Archive for category law
Once again, because of time constraints and my lack of willingness to let things simply slip through the cracks and into my delete bin, I am giving you abstracted versions of news items that I think should have been developed into full-length blog posts, but for the lack of time. Sometimes my trouble as a blogger is finding enough material to get me going – this week I have the opposite problem. Here’s some stories about police, law, and justice.
The peaceful Occupy Wall Street protest march turned violent as the NYPD corralled and pepper sprayed the participants. Mass arrests were made and loaded onto a NYC bus further locking traffic. The protest march took a route from Zuccotti Park to Union Square on East 14th Street. The protesters were marching back to Zuccotti Park when the NYPD turned violent. Hitting, arresting and forcing protesters into a small area. At that point a NYPD supervisor yelled shut up to one of the protesters and shot pepper spray into her eyes point blank range and hitting a half dozen protesters (including 3 police officers) when they had nowhere to go. The same supervising officer was seen (photographed) laughing after the arrests while looking at his text messages. The peaceful protest march started as 300 participants but rose to over 1,000 as the event stopped traffic in lower Manhattan. People spontaneously joined the march over a 2 hour period.
I usually like to source these kinds of things from major media outlets, but sadly the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor and Amanda Knox seem to be far more interesting to even outlets like the BBC. Maybe you hadn’t heard, but this vicious gang of thugs has destroyed billions (perhaps trillions) in wealth by manipulating markets and selling bad loans. Instead of being punished, incidentally, they were rewarded through concerted lobbying in the halls of power. If you’re pissed off, you can join a few hundred of your fellow citizens to demand that something be done about the surreal level of irresponsibility and fraud being perpetrated against the people of the world by a small group of elite jerkoffs. But don’t protest too hard, or you’ll get pepper-sprayed in the face.
Luckily the asshole who committed this assault is being named and shamed. Even if the police don’t prosecute him (and they won’t, because they circle the wagons around their own like the Catholic Church every time one of their officers breaks the law), he has been tried in the court of public opinion. Click on the link above to see some pretty graphic images of what happened that day.
More than 60 per cent of people arrested by Toronto police last year were forced to undergo a strip search, according to police statistics. But a police accountability group says routine searches are against the law and alleges Toronto police are using the practice to humiliate and intimidate people. Police figures show that 31,072 people were strip-searched in 2010, up from 29,789 the previous year. John Sewell of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition (TPAC) said that means about 60 per cent of those arrested in Toronto were subjected to a strip search.
“Silly Crommunist”, you are probably saying while shaking your head and smiling indulgently “that’s an American story! Up here in our glorious north our police are respectful and kind! They’d never do that.” Yeah… seems not to be the case. Toronto cops, by their own statistics, have revealed themselves to be just as brutal, unforgiving and short-sighted as their American counterparts. Strip searches may be necessary in a small minority of cases, but unless Toronto criminals are in the habit of keeping dangerous goods taped flat to their bodies, a thorough search could be just as easily accomplished by a pat-down. This isn’t just my opinion, either – it happens to be the opinion of an Ontario superior court judge. If their goal is to humiliate and intimidate (which it seems to be), then I have no more sympathy for the Toronto police than I do for the fuckwads in New York.
Vancouver ‘street cops’ are still filling the gaps in B.C.’s flawed mental health system, despite recommendations in a powerful 2008 report on policing the city’s mentally ill, an updated report finds. The 2008 report, titled Lost in Transition: How a Lack of Capacity in the Mental Health System is Failing Vancouver’s Mentally Ill and Draining Police Resources, detailed flaws in B.C.’s mental health system and their effects on policing. The problems included the lack of available long-term care, lack of hospital space and difficulties in getting people assessed.
Because I opine on politics a lot, people have asked me what I would do if I had unlimited political power. Well, the first thing I would do is create some limits, because no one person should have that kind of power, but the second thing I would do is drastically increase the level and scope of mental health care we provide to our citizens. We spend an unbelievable amount of money on health care problems that should be handled through therapy rather than hospitalization. I’d certainly have the Vancouver police on my side, I’d bet. While they are not qualified as mental health workers, they are the ones who provide that service (at a level of pay far below what an actual mental health worker receives, and far below what such a person deserves). To get an idea of how serious the problems are here, take a gander at the blog written by one Vancouver beat patrol officer:
1515 hrs – Exit the courthouse in desperate need of coffee and breakfast. I’m supposed to be working one-man tonight, so I make plans with my old partner, Tyler, to visit Save-on-Meats for their all-day brekkie. But first we’ve got to deal with the shirt-less guy flipping out across the street. He’s flailing around, delivering spinning karate-kicks at phantom opponents and doing the kind of back-bends that would make even Bikram Coudhuryshudder. His behaviour, the track marks on his arms, and the needle and crack pipe in his pocket, give us a pretty good idea of what he’s been up to. We call for EHS, and 36 minutes later our friend is heading to St. Paul’s Hospital with the ambulance crew for some Narcan.
Not a glamorous lifestyle, to say the least.
