The execution of Lisa Montgomery was an act of moral depravity – posted 1/17/2021

January 17, 2021 Leave a comment

At 1:31am, in the dark of night on January 13, the federal government executed Lisa Montgomery. She was the first woman executed by the federal government in almost 70 years and only the third woman executed by the Feds since 1900.

For a short time in the week before January 13 it had appeared that Montgomery might escape execution. The federal court in Indiana issued a stay so a court could determine Montgomery’s competency. The federal court judge wrote:

“Ms. Montgomery’s mental status is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution.”

However, after a flurry of appeals in which the stay was vacated and reinstated, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled to allow the execution to proceed, with Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Breyer dissenting. The Court never explored the matter of Montgomery’s competency.

One hour and fifteen minutes after the Supreme Court ruled, Lisa Montgomery was dead by lethal injection. There was a clemency petition before President Trump but Trump did not have the decency to respond to the petition. He did not bother to deny it or even acknowledge it.

The Trump Administration has been in a big hurry to carry out executions before January 20 when the Biden administration begins. Biden has indicated he would reinstate the moratorium on the death penalty.

Government lawyers have been working 24/7 to conduct as many executions of federal prisoners as possible. Since last July, the federal government has executed Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy, Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Corey Johnson, Dustin Higgs and Montgomery.

Before this thirteen person killing spree, it has been seventeen years since any federal prisoners were put to death. In an effort to put this in historical perspective after Dustin Higgs’ execution, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

“…the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.”

In court filings before her execution, Montgomery’s lawyers reported she was having auditory hallucinations of her abusive mother’s voice. She believed God was speaking to her through connect-the-dot puzzles.

Montgomery had diagnoses of bipolar disorder, complex PTSD, dissociative disorder, psychosis and traumatic brain injury. She suffered from permanent brain injury and possibly had fetal alcohol syndrome. As an adult, she often dissociated from reality because of the trauma she had experienced. As her lawyer said, her awful crime was the culmination of a lifetime of violence, rape, untreated mental illness and societal failure to stop sexual abuse.

Montgomery’s mental condition had worsened since October. Prison officials had moved her to a suicide cell. Bright lights were never turned off.

She was not allowed to have any of her personal belongings in her cell – no books, legal papers, photos of her children or even her wedding band. Male guards watched her 24 hours a day, including when she used the toilet. The prison authorities took her clothing away and gave her a rubber smock to wear that had velcro snaps. The garment is called a suicide smock.

Montgomery’s lawyers reported that when she was moved to the federal prison in Terra Haute, Indiana, shortly before her death, she had completely lost touch with reality.

The U.S. Supreme Court is on record that no legitimate government purpose is served by the execution of someone who is not competent at the time of their execution. In the 2002 case of Ford v Wainwright, the Court addressed a case where there was no suggestion the defendant was incompetent at the time of his offense or at trial but he later deteriorated mentally.

The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited the State from inflicting the death penalty where the claimant was insane.

The Court felt that use of the death penalty in this circumstance did not enhance deterrence. It also had questionable retributive value and it offended humanity. Justice Marshall argued that any procedure that precluded the defendant from presenting material relevant to his sanity was inadequate.

The failure of the Court to even consider the matter of Montgomery’s competence is both horrifying and merciless. With so much questioning about the death penalty, the Court’s current majority is both backward and behind evolving standards of human decency.

The allegedly pro-life justices had no seeming difficulty imposing the death penalty on an utterly broken woman. I am reminded of the George Carlin routine about pro-lifers: they only care about life before you are born. After you are born, you are on your own.

Trump’s failure to consider clemency for Montgomery fits with his law and order posturing. His concern is his tough guy image. With few exceptions, he pardons white collar criminals, not anyone from a poverty background. The poet Kenneth Patchen once wrote, “Law and order embrace on hate’s border.” That fits Trump’s compassion-free notion of law and order.

Only six countries executed more people than America last year: China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Somalia and North Korea. There is a relationship between capital punishment and authoritarian regimes. With less respect for human rights, such regimes kill more. Trump’s execution spree reflects his authoritarianism. When it comes to the death penalty, look at the company you keep.

After Lisa Montgomery was executed, her lawyer Kelley Henry said,

“The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight…This failed government adds itself to a long list of people and institutions who failed Lisa. We should recognize Lisa Montgomery’s execution for what it was: the vicious, unlawful and unnecessary exercise of authoritarian power.”

That is an accurate summary. On matters of life and death, you might have expected careful consideration, not mindless vengeance. Everyone associated with Montgomery’s execution should be ashamed.

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Some questions about the Capitol Riot – posted 1/10/2021

January 10, 2021 2 comments

Like millions, I was glued to the TV watching the events of January 6 unfold. Information remains limited and questions abound about the riot at the Capitol and what happened. While much more information will no doubt be emerging, I wanted to address some questions that stand out.

Was the riot spontaneous?

The evidence clearly shows it was not spontaneous. President Trump tweeted on December 19: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild”. ProPublica reported that his supporters took up the name “Wild Protest”. Other pro-Trumpers under the name Stop the Steal railed that the election was stolen. On December 23 online, they promised an occupation of the Capitol.

