Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fear on Trial

In I'm Sorry John Henry, I wrote:
John Henry Faulk was a well educated man. A protege of J. Frank Dobie, a friend of Edward R. Murrow and Louis Nizer. A man who knew the evils of the Jim Crow segregation laws and spoke up against it at a time when there was real danger in doing so. A man who stood up to a world class bully like Roy Cohn when, again, there was real danger, and won. I think back and wonder how he must have felt with the boy I was asking him about things of which he knew so much and about which I knew so little.
Like rotted deadfall, I thought Roy Cohn had faded from the landscape of history. I was wrong. If I asked my teenage sons about Cohn, neither would likely know him, though both are conversant on current events and history. Neither would know who, nor what he was, nor why either inquiry is important.

Cohn's rise to fame started with his public role in the prosecution and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. As this post is about Cohn, not the issues surrounding the Rosenbergs, it is enough to say they were the only two civilians to be executed for espionage during the Cold War. The Rosenberg's Wikipedia page summarizes Cohn's role in their prosecution:
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death by [Federal] Judge Irving Kaufman. [Prosecutor] Roy Cohn, who would play a major role assisting Joseph McCarthy with his hearings as his chief counsel, later claimed that his influence led to both [U.S. Attorney] Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman being appointed to the case, and that Kaufman imposed the death penalty based on his, Cohn's, personal recommendation. The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into anti-American activities of U.S. citizens. (footnote omitted).
To understand Joseph McCarthy, you must know Cohn. McCarthyism may now be a label of infamy, but without Cohn, there would have been no McCarthy. It is hard now to sort the fiction from the fact concerning those times, but Cohn was there, missionary to the threat of communist conspiracy. John Henry Faulk was fall out of Cohn's zeal. Faulk's book Fear on Trial documents his brush with this history, and Cohn.

Yet as McCarthy's star crashed, Cohn's somehow ascended. Cohn became a "go to" lawyer in New York. He was a social staple at the Hamptons, Manhattan's Upper East Side parties and Studio 54. Cohn was later disbarred for stealing a client's money. Nicholas von Hoffman in his biography Citizen Cohn, published in 1988, describes much worse ethical lapses by Cohn. Cohn used litigation like a club, using lawsuits to intimidate and cajole opposition to heel.

Cohn also vilified what is known now as the LBGT community. This despite his own brutal death at the hands of AIDS. To his death he publicly insisted it was cancer.

The question is how did Cohn not just survive, but thrive? Cohn had the hucksters ability to make people believe in him while simultaneously snaking a hand into their pocket. Cohn did all this while sneering at the institutions and authority he believed to be ruining his America. It was all part of his skill set in selling the art of the deal.

In a story titled The Snarling Death of Roy M. Cohn from the March 1988 edition of LIFE Magazine, von Hoffman documents Cohn's America, and includes a photograph of an unrepentant Cohn months before his death:
But just as his Communist foes hid their secret beliefs, Roy Cohn hid his private life as a homosexual. When AIDS killed him in the bloom of the Reagan years, the public discourse had turned to family values and Americanism. The triumph of patriotic kitsch must have pleased Cohn, for he himself reveled in little flag-waving displays. At his parties he'd haul people to their feet to sing 'God Bless America,' evidently his favorite song, and though he was a lifelong operagoer, Roy's idea of a good time was to sing patriotic ditties at a piano bar in Provincetown, on Cape Cod.  
From the mid 1970's until his death Cohn mentored a person whose talent he must have recognized: a young Donald Trump. The connection between Trump and Cohn, and the lessons young Trump learned from Cohn are detailed by both the New York Times and Politico. In my deepest reaches I believed Cohn's death was proof karma existed. Now, it seems, Roy Cohn is actually laughing at me, and suckers like me, from some celestial, or infernal, perch.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Special People

Special. The word applies to people, underpaid and under appreciated, that work with those with special needs. Charles Kinsey is one of those people. A behavioral therapist at MacTown Panther Group Home in Miami, he assists the autistic and others with special needs. One of those group home members is Arnaldo Rio-Soto. Here is a photo of Arnaldo.

