Sunday, October 04, 2020

Let's call it what it is: assault

Even if everything announced by the White House is, or might be, a lie, we know some facts.

  • We know that the President and his staff knew that his key advisor, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for COVID-19 before he headed to Bedminster, NJ, for a fundraiser last Thursday night.
  • We know that he was already experiencing some symptoms associated with the virus and had already taken a COVID test before heading out on the road.

Undoubtedly, there will be other revelations emerging from the White House – and they may illuminate or obscure the details of what the President knew and when the President knew it.

But, we can say this for sure: when the President of the United States traveled and met with donors, he knew he had been exposed to a dangerous and potentially deadly and communicable virus and was himself already exhibiting symptoms, and therefore he knew that by his mere presence, he put the people he came in contact with on that trip at risk.

In fact, the decision not to immediately self-quarantine and instead to travel to New Jersey to raise money may constitute aggravated assault under New Jersey criminal law.

Here’s the relevant statute from Title 2C of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice:

“A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he: (1)Attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury purposely or knowingly or under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life recklessly causes such injury.”

COVID-19 clearly has the potential to cause serious bodily injury – the fact that 200,000 people in this country (16,000 of them from New Jersey) have died from the disease and that the president has been in the hospital since the day after his diagnosis shows how serious we know the threat of bodily injury to be. And the president and his advisors clearly knew that he had been exposed to the virus and was already experiencing some symptoms. Thus, the assault was committed, as the law says, “knowingly” and in "extreme indifference" to the value of the lives of the people he met.

Tellingly, the White House has not moved to alert all those who attended the fundraiser that they should be self-isolating and getting tested for the virus. Thus, the White House is demonstrating continuing reckless disregard for the potential bodily injuries of the people the president spoke with and who may, unwittingly, be passing the virus on to others.

Authorities disagree as to whether a president, while in office, can be prosecuted under state criminal law. But setting aside whether there’s any legal liability here, there’s a broader public question: what do we think of a president who engaged in an aggravated assault in the pursuit of money, and was abetted in this assault by others in his administration?

As a society, we rightly ask people who have committed crimes to take responsibility for what they have done. As the old saying goes, if you’ve done the crime, you should be prepared to do the time. For every single person in the White House, taking responsibility should mean it’s time to resign.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Say it’s so, Joe

 Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have fallen into the Hillary Clinton trap.

Which is really the Donald Trump trap.

Biden and Harris seem to be spending the bulk of their time campaigning against Trump rather than letting us know their vision for America.

Unfortunately, as the nation learned in 2016, saying, ‘I’m not that guy’ over and over might win the popular vote, but it may not be enough to win the White House. Sure, highlighting the fact that the President minimized and mucked up the coronavirus, leading to 200,000 deaths and an enfeebled economy, makes sense. And denouncing the President’s Twitter racism and authoritarianism is entirely appropriate. But these are empty gestures if you don’t show exactly what you are going to do and how it’s going to save America.

Here’s the thing: everyone, including every single one of Trump’s supporters, knows his faults. In focusing on them, the Democrats convince no one. But they allow Trump to keep everything revolving around him.

This may seem useful if your strategy is to win back middle-of-the-road Republicans. But this is not a route to victory – because there are too few middle-of-the-roaders to matter. And forget about trying to peel off various sects of right-wingers. Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are a COVID death cult. The white supremacist gangs called militias are pumped out of their minds, parading around with their assault weapons. And the so-called Christian right is so gleeful at the possibility of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that they seem to have signed away their own values.

So what’s an everyday Joe to do? First, Biden needs to let people know who he is. After a lifetime in politics, it may seem as if we should know this – but we don’t. He needs to demonstrate once and for all that he’s not a typical pol, twisting and turning in focus-group-tested opportunism. The President, George W. Bush famously said, is the decider – and the public needs to know what kind of decider Biden will be. We need to get a sense of his gut.

