Sean Bell was killed on November 25, 2006, in New York City. The night before his wedding, NYPD officers approached Bell’s vehicle outside a club and fired fifty shots at him and his companions, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, on the suspicion that one of the young men had a gun and was intending to shoot someone. No gun was ever recovered, and while Benefield and Guzman survived the shooting, Bell did not. Officers Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver (Oliver fired thirty-one of the fifty shots himself) were charged with manslaughter, reckless endangerment and assault, while Detective Marc Cooper was charged with two counts of reckless endangerment. In 2008, all three were acquitted of all charges. They remained on the force until March of last year. Bell was 23 years old.
Oscar Grant was killed on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland, California. Officer Johannes Mehserle fired one shot into Grant’s back while he lay face down and restrained on the platform of the Fruitvale train station. He and his fellow officers were responding to a report of a fight involving about a dozen people on the train. Grant and his friends were identified as being involved in this fight and were confronted by the officers, several of them handcuffed, with Grant reportedly resisting arrest, which led to officers’ attempts to restrain him. Mehserle claims to have meant to reach for his taser, pulling out his gun and shooting Grant by accident. The incident was captured on several cellphone cameras. Of the three possible convictions, a jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the charge carrying the least amount of prison time. In November 2010, he was sentenced to two years minus time served, and was released on parole in June 2011. Grant was 22 years old.
Trayvon Martin was killed on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. During halftime of the NBA All-Star game, he walked to a nearby store to get snacks for his younger brother. While returning home, he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman. Zimmerman called the police, and while they advised him not to follow, he disregarded this and approached Martin. A scuffle ensued that ended with Zimmerman shooting Martin in the chest and killing him. All that was found on Martin’s person was a wallet, a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles. The police who arrived on the scene took Zimmerman in for questioning and later released him without charges, determining that under Florida’s “stand your ground” law Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. After forty-five days of national outrage and protest, Zimmerman was finally arrested. He has been charged with second-degree murder and his trial starts June 10. Martin was 17 years old.
The details of each are different, and fiercely disputed by everyone involved, but each story ends the same way—with a young black man dead. It’s an all too familiar story, and I could go on and on, adding to the list many more names, but I mention these three because they have been the most high profile in recent memory and because they have become defining moments in my early adulthood. And I hate that.
I have no desire to be anything but what I am—a black man—but I hate that part of what that means is walking through life prepared to die. I hate that I mark time by whether people were saying “I Am Sean Bell,” “I Am Oscar Grant,” or “I Am Trayvon Martin.” I kinda hate the “I Am…” rallying cry, because none of us are, because they are all dead. I hate the part of being a black man that’s forever conscious of what racism is capable of, and I hate that America thinks I need reminders. I hate that those reminders are Sean, Oscar and Trayvon.
The naysayers and detractors say I and others like me are paranoid for no reason. To them, it wasn’t racism that killed these young men. These are simply unfortunate incidents, these colorblind optimists say, in part brought on by the actions of the young men who tragically lost their lives.
I don’t hate people who think this way; I envy them.
I’m straight-up jealous of everyone that doesn’t have to think about racism. I can only imagine how free they are. I’d like a life that didn’t involve me mourning young men I’ve never met as martyrs. There are people who can say, without laughing, that the election of the nation’s first black president means that racism, as a defining factor of American life, is over. I envy those people who are able to look at President Obama and see only progress. Like many, I was overcome with emotion I still can’t quite define that night in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected. But the thrill is gone and in the aftermath all I can see is Sean, Oscar and Trayvon standing behind him asking everyone “when does this end?” I’d like to think the lesson of their deaths is that racism eats the young and America would do well to abandon it, but history lends me a different lesson altogether, one which has me rigid with anxiety as we approach the trial of George Zimmerman.
I’ve done my best to avoid any news regarding Zimmerman in the past year. In the age of social media that has been an impossible task, but each time something new has reached my eyes it has reaffirmed my decision to ignore it all. The news could only serve to remind me of the psychic toll racism takes on a country still afraid to call it what it is, and I’m full up on reminders.
