Monday, June 29, 2009

Searching and seizing for fun and profit

Recently, Madison's mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, issued a three-page proposal of ways in which to combat rising gun violence in certain of the city's neighborhoods. It's good that these problems are being more directly addressed, but I can't help but have some serious concerns about one of the major points in his plan:
Madison police would enlist parental permission to search for guns in their children’s bedrooms...

Utilizing parental consent to a search instead of a search warrant approved by a judge is a way to move quickly — before the guns can do damage — when police are tipped off to the location of a weapon in the hands of a juvenile.
I understand the desire to move as quickly as possible when there's strong evidence indicating that someone is in possession of an illegal firearm. I understand that police and city officials are frustrated by the continued spike in crime in Madison. But is this really the best way to go about combating the problem? By circumventing, as far as I can tell anyway, one of the central tenants of the Constitution?

Not only would this plan potentially be a major violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, but it strikes me that it would only serve to foster greater mistrust between parents and their children, and/or children and their community.

I'm not saying we should never call out our young people on their more ridiculous or dangerous behavior. In fact, I suspect that a lack of good parental and community involvement is one of the key factors that leads some children to act out so rashly.

But is it going to help the situation to give police the power to rifle through a kids belongings without first obtaining a warrant? What happens when what they find is enough for them to level charges? Does the search just get thrown out for the lack of warrant?

What's more, when you really think about how such a policy would play out, you immediately run into hazards. How will police know/decide which kids to target? Do parents, friends, and other peers need to first come to the cops with information? Another option is one that The Sconz recently suggested:
Theoretically, the introduction of this plan suggests there is a group of cops who are keeping up with “gang politics,” per se. They are tuned into teen rivalries, they analyze youth arrests and try to figure out who is at risk to commit a crime with a firearm.
But like Sconz there, I'm a bit dubious that such a program exists, or that if it does, it's that sophisticated. Which leads one to wonder if this new policy wouldn't be ripe for abuse. Would there be a system of checks in place to look into the reliability of sources and make sure the searches weren't disproportionately (and unjustly) targeting kids from certain neighborhoods? That they wouldn't just be the result of petty vendettas?

I recognize that this is a terrible situation to be in, when things have gotten so bad that such ideas are being floated. And there are no easy solutions. But I can't help but cringe when yet another policy is invented that aims to take away the essential rights of minors. There's no better way to further piss off and disenfranchise them, which is precisely what we ought to be working to prevent.

So I have some questions, and until such time as those questions are satisfactorily answered, I have to object to this particular facet of Mayor Dave's new plan. I'm pleased that he and other city officials appear to be taking seriously the problem, but I worry that they're falling into knee-jerk reactions and scare mongering to address it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Music, bikes, beer, and the great outdoors

What are you doing this evening at 6:00p.m.? Unless you're planning to come to the UW Memorial Union Terrace, it's nothing important, I can tell you that.

And why all the bluster from me? Because my band, Little Red Wolf, is playing a free show at that very time, in that very place, and you should come! We'll be running through an hour-long set of our original music, and the whole dang thing will be powered by people riding bikes. Seriously! What's not to love? Add the Terrace's friendly, convivial vibe, the close proximity to good drinks and food, and the fact that we'll be handing out free copies of our new, 6-song demo CD, and you really just can't go wrong.

More about the show here, here, and here.

And if for some crazy reason you can't make it, do check our Myspace page in the next few days when we'll be uploading some of those demo songs for public consumption. Hooray!

Then I'll be off to Chicago for the weekend, to spend time with my sister and celebrate Gay Pride (not to mention the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, aka the beginning of the modern gay rights movement). Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Loitering laws lack luster

Once upon a time a person could decide to simply stand around without immediately falling under suspicion of shenanigans. Then along came anti-loitering ordinances to break up the stillness party. Under the guise of "helping to prevent crime," loitering laws gave police permission to stop and question anyone for the simple act of hanging out.

Now, sure, some folks who choose not to walk or run through neighborhoods at all times are up to no good. But so are some of those walkers and runners. And people in cars! Don't forget about them. Lots of criminals in cars. So why not institute a rule where anyone driving can be pulled over and questioned at any time simply for driving?

