After unrest over shooting, Ferguson police now wear body cameras

(Reuters) – Police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, have begun wearing body cameras after weeks of unrest over the shooting death of an unarmed black teen by a white officer and sharply differing accounts of the incident, officials said on Sunday.

Why YOU must VOTE: The Ferguson example, and the Killing of Michael Brown

Reblogged from The Secular Jurist:

By Robert A. Vella

The population of Ferguson, Missouri is over two-thirds Black.  In the 2010 census, Whites comprised less than 30% of the town’s residents.  So, it would be logical to assume the city government would reflect those racial demographics.

But, that assumption would be completely wrong.  The mayor of Ferguson is white, five of the six city council members are white, 50 of its 53 police officers are white, and the local school board is 100% white.

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How the U.S. Judicial System withholds information from Jurors to keep enforcing Unjust Laws

Reblogged from The Secular Jurist:

By Robert A. Vella

Nullification is a term used in American political nomenclature to identify the constitutionally-invalid proposition that states can ignore federal laws they disagree with.  This notion became a popular rallying point in the Antebellum South when plantation owners fought to preserve the institution of slavery.  It was also used to justify the infamous Jim Crow laws which sprang-up in the former Confederate states after the U.S. Civil War.  Even today, the idea of nullification is being championed by the Tea Party in an effort to legitimize its radical anti-government agenda.

But, there is a perfectly legal way of nullifying federal, state, and local laws very few Americans know about because the U.S. judicial system is deliberately concealing it.  From Wikipedia:

Jury nullification occurs in a trial when a jury acquits a defendant, even though the members of the jury believe the defendant to be guilty of the charges. This may occur when members of the jury disagree with the law the defendant has been charged with breaking, or believe that the law should not be applied in that particular case. A jury can similarly convict a defendant on the ground of disagreement with an existing law, even if no law is broken (although in jurisdictions with double jeopardy rules, a conviction can be overturned on appeal, but an acquittal cannot).

A jury verdict contrary to the letter of the law pertains only to the particular case before it. If a pattern of acquittals develops, however, in response to repeated attempts to prosecute a statutory offence, this can have the de facto effect of invalidating the statute. A pattern of jury nullification may indicate public opposition to an unwanted legislative enactment.

In the past, it was feared that a single judge or panel of government officials may be unduly influenced to follow established legal practice, even when that practice had drifted from its origins. In most modern Western legal systems, however, juries are often instructed to serve only as “finders of facts“, whose role it is to determine the veracity of the evidence presented, and the weight accorded to the evidence,[1] to apply that evidence to the law and reach a verdict, but not to decide what the law is. Similarly, juries are routinely cautioned by courts and some attorneys not to allow sympathy for a party or other affected persons to compromise the fair and dispassionate evaluation of evidence during the guilt phase of a trial. These instructions are criticized by advocates of jury nullification. Some commonly cited historical examples of jury nullification involve the refusal of American colonial juries to convict a defendant under English law.[2]

Juries have also refused to convict due to the perceived injustice of a law in general,[3] or the perceived injustice of the way the law is applied in particular cases.[4] There have also been cases where the juries have refused to convict due to their own prejudices such as the race of one of the parties in the case.[5]

Obviously, general application of this legal concept would open up a gigantic can-of-worms in jury trials, and that is certainly the reason why it is being kept under wraps.  Prosecutors would be forced to dismiss prospective jurors who understood and believed in its validity.  That could pose enormous logistical problems for court proceedings.

Jury nullification does, however, offer intriguing prospects for mitigating patently unjust laws such as Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground statute which enabled the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder trial.  How this could be employed without allowing egregious abuses, such as acquittals based solely on race, remains completely unresolved.  If a workable solution could be found, jury nullification might prove to be an effective tool in combating the gross inequality now pervading the American system of justice.

