Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On The West Side

This evening I walked about two miles along Chicago Avenue on the west side of Chicago with CeaseFire, an anti-violence group that has become known because it is featured in the movie The Interrupters. We chanted, “Put down the bullets, pick up a book” and other messages that make a lot of sense in the neighborhoods we were marching in, but which would seem odd in the suburb where I live. It isn't unusual for people to get shot on the west side for no discernible reason.

It seemed safe enough for all of us to be marching along the sidewalk, but it probably always seems safe until the shooting starts. I was surprised that there were no police to be seen. At other demonstrations I have been at in Chicago, there is always some police presence to help the marchers across the street, direct traffic, keep the peace, or just keep an eye on people. But this time, I didn't even see a squad car drive by.

When the march was over, I had to walk back to the beginning of the march route, where I had left my car. I thought about hailing a taxi, but I realized that cabs were another thing I didn't see the entire time I was on the west side.

The folks I marched with were friendly. Protesters usually are. I was the only white person in the march. I'm sure people noticed, although no one said anything.

It is hard to tell what impact the march had. A couple of TV crews were there. I didn't get home in time to see if we made it onto the news. Some of the folks we passed on the march were curious, but mostly they seemed to know why we were there. Some of them chanted along with us as we passed. A few motorists honked their horns as they drove by, to show their support.

The neighborhood we marched through is a short drive or El ride from the Loop. It is a prime location, although the neighborhood doesn't look it. It is hard to believe that people who live there have to worry about being shot every day. One teenager on the march told me she usually stays inside to be safe.

The weather was beautiful. The marchers had a strong, hopeful spirit about them, as is usually the case when people get together to try to make things better. I enjoyed being there, but it was also so, so, sad.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Why Own Guns?

Gunnies, as gun lovers like to call themselves, list four major reasons for owning guns: hunting, target shooting, self-defense, and gun collecting. Let's take a look at all four.

Hunting. Due to the demographics of our country, hunting is in rapid decline. It has almost no appeal to young people, women, or immigrants. There aren't enough ducks or other wildlife left to shoot, there aren't enough people who like killing defenseless animals, there are fewer and fewer people who have emotional attachments to guns because they grew up hunting, and there aren't that many people who have enough spare time to sustain hunting as a popular sport. Hunting is an outdoors experience with very little cache for people who live in cities and suburbs, and our country continues to be more and more urbanized.

Target shooting. Same situation. It will soon be as popular as archery.

Self-defense. Some people have guns at home so that they can shoot burglars. If a gun is stored safely in a locked vault to prevent people from accidentally shooting themselves or other members of their households, it takes a few moments to get the gun out. Most burglars would be more quickly scared off if you just turned on the lights or shouted, “go away.”

But assuming you are confronted by an unusually bold, determined burglar, could you shoot that person? A high percentage of trained soldiers can't bring themselves to shoot the enemy. However, if you did shoot, would you hit the burglar? At distances beyond a few feet, most people have difficulty hitting any moving target, so you probably would miss.

Even if you were one of very few people who is ever burglarized while you are at home, if you tried to shoot the burglar, you would create a bigger problem for yourself, because the burglar might shoot back. Burglars who carry guns have told researchers that, overwhelmingly, they don't plan on shooting or hurting anyone – they just carry guns to scare people into complying with their requests to turn over their money, or to protect themselves from armed homeowners. You may think your gun protects you, but it actually increases the likelihood that you will get shot.

Some people think that they will use their guns to protect themselves against violence on the street. They read about drive-by gang-related shootings and imagine that they would be able to shoot an attacker who was speeding around a corner in a car. These people watch too many movies. Reacting fast enough and shooting accurately enough to hit the driver of a fleeing car and not hit innocent bystanders on the street is far beyond the abilities of almost every gun owner, including most cops.

Some people want to have guns to protect themselves from being robbed. They relish stories of convenience store robbers being shot by cops who happened to have stopped for a cup of coffee. They don't talk so much about the security guards, clerks, and customers who get shot when they pull guns and try to stop a robber from stealing some cigarettes or a little cash from the store's register. The banks, where the real money is, know better. They train their tellers to give the robbers the money. It's not nearly as important as someone's life, and it's insured, just like all the stuff in people's houses.

Some people think they will use their guns to fight off an invading army or to shoot at their local police, National Guard, or the U.S. military if these forces ever decide to stage a coup and take over our country. These people haven't noticed the weapons in our armories, including armored vehicles, artillery, and drone aircraft. This weaponry is why people in Iraq and Afghanistan use roadside bombs to resist invaders. Guns won't do the job – they'll just get you killed.

