Sheila Dixon and The Doggedly Persistent Undercurrent of Race

Much is being made lately of the fact that many of Mayor Sheila Dixon‘s city constituents have come to her defense as she is tried for theft. Not surprisingly, the folks that are rallying around her are those with whom she has had contact, people for whom she has delivered subsidies and contracts from city government. Neighborhood groups and charities that subsist on taxpayer largess continue to profess faith in the mayor. The Maryland Minority Contractors Association Inc. has even started its own surreal campaign on the behalf of Dixon and a city councilwoman also under indictment, which they’re calling S.O.S. (Save Our Sisters). No one should be surprised at any of this.

It also helps if you’ve been able to convince your supporters that they are an embattled minority, and that you are their defender. This is where the undercurrent of racial politics comes into play, even though it shouldn’t, as blacks represent a majority in the city and Dixon’s likely successor is another African-American woman. For some of the Friends of Sheila, loyalty may be more about relationships built over years in city government, and more to the point, what the Mayor can deliver, should she be acquitted. In the real world, friendship and connections trump the quest for justice every time.

Beyond that, however, for many city residents, especially those in the African American community, what they see is one more black politician being hunted down and cornered by the white establishment. (The symbolism is intentional.) This is the same “defense of community” reflex that has made O.J. Simpson and former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick martyrs. Many of the people of Washington, D.C.  refused to judge Marion Barry’s actions, regardless of what the videotapes showed, and then, when he had finished his prison term for a drug conviction, promptly returned him to the office of mayor. He still serves his constituents on the City Council today.

This is why Dixon’s attorneys used six challenges to exclude whites from the jury (three finally made it) and state prosecutors used three challenges to exclude blacks (seven ended up in the jury). Even if no one wants to speak openly about it, there is a doggedly persistent undercurrent of race in these proceedings, an undercurrent that threatens to bring out the worst in all of us.

And let’s be fair: as unreasonably supportive as the African American community may be to a crooked politician who got caught with her hand in the cookie gift card jar, there is almost certainly a rush to judgement by whites anxious to bring her down, which serves only to intensify the “us vs. them” mentality and the defensiveness of the mayor’s supporters. No matter what picture we may try to paint in polite company, the issue of racial identity still cuts deep in Baltimore, and in the United States generally. Sadly, race will no doubt play a role in the verdict, and then the reaction to that verdict. After the dust has settled, expect the losing racial group to entrench its opinions even deeper. Welcome to post-racial America, everyone.

Crooked Histories: Maryland, along with a handful of other states, has a particular history of official corruption. Maryland Governors Marvin Mandel and Spiro Agnew both faced trials, convictions and in Mandel’s case, imprisonment and eventual vindication.

Illinois, however, had established itself as the king of official malfeasance long before Rod Blagojevich became a household name. His predecessor, George Ryan served a prison term for corruption, as did a number of other former governors from that state. Powerful Congressman Dan Rostenkowski was forced from office after having been convicted of mail fraud, and I haven’t even mentioned the city of Chicago. Not far behind is the state of Louisiana, the home of governors Edwin Edwards and Huey “Kingfish” Long.

So, Maryland is not alone as it endures the spectacle of yet another public official on trial for impropriety. And it is not alone in having its dishonest politicians continue to enjoy broad public support, even as embarrassing revelation follows embarrassing revelation in the press. As a matter of fact, I remember something on a much larger scale happening about ten years ago, in a case that brought together whites and blacks in common defense of a sleazy pol. Remember a guy named Bill Clinton?

See? This Dixon mess isn’t so bad after all.

On Sheila Dixon, Freed Killers, College Pornography and More

Finally, after what seems like forever, Sheila Dixon is getting her day in court. Accused of stealing gift cards intended for needy families, Dixon can justifiably say that she has already been convicted in the press, and therefore, the court of public opinion. Of course, to say that is somewhat disingenuous, as politicians rise on the backs of the press and public opinion, and almost certainly fall from there as well. But the press won’t be the ones acquitting or convicting her (which makes her threat not to “allow the media to control this trial” all the more laughable), and public opinion probably won’t be changed by the verdict. For almost all interested observers, she’s already a martyr or a felon, due process be damned. (A quick check of the Sun’s message board is enough to confirm this.) Helping to diffuse potential race and gender issues is the fact that, if convicted and removed, Dixon will be replaced by Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, another African-American woman. This is a blessing. Now perhaps we can focus on the fate of just another politician accused of small-time larceny.