So while I can sympathize with a police force that is overworked and whose positive contributions often go unrewarded, that is not enough to persuade me from my blanket condemnation of the insular, self-righteous environment that police forces in our country and others operate within. I treat police in the same way I do stray dogs – while they might look friendly, all it takes is one bad one for me to be in serious trouble.
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I harp quite a bit on our comfortable Canadian myth that Canada doesn’t have a race problem. While I disagree with it in principle, in practice it is true provided you are grading on a curve. Canada doesn’t have nearly the same problem with racism that places like South Africa, South America, or even many places in Europe do. Canada’s history is one of comparative tolerance… aside from the initial displacement and subsequent repeated betrayals of its indigenous peoples… and the internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war… and the treatment of black settlers in the Maritimes… okay this is distracting me from my point.
Our many failures aside, Canada does not have the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred that our neighbour to the south does. Well we do, but ours is less apparent/violent. Because of our non-identical histories in this regard, we have often compared ourselves favourably to Americans. The open question, one that may never be adequately answered, is the size of that difference. With large sociological and demographic differences between our countries, and due to the diffuse nature of the variable of interest (how do you quantify how racist someone is?), it’s a question that may be beyond our capacity to answer scientifically.
However, thanks to the short-sightedness of our federal government, we may have a shot at estimating a facet of it:
More per capita marijuana arrests are made in [Washington DC] than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.
But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.
If that graph doesn’t shock you, then you’re either completely heartless, or just as cynical as I am. While the rates of consumption of marijuana are roughly equal*, the arrest rate is tipped grotesquely in favour of arresting black people for marijuana possession. Now I can (and often do) speculate about the more indirect or obscure methods by which racism manifests itself, but this one is pretty clear cut: police officers are stopping and searching black people more often than they are white people. The idea of black pot smokers is more apparent in the minds of police than the contrasting idea of good, honest white folks being druggies. As a result, it becomes far more commonplace to look for drugs when stopping black District residents than white ones.
I was once invited to go to Washington, D.C. for a vacation. I politely declined, pointing out that statistics like this are why, despite my love of history and politics, Washington D.C. stands forever on my list of places that I will not visit unless I have to. Of course, most of the U.S. is like that for me, so perhaps that isn’t a big deal. Stephen Colbert once accurate described the city as “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center” – a tiny nucleus of white residents surrounded by a vast sea of unrepresented and underserved black residents. A place like that would render me incapable of functioning.
However, this does point the way to an interesting natural experiment. Now that the Republican North Party has announced its intention to pass a wildly unpopular and ineffective anti-crime bill that includes mandatory minimums for possession of marijuana, we can draw some comparisons. A few years back there was a great to-do about racial profiling in Toronto police. Many hands were wrung and pearls clutched over the fact that we, too, might be racist. With the introduction of mandatory minimums for possession, we can draw some direct comparisons between criminal justice in the United States and in Canada – are charges dropped less frequently against whites compared to blacks? Are black people stopped and searched more often, leading to a disproportionate level of sentencing? Do arrests break down by postal code?
Now it must be said that having this one statistic will not give us a measure of racism across the board. Obviously Canada has a very different rural/urban mix than the U.S. does, and segregated communities are something of a foreign concept to us, with perhaps the exception of certain suburbs. Our demographic makeup is also quite different in terms of ethnic groups, both in terms of size and in terms of sheer numbers. That being said, it will allow us to scrutinize the way we practice law enforcement, and point to areas that need our concerted attention. It is to our detriment to have one segment of our population disproportionately represented in the prison system, since it prolongs the effects of wealth and access/achievement disparities to make them into trans-generational problems.
While I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re heading backwards in terms of crime, or that racial profiling is a tool used by law enforcement, this new bill may provide us a unique opportunity to measure the effects of both. Hopefully only for a little while, when the next government scraps the stupid legislation and spends our money on something useful. Like ponies.
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*I am sure that some pedant will whinge about the self-report nature of the scale. The absolute size of the pot-smoking population is irrelevant. You would have to provide some pretty overwhelming evidence to get me to believe that black people are 8 times as likely to lie about smoking weed than white people, which is what that nitpick implies.
As I mentioned this morning, there’s been a lot of stuff going on that I haven’t been able to get to, but that I would like to. I’ve only done this a couple of times before, but instead of a full-fledged Crommunist Manifesto treatment, I’m going to have to provide mini-commentary on these. Please do not interpret this as an indication of anything other than the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, and days in a week. This post is for the ladies.
Women in Saudi Arabia are to be given the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, King Abdullah has announced. He said they would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council. The move was welcomed by activists who have called for greater rights for women in the kingdom, which enforces a strict version of Sunni Islamic law. The changes will occur after municipal polls on Thursday, the king said.
This move is so obvious and risibly behind the times that it’s almost hard to praise it. However, this small concession could potentially have profound meaning for the women of Saudi Arabia. That’s the problem, I suppose, with trying to impress liberals like me: you do something we ask you to do, and then we ask you why you didn’t get it done faster. There seems to be a lot of popular support for this move, and the least cynical side of me is inclined to say that this is indicative of a desire for true reform from the Saudi royal family. Within the structure of Shariah law there will never be legal equality for women in Saudi Arabia; however, it’s still a positive step that women will be allowed to make some decisions for themselves. Now maybe the car keys too?
