Category Archives: class

Obama pardons Valerie Bozeman: drug war reflections

Kyle Swenson has an excellent write up on Valerie Bozeman in the Broward Palm Beach New Times.  Bozeman was convicted of drug charges and received federal mandatory minimum penalties.  She was pardoned from her life sentence by President Obama after 23 years in prison.  This is an excellent read complete with a sympathetic protagonist, grimy drug kingpins, incompetent defense attorneys and a guilty judge.

Swenson does a good job explaining how low-level offenders were getting astounding sentences.

But as anxiety over crack grew, the statute was hijacked. The use of “851 enhancements,” as they came to be called, became a huge prosecutorial hammer. The marching orders for federal prosecutors were for no mercy.

In 1989, then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh ordered U.S. attorneys to “charge the most serious, readily provable offense.” Victory in the courtroom was “measured by the length of sentence you could get if you secured that prosecution,” explains Price. So 851 enhancements — which could trigger a life sentence if an individual had two prior felony convictions — became an easy way for the government to notch a heavy win.

“It was a time when we turned our backs on rehabilitation and support, and our criminal justice system and sentencing law became much more punitive,” Price says. “We were locking up people who we didn’t like and were afraid of. But we were also locking up a lot of people who really didn’t deserve the lengthy sentences we were doling out.”

Source: Valerie Bozeman Is Pardoned by Obama as America Wrestles With Fallout From the War on Drugs | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Bozeman got a life sentence and learned about the 851 (mandatory minimum) penalties that sent her to prison only years later.  Note that the ‘old timers’ — the prisoners who are sentenced to life became a legal research unit under the direction of Bozeman.

In between chores, Bozeman shot off urgent letters to court-appointed lawyers, like SOS messages stuffed in bottles and pitched into the ocean. Most were ignored. Eventually, she received a letter from Judge Ungaro patiently explaining that Bozeman had been sentenced to life because of a statute known at “851 enhancement.”

With that phrase in her mind, she began visiting the prison law library, where she finally began to unlock what exactly had happened to her.

Soon, Bozeman called together the old-timers. Bozeman had a one-question pop quiz. “Do you know why you got a life sentence?”

Blank looks bounced back at her. One by one, Bozeman sent the women to their cells for their sentencing paperwork. Together they bushwhacked through the legalese until they found it: 851. “The ladies didn’t understand why they were sitting there with a life sentence,” she says today. “They just didn’t know.”

Source: Valerie Bozeman Is Pardoned by Obama as America Wrestles With Fallout From the War on Drugs | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

The essay is also ripe with some terrifying statistics about the drug war and incarceration.  In particular the use of the federal 851 statute (mandatory minimums) to coerce suspects to admit guilt.

Between 1980 and 2013, the number of drug defendants incarcerated in federal custody had exploded from 4,749 to 100,026 — a 2,006 percent uptick. Fifty percent of all federal inmates were serving time on drug charges.

Not only did mandatory minimums put small-time dealers in prison for long periods but 851 enhancements also had another harsh effect. Because the decision to file rested solely with the prosecution, it could be used as a threat: If you go to trial, we’ll file an enhancement.

A study by Human Rights Watch showed that in 2012, “the average sentence of federal drug offenders convicted after trial was three times higher (16 years) than that received after a guilty plea (5 years and 4 months).” When sentencing enhancements were in play for defendants with prior convictions, defendants “who went to trial were 8.4 times more likely to have the enhancement applied” than those who pleaded guilty.

New York Federal District Judge John Gleeson noted that use of 851s had gotten out of control. He wrote in an October 2013 decision that they brought on “the sentencing equivalent of a two-by-four to the forehead.” As a result, so many people chose to plead guilty rather than take chances at trial that a federal criminal trial was “on the endangered species list,” he said. “The government’s use of [851 enhancements] coerces guilty pleas and produces sentences so excessively severe they take your breath away.”

Proof was in the data: In 1980, only 69 percent of defendants in federal drug cases pleaded guilty and took plea deals; by 2010, 97 percent did.

Source: Valerie Bozeman Is Pardoned by Obama as America Wrestles With Fallout From the War on Drugs | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

This essay is a worthwhile read and a thoughtful reflection on the drug war.  Thanks to Longreads for the suggestion.

Leave a comment

Filed under capitalism, class, do-it-yourself, drugs, human rights, prisons, punishment, race, representation, resistance

Killer Mike gets some time to talk

Tavis Smiley invites Killer Mike for two sincere discussions on PBS.  Killer Mike does not pull any punches and the topics are legit.  Righteous, respectful and thoughtful.   I can’t figure out how to embed, but these are both worth watching.

http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365520459

http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365520563

Leave a comment

Filed under class, do-it-yourself, hip hop, media, protest, race, representation, resistance

“That comfort that you are experiencing is destroying our country!”

