Saturday, October 17, 2020

On the Reasonable Use of Force


Duty to Retreat

In contrast to the Wild West, crowded East Coast cities discouraged the possession and use of weapons in self-defense, especially among the often-immigrant proletariat. In the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, set in 1910’s New York, a father who shoots a child predator is congratulated by his neighbors and the responding police officer, but was ultimately fined for having an unregistered handgun.

The Baltimore Catechism notably favored state power in the form of just war and capital punishment, over the individual action of self-defense. This statist logic was followed by Congress through the 1990’s, when a decade-long Assault Weapon ban and effective death penalty statues were both put into law to combat crime. On taking a life in self-defense, the Baltimore Catechism (1891) stated: “When we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives”.


Castle Doctrine

In the midst of late-1960’s protests, Law-and-Order politicians told anxious voters that “your home is your castle”. Rising crime rates, overtaxed police, and inner-city blight made it more plausible than ever that citizens would need to exercise lethal force to protect their homes and businesses.

Bernie Goetz had had enough in 1984 when he was robbed in a New York City subway car. He fired off his handgun, injuring the four muggers. A New York jury affirmed Bernie Goetz’s right to self-defense, and he was only charged with illegal handgun possession. He earned the title of “Subway Vigilante”. Gary Fadden of Virginia, meanwhile, had the run-through by a prosecutor. Chased down on the country road by two armed drunks, he keyed into his workplace for refuge. Instead, the armed drunks had barged through the gate, and Fadden was forced to take a last stand. As part of his job with the firearm manufacturer, he had a machine gun in his possession, and fired it. “F--- you and your high-powered weapon”, one assailant shouted. Empty bullet casings were found near the assailant’s seat. Fadden was cornered in his workplace. Even so, the prosecutor chose to take Gary Fadden to court. The jury sided with Fadden; this was a clear-cut case of self-defense. While vindicated, Fadden was left with over $30,000 in court costs and legal fees; and ultimately lost his job.



On the eve of passing its stand-your-ground law, Georgia had to reckon with a ghost in its closet. Lena Baker, a Black woman, was sent to the electric chair in 1945 for using deadly force against a White attacker, who happened to be her employer as a maid. She was posthumously pardoned in 2005, and Georgia’s stand-your-ground law took effect in 2006. Then as now, the benefits of stand-your-ground laws are seen as subject to the whims and prejudices of the jury.


What was Kyle Rittenhouse thinking?

Kyle Rittenhouse, age 17, the alleged shooter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was neither owner, employee, neighbor, nor a duly registered security guard protecting an auto dealership across state lines from his Illinois home. Teen access to firearms has been a contentious issue this past decade. Most recently, the Virginia legislature affirmed the right of a 14-year old to use a firearm in home defense. (The premise of the new law is that firearms must now be secured from children under 14).

 Most likely, Rittenhouse was a teenager caught in the tenor of the times. In 1976, 17-year old Joseph Rakes jabbed a man with the American flag in protest of Boston school integration. He was later convicted of assault. Rittenhouse, of course, carried a deadly weapon. A Wisconsin jury will decide if the state should lock him up and throw away the key.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Coronavirus: A Public Act of Faith

Reason and Logic are two tools of a mature society. Sometimes, one exceeds the other in a given moment of time. Due to COVID-19’s diminutive size, use of fabric to prevent transmission was once considered to be “catching a fly with a barbed-wire fence”. This logic is often used by anti-mask individuals. Even if this analogy remains true, epidemiological evidence has shown that wearing a face covering greatly reduces the rate of transmission. The two people I know who recovered from COVID-19 had contracted the virus at Texas bars. These venues are characterized by casual contact, loosened inhibitions, and no face masks. On the larger scale, one could compare Black Lives Matter protests against a biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Both types of events consisted of large, working-class crowds who had a significant risk of workplace exposure to the virus. Despite public concerns, the former events did not create a statistical spike in COVID-19 cases- mask-wearing was prevalent. The latter became a super-spreading event- mask-wearing was rare.  It is a reasonable assumption that mask-wearing helps prevent the transmission of coronavirus.

