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.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

T.J. Spytma is out of prison

and we should all be happy about that.

Brendan and I drove 500+ miles northwest last Wednesday (and back on Friday). It was a great trip--lots of music along the way, things to talk about, fuel-stop food, wool to gather--but the point of the journey was Thursday, when we got to spend a few hours with friends T.J. Spytma and Penny Ryder.

T.J. will be 55 years old in November and when that birthday comes, it will be the occasion for his first party outside of prison since he was 15. Penny picked T.J. up at the Cotton Correctional Facility on Tuesday and, after a joyful moment of being together without supervision for the first time ever, they loaded a couple of boxes of personal items into Penny's car, the sum total of T.J.'s material accumulations these last 40 years. They headed first to the parole office an hour away, where T.J. would be expected to show up probably twice a month for the next four years to be urine-tested and to look his parole officer in the eye.

In his pocket, T.J. had a check for $176, his savings from decades of paid work at a Braille production facility inside the prison. But T.J. had no complaints about the job, which he considered a good one compared to the other options. T.J. and Penny had plenty to talk about on the way to the parole office, but there were lots of distractions, too, like how green the world is, how tall the trees were, how fast the cars go, and how a free and quiet moment felt.

Of course, there was lots of strategizing to do; the two of them have few illusions about how difficult the adjustment would be for T.J. individually, and for both of them together. Before T.J. had even gotten out, they had already decided they would begin couple's counseling right away. They knew they would need plenty of structure. There was so much to learn, including, as it happened, that he would be billed $2,000 by the state for the four years worth of drug-testing and parole officer eyeballing that lay ahead.

In a week, T.J. would begin a part-time job with the American Friends Service Committee's Criminal Justice program, the same program that had brought the two of them together in the first place, and that Penny had run for more than 25 years before she retired. T.J.'s job would be to staff the program's Parole Workshop project, which helps lifers and other long-term inmates prepare themselves for parole and, in particular, for the routine, but grueling, hearing before their parole board.

The parole hearing is usually so stressful for long-time inmates that many end up dreading it more than the prospect of doing additional time. For years, lifers in Michigan prisons had difficulty even getting to the hearing stage. But one attorney in Michigan, Paul Reingold, spent a good deal of his own time lobbying for regulatory changes that would at least allow long-time inmates to get a hearing. To his dismay, he discovered that most of them, frightened and unprepared, would mess up the hearing, unable to cope with aggressive questioning from staffers whose job amounted to making sure that if the inmate harbored any doubts about himself, could not manage his own anger, or had an untreated mental illness, the breakdown would happen at the hearing, and not after parole was granted.

Already familiar with AFSC's Criminal Justice program in Michigan, Reingold went to Penny to express his concern about the alarming rate at which lifers blew their parole hearings. After considerable strategizing with allies, Penny and AFSC developed the Parole Workshop, which included readings, reflections and discussions aimed at getting participants to think more deeply about the factors that drove them to commit their crimes, the consequences for their victims and the communities they came from, and how they had changed in their understanding of their own life, how their capacity for empathy had grown, and how they would use freedom, if it came to them.

For T.J., who has spent the last 30 years in prison thinking about his own crime and the crimes of others with whom he has served time, working in therapeutic groups and individuals sessions to understand who he was developmentally at the time he committed his crime, the changes he had to make, and how to cope with his own victimization as a child, the job is a perfect fit. He won't be able to go into the prisons to lead the workshops himself (at least not right away), but he will be able to coach the coaches, and communicate with inmates taking the workshops, encouraging and guiding them by mail and telephone.

A horrifying crime
[Note: Even though the names of the victim and her family members are part of the public record, T.J. has asked me, as a sign of respect, to not to use their names, and I have honored his request.]

In 1974, T.J. (then 15) and another boy broke into a neighbor's home with larceny on their minds. The two teenagers, already regular abusers of barbiturates, were high. Before they were done ransacking the house, the neighbor, a local school employee, wife and mother, returned home.

During the crime, T.J.'s accomplice raped the victim and perhaps struck the blow that killed her. But T.J., himself, struck the first blow, and also slit the victim's wrists before he left, with the intention of sparing the dying victim from further suffering.