While the latter proposal (rightfully) usually goes over like a lead brick, loitering ordinances are a favorite choice of embattled and/or nervous police and local politicians. Take District 9 Alder Paul Skidmore (please! hey-o), who is currently trying to line up support for an anti-loitering law. Madison had one on the books until it expired in 2002, and now Skidmore would like to bring it back.

Only, selectively.

You see, some neighborhoods are populated entirely with God-fearing, law abiding stander arounders, while others are full of idle no-goodniks. So, clearly, application of a loitering ordinance should be a matter of picking and choosing.

Never mind that such a policy would, more than likely, lead to disproportionate hassling of minorities and young people (because that's just how it goes) in less affluent neighborhoods.

There are other, less discriminatory ways to clean up areas with high crime. Greater communication between police and citizens, faster response times to calls for help, more beat cops, better community services (like after school and childcare programs), and other such measures can all help to lower crime rates without needlessly disenfranchising people along the way.

And hey, WISCTV? What's up with the photo you ran with this article? Not only are the people in it all black (and wearing baggy clothes! Heaven forfend!), but they're walking. Isn't the piece supposed to be about loitering? Just sayin'.

(photo by The Life of Bryan on Flickr)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Martyr or nuisance? Pham-Remmele strikes again

Brenda Konkel having been defeated in the last election, Madison Alder Thuy Pham-Remmele looks to be working hard to take the mantle of most notorious Council member in town.

That could be a badge of honor, or a mark of shame.

Controversy and strong opinions about Pham-Remmele's tenure have been building for some time now (as far as I can tell, pretty much ever since the big neighborhood safety meeting last year), and the local press has taken notice. That led to the Wisconsin State Journal printing a piece by Dean Mosiman all about Pham-Remmele and her critics. The article was, in my opinion, somewhat slanted in her favor, making her out to be an outspoken maverick willing to stand up to the mayor and fight for the rights of her crime-weary constituents.

Clenched fists in the air!

This is a tricky issue, though, because the problems faced by those living in Pham-Remmele's district are very real, very pressing, and very complicated. And I can understand why so many of them are so fond of their alder, who has done much to lobby for certain security measures aimed at improving their situation.

The problem, however, is that that appears to be Pham-Remmele's only issue, and she seems to spend the rest of her time rambling on for far too long, asking questions that have no real purpose, and repeating herself. By all accounts, when Pham-Remmele takes the floor at a Council meeting, everyone battens down the hatches and prepares themselves for some long, meandering tirade or another.

At the most recent meeting, she apparently did not disappoint. Both reporter Dusty Weis and former alder Konkel have interesting and detailed accounts of what happened, and I recommend checking out both of them.

Is she drunk on her recent glut of publicity? Or is this just business as usual? I have no idea, but regardless of the reasons, it does appear that she's turning into more of a nuisance than an effective, take-no-shit advocate. And that's a shame, because we need more elected officials who are willing to ask the tough questions and get at the root of issues. We need people willing to disagree openly with the mayor and others when necessary. But we need these people to have some measure of tact and forethought, so that meetings don't get needlessly bogged down. That's where important policies are supposed to get worked out, after all.

I admire Pham-Remmele's obvious passion for the job and the neighborhood, but it's becoming more and more clear that her shortcomings, unfortunately, far outweigh her good intentions.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Iran, so far away

I've been distracted for the past couple of days by events in Iran. I wish I could say I'd been following the politics and events in that country more closely for a long time, but the truth is that I, like too many of my fellow Americans, have only been taking in the drips and drabs coming through our more mainstream media outlets.

Which isn't to say that I consider myself completely ignorant of what's going on over there, or of that nation's history. But considering how important a role Iran has played in the region--both negative and not--it's a shame that all many Americans seem to know about it is that we don't want them to have nuclear capabilities.

And rightfully so! With Ahmadinejad and his ilk in charge of anything, it wouldn't be much of a safe bet. But it was entirely likely that the majority of the people of Iran were finished with him, and the prevailing wisdom in this past weekend's elections seemed to be that challenger and reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi would become the next president. Iran was ready for change.

Only, Ahmadinejad and his supporters appear to have thwarted the will of the people. The election results were announced by state media just hours after polls closed--despite many of the ballots being cast by hand, and the lengthy logistics related to counting them. Irregularities in the process cropped up almost immediately. And in great numbers.

