Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live

Regular readers of Kmareka know that I spent my teens attending a Pentecostal church and that I was exorcised to cast out the demons of depression. I can now say that like the song goes, I try to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.

It actually didn’t do me much harm, but our secular society and law are strong enough to keep a lid on violence. Even so, American children are injured or killed at the hands of parents or religious groups regularly, one case currently on trial here. Exorcism has the seal of Vatican approval and is practiced in many Evangelical churches, as well as non-Christian religions.

I’m not even saying that a religious rite that brings comfort and peace of mind is not a good thing. It can be. But literally demonizing troubled people can lead to ostracism and lynching, and has many times. Candles in the church are pretty if you don’t set the place on fire…

HOUSTON — At home in Nigeria, the Pentecostal preacher Helen Ukpabio draws thousands to her revival meetings. Last August, when she had herself consecrated Christendom’s first “lady apostle,” Nigerian politicians and Nollywood actors attended the ceremony. Her books and DVDs, which explain how Satan possesses children, are widely known.

So well-known, in fact, that Ms. Ukpabio’s critics say her teachings have contributed to the torture or abandonment of thousands of Nigerian children — including infants and toddlers — suspected of being witches and warlocks. Her culpability is a central contention of “Saving Africa’s Witch Children,” a documentary that made its American debut Wednesday on HBO2.

I am posting this to warn against complacency. Don’t be persuaded that this atrocious story is some exotic Nigerian oddity–tragic but nothing to do with us. In fact, this religion is some of the more extreme dogma of American and British missionaries, cycled through Nigerian culture and emerging in a nation where the government is weak and people are desperate. The photo in the NYT article shows Ukpabio preaching to a group of Americans in Houston. They have their hands up in praise. They love this stuff.

I am alarmed because I saw the same kind of thing in Warwick, RI thirty years ago. There was no better entertainment for the faithful than to have some traveling preacher tell lurid stories of demon possession and triumph over evil. If the preacher was from another country that was even more thrilling.

It’s relevant to note that American evangelical ministers are speaking to huge audiences in Uganda supporting laws that persecute homosexuals– even to the death penalty. It’s relevant to note that some of the troubled people I saw years ago who underwent exorcism were trying to make the gay go away. Dehumanization of the other allows people to practice brutality with a clear conscience.

There is wrongdoing under the cover of religion that should be exposed. We are reluctant to examine a candidate’s religious associations too closely–we have a tradition of respect– but this story has to be told. Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was blessed by an African minister, Thomas Muthee, who was leading a service at her church in Alaska. Muthee likes to brag about raising a mob against a woman he called a witch, and how he drove her from her home, and the American believers say, ‘amen’. Disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard also liked to practice ‘spiritual warfare’.

There are groups more political than spiritual that label themselves Christian and are doing harm both in the US and abroad. Like a wise man said, ‘by their fruits you will know them’. The New York Times story is disturbing and enlightening, and shows that faith is not always a good thing.

Striking Out

If politicians were only politicians—if all they created were bombast, spin, and strange bedfellows—they might be moderately tolerable. The way any varmint is tolerable. You begrudgingly accept their existence, with the understanding that they will be a nuisance but do limited harm. Sort of like cockroaches, only less attractive. And harder to squash.

Anyway, politicians are not simply politicians; they are also legislators. They create laws. In most, if not all, cases, these laws are crafted in a way that gives undue weight to political interests. The interests of you and me take a backseat. And we all know what happens in the backseat. People get screwed.

Those who are less fortunate—who lack the economic, social, or even psychological resources to gain access to the driver’s seat—tend to get screwed the most by laws borne of political expedience. Consider the various three-strikes laws that were enacted in the 1990’s to address criminal recidivism. Perpetrators who committed a third offense were subject to lengthy mandatory sentences, up to and including life in prison. The supposed bad guys got put away, and the politicians got to demonstrate that they were tough on crime and possessed cojones as large as their egos. A win/win situation, right?

Wrong. Judges lost the latitude to judge, correctional costs skyrocketed, and many petty criminals were treated like the second coming of Al Capone. One such offender was Norman Williams of California:

Williams, who is 46, was a homeless drug addict in 1997 when he was convicted of petty theft, for stealing a floor jack from a tow truck. It was the last step on his path to serving life. In 1982, Williams burglarized an apartment that was being fumigated: he was hapless enough to be robbed at gunpoint on his way out, and later he helped the police recover the stolen property. In 1992, he stole two hand drills and some other tools from an art studio attached to a house; the owner confronted him, and he dropped everything and fled. Still, for the theft of the floor jack, Williams was sentenced to life in prison under California’s repeat-offender law: three strikes and you’re out. [link]

Williams’ story is detailed in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Like many caught up in the legal system, he stumbled out of the starting gate. “The 8th of 12 children, Williams grew up with a mother who was a binge drinker. She pimped out Williams and his brothers to men she knew. A social worker wrote, ‘These men paid the boys money to perform anal intercourse on the boys and they . . . gave the money to their mother for wine.’ As an adult, Williams became a cocaine addict and lived on the streets of Long Beach.” In short, he never had much of a chance. He was first exploited by his mother and later exploited by politicians, who made hay by making him (and others like him) pay.