For a period of time prior to January 6, extreme right wing websites discussed Operation Occupy the Capitol and the question of violent protest if the Senate made Joe Biden’s victory official. On December 12, a poster on the website MyMilitia.com explicitly urged violence if the Senate certified Biden’s win. The poster wrote:

“If this does not change, then I advocate Revolution and adherence to the rules of war. I say, take the hill or die trying.”

On January 7, the Washington D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said there was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol. That is hard to understand since this assault was planned in public view. Rioters did what they said they would do.

Trump had told his followers to be in Washington on January 6 and his followers obeyed the command. Anyone who bothered to look at extremist Trump message boards could have seen the handwriting on the wall.

Arieh Kovler, a political consultant in the U.K. accurately predicted these events on Twitter on December 21. He wrote: “On January 6, armed Trumpist militias will be rallying in D.C. at Trump’s orders. It is highly likely that they’ll try to storm the Capitol after it certifies Joe Biden’s win. I don’t think this has sunk in yet”.

The rioters appeared to have knowledge of the tunnels of Congress and the location of key Congressional offices. They had radios and two-way communication with earpieces. There were police officers from across the U.S. among the rioters. A number of rioters came armed for battle with a background in military training. Pipe bombs were planted outside the DNC and the RNC. There was some degree of planning and coordination.

Should the Capitol riot be considered a protest, a demonstration or domestic terrorism?

This went far beyond a protest or demonstration. It was a violent assault on the seat of government meant to overturn a free and fair election. That classifies as a seditious coup. As such, I think domestic terrorism is the most accurate characterization.

Back in December, Arieh Kovler had wondered if the way the protest might swing the election in Trump’s favor was by “forcing Congress to certify him as the winner at gunpoint”.

Ransacking the Capitol, smashing press equipment, trashing Congressional offices and stealing government laptops all put this beyond mere protest. You had violent people swinging lead pipes at police and pepper-spraying them. The rioters built a noose and gallows outside the Capitol. They chanted “Hang Mike Pence”. Some rioters carried flex cuffs used by police. It is unclear if they intended to capture or execute Congresspeople or Vice-President Pence if they had intercepted them.

Five people died in the riot, including police officer Brian Sicknick. Chief Contee has reported 56 officers were injured after being beaten or tazed repeatedly.

How and why did law enforcement fail so epically?

The Capitol police are supposed to protect Congress. You have to ask: how did the police let this happen? There was an intelligence failure and a substantive response breakdown. Mike German, a former FBI agent, wrote:

“You don’t get to ransack the Capitol for hours, then calmly walk away unless law enforcement and its command share your views. What we saw yesterday was tacit approval of the rioters. Full stop.”

The delay in sending in the National Guard, especially after it was requested by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, raises the question of whether this was an inside job. We knew the threat of far right violence had been de-prioritized by Trump. Was the response failure a result of a coordinated plan by Trump and his allies? It needs to be asked and answered.

There is a sick, racist law enforcement culture that needs to be addressed. While many police did their jobs bravely, others were taking selfies with rioters. Black Capitol police reported that they were repeatedly subjected to racist taunts and use of the n-word by the mob which was overwhelmingly white and male.

Did Antifa play any role in the Capitol riot?

With our own eyes, we saw the huge crowd of Trump supporters descend on the Capitol. They carried Trump flags, Confederate flags, Nazi swastika flags, and they wore clothing that identified themselves as Trump supporters. Proud Boys chanted “F— Antifa”. Later on January 6, Trump himself posted a video that expressed “love” for his supporters and he said they were “very special”.

Yet, somehow, after things went south, right wing commentators concocted a story that pro-Trump rioters were actually Antifa in disguise. Please. This was a 100% Trump-incited riot. The Proud Boys, neo-nazis wearing shirts that said Camp Auschwitz staff and 6MWE (which stands for six million weren’t enough), white supremacists, Q’Anon supporters and other Trump supporters all seemed very proud of themselves.

The idea of Antifa involvement is a fantasy, akin to the Trump fantasy of a stolen election.

Is the fascist threat over?

The Capitol riot has echoes of the plot hatched by the Michigan militia against Governor Gretchen Whitmer. It is also reminiscent of the Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel famous in far right circles that prominently features an attack on the U.S. Capitol. The plot is about how a small number of white power fanatics overthrow the federal government and start a race war.

The failure of Trump’s coup attempt does not mean the domestic terrorist threat is over. That threat has been consistently underestimated for four years. The Capitol riot provides compelling evidence of that proposition. If the threat of right wing extremism is to be reduced if not eliminated, perpetrators of the riot must pay a price. That is at least a first step.

The rioters seem to believe the law does not apply to them. I would suggest that this sense of entitlement is rooted in hundreds of years of white supremacy. The fascist threat is certainly not over. It has barely been recognized.

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What is the matter with the Democrats? – posted 1/3/2021

January 3, 2021 Leave a comment

Any honest assessment of the 2020 election must consider the poor performance of Democrats down ballot. There was an expectation that Democrats would pick up as many as five Senate seats along with increasing their House majority. There was also an expectation Democrats could flip state legislatures. That all failed to materialize.

Some moderate Democrats have blamed more progressive Democrats, citing bad messaging around “defund the police” and advocacy of democratic socialism. For example, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D- Va) publicly blamed progressive Democrats for the loss of House seats. She somehow forgot the critical role progressives played in mobilizing the Democratic vote.

