31 August 2010

Rights groups sue Obama over targeted killings of U.S. citizens

President Obama has enacted some good policies since taking office. Some other policies, however, are worrisome. One of those worrisome policies is the administration's alleged targeted assassinations of U.S. citizens abroad, even, as Nat Hentoff wrote a February 2010 column, "while engaged ... in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on [Obama's] say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks."

And two rights groups are challenging that policy.

On August 30, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality and legality of the targeted killings of U.S. citizens located far from any conflict zone.

"The United States cannot simply execute people, including its own citizens, anywhere in the world based on its own say-so," said Vince Warren, Executive Director of CCR. "The law prohibits the government from killing without trial or conviction other than in the face of an imminent threat that leaves no time for deliberation or due process. That the government adds people to kill lists after a bureaucratic process and leaves them on the lists for months at a time flies in the face of the Constitution and international law."

The suit, Al-Aulaqi v. Obama, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The plaintiff, Nasser Al-Aulaqi is challenging the government's decision to authorize the targeted killing of his son, U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi.

Defendants in the lawsuit include Robert Gates, in his official capacity as Secretary of Defense; Leon Panetta, in his official capacity as Director of the CIA; and Barack Obama, in his official capacity of President of the United States.

>> Read the complaint. (PDF)

30 August 2010

Will Ohio execute an innocent man?

Here we go again, this time in Ohio.

There, death row inmate Kevin Keith is scheduled to be executed on September 15, despite strong new evidence of his innocence. Keith was convicted in 1994 for a shooting spree that killed three people and wounded three others.

Eyewitness testimony was the primary evidence used to convict Keith. Along with the fact that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, the new evidence discredits the eyewitness identification in this case. The evidence also identifies an alternative suspect, Rodney Melton, who may have actually committed the crime for which Keith was convicted. Keith has an alibi for the time of the crime, supported by four witnesses.

No court has considered the entirety of the evidence in this case. Therefore, it appears that there is reasonable doubt as to Keith's guilt. And there is no excuse to execute someone when there is reasonable doubt that you've got the right guy.

Nevertheless, on August 19, the Ohio Parole Board rejected Keith's clemency petition by a vote of 8-0. Charles Keith, the convicted man's brother, described the Board's demeanor during the review as "cold" and "like a death squad." This seems to suggest that they are more interested in expediency than true justice. And it seems to suggest that they are willing to risk the possibility of executing an innocent man.

Sadly, Keith's situation is not unusual. Cases are currently in the courts in Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere in which death row inmates are fighting for the right to prove their innocence. If any of them succeed, they will be among the lucky ones. Some are not so lucky.

In 2007, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) published a report titled "Innocent and Executed", which highlighted four cases in which people were apparently executed for crimes that they did not commit. And those four are just the ones we know about.

One of those cases, that of Cameron Todd Willingham, made headlines last year when The New Yorker published an investigative article on the case. Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. However, a forensic review of the case led to the conclusion that "a finding of arson could not be sustained." In other words, the fatal fire for which Willingham was executed was probably just an accident.

It's no secret that lawyers, judges, juries, and crime labs make mistakes, and innocent people are convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In fact, to date more than 250 people in the U.S. have been exonerated as a result of post-conviction DNA testing. But, again, they are the lucky ones.

Given the proven fallibility and unreliability of the "justice" system, how many others may have been executed for crimes that they did not commit? And how many more innocent people will be executed in the future?

Why should Ohio or any other state take any more chances?

In the case of Kevin Keith, due to die on September 15, the final verdict now lies with Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. I hope he will do the right thing and grant clemency. Governor Strickland's office can be reached by phone at (614) 466-3555 or online at http://governor.ohio.gov.

27 August 2010

Palin is no mama grizzly

Sarah Palin loves the catchy slogans. At the 2008 Republican National Convention it was "drill, baby, drill!" Now it's "mama grizzlies" -- a phrase she uses to describe today's conservative female political candidates.

