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Illinois Cop 'Carefully Staged Suicide,' Committed Crimes, Investigators Say

Wed, 2015-11-04 10:23

Authorities say an Illinois police officer whose fatal shooting this summer led to a large manhunt carefully staged his own death after committing criminal acts.

Lake County investigators announced their findings Wednesday into the Sept. 1 shooting death of Fox Lake police Lieutenant Charles Joseph Gliniewicz.

If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

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Police Killings Surpass the Worst Years of Lynching, Capital Punishment, and a Movement Responds

Wed, 2015-11-04 07:07

Video cameras have transformed how we view police killings. First, there was the horrifying homicide in July 2014 of Eric Garner, placed in a choke-hold for selling loose cigarettes and denied medical assistance for several long minutes despite pleading "I can't breathe" eleven times. Then there was the shocking slaying in April 2015 of Walter Scott, stopped for a non-functioning third brake light and shot in the back in broad daylight while running away from the police. Most recently, there was the fatal shooting this July of Samuel Dubose, stopped for a missing front license plate and shot in the head while attempting to drive away. In all three cases -- two of them caught by citizen videos and the third by police camera -- the victims were African-American.

In the wake of these events and protests that have done so much to focus public attention on them, our knowledge of police killings has rapidly expanded. So, too, has the issue's political salience. The videos -- and the outrage that followed -- helped ignite the most powerful civil rights movement since the 1960s. Thanks to this movement, the issues of police killings and mass incarceration are now squarely on the public agenda.

Like the movements against lynching, state-sanctioned segregation and the death penalty before it, today's movement is part of a centuries-long struggle for racial justice. These movements have repeatedly challenged the taken-for-granted practices of the day and redefined them, step-by-step, as no longer morally acceptable. As I will discuss below, this pattern describes the struggle that led to the decline and ultimate elimination of lynching, and it captures as well the ongoing fight against the death penalty that may well culminate in its abolition. Today's movements aim at a similar transformation: to define routine police killings and mass incarceration -- practices now taken for granted as normal features of American life -- as neither normal nor morally acceptable.

A cell phone video image showing police officers placing Eric Garner in a prohibited choke-hold; Staten Island, New York City, July 2014.

How Common Are Police Killings?

The current movement emerged out of mounting anger over the killing of unarmed citizens by police. When the question of how often such killings take place quite naturally arose, the shocking answer was that no one knew -- a state of affairs the FBI director James Comey has aptly described as "embarrassing and ridiculous." Though the FBI annually issues a report that provides figures on "justified police homicides," reporting from local police forces is voluntary and thousands of them turn in no information. Investigations by the Wall Street Journal and FiveThirtyEight determined that hundreds of police killings went unreported annually, but they could do no more than provide rough estimates. This is in striking contrast to many European countries, where every killing by the police is carefully recorded; indeed, in Germany and Finland, each and every shot fired by the police is entered into a national database.

In response to the upsurge in public interest in police killings, the Washington Postand Guardian have stepped in to perform a task that should have been done by the government: the recording of every police killing. Though the newspapers use slightly different methodologies, both newspapers draw on two citizen-initiated sources, "Killed by Police" and "Fatal Encounters," which collect news reports of people killed by law enforcement offices, and both include data on whether the person was armed.1 In addition to the time and place of the killings, both databases include basic demographic information, including race, gender, and age. Neither attempts to determine whether the killings should be deemed "justified."

As recently as the summer of 2014, when the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner thrust the issue of police killings into national prominence, the most widely used estimate of the number of people killed by police was provided by the FBI's Uniform Crime Report: slightly more than 400 per year. But we now know that this figure was a gross underestimation, for the actual number is more than 1,100 police killings each year -- about one every eight hours.2 This is a level of police violence that is simply unimaginable in other wealthy democratic country; in Germany in 2012, a total of seven people were killed by the police, and in England a single person was killed in 2013 and 2014 combined. And Japan, a nation of 126 million people that is as non-violent as the US is violent, had no police killings over the past two years.

Like the movements against lynching, state-sanctioned segregation and the death penalty before it, today's movement is part of a centuries-long struggle for racial justice.

Those killed by the police are of course not representative of the population; the investigation by the Guardian and the Washington Post tell us who they are. About 95 percent are male, and approximately half are 34-years-old or younger. African-Americans are heavily over-represented among the dead, at about one in four -- double their percentage of the population. Whites constitute about half of those killed by the police and Hispanics 15 percent, with the remainder Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, and "unknown." According to the Guardian, about one in four of those killed by the police -- more than 250 people per year -- suffer from mental illness.