In the many years that I have known T.J., and the even longer initial period in which I knew of him, he has never denied any of the details of the crime and has acknowledged the gravity of what he did, not only to the victim, but to her family and to the social fabric of his community.

Though some of his statements have been qualified by observations about his drug use and juvenile status, T.J. has been clear:

"I, along with my co-defendant, did the unthinkable... It was my idea to do the breaking and entering. My judgement was not that of a mature adult and my decision making was further influenced by my use of barbiturates prior to [the victim's] death. When my co-defendant and I were discovered by [the victim], in the home, I was the first to strike her from behind."
--from T.J.'s letter to me, October 23, 2010

It doesn't take much imagination to guess at the degree of community outrage and grief that accompanied the news of the killing in Muskegon County, Michigan. Even 40 years later an on-line Michigan news service headlined the story of T.J.'s parole this way: "Notorious murderer Timothy Spytma paroled from life sentence." The article itself is a reasonably measured description of what T.J. did, how the murder/rape affected the community, how the case proceeded through to sentence, and, using a judge's letter regarding a possible parole, how both Spytma and the laws regarding juvenile prosecutions and sentences have changed. But the headline very likely speaks louder than the story.


"In one way or another, we articulate what has happened to us through the person we have become."

On the way back to DC, while Brendan, using his ear buds, communed with his music, I listened to Azar Nafisi, on audio disc, reading her own book, Things I Have Been Silent About. It was the second time around for me with Nafisi reciting her own words. I love the book. Nafisi (also the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) is a luminous writer inspecting her own life, so modern and so old-school, so gothic and so exotically Persian. But I stopped the disc and roused Brendan to quickly take down a quote from Nafisi that put me in mind of T.J.:

"In one way or another, we articulate what has happened to us through the person we have become."

Maybe, I thought, but looking at the person T.J. has become, how could anyone begin to grasp what has happened to him, what he did, who he was, who he has become? How could anyone meet T.J., feel his warmth, watch him with Penny, watch his absolute focus on Brendan when they were in conversation, and also guess what a terrible thing he did when he was 15 years old?

Certainly, there are people, including [the victim's] children, who were (and remain) entirely opposed to setting T.J. free. At 17, the victim's son, discovered her maimed and tortured body on his return home that day. He opposed T.J.'s release on the very reasonable grounds that he doesn't believe that T.J. could possibly be rehabilitated because the U.S. prison system does not effectively rehabilitate and that T.J. would be a danger to the community upon his release.

It's difficult to argue that prisons do little to rehabilitate, do little to address mental illness, do little to treat drug addiction, do little to teach literacy, and do inflict, nearly every day, an unusual level of indignity and deprivation that goes far beyond the fact of imprisonment. But there is now quite a lot of evidence that T.J. is not only rehabilitated, but that he has achieved that rehabilitation largely through his own efforts, through his personal will, through the diligent application of his considerable intelligence, and through the remarkable expansion of his capacity for compassion and empathy.


Doing time, lots of it

There's no question that T.J.'s rehabilitation in prison was a lengthy process. He didn't even begin any kind of psychotherapy until 1986, eleven years after he was first sentenced to prison. Michigan prison practice at the time was actually to deny therapy for inmates with life sentences until they had served at least ten years of their sentence. For T.J., this only compounded the difficulties he faced--a 16-year old felon with a history of substance abuse and emotional trauma--in adjusting to a life sentence in an adult prison. That he survived long enough to make it out is a tribute to human resilience. The prison system, itself, deserves little credit for T.J.'s personal triumph, powered as it was by T.J., assisted as it was by Penny Ryder and a handful of other believers who worked hard on his behalf.

In early 1986, as part of a court hearing on an appeal of his sentence, he had a psychiatric evaluation conducted by the same psychiatrist who conducted his evaluation before his 1975 sentence. At the conclusion to his 1986 report to the court, Dr. Denis Walsh wrote this:

"He wishes to see his crime over and done with and yet, I do not see it that way. I feel his crime is significant and indicates weakness in ego functioning which enables primitive aggressive impulses to erupt into overt behavior. I think Mr. Spytma is unaware of what conflicts are defended against by these hostile acts. I must, therefore, take the position that he needs psychiatric treatment before he can be considered for release... He has worked very hard, using whatever tools he has been given to do his best to ready himself for release, but no psychiatric treatment has been given... Up to this point, what has happened is that a mentally ill individual has been warehoused and struggles against despair."

