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Weekend Journal: February 16-18, 2007

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Tales of Misconduct
Taser Madness: Flagler Legal

For the citizen's safety

A judge and the State Attorney’s office are restoring a little sanity in the case of the 17-year-old student a sheriff’s deputy shot with a Taser, in the student’s classroom, two weeks ago. (See the case background here). It turns out that a circuit judge in 2006 ordered the boy, then 15, into a “moderate-risk residential program for delinquent teens.” He’d been violent enough with his mother—throwing a cordless phone at her (she ducked) and stealing her credit cards—that she’d called 911 on a couple of occasions, leading to charges against him and the judge’s order: it was clear even then that it wasn’t punishment he needed, but help. The assistant state attorney in court on Thursday made that very point. He never went to a residential program because there wasn’t a bed available for him: so it goes with our social services. Help for delinquency is a luxury, when it should be a basic service. No help for the kid? Throw him back out on his own, let him fend for himself against the usual structures and strictures of a different kind of arrested development: that of police thuggery posing as school discipline. I can hear the local nattering brigades, in this liberally reactionary county of ours, taking the student’s violent past as vindication for their punishing judgments and his tasering: Look, he attacked his mother, he has a record, he’s a felon, and so on. They’ll point to the teacher’s reaction as more vindication for the deputy’s reaction (“scared” is how the latest story has the teacher in class, even though the teacher in his witness statement at no point indicated anything resembling fright; oh, how time facilitates self-serving embellishment). So goes the wagon-circling, although it was good to see the state attorney and the judge attempting to knock back a little sense into the situation: the student’s history changes nothing about the incident itself. It was mishandled. He should never have been tasered. The fact that he shouldn’t have been in the classroom in the first place suggests that the school obviously knew of his past, obviously knew of his instability, and obviously should have invoked more guarded and less inflaming, not more violent, means of subduing him. A Taser shot of course is always the easiest recourse. Who knows, maybe Scott Vedder, the deputy who tasered him, and who had previous run-ins with him outside of school, wasn’t using his taser on him for the first time. The newspaper also ran a column by a former special education teacher with thirty-three years’ experience who doesn’t mince words:

I have been following, with more than a passing interest, the story line concerning the use of a Taser against a Flagler County special education student. It is a familiar scene with an added twist. I can tell you that after spending more than 35,000 hours with this type of student, I can offer one indisputable conclusion: Cops do not belong in schools, period. End of argument. Teachers take four to six years in college, additional in-service training, then add countless hours of professional experience in learning how to deal effectively with behavior problems. With rare exceptions, administrators—and least of all police—have neither the training nor the one-to-one interaction that is required to make the correct, split-second decisions necessary to defuse a potentially volatile scenario. An example would be the increasingly more prevalent occurrences of in-school violence. In schools where emotionally disturbed students are the only pupils, these things are much rarer. That is because their staff members know what to look for, what to do and when to do it. In addition, the more the kids see the police, the less of a quieting effect it has on them. It seems to me that in the Flagler Palm Coast High School Taser incident, the school followed the correct protocols, up to the point where they called the police officer. After you clear the class and take away his audience, what more can this kid do? […] Remove the focus of his anger—person, test, etc.—and wait for his mind to go on to something else. […] Even a slow learner, and I’m not talking about students here, should realize that escalating either of these episodes to the point that they lead to altercation and reports in The News- Journal, and national media too, is not the desired outcome. Schools should be educational settings, for heaven’s sake, not a place for children to be treated like criminals. [See the full column...]

But we’re living in times when police and “authorities”’ assumptions are such that in any given unusually situation pitting an individual against authorities, the individuals is automatically a suspect, a danger to be controlled at all costs.

Previous pieces in this series:

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From the Editorial Board
The Feith Channel

Feith-based follies

From the News-Journal: “At the time in 2002, the public face of the Bush administration was still talking as if it was doing everything possible to avoid a war with Iraq. In reality, plans for an invasion were so solid by August of that year—seven months before the invasion and months before the administration went to the United Nations to make the case for war—that Pentagon planners already had a slide show about what Iraq would look like post-invasion, in 2006: It would be democratic. It would be stable. It would be a staunch American ally. And no more than 5,000 American troops would be stationed there. (You can see the slideshow at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, Armed with rosy myths like that, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense at the time—and a chief architect of the invasion—could make the case to President Bush that attacking Saddam Hussein would be easy and rewarding. [Opposing] views never made it to the president’s ears, which Vice President Dick Cheney waxed with gate-keeping of his own. What views he did let through were those of Douglas Feith, an aide to Rumsfeld and the person chiefly responsible for coordinating policy between national security agencies. […] As the Guardian, the British newspaper, reported in July 2003, the Office of Special Plans was set up “to second-guess CIA information and operated under the patronage of hardline conservatives in the top rungs of the administration, the Pentagon and at the White House, including Vice President Dick Cheney.” The approach directly clashed with the way the intelligence community is designed to work. That mission was set out by Ronald Reagan in a 1981 executive order: “All reasonable and lawful means must be used to ensure that the United States will receive the best intelligence available,” the order stated, while maximum emphasis should be given to fostering analytical competition among appropriate elements of the intelligence community. “All agencies and departments should seek to ensure full and free exchange of information in order to derive maximum benefit from the United States intelligence effort.” That’s not how Feith, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush understood intelligence.” [See the full editorial]