Gun Collecting. I'm pretty sure that if gun owners didn't also have their guns for hunting, target shooting, or defense, there wouldn't be any more people collecting guns than there are people who collect antique typewriters or cameras, which are much more complex mechanical wonders than guns.

It is pretty clear that the ostensible reasons that people give for owning guns are based on fiction, not facts. It is hard to believe that gun owners are ignorant of all of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of studies of guns that have been done over the past several decades by academics, law enforcement agencies, and independent researchers, which show that guns make people less safe, not more safe. It is disturbing to think that gun owners are delusional and incapable of reconciling their fantasies with reality. Perhaps gun owners just have other reasons which they aren't talking about for wanting their guns. That will be a topic for another day.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Role Models

Countless times we have heard that having Obama in the White House gives hope to other blacks, particularly black children. They can see that it is possible for a black person to reach the highest levels of success in America. He is the Role Model in Chief.

What we are seeing in the Republican presidential primaries is that Obama is also the supreme irritant to some white people who can no longer find comfort in the fact that no matter how bad their lives are, they are still doing better than black people. Every time they see Obama sauntering around in his custom-tailored suits, ushered into and out of chauffeur-driven limousines, helicopters, and airplanes that are just for him, and having doors held open for him by whites, they are reminded that their children can no longer count on having a built-in advantage in life.

Not all Republicans are acting out of such racist motivations. But we are hearing and reading things said about Obama that are similar to what we heard in the days when George Wallace was cheerleading a rebuttal to the ideal of inter-racial progress. So similar, it is hard to deny that racism is part of what is motivating some people to back some of the Republican candidates who are still, amazingly, considered viable.

In recent months, we have seen the re-emergence of the welfare queen stereotype, as regressives rail against entitlement programs. We are hearing once again about people who depend on government benefits but who possess luxuries – these days the luxuries are cell-phones, computers, and flat-screen televisions. The historical racist roots of these complaints is so clear that it is laughable that the people who are doing the complaining deny that they have any racial prejudices. If these folks aren't racist, they sure are ignorant.

The fact that Obama is not typical of black people in the U.S. doesn't appease the racists. They don't look at the statistics that show that the disparity between the incomes of blacks and whites is increasing. They don't look at the continuing inferiority in the education, housing, and health care experienced by blacks as a group. No, they focus on one man in the White House, just as blacks who are looking for hope focus on that same man and see what they are expecting to see.

This is not to say that all of these people will vote Republican in the general election. Some of them may actually vote for Obama if they have a reason to. If, for example, the Democrats are supporting veterans' benefits and the Republicans are promising to cut those benefits because they are entitlements, some racist white veterans may vote for Obama.

If Obama wins, these people won't give up their hatred of him, because he will still be a successful black person. They will be angry at the Republicans for not giving them a choice. And they will be angry at people who say that they are racist, because, in their minds, they aren't. They will say that they are just being honest about things. And in one sense they are right. The day after the election, they will still be disappointed with how their lives have turned out. An irritatingly successful black person will still be on their TV screens reminding them that in their own eyes, they have failed, and they will continue to complain about entitlement programs which give other races an unfair advantage over their own white race, not realizing that being white is the biggest entitlement program of them all.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Shooting On My Corner

There used to be a delicatessen and liquor store on one corner of 79th & Essex where you could buy pickles out of a barrel. On the other corner was a drug store where you could pick up a prescription or drop off film for processing. On another corner was a shoe store, and on the fourth corner was a burger joint. They are all gone now, as are the people who used to live in the neighborhood. Other people have moved in, and other stores have opened. When I was a kid, my house was two blocks away. This was my corner. I felt safe there. I was safe.

Yesterday, seven people were shot on that corner. Two of them have died. The victims ranged in age from 13 to 61 years old. One of the victims may have been shopping inside a corner store when he was shot. It was what has come to be referred to as a drive-by shooting. It took place at 6:45 in the evening, which is not an unreasonable time for teenagers to be walking on the street or people to be shopping in their neighborhood stores.

I haven't lived near that corner for decades, but it is still my corner. It always will be. It belongs to me and to everyone else who ever lived in that neighborhood.

Every congressman in the U.S. and even the President can look back to the corners they grew up on. I'm sure that if they read in the news that seven people, or even one person, was shot on a corner where they used to meet their friends, buy penny candy, trade baseball cards, or just hang out, they would feel some sadness, just as I am feeling.

I have never lived in Iran or even visited there. But I know that every corner of every city or village is special to the kids who grew up there and to the people who now live there. If we attack, all those people will feel the sadness that I am feeling. They will also feel anger. Just as the people in Iraq felt sadness and anger when we bombed their corners and killed their teenagers. Just as the people in Afghanistan felt sadness and anger. Just like the people in Viet Nam felt.