As someone sympathetic to the progressive wing, I would take issue with Rep. Spanberger. Other than opposing Trump, Democrats generally failed to present a strong economic message in 2020. As a result, many voters gave Trump and the Republicans the edge on the economy.

That should be shocking to Democrats. How could it be that Republicans, the party of the 1%, were more trusted on the economy? And truthfully, the Democratic Party has precious little, in a self-critical way, to say about it.

To appreciate the magnitude of the Democratic failure, the full economic picture must be outlined. Even before the pandemic, income inequality had dramatically increased. The households in the top fifth of earners brought in 52% of all U.S. income, more than the lower four-fifths combined, according to Census Bureau data.

Three men, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett own as much as the bottom half of Americans.

From 1989 to 2016, wealth inequality grew so much that the top 10% of families ranked by household wealth (with at least $1.2 million in net worth) owned 77% of the wealth pie. The bottom half of families ranked by household wealth (with $97,000 or less in net wealth) own only 1% of the pie.

Since the pandemic, according to Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies, 657 billionaires have seen their combined wealth go up a trillion dollars since mid-March. But the money these billionaires are making is not being reflected in the pay or protection of the workers who are making these services possible.

Millions have lost jobs and health insurance. Food and housing insecurity have soared. Many thousands face eviction or foreclosure.

In the face of this economic catastrophe, where is the Democratic Party, the party that going back to FDR, was supposed to be dedicated to economic justice and the working class? That party is almost nowhere to be seen.

Thomas Frank, the author of “The People, No”, has the acutest analysis of how the Democrats have failed to step up. Frank argues that it is the Democrats who should be the populist party. He defends the populist tradition and shows how Democrats need to run against plutocracy, elites, and economic inequality.

Too many Democrats are enamored with the idea of being the party of rich suburbanites and the professional-managerial class. They seem to think “the best and brightest” should rule, a world run by preppies. They look to corporate money and Wall Street for support.

I do not find it surprising that many working people supported Trump again. Often it was because of concerns about jobs and wages, bad trade deals, and bringing jobs back to America. Trump is a con man, a racist and a fraud but those concerns are legitimate. Too many Democrats are condescending and elitist in their attitudes toward working people including those who supported Trump.

Of the 74 million people who voted for Trump, almost a third came from households making under $50,000. While there is a hardcore of vicious white supremacists, it would be a serious mistake to assume some of those 74 million voters could not be won back. After all, many Trump voters previously supported Obama. Tons of people have contradictory politics. They should not be ceded to the Republicans. The Democrats need an attractive economic message highlighting good-paying jobs for all workers.

Democrats could begin by putting up more of a fight around pandemic relief. I liked what Rep. Ro Khanna had to say when he opposed the bloated military budget specified in the National Defense Authorization Act. Rep. Khanna said:

“We’re spending money on the modernization of nuclear weapons. And we can’t find money to get food to people who need it? We can’t find money to get more rental assistance for folks who are going to face evictions? We can’t find money to get $2,000 into the pockets of Americans? The priorities are wrong, and so I’m not going to vote to override his veto.”

Chuck Collins has suggested an emergency pandemic wealth tax on billionaires. People who have gotten a tremendous windfall from the pandemic should be helping communities in desperate need. How about a pandemic billlionaire tax funding universal health care during the pandemic?

The pandemic has exposed the underlying contradictions of capitalism. Has the need for Medicare for All ever been clearer? How many millions have lost health insurance in the last year and how many millions lacked insurance even before that? The other ideas promoted by the progressive wing of the Democrats like $15 an hour minimum wage, student loan debt forgiveness, and Green New Deal have the potential to be widely popular.

The Democrats are always afraid of their own shadows. That is not something you can say about the Republicans. Republicans are unafraid to stand behind utterly wacky ideas, including the overthrow of democracy. Democrats could use a backbone.

Republicans will always sling mud, shout about socialism and rely on the Fox News echo chamber. That has become an automatic no matter what Democrat is running. The Democrats need a strong, unafraid message that speaks to the widespread economic fear and insecurity. The newest stimulus package is grossly inadequate. The pandemic has inflicted long-term damage on millions of workers and Democrats must speak to that need.

In addition to being the party of economic justice, Democrats also need to be the party of racial justice. They should stand in opposition to Trump’s racist appeals against Black Lives Matter and against immigration. Trump has used racism as a divide-and-conquer weapon to destroy working class unity.

While Joe Biden won the presidency and I think progressives should support him and give his presidency every chance to succeed, it was the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 that shows the way forward for Democrats in 2022 and 2024. Bernie’s campaign did not take corporate money and it relied on small donors. That is the right model for Democrats to emulate.

Democrats need to support the labor movement and make it easier for workers to organize. So few American workers are in unions now and that has tremendously weakened the political power of working people. Democrats have had a bad history of making promises to labor that they do not keep. I would cite Obama’s failure to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, an idea he ran on in 2008, which would have made it easier and faster to unionize.

The Democrats have many outstanding leaders. Along with Ro Khanna, I would mention Pramila Jayapal, Katie Porter, Stacey Abrams, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Past results do not justify a continuation of relying on party centrists who lack any vision.

