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The Town of Front Royal, VA and Where It Stands on its Constitutional Sands

Over the past year and a half, two groups have held weekly protests in Front Royal. The first group, Vigil for Democracy, launched the protests soon after the election of President Trump. By all accounts, the Vigil for Democracy obtained permits and conducted peaceful and lawful pickets, as provided for by the First Amendment. The group has met near the Town Gazebo on Main Street every Wednesday, usually from 5 to 6 PM and has renewed its permits as required by local town statute.

Soon after the Vigil for Democracy began its weekly protests, a group of counter-protestors emerged. Like the Vigil for Democracy activists, the counter-protestors, who consider themselves Trump supporters, have lawfully picketed at the same time. In both cases, the groups have conducted lawful and peaceful protests on public town streets. Recently, the two groups filed and received permits to continue their weekly First Amendment activities with one change: now the Vigil for Democracy group will appear from 12 to 1 PM by the Gazebo while the Trump supporters will congregate near the Gazebo and across the street from 4:30 to 5:30 PM—still on Wednesdays.

Last week, a few business owners appeared before the Front Royal Town Council to request that the protests be curtailed or moved to a different location. Their rationale is that the protests hurt their bottom line by discouraging potential customers from frequenting their respective business establishments.

Such an argument is somewhat novel from a constitutional standpoint. A purview of U.S. Supreme Court case law reveals a dearth of support for the argument that peaceful picketing can be attacked on the grounds that it affects local business revenues. Indeed, Town Attorney Doug Napier acknowledged the constitutional concerns inherent on imposing restrictions on political demonstrations on public streets, acknowledging that public streets can lawfully be used for First Amendment-related assemblies.

According to a Northern Virginia Daily News article dated September 5, 2018, however, Mr. Napier argued,

For ‘content-based’ activities, such as political demonstrations . . . the government may enforce the time and place they are held.

This proposition is well supported by case law. From a time standpoint, governments may limit free speech in a crowded public square if the speech will limit the flow of traffic and create congestion. Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965). In the case at hand, no one is alleging that the Front Royal protestors are causing traffic congestion.

The next issue goes to enforcing the place where the protests are held. The Court treats public spaces, or “traditional public forums” such as the town square where the gazebo is located, with considerably more care than protests held in a non-public forum. Stated the Court in Hague v CIO:

Streets and parks…have immemoriably been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public issues.  Such use has, from ancient times, been part of the privileges, immunities, and liberties of citizens.[1]

In the Hague case, a local governing body argued that it could restrict labor unions from distributing leaflets or meeting in public because this could lead to disturbances. The Court rejected this argument on its face. A local ordinance may not limit speech in a traditional forum merely because it may lead to disruptions to public tranquility.

Interestingly, Mr. Napier argued that it “may be possible” to limit the free speech rights of the groups at hand if the protests cause a loss in income to local businesses. Absent supportive case law, it is difficult to evaluate such a position. Nonetheless, the Town Attorney went on to say the following:

Napier noted that a U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a town’s decision to prohibit picketing in the interest of well being and tranquility. He added that the town would have to provide the protesters another venue in public view if they are relocated.[2]

The problem with such an argument is that it hinges on an apparent misapplication of law to facts. Napier it would seem is referring to a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Frisby v. Schultz, in which the Court upheld a ban on picketing in front of a residential home where a doctor was performing abortions.[3]The “speech” in Frisby v. Schultz involved picketing held at a non-public forum, whereas the speech involved in the case at hand occurs in as traditional a public forum as there can be: the town square or “Gazebo.” The protests that occurred in Frisby are by no means similar to those occurring in Front Royal.

Indeed, Justice O’Connor tightly limited the future application of her ruling:

General marching through residential neighborhoods, or even walking a route in front of an entire block of houses, is not prohibited by this ordinance. Only focused picketing taking place solely in front of a particular residence is prohibited.

The entire ruling, as written by Justice O’Connor, focused on preserving the privacy of individuals while living in their residences against “the devastating effect of targeted picketing on the quiet enjoyment of the home.” She further added that [t]here simply is no right to force speech into the home of an unwilling listener.”

Mr. Napier argued that the town can limit or even prohibit picketing in the interest of the community’s well-being and tranquility, but support for such a proposition appears to be limited to cases in which the picketing is targeted at a single private residence. Furthermore, the Supreme Court does not factor into First Amendment time and place limits the potential loss of revenue to local businesses when the protests occur in a traditional forum like the Town Square or the Front Royal Gazebo/main street area.

Any time and place restrictions upon free speech “must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.”[4]The courts weigh even content-neutral restrictions on free speech with strict scrutiny.[5]Absent a compelling government interest, the town of Front Royal cannot lawfully prohibit Vigil for Democracy or the counter-protestors from continuing their weekly vigils or pickets or protests.

It should be noted that the groups meet only for an hour, are small in number, and that businesses are divided as to whether the protestors hurt or help revenue. Indeed, recent heavy rains have impacted business revenue to a greater degree than the appearance of ten or twenty individuals waving signs. And the case law that speaks to a town’s right to limit picketing in order to preserve tranquility is easily distinguishable, because it applies to the picketing of a single residence in a non-traditional, semi-private forum, such as a residential street.

Should the town proceed to pass an ordinance that limits protestors from lawfully applying for and receiving a permit to appear in the town square, it will most likely face legal challenges from concerned citizens. Such a case would present an expensive and risky court challenge to the Town of Front Royal. It is a case the town most likely would lose.

 

 

 

 

[1]307 U.S. 496 (1939).

[2]http://www.nvdaily.com/news/local-news/2018/09/town-discusses-relocating-political-protests/.

[3]Frisbyv. Schultz, 487U.S.474,108S.Ct.2495,101L. Ed.2d 420(1988).

[4]Perry Education Assn. v. Perry Local Educators’ Assn.,460 U.S. 37, 45 (1983).

[5]“Freedom of Speech and Press: Exceptions to the First Amendment,” Congressional Research Service, CRS Report for Congress, Kathleen Ann Ruane. September 8, 2014.  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/95-815.pdf.




Nanotechnology: An Examination of Hopelessness, Ray Bradbury-Style

By Madeline Phoenix

There was a grand rainstorm today; it caused the power lines on our road to collapse, due to the colossal impact of a withered old oak tree. For almost four hours, we were bereft of technology’s ‘affectionate’ touch. Well, a house seems somber and gloomy without the cheerful, hospitable air of artificial orange-red lights, so we went out for a drive. The sky lit with the strange pulsations of an amber sunset, and a tapestry of His intricacy unspooled over the velvety horizon; the clouds of the sky sang with mysterious, mournful hues of turquoise, periwinkle and aquamarine, and a peculiar shade of rosy sepia made sensual love to the orange mesas of the storm-filled clouds. Clarisse was one of the only people, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, to see those sunsets, and to think about their beauty. Every other character was trapped within the thrall of their ‘family’, and the walls within which their technology constructed their reality. Clarisse meditated on the meaning and profundity of the natural world, and for this she was murdered. “I sometimes think that drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them…” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451).