The Nigerian police have arrested two people in connection with the gang-rape of a woman posted on the internet. Bala Hassan, the commissioner for police in Abia State, said the two men were detained after cyber activists posted pictures and names online. The video has shocked Nigeria both for the brutal nature of the rape and the initial failure to investigate.
Once again, I have no words to describe the contempt I have for the vile slime that would participate in a gang-rape, let alone videotape it. They are perhaps one level below the police who, given evidence that can clearly identify the victim and perpetrators, decide to drop the case. While we (rightly or wrongly) often deride internet activism under the increasingly-inaccurate label of ‘slacktivism’, it’s great to see it being used as a tool for greater justice. While it is a double-edged sword that can be used to shame victims, this is a case where the reverse is true and those who failed to uphold their duty to justice were shamed into doing their jobs.
Kenya’s Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai has died in Nairobi while undergoing cancer treatment. She was 71. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation, women’s rights and transparent government – the first African woman to get the award. She was elected as an MP in 2002 and served as a minister in the Kenyan government for a time. Ms Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted 20-30 million trees in Africa.
It’s a shame, and a testament to my shitty scholarship, that I only learned about Wangari Maathai – a black African woman with a Nobel prize. Talk about your stereotype smashers. Reading her obituary, Ms. Maathai was a consummate warrior against the sexist status quo, and refused to let the patriarchy back her down. Kenya is one of the more stable and progressive countries in Africa (man… that makes me sad – Kenya is no Norway), and it owes quite a bit of that to the work of Ms. Maathai and those she inspired.
Angela Marie MacDougall was exploited as a young girl, trafficked to grown men for sex. From ages 15-21, she continued working in the sex trade, mostly in Vancouver. It’s the usual story of how girls are inducted into sex work, she told a public hearing Thursday at Vancouver city hall on a city staff report about how to deal with sexual exploitation and Vancouver’s sex trade. “We hear in the report that we’re talking about women,” MacDougall said. “But guess what? Many of us aged into adulthood in terms of [selling sex]. We did not start as adults. We can’t pretend we’re not talking about girls here. By ignoring that in the report, we are failing.” MacDougall, who now works for Battered Women’s Support Services, told council the report needs to focus more on how and why young girls are being pulled into the sex trade in the first place, to get to the root of the problem.
I had a blog reader e-mail me (I love it when y’all do that, by the way) to encourage me to speak more about issues of the sex trade. For the record, I am pro-sex, provided that both parties consent and there is no coercion or exploitation involved. If that means money changes hands, then by all means throw those bucks down. Criminalizing prostitution only makes it more dangerous for all parties involved, particularly those who work as prostitutes. Vancouver has a thriving sex trade, but the structure of Canada’s laws and our puritanical views of sex make it a dangerous occupation. While some of the opinions expressed in the article are mind-numbingly stupid, it is a good sign that this kind of conversation is happening in the open.
My apologies for not giving these stories the individual attention they deserve. I invite your chastisement and further exploration of the issues behind the stories in the comments section.
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I would never dream of cheating on my one true love, The West Wing. However, its slightly less hot (but still smokin’) cousin Boston Legal caught my eye one one of those lonely, Bartlettless nights and swept me up in its strong arms. I truly don’t understand what it is that makes it so unpopular to have politically-relevant shows that explore the arguments on both sides of issues. They seem to be incredibly popular when they manage to make it on the air, and yet so few of them ever do. While it’s nice to have 30 Rock stroking all the liberal talking points, I’d love to see a drama that explores them more honestly – even through comedy.
That being said, for all its truly funny moments, Boston Legal also hits us right in the heart at times, often through main character Alan Shore’s closing statements in cases. Today’s video comes from S01E17 – Death Be Not Proud:
Please excuse the cheesy song in the background. I cannot fathom why someone would want to ruin such a great speech with such a terrible soundtrack. Take it up with the uploader.
This video should stand as a tribute to the memory of Troy Davis – a man executed under similarly doubt-ridden circumstances, executed by a state that would rather see a man die for a perverted sense of ‘justice’ than to do a thorough job investigating his innocence.
The transcript of the video is available here, but this is the relevant bit:
Alan Shore: I am here. With all due respect, may it please the court, because I have a problem with the State executing a man with diminished capacity. Who may very well be innocent! I’m particularly troubled, 8 may it please the court, with all due respect, that you don’t have a problem with it. You may not want to regard my client’s innocence, but you cannot possibly disregard the fact that 117 wrongfully convicted people have been saved from execution in this country. 117! The system is hardly foolproof.
And Texas! This State is responsible for a full third of all executions in America. How can that be? The criminals are just somehow worse here? Last year you accounted for fully half of the nation’s executions. Fifty percent from one State! You cannot disregard the possibility, the possibility, that something’s up in Texas.
Judge Lance Abrams: I would urge you to confine your remarks to your client, and not the good state of Texas.