"If you thought pit bulls were tough, you don’t want to mess with mama grizzlies," said Palin at an anti-choice conference in May.

But Palin is no mama grizzly.

Female grizzly bears, you see, are aggressive only when threatened. Unlike Sarah Palin, the bears do not kill for sport. And, unlike Sarah Palin, the bears certainly wouldn't advocate for the unfettered oil drilling that threatens the future of their habitat.

So, if I were a real mama bear, I'd be insulted.

But then Palin, of course, wouldn't care. After all, what good is propaganda if you have to really think about it?

26 August 2010

Deadly bigotry

It's bad enough that so many innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians have been killed in our military activities in their countries. I've been told that the soldiers condition themselves to dehumanize the "other". They're not seen as human beings, they're "towelheads" or "hajis", like the "gooks" in Vietnam. I guess that makes them easier to kill.

But it seems that a similar kind of desensitization has been happening here at home. It's become an "us" vs. "them" kind of thing. The right-wing talking heads and the tea party leaders have been working overtime to brainwash the sheep into equating "Muslim", and even brown-skinned people in general, with "terrorist" (or at least "bad" or "scary").

And now it's gone beyond name-calling and suspicious looks. It's gotten violent.

Earlier this week, Media Matters exposed an incident at a Ground Zero "mosque" rally in which a dark-skinned man in a cap was mistaken for a Muslim and harassed.

Then it got worse.

NY1 reported that a New York City cab driver was stabbed on Monday night after confirming that he was a Muslim:
A city cab driver is in the hospital after being stabbed by a passenger who allegedly asked if he was Muslim, police tell NY1.

Investigators with the New York City Police Department say it all began Monday night when a 21-year-old man hailed a cab at 24th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.

Police say the passenger asked the driver, "Are you Muslim?" When the driver said yes the passenger pulled a knife and slashed him in the throat, arm and lip.
Despite his injuries, the driver reacted brilliantly. He locked the passenger in the back of the cab and called 911. Then both were taken to Bellevue Hospital.

Think Progress called the incident "the first casualty of the 'Ground Zero mosque.'"

According to the New York Times, the attacker, a student, has been charged with second-degree attempted murder as a hate crime, first-degree assault as a hate crime, and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. Good. Throw the book at him.

Also according to the Times, the driver's injuries were not life threatening, fortunately, although he might well have died "had the cut been any deeper or longer." I wish him a quick and easy recovery. The emotional wounds, however, will probably never heal.

I fear that this sort of thing will continue to happen, perhaps with growing frequency and increasing brutality, as long as the tea party hysteria continues to rouse and embolden the ignorant.

Al-Qaeda isn't the problem here.

And this great white threat must be taken seriously. Deadly seriously.

25 August 2010

Troy Davis innocence claim denied

Sad news for those of us who seek true justice: Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. ruled that Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis failed to prove his innocence in a special hearing held in June which had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Moore wrote that the new evidence presented by the defense was "largely not credible or lacking in probative value."

This baffles me, because Davis's original trial was flawed; most of the witnesses have since recanted or contradicted their stories, with many claiming that they had been pressured or coerced by police; and there is no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime.

Unfortunately, unlike Davis's original trial, in which the prosecution (theoretically) had to prove guilt, in the evidentiary hearing the onus was on Davis's attorneys to clearly disprove guilt. In other words, they had to prove a negative. Amnesty International has admitted that the legal standard here was extremely high. But was it fair?

"Nobody walking out of that hearing could view this as an open-and-shut case," said Larry Cox, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. "The testimony that came to light demonstrates that doubt still exists, but the legal bar for proving innocence was set so high it was virtually insurmountable. It would be utterly unconscionable to proceed with [Davis's] execution, plain and simple."

Julien Ball, of the Campaign To End The Death Penalty, said, "With this ruling, Judge Moore has decided that the multiple witnesses who had nothing to gain years later by recanting their testimony under oath are lying or misremembering; and that their original testimony pointing to Troy Davis, under pressure from the police and prosecution, was correct. Once again, the courts have denied justice to Troy."