While I write this, I contemplate what I’m using to write it: a 27-inch iMac that has a 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5 processor. This computer, like my iPhone, is constructed of tiny little microchips, and I am guided through everyday tasks by a helpful lady named Siri who has enough artificial intelligence to tell me what to eat for dinner and how to get there. My iMac and my iPhone record and track everything I do; when I think about it, I realize that they might call them friendly little things like “cookies,” but nothing I do on the Internet is private, and nothing I do on this computer is safe from surveillance. Maybe I sound paranoid, but sometimes I imagine a million beady invisible eyes watching me. They crawl up into my skin and pluck out my eyes; and then they are my eyes, and I see only what they allow me to, for beauty and truth indeed are in the eye of the beholder. They burrow deep beneath the drooping skin of my shadow-stained eyelids, and the sleep they have stolen from me conquers my worn visage. I can’t cry out or plead for some ridiculous, ill-begotten mercy because I’m too blind to realize that they’re eating me from the outside in. I am frozen in time now, and the artificial twinkling of Their bug eyes pervade the timeless fibers of my immortal soul. It is a cure, a gift, a prize, they proclaim; and I must trust the elastic skull-tight beached bleached blonde model on the grain-coarse screen, mustn’t I?

When I touch the fake, flimsy Flexiglass screen of my cell phone, a century’s worth of my intelligence filters away like dewdrops from a hot blade of viridescent green grass. The virtual ghosts of the future ensnare humanity—we just aren’t Ebenezer Scrooge. We don’t need to improve ourselves, or change from a miser to a lovely benefactor; we need to wake up and burn the bugs away before they claw their slimy infectious way into the cord-grey of our moldering brains.

El and Maddie

Nanotechnology has arrived in the U.S.A., but it’s not like democracy. It doesn’t allow people to learn, or flourish, or demonstrate any sign of individuality. It’s not freedom; it’s a sort of mind-slavery that will never truly go away unless we as a people battle it. It’s not just some nightmarish monster looming over the cavernous shadows of humanity’s future; it’s festering within the very marrow of our world today.

Whenever our phones blare a scarlet ‘1’ from System Preferences, we are given a new software update—an update that only welcomes more of the monsters into our hardware. Whenever we download the latest app updates from App Store, we are exchanging parcels of ourselves—but for what? For whom? We are not receiving anything in return, except for the manacles of false pleasure. Do we surrender to the vivid lights and secretive bugs embedded within the very threads of our subconscious because we’re bored?

It’s a quotidian action in these dying times to choose the colorful, simpler meme or post, rather than expend the effort and manna to open a tome of majestic knowledge; to live in these times is to exist as an amusement addict, addicted to useless information and biased propaganda; we are in the need of the next meme or vine or tweet to bring laughter to our dimming brains and synthetic perverse gems to our corrugated hearts. Nanotechnology has created the fabled handheld computer; cell phones can hold thousands of images, whereas the older, larger PC—which would consume an entire room, while cell phones take up the space of a palm and nothing more—could only retain one-fourteenth of the common electronic photograph.

People are forgetting compassion as a result of nanotechnology. They tap away at their keyboards, or the alphabets super-imposed upon their flickering touch screens, and they say cruel things to others—and, since they cannot see that their malice is hurting an actual person, they feel entitled to say whatever comes to their mind, whether it is ‘do cows snort up milk while laughing like humans do,’ or something else far worse. Recently, a sixteen-year-old sophomore girl who was part of the high school’s choir went missing. An adult Facebook Friend of mine shared a press release that stated: “Human remains were found;” but she did not speak of the situation with love or compassion. She said that the community needed to have a ‘loud, open’ discussion about gun safety and where gun owners should store their guns. The death is believed to have been a self-inflicted gun wound. Not once in her post did she offer prayers or sorrow or blessings to the family of the deceased girl; not once did she speak of the sadness or agony this family who has lost a child must be suspended within; no, she merely used the death of this girl to further her own political agenda. Unfortunately, this lack of empathy and terrible selfishness is not an isolated occurrence. Nanotechnology waters the worst within a person and drowns the goodness in a harmful pestilence, for which the cure is almost impossible to find.[1]

As Clarisse says, ”Sometimes I’m ancient. I’m afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always use to be that way?…I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451). Children these days, like the people Clarisse fears in Fahrenheit 451, would rather laugh about Fortnite than try to better themselves and their dying world. Fortnite is the incorrect spelling of ‘fortnight’, or a two-week period of time, and another epidemic brought upon the world with the rise of the Nanobot Age is ‘text-talk’, or illiteracy; it’s easier to watch an artificial screen of pixels, isn’t it? In all honesty, I find it easier to peruse social media than write; instead of creating new worlds with my words, I am furnished with a web of lies—and lies are silkier than truth; lies aren’t as hard to create. Lies obscure pulchritudinous pathways bordered with real flowers. Reality, virtual reality…if I swallow the red pill, won’t I be BORED? After all, life seems monotonous and colorless, what with all the iridescence and vivid hues of the virtual web the nanobots have enfolded us within.

How does nanotechnology affect the natural world? In order to obtain the resources necessary to create our phones and computers, and to power the “Cloud” in which all of our Google and other documents are stored, massive amounts of energy are used. Take a data farm in Northern Dulles, Virginia. It’s a massive institution, storing hard drives that collect and record our data. How much oil and coal is drained from the land, just to fuel this single farm? Multiply that single farm by hundreds or even thousands, because at least that many are needed to contain our virtual “Cloud” of information. And what of the resources used to build our semiconductor chips and other tiny bits that are used to send, store and receive our data? Each so-called “bit” requires energy. The land we live on fuels the creation of all this energy. At some point, the calculus of this land-pillage will become too great of a problem for humans to solve. Then we’ll call in our CPU’s and robots, and they will be in charge of our blue Earth.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10504500

There is an alternative. Come to my garden with me, and look at the yellow flowers; spring has at last arrived, and the lovely sun-yellow flowers resemble a lady’s fine slippers. These are real, and these are good. Watch the lilac trees and crape myrtles flirt with the glimmering cerulean sky while they sway to and fro in the wind; feel the light, frivolous teasings of the soft, flimsy flower blossoms while they swoosh past, buoyed along on the zephyrs of time summoned by the Vernal Equinox. None of these are unreal; and all of these are good. All of these are true; one does not need a substitute.

I still feel the teensy bugs, devouring every ounce of the natural world. I mourn for the ethereal emerald-azure hue of Mother Earth’s precious oceans, for it has little time remaining before it grows rancid, infected by the acid rain and smog and waste the nanotechnology has left behind in its apocalyptic wake. Soon, the nanotechnology will conquer the oceans too. Nanotechnology is fueled by the consumption of fossil fuels, whose production destroys this good Earth. The cloudless cerulean sky of a flawless gay day—will it not also succumb to pillars of dark smog and spirals of dying birds? Will the birds soon cease to chirp and sing everlasting choruses of truth, love and hope? And, as these things crest and trough like the tides of the waning ocean, people will be too addicted to their handheld devices and matrixes of un-thought to even notice; they will not even be able to raise a protest.

I never liked the sensation of being watched. And yet here I am, wondering how long it will take for the bugs to burrow beneath humanity’s eyelids; have they not done so already? How much longer do we have left before this dangerous dance ends with our souls exposed to their wicked darkness? We have no ‘red pill’; no crimson magic to rescue us from our failings; for the vibrant flashings of the screens have made us color blind. We have only our lackluster human shells and the looming specter of nanotechnology. Burrowing, burrowing…and we cannot even feel the pain, for the nanotechnology has already devoured us. What will be left?

What could be left?

[1] As it may have been noted, this essay is in electronic format. This only demonstrates the ‘efficiency’ of nanotechnology—it is faster to type this into a computer than to interact with a pen and a sheet of paper.