This report, when it got back to T.J., could have compounded his despair. But by that point, already well along the path toward eventual rehabilitation, he was motivated to do more. Finally eligible for psychotherapy, T.J. kept moving. In a report filed with the Department of Corrections in 1987, clinical psychologist Stephen Purcell praised him:

"...from his very inception into the group, Mr. Spytma showed high interest and motivation in wanting to explore the underlying psychological precipitants to his crimes... The subject has been very cooperative in terms of group participation and support of other members of the group... this clinician views Mr. Spytma as being a very intelligent and affable individual who is willing to work on the problems that have precipitated his [original] offense. It appears that the subject will make impressive movement in therapy providing he continues to attend on a regular basis."

But it was years after that before T.J. actually told anyone about having been sexually molested at 10 by an older step-sister and, subsequently, at 12 years old, abused multiple times by an adult sister-in-law. Up to that point only T.J., himself, and the two women who victimized him knew what had happened.

For a 2004 psychiatric examination, T.J. wrote a 20-page account of his relationship with his mother and his feelings about his father's death when he was nine. In writing the report, he described his feelings about what he had done to [the victim] and to her family:

"I came to realize much, much more how my actions affected the [husband and children of the victim]. My God, I caused them all such needless pain and suffering. [Prison psychologist] Dr. Purcell helped bring the feelings home. He would ask, 'What if that were your mother? What if you came home to find your mother in the same condition as [the victim's son] found his mother?' Contemplating those personalized questions was emotionally draining for me. I felt I had come to know the sadness, the loss, the suffering they each experienced. What if [the victim's children] had children of their own? They would never have their grandmother. My actions that sad day were so far reaching. Birthdays, holidays, they must be particularly difficult for each of them.

"When my own mother passed away on April 16, 1992, I knew, with a much greater degree of certainty, what all of them must have felt that day in 1974. [But] while I have a fairly good understanding of the moments leading up to my mother's last breath, they didn't have [even] that. I can't imagine them having total resolution with unanswered questions about their mother's death. I feel for them. I carry the guilt of having deprived them of so much potential happiness."

Through it all, or most of it, from the mid-'80s on, Penny was there for T.J. In another 2004 report to the psychiatrist conducting a pre-parole exam, T.J. wrote about Penny:

"Aside from my immediate family, my most significant and cherished relationship is with Penny. I was especially fortunate to have Penny in my life when I was going through group therapy and at the time of my mother's death. Admittedly, because all of my relationships prior to Penny were short ones, I was hesitant to be entirely trusting, but the longer our relationship continued, the more trusting I seemingly became. Like my group experience, I can be vulnerable with Penny. I can admit when I experience fear. I can cry. I need not ever worry about her thinking less of me... She saw and helped me understand that it wasn't until my mother passed away that I could finally mourn the deaths of both my parents."

Penny also wrote the psychiatrist. He quotes from her letter in his report:

"I have helped him to own his emotions and to realize that emotions were appropriate for people and prisoners to have. Yes, in prison there are times when exposing your emotions is dangerous, but that he needed to express them to people he could trust... The friends that he has picked to share with over the years have for the most part been ones that actually helped him to grow. The ones that he has been hurt by he understands that it is very much a normal part of life."

Few people are ever more deeply and systematically exposed than a prisoner who wants to heal, to move on, to seek parole. But to get where he is today, T.J., had to learn to let his defenses down more than the rest of us routinely do.


Growing up in prison

And could learning to do so be any more difficult than it must have been for a 15 year old with a history of drug abuse entering an adult prison, an inmate who kept secret the facts about two separate experiences of continuing sexual abuse for some 30 years while serving a 40 year sentence in prison? But he did it, and in the process became a paralegal and a member of the Mass Incarceration Committee of the National Lawyers' Guild, and is only a few credits short of a bachelor's degree.

