Thursday, January 29, 2015

From retributive to rehabilitative to restorative to transformative: Arc of justice

Review: Schenwar, Maya (2014), Locked down, locked out: Why prison doesn't work and how we can do better. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Maya Schenwar is a writer and editor who made prisons and justice models her "beat" when her sister kept getting locked up, held for a period in a sort of social cryogenesis, spit out, and without any change in her coping abilities, cycled straight back in. It was all related to drugs, not to violence, and Maya began to question the entire justice system. This book is the culmination of years of researching and writing about the justice system in America.

Schenwar's exploration over time has included many friendships with inmates and former inmates, and family members of inmates. The first part of her book is an examination of the problems of the entire prison system, the rippling effects through families and communities, and the general failure of law enforcement to seriously address the overwhelming connection to what scholars in my field of Peace and Conflict Studies call structural violence. In other words, the drivers to incarceration that exist outside the inmate herself--poverty, racism, unemployment, drug laws, proliferation of weaponry, gentrification, failing schools, and a shredded social safety net.

For those (such as I) familiar with prisons and jails, her recounting of visits, of interviews, of her penpal relationships, all ring of pure authenticity. She sugarcoats nothing--not the inmates themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, and certainly not the penal institutions that warehouse vast numbers of Americans, especially people of color, and that tend to produce recidivists.

Just when we are beaten down by the enormity of the problems, in the final quarter of her book, Schenwar begins to produce evidence of pieces of transformative solutions, a few from within institutions but most of them are initiatives from the nongovernmental sector of our society.

She looks at a peace room in a dangerous school prone to outbreaks of violence and how that peace room has changed the school culture and draws students to the peace room before violence erupts, not just as a mop-up subsequent to violence.

She spends time in a cafe that works with young people to keep them out of trouble and learning conflict transformation skills.

She interviews many people who are at the innovative edge of alternatives to violent policing and caged incarceration. This is the part of the book I found most intriguing and directly valuable. It begins to help the reader get past the "OK, prisons are a problem but what do you do about all those who need to be kept from harming others?"

I finished her book with the mental fantasy image of a map of the US with little peace flags where these sorts of initiatives are working on a piece of this vast problem. I want to see those peace flags cover the country and connect in ways that obviate the need for most, if not all, prison walls. Perhaps there will always be a need to keep some people locked away from little girls or other vulnerable humans, but none of those places should be retributive; transformative justice is how we can truly generate hope for the freedom of all of us.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Homage to a beheading royal--really?

The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs--the military sworn to defend democracy and the same military currently bombing the snot out of ISIS thugs who have been rightly vilified for beheadings--now wants his members to honor a Saudi royal whose regime beheaded countless dissidents and allowed flogging women for flirting.


Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz passed away at age 90 this January 23. His people were never citizens; they were all subjects. With his oil riches he maintained the occasional illusion of tiny reforms, all of which really strengthened his grip on power. He usually ran the most misogynistic regime on Earth (OK, the Taliban in Afghanistan had him beat for a few years), and he made sure the common Saudis did not share in the fabulous oil wealth he reserved for his extended royal family. 


The honor comes in the form of an essay contest and research initiative into the future of US-Arab security. "Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said the essay competition is a fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch." The contest will be conducted through the National Defense University.

The New Surrealpolitik

How is a monarch who owned slaves a suitable subject for honor, a suitable partner for an alliance, and an acceptable recipient of massive amounts of US military hardware and training? The war profiteers in the US have shoveled in the funds from this arrangement for decades. The fluid dynamics are these: 
  • The US wants Saudi oil.
  • Saudi royals need US guns, planes, bombs and materiel to control their own people.
  • US war profiteer corporations don't care if they sell to terrorists, democracies, military juntas, or kings. They don't care if innocent people are repressed with their products and they don't care if journalists are jailed for writing the truth. They care about one thing: making blood money hand over fist. They lobby Congress, they lobby the Pentagon, and they get their way. 
  • Everybody wins (everyone in the elites, never mind everyone else). 

