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Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and Justice

The public discussion of the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman – basic facts here, if you have somehow missed this – grow more and more bizarre. Various supporters of the killer have told stories that he was attacked by the victim, in fear for his life, etc., while others have pointed out that various video and audio recordings show that these stories cannot be true.

You can’t blame the average American for feeling confused. How are we supposed to sort out all this conflicting testimony? The answer is: we aren’t. That’s what juries are for! If the Sanford, Florida, prosecutors did their job and charged Zimmerman for the killing, it could go to trial, and the conflicting testimony could be evaluated by a jury of people who actually heard the testimony live, in person, without being distracted by everything else they were doing (since they wouldn’t be doing those things while they were on a jury.)

I think we could usefully borrow a procedure from the English. When someone dies by violence, they hold a coroner’s inquest; the jury, not the local police superintendent, decided whether it’s murder, an accident, or self-defense. If it’s murder, it eventually goes to trial, and another jury decides if the accused is guilty. (I may be a little off on the details here – I learned about coroner’s inquests by reading those great scholars Agatha Christe and Dorothy L. Sayers.)

I have an opinion, based on reading the papers, Twitter, and Facebook – but the real decision should be made by a jury of people who have studied the evidence in person, not by a media audience.

That’s why Zimmerman should be charged. Then he could offer his defense to the jury, and they could evaluate it.

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So What if Zimmerman is Racist or Not? He Still Killed Trayvon Martin, and Should Be Charged

Over the last few days, the political right has taken one of two positions on the killing of Trayvon Martin. Most actual politicians – Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum for example – have condemned the killing and argued that the “Stand Your Ground” law doesn’t apply (since the evidence seems to be that Zimmerman chased down and killed a young man who was trying to run away).

The loonier fringe element, however, has focused on claims that Zimmerman is not racist. This seems truly bizarre. Are they saying that it’s OK to pursue and kill an unarmed teenager as long as the killing is not racially motivated? It’s just irrlevant to the question of whether Zimmerman should be prosecuted – of course he should be.

Of course his actions were racist, too, I’m not saying otherwise – I’m just saying that is not the point at issue. Moreover, the real systemic racism lies in the failure of local law enforcements to arrest and charge Zimmerman.

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Standing One’s Ground?

The horrific and unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin has naturally touched off a lot of discussion of whether the killing was racially motivated, with comments ranging from ‘but Zimmerman is Hispanic!’ to ‘the audio sounds like “f…..ing c..n” to me.’ There’s a good summary of the case and the protests in the Guardian, here.

Not to downplay this debate about motivations, it seems to me that the real, structural racism can be found in Florida’s “stand your ground” law. In case you missed it, here’s a quick summary. In most states (but fewer all the time!), you can only plead that you killed someone in self-defense if you could not have safely run away. In Florida, though – and, I hear, in 22 other states – you have no obligation to try to escape. Instead, you can “stand your ground,” and kill your assailant, even if you could easily have escaped.

The problems with this are obvious – and gruesomely illustrated by Martin’s death. The law puts life-and-death decisions in the hands of people who may not have the capacity to make such decisions wisely. In this case, the most favorable interpretation of Zimmerman’s actions is that he made a mistake and thought he was in danger when he was not.

That’s way too favorable, by the way. The story seems to be that Zimmerman chased Martin in his car, than got out, confronted him, and shot him dead. That doesn’t qualify even as standing his ground.

The more general issue is – why are such laws being passed? The only reason I can imagine is what Stuart Hall called a “moral panic.” (See his book Policing the Crisis.) In this case, the belief – fundamentally racist, but deeply embedded in American culture – that we are besieged by a hoard of violent black criminals creates uncritical public support for the feeling that we ought to be able to shoot someone who threatens us. Of course, it also makes nutcases like Zimmerman feel threatened because a black kid is wearing a hoodie.

Of course Zimmerman should be charged, and the local authorities failure to charge him should be investigated. Beyond that, though, it’s time to repeal these “stand your ground” laws.

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He’s Baaaack! The Ryan Budget Returns, to the Democrats’ Delight

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is at it again. He has produced a budget resolution that calls for the end of Medicare-as-we-know-it, replacing it with coupons that can be used to buy private health insurance. This has been introduced as the House version of the Congressional Budget Resolution, and is certain to a) pass the House, and b) be rejected by the Senate.

