Thursday, June 25, 2015

Cops who want the guys on the corner to speak up should go first

Time for the police to step up

Last week, I went to a neighborhood meeting called in response to four separate shooting incidents in or near Taft, the neighborhood park at 18th and Newton NE. No one was hurt, but the gunfire aroused understandable concern in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Apparently other somewhat less ominous incidents had prompted a similar meeting just a couple of weeks before.

In any case, meeting attendees included all sorts of officials from the Parks Department and from the city agency that manages construction projects, from Councilmember Kenyon McDuffie's office, and three police officers, one of them the actual Fifth District commander. There were neighborhood residents of all ages, with varying lengths of residency in the 'hood--the established residents mostly black, the newcomers, mostly white.

There was also a group of probably a dozen young black men, most of them with roots in the neighborhood that go back a generation, or more. A neighborhood advisory board member had managed to persuade the young men to come to the meeting, but they sat separately from the other attendees, some wearing an expression of glowering disapproval.

At the invitation of the meeting's chair, the police commander and Councilmember McDuffie's representative kicked off the discussion acknowledging the crime problems and the real fear for safety in the neighborhood. Both speakers declared themselves willing to work closely with residents in order to develop a truly strategic plan for building neighborhood solidarity and improving safety.

But the young men, who seemed to be loosely led by a man named Fats, were not inclined to dance to the conciliatory tune called out by the district commander. Several of them spoke in a challenging even angry tone. Collectively, their message went something like this:

Yes, we hang out in the park, but we respect the rules and respect the community. We don't drink in the park and we let other people know, from in and out of the neighborhood, that there will be no messing around with neighborhood residents. But that doesn't appear to make any difference to you folks. When something happens, we get the blame for it. We say hello to some of you and you ignore us. And the thing is, we've lived here all of our lives. Some of you just got here, but you act like we're the ones who don't belong.

In response, one homeowner, indeed a newcomer, stood up to declare himself free of any such attitude, and to assert his emphatic concern for the safety of his young family. We use the park, he said, but I don't make trouble for anyone. I just served two tours in Iraq, he added, and I expect that my wife and child and myself will be safe here. What I want, he said, is to hear what others think will make us safer, I don't want to go over this other stuff, I want to move on.

Following, as he did, immediately on the heels of the declarations of indignation and wounded pride laid out by the young men who had just spoken, his apparent lack of interest in acknowledging their concerns led to immediate blowback. The young men muttered and cussed under their breath, and stood up to grab the floor without being recognized by the chair. A couple of them repeated their earlier positions and pointed out that the previous speaker was a good example of newcomers to the neighborhood who blame them for the problem.

It was a perfect, we-say-they-say sort of set up and promised to pretty much blow the meeting apart if the character of the discussion didn't change quickly. But one fellow stood up and, out of order himself, pretty much claimed the floor. I agree, he said, that the goal of this meeting ought to be about how we can work together to make everybody safer, but if we want to move on in that direction, I think we should begin by acknowledging how important and valuable it is that these young men showed up to speak for themselves. His statement provoked universal applause and reduced the gathering heat. But it didn't put the meeting on a productive path and things wound down without any real clarity about how to get to an effective strategy that would serve our collective concerns.

I didn't even stay for the end, but on the way home I stopped off at the park to see what might be happening. Not much, it turned out. The park itself is mostly closed at this time for resodding the big field, and for restoring the basketball courts. And, perhaps because they were at the meeting or otherwise engaged, there weren't any young men hanging out. But there were two cops, one in a car idling nearby and one sitting on a picnic table.

I told the cop at the table, Officer Smith, as it happens, about the meeting and told him what the young men had said. He heard me out, but challenged a bit of what apparently seemed like a sanitized story to him. Well, they may say they don't drink and smoke, and there might be some truth to that, he said, but there's an awful lot of times when there's empty liquor and beer bottles lying around, so we have to tell them sometimes to cleanup. But they usually do and it's only some of them making a mess.

He also observed that they might be innocent of some of the things that they get accused of doing, and they may not be doing the shootings, but somebody is coming by here to shoot at somebody else for a reason, and they all say they don't know anything, which, he added, is hard to believe. What he said made sense, but it didn't invalidate the story the young men at the meeting told.

Mindful that some of these young men are not much different from others around the country that have been wrongly detained and arrested, and sometimes beaten and shot by police officers themselves not discernibly different than the officer to whom I was speaking, I simply observed that police in big cities like DC have a responsibility to figure out how to keep everybody safe. I said I sympathized with the stress that the Metropolitan Police must experience at times, but there must be some cops who don't relate to these young men with the same understanding that he appeared to bring to his job.

Then I told him how two days in a row I had seen a cop, the same cop both times, following kids walking from the Brookland Metro stop to the high school nearby. In neither instance did I see those kids doing anything except acting like school kids engaging each other. The situation looked like bad policing to me, like a white cop sending a nonverbal but clear message to black children that they needed to be watched by someone in authority.

The second time it happened, I walked quickly around the block to get to the kids before they got to school and to ask them if the same cop had ever followed them before. No, they said. I asked if they knew why he was following them. No, they said, we weren't doing anything.

As my conversation with the kids concluded, the cop stopped up the street, about half a block away. But when I walked toward him to tell him that I'd seen him doing the exact same thing the day before and to ask him why, he drove away.

Officer Smith's reaction to the story was to vaguely acknowledge that what I was describing probably wasn't right, but we hardly knew all the facts. Yeah, maybe, I responded, but I'd seen enough two days in a row to provoke concern on my part.

Still, I wished Officer Smith well and moved on. But here's the thing. The young men at the neighborhood meeting probably did know the names of some of the people who had driven by the park and started shooting. But they hadn't shared any information with the police--a choice that the district commander said was extremely frustrating.

But consider, also, the white police officer following black children to school for no obvious reason. In itself, perhaps, not a meaningful indication of a problem. But in every big city, there are, indeed, police officers who their fellow officers know to be brutal. Police officers who police differently in black neighborhoods than they do in white neighborhoods, and treat black suspects differently than white ones.

Odds are that Officer Smith himself knows the names of a couple of cops who have mishandled incidents and roughed people up. But neither Officer Smith, or his fellow officers, are inclined to go public with such information. Neither are they likely to raise a concern internally.

This, I think, brings us full circle to the young men who might know full well who the perpetrators were in the recent shooting incidents. They ain't talkin', even though sharing what they know might make the neighborhood just a little bit safer.

But should we be surprised when young men prove unwilling to share what they know about bad guys in the 'hood with cops who have proven themselves equally unwilling to share what they know about bad guys with guns and badges?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The question to ask

After a lifetime of weird and, even, epically stupid decisions, I have recently reached the conclusion that one should always ask oneself, “Am I stoned?” And, in the aftermath, give the answer some time to develop.

Think of all the situations when that question is/was/will be precisely the right one to be asking oneself before proceeding with whatever seems to be next on the agenda. As a for instance, consider what might be the reality when one is, say, considering a rather hard surface below and pondering the question, “Would falling from this height kill me?” Wouldn’t that be the moment to ask oneself, “Am I stoned?”