According to the Associated Press, Davis plans to appeal the ruling. Stay tuned, with fingers crossed. This is literally a matter of life or death.

24 August 2010

More nonsense from the pro-death crowd

Yesterday, a suburban Philadelphia newspaper ran my recent column in which I itemized a number of reasons why the death penalty should be abolished. (The piece is available on the newspaper's website here.)

In response, I got an email from a reader who apparently thought I needed some preaching to. I thought his email was worth sharing, just to expose the kinds of nonsense that those of us on the left have to deal with when we exercise our First Amendment rights.

Here is what he wrote:
Our present system is probably not geared towards justice for all. But just know that the death penalty is God's idea. And it requires 2 witnesses. But it is a God thing. God makes the rules. It is our responsibility to keep them. But we know better than God. That's why our world is in such a wonderful state! And then we blame God for our problems. Repent!!!
So God apparently wrote the penal codes for each state in this great secular nation, and our criminal justice system is merely supposed to enforce God's rules.

Never mind the fact that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion."

And never mind the fact that, as noted in that infamous and wonderful letter to Dr. Laura that has been circulating the Internet for several years now, his same God also expects us to sell our daughters into slavery, kill anyone who works on the Sabbath, and abstain from football and shaving.

While I am always tempted to respond to these people with some logical arguments, I usually don't bother. And I won't bother this time. I can sense that it would be waste of my time.

This guy is obviously not concerned with logic or reason. He addressed none of the actual points I made in my article. He just sits in a mental rut with his biblical talking points. He will recite but not really think. And I refuse to go there.

23 August 2010

Bush got his crusade

The world was with us in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks.

But the world cringed five days later, on September 16, 2001, when President George W. Bush reacted to the attacks with the dreaded theopolitical "C-word": "This crusade," he said, "is going to take a while."

That unfortunate choice of words brought to mind, of course, the Christian aggression against Muslims in the so-called Holy Land in the Middle Ages. You know, the capital-C Crusades you learned about (probably in a biased manner) in fourth-grade history class.

Nevertheless, Bush being Bush, the world cringed again when he repeated that C-word. On February 16, 2002, Bush said, "I want to tell you something, we've got no better friends than Canada. They stand with us in this incredibly important crusade to defend freedom, this campaign to do what is right for our children and our grandchildren."

Bush's handlers saw to it that he made clarifying statements recognizing Islam as a peaceful religion. But did those statements come from the heart?

The fact remains that Bush used that C-word repeatedly, and we know from experience that his damage-control efforts are not to be trusted. More importantly, al-Qaeda knows that, too.

And, since then, the American people seem to have caught the crusade fever.

Racism and xenophobia are nothing new in American culture. But the Islamophobia that began with some racial profiling and suspicious looks directed at Middle-Eastern-looking persons after the 9/11 attacks has grown into a dangerous new culture war that threatens our national security.

The escalation seems to have begun with the successful presidential campaign of Barack Hussein Obama. The right-wing talking heads went to town, emphasizing Obama's middle name and the fact that he spent some of his growing years in Indonesia, which claims the world's largest Muslim population. They did it in such a way as to imply that "Muslim" equals "terrorist" (or at least "terrorist sympathizer").

To further scare the white sheep, the right-wing press falsely reported that Obama was educated in a radical Muslim madrassa. Again, they seemed to suggest that anything Islamic, anything Muslim, equals "terrorist".

Then the so-called "birther" movement took conspiracy theories to a new level by refusing to believe that Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate was good enough to prove his U.S. citizenship. And to this day I continue to receive email from birthers who still cling to their long-debunked theory even after the Roberts-led Supreme Court upheld sanctions against birther queen Orly Taitz for filing frivolous lawsuits challenging Obama's citizenship. It's the same kind of thing. The right has stopped at nothing to present Obama as something exotic, not American enough, not Christian enough, and not the kind of person whom the average voter in Kansas can relate to. And, again, they suggest he's a Muslim, as if that means he's in cahoots with Osama. (Oh, yes, the right didn't let that one-letter name difference go unnoticed, either.)

