Cheese and Onions

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Occasionally, I hear a really good political forum; rarely, though, and that’s a sad commentary on the world’s last remaining superpower — that its population is so dumbed down, it doesn’t even realize its being manipulated by entertainers and hacks as they nibble around the edges of the most awe-inspiring problems of the last sixty or so years. We are a nation of lightweights. I haven’t heard a Conservative I could do more than scoff at for years; now all they do is poison the waters of debate. Worse, I rarely hear a Liberal speak with passion or make the spiritual case for making the conscious choice; to counter that, I’ve got some terrific reads for you today.

The Right is so sadly Wrong, as in intellectually wrong-headed, emotionally wrong-leaning and wrongly wired; after having seen the lede that 28% of Pubs believe Obama wasn’t born in this country [and likely over half of those believe he is Demon Spawn, cooked up in a dish and placed in a compliant Hippie mother as a potential activist cell to take over the country for Pinko's 40-some years later] I thought you’d like to know where the majority of those wingnuts reside. Oh, snap! What a surprise! The Pubs need to change their name to what they actually are — Dixiecrats, and still handling snakes! Now they have a forged bit of paper from Kenya [the nation wasn't known as Kenya when O was born] anonymously supplied, that they’re waving to keep this idiocy alive. On this issue … and all the rest … facts are irrelevant.

Andy Borowitz, who usually writes humor, wrote a piece about the Gates affair that he said superseded the need to mock — facts would do nicely:

    I’m not saying that the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, in his own home and after providing ID, was racist. I wasn’t there so I don’t know. Only Officer Crowley knows. But as Obama correctly said in his press conference last week, black men are too often pulled over by cops because of race. (Actually, everything he said about the Gates case in that press conference was correct, including his use of the word “stupidly.” Too bad he was cowed into retracting it.)

    The phenomenon called “Driving While Black” is nothing new. But now the so-called Birthers have come up with a novel variation on it: President While Black. They are essentially pulling Obama over and asking him to show his license and registration.

One might only wonder how this nation would fare without obstruction; we’re already at crisis point yet we play silly-ass games with those representing a small demographic that, while insisting it does, does NOT speak for the nation. I know Obama wanted to regrow bipartisanship — but it became clear on the first Congressional votes that there is nothing to hitch that wagon to. We haven’t been this split since the days of the Robber Barons — and for exactly the same reasons. Be sure to open this link and note the ONLY time frame in which we were on the same page. Lets hope that doesn’t need a repeat performance.

I wonder how those who obstruct might reconcile the emergency we find ourselves in with their behavior; and ponder what it will take to make them start talking like survivors instead of lemmings, following the smell of money over the cliff. The bogeyman-beneath-the-bed meme of raised taxes is inevitable to bring us out of this; yet when some suggest that taxation is the price of citizenship … which earlier generations understood … we are conditioned by 30 years of government-hating to have a cow at its suggestion — and that response won’t get us out of THIS pitiful state; you can’t run a country on fumes … ask California.

Worse than the distillation of the Pub party into a regional, mostly elderly and predominantly white faction, is the infighting within our own. Sneer if you will, the Republicans were all on the same page for almost eight years — that made them effective. We could take a hint; and we’d better do it soon. You’ll find a very satisfying Olbermann in here, taking the Blue Dogs to task — an impassioned plea. We have to resort to this when the obvious and simple common sense of health care concerns … to quote Krugman, “regulation of insurers, so that they can’t cherry-pick only the healthy, and subsidies, so that all Americans can afford insurance” … are politicized to a standstill by special interests.

Here’s the worst of it — we know. We know the cops were out of line. We know the obstructionists are raking in the dough to sell us out. We know the lobbyists, the bankers, the big corporations are annoyed we’ve interfered with their profits and are determined to put us back in check, laughing all the way. We know that the game that’s being played has little or nothing to do with our good. We know the racist and classist bias that’s being stirred for political gain is toxic to our nation. We know.

For reasons unimaginable, Stephanopoulos had Righty-maven Michelle Malkin on his round table this Sunday; I usually avoid these events, preferring to get the clip and cut to the [usually embarrassing] chase — I couldn’t watch the Gong Show either. YouTube is a mercy for me; if I’m forced to listen to the entirety of this swill, I end up leaping to my feet in disgust and clawing at my eyes … not good, and distressing for bystanders. But with Malkin a wingnut of the foot-in-mouth sort — non-white for heavens sake, while blathering endlessly about Leftwing racism –and a cross between Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck [who wears a similar amount of makeup] with an unhealthy dose of Nancy Grace twisted in her little brain, I just HAD to go there.

It was, in fact, edifying. The other participants at the table, two moderately Left but not fire-breathers, simply listened to her commentary owl-eyed … and mostly demurred, ignoring her; she came defensive, and left, I’d suppose, pleased that she’d gotten her talking points out into “Leftwing Media.” Stephanopoulos offers a decent political conversation [not Righty fantasyland but certainly not Left-leaning either.] So when Michelle decried unemployment extension, asserting that the lazy public would suck up benefits until the last possible moment before finding work … the entire nation’s jaw dropped and they, too, clawed at their eyes.