Thomas Frank has asked:

“For whom does America exist? The billionaires? Its celebrities? Its tech companies? Are we the people just a laboring, sweating instrument for the bonanza payday of our betters?”

If Democrats return to FDR populism, they can retake the majority and move America forward in its best tradition.

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Presidential misdeeds and the challenge of accountability – posted 12/26/2020

December 26, 2020 2 comments

The presidency of Donald Trump presents a daunting challenge to anyone who cares about the future of the rule of law. Never has a president so debased his position. Who calls a state Secretary of State and asks him to flip votes? Corruption may be the singular thread that runs through every aspect of this presidency.

Take your pick: pardons for war criminals and venal cronies, using public office for private gain, tax fraud, lying and manufacturing a steady stream of misinformation, putting children in cages, and trying to overturn a democratic election to install yourself as dictator. And that barely scratches the surface. The crimes run deep. The abuse of power has been relentless.

The question emerges: how can the Biden Administration check and constrain this overwhelming pattern of wrongdoing? So many are saying that addressing the Trump Administration’s misconduct would be too divisive and time-consuming. They counsel that the government should look forward rather than back. The concern is that a Biden Administration focused on prosecuting Trump would enrage Trump followers. It could also have a bad look, reducing Biden and making him look like a tinpot dictator himself.

I am struck by the long-term pattern of failure of accountability in American life. Over the last 50 years, the examples are numerous. President Ford’s pardon of Nixon, President George H. W. Bush’s pardons of Reagan officials for the Iran-Contra scandal, and President Obama’s failure to prosecute torturers who defiled the George W. Bush presidency all come to mind.

The thinking has been that accountability was too divisive. The problem though is that the absence of accountability is a license for repetition of the abuse of power. For example, Obama’s unwillingness to pursue those who committed torture greatly increases the likelihood that behavior will recur.

President-elect Biden has nominated Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence. In an Open Letter, torture victims and their advocates have opposed Haines’ nomination because of her troubling record on torture. Whatever her competence, Haines both defended torture and suppressed evidence of it. She supported Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel for CIA Director. Torture is illegal under international law and there is an unmistakeable bad message sent with the Haines’ nomination.

Stepping back to look at the broader sweep of American history, I think the failure of accountability goes back to our country’s origins. The narrative we have told about Native American history is an early example. The savage war fought against Native Americans pushed them back farther and farther west, across the continent. Law had nothing to do with this process although dishonored treaties by the U.S. government happened along the way. It was a “might makes right” history.

How has that been officially acknowledged and where is the accountability? Where is the United States Native American Genocide Memorial Museum? It hasn’t happened. Denial rules.

Similarly with slavery, where is the accountability on a national level? Americans have grown up with a rationalized view of that history and there has been an unwillingness to reconsider how the past events of slavery affect us still. Conventional thinking remains that these events happened long ago and have little bearing on now.

Post-Civil War history disappeared slavery-by-another-name. It is telling that the only memorial for lynching in the United States was created by a private Alabama non-profit law firm, the Equal Justice Initiative. We bury that history and as a result do not take the needed steps required to begin rectification.

I think the same pattern is true with the Vietnam War. Although many know it was a horrible mistake, there has been a collective refusal to admit that war was wrong and criminal. Instead of a self-critical look at our empire and our militarism, we blundered into Iraq where we repeated Vietnam-like mistakes, costing untold lives, American and Iraqi. The empire, recognized around the world, is not recognized by Americans who have been taught a sanitized history.

We are overdue in the United States for taking a hard look at ourselves. While elections may have changed those in power which is some kind of check, they have not promoted self-critical examination. When Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, one reason he provided for the veto was the provision that would require the military to rename bases that were named after figures from the Confederacy.

What better example of the failure of critical thinking than that? Are we still compelled to defend traitors committed to white supremacy who took up arms against the United States? To say that view is backwards does not express how odious it is.

It would be a huge mistake if no efforts are made to acknowledge and reckon with Trump crimes. Not to do so would make it much more likely that, at a later date, we could further devolve into some type of authoritarian state. The damage done by the last four years should not be understated. If Trump had won the election, we would be looking at a fascist consolidation of power. We barely escaped.

I have a couple thoughts on places to begin the accountability process. How the Trump Administration mis-handled the pandemic requires a national commission to study what happened with COVID-19. At the federal level, the commission should study the federal response so that we, as a nation, learn from the experience. We need to be better prepared for next time. Such a commission might be possible as a bi-partisan endeavor.

The second initiative would be centered on the family separation policy. Out of thousands of cases where family reunification was achieved, 545 migrant children are still separated and their families cannot be located. Every effort should be made to reunify these families. It was Trump’s zero tolerance policy that led to the separation of thousands of families. This has been government-sponsored child abuse and there is a moral imperative to do everything to try and make this right.

There are other Trump misdeeds that stand out. I suppose there is subjectivity in sorting these but I will hit on some I think are worst. Possibly state prosecutors will look at taxes. No presidential candidate should ever be able to run who has not disclosed the last 5 or 10 years of his or her income taxes.

The politicization of law enforcement and the Department of Justice, abuse of the Hatch Act, and mis-use of the pardon power jump out. Dangling the prospect of a pardon in exchange for non-cooperation with federal investigations is the definition of corruption.