But I’ll be watching the trial closely, because I want this to be a turning point. I’m breaking out the rabbit’s foot and the four-leaf clovers while avoiding all ladders and mirrors. I’m hoping for change like an Obama campaign volunteer in ’07. I want this trial to mean a new day is upon us.
Last year, while Zimmerman was still at large, I wrote, “The crime of killing a black person still is not greater than the crime of being black.” I want 2013 to prove me wrong. I want this moment to be the one where all those things I hate about being a black man, passed down from generation to generation, cease to exist.
I probably sound as foolishly optimistic as people who think racism is already over. But I think Sean, Oscar and Trayvon deserve some foolish optimism on their side.
Striking Walmart workers rally in Bentonville, Arkansas, on June 3, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Michael Blain)
Bentonville, Arkansas—Competing chants pierced the air, and punctuated one another, as a Walmart pep rally and a union-backed protest took place some fifty feet apart this afternoon.
On a public sidewalk across from Walmart’s “home office” headquarters, international Walmart workers and fired warehouse workers joined striking employees in a demonstration calling for Walmart to avert future deaths in its international supply chain. On the other side of a narrow parking lot, a few of the blue-shirted Walmart employees brought to Bentonville by Walmart management began snapping cell phone photos of their striking co-workers, who sang, “Which side are you on Walmart…. Are you on the side of safety or on the side of murder?” Then a series of well-dressed Walmart staff began leading the blue-shirted employees in the company’s classic cheer spelling out its name: “Give me a W!” “W!” “Give me an A!” “A!”… “What’s that spell?” “Walmart!”
As successive busses drove up to drop off more company-invited Walmart workers under the Home Office awning, managers led the blue-shirted workers in cheering for their arriving co-workers and chanting the letters of the company’s name. The protesters across the lot from them kept up their slow-paced song, sometimes punctuated with “Whose Walmart? OUR Walmart!” and “Stand Up! Live Better!” Some hoisted flags and signs identifying their home countries, and giant cut-outs spelling out “1,239 KILLED,” the combined death toll from a building collapse and a fire in buildings where Walmart apparel has been produced.
The “What’s that spell?” chant continued as Bangladesh labor leader Kalpona Akter took the mic on the sidewalk to call for Walmart to join a binding building safety agreement, and as protesting workers read Bible verses in four languages. Then a half-dozen striking Walmart employees walked into the middle of the parking lot, where they were met by Walmart security and local police. As co-workers sang or chanted on either side of the lot, Seattle striker Preston Johnson presented a security officer with a three-foot-tall list of the retailers who’ve signed onto the labor-backed Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh; it included a dotted line at the bottom for Walmart CEO Mike Duke, who hasn’t. “1,239 folks have died because of factories that were unsafe,” said Johnson, “and we found out that Walmart is one of the companies that had workers making clothes there.” As in past Bentonville confrontations, the Walmart security officer told the workers that human resources staff were available to meet with them individually, but not collectively; the workers declined and marched away.
Interviewed afterwards, Johnson called the action “very powerful, very moving.” He said he believed the crowd had successfully communicated “the seriousness of the issue” to Walmart. But when asked about the protest, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg e-mailed, “This is the same old story from the unions who have to recycle the same small group of paid activists who they ship in for their made-for-TV stunts.”
Factory Safety Scrutiny
As I’ve reported, striking workers from the union-backed group Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) have been in Bentonville since Saturday, following a series of Freedom Ride–inspired caravans that made stops in some twenty cities. The workers have framed their work stoppage as a protest of retaliation by Walmart against workers who organized for better wages and working conditions. Organizers say at least a hundred workers are participating in the current strike, which is substantially smaller than last fall’s Black Friday walkout, but significantly longer: workers began walking off the job eight days ago, and have pledged to stay out on strike at least through the company’s shareholder meeting on Friday.
This afternoon’s protesters charged that Walmart bears significant responsibility for two disasters in factories it’s used in Bangladesh: the November fire that killed 112 apparel workers at the Tazreen Factory, and the April building collapse in Rana Plaza, whose death toll was the highest in global garment industry history. In an April interview, Tazreen survivor Sumi Abedin told The Nation that she jumped out of the building “not to save my life” but “to save my body. Because if I would be in the factory, my parents would not be able to get my body. I would be burned to death. So I jumped so at least they could find my body outside.”