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Police State Chronicles
Walking While Black

Police nostalgia in Bunnell, Fla.

Bunnell is the county seat here in Flagler County, Florida. It’s not much of a town these days, well removed from its old lumber and turpentine prosperities of half a century ago, and a small industry in palmetto leaves. Its biggest claim to sentience now is a massive, ostentatious county administration building that just opened, the result of a former school superintendent’s grandiose and not quite financially honest follies: He sold the idea as a $12 million project that would efficiently combine county and school district administrations. The building will top $30 million by the time its last plasma-screen television is suspended from gapers’ disbelief. Off in the older part of town, Bunnell’s old ways—the city’s racist past remains prologue—persist: Last week a couple of men were walking along a street, or hanging out. The new police chief in town pulls up in a cruiser, ostensibly to introduce himself. The police chief is from Miami , just started here in late January. The men on the street were black. Before long he’s asking them why they’re there, who they are, whether they have identification, and, according to them, telling them that he’s sick of the bullshit, that he knows why they’re there. That they’re drug dealers and he’s having them arrested. Prowling and loitering is the official charge. In a “known drug area.” The arrest report has it all in black and white. They couldn’t provide a reason for being where they were. They carried cash. They were from out of town. (Yes, from Palm Coast , seven miles away.) Because that’s what we’ve come to here. We have to give police a reason as to our whereabouts. We have to produce ID on demand. We must never, never walk away when we see an officer. He’ll interpret that as probable cause for an arrest. As indeed the arresting officer did in this case: they tried to walk away the arrest report says, and when queried they gave conflicting answers. The name of one of the men arrested is Cecil Hubbert. He’s 21. Graduated from the local high school in 2004. Had never been in trouble. No record. He had $1,000 in his pocket. Confiscated as drug money. All on the police’s assumption that because the men were where they were, and couldn’t explain it, they must have been drug dealers. Hubbert told me he was going to his aunt. Not that it matters: it’s no one’s business what he was doing on the street corner or who he was going to see, if anyone. But there’s irony in all this. The $1,000? He says it was a gift from his brother, for his birthday last January 24 (the date of birth on the arrest report.) Nice brother. And who does his brother happen to be? Eddie Johnson, one of the rising stars of the U.S. national soccer team. Still: it shouldn’t matter. What’s revolting is that stories like this happen often, and increasingly so, because police forces, like the military, are assumed sacred cows. The other predominant assumption is that if the police arrest someone, it’s deserved. That “scumbags” need dealt with, that “criminals’” rights go too far. Once in a while a judge will take a stand and say enough. But rarely. Thursday was one of those times, incidentally. “In a rebuke of a surveillance practice greatly expanded by the New York Police Department after the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal judge ruled today that the police must stop the routine videotaping of people at public gatherings unless there was an indication that unlawful activity may occur,” the Times reported. “Nearly four years ago, at the request of New York City, the same judge, Charles S. Haight Jr., had given the police greater authority to investigate political, social and religious groups. In today’s ruling, however, Judge Haight of Federal District Court in Manhattan found that by videotaping people who were exercising their right to free speech and breaking no laws, the Police Department had ignored the milder limits he had imposed on it in 2003.” Ignored the milder limits he had imposed. That’s what the police do now. They ignore limits on their authority on the assumption that judges will wink-wink-nudge-nudge and approve everything they do. It’s the Bunnell mentality.