And the propaganda has worked.

United Church of Christ Pastor Jeremiah Wright notwithstanding (apparently he's a Muslim, too), a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that an alarming 18 percent of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim. That's up from 11 percent in March 2009. Even more disturbing is the explanation offered by Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. According to the ultra-conservative Washington Times, Kohut alleges that the poll results reflect "the intensification of negative views about Obama among his critics." By citing "negative" views in that breath, Kohut clearly implies that being a Muslim is a bad thing. That sort of bias is particularly shameful for a leading poll taker.

Still, it doesn't take a poll to know that Islamophobia is rampant. And the latest proof of that is the recent hysteria over the proposed Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan.

First of all, the Center has been wrongly described as a mosque. While it would include a prayer space, it would primarily look just like a YMCA, with a fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, culinary school, and food court. What's so threatening about that?

Furthermore, while it has been described as the "Ground Zero Mosque", it sits two large city blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. Within those two blocks between the controversial "mosque" site and Ground Zero sit some strip clubs, fast-food restaurants, check-cashing agencies, and bars. Are those businesses more worthy of their location near that hallowed ground than a gym and a cooking school?

Those questions, of course, are rhetorical ones. But, for al-Qaeda, it all validates their perception that the so-called "war on terror" really is a war on Islam. It validates their perception that this really is a crusade. And that validates their jihad.

And so it endangers us more than ever.

Nice going, bigots.

20 August 2010

Hillary Clinton's comments for World Humanitarian Day, 8/19 (and my cynical two cents)

Yesterday, August 19, was World Humanitarian Day.

On that occasion, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the following comments:
"We at the Department of State join citizens around the world in paying tribute to the heroes who provide assistance to victims of conflict and natural disasters, and in honoring the memory of more than 700 humanitarian workers who have been killed in service over the past decade. This year's commemoration of World Humanitarian Day follows the vicious murder of ten international medical volunteers in Afghanistan earlier this month. Their sacrifice is a poignant reminder of humanitarian relief workers' courageous service around the world, which we are proud and privileged to support.

"Providing humanitarian aid to help rebuild lives is a core commitment of the United States. Relief workers embody the universal truth that we are at our best when we come together to help the most vulnerable among us. Time and again, this ideal puts humanitarian workers on the front lines of crises, from the earthquake in Haiti to the floods in Pakistan or any of the conflicts that dot the globe. For their selflessness, their courage, and their sacrifice, they have our deepest admiration and respect. The United States is fully committed to doing everything we can to provide for their safety and security, and to give them the tools they need to continue their indispensable mission on our behalf."

Of course, sadly, as long as the Obama administration continues its military activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the need will continue for humanitarian workers to clean up the mess.

19 August 2010

Mayor Bloomberg endorses Sestak for Senate

On Tuesday, August 17, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made an appearance in Philadelphia to endorse Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak for U.S. Senate. Sestak is running against Republican (and Wall Street sweetheart) Pat Toomey to fill the seat that Arlen Specter has held since 1980.

In an email, the Sestak campaign made the following statement about the endorsement:
"In deciding to throw his support behind Joe, Mayor Bloomberg cited the independent, pragmatic mindset that Joe will bring to solving problems in the Senate -- much like he did in the military -- and Joe's approach to putting Americans back to work.

"Like Joe, the Mayor has shown he will do whatever is needed to create jobs and has focused on supporting small businesses as key to our economic recovery, while working to ensure our workforce has the skills required. Joe has crisscrossed Pennsylvania with his Plan for Pennsylvania Families, which contains specific proposals to create jobs, including small business tax credits and lending initiatives. This plan is projected to create millions of jobs and give small companies, which create 80 percent of all jobs, the opportunity to hire and expand."
Sounds good! But some have speculated that Bloomberg's recent endorsement of a new Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York might taint the endorsement.