When I first heard that alleged killer Dante Parrish had recently been released from prison after having served only ten years for murder, I was incensed. Having read a little more, it seems as if Parrish was the victim of bad counsel at his original trial and that witnesses from that time were now recanting, forcing the state to strike a deal. What I’m thinking about now though, is the role played by the intervention of a well-intentioned (but in this case, horribly wrong)  organization, the Maryland Innocence Project, that provided the legal assistance that caused Parrish to be loosed upon the population. Did Parrish deserve a new trial? It would seem so. Was a new conviction unlikely? The state thought so. Once the trial errors were pointed out, was there really any other choice but to let Carter go? Probably not. So, does this killing lie at the feet of the Innocence Project? Emphatically: No. If individuals wrongly convicted can be exonerated by DNA evidence, then we would be worse than human to not avail them of the chance to be so. If Carter was truly guilty of the 1999 murder, then the state shouldn’t have fouled up the case. If Carter wasn’t guilty in 1999, he shouldn’t have been in jail. It’s natural to blame the liberal do-gooders when something blows up in their faces, but this one’s on the original prosecutor.

The University of Maryland Board of Regents yesterday, in a move that appeared to surprise everyone, stood up to state Delegate Andy Harris and refused to be the first university system to attempt to define and then restrict pornography. Good for them. This courageous stance comes at the threat of legislative action once the new session convenes in January, but I suspect that there’ll be more important matters in the State House than deciding how much exposed breast is too much exposed breast. If I remember correctly, the state has a bit of a financial crisis that should keep our elected officials plenty busy.

When Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California, was denied the Miss USA title because of her belief in traditional marriage, she had my full sympathy. Now, after months of ugly revelations and nasty legal tiffs, it’s become clear that she’s not the poster-child for family values that she made herself out to be. In fact, she’s become quite the media gadfly, crafting inventive ways to stay in the public eye without ever having to accomplish anything. Last night, having accepted Larry King’s invitation to appear live, she abruptly decided that she didn’t like the format and removed her microphone (oddly enough, she didn’t leave; she just sat there like a stunned duck). Frankly, I’m way past tired of these reality show, event driven insta-celebrities who have neither talent nor aspirations beyond staying topical. We should attach a clinical-sounding name to the phenomenon. How about “Gosselinistic Personality Disorder?”

The Ravens tried out a couple of other kickers, but apparently they were even worse than Steve Hauschka. Hauschka says that the players “are backing me up.” Be careful there, Steve. They just might be backing you up against a wall if you miss another clutch kick…

D.C. Sniper John Allen Muhammad is Dead, and I Don’t Feel Any Better

Last night, the state of Virginia executed convicted D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. Many commentators had said (as they always do), that this final act was really about “closure” for the victims’ families, and yet, none of those family members admitted to feelings of closure last night, and a few denied it outright. I suspect that the only true instance of closure last night belonged to Muhammed. Yes, I know that he deserved it, but it still made me feel uneasy, and more than a little bit conflicted.

Don’t think that I’m just someone who can’t stomach the death penalty (there are plenty of crimes I think are quite suited for it, especially where children are involved).  I believe that the reason I, like many Americans, feel sympathy for the condemned killers at the time of their execution is more logical. When the crimes are committed, and fresh in our memories, we surge with horror and outrage. We imagine what the last moments of the victims must have been like, and try to empathize with their families. At that moment, our sense of justice cries out for retribution against the perpetrator.

However, the wheels of due process grind very slowly. Gradually, over time, our outrage fades, new crimes replace the old, and we forget the faces of the innocent. At the time of trial, our attention may be regained briefly, but only with a fleeting, passing glance – certainly not with the same intensity as it had been at the time of the crimes. By the time the killer is sentenced to die, our emotional state is approaching something more akin to ambivalence than righteous fury. The process has begun.

