Tag Archives: Trayvon Martin

Part III: Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

In this, my thrilling and final series conclusion, I will explore problems that ex-cons face, as well as articulate a path that I see moving forward.  

After people get out of prison, society never truly stops punishing them for their crimes.  In many states you can’t vote or sit on a jury.  Ex-cons are often not eligible for food stamps or public housing.  Finally, it will be hard to attend college, and, of course, to get jobs–discrimination against ex-cons is seen as entirely appropriate.

Of course, ex-cons need jobs desperately.  In addition to often being low-income and ineligible for various forms of assistance, many ex-cons leave prison with debt from accumulating child payments, court fees, probation fines, legal fees, etc.  Steady employment, ironically, is also a condition of parole — a catch 22.  To avoid violating parole, prisoners have to take very low paying jobs even if it does not make sense (e.g., they have to take a 30 minute taxi-ride to work everyday that costs $40 where they make $55 a day at minimum wage).  Unfortunately, within 3 years, 70% of realeased prisoners are rearreested and half are sent back to prison.  Many of them have not commited new crimes, but have instead merely violated parole in one way or another.

So why doesn’t the explosion in our prison population, the prison rape issue, and these other injustices get so little attention? Why is society not interested i?  One obvioius reason is that the victims usually have no voice: they are poor and they cannot vote, which means they can’t back campaigns financially or vote in them.  Another reason, and this was news to me, is that the supreme court has ruled that the first amendment does not prevent prison authorities from barring the press.

Perhaps more importantly there are, in my personal opinion,  five significant cultural dynamics at work that make the American penal system deeply dysfunctional:

  1. America prefers to punish than rehab; we do not feel that others deserve forgiveness or protection once they have failed us to a certain extent–they are now “criminals.”  (Three personal encounters of American passionate punitiveness: inner-city residents I worked with in Buffalo would very often fervently prefer to punish those they thought were responsible for the decline of their neighborhood rather than take steps to arrest that decline, even if punishing others directly contributed to neighborhood decline.  Secondly, in my work in housing court, I saw how Judges might love to throw homeowners and slumlords in jail for violating housing codes, but throwing a slum lord in jail is the only way to ensure that his/her property will not be fixed.  Finally, after I rescued that guy on the subway, I was dumbfounded by how often I was asked if I would have still risked my life if knowing the guy was drunk; as if being drunk and doing something dumb meant that you did not deserve to live.)
  2. The second cultural factor that makes our prison system worse comes from American Christianity.  Too often the church has equated state justice as God’s justice and forgiveness and rehabilitation with weakness.  Fortunately this is solvable.  I would argue that true Christianity is about forgiveness.  There is a debate here that can be won.
  3. Thirdly, while Americans love the entrepenurial spirit and those who take risks when it comes to business, while Americans love taking risks with their health and eating whatever they want, Americans won’t accept risk when it comes to safety.  Americans are willing to keep another million people a year in prison if they think it lowers the chance of their daughter getting raped even .3%.  (I remember moving back to America from Taiwan, and I was amazed at the vast apparatus involved each morning in the task of transporting children to school–those same kids are packing capri-sun, jello, PB&J on white bread, and string cheese for lunch.)
  4. Americans, because we are rich, can afford to indulge our love of segregating ourselves.  The old, the young, the mentally ill, the disabled, the “low-lifes,” the dying, and even the dead, will be curtained off and put out of view as long as we can afford it.
  5. There is little money, passion, or organizational support around protecting men from getting raped.

So what can we do?   Christopher Glazek identifies 7 tasks.

  1. Put up with increased risk in our daily lives by letting people out of prisons.  (Pooling risk, he claims, is the liberal insight.)  I agree, but this is relatively minor.    
  2. Parole needs to be less strict.  Agree.  
  3. He asserts that “we must be ready to sacrifice the trational progressive agenda on the altar of criminal justice” and he offers an example of the death penalty.  For the last three decades, about 30 people a year have been executed.  This, he claims, is a tiny injustice compared to the millions of prisoners and communities that suffer from our penal system generally.  Therefore, “Prison abolitionists should be ready to advocate for a massive expansion of the death penalty if that’s what it takes to move the discussion forward.”  Probably wise to an extent.  
  4. Stop wasting time on gun control; it helps little.  I’m not sure.  
  5. Legalize narcotics.  I agree strongly.  
  6. Lower standards for life sentences.  Agree.  (Interestingly, unlike rape, homicide has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any crime–you can only murder your wife once, suggesting that death row inmates may pose less of a security risk than other categories of offenders.)
  7. Lower standards for prison sentences across the board.  Agree.

