27 December 2013

Federal judge says NSA phone surveillance is legal; ACLU responds

Today, a federal judge in New York ruled that the National Security Agency's phone surveillance program is lawful.

The suit had been brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after the mass spying program was revealed via NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, issued the following statement in response to today's ruling:

"We are extremely disappointed with this decision, which misinterprets the relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the government's surveillance, and misapplies a narrow and outdated precedent to read away core constitutional protections. As another federal judge and the president's own review group concluded last week, the National Security Agency's bulk collection of telephony data constitutes a serious invasion of Americans' privacy."
The ACLU plans to appeal the decision. Stay tuned.

20 December 2013

Judge legalizes same-sex marriage in Utah - BUT...

The good news:

Today, a federal judge ruled that Utah's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Same-sex couples in that state responded by racing to the altar. Love is in the air in Utah, and it's a beautiful thing.

This is particularly satisfying because the Mormon Church, which is headquartered in Utah, spent so much money and other resources towards passing Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Today, poetic justice, as more than one person tweeted.

Now, the bad news:

Homophobic Utah officials will appeal today's ruling.

Stay tuned for updates.

10 December 2013

What you can do for Human Rights Day

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. It is the 65th anniversary of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly. This project was led by Eleanor Roosevelt in the wake of World War II, to define a worldwide, inter-cultural set of non-derogable human rights.

It wasn't an easy undertaking. There were lots of disagreements, lots of arguments. But, in the end, this inter-cultural group, representing virtually all regions and cultures of the world, agreed on the 30 articles set forth in the Declaration.

These rights were determined to be the fair universal standards required to ensure the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The cultural diversity involved in developing this Declaration is a testament to its universality and lack of bias.

Still, however, human rights continue to be violated - right here in the USA and all around the world.

What you can do:

Here are some things you can do today - or anytime - to help advance the cause of human rights worldwide:

Read the UDHR and share its message with your friends, family, and social networks.

Take action online to fight human rights violations. Individuals can make a difference!


• Make a year-end donation to a human rights organization. Here are some of my favorites:
     Amnesty International
     Human Rights First
     Human Rights Watch

07 December 2013

Just say no to the Salvation Army

The holiday shopping season is in full swing, and so is the Salvation Army's annual fundraising campaign, with SA troops ringing their bells and begging for donations in shopping centers across the country.

And shoppers, without thinking and without researching where their money is going, again naively throw their money away into the SA's little red kettles.

Please don't do that.

You see, the Salvation Army is not the kind and generous operation it purports to be. The organization - and its leaders at all levels - have a long and disturbing history of religious coercion, abuse, intolerance, and dishonesty.

I wrote a a piece in December of 2008 that addressed the organization's history of religious intolerance and coercion. You have to pray to their particular god to qualify for help, no matter how dire your needs.

That article generated a lot of other stories from readers who showed me that the Salvation Army was even worse than the racket I had exposed in 2008. So I wrote a follow-up piece the next year highlighting questionable activity including cases where donations didn't go where expected, but instead were taken by SA staff. Employees and volunteers who complained about these things were disciplined. There were enough reports to suggest a pattern.

Here are links to those two pieces:

• December 2008: The Salvation Army's red kettle of trouble

• December 2009: The Salvation Army: It gets worse

And similar stories continue to roll in.

So now, armed with the truth, please just say no to the Salvation Army - this holiday season and every year. And also warn everyone you know.

04 December 2013

Support striking fast food workers on Thursday, Dec. 5

On Black Friday, Nov. 29, people around the U.S. came out in support of low-paid and oppressed Walmart workers.

This week, on Thursday, Dec. 5, we need to stand with striking fast food workers, many of whom are also unable to make ends meet.

>> Read more and find a protest location near you.

01 December 2013

Remembering Martina Davis-Correia

Today is a sad anniversary: Martina Davis-Correia died on December 1, 2011, after a long battle with breast cancer.

Despite her illness, Martina fought tirelessly and selflessly to prove that her brother, Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, was innocent.

Sadly, Georgia executed Troy anyway on September 21, 2011, despite compelling evidence that he may indeed have been innocent. Martina followed him to her own grave shortly thereafter.

I generally don't believe in an afterlife. However, at times like this, I wish there were one, so that Martina and Troy could be together forever, enjoying their strong and inspiring sibling bond through eternity. Maybe they are.

HIV/AIDS and Obamacare

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. And this year I'm thinking of how the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare) is so important in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Under Obamacare, HIV/AIDS patients can no longer be denied medical insurance coverage due to their preexisting condition.

Furthermore, many Americans who are currently unaware that they carry the HIV virus can now take advantage of their better insurance coverage and get tested and treated.

With those challenges out of the way, we can now put more resources towards finding a cure and conquering the stigma that HIV/AIDS patients still face.

29 November 2013

Boycott SodaStream this holiday season

Today, November 29, is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, who have for so long been subjected to horrible human rights abuses.

This holiday season, peace and justice groups are calling for a boycott of SodaStream, which makes and sells a kitchen appliance that turns still water into carbonated seltzer and soda.

SodaStream appliances are produced in one of the largest illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The company is also accused of exploiting Palestinian workers. To purchase their product is to be complicit in these crimes.

>> Read more here.

27 November 2013

Stand with Walmart strikers on Black Friday

Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the U.S., is just two days away.

On this Black Friday, brave Walmart workers will be picketing in protest of their low wages and the retaliation they experience for speaking out.

What you can do:

Find a protest near you, and stand in solidarity with these brave Walmart workers.

Every worker deserves fair treatment and a living wage.

22 November 2013

My close encounter with JFK

Today is a sad anniversary - 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

On this anniversary, I recall the time I happened to come face-to-face with JFK, while he was in the White House and I was barely in kindergarten.

My family was taking the standard White House tour, when we came to a room with a curtain blocking the entrance. The guide indicated that the president was in a meeting behind that curtain.

Being a curious child, and standing very near one end of the curtain, I pulled the corner back slightly and peeked in. The president noticed me - a little girl Caroline's age - and he smiled and waved.

He radiated friendliness and charm. That day, he became my first crush.

I will never forget that brief moment when I learned at a very young age that great people are human and can be so down-to-earth.

And I think that lesson emboldens me in my human rights work today.

20 November 2013

November 20 is National Transgender Day of Remembrance; find a vigil near you

Today, November 20, is National Transgender Day of Remembrance. Equality Pennsylvania describes this day as an occasion "to remember transgender people who have been the victims of violence that often turns fatal."

Vigils are scheduled around the country to mark this occasion.

>> Click here to find an event near you.

19 November 2013

Liz Cheney's homophobia could harm her niece and nephew

The media are abuzz this week with the news that Liz Cheney, daughter of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and currently a candidate for the 2014 Republican nomination for U.S. senator from Wyoming, has thrown her openly lesbian sister, Mary Cheney, under the proverbial bus - perhaps for political purposes. Liz had gone on Fox News Sunday this past weekend and said, "I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage."

Mary Cheney and her wife, Heather Poe, promptly fired back. A recent article from The Hill summarizes their reaction quite well with this quote from Poe:

"Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 — she didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her now say she doesn't support our right to marry is offensive to say the least."
So it appears that Liz Cheney's newfound(?) rejection of same-sex marriage is intended to score political points with the far-right factions of the Wyoming electorate.

But I'm not worried about the electorate. I'm worried about Liz Cheney's niece and nephew - Mary's and Heather's children. Samuel is 6 years old. Sarah is 4. How will they feel when they someday learn that their Auntie Liz has suggested that their moms' marriage is somehow invalid, perhaps making them "bastards" under some definitions?

Has Liz Cheney thought about this? Does she care at all about their feelings? Or does she care only about her political ambitions?

14 November 2013

Amnesty calls for the release of Chelsea Manning (and how you can help)

Amnesty International is calling for Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) to be immediately released:
Amnesty International believes that Chelsea Manning, the US soldier sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment for leaking classified government material she believed was in the public interest, should be shown clemency and immediately released. This is in recognition of:

• Her motivation: Manning acted in the hope that she could spark a meaningful debate on the costs of war and specifically on the conduct of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• The extended period of time she has already spent in pre-trial detention and the treatment she received, which was described by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture as cruel and inhumane.