The process of emotional dissociation accelerates throughout the ensuing years, as appeals are filed, motions are lost and requests for new trials are denied. Time passes. As the final appeal winds its way toward the Supreme Court, and the date of execution draws closer, the media once again becomes conscious of the story, but the perspective has changed. At this point the stories do not revolve around the horrific nature of the crimes, or the suffering of the victims and their families, but on the condemned’s struggle to survive.

In the final weeks leading up to the execution, we are peppered with professions of innocence, lawyer’s statements that detail the several and serious errors from the original trial and the testimony of credible-sounding people who claim that the convicted person could not possibly have done the thing of which he is accused. We listen, we read, and slowly, imperceptibly, we find our imaginations caught up in the plight of a killer to live just one more month, one more week, one more day.

During the final few days, we become increasingly uncomfortable as it becomes apparent that the condemned is, in fact, doomed to die. We might wonder how one faces the idea that no matter what he does, his life will suddenly end in a now easily quantifiable number of hours. Does he try to stay awake, squeezing out every conscious hour of life that he can? Does he stare at the clock, watching his life inexorably drain away? So much is made of the last meal; how can a man that will be killed in a few hours enjoy anything, much less food? Who could have an appetite at a time like that?

And then, the day arrives. We are busy living lives that have a tomorrow. Still, at moments throughout the day, we may see a clock and quickly do the math: Three hours until he dies. Again we wonder: what is he doing? What is he thinking? Is he keeping his composure? More to the point, could I keep my composure?

The hours pass and we are made aware of a man’s sudden death by a scrolling text at the bottom of a television screen. We consider this for a moment and then return to more immediate concerns, such as whether Daniel will finally get voted off of The Biggest Loser. For us, life goes on, albeit a little more gingerly than before, for a few days anyway, until this death too passes from our conscious memory.

Clearly, it is the buffer of many years’ time that allows our sympathies to be transferred from the victim to the killer. Not that long ago, justice was swift, catching up the convicted while the blood lust of the people was still fully aroused. When the condemned met his fate, there was a sense that balance had been restored; few tears were shed for a person who had done such terrible things, things that had not yet passed from common recall. A primal need for revenge had been satisfied.

I do not long for a return to the days when crime, conviction and consummation all took place within a period of weeks. Justice cannot be accomplished where doubt remains, and my unease is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the need to be absolutely certain of the guilt of the criminal and the guarantee of due process.

I do, however, find myself wondering: Is this what justice is supposed to feel like?

Honestly? I hope not.

In Britain, “The Wire” is Reality and Baltimore is a Scary, Dangerous Place

A truly fascinating adventure in journalism is playing out this week.

British journalist Mark Hughes, in an exchange program with the Baltimore Sun (who sent their crime reporter, Justin Fenton, to London), has been in Baltimore recently, hanging out with our beleaguered police department. While he’s here, he’s been filing reports for his own The Independent, a London daily. Let’s just say that his stories have not been helpful for the Baltimore Tourism Department. The English best know Baltimore from the HBO crime drama “The Wire,” which portrays Charm City as, well, let’s say less than charming. Baltimore officials have long complained that the show promotes a false image of the city for the sake of ratings. Are they right?

Here’s an excerpt from a Hughes story:

“This was Baltimore exactly as I have seen it countless times on The Wire, but on this occasion it was real life. It was a Tuesday night, on the corner of West Fayette and North Carey streets, and it was the evening’s first shooting. There would be four more before the end of the shift. Two of the five, including this one, were fatal.”

Hughes has also reported on the corruption trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, and her contentious relationship with the Baltimore City Police Department. Unfortunately, neither Dixon nor Police Chief Bealefeld would make themselves available to be interviewed for the stories, no doubt because there’s little good to be said about Baltimore’s out of control crime problem. Not that Dixon and Bealefeld are entirely to blame – there have been five Police Commissioners in the last ten years, and Dixon is relatively new to the job. They’re just the latest in a long line of politicians and appointees to be swallowed up by the hopeless morass that is Baltimore City, and they are obviously very touchy about it.

