Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Injustice of the Justice System - César

Last week, the Department of Justice teamed up with the FBI to announce the arrests of 11 environmental and animal rights activists. Accused of being domestic terrorists, these activists are facing up to 30 years in prison. The evil that these people allegedly committed? Property destruction. The government doesn't accuse them of hurting any human beings.

A few days later, four peace activists in Ithaca, New York, were sentenced for up to six months imprisonment in a federal prison and fined several hundred dollars. Their evil? As members of Ithaca's Catholic Worker community, these activists, known as the St. Patrick's Four, poured blood around the entrance of a military recruiting center.

In New York City on Friday, seventeen bicycle riders were arrested and spent the night in jail. Their crime? Such acts as not stopping at a red light, not riding in a bike lane, and disorderly conduct.

Meanwhile, an Army interrogator was found to have put a sleeping bag over the head of an Iraqi general, sat on his chest, and suffocated him. The man died in circumstances that sound a lot like torture. Last week, a military jury ordered that the interrogator be reprimanded, forfeit $6,000 in wages, and be restricted to his home, office, and church for two months. He wasn't even convicted of assault that, as any first-year law student knows, doesn't even require actual contact.

Back in New York, a few hours after the cyclists were arrested one cop shot another. The shooter was called to a bar where a fight was occurring. The cop who was shot was off duty; the only part of his uniform that he was wearing was his gun. Apparently drunk after a night of bar hopping, he got in a fight and pulled his gun on someone he thought assaulted him. The two officers who arrived at the fight scene apparently tried to get him to drop the gun. He didn't; they shot. Arrests? None.

Clearly there's something wrong with our country's criminal justice system. How can peace activists be punished more severely than someone who kills another person? As Catholic Workers, the St. Patrick's Four have devoted their lives to following Christ's teachings. The Catholic Workers have a long and noble history of nonviolence civil disobedience. Their goal was simply to use "what we have - our bodies, our blood, our words, and our spirits - to implore, beg, and order our country away from the tragedy of war and toward God's reign of peace and justice."

How can people who are accused of violating traffic laws while on a bike spend a night in jail while a cop who shoots someone goes home? The cyclists were participating in the monthly Critical Mass bike ride in Manhattan. The seventeen arrested on Friday were just the latest of the hundreds that the NYPD has thrown in jail since August 2004. For ten years before then Critical Mass had meandered through Manhattan's concrete jungle peacefully and orderly if at the expense of momentary inconvenience and irritation to motorists.

My point isn't that the cop or the soldier should get tossed in jail, too. On the contrary, I am sad that the conditions arose where they were placed in horrible situations in which their actions threatened human life. I hope that they receive assistance in dealing with the actions they've committed.

My point in raising these events is to ask: where's the justice in these systems?

I am concerned that our legal systems cheapen human life and inflate the value of commerce. How else should I interpret a nationwide search for political activists accused of damaging some office buildings, a car lot, and causing other random acts of property damage, while a man who degrades and dehumanizes another - in violation of domestic criminal laws and international laws of war - receives a reprimand? Where's the parity?

It's hard to write this, because as I try I feel my heart getting heavier. Maybe it's the rain falling outside; maybe it's the thought that as cyclists were being arrested in New York I was riding in Boston's Critical Mass; the realization that as activists say Ya Basta to the destructive decisions of our political parties (e.g., war, gas guzzlers, plundering of natural resources), I too say Ya Basta; or maybe it's the image lodged in my mind of a man with a bag around his head contemplating death, knowing that he will soon breathe for the last time. I don't think of them as an enemy, as a drunk, or as domestic terrorists. I think of them as people, human beings entitled to the same earth that I love and the same rights I enjoy.

Yet, through the barrage of words, sounds, and images that I digested as I read the headlines and scanned the internet, a simple message jumped out to me: destruction of human life, in the name of order, is permissible; obstructions to wealth, in the name of human life, are not.

Clearly I have resorted to an artificially polarized view of the world. The decisions made by each of us and the events that shape our world are infinitely complex. But what am I to think when justice becomes so thoroughly lost?

The Injustice of The Justice System - Carlos

I agree, there is much injustice in this world. There is no reason why people involved in Civil Disobedience should be spending jail time. But, is this really Civil Disobedience?

It sounds quite odd to me that Catholic volunteers are resorting to pouring blood to make a statement. I'm not sure those are the acts of peace activists; that's kind of disgusting.

As I get older, I realize that maybe it's time to start working within the system. I do not regret helping to organize a sit-in at UT's law school when a professor made racist comments, nor do I regret organizing marches, demonstrations, and educational forums to inform others of our plight. I do however, think that we must work within the system. Therefore, I have to disagree with Cesar's comment about the "destructive decisions of our political parties."