In 2003, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court effectively upheld California’s three-strikes law, ruling that it did not violate the 8th amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Despite the high court’s imprimatur, some in the business of enforcing the law recognized it’s inherent unfairness. Interestingly, as the New York Times reports, this included Steve Cooley, the district attorney for Los Angeles County and a Republican career prosecutor:

After three strikes became law, Cooley watched one of his colleagues in the D.A.’s office prosecute Gregory Taylor, a homeless man who at dawn one morning in 1997 went to a church where he’d often gotten meals and pried open the door to its food pantry. The priest later testified on his behalf. Taylor’s first crime was a purse-snatching; his second was attempting to steal a wallet. He didn’t hurt anyone. Taylor was sentenced to life. “It was almost one-upmanship, almost a game — bye-bye for life,” Cooley says, remembering the attitude in the office.

Three years later, Cooley ran for D.A. on a platform of restrained three-strikes enforcement, calling the law “a necessary weapon, one that must be used with precision and not in a scatter-gun fashion.” In office, he turned his critique into policy. The L.A. district attorney’s office no longer seeks life sentences for offenders like Norman Williams or Gregory Taylor. The presumption is that prosecutors ask for a life sentence only if a third-strike crime is violent or serious. Petty thieves and most drug offenders are presumed to merit a double sentence, the penalty for a second strike, unless their previous record includes a hard-core crime like murder, armed robbery, sexual assault or possession of large quantities of drugs. During Cooley’s first year in office, three-strikes convictions in Los Angeles County triggering life sentences dropped 39 percent. No other prosecutor’s office in California has a written policy like Cooley’s, though a couple of D.A.’s informally exercise similar discretion.

It’s a mistake, though, to cast Cooley as a full-tilt reformer. He opposed Prop 66 for ignoring a defendant’s criminal history. Instead, in 2006, he offered up his own bill, which tracked his policy as D.A., taking minor drug crimes and petty theft off the list of three-strikes offenses unless one of the first two strikes involved a crime that Cooley considers hard-core. For staking out even this middle ground, Cooley became prosecutor non grata among his fellow D.A.’s. No district attorney, not even the most liberal, supported his bill, and it died in Senate committee.

Cooley could once again pay a price for his three-strikes record. This spring, he announced his candidacy for California attorney general. His Republican rivals have hammered him for his moderate stance. “He’s acting as an enabler for habitual offenders,” State Senator Tom Harman told me. “I think that’s wrong. I want to put them in prison.” The race has developed into a litmus test: for 15 years, no serious candidate for major statewide office has dared to criticize three strikes. If Cooley makes it through his party’s primary on June 8 — and especially if he goes on to win in November — the law will no longer seem untouchable. If he loses, three strikes will be all the more difficult to dislodge. [link]

The political gamesmanship playing out in California is playing out nationwide. Reactionary elements seeking to gain or maintain power and influence are dueling with more moderate and progressive elements, which similarly hope to gain or maintain power and influence but also seek the restoration of fairness and common sense. It’s anyone’s guess which side will prevail. The tea (party) leaves are difficult to read.

For now, those of us who yearn and strive for a more just and equitable society, where sensible governance takes the wheel and politics takes its rightful place in the backseat, can only hope for the best and keep fighting the good fight. Perhaps, one day, we will strike out on the right road, in the right direction.

Rand Paul Beat Up by Straw Man

Okay, I’m not piling on, but I have to say this because no one else is–

Rand Paul is putting un-American words in the President’s mouth, or claiming that some shadowy entity in the Obama administration is using this kind of language…

“What I don’t like from the president’s administration is this sort of, ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP,’” Paul said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business.”

Of course this sounds un-American. It sounds like something out of a bad WWII movie. From the guy with the dueling scar and the eye patch. “Ve haf vays of making you talk, ya ha ha.” I seen that film before.

Can you imagine ‘no drama Obama’ bragging that he’ll crush windpipes beneath his jackboots? Can you imagine him authorizing a spokesperson to say that? I didn’t think so.

But the press rushed right by that weird statement and zoomed in on Paul’s suggestion that the President shouldn’t whip poor little British Petroleum when it’s down. Accidents happen.

