Category Archives: justice and corrections

When Activism Turns Antisocial

My previous post was about the merchants of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace seeking legislative action to toughen anti-loitering and vagrancy laws — turning misdemeanors into criminal offenses. My point was that their fear and concern are understandable but misplaced. They face an existential crisis thanks to President Trump’s boneheaded handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the way forward is not to kick out or lock up the city’s most vulnerable; it’s to address the root causes of homelessness, substance use, mental illness, etc., in common cause with the city government, social service resources and members of the community.

Now we’ve got the inevitable egregious overreaction to the merchants’ pleas for help: a Twitter campaign urging a boycott of the merchants. One Tweeter, who shall go nameless here, warned signees “Get off the list or you’re in for a bad time.” Yeah, threats are always in season. Another pondered doing their shopping on Amazon instead of downtown retailers. The Burlington Tenants Union chimed in with support for the boycott.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about what we’re all — I hope — trying to accomplish: A city that’s compassionate, that tackles its problems in common cause, that seeks solutions that work for all its people.

The merchants are part of the Burlington community. They are taxpayers and employers. And they are currently going through a period of extreme stress. The last thing they need is a boycott. The last thing the entire city needs is a bunch of vacancies on Church Street. That would hurt the tax base and throw Burlingtonians out of work, leaving the city with fewer resources to tackle its problems.

If you won’t listen to me, perhaps you’d listen to your patron saint, Bernie Sanders.

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The Collar and the Badge

In recent days, we’ve seen defensive protestations from two separate former Burlington police chiefs. The above comes from former chief and now rebranded 21st Century policing expert Brandon del Pozo. The second is in the resignation announcement of Jennifer Morrison, who tied her departure to the too-tough oversight by the busybodies on City Council.

In some ways I can sympathize. Burlington is a tough city for policing, never more so than right now. Progressives on City Council and community advocates often go over the top in their demands and their tactics. And as del Pozo noted in another tweet, many of the top cops who’ve resigned or been forced out across the country are among the more progressive members of that breed. To be sure, life is easier for the George Merkels and Paul Doucettes of the world, who rule the roost in communities that let the cops have their way.

For purposes of this blogpost, I am not questioning the good intentions of del Pozo or Morrison. But here’s the problem: Much like the Roman Catholic Church, the policing profession has forfeited the benefit of the doubt. There are far too many bad apples — and you know the real truth about bad apples is that unless they are removed, they spoil the barrel. In both professions, the bad apples have been allowed to remain.

The vast majority of Catholic priests and, for the sake of argument, top Church administrators operate faithfully, with good intentions. But the bad apples were protected, and the Church continues to pay a price. Who can take the Church seriously as a moral arbiter?

Winning back the lost trust will take several decades of good behavior and strict adherence to moral principles and the law. The same is now true of the policing profession — except they are still racking up fresh deficits.

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The Outsourcing of Bull Connor

The battle against Black Lives Matter is being massively escalated by the day. We’ve gone from Kyle RIttenhouse straight-up gunning people down, to pimped-out pickup trucks with pepper spray super soakers (and Trump flags) driving through crowds of peaceful protesters. (General Motors must be so proud of that product placement.)

I’m old enough to have witnessed some of the carnage of the 50s and 60s, when civil rights finally came to the Old South — and the South fought back with all its might. And this is same song, new verse, except the deadly force has been privatized. If anyone thought we’d made progress since 1965, or somehow become a post-racial society, explain this.

I can only imagine how any of my Black contemporaries feels about this, seeing those old fuzzy video images come back to life in the starkest possible way.

Actually, I don’t have to imagine. Here’s writer Damon Young on the subject of Black resilience.

Being born Black don’t make us any more resilient than anyone else. We ain’t stronger. We ain’t tougher. We’ve just been given more shit to carry. Our kinship with resilience is just us convincing ourselves we can hold that weight, and them justifying how heavy they pack our bags.

This is why Doc Rivers was moved to tears. This is why our best athletes are questioning whether they can go on playing the games they love. They are hurting in a deep and real way that us white folks can’t even imagine. They aren’t volunteering to share their pain, nor should be feel any obligation to do so, because it involves opening the wounds once again. That’s not something you do unless have no choice, because the pain is so great.

