Mobley) a black 14-year-old boy, was beaten, his eye gouged out and murdered by white men in Mississippi when he was suspected of flirting with a white woman.
Till’s death touched off not just a national outpouring of rage, but one that became international in scope. Some say it was the true beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. His killers were brought to trial, but allowed to maintain their freedom. Was it karmic that both later died of cancer? You will have to decide that for yourself.

Fast forward to this week: Deryl Dedmon, a white teenager pleaded guilty to murder and a hate crime for running over a black man with his pickup truck. The victim, James Craig Anderson, 47, was mercilessly beaten before Dedmon deliberately drove over his body. Mississippi prosecutors said Dedmon and others had targeted blacks for harassment before, usually homeless or drunk people who weren't likely to report it to police. Dedmon, 19, was sentenced to two life sentences. In handing down the sentence, Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill Sr. brought up 1964 murders of three civil rights workers who were murdered and buried in an earthen dam in a rural area that became known as "Mississippi Burning."

“All the hard work we have done to move our state forward from that earthen dam in Neshoba County to here has been stained by you,” Weill said . “A stain that will take years to fade.”

In truth, it will not fade at all, just as the brutal murder of Emmett Till still stains our national consciousness. However, unlike Anderson’s murder, the murder of Trayvon Martin has the potential to incite the same national (and perhaps international) rage that followed Till’s murder. This week, the FBI and representatives of the DOJ visited Martin’s parents,(above, left) Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, in an investigative attempt to determine if Federal charges will be used on George Martin. They will no doubt ponder this question: Were Trayvon Martin’s civil rights denied when he was not allowed to innocently walk down a suburban street toward his father’s home? While the answer is obvious, there are laws in place that must be followed to launch a Federal case.

The national outrage has already begun. President Obama said this about Martin’s murder: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. I think [Trayvon's parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened." That sure sounds like Federal charges are imminent.

On March 21, thousands of people turned out for a “Thousand Hoodie March” in New York’s Union Square to protest Martin’s murder. They held up packages of skittles, cans of iced tea and carried signs that said things like, “They never stop and frisk old white guys like me.”
On Thursday, Rev. Al Sharpton joined Martin’s parents for a protest rally in Sanford, FL, where participants carried signs that said things like, “Please don’t kill my sons,” and “Walking while black is not a crime.” On the same day, the police chief “temporarily” stepped down in Sanford.

Trayvon Martin’s murder, with its racially divisive implications is not an isolated incident. In New York last month, an 18-year-old boy was murdered by a NYPD officer who suspected he was dealing drugs. The murder took place in the boy’s grandmother’s home. The boy was unarmed and did not resist the officer. The boy, Ramarley Graham, was the subject of an illegal search, since the officer did not have a warrant. Many New Yorkers claim the NYPD’s “Stop and frisk” program is based in racism. As usual, the numbers tell the story: In 2011, the publicly available stats show that a half million people were stopped under this program. Of those, 87 percent were black or Latino, and most of the program’s efforts were centered in poor, minority neighborhoods. More rallies are planned over the coming weeks in protest of Graham’s death, with the ongoing cry of “NYPD – KKK.”

Similarly, in New Orleans last week, a 20-year-old man was killed in his home by a NOPD officer who was executing a search warrant related to drug activity. The man, Wendall Allen,(right)
was black. The officer is white. Allen was unarmed. The New Orleans coroner later revealed Allen died from a single gunshot that penetrated his lungs, heart and aorta. He also revealed the gunshot did not occur at close range, meaning it is unlikely that there was a struggle with Allen before he was killed. There were five children, ranging in age from one to 14 in the house at the time of Allen’s murder.

To date, neither the DOJ nor FBI has been involved in the Allen or Graham murders. Why? How do they differ from the murder of Trayvon Martin? All were young black citizens, unarmed, not arrested for a crime and not aggressive toward their murderers.

There is a fire burning just below the surface of the American culture. It has been burning for a very long time. It is rooted in intolerance and the mistaken notion that somehow there are population segments in America that are inherently superior to other citizens. It is fueled by individuals who cannot control or alter their own intolerance of others; individuals like George Zimmerman, who committed murder and walks freely through the streets of America even today; individuals like conservative Fox TV pundit Sean Hannity, who even after being offered all the facts of Martin’s murder, said, “Isn’t it possible this was all just a horrible accident?”; individuals like wayward journalist Geraldo Rivera, who actually said that although Martin was an “innocent kid, I’ll bet you money that if he didn't have that hoodie on, that — that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn't have responded in that violent and aggressive way."

