Saturday, January 8, 2022

THE JANUARY SIXTH INSURRECTION AND THE CONTINUING THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

 

 It is hard to believe—for me at least— that an entire year has passed since the January 6, 2021, insurrection. The threat to our democracy didn't end with the shameful January Sixth attack on the Capitol and the attempted coup d’état staged by an insane, authoritarian-narcissist president and nearly one hundred fifty seditious lawmakers. On the contrary, democracy has never been under greater threat than it is right now.

A shocking number of GOP leaders—at a national, state and local level— are actively moving to support state to state legislation specifically designed to restrict and suppress voting rights, while continuing to foster insurrection by perpetuating the Big Lie. They are also avidly going after long-constitutionally-supported reproductive rights, religious freedom and, indeed, hard-fought women’s rights. But above all, they are overtly attacking minority rights that civil rights leaders have fought and sacrificed for since Reconstruction in the post-Civil War days, and which they had apparently won in the turbulent but democratically victorious nineteen-fifties and sixties Civil Rights era. While back then no one would have imagined that, less than sixty years hence the situation for civil rights would do anything but ever-improve, here we are, in a new era of Jim Crow politics—the worst since the post-Reconstruction era of the early twentieth century.

While their rhetoric might be crass, and often openly racist, sexist, xenophobic and unabashedly authoritarian, the methods all but a handful of GOP leaders are employing to sidestep the democratic process are somewhat more subtle. After losing the 2020 election, when the still rational, democratic majority of American voters and electors shouted a resounding “no!”  to a second four-year term for a president who had proven—not surprisingly to anyone familiar with his history—morally, constitutionally and mentally unfit to lead the United States of America, and who pushed the Republic over the brink to the point of near dissolution on one of the blackest days in the country’s history, these agents of authoritarianism are attempting to enact legislation that will make discrimination and voter suppression “legal”, despite its moral and constitutional illegitimacy. The idea is to blatantly gerrymander voting districts and limit voting tools in such a way that minorities of color and pockets of liberal Democrats will be robbed of any means by which to counter the far-right, or to win in the future when they will no longer be a minority, and when whites will become the new secondary ethnicity in America.

Not satisfied with pushing passage of state laws that, in the past as now, hide behind states’ rights as a means of defying historic Supreme Court decisions and, indeed, the Constitution, through legislation that flies in the face of civil freedoms and democracy, the GOP is also actively seeking to change the players in red states where Republican officials did their sworn duty in upholding the true results of the 2020 election. For having done what was right, ethical and legal, those elected and appointed Republican officials are being unceremoniously handed their walking papers. They are being replaced with officials that the GOP leadership at both the state and federal level hope—given a similar situation in the 2022 and 2024 elections, and indeed in all future elections—will put party over country and authoritarianism over democracy and fudge election outcomes, or simply rig the elections from the get-go.

To think that everything we are witnessing here is merely a democratically healthy difference of opinions is naïve and dangerous. Make no mistake about it: These GOP autocrats have been so reiterative and intentional in their bid to undermine democracy and promote single-party autocracy that, according to multiple opinion polls, something like four out of every ten Republican voters actually believe that the 2020 election—one of the most transparent and scrutinized in the country’s history—was rigged and that Donald Trump should be the current president.

The members of the GOP leadership who continue to promote this Big Lie—the same way that Nazi leaders did in their successful bid to dissolve German democracy and install themselves and Hitler as the only political power in that nation—for their part, cannot honestly believe for a minute that the 2020 election was “stolen” from their party. They have all of the data necessary to know that this is a bald-faced lie. Their repeated statements supporting that myth are, then, the height of cynicism, born of a quest for perpetual political power. Their actions and inactions make it absolutely clear that they are perfectly willing to end the two-and-a-half-century experiment in democracy that is the United States of America—once the greatest democratic power on earth, but now a faltering, chaotic shadow of its former self—if it means clinging to power indefinitely.

On the road to their now clear goal, there will, hopefully, be staunch resistance. Unfortunately, this promises to pit democrats and autocrats against one another to an ever-increasing degree. That is why, for the first time since the eighteen-fifties, political analysts are weighing the very real possibility of a second American civil war. And what happened a year ago, during the January Sixth Insurrection, when an American president and nearly one-hundred-fifty of his lackeys in Congress, in cahoots with high-rating Fox News commentators, fostered the nearly successful overthrow of the prevailing democratic order.

But those conspirators’ continued machinations prove that there was no victory over violence and sedition on January Sixth, 2021. That was only the drawing of battlelines for a future showdown. Whether that showdown happens on the floor of Congress and in the Justice system or on the streets of the nation in renewed civil strife that pits one group of citizens against another will depend entirely on whether the Republican Party returns to its historically democratic path and Lincolnian principles or continues to present itself as a lawless cult of personality that has declared war on America’s traditional principles of freedom, equality, democracy, and the rule of law.     

Monday, November 29, 2021

SOME TRUTHS THAT THE AHMAUD ARBERY MURDER TRIAL REVEALED

 

Although the outcome of a southern Georgia trial this past week should have been almost considered a slam-dunk from the outset, the truth is that many observers in the US and around the world were awaiting the jury’s verdict with bated breath, because they (we) were not at all sure that there would be justice for the African American homicide victim in a community where white-supremacist passions apparently run high, and in a courtroom where the jury consisted of eleven whites and only one black. But the process ended up offering a demonstration of how the court and jury system in the US should always work—even if, all too often, it doesn’t. That said, however, even in this case, the process leading up to the trial cast initial doubt on justice being served.