The TSA’s Attack on a Disabled Young Woman

I received a text last night. It was from my best friend. I knew she was dropping her 19-year old daughter off at the airport in Bozeman, Montana so that Desi could visit family on the east coast. I was expecting to hear something along the lines of, “Dropping her off was hard, but she’s okay.” After all, her 19-year old daughter is disabled. She has an IQ of 52. She receives social security disability assistance and struggles with short-term memory loss as well as a lost list of mental and physical disabilities that make it harder for her to get through the day-to-day aspects of growing up in 21st Century America. Sometimes I envy her a little though, because things that bother me don’t give her any pause. She knows some things are wrong in the world but she doesn’t realize just how wrong these things are. She’s also one of the most wonderful souls I know. She calls me her “Other Mom” because we’re very close, and she’s just as close to my eldest daughter.

Flying over the Blue Ridge Mountains

I was flying myself when I got the text. We were in a Cessna 172, which is a tiny propeller plane that seats four. It was a gusty afternoon here in the Shenandoah area. Gusty makes for bumpy air, but my man, his son and I had enjoyed flying over the snow-tipped Blue Mountains. We even flew over our house in Front Royal, and did a touch and go at the local airfield, which has a tiny strip surrounded by hills on almost all sides.

Nonetheless, it was freezing in the backseat and the heat in the Cessna wasn’t working. When we landed, I heard my phone buzz to announce a text message from Stevie. I took off my glove and with cold fingers scrolled down to read what Stevie wrote. I read the following words:

She was strip-searched.

I started to shake at this point and not from the cold. Stevie had also called while we were in the air. I hit the call button beneath the log of the last call received but she didn’t answer. I had to wait three hours before I got the rest of the story. It’s a story that no mother will feel good hearing or retelling, but some truths need to be shared and this is one of them.

John Adams wrote that we are supposed to be “a nation of laws, not of men.” The idea behind this quote is that all humans are fallible, and thus we must put in place protections to ensure that those who make and enforce the laws do not trample the rights of the people. The entire purpose of course in forming the United States was to form a “more perfect union” and thus “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . . .” See, Preamble to the Constitution.

Photo from https://bozemanairport.com/tsa-and-security

Our government is aimed at one thing: taking care of the people who live here in the United States. Government should defend its people from harm. Government—our government, for we are the people whom it was built for—should protect us from threats both foreign and domestic. Government should also protect us against violations of our natural liberties. As Thomas Jefferson explained it in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It should go without saying that strip-searching a disabled young adult at an airport violates everything this country stands for. Indeed, the regulations listed on the TSA website say nothing of strip-searching or cavity searching. The TSA does, however, apparently have the right to “pat us down.” The website itself explains the following:

A pat-down may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks. You may be required to adjust clothing during the pat-down. The officer will advise you of the procedure to help you anticipate any actions before you feel them. Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection, and areas may undergo a pat-down more than once for the TSA officer to confirm no threat items are detected.

TSA officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.

You will receive a pat-down by an officer of the same gender. TSA officers will explain the procedures to you as they conduct the pat-down. Please inform an officer if you have difficulty raising your arms or remaining in the position required; an external medical device; or areas of the body that are painful when touched. You may request a chair to sit if needed.

At any time during the process, you may request private screening accompanied by a companion of your choice. A second officer of the same gender will always be present during private screening.

See https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening

Please note that nowhere on TSA’s own website does it speak of strip searches or full body cavity searches. Their own procedures and regulations (at least the ones they make available to the public, who then relies upon these written promises) only speak of “pat-downs,” which are a far, far cry from a strip search or a full cavity search.

Can we rely upon the TSA’s own language as travelers? The simple answer is no. Apparently, the government lies. Or the people who work for the government as TSA personnel violate the policies in some of the worst ways imaginable.

Security checkpoint at Seattle Tacoma (SeaTac) International Airport by Minnaert

Back to the story at hand. Stevie called around ten PM EST. So that’s when I experienced or observed or heard about (however to categorize this when it involves someone who’s like family to you?) my best friend’s daughter being cavity-searched by the TSA. Again, as I mentioned, the girl is nineteen and she’s disabled. She has an IQ of 52. When she checked in at security, she submitted both her military ID (for her mother served in the Navy) and her disability card. Both mother and daughter told the TSA agent that the girl was disabled and was under the legal protection of the mother. No matter.

The girl unpacks her backpack and enters the machine that does full-body scans. Apparently she makes it through the screener. Now, the mom looks away for a split second. A few seconds later, after Mom has grabbed something out of her purse, her daughter’s gone.

Mom is searching now for her disabled daughter.

“She’s been taken into a private room, ma’am,” explains the TSA personnel.

“But she’s disabled, she can’t consent to being taken away!” Mom yells.

No matter.

Disabled daughter is escorted into a closed room. The young lady has no idea what’s happening. She knows nothing of rights to her person. She knows nothing of why they are taking her away into a room.

Meanwhile, Stevie is yelling but her daughter is locked away in a room with no recourse. Several things now happen that go against reason: a man is assigned to strip-search the daughter, but the daughter, now shaking, does manage to object to this. So the man leaves the room and a woman takes over. At no point does anyone explain that the scanner spotted something questionable between the daughter’s legs. Apparently, TSA security is not advanced enough to recognize a maxi-pad or a tampon; indeed, the Internet tells stories of hundreds or thousands of women who have been forced to display their soaked maxi pads or remove their sodden tampons to prove that they are not drug mules or hiding explosives inside their vaginas. That’s what it means to be a women traveling in 21st Century America.

But I digress. Because this is not an ordinary woman who knows how to object, how to refuse to be strip-searched, how to request a family member or friend be present, how to demand the presence of a police officer, or how to simply walk out of the airport and opt out of flying on a plane under conditions that are intolerable. She is legally, mentally, and physically incapable of either objecting or consenting to what’s being done to her.

The mom does everything she can. She’s yelling again and again, “You can’t do this, she is disabled, you cannot take her back there, you cannot violate her rights, she can’t consent!”

The TSA official argues. Mom goes through security despite the possible ramifications and continues to insist, “My daughter is disabled, she cannot give consent to this.” TSA guards block Mom from reaching room. Daughter is not allowed to answer cell phone when Mom calls (which again runs counter to our right to film ourselves while we are being searched and to have a person in the room with us).

So there she is. The disabled young woman is alone in a closed room. She is ordered to remove all her clothing, including her bra, her shirt, her pants, and her underwear. She is then ordered to spread her legs. All of this while she is on her period. Then the girl is CAVITY SEARCHED. “We were looking for drugs,” they explained to the mother later. Or explosives—they didn’t seem to know or care exactly what they might have seen instead of a maxi pad—and maxi pads for the record contain no metallic material whatsoever.

Eventually, after wiping the daughter’s hands to check for signs of explosives, the TSA official opens the door. In full view of everyone who may have been near the gates, the daughter stands there half-dressed, with her shirt still not covering her stomach. She’s shaking and crying when she finishes getting dressed and walks out of confinement.

Is this what we’ve come to in America? We are strip-searching disabled women while they’re on their periods—all without the permission of the young woman’s legal guardian? Are we not more worried about preventing crime than we are worried about protecting the innocent? From their own government? This whole war on terrorism has become a terror, or an attack on innocent citizens.

In the case of this disabled young woman, our government terrorized a U.S. Citizen who was powerless to defend herself. This cavity search was a brutal attack on a disabled person’s very humanity. As a former lawyer, I think in terms of legality, and this was illegal in about nine different ways, but this isn’t just about the law. It’s about the entire purpose of government. It’s about American principles.

We lose our rights piecemeal day by day and our government has become the enemy of all that is human. There’s always a morning after something like this. Like today, I wake up shaking and angry. I see a train and it’s coming toward us all. And I can’t do otherwise–I can’t wave at it and not care, so I try to figure out how to derail it. I’m hurt and angry and there’s some brokenness in me too, but there’s others out there who are more hurt and more broken than I am.

