Thursday, July 19, 2007

Berkshire Bound

I'm vacationing in Massachusetts until next Wednesday. I'll have my computer, but I expect internet access to be spotty, at best. So, if I don't post until then, find other things to do.

Plame's Suit Tossed

A U.S. Federal District Judge has dismissed former CIA operative Valerie Plame's suit against members of the Bush administration for leaking her identity. The judge was George W. Bush appointee John Bates. You can access the opinion here.

I know nothing about the relevant laws in question, so I have no comment as to whether the ruling was legally correct. I have to presume the order will be appealed, though.

The Past is Now: The Jena Six

The case of the Jena Six is one of those that even I, massive cynic that I am on the state of America's racial progress, thought was a thing of the past. It is reminiscent of nothing more than the "legal lynchings" that characterized the Jim Crow South. Its facts are appalling. It is an unbelievable display of state-sponsored racism that dwarfs even the Genarlow Wilson case in terms of raw injustice. Here is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with the scoop:
This story begins in the small, central Louisiana town of Jena. Last September, a black high school student requested the school's permission to sit beneath a broad, leafy tree in the hot schoolyard. Until then, only white students sat there.

The next morning, three nooses were hanging from the tree. The black students responded en masse. Justin Purvis, the kid who first sat under the tree, told filmmaker Jacquie Soohen: "They said, 'Y'all want to go stand under the tree?' We said, 'Yeah.' They said, 'If you go, I'll go. If you go, I'll go.' One person went, the next person went, everybody else just went."

Then the police and the district attorney showed up. Substitute teacher Michelle Rogers recounts: "District Attorney Reed Walters proceeded to tell those kids that 'I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen.' "

It wouldn't happen for a few more months, but that is exactly what the district attorney is trying to do.

Jena, a community of 4,000, is about 85 percent white. While the black community gathered at a church to respond, others didn't see the significance. Soohen interviewed Jena town librarian Barbara Murphy, who reflected: "The nooses? I don't even know why they were there, what they were supposed to mean. There's pranks all the time, of one type or another, going on. And it just didn't seem to be racist to me." Tensions rose.

Robert Bailey, a black student, was beaten up at a white party. Then, a few nights later, Robert and two others were threatened by a white man with a sawed-off shotgun, at a convenience store. They wrestled the gun away and fled. Robert's mother, Caseptla Bailey, said: "I know they were in fear of their lives. They were afraid that this man was going to shoot them, you know, especially in the back, running away from the scene."

The next day, Dec. 4, 2006, a fight broke out at the school. A white student was injured, taken to the hospital and released. Robert Bailey and five other black students were charged ... with second-degree attempted murder. They each faced 100 years in prison. The black community was reeling.

Independent journalist Jordan Flaherty was the first to break the story nationally. He explained: "I'm sure it was a serious fight, and I'm sure it deserved real discipline within the school system, but he (the white student) was out later that day. He was smiling. He was with friends ... it was a serious school problem that came on the heels of a long series of other events ... as soon as black students were involved, that's when the hammer came down."

The African American community began to call them the Jena Six. The first to be tried was Mychal Bell, 17 years old and a talented football player, looking forward to a university scholarship. Bell was offered a plea deal, but refused. His father, Marcus Jones, took a few minutes off from work to talk to me: "Here in LaSalle Parish, whenever a black man is offered a plea bargain, he is innocent. That's a dead giveaway here in the South."

Right before the trial, the charges of attempted second-degree murder were lowered to aggravated battery, which under Louisiana law requires a dangerous weapon. The weapon? Tennis shoes.

Mychal Bell was convicted by an all-white jury. His court-appointed defense attorney called no witnesses. Bell will be sentenced on July 31, facing a possible 22 years. The remaining five teens, several of whom were jailed for months, unable to make bail, still face attempted second-degree murder charges and a hundred years each in prison.

Color of Change has a petition you can sign urging their freedom, and here is another petition asking the DOJ to open a civil rights investigation.



