Thursday, December 04, 2014

Blue wall of violence

Some people were apparently surprised when a grand jury refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner to death last July.  I was not, and it wasn't because of my ingrained cynicism.  It was because I know a little something about grand juries, and about New York.

The first thing you need to know is that Staten Island is the redneck part of New York, the borough that wanted to secede a few years ago, the borough where a lot of police live, the borough with a significant Ku Klux Klan presence.  Not that these conditions are in any way connected to one another, or to the offer by the borough's congressman to throw a television reporter off a balcony in response to an unwelcome question.  It's the borough that elects Republicans, all right?  It's Mississippi with decent pizza.

I don't know how they do this in Missouri, but a New York grand jury consists of twenty-three people chosen at random, emphasis on random.  I have twice been press-ganged onto a grand jury and I took notes.  Twelve votes are required for indictment, and we indicted (or "voted a true bill") every single time.  By now you may be picturing the grand jury scenes from Law & Order, which take place in what appears to be the Yale Club -- paneled walls, leather chairs, indirect lighting, the faint gleam of brass fixtures.  My ass.  It's a shabby little room just big enough for twenty-three school-type chairs, the kind with writing arms that vex left-handed people.  It's never cleaned because it's in constant use.  I sat for two weeks watching a pile of orange peel decompose beneath a desk.  The lights are fluorescent and there is no sound system.  When the windows are open, which is often because there is also no air conditioning, the traffic makes it impossible to hear the witnesses or their interpreters, whose accents are even more pronounced.  None of this matters.

If you have had the pleasure of being called for regular jury duty, you know how much effort goes into the process.  This is because lawyers know that cases are won and lost during jury selection.  You are asked all kinds of questions:  Have you ever been the victim of a crime?  Are you related to a police officer?  Have you ever heard of the Constitution?  Then it gets more intrusive:  What job do you do?   Do you belong to any social organizations?  Do you like to read?  What do you like to read?  Even if you give nothing but "correct" answers you can be excused for any reason, or for no reason at all.  It's serious business.  That's a real judge up there, and the defendant is sitting a few feet away, and there may be spectators and reporters.   Those officers have loaded weapons.  It's what baseball players call The Show.  The grand jury is distinctly the minors.  Probably the names should be reversed.

When you are called to be a grand juror they ask you one question:  "Morning or afternoon?"  Then they take your fingerprints, in case you are wanted in another state or perhaps are in the country illegally.  And that's it.  If you have a pulse, and fingerprints, you're qualified.  In many states it's harder to vote.

Why?  Because the grand jury process is a totally bullshit rubber-stamp procedure, a waste of time and money. 

Last time I heard nothing but drug cases.  Which is to say police would come in, identify themselves only by their badge numbers (undercover, you see, and why should we be trusted with their names?), repeat word for word boilerplate about purchasing a controlled substance from a certain individual  at a certain location and vouchering same under number something-something, whereupon yadda yadda, and back they went to the mean streets.  The assistant district attorney would then mumble something and step into the hall, and twelve or more of us would raise our hands while the rest went back to sleep or to reading the paper.  Any questions?  Why, yes, what exactly was involved?  Two joints?  Ten pounds of cocaine?  A bottle of Lydia Pinkham's Tonic for Ladies, laced with laudanum?  Sorry, not a proper question.  Justice served.  Next!

Twenty-three crash test dummies, wired to raise their arms in unison, could have done our job more cheaply and efficiently, sitting round the clock and not even littering the floor with orange peel.

So what you should know about today's outrage is that the grand jurors empaneled by Daniel Donovan, the Republican district attorney of Richmond County, were Staten Island residents and were vetted in no way.  I'll bet a dollar at least twelve of them are related to a cop, live next door to a cop, or know a cop to talk to at the supermarket or carwash.  They listened to the case presented by the Republican DA or one of his underlings, and they followed his lead.  "A grand jury," the lawyers like to say, "would indict a ham sandwich."  Yes, and it will refuse to indict one, too.  It all depends on how the evidence is presented.  To watch the video of Eric Garner being tackled, thrown to the ground, choked and crushed by at least half a dozen police while saying over and over, "I can't breathe," witnessing a death the medical examiner ruled a homicide and not indicting the man with his arm around Garner's neck, must have taken more spin than a Roger Goodell press conference.  All it lacks is Groucho asking, "Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Does anybody believe that fitting police with cameras will change anything?  There is, after all, video of Eric Garner's death, and of the death of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old in Cleveland with the toy gun who was buried today.  (The cop who killed him got a fitness report from his last police force that would make it hard for most people to get a job as a crossing guard.  Cleveland must be hard up.)  There was video of Rodney King's beating, too.  What difference did it make?