This question is more generic that it might seem. After all, it subsumes all the more particular types of questions that get asked by both interveners and bystanders. “Are/were you drunk?” comes to mind, but care should be taken to consider the terms of the question as broadly as possible.

Regardless, we are talking here about asking oneself the question, “Are you stoned?” with a great deal more frequency and in a much wider range of situations than those moments when the question might otherwise be asked. And, in that spirit, never mind the answer, which could cover an almost infinite range of possibilities, like, say, “Don’t know, but I can tell you that I. Am. Completely. Ripped;” to “Maybe I better call the dentist. I’m in a lot of pain;” to “Yeah, I’m stoned, but I still believe the more important question is, ‘Can I survive a fall from this height to the ground below?’”

To repeat, the important thing is the question, “Am I stoned?” which should be asked by oneself of oneself a great deal more often than it is in reality. The answer is almost always less relevant than the question except in regard to legal matters and insurance issues.

Related story, I think. A few short weeks ago, I was in the hospital with a concussion after falling—catapulting, really—off my bike and doing a helmetless face plant on the street. Concussed, I went to the hospital where I dimly remember being asked, “Were you drunk?” and in near-instant follow-up, “Were you stoned?”

These questions seemed focused on liability and criminality. In any case, I do remember thinking something along the lines of “Why do you care? I don’t.”

And, although I hesitate to add this last bit, my father was an insurance lawyer to whom such questions meant a lot in the narrowest possible way. Dad was also the tree from which this apple happened to fall, albeit not without the sort of bruising that accompanies falls. Inevitably the experience of falling away from old dad, and the injuries that accumulated in my subsequent lifetime of weird and, even, epically stupid decisions, also taught me that one ought to embrace one’s bruises.

I recognize that this is piling on so-called “lessons of life,” and we most certainly should return to the question, “Am I stoned?” Nevertheless, the tangential point bears repeating. Embrace your bruises. They are you, and you are your very own particular reward.

At any rate, the question I am proposing that one regularly ask oneself, “Am I stoned?” is intended to provide a fresh opportunity to consider the moment that will inevitably follow the asking. If you are stoned, in the broadest possible sense, and you are mindful that you are, you might possibly make the next moment more objectively memorable than you had anticipated.

As I write this, images of loved ones and friends, here and elsewhere, flicker across the memory screen inside my head, the screen that at this moment is showing, in something like an endless loop, a piece entitled The Life of Jeff. And so, I ask myself, “Am I stoned?” in the fervent hope that the answer is take the next moment and mold it.

This is the moment of your next step in a direction you were always headed. Doesn’t matter if the path you followed to get here was straight (more or less) or, if you were actually, and most of the time, aware of choices you were making, or, in the alternative, delusionally ignorant of the choices you made along the way. This is you, regardless. This is you arrived at this moment, however much you may have stumbled to get here, and the step you take next is yours to decide. Now, answer the question, “Will I survive the fall from this height?”

Dedicated with gratitude to Dr. Phil, and to my sister, Dale.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Palestine and Israel, 10 Points to Remember

Religious belief leads to bad policy, but remembering when we were slaves in Egypt might work

I've blogged about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 38 times during the past six years* and I keep repeating (I think, I hope) pretty much the same fundamental points. Particularly these:

1. It is unproductive to insist that Hamas has to stop firing largely ineffectual rockets or drop its propagandistic opposition to the existence of Israel before real peace and justice are achieved. To get to such a state, Israel must negotiate with enemies.

Further, it is not merely unproductive, but fundamentally unethical to argue that Hamas' feeble rocket attacks on Israel somehow justify Israel's lethally disproportionate attacks on Gaza, which cause thousands of civilian casualties.

2. The record of the last 65 years suggests that Israel's survival cannot be secured by force of arms unless the Israeli government intends to annihilate the Palestinians. This, of course, would completely destroy the moral integrity of the Jewish faith (even though Israel and Judaism are not at all the same thing).

3. Other than continuing upheaval, which creates mortal danger for themselves, or complete surrender (and, barring an improbable, nearly universal, non-violent, sit-down strike in both Palestine and Israel), Palestinians are not in a position to lead the way. It is Israel, the occupying force in possession of a nearly absolute monopoly on power, that must move the furthest, must make the most changes and the frankest confessions, before peace and justice and real security come into being.

But until Israel decides to change, to transform itself dramatically, in the interests of true safety and security for Israelis, the best thing Palestinians can do is to be ungovernable.

4. It makes no sense to blame the Palestinians for "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity" for peace (or a Palestinian state, or whatever). No true peace can be achieved that doesn't include an acknowledgement that many Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza today were pushed out of their homes or off their land in Haifa, or Jaffa or elsewhere, as part of the process that created the Israel we know today. Acknowledging such a fact doesn't create an insurmountable barrier out of a "right of return." It creates a basis for negotiation, and compensation, and a removal of some of the settlements to which many Israelis are understandably attached.

A stable peace will require that Palestinians get a state with borders as contiguous as possible, a state with borders guaranteed and secured by something other than overwhelming Israeli force, a state which shares equally in the regions resources (like water and arable land and efficient and unobstructed access to the region's transportation resources).

5. The claim that Israel acts only in self-defense deceives no one, except perhaps Jews in Israel and around the world who would like to believe it. Given the absolute certainty that noncombatants will die, bombing Gaza isn’t self-defense. It is assault on a civilian population. It does not make Israelis safer. It creates more enemies, more enemy combatants, perhaps more suicide bombers.

6. Palestinians must acknowledge that Israeli Jews are justified in their fear for themselves. The perception of Arab hostility to Israel's survival is rooted in reality. But it does not make much sense to compare Israeli fear to the status of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. By every measure of suffering—combatants killed, innocents killed, homes demolished, families separated, family members imprisoned, jobs and businesses lost—the consequences for Palestinians are intense, pervasive and unrelenting.

But Israeli suffering is also real. The psychological and physiological damage Israelis suffer from tensions and explosions and hostility and deaths and and military call-ups and jobs lost and sleep interrupted shortens lives and causes illness.

As it becomes clearer and clearer that the cycle is both self-replicating and intensifying, Israelis (and American Jews) must begin to recognize that ending the cycle will take a complete reassessment and positive moves by Israel. When that reassessment comes, full Israeli recognition of Palestinian grievances will be a huge step toward peace.

7. Palestinians living in Israel will need more than de jure guarantees of equality, they will need de facto equality. A Jewish state that legalizes a “right of return” for Jews who never lived there and refuses to acknowledge a right of return for Palestinians who lost homes and property must stop privileging Jews at the expense of Palestinians. How long it will take to get there is a wide-open question, but it will be very, very hard. It will require that at some point Israel cease to be a "Jewish" state and become a more inclusive democracy. When that point is finally reached (100 years, maybe? 200? never?), Israel and Palestine might find themselves a single state, a true light unto the world.