Faith in God, humanity, and so forth, has given way to great cynicism. In the late Middle Ages, farmers in Europe rotated their crops and used fertilizer for at least three centuries before a scientific explanation of soil nutrition was given. Good results meant that the practice spread beyond a renegade farmer’s field. And as those farmers rotated their crops, so let us have faith in masking up.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Mathews Men Today


East of Gloucester, Virginia, I followed the road less traveled into Mathews County. It is a rural area along the lower Chesapeake Bay, and whose settlement by the English dates to the early 1600s. The Methodists still employ a travelling minister, preaching at small, white-walled clapboard churches at the crossroads. The Baptists also have a presence in this area. Post offices are located at each hamlet, measuring no more than 200 square feet apiece. The average home is an early 20th century sturdy-sized residence on a small farming plot. Manors are titled in the English style, with names like “House of Payne” and “Moon Pi”.  Washingtonians vacation here, drawn by the quaintness of a timeless county. I bought a cantaloupe (“Local ‘Lopes”) sold on honor from the back of a pickup truck parked in Mathew’s town square.

What drew me here was a phenomenal story of the Mathews Men, or local watermen who served their country as merchant mariners in World War Two. Over the course of history, necessity drove man to sea. As agriculture was commoditized in the early 20th century, and with a rural depression beginning in 1920, seafaring was a path to economic security for men who were adept at sailing boats on the Chesapeake Bay; and whose wives had the strength and fortitude to lead the family and manage the farm during their husbands’ long absence at sea.

World War Two heralded the end of an era in the maritime culture in Coastal Virginia, and the beginning of the new. During the War, inland shipping, already on a decline during the Great Depression, was supplanted by improved highways and construction of the Big Inch oil pipeline from Texas oil fields to New Jersey refineries. While some fishing boats continue to ply from the peninsula, fortunate proximity provided another lucrative line of work. In 1952, the Coleman Bridge opened, connecting the backwater of Mathews County to job opportunities at the shipyards in Newport News, the Fort Eustis Army Base, and the Langley Air Force Base. Mobility was further enhanced with the opening of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in 1957, allowing highway access to commercial heart of Norfolk, Virginia. Electricity and indoor plumbing had arrived shortly before this fortuitous decade.

Even with these improvements, the disjointed, unsigned roads would have intimidated outsiders until the arrival of GPS navigation. It was on one detour that I came across the cemetery in Onemo, where the extended Hudgins family is buried. The hamlet bearing this family’s name is several miles north. On several tombstones of master mariners were etchings of the fishing boats they had owned and operated. Buried here were souls “known only to God”, presumably lost mariners recovered from the Chesapeake Bay. Confederate flags marked the tombs of Civil War veterans- the war had taken an awful toll on young men, leaving a number of women of the generation unmarried. Even so, the Hudgins were known for their racial tolerance: seafaring was a multicultural pursuit even in those days.  

The hands-on seafaring experience that honed the Mathews Men has been superseded by increased technical sophistication and academic rigor. While the sons and daughters of Mathews continue to sail as deckhands and oilers onboard oceangoing ships, the town no longer raises ship’s captains in the way that New England towns still do. In the 1960’s, building on the work of existing deep-sea maritime academies, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy and the maritime program at Texas A&M in Galveston opened to serve the focused educational needs of inland and near-coastal mariners. Although the “Mid Atlantic Maritime Academy”, a trade school in Norfolk, Virginia, serves Navy and Coast Guard sailors transitioning into the civilian maritime sector, there is no collegiate- accredited maritime program in Virginia, or any Atlantic state south of New York. Mathews, Gloucester, and the surrounding region possess a maritime heritage predating the American Revolution. This is something worth preserving.

 Read: The Mathews Men, William Geroux, 2016. 

Dedicated to Trenton Lloyd-Rees, Maine Maritime Academy, Class of 2019.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Flash: That Time a Kennedy Lost


“Kennedy Loses”, a “Massachusetts First”, announces The Hill. That Kennedy is Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, grandson of Senator and US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who lost a Senate primary in Massachusetts this past week. “This isn’t a time for waiting, for sitting on the sidelines,” the now 39-year old congressman announced as he entered the race against incumbent Senator Ed Markey.