On the other hand, I doubt that the hard-core Islamophobes would vote Democratic in any case.

18 August 2010

Doylestown, PA, outlaws discrimination against LGBT persons

Good news from the Philly suburbs:

Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the Bucks County seat located about an hour north of Philadelphia, passed a law on Monday night outlawing discrimination against LGBT persons in employment, housing, and public services.

The Doylestown Borough Council passed the measure by a 9-0 vote.

It's sad that we still need laws to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But, as long as that need exists, I hope more and more towns, cities, and states will adopt similar measures.

17 August 2010

Bad news: Same-sex marriages to remain on hold in California

On August 4, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker had ruled that California's Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative which outlawed same-sex marriage in that state, is unconstitutional. It is now under appeal.

Then, on August 12, Judge Walker ruled that same-sex marriages could recommence in California effective 5:00 PM on August 18 barring any higher court interference. That way, same-sex couples could marry while the appeal is in process.

Unfortunately, yesterday the dreaded higher court interference materialized when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that same-sex marriages would have to remain on hold.

And so many California couples are again in marital limbo, simply because of whom they happen to love.

16 August 2010

Alleged child soldier on trial at Gitmo

Canadian citizen Omar Khadr is now facing trial via a U.S. military commission at Guantanamo Bay. Khadr is accused of throwing a hand grenade which killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2002 and injured two others. His is the first trial before a military commission under the Obama administration. The trial began during the week of August 9, but is now on hold for 30 days as the defense attorney recovers from a sudden illness.

Khadr was only 15 years old when he was detained and sent to Gitmo, where he was allegedly subjected to harsh interrogations, beatings, and other ill-treatment. Interrogators allegedly threatened to kill Khadr's family if he didn't cooperate. According to IPS News, "there seems to be little or no evidence that Khadr actually threw the grenade that killed the soldier, other than 'confessions' allegedly obtained under suspicious circumstances."

And, notes IPS, "Patrick Parish, the military judge working on the case in Guantanamo, has decided to admit the statements extrapolated during these interrogations into court." This is despite the fact that information obtained under torture and other forms of coercion is known to be unreliable. So the deck is already stacked against him.

Human Rights First (HRF) has identified some additional problems with the case. "The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and international juvenile justice standards require prompt determination of juvenile cases and discourage detainment of juveniles at all except as a last resort," says HRF on its website. "Such standards have not been heeded by the U.S. government in the case of Khadr. Khadr was held for two years prior to being given access to an attorney, waited more than three years prior to being charged before the first military commission, and is now in his eighth year in U.S. custody. During Khadr's time in detainment, he has been held both in solitary confinement as well as with adult detainees, contrary to international standards requiring that children be treated in accordance with their age and segregated from adult detainees."

Additionally, says HRF, "In 2002, the U.S. ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which prohibits the use of children under 18 in armed conflict and requires signatories to criminalize such conduct and rehabilitate former child soldiers as well as provide 'all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.' The U.S. has failed to heed these legal obligations in the case of Khadr."

But, of course, it's been a while since the U.S. government has cared about complying with international law and human rights standards.

And today that remains another unkept promise of the Obama administration.

In a statement to the military judge in a pre-trial hearing in July, Khadr had asked, "How can I ask for justice from a process that does not have it?"

That is a very good question.

Unfortunately, the answer is probably not so good.

13 August 2010

Same-sex marriages to resume in California 8/18 - hopefully

Gay wedding bells may soon be ringing in the Golden State again!

Yesterday, Judge Vaughn R. Walker lifted a temporary stay on same-sex marriages in California. According to Judge Walker's order, same-sex marriages can resume in that state effective 5:00 PM on August 18.

Judge Walker had issued the stay last week after he struck down Proposition 8, to give himself time to consider arguments from both sides on whether or not marriages should be allowed while his ruling is appealed.