What you can do:

>> Read more and sign Amnesty's petition here.

12 November 2013

Hawaii legalizes same-sex marriage

Good news: Today, the Hawaii state Senate passed legislation allowing same-sex marriage in that state. The state House passed the bill last Friday.

The bill is now on its way to Governor Neil Abercrombie's desk. Abercrombie, a Democrat, has indicated that he will sign the bill.

With this measure, Hawaii will become the 15th U.S. state (plus District of Columbia) to legalize same-sex marriage.

35 more states to go.

Texas death row inmate volunteers to die tonight

Tonight, Texas will execute death row inmate Jamie McCoskey for a 1991 abduction and murder. He will be the 15th prisoner to be executed this year in that state.

Most prisoners fight for a stay of execution. But not McCoskey

McCoskey wants to die to escape the horrific conditions on death row. In an open letter to Governor Rick Perry, McCoskey's friend Petra de Jong describes the prison conditions:

"They are basically stuck in a box for at least 23 hours a day. No human contact, hardly any daylight, abysmal food with hardly any nutritional value, relentless heat, continuous noise and harsh, if not outright violent, treatment by guards. Men go insane in there. Men smear themselves with feces, men gauge their own eyes out (google for Andre Thomas if you are blissfully unaware of his tragic story), men scream day and night in absolute terror."
Amnesty International and other organizations and individuals consider the death penalty to be a gross violation of human rights. But McCoskey has volunteered for death in order to escape other gross human rights violations that he and the other inmates endure every day.

And Governor Perry just continues to brag about the "justice" system in his state.

11 November 2013

Because of Congress, some vets may go hungry on this Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day in the US - a national holiday set aside each year to honor those who have served our country in armed service.

Sadly, however, many low-income vets may go hungry on this holiday due to Congress's recent cuts in SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps).

This is how Congress chooses to thank the brave men and women who risked life and limb for us, many of whom have been wounded or otherwise traumatized in service to this country.

It is nothing short of shameful. And it is nothing short of cruel.

09 November 2013

U.S. military to provide humanitarian support in Philippines

Yesterday, a powerful typhoon hit the Philippines, leaving behind much death and destruction.

Today, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) announced that Secretary Chuck Hagel has directed U.S. Pacific Command to support federal humanitarian relief operations in the Philippines.

According to the DoD, "The initial focus includes surface maritime search and rescue (SAR), medium-heavy helicopter lift support, airborne maritime SAR, fixed-wing lift support, and logistics enablers."

Further, said the DoD, "In coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. ambassador in Manila, the Department of Defense will continue to monitor the effects of Typhoon Haiyan and stands ready to help our ally recover from the storm."

It's nice to see the U.S. military being used for constructive - rather than destructive - purposes.

07 November 2013

Senate passes ENDA: Good news, bad news, and what you can do

First, the good news:

Today, the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) by a vote of 64-32. The New York Times called it a "a bipartisan show of support that is rare for any social issue." ENDA, if it becomes law, would prohibit discrimination against LGBT persons in hiring and in the workplace.

Now, the bad news:

It still needs to pass in the House. Speaker John Boehner opposes the bill, and has threatened to not even bring it up for a vote. Apparently he thinks that discrimination is a value worth preserving.

What you can do:

>> Sign this petition urging Boehner to allow the House to vote on ENDA.

Palestinian activist wrongly arrested for US immigration fraud (and how you can help)

A Palestinian-American activist was arrested last month for immigration fraud, in what appears to be a misinterpretation or overreach by the Department of Homeland Security.

Here is a summary of her case, via the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), followed by a link to a petition on her behalf:

"Sixty-six year old Rasmea Odeh is a Palestinian-American feminist, activist, educator and community leader who has served as the Associate Director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago since 2004. On October 22, Rasmea was arrested by the Department of Homeland Security and charged with immigration fraud. [...] Rasmea's hearing is scheduled for Nov 13. [...]

"Allegedly, in her application to enter the United States, Rasmea didn't mention that she had been arrested in Palestine by an Israeli military court. Apparently she was held in Administrative Detention by Israel 45 years ago for at least six months, without charges, a hearing, or a trial. The question on the form she had to fill out is generally interpreted to mean 'Have you ever been convicted of a crime and spent time in prison for that offense?' Her supporters say without a trial, there can be no conviction, and therefore she did not falsify her application."

How you can help:

An online petition calls for the charges against Rasmea Odeh to be dropped.

>> Read and sign the petition here.

05 November 2013

Lincoln's state passes marriage equality

Good news: Today, the Illinois state legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

Governor Pat Quinn has indicated that he will sign it into law.

I think it's very cool that Abraham Lincoln's home state has now taken this modern-day step towards equality for all.

More bad guys with guns

Last night, there was a shooting at a large shopping mall in Paramus, NJ.

Just a few days earlier, there was a deadly shooting at the Los Angeles airport.

The NRA (on whose board sit the CEOs of 2 gun manufacturing companies) would like us to believe that these things happen because we need "more good guys with guns."

But I think it's because there are too many bad guys with guns, and too many mentally unstable people with guns - a problem that reasonable gun regulations could reduce.

Big difference.

Sadly, those who have the power to enact such regulations prefer to take their orders from the NRA.

How many more people must be killed or injured because of this?

03 November 2013

American hunger and the Christian right

I have seen hunger, up close and personal, right here in the richest nation on the planet. And, despite what the so-called "Christian" right keeps telling us, I know that laziness does not explain why poor people are poor.

I grew up in a small, depressed Appalachian town. My family had enough to eat because we had a large garden that yielded enough fruits and veggies to last throughout the year, and because my Italian grandmother, who lived with us, knew how to turn some cheap flour and yeast into wonderful homemade baked goods.

We also regularly fed many of the kids from the neighborhood, who would flock to our house when they smelled the delicious aromas emerging from the kitchen, where Grandma held court each day.

But we couldn't feed them three meals each and every day. So much of the time I saw my less fortunate friends and their siblings munching on mayonnaise sandwiches, or, if they were lucky, SpaghettiOs with buttered bread.

The parents in that town were not lazy. In fact, many of them worked harder than any Congressman or CEO.

My father was an auto mechanic. In fact, he was a mechanical genius, having built his own tractor (for the aforementioned garden) from spare parts. But he had neither the education nor the opportunity to make it big. He wouldn't have wanted to. He was comfortable in his little garage, adjacent to our modest house, fixing the townspeople's cars and trucks. But he could charge only what the market would bear. And, in that town, people didn't have much money to spend.

Most of the other fathers worked either in the nearby coal mines or for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which ran through the town. Often, the workers would go on strike, and I would see my friends panic because of the hardships they would endure when the household income went away for a time. But collective bargaining is a human right, and labor strikes are a frequent part of that. Without the unions and strikes, things would have been even worse. Fortunately, many of these families received food stamps.

Today, two of the GOP's main goals are to cut social services like food stamps (now called SNAP) and to crack down on the unions - with the ultimate goal of eventually destroying both. And they are doing this at a time when our troubled economy has created more families that desperately need these support systems. These people are not lazy - there just aren't enough jobs to go around. And many of the employed are stuck in part-time jobs, or are struggling to make ends meet at minimum wage.

Still, the GOP just continues to feed us the myth of the lazy poor, as they have for decades.

They have the nerve to call themselves "Christian". But, as I recall from reading the Bible, Jesus fed people liberally without judging them. The loaves and fishes, if you believe the story, came with no strings attached; they were simply an act of Christian generosity.

Sadly, Christian generosity is something we rarely see these days in Washington or on Wall Street.

31 October 2013

Diplomacy seems to be working in Syria

It's being reported today that all Syrian chemical weapon production and mixing facilities have now been destroyed or rendered inoperable, thereby meeting a major deadline.

According to Reuters, Syria's next deadline is November 15, when Syria and the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) "must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, including how and where to destroy more than 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic agents and munitions."

So far, so good. Diplomacy seems to be working. No U.S. military strikes were necessary.

I hope this will be a lesson learned.

The OPCW won this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

29 October 2013

Amnesty supports legislation to end U.S. mass surveillance program

In light of recent relevations regarding the U.S. National Security Agency's mass surveillance program, Amnesty International announced its support of the proposed USA Freedom Act, introduced today, which would limit the NSA's spying authority.