8. The biblical story of the Exodus undergirds the argument in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

One summary phrase from the Passover service expresses the hope that the seder will be held "next year in Jerusalem." Indeed, these last many years a good number of seders have been held at various locations in Jerusalem (one wonders how the phrase is turned when the seder is, in fact, in Jerusalem).

Stories that Jews tell each other for religious reasons, during ritual meals and otherwise, are not a good basis for making policy. Establishing a theocratic state on land occupied by others based on a history of events that didn't actually happen was, and is, an undemocratic and unethical way to proceed. (More on this in my essay "Monotheism and the Accidental God.")

9. All the available archaeological and documentary evidence places the development of Jewish states in the area somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE. These states, Israel and Judah, were descended from hill tribesmen who may have called themselves Ibaru (Hebrew) and who, over time, exerted increasing political control over the relatively barren highlands in the area of present-day Jerusalem. The northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerors around 800 BCE.

After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods.

Telling a story about how the northern state of Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made for good propaganda [at the time].

As it happens, Biblical accounts of such things still make good propaganda.  Almost 3,500 actual years after the supposed events of the Exodus, the justification for the establishment of Israel and its maintenance as a Jewish (theocratic) state is frequently based on the notion that the Jews were promised the land of Canaan.

10. Yes, Jews have lived in the area a good, long time. But their presence there was as a small minority (sometimes only a few hundred families) among a much larger and diverse population, who also regarded the area as their own ancestral homeland. The historical presence of Jews in the Middle East is a legitimate basis for a "right of return" for Jews in much the same way that history justifies a right of return for American Indians and Armenians and Tibetans and Palestinians. But it does not justify the establishment of a state that privileges Jews on land most recently occupied by Palestinians.

Passover seders should be reminders that "next year in Jerusalem" has arrived, and some of us are celebrating religious feasts on land and in homes taken from Palestinians by force. We are also commanded to "remember that we were slaves in Egypt.” However legendary the memory that we Jews were once enslaved and oppressed by a mighty and pitiless enemy, it ought to expand our understanding of "never again."

*No one should read them all, but what would be the point of maintaining my own blog and not linking to myself once in a while?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Windup Girl

Florida governor Rick Scott probably won't read Paolo Bacigalupi's novel. But he should.

I let this fragment of a review linger incomplete, while Marrianne lent out our copy of the book (with my consent). I find that the notes I pencilled in the margins to be the basis for whatever else I might write about The Windup Girl are gone for now, perhaps for always. Is a piece half-done worth the trouble of reading it?

Probably. After all, it's probably less than 400 words. Who's going to pretend that they haven't ever before wasted the time it would take to read 400 words?

So Florida, the state likeliest to suffer most from rising sea levels caused by climate change, has, under the dubious leadership of Republican governor Rick Scott, developed a de facto policy that scrubs the use of terms like "climate change" and "global warming" from documents produced by state employees and contractors. Such a policy moves Scott to the very front rank of climate-change deniers and, given Florida's particular vulnerability, would likely make Scott a candidate for some kind of Darwin award if he wasn't also past his peak period of reproductive activity.

Scott probably isn't planning to read Paolo Bacigalupi's book, The Windup Girl, but it probably wouldn't make a whole lot of difference if he did. After all, one arrives at the end of the book considering the possibility that a variety of factors, including climate change, have already narrowed the global path to the point that we can stop worrying about Florida, which is bound to become swamp, and start worrying about our own skins, which are likely to sweat copiously and fry quickly for extended periods on both sides of high noon.

In Bacigalupi's dystopic world, most of us in the West are pretty much in the same boat as Floridians. The exceptions are likely to be chemists and geneticists and engineers working for global corporations that own seed copyrights, possess the firepower to enforce and exploit those copyrights, and do not let ethical considerations weasel their way into strategic plans. But the catastrophes that The Windup Girl imagines, predictions of a world less than, say, 50 years away, do not seem (with a few exceptions) like events from which we will run screaming, but more like moments we will watch like frogs in a hot tub, unaware that the temperature of the water is rising toward the boiling point.

Of course, some of us already recognize that the temperature is rising and some of us do what we can to address that developing problem. But Bacigalupi's point seems to be that whatever it is we are doing, it's not enough. And though some few of us will survive, sign on with one of those global corporations with the reach and power of government, or find a remote, little tub where the water is cooler, those survivors will find that the regret that they did not do enough is a crushing weight on what life they have left. The difference between their regrets, however, and the regrets of humans who are simply aging out and passing on, will be the difference between dying in the full knowledge that one has failed a most important moral challenge and dying ignorant of one's failure.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu's singular achievement

His cluelessness somehow makes dissenters out of Robert Kagan and Richard Cohen

Critical as I am about Benjamin Netanyahu, I must acknowledge that he does have the virtue of bringing out the best in op-ed writers with whom I ordinarily disagree. Robert Kagan, somewhat of a militarist to my mind, wrote a nice piece, "At what price Netanyahu?" in the Washington Post a couple of days ago.

Kagan noted that Netanyahu's speech was not going to add much, if anything, to what the U.S. government and the public already knew about his thoughts about Iran. Neither was Netanyahu's appearance likely to prove beneficial to the U.S.-Israel relationship, Kagan noted. (As it happens, Kagan was correct. Nothing Netanyahu had to say advanced the discussion about how to deal with Iran.) But he made both of those points on the way to the larger observation that "the precedent... set [by Speaker John Boehner's partisan invite of Netanyahu] is a bad one."

The invitation creates another opportunity to exacerbate political divisions, when they exist, between congress and the president, Kagan observed.

"Is anyone thinking about the future?" he wrote. "From now on, whenever the opposition party happens to control Congress — a common enough occurrence — it may call in a foreign leader to speak to a joint meeting of Congress against a president and his policies. Think of how this might have played out in the past. A Democratic-controlled Congress in the 1980s might, for instance, have called the Nobel Prize-winning Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to denounce President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Central America. A Democratic-controlled Congress in 2003 might have called French President Jacques Chirac to oppose President George W. Bush’s impending war in Iraq."

Would that Democrats had found a way to be more forceful in their resistance to both Reagan and Bush. Regardless, it may turn out that Kagan worries too much here about the likelihood that Boehner's ill-advised move will be the first of a future series of insults to the president that use foreign leaders as ceremonial props. Still, it is nice of him to worry.

Following up on Kagan, the Post's Richard Cohen also expressed real alarm about Netanyahu's appearance. In "Israel's moral argument is on the line", Cohen made a point about Israel's lack of strategic importance to the United States that I found surprising coming from him.

"Israel may be beloved, but for American security, it is not essential," Cohen wrote. "The fact is that the United States does not need Israel. Our special relationship was not forged, as it was with Great Britain, in two world wars, not to mention a common language and, in significant respects, culture. It is based on warmth, emotion, shared values — and, not to be dismissed, a potent domestic lobby. But these ties are eroding. Support for Israel remains strong, but where once it was universal, it has increasingly drifted from left to right. In the liberal community, hostility toward Israel is unmistakable. Some of it is openly expressed, some of it merely whispered."