Though 88 percent of those killed by the police die by gunshot, death by other means is not uncommon. Tasers, advertised as a "safe" alternative to guns, can be lethal; through October 31 of this year, tasers had killed 47 people. Death from being struck by police vehicles, often in car chases that take innocent lives, resulted in 31 deaths during the first ten months of 2015. Death in custody -- the tragic case of Freddie Jones in Baltimore is the best known -- has taken 35 lives. African-Americans have been disproportionately frequent victims of deaths by taser and in custody, comprising 38 percent and 32 percent of all victims, respectively, compared to 24 percent of all police killings (with 11 percent "unknown").3

Though the horrifying and historically powerful image of the unarmed black man shot by a policeman is now firmly imprinted in the public's mind, the majority of those killed by the police are in fact armed. But not all weapons are as deadly as guns; in the Guardian study, almost one-third were non-gun weapons, including baseball bats, machetes, and knives. In some cases, what seemed to be a gun turned out to be a fake gun: a BB gun, an air gun, and -- in a few tragic instances -- a toy gun held by a teenager.

But there is no question that policing in America is a dangerous job and that law enforcement officers sometimes face genuinely lethal threats. Yet it is also true that no small number of the people killed by the police are unarmed. Here the Guardian and Washington Post investigations diverge sharply, with the Guardian and the Post identifying 189 and 77 such cases, respectively, through October 31st of this year. But the difference is more apparent than real, for the Post only includes those individuals who are shot by the police, while the Guardian includes deaths by taser, police vehicles, and in custody as well as shooting.

Since it is police shootings of the unarmed that are at the epicenter of the current controversy, these cases warrant special scrutiny. The particulars of each case vary yet there is a pattern in who is killed; of the 77 such cases documented by the Washington Post, 36 percent are black men.4 This is well above the figure for all police killings and, when combined with the over-representation of African Americans among those killed by tasers and in custody (almost all of whom were unarmed), the overall pattern confirms that special sense of vulnerability felt by black people in their encounters with the police is founded in reality.

A cell phone video image showing Police Officer Michael Slager firing at Walter Scott; North Charleston, South Carolina, April 2015.

Why So Many Deaths?

Why are there such an extraordinary number of police killings in the United States? The short answer is that America is an extremely violent society, and that an unusually high rate of deaths at the hands of law enforcement is a logical consequence of the high levels of violence. But there is one aspect of violence in the United States, where homicide is more than double that of any other advanced country, that bears particular mention: the pervasive presence of guns. The historian Richard Hofstadter captured this brilliantly in a classic 1970 essay:

Western or otherwise, the United States is the only modern industrial urban nation that persists in maintaining a gun culture. It is the only industrial nation in which the possession of rifles, shotguns, and handguns is lawfully prevalent among large numbers of its population. It is the only such nation ... so attached to the supposed "right" to bear arms that its laws abet assassins, professional criminals, berserk murderers, and political terrorists at the expense of orderly population -- and yet it remains, and is apparently determined to remain, the most passive of all the major countries in the matter of gun control.

Needless to say, little has changed in the intervening 45 years.

The police are both victims and carriers of this gun culture. Readier to shoot than their counterparts in other countries, they are also far more likely to be shot at. Between 2004 and 2013, an average of 56 police officers were killed annually, more than 90 percent of them by guns, and about 70 percent by handguns alone. Just how high a number this is comes clear when it is compared to other countries; in a typical year, one officer is killed in England and Canada, while the number of police deaths in Australia and New Zealand is often zero. There can be little doubt that the guns are at least in part responsible; a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health that examines 782 homicides of police officers between 1996 and 2010 found that officers in states with high rates of gun ownership were three times more likely to be killed than in states with low rates of gun ownership. Little wonder, then, that police associations are often among the strongest advocates of gun control.

High rates of killings of police are in truth a long-standing American tradition. By historical standards, police homicides today are relatively low; in the 1920s, in a country with roughly one-third the population, about twice as many police were killed annually. Homicide rates, too, have been exceptionally high in the United States throughout the twentieth century. As Hofstadter noted, firearms were responsible for more than a quarter of a million homicides between 1900 and 1964; since 2001, we have added an additional 150,000 gun killings.