Well. Good news that the town crier for the receding Right made such a spectacle of herself; and if you want to watch … and get the cheese reference … go here. Disgraceful that there will be a demographic cheering her appearance; and lets hope it was an anomaly in Sunday programming. As Maddow said to Buchanan — this is playing with fire and living in the 50′s. Krugman blogged that he doubted MSM would ever host a Lefty of her equivalency [on the Right] … and asked his readers who that might be. Chomsky, Nader and Kucinich were suggested by responders — but that’s not equitable; all of them are serious political voices … not wingnut infotainers. Problem is, we don’t actually HAVE one of those. And we don’t have the heart to organize Brown Shirts to taze Teabaggers who have made it their calling to disrupt EVERY townhall meetings across the country, shouting down legitimate conversation.

By the way, in the Krugman commentary I found this nifty little assessment that we can take to tell where we are in the political spectrum; while incomplete, as it indicates, it gives you a nice cross-section [literally] and it’s fun to do. If you hit the print on your results, you’ll get a web address for your position on the grid; here’s minesend yours along, if you’d like. I’d love to see ‘em!

We’re peeling down the onion, getting closer to the core — the BS is easier to spot, the obstruction obvious and even the media is giving way to a certain amount of candor. I’ve heard any number of pundits say that Obama was right to use the word ‘stupidly’ in regard to the cops — but they can’t find a platform to pick apart the policies that allow this kind of abuse; I applaud the beer detente, but it should have come AFTER an examination of the facts that left no questions about who did what to whom and why. I know Obama — happy 48th b’day, by the way; over at TPM, Josh Marshall jibes … how do we Really Know it’s his birthday???? — doesn’t want to spend his presidency addressing race relations, but this was one of those truth-telling moments that slipped away. The Pubs don’t even try to hide their racism anymore; and this holds the conversation in the emotional zone, unable to lift its foot into the rarefied air of intellect. Even acknowledging their desperate need for the Hispanic vote [they don't make an attempt for the black vote, never did] John McCain came out against Sotomayor yesterday … take that to the barrio and tell me what they think about institutionalized Republican racism.

Change is slower in politics than most everywhere else, and it’s evident more in terms of how we do things, at this point, than WHAT we do … but it’s happening, one mind at a time. It’s reflected in Jimmy Carter, who quit the Southern Baptist Convention due to their continuing gender bias, and that is exactly how Paradigm Shift looks; people find they can no longer reconcile their higher values with the activity of those groups they’ve traditionally embraced — in Carters case, a life-long alliance. And there’s that voice that speaks to what’s right in a spiritual sense — even though he’s marginalized by mainstream politics.

It will continue to look like that as we each find our new resonance point … and realize that we have, literally, little to say to one another; we must retain our mutual respect and foster cooperation as best we can — but what is no longer acceptable … simply isn’t. And do be advised, reports of the Democratic demise … Obama’s as well … is smoke to cover the fear Pubs have of his … our … success, if we can break the obstruction barriers; Dem influence is growing.

In the spiritual community, we have a saying that works perfectly for where we are and what we need to do — keep on keeping on. One foot in front of the other, holding the vision of a world welcoming the changes that will recreate this nation in liberty and equality, taking advantage of activist op’s where we find them and urging our representation to support the legislation that will bring the nation back to some semblance of sanity. Change, one mind at a time.

Here’s a diverse collection of excellent, resonant reads — Carter’s declaration, a Ted Rall that is an example of the kind of mainstream “every man” take on police that we AREN’T talking about, Bob Herbert on righteous anger, an excellent analysis of what we’re becoming from Deepak Chopra — and last, an intriguing piece from the New Yorker about the lessons learned from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird … a think piece, if you will … the kind we rarely encounter any more; the kind that teaches us how to peel down the onion of our dysfunctions and belief-systems to get to the heart of the darkness within ourselves.


The Words of God Do Not Justify Cruelty to Women
Discrimination and abuse wrongly backed by doctrine are damaging society, argues the former US president
Jimmy Carter, The Sunday Observer/UK via Common Dreams
July 12, 2009

    “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status …”
    (Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
    (Galatians 3:28)

I have been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. This was in conflict with my belief – confirmed in the holy scriptures – that we are all equal in the eyes of God.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths.

Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses.

At their most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in Britain and the United States. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for everyone in society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and out-dated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive area to challenge.

But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights. We have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is nacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

Although not having training in religion or theology, I understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar Biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

At the same time, I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

I know, too, that Billy Graham, one of the most widely respected and revered Christians during my lifetime, did not understand why women were prevented from being priests and preachers. He said: “Women preach all over the world. It doesn’t bother me from my study of the scriptures.”

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.

Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views. ++

After Professor Gates, Why Pretend?
Ted Rall, Yahoo
Jul 30

NEW YORK–The current national conversation about race and the police reminded me about an incident that occurred when I was in Uzbekistan. As I walked into an apartment complex for an appointment I noticed the decomposing body of a man lying on the side of the road.

“How long as he been there?” I asked my host.

“Three, maybe four days,” he said.

“What happened to him?”

“Shot, maybe,” he shrugged. “Or maybe hit by a car. Something.”

I didn’t bother to ask why no one had called the police. I knew. Calling the Uzbek militsia amounts to a request to be beaten, robbed or worse. So desperate to avoid interaction with the police was another man I met that, when his mother died of old age at their home in Tashkent, he drove her body to the outskirts of town and deposited her in a field.