By running this race, Joe Kennedy was thought to be tacking one step ahead of 46-year old Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a potential primary contestant for a future vacant Senate seat, who has a national profile. Joe Kennedy wagered his congressional seat, making this contest an all-or-nothing stake.  He started with a significant lead in polling, which recently had flipped for the incumbent. Kennedy’s strengths were said to be in working-class and minority communities, yet ultimately he lost in other traditionally working-class areas like seaside Gloucester.

Characteristic confidence and charisma did not save Joe Kennedy. Ed Markey, 74, outmaneuvered the red-headed youngster on the issue of youth. He obtained endorsements from progressive environmental groups, and ultimately claimed college towns like Cambridge, Amherst, and Dartmouth; in addition to Boston.  

In New England, there is a certain respect for established systems and patience, and waiting one’s turn. While the 1773 Tea Party took place in Boston, the modern-day fighting words of “Defeat, Retire, Kick Out” are not used in Massachusetts. In contrast to the West and New South, non-compete clauses are still enforced in the state, preventing the type of start-up culture seen in California. In a political machine, it is expected that participants start young, and wait their turn before advancing; in exchange for the benefits of incumbency. Instead of congratulating Kennedy for “sticking it to the man” and holding the veteran politician accountable, one commenter stated that Kennedy “put his personal ambition above the welfare of the country and waged a pointless and divisive campaign that diverted money and attention from places where both were needed”.

Ed Markey, who had served in Congress since the 1970’s, won election to the Senate in 2013 to fill John Kerry’s seat, as the latter became Secretary of State. (Joe Kennedy was born in 1980, and entered Congress in 2012). Markey entered Congress at a time when the average age in the body was decreasing. This anomaly occurred from 1960 to 1980; meaning that later Boomers and Gen X’ers did not continue the trend of youthful participation in politics. It is possible for Joe Kennedy to fail upwards, as there will be state races to compete for in 2022. Notable, no close Kennedy family has run for governor.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

It’s a Sid Davis Production

In the middle decades of the 20th century, Sid Davis was a prolific director of educational films seen on projectors in school classrooms across America. The nationwide impact of his short films was recognized by the New York Times, where after his lung cancer death at age 90, he received a page-long obituary in 2006. This film empire was all achieved on a low production budget, where economies included using a single vehicle as a prop. Sunny, new and well-maintained schools and parks served as the background, adding a priceless air of real-life to dramatic stories.

Various Southern California School and Police districts sponsored Sid Davis’ work, including Inglewood, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles County. The orderly suburban paradise, with its authority figures of parents, teachers, and police officers; was often held in contrast to Los Angeles’ skid row, which contained drunkards, pool halls, prostitution and nightlife. This dichotomy served as a backdrop for the dire consequences of straying from social conformity, which to its furthest ends included manslaughter and unmarried teen pregnancy. “You had an anchor in a social institution, now you feel adrift”, Sid Davis remarks about a high school dropout.

Despite his stiff morality, Sid Davis makes no appeals to religious authorities: his films are presented for a secular audience. His prime filmmaking years coincided with the Kennedy presidency, and the famous 1962 Supreme Court case on school prayer (Engel vs Vitale). Sid Davis’ films feature a racially diverse cast, first in the pool halls of Los Angeles, then later in integrated suburban settings.

Sid Davis films are a product of their times. For example, a teenage drunk driver is let off with merely a warning and phone call to his parents. Sid Davis’ most infamous short would be 1961’s “Boys Beware”, warning boys about the dangers of pedophiles, who were labelled exclusively as “homosexuals”. The corresponding film “Girls Beware” warned about casual sex, and received better reception among present-day audiences. Other films contained the results of cutting-edge research on the adolescent mind: One short, “Age 13”, features a low-income Hispanic teenager as it sensitively addresses the adolescent grieving process.