Working in a society marked by high rates of homicidal violence and a pervasive mistrust, rooted in centuries of racial conflict, between minority communities and law enforcement, the police in the United States are in urgent need of training that meets the highest international standards. But the reality is that the training of police in America is woefully deficient. While police training nationwide in the United States averages 19 weeks, police in other countries receive training that can last more than two years.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who has done extensive research on comparative policing, is firmly convinced that "the police are better prepared to deal with the public" in other countries she has studied. American police, she has concluded, "are not trained enough in the emotional, psychological, physiological aspects of using force," adding pointedly: "an average police department, all they care about is whether you have a GED and you didn't use drugs in the last three years -- if somebody looks at this a little bit closer, then it's really scary." A former member of the NYPD, who spent several years doing patrols in Brooklyn housing projects before quitting to become a hairdresser, put the matter even more forcefully: "think about it: seven months to use a hair dryer; six months to use a gun."5

But the reality that police training in the United States is both short and inadequate does not mean that it does not exert a profound effect on the officers who go through it. Understandably concerned about officer safety, police academies spend far more time on firearms training, devoting an average of 60 hours to it, than on mediation and conflict management, which receive only eight hours. Seth Stoughton, a former police officer in a large city, went through the training and reports that it relentlessly inculcated the belief that "cops live in a hostile world" and emphasized that they must always be on guard because, as cops are fond of saying, "complacency kills." In addition to being shown heartrending dash-cam videos of police being gunned down due to a lack of vigilance, they are taught that "hesitation can be fatal." This training leads police "to shoot before a threat is fully realized, to not wait until the last minute, because the last minute will be too late."

... though the risks police face are real, their training causes them to systematically overestimate them.

Constantly barraged with the message that their survival depends on hyper-vigilance, they shoot most often, Stoughton maintains, "not out of anger and hatred," but quite simply "because they are afraid." Yet though the risks police face are real, their training causes them to systematically overestimate it. For as Stoughton points out, police officers interact with civilians about 63,000,000 times a year and are assaulted in 0.09 percent of all interactions, injured in 0.02 percent, and killed in 0.000008 percent. The task of good police training, he suggests, is to "help officers put these risks in perspective."

If the type of training law enforcement officers receive contributes to the remarkable number of police homicides in the United States, so too does the almost total impunity with which police kill. In theory, police officers are accountable for their actions and are not above the law. But in practice, they are almost never charged with a crime, and in those rare cases where they are charged, they are seldom convicted. According to Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green who studies the police, "To charge an officer in a fatal shooting, it takes something so egregious, so over the top, that it cannot be explained in any rational way."

A comprehensive investigation by the Washington Post of the many thousands of fatal police shootings over the past decade revealed that only 54 officers were ever charged. In the great majority of cases, the person killed was unarmed, and in many of them at least one of these other factors obtained: a video recording, a victim shot in the back, and/or incriminating testimony by fellow police officers. Of the 54 cases in which an officer was charged, only 11 resulted in convictions.6 As difficult as it is to get a conviction, it is even harder to impose substantial time in prison, with both juries and judges reluctant to give stiff sentences. The small number of police convicted usually received little prison time, averaging four years and sometimes only weeks. For the entire decade covered by the Post investigation, no officer received a sentence longer than 10 years.

A separate study of police killings in New York City over 15 years by the New York Daily News yielded results similar to those of the Post investigation. Of 179 cases since 1999, only three led to indictments and just one to a conviction -- a ruling that included not a day of jail time. The period began with the notorious case of Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old African immigrant who was mistaken for a rape suspect and shot 41 times. Near the end of the period was the case of Eric Garner, who died from a choke-hold, the use of which was officially prohibited by NYPD policies.

Though but one of the many hundreds of police killings that occur each year, the chilling death of Eric Garner warrants special attention, for it illuminates both the dynamics of impunity and the public's reluctance to punish the police. The events leading up to Garner's death were caught on video and show him saying "I can't breathe" eleven times. The medical examiner's finding was that Garner's death was caused by the choke-hold and compression to his chest caused by several officers who piled on to him. The video of the events leading to Garner's death went viral, and public outrage and demands for prosecution of the officer who had placed him in the choke-hold quickly mounted. But the District Attorney who presided over the case, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., signaled that he did not wish to prosecute and, to the astonishment and fury of many who had watched the video, the grand jury declined to issue an indictment. In a special Congressional election held in May of this year, the people of Staten Island, far from repudiating Donovan and his failure to prosecute the police responsible for Garner's death, elected him to Congress with almost 60 percent of the vote.

Police video image showing Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop in which he was shot by Police Officer Ray Tensing; Cincinnati, Ohio, July 2015.