Even prison guards who know T.J. laud him. Psychologist Alison Jones summarizes the remarks of one prison official for a pre-parole report on T.J. in 2008: "She knew him both at Coldwater and at J.C.F. She asserts that he is definitely a model prisoner, is very respectful towards prisoners and staff, and never has to be checked about anything. He was a geriatric aide for elderly prisoners when she knew him at Coldwater. He went way above and beyond his job duties and went out of his way to be helpful to others. She sees him as a very caring and compassionate person. Given the age when the crime occurred and the growth that has occurred over time, she feels that he could function well within society and that there is little more that the prison system has to offer him in terms of rehabilitation. She notes her perception that he has rehabilitated himself and grown up in prison. He has succeeded where many prisoners have failed. She notes that he did hard time and was able to overcome his circumstances and turn a negative into something positive."

But even after this report, it would be another six years before T.J. got out of prison. And the first day out he discovered that he wasn't done paying the state. The next day, T.J. and Penny were off getting a state ID for him, and getting him registered for Medicaid. Of course, the bureaucrats he encountered needed to know why he didn't already have ID, why he wasn't already registered for health care. Because this is my first full day out of prison in forty years, he told them.

People were cordial, he said. "Some of them just smiled and said 'welcome.'" But either way, both T.J. and Penny are going to take everything in stride. They know that he will keep paying in small ways for the crime he committed in 1974. But they also know that a new life is beginning for T.J., and that he has work to do; helping others understand what they have done and preparing themselves for freedom.





Monday, June 9, 2014

Larry Summers misses another important point

He's clueless about the consequences of inequality

From time to time, Larry Summers gets things very wrong. He hypothesized that women were largely underrepresented in the sciences at least partially because of innate gender differences.

He championed bank deregulation during the Clinton years ("...it would take a Republican Congress and the Clinton administration’s Robert Rubin and Larry Summers at Treasury to repeal Glass-Steagall."), a deregulatory step that others, including Ron Suskind, author of Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, suggest had much to do with the economic collapse of 2008.

And, following that collapse, from which he seemed to have learned the wrong lessons, Summers, along with Tim Geithner, was one of the leading actors pushing bank and corporate bailouts and downplaying stimulus spending and infrastructure investment within the Obama administration.

As Dean Baker put it in "How Larry Summers' memo hobbled Obama's stimulus plan," posted on common dreams.org, "In short, while the data was crying out for more stimulus, the Obama administration openly embraced the need for deficit reduction, effectively slamming the door on the prospect of further stimulus. The basis for this original sin can be found in [Summers'] December memo, which, unfortunately, provided the administration's game plan long after it should have been clear that it had been superseded by events."

Susskind makes it clear that Summers' policy recommendations suffer, in part, from his high opinion of himself. "Instead of looking at [Summers'] record pockmarked with bad decisions, people see his extemporaneous brilliance and let themselves be dazzled. Summers' career has come to look, more and more, like one long demonstration of the difference between wisdom and smarts," Suskind wrote in Confidence Men.

But no matter the various judgments of history, Summers isn't going to go away. He blogs on economic and political issues for Reuters, gives lots of interviews and writes a lot of op-ed pieces. His latest piece, "American inequality goes beyond dollars and cents," ran in today's (June 9) Washington Post.

Summers' op-ed begins with a nod to Thomas Piketty's new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which examines the growing inequality in income and wealth in the United States and around the world. "This is indeed a critical issue," Summers writes.

Later he observes that increasing "tax productivity" would not do "any noticeable damage to the prospects for economic growth," but quickly moves on from serious consideration of policy changes that might reduce inequality. Instead, he considers unequal outcomes in life expectancy and educational achievement, two areas in which Summers has never previously demonstrated much interest.

Nevertheless, he's happy to point out that differences in life expectancy for older people "more likely have to do with lifestyle and variations in diet and stress..." Summers also cites figures that make it clear that children from affluent families are exposed to many more "enrichment" experiences than are children from poor families, but, he concludes, that to address unequal outcomes we should not merely focus on inequality. "...it is crucial to recognize that measures to support the rest of the population in other ways are at least equally important," Summers writes, though he does not specify what those other "measures" might be.