Ignoring presidential crimes is the same as saying the President is above the law, a position essentially argued by Nixon and Trump. That position must be repudiated. Presidents are not kings and it is not a viable option for a Biden Administration determined to reassert the rule of law.

More generally, America has been crippled by the propaganda message of our exceptional goodness. That message has never squared with the facts. Now more than ever, we need honesty and a willingness to look at the dark side. Failure of accountability could lead to the next Trump or Trump-equivalent successfully consolidating fascism.

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Why Representative Dawn Johnson’s apology for anti-semitism was so inadequate – posted 12/20/2020

December 20, 2020 5 comments

I do not personally know school board member and newly elected state representative Dawn Johnson of Laconia. I know she is a Republican. Rep. Johnson shocked New Hampshire when she posted a link to a Daily Stormer article. The Daily Stormer is a leading neo-nazi website.

In the post, the word “Jews” appears above a cartoon image of a man wearing a Jewish skullcap. He is holding a sign announcing a rent increase, next to another man with the head of Georgia Governor Brian Kemp photoshopped onto the body. Above Kemp’s photo is the term ”Riggers”, a clear reference to Kemp’s refusal to block certification of Georgia’s electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden. Below both cartoon figures are the words “Bad News”.

Rep. Johnson tried to post the Daily Stormer link on Facebook. Her effort was blocked because Facebook does not allow links to the Daily Stormer since it is a hate site. Rep. Johnson complained on her Facebook page, “When you try to share truth, FB says NOPE we will not allow it. “

After a big adverse reaction, Rep.Johnson apologized for putting up the post and she deleted the post from her Twitter feed. She claimed she was unaware of the source. One peculiarity about Rep. Johnson’s apology: while she apologized, she never made clear what she specifically apologized for and, to date, that has never been clarified. She said she was unaware of the anti-semitic cartoon that got posted.

Rep. Johnson adamantly expressed opposition to the idea she should resign from the school board and her position as state representative. Very defensively, Rep. Johnson lashed out at others on the school board who had called for her to resign. She called others on the board “a disgrace”.

In considering the affair, I have to begin by wondering why Rep. Johnson was linking to the Daily Stormer website at all. For those who have never been there, it is not a subtle website. It is probably the world’s biggest neo-nazi website. It defies credibility that Rep. Johnson did not know what that was. She had complained that Facebook would not let her post her “truth”.

I suppose it is possible that Johnson was mostly focused on arguing the crackpot Trump theory that the election was rigged, given the word “Riggers” in the cartoon, but how could she ignore the depiction of the Jewish person? It was a classic anti-semitic caricature. Was she not looking at what she was posting?

The Daily Stormer takes its name from the German newspaper Der Sturmer which published from 1923 to the end of World War II. Der Sturmer was a propaganda organ of the German Nazis and it was infamous for its virulent anti-semitism. It was published by Julius Streicher who was later hanged at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Der Sturmer often ran cartoons depicting graphic caricatures of ugly Jews with exaggerated noses.

The paper aimed to dehumanize Jews and It promoted medieval stereotypes of blood libel where Jews were accused of killing Christian children and drinking their blood.

The current Daily Stormer was an early endorser of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President back in 2015. It proclaimed “Heil Trump – the Ultimate Savior”.

Every incident has a context and the incident with Rep. Johnson is no exception. It happened at a time when anti-semitism is on the upswing. The Trump presidency opened Pandora’s box of anti-semitism, racism and misogyny. Anti-semitic incidents in America reached the highest on record in 2019 with more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Just this Hanukkah there was another anti-semitic incident in New Hampshire. At Dartmouth College, someone with a pellet gun shot out seven of the nine lights on a public menorah which stands in a central location on campus.

For those who say Jewish people like me and others are making too big a deal out of Rep. Johnson’s post, I would cite history. Living in the shadow of the Holocaust, the historical experience of anti-semitism informs our present reality which is why it is impossible to ignore the type of crude propaganda posted by Rep. Johnson. Letting it slide is not an option. Failure to respond would encourage more of the same as silence would be acceptance.

For perpetrators of the Holocaust, propaganda was necessary to persuade the German masses that Jews were evil. The historian Raul Hilberg has said propaganda was needed by the Germans “to combat doubts and guilt feelings whenever they arose”.

The job, for the political anti-semite, is to persuade people that the Jewish people they know, their neighbors and acquaintances, are not the real Jews. The real Jews, for anti-semites, are a collection of negative stereotypes, the type of stereotypes exemplified in Rep. Johnson’s cartoon.

I have to admit I was surprised by how vehemently I responded to this story, and it seems that many others had the same reaction. Witness the Laconia demonstration on December 14 and the many calls for Rep. Johnson to resign her positions.

The response of the state GOP to this episode has been weak. While to his credit Governor Chris Sununu criticized Johnson, most of the rest of the GOP remained silent or said she did nothing wrong and opposed any action about her behavior. This betrays a cluelessness about anti-semitism.

While I generally believe in second chances, Rep. Johnson has said nothing of substance about why anti-semitism is hateful and destructive, Without more, she should resign. The public has a right to expect a higher level of public conduct and responsibility from elected legislators and school board members.