While Seated

Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University-New Orleans, gives his account of the story at Counter Currents

Racialicious: "The racism in the behavior of the local government is as flagrant as anything that occurred during segregation. The institutions of government in Jena, Louisiana are operating on de-facto Jim Crow; they carry out through cultural practice what was once law."

Elle, Ph.D

Free the Jena Six!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

To Know is To Understand

Continuing on the Obama beat, Ann Althouse brings us word of the criteria Obama says he will use to select judges: "The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges."

Now, unlike some I am not worried that the judges a President Obama would appoint would lack knowledge of law or would be bereft of formal qualifications. And within that confine, I think that what Obama is talking about is a valid and important quality to consider in judicial appointments. Two early posts I wrote explained why I thought "sympathy" could be a valid part of judicial decision-making procedure. More concretely, I recently examined how a diverse array of experiences is really important for a good judiciary. A diverse institution brings a tighter understanding of the actual, material impact of certain laws or policies than a monolithic judiciary does. For example, in determining whether a given law constitutes "an undue burden on a woman's right to choose", men only have a second-hand experience with the situation and facts in question. That doesn't mean they're incapable of ruling, but it does mean that their decision is likely to be less well-informed than it would be if there was a female voice on the bench. In other cases, perhaps castration, it might be important to have a male voice on the panel, because the material effects of castration on one's bodily autonomy might be clearer to him than to a female judge (by and large we have no shortage of male judges, so this isn't a problem, but the point is that experiential diversity cuts all ways). By contrast, when the judiciary is monolithic or monochromatic, fundamentally subjective positions and a particularized standpoint are draped in the cloak of "The Law" and become unchallengeable Truth or Reason. Jack Balkin explains:
If we do not investigate the relationship between our social situation and our perspectives, we may confuse our conception of what is reasonable with Reason itself. If we do not see how our reason is both enabled and limited by our position, we may think our judgments positionless and universal. We may find the perspectives of those differently situated unreasonable, bizarre, and even dangerous, or we may not even recognize the possibility of another way of looking at things.
The alternative is to proactively try and create a judicial system that is at least somewhat representative of the polity it is ruling upon (and thus will have access to as good a cross-section of perspectives as possible). As Cass R. Sunstein remarks, "In a system of free expression, exposure to multiple perspectives will offer a fuller picture of the consequences of social acts. This should help make for better law."

To sum up: The idea that there is a trade-off between judges who are best at interpreting the law, and judges who "understand" the experiences of those whose voices are least likely to have elite import, is a fallacy. Contributing to the experiential diversity of the court (or at least being cognizant that these differing experiences matter) is part of what makes one a good judge. If President Obama nominates judges with an eye towards this quality, along with, of course, their formal qualifications and experience, he'd be doing the judiciary and America a great service.

Things That Make My Life Happier

Comics Curmudgeon (especially reviews of "Family Circus")


Secret Asian Man

Sartre Cookbook

Nietzsche's tech support (sometimes)

Wizard People, Dear Reader (youtube it)

D.C. Mayor for Obama

In what has to be the highest profile endorsement to have absolutely no significance whatsoever, DC mayor Adrian Fenty has announced his endorsement of Barack Obama for President. Along with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Fenty is the most visible face of D.C. politics today. Of course, the D.C. primary is not considered to be particularly important, and it's fair to say that its three electoral votes will not exactly be up for grabs in 2008, so his true influence is somewhat limited. Maybe it will shore up Obama's support in the Black community?

Fenty is a good guy, and I think he has a lot of potential to continue the District in the revival started by former mayor Anthony Williams. He also holds the distinction of having won all 142 DC precincts in his race to become mayor, which is pretty incredible no matter how liberal the city is.

Killing Spree

Last year, I blogged, appalled, on a quote from a good American citizen who said that we should "just shoot" any illegal immigrants we find crossing the border. Then I got a comment from a charming fellow who told me that "We could shoot them all in the back of the head and line huge pits with their bodies and their is no harm-no foul. These people don't have a right to breathe my air let alone to be treated 'humanely.'"