Maybe if we could realize that the corners we are attacking all around the world are special to people we wouldn't be so quick to shoot up those corners and the people who happen to be there when our planes and drones and tanks drive by. Maybe if we who live in safe neighborhoods in the U.S. could remember that the corners where people are being shot in our own cities are special to the people who are still there, we would do more to stop the shooting. Maybe if we would just spend a few moments with our own memories of feeling safe during our childhoods, we would be more upset that because of the violence in our society, other people will never have those kind of memories. Kids are growing up in the U.S. and all around the world never feeling safe on their own blocks.

I grieve because someone just shot seven people on a corner. My corner. They are all my corners. Here, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in Iran. They are yours, too.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rich People Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations can contribute unlimited amounts of money to help elect (buy) candidates. The Court said that corporations have the same constitutional rights of free speech as people have, because the court can't tell the difference between people and things such as corporations that aren't people. What the Court hasn't quite said yet, so far as I can tell, is whether people have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to help elect (yes, buy) candidates. If they do, then all the campaign finance laws will be thrown out, and rich people will have the unhampered ability to overwhelm the electoral process.

A lot of people think that letting rich people run everything is a bad idea and that it will destroy what is left of democracy. But one group that likes to get rich folks' money believes that rich people ought to be able to buy whomever they want. That group is Personal PAC. They have filed a lawsuit to have Illinois' $10,000 limit on personal contributions to political action committees thrown out. Their reasoning seems to be that if corporations are allowed to corrupt the system, rich people should be allowed to corrupt it, too.

The Illinois law hasn't been around for long. It was passed after our last governor was arrested because of the way he was letting money influence him. That governor will start serving his 14-year jail term in the next couple of weeks. If the campaign finance law is thrown out, he'll have a lot of time to wonder why it is that he has to stay locked up while the rich people get to keep buying elections.

The group that is trying to eliminate campaign finance limits is not usually thought of as some right-wing front for the ruling class. Quite to the contrary. Personal PAC exists to lobby for women's rights to get abortions. Because they support women's reproductive rights, they would normally be placed on the liberal or progressive end of the political spectrum.

Apparently, though, Personal PAC's concern for women doesn't extend to the rights of women to live in a free society and be governed by public officials who owe their allegiance to the people. The issues of equal pay for women, advancement of women in business and the professions, violence against women, sexual exploitation, sexual stereotyping, and harassment, all of which are directly affected by the actions of elected officials, don't seem to worry this group. No, so long they can get their money and women can get abortions, this group is happy. Maybe they think we ought to trust that they and their rich friends know what is best for everyone, and that they will take care of everything. I guess they think we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads about the consequences of eliminating campaign finance laws.

Personal PAC says right on their website that they use money to influence elections. The obvious problem, of course, is that if this group wins its lawsuit, groups that want to eliminate abortions will also be able to raise unlimited money from rich people. Whether women can get abortions will depend not on any concept of rights, but on which side has richer friends. The outcome of entire elections will become, even more than it is now, just a matter of which side the richest people are on, and not a questions of which position is right, fair, and just. We won't have a democracy at all. All that will be left is a teller window.

Monday, February 13, 2012


I went to two funerals last week. Two men. One was 89 years old. He lived as long as might be expected. The other was 58. He died young. Very different ceremonies. One officiated by a rabbi, with lots of Hebrew and religious and cultural references. The other emceed by a friend, with absolutely no mention of God or religion. Instead, Dylan songs sung to a live guitar. Two grieving families, remembering the good things and laughing at the deceased's quirks.

I may have met the older man many years ago. He was the father of a boyhood friend. Friends' fathers weren't part of the picture much back then. They worked a lot, and they didn't bake cookies so they didn't get the attention that friends' moms did.

The younger man whose funeral I attended was an acquaintance of mine. We had worked on some campaigns together. He was a good guy. I liked him, and I appreciated what he had done.

I don't seek out funerals to go to, but when I attend one, I get a lot out of it. Every life has a story. Every person has someone to remember and miss them, or did at some point.

No one ever gets the chance to enjoy his own funeral. It's a shame. I think people would like hearing what others say about them. I think it would inspire people to treat other people better if they heard that the kindnesses they did in their lifetimes are what their survivors remember and cherish. Seldom does a eulogy emphasize how much money a person made, although I have heard it.

I'm probably not the only person who leaves funerals wondering what people will say about me when my time comes. I'm counting on my friends and relatives having imperfect memories, or at least to keep their mouths shut about things best forgotten.

None of us knows when our time will come. I'm trying to prepare, though certainly not looking forward to the eventuality. I'd like a little warning. I'd like a little time to tidy up and say goodbye. I suppose that in one sense we all have plenty of warning. We know what is coming.