I think the only way to be heard effectively is to work within the system. We have to organize, rally, protest, but not break the law. We have to lobby, vote, and donate money. We have to run for office and write books.

I also believe, that just like the protestors got jail time, so should the U.S. Soldier who killed the Iraqi official. A person should be punished for breaking the law - that's the bottom line. Our system, although often unfair, is what we have. We should all work to change it and make it better. We should participate in Civil Disobedience, not lawlessness to make our points.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

On Campus Miliary Recruiting Helps Us - Carlos

This Fall semester I saw a friend of mine passing out literature and protest ribbons at a table placed directly outside of the Career Services office of my law school. The student was protesting the military’s recruiting prescence on our campus because the military openly discriminates against homosexuals in the military. College campuses, which protest the “don’t ask to tell” policy, are forced to either allow military recruiters on their campuses or lose out on billions of dollars in federal funding. Many law schools contend that being forced to allow these recruiters on campuses in effect makes them violate their own anti-discrimation policies. The Supreme Court took the issue up and will decide on it soon.

I strolled around the table a couple of times tempted to take a ribbon and place it on my chest in solidarity with my gay friend. I chose against doing so, not because I agree with the military’s policy or because I have a theoretical argument in opposition to them, but because I believe that the military has opened the door for many people of color to succeed.

Military recruiters should be allowed on campus because the military is one of the largest employers for people of color, especially Mexican Americans. The military often gives poor kids hope when there is no hope. The military instills discipline in kids who lack the necessary discipline at home. And, the bottom line is that the military provides a paycheck.

I recently exchanged emails with an old friend from my hometown of McAllen, TX who told me that he would be nowhere without the military. His friends were thugs, his home was unstable, and his school work was dismal. He joined the military and continues to serve in a contractor capacity working for Halliburton in Iraq. Today, he receives a steady paycheck and can provide for his family.

The fact that the military is the only option for people of color is sad, but true. I don’t like the fact that military recruiters target people of color. Military recruiters know the kids will enlist because they have no hope of going to college or will join out of respect for their parent’s or older sibling’s profession. Much more has to be done for developing options for young people of color, but the reality is that right now one of the best options is joining the military.

The military is truly an equal opportunity employer, as long as you’re not gay. I point to Gen. Colin Power, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and many others. I think we must change the way we think about homosexuals in this country, but in the meantime, I want Chicanos to be able to get a job by joining the military. I think we must have jobs waiting for enlisted men and women who go off to war and come back struggling to find employment, but in the meantime, I want Chicanos to be able to get a job by joining the military.

Finally, I don’t agree with the military’s policy, our government’s disinterest in educating marginalized communities, or the fact that a disproportionate amount of Mexican-Americans are getting killed in Iraq. I do however think that at this point the military is a viable option for many people of color; and if getting the information out includes have recruiters at schools, so be it.

Keep The Military Out – César

Carlos rightly points out that the military provides tons of jobs for people of color. In many communities of color, as well as poor white communities, the military is just about the only option available to young people unwilling to sacrifice their lives to endless poverty and a monochrome future. That’s where Carlos and I depart on whether the military should be allowed to recruit on college campuses.

The military’s policy of excluding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people is quintessential discrimination. Simply put, the military’s policy tells people that they can’t be part of the club because they are who they are. In immigration law, an individual seeking asylum must show that she suffered persecution on account of an “immutable characteristic.” An immutable characteristic is something that either is beyond the power of an individual to change or that is so fundamental to her identity or conscience that it ought not be required to be changed. With the possible exception of the “ex-gay” therapy groups, there’s no longer any doubt that a person’s sexual orientation is as fundamental to her identity as her race. I don’t mean to equate race and sexual orientation; rather, my point is that sexual orientation, like race, is a pillar of an individual’s identity that ought not be required to be changed.

Allowing the military to discriminate against a certain group of people that Congress and the last two presidents find politically expedient to disfavor means that colleges, which overwhelmingly prohibit discrimination, must contradict their own policies to avoid losing the huge carrot that the federal government waives. The so-called Salomon Amendment strips the entire college of federal funding (including financial aid monies) if the school closes the door on the military.

By the logic of the Salomon Amendment and the government’s argument in FAIR v. Rumsfeld (the recently argued Supreme Court case that Carlos mentioned), it would have been morally allowable for the military, prior to Truman’s 1948 decision to abolish segregated military units, to exclude people of color altogether. Had (though clearly I’m stretching reality now) colleges chosen to bar military recruiters from their campuses, a Salomon-like congressional act would have forced schools to accept the recruiters. In addition, Carlos’ argument that the military “often gives poor kids hope when there is no hope. The military instills discipline in kids who lack the necessary discipline at home. And, the bottom line is that the military provides a paycheck,” would still hold true.