Further reading:  Nullification: Jurors’ Secret Weapon Against Harsh Sentencing

Fixing America’s problems, and the ‘Drunk in the Library’

The Secular Jurist

By Robert A. Vella

This week, Bill Moyers concluded his interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz who said America’s worsening income inequality can be fixed through tax reform.  The underlying problem is a political one which both created the rise in inequality and stands as an obstacle to remedial solutions.  As he stated:

It’s amazing. And Americans have not yet grasped the reality of where we are. That our economic system has not been delivering for most Americans. And the fact that this has been true and that we have no longer a country where there’s opportunity, where the life prospects of a young person are so dependent on the income and education of his parents means that our view of the way our economic system works has to change.

My view is that these are not inevitable. These are not just the result of the laws of economics. You…

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The First Lady wants to know what we’re thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday, so here’s my answer

Reblogged from The Secular Jurist:

By Robert A. Vella

First Lady Michelle Obama sent out an email asking people what they are thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday.  Here is the response I sent her:

Dear Mr. President and First Lady,

I am thankful for getting healthcare coverage, under the Medicaid expansion provision of Obamacare, for the first time in six years.  Now, I won’t be one illness or injury away from financial ruin or perhaps something even worse.

On a sadder note, I am also thankful I’m old enough that I may not have to witness the final destruction of American democracy which is inevitable – in my opinion – if current trends continue.  Our nation cannot survive under the current circumstances.  When money rules at the exclusion of everything else, a republic becomes a plutocracy.  When amoral and self-serving business interests subordinate the larger interests of the people, corporatism replaces democracy.  When growing economic inequality stratifies society to a critical point, it collapses under its own weight.  The failure of America’s leadership to address this imminent crisis is not just the result of political obstructionism.  It is also due to a lack of courage within the socioeconomic establishment to speak directly to the nation about this incredibly serious problem.  Yesterday, Pope Francis wrote of the “tyranny” of unfettered capitalism and the “idolatry of money.”  His sentiments were profoundly accurate, bravely delivered, and long overdue to an increasingly desperate world.


I am not a religious person, but the Pope’s apostolic exhortation really grabbed my attention.  In it, he also wrote:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Pope Francis stated in reference to the supply-side economic theory promoted by conservative ideology and popularized as “Reaganomics” in the 1980′s.  “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system,” he emphatically added.

Why Can’t Democracy Trump Inequality?

Why Can’t Democracy Trump Inequality?.

This won’t be the first you’ve heard of this; nor likely to be the last…

Why Can’t Democracy Trump Inequality?

August 21, 2013

Sam Pizzigati

Fifty years ago, average Americans lived in a society that had been growing — and had become — much more equal. In 1963, of every $100 in personal income, less than $10 went to the nation’s richest 1 percent.

Americans today live in a land much more unequal. The nation’s top 1 percent are taking just under 20 percent of America’s income, double the 1963 level.

But no Americans, in all the years since 1963, have ever voted for doubling the income share of America’s most affluent. No candidates, in all those years, have ever campaigned on a platform that called for enriching the already rich.

Yet the rich have been enriched. America’s top 0.01 percent reported incomes in 1963 that averaged $4.1 million in today’s dollars. In 2011, the most recent year with stats available, our top 0.01 percent averaged $23.7 million, nearly six times more than their counterparts in 1963, after taking inflation into account.

This colossal upward redistribution of income took years to unfold, and — for many of those years — most Americans didn’t even realize that some grand redistribution was even taking place.

Few Americans remain that clueless today. Most of us now have a fairly clear sense that American society has become fundamentally — and dangerously — more unequal. The starkly contrasting fortunes of America’s 1 and 99 percent have become a staple of America’s political discourse.

So why is this stark contrast continuing to get even starker?

Americans do, after all, live amid democratic institutions. Why haven’t the American people, through these institutions, been able to undo the public policies that squeeze the bottom 99 percent and lavishly reward the crew at the top?

Why, in other words, hasn’t democracy slowed rising inequality?

Four political scientists are taking a crack at answering exactly this question in the current issue of the American Economic Association’s Journal of Economic Perspectives, a special issue devoted to debating America’s vast gulf between the rich and everyone else.