The Movement Demands Change

The case of Eric Garner -- and a number of other depressingly similar cases in which unarmed black men were killed by the police -- helped spawn a new civil rights movement. Propelled forward by the evocatively named Black Lives Matter movement and other grass-roots organizations, the movement was given a huge boost by the availability of videos, many of them taken by citizens, that showed out-of-control and sometimes lethal actions by the police. Killings that in the past would have been easily covered up because of the absence of compelling evidence to counter the official police narrative now went viral on the internet. The singular achievement of Black Lives Matter and associated movements was to turn a long-simmering problem that had nevertheless remained in the shadows into a major political issue. Like their predecessors in the long struggle for racial justice, they did not shrink from militancy and have employed a variety of tactics, including street demonstrations, die-ins, traffic blockages and disruptions of highly visible political events.

But Black Lives Matter and its allies did more than propel the issue of police killings into public prominence; they also helped inspire a broader movement that has put forward concrete proposals to address the problem. With the release this year of Campaign Zero, a report closely connected to Black Lives Matter whose stated purpose is to present "comprehensive solutions to end police violence in America," and Building Momentum From the Ground Up: A Toolkit for Justice in Policing, by the Center for Popular Democracy and Policy Link, a sweeping grass-roots approach to curtailing police killing is now available. While not identical, the two reports include many of the same recommendations; strikingly, a report by the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a body filled with major figures in the law enforcement community, came to many of the same conclusions. Something approaching a consensus, then, has emerged on how to reduce police killings; the question is whether the political will exists to implement the proposals in the face of the inevitable push-back.

The starting point for any effort to curtail killings by police is to rectify the stunning absence of data on the number of police homicides. But it is not enough that every police killing be reported to a national database; in addition, the United Sates should follow the lead of Germany and other countries where every bullet fired by the police is recorded. Given that taser guns have already resulted in 47 deaths so far this year, all firings of tasers should also be entered into a national database. A bill introduced to the Senate by Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) would be a useful first step; it would make mandatory the recording by the Department of Justice of every police killing and every time someone was shot or injured, with the race and gender of the victim and the involved officers included in the report. The bill would also require reporting of whether or not the victim was armed with a weapon.

Those protesting police violence do not, of course, think that the recording of each killing and its entry into a national database is sufficient; they also want police officers responsible for unjustified killings to be prosecuted. In principle, such prosecutions should be led by the local district attorney, but in practice this rarely occurs. The reason is that district attorneys are heavily dependent on the cooperation of the police to prosecute criminals, and they have a deep vested interest in maintaining good relations with the local police. Charging an officer who killed a civilian with a felony -- and the risk of the jail time that goes with it -- is not compatible with that interest. Yet even the existing system is not entirely immune to movement pressure and public outrage; thus far in 2015, a dozen officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter as a consequence of police shootings, up from an average of five per year over the decade ending in 2014.

Campaign Zero and Building Momentum from the Ground Up both make the same demand: that an external and independent prosecutor, based at the state rather than local level, be charged with the task of investigating and, where appropriate, prosecuting every case in which a civilian is killed by a law enforcement officer. It is essential that the office housing this independent prosecutor have adequate resources to conduct investigations and that these investigations be carried out by people not tied to local law enforcement. As the President's Task Force rightly notes, "the public confers legitimacy only on those who they believe are acting in a procedurally just way," and nothing undermines the legitimacy and trust of the public more than the sense that the police can kill members of the community with impunity. Genuinely independent and external investigations of police killings, with the results of these investigations made available to the public, would be an important first step in building public trust.

To reduce the number of police killings, police training must be radically reformed. Though the official mission of the police is to "serve and protect," police officers often think of themselves as "warriors" rather than "guardians." The President's Task Force proposes a fundamental reorientation of police culture, with the mindset of police shifting to a self-conception as "guardians" who view procedural justice, accountability and transparency as guiding principles. This would require a far-reaching shift in police training, which relentlessly transmits the message that only the ever-vigilant survive and that "enemies abound and the job of the Warrior is to fight and vanquish their enemies."

... the United Sates should follow the lead of Germany and other countries where every bullet fired by the police is recorded.

But changing police culture, a formidable task in itself, is only a beginning, for the police need to be taught new skills if they are to function more effectively in the community. In particular, police training needs to emphasize the development of sophisticated skills in mediation and conflict resolution -- precisely the kind of skills that can help de-escalate dangerous situations. So, too, do the police need better training in dealing with mentally ill people. There is no shortcut to the development of such skills; German police, who rarely fire their guns and whose training is widely viewed as a model for other countries, train for at least 130 weeks. But perhaps as important as length and rigor of the training is the relentless emphasis in Germany on alternatives to pulling a trigger. Colonel Uwe Thieme, the senior police director in the office for education, training and human resources in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, concisely describes the orientation: "We try to make all police officers recognize that you are not a good guy if you are shooting. You are a good guy if you are not shooting." This is the polar opposite of American police training, where police academies relentlessly show terrifying videos that can lead to only one conclusion: that failure to shoot can be fatal.