Walmart stated immediately after the November fire that it could not confirm whether it had used the Tazreen factory; after photos were released showing its apparel there, Walmart announced that it had cut off the factory prior to the fire, and blamed the presence of Walmart goods there on a rogue supplier that it said had continued filing orders without Walmart’s authorization, and was thus being terminated. Subsequent stories in Bloomberg and The New York Times reported that at least three Walmart suppliers were sourcing goods from the factory in 2012, and that Walmart played a key role in vetoing a 2011 proposal under which Western retailers would have paid for the cost of safety improvements in Bangladesh factories.
Similarly, after The New York Times reported that documents from 2012 showed Walmart apparel had been produced in the Rana Plaza building, Walmart announced that it was terminating a supplier based on “unauthorized subcontracting”; that supplier blamed a “rogue employee.” Since the Rana Plaza disaster, Walmart has drawn a new round of protests and scrutiny for declining to join the labor-backed Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. That deal is backed by the global union federations IndustriALL and UNI, and by a battery of European brands, as well as Abercrombie & Fitch and the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.
Rather than sign the labor-backed deal, Women’s Wear Daily reported May 30, Walmart and Gap are working with industry groups, the Bipartisan Policy Center and former US Senators Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell to formulate an alternative factory safety plan. Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, dismissed that competing plan as mere “fun.” “We really don’t buy that,” she told The Nation this afternoon. “We will not accept anything that is not legally binding…. If it is voluntary, then they [already] have their Code of Conduct, they have their CSR [corporate social responsibility] and other policies. Those are not working. Those are failing repeatedly.”
Akter said she believes Walmart is resisting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh because it would bind the company to pay for the costs of factory improvements, and to cooperate with unions and workers’ groups to monitor conditions. “They don’t want to share their profits with anyone,” charged Akter, and “they don’t want workers’ voice in the workplace.”
The Walmart-Gap plan was also slammed in a rare joint statement by both major US labor federations—the AFL-CIO and Change to Win—and it drew a cold reception from the top Walmart critic in Congress. Last week, on a media call following his fact-finding trip to Bangladesh, Representative George Miller charged that the companies “want to continue a system that they designed and organized.” “If Walmart and The Gap want to stand alongside collapsing factories and burning factories and women jumping out of buildings,” said Miller, “I guess that’s their choice.” Congressman Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, told The Nation that Walmart has “set the pace” and fostered “a system where you either do it under their terms, or you don’t get the contract.” Rather than forcing improved health, safety and workers’ rights, said Miller, the incentive structure set up by Walmart has been “designed to escape those kinds of provisions.”
Along with at least one OUR Walmart member, Akter will be among the Walmart critics presenting resolutions when the shareholders gather at the University of Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena on Friday. The motion to be presented by Akter would allow any group of shareholders who together own a tenth of the company’s shares to instigate a special shareholder meeting to address corporate governance issues. Like three other shareholder resolutions being presented Friday, the proposal is supported by the corporate governance group Institutional Shareholder Services, and opposed by Walmart.
This afternoon’s rally comes amid a week of pre–shareholder meeting protests, including a Monday action in which striking Walmart workers and their family members lined the sidewalk in front of the Bentonville “Home Office,” holding hands and wearing tape over their mouths to represent the company’s alleged efforts to silence workers through retaliation. Reached by e-mail Monday, Walmart’s Lundberg said that a “small and insignificant amount of associates” was involved in the week’s protests, and that “many of our associates from around the country have been vocal in how disappointed they are when people, including this union-affiliated group, disrespect and interrupt their stores.”