Zeke Johnson, Director of Amnesty International USA's Security with Human Rights campaign, explained that excessive surveillance is a threat to each person's right to privacy and self-expression. "Finally," he said, "Congress has introduced a bill to reform the NSA mass surveillance program that everyone should support. It's not perfect, but it is an important step in the right direction and Congress should pass it."

In a news release today, Amnesty described the favorable and not-so-favorable components of the Act:

"Particularly notable are: the bill's creation of an Office of the Special Advocate, with strong authority to take part in cases and appeal them; an opening for the participation of amici curiae; and new requirements of disclosures of the courts' opinions. Also positive are requirements throughout the bill of greater reporting on what kind of surveillance is used and how many people are affected.

"However, Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the bill retains discriminatory distinctions between the rights of U.S. citizens and non-citizens. Any final solution to the mass surveillance program must uphold the rights of all people equally without distinction based on national origin or other discriminatory factors."

For now, we'll take what we can get. But we must keep on fighting for our rights and liberties.

28 October 2013

Amnesty remembers Lou Reed as a powerful ally for human rights

Sadly, rock music legend Lou Reed died on Sunday, October 27.

Ann Burroughs, chair of the Board of Directors for Amnesty International USA, reacted to his death with the following statement:

"With the sad passing of Lou Reed, the human rights movement has lost a powerful voice for humanity and a strong ally in the defense of freedom and justice.

"Just as he inspired generations of rock fans with his indelible songs, he was also a passionate proponent for our cause. At his core, he bridled against repression in all its forms and he inspired others to speak up to protect human rights.

"One of his many admirers was the late Czech President and human rights activist Vaclav Havel, who famously smuggled a Velvet Underground album out of New York in the late 1960s. The two men later became friends.

"In 1986, Lou joined with other leading musicians for the first of Amnesty International's 'Human Rights Concerts' series - performing at all six concerts on the 'A Conspiracy Of Hope' U.S. tour. Recently, he very generously supported the release of his historic performances as part of Amnesty's DVD box-set of those concerts.

"We send our deep condolences to his loved ones. He will be greatly missed by the human rights movement that he so strongly and eloquently supported."


25 October 2013

Everyone should see "12 Years a Slave"

Today, the movie "12 Years a Slave" opened in Philly. I was there for the first matinee screening.

It is the true story of a free-born black man living well in upstate New York who was then kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South prior to the Civil War. The movie is based on the book of the same name, which is a memoir by the actual lead character, Solomon Northup.

The movie was difficult to watch at times, due to the brutal violence and humiliation forced upon the enslaved characters, and I still feel quite shaken. But it is a story that needs to be told. And it is a movie that needs to be seen.

Overall, the filmmakers did a very good job of condensing the book (which I recently read) into a powerful 2-hour film.

It will open nationwide next week. Please see it.

Meantime, you can visit the film's official website here.

24 October 2013

Ban Ki-moon's statement for UN Day 2013

Today, October 24, is United Nations Day, which each year commemorates the entry into force in 1945 of the UN Charter. In other words, it's the UN's birthday.

As usual, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement to mark the occasion.

Here are some excerpts:

United Nations Day is a chance to recognize how much this invaluable Organization contributes to peace and common progress.

It is a time to reflect on what more we can do to realize our vision for a better world.

The fighting in Syria is our biggest security challenge.

Millions of people depend on UN humanitarian personnel for life-saving assistance.

UN experts are working hand-in-hand with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to destroy Syria’s stockpiles.

And we are pushing for a diplomatic solution to end suffering that has gone on far too long.

Our most urgent development challenge is to make sustainability a reality.

The Millennium Development Goals have cut poverty in half.


We continue to show what collective action can do. We can do even more.

In a world that is more connected, we must be more united.

On United Nations Day, let us pledge to live up to our founding ideals and work together for peace, development, and human rights.


The UN is certainly not perfect, but the world would be far less secure without it.

>> Read the full statement.

23 October 2013

Evergreen State College to dedicate Rachel Corrie memorial today

Rachel Corrie was an American peace activist who, in 2003, was crushed to death by a US-made Caterpillar D9 military bulldozer in Rafah while acting as a human shield, trying to stop the unlawful demolition of a civilian Palestinian home.

Today, a memorial in her honor will be dedicated at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where Rachel had taken classes. The memorial features a beautiful bronze and polished steel sculpture of a dove on the tip of a pyramid. The piece, titled "Reflecting on Peace and Justice", was created by international artist and Evergreen graduate Ross Matteson.

See pictures of the lovely sculpture here.

22 October 2013

Human rights groups release reports on U.S. drone killings

Today, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights watch (HRW) jointly released two disturbing reports on U.S. drone strikes and other air strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

The AI report, titled "Will I Be Next?", documents nine drone killings in northwest Pakistan in 2012 and 2013 that "may amount to war crimes or extrajudicial executions, including the killing of a 68-year-old grandmother and 14-year-old boy," according to an AI news release.

The HRW report, titled "Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda", documents six strikes in Yemen from 2009 to 2013, "two of which indiscriminately killed several dozen civilians in violation of the laws of war," according to the same AI news release.

Read the full reports online via these links:

• AI report: "Will I Be Next?"

• HRW report: "Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda"

19 October 2013

Human rights groups to release reports on U.S. drone killings

On Tuesday, October 22, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights watch (HRW) will jointly release two reports on U.S. drone strikes and other air strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

The AI report documents nine drone killings in northwest Pakistan in 2012 and 2013 that "may amount to war crimes or extrajudicial executions, including the killing of a 68-year-old grandmother and 14-year-old boy," according to an AI news release.

The HRW report documents six strikes in Yemen from 2009 to 2013, "two of which indiscriminately killed several dozen civilians in violation of the laws of war," according to the same AI news release.

I will post links to the reports when they are available online.

Stay tuned.

Update 10/22/2013: Links to the two reports are available here.

17 October 2013

Only 2% of U.S. Senators are black

With the election yesterday of Cory Booker (D-NJ), we will now have two African-American U.S. senators serving this term. In other words, 2 percent of our U.S. Senators are black, as of this election.

Compare this with the fact that 12.6 percent of the U.S. population is African-American (as of the 2010 census).

Those who say that race no longer matters should think again.

16 October 2013

On Thursday, Oct. 17, wear purple to fight bullying!

Tomorrow - Thursday, October 17 - is Spirit Day 2013.

Spirit Day, named for the purple stripe of the rainblow flag representing "spirit", was established as an opportunity for people to speak out against the plague of bullying aimed at LGBT youth.

On Spirit Day, please wear purple to show your support. I certainly will, as I do every year. (The photo is of me wearing purple for the first Spirit Day in 2010.)

Do more:

>> Find more Spirit Day actions at www.glaad.org/spiritday.

15 October 2013

Yes, "Redskins" is a racial slur

With American football season in full swing, the old controvery has been resurrected: Should Washington's football team change its name?

I've heard some people (mostly older white men) say that they don't find the "Redskins" name offensive at all. But KKK members were probably not offended by the N-word. They're not the targets of those slurs.

The best people to judge the offensiveness of a potential slur are the targets of that slur. In the "Redskins" case, Native Americans.

So I emailed a close friend who had married into a Native American family, and asked how her husband and his family feel about the term.

Her response was brief and straightforward:

"Redskin(s)" is derogatory and racist. Can you imagine any sports team named the N-word?

I rest my case.

14 October 2013

Debunking Columbus

Today, the second Monday in October, is Columbus Day in the U.S., commemorating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. It is a federal holiday, celebrated with parades and other festivities.

But I will not be celebrating. Here are my reasons:

What we learned about Columbus in school was not the whole truth. In some cases, it wasn't the truth at all.

First of all, Columbus did not originate the theory that the earth is round. Such had been known since ancient times.

Columbus also did not discover America. Leif Ericson and his Norsemen had built a settlement in what is now the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and Labrador some 500 years before Columbus wandered into the West Indies.

And, once Columbus got here, he enslaved the Native Americans, while helping himself to the new world's gold and other precious resources.

This is what you are really celebrating on Columbus Day.