Murdered jogger Ahmaud Arbery

Many advocates of the rule of law had indeed had their confidence in the justice system shaken only hours earlier when, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, teenager Kyle Rittenhouse was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing after he illegally possessed and carried an assault rifle to the scene of civil rights unrest, in a state where he didn’t live, and used it to kill two men and seriously injure another. In that case, not only did the defense and, indeed, the judge portray his victims—whom the court barred the prosecution from referring to by that term but allowed the defense to call them “arsonists and looters”—as the victimizers, but also, the defendant, who shot and maimed them, was presented in court as their innocent victim.

To add insult to injury, Rittenhouse was not only exonerated, and hence, his vigilante actions tacitly condoned, but he also, almost immediately on his release, traveled to Florida to receive a hero’s welcome from former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Trump publicly praised Rittenhouse and vindicated his use of deadly force, at a protest demonstration at which, as a minor, he had no business acting as part of a self-appointed militia in the first place, and less still after a government-imposed curfew. And he certainly should not have been there with an illegally possessed firearm that he had no reason or legal right to be carrying.

While most mainstream news media considered the verdict “fair” within the specific context of the trial, this generally-held view in the press failed to mention that the verdict didn’t just support the defense’s claim of self-defense, but went further to also dismiss out of hand charges arising from the teen’s having been in illegal possession of a dangerous, military-grade weapon, and a misdemeanor charge for government curfew violation that would have at least underscored the undeniable fact that Kyle Rittenhouse had basically created the violent situation in which he found himself when he shot to death two of his three pursuers who engaged with him in the belief that he was an active shooter. Only one of the men—the one wounded but not killed—was also carrying a firearm. Of the two that Rittenhouse shot to death, one was armed only with a skateboard, and the other with just his bare hands.

Rittenhouse clowning around with Trump following acquittal

At best, the Rittenhouse case showed how justice is not always blind, or served, in cases where the judge is predisposed to an outcome and “instructs” the jury into an impossibly tight corner, and where it all boils down to being a matter more of judicial preference than of compelling evidence. At worst, it encourages white vigilantes and firearms fundamentalists to take the law into their own hands whenever they feel the slightest bit threatened—to “stand their ground” with military-grade weapons, even when those posing the threat that they perceive are not also packing firearms or other lethal weapons.

Did that case jealously guard Kyle Rittenhouse’s constitutional rights? Absolutely, and so did the jury. Were the rights of the two men Rittenhouse killed and the other one that he severely injured—all three of whom saw him as an aggressor rather than as a self-appointed guardian of private property—also served? It’s very hard to see how. Which makes the mainstream media’s full-embracing of the verdict seem more than a little facile and like an oversimplification of the facts.

The verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery case in Georgia unquestionably served justice. And it’s difficult not to strike a parallel with the Kenosha trial. Both cases involved white vigilantes seeking to take the law into their own hands, and in both cases, there were physical struggles between the fatal victims and their killers prior to the shootings. Both Kyle Rittenhouse and the three men who murdered Arbery claimed to be defending private property, to be concerned citizens seeking to impose law and order. In both cases, race was a dominant factor. In the Arbery murder trial this is obvious and blatant. In Rittenhouse’s case, despite the fact that all three of his victims were white, the killings came within the context of racially charged unrest over yet another unjustifiable police shooting of a black man.

Convicted killers "Roddie" Bryan and Travis
and Greg McMichael

But if the shooter got off scot-free in Wisconsin on a self-defense plea, in the southern Georgia case, neither the court nor the jury was buying it. In that case, judge and jury saw the actions and profiles of the three defendants—Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan—as what they were: three white vigilantes who appointed themselves enforcers in a neighborhood where the only faces they wanted to see were white faces. Indeed, when one of them called 911, the recording of the call presented in the trial made it clear that race was the prevailing factor in Arbery’s slaying. More specifically, when asked the nature of his emergency, the caller told the dispatcher that the emergency was “a black man running” down the street.

The McMichaels go after Arbery, guns drawn

In fact, Ahmaud Arbery, like millions of other Americans who try to keep in shape, was out for a jog. Could there be any more basic right than that of a citizen to ambulate—whether walking or jogging or running flat-out—along a public thoroughfare without fear of harassment? And yet, his killers took it upon themselves to “interpret” that simple action in which Arbery was freely engaging. In their narrow, racist minds, a black jogger was a contradiction in terms. If a black guy was running, it was “away from” somebody or something, and it meant that he was up to no good.

In trying to justify the killing, the McMichaels pointed to security footage that purportedly showed Arbery snooping around inside of a construction site for a house being built in their same block. It is now thought that the jogger stopped occasionally at the construction site to drink water, since there were sources of water at the back and front of the site. Although the owner of the site had reported “a colored guy” wondering around on his property, he would also later admit that nothing was missing from the work site, so there was no reason to suspect Ahmaud of anything more sinister than curiosity or, perhaps, simply thirst from running.

Arbery tries to deflect the shotgun pointed at him
But the father and son vigilantes, who would later murder Arbery, took that unsubstantiated evidence as proof positive that the jogger was the perpetrator of a series of burglaries that had taken place in the neighborhood. These self-styled enforcers figured that this was plenty enough evidence to give them the right to hunt the other man down. And that’s precisely what they did—armed themselves with a shotgun and a pistol and chased the jogger in their truck, accompanied by their neighbor, Roddie Bryan, in his car.

Context is important: this was southern Georgia, the truck had a Confederate flag emblazoned on the bumper and the African American jogger, who was on foot and unarmed, found himself being pursued by armed white men, one of whom—the elder McMichael—ordered Arbery to “stop or I’ll blow your fucking head off.” It wasn’t a situation in which any black man who didn’t have a death wish would be likely to stop and ask the three white guys what they wanted. Nor should he have needed to do so since the McMichaels were no one to be ordering anybody to do anything at the point of a gun. Arbery did what any black man in a white racist world would do—tried his best to escape.