Walmart hasn’t been ignoring the planned protests. On Monday, an Arkansas Circuit Court granted a temporary restraining order, requested by the company, prohibiting activists from the United Food & Commercial Workers union or OUR Walmart—other than Walmart employees—from entering Walmart property in Arkansas for “activities such as picketing, patrolling, parading, demonstrations, ‘flash mobs,’ handbilling, solicitation, and manager confrontations” In an e-mailed statement, National Organization of Women President Terry O’Neill called the order “Walmart’s latest attempt to silence the voices that are calling for real change at the nation’s largest employer.” The OUR Walmart campaign said that the order would not affect its protest plans; during today’s action, organizers repeatedly reminded protesters to stay on the sidewalk.
Walmart’s Lundberg also noted that the company was bringing “14,000 associates from around the globe” to Arkansas “to participate in activities throughout the week that highlight and recognize the accomplishments of the 2.2 million associates around the world and what they do to take care of their customers.” Those activities include free concerts last night and tonight—headlined by Elton John and country singer Luke Bryan, respectively—for the employees the company’s flown into town this week, and those who live in the area.
Reached by phone last night, Springdale, Arkansas, employee Randal Woods, who’s attending tonight’s concert, said that he had never heard of strikes by Walmart employees; asked about “OUR Walmart,” he initially assumed it was the name of a concert. Woods told The Nation his store was “pretty well staffed,” and that while he hadn’t yet worked long enough to qualify for them, “the benefits are really good.” He said that Walmart’s pay “might seem kind of low, but cost of living’s not so bad here, so it’s pretty competitive.” Asked his hourly rate, Woods answered, “I don’t think I’m actually supposed to release that one.” Woods said Walmart was “within my top five of companies to be working for.”
Interviewed Monday, City University of New York sociologist Ruth Milkman told The Nation that the media coverage of the deaths in Walmart’s supply chain abroad could draw increased public attention and sympathy for the company’s US employees. “It’s become a kind of poster child of low-wage and exploitative work,” said Milkman, “both in this country and in the companies that supply it with the stuff it sells. And so I feel like this is a good approach for them to address those issues. But what the concrete results will be is very hard to say.”
OUR Walmart activists hope to talk to some of the co-workers who were chanting the Walmart cheer this afternoon, and eventually to recruit some of them to join their cause. “They’re probably facing some of the same issues as us, as far as retaliation and being scared to speak up,” said striking sales associate Shawnadia Mixon, who traveled to Bentonville from Baker, Louisiana. “And it’s time to stop the silence.”
“These associates that are out here for the shareholder’s meeting, they are going to be some associates that we see back in our stores0” said Johnson. He said he believed that witnessing the action OUR Walmart took to protect worker safety in Bangladesh would “move them to understand how serious it is to look out for each other, as associates for Walmart.”
The first couple’s recent trip around the commencement circuit included remarks at historically black colleges and universities slapping black youth for “fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper,” in Michelle’s words, rather than pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. “This fixation, this insistence, on blaming black youth for problems that they didn’t create is completely unacceptable,” Nation writer Aura Bogado says. “What I would have liked to have heard” from the president, “if he feels intimate with this black audience, is an ask for these graduates to fight systemic racism.” Bogado joins a panel on HuffPost Live to parse the Obamas’ words.
Mondays in Raleigh are not the same this spring. Read Phoebe Zerwick’s report.
Is fighting dirty the new normal in US military operations overseas? On MSNBC's The Cycle, Jeremy Scahill explains the increasing lawlessness of our international presence and the moral ramifications of our secret wars and assassination programs.
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., Tuesday, May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Today in Bradley Manning’s court-martial, witnesses from his Army Intelligence unit at FOB Hammer in Iraq were called to the stand to ask questions about what kind of authorization the defendant had to comb through the military field reports found on the SIPRNet; what kind of websites the enemy was known to frequent; what kind of non-disclosure agreements members of the unit were aware of signing, even if there was no actual information security (“infosec”) to speak of at the base. All of this speaks to whether Pfc. Manning knew that declassifying those thousands of documents would specifically help Al Qaeda and associates, which is what the prosecution needs to prove in order to make the “aiding the enemy” charge stick. I give them only a one-in-three chance of success with this bit of Orwellian overreach. (Full transcripts of the day’s proceeding here.)