The true culprit here is pervasive racism. The lesson to take away from this is that there was no “Civil Rights Era.” You cannot bookend the mid-20th century effort to achieve racial equality and call it an “era.”
If bookends are important to Americans, then the civil rights era is neatly framed by murder – Emmett Till’s in 1955 and Dr. Martin Luther King’s in 1968. It is, instead, an ongoing struggle that is getting worse instead of better with time. If Trayvon Martin can be murdered in broad daylight by a private citizen carrying a gun in a suburban neighborhood, the struggle must be viewed in present tense, rather than historically. And that fire that burns just under the surface of America? It’s coming out in the open now, just as it did in 1955.

Friday, March 16, 2012


About a year ago in his standup act, comedian Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a “cunt.” There it is. In black and white. It is a word that our culture has deemed about as ugly as any word in the language. In common usage it reduces a woman to nothing more than her genitalia. It negates her intellect, her emotions, her purpose in the world. It is, at this point in the evolution of the English language, about as insulting as one word can be.

This week, in light of the prolonged controversy surrounding radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown University student a “slut” and a “prostitute,” Mahar has come under some criticism for his misogynistic language. In an interview with ABS’s Jake Tapper, Mahar defended his unfortunate choice of words this way: “I'm a comedian - not just a guy who says he is, like Rush, but someone who - well, you saw me do stand-up last year in D.C. There's a big difference between just saying you're a comedian and going out and getting thousands of people to laugh hard for 90 minutes. And the one I'm compared to most is Carlin, who also had these kind of problems.”

To paraphrase 1988 vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, let me just say this to Bill Mahar: Bill, you’re no George Carlin. You see, Carlin, from his earliest days on stage and on television, was a cultural commentator disguised as a comedian. Bill, you’re a comedian, disguised as a cultural commentator. There is a huge difference.

Here is how Mahar (left) rationalized his Palin (left) insult to Tapper: “Because it was a routine where that word came in at just the right moment. Context is very important, and it's also important to remember that stand-up comedy is the final frontier of free speech.”

Really? I think not. There will probably never be a “final frontier” of free speech. In fact, what we are witnessing in our culture right now is a real struggle to figure out if there are, or should be, boundaries to free speech. And if boundaries do or should exist for this historical American freedom, do we want them to be federalized or moralized? In a true democracy, who decides if it’s okay or not okay to call a college student a slut over the national airwaves? And if it’s not okay, what do we do? Should we take away Rush Limbaugh’s right to speak over the airwaves, or should the free market do its thing and naturally decide if he belongs in his high tech public forum?

There are many more questions than answers in our struggle to figure out what to do with the Rush Limbaughs (right) and Bill Mahars of the world. Chief among them is this: Is it time for us to challenge the limits of the first amendment? If that sounds revolutionary, it is not. The first amendment was notably challenged twice, in 1992 and 1993. Both times, the cases revolved around incendiary or hate speech. Decades earlier, the Supreme Court decided that such speech was not protected under the First Amendment. So, perhaps now would be an appropriate time for the amendment to be scrutinized further. This time, perhaps it would make sense for the U.S. government to consider the issue of civility. And for those who would question how we would define civility or incivility, remember there were those who strongly questioned what constituted hate speech when the amendment was challenged two decades ago.

Why is it implicitly acceptable in America to call a candidate for the vice-presidency a cunt? Why is it implicitly acceptable in America to denigrate private citizens on a radio talk show? It is time for us to find some consistency in the acceptable communication mores in our culture. Don Imus,(left) the radio talk host, managed to stay on the air for a very long time before finally being released by CBS radio in 2007 after referring to black women on Rutgers University’s basketball team as “nappy headed hos.” However, long before that he made repeated defamatory remarks, including one prior to the Rutgers debacle when he said one of his co-hosts was “hired to do nigger jokes.” He routinely referred to gay men as “faggots.” He was able to stay on the air because there is no consistency in FCC policy related to slander based on race, gender or sexuality. That lack of consistency runs parallel with the vague nature of the First Amendment.