While this is great news, the other side has promised a quick appeal, and the appeals court could decide to reinstate the stay in a matter of days.

Fingers crossed in hopes that doesn't happen.

12 August 2010

Proof that the economic stimulus is working - and why we need more

I agree with the economists who believe that Obama's economic stimulus plan should have been larger. But, even still, it was better than nothing.

The proof: I was recently driving through some heavy construction on a major Philadelphia area highway. A sign on the side of the road said: "Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act"

As I drove past that sign, I realized that the workers who were doing that construction would quite possibly be unemployed right now if not for the stimulus plan that was funding their work. And the improvements they're making to that highway will improve the lives of everyone who drives on it.

It seems obvious to me that with the unemployment rate remaining close to 10 percent, we need more of these projects, funded by even more stimulus funds.

Put America to work fixing up even more of our existing infrastructure and creating new and more efficient infrastructure as well.

Invest more stimulus dollars in research projects to develop clean energy alternatives so that the drilling can stop. In other words, put people to work building wind farms and solar energy infrastructure. Obama's proposed tax credit expansion for alternative energy is a start, but much more is needed.

And invest in the arts, like they did under FDR's New Deal. Fund projects for artists, musicians, and writers, and the sale of their works will further stimulate the economy as well as our imaginations.

The first stimulus plan has put some of us back to work, and its effects benefit everyone.

Now we need an additional stimulus plan to put more of us back to work. Again the effects will benefit everyone -- even the Republicans, although they'll never admit to it.

11 August 2010

On New York's new Islamic Center, I stand with Russell Simmons

As you may have heard, an Islamic cultural center is scheduled to be built near Ground Zero in New York.

And, as you may have heard, the Islamophobes are incensed.

Some of my friends and readers have asked me to weigh in on the controversy, knowing that I would support the building of the center.

But, instead of sharing my own words on the subject, I will share these inspiring words from music mogul and Lower Manhattan resident Russell Simmons, via the Huffington Post. Simmons says it all better than I could:
I have no tolerance for a new fear-mongering, hateful rhetoric that has sprung up over the proposed $100 million Islamic cultural center that they plan on building blocks away from Ground Zero.

It is not insensitive to put a cultural center of any sort, that has a place of worship, anywhere in our city. This is what makes our country and our city great. As a nation that was founded by men and women who were being persecuted for their particular faith, we should know that the best path to finding freedom is finding freedom for others. We were formed as a pluralistic society and this means we welcome all religions. Islam did not attack the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, sick and twisted men did, who not only hijacked four airplanes but also hijacked a religion. Let us not stereotype the over one billion Muslims around the world because of the evil acts of a few. A decision like this one, to support or not support the construction of this center, defines who we are as a nation. It's at the essence of our values, our freedom of expression, freedom of religion and religious tolerance.
And that, I believe, says it all.

10 August 2010

Rewarding Bush's poodle

Here on my desk is an invitation from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for this year's Liberty Medal ceremony on September 13. I think I will pass.

This year's recipient is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The invitation says that he is being honored "for his steadfast commitment to conflict resolution."


While Blair did do some good things in his early days in office, particularly in Northern Ireland, things changed once he jumped into bed with George W. Bush. And so the Liberty Medal will be awarded to the same Tony Blair who so steadfastly supported Bush's unnecessary war of aggression in Iraq.

And he will be recognized for conflict resolution!

I am going to stop here because I am speechless.

09 August 2010

Another murder victim's family opposes death penalty

A Philadelphia suburban district attorney has announced that he will not seek the death penalty against a woman and her lover for the June murder of the woman's husband, Kevin Mengel.

Chester County DA Joe Carroll said the case does not meet the conditions required to pursue the death penalty.

Carroll also noted that the victim's parents did not want the death penalty for their son's murderers. And that is why I am writing this.