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After the storm – posted 12/20/2020

December 20, 2020 1 comment

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Reckoning with authoritarianism – posted 12/13/2020

December 13, 2020 1 comment

When the U.S. Supreme Court did not accept the lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General and 17 other Republican-led states, I am sure many Democrats and independents felt a sense of relief. The many half-baked Trump-inspired lawsuits meant to overturn the popular will were defeated, often in ignominious fashion.

Still, it is hard not to feel seriously uneasy about where this election has left us as a nation. One party had no problem aggressively opposing the result of a fair election and seeking its reversal. The desire for power trumped any concern for democracy. Trump has been attempting to install himself as a dictator. Hardly any Republicans spoke up in opposition to Trump’s attempted coup.

The Republican Party has transformed from a mainstream conservative political party to an extremist neo-fascist party. The party is contemptuous and dismissive of its political opposition. It has become a haven for white supremacists and fanatic anti-immigrant sentiment. It is largely dismissive of conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science. The party is home for all manner of conspiracy theories.

Insisting this presidential election was stolen by fraud is a widely popular view among Republicans. “Stop the steal” is their chant and is on their signs. Trump claims, without evidence, the 2020 election was “rigged”. Departing into unreality, his supporters say he won “in a landslide”. Trump tweeted that he is the victim of the “greatest Election Fraud in the history of the United States”.

Trump has a long history of casting doubt on elections. He did this in 2016 before he won. He said that election was rigged too. Even after he won, he claimed that he lost the popular vote due to fraud.

I would suggest that this is not the behavior of a normal political party in a democracy that accepts results regardless of whether they win or lose. Trump has never committed to a peaceful transfer of power. The Republicans have departed from a democratic framework and are following an authoritarian playbook to achieve power.

Scholars of fascism, Jason Stanley and Ruth Ben-Ghiat, have outlined strategies in the playbook. These strategies have consistently appeared in countries that have degenerated into authoritarianism. They include: the mythic past, propaganda, suppressing and demonizing media, victimhood and polarization through creation of a demonized out group.

The slogan Make America Great Again encapsulates the story of the mythic past. What period is being harkened back to? A glorious American past requires much erasure of atrocities like genocide against Native Americans and slavery. The idea of Make America Great Again is based on the falsehood that we need to restore what we once were. Like all countries, America has a complicated history, with strengths and weaknesses. We do not need a fake mythic past.

Jason Stanley says that fascist movements have been “draining the swamp” for generations. The propaganda about draining the swamp created a convenient cover for corrupt practices. A major priority for Trump has been using his position to maximize profits for his own businesses. The words “public interest” do not exist for Trump. Invariably, he appointed people opposed to the mission of their respective federal agencies. Scandals became normalized while he said he was draining the swamp.

Trump attacks many journalists, often calling them “enemy of the people”. Last September at a rally in Minnesota he went after MSNBC reporter, Ali Velshi, who was hit in the knee by a rubber bullet while reporting on a Minneapolis protest prompted by the police killing of George Floyd. Trump said, “It was the most beautiful thing. It’s called law and order”.

Velshi responded:

“What law did I break while covering an entirely peaceful (yes, entirely peaceful) march?”

Trump has said, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news…Just remember: what you are seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”.

Trump follows the Joseph Goebbels school and his Big Lie theory. Goebbels said, “ If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. Trump has lived the Goebbels approach and this is true across the board. Whether the subject is climate change or COVID-19, facts that contradict his goals of power and personal profit are denied. No one in American public life has ever had less regard for the truth than Donald Trump.

Somehow even though he is a tycoon living in the lap of luxury with multiple residences he considers himself a victim. In a Georgia rally on December 5 , Trump said, “We’re all victims. Everybody here, all these thousands of people here tonight, they’re all victims, everyone of you”.

Trump continually whines that he, the tycoon, a man of life-long enormous wealth and privilege, is being treated unfairly. That is a strange mantra from the party of personal responsibility.

The sense of aggrieved victimhood is something he sells his followers. They are supposedly the victim of illegal immigrants, advances by women, people of color and LGBTQ communities. Trump has played particularly to the fear immigration will lead to “the browning of America”.

I worry that Americans are not seeing the authoritarian threat posed by this type of politics. Americans historically have a poor track record with early recognition of fascist dangers. In the 1920’s Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader, received an amazingly positive reception in the American press. He was seen as charming and masculine, a kind of celebrity.

In the early 1930’s Hitler too had a surprisingly positive American reception. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and radio priest Charles Coughlin all gave Nazi Germany glowing reviews. It was not until much later that Americans widely recognized the fascist threat.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written that the authoritarian playbook has no chapter on failure. Trump still is not accepting his defeat. Avoiding his own criminal prosecution and maintaining his personality cult are strong motives to stay on as president.

The Texas case shows how far Trump and a wide range of Republicans are willing to go. A pro-Trump state did not like voting results in four battleground states that voted for Biden so apparently Biden votes should not count, And that from the party of state’s rights.

If the election had been closer, it is possible Trump’s anti-democratic efforts might have worked.

Anyone who thinks we are out of the woods as far as the advance of authoritarianism in America is not paying close attention. Whether it is Trump again or another smarter fascist wannabe, this brand of politics is likely to be back in 2024. Nobody in the Republican Party is seriously pushing back against it in a public way.

