Archive for January, 2021

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 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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