And today, US Senator Tom Coburn joined the fun, asking why agents couldn't just shoot people fleeing them at the border, even if they're unarmed, even if they pose no threat. Ummm....because that'd be murder? But don't let that stop you. People say rap music encourages violence? Let's start with the US Senate!

Awwww Fuck! Chuck's on a killing spree again
With guillotines for men
I walk around town with a frown on my face
Fuck the whole world, fixin' to catch a murder case
The murder rate

May increase if your caught up in the world
While it's dyin', I guarentee your fryin' cause I am
On the verge of knockin' muthafuckas out for no reason
Once I get down there'll be no breathin' it seems when
Muthafuckas wanna calm down, put his palm down
Seems I gots to lay the law down
Now its on pow what you to do? I'm askin' you

Step to face I'll break your ass in two, bastard you
Rather swim in some fuckin' hot tar
Before you fuck wit Willie D cause what I got for
Your ass will make ya shit your meal
Cause it's die muthafuckas, die muthafuckas still.

--"Still," Geto Boys.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

It Takes a Child to Raise a Village

These Bangladeshi children are serious ballers:
Classmates of a 13-year-old Bangladeshi school girl due to enter a forced marriage have united to stop the ceremony going ahead, police say.

Around 50 pupils in the town of Satkhira took to the streets to demand that Habiba Sultana's wedding be called off, they say.

Pupils even submitted a petition to police urging them to take action.
Police say that she was too frightened to protest.

When she told her friends about the impending wedding, they rallied round and urged her not to go ahead.

Parents of her friends contacted Habiba's father and tried to stop him from going ahead with the wedding.

Initially he ignored their protests, but changed his mind after the police were alerted and small protests were held outside the school.

Correspondents say that the stand of the schoolgirls has created a stir in the town.

You go, girls.

(Thanks to my pal J-Rod for the tip)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Criminal Production System

This was the post I meant to write before I got distracted by post-structuralist crime busters.

The end of Mr. Sanchez's post reads as follows:
It's frequently noted that a perverse consequence of our prison system is that we end up placing petty criminals in an intensive training program for serious crime. But more than that, we reinforce their identity as criminals.

Ezra Klein follows up to say:
Look: Incarceration can serve a valuable purpose in segregating dangerous individuals from the wider society. That incarceration should be handled humanely and wisely, of course, but it has a purpose. For the millions and millions of non-violent offenders, though, it serves a very different purpose. It abandons them to a realm where violence, and threats, and intimidation, serve as your only security. And so those characteristics are honed, and amplified. It renders them unfit for many jobs, and less marriageable. Abuse and rape at the hands of other prisoners and prison guards can leave the inmate psychologically damaged and deeply rageful.

This is what our system of justice does: It takes the unlawful and makes them more violent. It takes criminals and makes them worse, reducing their future options, encouraging them to become more physically brutal, cultivating their marginalization from society.

Agreed, agreed, agreed. I have no trouble sending murderers away to jail. For life, or for a long, long time. But there is something deeply, fundamentally wrong with how we treat non-violent offenders, especially non-violent drug offenders. We come down harder on crack users than we do on rapists half the time. And we essentially are guaranteeing that these people graduate into lifelong criminal activity, because they have no other option.

We have to come up with another route. At this stage in the game, if I were sitting on drug trial jury (for anybody who wasn't some sort of kingpin), I would be sorely tempted to nullify regardless of guilt or innocence. It's gotten out of hand. I'm open to the idea that drug use needs to be punished. But right now, the punishment doesn't fit the crime, the punishment isn't stopping the crime, and the punishment is likely causing more, worse crimes.