Alan Shore: Zeke Borns never had a chance. He was rounded up as a teenager, thrown in a cell while he was still doped up on drugs, brow-beaten and interrogated, until his IQ of eighty was overcome, he confessed to a crime he had no memory of, still has no memory of, for which there is no evidence, other than two witnesses who saw him pumping gas around the time of the murder. He was given a coked-up lawyer, who admittedly did nothing.
I’m now before nine presumably intelligent people in the justice business, who have the benefit of knowing all of this. Add to that, you know DNA places somebody else at the scene, and you’re indifferent! You don’t care! Whether you believe in my client’s innocence, and I’ll assume, with all due respect, may it please the court, that you don’t! You cannot be sure of his guilt! You simply cannot! And failing that, how can you kill him? How can you kill him?
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In light of this morning’s post, I’d like to say a few words (not too many, I promise) about the execution of Troy Davis. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Mr. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989 in Savannah, Georgia. The case against Mr. Davis was built on the eyewitness testimony of people who claimed to be there to see the shooting. In the intervening 12 years, 9 of those witnesses have recanted their statements, with some alleging coercion by police. New forensic evidence has been brought forward suggesting that Mr. Davis is not, in fact the shooter. None of that has swayed the appellate courts, who allowed Mr. Davis’ execution to go forward yesterday.
This is a dramatically different situation than the one highlighted this morning, since there are evidently legitimate questions regarding Mr. Davis’ innocence:
A U.S. parole board has denied clemency to Troy Davis, clearing the way for his execution Wednesday in a case that has become an international cause celebre for death penalty opponents. Davis was convicted of shooting dead an off-duty police officer who intervened in a brawl in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia in 1989, but there was no physical evidence and several witnesses later recanted their testimony.
The thread connecting these two cases, however, is race. Mr. Davis, like Mr. Buck, is a black man. Now, in this case race was not so overtly a factor in the decision to convict or recommend the death penalty. That being said, my point in this morning’s piece is that it doesn’t have to be overt to exert influence. Mr. Davis’ race was a factor in his arrest, in his treatment following his arrest, his prosecution, and his sentencing. While I do not have the resources to demonstrate it, there is often a position of presupposed guilt when a defendant is black, while white defendants enjoy more of the benefit of the doubt.
Greg Laden over at The X Blog illustrates this aptly:
It is especially poignant to see that two young white middle class Americans will be release from an Iranian jail about the same time Troy will take the needle. Not that Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal should not be release or that they have anything to do with it. It is poignant for another reason. If you were an Iranian government official looking at the Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal case, the assumption that these to guys are spies would be natural. As a person who has traveled a fair amount in or near bellicose regions, and actually met spies along the way (I even spent a bit of time in prison with a spy in the Eastern Congo) I was never closed to the idea, while in the mean time virtually every American hearing of their fate simply knew that the were innocent of these charges. Young American men hiking on the border of a hostile state could not possibly be spies! Meanwhile, in downtown Savannah Georgia, if the police pick up a young black male for some crime or another, there are a lot of people who will assume he is guilty. Or, worse, not care if he is guilty. It’s the inner city. Young black males are the criminals. A crime was committed. Close enough.
But even with the race question left on its own, there seems to be more than enough reasonable doubt in this case to justify staying execution indefinitely. Troy Davis was convicted without any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and police bullied and intimidated their way into securing a quick conviction. When police wring their hands about how people who live in high-crime areas don’t co-operate with law enforcement, they need to understand that this is why. Police are not there unless they are looking to arrest someone, and are happy (dare I say eager) to run roughshod over the civil and human rights of the people in those communities to make as many charges stick as they can. Never mind justice, never mind professional diligence, and never mind protect and serve.
More bizarrely, the justice system, which is ostensibly supposed to correct for the grotesqueries of police overreaching, seems to be playing right along:
A Georgia appeals panel refused to let Troy Davis take a lie detector test to prove his innocence Wednesday, as the American convicted of killing a policeman nears exhaustion of his legal options hours before his execution. ”He requested an opportunity to take a polygraph test yesterday from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which had previously denied clemency,” Davis’s attorney Brian Kammer told AFP. ”Mr Davis’s attorneys had a polygrapher at the prison this morning in the event the request was granted. However, earlier this morning, the Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles flatly denied the request,” Kammer said.
The courts seem to be saying “you’re guilty, Mr. Davis, and we will not let any facts get in the way of that story.” Such is the reality for many people convicted by our courts.
This is why my eyes glaze over and my fists clench whenever people talk about the liberal ‘hug a thug’ mentality (a phrase so mind-numbingly stupid, and a position that obviously had so little thought go into it, that it makes me wonder whether the speaker has difficulty not choking on her own tongue). Justice should be difficult. Justice should be fought for and won only after a campaign of diligence and careful weighing of evidence. The decision to imprison someone, much less execute her, is one that deserves more care and deliberation, not snaps to judgment made for the sake of convenience.