The President of the United States is acting like George Wallace, the O.G. segregationist who was willing to foment racial violence for the sake of his political benefit. Donald Trump shows that there are still plenty of white folks racist enough that all they need is a signal. Trump is blowing all the dog whistles as hard as he can, and will keep on doing it until Election Day.

Every day, every dog whistle, every act of racism, will cut to the bone. We can only hope it ends on Election Day with an unambiguous rejection of Trumpism. It’ll be bad enough when, as seems very likely, a majority of white voters choose Trump despite all of it.

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Waking Up to Racism

I’m 66 years old. And I’ve learned more about racism this year from reading three books than I’d managed to learn in my entire lifetime before.

The books, pictured above, read in this order: Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, and Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.

Before I explain what these books have taught me, I need to write about how I got here in the first place. I’m a white guy from the suburbs of Detroit. I went to a very good public school system and a top-notch university. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life. I’ve been aware of racism as an issue. I’ve tried my best to not be a racist. I’ve tried to be an ally.

But there are huge gaps in my knowledge of American and world history that kept me from realizing the true depth and impact of racism in my country. I am embarrassed by my own ignorance, and I’m doing my best to rectify the situation.

Up to a point, I can blame my education. “World History” as it was taught in school and college was a joke; it basically included European history plus a Euro-centric view of Middle Eastern history. When I was in college, Black Studies was starting to be a thing — but I never thought it relevant to me, since I was already a good white liberal who marched in Open Housing protests in my lily-white suburb.

Since I graduated (in 1978), I’ve been responsible for my own intellectual diet. I’ve read tons of books and thought myself well-educated, but I’ve never consciously chosen to read anything about race relations. Offhand, I can’t think of a single book I’ve ever read by a Black author. I’ve likely read one or two, but nothing that’s ever left a mark on my thick skull.

No W.E.B. DuBois, no James Baldwin, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston or Octavia Butler or Angela Davis or bell hooks, no Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. No Ta-Nehisi Coates, not even his run on Black Panther. I’ve never read a biography of a Black person, or anything focused on African history. My leisure reading is mainly sci-fi and mystery, but never have I ever read Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler or N.K. Jemisin or Walter Moseley.

And I’ll bet I’m far from alone among the ranks of NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading*, comfortable, well-meaning white folks. My lack of knowledge and perspective have severely hampered my ability to see the world clearly or to be an effective ally.

*I let my subscription lapse a couple years ago and made a deliberate decision to read more books. I’ve never regretted it.

So now, the books.

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The Cops Don’t Exist in a Vacuum

In the least shocking news of the year, Vermont Police are still being racist about their traffic stops.

The same research team that found racial disparities in traffic stops and searches two years ago, has updated its report to reflect two more years of data. And while there’s been some incremental improvement, things “are getting worse or staying the same,” according to lead researcher (and UVM prof) Stephanie Seguino.

Topline takeaways: You’re much more likely to be pulled over if you’re black or Hispanic in Vermont. If you’re pulled over, you’re much more likely to be searched — even though searches of white drivers are much more likely to uncover illegal activity.

The cherry on top: Despite a 2014 law mandating that police report the apparent race of each driver stopped, plenty of cops are flouting the law. Take, for example, Bennington’s racist PD, which is omitting the data more frequently than ever. And the Rutland PD, which has a specific problem with including racial data: “…for the 457 stops where race of the driver is not known, less than 1% of those stops had any other missing information about the stop.”

So now what? More sensitivity training? “Tough conversations”? Earnest promises to do better?

Yeah, a lot of that — although some can’t even be bothered to pretend to care. Bennington chief Paul Doucette lamely offered that he needed more time to look at the report before commenting. (The report notes that the volume of traffic stops in Bennington increased by 65% between 2015 and 2019. If Doucette has had any second thoughts about his minions’ racist performance, the word hasn’t filtered down through the ranks.)

And, judging by his track record, he probably hung up the phone and tossed the report into the circular file.

Which is not to say that we should place all the blame at the feet of a few cops and chiefs. After all, the thing about “bad apples” is that they spoil the barrel.