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False Positive
The Two Americas

And it's not getting better

If you’re familiar with the layout of the Wall Street Journal’s front page, in print and on line, you know about the center-left column that itemizes news and business stories in magnificently written snippets, with page references or links for the full story. Last night there was an interesting juxtaposition between the top item and the second item on the list. The top item read: “MAJOR BANKS and Wall Street firms are unloading bad home loans, as more Americans fall behind on mortgage payments.” The second item read: “The Dow industrials surged 87.01 to a record 12741.86, fueled by Bernanke's testimony. The Dow transports and utilities hit records for the first time since 1998. The Nasdaq rose 1.2%.” It was unintentional on the Journal’s part, but there’s rarely been a more telling illustration of the two worlds of the American economy and the enormous gulf between them. There’s the world of the official figures, of a solid GDP, low unemployment, record-breaking days on Wall Street, record-breaking company profits, still relatively low interest rates and low inflation, all of it adding up to credit-grabbing by a White House under the illusion that we’re in a healthy, prosperous economy. We are, if you’re among those toward whom the Bush economic policies and tax cuts have been geared: Investors, the upper 5 to 10 percent crust of society, and anyone with oil stock in his portfolio. We’re not, if you’re everybody else, including middle class wage salary earners who’ve discovered over the last few years what it’s like to have higher health insurance premiums than federal and state taxes taken out of their paychecks (as one example). The first item on the Wall Street Journal’s news-list tells it all: More Americans are falling behind on mortgage payments. The boom of the housing bubble is over. The gimmickry of those favorable lending rates—no-interest loans, adjustable-rate mortgages—are hitting their expiration dates. The higher-paying jobs homeowners were expecting, when they bought their expensive homes several years ago, are not materializing. Eviction notices are. (See below.) Meanwhile, the Journal is reporting that the median home price in the fourth quarter was down 2.7% from a year earlier to $219,300, still nowhere near what the average family can afford. So we get the economic world of the unofficial figures, of the families struggling to make ends meet despite two or three jobs, of debt interest devouring household savings, of families having to decide between medical care and car payments, or car payments and college payments, of children in their twenties returning home because they can’t make it on their own, at least not on their starting salaries, not if they’re working at Home Depot or Wal-Mart or any one of those big-boxed labor camps. On average, maybe the economy is doing all right. But it’s the skewed up numbers from the top that make things look more rosy than they are. They’re great at the top. They’re punishing anywhere below. And these are the good times. Imagine what the next recession will be like.


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There’s a family we know, Cheryl and I. They’re nearby neighbors. They have three children, one of them in middle school, one of them in third grade, one of them less than a year old. The third-grader plays with my daughter and all the other kids in our cul-de-sac. She’s also in Cheryl’s string orchestra. The family arrived here last summer, washed up from Katrina. They’d lived in Mississippi. They’re poor. Their phones, land-lines or cell, have worked only periodically, so that they’ve often come by to use our phone. During the summer on weekend nights the little girl used to knock on three of the cul-de-sac’s doors, in turn, to try her luck at who would take her in as a sleep-over. Her birthday is coming up, on the 24 th, two days after our daughter’s birthday. Yesterday we found out they’re being evicted. Cheryl found out by chance. The little girl was telling her that she’d overheard her parents say something about moving to a shelter, that she was already withdrawn from school, Friday would be her last day, and she was turning in her violin, which the program had granted her on an instrument scholarship (Cheryl’s program, underwritten by the school district here, is free, precisely to ensure that income is never an obstacle to string education; the instruments scholarships are provided through our own fund-raising). What were we to do? I spoke to the man of the family, a young sort, former Navy man, he’s been doing odd jobs, construction when he could, landscaping when he’s hired, although I’d also heard him previously complain of bosses, of being fired, maybe serially. That’s not the point. The point is that three children are about to go without a roof and two without a school, and there seems to be nothing to do. I made a few calls. The eviction notice turned out to be something of an intimidation tactic, an attempt by the landlord to get them kicked out without having to go through the usual process, the legal system (as required). So that buys the family a few more days. County services are available for emergency rent or bills, but only to the tune of $400, maximum, and only if a job has been lined up. The man has no job, and he owes $2,300 on rent alone. The state Department of Children and Families will put up another $400, but on the same conditions as the county service. The school district is hiring bus drivers and custodians. I called those I know there who can speed things up. But it’s the luck of the draw at best: the jobs are sought after, and certain qualifications are required. A clean record, too. He tells me he has all that. But you never know until the background checks are run through. Last night in their spare home, carptless, almost without furniture, the girl sitting at the kitchen table doing homework, the boy working on a calculator, it was the two of them who were most vocal with their thanks that someone was intervening—even though nothing had been accomplished, even though it was just talk of temporary reassurance, of delaying tactics, of bare possibilities that maybe a miracle job could be turned up, nothing more. Chances are nothing will turn up, and within days they’ll be gone, turning up who knows where. No assistance, no support, no prospects but periodic migrations from place to place, chancing one grace period of unpaid bills after another until another move becomes necessary. In another society, maybe even in this one in another time, the neighborhood might have pooled its good will and found a way out for them. But charity is a conditional hive of suspicion anymore, a lifeline to dependence. We seek out official resources and lacking those, we rationalize the limits of the possible and go on our way. As they’ll go on theirs, if not now, then in a few weeks, a few months, after the next job goes sour.