There's plenty to argue with in Cohen's piece. He has always refrained from anything but the most mild criticism of Israel, and there is nothing here that is harshly critical of Israel, either. Indeed, Cohen applauds Harry Truman for disregarding advice and being the first country to recognize Israel.

"To be clear, Truman did the right thing — and he did it with commendable alacrity. (The United States was the first nation to recognize Israel.) Truman acted for a number of reasons. He was an inveterate Bible reader and he thought Jews had a powerful moral claim to what was then Palestine; he was aware that Israel was not some sort of post-Holocaust compensation package for worldwide Jewry, but a necessity for their survival. And, lastly, Truman needed the Jewish vote, particularly in New York state," Cohen wrote in the Post.

Never mind that however powerful the Jewish "moral" claim to Palestine might have been, to secure that claim required ignoring the fact that Palestinians had a quite defensible claim of their own. Nor is there anything especially ethical in recognizing Israel as a means to securing the support of Jewish voters.

Still, Cohen is generally not in the habit of conceding that the U.S. and Israel, at this point in time, have quite divergent strategic interests. The credit for Cohen's observation should be regarded as the joint achievement of John Boehner and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

A primer on humanitarian crisis in Syria and reasoning toward a solution

The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

(An edited version of this piece can be found on the website of Teaching for Change(TfC). Follow the link to access TfC's incredible on-line bookstore.)

The Syrian civil war, and the collapse of the Syrian state, is the direct cause of the most severe ongoing humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world today. According to the United Nations, an estimated seven million Syrians are internally displaced, another approximately four million are refugees living in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and in even more distant countries in Asia and North Africa.

The total of refugee and displaced people is more than half of the pre-war Syrian population. Hunger is widespread and, in many instances, forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad will not allow relief agencies access to trapped Syrians.

In Iraq, fighting between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS—a militant group that owes much of its dramatic growth to the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states) and various Iraqi and Kurdish military units and militias has created another 2 million homeless people. The death toll from the fighting in both Syria and Iraq, including civilians, is probably 300,000 or more.

Conflict in Syria began in early 2011 as civil resistance to 40 years of authoritarian control by the al-Assad family. The situation quickly deteriorated after nonviolent protest was met by escalating repression, mass detentions, disappearances, and military and police assaults on demonstrators. Rebels, both Muslim and secular, sought and received military assistance from outside sources, including Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia. By 2012, the conflict had become a full-blown civil war that divided the country into multiple areas variously controlled by the Assad regime, secular and/or moderate Muslim rebel groups, and more extreme militant and fundamentalist groups, most notably ISIS.

Today, the situation remains fluid and the humanitarian crisis grows seemingly unabated. Democracy activists and advocates for civilian relief continue to agitate for more effective and sustained outside intervention by the UN and western democracies, despite the insufficiency that has characterized attempts to intervene so far. Two long and inconclusive U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq add to the difficulties in both arriving at a full understanding of the factors contributing to the crisis in Syria and developing a comprehensive, effective and sustainable response.

But The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, argues that the world has a moral obligation to intervene in Syria and relieve the suffering. Through a series of essays from a wide variety of knowledgeable observers, the book looks carefully at the many variables that will impair or outright prevent effective humanitarian relief. To the editors’ credit, the book does not settle for easy or platitudinous answers. Contributors call for antithetical solutions, for military intervention or for no military intervention, at all; for including all parties in a massive multi-party negotiation acknowledging that no peace can be achieved without the full participation of those involved and their sponsors, while others argue for the exclusion of the Assad regime, of ISIS, of Russia and others, on the grounds that those parties are guilty of war crimes or, at least, of deliberately exacerbating conflict.

Providing a useful account of the tensions and contesting agendas that are at the root of conflict and chaos both in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, The Syria Dilemma is an important example of how to thoroughly investigate the type of moral challenge that confronts the world today without forcing a conclusion on readers (or allowing them to look away).

Many of the users of Teaching for Changes website and resources will be interested in the book for those reasons, and, even, in using it in their own classrooms. The Syria Dilemma will provide a serious challenge to students, and no easy answers. But that, after all, is both the challenge of a real education, and the challenge of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Monday, February 23, 2015

After 40 years in prison, there is a life outside to live

T.J. Spytma celebrates the six-month anniversary of his freedom

At the end of January, T.J. Spytma celebrated his first six months out of prison. Incarcerated in an adult prison for murder at the age of 15, T.J. spent the next 40 years of his life in one correctional institution or another.

A reckless, thrill-seeking, drop-out growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, T.J. stumbled from one petty crime to the next until he and a friend broke into a neighbor's house and committed crimes that shocked and outraged their home town community. The crimes, which I wrote about in "T.J. Spytma is out of prison," and the outrage were more than sufficient for him to be tried as an adult, and sentenced to prison for life, subject to court review.

For almost 40 years, the sitting judge in the case, and his successor, repeatedly barred a parole hearing for T.J. But when the successor judge was replaced once more, T.J. finally got his hearing and ultimately a chance to live free for the first time in his adult life.

T.J.'s behavior during his first few years in prison were not a big improvement on his early teenage years. A juvenile in an adult prison, he made the decision that the only way to protect himself was to be a total badass. The decision and the success of his pose protected him somewhat from rampant prison violence those first few years, but did little to gain him privileges and access to the kinds of services that might help him understand the forces that drove his behavior.

Eventually, T.J. did get into group counseling, built relationships with some prison professional staff, and got a coveted job transcribing materials into braille; and he did the heavy lifting necessary in coming to understand that despite his situation, despite having entered prison with no skills and no education, despite having no experience of a world that neither punished nor excluded, there was, in fact, always a possibility that he might leave prison to face and handle more rewarding and more ordinary challenges.

In time, T.J. became an in-house prison activist, helping fellow prisoners to manage the environment safely and to access services that would mature them and develop new skills, coaching still other long-timers, helping them to write letters to the parole board and prepare for parole hearings. By 1990, he was chair of the national board of a unique organization, the National Lifers of America. Even then, things could get rocky. A prison gang looking for a way to smuggle contraband into prisons approached him about using his organization's volunteers. When T.J. refused, he was stabbed in retaliation.

Finally, in 2013, T.J. got his parole hearing. Life in the free world has not meant escaping all the dreariness (and much worse) that was part of prison life. He still has to show up at the parole office on a regular basis. He has to piss clean. And he has to pay the state for his P.O.'s time and the lab costs associated with regular testing.

Penny Ryder (an old colleague of mine at the American Friends Service Committee-AFSC), who first met T.J. when she worked with a prison visitation program, has opened her home to T.J. Penny, now retired, has a pension from AFSC and gets a social security check, which covers her needs. T.J. works  two part-time jobs, one with AFSC and another as an assistant on a research project attempting to measure how Obamacare has changed health and health care for ex-inmates. But the work doesn't pay  very well, and Penny and T.J. have found that financially they have no wiggle room, at all.