Others are less hesitant to explore Baltimore’s deficiencies. In 1989, Maryland Senate President Mike Miller told a WBAL TV 11 reporter that “Baltimore is a (expletive) ghetto. It’s worse than inner city Washington, D.C.” In 1997, authors David Simon and Edward Burns released “The Corner,” an expose of Baltimore’s drug and poverty-driven neighborhoods. Of course, if you live in the city, this is not art, this is your reality.

Meanwhile, Fenton’s stories note that Britain’s police use of DNA evidence is futuristic compared to Baltimore’s, and that the sound of fireworks reminded him of home. His fourteen hour ride-along to the “underbelly” of Manchester produced contacts with a car full of pot-smoking teenagers, a kid whose bike riding behavior raised false suspicions, a slightly inebriated (but not technically drunk) driver, and a fruitless search for a man with a vegetable knife and a home that was wrongly believed to have been burglarized. Hughes, on the other hand, found himself at the scene of a shooting only minutes after he got into town. Awesome.

The two reporters have also been blogging about their experiences. These blogs reveal a contrast that could best be described in a SAT-type analogy: London is to Baltimore as Paris is to Mogadishu. Tremendous.

What all of this journalism convincingly demonstrates is that we big-city Americans exist in a frightening world largely unknown to the people of other industrialized nations. Because of our equal devotion both to the rights of gun owners and the rights of criminals, we suffer from a preponderance of both. It’s a bad combination.

Of course, were we to give up these rights, we might begin to address the violence inherent in American society, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Americans fear government encroachment and the loss of civil liberties far more than they fear for their lives. Is this rational? Probably not, but it’s part of the American DNA, and there’s no escaping it. As a people, we will consent to be destroyed from within rather than give an inch where personal freedoms are concerned.

So yes, London, I guess “The Wire” is a pretty accurate portrayal of Baltimore after all. There’s no need to pity us – this is the society we have chosen. We complain about it ( a lot), but really, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

And congratulations, Baltimore – this is your life.


 

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned Since Those Heady Days After the Wall Fell

In 1989, I was the proud father of my first child, a son. It was also the year my wife and I bought our first house. And that year, I, along with much of America, watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on television. That’s also where I heard about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, and the arrest of Erich Honecker. For me, it was like seeing Allied soldiers shaking hands at the Elbe River.  The Cold War was over, and we won.

Later the next year, my mother gave me a small cardboard box. Inside the box was a tiny chip of concrete, which the box claimed had been part of the Berlin Wall. I doubted the authenticity of the “relic” almost immediately, but I cherished it anyway. Not because of its monetary value, or even its supposed historic significance. I kept that box because to me it represented the day we gave communism the final beatdown it had so long deserved. For me, a child of the Cold War who had grown up with Third World War nightmare scenarios, that box represented the day the good guys won, and the oppressed people of Europe took back their countries. The box didn’t hold a fragment of dusty concrete; it held the self-righteous vindication of my entire worldview.

Of course, I was a lot more idealistic in 1989. (To give you a sense of my naiveté, it hadn’t even occurred to me that nature didn’t make humans with the body types of Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire.)  I can distinctly remember thinking that the people who had lived behind the Iron Curtain were going to join us in repudiating their pasts and that before too long, the entire industrialized world would be (relatively) friendly bastions of pro-Western capitalism and democracy. I assumed that Cuba would fall to revolution within weeks and that China couldn’t stand alone forever. Once China had “converted,” of course, their North Korean dependents would beg their cousins in the South to reunify. Vietnam would finally come to its senses, demonstrating that we had known what was best for them all along. President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “New World Order.” At the time, there was little doubt which nation would be directing this “New World Order.” In my view, the new boss had arrived.

As it turned out, Communism hung tough in a few small pockets of the globe, and one really big pocket. The euphoria of the young democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, with their cardboard Statue of Liberty and willingness to stand before tanks, couldn’t bring freedom to China. Tyranny dies hard, I suppose. Russia’s path to democracy has been filled with stops and starts, and some there remember the old Soviet Union with a whitewashed fondness, because those were the days when Russians felt powerful. Rather than being our democratic partners, the Russians have opted to be the loyal opposition. So have the reunified Germany and France, for that matter. Cuba continues to poke a stick at us from across the Straits of Florida and Vietnam hasn’t admitted to the error of its ways.