Three days into the trial, let’s step back and ask: Would Manning be better off in a civilian court instead of the court-martial where he is being tried?
It’s true that Americans forfeit certain rights upon military enlistment and that the court-martial system is built for speedy outcomes, with fewer procedural safeguards for defendants. So it is understandable that many who are sympathetic to Private Manning assume he’d be a lot better off in a civilian court. But are civilian courts really milder or more fair-minded in national security cases?
Let’s ask Syed Fahad Hashmi, a Brooklyn College student who stored in his apartment socks and rainproof ponchos supposedly destined for an Al Qaeda training camp, set up by an FBI informant. Hashmi spent just shy of three years in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Manhattan. Thank you, civilian justice system.
How about Tarek Mehanna, serving a seventeen-year sentence, handed down by a federal court in Boston, for posting Jihadist pep talks online. You don’t have to sympathize with Mehanna’s politico-religious worldview to be appalled by the penalty handed down by a civilian court in this case.
Or Javed Iqbal, convicted by a civilian court to six years in prison for including access to Hezbollah’s TV station in the cable boxes he installed in Staten Island and Brooklyn.
Yes, civilian courts are capable of meting out brutal sentences when the charges relate, however tenuously (socks and raincoats! a cable TV station!) to terrorism and national security.
On the other hand, military courts, even the tribunals at Guantánamo, sometimes issue mild sentences. For instance Salim Hamdan (Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur) was for time served plus five and a half months. Hamdan’s back in Yemen now.
This isn’t to defend the abomination that is Gitmo. (Close it already!) Nor is it to say that the military justice system is a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. In fact in many ways our military justice system a flaming mess—see how infinitely forgiving military justice is of rape, sexual assault and most of all, the killing of foreign civilians. I’ll be developing that theme in a later, less-bloggy essay.
But in the assumption that military justice is automatically more brutal than civilian justice, I can’t help but detect a note of unwarranted smugness. We are kidding ourselves if we think that Guantánamo is the only legal “black hole” in the US justice system, or if we think that our civilian and penal systems are gleaming citadels of enlightened, impartial justice. As I have argued elsewhere, many (but not all) of the features that make Guantánamo an abomination are easily found at home in our everyday “normal” justice system. Bradley Manning’s treatment would most likely not be any less harsh if this soldier were somehow magically being tried in the civilian court system.
Don’t miss Chase Madar’s post on Adrian Lamo.
Riot police use teargas to disperse the crowd during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul May 31, 2013. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Turkish citizens rising up to protest the policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government have faced arrests, water hoses, tear gas and in some cases have even been detained for using social media to discuss the demonstrations. And while attention has turned to Turkey’s media establishment, which has refused to cover much of the protests, another influential group has sat largely on the sidelines: American elected officials.
While Vice President Joe Biden and some administration officials have criticized Turkey’s government and its response to the protests, few lawmakers are raising alarm. A ProQuest news search of the last five days fails to turn up a single story quoting a member of Congress criticizing Erdogan, or his increasingly authoritarian reaction to the protests. Part of the reason might relate to the fact that Turkey is a strong US ally in the region, and lawmakers are hesitant to disturb US-Turkish relations. But the self-imposed silence from American politicians could also be seen as a result of aggressive outreach from the Turkish government, which, since 2007, has retained at least six lobbying firms to shape public opinion and court elected officials.
Turkey maintains an active effort to fly lawmakers to visit the country. Though Congress banned foreign-funded travel in years past, many foreign entities set up nonprofit organizations to organize “Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act” (MECEA) trips for elected officials to legally visit foreign destinations on the nonprofit’s dime. Lawmakers and officials of both parties regularly attend events organized by Turkey’s government.
The website LegiStorm, which collects congressional data, shows that in the last twelve months, Representatives Henry Cuellar, Aaron Schock, Mo Brooks and Jan Scharkowsky, along with dozens of staff, have visited Istanbul through trips sponsored by Turkish MECEA groups. The visits to Turkey are so routine that last weekend, a delegation of state-level lawmakers from New Mexico even witnessed some of the demonstrations. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, have been featured at press events with Turkish government officials in Washington DC this year.