In any case, what seems mightily important here is a point missed by Summers, but noted elsewhere by others, notably Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in "The Widening Gyre: Inequality, Polarization and the Crisis," which they wrote for inclusion in The Occupy Handbook, edited and compiled by Janet Byrne. Citing the work of political scientists Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal and Nolan McCarty, Krugman and Wells argue that there's no separating inequality from the political polarization and gridlock of our time.

"Soaring inequality is at the root of our polarized politics," they wrote. That polarization has "made us unable to act together in the face of crisis. And because rising incomes at the top have brought rising power to the wealthiest, our nation's intellectual life has been warped, with too many economists co-opted into defending economic doctrines that were convenient for the wealthy despite being indefensible on logical and empirical grounds."

Krugman and Wells may not have been including Summers in their list of "co-opted economists," but given his demonstrated preference for bank deregulation and bailouts over significant stimulus spending, we should be forgiven for assuming Summers belongs on the list. Krugman and Wells see many of Obama's policy compromises with his intractable opponents in Congress as a direct result of inequality-linked political polarization.

In 2009, they wrote, "we arrived at a Keynesian crisis demanding a Keynesian solution--but Keynesian ideas had been driven out of the national discourse, in large part because they were politically inconvenient for the increasingly empowered 1 percent."

Summers would probably prefer not to be reminded that the policies he has advocated in the past have done little to protect ordinary Americans from economic hardship. His Post op-ed actually includes a shout-out to progressive economist Dean Baker, suggesting that Summers would like us to forget his track record. But we ought not forget--if we want to reduce income inequality (and political polarization), and if Hillary Clinton follows Obama to the presidency, we want to do our best to make sure that Larry Summers finds employment somewhere other than the federal government.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Life and memory, a continuing story

Today, Bernie lives

I will be 67 years old in a couple of months. I am not feeling particularly morbid at the moment, but it gets easier and easier to count the number of my days. It’s reasonable to assume that I could live another 20 years—unless something unexpected comes up—and also reasonable to assume that I will be in decent health most of those 20 years. Beyond that point, all bets are off, and both disability and death will loom much larger.

But it occurs to me, in this moment, that the true span of an individual life includes the years in which others will remember the otherwise departed. My father, Bernie Epton, died in 1987. But today he is alive in memory. Mine.

Today is not a special day. It’s not an anniversary of anything that happened to Dad. But I have been reflecting on my own life, and on my children, and how we have lived, separately and together. One thought triggered another, and Dad was suddenly present.

Today, Dad is a young boy in Chicago, living through the Depression and writing his father in Atlanta. Not to worry, Dad, he writes. Do what you have to do in Atlanta. I will take care of everything here.

Today, Dad will drop out of school at the University of Chicago and enlist in the Army Air Force. Today, Dad will leave for an Air Force base in England, where he will begin leading bombing runs over Germany and Eastern Europe.

Today, Dad will meet Audrey Issett, a private in the British army assigned as a plane spotter with an anti-aircraft unit on the coast of England. Today, Audrey is a combatant in the Battle of Britain. Today, Audrey and Bernie will fall in love.

Today, the war in Europe has come to an end and Dad will be rotated back to the states for the invasion of Japan, which will never happen. Today, Audrey, pregnant with Teri, will finally make it to the States and meet the maniac in-laws who will be her family for the next 65 years.

Today, Dad will pass the bar exam and become a lawyer. Today, Bernie Epton will lose his first race for Congress.

Today, Audrey and Bernie and their four children will stop at Rosenbloom’s after going to a movie together at the Hamilton on 71st Street. We will order five hot fudge sundaes and one strawberry sundae to go. (“Teri, Jeffrey, Mark and Dale, they are simply full of schwale,” Dad will sing endlessly throughout our childhood, or at least until his oldest two become teenagers, and things stop being so much fun).

Today, Dad and I, divided by all the things that divide fathers and sons, will argue about the war in Vietnam. I will tell him that the war is evil and so are the war makers. I will not support the war or acquiesce to the domination of the war machine, I will tell him. And he will show me his multiple medals and insist that we owe service to our country.

Today, after being drafted, I will leave for Canada. Dad will be deeply grieved by my decision, but he will give me money to help me on my way. He will pretend the money was actually left to me by my grandfather, but I will know better.