Welcome to W. Honky territory.  I just discovered his videos and appreciated his accusatory tone and  salty authenticity.  Turns out he has a youtube channel with his rural truck-cam post-work pov videos.

It took three videos from W. Honky before I ran into this nice gem where he calls upon white Americans to acknowledge the benefits they get from white supremacy.  Specifically he calls upon white people to film themselves articulating their understandings of white privilege.  “To get white people to take some responsibility.”

Honky is light on intersectional analysis.  Consideration of ability, sex and nationality in relationship to race sort of enter in the late part of the video.  Thinking about all layers of oppression at the get-go, what Mari Matsuda calls: “ask the other question,” foregrounding multiple frames of identity at the same time might help support Honky’s key suggestions of accountability and public dialogue.

And of course, given that the key problem is white supremacy might one try to privilege non-white speakers?  Many other persuasive people of color have made almost the same arguments and yet not had the same traction as W. Honky.  We might note that those who are most deeply to benefit from white supremacy may not be listening to thoughtful women of color, but they might listen to W. Honky.

People like Honky (and myself) benefit from white skin privilege, which means access.  A good example of W. Honky’s articulation of what to do about white privilege is his piece on the Bass Pro Shop (boycott).

It is an interesting arc and you come to wonder about the creator (Jorge Moran).  I have a suspicion that this is a character, a performance. Even if it is, I’m impressed with the quality of the arguments, the passion and the realness.  More is the accessibility – I would like to drink a beer with this guy and talk about race.  He seems honest about power and at the same time ready to think slightly out-of-the-box about class, race and identity in general.  He seems like the kind of guy I’d like on my team.

Y’know?

Leave a comment

Filed under class, communication, critique, learning, race

Remember Leslie Feinberg as a revolutionary Communist

Leslie Feinberg has left the world.  In the Advocate, Feinberg’s partner Minnie Bruce Pratt describes the radical politics which made Feinberg such an inspiration:

She died at home in Syracuse, NY, with her partner and spouse of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt, at her side. Her last words were: “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

Feinberg was the first theorist to advance a Marxist concept of “transgender liberation,” and her work impacted popular culture, academic research, and political organizing.

Her historical and theoretical writing has been widely anthologized and taught in the U.S. and international academic circles. Her impact on mass culture was primarily through her 1993 first novel, Stone Butch Blues, widely considered in and outside the U.S. as a groundbreaking work about the complexities of gender. Sold by the hundreds of thousands of copies and also passed from hand-to-hand inside prisons, the novel has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, German, Italian, Slovenian, Turkish, and Hebrew with her earnings from that edition going to ASWAT Palestinian Gay Women.

In a statement at the end of her life, she said she had “never been in search of a common umbrella identity, or even an umbrella term, that brings together people of oppressed sexes, gender expressions, and sexualities” and added that she believed in the right of self-determination of oppressed individuals, communities, groups, and nations.

via Transgender Pioneer Leslie Feinberg of Stone Butch Blues Has Died | Advocate.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under class, feminism, memorial, representation, resistance, trans

Justice for Mike Brown: disrupting the symphony

Beautiful music.  A moment of public dialogue interjected into a space for beautiful music.   I don’t know how I missed this  St. Louis symphony showdown.

Elizabeth Vega on the conception of the symphony as a protest space.   Daily KOS reports:

Elizabeth: Two weeks ago, Sarah and I participated in a direct action at Cardinal Stadium. We did a series of banner drops at a baseball game with folks. We are both middle aged I am a grandmother and I am brown and Sarah is white. People were incredibly rude and racist to us at the game. They booed us. Told us “Pants up dont loot” etc.. They clearly saw what they wanted to see. We were escorted out in handcuffs and chanted “No justice! No Peace!” It was a rough night where we didnt feel any love. Sarah suggested that night, jokingly, that perhaps we needed another venue. The next day she said she wanted to do an action at the symphony. I was on board and immediately brought on Derek. When we found out the next performance was a requiem we had to do it.  It took us about two weeks among planning other actions and events for the national mobilization. We are all very busy but carved out about five hours total to recruit, plan and organize.

via Requiem for Mike Brown protest at St. Louis Symphony exposes both white privilege and support.

Thanks to feministing for the suggestion, link and video.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, class, human rights, memorial, music, protest, representation, resistance

Birdman, consumption and representation

I launch the new video by Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan and the first image is . . . Birdman?