So now it seems time to once again challenge the amendment to exclude defamatory speech, just as it excludes hate speech. Consider this: When the Constitution was written, there was no way for its authors to foresee the emergence of digital communication centuries later. Digital communication easily allows one individual to reach a majority of Americans instantly. That suggests that freedom of speech then bore very little resemblance to freedom of speech in 2012. That being the case, shouldn’t we Americans be taking a second look at the amendment to determine if it adequately speaks to contemporary cultural and technological shifts? I think so.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


The public discourse took an unfortunate turn last week when radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown law school co-ed a “slut” and a “prostitute.” The student, Sandra Fluke, testified before Congress regarding her position that contraception for women should be covered under mandatory health insurance coverage. Limbaugh, for his part, seized upon her remarks to state his moral judgment that students should exercise more restraint in their sexual lives. In case you’re one of the three people in America who has not heard this yet, here is Limbaugh’s tirade:

The firestorm that followed was predictable and divisive. At least one advertiser, Sleep Train, a mattress manufacturer, immediately cancelled its relationship with the Limbaugh show. Others followed. Also predictable was Limbaugh’s choice to personally attack Fluke and Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who chaired the hearings at which Fluke testified. He even went so far as to mock her last name, referring to her as Sandra Flake. He also cavalierly passed judgment on college students who are having a lot of sex. I’m wondering if Limbaugh remembers his own college days at Southeast Missouri State University. Although he never graduated, those of us familiar enough with the Cape Girardeau campus know that like any other college campus, plenty of sex happens there daily. Older, conservative white guys tend to conveniently forget about their own college sex lives when it suits them.

Exhibit B? Bill O’Reilly. A savvier TV talking head might bow out of this particular melee. However, O’Reilly, rarely one to thoughtfully choose his battles, took to the airwaves to bolster Limbaugh’s public condemnation of Sandra Fluke. In his own highly moralistic, scathing commentary, O’Reilly also mocks Fluke, by referring to her as Sandra Fluk, (with its implied rhyme). Another old, conservative white guy, O’Reilly’s desperate grab for attention [read ‘ratings’] demeans the work of professional journalists by suggesting that if the government mandates coverage of birth control for female college students, it should also insist on coverage of football equipment for male students. Really. Watch:

From the perspective of yet another older white guy, and a journalist, I just want broadcasters to do their job, rather than make themselves the story. I want them to focus on the issues about which they are reporting, rather than on the personalities that bring attention to the issues. I feel just as strongly about MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell who found it necessary to say this to Fluke during an MSNBC interview: “I have to say you’ve done a number of interviews and you’ve handled it all with extraordinary grace through all of this.” Again, Mitchell finds it necessary to express her own views about Fluke, and to make Fluke the story rather than government-mandated insurance coverage of contraceptives. In that one sentence, Mitchell goes off topic and turns this into a personality story. By doing this, Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Mitchell do a disservice to the audience.

What you, the consumer, are witnessing is the American free enterprise system gone awry. The mass media industries are so intensely competitive now that they rely on their superstars to keep you from changing the channel or clicking away to another site, regardless of the tactics they use. The competition that so richly bolstered the capitalistic system in our country is operating at the lowest common denominator of taste and dignity.

Those of us who believe in the basic tenets of good journalism wish we had a solution to this digitally-enhanced mess, but we just don’t. That’s why a narcissistic, unprofessional blob like Limbaugh has been able to elevate his crack rhetoric to a level that makes him the highest paid radio personality in the history of the medium. Not that I want to rub it in, but last year Limbaugh earned $64 million. Ugh. He did so by disrespectfully referring to the First Lady as Moo-chelle, by declaring that Barack Obama would not have become president if he were not black, by comparing the president to Hitler, by mocking Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s tremors, and by demeaning any population group that does not fit with his narrow view of acceptable human behavior.

By late Saturday night, Limbaugh had issued a half-baked apology to Fluke, couched in further defense of his own views. The most cynical among us might deduce that the apology was only offered after several advertisers pulled out of Limbaugh’s radio show.
They include Pro-Flowers, Sleep Number, Sleep Train, Legal Zoom, Citrix and Quicken Loans. In part, he said, “What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit?” A simple, ‘I apologize for publicly demeaning you” to Fluke (above, right) would have sufficed.

Someone should point out to Limbaugh that those oxycodone and hydrocodone painkillers he was addicted to a few years ago were surely covered by his health insurance. It should also be noted that many health insurance companies cover Viagra, but not birth control pills. Oh...and about those birth control pills. Limbaugh needs to know that they are quite often prescribed for medical conditions that have nothing to do with birth control. Conditions such as endometriosis, reportedly a highly painful condition that affects millions of American women. But most of all, someone should tell Limbaugh that 20-somethings are going to have sex. Lots and lots of sex. So for him to make derogatory comments about the frequency of sex among young people is patently absurd. Let’s not condemn co-eds for being sexual. Let’s instead condemn media personalities who abuse the airwaves by publicly humiliating individuals with the courage of their convictions.