Staying with the past for a second, the people of color who fought in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, and elsewhere returned home to communities that remained just as poor and devoid of prospects as they were when the kids left a few years earlier. Fortunately, beginning in 1944 the GI Bill helped veterans pay for college, buy a house, and even provided several months of unemployment insurance. A lawyer friend of mine who served in occupied Germany told me that he paid for undergrad, law school, and supported his wife and baby with the GI Bill money.

Today, the GI Bill provides a 2-year enlistee with about $30,000 in education benefits and about $36,000 after serving 3 years. Given that tuition at a public 4-year university these days averages about $10,000 for tuition, room, and board, a veteran who served honorably still can’t afford to pay for school.

But neither the numbers nor the blatant discrimination is the root of my major opposition to allowing military recruiters on campuses.

The military shouldn’t be allowed to recruit because, on the whole, it does more harm than good. We do ourselves a disservice by discounting the toll of our young who die for no good reason even if, in the process, they received a paycheck. Embracing the military because it provides a short-term benefit hides the long-term damage that our government systematically unleashes on poor people and people of color in this country and elsewhere.

I understand the frustration with the hopelessness in which many of our poor youth and young people of color are raised, and can recognize, as the military’s commercials creatively and perpetually inform us, that the military is a ticket to someplace else with a regular paycheck to boot.

But what of the crumbling neighborhoods in our own cities? The dilapidated schools, disappearing hospitals, lead-poisoned walls, and longer and longer lines at food banks and homeless shelters?

When we get caught up in the glitter of that fantastical commercial where the rock climber, muscles gleaning in the hot sun, reaches the top and becomes all that he can be, we lose sight of our real problems. The problems that only a dedicated cadre of young people, educated and alive, can fix. The military serves as a vehicle for escape, but one that not all can jump aboard. Those left behind are less benefited by their friends and neighbors traveling thousands of miles away to learn the latest techniques in killing than had their friends and neighbors received a quality education and a promise of job where they could work a maximum of 40-hours per week and manage to put a roof over their head and food in their kids’ mouths.

No, escape - whether via the military, drugs, or even via a college education – isn’t acceptable.

The military, shrouded in battle hymns and patriotism, becomes nothing more than a thick, bloody cloud that prevents us from seeing (or wanting to see) the problems that remain right where we left them.

I might be less opposed to the military if every patriotic speech given by a rich guy in Washington or on TV included a financial investment in our neighborhoods. Why not hire some economists to figure out the value of a strong, young, adventurous, and intelligent person’s contribution to her neighborhood and invest that amount into her community on the day she leaves to boot camp? Economists quantify life all the time and the money could come from the same black holes of debt that we’re digging by paying for our wars (would it be too naïve of me to suggest we pay for unnecessary wars and community development without going into massive debt?).

But no, this won’t happen. My dream, economists and policy analysts tell us, of a working class life where a single full-time job is enough to raise a family with adequate food, shelter, and health care, is utopian.

It’s not politically practical. If that’s the case, then neither should it be politically practical for me to support the exploitation of our young and poor, born as we (yes, we) are with one foot in a shackle. Until our communities cease to be pillaged wholesale, it remains politically impractical for me to embrace the policies pushed on us by manicured politicians with an eye only for the short-term.

Lastly, I too want Chicanos to get jobs. But I don’t want them to have to kill to get it. A society that limits our options to so few that we must learn the art of death to acquire employable skills is a society that, to say the least, has gone awry. It is deplorable, vile, unviable, and illegitimate as public policy and, surely, as morality. I am no stalwart Christian, but by what reading of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other religious doctrine is it justifiable to condemn poor youth and poor people of color to an economic system in which their options are so often bounded by prison and the military?

Keep the military off our campuses. Keep it out of our neighborhoods and out of our lives. We have enough problems already.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

"Public Means All of US" - César

Next month, the Dallas Public Library will institute new regulations that will have the effect of pushing homeless people out of the city’s public spaces and back onto the streets. The code of conduct, a series of regulations barring all kinds of activities ranging from sleeping to walking around with bare feet to smelling bad inside the library, will be enforced by library staff on a case-by-case basis and only when someone complains. According to the library’s director, the regulations are intended to “provide a welcoming environment for anyone who walks through the doors.”

Anyone? Regardless whether we think kicking homeless people out of libraries is a good idea or not, we all know that these regulations aren’t intended to make “anyone” comfortable. If you’re reading this from your laptop while drinking a cup of tea and listening to jazz (which describes me as I’m writing this), then sure, the Dallas library wants you to be comfortable. But if you’re reading this from a computer at a public library because it’s one of the few free climate-controlled public spaces in your community, then sorry, you’re not part of the new “anyone.”