T.J. is going to community college, studying to be a paralegal, but work and resources keep him from going full-time. He may be 60 years old or older by the time he gets his degree.

In the meantime, Penny and T.J. also have to negotiate a fraught family landscape. Penny's daughter refuses to see Penny as long as T.J. is living with her. Worse, though Penny's relationship with her grandchildren, her son's children, has always been a good and important thing for her (and for the children, too), her son's ex-wife has gone to court to bar Penny's access to her grandchildren, if T.J. is present. (A University of Michigan undergrad produced a short video about some of the challenges confronting Penny and T.J.)

For T.J. all of this is quite painful. He recognizes that his crimes still have a life in the present, and that Penny pays part of the penalty for what he did so long ago. But over these last 40 years, T.J. has come to understand that he cannot bury his past, and he must face the continuing consequences without succumbing to frustration or anger. In order to move on, he says, he cannot be blaming others for the position he is in now.

Shortly after his six-month anniversary as a free man passed, T.J. and I met for lunch. When I asked him how he was doing, he was clear. Time passes for him now in a way that makes more sense then it did when he was in prison, he said. Look around, he continued, extolling his sandwich and marveling at the fine tablecloths. "I'll be okay," he said. "It's a good life."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Moral Challenge of Palestinian Rockets

I’m planning to write a long piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and my personal journey from Bar Mitzvah boy and teenage Zionist to an eventual supporter of Palestinian self-determination. But to even begin to understand that political transformation, I figure that I also need to look at how I grew up believing that no fate could be more noble than dying in the defense of the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, but by the time I was nineteen, arriving at the conclusion that the U. S. was waging a war of terror in Southeast Asia that I could not support.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my freshman year at college (in 1965) was the beginning of dramatic personal change. I spent the latter half of that academic year sporadically attending classes at the University of Michigan and hanging out in coffee shops with anti-war activists for extended periods. I began, then, to move away from my youthful patriotism to a more critical view of American militarism and the war in Vietnam.

In the process, I was greatly influenced by the writings of Noam Chomsky, particularly individual essays that were later collected and published in the book American Power and the New Mandarins.  I’m rereading the book, now, trying to understand some of the emotional intensity of my political transformation some 40 years ago. And though I have every intention of following through with the aforementioned long piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am discovering anew the power of what Chomsky wrote so long ago, and how resonant his book seems now. In particular, there are two quotes from the introduction that I would like to cite and explore here.

First: “No one who involved himself in antiwar activities as late as 1965, as I did, has any reason for pride or satisfaction. This opposition was ten or fifteen years too late. This is one lesson we should have learned from the tragedy of Vietnam.

And this one: “By entering into the arena of argument and counterargument, of technical feasibility and tactics, of footnotes and citations, by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one’s humanity. This is the feeling I find almost impossible to repress when going through the motions of building a case against the American war in Vietnam. Anyone who puts a fraction of his mind to the task can construct a case that is overwhelming… In an important way, by doing so he degrades himself, and insults beyond measure the victims of our violence and our moral blindness. There may have been a time when American policy in Vietnam was a debatable matter. This time is long past… The war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction—all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured. It is not pleasant to use such words, but candor permits no less.”

Here Chomsky calls himself out twice. In the first quote he says that he was unconscionably late in his opposition to the Vietnam War. “Ten or fifteen years too late,” he writes.

In the second quote, Chomsky raises the possibility that despite the essential wrongness of the war, had the U.S. been able to secure “stability and order” in Vietnam, he might well have remained silent. Had the “fury and destruction” been transient enough, he might never have been moved, he suggests, to speak out against the war, at all.

The concept that Chomsky develops here still resonates and seems to apply decently well to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After all, if Palestinians did not continue to resist Israeli occupation, if they did not engage in acts of “terror,” if they did not lob rockets from Gaza into Israel, if Israel were able to exercise greater control of the Palestinians, “had stability and order been secured,” others might not raise issues with the circumstances surrounding the creation of the state of Israel, might ignore the blockade of Gaza, might remain silent about the Occupation of the West Bank, might excuse the continuous process of expropriation and settlement on occupied territory. How unconscionable would that silence be?

Do some Palestinians lob rockets from Gaza into Israel because they want to awaken our conscience? Do they do so because they want revenge for dispossession, or revenge for the slaughter of innocents? Or because they hate Jews and wish to kill them? For an awakened conscience, aroused by the mortal threat and explosive power of the rockets, which questions have a higher priority? Do we condemn the rocket attacks and look away from the dispossession of Palestinians?

The biggest problem that I can see with the certainty that seems to characterize the two quotes from Chomsky is the apparent assumption that there comes a time when the moral question has been settled, a time when everyone must conclude that to argue any further that the dispossession of Palestinians is debatable “insults beyond measure the victims of our violence and our moral blindness.”

That statement is too absolute, too sweeping to be true. There were lots of reasons why people had not yet begun to oppose the Vietnam War in 1965, though Chomsky may be right in not excusing himself for his own too-long delayed opposition. And there are lots of reasons why supporters of the state of Israel remain unwilling to question the circumstances surrounding the creation of that state and all the violence against Palestinians that has happened since. But in my mind and heart we ought to be thanking the Palestinians who continue to resist because without that resistance the rest of us would almost certainly look away.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dirty Dealings

A story of CIA complicity in a drug scourge that destroyed neighborhoods

I wrote this story for Impact Weekly--which I prefer to remember as the Dayton Voice, its original name--in 1999. It followed on a series of stories by Gary Webb that originally ran in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 under the title "Dark Alliance" (later a book by the same name).

I thought Webb's reports ought to have won journalism prizes, but they were greeted with scorn by his colleagues in the mainstream media, and official cover up. Now, a new film about the stories, "Kill the Messenger," is in first-run theaters around the country. Though Webb and his work are still dissed by some journalists who should know better, his core allegations and his investigative effort stand up well to any fair assessment.

We founded the Dayton Voice in 1993 precisely because we believed that mainstream media ignored or misreported stories like this with devastating effect on the people and politics of the United States. We tried to follow paths blazed by journalists like Gary Webb and scholars like Manning Marable and activists like Harvey Milk and writers like Toni Morrison because we believed that was the true mission of responsible journalism. The story below is the longest of three pieces I wrote for the Voice about "Dark Alliance." I loved doing it and believe that the story remains relevant today. 

Impact Weekly,
April 29—May 5, 1999
by Jeff Epton

In 1985, Sgt. David Neil was assigned to duty as a police shift commander at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. Because Homeland was a point of entry for flights originating in foreign countries, the Air Force police had the responsibility for enforcing customs regulations, including searches of individuals and cargo. But Neil, now living in Dayton after 19 years in the service, sometimes ran into surprising obstacles that prevented him from doing his job.