With the exception of New Orleans after Katrina, it’s not that bad here in the United States. Consider Professor Henry Louis Gates: he shouldn’t have been arrested by that Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer, but he came out of the experience physically unscathed.

Nevertheless, the Gates incident has illuminated some basic, strange assumptions about our society. Cops think they have a constitutional right to be treated deferentially. And black people think cops are nice to white people.

Yeah, well, take it from a white guy: we don’t like cops either.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. references “the African immigrant killed while reaching for his wallet, the Maryland man beaten senseless as he lay in bed, the Miami man beaten to death for speeding, the dozens of men jailed on manufactured evidence in Los Angeles and manufactured police testimony in Tulia, Texas, the man sodomized with a broomstick in New York. Are we supposed to believe it coincidence that the men this happens to always happen to be black?”

Of course not. Blacks are 30 to 50 percent more likely to be arrested than whites for the same crime. Their prison sentences are longer. In the notorious “driving while black” New Jersey trooper case, African-Americans made up 70 percent of those randomly pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike–but fewer than 17 percent of motorists. Blacks are more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, beaten and murdered by the police than members of all other ethnic groups. American racism against blacks remains systematic, pervasive, and murderous. When there’s a policeman in the picture, it’s best to be white.

Still, whites and blacks have more in common than they think when it comes to their feelings about the fuzz. When those flashing lights appear in the rearview mirror, even the biggest right-winger’s day is ruined.

No one should be less scared of cops than me. I’m white, clean-cut, middle-aged, invariably polite: “Hello, sir. Is there a problem, officer?” Yet I can’t point to a single positive experience I’ve ever had with a cop. Neutral ones, sure–basic, cold, bureaucratic interactions. But no great ones.

And lots and lots of negative ones.

Where to begin?

I’ll never forget the New York traffic cop who stepped off the curb in front of my car on Madison Avenue and ordered me to turn right. He wrote me up for illegal right turn. “But you told me to,” I protested. “Wrong place, wrong time,” he smirked. $165 plus three points on my license. I appealed. The cop lied under oath. The court believed him.

Or the Nevada highway patrolman who pulled me over. I was doing 80 in a 70. He wrote me up at 100 mph. My brother-in-law, never the suck-up, confirmed I was going 80. I was so furious–the fine would have been $400–that I spent double that to fly back and challenge the ticket in court. I won.

When my 20-year-old self forgot to turn on my headlights as we pulled out of a parking lot while on a road trip with my druggie roommate, a Massachusetts cop pulled us over. I couldn’t begrudge him probable cause; pot smoke billowed out the window, “Cheech and Chong”-style, when I opened it. Still, what came next was unforgivable: he handcuffed my arms so tight that the metal cut to the wrist bone. (The scar lasted ten years.) When we got out of the town lock-up the next morning, $400 was missing from my wallet. (A judge, examining my wrist a few months later, dropped the charges. My $400, of course, was gone forever.)

An LAPD cop–it bears mentioning that he was black–arrested me for jaywalking on Melrose Avenue. I wasn’t. I didn’t resist, but he roughed me up. Upon releasing me, he chucked my wallet into the sewer, laughed and zoomed off on his motorcycle. I filed a complaint, which the LAPD ignored.

And so on.

I admit it: I don’t like cops. I like the idea of cops. The specific people who actually are cops are the problem. My theory is that cops should be drafted, not recruited. After all, the kind of person who would want to become a police officer is precisely the kind of person who should not be allowed to work as one. But I didn’t start out harboring this prejudice. It resulted from dozens of unpleasant interactions with law enforcement.

Race has long been a classic predictor of attitudes toward the police. But high-profile cases of police brutality, coupled with over-the-top security measures taken since 9/11 that targeted whites as well as blacks, have helped bring the races together in their contempt for the police. In 1969, the Harris poll found that only 19 percent of whites thought cops discriminated against African-Americans. Now 54 percent of whites think so.

Don’t worry, Professor Gates. We don’t care what you said about the cop’s mama. A lot of white guys see this thing your way. ++

Anger Has Its Place
July 31, 2009

Cambridge, Mass. – No more than five or six minutes elapsed from the time the police were alerted to the possibility of a break-in at a home in a quiet residential neighborhood and the awful clamping of handcuffs on the wrists of the distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

If Professor Gates ranted and raved at the cop who entered his home uninvited with a badge, a gun and an attitude, he didn’t rant and rave for long. The 911 call came in at about 12:45 on the afternoon of July 16 and, as The Times has reported, Mr. Gates was arrested, cuffed and about to be led off to jail by 12:51.

The charge: angry while black.

The president of the United States has suggested that we use this flare-up as a “teachable moment,” but so far exactly the wrong lessons are being drawn from it — especially for black people. The message that has gone out to the public is that powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly targeted by the police because of your race is to chill.

I have nothing but contempt for that message.

Mr. Gates is a friend, and I was selected some months ago to receive an award from an institute that he runs at Harvard. I made no attempt to speak to him while researching this column.

The very first lesson that should be drawn from the encounter between Mr. Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, is that Professor Gates did absolutely nothing wrong. He did not swear at the officer or threaten him. He was never a danger to anyone. At worst, if you believe the police report, he yelled at Sergeant Crowley. He demanded to know if he was being treated the way he was being treated because he was black.