Today, Dad and brother Mark will board a plane for Memphis, where they will join in solidarity with the Memphis sanitation workers marching in a memorial parade for Martin Luther King.

Today, on a visit home, I will knock on the door of my parent’s apartment. Home alone, Dad will shout “what’s the password?” the first phrase of a great Marx Brothers routine.

Today, Dad will pay for a naming ceremony at his synagogue for Nathan Nightrain Epton, my first child. Nate won’t be there. Neither will I. Nor will Nate’s mom be there. Dad will have Nate named Adam Nathan Epton because he doesn’t approve of the name I gave Nate, and Adam begins with A, the first letter of Dad’s father’s name. In the Jewish tradition, this is the way to name a child after an ancestor. Nate won’t care, at all. Over time, I will learn not to mind, either.

Today, Dad will retire from the Illinois State Legislature after 16 good years during which he only screamed in frustration at his legislative colleagues maybe a dozen times, okay, maybe a couple dozen. Today, Dad will stop saying he’s the smartest guy in the legislature. Today, Dad will stop saying he’s the richest guy in the legislature.

Today, Governor Thompson will call Dad and ask him to be the Republican candidate for mayor of Chicago, and run against whoever wins the Democratic primary, Jane Byrne, Richie Daley or Harold Washington, an old friend from the state legislature.

Today, Washington will win the Democratic primary and because racism will motivate many white Chicagoans to cross party lines in the general election, Dad will become the first truly competitive Republican candidate for mayor in decades. Today, Dad will try to explain to the media that his campaign slogan, “Epton, before it’s too late,” is not a coded racial message. Almost nobody will believe him, but he will insist that he’s right, they’re wrong and the slogan will remain in use.

Late tonight, after a long day of campaigning, Harold Washington will say to a campaign worker who has come to hate Bernie that the man they are campaigning against is “not the Bernie Epton I know.” She will be surprised by the depth of Harold’s compassion and his obvious affection for Bernie.

Today, finally, the race will end. Washington will win, becoming the first African American mayor in Chicago history. Dad will lose and begin lamenting the damage the campaign has done to his reputation.

Today, I will talk to Dad, who has woken up, as he does every day, feeling humiliated by his defeat and horrified by the belief that he is a pariah. I will try to tell him that the reality is not so awful as he imagines, but nothing I say will seem to help and the smiles seem few and far between.

Today, four and a half years after the 1983 election, and less than a month after Harold Washington died, Dad will die. Today, Dad will be buried in Oakwood Cemetery on the south side, where Washington is also buried, and where generations of Chicagoans, mostly African American and Jewish, are buried.

Today, more than 26 years after Dad died, I remember him. Today, Bernie Epton is alive.



Monday, May 26, 2014

Reparations: Ta-Nehesei Coates tells it like it is.

But plenty of folks will want to argue the point.

As the cover of the June issue of Atlantic Magazine advancing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument for reparations for African Americans puts it: “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debris of our ancestors, America will never be whole.”

I’m with Coates. I believe that 450 years of oppression and expropriation of wealth requires compensation. Making the effort strikes me as both a moral obligation and a fantastic investment in our collective future.

Coates lays out the argument for reparations with at length. His piece is concise, but also a marvel of detailed reporting and history I won’t try to match. But I still want to set up some of the arguments against reparations that one is likely to hear, to try and wrestle those arguments to the ground.  I can’t help but think that there can be only a limited number of explanations for those that oppose reparations for African Americans. Included among them:

1.     Having grown up in a society that normalized that theft, opponents of reparations may believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, that they are inferior, and that they do not deserve relief.

2.     Opponents of reparations might claim that compensating for the generations-long theft of labor and wealth from African Americans will come at a direct cost to them, or that we as a society cannot afford reparations.

3.     Some opponents may believe that others have suffered systemic oppression and have not been compensated for their losses.

4.     Some people might argue that they (or their family) just got to the United States; they are not part of the problem.

5.     Some people may not oppose reparations, but they don’t believe it will ever happen.

6.     Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans or benefit in some other way from the continuing humiliation of the African American community. They will fight against reparations as hard and as long as they think necessary.