In response, hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of Iranians have taken to the streets in protest, facing violence from angry mobs of Ahmadinejad supporters (most notably the Basij) and even death. It's a monumental event, perhaps the largest protest in the history of the country, and a clear-cut demonstration that many, many Iranians are tired of the far-right, inflammatory ways and words of Ahmadinejad.

If there was a time for those of us who believe in democracy and the freedom of people to live as they wish to stand up with and for everyday Iranians, this is it.

And yet, our mainstream media has so far done a relatively piss-poor job of covering what's going on. Instead, the best way to get real, up-to-date information and analyses is via Twitter, blogs, and some international press.

Andrew Sullivan, blogging for the Atlantic, has long been keen on current events in Iran, and his continuing coverage of the elections has been stellar.

Tehran Bureau, whose website crashed for unknown reasons (but has since found a re-route through an alternate server), has been diligently updating their Twitter account with news from on the ground.

The only bright spot in CNN's coverage, or lack thereof, was Fareed Zakaria's program on Sunday that featuring on-the-ground reporting from Christiane Amanpour (aka My Favorite Journalist) and some very decent in-studio analysis.

Point is, you've got to go to new and/or international media sources to get decent coverage of important events happening outside of the US these days (and sometimes inside the US, too). For all of the hullabaloo about the "death of traditional media," it doesn't appear that many traditional media outlets are doing much to help their case.

Anyway, I wanted to express my solidarity with and support for the protesters in Iran who are seeking a more meaningful and honest democracy. It's especially impressive when you realize the seriousness of the consequences often faced by those willing to stick up for something other than the hard line. It makes something of already great importance all the more crucial.

EDIT TO ADD: Read this article for a much more in-depth description of the power politics at play in this election, and how it's all breaking down.

(photo by .faramarz on Flickr)

Monday, June 8, 2009

A burnin' hunk of love for libraries

Last week, it was brought to my attention that a few lost souls over in West Bend, Wisconsin had been insisting they be allowed to burn a few books in their library's collection. Area residents Ginny and Jim Maziarka, you see, had deemed certain of the works in the young adult section as being "sexually explicit."

Thankfully, the library's trustees voted unanimously to maintain the collection and effectively tell the Maziarkas to piss off, but I still couldn't help but think: Book burning? Really? We're still doing that?

That the idea of burning tomes you happen to find personally disagreeable doesn't immediately conjure up images of history's most oppressive and violent regimes is incredibly baffling to me (and apparently I'm not alone).

The story gets all the more strange, however, when you delve a bit deeper:
Milwaukee-area citizen Robert C. Braun of the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) distributed at the meeting copies of a claim for damages he and three other plaintiffs filed April 28 with the city; the complainants seek the right to publicly burn or destroy by another means the library’s copy of Baby Be-Bop. The claim also demands $120,000 in compensatory damages ($30,000 per plaintiff) for being exposed to the book in a library display, and the resignation of West Bend Mayor Kristine Deiss for “allow[ing] this book to be viewed by the public.”
The first thing that jumped out at me was that these people were seeking damages for merely seeing the book displayed. I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise that they apparently haven't actually read the work in question.

But then, I have a sneaking suspicion that what they did read was a series of talking points, handed out by one extreme right-wing group or another (perhaps Braun's CCLU? Or maybe they just took a cue from some of the other attempts to ban the book), describing the contents and themes of Baby Be-Bop. The highly acclaimed YA novel by Frencesca Lia Block, you see, is about a young man coming to terms with being gay, seeking acceptance, and finding a way to be true to himself.

If you have them, now's the time to clutch your pearls.

Again, I shouldn't be shocked. This whole controversy, couched in claims of protecting children from "sexually explicit" content, is really about homophobia. Sadly, many people still find the very idea to be repellent and an unsuitable topic of discussion at any age. And many people also feel that simply mentioning homosexuality is "sexually explicit," even when nothing naughty ever happens.

Full disclosure: I have not had occasion to read Baby Be-Bop (though I'm deeply tempted now), though all of the reviews I've seen recommend a 12-and-up age limit for it. If there is a bit of bad language in the book, then that seems about right to me. But this idea that adolescents and teenagers should be coddled and kept away from material that deals with such subjects as sexuality in a frank and honest manner is both dangerous and patronizing.

And the idea, ridiculously still pervasive, that equates "gay" with "sex" is something we as a society have a lot to learn about. Even if that were the case, we can't go on trying to keep all sexual information away from our children. At least, not if we want them to live relatively happy, healthy lives.