You can yell at a cop in America. This is not Iran. And if some people don’t like what you’re saying, too bad. You can even be wrong in what you are saying. There is no law against that. It is not an offense for which you are supposed to be arrested.

That’s a lesson that should have emerged clearly from this contretemps.

It was the police officer, Sergeant Crowley, who did something wrong in this instance. He arrested a man who had already demonstrated to the officer’s satisfaction that he was in his own home and had been minding his own business, bothering no one. Sergeant Crowley arrested Professor Gates and had him paraded off to jail for no good reason, and that brings us to the most important lesson to be drawn from this case. Black people are constantly being stopped, searched, harassed, publicly humiliated, assaulted, arrested and sometimes killed by police officers in this country for no good reason.

New York City cops make upwards of a half-million stops of private citizens each year, questioning and frequently frisking these men, women and children. The overwhelming majority of those stopped are black or Latino, and the overwhelming majority are innocent of any wrongdoing. A true “teachable moment” would focus a spotlight on such outrages and the urgent need to stop them.

But this country is not interested in that.

I wrote a number of columns about the arrests of more than 30 black and Hispanic youngsters — male and female — who were doing nothing more than walking peacefully down a quiet street in Brooklyn in broad daylight in the spring of 2007. The kids had to hire lawyers and fight the case for nearly two frustrating years before the charges were dropped and a settlement for their outlandish arrests worked out.

Black people need to roar out their anger at such treatment, lift up their voices and demand change. Anyone counseling a less militant approach is counseling self-defeat. As of mid-2008, there were 4,777 black men imprisoned in America for every 100,000 black men in the population. By comparison, there were only 727 white male inmates per 100,000 white men. While whites use illegal drugs at substantially higher percentages than blacks, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.

Most whites do not want to hear about racial problems, and President Obama would rather walk through fire than spend his time dealing with them. We’re never going to have a serious national conversation about race. So that leaves it up to ordinary black Americans to rant and to rave, to demonstrate and to lobby, to march and confront and to sue and generally do whatever is necessary to stop a continuing and deeply racist criminal justice outrage. ++

Olbermann Harshly Criticizes Members Of Congress Over Health Care Reform: “Legislators For Sale”
08- 3-09

Keith Olbermann harshly criticized members of Congress in a “Special Comment” tonight for paying more attention to the needs of the health care industry, who donate large sums of money to their campaigns, than to their constituents, who would benefit greatly from health care reform. Olbermann titled the segment “legislators for sale.”

[open link to] WATCH:

From the transcript:

    I could bring up all the other Democrats doing their masters’ bidding in the House or the Senate, all the others who will get an extra thousand from somebody if they just postpone the vote another year, another month, another week, because right now without the competition of a government-funded insurance company, in one hour the health care industries can make so much money that they’d kill you for that extra hour of profit, I could call them all out by name.

    But I think you get the point. We don’t need to call the Democrats holding this up Blue Dogs. That one word “Dogs” is perfectly sufficient. But let me speak to them collectively, anyway.I warn you all. You were not elected to create a Democratic majority. You were elected to restore this country. You were not elected to serve the corporations and the trusts who the government has enabled for the last eight years.

    You were elected to serve the people. And if you fail to pass or support this legislation, the full wrath of the progressive and the moderate movements in this country will come down on your heads. Explain yourselves not to me, but to them. They elected you, and in the blink of an eye, they will replace you.

    If you will behave as if you are Republicans — as if you are the prostitutes of our system –you will be judged as such. And you will lose not merely our respect. You will lose your jobs!

    Every poll, every analysis, every vote, every region of this country supports health care reform, and the essential great leveling agent of a government-funded alternative to the unchecked duopoly of profiteering private insurance corporations. Cross us all at your peril.

    Because, Congressman Ross, you are not the Representative from Blue Cross. And Mr. Baucus, you are not the Senator from Schering-Plough Global Health Care even if they have already given you $76,000 towards your re-election. And Ms. Lincoln, you are not the Senator from DaVita Dialysis.

    Because, ladies and gentlemen, President Lincoln did not promise that this nation shall have a new death of freedom, and that government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation, shall not perish from this earth.


How to Be Pro-American
Deepak Chopra, San Francisco Chronicle via HuffPo
August 3, 2009

Recently, I wrote on the perils of being a super-power. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the United States hasn’t fared well as the world’s only super-power, given our enormous fall in global approval and the misadventure in Iraq. The article was labeled “an anti-American screed” by one right-wing blogger and attacked on Fox News. Which got me thinking about what it means to be pro-American, or for that matter, just American.

There will always be a contingent who believes that no one is American who wasn’t born here, even someone like me who has lived in this country for nearly forty years, raised my kids here, and worked as a physician from coast to coast. The politics of xenophobia is alive and well in the Birthers movement in that a recent Research 2000 poll showed over half of Republicans do not think that President Obama is a natural born U.S. citizen. These so-called nativists aren’t as strong as they used to be, but they remain a powerful force in the debate over immigration, for instance. To them, the only option for dealing with the current flood of illegal immigrants is to deport them all, and you’re not a real American unless you agree.