7.     Some politicians, who would lead the fight against reparations represent the interests of those who entertain one or more of the above beliefs.

8.     And then there’s Clarence Thomas (who arguably fits into more than one of the above categories), who even opposes affirmative action and claims to feel stigmatized by the policy, and who apparently believes that he has not been properly celebrated for his accomplishments.


African Americans’ problems are of their own making

If you are simply one of those who believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, or that they don’t deserve relief, or that they are in some way inferior, the problem may be that you simply don’t know enough black people. This would not be a surprise in a country as segregated as ours.

You are probably white, but you could still free yourself from that apparently limiting condition by expanding the same sort of empathetic response that you presently feel on behalf of battered women, say, or Syrians, or Rwandans or dolphins or puppies.

Or you could free yourself from the zeitgeist with the same act of political will and forethought that has already persuaded you that the 2008 stimulus package wasn’t big enough or that climate change needs to be addressed now. Regardless, if you even remotely agree that the wealth rightfully earned by generations of African Americans has been plundered, ask yourself who has benefitted from that theft.

Maybe, it doesn’t feel like you are one of the beneficiaries, but a lot of great fortunes were built on the backs of slaves and tenant farmers and convict laborers, and job competition between white workers and black workers that held down wages for all workers to the almost exclusive benefit of the owning class. Reparations are a way to begin repairing all those problems.


It will be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses.

Perhaps, it could be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses, but in general we should think of the cost as a legitimate liability, the settlement as a negotiated agreement that acknowledges responsibility, as a good-conscience effort to compensate the recipient without causing unbearable harm to the party wishing to make good, and as an investment in an egalitarian society that prioritizes equality, peace and harmony.

Besides, think about how much the lack of compensation for unrewarded effort, for theft, injury and harm, has already cost us. Reparations could hardly cost us more.


Others have suffered systemic losses and have not been compensated.

There aren’t a whole lot of people who would argue against paying reparations to African Americans just because some other group ought to get paid—though there are certainly a fair number of groups who have suffered losses. But it would be hard historically to identify a group that suffered more harm for longer. Working people come to mind. So do women. Central and South Americans. Africans. Asians. Lesbians, gay men and bi- and transsexuals.

There are certainly important considerations raised by this point of view, but, well…everything in its own time, I guess. Moreover, a society operating under an elevated understanding of justice that would come into being after reparations to African Americans would be a different world, which would be more prosperous and egalitarian. Under such transformed conditions some injustices would feel like they mattered less. And other legitimate claims would be more easily addressed.


Paying reparations would make recent immigrants to the United States responsible for the suffering of African Americans.

Well, we are collectively responsible. It’s our country. And you’re here now. What kind of society do you want to build? If we work together to restore equity, recent immigrants likely will prosper along with the rest of us.


Reparations will never happen.

Well, yes, in a country in which no-nothingism seems to define our politics, our African American president is the target of unreasoning hatred and right-wing billionaires spend whatever it takes to elect uncritical henchman, it’s easy to understand such pessimism.

But it took 250 years to end slavery in the United States. Addressing the damage that has continued to accumulate since that time, might take another 250 years. But it will happen faster if we don’t indulge in such pessimism and choose to take action instead. In the meantime, in the pursuit of such a great good, our collective health would probably improve. And we’d make new friends.


Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans and other people serve the political interests of constituents who get some benefit, real or imagined, from the continuing oppression of African Americans.

It’s certainly true that some people receive such valuable benefits from ripping off others, but we need to be able to distinguish which ones receive a material benefit from race-based exploitation and which ones receive less tangible benefit, like the relief associated with the knowledge that some people are worse off or more despised than you are. That second group should not be a priority, but they should be labored with if the resources or inclination are there.

Forget about the first group and their retainers and close beneficiaries. They are the enemy. They probably won’t completely disappear, even after the rest of us have moved on.


And then, finally, you might oppose reparations because you are Clarence Thomas.

Well, never mind, Justice Thomas, you may be the most lost of all lost causes. It’s nearly impossible to guess what it’s like to be you and what you’ve given up to get where you are now.


But let’s give Ta-Neheisi Coates the last word:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

“Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

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