In one incident, in the spring of 1986, Neil and another officer using a drug dog approached a private plane that had landed at the base without proper notification. From a distance, Neil says, they could see people unloading cargo. As the neared the plane, the dog “alerted,” indicating that there were drugs present. But before they could take any further investigatory action, Air Force officers on the scene told Neil to leave.

“There were a couple of lieutenant colonels out there,” Neil says . “Technically they out-ranked me, but they didn’t have jurisdiction. I was a police officer engaged in the performance of his duties.” But when Neil indicated his intention to proceed, he found himself confronted by the base commander who did have the authority to tell him to stop and did so. “The wing commander came out and said ‘you haven’t seen anything, you don’t know anything, leave it alone,’” says Neil.

That was the only time that base police got a drug dog close enough to a mysterious flight to get an alert, he says, but it wasn’t the only time they were unable to enforce customs regulations. Beginning early in 1986 and continuing at least into the next year, at least 20 private planes came to Homestead that he and his crew were unable to inspect.

“These aircraft wouldn’t do radio notifications on final approach and we weren’t hearing from the control tower. Some of the planes would touch down and leave before we could get there,” Neil says. “The drug dog incident was in May or June of 1986. About a month later, we got an order from the chief not to inspect executive fleet aircraft [U.S. government planes] or civilian aircraft with drug dogs.”

Neil was all set to tell that story and others at a Federal Court hearing last month. At the hearing, local attorney John Paul Rion, arguing that his client, Charles Goff Jr., should get a downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines, told the court that the drug-dealing of Nicaraguan Contras and the support they received from the CIA and other U.S. agencies had resulted in the establishment of huge drug trafficking operations in the 1980s. The existence of these enterprises, Rion argued, was a major factor in the crack “epidemic” of that time and should be a mitigating factor in the sentencing of all those convicted in federal court of crack-related violations. In support of his argument, Rion wanted to bring in Neil and journalists Gary Webb and Martha Honey to testify.

But neither Rion nor his client got a long day in court on the argument. Judge Walter Rice decided not to hear from witnesses, ruling that the CIA complicity that Rion proposed to prove did not apply exclusively to Goff’s case and could not be considered as a basis for a departure from sentencing guidelines. Rice’s decision delayed, at least temporarily, the opportunity for Neil to put on an official record the stories whose implications trouble him deeply more than a decade later.

“I don’t think Air Force guys on the scene knew these were drug flights,” Neil says. “But somebody in D.C. made a deal with the devil and ordered us away. The result was that we had drugs coming through that created huge problems,” he adds as he ticks off a list of issues he connects to the crack cocaine explosion. “We’ve almost destroyed this country, for god’s sake—500,000 in prison, widespread violence, people selling their babies. If you destroy your country, it used to be called treason.”

Among those most disappointed by the missed opportunity to hear Neil was Webb, who wrote a detailed account of the Contra-CIA connection to Freeway Rick Ross, for a time reputed to be the largest cocaine dealer in South Central Los Angeles. In a three-part series published in 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News, Webb focused on connections between the CIA, Nicaraguan Contras and cocaine trafficking in South Central L.A. Webb’s charges and his supporting evidence came under attack from mainstream media, but the story he told was repeated over and over, especially among African Americans using the internet and talk radio to share the details.

For Webb, who left his job at the Mercury News after his editors backed away from the story, testifying at the sentencing hearing was a duty. But getting a chance to hear Neil tell his story would have been almost a pleasure, an opportunity to listen to one more eyewitness step forward to confirm official involvement in drug trafficking. Neil’s account would have been one more corroboration of official wrongdoing and one more piece of evidence that the story isn’t going to go away, despite CIA denials and despite media attacks on the story.

Weighted scales

Neil’s take on the effects of the crack epidemic may include elements of hyperbole—after all, some drug experts say that crack never became the drug of choice everywhere in the country—but his assertion that crack fueled an explosion in the prison population is right on target. From the beginning to the end of the 1980s, the number of people in prisons and jails in the United States doubled, and before the end of this decade the prison population will have doubled again, giving the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

While the CIA was giving an intentional assist to drug traffickers who would bring cocaine into this country at unprecedented rates, news operations that had finally discovered crack were busy painting a picture of vicious black criminals—feeding the hysteria that would support Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and fuel the prison population boom.

And the fastest growing segment of that population was, and is, young African Americans doing crack-related time based on the kinds of sentencing guidelines that attorney Rion sought to challenge. A key feature of the federal guidelines is a formula that punishes a crack cocaine conviction (most often a black defendant) at 100 times the rate of a powder cocaine conviction (most often a white defendant).

“The scales of justice became so lopsided that a powder dealer had to sell $50,000 worth of cocaine to get the same five-year mandatory sentence as someone who sold $750 worth of crack. (As if crack could be made without powder cocaine),” wrote Webb in Dark Alliance, a book-length follow-up to his original story.

Disparities in sentencing is one of the great injustices of the drug war. But the drug trade that created the basis for that war was aided and abetted by CIA and other federal employees. That they have so far escaped prosecution for the damage they did is another of the drug war’s great injustices. And though it is true that crack was not the primary drug scourge in every urban area, it did widespread damage spreading across the country from L.A. and other prime distribution points like Miami and Detroit.

Crack arrived in Dayton in the mid-‘80s, getting here through a variety of routes. Ross, the dealer from South Central, also established a significant crack enterprise in Cincinnati. From there, according to court documents, he funneled cocaine out to other Midwestern cities, Dayton included. According to one U.S. attorney, Ross’ Cincinnati activities may have grossed as much as $30,000 a day. And a DEA informant placed Ross in Dayton on April 26 and 27, 1987 selling more than 7 kilograms of cocaine, a quantity worth between $200,000 and $300,000.

There were other possible drug routes to Dayton. In 1988, an FBI agent based in the Dayton office claimed that a million dollar drug bust at the Residence Inn near I-70 and I-75 was connected to an effort by “the Crips,” an L.A. street gang, to take over the cocaine trade in Dayton. If so, the gang would have been working the trail blazed by Ross, the one that originated with a Contra source.

Also in 1988, a shootout on the Central State University campus signaled the presence of other drug trafficking operations. The incident involved rival gangs, one of them called Pony Down, actually composed of elements of a larger Detroit-based gang of the same name. Pony Down and another Detroit gang, Young Boys Incorporated, may have been at the end of another Contra-connected pipeline, one supplied by pilot Michael Palmer, who was indicted in Detroit in the mid-80s on drug-trafficking charges.

Palmer also worked as a pilot during the same period for the State Department’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office. And, though the connection has yet to be made by investigators, a drug ring bringing cocaine to Dayton in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had sources in Florida and Louisiana, and possible connections to Michael Palmer and Barry Seal, the latter an associate of Columbian drug cartels, who oversaw some drug importations through Central America. Seal was shot to death the night after testifying before a grand jury in New Orleans, perhaps burying his connections forever.