Then there’s the larger group on the right that believes in “my country right or wrong.” They cannot tolerate any criticism of America and equate unquestioning patriotism with Americanism. This group becomes stronger when the country is threatened and has had a major influence since 9/11. Their targets tend to be anyone on the left — leftism is automatically un-American — or anyone who doesn’t buy into the doctrine of maximum security, weakening of civil rights, and permanent detention for any person suspected of terrorism, preferably without trial. If given the chance, they will also mount witch hunts against anti-Americanism, as happened in the McCarthy era of the early Fifties. The disgrace and general uselessness of those campaigns doesn’t seem to discourage them.

You will already know if you fall into any of these groups, but if you don’t, if being pro-American isn’t part of right-wing ideology for you, what does that leave? A new kind of Americanism is being shaped right now. President Obama exemplifies one aspect, the desire to look out on the world and accept it rather than look inward to America and reject everyone else. He doesn’t panic over security or instill fear of “the other,” especially Muslims. This stance goes back to an Americanism based on progressive ideals. There has always been a historical struggle between two value systems, with the progressive side valuing toleration, free markets, open immigration, extended civil rights, and no color barrier.

Since the Reagan revolution, this value system has been weakened to the extent that the first Pres. Bush could call his first campaign opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, a card-carrying liberal, echoing the terminology that Joe McCarthy used against card-carrying Communists. During the second Bush administration, when progressives had to duck and cover, the reactionary world view pointed the finger of anti-Americanism at anyone who didn’t want to batten down the hatches and turn this country into a fearful, anxious place full of electronic surveillance, incipient terrorists around every corner, and an expanded military fed on unlimited funding for new weapons systems.

There is no doubt that both value systems must bend with the times. Ideas on immigration and security, civil rights and equal opportunity, free markets and open trade can’t be the same now as they were in 1945 or even five years ago. Nothing is written in stone either on the right or the left, as much as certain partisans wish it were. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a new view of being American that involves the following values we can all agree upon:

    Being open to change without fear and suspicion.

    Seeing the rest of the world as our back yard, not as a set of faraway places.

    Accepting the trend toward faster and faster global communications.

    Suppressing knee-jerk reactions of fear and paranoia toward immigrants.

    Re-examining on a regular basis the country’s need for a standing military of enormous size and scope.

    Not labeling someone who disagrees with you as anti-American.

This isn’t much to ask for, and it leaves room for a great deal of discussion and disagreement. We are coming out of a fiercely partisan schism that made America vulnerable to all the problems of a house divided against itself. Now we have a president determined to reverse the trend; his election was the first and biggest step in that direction. I only hope he realizes that sticking to the middle of the road isn’t the same as having a vision. With a vision, being pro-American will turn into an honorable position we can all embrace. Without a vision, the ideals of Americanism will be paid lip service while the reality will continue to be simmering suspicion and anger toward each other. ++

The Courthouse Ring
Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism.
Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
August 10, 2009

In 1954, when James (Big Jim) Folsom was running for a second term as governor of Alabama, he drove to Clayton, in Barbour County, to meet a powerful local probate judge. This was in the heart of the Deep South, at a time when Jim Crow was in full effect. In Barbour County, the races did not mix, and white men were expected to uphold the privileges of their gender and color. But when his car pulled up to the curb, where the judge was waiting, Folsom spotted two black men on the sidewalk. He jumped out, shook their hands heartily, and only then turned to the stunned judge. “All men are just alike,” Folsom liked to say.

Big Jim Folsom was six feet eight inches tall, and had the looks of a movie star. He was a prodigious drinker, and a brilliant campaigner, who travelled around the state with a hillbilly string band called the Strawberry Pickers. The press referred to him (not always affectionately) as Kissin’ Jim, for his habit of grabbing the prettiest woman at hand. Folsom was far and away the dominant figure in postwar Alabama politics—and he was a prime example of that now rare species of progressive Southern populist.

Folsom would end his speeches by brandishing a corn-shuck mop and promising a spring cleaning of the state capitol. He was against the Big Mules, as the entrenched corporate interests were known. He worked to extend the vote to disenfranchised blacks. He wanted to equalize salaries between white and black schoolteachers. He routinely commuted the death sentences of blacks convicted in what he believed were less than fair trials. He made no attempt to segregate the crowd at his inaugural address. “Ya’ll come,” he would say to one and all, making a proud and lonely stand for racial justice.

Big Jim Folsom left office in 1959. The next year, a young Southern woman published a novel set in mid-century Alabama about one man’s proud and lonely stand for racial justice. The woman was Harper Lee and the novel was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and one way to make sense of Lee’s classic—and of a controversy that is swirling around the book on the eve of its fiftieth anniversary—is to start with Big Jim Folsom.

The Alabama of Folsom—and Lee—was marked by a profound localism. Political scientists call it the “friends and neighbors” effect. “Alabama voters rarely identified with candidates on the basis of issues,” George Sims writes in his biography of Folsom, “The Little Man’s Best Friend.” “Instead, they tended to give greatest support to the candidate whose home was nearest their own.” Alabama was made up of “island communities,” each dominated by a small clique of power brokers, known as a “courthouse ring.” There were no Republicans to speak of in the Alabama of that era, only Democrats. Politics was not ideological. It was personal. What it meant to be a racial moderate, in that context, was to push for an informal accommodation between black and white.