A month a go, Birdman splashed out in an effort to sign Young Thug.  While you are being courted by Birdman and Young Money why not shoot a video with a few of the symbols of conspicuous consumption?

Birdman, Birdman Birdman.  It is astounding how much space he takes up in this video.  Father figure, founder of the feast, center of the party, exceptionally wealthy and entitled.  The symbols are all there.  Lighting up a cigar in the middle of a boutique sneaker store, bored yacht face, neck yoke of control over attractive women, mansion hallway vignette with Young Money/Cash Money plaques, comforting stacks of cash to sooth weary fingers . . .

(What would it cost to create this video out of rented artifice?  Not actually that much real money . . . rent a mansion, boat, cars, shoot the plane scene with a landed dummy plane . . . )

Birdman doesn’t rhyme in the video — he just stars in it.  (He does give the exiting dialogue — a shout out to his deceased mother Miss Gladys).  I guess Birdman is the price you pay for entry into Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan’s video.

I appreciate that this opening verse gives Thug a chance to rhyme what to him is a kind of normal accelerated pace.  His lyrics are distorted by his own voice and he plays with the sounds in a pretty creative way.  I don’t know why I like the natural caterwauling squawks that emit from Young Thug more than the digital ones, but I do.

Quan always has a quality flow, and I like his subtly shifting styles through this verse.  His deep voice growling does good riding the bass line. It seems like his references and similes could step up a notch . . . but he certainly sounds good.

What to make of the brief scene where Young Thug gives a stack of money to an old woman?   Young thug is arguing in the song that he does all this to bring money home to his family — a little consciousness break in a snowstorm of sexism and consumption.  Hold on, Quan suggests that his motivation is his mom and dad.  And Birdman concludes the video with a sponsored vodka shout out and tribute to his deceased mom.

One of the early critical arguments about hip hop was that the representations of hip hop quickly became images constituted by the artists in order to sell an image to an audience.  That hip hop involved performers going to work and creating something intended to meet an audiences expectations (usually male and privileged).  One way to read hip hop was to imagine what kind of audience might enjoy and buy this kind of performance.  (I’ll note the writings of Eric Watts, Tricia Rose and Robin D. G. Kelley have mostly influenced my perspective on this subject).

To a degree this crass consumerism vs. I’m-just-doing-this-to-feed-my-family debate is played out in the video.  I would say that the dominant visual narrative of consumption clashes with any other message.    In some ways the class consciousness (dropping off a couple of stacks for mom) is part of the representation of excessive wealth.  (Gza: “Who promised his mom a mansion with mad rooms /She died, he still put a hundred grand in her tomb” Gold).

Leave a comment

Filed under capitalism, class, communication, gender, hip hop, media, representation, rhetoric

Inspired by ‘Who gets to graduate’

Paul Tough has a very strong essay in the New York Times called “Who gets to graduate.”  It is a snapshot of the strategies used by caring teachers and administrators at the University of Texas at Austin to help students succeed.  I appreciated the emphasis on successful strategies.  Here are a few of my favorite points.   Chemistry professor David Laude gets props for his initial approach:

In 1999, at the beginning of the fall semester, Laude combed through the records of every student in his freshman chemistry class and identified about 50 who possessed at least two of the “adversity indicators” common among students who failed the course in the past: low SATs, low family income, less-educated parents. He invited them all to apply to a new program, which he would later give the august-sounding name the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP. Students in TIP were placed in their own, smaller section of Chemistry 301, taught by Laude. But rather than dumb down the curriculum for them, Laude insisted that they master exactly the same challenging material as the students in his larger section. In fact, he scheduled his two sections back to back. “I taught my 500-student chemistry class, and then I walked upstairs and I taught this 50-student chemistry class,” Laude explained. “Identical material, identical lectures, identical tests — but a 200-point difference in average SAT scores between the two sections.”

Laude was hopeful that the small classes would make a difference, but he recognized that small classes alone wouldn’t overcome that 200-point SAT gap. “We weren’t naïve enough to think they were just going to show up and start getting A’s, unless we overwhelmed them with the kind of support that would make it possible for them to be successful,” he said. So he supplemented his lectures with a variety of strategies: He offered TIP students two hours each week of extra instruction; he assigned them advisers who kept in close contact with them and intervened if the students ran into trouble or fell behind; he found upperclassmen to work with the TIP students one on one, as peer mentors. And he did everything he could, both in his lectures and outside the classroom, to convey to the TIP students a new sense of identity: They weren’t subpar students who needed help; they were part of a community of high-achieving scholars.

via Who Gets to Graduate? – NYTimes.com.