Urban atom bomb

But whatever route crack travelled to get to Dayton, it arrived with destructive impact. Dayton City Commissioner Dean Lovelace, who grew up on the west side and lives there still, was a witness to drug dealing and related violence in his neighborhood. Lovelace and his family have hung in through the changes that have wounded his community—the flight of the black middle class, the loss of neighborhood jobs and factory jobs, highways rammed right through residential areas, and the pervasive sale and use of drugs—and he ranks the effect of crack as equal to or greater than all the rest.

“Crack devastated—let me underline that—devastated our inner city neighborhoods, especially African American neighborhoods. Once it hit the streets, it was like ‘whomp!’ an urban atom bomb.” Lovelace says. “Crack addicts may be more aggressive than heroin addicts, but the real violence associated with crack comes from dealers fighting for turf. And whether it’s Ricky Ross or the CIA, crack wrecked lives at both ends of the pipeline. You got people in South America saying ‘I’ll grow this stuff here because my life would be better,’ and folks here that say, ‘I’ll sell this stuff because my life would be better,’ but the consequences are death at both ends,” Lovelace concludes.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who represents South Central in congress, makes a similar point about violence associated with the crack trade. Sophisticated automatic weaponry was showing up on the streets of South Central in the early ‘80s, she said. “They were not simply handguns, they were Uzis and AK-47s, sophisticated weapons brought in by the same CIA operatives who were selling the cocaine because they had to enforce bringing the profits back.”

After Webb’s series briefly grabbed headlines and provoked a media counterattack, Waters began her own investigation. After all, she says, her own constituents were asking “where are all the drugs coming from?” After visits to Central America and discussions with many of the individuals identified by Webb, including Ricky Ross, Waters concluded “that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies knew about drug trafficking in South Central Los Angeles and throughout the U.S.—and they let the dealing go on.”

With some audiences, the thesis that drugs entered the black community with official support comes as no surprise. “The first major jump in narcotics addiction in black neighborhoods followed the urban rebellions of the 1960s,” wrote Earl Ofari Hutchinson in his 1990 book, The Mugging of Black America. “The ease of entry and the widespread availability of heroin gave rise to the first alarms by blacks that drugs were being used to control discontent and pacify the community.” And though Hutchinson’s reference is to heroin, not to cocaine, a CIA connection to the heroin trade has also been documented repeatedly, most notably since the Vietnam War.

One of the earliest accounts of CIA involvement in drug trafficking was developed by Alan McCoy in his book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. McCoy’s story has been corroborated over and over again by others. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny did it in two books, Endless Enemies and The Crimes of Patriots. And in his 1996 book, Smoke and Mirrors, author Dan Baum blasted the war on drugs.

In a book focused primarily on “expensive, ineffective, delusional and destructive” anti-drug programs and policies, Baum takes on the CIA in a short aside. The “CIA’s Air America [helped fund] the secret war in Laos by flying the dopelord’s smack…a decade later the CIA would get caught doing the same thing, this time subverting Congress’s specific prohibition against funding the Nicaraguan Contras by making unholy and lucrative deals with cocaine dealers.”

Media backlash

Since its 1996 publication, Webb’s story has been the target of deeply critical attacks by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and other influential media. Even the Dayton Daily News has joined the braying pack from time to time—most recently when Webb came to town to testify in support of Rion’s legal action. Though the News passed on the opportunity to interview Webb, it took a journalistic moment to note that his accusations had been denied by the CIA and repudiated by his own editor at the Mercury News. That gratuitous slam at Webb omitted mention of editor Jerry Ceppos’ equally important assertion that the central claims of “Dark Alliance” had not been factually challenged by any source.

To succeed, the disinformation campaign that overtook the Dark Alliance story needed an audience that could be persuaded that Gary Webb was an isolated nut travelling a winding road to nowhere that had been blazed by conspiracy crackpots before him. And, having consistently ignored, and even suppressed, previous reports of the CIA’s criminal history, mainstream media was perfectly positioned to launch its smear campaign against Webb and his story.

But if Webb is a nut, so, too, is Rep. Waters. And so is U.S. Senator John Kerry, whose subcommittee tried and succeeded, at least partially, to document the misdeeds of CIA agents and their Contra assets in Central America. And so are authors Hutchinson, McCoy, Kwitny and Baum. And so is David Neil, the military policy officer once stationed at Homestead Air Force base. And so is ex-DEA agent Celerino Castillo, who has told his own story of Contra drug trafficking to Webb, Waters and others, including testimony before a congressional committee.

Castillo even posted a statement on a web page maintained by ex-California narcotics officer, Michael Rupert. On the page, Castillo has listed numerous names and dates, all portions of reports of drug trafficking by the Contras and of CIA support for those activities that he submitted to his own superiors. “In 1991, before I departed the DEA, I met with FBI agent Mike Foster, investigator for the Office of the Independent Counsel on Iran-Contra,” wrote Castillo, “where I gave him detailed information of the Contras’ involvement in drugs.”

Despite the accumulated evidence, corporate media may be among the last U.S. institutions (along with the CIA, itself, and the courts) to admit what others know—that the CIA did it. But the question for everyone else is what to do next. In 1997, Lovelace, along with fellow commissioners Tony Capizzi and Bootsie Neal, wrote Rep. Tony Hall expressing concern about the allegations against the CIA. Hall responded with a letter of his own.

“This matter will be fully investigated. The CIA’s inspector general has launched an internal investigation, “ Hall wrote. Since that time, the CIA has completed that investigation and issued a report with a summary that claims “no information has been found…” to link the CIA to drug trafficking or drug traffickers.

But the summary’s conclusions are not supported by the hundreds of pages of materials that are included in the report. And, in March 1998, CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz appeared before a congressional committee and confessed that the CIA had maintained relationships with Contras and others who were allegedly involved in drug trafficking and, in an admission that Waters calls “the smoking gun,” admitted that CIA Director William Casey had negotiated an agreement with the Justice Department that would allow CIA agents to suppress information about drug trafficking by individuals with whom they had contact.

Though Congress has taken no further action and Hall has had no further contact with the city commission about the matter, the CIA’s report details, and Hitz’s admission, have provided a basis for legal action such as Rion’s. In California, three attorneys have filed a class action suit against the agency, the Department of Jutice (DOJ), and numerous government and former government officials . The suit alleges that inner-city residents of Los Angeles, Compton and other California cities “experienced particular economic, physical and/or emotional injuries arising from the neighborhoods hardest hit by the crack cocaine epidemic, such as: addiction tocrack cocaine, death or absence of loved ones due to drug-related crime, reduction of income, and increase in the number of defendants.” The suit also alleges that the communities as a whole suffered from a related “lack of safety, overburdened social services, loss of local businesses and damage to the tax base.”

The suit asks for “a declaration that the secret CIA/DOJ agreement and the consequent policy and practice of not reporting drug crimes were illegal.” It also asks for “an order requiring the CIA to report to the DOJ all possible drug crimes by all persons…” and “money to rebuild the community and fund drug treatment.”