Speaking of video, Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed Eric Garner's death, has been indicted for firearms possession.  Another triumph for American justice, a little more cynicism for me.




Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fear itself

When the virus entered the body it was transformed into something almost invariably fatal.  The drama of the sickness was reflected in an explosion of color.  First the skin turned a vivid and almost beautiful purple, reminiscent of the heliotrope flower or of polished amethyst.  Then the lungs and all the other major organs became filled with a thick scarlet jelly that choked the afflicted.  Death occurred as the victims drowned in their own blood and bodily fluids.  Even if a sufferer recovered, the illness could leave behind a lingering sense of misery and hopelessness.*

The author is describing the great flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed between forty and fifty million people all over the world, including four percent of the population of India.  Fit young men in army camps went on sick call in the morning and were dead by night.  Troops in transit carried the infection to every part of the planet.  Doctors and nurses were in short supply because of the war, especially in Europe, and in any case no anti-viral drugs yet existed.  Taking their cue from public health authorities and the press, people tried to fight the disease with quinine, alcoholic beverages, opium, rhubarb, beef tea and hot baths.  Gauze face masks were thought to provide protection, and the state of Arizona may have saved lives by forbidding people to shake hands.

In one way, the people of a century ago were more fortunate than we.  Press censorship during wartime protected them from the conspiracy theories of crackpots and demagogues.  At the dawn of modern medicine, there was no expectation that absolutely everything could be cured at once, and if it couldn't, somebody must be to blame.  Even the death of the very young was part of life, and the survivors carried on as best they could.  The war which had killed millions was the fault of the politicians.  The disease was not.

Plagues come and go, we know from history.  The so-called "Spanish Flu" disappeared as mysteriously as it came, and most people chose to forget it.  Even in western Africa, Ebola is unlikely to be nearly as devastating.  With prompt and competent care, people recover.  Don't panic.

*Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence:  Britain From the Shadow of the First World War To the Dawn of the Jazz Age, New York, Grove Press, 2009       

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A scorecard and an extra-large beer, please, vendor

I admit I was only half paying attention the first time I heard it, and I thought Khoresan was a commercial for yet another drug.  ("Side effects may include drowsiness, nausea, dry mouth, and if you're John McCain, an erection lasting right through the Sunday talk shows.")  Then President Obama went to the UN to announce that the Axis of Evil has been re-named the Network of Death,  so apparently our foreign policy is still being branded by Marvel Comics.  This is not encouraging, or enlightening.

The New York Times, sensing my confusion, stepped up with a sort of chart describing the current permutations of the Death Network, so now I know that the Nusra Front operates in Syria, Shabab is Somalian, and Qaedat al Jihad can be found in and around Pakistan, while ISIS or ISIL (nobody seems quite sure) is all over Iraq like a rash.  Not to forget Boko Haram of Nigeria and its perverted  production of "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers," or our old friends Hamas and Hezbollah.  And really, don't they seem like old friends at this point?  Familiar faces like Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, from the good old days of the GOP?  All I remember about Khoresan is a really angry-looking beardy guy who appears ready to blow up everything twice.  He may in fact be dead now.  This is why I need the scorecard.

None of this is funny -- some poor French tourist lost his head today, preceded by the usual vile rhetoric.  ("The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter."--  Samuel Spade)  When this happens, I admit to wishing someone would napalm these ISILs from the inside out, but this is a passing visceral response and not the basis for a national policy.  Luckily, I don't have to formulate one.  That task has fallen to the President because the Constitution fails to spell out what happens when the House of Representatives is controlled by resentful idiots whose consensus seems to be "Don't ask, don't tell, do whatever you want and we'll back you up and then impeach you.  And climate change is a myth.  Derp."  The Senate has not been much more helpful.

Tasked with fighting a war without Americans in actual combat, John Kerry has logged thousands of air miles lining up another Coalition of the Reluctantly Willing.  It's an impressive list, but thunderingly absent is our plucky little ally Israel.  The recipient of so much American money and weaponry apparently isn't answering the phone these days.  Which is odd, because they certainly seem to have a table down front and a large stake in the outcome, so you might expect them at least to match the token contribution promised by, say, Bulgaria.  If ISIL gains control of Iraq or Syria, or both, it won't be Bulgaria they target next.