The four analysts — Stanford’s Adam Bonica, Princeton’s Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole from the University of Georgia, and NYU’s Howard Rosenthal — lay out a nuanced reading of the American political scene that explores the interplay of a wide variety of factors, everything from the impact of the partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts to voter turnout by income level.

But one particular reality dramatically drives their analysis: Societies that let wealth concentrate at enormously intense levels will quite predictably end up with a wealthy who can concentrate enormous resources on getting their way.

These wealthy underwrite political campaigns. They spend fortunes on lobbying. They keep politicians and bureaucrats “friendly” to their interests with a “revolving door” that promises lucrative employment in the private sector.

Bonica, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal do an especially engaging job exploring, with both data and anecdotal evidence, just how deeply America’s super rich have come to dominate the nation’s election process.

One example from their new paper: Back in 1980, no American gave out more in federal election political contributions than Cecil Haden, the owner of a tugboat company. Haden contributed all of $1.72 million, in today’s dollars, almost six times more than any other political contributor in 1980.

In the 2012 election cycle, by contrast, just one deep-pocket couple alone, gaming industry giant Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, together shelled out $103.4 million to bend politics in their favored wealth-concentrating direction.

The Adelsons sit comfortably within the richest 0.01 percent of America’s voting age population. Over 40 percent of the contributions to American political campaigns are now emanating from this super-rich elite strata.

In the 1980s, campaign contributions from the top 0.01 percent roughly equaled the campaign contributions from all of organized labor. In 2012, note political scientists Bonica, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal in their new analysis, America’s top 0.01 percent all by themselves “outspent labor by more than a 4:1 margin.”

Donors in this top 0.01 percent, their analysis adds, “give pretty evenly to Democrats and Republicans” — and they get a pretty good return on their investment. Both “Democrats as well as Republicans,” the four analysts observe, have come to “rely on big donors.”

The results from this reliance? Back in the 1930s, Democrats in Congress put in place the financial industry regulations that helped create a more equal mid-20th century America. In our time, Democrats have helped undo these regulations.

In 1993, a large cohort of Democrats in Congress backed the legislation that ended restrictions on interstate banking. In 1999, Democrats helped pass the bill that let federally insured commercial banks make speculative investments.

The next year, a block of congressional Democrats blessed the measure that prevented the regulation of “derivatives,” the exotic new financial bets that would go on to wreak economic havoc in 2008.

We’ll never be able to fully “gauge the effect of the Democrats’ reliance on contributions from the wealthy,” acknowledge political scientists Bonica, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal. But at the least, they continue, this reliance “does likely preclude a strong focus on redistributive policies” that would in any significant way discomfort the movers and shakers who top America’s moneyed class.

Conventional economists, the four analysts add, tend to ascribe rising inequality to broad trends like globalization and technological change — and ignore the political decisions that determine how these trends play out in real life.

New technologies, for instance, don’t automatically have to concentrate wealth — and these new technologies wouldn’t have that impact if intellectual property laws, a product of political give-and-take, better protected the public interest.

But too many lawmakers and other elected leaders can’t see that “public interest.” Cascades of cash — from America’s super rich — have them conveniently blinded.

Labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, writes widely about inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.

The Satanic Capitalist | Poor Prospects in a “Middle Class” Society …

The Satanic Capitalist | Poor Prospects in a “Middle Class” Society ….

 Poor Prospects in a “Middle Class” Society

Sunday, 18 August 2013 11:10 By Gary LaponSocialist Worker | News Analysis


Gary Lapon sets out the facts about a country where ‘have-nots’ outnumber ‘haves’.

One of the biggest myths about the United States is that it’s a mostly “middle class” society, with poverty confined to a minority of the population.

The reality is exactly the opposite: The vast majority of people in the United States will experience poverty and economic insecurity for a significant portion of their lives.

