Police raids in Minneapolis — What happened to checks and balances?

Protesters here in Minneapolis have been targeted by a series of highly intimidating, sweeping police raids across the city, involving teams of 25-30 officers in riot gear, with semi-automatic weapons drawn, entering homes of those suspected of planning protests, handcuffing and forcing them to lay on the floor, while law enforcement officers searched the homes, seizing computers, journals, and political pamphlets. Last night, members of the St. Paul police department and the Ramsey County sheriff’s department handcuffed, photographed and detained dozens of people meeting at a public venue to plan a demonstration, charging them with no crime other than “fire code violations,” and early this morning, the Sheriff’s department sent teams of officers into at least four Minneapolis area homes where suspected protesters were staying.

This isn’t the first of these this week. It really bothers me that the police can arrest people, confiscate their goods, never press charges, and release them all later with no explanation and no consequences. This makes intimidation far too easy. The magic words “homeland security” keep getting invoked.

If the police now have a simple way to hold people without charges, then the people need a simple way to make the police suffer consequences when the power is misused.

Elections and Erections: A One-Queen Play at the A.R.T.

“Don’t ask me about racism. As a white racist it didn’t affect me. But if you ask me about fear, I can tell you about that.”

Pieter-Dirk Uys, in “Elections and Erections”

That line ends a serious interlude in the show, one of several that provide counterpoint to the satire and humor he so deftly uses to highlight the flaws of South African society, both before and after apartheid. He has just told us how he came to be a democrat, and he has told us of sharing the garden-shed home of a yard-boy at a rich South African home. Of the fear of being discovered. The fear of being black with white, white with black. A fear so powerful that it overwhelms the fear of being man with man. Even now, when I relate the story to my friends, that final line sends a shiver down my spine.

Pieter-Dirk Uys’ alter-ego is Evita Bezuidenhout, a household name in South Africa, famous for over thirty years of satire against the apartheid government. But she hasn’t stopped there. “Elections and Erections” makes it clear that Uys’ true enemy is that which makes people afraid. Whether it’s corruption in the apartheid government or in the ANC; politicians denying the existence of AIDS; friendships with dictators based on a common race; ignorance; false pretenses; or just the everyday fears of trying to survive in a country stuck in a downward spiral. Uys wants to expose the things that make us afraid, shine the bright light of humor on them, and bring hope and laughter to the people he loves: the people of South Africa.

I’m hearing only bad news
From Radio Africa,
I’m hearing only sad news
From Radio Africa

“Radio Africa” by Latin Quarter.

If Evita Bezuidenhout has a counter-part in the the U.S., it might be Stephen Colbert, with his pseudo-conservative satire. But Evita is much more biting and relevant, and Uys has many more roles to don beyond Evita. He plays the ANC politicians contemplating whether the next president will get the position before, or after, he is thrown in jail for corruption. He lampoons (gently, but none-the-less) Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He describes the trials of a Jewish African Princess, her relatives self-exiled to Canada, trying desperately to be the liberal she knows she ought to be. He takes on Winnie Mandela, including relating the time he played her character (complete with rubber tire jewelry) with the real Winnie in the audience. He talks to the asian storekeeper whose husband used to be too black for jobs, but now is turned down because he is too white. He does a chilling rendition of Grace Mugabe as an evil child-like woman, losing her mind to AIDS. And he doesn’t save all his barbs for Africa; his characterization of Mother Theresa, filling in for Marilyn Monroe as God’s secretary, is priceless. The angels are on strike, suicide bombers keep showing up in pieces looking for their virgins, and the son of the managing director is refusing to return to Earth. He even does a great Hillary (and Bill!) impersonation.

What makes Uys’ work really stand out, particularly as compared to American satirists like Colbert, is its compassion; even his enemies are human. The apartheid-era security chief he lampoons still had a sense of humor. Winnie Mandala may have “necklaced” informants, but she now tours AIDS facilities and pushes AIDS education. This, in a country where the government Health Minister promotes a cure of beet juice, and claims that HIV drugs are poisonous. His barbs are as pointed as they are funny, but he sees the humanity in everyone. In his heart, his true goal is to make his people happy and unafraid. You can see it in his eyes as he relates the story of a little black boy who wanders into his theatre as he is building the stage. From a simple “do you like to sing” and a few shaky songs, you see Uys’ pride as he relates how that same child made it all the way to top awards at Trinity College. Uys’ South Africa has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the pride of being a good human being.

Told today that they release you
That you had paid your debt
Nomzamo in her own damn country
How much more boorish can these people get?
But you refuse to get the message
Of waving whips, in bloody semaphore
Where only gunfire’s indiscriminate – as always
One People! One Cause!
One People! One Cause!
Nomzamo! Nomzamo…
“Nomzamo” by Latin Quarter.