Whenever I write or speak about my opposition to the death penalty, I invariably hear from death penalty proponents who argue that killing the killer serves the best interests of the victim's family, giving them closure. But not all families are thirsty for revenge. This Chester County case is one example of that. So are the cases of the many family members who form the organization Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). Founded in 1976, MVFR actively works for abolition of the death penalty in all states that still use it.

These enlightened souls offer a wide variety of reasons for their opposition to the death penalty:

• Endless trials re-open emotional wounds and put off the time when real healing can begin.

• The vast resources and attention spent on the death penalty is better spent supporting crime victims and their families, and preventing crime in the first place.

• The risk of executing the innocent -- something that appears to have happened in more than one known case -- is too high a price to pay.

• Biases of geography, race, and class plague the system.

• Executions create more families who have lost a loved one to killing.

• And many think it is just plain wrong for the state to kill.

MVFR's perspectives are shared by a growing majority of the world community. Indeed, there is an unmistakable worldwide trend towards abolition of the death penalty. According to Amnesty International (AI), "Since 1990, an average of three countries each year have abolished the death penalty, and today over two-thirds of the world's nations have ended capital punishment in law or practice." AI calls the death penalty "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."

In maintaining the death penalty here in the U.S., we align ourselves with the other executing nations of the world such as Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and a handful of other countries known for their systematic violations of human rights.

It's been said that you are the company you keep.

Shouldn't we instead keep company with those who are less barbaric?

Some may accuse death penalty opponents of being soft on crime. But we don't want to free the criminals, we want to lock them up for life without parole. And isn't life in prison actually a harsher punishment than death? When the execution is done, the punishment is over. With life in prison, the punishment lasts much longer.

And, of course, killing a killer will never bring the victim back. It's just more killing.

Haven't we had enough killing?

06 August 2010

Transgender woman ridiculed and turned away at Indiana ER

When Erin Vaught walked into the emergency room at Ball State Memorial Hospital on July 18, she was coughing up blood.

You'd think a symptom like that would get her treated almost immediately. But not in Vaught's case.

According to the Muncie Star Press, after waiting for two hours, she was turned away and told that they couldn't treat her condition. Why not? Because Vaught is a transsexual. Or, as the hospital staff put it, because of "the transvestite thing".

To add insult to injury, the ER staff made the waiting time extra difficult, snickering and staring at Vaught and her partner and child who accompanied her, and referring to her as a "he-she", an "it", and a "transvestite".

First of all, there is a difference between transsexuals and transvestites.

Furthermore, and much more importantly, it is not an ER nurse's or doctor's job to render judgment on the sexual identity of a patient. That's supposed to be the job of the patient's gender specialists. ER staff are paid to treat their patients, not judge them, and certainly not to ridicule or disrespect the patients while they're waiting -- and bleeding.

Indiana Equality and the Indiana Transgender Rights Advocacy Alliance have sent a letter to the hospital's president and CEO urging him to conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations and, if they are proven true, to "to take appropriate actions with the hospital employees involved and to institute policies, procedures, and staff training that will ensure that such discriminatory actions are not again perpetrated."

In the meantime, the ER staff should be very, very ashamed.

05 August 2010

Prop 8 overturned - for now

Great news for freedom and equality:

In California yesterday, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative which outlawed same-sex marriage in that state, is unconstitutional. More specifically, he found that Prop 8 violated the constitutional due process and equal protection rights of same-sex couples.

In his 136-page ruling, Judge Walker put forth the following conclusion:
"Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional."

But don't put on your wedding dresses just yet. The anti-love bigots have said they will appeal, and this case could very likely go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And, as recently noted by Lorri Jean, CEO of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, "This is the most conservative Supreme Court in 70 years in this country, so it’s not a slam dunk."

Still, yesterday's ruling should give us some hope, and certainly a good reason to celebrate this small step forward.

04 August 2010

Happy birthday, Mr. President!

Today, August 4, 2010, is President Barack Obama's 49th birthday. I want to use this space today to wish him a very happy birthday -- and many more.

