Friday, August 16, 2013

Three straws in the wind

Barack Obama swept into the Presidency with the promise of hope and change.

Change was certainly long overdue. George Bush and his supporters preached intolerance of anyone whose views were out of step with their own. Corporate America moved millions of jobs overseas. Bush sent a man who despised international law to the United Nations as his ambassador. Bush started two new wars to satisfy the militarists and the war profiteers. Bush deregulated the financial industry and precipitated the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Sometimes, however, a flame burns brightest just before it burns out. Perhaps the suffering of our fellow Americans under the corporate boot is about to end.

The American cultural revolution occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Large numbers of people began to question the received culture of the 1950s. They questioned the U.S. military role in the world. They questioned whether the heterosexual marriage should be the only accepted form of intimacy. They questioned whether marijuana, a relatively harmless drug, should be outlawed while more harmful drugs, such as alcohol, were tolerated by society. They questioned why radio stations played Sinatra and Peggy Lee instead of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Worst of all, from the standpoint of traditional society, they questioned why anyone should go hungry in a country where farmers were paid not to grow food.

The counterculture, as it came to be called, took hold of the imagination of the young. People stopped looking to New York fashion designers for clothes and instead decorated their own clothes with beads and brightly colored thread. The counterculture had its own heroes, like Elvis and John Lennon, Dylan and Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Those of us who welcomed the counterculture believed that the country had turned the corner. We believed the elite would stop discriminating against African Americans and women, since discrimination was now against the law, or at least against the Constitution.

The counterculture forced the U.S. to end the Vietnam War. Under their influence, the government passed Civil Rights and Voting Rights. The counterculture believed that the establishment would just step aside and let the rest of us start living a better life based in liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

Then something completely predictable happened. Traditional society fought back. Ronald Reagan, who had been a pitch man for General Electric in the 1950s, led them. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to stop integration in 1963. Reagan called out the national guard to stop protesters in Berkeley in 1969. George Wallace was stopped by President Kennedy, who took over command of the National Guard, and integration proceeded peacefully, for the moment. Reagan called out the Sheriff's deputies of Alameda County and told them to use whatever means necessary to stop a peaceful protest of college students and Berkeley residents. This time President Richard Nixon failed to take over the National Guard and violence ensued.

Reagan became extremely popular with those who hated college students, integrationists, and peace lovers. He was elected President in 1980 and started up the American war machine again. He appointed Supreme Court Judges who believed that African Americans were a privileged special interest group that needed to be suppressed. The world grew bloodier as the U.S. ignored U.N. agreements and sent troops to Grenada, aided insurgents in Afghanistan and Honduras, and bombed Libya.

Reagan became the first president since World War II to start a war to raise his political popularity. Republican President G. W. Bush used the same tactic. Such wars violate customary international law.

Compounding the social and foreign policy problems with G. W. Bush's term, the economy collapsed in 2007.

Progressives were disappointed with Obama's performance during his first term, although they had to admit his failures were not entirely his own fault. Now, however, a new wind is blowing through Washington and the rest of the country. Obama has contributed by ordering his ICE agents to stop deporting “dreamers”, immigrants whose parents brought them here illegally. 

Obama apparently is no longer concerned about what Republicans think of his policies, though he could have gone further and extended the same privileges to all immigrants. He could also transfer some of the funds for “securing our borders” to other areas, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Consumer Protection Agency. But any sign of movement is better than none.

Attorney General Stephen Holder has also been a disappointment to progressives, primarily for failing to prosecute Wall Street for abuses that sent the economy into a tail spin. But Holder, too, showed signs of progressivism when he ordered federal officers not to list the amounts of drugs on indictments against drug offenders. These amounts trigger automatic sentencing guidelines that have turned the American prison system into a Gulag of Soviet proportions. Holder has always known that drug laws are aimed squarely at African American young men, because those are the people who get sent to prison.

Holder's action, if continued by his successors, could end the War on Drugs altogether. For decades, a prison industry has grown up relying on the War on Drugs to fill its cells. Prison Guards have joined together in powerful unions with but one goal, to keep the prisons full and preserve their well-paying jobs. Police departments have spent time and money chasing drug offenders because they could seize the assets of drug offenders. The departments have grown wealthy, with ever fancier helicopters and planes and drug detecting equipment. The people who profit from prisons and drug busts spend millions influencing elections.

This one action of Holder's may break the cycle of corruption. Without prisoners, there will be no need for prisons. Prison Guards will have to find other work. Policemen can go back investigating political corruption and corporate crime. The War on Drugs will end.

Finally, from New York comes the astonishing tale of a judge who said "no!". Judge Schira Scheindlin ruled that NYC's stop-and-frisk rules are unconstitutional because they use racial profiling to target African Americans and Latinos. NYC Mayor Bloomberg howled out loud about this ruling, claiming the Judge “knows nothing” about law enforcement. Scheindlin issued a 192-page opinion in Floyd v. City of New York that proves she knows a great deal about racial profiling and police harassment.

Scheindlin's conclusions come as no surprise to the black and brown residents of NYC, who have complained loudly about being stopped for no reason. This constant harassment made some of them afraid to leave their houses to go to the store or to work. The fear they felt is the fear inspired by a police state, where justice has become comatose by command of the government. This is the same fear that Trayvon Martin felt when he was chased by a neighborhood watchman who assumed, mistakenly and with bloody consequences, that Martin was up to no good. What is amazing to the black and brown residents subjected to Bloomberg's reign of terror is that an honest federal judge agrees with them.

So here they are, three straws in the wind. These actions are not subject to review by our completely broken Congress, nor can these three courageous people, Obama, Holder, and Scheindlin, be subjected to ridicule by a barrage of defamatory campaign ads, because none of them needs to run for office. What remains to be seen is whether these straws can predict which way the wind blows. We should all hope that they do.

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