Mortally wounded, Arbery stumbles a few steps
and then falls to the pavement
Arbery wasn’t, however, successful. The McMichaels and Bryan cut him off with their vehicles. The younger McMichael approached the jogger aiming a shotgun at him. Arbery sought to defend himself grabbing the barrel of the gun, and McMichael discharged the weapon three times, wounding Arbery in the hand and then fatally wounding him with two shotgun blasts to the chest at pointblank range.

When police arrived, Greg McMichael told them that he had suspected Arbery of being responsible for recent break-ins in the neighborhood. He also claimed that his son Travis had only shot Arbery after the jogger attacked him. The story was improbably thin and couldn’t possibly have stood up to even the most absent-minded of scrutiny. Especially since Bryan was in possession of a video demonstrating how he and the McMichaels had hunted Arbery down and killed him. Despite that fact, it took the police and prosecution ten weeks to bring any charges against the three men. And one can easily speculate that they never would have done so had it not been for ever-increasing calls for justice from the African American community and from local and nationwide media.

One of the main issues that this case brings into focus, then, is the incredible level of judicial insecurity to which African Americans remain subject. In the midst of these two key trials, word also came of a court decision to exonerate sixty-two-year-old Kevin Strickland who has spent the last forty-three years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Strickland said that he received word of the decision to release and exonerate him in a breaking news feed that interrupted the soap opera he was watching at the Western Missouri Correctional Center, which has been the closest thing to a home he has had for nearly four and a half decades.

Kevin Strickland, free at last
Convicted and imprisoned in the late nineteen-seventies for a triple homicide, he was handed a fifty-year to life sentence with no possibility of parole. Throughout his entire life, he has consistently insisted that he never killed anyone. The courts have finally, belatedly agreed and expunged all charges against him. This might be considered vindication, but it can hardly be considered justice, since nothing and no one can give Kevin Strickland back the life that the State took from him based on obviously unsubstantiated and circumstantial evidence. And yet, it has been common citizens, not the State, who have stepped in to try and provide some sort of compensation for the injustice that Strickland had suffered, with donations raising more than a million dollars to provide the former prisoner with financial security for the rest of his life.

Need I mention that Mr. Strickland is African American? Had I read the paragraph that precedes this one, I would have assumed it. While Kevin Strickland’s wrongful incarceration is one of the longest in US history, it is certainly not the only one. A report by the National Registry of Exonerations reveals some interesting statistics: Innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about fifty percent more likely to be innocent than other prisoners convicted of murder. Wrongful convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were twenty-two percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. And finally, most wrongful convictions are never discovered. There is, then, no way to gauge all convictions of innocent murder defendants, but to the best of the registry’s knowledge and estimates, they outnumber those we eventually learn about many times over. And judging from exonerations, at least half of those innocent murder defendants are African Americans. 

Anyone who still believes that black and white rights became equal with passage of federal civil rights laws in the nineteen-sixties is living in a fantasy world. As are those who seriously believe that racism is dead in the United States. Far from it, it is once again fast on the rise, and virulently so. And this judicial insecurity is once again being openly incorporated into state laws, just as it was from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era right up until just prior to the civil rights era, with the most outward manifestation being blatant voter suppression measures being introduced in some staunchly Republican states.

The Kevin Stricklands of the world can’t immediately raise two million dollars in bail like Kyle Rittenhouse did. They don’t have gun lobbyists and ex-presidents in their corner. They are alone and overwhelmed by legal systems in which they have two strikes against them from the outset because of their race and social standing. Basically, while things may be decisively better than they were before the civil rights era, the rule of thumb is still that if you’re poor and black in America, you’re screwed.

Despite the outcome in the Ahmaud Arbery homicide trial in which the jogger’s three assailants were convicted of murder, the actual judicial process underscored the undiluted racism seething just beneath the surface in American society. This is clear not only in the justification cited by the defendants for their violent actions—that there was “a black man running”—but also in the reluctance of law enforcement to get to the bottom of what happened.

Worse still, racism was blatant and rampant in the defense of the three killers. One of the defense attorneys described Arbery in openly contemptuous terms—citing his “long, dirty toenails” and making references to his running shorts, as if these were an acceptable contributing factor to his being murdered, and seriously thinking that it somehow justified the actions taken by the defendants—or at least that saying such reprehensible things in court would be successful in acting as a dog-whistle to the preponderantly white jury about how whites should stick together to protect their community lest blacks take over. And another defense attorney appealed to the judge to limit “the number of black pastors” present in the courtroom for the public trial.

It’s not hard to understand, however, why many Americans who believe firmly in the rule of law were ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief when the Ahmaud Arbery murder case ended with exemplary verdicts against his three killers. We white Americans who abhor racism want to fervently believe that our justice system is perfectly capable of coping with racial injustice and racial hatred. But that viewpoint is unrealistic and a contributing factor in maintaining barely veiled racism in American justice. A single verdict can’t assuage the effects of hundreds of cases that clearly underscore inequality. Nor can it disguise the fact that, time and again in America, blacks go to prison or are executed for crimes they didn’t commit, while whites are absolved of the crimes that they did.

 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

THE VERDICT

 

The complete acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen who, in August of last year, shot three people with an AR-15-type semi-automatic rifle—killing two and maiming the third—during racial unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has further deepened the abyss that divides Americans on the left and right of the political spectrum. It has also played into the divisions between white and black Americans, between democratic liberals and far-right authoritarians, and between gun-rights fundamentalists and those clamoring for stricter gun control in an ever more dangerous society. In the middle are political moderates riding the fence between application of the letter rather than the spirit of the rule of law, forcing themselves to embrace the verdict as “how the law works” because not to do so would be to admit that the American justice system is broken.