That’s okay, but I really think the ‘boot on the neck’ phrase is revealing. Also that it ‘sounds un-American’ –those words the President never said. I think that Paul built a straw man and it beat him up. I also think that the phrase was a dog-whistle. Paul’s best bet is to just come clean, say what he means and give up the code words and waffling. Voters can buy it or not, but if he believes in something he should stand by it.

WHAT THE MAN SAID: President Obama’s actual words are way less colorful than the Jackboot version…

“We know that our dependence on foreign oil endangers our security and our economy,” Mr. Obama said in a Rose Garden announcement. “And the disaster in the gulf only underscores that even as we pursue domestic production to reduce our reliance on imported oil, our long-term security depends on the development of alternative sources of fuel and new transportation technologies.”

Obama’s administration is talking about denying government contracts to corporations that trash our coast. Harsh, isn’t it?

And did it ‘sound un-American’ when we were hearing from the Bush administration that “British Petroleum is my friend and I’ll shred anyone who gets in the way like a day-old bucket of coleslaw!” The fact that these words were never actually said should not stop us from deploring how un-American George Bush would sound if he said them.

Actions speak louder than words. British Petroleum didn’t have to worry about being slowed down by regulators in the eight glorious Bush years.

BP needs to pay all the damages without delay, and we all need to look at conservation– proven, possible and practical, if we have the sense of urgency to really do it.

Steve Stycos on Markets, Land Deals, and Happenings in Cranston

School Committee member Steve Stycos provided the following update through his e-newsletter:

MARKET GROWS

Alan and Bob Fratantuono of Moosup River Farm attended the market last week, selling asparagus and Ingrid Fratantuono’s preserves. Other vendors, including Warwick beekeeper Bernie Bieder, will join the market during the next month. Last week, Richard Duquette, who in past years sold “hens and chicks,” spiraea and other plants, stopped by the market to say he is recovering from major surgery, but may return in the fall.

If you would like to help promote the market, we need people to ask local businesses to display our attractive poster in their shop windows. The poster was designed by Juan Cano. If you want to help put up posters, please respond to this email.

The market accepts EBT cards for recipients of SNAP/food stamps and debit cards. All transactions start at the recycling table.

BIRD WALK

Saturday’s market (May 22) will feature a bird walk along the Pawtuxet River, guided by Mike Kieron, assistant curator of the Roger Williams Park Museum of Natural History. Please bring binoculars, but not dogs. Children are welcome, but should be at least seven years old. The walk begins at 8 AM in the lower Rhodes on the Pawtuxet parking lot.

HORSHOE CRAB WALK

Edgewood’s Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay’s habitat restoration coordinator, will lead a salt marsh walk at Cranston’s Stillhouse Cove May 25. The short walk starts at 6:30 PM in hopes of viewing horseshoe crab mating during a spring moon tide. Wenley will also discuss the Stillhouse Cove restoration efforts. The walk will start at the cove’s southern end, at the junction of Ocean Avenue and Narragansett Boulevard. All welcome. Rain date is May 26.

ANOTHER CRANSTON LAND DEAL

A controversial proposal to change zoning to allow more development in western Cranston will be considered by the Cranston City Council Monday Mat 22. The amendment, which was approved by the Ordinance Committee May 13, would rezone 95 acres near the junction of Pippin Orchard Road and Laten Knight Road to allow quarter acre lots.

Mayor Fung and City Planner Peter Lapolla oppose the proposal which they estimate could cost the city $3.1 million more in school, road and public safety costs than it would raise in tax revenue. Potentially, Lapolla told the council, the change could allow 155 new housing lots. City Council President John Lanni, Ward 2 Councilman Emilio Navarro and Ward 4 Councilman Robert Pelletier defended the change as a way to promote economic growth and allow middle class people to purchase homes. The landowner, Albert Scaralia, is a major contributor to the Cranston Democratic Party and city officials, including Navarro and Fung.

Several speakers, including Rachel McNally of Save Cranston’s Open Space, Katie King and Steve Stycos of the West Bay Land Trust and residents Mary Genco and Dale Saccocio urged the council to reconsider the environmental and financial costs of the change to the proposed city comprehensive plan. The Ordinance Committee (with Ordinance Committee chair Anthony Lupino absent), however, voted unanimously to send the amended comprehensive plan to the full council.

Earlier this year the council approved a zone change, proposed by Ward 5 Councilman Richard Santamaria, to allow Stop & Shop to build a supermarket on Warwick Avenue. Since then Stop & Shop developer Richard Baccari has been implicated in a scheme to bribe four members of the North Providence City Council to receive a zone change for another Stop & Shop building.