Stories like this make me tired. I’m going to need an otter:
Not enough. Gonna need a double shot:
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Yesterday I mentioned that I don’t have a specific goal for these writings. Mostly they are a signpost for me to be able to look back and see how my thought process is evolving over time, much like writing one’s self a letter to be read in the future. That being said, people are reading this stuff (and thank you for that, by the way). This means that my ideas must stand up to third-party scrutiny in a way they wouldn’t have to if they were just my random, private thoughts. One of the more contentious ideas I have is my operational definition of racism. I fully recognize that the way I use the word – to describe the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals – is subtly different from what most people think when they use the word. My position remains that my definition is superior because it adequately encompasses the ‘classic’ definition, whilst also describing the reality of contemporary ‘polite’ racism.
However, there are occasions where I can go beyond simple rhetorical demonstration and actually bring evidence to bear on why we must shift our understanding of what racism is:
A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck’s conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial.
Some quick housecleaning here:
- I am not calling Rick Perry racist. I don’t know anything about the man’s personal beliefs when it comes to issues of race, or his track record of treatment of visible minorities. Even if Perry were an open and notorious member of the KKK, it would be completely irrelevant to my argument.
- I am also not interested in debating capital punishment at this time. I am personally against it, and have found all arguments in favour of executing convicts to be lacking in validity. That being said, my personal stance on the ethics or pragmatics of capital punishment are entirely tangential to the issue at hand.
- I am also not trying to make the argument that Duane Buck, the inmate in question, is innocent and should be freed. By all accounts, he’s guilty and his conviction is a good one. Again, this has nothing to do with the point I wish to make here.
The point I wish to make lives in these lines:
The issue at hand isn’t Buck’s innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck’s guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove “future dangerousness”—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck’s race (he’s African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future.
This is about as stark an example of racism as one could ask for. If Duane Buck had been white, he would have received a sentence of life in prison rather than execution. The psychologist testifying against him made it a matter of science (or at least clinical opinion) that black people are inherently more dangerous, and more likely to reoffend. This declaration pushed the jury to decide against him when deciding sentencing. One can certainly fault Dr. Quijano for abdicating his ethical responsibilities both as a medical practitioner and as a human being by offering racist claptrap as sworn testimony – there’s your classical racism. However, and this is significant – the jury believed him.
Imagine sitting in a juror’s box and having to decide on a land dispute between two neighbours. A shaman is called to testify, and offers his expert testimony that when he consulted the entrails of sacred chickens, they clearly indicated that the border between the two properties should be redrawn so that Mr. Ortiz can expand his garage as planned. When considering the evidence, would you include the shaman’s remarks, or rightly dismiss them as complete nonsense? Because you’re a reasonable person who knows that one cannot derive municipal zoning law from the gastrointestinal tract of domesticated animals, you’d probably ignore the insane ‘evidence’ offered in the courtroom.
That’s not the case in Texas. In Texas, the idea that black people are simply more dangerous – that black skin and heritage is meaningful when trying to predict someone’s behaviour – is something that carries enough traction to carry the force of law. The fact that the jurors weren’t able to immediately dismiss Dr. Quijano’s arguments as meritless means that somewhere in their minds, the predictive power of race on behaviour is a real possibility. This doesn’t mean that they were necessary maliciously racist people, or that they were even consciously aware of the effect that their own nascent racism had on their decision-making processes. What it does mean, however, is that without a fuller understanding of what racism is and how it operates, legal decisions such as the one Mr. Buck is facing are a reality, and will continue to be in the future.
Luckily, for Mr. Buck anyway, the controversy surrounding the sentencing has led to a temporary stay of execution:
The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution Thursday of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial. Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without extensive comment, said they would review an appeal in his case. Two appeals, both related to a psychologist’s testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted; the other was denied.
But this brings to light a whole new series of questions. Suppose that, under Texas law, Duane Buck should be executed. Suppose that, without Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the decision would have gone the same way. It is entirely possible that a guilty person is being excused because of complication surrounding the way the justice system handled his race. It’s happened before. Justice has not been served, and it is because of our preoccupation with race, coupled with our seeming inability to chart the way forward when it comes to resolving what is evidently still an open and relevant question.
Racism is not a problem that our parents or grandparents had to contend with, and that we can consign to the annals of history. Racism is very much alive, and failing to understand it will continue to be a millstone around our collective necks for as long as it takes us to get serious in our discussion of it.
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Religion, as a manifestation of the human impulse to attribute unexplained or unlikely occurrences to some kind of sentient external being, is arguably one of the most destructive forces plaguing our planet and our society. Personal or political differences between individuals or groups take on a whole new dimension of fucked-uppedness when religion gets thrown in the mix. It’s not always destructive though – I am willing to admit. Sometimes people do good things for explicitly religious reasons, although it’s far easier to find non-religious reasons to do good (pro-social) things than it is for evil things. Be that as it is, sometimes adding religion to things makes them better. Other times… it just makes them weird.