'Like all 17-year-olds'?
Indeed, following the verdict handed down on Friday, Washington Post columnist Meagan McArdle tried to portray Rittenhouse as being just like “all seventeen-year-olds (who) act like fools sometimes.” She did, however, have to admit that, in his case, the then-seventeen-year-old was acting like a fool with an assault weapon in his hands. And people died.

McArdle went on to posit that “when on Friday afternoon the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all counts, it wasn’t yet another triumph of white supremacy, aided by a biased judge. It was the American justice system working as it should: giving the benefit of the doubt to a defendant who was dangerously unwise but didn’t clearly commit murder.” But I’m not at all sure that’s true. It constitutes, I feel, more wishful thinking than a sound argument.

In point of fact, Rittenhouse was never charged with murder, though he was indeed charged with homicide, so this is an oversimplification on the part of McArdle and several other editorial writers who have referred to the case as “a murder trial.” But her views seem to have been reflective of those of much of the rest of the mainstream press, who were being careful not to fall into the same lawless rhetoric used by the right throughout the presidency of Donald Trump, a president who blithely ignored the rule of law and Constitutional guarantees and often urged citizens to take the law into their own hands. So, in this post-Trump era in which there is an effort to renew the country’s democratic institutions—as well as a continuing effort to permanently destroy them—moderates were almost forced to see this as a fair and impartial trial, so as not to call foul against a system that is meant to protect and serve the rule of law and the rights of citizens. It should be noted that this didn’t stop the judge from railing against “the media”, as if it were some dictatorial monolith that was out to get him, or from threatening to have the press and mass media banned from his court.

To my mind, however, McArdle and many of her other colleagues who make their living offering their opinions, are mixing apples and oranges. It would be one thing to conclude from the Rittenhouse trial that the constitutional principle of trial by a jury of one’s peers is flawed. It isn’t and wasn’t in as far as the job carried out by the jurors in this case goes.

Judge Bruce Schroeder
The jury had an extremely tough job. They not only had to decide guilt or innocence in a very public trial, but also had to eschew the influence of those who see the teen as a hero and a good boy with a gun, and those who consider him a cold-blooded killer who wept crocodile tears in the courtroom for the benefit of the media. They further were faced with having to put aside their feelings about race—a jury of eleven white people and only one African-American—because, in the end, the story behind the killings is of a white boy who attended a pro-black demonstration armed with an assault rifle. This, despite Ms. McArdle’s attempt to dismiss him in her editorial as someone who “dove (sic) into the drama of running around with a gun, putting out fires and providing first aid during unrest following a police shooting in Kenosha,” and adding that Rittenhouse “didn’t act like a hunter, or even a belligerent kid trying to provoke a confrontation. When chased, he retreated, turning around only after something was thrown at him, and then again when one of his pursuers fired off his own gun.”

But the jury’s verdict had to be formed within the extremely narrow context of what they were given to work with after the judge presented them with more than thirty pages of instructions. As such, it would have been almost impossible for jurors to hand down any other verdict. But that doesn’t change the fact that there was gross manipulation of the Rittenhouse case to ensure from the outset, that the teen would be acquitted. And the author of that manipulation appears to have been the judge in the case, Bruce Schroeder. At seventy-five, Schroeder is the longest-serving circuit court judge in Wisconsin. He was a Democratic Party nominee and has consistently won elections unopposed since 1983. He is known for being old-school and no-nonsense.

But even if one gives the judge the benefit of the doubt and figures that he was merely trying to ensure that Kyle Rittenhouse got a fair trial, it could clearly be equally argued that his trial offered no justice whatsoever for the two men whom Rittenhouse gunned down. On the contrary, his court’s handling of the case has put blame for the incident squarely on those killed and wounded and completely exonerated the then-minor who took the two lives and endangered a third—that of the only other person in the fray who had a firearm. Nor does it change the fact that Rittenhouse also discharged his weapon in the direction of a fourth (unknown) man while the man was running away, thus further endangering the lives of others taking part in the protest.

Rittenhouse in Kenosha

Given the evidence brought to light during the trial, there are undeniable facts that the public will surely take into account, even if the court didn’t, in deciding whether they think justice has been served in the absolute acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse. For instance, some solid facts of the case are that Rittenhouse went from his home in Illinois to neighboring Wisconsin specifically to go to Kenosha where the riots were taking place. While it has been widely stated that Rittenhouse’s single-mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, drove him to the riots, this is false, nor did her son leave home armed. Kyle took possession of the AR-15-style assault rifle in Kenosha, where a friend had purchased it for him. But at age seventeen, he was indeed in violation of Wisconsin law that only allows minors to possess arms specifically for hunting, not those considered under the law to be “dangerous firearms”—basically, weapons of war—like the AR-15. They can only use those firearms when accompanied by an adult and only for the purpose of target practice.

It is also questionable whether, as Ms. McArdle and other commentators suggest, Rittenhouse was merely carrying the assault rifle “just in case” while selflessly performing humanitarian tasks, like helping “put out fires” or “administering first aid.” This contrived narrative was clearly embraced as well by Judge Schroeder, who, from the outset, refused to allow the prosecution to refer to those whom Rittenhouse slayed and maimed with an illegally-possessed firearm as “victims”. But the judge granted permission to the defense to refer to the three (not) victims as “looters and arsonists”—when there seems to be no specific evidence that they were either. It is hard to see this conduct by the judge as anything but prejudicial to the prosecution, but that will now be for an appellate court to decide, if at all.