If Biden truly wants to be President, he has to start acting like one. He and Harris need to frame out, in firm, proud terms, what they will do about the biggest issues facing America. Call it a get-your-hands-dirty agenda for the first hundred days. We need to know what in their first three months in office, they will do about the following issues:

  •         People are dying, both literally and economically, from a virus. Biden and Harris have to show us what they will do about coronavirus – and they should challenge the current administration to do it now, even as the campaign is progressing, because it will save lives and save the country.
  •         Biden and Harris need to speak to their policies on climate change – which has scorched millions of acres in Oregon and California and, in coming decades, is sure to require drastic changes in how American does business.
  •         They must speak, in serious and emotionally resonant terms, about their plans on immigration and systemic racism.
  •         Biden and Harris need to travel to the rust belt and the farm belt. They must speak to working people all over the country, stating unequivocally that they will be valued in every decision they make.
  •         Finally, they must promise the public they will restore our country’s reputation in the world.

If Biden and Harris think that simply shaking their heads at the things Donald Trump says and mumbling platitudes offers a risk-free route to the White House, they have gravely miscalculated – in fact, they might as well simply campaign together every day wearing matching T-shirts that say “I’m with stupid,” with arrows pointing at each other.

America is on the edge. Our institutions, the checks and balances created by the founders of the republic, are crumbling. America’s democracy is on the ballot in this election. People need to see that Biden and Harris understand this, that they have a vision that will restore and repair and reclaim the country.

Say it’s so, Joe. Make it so, Kamala.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

‘Come Together’

It’s the cliché of the moment, the phrase repeated over and over as news of the pandemic gets worse and worse: “We’re all in this together.”

And yet everything around us – from fights about facemasks to frights about fascism – tells us we’re not.

It’s time to make the phrase real. Here is a simple agenda – a half dozen things the city can do in a New York minute to make “We’re all in this together” a self-evident truth.

1.            Abolish the adversarial system in housing court and make every eviction subject to extended arbitration. Eviction is the capital punishment of the housing world: the one matter from which, if the tenant loses, there is no recovery – one strike and you’re out. This is not how it should be. There were 200,000 evictions pending when COVID-19 shut the courts. Many tens of thousands are surely about to be filed when the courts allow it. Yet think about it: eviction should always be a desperate last resort. Therefore, we need a new system dedicated to the presumption that people need a home. And landlords should agree not only because it is the right thing to do during the pandemic but because, hey, as they say, “We’re all in this together.”

2.            In early March, some of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staffers convened a kitchen cabinet to come up with policies to help the city through the coronavirus era. The report was suppressed, but one of its ideas was revelatory: create permanent affordable housing in vacant tourist hotels. In fact, the city has already moved in this direction. In late July, the Department of Social Service reported that, during the pandemic, it had moved 13,000 homeless people into hotels. The 4-star Omni Times Square now houses all the guys who used to live in the Jerome Avenue Men’s Shelter. The Lucerne, on the Upper West Side, is home to 283 homeless substance abusers who used to bunk in two group shelters in the Lower East. We have proved it’s feasible: we can have a city with no street homeless. Now let’s make it permanent. And if any of the NIMBY crew starts grousing about formerly homeless folk living it up in or next door to fancy digs (some Hell’s Kitchen and Upper West Side residents have already complained that their new neighbors are menacing), let’s remind them to show some patience and forbearance because it happens to be true that, “we’re all in this together.”

3.            In the post-pandemic future, landlords are going to have to do something with all the empty co-working spaces that no one will want to use so long as there’s even a tiny risk of viral contamination. Let’s help them out and convert these vacant co-working spaces and other obsolete open-space offices (newspaper newsrooms, for instance) into permanent affordable housing. This will not only ensure an income stream for landlords, but will guarantee that streets throughout the city will have 24/7 life. And, you know what to say if the developers demur: “Fuggetaboutit. We’re all in this together.”