“Big Jim did not seek a fundamental shift of political power or a revolution in social mores,” Sims says. Folsom operated out of a sense of noblesse oblige: privileged whites, he believed, ought to “adopt a more humanitarian attitude” toward blacks. When the black Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., came to Montgomery, on a voter-registration drive, Folsom invited him to the Governor’s Mansion for a Scotch-and-soda. That was simply good manners. Whenever he was accused of being too friendly to black people, Folsom shrugged. His assumption was that Negroes were citizens, just like anyone else. “I just never did get all excited about our colored brothers,” he once said. “We have had them here for three hundred years and we will have them for another three hundred years.”

Folsom was not a civil-rights activist. Activists were interested in using the full, impersonal force of the law to compel equality. In fact, the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended Folsom’s career, because the racial backlash that it created drove moderates off the political stage. The historian Michael Klarman writes, “Virtually no southern politician could survive in this political environment without toeing the massive resistance line, and in most states politicians competed to occupy the most extreme position on the racial spectrum.” Folsom lost his job to the segregationist John Patterson, who then gave way to the radical George Wallace. In Birmingham, which was quietly liberalizing through the early nineteen-fifties, Bull Connor (who notoriously set police dogs on civil-rights marchers in the nineteen-sixties) had been in political exile. It was the Brown decision that brought him back. Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality.

Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

On what side was Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch? Finch defended Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of what in nineteen-thirties Alabama was the gravest of sins, the rape of a white woman. In the years since, he has become a role model for the legal profession. But he’s much closer to Folsom’s side of the race question than he is to the civil-rights activists who were arriving in the South as Lee wrote her novel.

Think about the scene that serves as the book’s centerpiece. Finch is at the front of the courtroom with Robinson. The jury files in. In the balcony, the book’s narrator—Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, or Scout, as she’s known—shuts her eyes. “Guilty,” the first of the jurors says. “Guilty,” the second says, and down the line: “guilty, guilty, guilty.” Finch gathers his papers into his briefcase. He says a quiet word to his client, gathers his coat off the back of his chair, and walks, head bowed, out of the courtroom.

“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle,” Scout relates, in one of American literature’s most moving passages:

    “Miss Jean Louise?”

    I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:

    “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” Finch tells his daughter. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He is never anything but gracious to his neighbor Mrs. Dubose, even though she considers him a “nigger-lover.” He forgives the townsfolk of Maycomb for the same reason. They are suffering from a “sickness,” he tells Scout—the inability to see a black man as a real person. All men, he believes, are just alike.

Here is where the criticism of Finch begins, because the hearts-and-minds approach is about accommodation, not reform. At one point, Scout asks him if it is O.K. to hate Hitler. Finch answers, firmly, that it is not O.K. to hate anyone. Really? Not even Hitler? When his children bring up the subject of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Maycomb, he shrugs: “Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare. They paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass. . . . Sam made ’em so ashamed of themselves they went away.” Someone in Finch’s historical position would surely have been aware of the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915. Frank was convicted, on dubious evidence, of murdering a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan. The prosecutor in the case compared Frank to Judas Iscariot, and the crowd outside the courthouse shouted, “Hang the Jew!” Anti-Semitism of the most virulent kind was embedded in the social fabric of the Old South. But Finch does not want to deal with the existence of anti-Semitism. He wants to believe in the fantasy of Sam Levy, down the street, giving the Klan a good scolding.

In the middle of the novel, after Tom Robinson’s arrest, Finch spends the night in front of the Maycomb jail, concerned that a mob might come down and try to take matters into its own hands. Sure enough, one does, led by a poor white farmer, Walter Cunningham. The mob eventually scatters, and the next morning Finch tries to explain the night’s events to Scout. Here again is a test for Finch’s high-minded equanimity. He likes Walter Cunningham.

Cunningham is, to his mind, the right sort of poor white farmer: a man who refuses a W.P.A. handout and who scrupulously repays Finch for legal work with a load of stove wood, a sack of hickory nuts, and a crate of smilax and holly. Against this, Finch must weigh the fact that Cunningham also leads lynch mobs against black people. So what does he do? Once again, he puts personal ties first. Cunningham, Finch tells his daughter, is “basically a good man,” who “just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.” Blind spots? As the legal scholar Monroe Freedman has written, “It just happens that Cunningham’s blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of black people.”

Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.

Folsom was the same way. He knew the frailties of his fellow-Alabamians when it came to race. But he could not grasp that those frailties were more than personal—that racism had a structural dimension. After he was elected governor a second time, in 1955, Folsom organized the first inaugural ball for blacks in Alabama’s history. That’s a very nice gesture. Yet it doesn’t undermine segregation to give Negroes their own party. It makes it more palatable.

Folsom’s focus on the personal was also the reason that he was blindsided by Brown. He simply didn’t have an answer to the Court’s blunt and principled conclusion that separate was not equal. For a long time, Folsom simply ducked questions about integration. When he could no longer duck, he wriggled. And the wriggling wasn’t attractive. Sims writes:

    In the spring of 1955, he repeated portions of his campaign program that touched the issue of desegregation tangentially and claimed that he had already made his position “plain, simple, and clear.” He frequently repeated his pledge that he would not force black children to go to school with white children. It was an ambiguous promise that sounded like the words of a segregationist without specifically opposing segregation. Speaking to the Alabama Education Association in 1955, the governor recommended a school construction bond issue and implied that the money would help prolong segregation by improving the physical facilities of Negro schools.