Now, that seems like a good start. It may not be justice, but should any affected community settle for less?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Adventures with Zionists

An experience not to be missed

The last six weeks of escalating Palestinian-Israeli calamity has introduced me to a whole new adrenaline-driven experience, to wit, confronting others on Facebook with whom I have a fundamental disagreement about what Israel has been doing to Palestinians since its founding.

I won't say that the sometimes intractable nature of my differences with others persuades me that there is no hope, but it has convinced me that I don't have the skills to negotiate some of the vast differences of opinion that I've encountered.  I'd like to keep responding to their arguments, but by now I have the feeling that with some of them a lot of what I say is falling on deaf ears. I can't deny that our continuing and repetitious verbal disputes are tiring.

Perhaps I flatter myself excessively when I say that I think I'm pretty good at focusing on substance, but I am aware that many of the people with whom I disagree feel that I'm the problem. Some have quite purple feelings about who I am and what the f*ck I'm saying. But it's not like I haven't run into an absolute buzz saw of opposition before about my position in favor of Palestinian self-determination.

Natan Sharansky comes to town

In Ann Arbor years ago--the summer of 1986 to be exact--I was approached by a representative of the UM-campus branch of Hillel, a national Jewish youth organization which could legitimately be described as Zionist. He wanted me to participate in a program featuring Natan Sharansky, at the time (and forever after) the most famous of Russian refuseniks.

Sharansky was regarded by the Reagan administration and by many American Jews as both a symbol and exemplar of human rights activism. He had suffered through harassment and long imprisonment in the Soviet Union and had finally been released and allowed to leave that country in February, 1986.

American Jewish organizations had managed to get Sharansky to tour the U.S. and appear in a months-long series of events designed to focus on the plight of Russian Jews as an international human rights issue and to highlight Israel's willingness to accept any number of Russian Jews who might be willing to make a new home there. It seems a safe assumption that the sponsoring organizations also believed that Sharansky's story would play well in the media, in general, and keep the mainstream of American Jewry invested in Israel as a second home for Jews around the world.

As a member of the Ann Arbor City Council at the time, and a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee, I was publicly identified with a wide variety of human rights issues, among them equal rights for lesbians and gay men, free access to reproductive services for low-income women, and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. My version of human rights seemed unlikely to win friends among an audience gathered to greet Sharansky. I said so to the young man from Hillel who invited me to the event.

Under almost any circumstances, I should have been pretty low on the list of likely suspects for introducing Sharansky. But it was summer, and Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Don Riegle were out of the state at the time. Equally unwilling to help was Ann Arbor's representative in the House, Republican Carl Purcell, whose staff didn't know who Sharansky was and who were easily alarmed by phrases like "human rights."

In desperation, the well-intentioned Hillel kid had called the mayor of Ann Arbor, Jerry Jernigan, another Republican. Given that Sharansky had celebrity bona fides on an international scale, the mayor's office was pretty much the bottom of the celebrity barrel. But when the kid mentioned human rights, Jernigan couldn't see his way clear to help out, either. "Epton," Jernigan said. "You need Epton. He's into that stuff."

So there it was. I tried to explain to the young man, who was shouldering the organizing load for the event because Hillel's director was also out of town, that his idea of pairing me with Sharansky wasn't going to work out well, but he insisted. "I think the Jewish community is mature enough to respect differences of opinion about human rights," he said.

I told him that I didn't think he fully understood what might happen and invited him to my house for a beer and a more detailed discussion about the can of worms he proposed to open. He accepted the invitation, showing up with a second member of his group. We made a congenial threesome and drinking steadily and to great and positive effect--I was anyway--I repeated in detail what I had told him before. My recitation went something like this:

"The audience that's going to show up to see Natan Sharansky, is not only not going to be interested in me or my expansive definition of human rights, they're going to be pissed off by a lot of what I say, and they're going to be pissed off that I'm standing there between them and Natan Sharansky and pissed off that they're not going to see him or hear him until I shut up and go away."

The rest of the conversation went more or less like this: me, socialist and avid supporter of Palestinian self-determination; Sharansky, refusenik, also Zionist hero and, in my humble opinion, Reaganite tool.

The kid, who was actually the president of the Hillel U-M campus chapter, was cheerful, positive and optimistic. He seemed to love how worked up I was, though it was obvious that neither he nor his friend had not heard all that many dissenting views about Israel from other Jews. He insisted that  Sharansky and I, our political differences and shared values, would be great for fostering discussion within the local Jewish community. His buddy concurred.

"Okay, then."

I came up with a speech 12 minutes long. It was going to exceed my slot on the agenda by two minutes, but I figured I would get away with it. I was wrong.

At the appointed time I appeared on the stage at U-M's Hill auditorium and began speaking. I had gotten about as far as "the concept of human rights should be seamless..." maybe two minutes into my speech when a scattering of coughs erupted around the theater. A little confused by the interruption, I stopped, but the coughing grew and spread. An epidemic.

I kept speaking, even backtracked out of a concern that some in the audience might have missed what I had been saying. That this was a completely clueless assessment of the situation became entirely obvious within the next minute as some people in the audience began standing and yelling for me to get off the stage.

Finally tuned in to the fact that reactions I had predicted earlier had manifested, I was still mildly surprised. At that point, after all, I hadn't yet mentioned Palestinians. I was still building a case for a definition of universal human rights, but the crowd had already accurately intuited where I was heading.

Someone approached me from behind as I stood at the podium. It was the Hillel kid. "You should wrap it up," he said, in a polite indoor voice. I could hear him, but the crowd had come down with a coughing fit and wouldn't have heard him if he had been screaming at me.

"You invited me to be here. You should be telling them to be more courteous," I said as he turned and walked away.

Looking back out at the audience, which had already transitioned to crowd on its way to becoming a mob, I jumped ahead to my commitment to self-determination for Palestinians and my belief that no definition of human rights that included Soviet Jews and excluded Palestinians was valid. At this point, the mob was screaming for metaphorical blood, people were standing. Faces contorted with anger, they were shaking their fists.

I wasn't frightened; I felt oddly detached, but also believed that even though the rage in the auditorium was a palpable thing, I was in no real danger. I recognized a Hillel board member who had legally changed his name to an Israeli-style name intended to convey his fierceness and his descent from Judah Maccabee, or some other legendary Jewish fighter. In the performance unfolding before me, he was definitely a lead actor.

I was again approached from behind. "You should leave," someone said.

I did. I walked off the stage into the audience. The crowd quieted, parted enough to let me through, and watched me leave.

Outside, it was still summer, still light. The broad stone stairway down from Hill Auditorium was empty. I felt somehow liberated. Three friends, who had been in the auditorium but had left before me were waiting at the bottom of the stairs. One of them, Rose Hochman, was crying. She hugged me. We all agreed that I had done what I had to do.

The next day, the debacle was a front-page story (below the fold) in the Ann Arbor News. I do regret that I never saved a copy of the story, or of the headline, at least. I'd like to get a t-shirt made emblazoned with "Epton driven from lion's den" positioned dead center on the shirt.