So I must act. Last year, I dedicated my art to peaceful political revolution. My latest book is about preserving the humans who are at the backbone of the political system. Not the system. The individuals who should (who MUST) be protected by it. My work is idealistic. I write and I work on the behalf of those who can’t derail the speeding train of inhumane abuse. I write for people like my beloved Desi, the disabled woman who is subjected to cavity searches by fiat of gray-faced terrorists who act in the name of the United States government.

Maybe this is all that’s left of my idealism. Telling stories to show how the train’s coming and how we can derail it, and in the meantime trying not to suffer too much when I hear about assaults on innocent victims or watch the death reels of white and black men being shot and killed or reading the latest paeans to human cruelty. Government should not be cruel to the innocent, but it is.

These are bad times we live in—it actually hurts me to write that, because I love my country and I love the humans who live under its aegis, but it’s the cold, blunt truth. And we help no one when we hide from it.

 




The Confusion of Charlottesville

We live in confusing times. I keep turning thoughts over as I peruse headlines and spot pictures of men carrying sticks, pipes and guns while supposedly enjoying their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble. I get stuck in weird places. Like I’ll be mid-sentence saying, “White supremacists in Charlottesville weren’t looking to peacefully assemble. You aren’t looking for peace when you don shields and firearms,” and then I read or hear someone say, “Yeah, so you think it’s right for Black Lives Matter protestors to wield sticks and pipes, to shoot cops in Dallas, to break windows in DC?” And I stop what I’m doing and loudly reply or think to myself, “No, no, it’s never right to bring weapons to peaceful protests,” and then someone else says, “But what about at Second Amendment rallies? Is it wrong for these folks to lawfully carry firearms while demonstrating their ability to bear arms responsibly and peacefully?”

Right there—I’m stuck. Stuck. So I think about it some more. I dig through the text of the Second Amendment; whoa, I get whirled around by the exact language I see. I turn over words and phrases:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Note that it says Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people peacefully to assemble. That means the federal government can’t make a law that prevents us from gathering peacefully in a public place. It doesn’t say a state can’t make such a law; nor does it say Congress can’t make a law that prohibits your ability to gather as a violent mob; indeed, when you march in D.C. or elsewhere, you must obtain the proper permits and follow limits the police and the authorities set on time, place and weapons. So when the Women’s March happened in D.C., we headed into town knowing we couldn’t bring sticks with our signs or weapons or much of anything other than our pretty pink hats and our walking shoes.

The Second Amendment talks about our right to bear arms. The text says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

When I read this, I wonder if the First Amendment trumps the Second because it comes first. Yeah, that’s not the most analytical of thoughts, but what happens if you want to exercise your right to bear arms, but you also want to do so while exercising your right to peacefully assemble? Do we think we can gather as a crowd to protest a statue peacefully while also being armed to the teeth?

See, I get lost in the minutiae sometimes. It’s the curse of the time I spent in Professor Belz’s Constitutional History classes at University of Maryland; it’s the side effect of surviving Professor Devin’s Socratic lectures at William and Mary. I turn it over in my mind until I get turned upside down; and then I search for an open door that will guide me out of the chaos that is public discourse in Twenty-First Century America.

Then I eat a tuna sandwich and receive a text from my daughter: Mom, practice is over at 5, you can pick me up outside the band room . . . and I come back to reality. I’m a mother, and Charlottesville harbors the university I want and hope this daughter of mine can attend in four years. UVA, after all, is a good university—and it’s seventy miles away from me. I look up to education. I view the hallowed halls of its campuses as sacred places, and sacred places should be safe ones.

But it’s not just my child that should be safe. And it’s not just universities that should be safe. All our children should be able to walk up and down a town square in safety—just as all our young adults should be able to walk to class without being threatened by weapons-wielding men and women.

Which brings me back to the headlines I keep perusing, and the questions that keep interrupting thoughts. And I realize, as I finish feeding the cat leftovers from the tuna can, that all of this is a distraction from the larger issue. Don’t get me wrong. Let me be crystal clear: no one should ever bring a weapon to a peaceful protest. And all protests should be peaceful. There’s no ifs ands or buts here. I condemn all violent protest. Period. I particularly condemn those who march under the aegis of rhetoric that is in and of itself violent: white supremacy. But those who march for Black Lives Matter should not carry weapons on their marches either.

But this is all a distraction.

From the bigger things that bedevil all of us.

Some of these things seem small, but they’re not. Like today, I asked my son how his lunch was, and he said he forgot it.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I bought it.”

“You bought it?”

“Yeah, she said to bring in money tomorrow.” My son looked at me. He knew I was upset.

“That’s gonna cost me ten dollars,” I said. And I sighed and walked away. Because you can’t explain budgets in any manner that takes hold with an eleven year old. But any adult reading this, anyone who’s trying to raise a family in America knows what I speak of. What little we have doesn’t go far, does it?

A lot of us don’t have a lot. The top one percent of Americans now own more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. Which is to say: America is riven by inequality.

Desperation and separation act as the fuel for our violent civic dialogue. Families are saddled with debt, but during the 2008 Recession, and other times throughout our history, corporations, not individuals, were bailed out of financial ruin. Corporations poison the water we drink, the air we breathe; yet wealthy shareholders, rather than workers, reap the unholy profits sowed by these sometimes legal corporate endeavors.

Jobs are “outsourced” to laborers working in other countries under slave-like conditions; robots, not Americans, fill newly-created American jobs; and corporations are hired to run enemies down in countries near and far—all in the name of waging an endless war against terror. A war that has few boundaries and no stated parameters for ending is also a war that exhibits little sympathy for the lives of innocent bystanders.

Meanwhile, the oceans grow more acidic; the trees in our forests, more scarce. Our scientists warn that our use of natural resources is killing the very earth we live in and is threatening the future of our children and our children’s children. Our very way of living is a violent one that leaves destruction in its wake, and still we carry on and march for or against statues erected to honor men who died eight score and many more years ago.

And yet our elected leaders understand very little of this. After all, they serve with no term limits, nor do they observe any form of meaningful limitation on who can influence them. Corporations are not citizens, and yet they sprawl out across the political landscape like teenagers in a frat common area, grabbing what they can from those who represent us in Congress. Both parties are, in short, corrupt. Each of the two major parties serves the corporate lobby. Each keeps the War on Terror going; each feeds from the same vat that feeds the rich and powerful.

We, as individual humans, are better, more important, more precious, more beautiful, more meaningful—than any of our ruling institutions. We each have the light of God within us, and this light can and does shine no matter how dark our institutions turn. We must remember what unites us.

We are unified by love. We are unified by the blood that runs in our veins and by the light that flows like living waters through our souls. We must seek the light that each one of us, as sons and daughters of the One, possesses. And we must demand that our institutions serve us, as individual beings with light, rather than the non-human, inanimate monster that is the modern corporation. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by old statues, or by ignorant men touting Swastikas, or by angry but misguided minorities who bring weapons to the public meeting place.

We must wake up. And join together in love and in light. And once we do this, we must demand that our institutions follow us into the light and take a route that will lead us to live in peace and in harmony with ourselves and with the Mother that is our Earth.

We—and Earth—deserve no less.

 




Judicial Review and Stephen Miller’s Usurpation

I know a lot of people who have served in the military; I also know a lot who have practiced law. I, in fact, practiced law for several years. In both professions, you have to follow certain rules. You have to keep in mind that the law is above your needs or wants–you must behave with a sincere respect for the law of the land, and you must understand that your actions and words carry meaning. Last night, Michael Flynn resigned as National Security Advisor after reports emerged that he engaged in improper (even unlawful) contact with Russian officials prior to his appointment.