I consider it a national embarrassment at best.

09 October 2013

October 10 is World Day Against the Death Penalty

Thursday, October 10, 2013, is the 11th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. This day was established by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty to raise awareness on the issues related to the death penalty and to ultimately abolish the practice worldwide.

Fortunately, there has been a steady trend towards abolition in some parts of the world. The death penalty has already been abolished in all European countries except for Belarus. In fact, today over two-thirds of the world's nations - 141 - have ended capital punishment in law or practice. This reflects the growing awareness that there are alternative punishments that are effective and which do not involve state-sponsored killing.

Amnesty International (AI) has called the death penalty "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights." Indeed, its finality is a huge problem, given so many cases of death row inmates here in the U.S. and around the world who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. How many other innocent persons were not lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.

Some proponents of the death penalty believe that it serves as a deterrent. That theory is demonstrably untrue. According to AI, the murder rate in non-death-penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty.

Others argue that the death penalty is the only way to bring closure to a murder victim's family. But not all such families agree. In fact, so many families oppose the death penalty that some have formed organizations such as Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, through which they actively work to abolish the death penalty. As noted on the latter organization's website, "MVFHR members have come in different ways and times to the understanding that the death penalty does not help us heal and is not the way to pursue justice for victims." They should know.

The death penalty does not represent justice. It represents revenge - sometimes misdirected revenge.

We as a society need to evolve beyond this kind of thing.

What you can do:

>> Read more about the death penalty - and take action - on the AIUSA site here.

07 October 2013

Amnesty to Putin: Do not blow out the flame of freedom (+ online petition)

Yesterday, the Olympic flame arrived in Moscow, one day ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's 61st birthday.

Steven W. Hawkins, the new executive director of Amnesty International USA, marked the occasion with the following statement:

"Amnesty International USA's birthday wish to President Putin is: do not blow out the flame of freedom. The vibrant Olympic celebrations will not obscure the Russian government's vicious assaults on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

"Since Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency in May 2012, punk musicians cannot sing about repression in Russia, LGBTI individuals cannot organize a Pride parade or wear a rainbow ribbon without risking arrests or beatings by police, and peaceful protestors are brutally beaten and detained for expressing their political opposition.

"As the Olympic torch arrives at the stadium celebrating athletic competition, it should also shine a light on Russia's failure to safeguard the dignity and rights of all its people.

"The ruthless suppression of human rights and the rule of law in Russia are incompatible with the spirit of the Olympics Games and should be protested."


What you can do:

Click here to send a birthday message to President Putin urging him to end the attack on human rights.

05 October 2013

Troy Davis and family live on in new book

Jen Marlowe's newest book, I Am Troy Davis, was published right around the second anniversary of Davis's September 2011 execution by the state of Georgia. Davis was killed by lethal injection despite considerable evidence suggesting that he was innocent.

Davis was convicted of the 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. Years of appeals were unsuccessful despite significant doubts about his guilt.

Davis's original trial was flawed, and most of the witnesses later recanted or contradicted their stories. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, and his conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses. In other words, there was reasonable doubt as to Davis's guilt.

Davis's case was so compelling that Pope Benedict XVI called for the case to be reconsidered. So did Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and countless private citizens. Amnesty International called it "an outrageous affront to justice." But the public outcry was ignored by those in charge.

As a longtime member of Amnesty International, with a particular interest in death penalty issues, I was already quite familiar with the case, which I had followed and written about through the years leading up to the execution. Still, I learned so much from Marlowe's in-depth book, which teaches us more about the case details - and the remarkable Davis family - than we could ever have learned through the mainstream media's coverage of the case.

The book has four heroes:

1. Troy Davis himself, who spent his 20 years on death row selflessly doting long-distance over his family on the outside, and caring more about their wellbeing than his own fate.

2. Virginia Davis, Troy's mother, who nurtured the family through the hard times until her death just a few months before his execution.

3. Martina Davis-Correia, Troy's older sister, who fought tirelessly for justice, even as she fought her own battle against breast cancer.

4. De'Jaun Correia, Martina's son, now a young man, who bravely and strongly carried the torch while his mother's health was failing.

This is a story about Troy Davis's legal battle, and the flaws in the legal system that led to this miscarriage of justice. But, even more, it is a story about the love that holds a family together even through the worst of times.

I recommend this book to anyone who cares about justice - whether you favor the death penalty or oppose it.

I don't think any human being could read this book and not be strongly moved - and maddened.

01 October 2013

The GOP doesn't care about your furlough

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 800,000 federal workers are facing furloughs today due to the government shutdown.

Most of them are not rich. And so, as long as they're out of work, they will need to cut back on spending. And that could significantly stall our economy, which is already recovering too slowly.

Furthermore, national parks and other federally owned attractions are shutting down, which will take a toll on the tourism industry.

The combined effects could be devastating to the economy and to so many American families.

But the House Republicans don't care. They have theirs.

30 September 2013

How to tell if Obamacare is really so bad

The Republicans in the House are so determined to repeal Obamacare that they are willing to risk a government shutdown.

They suggest that Obamacare is so dangerous that it's worth the risk. And they want to go on record as opposing it at all costs.

But, if that's truly what they believe, wouldn't they be better off letting Obamacare go into effect in January, on schedule? That way, if it truly is an abysmal failure, the public would have 10 months to learn that lesson just in time for the 2014 elections.

I suspect that what they really fear is that Obamacare will be a success - and that the public will have 10 months to learn that lesson just in time for the 2014 elections.

29 September 2013

Spreading beliefs through violence: A very old tradition

I just read that on this date (September 29) in 1227, Roman Emperor Frederick II was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for not participating in the Crusades. At that point, apparently, the Catholic Church had grown even more powerful than the Roman Empire. And the Church wanted blood. Or else.

The Crusades were the Church's attempt to spread its influence and control throughout Muslim-dominated parts of the region, and to convert - or wipe out - the heathens. They were spreading Catholicism at the point of a sword. What would Jesus do?

Now, hundreds of years later, things are not so different. We've traded in our swords for machine guns and drones, but the more powerful entities on the planet are still trying to spread their own ideologies through violence.

Today it's not called a Crusade. Today it's called "spreading democracy". It's called "winning hearts and minds".

In reality, however, you cannot force people to believe in you or to accept you - especially when they're concerned for their lives and limbs.

But apparently that doesn't matter to those in power who care only about power.

21 September 2013

GOP vs. Jesus

As I recall from Catholic school and bible studies, Jesus Christ showed us by example that we should feed the poor and cure the sick.

However, the self-described Christians in the GOP have been spending all their time trying to take food stamps away from the poor and take health care away from those with preexisting conditions.

It's the opposite of what Jesus taught us. And it's nothing short of hypocrisy.

I hope other voters can also see through this.

18 September 2013

Same-sex marriage, religious liberty, and fear

Anti-equality organizations, such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), keep trying to tell us that same-sex marriage is a threat to their religious liberty.

That is, of course, nonsense.

In states where same-sex marriage is legal, heterosexuals are still at liberty to marry someone of the opposite sex.

The only thing at risk is their sense of superiority over another group of human beings. And that, I believe, is what they are truly afraid of.

17 September 2013

September 17 is Constitution Day

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day, which commemorates the signing in 1987 of the U.S. Constitution.

While many on both the political right and the political left frequently lament the perceived erosion of our constitutional rights - and sometimes rightly so, let's take a moment today to be grateful for the freedoms we do have. And then let's fight as hard as we can to protect those freedoms.

You can read the full official text of the U.S. Constitution here.

16 September 2013

Amnesty names Malala Yousafzai and Harry Belafonte as 2013 Ambassadors of Conscience

Amnesty International has just announced the two recipients of its Ambassador of Conscience Award for 2013.

Malala Yousafzai, even at the young age of 16, is a strong and inspiring advocate for equal access to education. She was shot and severely wounded last year by the Taliban in her native Pakistan, but that seems to have made her even stronger.

Entertainer Harry Belefonte is a lifelong advocate for humanitarian causes, which he has described as an "obligation to do more than just entertain."

Congratulations to these two very deserving individuals.

For more information about this award, click here.