Americans of our generation do not have personal experience with dictatorship. Our democratic guardrails barely held this time. To advance as a multiracial democracy, Americans must call out and stop all authoritarian demagogues. If we do not reckon with authoritarianism, the American democratic experiment could very well end.

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Deena Cherry Baird April 17,1925 – December 11, 2010

December 8, 2020 4 comments

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Lisa Montgomery should not be executed – posted 12/6/2020

December 6, 2020 Leave a comment

Lisa Montgomery, a federal prisoner, is now slated to be executed on January 12, 2021. She is the only woman on federal death row. She would be the first woman executed by the federal government in 67 years.

Montgomery’s case presents a picture of contrasting narratives. There is the story of the atrocious crime she committed and then there is the story of the horribly abused and traumatized life she lived prior to her crime. How you see this case depends on what facts you choose to look at. In choosing to execute Montgomery, the federal government is ignoring and minimizing both the trauma she experienced and her mental illness.

On December 17, 2004, the authorities arrested Montgomery for the murder by strangulation of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Stinnett was pregnant at the time and Montgomery used a kitchen knife to carve her abdomen and cut out the baby whom she planned to claim as her own. There is no denying the gruesomeness of the crime.

However, Montgomery was psychotic at the time. She had been subjected to a coerced sterilization by her stepbrother whom she had married at her mother’s instigation. After she murdered Stinnett she actually took the baby home and pretended the baby was her child. On October 22, 2007, a jury convicted her and Montgomery received the death sentence.

It is impossible to understand this horrific crime without understanding the circumstances of Montgomery’s life. Montgomery’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, drank throughout her pregnancy and Lisa was born with organic brain damage. Her father deserted the family and failed to be much of a parental presence.

What followed is a long history of extreme abuse and neglect. Shaughnessy was cruel and violent to Lisa and her sisters. Lisa survived child abuse, domestic violence, incest, multiple rapes and child sex trafficking.

As a little girl, Lisa’s mother beat her and her sisters with brooms, belts, cords and hangers. She taped Lisa’s mouth shut with duct tape when she did not want to hear Lisa speaking. Her mother killed the family dog in front of Lisa and her sisters to punish them. She smashed the dog’s head in with a shovel until it died.

Lisa’s older sister, Diane, who was four years older than Lisa, has written about their mother. When Diane was a small child, her mother would force her to strip naked and lock her out of the house. She ordered Diane to wait outside in the freezing cold. When Diane was eight, one of her mother’s male friends began raping her. Social workers removed Diane but for reasons that make no sense, left Lisa there.

In this period, the mother married a man named Jack Kleiner. He punched, kicked and choked his children, including Lisa. He started sexually molesting Lisa around age 11. He raped her regularly for years. He told Lisa he would kill her whole family if she told anyone.

When Lisa turned 15, her mother started to invite men to the house to have sex with Lisa in exchange for money and services. Her mother told her she had to “pay” for her room and the new indoor plumbing by submitting to the sexual torture of gang rape. The men raped her orally, vaginally and anally one after the other.

No one intervened to help Lisa during her many years of being brutally abused even though many knew what was happening to her. School administrators, teachers, police, social services, judges and family members did nothing. She had told her cousin, Donald Kidwell, a police officer, about the gang rapes that her mother instigated. She cried and shook while describing the abuse. Kidwell now says:

“I live with regret for not speaking up about what happened to Lisa. I wonder if I had if all this could have been prevented.”

Lisa has been diagnosed with multiple mental and neurological disorders including bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy. The sexual torture caused a dissociative disorder and complex PTSD. Despite a regimen of anti-psychotic medications, Lisa still panics and often breaks out in hives if she is in a room alone with a man.

Dr. Katharine Porterfield, an expert on torture and trauma, testified that the impact of Lisa’s sexual abuse was “massive” and that her disorder was one of the most severe cases of dissociation she had ever seen.

In spite of this history, prosecutors dismissed the evidence of Montgomery’s sexual exploitation and torture as the “abuse excuse”. They faulted her mothering skills and, overlooking her obvious poverty, told the jury she lived in a “filthy home”. Her own lawyers failed to explain to the jury why repeated rape, torture and child sexual trafficking mattered.

Montgomery has accepted full responsibility for her crime and does express remorse.

Really the only thing at Issue in this case is the imposition of the death penalty as opposed to life in prison.

How do you decide the culpability of someone who was psychotic and was victimized for years? What about the fact the state never protected Montgomery against rape and unspeakable cruelty? Or the fact that as a young person she never received any care for her mental illness.

To impose the death penalty under these circumstances is not justice – it is ignorant and cruel. It ignores too much.

Forty current and former prosecutors have weighed in and have asked President Trump to grant Lisa Montgomery clemency. A coalition of United Nations human rights experts has also requested clemency for Montgomery saying she received inadequate legal assistance and pointing out that her abuse history and mental health were not adequately considered during her trial.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration appears to be in some kind of a race to execute federal prisoners before the end of Trump’s term in January. Montgomery is one of five federal prisoners Trump and Attorney General William Barr plan to kill before January 20. The Trump Administration has already executed eight people in the last five months.