This weekend, another Trump appointee, Stephen Miller, went on several talk shows and advocated that judges have no authority to review the President’s orders relating to national security measures. Speaking on the validity of Trump’s Executive Order 13769 “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” Miller said, “the powers of the President to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” This comment flies in the face of 200 years of constitutional authority. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803) (which all law students study in the first year of law school) provides for judicial review of executive actions.

Our Republican system is built upon the proposition (as stated in the Federalist papers) that no branch of government–and no one person who is appointed or elected to office–is supreme. Alexander Hamilton wrote the following:

If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their will to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. Fed. No. 78.

The courts check the power of the legislature, in other words, from substituting its will over the rights and liberties of the people. Hamilton viewed the judiciary as possessing alone the power to judge the constitutionality of actions taken by other branches. The Judiciary possessed no power over sword or purse, and in fact relied upon the executive branch to enforce its decisions. Fed. No. 78. While weak in some respects, the independence of the Judiciary meant that it alone could be trusted to remain impartial in disputes involving other branches of government, as well as the people who elected the legislative bodies and executive leaders. In Federalist No. 80, Hamilton held that the only proper place to hear a dispute between a citizen and the United States was in fact in federal courts.

Ever since the first cases brought before the Supreme Court under the leadership of John Marshall (who was the Chief Justice when Marbury was decided), the powers of the court to conduct judicial review have expanded, but courts have accepted that it is their duty to state what the law was:

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must of necessity expound and interpret that rule.” Marbury, U.S. (1 Cranch) at 177.

Eighteen years later, the Court ruled that it may review state court civil cases, if they arise under federal or constitutional law in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee. See 14 U.S. 304 (1816); see also Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264 (1821) (applying same principle of judicial review to state criminal cases). The concept of judicial review was interpreted even more broadly in 1958, when the Court found that it had the power to overrule any state action, executive, judicial or legislative it deemed to be unconstitutional. See Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958).

Said a unanimous court in Cooper:

“[Marbury] . . . declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by the Court and the country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system“. 258 U.S. 1, 18.

Some conservative scholars, like former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, have questioned the Court’s scope in Cooper. According to Meese, the Court took too much power to itself by declaring that it alone could interpret the Constitution, and perhaps Stephen Miller was echoing Meese to an extent, but there’s a far cry from arguing in what is still a minority opinion lacking any legal precedence that the Judicial branch is not the sole arbiter of the law and stating that “the powers of the President will not be questioned” and are not subject to judicial review.

At most, Meese argued that the Judiciary is not the sole arbiter of the law, but must share such powers with the other branches of government.[1] Miller takes it much farther than Meese ever did. If Miller’s position is correct, then the current President can write whatever Executive Orders he wishes, and the courts have no authority to review orders relating to national security. But perhaps the administration truly believes in executive powers so vast, so overarching, that a President may simply throw out two hundred years of precedence by fiat. What would a serious constitutional scholar like Edwin Meese have to say about such an argument?

I don’t think Meese would take it very seriously (but I may be wrong). And as it stands, the judiciary will be taking a hard look at the President’s Executive Order banning certain individuals from seven Muslim countries. The President and his advisors will also be taking a look at whether their efforts to protect the national security are constitutionally supported. Scholars will come down on both sides of the issue before the courts, but eventually, the constitutionality of the ban will be resolved by someone other than the man who signed the Order; in other words, the judiciary will rule on it.

Until then, we will see the President interview and vet possible replacements for Michael Flynn. Hopefully, the President will appoint a National Security Advisor who understands the rule of law, and who will accept that he or she must submit to it. The National Security Advisor, and the national security of our nation, is not above the rule of law.

And Miller will hopefully learn that his statements on judicial inferiority to the executive branch and to the head of the executive branch are plain wrong. Even the most adamant conservative legal scholars comprehend that the Judiciary is at a minimum equal to the Executive branch on issues of constitutional interpretation.

We as citizens, meanwhile, must educate ourselves and we must remain alert. Usurpation of the rule of law and disrespect for basic constitutional principles like judicial review are in play under the current administration. We must not stand idly by. It is axiomatic that courts have the power to strike down actions taken by the Executive branch or the legislative branch that are inconsistent with the federal Constitution. It is also axiomatic that appointed or elected officials must obey the law of the land—and the courts (not the President alone) determine what this law is.

_______________

[1] For a discussion on the invalidity of judicial supremacy, please see http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/02/14410/. “It is true that Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion for the Court in Marbury holds that ‘it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,’ and that Marshall argued that this duty requires the courts to treat the Constitution as a law of superior obligation, giving preference to it when it conflicts with the acts of the legislature or executive. At no point in the Court’s opinion, however, does Marshall claim that the Court ‘gets the final say on whether laws passed by Congress or implemented by the executive branch are constitutional,’ as Malor wrongly claims.

“On the contrary, Marshall’s argument points to the very thing that Malor is so eager to deny: namely, a legitimate authority in the elected branches to be guided by their own interpretations of the Constitution in the exercise of their own powers. The ‘framers of the Constitution,’ Marshall wrote, ‘contemplated that instrument as a rule for the government of courts, as well as of the legislature.’ If, however, the Constitution is equally a rule for legislatures as well as for courts, then the former have, no less than the latter, an obligation to act according to their best understanding of it, regardless of what the other branches may say.

 





The Desperation that Feeds Trump Supporters and the Other America

 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore_5.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore_5.jpg

I’ve been thinking about how to address Donald Trump’s ascendancy, and it took me a few days to process the election and see it clearly for what it is. My starting place is one of love for my brothers and sisters, but I must admit this election is a little hard for me. After all, Trump has fed the sleeping lions of white-lashing racism with his rhetoric, and he has promised to ban Muslims, deport millions of illegal immigrants and build a wall to separate us from our southern neighbors. Moreover, at least eleven women have accused Trump of sexual assault, and Trump himself has admitted to believing that his celebrity status entitles him to grab women by the genitals. This is the man Americans elected. And the response of many Americans is one of anger, fear, and dismay.

Like I said, it took me a few days to process my own feelings and thoughts. I shared some of this outrage and dismay. But I am not, as so many people have suggested, a Clinton apologist. Indeed, I see, as many others have seen, the Obama presidency as representing a dramatic expansion of Executive powers, with a corresponding decrease in American freedoms. Poverty still haunts minority populations, and we still see Two Americas, as Martin Luther King pointed out: one is rich, the other is poor. One is entitled; the other is deprived. Under Obama, big banking grew larger and continued its criminal taking from the lower and middle classes; drone attacks accelerated on innocent populations; health care grew exponentially more expensive; real wages hardly changed (except to feed the deep pockets of the autocrats who run big corporations); surveillance of innocent Americans expanded beyond measure; police brutality and militarization spiraled upward; in other words, the rich got richer, and the poor ate canned soup for dinner. If you look critically at his actual record, Obama grew the government, fed the corporate coffers, and did very little to protect human rights.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1620972255/

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1620972255/

At least, that’s my take on it. In coming to my conclusions, I was influenced by blogs written by Deb Bryan and R.R. Wolfgang, as well as articles that appeared in The Intercept, Democracy Now, The Guardian, and the website Brand New Congress. Finally, I was also impacted by a book review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Hochschild spent five years traveling to Louisiana and getting to know some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, or those who live in the economically deprived and environmentally ravaged vicinity of the Bayou in southwestern Louisiana. Hochschild listened to these southerners and tried to comprehend them in full.