The Script of Crime

I found this story from Julian Sanchez based on Ezra Klein's riff on the last passage and what it means for our criminal justice system. But it's actually a fascinating tale in its own right. Basically, a man was robbing a dinner party, but right after he demanded the money, a guest instead offered him a glass of wine. The robber accepted and sipped the wine. He then tucked away his gun, asked for a group hug, and then left without taking anything. Sanchez relates the story to a South African cop who was chasing a female anti-apartheid protester, billy-club in hand. The woman lost her shoe, so instinctively the cop stopped to pick it up and hand it to her. Once he did that, he couldn't just turn around and beat her, so instead he walked away. Sanchez writes:
We all act on a variety of social scripts, from which we find it enormously psychologically difficult to deviate once they're activated. Often, this is a problem, causing people to follow orders when they shouldn't, or to stand by in a crisis when they ought to be rendering aid. Sometimes it has more benign effects. The loss of the shoe suddenly shunted the policeman from his cop-script to his chivalry-script. Something similar probably happened with the burglar.

The crucial move here is that he wasn't directly challenged within the terms of the burglar script: The guests didn't refuse outright to hand over their money, but only offered him some wine first, so there was no need to move on to Act II: further threats. But since he hadn't asked for wine, the offer was not in line with the compliant-hostage script either: It was a social courtesy. Once he'd accepted, he was reading from the party-guest script. And holding up one's host at a dinner party is simply not the done thing.

"Script-breaking" is a rather prominent part of feminist theory, for example, in Sharon Marcus' work on rape prevention. She argues that rape is "a series of steps and signals whose typical initial moments we can learn to recognize and whose final outcome we can learn to stave off." It's not as easy as it sounds--just as the burglar is operating within a script of criminality, the target will naturally want to lapse into the script of "victim", the series of moves that society recognizes as the proper way for victims to behave. However, the risk of script-breaking is that its unpredictable--since people don't do it that often (hence it being a break), we don't know what the result of our behavioral alchemy will be. As Sanchez indicates, the best hope might be trying to divert the narrative from one recognized situation (robbery) to another recognized situation (dinner party)--even if the recognition stems only from media, TV, or social mores rather than lived-experience. But this only mitigates, not eliminates, the danger. For example, if rape is primarily a function of the desire for power and domination, a case where the victim refuses to behave in a recognizably "victim-like" manner could disorient and befuddle her attacker, but it also could enrage and infuriate him, leading him to yet more sadistic violence. This problem would seem to be extant regardless of whether the alternate script is familiar or not (although familiarity does seem to be a precondition for successful diversion).

Diversion works because it presumes we all have access to a certain universal index of narrative experience that has roughly similar (or at least mutually intelligible) meanings across the board. Where this is not the case, script-breaking runs into problems. The script itself may not adequately describe the situation being faced (a "rape script" premised around a drunk guy at the bar may not be of help when the woman is facing rape from her husband or father), or the perpetrator of violence may not be familiar with the alternative script being proposed (if someone had no conception of what a dinner party meant, the guest's reaction might have felt like mockery or worse). However, conceptually speaking, looking at crime in terms of scripts, and seeking to derail it by noting chinks in the armor of the narrative, is a surprisingly effective way to combat and prevent crime. Who says post-structuralism never gave us any useful practices?

The Case of the Jewish Refugees

David Harris has a post up on the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were forced to flee their homes in the Arab World over the course of the 20th century. What was once an ancient and vibrant community has been completely decimated, currently existing at around 1% of its population at the time Israel was founded. Fortunately, many were able to escape and resettle in the new Jewish state. But it is still telling how little attention their experience has gotten vis-a-vis their Palestinian brethren (although, for whatever reason, I've noticed a recent uptick in discussion about the history of Jewish refugees).

I blogged about this history here, and I still think it represents most of what I have to say on the subject. The international community has internalized a certain level of violence and suppression against Jews that it deems tolerable. It will not condemn anything that is not a gross deviation from that norm. It simply doesn't shock anybody to see Jews exiled and forced to flee for their lives. And while their resettlement in Israel is what prevented this problem from turning into a crisis, there is very little recognition of the way in which this proves the necessary and indispensable function that Israel serves in the modern world.