Most now have heard about what happened. Rio-Soto wandered off from MacTown and Kinsey went after him to try and coax him back to the facility. An unfortunate 911 call was made about a suicidal man with a gun, which in reality was a toy truck. Police responded and Kinsey was shot and wounded.

The president of the Police Benevolent Association in Dade County said Jonathan Aledda, a four-year veteran of the North Miami Police Department, was actually aiming for Rio-Soto because Aledda believed Kinsey was in danger. 

All this has been sifted over in the media at large. Originally, this post was going to be about the larger context of the law surrounding excessive force. I decided instead to write about what Kinsey, and people like him do. It is personal to me.

When a member of your family is special needs, individuals like Charles Kinsey change your life. It is a weary trope to write that unless you have walked in someone else's shoes you cannot know their struggles. The difficulties in being a caregiver to a child who is not likely ever to be self sufficient is hard to communicate. All the things large and small. All the ways it affects your life, and those around you. People like Charles Kinsey are special gifts. Thus, I was paying attention when Kinsey's boss, at MacTown, Clint Bowser, said this of Kinsey:
 This individual he was caring for [Rio-Soto] is a person with significant behavioral issues, and Charles was specifically chosen to work with this individual as his one-on-one staff, because he is that much of a skilled employee...
It is all too easy for me to envision it in my own mind's eye. I see my son in the street instead of Arnaldo, with his own toy. I picture the caregiver who would follow him into that street and stay with him knowing they were both in danger from forces both known and unknown.

That takes a special person.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Misguided Editorial That Yields Strange Fruit

I picked up my local paper today - The Bryan College Station Eagle - and as I am wont to do on Sunday, turned to the Opinions section. There greeting me like a curmudgeonly neighbor was editorial entitled "Hearne Officer Should Not Have Appeared in Rap Video." 

The backstory is not complicated. A Bryan rap/hip-hop artist named L-Dub, stage name for Larry Workman, recently released a video "Don't Shoot Me Down" in which a Hearne police officer appears. Near the end of the video, the officer, Randall Barrow, points a pistol to the head of a kneeling Workman.The editorial correctly points out the lyrics criticize police for the recent deaths of African American men. The video also prominently shows a sign about seeking justice for Sandra Bland, a woman of color who died a year ago in the Waller County (Texas) jail.

At the end of the video, the officer puts down his weapon and arrests Workman without violence.

The problem, according to The Eagle Editorial Board?
[While] the video shows what Workman and many others see as reality, it is a reality we are trying as a country to end and move on. 
If Barrow's superiors or other city officials gave permission for him to be in the video, they were misguided. For Barrow willingly to participate is disappointing. 
We can do better in America. 
We must do better. 
Except for the doing better part, this editorial gets it wrong. For starters, Hearne has been a singular example of what Workman's video is about: The often deadly interaction between law enforcement and persons of color.

A specific case in point? In 2014, The Eagle reported a Hearne police officer was fired after shooting and killing a 93 year old African American woman.

More broadly, music has always been the anthem of racial frustration and a dramatic clarion call for political change. Most famous is Strange Fruit, the haunting, knife blade sharp standard by which racial violence lyric put to music is measured.

Written by Abel Meeropol under his own stage name of Lewis Allan, Strange Fruit became a political centerpiece as sung originally by Billie Holiday. If you chose to watch it below, note how Lady Day slowly, deliberately lifts her eyes to the lone, stationary camera when she sings the first few words of the line, "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze," as a light simultaneously swings across her face. She then looks away as she finishes the line. It remains subtly powerful some 77 years later.

Some 30 odd years later, in another racially charged era, Nina Simone was not nearly as subtle when she covered the lyric.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
There are other examples of lyric coupled with music and images providing politically charged messages. They have provided an mechanism, especially for those insular and disenfranchised to communicate frustration with institutions and institutional inaction. These images do not incite violence but are a valve to vent frustration and anger that could easily show itself in more destructive ways.

The Eagle Editorial Board writes, "[I]t is a reality we are trying as a county to end and move on." The question then, is how? The issues raised by Workman's video have occurred not for merely weeks, nor even years. It has been decades. Instead of criticism, The Eagle editorial board ought to praise Officer Barrow, and by extension the City of Hearne, for helping L-Dub give it voice.