One of Atticus Finch’s strongest critics has been the legal scholar Steven Lubet, and Lubet’s arguments are a good example of how badly the brand of Southern populism Finch represents has aged over the past fifty years. Lubet’s focus is the main event of “To Kill a Mockingbird”—Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson. In “Reconstructing Atticus Finch,” in the Michigan Law Review, Lubet points out that Finch does not have a strong case. The putative rape victim, Mayella Ewell, has bruises on her face, and the supporting testimony of her father, Robert E. Lee Ewell. Robinson concedes that he was inside the Ewell house, and that some kind of sexual activity took place. The only potentially exculpatory evidence Finch can come up with is that Mayella’s bruises are on the right side of her face while Robinson’s left arm, owing to a childhood injury, is useless. Finch presents this fact with great fanfare. But, as Lubet argues, it’s not exactly clear why a strong right-handed man can’t hit a much smaller woman on the right side of her face. Couldn’t she have turned her head? Couldn’t he have hit her with a backhanded motion? Given the situation, Finch designs his defense, Lubet says, “to exploit a virtual catalog of misconceptions and fallacies about rape, each one calculated to heighten mistrust of the female complainant.”

Here is the crucial moment of Robinson’s testimony. Under Finch’s patient prodding, he has described how he was walking by the Ewell property when Mayella asked him to come inside, to help her dismantle a piece of furniture. The house, usually crowded with Mayella’s numerous sisters and brothers, was empty. “I say where the chillun?” Robinson testifies, “an’ she says—she was laughin’, sort of—she says they all gone to town to get ice creams. She says, ‘Took me a slap year to save seb’m nickels, but I done it. They all gone to town.’ ” She then asked him to stand on a chair and get a box down from the chifforobe. She “hugged him” around the waist. Robinson goes on:

    “She reached up an’ kissed me ’side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”

    “What did he say?”

    . . . Tom Robinson shut his eyes tight. “He says you goddam whore, I’ll kill ya.”

Mayella plotted for a year, saving her pennies so she could clear the house of her siblings. Then she lay in wait for Robinson, in the fervent hope that he would come by that morning. “She knew full well the enormity of her offense,” Finch tells the jury, in his summation, “but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it.” For a woman to be portrayed as a sexual aggressor in the Jim Crow South was a devastating charge. Lubet writes:

The “she wanted it” defense in this case was particularly harsh. Here is what it said about Mayella: She was so starved for sex that she spent an entire year scheming for a way to make it happen. She was desperate for a man, any man. She repeatedly grabbed at Tom and wouldn’t let him go, barring the door when he respectfully tried to disentangle himself. And in case Mayella had any dignity left after all that, it had to be insinuated that she had sex with her father.

It is useful, once again, to consider Finch’s conduct in the light of the historical South of his time. The scholar Lisa Lindquist Dorr has examined two hundred and eighty-eight cases of black-on-white rape that occurred in Virginia between 1900 and 1960. Seventeen of the accused were killed through “extra legal violence”—that is to say, lynched. Fifty were executed. Forty-eight were given the maximum sentence. Fifty-two were sentenced to prison terms of five years or less, on charges ranging from rape and murder to robbery, assault and battery, or “annoying a white woman.” Thirty-five either were acquitted or had their charges dismissed. A not inconsiderable number had their sentences commuted by the governor.

Justice was administered unequally in the South: Dorr points out that of the dozens of rapists in Virginia who were sentenced to death between 1908 and 1963 (Virginia being one of the few states where both rape and attempted rape were capital crimes) none were white.

Nonetheless, those statistics suggest that race was not always the overriding consideration in rape trials. “White men did not always automatically leap to the defense of white women,” Dorr writes. “Some white men reluctantly sided with black men against white women whose class or sexual history they found suspect. Sometimes whites trusted the word of black men whose families they had known for generations over the sworn testimony of white women whose backgrounds were unknown or (even worse) known and despised. White women retained their status as innocent victim only as long as they followed the dictates of middle-class morality.”

One of Dorr’s examples is John Mays, Jr., a black juvenile sentenced in 1923 to an eighteen-year prison term for the attempted rape of a white girl. His employer, A. A. Sizer, petitioned the Virginia governor for clemency, arguing that Mays, who was religious and educated, “comes of our best negro stock.” His victim, meanwhile, “comes from our lowest breed of poor whites. . . . Her mother is utterly immoral and without principle; and this child has been accustomed from her very babyhood to behold scenes of the grossest immorality. None of our welfare work affects her, she is brazenly immoral.”

The reference to the mother was important. “Though Sizer did not directly impugn the victim herself, direct evidence was unnecessary during the heyday of eugenic family studies,” Dorr writes. “The victim, coming from the same inferior ‘stock,’ would likely share her mother’s moral character.” The argument worked: Mays was released from prison in 1930.