South Africa has not been on the forefront of American minds for some time. As Uys says, if Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela hadn’t had an easy-to-pronounce first name, Americans may not have been aware of the country’s plight at all. In “Elections and Erections,” Uys entertains, and more importantly, educates. Throughout the show, he relays tidbits of history and culture which later become the punch lines of his comedy, ensuring the audience understands the satirical context of his work. Yet the pace never suffers. The flow of comedy and pathos, serious and profane, never falters. This is not a show you want to miss. I only wish we could import Pieter-Dirk Uys to provide a similar look at ourselves.

“Elections and Erections: A Chronicle of Fear and Fun” is written and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys. It is playing at the American Repertory Theatre’s “Zero Arrow Theatre” playhouse (a wonderful dinner-theatre style space just off Harvard Square, with tables, a bar, and wonderful ambience). It will be showing through May 4th, 2008. For more information on this show and other performances, see the A.R.T. site.

The A.R.T. graciously provided free tickets to myself and other Boston-area bloggers in exchange for an honest review (good or bad). I’d like to thank them for initiating this experiment in new media.

Many thanks to @devyl for the editing assistance.
Any errors are due to my not following her advice.

Black and White Dolls – this is not the future you are looking for

I’ve got a full day, and this post wasn’t in the schedule, but then I got this twit from marshallk

In this video, a young film-maker decides to go and recreate a test once used to help justify desegregation. Young black children are asked which doll they prefer between two almost identical dolls; the white one, or the black one. They overwhelmingly go for the white one. The results are the same when asked which is the “good” doll and which is the “bad” doll. But the heart-wrenching part comes when, having just identified the black doll as the “bad” doll, a little girl is asked which doll looks more like her. She’s not happy with the choice she has to make.

I don’t want to leave you completely depressed though. So here’s another tale of dolls—white and black—that ends up somewhat better. Like the video above, it has a long history, and the better part takes a while to come. I wish I could find a complete version of the song on-line, but you ought to buy the album anyway, it’s all excellent. In the meantime, listen to an excerpt from “Number One in America” on “Coming up for Air” and read the full lyrics below.

Here are the lyrics, courtesy of AHistoricality.

Number One In America
© 1987 David Massengill
In Nineteen hundred and sixty-three
In my hometown, Bristol Tennessee
I was sitting on my mother’s knee
Watching “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on TVAmos was Santa Claus on Christmas Eve
A little girl was tugging at his sleeve
Saying, “Can I have a doll my own color please?”
He Said, “Honey, you can make believe…”Just then came a call on the telephone
It was the mayor, he asked if my daddy was home
This was for his ears alone
Mom and me listened on the second phone

Mayor said, “The freedom Riders are on their way
And they’ll be here by Christmas day
Our laws they vow to disobey
‘Cause our school is as white as the milky way

Well, now we’re really in a fix
We can’t let ’em show us up like country hicks
But once the races mix
It’s good-bye Jim Crow politics

First it’s forty acres and a mule
Then they want to swim in our swimming pool
Pretty soon they’ll be wanting to go to school
Where we were taught the golden rule”

Imagine them telling us how to live
Imagine them telling us how to live

We’re number one in America
Number one in America
Beat the drum for Uncle Sam
Overcome in Birmingham
Dynamite in a Baptist church
Four teenaged girls lost in the lurch
Fire hoses and the billy clubs
Police dogs and the racist thugs
Nightriders and the lynching mobs
Lawmen say they’re only doing their jobs
To stay number one in America.

Ax-handles vs. the right to vote
All white jury, that’s all she wrote
Back of the bus, don’t rock the boat
Separate but equal by the throat

That was twenty-odd years ago
Where’s the change in the status quo?
The freedom land is lying low
it’s shackled down on rotten row

The black skinned man still gets the snub
When he applies to the country club
But he still gets hired to trim the shrubs
Get down on the floor and scrub

There’s a businessman out on his yacht
He’s a rain or sunshine patriot
He says it’s all a commie plot
To be Number One in America…

The Ku Klux Klan is still around
With a permit to march in my home town
But only on Virginia’s ground
The Tennesse side turned them down

The sheriff stood there with his deputies
Ostensibly to keep the peace
But he made us this guarantee
“By God, They’ll not march into Tennessee!”