Or maybe the whole barrel was spoiled to begin with.

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How Many Merkels?

Get a load of this mook, all tac’d up like he patrols the Mean Streets of Detroit or summat

The tiny city of Vergennes is in an uproar, largely due to disagreements over its police department, which is led by George Merkel, the guy pictured above. Dude does love him some tactical gear, doesn’t he?

You wouldn’t know from his outlandish getup that he keeps the peace in a city of only 2,601 with vanishingly small rates of violent crime. You wouldn’t know that the vast majority of police calls are for things like noise complaints. I bet all that gear comes in handy when there’s a cat up a tree, eh, Chief?

You probably could guess that Merkel has come under fire for unapologetically regressive policing. I mean, he looks like he’s about one second away from Tasing the cameraman.

It’s bad enough that Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton filed a report accusing Merkel of multiple misdeeds, to wit: (1) signing official documents with “patently false information,” (2) knowingly failing to report demographic data on VPD traffic stops, and (3) falsely reporting work time and collecting double pay as a result.

(Newton’s report originated in a February meeting that included then-Vergennes mayor Jeff Fritz, an unnamed city alderman, and a sheriff’s officer who formerly served under Merkel. The four, according to VTDigger, “described Merkel as being out of control.”)

Never fear! Attorney General TJ Donovan, the persistent protector of law enforcement, has reviewed a Vermont State Police probe of Newton’s report and concluded — you’ll be shocked, I know — that “there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Merkel acted with intent to defraud” in reporting his work time, and that this concludes concludes “all ongoing investigations regarding Chief Merkel.”

Donovan’s press release — a Friday afternoon newsdump — made no mention of the other two allegations against Merkel. The most serious, to me, is the failure to report demographic data on traffic stops. The Vergennes PD, after all, has a record of racial bias in traffic policing that’s among the worst in Vermont. So there’s a real bad odor around Merkel’s failure to report pertinent data on nearly two-thirds of all his force’s traffic stops in a two-year period.

I guess Donovan, or the VSP, ignored that? The press release is silent.

Donovan’s inaction leaves the city of Vergennes a broken place. Some residents fear the police and want Merkel gone; others support their longtime chief to the hilt.

This may seem outlandish, and uncharacteristic of small-town Vermont society with its vaunted community ties and cherished slash fetishized Town Meeting Day traditions. But there are other Merkels out there. The only questions are, how many? And, since nobody in officialdom seems willing to face this issue, what do we do about it?

Keeping in mind that every unjustified, race-inspired traffic stop is a stab in the heart to our BIPOC neighbors, a disincentive for people to relocate to Vermont, and a stain on our state’s reputation.

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The Corrections Culture

Corrections Commissioner James Baker continues to make the right noises. On Friday, after news that more than two-thirds of Vermont inmates at a Mississippi for-profit prison had tested positive for coronavirus, Baker talked of accountability and responsibility and the need for a culture change inside his department.

Now, if only he can make it happen. The DOC is a hidebound place, full of long-tenured employees whose kneejerk reaction is to defend the status quo.

In one of his first actions, Baker sent two DOC administrators to Mississippi to get a first-person look at things. He said he was “reassured” upon hearing their reports.

Not so fast, my friend. One of the two who made the trip was DOC facilities operations manager Bob Arnell. That’s the Bob Arnell who was once the superintendent of the state’s extremely troubled women’s prison.

I’m sure ol’ Bob knows all about problematic institutional culture. After all, he became superintendent after the inglorious departure of his predecessor, David Turner, who requested reassignment in 2012 “days after a report emerged that condemned the conditions” at the prison. (Turner, “a veteran employee” of the DOC, was shuffled elsewhere in the department.)

And we all know that, ever since, the women’s prison has been the very model of excellence. Oh wait.

In recent years, …guards have sexually assaulted inmates, harassed female employees, and pursued sexual relationships with women who have left the prison but remain on furlough, probation or parole — and, therefore, under DOC supervision.

That’s from a December 2019 story by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, reporting on widespread allegations of sexual misconduct and drug use in the prison — and the almost complete lack of DOC response to all of it. Except to threaten retaliation against inmates who had the guts to complain.