A recent Associated Press feature article—relying on data from an exhaustive survey to be published next year by Oxford University Press—has put this in stark terms: Around four out of every five people in the U.S. will endure unemployment, receive food stamps and other forms of government aid, and/or have an income below 150 percent of the official poverty line for at least one year of their lives before age 60.

That startling statistic shows the truth about a society where there are a lot more have-nots or have-littles than have-enoughs. But there are so many other myths and misconceptions about poverty in America. For example, the AP and Oxford statistics show that while people of color suffer economic difficulties at disproportionately high rates, large numbers of whites fall into the same category. Similarly, more whites benefit from social programs such as welfare and food stamps than any other group.

These facts contradict the racist stereotypes about who is poor or at risk of falling into poverty. And they underline the reality that the vast majority of Americans of all races are in the same boat—they scramble to get by, at best—while only a small minority of people live comfortably throughout their lives, and a tiny few are obscenely rich.

The official government statistics measuring poverty often obscure more than they reveal.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011, there were 46.2 million people living below the federal poverty level—15 percent of the 308 million people living in the United States.

If this statistic were an accurate reflection of the number of people living in poverty, it would still represent a crisis. However, actual levels of economic and social deprivation and insecurity are much higher than the official figures show—because they are based on outdated measures that greatly underestimate the true level of impoverishment in the richest country in the world.

For example, in 2013, an individual living in the continental U.S. must make less than $11,490 a year to be counted as officially poor. For a family of four, the poverty level is $23,550.

Those are paltry sums, as anyone reading this article knows. Even the figure used in the AP and Oxford research of 150 percent of the federal government’s poverty level—$17,235 for an individual and $35,325 for a family of four—is painfully low. In many parts of the country, making ends meet on twice the federal poverty threshold is difficult if not impossible.

That’s what the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found when its researchers developed their “Family Budget Calculator,” which, unlike the federal measures, takes into account specific regional differences in the prices of necessities. The EPI looks at the costs of a variety of goods and services—housing, food, health care, child care, transportation and other basic needs – to determine what a family in a given area would need to earn “in order to attain a secure yet modest living standard.”

Regional variations can be extreme. For example, average rent in New York City is now over $3,000, compared to just under $600 in Oklahoma City. But according to EPI, its calculator shows that families everywhere “need more than twice the amount of the federal poverty line to get by.”

Nationally, four in 10 people live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Thus, the number of people in the U.S. who would be classified as poor based on this more accurate standard is more than two-and-a-half times greater than the official figure.

The survey data reported by AP reveal even more widespread experiences with poverty—79 percent of everyone in the U.S. will spend at least one year of their lives facing “periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line.”

The researchers who calculated that statistics believe things will only get worse if current trends continue—by 2030, they expect that percentage to reach 85 percent.

So economic insecurity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Another recent survey found that:

Fewer than one in four Americans have enough money in their savings account to cover at least six months of expenses, enough to help cushion the blow of a job loss, medical emergency or some other unexpected event, according to the survey of 1,000 adults. Meanwhile, 50 percent of those surveyed have less than a three-month cushion and 27 percent had no savings at all.

The consequences of all this plays out in numerous ways in people’s day-to-day lives.

For example, bouts of unemployment can have serious, lasting impacts on those affected, even for those who find another job. Unemployment is associated with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

For children, “poverty experienced at any stage of the child’s development is associated with reduced cognitive outcomes,” according to researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Increasingly, a period of unemployment can trigger a longer term, if not permanent, drop in living standards. According to the National Employment Law Project, during the Great Recession, 60 percent of lost jobs were at the middle level of wages, paying between $13.84 and $21.13 an hour, but only 22 percent of new jobs in the recover fell into this category. By contrast, low-wage jobs accounted for 58 percent of all new jobs created in the recovery.