In the meantime, how about we stop trying to destroy their books? And how about the likes of Braun and the Maziarkas get a new hobby, preferably one that doesn't involve infringing on the most basic rights of their fellow citizens.

(photo by mrtwism on Flickr)

Friday, June 5, 2009

What's black and white and red all over?

I don't normally address the vapid, pointless things MJS columnist Patrick McIlheran spews onto his blog, but today's little screed bears some tweaking.

Taking umbrage with a piece written by Leonard Pitts Jr. that deals with the problem of black scapegoating in this country, McIlheran goes into full-on sarcasm mode and answers with this gem:
...why did you – yes, you again – deny Pitts a job and then call him a thief? Read to the bottom of his column. That’s what he says you did. And you blew up his school and then called him ignorant. Why did you do that, huh? Why did you kill his father and then complain he was filled with rage?

What, you say you didn’t? You were born after Jim Crow died, after MLK was already regarded a martyr? You grew up thinking black people were just as good as anyone else because “Sesame Street” and every adult you’ve ever known has told you precisely that?

Not only did he miss the entire point of the original article, but apparently the only reason anyone, including himself, might think "black people were just as good as anyone" is because "Sesame Street and every adult you've ever known has told you" to think that. Nice.

I guess McIlheran hasn't made the acquaintance of many African Americans in his day. How else would you explain such a dreadfully ignorant statement?

But it's not entirely uncommon for people to get up in arms when the issue of racism comes up. It's an incredibly complex and highly personal subject. But I don't think Pitts was blaming all racist attacks, past and present, on every white person now living. There's a little something called artistic license going on in his column, wherein stronger language choices are made to get a point across. And the fact remains that we all--black, white, and red-faced McIlheran--still have our own demons to face. Whether that's blatant racism, or the insidious sort that leads us to lock our doors when we see a person of a certain ethnicity walking nearby, the spectre still looms.

Ultimately, this just seems to be a case of McIlheran making knee jerk assumptions based on his own discomfort with the subject. We elected a black man president! This is a post-racial society! We have no more difficult discussions to have or self-examination to do!

Only, clearly, we do.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Madison's own potential pay-to-play scheme

The whole idea of being a street musician is that, if a passerby enjoys the music being offered by the busker, the passerby drops some coin (or bill, if they're feeling particularly generous) into the busker's basket.

Instead, Madison Alder Mike Verveer has expressed his support--and the Common Council seems inclined to agree--for an ordinance that would charge street musicians for their time.

The city does not currently regulate street musicians beyond the reasonable restrictions (that apply to everyone) regarding not obstructing public sidewalks or creating "unreasonable noise." There are also rules governing musicians wishing to use public electricity--ie: be amplified on the street--and those who want to sell anything. These all seem like perfectly legitimate rules to me.

Recently, however, Warren Hansen, coordinator of Madison's street vending, proposed putting legal and financial limits on performer's ability to do their thing. He "suggested charging performers $50 for an annual permit, or $10 a day and setting standards for things like how close they could operate to a business and one another."

Advocates of this system point to the fact that Madison is apparently one of very few cities of its size not to charge a fee for buskers. But since when has our city been all that keen on keeping up with the Jones'? And why now?
...during this year’s Dane County Farmers’ Markets on the Capitol Square, a glut of street performers — including balloon hat artists and a masseuse — has made even Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, change his position on the issue.

“I really thought it was a solution in search of a problem,” Verveer said. “Now staff is bringing this to our attention again, and in a more adamant way.”
I've been a busker and I've been a pedestrian, and I can say that 90% of the people out there performing are courteous and polite. Like all weird, seemingly unnecessary laws, this one may come about as the result of the actions of a few thoughtless and/or bad apples. But it doesn't have to be quite so severe.

Instead of charging the proposed $50/year and $10/day rate--the latter of which is more than some buskers make in a day, by the way--why not simply require a free permit that places mild restrictions on duration and location? That way, we avoid the problem of too many buskers in one spot, and for too long (I'm sure the food cart vendors would appreciate that in regards to the Piccolo Man).

And if the idea of not charging for these permits gets the city's panties into too hard a twist, then make the fee nominal--say, $1 for a day, $5 for the year? Yeah, it's a pesky token thing, but if it deters the nuisance-inclined and rewards the nice 90%, then why not?