(Not) victim Rosenbaum, four slugs
The defense also got away with claiming that the feet and hands of those pursuing him, and a skateboard with which Kyle was swatted, were just as threatening as the assault rifle that the youth was carrying. And there was little stress placed on the fact that the one (not) victim who was also armed only pointed his pistol at Rittenhouse after the boy had already slain one of his two other fatal (not) victims. Nor was the jury pressed to consider that one of Rittenhouse’s two unarmed (not) victims’ bodies bore not one, but four slugs from the assault rifle. In other words, there can be little doubt that Rittenhouse’s aim was not merely to deter but to ensure that he killed that man, Joseph Rosenbaum. According to his girlfriend’s statements, she and Rosenbaum had been homeless and living in a motel. He was taking anti-depressants and had literally just been released from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, and was carrying a plastic bag filled with personal items.

Rosenbaum was one of perhaps a dozen people pursuing Rittenhouse, who had appointed himself as a sort of vigilante security guard at a car dealership after another dealership had been torched. The defense clarified that Rosenbaum, an ex-convict who had done hard time on a sex charge, only began to pursue Rittenhouse after the teen pointed his weapon at him. At some point in a security video, Rosenbaum is apparently seen to heave the plastic bag with his personal items in it at Kyle and continues to pursue him. It was when Rosenbaum caught up to Rittenhouse that the boy turned and pumped four slugs into him—two in the front, one in the back and another one that grazed Rosenbaum’s head—killing him.

(Not) victim Huber - deceased - took a
skateboard to a gunfight
Rittenhouse’s other fatal (not) victim was twenty-six-year-old Anthony Huber who, seeing Rittenhouse armed with an assault rifle in the crowded street, considered the boy an active shooter. According to Huber’s girlfriend, Anthony pushed her out of the way and ran into harm’s way to try and disarm Rittenhouse. Huber was carrying a skateboard and used it in an attempt to bludgeon the teen, whom he saw as an armed and imminent threat to public safety. He managed to strike Rittenhouse twice before Kyle shot him once. Huber staggered away but then fell dead on the ground. Rittenhouse claims that Huber had grabbed the barrel of his weapon. Forensics experts said they found no evidence of Huber’s DNA on the assault weapon, but added that he might have touched it anyway.

Finally, the other non-fatal (not) victim was Gaige Grosskreutz. Grosskreutz, a paramedic, was at the protest to provide medical care. He had packed his medical supplies as well as his legally-owned handgun. He said that he routinely carried a gun when performing emergency services during violent demonstrations.

(Not) victim Grosskreutz, medic, wounded
Like Huber, Grosskreutz saw Rittenhouse as an active shooter. He heard those chasing Kyle say that he’d shot someone and was getting away. After witnessing how Rittenhouse dropped Huber, Grosskreutz engaged, pointing his weapon at Rittenhouse to try and prevent him from killing anyone else, but Kyle fired as soon as he saw the other man’s pistol and blew away a large portion of Grosskreutz’s bicep.

In all three cases, the (not) victims saw Rittenhouse, with his illegally carried assault weapon, as the aggressor, and yet, the specificity of the judge’s instructions to the jury only permitted them to rule on whether they believed Rittenhouse felt threatened enough to use deadly force—again, with a weapon he had no business carrying, and in a place where he had no business being, since his presence there was in defiance of a government-imposed curfew.

The charges against Rittenhouse were seven:

·      One count of first-degree reckless homicide in the slaying of Rosenbaum. An eyewitness video shows Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse through a parking lot and, at one point, throwing a plastic bag at him. Rittenhouse flees behind a car and Rosenbaum follows. Rittenhouse wheels around and, according to eyewitness testimony, Rosenbaum lunged at him. Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum dead. To my point about this not being a “murder trial”, as McArdle and other editorial writers have alleged, reckless homicide is not the same as intentional homicide. The meaning of that is that Rittenhouse didn’t set out with the intention of murdering Rosenbaum. But, in the end, the result was the same and, according to the charge, showed utter disregard for human life. Reckless homicide carries a maximum sixty-year prison sentence.

·      One count of reckless endangerment in the use of a dangerous weapon. This had to do with testimony from a news reporter who followed Rosenbaum on foot when he was chasing Rittenhouse. The reporter testified that he was right in the line of fire when Rittenhouse opened up on Rosenbaum with the assault rifle and killed the other man. This charge carries a maximum sentence of twelve years and six months in prison. The jury was given the option of convicting Rittenhouse of second-degree reckless endangerment, meaning he hadn’t acted with utter disregard for human life. That would have reduced the jail sentence to ten years.  

·      A second count of reckless endangerment in the use of a dangerous weapon. This was the result of video showing how a fourth, unknown man leaps at Rittenhouse, trying to kick him, as Huber, with his skateboard, approaches the teen. Rittenhouse squeezed off two rounds at the man and missed. The man fled before Huber took Kyle on and was killed. Once again, this charge carries a sentence of ten to twelve-and-a-half years.

·      One count of intentional homicide in the use of a dangerous weapon. This stems from when Rittenhouse was being pursued by Huber and fell. When he turned over and saw Huber approaching, he aimed his assault rifle at the other man. This charge appeared to somewhat establish that Huber only tried to hit Rittenhouse with his skateboard after Kyle took aim at him and just before Rittenhouse gunned Huber down. This too is documented on video. “Intentional homicide” is self-explanatory. It means that one person intentionally kills a homicide victim—in this case, (not) victim Huber. The charge carries a mandatory life sentence. Here too, the jury was given the option of deciding for lesser charges— second-degree intentional homicide or first-degree reckless homicide which carries a maximum sixty-year sentence.