Fiji’s military government has ordered the cancellation of the Methodist Church’s annual conference, accusing the leadership of being too political. Senior members of the church were summoned by the military to hear the order, reports say. Soldiers attempted to detain 80-year-old former head of the church, Reverend Josateki Koroi, but he refused to go. ”I told them, the only way to take me to camp now is bundle up my legs, tied up, and my hands, I will not go with you. That is the only way, you carry me to the camp or you bring your gun and shoot me and you carry my dead body to the camp to show to the commander,” he told New Zealand media.
In this case, it seems like the Methodists are on the side of the good guys, as the political leadership in Fiji has suspended democratic freedoms and clamped down on dissent. Not cool. There’s also legitimate religious persecution happening here, where religious practice is being curtailed due to political differences. This is quite distinct from, say, telling a church it may not publicly endorse a candidate during an election cycle or prohibiting open religious exercise by government-funded institutions. This is telling a group that it may not assemble because it is critical of the government – an obvious violation of the principle of free speech and freedom of conscience.
I suppose the weirdest part of this story is that I’m defending a religious institution. I’ve maintained all along that I don’t have a problem with religious people, but with the wacky ideas they believe. If the Fijian Methodist Church’s opposition to Commodore Bainimarama’s regime is based on the fact that Jesus totally hates his guts, then that’s a lousy criticism. The fact that valid ideas are sometimes present in churches doesn’t vindicate the weirdo things they believe in. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, and so I am giving their stance my support (you’re totally welcome, guys).
Islamic police in the Indonesian province of Aceh have forced two women to have their marriage annulled and sign an agreement to separate. The women had been legally married for a few months after one of them passed as a man in front of an Islamic cleric who presided over their wedding. But suspicious neighbours confronted the couple and reported them to police. The two women are now back with their families, forcibly separated and under surveillance by the Islamic police.
This is like a sideways version of the movie Mulan, or more historically (and fitting with the title of this post) As You Like It. In this case, however, instead of masquerading as a man to fool a would-be-suitor, the disguise was to fool everyone else into recognizing the validity of a relationship. And, instead of the star-cross’d lovers being united in the end, the religious authority is forcing them to annul their marriage and move apart from each other. Why? Because apparently everything is so peachy keen in Indonesia right now that the people don’t have anything better to spend their time worrying about. Like, for example, the brutalization of minorities. Or the lack of adequate health care. Or suppression of right to free speech.
No, apparently Allah can’t punish those lesbos all on his own (nothing escaped this disastrous economy – not even omnipotence), and needs the help of his busybody footsoldiers to make sure that one couple who wasn’t hurting anyone can’t continue their devious campaign of living together happily. I’m not a supporter of defrauding the legal authority, which is unquestionably what happened here, but the punishment is not proportionate to the ‘crime’. It could be far worse – in parts of Nigeria or South Africa these women would have probably been gang raped. Going to the trouble of separating them and annulling their marriage is just, well, weird.
A druid who went to the High Court to try to stop researchers examining ancient human remains found at Stonehenge has failed in his legal bid. King Arthur Pendragon wanted the remains found in 2008 to be reburied immediately. He was fighting a Ministry of Justice decision allowing scientists at Sheffield University to analyse the samples for five more years. His bid was rejected at a High Court hearing in London.
Mr Justice Wyn Williams refused to give Mr Pendragon permission to launch a judicial review action, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to show that the Ministry of Justice might have acted unreasonably. Former soldier Mr Pendragon, 57, who changed his name by deed poll, was dressed in white druid robes and represented himself at the hearing.
Okay… I don’t have to explain why this one is weird, right?
Druids are weird. Being all precious and uptight about dead bodies is weird. Representing yourself at a High Court hearing is… well, it’s just a bad idea. I suppose Druidism is no more or less weird than First Nations animism here in North America, and certainly its more environmental and pacifistic tenets are worthy of some consideration. That doesn’t make it less weird.
Of course the take home message is that when religious beliefs collide with a secular justice system, there are some really strange outcomes. A system that is founded on principles of rationality and logic intersecting with a belief system that is based on the fundamental abdication of either of those is virtually guaranteed to produce some truly, spectacularly bizarre outcomes.
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A few weeks ago I opined on the riots in London, and contrasted the police reaction there to the one here in Vancouver following our own riots. That story is continuing:
Prime Minister David Cameron has defended courts for handing out “tough” sentences for those involved in the riots across England. The barrister told the BBC “ringleaders should receive very long sentences” but warned “there was an issue of proportionality” over the way people already before the courts had been treated. The PM said it was good that the courts were sending a “tough message”. Speaking in Warrington, he said: “It’s up to the courts to make decisions about sentencing, but they’ve decided to send a tough message and it’s very good that the courts feel able to do that.”
Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu is defending the pace of criminal investigations into Vancouver rioters, saying investigators are moving slowly because authorities want to make sure they can secure convictions. ”Even though we acknowledge the frustration of those who wish these suspects were already in jail, and we hear and share your frustration, there are many reasons why we must proceed at this pace,” Chu told reporters Wednesday at a news conference. His comments came as critics point to swift sentencing seen in Britain in the wake of a sweeping series of riots in recent weeks.