The MECEA trips and congressional ceremonies have been organized by staffers from Turkey’s various lobbying firms, according to filing with the Department of Justice’s FARA website. Turkey’s government pays two former Democratic Congressmen, Dick Gephardt (through his corporate lobbying firm, the Gephardt Group) and Al Wynn (through his law firm, Dickstein Shapiro), to influence Washington. Others on the payroll include David Mercer, a prominent Democratic aide, a team of about twenty from the firm PR giant Fleischman-Hillard, 30 Point Strategies and the Caspian Group. Some of the MECEA-organizing nonprofits also retain influential lobbying consultants, like the firm Brown, Lloyd and James (known for previously representing Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad’s wife).
The ties between US corporations and the Turkish government are another potential reason lawmakers have been slow to show solidarity with the protesters. Business and diplomacy are on display at the American Turkish Council, one of the most influential Turkish nonprofits geared toward congressional outreach. The council is funded by the Turkish government’s investment agency and a number of corporations with economic interests in Turkey, including Lockheed Martin (makers of the F-35, which is partially assembled in Turkey), TUSKON (a Turkish business lobby group) and Chevron (which maintains major drillings interests in the Black Sea).
At its annual conference this week at the Washington DC Ritz-Carlton, the American Turkish Council discussed US-Turkish relations with corporate executives and political leaders from the two countries. Biden received an award, as did House Homeland Security Committee Chair Representative Mike Rogers, according to a schedule posted online.
Read Allison Kilkenny on the groups showing solidarity with #OccupyGezi.
Two cheers for Michele Bachmann’s exit-right from Congress. Though Bachmann’s unsavory politics (and money) have left the building, Nation editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel says, “Bachmannism is far from finished.” Bachmann perfected a style of slander and falsehood that, “in the cult of false equivalence that distorts too much of our media coverage, has been quasi-legitimized.” Appearing on The Young Turks, vanden Heuvel breaks down Bachmann’s legacy.
From the ashes of Senator Frank Lautenberg rises a new authoritarian politics. Read John Nichols’s take on Chris Christie’s most recent machinations.
(Source: Creative Commons)
If you thought that corporal punishment was a relic of our educational system’s distant past, think again. Some nineteen states, clinging tightly to the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling in Ingraham v. Wright, still allow corporal punishment in their schools, subjecting hundreds of thousands of American children to legalized floggings every year.
In 2012, Mississippian schools alone hosted 39,000 floggings, often for minor transgressions like “having a shirt untucked, being tardy, or talking in class or in the hallway.” According to a report from the Juvenile Information Exchange, more than 28,500 students in Georgia were spanked in 2008, mostly in rural counties. Children with disabilities fare particularly poorly in corporal punishment states; the 14 percent of American students with disabilities comprise 19 percent of the students beaten and, in some places, are twice as likely as their able-bodied peers to be assaulted by school personnel.
Moreover, even if parents are opposed to corporal punishment, there is little they can do, if a school district permits it, to guarantee that their child will not be hit by an administrator if it’s been decided that she or he has broken the rules.
No child should be brutalized in school, but assaults on the disabled are especially appalling given disabled students’ increased vulnerability. School-sponsored thrashings often leave disabled children less physically resilient and more prone to long-term psychological trauma. The grandmother of Landon K., a 6-year-old Mississippian with autism, confided after her grandson’s beating, “When a child with autism has something like that happen, they don’t forget it.… The next day, I tried to take him to school, but I couldn’t even get him out of the house.”
Even without adding the threat and reality of official violence, school life can be terribly trying for children with disabilities. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder are at a three-fold increased risk for being bullied, often physically. Children with muscular dystrophy, ADHD, cerebral palsy and spina bifida are also disproportionately bullied. On an emotional level, many students with disabilities complain that their peers, ostensibly cordial, refuse to befriend anyone who seems different. To kids simply trying to fit in, facing rejection just for appearing “weird” is devastating.