Congratulations, Dempsey. You have shared that big vat of Ghoul-Aid with your students and researchers. No wonder the average Saudi loathes his rulers and tends to believe in the Wahabi radicalism borne of decades of violent repression made possible by US military collaborators like you. Another proud moment for the US in the Arab world.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ten reasons to repeal the stupid Second Amendment

I wrote a short opinion piece on Christmas day, 2014, about repealing the Second Amendment. It attracted the attention of the National Rifle Association and was featured in at least two places on their vast and interesting website.

I received more hate mail in the days following that NRA attention than I have received in the first 64 years of my life--combined. Luckily for me, I have an emotional carapace made of Kevlar.

For the most part, the quality of the reactions was quite low--it is instructive when someone misspells imbecile.
Many engaged in kneejerk character attack, seemingly buoyed by three factors. One, I'm a self-described pacifist. Two, they generally bragged about owning many guns and apparently they are prepared to use them because they are not hesitant to slander anyone with whom they disagree. Three, this is the Internet and they have no intention of actually coming to discuss anything with me and regard our personal meeting as highly unlikely.

Those sorts of reactions merit no response.

A small handful were in honest and respectful disagreement with me and we exchanged mutually respectful views, agreeing to disagree and no hard feelings. That is the essence of a robust democracy; we value the First Amendment because it protects discourse that can expand our knowledge and sharpen our pencils.

We say we value the First Amendment because it protects loathesome or vile speech but that is generally simply rhetoric. Very few who worry about the sanctity of the First Amendment want to offer a forum to those who issue slurs against anyone's color, culture, national origin, sexual orientation, religion or other identity components. And let's be clear; offering a pulpit to someone who speaks with hateful ignorance about another person's tribe or gender is radically different than offering to kill them. Protecting the life of a cartoonist who draws insulting cartoons about everyone's religions is quite different from buying those cartoons.

So why repeal the stupid Second Amendment? Doing so wouldn't outlaw a single gun. Indeed, it would actually take away federal power. Here are ten reasons. Add your own:

  1. It would give power back to states and local governments to control lethal weaponry that they frequently cannot control now because upon passing a gun law in a city, the NRA trots to the Supremes and gets them to vacate the law as unConstitutional. 
  2. It would mean that the federal government would not be able to tell a city, county, or state what to do about gun laws. Maybe some states want to be the wild west and operate like Tombstone Territory and maybe some towns want no guns. It would then be up to them.
  3. It would make teen suicide numbers decrease, probably quite dramatically. 
  4. It would eventually nearly end school shootings in some places with tougher laws and pull more toward the "Tuff Response Method" of nonviolent inquiry and empathy.
  5. It would make it possible for some states or cities to institute tough laws on gun mechanisms so toddlers would not be finding a gun in Mom's purse and hurting themselves or Mom.
  6. It would drive the overall homicide rate down as some places cleaned guns out of their areas.
  7. It would drive the overall suicide rate down as more towns got rid of more guns. 
  8. It would drive down the accidental death rates as gun laws made guns both safer or nonexistent.
  9. It would make the police less jumpy and less likely to continue their killing spree against unarmed people of color.
  10. It would make increasing disarmament of police possible as they faced fewer and fewer weapons that now are polluting our entire society.
Gun lovers wrote me quite a lot about how Hitler and Kim Jung Un and other dictators love it when their people are not armed. 

There are some countries with far more restrictive gun laws than the US that are also regarded as robust democracies, some with equal metrics of civil rights and minority protection to the US. There is simply no causal factor between getting rid of guns and inviting a dictatorship. The correlatives work both ways and cannot be regarded as good evidence.

More importantly, the weapon of choice nowadays for deposing dictators is nonviolence. It succeeds at about twice the rate that violent insurrection does, it is faster, and obviously far fewer people die in that struggle. Please, my fellow Americans, learn this. They know this in Serbia, in the Philippines, in Hungary, in the former East Germany, in Estonia, in Zambia, and in many of the other places where brutal dictators were swept away by unarmed but aroused civil society. 

The Second Amendment is anti-democratic, anti-life, anti-dialog, and antiquated. It is a negative in our world. Time to ditch it.