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War Harvest
Israel's Surge of Despair


Gregory Levey in Salon: “In light of Israel's close strategic ties with the United States, and particularly with the Bush administration, it has been all but taboo in the past for Israeli officials to openly criticize U.S. policy. But some officials I spoke with also voiced rising fears -- and disapproval -- over the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and Iran. Those officials include octogenarian Rafi Eitan, currently an Israeli cabinet minister, who told me that in the wake of Israel's failed efforts to crush Hezbollah, and with the deepening crisis in Iraq, Israel is in one of the most precarious situations he has ever seen in his seven decades of military and government service. Regarding President Bush's handing of Iraq, Eitan said, "Unless the policy changes, it is hopeless." The level of gloom inside the Israeli government is accompanied by a creeping sense of paralysis -- one that could be dangerous not just for Israel, but for U.S. interests in the region, and for the Middle East as a whole. A recent conversation with a senior member of Israel's diplomatic corps -- someone with extensive experience in Israel's foreign policy establishment -- left me stunned by the degree of negativity. I have known him personally for several years and have never seen him so down on the country's prospects. "We lost the war," he told me, regarding last summer's conflict. "We all know that," he continued, adding that the failure against Hezbollah is the "core reason" for the deepening pessimism inside the government. This contrasts sharply, of course, with the official government line. As recently as Feb. 1, speaking to an Israeli commission investigating the war effort, Prime Minister Olmert, according to his aides, insisted once again that "Israel won the war." The senior Israeli diplomat in part blamed Olmert's politics. "Do you know why we lost? Because soldiers don't want to die for these leaders. Who wants to die for Amir Peretz?" he said, referring to the Israeli defense minister, whose qualifications for the job have been called into question. Peretz, the leader of the Labor Party, but who had no real security or defense credentials, was appointed by Olmert last year to ensure the Labor Party's involvement in Olmert's coalition government. The senior Israeli diplomat's grievances went beyond the Defense Ministry. He lamented the wave of cronyism, corruption and sexual harassment scandals that have plagued the government in recent times. "We live in a corrupt society, where those with merit don't get anywhere," he said. "It's a very sad time for the Jewish state." ” See the full piece...

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Bon Vieux Coluche
Le CRS Arabe


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Abstraction of the Day
Howard Hodgkin


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In Praise of Criticism
The Crock of Self-Esteem

If you're smart, don't tell me I am

Po Bronson in New York Magazine: “When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it. For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly. Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.” Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.” See the full piece...

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Any Day Now
Iran: Ready to Attack

From the New Statesman: “American military operations for a major conventional war with Iran could be implemented any day. They extend far beyond targeting suspect WMD facilities and will enable President Bush to destroy Iran's military, political and economic infrastructure overnight using conventional weapons. British military sources told the New Statesman, on condition of anonymity, that "the US military switched its whole focus to Iran" as soon as Saddam Hussein was kicked out of Baghdad. It continued this strategy, even though it had American infantry bogged down in fighting the insurgency in Iraq. The US army, navy, air force and marines have all prepared battle plans and spent four years building bases and training for "Operation Iranian Freedom". Admiral Fallon, the new head of US Central Command, has inherited computerised plans under the name TIRANNT (Theatre Iran Near Term). The Bush administration has made much of sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf. But it is a tiny part of the preparations. Post 9/11, the US navy can put six carriers into battle at a month's notice. Two carriers in the region, the USS John C Stennis and the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, could quickly be joined by three more now at sea: USS Ronald Reagan, USS Harry S Truman and USS Theodore Roosevelt, as well as by USS Nimitz. Each carrier force includes hundreds of cruise missiles. Then there are the marines, who are not tied down fighting in Iraq. Several marine forces are assembling, each with its own aircraft carrier. These carrier forces can each conduct a version of the D-Day landings. They come with landing craft, tanks, jump-jets, thousands of troops and, yes, hundreds more cruise missiles. Their task is to destroy Iranian forces able to attack oil tankers and to secure oilfields and installations. They have trained for this mission since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Today, marines have the USS Boxer and USS Bataan carrier forces in the Gulf and probably also the USS Kearsarge and USS Bonhomme Richard. Three others, the USS Peleliu, USS Wasp and USS Iwo Jima, are ready to join them. Earlier this year, HQ staff to manage these forces were moved from Virginia to Bahrain.” The full story...

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In the Blogosphere

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