When disabled students act up, frequently in misguided efforts to attract their peers’ affection and attention, as most children do at some point, we should remain cognizant of their disadvantages and aim to redirect their energies towards productive social activity. When the misbehavior persists, we should employ counselors to help identify its roots. Schools should model civility and creative problem solving, not vengeance and anger.
Alternatively, I suppose, we can continue to throw caution to the wind and treat children as demonic lumps of clay to be smacked around at teachers’ discretion. We must then be willing to forgo the social benefits of students learning how to deal with problems nonviolently. We will also have to accept the unwavering hostility of students who, after being beaten once, will forever despise their teachers and the schools that let it all happen.
What we need is legislation that would first outlaw corporal punishment of disabled students, and then of their able-bodied peers, to affirm the dignity of those for whom institutional support is absolutely vital. Will nineteen states heed our call for a civilized schooling system? The security of thousands of students depends on it.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Through eight nearly uninterrupted hours of testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, nobody—not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing each branch of the military, nor the top judge advocates general for each service, nor any of the assembled senators on the Armed Services committee—contested that military sexual assault has reached crisis proportions.
The numbers lead to that indisputable conclusion: “unwanted sexual contact” cases have risen 35 percent in the last two years alone. Up to 45 percent of women in the military experience sexual assault or unwanted contact at some point, and the Department of Defense itself estimates that as many as 86 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported. And women in the military are nine times as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they’ve experienced sexual assault in the military, even when controlling for combat exposure.
The hearing was a historic, and often dramatic, attempt to face this crisis head on. But there was a central fissure in the meeting between the military commanders and most—but certainly not all—of the senators.
Namely, has the sexual assault crisis in the military destroyed the fundamental trust between enlisted members and their commanders, who are tasked with policing and largely with adjudicating the crimes? And thus, should sexual assault cases be taken out of the chain of command entirely?
As it stands now, if one experiences sexual assault in the military, the first (and only) step is to notify the commanding officer. That officer then has sole discretion on whether to take action, and whether that action is anything from a slap on the wrist for the offender to referral to a court martial.
But commanders are the wrong people to handle these claims, victims’ advocates contend, for reasons ranging from a lack of legal experience, potential unwillingness to declare there is a problem in their unit, a lax attitude towards sexual assault, to cases where the commanders themselves are the perpetrators.
This leads to a pervasive, and accurate, perception within he military that sexual assault isn’t taken seriously, which not only discourages victims from coming forward—as the Pentagon’s own numbers demonstrate—but creates an atmosphere where predators feel free to act.
During her testimony, Nancy Parrish, president of the victims’ group Protect Our Defenders, read aloud what victimized soldiers have told her group:
One soldier explained: “I got raped.… When I [told] my squad leader I got shut down…. I waited, spoke with my platoon leaders…. I got told if I say another word…I would be charged with adultery.… I told my new squad leader.… In December 2012 they chaptered me on an adjustment disorder.… He is free…wears the Uniform, [it] represents a Protective Shield, if you’re a rapist with rank.”
Last year, an officer of 18 years, on active duty said: “I was deployed overseas. The first advice you get…always carry a knife.… Not for battle. To cut the person who tries to rape you. I was drugged and raped.… If you report you are done.… Check the base IG records…[see] how many complaints were pushed under the rug.”
Senator Kirstin Gillibrand has introduced a bill that would take sexual assault crimes out of the chain of command—so victims would go directly to experienced military prosecutors, who would make a legal judgment whether to proceed. “Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape,” she said during the hearing. “You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases.”
This was the central focus of the hearing, because it’s where there is the most disagreement—the military brass presented a unified front in opposing Gillibrand’s measure. “Making commanders less responsible and less accountable will not work. It will undermine the readiness of the force,” General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, testified. “Most importantly, it will hamper the timely delivery of justice to the very people we wish to help.”
Only a small number of senators explicitly agreed with this position. Senator James Inhofe said he believes “we can not abolish sexual assault by legislation alone,” and that the policy tweaks included in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act should be given time to work. Those included extra training on sexual assault prevention throughout the military, extra legal assistance for victims and special investigative tools to root out cases. “We’ve made these suggestions,” Inhofe said. “They’ve got to have time to get this done.”