First of all, it’s important to state unequivocally that the Vancouver riots are not comparable to the London riots. The issues that underlie the widespread reckless smash and grab in the UK are not represented in the 5-hour orgy of violence that happened here following the Stanley Cup final. Looking for a common thread between what sparked the two separate occasions is probably a waste of time. My intention here is to contrast the response by law enforcement in the two situations that, from a surface perspective, appear similar (people rioting).
I was critical of David Cameron’s response to the riots – right-wing chest thumping might be psychologically satisfying, but it is not the kind of evidence-based response we need to see that justice is done and further riots do not happen. While I am still critical of his approach, he is not really the focus of this story. It is now the judicial system that is engaging in a dick-measuring contest to show how “tough” they can be. As I’ve opined before, being “tough” on crime doesn’t do anything but appease the masses thirsty for blood. It’s a short-sighted response that finds its origin in our lizard brains – they hurt us so let’s hurt them back. While understandable, it leads us to react disproportionately and emotionally, when reason and logic are at their most crucial:
BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the sentences being handed out across the country for offences of dishonesty such as theft, burglary and receiving stolen goods, suggested there were disparities between courts. What the public was seeing may just be a “distorted version of the normal system”, our correspondent said. In another case, David Beswick, 31 from Salford was sentenced to 18 months in prison for handling stolen goods. Max Hill QC, vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said it was not the job of judges “to deliver a political message on behalf of the government” when passing sentence but part of their role was to identify “serious aggravating features that elevate the crime beyond the ordinary”.
When the lawyers, intimately involved in the criminal justice system, are criticizing your policy, it might be a rebuke you want to take seriously. I said as much this morning.
In matters of criminal justice, it is far too easy to get swept up in the bloodlust of the crowd. Britain is certainly modeling such a reaction for the whole world to see. Vancouver’s response has been far more measured. They are concerned with making cases based on solid evidence, rather than appealing to cries for swift punishment. Why Jim Chu is choosing this route, and whether he will survive the next election cycle for his job, are open questions. I am happy and proud to live in a society where deliberate care is taken to avoid locking up the wrong people, or letting the right people get away on technicalities due to improper evidence.
Now if only we’d apply that same work ethic to charging the financiers that did far more damage to the economy than all the looters in the world could hope to accomplish. Then we’d really be getting something done.
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Sometimes the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. Oftentimes things that seem like good ideas completely fail to improve the situation. In some cases, because we are fallible human creatures with flawed brains, we often devise solutions to problems that actually make those problems worse. Our politicians, in theory, should be less prone to making these types of mistakes than we lowly civilians – after all, they are selected because of their superior leadership and merit, right? It seems to be the cynical case that this is not a reasonable expectation of our leaders:
The country’s foremost legal organization has delivered a grim assessment of the Harper government’s get-tough-on-crime agenda, attacking mandatory minimum sentences and questioning Ottawa’s eagerness to put offenders behind bars. With a series of blunt statements and policy resolutions, the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference bristled at inaccessible courts, inappropriate jailing of mentally ill offenders and costly measures that threaten to pack prisons.
The Canadian Bar Association likely knows a thing or two about crime. After all, they are far more intimately familiar with the issues than the average Canadian. They see the way that people move through the justice system – both its successes and failures are the stuff of their professional lives. It is therefore a resounding condemnation of the upcoming omnibus crime bill to have such a sharp and public criticism from this sector.
“There are too many people who are mentally ill and should be dealt with in the health system as opposed to the criminal justice system,” [Nove Scotia prosecutor Dan] McRury said. “We need more sentencing options. One size does not fit all. “Being tough on the most vulnerable in our society is not humane,” Mr. McRury added. “Unfortunately, deinstitutionalizing our mental hospitals has meant that we have exchanged prison cells for hospital beds – but without having enough supports in the community.”
Another resolution passed by the 37,000-member organization called for governments to stop toughening laws without regard to the historic plight of aboriginal people and the over-representation of aboriginal offenders in prison.
If I had a magic policy wand and one item to use it on, it would definitely be to find better solutions for mental health care. So many broad social problems – crime, homelessness, health care spending, workplace productivity – all of these have strong links with undiagnosed and undertreated mental health issues. The CBA seems to recognize that fact. And yet, the new bill would have no provisions for providing mental health services to those in need, and would in fact mandate that they be put in jail instead of in hospitals where they could actually get some help. Even though it seems like creating harsher sentencing rules seems like it should result in less crime, the evidence suggests otherwise. Even purposeful rational thought (rather than appeals to ‘common sense’) reveals that factors besides legislation are responsible for crime, and can be manipulated to achieve the desired effect of reduction in crime rates.
Of course, that presumes that our political leaders are interested in either evidence or purposeful rational thought. There may be some hope for the system here in British Columbia:
The traditional risk factors for joining gangs — poverty, family dysfunction, a sense of alienation and lack of social supports — don’t appear to hold true for Vancouver gangs, a gang-prevention researcher says. As anti-gang experts work to head off retaliatory attacks for Sunday’s gang shooting in Kelowna that killed Red Scorpion Jonathan Bacon and wounded Hells Angel Larry Amero and three others, researcher Gira Bhatt is looking at ways to prevent kids from joining gangs in the first place.