Many of these new jobs are in retail and fast food, where workers are often forced to work multiple jobs and still fail to make ends meet. As Terrance Wise, a worker at Pizza Hut and Burger King in Kansas City, who went on strike this month to demand $15 per hour, told Democracy Now!:

I have three lovely daughters and an equally lovable fiancée. And I’m working two jobs at about 50, 60 hours a week, so I’m leaving in the morning…and my daughters were still sleeping. When I get off tonight, they will probably be asleep again. So it’s consecutive days where I don’t get to see my daughters… That’s one element that’s really the hardest…

It’s just an everyday hustle. I use public transportation every day, so I have to leave early to get to work. So I’m gone 15, 17 hours a day. It’s just really hard—a struggle every day.

The flip side of that struggle—and of the fact that vast majority of people in the country live in poverty now, have lived in poverty in the past, or will in the future—is that a relatively small minority has amassed such fantastic wealth that they will never have to worry about going without, even if they never earn another cent.

The 400 richest Americans, with a total net worth of $1.7 trillion as of last year, were worth an average of $4.2 billion each, enough to support over 89,000 families of four at 200 percent of the poverty level for an entire year.

It is no coincidence that overall corporate profits, measured as a share of the gross domestic product, are at record highs while overall wages are at record lows as a percentage of the GDP. The threat of economic insecurity is an important part of discouraging workers’ struggles and increasing profits at the expense of the living standards of the vast majority. The personal experience of going without—and the constant reminder from seeing family, friends and others in the community deal with stretches of poverty and unemployment—sends the message that workers who step out of line can face the same fate.

The research covered in the AP feature shows growth in the rates of white poverty, something often overlooked in mainstream media accounts. According to AP:

By race, nonwhites still have a higher risk of being economically insecure, at 90 percent. But compared with the official poverty rate, some of the biggest jumps under the newer measure are among whites, with more than 76 percent enduring periods of joblessness, life on welfare or near-poverty.

According to the Census Bureau, there were more than 19 million non-Latino whites living below the poverty line in 2011, compared to 11 million African Americans and 13 million Latinos.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 36.9 percent of food stamp recipients are non-Latino whites, while 22.8 percent are Black and 9.6 percent are Latino(the race of recipients was unknown in 18.4 percent of cases, according to the USDA). Blacks, whites and Latinos each accounted for roughly the same percentage—between 30 and 32 percent—of recipients of the main welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Despite these facts, poverty in the U.S. is often racialized by political leaders—more often and more brazenly by Republicans, but by Democrats, too. The common stereotype about these government programs is that they benefit an “undeserving” (read: Black) minority, not workers of all races.

Ronald Reagan, for example, explicitly made race a part of his caricature of Cadillac-driving (Black) “welfare queens” and “young bucks” who were taking advantage of hard-working (white) “taxpayers.” During the 2012 Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich recycled the same racist filth when he called Obama the “food stamp president.”

But Democrats have latched on to the same stereotypes when they were the ones wielding the budget act. It was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who promised to “end welfare as we have come to know it”—and carried through his campaign pledge when he signed the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.” Likewise, Hillary Clinton, in her losing bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, was playing the same racist game when she claimed she was better positioned than Barack Obama to win the support of “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”

The facts, however, undermine these commonly used stereotypes. As the AP pointed out, “For the first time since 1975, the number of white single-mother households living in poverty with children surpassed or equaled Black ones in the past decade, spurred by job losses and faster rates of out-of-wedlock births among whites.”

The fact that widespread poverty and insecurity crosses racial lines on the one hand, but that racist stereotypes are used to justify attacks on social programs that benefit the majority on the other, means that struggles for economic and racial justice must be intertwined in order for either one to be successful. Those who seek to defend and extend unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps and other benefits that help working people must challenge the racism used to undermine them—while those who seek racial justice must also struggle for economic justice.

On this 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, it is important to remember that the civil rights demonstrators were demanding jobs and freedom. The calls for racial and economic justice were linked, as they were again in the Poor Peoples’ Campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. would help launch a few years later.Speaking of the campaign, King called it “a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”

That struggle for the right to a decent life is still with us today.