Police academies will no doubt justifiably continue to emphasize vigilance and to stress that law enforcement is a dangerous job. But both the videos and the mass media exaggerate the risks of policing. To put the actual risks in perspective, police trainees should routinely be taught that there are thirteen jobs more dangerous than policing (roughly 10 deaths per 100,000), including logger (over 80), fisherman (70), roofer (nearly 40), truck driver (over 20), taxi driver (15) and maintenance worker (14). They should also be taught that killings of police have declined sharply in recent decades, having been cut by more than half since the 1970s. And they should be taught that knives and other weapons besides guns pose little risk to their lives; between 2008 and 2012, guns were responsible for over 91 percent of all police deaths and knives less than one percent.7 Yet each year the police continue to kill hundreds of people who are not armed with guns.

Both Campaign Zero and Building Momentum From the Ground Up have endorsed the use of police body cameras, but only as part of a larger strategy to stem police violence that would include mandatory reporting, independent investigations and radically reformed police training. Police should not, they insist, have the option of selectively turning off body cameras and dash-cams; indeed, if footage is unavailable there should be an assumption of police misconduct. But equally important is the right of citizens to film the police, which should be vigorously protected, for it is not uncommon for the police to confiscate cell phones and to threaten people who are recording them. By no means a panacea, body cameras and citizen videos promise to increase police transparency and accountability and may well reduce police violence. It is no accident that video evidence has been available in every case this year in which a law enforcement officer has been charged with a crime for killing a civilian.

In addition to police body cameras and the protection of a citizen's right to film the police, activists have also demanded the establishment of clear standards for the use of lethal force. Shockingly, not a single American state is in compliance with international standards for the use of force. These standards are outlined in an important report by Amnesty International released this May; the United States, as a signatory to such treaties as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is legally obligated to respect these standards. According to international law, police officers can use lethal force only when they or others face the threat of imminent death or severe injury and when no other means is available. The level of force must be no more than the minimum necessary and must be proportionate to achieve the objective. Officers are required, when feasible, to give a verbal warning before they shoot and must provide medical assistance as soon as possible to the injured. The President's Task Force expressed the moral framework underlying UN and international standards well, insisting that "a clearly stated 'sanctity of life' philosophy must be at the forefront of every officer's mind."

Both Campaign Zero and Building Momentum from the Ground Up are in full agreement with Amnesty International's objective of bringing the United States into compliance with international standards for the use of force. But they also have specific proposals of their own. In particular, they want police departments to have clear written policies for the use of all kinds of force, including non-lethal force, and they want police to be held accountable when they violate these policies. With the goal of reducing the number of police killings, they propose that all officers have mandatory training in de-escalation, that they carry a non-lethal weapon and that they be prohibited from using choke-holds. According to Campaign Zero, police killed 91 people in 2014 who were stopped for traffic violations. Activists want an end to such traffic-related police killings, and to dangerous high-speed police chases, which kill an average of 87 bystanders every year. And they want to systematically monitor how police use force, establishing an early warning system to correct those officers who have used excessive force, and to terminate those officers found guilty of multiple or serious offenses.

Graphic map driven by data complied by the group Mapping Police Violence | Map by Samuel Sinyangwe.

The Scourge of Mass Incarceration

Black Lives Matter and associated movements began as protests against the killings of unarmed African-Americans, but they also recognize that such killings are but the brutal leading edge of an increasingly Kafkaesque criminal justice machinery, intimately tied to the issue of mass incarceration. Beginning in the 1970s, the United States embarked upon a strange social experiment without precedent in its history and never tried in any other democratic country: to confine vast segments of its population to prisons and jails. In 2014, more than 2.2 million people were incarcerated -- a total larger than the combined populations of Boston, Washington and San Francisco. Nothing like this had ever happened before in American history; as recently as 1972, there were just 200,000 people in federal and state prisons, but by 2008 this number had risen to 1.6 million. And nothing remotely like this ever happened in any other wealthy democracy; the United States now has an imprisonment rate of over 700 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 147 in the United Kingdom, the nation which has the second highest rate of incarceration. With less than five percent of the world's population, the United States now holds close to 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