The network cameras were triple tiered
We laughed and cried, we hooted and jeered
But mostly we stood there unfeared
‘Til the Ku Klux Klan dissappeared

In some far off distant dawn
When a Black is president and not a pawn
Will they burn crosses on the white house lawn
And talk of all the days bygone

Imagine them telling us how lo live
Imagine them telling us how to live

We’re number one in America…

Last Christmas Eve at the K-Mart store
A white family there, they was dirt poor
Father said, “Kids, pick one toy – no more
Even though we can ill afford…”

I watched his son choose a basketball
The oldest girl a creole shawl
The littlest girl chose a black skinned doll
And she held it to her chest and all

I watched to see how they’d react
Since they were white and the doll was black
But the mom and dad were matter-of-fact
They checked to see if the doll was cracked

So may you make a rebel stand
Where black and white go hand in hand
Until they reach the freedom land
Where the lion lies down with the lamb

O Number one in America
Number one in America
Beat the drum for Uncle Sam
Overcome in Birmingham
Dynamite in a Baptist church
Four teenaged girls lost in the lurch
Firehoses and the billy clubs
Police dogs and the racist thugs
Turn back the clock to Little Rock
Bought and sold on the auction block
Nightriders and the lynching mobs
Lawmen say they’re only doing their job
To stay number one in America

We shall overcome someday

What is Twitter For? The Message is the Medium.

The other evening I added a few new people to the list of folks I was following on Twitter. It was one of those typical social networking things; checking your “friends” to see who they were tracking, and then adding the ones that looked interesting.

The result, oddly enough, was a late night conversation on the pros and cons of Welfare. It felt very much like those late night conversations I used to have in college; when everyone was full of ideas and eager to explore them. It was really quite enjoyable. And it certainly created a bump in my Twitter usage.

People who don’t use Twitter often ask just what it’s for. Why would you want to broadcast what you’re doing to the world. That’s partially the fault of the Twitter folks themselves, for that “What are you doing?” prompt. A better prompt might be “What do you want to do?” (although perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Babylon V :-). Adam Engst once called Twitter “iChat on shuffle,” and it certainly can feel that way when you’re carrying on several conversations at once. But Twitter isn’t so much a piece of software that does something, as a medium through which software can do things. When the Telegraph and Phone were introduced, people certainly wondered why you’d want one, but people found interesting things to do with them, many of which had never been anticipated by their inventors. That’s Twitter.

What’s interesting to me is the relative pluses and minuses of having this type of discussion in Twitter. Andy Ihnatko recently pointed out the rather obvious (sorry Andy) fact that trying to express complete thoughts to their conclusion in 140 characters is rather difficult. You can of course just post a second message to finish the thought, but the delays in Twitter make it less natural to do so than it might be in a chat program. The performance of Twitter reinforces that 140 character limit, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, because keeping points brief and concise may have the effect of equalizing the conversation. Nobody can dominate with a long exposition on a particular topic. Ratholes on side topics tend to be limited to pointers to URLs, not long conversations. You can use Twitter to espouse and justify an idea, but not to explain it in detail. But that’s fine. We have other media that are better suited to that. That’s not to say Twitter is perfect, separating incoming messages into categories (a New York Times news blast in the middle of a conversation is a bit distracting) and threading conversations (particularly when you aren’t following all the participants) would be big pluses. But those are things that Twitter clients can do, they aren’t necessarily drawbacks of Twitter itself.

Twitter’s limitations might make it seem superficial and trivial. But that’s like saying chatting around the water cooler is superficial. It can be, but it can also be a catalyst for new ideas that are followed up elsewhere. Andy’s Twitter posting was the catalyst for my writing this blog posting. The discussion on Welfare was the catalyst for making new connections on other networks. Social interaction takes place on many different levels, all of which are necessary. What we are seeing online is people taking new tools and adapting them, consciously or unconsciously, to fit the interactions they feel they need in a virtual world. The companies that are succeeding in the social networking sphere are those that either identify those needs, or more likely, have the flexibility to be molded by their users. Flickr, FaceBook, Twitter… none of those companies are necessarily doing what they started out to do, but they were able to adapt to the way people used them. In Social Networking, you achieve success when you stop being an application and become a transparent part of people’s interactions.

But enough of that. I need to go fix the Welfare System!

P.S. I’ve suddenly become very self-conscious about the fact that I seem to be very fond of semi-colons.

Politics at Funerals

Here CNN discusses President Carter’s introduction of politics into his funeral speech for Corretta Scott King. Apparently this has been raising a fuss among some conservatives. As CNN says: “After the funeral yesterday, Kate O’Beirne, a prominent conservative writer, said liberals don’t know how to keep politics out of their funerals.”

Personally I find the fuss strange. Funerals are frequently a rallying point for the ideals of the deceased. When else do you have the attention of the country focused and thinking about a single set of values and issues? Nobody is claiming that President Carter said anything that would have gone contrary to the wishes of Correta King. On the contrary, she probably would have been very pleased at the attention those words have received.

Here is the portion President Carter’s speech which raised the fuss: “It was difficult for them personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the targets of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance.” The video is here. Anyone who thinks that wiretaps without court supervision will always be used correctly, for the right purposes, and not to discredit legitimate causes, should think long and hard about our history.