4.            As people lost their jobs due to COVID-19, volunteer mutual aid groups have sprung up to distribute free groceries to desperate families. Now it’s time to hire these groups to do the door-to-door contact tracing of people who have been potentially been exposed to the virus. The city has been hamstrung at this – with more than ½ the people who tested positive refusing to disclose who they came in contact with. Mutual aid organizations know their communities and are trusted, so they will be able to do a more complete and efficient job of finding at-risk neighbors and convincing them to isolate. Plus, they understand the dangers of over-surveillance, and will not pry into people’s lives. And should anyone in City Hall balk at defunding city agencies and instead funding communities, let’s just tell them: “Come on, I thought we’re all in this together.”

5.            Education is a critical public service and the city is still improvising when it comes to figuring out how to reopen schools. How about bringing all the stakeholders into the classroom. Let’s set up a team – including administrators, teachers, custodians, the various unions, parents, students, plus ventilation professionals and public health experts – to figure out a real plan. Then empower fundraisers to ensure we raise the dollars to do it (recovery bonds? a pied a terre tax? reviving the stock transfer tax?). I mean: didn’t these politicians and administrators get the memo: “we’re all in this together.”

6.            Finally, let’s set up a system of community adjudication for non-violent offenses. As things currently stand, if a person doesn’t deal with a citation for setting foot in a park after dark or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk or walking between subway cars, a warrant will be issued for their arrest – and they will be put in cuffs the next time a cop runs their ID. Retooling this would be a great start toward abolishing the police and breaking the street-to-prison pipeline. And should the thin blue line of cops, prosecutors and judges protest, let’s give ‘em a good Bronx cheer, while shouting our common refrain: “Don’t be an oppressor! We’re all in this together!”

Once upon a time, calling New York home gave a person a sense of ownership, even if the majority of us owned nothing. Now, with these six simple actions, protestors in the five boroughs will finally mean it when they chant “Whose streets? Our streets!” And we will have provided ourselves an opportunity to rediscover the principle that has always made our city great: we really are all in this together.

Monday, August 17, 2020

the Old Testament provision that can repair contemporary America

COVID-19 has crippled the American economy. Businesses are shuttering. Unemployment is growing. More than 160,000 people have died. Hundreds of thousands of families fear eviction and falling into homelessness.

Trust is crumbling, and people all over the country wonder if our system can pull itself out of this death spiral – whether we will unceremoniously crash or, with determined effort, survive.

As a 100 percent non-religious person, I can say this sincerely: the political and economic way forward is contained in the bible. The jump-start the country needs is inherent in the concept of jubilee framed out in the Five Books of Moses.

The jubilee, outlined most fully in the book of Leviticus and reiterated in Deuteronomy, is a once-every-49-years commandment to rein in speculation and re-establish ethical economic norms. Proclaiming “liberty throughout all of the land unto all the inhabitants" (a phrase inscribed on the Liberty Bell), the jubilee commands that we restore people to their properties (“return every man unto his possessions”), forgive all debts (“this is the manner of the release: every creditor that lendeth aught unto his neighbor shall release it”), free all slaves and prisoners (“return every man unto his family”), make reparations (“give again the price of his redemption”) and generally agree to treat each other fairly and equitably, politically or economically (“not oppress one another.”)

The jubilee is not some impossible utopian paradise. Indeed, a number of societies in the ancient world were organized around regular jubilees. Babylonian rulers, for instance, celebrated many occasions when they wiped outdebts, freed prisoners, and broke up concentrated land holdings, a process some historians have dubbed “clean slates.” The Theodosian Code, elaborated in the Byzantine Empire some 1700 years ago, also called for similar forgivenesses. And, for thousands of years, the great dynasties of China presided over mass amnesties, during which various emperors freed prisoners, forgave debts, and paid reparations.