Activists are well aware that people of color are ever more likely to be ensnared into this gigantic machinery of criminal justice. In 2014, more than 800,000 blacks were in prison or in jail, alongside more than 438,000 Hispanics; together they constituted over 58 percent of all prisoners.8 The toll of this vastly expanded penal apparatus on African-Americans has been particularly staggering. Of black males born between 1945 and 1949, 10 percent have been incarcerated by age 30 to 34; of those born between 1975 and 1979, who came of age after the prison boom, 27 percent had been imprisoned by the age of 30 to 34. But the effects of the rise of mass incarceration on the most disadvantaged segments of the black community have been especially devastating; in the 1975 to 1979 cohort, 68 percent of those who had dropped out of high school served time in prison or jail by the age of 30 to 34. For them, and for many young African-Americans men who graduated high school but went no further, doing time has become not an aberration, but a routine rite of passage.

The extraordinary extension of the penal system into the lives of the black community helps explain why activists, while continuing their campaign against police killings, are devoting increasing energy to the task of reversing mass incarceration. To be sure, the killing of nearly 300 African-Americans each year by the police is by any standard a national scandal -- and one that calls to mind of a long history of deaths at the hands of law enforcement. But the statistical likelihood that an African-American male will be killed by the police is a given year -- 0.000015 percent or about one in 66,000 -- is modest compared to the likelihood that he will find himself in prison or jail. In 2014, four percent of all black males were incarcerated, making confinement to prisons or jail over 2500 times more likely than being killed by the police.9 And incarceration is only a part of America's gigantic system of criminal supervision; in addition to the more than 2.2 million people in prison or jail in 2012, an additional 3.94 million were on probation and 851,000 were on parole.

Even these figures do not convey the damage that the enormous growth of the criminal justice apparatus has done to the fabric of the black community and the texture of daily life. For the incarcerated are also the sons and daughters, the brothers and sisters, and the fathers and mothers of those family members who, at least for the moment, are not entrapped in it. Between 1980 and 2008, the percent of black children with a parent in prison or jail rose from slightly more than two percent to 12 percent.10 White families, too, were affected by the rise of mass incarceration; while under two percent of white children had a parent in prison or jail in 1980, that number more than tripled to seven percent in 2008.

Beginning in the 1970s, the United States embarked upon a strange social experiment ... never tried in any other democratic country: to confine vast segments of its population to prisons and jails.

The consequences of mass incarceration persist long after people are released from prison, for they are enduringly marked by society as ex-convicts. Ta-Nahesi Coates vividly described its effects in a recent article in The Atlantic:

Incarceration pushes you out of the job market. Incarceration disqualifies you from feeding your family with food stamps. Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on a criminal-background check. Incarceration increases your risk of homelessness. Incarceration increases your chances of being incarcerated again.

Mass incarceration also deprives an extraordinary number of ex-prisoners of the basic democratic right to vote. In 1976, 1.17 million citizens who had committed felonies were prohibited from voting; by 2010, that number had risen to 5.85 million. Not surprisingly, blacks are disenfranchised at four times the rate of non-African-Americans. Florida, the state that decided the 2000 election, is the worst offender, having disenfranchised over 20 percent of the state's African-Americans in 2010.

Both Campaign Zero and Building Momentum From the Ground Up offer concrete and practical proposals that would begin the difficult process of reversing the decades-long trend towards mass incarceration. The starting point would be the decriminalization of behaviors that do not pose a threat to public safety. At present, police spend a great deal of their time charging people for such offenses as drinking alcohol in public, loitering, panhandling, playing loud music, possessing marijuana, and sleeping on the subway. Some, though not all, of these offenses constitute a de facto criminalization of poverty and homelessness. Campaign Zero explicitly calls for an end to "broken windows" policing and "stop and frisk" policies that for many are the first step toward entanglement with the criminal justice system. The police, they maintain, would better serve the public by focusing their energies on cases of violent crime, which now take up a mere 10 percent of their time.

One other promising way to reduce the number of people in prison would be to expand existing diversion programs that treat people for problems of addiction and mental illness. Such programs offer an alternative to incarceration and are designed to address the recidivism that plagues the mentally ill and the addicted. Activists also call for an end to for-profit policing, which uses fines, often imposed on poor people, to finance municipal governments, and to arrest quotas as a way of evaluating police performance. But such changes, however overdue, would not reduce the number of people already in jail. Toward this end, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU recently proposed a Reverse Mass Incarceration Act that would provide $20 billion over ten years to offer incentives to states that reduce their prison population by at least 7 percent over a three year period.