Law Schools Against Free Speech – The Supreme Court considers military recruitment on campus. By Dahlia Lithwick

Law Schools Against Free Speech – The Supreme Court considers military recruitment on campus.Slate – Dahlia Lithwick

Chief Justice John Roberts instantly shuts him down, saying the Solomon Amendment “doesn’t insist that you do anything. … It says that if you want our money, you have to let our recruiters on campus.” Moreover, for Roberts, this is not about speech. “This is conduct.” Rosenkranz disagrees. “This is a refusal to send e-mail. This is conduct only in that they are moving molecules. … This is speech.”

There is a certain irony here that both the liberals and conservatives have fallen into the same trap. Fundamentally the federal government has very little control of our lives. However, once you start accepting money from it–you are caught in a dependency trap. For religious conservatives, this means the eradication of support for any particular religion in schools. For anti-discrimination liberals, it means allowing military recruiters into the schools. I confess that I have little sympathy for either side. If you want to be free of federal restrictions–stay clear of federal money.

Interior Dept. Defends Its Keeping of Indian Books

Interior Dept. Defends Its Keeping of Indian Books

The Interior Department says its audits of accounts it manages for thousands of Native Americans have found few errors and little evidence that anyone tampered with the records.

The agency’s position, in a report sent to Congress on Monday, runs contrary to that of Native Americans who filed a 1996 class-action lawsuit saying that they were cheated out of more than $100 billion because of mismanagement of oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties from their lands.

The Post goes on to say that the Interior Department documented this in a “glossy 24-page brochure”. They weren’t kidding. Whatever the truth of the claims, there’s no question that someone blew a bunch of money on a significant bit of form over content. You can see for yourself at http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust/iimaccounting.pdf. Pure PR.

If You Can’t Fix It – Change the Judge

https://openclipart.org/detail/11125/judge-hammerSince a Blackfeet tribe leader named Eloise Cobell filed this lawsuit in 1996, several independent investigations found much evidence for Lamberth’s concerns. Although, the government initially said its existing Indian trust fund records were in good shape, Lamberth hired a hacker who found they could easily be accessed and altered from outside. Other reviews found that the Interior Department had never kept complete records, used unknown amounts of money to help balance the federal budget, and let the oil and gas industry use Indian lands at bargain rates. They also concluded that the Clinton and Bush administrations have repeatedly sidestepped initiating the required accounting because of the likely cost.

When they stand before a different bench tomorrow, government lawyers are expected to try to shift the discussion from the acknowledged failure of Interior to properly account for money held in trust and due 50,000 Indians, to the often assaulting words and actions of a powerful Reagan appointee who has made no secret of his disgust. Only three times before has this appeals court disqualified a trial judge from a case.

This case has been going on for years. Everyone agrees that the judge has been particularly pithy in his criticism of the government’s behavior. But fundamentally the problem is that the Interior Department has repeatedly been unable to clean up its act.

Words That Fall from Grace

World Wide Words newsletter is a fun read. The latest typos, odd words, and questions about where phrases come from. This time there’s a request for suggestions of words or phrases that have falling into disuse.

7 – Over To You
World Wide Words newsletter

This time it’s a personal request, aimed at British subscribers in particular, though others can also play. I’m writing a piece in my current book about words and phrases that were once common but that have fallen out of everyday use within the past 75 years or so. These will mostly be names for things, and I’m avoiding slang or colloquial terms. My aged brain is having trouble assembling an adequate selection.

Some already in my list will give you the idea of what I’m aiming at: emergency brake, running board, motoring holiday, antimacassar, career girl, wireless (a radio), gramophone, washboard, wringer, record player, double feature, liberty bodice, brassiere (as opposed to bra), inkwell, and pedal pushers.

Please send your suggestions to this special address oldwords@worldwidewords.org, not my usual e-mail address.

Protecting Property in New Orleans—The Law Looks the Other Way for Some

New York Times

ORLEANS, Sept. 8 – Waters were receding across this flood-beaten city today as police officers began confiscating weapons, including legally registered firearms, from civilians in preparation for a mass forced evacuation of the residents still living here.

No civilians in New Orleans will be allowed to carry pistols, shotguns or other firearms, said P. Edwin Compass III, the superintendent of police. “Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons,” he said.

But that order apparently does not apply to hundreds of security guards hired by businesses and some wealthy individuals to protect property. The guards, employees of private security companies like Blackwater, openly carry M-16’s and other assault rifles. Mr. Compass said that he was aware of the private guards, but that the police had no plans to make them give up their weapons.

That’s an interesting distinction. One can understand the practical aspects. Those who can afford to hire armed security forces presumably can afford to keep them healthy and fed. And those forces (perhaps) are less likely to engage in illegal activities than non-incorporated forces. But fundamentally, this means that people with money can protect their property by means that violate the law, but people without money cannot. Whether the decision is valid or not, the result is that the poor will lose more than the rich.