As always, this is The Most Important Thing In the World, and it isn't.  Bad weather and misbehaving athletes get equal time on the nightly "news".  Terrorists are at work here -- one of them shot two state troopers in Pennsylvania, while another started a massive wildfire in northern California.  What?  No, these are white men.  Not terrorists?  My mistake.  Where's that scorecard, son?  Make it two beers.



Monday, September 01, 2014

Late summer thoughts

If I were a Jungian, I might suggest that America's racist collective unconscious is trying to kill Barack Obama by killing people who look like him:  Trayvon Martin, Victor White, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, Gregory Towns, even Renisha McBride.  After six years of watermelon cartoons, rodeo clowns, Birther idiocies and barely coded complaints about "laziness," white-on-black violence has spiked and shows no signs of abating, even among police.  Fifty years of progress means tanks and tear gas instead of fire hoses and police dogs.  Frankly, I'm surprised only a few young men have been enraged enough to follow the path of Douglas McArthur McCain.


George Carlin was more explicitly political, but I don't recall that he evoked the bile-spewing commentary that followed the death of Robin Williams.  Williams must have led an exemplary life to earn  the loathing of Pat Robertson, the Westboro Baptists (no funeral to disrupt) and Jabba the Rush.  I was amazed nobody at Fox "News" said, "You know who else had Parkinson's and killed himself?  Hitler."  Which is their idea of a walk-off, game-winning argument.    

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Laughter in the dark

In the coming days, many stories will be told.  Here is one.

In the 1970s a friend was working as a taxi driver in New York City.  One evening he picked up Robin Williams at Lincoln Center and drove him to a midtown hotel.  All the way down Broadway Williams kept up a monologue, riffing on the traffic, the pedestrians, the shop signs, the music on the radio.  The driver nearly had several accidents because he was laughing so hard.  When they arrived, Williams handed him a fifty-dollar bill.

"Mr. Williams, I can't take your money," the driver said.  "You just did a show for me."

But his passenger insisted.  "I know how hard you guys work," he said.

Then he was gone. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Read this first

To all Time-Warner subscribers:  Welcome to Comcast, The World's Shittiest Cable Company, and may the FCC have mercy on your souls.  Your bill will probably increase, but on the other hand, you can save money as your daily newspaper ceases to publish and your local movie theatre becomes a Gap.  You should choose a time to re-boot your cable box each day in order to read the program guide, unless you enjoy the thrill of clicking on TO BE ANNOUNCED (most likely an episode of "Law and Order" with guest star Denis O'Hare).  Also, if you cannot get online, re-boot your router.  DO NOT call Sanjay, a/k/a Larry, at Customer Service,  who will only tell you the same thing I have.  When your picture freezes or pixilates or a whole channel disappears without warning, count to a hundred and tell yourself, "It's only television.  I can probably find this on YouTube some day."  Do not be disoriented if picture and sound seem to be out of sync.  The Warner Brothers solved this problem in movies in 1927, and one day Comcast will, too. 

Remember the Comcast motto...We didn't get rich enough to buy a network (and Time-Warner!) by wasting money on training, service and equipment.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Over the river to sell the goods...

I did a search at Amazon, I dipped my toe in the brackish sludge of right wing media, and I found no one, no one, protesting corporate America's War On Thanksgiving.  It's not as venerable as Christmas, but it is wholly American and, in fact, marking its sesquicentennial.  Unlike Christmas, which was pasted over the old Roman Saturnalia, Thanksgiving is specifically religious in origin:  On October 3, 1863, in a Proclamation written by William Seward and signed by Abraham Lincoln, Americans were enjoined to give thanks for "the gracious gifts of the Most High God."

But to hell with that.  Retailers apparently need one more day to unload the merchandise they import from Asian sweatshops, so Thanksgiving has been cancelled for thousands of salesclerks, cashiers, stock people, security guards, custodians and others.  Just another workday.  But maybe it's not all bad.  For instance, many Walmart employees -- sorry, associates -- have lost their food stamps because of the zombies who have eaten the brain of Lincoln's old party, so it wasn't going to be much of a Thanksgiving for them anyway.  Perhaps they would rather work than eat crackers and peanut butter in front of the television, or line up at the neighborhood soup kitchen.  Turkey and fixings on a Styrofoam plate send the unmistakable message that you, too, are disposable.

I count on the Supreme Court to turn the absurd into the completely surreal, and I am seldom disappointed.  Yesterday they agreed to decide whether corporations have a right to religious freedom, i.e., not paying for insurance policies that cover contraception and abortion.  As for individuals who want to observe a religious holiday, well, what do you think? Back to work, you minimum-wage moochers.  If you don't like it, go start a hedge fund.