A noteworthy recent development that suggests the kinds of proposals put forward by the movement may be gaining traction even in unexpected quarters is the recent creation of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group of 130 police chiefs, prosecutors and sheriffs that includes the police chiefs of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia. Remarkably, many of their proposals echo those of Campaign Zero and Building Momentum from the Ground Up. Specifically, the group calls for the development of alternatives to prosecution for the addicted and those suffering from mental illness, the reduction of the number of crimes on the books, the downgrading of some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors, and the reduction (and in some cases the elimination of) excessively punitive mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In a striking departure from the ideologies that for decades have dominated official discussions of crime, the co-chairs of the group proclaim: "we need less incarceration, not more, to help us do our jobs and keep all Americans safe." Though barely two-years-old, the new civil rights movement is clearly having a discernible impact.

Protesters depict a lynching scene during demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson. | Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Lynching, the Death Penalty, and the Lessons of History

Ending police killings and reversing mass incarceration are audacious goals, and those struggling to achieve them face formidable obstacles. For altering practices that have such deep roots is not simply a matter of introducing new policies; it is, at bottom, a matter of changing the boundaries of the morally permissible. Two historic movements -- the battles against lynching and the death penalty -- show that practices once taken for granted can, under sustained moral assault, begin to crumble.

Lynching has a long history in the Unites States, but escalated sharply in the 1880s as part of a larger fight to restore white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South. The first reliable statistics on lynching begin in 1882, and they show an average of 67 African-Americans lynched per year between 1882 and 1890. But lynching's high point came in the 1890s, at the very time when Jim Crow laws were imposed throughout the South. The peak year was 1892, when 161 African-Americans (out of a total of 230) were lynched -- an average of more than three every week. Lynchings also became more racialized during this time. Though mobs also lynched whites, Mexicans, Asians and Native-Americans, blacks constituted an ever-growing proportion of victims -- 44 percent in the 1880s, 72 percent in the 1890s and 89 percent between 1900 and 1909.

In 1892, as lynching reached its highest point, a movement to fight lynching emerged. At the forefront of this movement was Ida B. Wells, a crusading journalist and teacher, born into slavery, who was enraged by the death of three of her friends at the hands of a lynch mob. Wells responded by publishing in her Memphis newspaper an investigative report on lynchings that concluded that the belief that blacks were lynched because they had sexually assaulted white women was a myth and went on to make the claim -- an explosively provocative one in the 1890s South -- that those sexual liaisons between black men and white women that did take place were more often than not consensual. In response, a mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper and Wells, facing death threats, moved to Chicago.

But Wells continued the struggle, speaking to groups in New York and taking two tours of Europe to campaign against lynching, and the movement she had helped initiate continued to expand. Then, as now, women played a particularly prominent role in the movement. The 1890s saw the creation of two anti-lynching organizations, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and The National Afro-American Council, and in 1909 the just-founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) joined the fight against lynching. Despite the movement's growing momentum, and the cooperation of a growing number of white allies, progress was slow and uneven. Though an anti-lynching bill was finally passed in the House of Representatives in 1922, it was defeated in the Senate by a filibuster led by Southern Democrats. Twice more anti-lynching bills made it through the House, only to be blocked again in the Senate. Between 1890 and 1952, seven Presidents petitioned the Congress to pass an anti-lynching bill; none succeeded. Meanwhile, attempts to prosecute those responsible for lynchings proved futile.

Yet progress, albeit painstakingly slow, gradually became visible. Though repeated efforts to pass federal legislation failed and attempts to use the legal system to combat lynching proved ineffective, public opposition to lynching continued to grow. What the movement -- operating through speeches, demonstrations, plays, films and journalistic exposés -- accomplished over time was to make lynching morally anathema. With the lynching of African-Americans increasingly defined as a source of national shame, it gradually declined. Still common in the first half of the 1920s as the influence of the revived Ku Klux Klan soared, lynching took the lives of 198 blacks between 1920 and 1924. But as the Klan declined in the late 1920s, so did the number of lynchings, dropping to 73 in the last five years of the decade. More than half a century of struggle would be required to effectively eliminate lynching, but by the 1960s lynching was largely a relic of the past.

With the lynching of African-Americans increasingly defined as a source of national shame, it gradually declined.