This is essentially the defense that Atticus Finch fashions for his client. Robinson is the churchgoer, the “good Negro.” Mayella, by contrast, comes from the town’s lowest breed of poor whites. “Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells,” Scout tells us. “No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.” They live in a shack behind the town dump, with windows that “were merely open spaces in the walls, which in the summertime were covered with greasy strips of cheesecloth to keep out the varmints that feasted on Maycomb’s refuse.” Bob Ewell is described as a “little bantam cock of a man” with a face as red as his neck, so unaccustomed to polite society that cleaning up for the trial leaves him with a “scalded look; as if an overnight soaking had deprived him of protective layers of dirt.” His daughter, the complainant, is a “thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labor.” The Ewells are trash.

When the defense insinuates that Mayella is the victim of incest at the hands of her father, it is not to make her a sympathetic figure. It is, in the eugenicist spirit of the times, to impugn her credibility—to do what A. A. Sizer did in the John Mays case: The victim, coming from the same inferior stock, would likely share her father’s moral character. “I won’t try to scare you for a while,” Finch says, when he begins his cross-examination of Mayella. Then he adds, with polite menace, “Not yet.”

We are back in the embrace of Folsomism. Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But as a good Jim Crow liberal he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.

One of George Orwell’s finest essays takes Charles Dickens to task for his lack of “constructive suggestions.” Dickens was a powerful critic of Victorian England, a proud and lonely voice in the campaign for social reform. But, as Orwell points out, there was little substance to Dickens’s complaints. “He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places,” Orwell writes. “There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature.’ ” Dickens sought “a change of spirit rather than a change in structure.”

Orwell didn’t think that Dickens should have written different novels; he loved Dickens. But he understood that Dickens bore the ideological marks of his time and place. His class did not see the English social order as tyrannical, worthy of being overthrown. Dickens thought that large contradictions could be tamed through small moments of justice. He believed in the power of changing hearts, and that’s what you believe in, Orwell says, if you “do not wish to endanger the status quo.”

But in cases where the status quo involves systemic injustice this is no more than a temporary strategy. Eventually, such injustice requires more than a change of heart. “What in the world am I ever going to do with the Niggers?” Jim Folsom once muttered, when the backlash against Brown began to engulf his political career. The argument over race had risen to such a pitch that it could no longer be alleviated by gesture and symbolism—by separate but equal inaugural balls and hearty handshakes—and he was lost.

Finch’s moral test comes at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Bob Ewell has been humiliated by the Robinson trial. In revenge, he attacks Scout and her brother on Halloween night. Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor of the Finches, comes to the children’s defense, and in the scuffle Radley kills Ewell. Sheriff Tate brings the news to Finch, and persuades him to lie about what actually happened; the story will be that Ewell inadvertently stabbed himself in the scuffle. As the Sheriff explains:

    Maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes. To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin. It’s a sin and I’m not about to have it on my head. If it was any other man it’d be different. But not this man, Mr. Finch.

The courthouse ring had spoken. Maycomb would go back to the way it had always been.

“Scout,” Finch says to his daughter, after he and Sheriff Tate have cut their little side deal. “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”

Understand what? That her father and the Sheriff have decided to obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor the burden of angel-food cake? Atticus Finch is faced with jurors who have one set of standards for white people like the Ewells and another set for black folk like Tom Robinson. His response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell. A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama. ++

“I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.”
~ Barack Obama

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

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One Response to Cheese and Onions

  1. Mamamia70 says:

    I am a 49 year old White woman born and raised in Los Angeles. I have always supported the LAPD in general as I have LAPD family members and was raised in the generation that cops are our friends. Parents always told us we could trust them and we were always instructed that if we had a problem the police are our friends. I spent my entire life pretty much going along with it until… Last May, 2009.

    That day my family and I were harassed and called terroists by the local Jewish center. Our crime? We brought our newly purchsed RV to the local park across from this center at 9:30 am.

    An arguement ensued when we were called this vile name by security guards at the Jewish Center. An argument between them and myself. They threatned to beat me up and when the police arrived they admitted to the cops they tape recorded my phone calls to their center in direct violation of Ca law. No matter, the police refused to take a report for this illegal conduct..

    The following day the local lead cop for my area began to watch me, following us around all day. When she finally approached us she told us we better not be at the park past 8:00 pm even though the park was open until 11:00 pm. I basically challenged her right to tell me this and after she got beligerent I told her I was leaving and leave I did.

    That night we were pulled over as we were leaving the park. The officers lied (big surprise except I have absolute proof to prove I am telling the truth) and proceeded to hold us hostage on the street for over 90 mins. What reason did they give for approaching us when we weren’t even driving our vehicle? That our tags were expired. Technically true but we had paid our fees and were waiting for the tags to arrive. This did show in their computer and when I asked the cop why he said it wasn’t showing he got completly beligerent and accused me of getting beligerant with him.

    From then on it became a 90 minute interogation on the street late at night. We were accused of being drug addicts and yet the cops not only didn’t run our Driver’s licenses they also failed to check in with their communications for 90 mins.

    Our bodies were searched and our cars were searched. All without probable cause and all without permission.

    We filed official complaints with IA and of course the officers were found to have done nothing wrong but they did violate our 4th ammendment rights.

    They then began a 8 month campaign of harassment against us, following us around town, driving by our house very slowly with their spotlights shining.

    As I stated when I started this comment until that night I was your typical white woman believing cops were mostly good. Now I have made a complete turn around and trust none of them. They are corrupt.

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