Life is so precious. So fragile.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Which Side Are You On?

For the past many months, Democratic campaigns in our area have concentrated on influencing party activists. These are the people who knock on doors, make phone calls, attend coffees, contribute money, and do all the things that have to be done to win elections. Generally, they pay more attention to politics than most voters do, and they influence the outcome of elections. Their friends, families, and neighbors look to them for guidance on who to vote for.

One of the candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary has met very strong resistance within his party. The party activists are upset that year after year, while they were doing the hard work of trying to get Democratic candidates elected, this candidate was helping Republican candidates.

It wouldn't surprise most people that the party activists have been soundly rejecting this candidate, but it seems to have surprised the candidate. Probably because he hasn't been one of the people who has been active in the Democratic party, he doesn't seem to understand just how deeply their feelings run. These aren't people who help candidates so that they can retain patronage jobs or get government contracts. These are people who volunteer because they feel passionately about the issues and believe that their efforts are needed if our country is to be strong, prosperous, a respecter of individuals' rights, a force for peace and justice, and a land of freedom and opportunity.

Under George Bush, these Democratic Party activists saw our country turn in an ugly direction. They saw the Republican congressman who represented them push the regressive Republican agenda, while pretending not to. These activists paid attention to their congressman's objectionable voting record on dozens of important issues. Then, when Obama became president, they watched that Republican congressman, now a senator and still pretending to be moderate and independent, vote along with all the other Republicans to prevent the new president from making the changes the American people had elected him to make.

The activists in my district saw their Republican congressman vote against health care reforms that would have given people the same kind of medical care that the government is now providing to the congressman as he recovers from a stroke. When their congressman became a senator, they saw his Republican replacement continue to vote along with the regressive wing of his party to deny basic services to needy people, while, like his predecessor, pretending to be compassionate and independent.

The Democratic activists are angry at the self-proclaimed Democratic candidate who seems to think that his decade-long efforts to defeat them should be forgotten or forgiven. They see no reason to embrace him. Instead, they have been lining up behind another candidate who has actually worked along with them these past several years to promote the agenda that they support.

In time, if the newly converted Democrat sticks with his new-found party, the activists will probably accept him. But it won't happen right away. Because right now, the only evidence that the self-proclaimed former Republican-supporter can offer to show that he has in fact changed his mind is his own say-so. The Democratic activists aren't impressed, considering the damage he has caused by his actions over the last ten years by supporting not only the Republican candidates they were trying to defeat, but also other right-wing Republicans across the country.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Implausible Excuse

A local newspaper reporter wrote that a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Representative in Congress didn't vote in most of the elections that were held over the past eleven years. The candidate admitted the charge and seemed to go even further by saying that he has never voted in any primary election or in most local elections. About the only time he votes, it seems, is in national general elections, and maybe not even in all of them.

A lot of people don't vote in primaries, so the candidate probably wouldn't take much of a hit just for not voting. But the reason he gave for not voting raises some very serious questions. He said that he did not vote because there is an “unwritten code” that says military people shouldn't vote in primaries because they should be non-partisan.

Odd. This candidate just a couple of days earlier was telling a roomful of Democratic activists that he expected to win the primary because all the military personnel at the Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago, which is in his district, would vote for him. His literature boasts of his endorsements from military buddies. And yet he tells the newspapers that military people, himself included, don't vote in primaries.

The candidate's claim that there is an “unwritten code” not to vote is dubious. The U.S. Department of Defense directive on the Federal Voting Assistance Program says that all military personnel are encouraged to vote in local, state, and national elections. Every election judge knows that there are special procedures which are strictly observed to assure that all ballots from military personnel, no matter where in the world they are stationed, will be counted. The U.S. Air Force, in which this candidate served, has an official policy document that they title a Voting Plan that encourages all personnel and their family members to vote in “all elections.” The Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard have similar official policies and plans. The Department of Veterans Affairs encourages all veterans to vote and gets disabled and hospitalized veterans help with voting if they need it.

If there is an “unwritten code” that contradicts official, written government policy and discourages people from voting, it would have been this candidate's duty as a military officer to expose it. He didn't.

The candidate talks as if the “unwritten code” is pervasive in the military. If he is correct, it seems odd that we never heard about this pernicious code before. Not in the highly-contested primaries leading up to the Bush/Kerry election. Not in the contentious Bush/Gore election primaries. Not in the hot Obama/McCain election primaries. We didn't hear about this anti-American “unwritten code” until an inexperienced candidate needed an excuse for not having voted.

Somehow this candidate seems not to have learned the lesson that most voters have learned from a long series of scandals: all too often candidates get into more trouble trying to cover up their errors than they would have if they had simply owned up to them.