12 September 2013

PA judge rules against county official who issued same-sex marriage licenses

A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge today ruled against Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes, who has been issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of a state law that defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

Judge Dan Pellegrini did not address the constitutionality of the state's marriage law. Instead, he decided that Hanes did not have the power to act outside the law; specifically, that Hanes has "admittedly failed to comply with his mandatory ministerial public duty" under the marriage law. And he ordered Hanes to stop it.

>> Read the judge's opinion. (PDF)

Fortunately, the issue won't stop there. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has other litigation in the pipeline that challenges the state's discriminatory marriage law. So stay tuned, with fingers crossed.

11 September 2013

On this 9/11 anniversary, are the terrorists winning?

After al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11, George W. Bush told us that it was because "they hate our freedoms".

That wasn't the real reason for the attacks. But still, it feels as if the terrorists have won - or that we have lost.

From the Bush administration's imposition of indefinite detention without charge or trial, which continues today under Obama, to the PATRIOT Act and the expansion of government secrecy and warrantless spying, our freedoms have indeed been curtailed. Little old ladies cannot even board an airplane without being subjected to excessive and humiliating security procedures.

Despite all these additional "security" measures, and even though Osama bin Laden now sleeps with the fishes, many Americans don't feel much safer than we did before 9/11.

Furthermore, our continued presence and influence in the Middle East, and indeed our continued threats to expand that presence and influence (see Syria), will only serve to feed the true root causes of anti-US terrorist sentiments. Because, in fact, those are the true root causes.

And so, in fact, it's lose-lose for all.

05 September 2013

Demonstrations nationwide against bombing Syria (and how to find one near you)

Over the next few several days, actions and events will be held across the country in opposition to U.S. military action in Syria.

Events include a demonstration in New York's Times Square on Saturday, September 7, and a march on Washington on Monday, September 9, as Congress goes back into session.

These actions are organized and cosponsored by a broad coalition of groups, including the Syrian American Forum, United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), and the ANSWER Coalition.

>> Click here to find a demonstration near you.

04 September 2013

Court hearing today on same-sex marriage in PA

A Pennsylvania state court hearing is scheduled for today in a suit filed by Gov. Tom Corbett's admimnistration against Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes. Earlier this summer, Hanes had started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of a state law that defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. The lawsuit to be heard today is the state's attempt to stop him.

According to CBS Philly, the state wants the issue decided strictly on the question of whether or not a local official can get away with disregarding a state law that he disagrees with.

Others are hoping that this will be an opportunity for the court to address the constitutionality (or lack thereof) of the discriminatory marriage law.

Questions of legal standing and jurisdiction will also be argued.

Stay tuned. But don't expect a final resolution any time soon, as an appeal is likely in any case.

01 September 2013

Divorcing Wells Fargo

I first opened the checking and savings accounts, along with a safe deposit box, in the early 1980s, at Fidelity Bank. Then, through a series of mergers and buy-outs, it became First Fidelity, then First Union, and then Wachovia.

It was a good bank, with conveniently located branches and ATMs, friendly staff, and a reasonable fee structure. For three decades, it was my primary bank - where my paychecks were automatically deposited and from which most of my bills were automatically paid. It was all smooth and easy.

But then Wells Fargo bought Wachovia.

First, the rates went up. Now I had to maintain $1,500 in my checking account - rather than $1,000 - in order to avoid a monthly service charge. And my checking and savings accounts no longer entitled me to a 50% discount on my safe deposit box rental.

But I was attached to that bank account. I guess it was a sentimental kind of attachment, like when you're in an unhappy marriage but not yet emotionally ready to break away. So I ate the extra expense.

Then I started to read about Wells Fargo's role in the subprime mortgage crisis which contributed to the ongoing worldwide recession. In 2012 alone, Wells Fargo agreed to pay more than $180 million in settlements for its crimes, with further legal trouble pending:

• In July, it reached a $175-million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly discriminating against minority mortgage borrowers and charging them higher interest rates.

• In August, it agreed to a $6.5-million settlement on SEC charges that it sold risky mortgage-backed securities.

• In October, it was hit with a federal lawsuit based on the Federal False Claims Act, alleging that Wells Fargo defrauded the FHA by engaging in "reckless" lending of FHA-backed loans and then leaving the agency to pick up the tab.

To add insult to injury, from 2008 to 2010 Wells Fargo received $17.9 in tax subsidies, paid for by you and me.

So I decided that I couldn't keep my money there any longer. Now that I had this knowledge about how Wells Fargo conducted its business, I no longer had an excuse. I finally moved my money to a local credit union, which has better rates, lower fees, and branches that are almost as convenient.

Wells Fargo didn't make it easy. When I visited a local branch to close my accounts, the customer service rep and her supervisor repeatedly pressured me to stay, even though I don't have much money. I refused to give in. I calmly and sweetly shared my reasons for leaving, and I hope that information gets passed up the ladder.

So now I have severed all personal connections to Wells Fargo, and it feels liberating. Kind of like my divorce - difficult but worth it.

28 August 2013

50 years later, MLK's dream lives on

50 years ago today, on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. He was one of many speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And he is probably the one most remembered.

Last weekend, on Saturday, August 24, a 50th Anniversary March on Washington drew thousands of participants, including leading civil rights activists of today and icons like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the last living speaker from the 1963 rally.

Saturday's event was impressive. The speakers' words confirmed that we've come a long way in the past 50 years - and that we've still got a long way to go.

The first African-American President currently occupies the White House, and I wish Dr. King could have lived to see it. However, Obama's success has been met by a ridiculous amount of opposition from Tea Party racists and "birthers" and Congressional Republicans alike.

Fortunately, it seems as though our younger generations, for the most part, are much more color-blind that those of the past. And interracial marriages are much more commonly accepted these days in many, if not most, parts of the country.

Our non-white population is slowly but surely edging its way into a demographic majority. While this is surely a contributing factor to the white man's fear, it represents to me a welcome kind of karmic justice.

It is a shame, however, if the war on racism can be won only by outnumbering the racists. And so the dream lives on.

>> Read and hear the "I Have a Dream" speech.

27 August 2013

George Zimmerman wants Florida to pay for his defense costs

George Zimmerman now wants the Florida taxpayers to cover the defense costs he incurred during his trial for the murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Since he was acquitted, he believes he should be reimbursed.

Let's see...

Zimmerman disobeyed police orders to stop pursuing Trayvon Martin.

Instead of backing off as ordered, he shot Trayvon to death.

And now he wants the state to cover his legal expenses.


Florida law does allow for that. But, in this case, it feels wrong. It feels ... dirty.

22 August 2013

Amnesty calls on Obama to commute Manning's sentence (and how you can help)

Amnesty International is calling on President Obama to grant Bradley/Chelsea Manning a commutation to time served.

"Instead of fighting tooth and nail to lock him up for decades, the U.S. government should turn its attention to investigating and delivering justice for the serious human rights abuses committed by its officials in the name of countering terror," said Widney Brown, Amnesty's Senior Director of International Law and Policy.

"Manning had already pleaded guilty to leaking information, so for the U.S. to have continued prosecuting him under the Espionage Act, even charging him with 'aiding the enemy,' can only be seen as a harsh warning to anyone else tempted to expose government wrongdoing," explained Brown. "More than anything else, the case shows the urgent need to reform the U.S.'s antiquated Espionage Act and strengthen protections for those who reveal information that the public has a need and a right to know."

If you agree, please sign Amnesty's petition here.

While the petition is unlikely to change any minds in the White House, it is important that we sign on in a display of solidarity against Manning's excessive sentence.

Sign on now.

21 August 2013

Rights group condemns Bradley Manning sentence

Today, war crimes whistleblower Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks which exposed U.S. war crimes and other government misconduct.

In response, the Center for Constitutional Rights issued this noteworthy statement condemning the sentence as well as the law it was based on:

"We are outraged that a whistleblower and a patriot has been sentenced on a conviction under the Espionage Act. The government has stretched this archaic and discredited law to send an unmistakable warning to potential whistleblowers and journalists willing to publish their information. We can only hope that Manning’s courage will continue to inspire others who witness state crimes to speak up.