The Trump Administration has expanded the allowed methods to carry out execution of federal prisoners. In addition to lethal injection, they are bringing back death by firing squad, electrocution and poison gas. Prior to this year, the federal government had not executed anyone since 2003. The last time there was an execution during a lame-duck presidency was 1889 during the outgoing administration of Grover Cleveland.

Sadly, as exemplified by the Lisa Montgomery case, we have departed from the idea that executions should be reserved for “the worst of the worst”. At a time when pardons are much discussed, I have seen little comment on the President’s clemency power under the Constitution. He has that power. As Lisa’s sister Diane has said, sparing her sister’s life “can break the chain of evil actions”.

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Voter suppression and the hidden story of the Wilmington coup d’etat – posted 11/29/2020

November 29, 2020 Leave a comment

As the Trump campaign desperately flails for an avenue to use to reverse the presidential election results, they returned to a tried and true approach: throw out Black peoples’ votes. The Trump campaign has complained about Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Philadelphia votes, all places with very high concentrations of minority voters.

The various Trump lawsuits all play on the idea that predominantly Black votes are corrupt and that their votes should be excluded. That is the argument Rudy Giuliani, the President’s lawyer, has been making.

The Trump campaign has lost virtually all their lawsuits because evidence of fraud is completely lacking. They simply want to count votes in areas where their voters live and not count votes in areas where Biden voters predominate.

In considering the Trump arguments, it is easy to overlook history and how the Trump claims fit into a white supremacist narrative. Since the start of the United States, a central strategy of white supremacy was prevention and later suppression of the Black vote. The Trump campaign is the latest incarnation in a long-running playbook.

Carol Anderson, a professor of African American Studies at Emory University put it this way:

“It’s as vile now as it was during Reconstruction, when Democrats believed that Republicans were illegitimate and that Black voters had no right to be voting and they did all of those terrorist activities to block African Americans from voting.”

The extent of the violence in our history to prevent voting is little appreciated now. It has been covered up even though there is some awareness of voter suppression in devices like poll taxes and literacy tests. What is not appreciated is the use of violence since Reconstruction to suppress African American voting.

I would cite the example of Wilmington North Carolina in 1898. These events have been called a coup d’etat, a slaughter, a pogrom, and a race riot. The historian, David. W. Blight, called the Wilmington coup “first place in the 19th century gallery of horrors”. The events have remained largely unknown.

At the end of the 19th century, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina. 11,000 of its 20,000 residents were African American. The city was integrated and Blacks had made some political gains. In Wilmington there was a Black magistrate, Black policemen and firemen. More generally in North Carolina, Blacks had allied with white populists and had gained control of the state legislature.

Wilmington contrasted with most of the rest of the South. With its multi-racial government, it was one of the most free spots in the South for African Americans and for poor whites.

The city did not escape the notice of white supremacists. The white supremacists feared the Black voting strength in North Carolina. By 1896, there were 126,000 Black men on the voter rolls.

Things came to a head in 1898. The Democrats, a totally racist party of that time, campaigned on the theme that if their party was not returned to power, there would be an epidemic of attacks by Black men on white women. In a widely read editorial in the state-wide Democratic Party paper, Rebecca Latimer Felton wrote:

“If it requires lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from ravening drunken human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand negroes a week.”

The editorial drew a sharp rebuke from Alexander Manly, the Black editor of Wilmington’s daily paper. Manly responded that white women had freely chosen their romances with Black men. He also castigated Southern white men for raping Black women with impunity. Manly’s response circulated widely and infuriated Southern whites who demanded that he be lynched.

The Red Shirts, North Carolina’s Klan, organized a blockade to catch Manly so they could lynch him. Being very light skinned, Manly was able to escape the blockade and get out of North Carolina, unscathed. The Red Shirts did torch and burn down his newspaper’s printing press.

Simultaneously, there was a white riot. It has also been called a coup d’etat because the riot led to an overthrow of the elected government. White citizens went on a vicious rampage, roaming the streets of Wilmington. At a rally the night before the election, Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate cavalry officer, addressed a Red Shirt rally.

“You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”

It did take guns. The Red Shirts terrorized Black citizens, chasing many into swamps and pine forests. An estimated 60 Black men were murdered. Another 2,100 Black people permanently left the area after the riot. The Democrats stuffed ballot boxes while making it almost impossible for Black people to vote without risking their lives.

The coup leaders forced Wilmington town officials to resign. Waddell became the new mayor. No one was ever prosecuted for the murders, assaults and crimes committed by the Red Shirts and their Democratic Party allies.

Disenfranchisement was the goal. By 1902, there were only 6,100 Black voters left on the voter rolls in North Carolina. As noted, that was down from 126,000 Black voters in 1896. In 1899, the North Carolina state legislature passed an amendment to the state constitution which completely limited the right of any African American to vote in the state. As Blight has written, for white supremacists Black voters became a contagion to be wiped out.

It is ironic that Trump would say the 2020 election was “rigged” when it is his Republican Party that is now attempting to disenfranchise Black voters. 120 years ago, it was the Democrats who played that role.

The theme of voter suppression is a constant in American history. It is telling that we cannot accept unpleasant facts about that history. An honest reckoning would acknowledge the Wilmington coup d’etat and would see the Trump campaign’s disenfranchisement efforts as a continuation of white supremacist history.

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