Bhatt, a psychology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says the gang demographics in B.C. are unique. “[For example,] if you look at the Bacon brothers, they come from a good family — a rich family — where the parents are very supportive of their kids,” Bhatt said. “We can’t borrow solutions from Toronto or Los Angeles and apply them here.”
Many people may not be familiar with the significant gang problem facing British Columbia. Because of how lucrative the drug trade is, gangs command a great deal of resources and influence. As Dr. Bhatt notes, there are factors unique to the region that make B.C. gangs different from gangs in other areas of the world. The proposed solutions must reflect this uniqueness:
“Police are asking for more resources, and yes, they need more resources. But if that’s all we do, the need for more and more police will simply grow over time,” Bhatt said.
[MLA, former solicitor-general and former West Vancouver police chief Kash] Heed called for a “comprehensive strategy” to combat gangs, including a universal anti-bullying program in schools, early-intervention programs for families and meaningful opportunities for kids to get involved in their community. “You are not going to arrest your way out of this gang situation that we have,” Heed said. “We’re just reacting to the problem. We’ve reacted to this problem since 1994 here in Vancouver. We still have this absolutely astounding display of public violence on our streets.”
Critics on both sides of the political divide (although primarily on the right) tend to decry ‘one size fits all’ solutions to social problems. I think there is merit to this position – each region must have some leeway to solve its own problems in its own way. However, despite being aligned with the right, the Republican North Party has taken the decidedly non-conservative step of giving the federal government the authority to take decision-making power out of the hands of the justice system. If it were a left-wing government proposing this kind of program, that would at least be consistent with the idea of government intervention in individual lives. Coming from a government that at least pretends to be conservative, it is a stark revelation of their own hypocrisy.
What’s my proposal? I say we decide policy on a case-by-case basis and look at what the evidence says. If the evidence says mandatory minimums work, then let’s do that. If the evidence says that coddling criminals works, then we do that. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us. Failing to make our policy responsive to observable reality, rather than a slave to our ideological prejudices, will only serve to exacerbate problems to the detriment of everyone.
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Regular readers will know that I am not above my practice of occasionally quoting Christian scripture in the service of a point. While I’m sure I’ve mentioned this here and there, I don’t have any problem with using the Bible as a literary resource. I view the Old and New testaments in the same way I view Chaucer or Nabokov or Neruda – as a work of fiction from which interesting points can be gleaned. The only difference is that, unlike Chaucer, Nabokov and Neruda, I’ve actually read the Bible.
The title of this post is a reference to a sermon by the Jesus character in the Bible, in which he decries hypocrisy in a variety of forms. I enjoy this particular passage a great deal because of how unremittingly hypocritical religious adherents are when it comes to issues regarding their own beliefs. I explored that topic a bit this morning, but I failed to make an important point. While I am disgusted with the actions and arrogance of the Roman Catholic Church, and while I find their particular brand of hypocrisy to be the most blatant and offensive, I do not ascribe to them exclusive ownership of religious hypocrisy:
Rights groups have expressed outrage after an Indonesian court jailed a Muslim sect member for defending himself from a brutal mob attack. The court jailed Ahmadiyah member Deden Sudjana for six months, a heavier term than many of the attackers received. Three Ahmadiyah members were bludgeoned to death in an attack by a 1,000-strong mob of hardliners in February. No-one was charged with murder.
Sudjana was hit with a machete and almost had his hand severed during the attack, which pitted about 20 Ahmadiyah followers against more than 1,000 fanatics in the village of Cikeusik, west Java. But the court ruled that he had disobeyed a police order to leave the scene, and had been filmed punching another man.
Video footage of the attack shows crowds of hardliners beating a small group of Ahmadis as police watch. So far 12 of the attackers have been found guilty of minor offences and sentenced to between three and six months.
I first talked about the Ahmadiyah back in March, using their situation to make a point about what actual religious persecution looks like. It’s something quite distinct from merely not having exceptions made for your bigotry because your religious beliefs make you an asshole. It is when the force of law is not only brought to bear to bar you from engaging in what would otherwise be legal activity, but also prevents you from realizing your legal rights. I also talked about this attack over at Canadian Atheist to illustrate why a secular state is to the benefit even of believers.
I honestly don’t know what makes the Venn diagram of ‘religion’ and ‘hypocrisy’ so tight, but it seems as though this tendency is not relegated to simply the Pope. The courts in Indonesia have given a big ol’ middle finger to the very concepts of fairness and equality under the law and have begun punishing people for being the victims of brutalization at the hands of a mob, simply because that mob believes in the ‘correct’ version of YahwAlladdha. The personal beliefs of the attackers, or how justified those who would assault non-combatant people may feel in perpetrating violence, is entirely immaterial when it comes to judging their actions. I would have the same contempt and outrage at a crowd of pro-science feminist atheists who physically attacked a white supremacist group as I would for the reverse. Violence is never an option in defense of ideology.
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