There are modern examples as well. You might call what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did during the Great Depression a mini-Jubilee. He used a little-noticed law called the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 to close every financial institution in America for two weeks, giving them a clean slate during which the Federal Reserve could recapitalize them so they could withstand sustained withdrawals. And here’s a more recent mini-jubilee: in 2016, when a hacker exploited a bug to steal $56 million worth of the ‘ether’ cryptocurrency, the managers of the currency essentially opted for a clean slate – though they called it a “hard fork” – which involved a Star Trek-style reversal of the space time continuum to turn the clock back to the moment just prior to the rip-off, allowing the currency to continue as if the theft never happened.

Now look at many of the demands people are making today:

·       Ban evictions and cancel rent: this is a call for a modern jubilee in housing.

·       Have government provide a universal basic income or make continuing direct payments to all Americans – most particularly to the unemployed and financially burdened: this accords with a description of the jubilee in Deuteronomy -- “if there be among you a poor man … thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: but thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him.”

·       End the carceral state (the prison population pipeline that incarcerates so many people of color), abolish the police, and stop imprisoning undocumented kids and adults: this is essentially a demand for a jubilee in so-called criminal justice – an amnesty and legal make-over as we figure out how to do public safety and immigration with true equality and equity.

The pandemic has shown that we need to make an exodus from our unfair system. We need to create a new economy of giving to replace the old, punitive economics of taking. We need to create a politics of inclusion as we excise the old, oppressive and repressive politics of exclusion.

The genesis of our renewal is in the bible: a 21st century Jubilee.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Black demonstrators who were busted during New York City’s Black Lives Matter rallies in late May and early June were four times more likely to be charged with felonies than white demonstrators.

According to stats provided by the NYPD to New York State Attorney General Letitia James, 15.66 percent of the 808 black demonstrators who were arrested in New York City between May 28th and June 7th were charged with felonies, while only 3.47 percent of the 927 white protestors arrested were similarly charged. The statistics come from the AG’s preliminary report on the NYPD’s response to the marches and rallies that spilled into the streets after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25th for the purported crime of trying to pass a counterfeit 20 dollar bill.

The report suggests that the numbers of felony charges (for reasons the report does not explain, the percentages do not yield whole numbers) might be skewed by events on May 31st and June 1st, when some stores in Midtown and the Bronx were broken into and looted. On those nights, 130 of the more than 600 people arrested were charged with felonies. Nonetheless, the report notes, many of the damaged and plundered stores were not on the routes of Black Lives Matter marches and therefore demonstrators were likely not involved in those criminal activities.

These statistics generally corroborate the problem that brought demonstrators to the streets: that law enforcement agencies treat Black people differently than white people and that Black people continually face harsh and sometimes deadly force when confronted by police.

The felony charges brought against demonstrators included burglary, assault, rioting, criminal possession of stolen property, and criminal mischief. These same crimes could also be charged as misdemeanors: criminal possession of stolen property, resisting arrest, rioting, and trespassing. The implication is that white demonstrators were charged with lower level offenses while Black demonstrators received more severe charges.

The report also showed that demonstrators were four times more likely to get arrested in Manhattan than elsewhere in the city. Almost ¾ of the 2,087 arrests the NYPD made during those 11 days and nights of marching and chanting were in Manhattan. The NYPD arrested approximately 350 people at demonstrations in Brooklyn and 250 in the Bronx. The report does not contain any specifics about arrests at demonstrations in Queens and Staten Island. 

The AG’s report does not reveal important facts such as how many of NYPD’s 36,000 officers were put to work policing the protests, how much overtime was involved in the police work, nor how many times the NYPD pepper sprayed demonstrators, beat protestors with batons, or kettled demonstrators (this controversial NYPD tactic involves corralling people in places where they cannot comply with orders to disperse and then arresting them for failure to disperse.)

In the report, Attorney General James offers a series of recommendations for reforms in policing, including changing the NYPD’s rules on the use of force, creating a statewide police certification program, and decriminalizing certain minor offenses, but does not engage the protestors’ principal demand that politicians defund the police.