There’s no question that the code of conduct isn’t going to be used to kick out that annoying middle-aged white woman who was sitting about 50 feet from me with an electronic gadget that kept beeping (blackberry? palm pilot? cell phone?). The same goes for the twenty-something who smells like she showered in perfume. Some people argue that there’s a difference between Chanel and body odor. I disagree.

I can’t stand the smell of perfume (yes, I dislike all perfume in anything over a drop or two). I also can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to smokers. When a smoker, or an over-zealous perfume wearer, or, yes, when a person with strong body odor comes near me I simply move away. I don’t ask the person to leave. I don’t tell her that she doesn’t belong near me, that I’m more entitled to the street, the subway, the sidewalk, the park bench, or the library than she is.

If I want to be in a controlled environment, a place where I set the rules and enforce them upon a whim, then I stay home. I don’t go to a public space, a place designed for the enjoyment of (here’s that word again) anyone, and enforce my sense of civility. Writing this on Martin Luther King’s birthday, I’m reminded that our country’s history has a towering example of this in racism. White people, empowered as they were to make policies, decided that sharing public bathrooms, buses, libraries, and all kinds of other public facilities with certain members of the public (i.e., people who weren’t white) violated their sense of civility. So they passed regulations, city ordinances, maybe even some codes of conduct, all of which told people of color that they weren’t part of the “public” meant to enjoy public facilities. White people could do this because they had the economic, political, and social power to do so, so they did. But passing a law because you can doesn’t mean you should.

We have to call measures like these what they really are: attempts to remove people we don’t like from the removers’ sight. If we don’t see homeless people we won’t have to think about them. We can acknowledge that homelessness is unfortunate, that in the richest nation on earth there ought to be more we do for the homeless, but we’d like to do that from a safe distance. At least far enough that we won’t have to smell or hear them.

But ignoring the problem won’t eliminate it. The majority of homeless people are mentally ill. Many have lengthy criminal records (often stemming from incidents that occurred when the mental illness got out of control). Social services in virtually every city are woefully lacking. Saddest of all, many of our nation’s homeless are children.

Tossing homeless people out of libraries does nothing to eliminate or ameliorate homelessness. It does nothing to remind us that we’re still part of the same community.

This isn’t an issue of economics, safety, or hygiene. This is about values. Do we want our communities to be divisive places where the people who happen to be in power marginalize the most dispossessed members of our society in the name of their own comfort? As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the tyranny of the majority … [is] a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, … it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.” (from On Liberty)

"Public Means All Of Us" - Carlos Responds

Cesar makes some very good points. It's a shame to single out homeless people because sometimes they smell, don't wear shoes, or have a mental illness. I especially agree with this comment:

Tossing homeless people out of libraries does nothing to eliminate or ameliorate homelessness. It does nothing to remind us that we’re still part of the same community.

However, from my perspective, that's the not the point of the city ordinance. It seems to me that Dallas officials have received many complaints from Dallas residents about homeless people taking over the library.

I lived in Dallas for 3 years and can attest to that. Many of the homeless people in Dallas hang out in or near the public library because it's close to the shelter where they get their daily meals. It's also across the street from City Hall.

Cesar, I think the problem is that Dallas residents feel uncomfortable being surrounded by homeless people in the library. You can count me in on that. Now, is that wrong? Maybe. However, the couple of times I visited the public library in Dallas I was asked for money, both inside and outside of the library. I wasn't being hassled, but it was still uncomfortable. And yes, we do go to the public library and expect to be comfortable.

I think in part, my reasons for partly supporting such an ordinance, would be because I think of the kids who are at the library by themselves. I remember that as a young child you would spend the entire day at the library by yourself. Do you think Mom & Dad would have let you stay there all day if they knew that there was a homeless person in every other chair, sitting next to you. Or that a Mentally ill person might be sharing the restroom with you. Maybe, I sound naive, because 99.9% of homeless people would not do anything to harm anyone, but that's not the public perception - plus, there's always the, what if?

I find your comments about odor on point, however, let's be realistic. Most of us can tolerate Chanel. We can't tolerate a person not bathing.

I agree, kicking homeless people out of the library does nothing to address the problem of homelessness, but I don't think that's the issue here. The public library is meant as a resource for all people and most importantly kids. Unfortunately, many kids have stopped going to the Dallas Public Library because of homeless people.

In conclusion, I don't think the ordinace should kick all homeless people out. If the lady with her cell phone is sleeping in one of the cubicles, she should be kicked out along with the homeless guy. If the homeless guy is reading a book, no problem.