·      One count of attempted first-degree intentional homicide in the use of a dangerous weapon, connected to Rittenhouse’s wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz right after he shot and killed Huber. This charge carries a sixty-year prison term. Again, the jury was also given the option of considering lesser charges—second-degree attempted intentional homicide and first-degree reckless endangerment. The first is punishable by thirty years in prison and the second by twelve years and six months

·      One count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under eighteen years of age. Rittenhouse was still only seventeen on the night that he shot the three men with an AR-15-type, .223-caliber semi-automatic assault rifle, a weapon similar in every way to the M-16 carried by US combat personnel starting in the Vietnam War, the only major difference being that the M-16 could be used as a semi-automatic or fully automatic weapon. Under Wisconsin law, as mentioned earlier, minors can only possess guns specifically made for hunting, or when supervised by an adult in target practice or instruction in the proper use of a dangerous weapon. The judge threw this charge out immediately on a technicality raised by the defense. In all of the homicide cases above, the fact that Rittenhouse was in illegal possession of a dangerous firearm could have added five years to any eventual sentence.

·      And finally, one count of failure to comply with an emergency order from state or local government. This had to do with the fact that there was an 8pm curfew in place when Rittenhouse took it upon himself to dispense vigilante street justice that night at a violent demonstration in Kenosha. A misdemeanor, the charge carries a two-hundred-dollar fine. The judge threw the charge out directly.

  

Considering the charges leveled and Kyle Rittenhouse’s incredibly reckless actions, whatever the legal criteria might be that judge and jury applied in letting the boy off scot-free is bound to stick in the craw of everyone who is increasingly alarmed at the level of rampant violence and division existing in American society today. The fact that Rittenhouse did not even have to face sentencing for the lesser charges involved in his possessing an assault rifle illegally—not even a misdemeanor charge for breaking curfew—lets him walk away feeling that his behavior has been vindicated and even condoned.

Rittenhouse - like the t-shirt reads: Free as Fuck

Worse still, the decision can’t help but encourage other white vigilantes—because, let’s not kid ourselves, this would have been a very different trial if the shooter had been black—to take the law into their own hands, a trend that we are seeing more and more frequently (as in the shooting death of African-American jogger Amaud Arbery at the hands of three white Georgia men who tracked him down and killed him, perhaps thinking that if a black guy was running, it must be from something.

The US is fast returning to the Wild West where lawmen dispense “justice” from the barrel of a gun, and any gunslinger with a score to settle does so, not through the judicial system, but taking the law into his own hands. And here I say through the judicial system rather than through the law, because clearly, as this case shows, American law all too often turns the shooter into the “victim” and the deceased into the (not) victim. This to me would appear to suggest that legislators should be looking at authentically justice-based changes in the law.

The simple facts of this case are that Kyle Rittenhouse was not exercising his right to self-defense because arsonists and looters were burning and ransacking his home, or because one of them broke into his house and smacked him with a potentially lethal skateboard. Nor was he quietly sitting on his own front porch minding his own business when another of his (not) victims pointed a gun at him. No. Kyle Rittenhouse left his home, crossed into another state, armed himself with and assault rifle that he had no business possessing and marched recklessly into angry throngs of rioters, playing out some Rambo fantasy that ended up almost getting him killed, but instead, cost the lives of three other people. Three men who, thanks to the decision of a Wisconsin court, have gone from being (not) victims, to being portrayed as victimizers.

In the end, Kyle Rittenhouse simply went to Kenosha looking for trouble. He found it and made it. And he has been handsomely rewarded for his efforts.  

 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

THE THING ABOUT BILLIONAIRES IN SPACE

 We were recently treated to news footage of 90-year-old Canadian-born actor William Shatner emoting over his first real trip into space after, decades earlier in his career, playing the lead role of Captain Kirk, skipper of the space station USS Enterprise, in the wildly popular Star Trek franchise. The cameras made sure they captured the moment when he returned from space and talked to Amazon tycoon and now private space race point man Jeff Bezos, and thanked him profusely for this “most profound experience”.

A emotional William Shatner with Jeff Bezos
And well he might have thanked Bezos, since the Blue Origin flight that Shatner took for free would have cost another passenger between two hundred and three hundred thousand dollars. And only because it was already the firm’s second flight. A seat on the first one, in July, for which Bezos was also a passenger, was auctioned for twenty-eight million dollars.

But, hey, the hype seems to have been worth it to Bezos and Blue Origin. It’s not every day that you get to launch the emblematic Captain Kirk on a real-life star trek. And the kicker was that the actor also became the oldest man in history to travel in space—a flight reminiscent of America’s very first space adventure, when NASA astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space in 1961. Although, the erstwhile Captain Kirk’s flight was only eleven minutes long and reached an altitude of sixty nautical miles, while Shepard traveled slightly more than a hundred miles into space and was there for fifteen minutes before splashing down.

Another billionaire in the growing private space race, Sir Richard Branson, had earlier offered Shatner a ride on his Virgin Galactic spacecraft. But Branson blew his chance to tap into the Star Trek franchise by telling Shatner that the seat would cost him a quarter of a million dollars—Virgin recently raised the price of a space ticket to four hundred fifty thousand dollars. It’s not like Shatner, whose net worth is around a hundred million dollars, couldn’t afford it. He knew, however, that he wasn’t just some actor, but the space hero of several generations—the inimitable Captain Kirk—and decided to hold out for a better deal. Bezos gave it to him and bested Branson once again.

Sir Richard Branson - Virgin Galactic
In all fairness, when it comes to the space race, Bezos is lightyears ahead of Branson who “only” has a net worth of 4.2 billion dollars compared to the Amazon CEO’s more than two hundred billion. Which places Sir Richard in the category of only minor billionaires, like Donald Trump (although Branson has almost double the money Trump does—that is, if you actually believe how much Trump says he has, since he lies about absolutely everything, and we’re still waiting to see his tax records). So perhaps Branson felt he simply couldn’t afford to give Captain Kirk a freebie.