I don’t know how long Arnell was in place at the facility, but let’s conclude he didn’t have any perceptible impact on the “culture.” But I’m sure if he says everything is hunky-dory in Mississippi, we can take his word for it.

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The Mississippi Oopsie

Gov. Phil Scott called it a “shortcoming.” I’d put it in the realm of “humanitarian disaster.” He said “we should have pressed harder.” I’d say his administration failed to press at all.

To be fair, Scott’s comments came yesterday, when there were *only* 85 known positive Covid-19 tests among Vermont’s 219 inmates housed in a for-profit Mississippi prison. Today that total jumped to 147.

So maybe now he’d rephrase his remarks. And maybe now his Susan Collins-style disappointment will spark some real action. Maybe some heads will roll.

But I doubt it. That’s not his style. After all, he gave no thought to replacing Melissa Jackson as head of the Vermont Veterans’ Home after she traveled to Washington, D.C. to give Congressional testimony in person (when she could have done it via Zoom) and then, upon returning to Bennington, spent five hours in her office before going into self-quarantine.

Jackson called it “poor judgment” instead of the more appropriate “dereliction of professional responsibility.” And Scott’s comms chief Rebecca Kelley issued a statement saying “the governor is not sure it warrants her removal but certainly deserves additional discussion.”

Yeah, let’s have additional discussion. Maybe appoint a committee or something. Or just express concern and move on. Nothing to see here, folks.

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Black Lives Matter, Except When They Don’t, and Even When They Do They’re Pretty Damn Cheap

Hey, remember when the good folks of Montpelier painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in front of the Statehouse, and they got really upset when a guy committed a minor (and easily expunged) act of vandalism on it?

Well, the state of Vermont effectively obliterated the entire thing — with the spilled blood of a Black man. And the promise that “BLACK LIVES MATTER” will remain a well-meaning myth as long as Kenneth Johnson’s life can end so cheaply. And as long as Shamel Alexander gets a measly $30,000 in recompense for his wrongful arrest, conviction and imprisonment by the justice system of our fair state.

Johnson died last December while in custody at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. According to a report from Vermont’s Defender General Matthew Valerio, Johnson’s death was the slow, painful result of negligence by medical and prison staff.

Valerio’s report, which you can find at the link to Seven Days’ website above, provides more than adequate grounds for termination and criminal prosecution of multiple unnamed staffers. Valerio outlines a case of homicide by professional negligence that’s appalling and inexcusable.

And an example of Your Tax Dollars At Work.

I don’t know what’s the worst part of this. To begin with, Johnson was in prison awaiting trial. He faced some truly heinous charges, but he hadn’t been convicted. He still wound up with a death sentence, thanks to your public servants and their designees. His medical care was botched from the get-go; he had a throat tumor obstructing his airway that could have been treated, but instead he was thought to have a cold or some other minor ailment. His pleadings for care fell on deaf ears.

From the report: “Security video showed Mr. Johnson in various stages of agony. He died after hours of struggling to breathe while nearby nurses did nothing to help… One [nurse] claimed she did not perform adequate checks [on Johnson] ‘because he was so fidgety.'”

Let’s hope this nurse quickly becomes an ex-nurse. She seems more constitutionally suited to a less vital profession, like maybe convenience store cashier or DMV clerk.

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Dick-Swinging at the DMV

, From left: Officers Buddy, Bubba and Junior

Does anyone else see a problem with this photo?

The DMV chose this image of burly officers with pimped-out pickups to represent its own police department, whose tasks are mainly bureaucratic in nature. It’s a picture of testosterone run amuck, straight out of a Boss Hogg wet dream.

It’s a small thing, but it illustrates a toxic cop culture. It’s the old-fashioned image of policing — a matter of billy clubs and guns and beefy officers enforcing the peace. It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world, no place for nuance or sensitivity. That shit’ll get you killed, bud.

Could the DMV have possibly hustled up a picture including at least one female officer? Or a person of color? Or someone who doesn’t look like a former football player?

And those trucks. Good grief. Overcompensating much?

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