If you are opposed to subsidizing development in western Cranston or support keeping part of our city rural, contact your city councilman. The meeting Monday May 24 begins at 7 PM at City Hall.

EVENTS AT HALL LIBRARY

May 24th, 6 PM: Sam Brusco on renovating a home without spending a fortune. Sam will share his knowledge about permits, architects and construction for homeowners who are considering a renovation project.

May 19th, 6:30 PM: Rhode Island Civil War Round Table.

May 19th, 6:30 PM: Reading in the Hall. The William Hall Library Book Group will discuss Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife. This is a searing novel of infidelity and politics at the highest level. Call or email to register.

May 26th, 6 PM: Cranston High School East Jazz Band and Jazz Combo will perform on the lawn. Directed by Mark Collozzi, the Jazz Band will perform standards as well as some contemporary pieces. Join us for the opening concert of the 2010 season. The rain date is May 27.

June 9th, 12:30 PM: This month’s Brown Bag Poetry will feature local author and poet John Long. John will be reading from “Seaward Edge” and his latest collection of poetry. Bring your lunch to this free program.

See you Saturday at the market.

Somewhere in America

Risking Their Lives

Lest we forget, it was not so long ago that Americans risked their lives to defend our dignity  and help to undo the curse of racial segregation.

I googled ‘lunch counter’ and got a number of these images. This is from the Smithsonian, and I don’t know the names of the young men or the exact place or year, but surely it was the South in the 1960′s.

Sometimes the accumulation of small indignities can become unbearable. Especially when the threat of major harm, and even death, is always in the background.  The men in the picture risked all for equal rights.

Politicians like to re-write the past. Because we have more social freedom, and we find it good, it’s comfortable to believe it was always this way– that reasonable people would always act so. But close to the time and place of this photo a 14 year old boy was tortured to death by grown men for stepping out of line. No mercy.

We love the Martin Luther King who had a dream. But look at the grim faces of these men, and remember that Dr.King faced threats to himself and his family every day, faced prison, and finally was murdered.

What we have now is hard won, and not guaranteed. Many living today remember segregation. Sometimes citizens need the government to step in when the rights of the individual are threatened.  The level playing field only exists in the ideal. Here on earth people need protection and justice.

FAMILY STORY: ten years ago I attended the Green family reunion in Montgomery, Alabama. It was my first visit to the deep South. Montgomery had a museum dedicated to the history of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. My mother in law said, ‘It takes me back.’

She lived this history. Many Americans lived it and remember.

HISTORICAL VIEW:  An argument that libertarianism without strong legal protections for individuals is a pathway to re-segregation.

Be Very Afraid

Rand Paul in Kentucky. When the Repubs go totally over the edge the hope of a two-party system with a real debate recedes.

Is this significant, a measure of the tone of the debate?

HEBRON, Ky. — After winning Kentucky’s Republican primary Tuesday night, Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul refused to take the call of congratulations from opponent Trey Grayson, according to Grayson’s campaign manager Nate Hodson.
Hodson did not elaborate, except to say “it happened.”
“This is truly a classless act in politics,” said Marc Wilson, a Republican lobbyist and friend of Trey Grayson.

Six months is a long time.

OUTSIDE AGITATORS: If you grew up in the sixties, it’s very weird to hear Rand Paul vs ‘the establishment’. This link follows the money, most of it was not raised in the Bluegrass state.

ON RACE: Well, you can make an argument, as here via Taylor Marsh, that restaurants should be able to refuse service to any racial or other groups the management doesn’t like, and the public will so abhor this disgraceful prejudice that such business will get no customers. That’s how it worked through most of American history, right? No one ever got ahead by pouring hell and humiliation on a minority. And Martin Luther King had a dream.
Rand Paul repeats the same line on Rachel Maddow.

SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE: That would be, ‘Weasel’. Sarah Palin’s endorsement was warmly received by the Paul campaign. Don’t think either of them is inarticulate. They are actually highly skilled in the faux-sincere techniques of appearing to say something while preserving deniability. I’d look out for ‘dog-whistles’ too since both of them pal around with groups that they wouldn’t want to be seen with on the national stage. Palin and Paul are both very smart people and have cash and influence behind them. Don’t underestimate.

CALLING HIM OUT: Rand Paul is already doing damage control over his convoluted non-support for the laws that banned racial discrimination.

On Thursday Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) an iconic figure of the Civil Rights movement seemed visibly angered when discussing Paul’s comments on MSNBC.
“I do believe he is not good for this country going forward,” the South Carolina Democrat declared.

Read Rep. Clyburn’s point by point dismantling of Rand Paul’s argument here.