I need to emphasize this point: we need to listen to one another’s viewpoints in order to understand why people voted the way they did. Instead of jumping to the conclusion (which itself relies upon a logical fallacy) that all those who voted for a man who speaks in racist and sexist terms are also racist and sexist, we need to listen to Trump supporters and seek to understand their actual point of view. Those of us who voted for someone other than Trump may well feel horrified by the prospect of a fascist takeover of America, but to arrest the movement that supports Trump, we also must understand what fuels it. We need to understand our fellow Americans and offer them another alternative. And we also need to understand that many, many Americans viewed the Obama presidency in a negative light. In fact, many of the so-called “Deplorables” felt like they were drowning under Obama. Their piece of the American Dream had shrunk to a phantasmic sliver, like silvery fairy dust dispersed over a wind-blown range.

Russell Brand spoke of this in a recent video:

As often is the case, Russell Brand delivers a solid and comprehensible perspective on how to think about the Trump Presidency. The fact is we need to listen to those who feel like Trump gives them a voice. We need to understand the failures of Liberal Democracy in America if we are to achieve meaningful political change. Russell lists some of these failures:

Photo from http://flickr.com/photos/58820009@N05/5622506846

Photo by Eva Rinaldi from http://flickr.com/photos/58820009@N05/5622506846

  • Americans are seeking true change, and viewed Hillary Clinton as likely to continue Obama’s policies. Many of these policies failed to ameliorate the lives of the common people.
  • Over the last eight years, there has been terrible unrest in many populations, fed by poverty, racism, and a sense of despair. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, drones kill, and money from America feeds the killings, which in turn feeds the growth of terrorist organizations like Isis. Amid all this appears corporate bailouts without corresponding aid to the lower classes, who flounder at subsistence wages.
  • We still have the mindset that created the nuclear weapons; we haven’t achieved disarmament, and we keep ploughing more money into armaments and foreign entanglements.
  • Hillary Clinton would have continued Obama’s war on the Middle East and she would have continued to cozy up to American banks and corporations, all of which has led to the decline in how real Americans are treated. After all, real Americans fight in these wars, real Americans are struggling to live off of subsistence level wages, and real Americans are facing their Other America each and every day.
  • The conditions have occurred under which Trump could become President. He is merely taking advantage of a failure of American Liberalism, which did not offer a choice that made sense to the electorate.
  • The political system does not connect with people or give the disenfranchised Americans true power.
  • A true alternative was not provided by Hillary Clinton. The Democrats had the revolutionary Bernie Sanders and gave the people a recycled alternative instead: a politician beholden to banks and corporate cronies.

As Russell explains, we need to offer actual not superficial alternatives. Clinton would have continued policies begun under prior administrations that did not solve the issues faced by blue collar Americans. This election, argues Russell, was inevitable and it had to happen–we needed to reach some sort of crisis, so that we could not continue on as we were.

Now we know that politics cannot continue on as they have been. But we must seek change going forward by starting with our own inner reality. In order to change the world, we must change our mindset. And we need to love one another–absolutely we must love one another. We must find a way to see how our brothers and sisters reached a place where such a desperate vote for an individual like Trump felt necessary. We need to understand how they feel; we need to comprehend and care about the Other America. And all of us need to become involved in our country’s political and social future. We must work on true democratic reform. We must prepare for revolution. Peaceful revolution.

__________

As good of a closing paragraph as that felt to write, it lacks specifics, and thus felt a little hollow to me. I want to give you things you can actually do.

For starters, you can get involved in your local community.

I volunteer through my nonprofit, Strays Welcome Interfaith Ministries. We help the homeless and abused women in particular. For certain, there are shelters in your community who need your support, and there are also churches who are helping various people who are in need. Speaking of churches, one near me is adopting a Syrian refugee family, and I am thinking of asking if my own church, The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley, will do the same thing. I’m gonna offer to help run the program. If you wanted to help refugees, you could ask your church if you could get involved in a similar program or efforts.

Another way you can help is by getting involved in local politics. There is an organization built by Bernie Sanders supporters, called Brand New Congress, that is trying to recruit 400 individuals (non-politicians) to run for political office. For more information, please go here: https://brandnewcongress.org/home. To better reach politicans, here is a helpful article: “How to Make Your Congressman Listen to You“.

You could also dedicate your art to revolutionary politics. I, for one, am beginning a new novel which will be a political saga. The entire point of this novel will be to help awaken humanity to the need for change, and the intent will be to provide a moral and positive blueprint for change. If you’re not inclined to art, but wish to speak up, you could write letters to newspapers or media outlets, or you could call your senators–just don’t be silent. Silence is what got us here. Speaking up with love and commitment to achieving political change is necessary.

You could also work with environmental action groups. Many, many organizations are rising up in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. And keep in mind, Obama is taking a “wait and see” attitude, which means the pipeline is gonna get built unless enough citizens rise up in peaceful political protest against it. Here are some places to find Standing Rock protest information:

https://www.facebook.com/nodakotaaccess/

https://www.facebook.com/Standing-Rock-Rising-1131347910264898/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1749814981940531/

http://standwithstandingrock.net/take-action/

http://hugs.world/standingrock/

And here’s a link for a list of peaceful protests occurring around the nation’s capital: Assemble

There are also peaceful protest groups you can join, like:

Peace Alliance

Nonviolent Peaceforce

United for Peace and Justice

Roots of Peace

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

My point is, get involved. Get involved locally; get involved globally. But get involved. Use your special, God-given skills and abilities to make this world a better place. With love as your root, and courage as your foundation, please, get involved.

 

 

 




As Black Deaths Pile Up, Peace Matters

It’s International Peace Day, but our nation is riven by dissent. A football player kneels during the National Anthem to protest police brutality, and he’s accused of being unpatriotic (and worse). Two more black men die at the hands of police (in Tulsa and Charlotte), and a city erupts into peaceful and then violent protest. Sadly, I open the newspaper or scroll through my newsfeed and the first thing that I think about is, I wonder if anymore blacks have been shot today?250px-peace_sign-svg

As far as the football player kneeling during the National Anthem, I would remind others that this is by its very essence a peaceful and orderly form of protest. If Colin Kaepernick feels like the National Anthem does not adequately represent him as a black man, then perhaps it’s up to us to listen to how this could be so. Did you know, for example, that the third verse of the National Anthem refers to terrorizing hirelings and slaves?

No refuge could save the hireling and slave’

From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that the British freed more than six thousand slaves during the War of 1812, and then allowed these freed slaves to fight against their former captors (and the country that allowed this bondage). I didn’t know it either, and I was an honors history major and a lawyer.

In fact, I always wept during the Anthem when I attended ballgames—because I was proud of the home of the free and the brave. I didn’t know that the verses left unsung referred to defeating slaves in battle . . . and that’s of course the nature of history. It’s told by the victors. I think we all can accept that as great as this country is, the United States is (rightfully) ashamed of its slave-owning and trading heritage.

After knowing this fact, am I still proud to be an American? Of course I am. I know our nation isn’t perfect, but the ideals we embrace in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation and The Two Americas—are beautiful ones. Equality, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the enfranchisement of individual rights, tolerance, public welfare, freedom of conscience—these ideals are ALL beautiful.

By Daniel Hartwig - Derivative of file:Colin Kaepernick and Kyle Williams warm up.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29243682

By Daniel Hartwig – Derivative of file:Colin Kaepernick and Kyle Williams warm up.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29243682

But I’m white. I’m privileged. I am privileged simply by dint of my ivory skin. If you question whether white privilege exists, then ask yourself this: why do we try to find a reason for why all black men are shot, while we search equally hard to justify why a white man had sex with an unwilling female? Why, in other words, is it easier, less frightening, less dangerous to be white than it is to be black in America?