While I am disappointed that the first year and a half of his presidency has not produced as much progressive change as many of us were hoping for, President Obama remains a symbol of what a regular person can achieve in this country, regardless of his race or his name, if he works hard enough for it.

The tea party bigots seem to hate that fact. But I remain inspired.

03 August 2010

Minimum wage now lower than in 1956

July 24th marked the anniversary of last year's raise in the federal minimum wage. No new increases are scheduled.

The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. According to the nonpartisan Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, "[that's] lower than the minimum wage of 1956, which was $8.02 adjusted for inflation. 1956 is 54 years ago."

So the richest 2 or 3 percent of Americans continue to get richer while our middle-class and working-class folks are seeing their standards of living deteriorate rapidly.

For so many people, through no fault of their own, the American dream has become a nightmare.

But Congress is scared to death of ruffling the feathers of their corporate overlords. So I don't see fairer wages coming any time soon.

So the rest of us will just have to continue to suffer.

02 August 2010

Immigrants have human rights

The ongoing national debate on immigration reached a fever pitch on July 28, when U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked some of the more draconian provisions of Arizona's controversial anti-immigrant law (SB 1070), which was scheduled to take effect the following day.

Judge Bolton blocked a section requiring police officers to question and verify the immigration status of anyone "reasonably" suspected of being an illegal alien. She also blocked a section requiring immigrants to carry their papers at all times.

The ruling is in response to lawsuits by the U.S. Justice Department and a coalition of civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF), the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The coalition's lawsuit challenged SB 1070 on human rights grounds. According to the ACLU, "the law would subject massive numbers of people - both citizens and non-citizens - to racial profiling, improper investigations, and detention."

Fortunately, Judge Bolton gets it.

But the law's proponents apparently don't care about human rights. It seems like they just want to crack down on the brown people. Their fear and bigotry are misplaced, dangerous, and sometimes deadly. And they have already filed an appeal.

In the meantime, human rights groups are weighing in on the case.

Julie Su, litigation director for APALC, commended Judge Bolton's ruling: "We applaud the judge for seeing the imminent danger of having this law enacted," said Su. "SB 1070 presents a distinct and separate immigration scheme that conflicts with federal law and policy, and would have a devastating impact on Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and other people of color in Arizona. Indeed, some of those negative effects have already been felt. This ruling makes clear that intimidation of immigrant communities, pretextual stops to ask for 'papers,' and rhetoric about who belongs in Arizona and who doesn't under the guise of enforcing SB 1070 should cease immediately."

But the whole bill must go, said Allison Parker, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch: "The federal court ruling throws a monkey wrench, at least temporarily, into the worst parts of a discriminatory law," said Parker. "In truth, Arizona needs to repeal the whole thing, and similar bills under consideration in other states should be defeated."

And Lory Rosenberg, advocacy and policy director for refugee and immigration rights for Amnesty International USA, painted a grim picture of the law's implications if ultimately allowed to stand in its entirety: "Laws like SB 1070 don't just threaten human rights and fly in the face of the United States' obligations under international law. They also flagrantly disregard the Constitutional rights of immigrants who have or are eligible for lawful status," said Rosenberg. "What makes this so frightening is that anyone who 'looks like an immigrant' in Arizona, including a U.S. citizen, is likely to be treated as suspicious and will be detained indefinitely while the state conducts a document check."

Like Gitmo in Phoenix.

And such could be the fate of any non-white persons who dare to appear in public in Arizona if Judge Bolton's ruling is overturned.

Hopefully the appeals court will see things from Judge Bolton's perspective, and rights and humanity will again manage to trump bigotry and fear.

And hopefully Washington will soon deter any further Arizona-style state measures by enacting some intelligent and practical immigration reform based on rights, compassion, and opportunity.

After all, the Statue of Liberty is still standing. And she still invites the world to "give me your ... huddled masses yearning to breathe free."