With the Ryan Budget, the Republicans have now defined two key planks in their platform for the next election:

  1. Ending Medicare
  2. Attacking birth control

Sound a little nuts? After all, most people support both Medicare and birth control. So why are they giving Barack Obama this nice present?

There are two possible explanations, as I see it:

  1. In what should be a Republican election year, the Tea Party is forcing the GOP to commit political suicide, handing Obama an election that he could not otherwise win, because of their fanatical commitment to hating both government and women. Or …
  2. The continuting recession makes it so unlikely that Obama will be reelected that the GOP has decided to implement the program that they really believe in: reducing the working class to poverty so that the capitalist class can get even richer.

Which do you think it is?

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Lots of Problems with Kony2012, But Let’s Give Jason Russell a Break

No sooner had I posted my second piece about the problems with the Kony2012 video than I started hearing that Jason Russell, co-leader of Invisible Children and star of the video, in which he explains Joseph Kony to his 5-year-old son, than I started hearing that Russell had been arrested for public masturbation. Apparently, he broke under the pressure generated by the video and the criticism it invoked, and reacted by taking off his clothes and otherwise misbehaving in public. You can read a pretty objective account of this, with quotations from both sides and a link to a video apparently of the naked Russell, in the Guardian, here.

In today’s political climate of bitterness and invective, it’s tempting to use the opportunity to ridicule Russell, and by extension his approach to world politics (“get the bad guys”), and many critics have not been able to resist this temptation. Sarcastic remarks are flying through twitterspace (e.g., “Now Jason Russell has another difficult thing to explain to his 5-year-old).

It’s also true that the incident has made us more aware of some of the relevant facts: that Russell is an evangelical Protestant, backed by right-wing religious groups, for example.

That said, I think it’s time to give him a break. The video was superficial, insulted people in Uganda (in fact, in all of Africa), and treated the public as if we were all five years old. That was true before he broke down, and it’s true today. But Jason Russell is a troubled human being who needs some space, and some medical care. Let’s let him have it, while we concentrate on the real issue: how to end the system of land grabs, mineral exploitation, and wars, all sponsored by giant capitalist corporations, that is causing so many problems in Africa.

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Clarifying the Kony Video Debate

As the debate over the Kony 2012 video released by Invisible Children continues, the issues are becoming clearer. On one side, this March 14 column by Nick Kristof – a journalist with a strong record for supporting human rights – gives the video a “bravo. . .for galvanizing young Americans to look up from their iPhones and seek to make a difference for villagers in central Africa who continue to be murdered, raped and mutilated by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.” Kristof characterizes the negative reaction as “the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”

On the other side, writing from Uganda, Adam Branch – who has worked in Uganda for 10 years, mostly with a Gulu-based human rights organization – writes an opinion piece for Al-Jazeera English in which he argues that “As a result of Invisible Children’s irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money.” Al-Jazeera also shows this video from Lira, in which a crowd of Kony’s victims are so angered by the video that they hurl rocks at the screen and force its showing to stop.

In this press release from the Institute for Public Accuracy, Kambale Musavuli of Friends of the Congo criticizes the video for supporting the government of Uganda – an oppressive dicatorship – and promoting US military intervention.

Reading and viewing these articles and videos, I’ve come to the conclusion that the real issue is what we think of the US role in the world. For Kristof that role is unproblematically benign. He expects that, if the US intervenes militarily to support human rights, that intervention actually will support human rights. He does criticize our government, but mostly for not intervening (Bahrain) or for intervening too late (Bosnia, Sudan).

For the critics, on the other hand, US intervention is always suspect. Far too often – in fact, almost always – such intervention turns out to be deadly for the people it was supposedly going to help. This has been the case in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – to name the big ones – but also in Somalia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and many smaller cases. Even the supposed successes are ambiguous: our intervention freed Kosovo from Serbian rule, but installed a fundamentalist government that commits regular atrocities against those Serbs still living in Kosovo.

The US has already sent a couple hundred troops to Uganda, months before this video was released. It’s hard to see the video as much more than an attempt to whitewash this intervention.