"This show trial was a frontal assault on the First Amendment, from the way the prosecution twisted Manning’s actions to blur the distinction between whistleblowing and spying to the government’s tireless efforts to obstruct media coverage of the proceedings. It is a travesty of justice that Manning, who helped bring to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being punished while the alleged perpetrators of the crimes he exposed are not even investigated. Every aspect of this case sets a dangerous precedent for future prosecutions of whistleblowers – who play an essential role in democratic government by telling us the truth about government wrongdoing – and we fear for the future of our country in the wake of this case.

"We must channel our outrage and continue building political pressure for Manning's freedom. President Obama should pardon Bradley Manning, and if he refuses, a presidential pardon must be an election issue in 2016."

Indeed. But I shall not hold my breath.

20 August 2013

I'm not childless - I'm childfree!

I am not a mother. I never really wanted to be a mother. It never fit into my life's plans, nor those of my ex-husband.

I congratulate and applaud all the mothers who are raising children by choice or by circumstance. It's just not for me.

Some people seem surprised, as if all women are supposed to have a natural yearning for motherhood. They seem to think I'm in denial. Usually they feel sorry for me, which is a huge waste of energy.

But the worst of it is when they refer to me as "childless" - a word that suggests that something is missing from my life.

I don't think of myself as "childless". I prefer "childfree".

Take THAT, GOP misogynists!

14 August 2013

Defense Department announces same-sex spouse benefits

Good news: Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, today the U.S. Department of Defense announced plans to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of DoD personnel. This includes spouses of uniformed service members and civilian DoD employees.

Available benefits will include the DoD's health care coverage, housing benefits, and separation allowances, as applicable. The benefits will become available no later than September 3 of this year.

From the DoD's announcement:

"The Department of Defense remains committed to ensuring that all men and women who serve in the U.S. military, and their families, are treated fairly and equally as the law directs.


"We recognize that same-sex military couples who are not stationed in a jurisdiction that permits same-sex marriage would have to travel to another jurisdiction to marry. That is why the department will implement policies to allow military personnel in such a relationship non-chargeable leave for the purpose of travelling to a jurisdiction where such a marriage may occur. This will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the department, and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married.

"For civilian benefits administered government-wide to federal employees, the Department of Defense will follow the Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Labor’s guidance to ensure that the same benefits currently available to heterosexual spouses are also available to legally married same-sex spouses."

Take THAT, John Boehner!

08 August 2013

Two sad atomic anniversaries this week

Tuesday, August 6, marked the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by U.S. forces.

Friday, August 9, will mark the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

According to the Hiroshima Day Committee, "About 140,000 +/- 10,000 (including 20,000 soldiers) were dead by the end of December 1945; 90% of these are thought to have been killed within 2 weeks after the bombing."

Of those who didn't die, many suffered serious long-term illness.

Most were innocent civilians - men, women, and children.

The Geneva Conventions were adopted in the wake of World War II, establishing humanitarian standards for war, including the protection of civilians.

Still, innocent civilians continue to suffer and die in our wars.

We never seem to learn. And we never seem to care.

03 August 2013

People power - in my dream and in real life

A little while ago, I awoke from a disturbing dream. In it, I was standing near my car at a gas station, and there was a benign-looking man standing next to his car nearby. It was nighttime. A third car drove up, and I had an uncomfortable feeling about it. Then a man got out of it and attacked the first guy. They fought violently, and I felt helpless. All I could do was call 911 and hope that the police got there quickly. Then I sought refuge in the gas station's convenience store, where other people were also concerned about the fight, and had also called the police. At last, I started to feel safe.

I'm thinking that the dream reflects my real-life feelings of helplessness sometimes when I see all the violence and human rights abuses in the world, and the frustration I feel about the fact that I cannot just snap my fingers or put on a red cape and stop it all by myself.

But, in my dream and in reality, feelings of helplessness dissipate when others join in and we work together to solve the world's problems. "People power" is very real, as I've seen in the many success stories shared by Amnesty International and other advocacy groups I've worked with.

Bottom line: Don't feel helpless - get organized!

31 July 2013

Rights groups react to Bradley Manning verdict

On July 30, in a military trial at Fort Mead, Maryland, war crimes whistleblower Bradley Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy (the most serious charge against him) but was found guilty of 19 other charges. While serving as a Private First Class in the U.S. Army, Manning had released hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks which exposed U.S. war crimes and other government misconduct. Doing so led to his court-martial.

In response to the verdict, Amnesty International suggested that the U.S. government needs to reassess its priorities: "The government's priorities are upside down. The U.S. government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence," said Widney Brown, Amnesty's senior director of international law and policy. "Yet they decided to prosecute Manning who it seems was trying to do the right thing - reveal credible evidence of unlawful behavior by the government. You investigate and prosecute those who destroy the credibility of the government by engaging in acts such as torture which are prohibited under the U.S. Constitution and in international law... It's hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning's trial was about sending a message: the U.S. government will come after you, no holds barred, if you're thinking of revealing evidence of its unlawful behavior."

In other words, U.S. policy is to shoot the proverbial messenger.

The lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) agree. The CCR had filed a case challenging the lack of transparency around the Manning trial. Now, in the wake of the verdict, the CCR has released a statement condemning the charges against Manning related to the Espionage Act: "[T]he Espionage Act itself is a discredited relic of the WWI era, created as a tool to suppress political dissent and antiwar activism, and it is outrageous that the government chose to invoke it in the first place against Manning. Government employees who blow the whistle on war crimes, other abuses and government incompetence should be protected under the First Amendment."

The CCR statement goes on to question the future of journalism and the First Amendment itself: "We now live in a country where someone who exposes war crimes can be sentenced to life even if not found guilty of aiding the enemy, while those responsible for the war crimes remain free. If the government equates being a whistleblower with espionage or aiding the enemy, what is the future of journalism in this country? What is the future of the First Amendment?"

Indeed. And it's not just journalists and whistleblowers who should be worried.

30 July 2013

Will PA court cases overturn state DOMA?

Last week, D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills for Montgomery County, PA, in the Philadelphia suburbs, started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couple in protest of a state law that mirrors the now-defunct federal Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

In defending his actions, Hanes said, "I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law."

While I believe that DOMA - whether at the federal level or at the state level - is inherently unfair, my first impression when I heard the news last week was that Hanes was breaking the law. So, as much as I admired his bold act of civil disobedience, I was uncomfortable about it.

Then today happened.

State officials are suing Hanes in hopes of getting a court order to stop him from issuing marriage licenses.

Meanwhile, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the state's marriage law.

Just as the federal lawsuits against DOMA resulted in that law being overturned, I am hoping that one or both of these state-level suits result in a similar ruling at the state level.

Much of our progress in America through the decades was the result of brave people boldly engaging in civil disobedience. With that in mind, I am no longer uncomfortable with Hanes's actions. Indeed, I applaud him for going there, and I hope to someday shake his hand.

26 July 2013

Portugal condemns Texas's 500th execution

On June 26, Texas executed its 500th death row prisoner since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that reinstated the death penalty as an option in this country.

Texas is the execution capital of the U.S. And the U.S. is one of only two industrialized democracies (the other being Japan) which still have the death penalty. The rest of the world is becoming much more civilized.

Especially Portugal, where the last execution took place in 1846.

Last week, the Portuguese government stood up for human rights and issued the following statement on its website condemning Texas's 500th execution:

Portugal strongly regrets the execution of Kimberley McCarthy on 26th June in Texas, USA. This brings the number of persons executed in Texas to 500 since capital punishment was re-established in the State in 1982.

While recognizing the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated and extending our deepest sympathy to the families of the victim, Portugal opposes the capital punishment in all cases and without exception. Capital punishment represents an irreversible loss of human life and there are numerous studies that demonstrate that it has no deterrent effect.

Portugal calls on the State of Texas to reflect on the continued use of the capital punishment and to reconsider this policy in light of the worldwide trend towards abolition, as was the recent case of the State of Maryland which repealed capital punishment in March this year.

I applaud the Portuguese government for openly condemning this barbaric practice.

20 July 2013

Guns for George Zimmerman

A few days ago, there were reports that George Zimmerman would get his gun back - the one he used to kill Trayvon Martin - now that the trial is over and he's been acquitted.