These suggestions are mostly good, but I think he widely misses the mark.  These policies are fine, but our first policy aims must be that which has a catalytic effect and increases energy around a host of policy goals.  Here is my list:

  1. I would suggest that the most important task before us is fully reinstating criminals after they have paid their debt to society.  In other words, all discrimination against ex-cons must be illegal.  Specifically, they must be allowed to vote and get jobs.  This would grease the skids for all prison reform by giving the victims more power.  Also, a true 2nd chance would hopefully descrease recidivism rates and allow “ex-cons” to reinvent themselves and gain self-respect.   )This might sound goofy, but I tend think we should have civil reconciliation ceremonies after which ex-cons are declared full citizens again.  These events should be as celebrated as weddings.)
  2. We need the disinfectant of light; the press must have access.
  3. We need to count crimes against criminals as actual crimes, in the data and in our own heads.
  4. This means we need to address the cultural factors that might be mutable.  The goal of prisons must be rehabilitation instead of punishment and we need to push back on all forms of Christianity that advocates for harsher sentencing.

Lastly, and this may sound weird, but I think each of us needs to forgive “the other” for all the anonymous crimes that have been commited against us.  For example, I am still mad at the thief who stole a beautiful leather jacket in college.  I had bought it in Tuscany when I was 17, spending way too much money.  I think there is a part of me that assigns to known criminals all the frustration of unsolved crimes against me.

But whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the real problem with our penal system is that you and I, and others too, care more about other things.  This is a political issue; it can only be mitigated through public will.  Certainly, there are many other important issues vying for our attention, but I hope that prison reform will be on your list of issues worth paying attention to going forward.

In other news, Alicia probably won’t get to Sri Lanka until late June!  Argh!  But I did make a friend today.  He is 18, a hotel receptionist and a massage therapist, and his name is Anwas.  He walked around with me today and we went to the History Museum together.  Also picture is a tuk tuk ( 3 wheeler Colombo taxi), and a beautiful pool in a restaurant I checked out.  Forgive the bad quality iPod pics.  

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A Note to George Zimmerman

Last week’s post sparked great discussion.  It is so gratifying tackling these issues with so many friends.  Throughout those conversations, the following three points emerged:

First, as per usual, I am entirely unimpressed with the issues that the media and public choose to care about.  Obesity, to name just one issue, kills millions and costs the US economy at least $300 billion a year and is treated primarily with those two incredibly cost-prohibitive treatments: diet and exercise.

Horrible and solvable issues abound and the Trayvon shooting is not one of them.  All the ranting about this being part of a larger issue about gun control and “Stand your Ground” laws is silly.  Perhaps we will get more cases like this because of these new laws, but right now each year about 56.5% of gun-related deaths in this country are suicides, a majority of what is left is drug or gang related, only 14% of gun deaths involve strangers, and on the whole violent crime like this has continued to decline across the country since the 1980s.  The rise of homicidal neighborhood watch volunteers is not likely to be an important public health issue in the future.

Second, we must be slow to judge what happened and why it happened (this video was something that made me pause).  This story has inspired racial outrage prematurely.  Of course, it very well might be racism that killed Trayvon Martin.  If so, when that is discovered to be the case, I will agree that it is part of a disturbing, larger trend of racism.  But the trends that I see right now are an America who jumps to conclusions when the victim of a shooting is black and progressives who jump to conclusions about gun owners.  So, my progressive friends, take it from me: I find the second amendment archaic, stand your ground laws unwise, vigilanteism foolish, and the modern Republican Party upsetting.  But nonetheless, Zimmerman deserves to be tried based on the laws of his state and not your sense of what is right and wrong.  He should have his day in court and, if you are truly an open-minded liberal, in the court of your opinion.

Third, I have something to say to Zimmerman himself.  (If he is anything like me, he probably spends too much time looking at his story online, so I hope he finds this.)

Zimmerman, I don’t know you, and I don’t know what happened, but please know that I’m feeling for you man, for the fame that has rushed in on you, and for the tragic circumstances that led to it.  Two years ago, I almost hit a baby in a stroller while pulling out of a gas station.  I cannot imagine what you are going through having actually killed a 17-year-old.  And now it must seem like your whole life is out of your control and you don’t know who your friends are.  I am sorry so much has been taken from you so quickly without a conviction to justify it.