Honestly, I'm not entirely comfortable with any permitting requirements for acoustic acts, but the above represents what I believe to be a reasonable compromise. The street musicians and performers are a major part of keeping State Street at all unique and interesting. We need to stop moving toward the sterilization efforts that seem to have been at the forefront of "improvements" to the area for a number of years now, and realize that these funky, earthy, impromptu elements are what makes the street so appealing.

UPDATE TO ADD: Silly of me not to think of and do this in the first place, but I encourage anyone interested in this issue to contact Ald. Verveer and the Common Council to express, politely, their views. Verveer can be contacted directly here, and the CC here. They won't know what we think unless we speak up!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

No vacation from responsibility

I tried to only brief myself on the days' events while I was on vacation last week--both because I like to stay informed, and because it makes the transition back to regular life a little less jarring--but the news that hit me upon return to my home was still hard to take.

You've all undoubtedly heard about it by now. Dr. George Tiller, for a long time one of the few providers of safe, legal, late-term abortions in this country, was gunned down while attending church services in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas. His alleged killer, 51-year-old Scott Roeder of Merriam, Kansas, has a storied history of far-right, rabidly anti-abortion and anti-government activity. It's not a stretch at all to assume he carried out the assassination based on his beliefs.

The tragic events have, predictably and rightfully, brought the issue blazing back to the forefront of our national discussion. Many pro-choice advocates are pointing out the utter hypocrisy inherent in an act of murder by a supposedly "pro-life" individual. And many anti-abortion activists are doing their best to distance themselves from the act while still demonizing Tiller's profession.

Some just can't quite give up the ghost. In comments posted over at Folkbum's site, for instance, several went from denouncing the act to saying that Tiller "deserved what he got." That does a lot to illustrate the kind of cowardly inciting to violence that some of our nation's loudest right-wing talkers like to do. Bill O'Reilly has made Tiller into a favorite bogeyman, referencing the doctor in 28 separate episodes of his show since 2005. O'Reilly frequently referred to Tiller as a "baby killer" with "blood on his hands" and who is guilty of "Nazi stuff." He also made frequent claims that Tiller had performed upwards of 60,000 abortions in his career--which, given the limits of space and time, seems highly implausible to me. But plausibility, and facts for that matter, don't seem to stop O'Reilly and his ilk.

Roeder and his extreme actions certainly don't represent all anti-abortion advocates, not by any means. But he's not alone in viewing the murder of abortion providers as being "justifiable homicide." Several groups across the country operate on that assumption--unapologetically flouting the law and, in my opinion, their own allegedly pro-life stance.

I don't pretend that everyone is ever going to agree on the issue of abortion. But I expect a modicum of civility in the debate that has been lacking, in certain sections of both sides of the issue, since as long as I can remember. And I definitely expect everyone involved to remain safe from harm. There is no excuse, no justifiability, nothing to brush aside the abuse, violence, and even death that many abortion workers and patients have to face down every damn day.

Those who spend their time demonizing and rationalizing the harassment and abuse of abortion providers and patients may not enjoy the same level of culpability as those who carry out the types of disgusting acts being discussed here, but they're not guiltless, either. I'm just a lowly blogger, and yet I'm reminded time and time again through angry comments that, through the operation of a public forum, I have a responsibility for what I espouse and support here.

So then one should suppose that that responsibility should only be dramatically increased when one has a bigger audience, a larger platform from which to spout their thoughts. I'm about as big a proponent of free speech as you're likely to come by, but even I recognize that no one has the right to shout "fire!" in a crowded theatre. Perhaps, then, we should be more closely examining the effects of shouting "baby killer!" on a public, nationally syndicated talk show.

And in the meantime, we would all do well to take a step back and cut the more inflammatory rhetoric and tactics. That way it might be easier to pick out the potential Roeders from the more sane citizens in the crowd--I wouldn't be tempted to drive by the protesters outside the Madison clinic soon to provide late-term abortions and wonder which one is carrying the gun, for instance. And that way, there might be less senseless murder and terrorism (because that's what this is) in the future.

UPDATE TO ADD: A very interesting look at the issue over at Jezebel, featuring the testimony of many women who went to Tiller's clinic for its services.
The Lost Albatross