I ask these questions in honor of International Peace Day. Until we understand why blacks are throwing rocks and water bottles at police officers in Charlotte, until we try to comprehend why so many blacks are being shot by white police officers, we will not have peace in our country. Peace exists only when those who are assigned the duty of serving and protecting us can set aside skin color when deciding who is worthy of protecting as opposed to who represents a threat to public order.

When Colin Kaepernick first kneeled, I wasn’t sure how I felt about his gesture. I recognize American greatness, and I love my country. Why can’t we stand in respect during a song that extols our country’s greatness, I mused. Standing quietly never hurt anyone. On the other hand, the act of kneeling was itself peaceful. It posed no threat to public order or the peace. It was an act of not even civil but social disobedience . . . and as such, don’t our very highest values protect a man’s right to speak up or fail to speak when his conscience demands otherwise?

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in 1519, was he following social norms? I highly doubt it. He was rebelling against an established religious and political order because he thought it was corrupt. Priests, after all, were selling salvation for money. And when Martin Luther King led marches on the South, was he obeying the established political and social order? Of course not. He saw that there were two Americas; one white and privileged; the other, black, impoverished and oppressed. These two great Martins spoke out against the Establishment of their times.

Kaepernick speaks out against the killing of blacks by police officers, and he gets crucified by many for his outspoken assault on America. My question is: how is it not patriotic to speak out in favor of the sanctity of black lives, unless we as a country do not believe those lives really matter? Doesn’t it come down to whether we value the lives of all our citizens, including black lives, enough? If whites were suddenly the minority and whites were being killed at the rate blacks were being killed, wouldn’t white men and women feel attacked, appalled, and even embittered?

I really think that’s the issue at hand. Black lives for some reason don’t seem as precious as white lives. A black dies in the inner city? “Oh well, it’s just black on black crime,” we shrug. Or a black man is shot during a routine traffic stop? He must have done something wrong. He probably talked back to the cop, or maybe he had several outstanding tickets, or maybe he owned a gun, or perhaps he didn’t follow voice commands quickly or suppliantly enough. He MUST have done something to provoke the officer.

As one of my friends said, “Mothers worry for their black sons when he walks out the door to walk four blocks to his friend’s home not because he may get hit by a car or there might be rain but will he come home in a body bag at the hand of an officer of the law? A mother makes her black son call home every hour, on the hour, just to make sure he’s not in trouble. A black boy’s mother must think differently than a white boy’s mother. She must worry about the police, and whether they will hurt her son.”

As a white mother of white sons, I don’t have to worry that my son might be harassed by the police. I also don’t have to worry about getting pulled over. In fact, I’m famously lucky and well-treated by officers of the law. Every time I get pulled over, I receive a smile (sometimes many smiles) and assistance with my trunk and little stickers for my kids and directions to wherever I’m going. I cannot imagine what would happen if I were black. I know I wouldn’t get treated as well. And I know it would weigh on me. How about you? Would you feel angry or frightened if you were pulled over for an expired tag? Or if you were on your way home from work after a twelve hour day? Or if it was the fifth time you’d been pulled over that year—each time for nothing or next to nothing?

And yet as a black citizen, you must be perfect. A white can talk back to a cop, but blacks are taught to be on perfect behavior and hope for the best. This is wrong.

Photo by Tulsa Police

Photo by Tulsa Police

Our system says that we’re all created equal. And our officers of the peace are supposed to serve and protect all lives with the same ardor—and yet blacks are too often treated as more of a potential threat to safety than whites. In fact, the average black views the police as more a threat to his or her safety than he views the police as a source of safety. Again, this is wrong.

There’s been a disconnect in how our police officers are being trained. They’re taught to stay alive and make it home to their families, after all, and they are taught to distinguish between those in need and those who are a threat. The threat matrix police officers use is supposed to be color blind. Police officers are not supposed to treat blacks more suspiciously than they treat whites, but in general I think they do. At some point in the training process, police officers are either being taught to distinguish people based on color, or they’re not being trained to resist the urge to check skin color first, everything else, second.

That’s a bold statement, you might be thinking. But the black deaths keep piling up. The officers in Tulsa are now under investigation by the Department of Justice for the shooting of Terence Crutcher on Friday, September 16, 2016. The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte involves conflicting reports by police and by family members of the deceased, and there is no available video footage to review. So I feel unable to analyze this shooting effectively. But the black deaths pile up, and as a peace advocate, I must ask why, and all I’m left with is that at least some if not most of these shootings could have and should have been avoided.

What’s the solution? Peaceful protests, like that of Colin Kaepernick, are a good starting place. Writing opinion pieces may help. Trying to understand the plight of blacks in America should most certainly help us better comprehend the problems involving law enforcement in this country. Reform of police training should also be undertaken immediately, and I would hope that federal and state governments would involve black leaders and civil rights leaders in this process.

If cops are killing blacks disproportionately and without justification, then people are dying unnecessarily. No one should be allowed to die unnecessarily. And it’s our duty as American citizens to make sure that all Americans receive equal treatment under the law, and at the hands of those who enforce that law. May peace and freedom reign—for all of us.




A Real-Life Banned Author: Stephanie Saye

Stephanie Saye is one of my friends. She’s also the author of Little 15, which tells the story of a high school girl who has an affair with her basketball coach. Little 15 raises a number of provocative issues, like: whose fault is it anyway? What sort of moral culpability, if any, does the teenager bear? What kind of girl gets involved with a married man? What kind of married man violates all moral and legal precepts by sleeping with a child?

The plot of my upcoming book, Ripple, does not shy from difficult subjects either; indeed, by chapter eight, the main character has killed her child-molesting husband with a golf club, and yes, friends, Helen Thompson would do it again. Why? Because he had it coming to him? Or because he had threatened to rape their daughter again? Did the main character act in self-defense? Could she have prevented the rape from occurring? How does a girl heal after having been raped? How does a girl overcome the pain and stigma of rape and incest?

Like Stephanie Saye, I write about subjects that are taboo–that make grown men cringe. When I first pitched my book to friends and acquaintances, many people gasped, winced, or simply stared at me slack-jawed.  Soon enough I realized that many people couldn’t get past my one-sentence synopsis. I know that Stephanie has encountered similar resistance. But you know what? If people can find the courage to read our books, and to delve into the deep issues we explore, they might find the tools they need to carve a path out of their own darkness.

But there’s the rub: our books must reach the public.  And so when Stephanie dropped me a line the other day to let me know that Little 15 had been banned from a private literary event in Houston, well, I got fired up and asked her to write about her experience here. Without further ado, I present–

• • •

Stephanie Saye:

Do you know what sometimes happens to fearless authors who write controversial books?

Their books get banned.

And that’s exactly what happened to my book just last week.

Long story short, I was uninvited to market and sell my book at a high-profile literary event this week in Houston.

I’m not going to tell you the event name, because I’m not devious and I don’t believe in revenge. But I will say this: the keynote speaker for this event is a best-selling author (I’m talking New York Times Bestseller list here), whose blockbuster novel was recently made into a hit movie.

Up until a few days ago, I was one of a handful of authors selected to sell books before and after the big name author’s speech, which based on ticket sales, is expected to draw a crowd of over 1,000. And for an indie author hungry for sales, that’s like striking gold.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve worked diligently back and forth with the event coordinators on copy and images for promotional materials, including the event program that would feature a write up on my book. I did exactly what they asked of me every step of the way. I made travel arrangements. My husband set me up for wireless credit card processing. I ordered promotional materials for my booth, along with a couple hundred copies of my books from my publisher, which were delivered to my door step in six separate boxes that have since taken over my living room.