The other billionaire who is deeply involved in the space race is Elon Musk, who just this past month surpassed Bezos as the richest man on earth. He did that by increasing his net worth some twenty-five billion dollars in a single day, when the car rental giant, Hertz, announced that it was replacing its fleet with Musk’s Tesla automobiles. Pay attention now, because it’s hard to keep up, but just in the last week, he increased his fortune by a similar amount, so that he now has somewhere in the neighborhood (a really nice neighborhood, clearly) of two hundred ninety-two billion dollars.

Soaring at the top of the ten wealthiest billionaires list, he could now, literally, buy Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet and Mike Bloomberg and still have seventeen billion in change left over.  He could also match the GDP of Chile and have enough left to buy Stephen Spielberg, George Soros, Sir Richard Branson and Donald Trump, and still have some pocket change.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk - richest of all
Speaking seriously, there are a lot of reasons why a private space race among billionaires is a really, really bad idea. And the biggest one is the inordinate and indomitable mega-power that kind of wealth provides.

To start with, even though each major country, to a greater or lesser extent, has some sort of “space law”, for the most part, the Solar System is currently, more or less, the new Wild West. The most urgent need for restrictive legislation is in the area of environmental protection. No one—among those with the power to do something about it—seems to be giving any serious thought to this, but there are major consequences looming in the minds of those who know the science.

By 2030, just a little more than eight years from now, the billionaire space race is expected to have spawned a four-billion-dollar industry just in “space tourism—read: billionaires fleecing millionaires for a ride with “the magnificent men and their flying machines.” Bezos, Branson and the flamboyant and unpredictable Elon Musk are already committed to the private space race, and if it takes off as a lucrative industry, other billionaires will surely follow.

While Bezos, for example, recently paid lip-service to his climate change commitment, the new industry, of which he has become a clear leader, promises to have a major impact. The worst for the moment involves the fact that the amount of propellant needed to blast a rocket into space is enormous. While some analysts agree that calculating the impact of each specific craft (billionaires order the building of their own rockets since NASA has been largely relieved of its regulatory powers) is not an easy process. It is clear, however, that as space tourism and other expanded private commercial uses of aerospace technology—asteroid, lunar and planetary mining, for instance—become ever more abundant, they will contribute in a major way to pollution and greenhouse gases.

This, at a time when environmentalists are warning that Earth is no longer in danger of reaching its tipping point, but has most probably already reached it. This means that environmental damage already caused by our imprudence and greed may be incapable of repair, and if world leaders ever stop admiring their own navels and actually start doing something about climate change, all that will be possible is mitigation of further damage to an already ravaged planet.

Within that context, the idea of a commercial space race, among private firms and nearly unregulated billionaires, is utterly insane. Especially when, if we remain on this path, Humankind will be well on its way toward the Sixth Great Extinction, in which future human generations may end up going the way of the dinosaurs.

In order to quantify just how selfish and damaging touristic space flight is, it’s interesting to look at a calculation worked out by University College London scientist, Dr. Eloise Marais. According to Marais, shooting four or five millionaire tourists into space for a ten or twelve-minute joy ride burns one hundred times more fuel—and hence creates a hundred times more greenhouse gases—per passenger than the amount per passenger generated by a normal long-haul jet flight, which is already a highly carbon-intensive activity.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia point out that there are other concerns as well. Among them, huge amounts of aluminum oxide, black carbon particles and water vapor that rocket ships release into the stratosphere. Some of the chemical compounds are obviously linked to global warming. But like many other factors, this is more about general climate change than just about global warming, considering that black carbon particles, for instance, can form a sort of screen that can have an intense cooling effect. The future consequences are, then, as unforeseeable as were those of our cavalier abuse of the environment in the past.  A fiery hell on earth or a new Ice Age: choose your poison.

The idea of degree, as I mentioned before, is also at the top of environmentalists’ mind. Dutch sustainable transport and tourism expert Paul Peeters says that the difference in environmental damage from one sort of space ship to another can be significant. He cites the example of Virgin Galactic’s manned rocket, which is a hybrid. In the best of all possible worlds, the word hybrid denotes a good thing. In this case it’s just the opposite. Branson’s space tourism rig burns both liquid and solid propellant. What that means, says Peeters, is that Virgin is releasing far more black carbon into the atmosphere and stratosphere than kerosene-burning craft do.  Says Peeters, “If hybrid rockets, which are assumed to be relatively cheap to operate, become popular, a climate disaster is looming.”

In light of the billionaire space race, many environmental scientists would like to see space launches included in worldwide environmental protocols due to the damage their increasing frequency will surely cause to the ozone layer. The international Montreal Protocol, which covers deterioration of the ozone layer, does not take space launches into account.

The ozone layer forms a sort of blanket of protection that once covered the entire Earth. It acts as a natural sunscreen to filter out UV rays from solar radiation that are harmful to human and other life on earth. Each winter for many years now, there has been one hole in that layer over South America and another over the Arctic. Scientists agree that these holes have grown due to the effects of greenhouse gases created by human activity. Recently, however, the one over South America has been growing at a faster clip. At certain seasons of the year (winter is the worst) it reaches some eight million square miles.

I happen to live in the Patagonian region where the hole is most focused. Here, doctors promote the ample use of sunscreen, hats, UV-blocking sunglasses, etc. Ophthalmologists say that they are seeing the earlier onset of cataracts in people here, especially those with light-colored eyes, who do not wear quality sunglasses. Scientists also point to the high rate of blindness among sheep on the sprawling sheep ranches in this corner of the world.

Another indicator is the deterioration of usually durable plastics. For instance, irrigation experts that I’ve spoken to tell me that durable plastic sprinklers made in Israel and used in the searing desert heat there last ten to twenty years in their country of origin, while here in Patagonia they last less than half that time until material fatigue sets in.