November of 1989 seems like so long ago now. The United States, knowing what was best for everyone else, tried to direct the “New World Order,” with mixed results. Nowadays, I wonder whether world leadership is really worth all of the grief. I suspect many others wonder, too. I guess people just don’t like to be led, even if it is by the “good guys.” But, you know what? I am the father of teenagers, so, I understand. I didn’t understand much in 1989, but in 2009, I understand more. Maybe not a lot, but more than I did then.

The Fort Hood Massacre as the Price of Free Speech

At what point, and to what degree, will Americans be willing to impinge upon their freedom of speech if they believe that lives are at stake? That question bubbles to the surface again today as more becomes known about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter in the Fort Hood massacre, who apparently was angry about the United States’ prosecution of the War on Terror.

According to wire reports, Hasan’s family was connected with a Virginia mosque that at one time hosted the preaching of radical imam Anwar al Awlaki, and where two of the September 11th hijackers worshiped.  Writing from Yemen, the imam, author of the controversial “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” praised Hasan’s actions and condemned Muslims critical of the attack as “hypocrites.” Awlaki has been often accused of intentionally inciting English-speaking Muslims to violence against the Western World.

This is where the whole “freedom of speech” thing gets somewhat sticky. If it can be demonstrated that Awlaki’s words led to Hasan’s actions, do we still consider those words protected speech? Remember, the element of religious freedom exists to even further complicate the matter. If preaching hatred from the pulpit causes others to deem it God’s will, or perhaps just acceptable, to harm others, should that speech be banned?

Be careful. Before you reflexively answer “yes,” consider the implications. If this ban were enacted, could radical anti-abortion groups be targeted for “hate speech?” How about Rush Limbaugh? Still on board? What about a President who openly condemns insurance interests for their opposition to health care reform? What would seem like an overreaction is only so until there’s an incident involving a desperate man whose child has been denied coverage for what he considers a life-saving treatment. If that were to occur, the culpability of public figures under the new law would immediately come into question, and no doubt countless lawsuits would be filed by the aggrieved.

This is the problem we run into as Americans who profess to defend freedom above all else. If we choose to allow speech that amounts to public attacks upon individuals and organizations, attacks that are intended to arouse individuals to action (as all political attacks are), attacks that we now consider as a normal part of the political process, we must also allow the speech of hate-spewing imams in Virginia.

Of course, there are limits which have been consistently applied over the years, such as removing from that protection speech which can be construed to have the deliberate, intentional purpose to cause harm to another individual or to deprive that individual of their rights under the law. However, in this case, that doesn’t seem to be what was going on in Virginia.

In the coming days, there will be plenty of calls for a rethinking of what’s being preached in America. There may also be condemnations of the patriotism of certain Muslims in America. While it may be easy to point out that inciting people to hate is wrong, it is a far more difficult task to regulate it. I suspect that after the dead of Fort Hood are buried, and the final notes of taps drift away in the autumn breeze, we will discover the price of that regulation to be too steep, and in the end, a poor tribute to those who were, in the end, martyrs of a society based upon free speech.

Oh, Sweet Irony, Thou Art A Hard Mistress

Irish rockers U2 will play a free concert at the Brandenburg Gate tonight in Berlin, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall.  The show is part of MTV’s European Music Awards and is expected to draw a walk-up crowd of about 100,000.  Organizers, however, have decided that capitalism can’t survive in an atmosphere where large numbers of people can get to see the show for free. Their response? Sheer genius.

The Berlin Wall was constructed beginning in 1961 to protect communism by keeping East Germans in their place – and away from a clear view of freedom. Now, somehow oblivious to the irony, U2 concert promoters have ordered a 12-foot wall erected to protect capitalism by keeping non-ticket holders in their place – away from a clear view of the band.

So now, we have a large wall separating the people of Berlin from a show that is celebrating the destruction of a large wall separating the people of Berlin.

Perfect.

Maybe 20 years from now, the surviving members of U2 can be wheeled onto a stage in Berlin to celebrate the destruction of that wall, too. If you want to see that show, though, you’d better make sure you get there early to get a ticket, just to be on the safe side.