Laude’s interventions have been successful with many students.  Inspired by Laude, UT has developed a research tool which helps them discover which incoming first year students are likely to need some help.

I have a pang of concern about privacy and labeling.  There is something terrible about telling a student from a poor family who has worked really hard that they are “unlikely to succeed” because of some algorithm. This notion of a computer assessing students seems particularly soul crushing.   I appreciate that the folks at UT have something similar in mind in their communication strategy about their interventions.  Paul Tough again:

Perhaps the most striking fact about the success programs is that the selection criteria are never disclosed to students. “From a numbers perspective, the students in these programs are all in the bottom quartile,” Laude explained. “But here’s the key — none of them know that they’re in the bottom quartile.” The first rule of the Dashboard, in other words, is that you never talk about the Dashboard. Laude says he assumes that most U.L.N. students understand on some level that they were chosen in part because of their financial need, but he says it is important for the university to play down that fact when dealing directly with students. It is an extension of the basic psychological strategy that he has used ever since that first TIP program: Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but because you are confident they can succeed.

via Who Gets to Graduate? – NYTimes.com.

UT has turned to psychologists to help figure out how to best communicate to at-risk incoming students that they belong.  How do you best re-articulate the fears and doubts to make them manageable?  Here is Paul Tough explaining UT professor David Yeager and his insights about persuasion and argument:

Yeager began working with a professor of social psychology named Greg Walton, who had identified principles that seemed to govern which messages, and which methods of delivering those messages, were most persuasive to students. For instance, messages worked better if they appealed to social norms; when college students are informed that most students don’t take part in binge drinking, they’re less likely to binge-drink themselves. Messages were also more effective if they were delivered in a way that allowed the recipients a sense of autonomy. If you march all the high-school juniors into the auditorium and force them to watch a play about tolerance and inclusion, they’re less likely to take the message to heart than if they feel as if they are independently seeking it out. And positive messages are more effectively absorbed when they are experienced through what Walton called “self-persuasion”: if students watch a video or read an essay with a particular message and then write their own essay or make their own video to persuade future students, they internalize the message more deeply.

In one experiment after another, Yeager and Walton’s methods produced remarkable results. At an elite Northeastern college, Walton, along with another Stanford researcher named Geoffrey Cohen, conducted an experiment in which first-year students read brief essays by upperclassmen recalling their own experiences as freshmen. The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. The whole intervention took no more than an hour. It had no apparent effect on the white students who took part in the experiment. But it had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study: Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A. It even had an impact on the students’ health — the black students who received the belonging message had significantly fewer doctor visits three years after the intervention.

via Who Gets to Graduate? – NYTimes.com.

As a communication professor I’d like to claim some particular insight into these persuasive pathways.  Communication and Rhetoric teachers tend to think about exactly this kind of strategic approach to making messages, but it is also kind of common sense.   I bet English, Ethnic Studies Women’s Studies and Social Work professors all recognized some of our core principles in our fields in these insights.

I don’t think it is about credit.  There is certainly work to go around.  Part of the story is the structural support of administrators and the other part of the story are the good teachers primed  to implement these ideas.   You’d need administrators and informed teachers working in cooperation for a while to get results.   And you’d need all those teachers from all those fields who already know this to implement change successfully at a university.

Much of the ‘ah-ha’ arguments of the article are about a communication practice known as inoculation — that you pre-warn someone about a coming moment of persuasion in order to steer the person’s understanding of that moment when it happens.

Often used by political candidates to warn about an argument about to be spoken by an opponent in a debate, the tactic works equally well when thinking about education.   Here is Paul Tough analyzing UT’s online messaging module which helps to intellectually-inoculate first year students about belonging and doubt:

Our first instinct, when we read about these experiments, is that what the interventions must be doing is changing students’ minds — replacing one deeply held belief with another. And it is hard to imagine that reading words on a computer screen for 25 minutes could possibly do that. People just aren’t that easy to persuade. But Yeager believes that the interventions are not in fact changing students’ minds — they are simply keeping them from overinterpreting discouraging events that might happen in the future. “We don’t prevent you from experiencing those bad things,” Yeager explains. “Instead, we try to change the meaning of them, so that they don’t mean to you that things are never going to get better.”

via Who Gets to Graduate? – NYTimes.com.

Nice essay and more to think about as we do the important work of hustling to make change.

Leave a comment

Filed under academics, capitalism, class, communication, intersectionality, kindness, learning, representation, Surveillance