But do me a favor.  I know my little traffic accident made me think about giving up cars entirely–that perhaps it just wasn’t worth speeding around at high velocity in large hulks of metal if I could destroy something so precious with it–but I ultimately didn’t because it was too inconvenient. But you could succeed where I failed.  I am wondering, has this experience caused you to reflect anew on whether owning personal handguns is worth it?  If you came out against gun ownership right now, or even sold your own guns, it would send a strong statement.  If you don’t change your mind on guns, I respect that, but you should still think about it.  Very soon your 15 minutes of fame will be gone, your national audience will dissipate, and you will lose the chance to effect enormous change.  Don’t waste the moment. ; )


George Zimmerman and Me

One year ago this month, I grabbed the guy off the third rail at a downtown Atlanta station and my life got pretty crazy for a couple of weeks with interviews, new reports, and the story going viral online (click here if you don’t know what I am talking about).  I did not want to say it at the time, because I thought people would look down on me, but 15 minutes of fame is hard on the adrenal glands.  Sure, starving and dying of disease to death can be taxing, but watching a news story about you spread across the internet is stressful too.  Seeing facts become skewed, details lost, and misconceptions develop exasperated me.  I realized that, in everyday life, if a friend misrepresents you to someone, you can contact the friend and whoever they talked with and set the record straight.  But in a public story that millions see and thousands forward, control is illusory.  Over those few weeks I got a bit better at being comfortable being talked about by  strangers, but it left me with a healthy respect for the chronically famous, and pity for those poor souls plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight.

George Zimmerman is such a person.  One second he’s an insurance underwriter–entirely unknown.  Within a few weeks, protests calling for his arrest are happening across the nation and 2.2 million people have signed a petition demanding he be arrested and tried.

I was not good at interviews at first.  You can see my “men and boys” epic fail here.  But I watched  Zimmerman’s brother on Piers Morgan’s show doing incredibly well considering one guy was plucked from obscurity and the other makes a living arguing in the public eye.

From what I can gather on the awesome Wikipedia and the world wide web, people are going crazy: “George Zimmerman received death threats and moved out of his home in the wake of the controversy.[5] The New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 reward for the “capture” of George Zimmerman;[174][175] this was condemned by the city of Sanford.[174]  Film director Spike Lee retweeted to his 200,000 Twitter followers an erroneous Sanford, Florida address, purported to be Zimmerman’s, which forced a family out of their home to avoid harassment after they received hate mail and unwanted visits from reporters.[176][177][178]

…seems a tad much perhaps?

At least I had the good fortune of being in a story that was made better by skewing the facts in my favor.  People wanted me to be a good guy.  George Zimmerman does not have that luxurty.  The story of him shooting an unarmed teenager is more sensational the more villainous Zimmerman appears.  Of course, this story is way bigger than mine ever was, more beyond his control, and responses to the story are way more cruel and uninterested in facts.

A second lesson I learned from my 15 minutes of fame is that there is no such thing.  When one-off stories like this develop, nobody is famous or known in any complexity that might reflect reality.   A thin projection of yourself, attached to your name, is sent out into the void and people judge it.

The average person feels remarkable freedom to judge people that they don’t know shit about.  They will hear a 1-2 sentence news story and say, “What a dumbass!”  It’s really quite incredible.  Really?  You’ve heard enough information?  Ah.  Absolutely.  No it makes sense.  I’m sure you are very intuitive. 🙂

As friends and I discussed the Trayvon Martin shooting, I was very surprised at how such kind and thoughtful people can also be so quick to judge.  I am amazed at “facts” that people are citing, in my own conversations and in the news, that are so obviously inconclusive and meant to paint a picture.

For instance, it is oft said that he apparently has called the police 46 times since 2004 — but I probably called the police twice as many times in my 2 years as a community organizer.  He also was part of the block club, and was tasked with the neighborhood watch.  Some say he was a busy-body who took it upon himself.  Others say he was asked by the community to do it.  I say that if you walked down any block that I had worked on, you would probably hear both things said about me too.

So, as far as I can tell, Zimmerman might be a vigilante idiot.  He also might be a responsible and active community citizen.  I don’t know.  But I do know that nobody else knows either and that all the facts that I know about the case, including the skin color of the victim, might be incidental and not reflect the mind of George Zimmerman.