However, in the meantime, the Justice Department stepped in and put all the trial evidence - including the gun - on hold pending its own investigation of the case.

I can imagine that Zimmerman might feel insecure without his gun. But he needn't worry for long. A Florida gun store has offered Zimmerman a free gun.

"We currently have the same model in stock, or he could (choose) another weapon suitable for concealed carry," said a letter from Pompano Pat's motorcycle and gun shop to Zimmerman's attorney.

The letter continues: "We have read numerous reports of death threats against your client and believe no good would come from harming him."

Pompano Pat's wants to ensure that Zimmerman can continue to stand his ground against scary, skittle-carrying teenagers.

Because they care.


19 July 2013

Texas executed two prisoners this week

Not something to be proud of:

On Tuesday, July 16, Texas executed John Quintanilla, Jr.

Then on Thursday, July 18, Vaughn Ross received a lethal injection in the same Texas death chamber.

That's two executions just two days apart.

The next one is scheduled for July 31.

They like to keep that grisly production line humming.

16 July 2013

Would Trayvon be alive if he lived in Pennsylvania?

My home state of Pennsylvania has a "Stand Your Ground" law that was modeled after the Florida law. "Stand Your Ground" laws allow a person to use deadly force in self-defense against someone whom you believe presents a serious threat to you. I opposed the law when it first came before the State Assembly, and I oppose it now. It makes it too easy to kill or seriously harm someone who might not actually pose a threat at all, just because you might be paranoid enough imagine that they look suspicious.

However, I just learned that the Pennsylvania law contains a caveat not present in the Florida law, which might have made all the difference if Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman had lived in Pennsylvania rather than in Florida.

According to Philadelphia's CBS affiliate, the Pennsylvania law "requires that outside the home, a person invoking 'Stand Your Ground' must see a deadly weapon, not merely feel threatened."

So, since Martin was carrying nothing more lethal than a pack of Skittles candy and a can of iced tea, Zimmerman might have chosen not to shoot. Or, if he did, he might have had a lot more explaining to do.

15 July 2013

Stop the threats to Zimmerman

I am as disappointed as anyone regarding George Zimmerman's acquittal over the weekend in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. But, at the same time, I strongly condemn the actions of some other disappointed individuals who are going overboard and wishing harm on Zimmerman.

For example, some graffiti was discovered in the Philadelphia suburbs with the message "Kill Zimmerman". And this is just a drop in the bucket.

Incidents like this will only fuel the right-wing media's sensationalistic speculation about violent race wars in the wake of Saturday's verdict. And these incidents only make the perpetrators look no better than Zimmerman.

Violence and property damage will not change the verdict, nor will they bring Trayvon Martin back to life.

Those of us who feel that justice was not served will get our message across most clearly if we do so in a reasonable, peaceful, and dignified way. I think that's surely what Trayvon's parents - both of them the embodiment of grace and class - would want.

14 July 2013

Racial profiling in the post-Trayvon era

The jury in the Florida case of George Zimmerman has found him not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. So now Zimmerman walks free, and will likely be rewarded with book deals and other lucrative offers. And people around the country - and the world - have been shown that you can shoot an unarmed black teenager and get away with it.

Zimmerman's acquittal appears to make a case for racial profiling. And that is very, very dangerous. Zimmerman pursued Martin because he thought the young black man seemed out of place in the neighborhood, and therefore threatening. I doubt he would have caught Zimmerman's eye if Trayvon were a white kid dressed in a preppie sweater.

Furthermore, Zimmerman's supporters have been all over social media in recent weeks defending the unfair profiling. For example:

beachcomber @anniebrown00
It is not racial profiling, it is situational profiling. So many blacks are criminals.

FreeDegree @LawatStPenn
@msnbc If NAACP want no profiling, change way young men act n their attire!

The above tweets (two drops in a very big bucket) propagate the myth that blacks are more prone to bad behavior, and that racial profiling is therefore justified. This mindset is not only inaccurate but downright dangerous.

Crime statistics are often misinterpreted and misunderstood, as African-American writer Chauncy DeVega explained in an essay last year:

The black people commit more crime canard is a fallacy of both process and outcomes. African Americans are subject to discrimination in the legal system at every level. As documented by The Sentencing Project, and detailed in such works as Race, Crime and the Law, and The New Jim Crow, African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police without cause, to be more aggressively questioned, receive longer and more severe charges for the same crimes as white defendants, and to have fewer resources to defend themselves in court.

As compared to white neighborhoods, black and brown communities are also subject to more severe surveillance and aggressive police tactics. Moreover, the disproportionate number of minorities in the criminal justice system can be largely explained by the War on Drugs. In total, if white communities were subject to the same type of aggressive police tactics as black and brown communities, the number of white people in prison would skyrocket.

The data is very telling here. While people of color are the prime targets of such policies as "stop and frisk" and racial profiling, it is in fact white people who are far more likely to be both drug users and to be in possession of narcotics at a given moment. This reality signals to a larger social phenomenon: black individuals who commit crimes are representative of their whole communities, crime is racialized, and there is no qualifier of individual intent. All black people are deemed suspicious and guilty because of the deeds of the very few.

In contrast, white people who commit crimes are unique individuals: the criminals who destroyed the global economy, a group of white men, were not taken as representative of the entire white community. There is a long list of crimes such as domestic terrorism, serial murder, child rape, sedition, treason, and financial fraud that are almost exclusively the province of white people. But again, whites as a group are excluded from suspicion or indictment as a "criminal class."

Racial profiling is a waste of time and can make us less safe. Multiple studies have shown that when police focus on factors such as race, they tend to pay less attention to actual criminal behavior. This is a dangerous trend that can inhibit effective law enforcement and ultimately endanger the lives of all persons who depend on law enforcement for protection.

Furthermore, a 2004 report by Amnesty International provides overwhelming evidence that racial profiling is not only ineffective and counterproductive in finding the real criminals, but that it also encourages hate and undermines national unity. The report was based on six public hearings nationwide and more than a year of intensive research. And, given the racial tension we see in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's death, it is as timely now as ever.

We will be much better protected if law enforcement and security personnel (including neighborhood watch volunteers like Zimmerman) focus on what people are actually doing, and not on what they look like.

13 July 2013

Zimmerman was not standing his ground

The jury in the George Zimmerman case in Florida is now in its second day of deliberations.

Zimmerman pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting death last year of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, on grounds that he was defending himself under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. The problem with that, as I see it, is that Zimmerman was not standing his ground. He was aggressively pursuing Martin.

Even after the 911 dispatcher instructed Zimmerman to stop following Martin, Zimmerman loaded his gun, exited his car, and went out actively looking for trouble.

Therefore, I cannot imagine how the jury could possibly settle for anything less than a manslaughter conviction.

If they do, I will certainly want to hear their reasons why.

11 July 2013

PA Attorney General will not defend state DOMA

Yesterday I wrote about a new lawsuit brought by the ACLU challenging a Pennsylvania state law that excludes same-sex couples from marriage.

And today there is already some good news regarding the case:

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has announced that she will not defend the discriminatory law. (Not unlike how President Obama and AG Holder chose not to defend the federal DOMA.) Kudos to Kane for standing up for fairness and equality!

But the lawsuit doesn't end here. According to Philadelphia's NBC affiliate, "Pennsylvania law says it is the attorney general's duty to defend the constitutionality of state laws. But it also says the attorney general may allow lawyers for the governor's office or executive branch agencies to defend a lawsuit if it is more efficient or in the state's best interests."

Governor Tom Corbett is a conservative Republican, so I expect him to pick up the ball that Kane bravely dropped and run with it himself.

Stay tuned.

10 July 2013

ACLU sues for right to same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Now it's time to take on similar state-based laws that promote inequality.

To that end, on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Pennsylvania state law that excludes same-sex couples from marriage.

Below is an excerpt from an ACLU press release about the Pennsylvania case:

The lawsuit alleges that Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act and refusal to marry lesbian and gay couples or recognize their out-of-state marriages violates the fundamental right to marry as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This lawsuit comes in the wake of the ACLU's victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor, which requires federal recognition for lesbian and gay couples who are married in their home states. Plaintiffs argue that the court should closely scrutinize this discriminatory treatment because the state's Defense of Marriage Act burdens the fundamental right to marry and because it discriminates based on sex and sexual orientation.