So should the status quo, with some tweaks and extra training, be allowed to continue? It’s pretty easy to build the case that it shouldn’t. Really, one can just look at the numbers—the increasing number of incidents—and end the argument there. It’s not working.
But the military brass themselves, and some of the senators on the panel, also provided some inadvertent evidence that the current system isn’t working—and that attitudes towards sexual assault in the chain of command, leading right up to the men testifying, just isn’t equipped to deal with the problem on its own.
Senator Jack Reed asked each of the joint chiefs if they had removed commanders for failing to deal with sexual assault cases adequately. As it turned out, most of them had not.
Later, Senator Claire McCaskill asked several commanders—there to testify about how they and their colleagues were well-equipped to handle sexual assault cases—whether each of them had ever actually referred a sex assault case to a court martial during their career. One of them, despite being selected to present an image of proactivity, never had.
At other times, the military brass made statements that telegraphed a pretty lax attitude towards sexual assault. General Martin Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told senators that a lot of the cases were “he said, she said….involved alcohol…it’s complicated.” In fairness to Amos, he was explaining how he favored referring them to a court martial regardless, but it seemed as if his below-board attitude was that many of the cases were shaky if not unfounded. (Senator Saxby Chambliss made similar and already infamous comments during the hearing, that sex assaults were a product of “hormones.”)
At another point, Senator Joe Manchin asked why it had taken so long to address this problem—similar hearings were held ten years ago, and the number of cases has only increased. Why?
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs, had a candid answer—once the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan started, they stopped worrying about it. ““I took my eye off the ball,” he admitted. “Some of that stuff, frankly, just got pushed to the side.”
But now military leadership wants Congress to trust them to fix the problem this time—though won’t endorse taking cases out of the chain of command, which has already provably reduced the number of sexual assaults in other militaries, like Israel and Canada.
Gillibrand isn’t buying it. “I was quite disappointed that the military really failed to take this opportunity to lead.” she told All In with Chris Hayes last night. “I think they are too comfortable with the status quo.”
Read about the House Committee side-stepping a hearing on sexual assaults in the Air Force.
Conservatives have been sniping at MSNBC for weeks over an alleged ratings decline, and the less-than-blockbuster start for Chris Hayes’s new primetime program. Now there are some ratings facts to raise actual concern among fans of the so-called “liberal-leaning” cable news outlet. Bill Carter’s New York Times piece this week finds ratings at the network down 20 percent and instead of running second to Fox it even fell to fourth behind CNN and Headline News (gasp) for the not-so-merry month of May.
Problem: there’s been a lot of major breaking news (real or hyped) lately, which is not exactly the strong suit of the MSNBC evening lineup. I guess this refers to the Boston bombing, the Cleveland kidnap/rape tragedy, maybe Jody Arias. Yes, CNN has soared before in such times and then fallen. Also, MSNBC proclaims itself the “place for politics,” not news, and we’re between election cycles. Ratings this past Monday were a little better: Maddow and O’Donnell took 2nd place, and Hayes third (Fox always wins every night and every slot).
But it may not be that simple. For one thing, elections are hardly the only staple of “politics.” And most periods experience a good deal of hot news.
I could go on. But I thought instead that I would solicit your views on this—whether you like it or not, many of you are viewed as a prime audience for the MSNBC nighttime lineup, from Sharpton to Matthews to Hayes to Maddow to O’Donnell—hell, even most of afternoon and Sunday shows. (We shall not speak of Morning Joe.) And let’s not forget that Hayes, new guy Ari Melber, and Melissa Harris-Perry, have strong Nation ties.
So take a little time to comment below with your own opinion—or an explanation of your own viewing patterns. Are you watcing MSNBC more or less? Why? What do you wish they would cover or discuss more? What do you think of the host and guest lineup? Are you pretty much shutting off TV in any case? Are you interested in the coming Al Jazeera America? If not MSNBC, what shows and news outlets elsewhere are you focusing on?
Plenty to chew on here, so…chew away! And I promise to respond to many of your comments.