Sid Davis’ films present a top-down, “Do as I say, not as I do”, “Father knows best” attitude consistent with the era.  A 1970 film, “Keep Off the Grass”, presents a father, holding a cigarette and a cocktail, chastising his son for marijuana use. Sid Davis explains the difference: the casual drinker is unwinding after a productive day, and the marijuana user seeks to detach from any responsibility. Public Service Announcements and social guidance films for youth today tend to focus on the effects of peer pressure, instead of the expectations of authority figures.

The Bottle and The Throttle:  

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Coronavirus: Americans’ Independent Streak Began in WWII

One New York Times commentator suggested that anti-mask advocates would’ve spent World War Two shining their headlight beams into the sky to liberate America from civil defense blackouts. They practically did. Through the middle of 1942, bright beachfront lights illuminated silhouettes of American coastal Merchant ships. The leisure economy was back, fueled by war exports to Europe and Nationalist China, and resort owners were loath to give it up. Americans were offended by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but were not yet in the mood for national sacrifice.

 Sheer losses of merchant ships along the East Coast changed the tune. Attacks by Nazi U-Boats began in 1941 before the US entered the War, and peaked in early 1942. Referencing the sinking of dozens of unarmed coastwise tankers, a poster proclaimed to motorists: “Think- Sailors have died to give you this ride”.

Despite the grim loss of life, rationing of coffee, alarm clocks, and sliced bread was lifted quickly upon popular demand. As pointed out by Kelly Cantrell in a dissertation, magazines during the War listed recipes with unrationed substitutes, such as corn syrup for sugar; but also featured lavish recipes- which were practically illegal on the basis of strict ration points. To produce a traditional Christmas feast, it was necessary to pool with another family, stockpile canned goods (against government policy), or purchase on the black market.

In contrast to Britons’ stiff upper lips in the face of Blitzkrieg bombings, Americans have a long tradition of flouting the rules, and it was certainly not limited to members of one political ideology.   

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Cancelled: School Resource Officers?

The School Resource Officer is the latest victim of #cancel_culture. Our schools are over-policed, they say. I beg to differ. Somewhere in America today, a young man is hatching a plan to kill people in a public place. That’s not me talking; it’s the gruesome statistic that these attacks are premeditated and predictable.

How quickly have we forgotten the televised body counts of school children? Between Columbine (1999) and Newtown (2012), many across the political spectrum hoped to wish the problem of school violence away. Not worth the cost, metal detectors criminalize inner-city youth, they said. Unfortunately that is not a responsible option today.  America has not put a high value on the development of youth. As far as school lunches are concerned, ketchup is a vegetable. Schools are often underfunded, or in large cities, the school funds misappropriated. Lapsing on recent school security advances would be par for the course.

The Director of National Intelligence has identified school violence as a significant national security threat, and it would be fitting for the Department of Homeland Security to devote some attention towards improving school security, as they have for airports and seaports. So far, however, these efforts have been led by individual states. In recent years, states like Maryland and Virginia have raised the school leaving age from sixteen to eighteen, seeking to leave no child behind from getting a high school diploma. Recognizing the risk of keeping unmotivated, and possibly troubled, teenagers in school, clear mitigation efforts were made. These include an increase of information sharing between government agencies, and to separate known dangerous juveniles from the general school population. Outcomes include hard measures like hiring school resource officers, and soft measures like training for teachers and the school community to take threats seriously, encouraging dialogue between students and authority figures, and acting on early indicators such as a disciplinary record of assault.

The School Resource Officer is partly a counselor and partly a police officer. They give a guiding hand to the wayward, and observe for inside threats (a cop can tell who is concealing a knife or handgun in his pants by observing his gait). In rare cases, they are the first responder to an emergency. This is why you can’t swap them one-for-one with a social worker. When an attack is successfully counteracted, it doesn’t stay in the news for long, and it’s nothing to celebrate. Only in America would a kid with a mission of menace reach the final line of defense. So to the school boards seeking to abolish the role of School Resource Officer, what do you think you are doing? While we can hope for a better day of peace and respect of others, the present conditions must be addressed today.