"We only want what every married couple wants - to express our love and commitment in front of friends and family and the security and protections that only marriage provides," said plaintiff Deb Whitewood, who has been together with her spouse Susan Whitewood for 22 years. "Our life is built around our relationship and the family we have made."

The plaintiffs include 10 couples, two minor children of those couples, and one widow who recently lost her partner of 29 years.

>> Read the full press release.

And stay tuned for updates.

Meantime, I hope to see many similiar actions spring up around the country. Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia legally recognize same-sex marriage. That leaves 37 states to go. That's way too many, so we must get busy!

03 July 2013

Amnesty International says U.S. must not persecute Snowden

On July 2, Amnesty International issued the following comments addressing the case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden from a human rights perspective:
The US authorities' relentless campaign to hunt down and block whistleblower Edward Snowden's attempts to seek asylum is deplorable and amounts to a gross violation of his human rights Amnesty International said today.

"The US attempts to pressure governments to block Snowden's attempts to seek asylum are deplorable," said Michael Bochenek, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International. "It is his unassailable right, enshrined in international law, to claim asylum and this should not be impeded."

The organization also believes that the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower could be at risk of ill-treatment if extradited to the USA.

"No country can return a person to another country where there is a serious risk of ill-treatment," said Bochenek.

"We know that others who have been prosecuted for similar acts have been held in conditions that not only Amnesty International but UN officials considered cruel inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of international law."

Senior US officials have already condemned Snowden without a trial, labelling him both guilty and a traitor, raising serious questions as to whether he'd receive a fair trial. Likewise the US authorities move to charge Snowden under the Espionage Act could leave him with no provision to launch a public interest whistle-blowing defence under US law.

"It appears he is being charged by the US government primarily for revealing its - and other governments' - unlawful actions that violate human rights," said Bochenek.

"No one should be charged under any law for disclosing information of human rights violations. Such disclosures are protected under the rights to information and freedom of expression."

Besides filing charges against Snowden, the US authorities have revoked his passport - which interferes with his rights to freedom of movement and to seek asylum elsewhere.

"Snowden is a whistleblower. He has disclosed issues of enormous public interest in the US and around the world. And yet instead of addressing or even owning up to these actions, the US government is more intent on going after Edward Snowden."

"Any forced transfer to the USA would put him at risk of human rights violations and must be challenged," said Michael Bochenek.

But, of course, it seems that the U.S. government pays attention to human rights groups like Amnesty only when it suits a predetermined agenda.

26 June 2013

Texas kills 500th prisoner - a woman

This evening, the state of Texas executed its 500th death row prisoner since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that reinstated the death penalty as an option in this country. Kimberly McCarthy received her lethal injection just after 6:00 pm Texas time.

Governor Rick Perry, who likes to brag about his execution record, is probably celebrating. But this gruesome milestone is nothing to celebrate. The case appears to be riddled with racial bias and suggestions of inadequate defense counsel. That's not justice.

See my Tuesday article for details on the issues surrounding McCarthy's case and her death sentence.

And consider the words of Mohandas Gandhi, who said: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Shame on Texas - a very blind state.

At Supreme Court, a double victory for marriage equality

In an historic double victory, two decisions came out of the U.S. Supreme Court this morning that favor same-sex marriage.

In the case of United States v. Windsor, the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. DOMA had defined marriage for all federal purposes as a legal union between a man and a woman, thereby depriving same-sex couple of federal benefits.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy explained: "DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State."

Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, joined Kennedy.

Not surprisingly, conservative Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissented.

Then, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court dismissed Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot initiative which struck down same-sex marriage in that state.

Here, Justices Roberts, Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, & Kagan formed a very interesting majority.

Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor (!) dissented.

Unlike the DOMA case, the Prop 8 case was decided on a technicality - specifically on the Court's belief that Prop 8 proponents did not have legal standing to pursue the case since the state had refused to do so. (In other words, no vigilate justice allowed!)

Nevertheless, today's decision killed Prop 8 and restored same-sex marriage in California.

While these two decisions do not affect any of the U.S. states that have not yet legalized same-sex marriage, they reinforce the notion that the tide is turning in favor of LGBT rights. That in itself is clearly worth celebrating.

Excellent statement by Secretary Hagel on DOMA ruling

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for all federal purposes as a legal union between a man and a woman. Under DOMA, same-sex spouses were denied federal benefits that were available to heterosexual spouses.

Upon today's news, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued the following excellent statement:

The Department of Defense welcomes the Supreme Court's decision today on the Defense of Marriage Act. The department will immediately begin the process of implementing the Supreme Court's decision in consultation with the Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies. The Department of Defense intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses -- regardless of sexual orientation -- as soon as possible. That is now the law and it is the right thing to do.

Every person who serves our nation in uniform stepped forward with courage and commitment. All that matters is their patriotism, their willingness to serve their country, and their qualifications to do so. Today's ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve.

Bravo, Secretary Hagel!

And congratulations to all the same-sex military spouses who will now receive the benefits that, as Secretary Hagel said, they so richly deserve.

25 June 2013

Marriage and death on Wednesday's agenda

Wednesday, June 26, promises to be a big news day, for good or for bad.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8, both of which deal with same-sex marriage.

DOMA defines marriage for all federal purposes as a legal union between a man and a woman. The case, United States v. Windsor, was brought on behalf of Edith "Edie" Windsor, who in 2009 lost her spouse of 44 years, Thea Spyer. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Windsor and Spyer had gotten married in Canada in 2007, and "were considered married by their home state of New York." But, because of DOMA, explains the ACLU, "Windsor was not able to claim the estate tax marital deduction that is available when the surviving spouse is of the opposite sex. In her lawsuit, Windsor is seeking to have DOMA declared unconstitutional and to obtain a refund of the federal estate tax that she was forced to pay following Spyer's death."

Proposition 8 was a 2008 California ballot initiative which struck down same-sex marriage in that state. The case now before SCOTUS, Hollingsworth v. Perry, challenges the constitutionality of Prop 8. Two lower courts that heard the case have ruled that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

After that will come a life-and-death decision from Texas, where Kimberly McCarthy is scheduled to be the 500th prisoner executed in that state since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that reinstated the death penalty as an option in this country. If a stay is not granted, the lethal injection will begin to flow at 6:00 pm CT.

McCarthy's attorney has filed an appeal based on racial discrimination and quality of counsel. James Turnage, writing in The Guardian Express, summarizes:

[Maurie Levin, McCarthy’s legal counsel since January] claims that the jury in the 2002 trial was selected on a racial basis. McCarthy is an African-American woman, and the neighbor she killed, Dorothy Booth, was a 71-year-old white woman.

Her trial was held in Dallas County. The population is 69% white and 23% black. Only one [African American] was on the jury of 13.

Out of an initial pool of 64 prospective jurors, only four non-whites made it through to the final selection. Of those four, three were ejected from the actual jury through peremptory strikes by prosecution lawyers.

Texas has a history of excluding black men and women from their juries. In 1963, a Texas training manual instructed prosecutors not to "take Jews, negroes, dagos, Mexicans, or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated". A similar manual published in 1986 carried the memorable advice that it was "not advisable to select potential jurors with multiple gold chains around their necks or those who appear to be 'free thinkers'."

In 2005, three years after McCarthy was placed on death row, [an] investigation revealed that prosecutors were continuing their efforts to exclude non-white jurors.

Levin has also asked two members of the appeals board to recuse themselves because they were assistant district attorneys in Dallas County at the time of Ms. McCarthy's unfair jury selection.

A second part of the appeal centers around a Supreme Court decision that says appeals after conviction must be heard. Levin says McCarthy was given inadequate council after she was placed on death row. Levin said that none of McCarthy's appointed [attorneys] challenged what was obviously a racially biased jury.

On Monday, however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to block the execution because, according to the Associated Press, "she should have raised her claims previously."

McCarthy has already seen two prior execution dates come and go. Her lawyer is now considering the remaining options.

My fingers are crossed in hopes that the Supreme Court will decide in favor of marriage equality in both cases, and that Texas will stop the execution (again). But I'm too old and jaded to be totally optimistic.