Everything seemed to be falling in place for this event, until I opened up my email one morning and found the following message:

Good Morning Stephanie,

Thank you so much for signing up for the 8th Annual [HIGH-PROFILE PRIVATE LITERARY EVENT]. After further review with administration, we feel that your novel is not appropriate for our event. Due to the nature of the book, we just do not feel comfortable including it at the event. I apologize for the late notice and decision. We thank you for considering to join our event and again we are sorry to have to decline.

We wish you the best with your future endeavors!

All my best,

[Event Coordinator Person]

Are you kidding me?

The thing is, the event committee APPROVED my book almost two months ago. As part of the selection process, I was required to send a copy of my book and a sample of reviews. Shortly thereafter, I got an official letter inviting me to promote and sell my book at the event.

So here’s how the cookie crumbled. When the copy for the event program went up the ranks for approval, a chief decision maker apparently stopped on the description of my book and took issue.

Little 15—a riveting story about a girl, her coach and their torrid affair.

“This points to a major breakdown in our selection and approval process that we will be sure to correct moving forward so this never happens again,” one official assured me over the phone. “We are so very sorry, but given the nature of your book, we just aren’t comfortable having it at our event.”

Fine. I know my book is edgy. I know it’s risqué. But as I told the event official, my novel is intended to be a cautionary tale—one that is helping to raise awareness of an issue that happens all too often in our schools. In fact, if you look at some of the reviews for Little 15, readers have said that my novel has inspired them to sit down with their kids and talk to them about this kind of abuse.

I used that and other reader feedback as the basis for producing a book trailer for Little 15, which I scrambled to launch last week on the heels of having my invitation revoked. Psychologically speaking, it was what I needed to do to move my artistry forward in the face of what some might consider a failure or loss. But in my mind, having my book banned from an event because of the nature of its content underscores my purpose as an author: to write books that move me, no matter how off color my stories might be in the face of mainstream societal beliefs.

On the other hand, I understand how the topic of my novel could be offensive. Literary works of art often are. And that’s OK. I knew that going in. But to change your mind a week before the event? When I’ve already invested in promotional materials and 250 copies of my books?

Judy Blume: Banned Author

*Inhales* *Exhales*

Moving on.

So now, as I reflect on the events of last week, I find myself asking the question: “Is there a silver lining to all this?”

Oh yes, my friends, there sure is.

As it turns out, having my book banned puts me in a category with some pretty famous authors like Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, Shel Silverstein, Maya Angelou and Judy Blume to name a few.

All of these authors, and many like them, have had a book—or in some cases, books—removed from school or library shelves.

This sort of thing still happens all the time. I realize that my book wasn’t actually removed from a library or school, but having my invitation revoked to a private literary event gave me a taste of what censorship feels like.

In Good Company

To give you some background, each year the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom receives hundreds of reports on books and other materials that were “challenged” (their removal from school or library shelves was requested).

Not surprisingly, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series (which is one of my family’s all-time favorites) draws the most complaints, commonly from parents and others who believe the books promote witchcraft to children. Other frequently challenged titles include:

  • “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, for its use of language, particularly references to race
  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, for the description of rape she suffered as a child

    Harper Lee: Banned Author

  • To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, for offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
  • Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer, for religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, for offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult, for homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence

That’s a pretty impressive list, if you ask me. And I’d be lying if I told you that I don’t aspire to be a part of it. So why this allure to be part of the banned?

Because to me, being a banned-book author is more of an accomplishment than a drawback.

It means not being afraid of tackling hard-hitting topics that might make people uncomfortable. It means not shying away from writing about real-life drama that sometimes exposes the dark side of our human character. And it means having the courage to write for one’s self instead of being driven by what people think.

That’s what I did when I wrote Little 15.

And that’s what I’ll continue to do over and over again.

• • •

***Stephanie Saye is the author of Little 15—a story about a high school basketball star, her coach and their torrid affair. When she’s not writing novels, getting a wax or spending time with her husband and two sons, you can find Stephanie on the street corner trying to hock the 250 copies of her book that she’s now stuck with after getting banned from a recent literary event. A recovering corporate suit and a native Texan, Stephanie surprisingly does not own a horse, a gun or even a pair of chaps.

To purchase a copy of Little 15, please click on the link HERE.

What do you think about censorship, banned books and controversial topics?




Media Distortion and Partisan Politics

Today, an article by CBS leads with the following statement:

Republicans emphatically approved a toughly worded party platform at their national convention Tuesday that would ban all abortions and gay marriages, reshape Medicare into a voucher-like program and cut taxes to energize the economy and create jobs.

Here is what the platform in fact says:

The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. It opposes using public revenues to promote or perform abortion or to fund organizations that perform or advocate abortions. It says the party will not fund or subsidize health care that includes abortion coverage.

As I’ve written in the past, I’m a moderate Republican, or Libertarian who votes Republican.  I believe in a woman’s right to choose.  And in the past year, I’ve grown more and more disenchanted with the Republican Party’s drift to the right on social issues.  But CBS transformed the Republican Party’s statement, that an “unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed,” into a total ban on abortion.

If that is what the Republican Party meant to say in their platform, they would have said as much, or completed the sentence with something like:  “. . . therefore, we support a complete ban on abortion.”  Even Todd Akin, to the far right on abortion rights, supports the legality of abortion in some very limited cases.  The platform clearly opposes public funding for abortion.  If the Republican Party opposed abortions in all circumstances, I don’t think they wouldn’t even need to bring up the public funding issue, since there would be no abortions to fund.

Romney has stated his position on abortion:

“My position has been clear throughout this campaign,” Romney said. “I’m in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother.”

While it concerns me that the media distorts Republican positions, it mishandles the Democratic Party in much the same way.  For example, when President Obama announced his support for gay marriage earlier this year, Fox ran the following headline:

 

Obama Flip Flops, Declares War on Marriage.

Fox switched its headline shortly thereafter to a somewhat less partisan one:

Obama Flip Flops on Same Sex Marriage.

Let’s examine the original headline.  First, the use of the word “flip flop,” which remained in the updated headline, is unnecessarily provocative.  A more favorable commentator might say, “Obama reexamines beliefs and supports equal treatment of gays.”  Or the headline could read, “Obama changes opinion on gay marriage.”  The latter headline, I might add, is value-free and accurate.

And in the case of gay marriage, it is very telling that many Republican commentators view support for gay marriage as destructive to traditional marriage, or marriage between a man and a woman.  Republicans often speak of liberty.  But Republicans who oppose amendments that allow gay marriage seem to place their own moral values over the liberty of individuals to seek the same legal benefits granted heterosexuals.

Democrats, on the other hand, also speak of freedom, but limit that freedom as it applies to business and industry. When it comes to liberty, I am not sure that either the Democrats or the Republicans apply it with any consistency to their party’s platform.  Each side picks and chooses what we should and should not be free to do, just as reporters pick and choose how they present complex issues.

That brings me to the reason for this article.  The obligation of the media is to report on the news objectively.  Editorials are an exception, of course, but even an opinion piece is more persuasive if it provides the facts first, without a partisan filter.  The problem with a straight-up news piece that leads with a distortion of the facts is that everything that follows is subject to question.  Instead of informing and educating, this sort of writer filters the truth and in doing so, loses the chance to change the minds of his or her readers.

If a writer really believes in her argument, she should provide the facts that both support and belie it.  A fearless writer, after all, is unafraid of being proven wrong.  And a civilized debate is one in which the participants seek not victory, but truth.  To me, that best serves the public discourse.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on media distortion and the public discourse. Please be respectful and civil as you analyze the issues.

 




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