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Joseph Kony: Getting the Bad Guy, or Stopping Imperialism?

In case you haven’t seen it, an organization named Invisible Children has releaed a video which has about 70 million hits in its first week. Impressive, even if many of them watched only a few minutes of the half-hour video.

The video is about Joseph Kony, leader of a paramilitary group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA began in Uganda; they were driven out of that country, but are still operating elsewhere in Central Africa. Their truly horrible modus operandi involves kidnaping children, the boys for child soldiers and the girls for sex slaves.

It has aroused a lot of controversy. The video frames the issue as a father explaining to his young son (5 or 6 years old) what the issue is all about. In sum, it is that Kony is a “bad guy” and should be arrested.

Yes, he is a bad guy. Yes, he should be arrested. But what the video does not mention is that arresting Kony would not change anyting. Just as killing Obama Bin Laden did not mean we could get on airplanes without having full body scans, arresting or killing Kony would not end the exploitation of children as soldiers and sex slaves. The roots are far deeped than that.

The basic problem of Central Africa is imperiailism: not the direct rule of subjugated people, but the indirect rule which takes their resources for the benefit of giant corporations. At this point, the major function of central Africa in the world economy is to supply minerals: oil, uranium, coltan, copper, etc. To get these minerals cheaply, the corporations involved have created chaos in African political and social life. Probably 5 million people have been killed in Congo in resource-driven conflicts, financed by corporations based in the US and the EU. The reason that there are warlords and child soldiers is that this business is so profitable.

Kony deserves severe punishment, but it is important to realize that arresting, trying, and punishing Kony will not change anything at all.

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Human Rights and the New Cold War

I saw a comment on Twitter this morning from some Syrian revolutionaries. They said that they consider themselves Syria’s link to the West, and that they reject any contact with Russia and Iran.

I don’t know how widespread that attitutde is among the Syrian revolutionaries; but if it is widespread, I think it will make it harder for them to improve the human rights situation in Syria. Human rights is a just cause, and gets a lot of support from people everywhere; but if the issue is seen as taking one side or another in international politics, that support will drop.

For example, the US opposes human rights movement in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia because the foreign policy establishment sees those movements – incorrectly – as linked to Iran. Russia and Iran do oppose the human rights movement in Syria, because they see it linked to the US. If it really is linked to the US, they will oppose it even more.

The difference between the US on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other, is that the latter restrict the human rights of their own citizens, while the US, aside from the occasional assassination, focuses its attack on human rights on the rest of the world, from Bahrain to Nicaragua to Honduras to …. well, you get the idea.

During the old Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union not only allied themselves with dictators, but encouraged those allies to be more repressive (e.g., in Chile for the US, Hungary for the Soviets). If a new Cold War escalates, that will happen again. The best way to get human rights is to be non-aligned.

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Democrats: Be Careful What You Wish For

There are convincing reports that Democrats in both Michigan and Ohio took Republican primary ballots in order to vote for Rick Santorum, who had solicited their votes in Ohio. Since it seems unlikely that many Democrats actually prefer Santorum to Romney, they were probably being mischievous – trying to stick the GOP with a weaker candidate in order to make an Obama victory more likely.

What a high risk strategy! Just suppose it works, that Santorum becomes the Republican nominee for President. Then suppose that, as seems very likely, Greece defaults after all, and the European economy collapses, bringing on a second wave of the Great Recession. We might well find ourselves looking at President Santorum and several steps closer to authoritarian rule in America.

Democrats, be careful!

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Iran: Not Only Is War not the Answer, but It’s the Wrong Question

Sadly, Barack Obama seems to be just as crazy as his predecessor when it comes to the Middle East; witness all his tough talk about war with Iran. So let’s be clear:

  1. All intelligence agencies agree that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and does not plan to have one.
  2. The US, on the other hand, has thousands of nuclear weapons.
  3. Israel, which has a much more aggressive history of making war on its neighbors than Iran, has nuclear weapons but Obama won’t even talk about them,
  4. Eight years ago, the US went to war with Iraq based on a lot of lies; the result was disastrous. Now they’re telling the same lies and trying to go to war again.

From all this, I’d say that the question is not how to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons – it is why the national security establishment is so eager to destroy Iran.

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