Vast increases in space launches as the billionaire space race and space tourism build will have a very definite impact on this serious problem that is part and parcel of the global climate change narrative. Worse still is the attitude of billionaire astro-entrepreneurs who tend to take Earth’s serious environmental problems as insoluble and are looking to the solar system as an escape route for the obscenely wealthy—significant numbers of whom got that way by raping and pillaging planet Earth—who will eventually be able to pack up and fly off to “gated communities” on the moon or Mars, while back on Earth, the poorer human race goes gradually extinct.

Bezos, specifically, has an even more nefarious idea: namely, to move all polluting industries off of Earth to other destinations. In other words, instead of fixing the problem of pollution on Earth, he figures it’s easier to write the planet off. Then he and other magnates of his ilk can blast off on voyages to other post-Columbian new worlds, where they can despoil those places as well. The idea is dystopian and unhelpful when men of such extraordinary wealth could be funding vast research with no more than pocket change for them—a billion here, a billion there—to foster ideas capable of vastly improving the environmental and humanitarian situation on Earth, rather than considering our planet “the past” and space “the future”.

While the headline-catching billionaire space race is in its infancy and might right now look to us rather as if we were witnessing the Wright Brothers and Sir George Cayley having a contest with their flying machines at Kitty Hawk, technology is so readily available and the billionaires’ resources so vast that commercial space exploitation is coming, and coming fast. All of this might seem like an accounting of problems that are “far off in the future”—like it seemed far off to us “boomers” in the 1950s and 1960s, when scientists warned that if we kept on abusing the earth, the atmosphere and the oceans, we would face major environmental problems in the twenty-first century. But, hey, here we are. And technological developments that took decades to achieve in the past now happen in months or, at most, a few short years.

There is one other aspect of the legislative vacuum in which this is all happening, especially since the most highly developed space legislation is that of the US and, ever since the Reagan Era, it has been focused almost entirely on encouraging billionaires to claim their place in private space development. The aspect I am referring to is that of world security.

Zuckerberg - test case for billionaire ethics?
With the latest revelations about Facebook—now Meta, as if changing the name can take people’s minds off of what has been coming out—the potential for megalomania among the world’s wealthiest people has come into focus.  Mega-billionaires are powers unto themselves—unipersonal “nations” that ignore or sidestep the rules of the societies where they live, as witnessed by the fact that most of those based in the US not only don’t pay their fair share, but literally pay nothing at all in taxes.

To understand the kind of dangers that the vast expansion of private billionaires’ dominion over space pose, we need go no further than the political role of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the undermining of American democracy. Despite having sold off a lot of FB/Meta stock, Zuckerberg has maintained absolute administrative control over the company. And, by all accounts, he runs it like a dictatorial regime.

While Zuckerberg has provided the world with the quintessential social media platform and, thus, a place where the formerly voiceless can now openly express themselves on a cyber-soapbox of immense proportions, that great humanitarian achievement has been far overshadowed by the greed that has led him to not merely provide the greatest podium for free speech ever known, but also, and on the contrary, to manipulate the information that his portal receives in order to spread discord and to support false information because controversy sells. And the more likes and comments accumulated under each post the higher his advertising revenues.

Seen in this way, it is impossible not to conclude that the strategic algorithms employed by Facebook to fatten its bottom line have inversely served to undermine democratic institutions, and to promote both domestic and foreign terrorism. The fact that Zuckerberg and Facebook have systematically imposed such a strategy out of sheer greed and, worse still, have felt no ethical compunction about its results is telling. Zuckerberg has no part in the space race yet, but it’s not hard to imagine that if he sees his fellow billionaires making significant advances in that line, space could well end up on Meta’s “to do” list.

Perhaps one might have been willing to give billionaires the benefit of the doubt before the Trump Era in Washington, and indeed before revelations regarding FB’s nefarious policies. But four years of Trump and his continuing long shadow on American politics has to give any thinking person pause regarding the potential for megalomania among the world’s richest men. And I single out men advisedly, since despite the fact that there are indeed billionaire American women as well—Alice Walton, MacKenzie Scott, Julia Knoch, Miriam Adelson, etc.—none so far has demonstrated any desire to dominate this world or other worlds, a trait that would appear to be quintessentially male.

The Trump Era raises the megalomania issue
Trump has very clearly shown his tendency toward megalomania. In his case, a caricaturesque tendency so ridiculous that far too many people didn’t take it seriously until he sought to overturn free and fair voting results and to change by force the outcome of the election he unquestionably lost. The fact that he has effectively taken over one of the two main parties in the US, and that the GOP leadership has fallen in, rank and file behind him while driving out the few remaining defenders of democracy and constitutionality in their midst is chilling, and reminiscent of other authoritarian designs throughout history. It has become abundantly clear, then, that there is only one small-d democratic party in the US today. The other main party, as a direct result of the Trump Era, has become an authoritarian personality cult autocracy.

Would Donald Trump join the billionaire space race? Hard to say. But if he wanted to, he wouldn’t have to depend on his own “small fortune”, but could do what he has always done an amazing job of doing—selling his ideas to other wealthy men and then slapping the Trump brand on it. And the fact that it was under his administration that the US Space Force became one of America’s armed services demonstrates that it is at least at the back of his mind.

The Trump Era has, then, given us a lot to think about—above all, the thirst for unlimited power of obscenely wealthy men. Which leads to unavoidable connections, like the ex-president’s authoritarian hero, Vladimir Putin, who, himself, is sitting on a personal fortune of seventy billion dollars, so wouldn’t need the Russian state at all if he ever planned to join the billionaire space race.

Excuse me, then, if I can’t help wondering if these are the sort of men we want marauding unregulated through space like so many cosmic cowboys. I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel a whole lot less secure.