Though the death penalty has not been quite as targeted at blacks as lynching, it has nonetheless been imposed on African-Americans in vastly disproportionate numbers. In both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a narrow majority of the more than 13,000 people executed in the United States have been African-Americans. The pattern has been even more pronounced in the South, where data going back all the way to America's colonial era show that blacks constitute over two-thirds of those executed in Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia. Even today, the race of the victim is still very much a factor in determining who gets executed; though whites constitute about half of all murder victims, they are the victims in three-quarters of murder cases that lead to execution.11

The imposition of the death penalty reached its height in the 1930s, averaging 167 executions a year and reaching its peak at 197 in 1937. But the atmosphere changed after 1945 in the wake of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, and Western societies, including the United States, came to rely less and less on the death penalty. By the 1950s, the number of executions had dropped to an average of 72 per year, and in the 1960s a frontal legal assault, with the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in the forefront, was launched against the death penalty.12 At the same time, public support for capital punishment waned, reaching an all-time low of 42 percent in 1966. Finally, after a cessation of all executions starting in 1968, the Supreme Court in 1972 issued a ruling, Furman v. Georgia, that suspended the death penalty nationwide. After decades of struggle, it appeared that the forces calling for abolition were victorious.

But movements sometimes suffer historic setbacks, and the victory of the abolitionists proved short-lived. As the center of gravity of American politics shifted and the Supreme Court moved rightward, capital punishment was restored, albeit with greater legal restrictions. Executions resumed in 1977 and rose through the 1980s and 1990s, reaching a modern-day peak of 98 in 1999 -- the highest number in almost half-a-century. In the mid-1990s, in the context of a recent crime wave, as many as 80 percent of Americans stated that they were in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder.

Much as Black Lives Matter drew attention to the cause by publicizing particular cases of police killings, the movement against the death penalty has in recent years focused attention on particular cases where people on death row had been wrongfully convicted and subsequently found innocent. At the same time, legal challenges to the scope of the death penalty have been filed. Step-by-step, capital punishment became more narrowly circumscribed; no longer eligible for execution were the insane (1986), children under 16 (1987), the "mentally retarded" (2002), and teenagers under 18 (2005).

Extra-judicial killings by the police ... now number more than four times the number of people lynched or executed by capital punishment in the worst of years.

The death penalty still exists, but USA Today recently described it as on "life support." Last year, just 35 people were executed in the United States; this year it will almost certainly be fewer than 30 -- the lowest number in 21 years. Since 2007, New Jersey, Nebraska, Maryland, Illinois, New Mexico, New York and Connecticut have joined the 12 states that had already banned the death penalty. Though capital punishment is still on the books in 31 states, only nine of them have executed a single person in the last three years. To be sure, it would be rash to conclude that the death penalty is definitely on the road to total abolition. But it is no exaggeration to say that, in the seven decades since the end of World War II, the movement against the death penalty has saved hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of lives.

Extra-judicial killings by the police, the all-too-common practice that ignited the current movement, now number more than 1,100 per year -- more than four times the number of people lynched or executed by capital punishment in the worst of years. But street executions by the police, unconstrained by due process or any of the legal safeguards that limit capital punishment, are unlikely to be abolished -- not in a country with more than 300 million guns in private hands, more than 11,000 homicides per year and 50 or so killings of law enforcement officers annually. Police killings can, however, be radically reduced, as can the number of people confined to prison. The task of the current movement -- like the movements against lynching and the death penalty before it -- is to challenge, with patience and unyielding pressure, the boundaries of what is morally acceptable and to ensure that the struggle for racial equality continues its long march forward.


Jerome Karabel is Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. His current project, which he began as a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, is "Outlier Nation: The Roots and Consequences of American Distinctiveness," a comparative study of twenty wealthy democratic countries.


1. The Washington Post counts only fatal shootings by on-duty police officers, while the Guardian counts all police killings, including those people killed by tasers, police vehicles, and in custody.

2.This is an extrapolation from The Guardian's "The Counted," which reported 957 police killings as of October 31st, 2015. At the current rate, there will be an estimated 1,149 killings in calendar year 2015.

3. Calculated from "The Counted." The Guardian.

4. Calculated from "Fatal Police Shootings Data" (Through October 31, 2015) The Washington Post

5. Personal communication from Professor Harry Levine, Queens College, City University of New York, July 1, 2015.

6. Some cases, however, were still pending.

7. Franklin E. Zimring and Brittany Arsiniega. "Trends in Killings Of And By Police: A Preliminary Analysis." Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, forthcoming.

8. Calculated from E. Ann Carson. "Prisoners In 2014." Bureau of Justice Statistics. September 2014.

9. These figures are based in an estimate derived from The Guardian of about 300 police killings of African-Americans annually out of a black male population nationwide of roughly 20 million.

10. For an illuminating discussion of the human costs of mass incarceration, see "Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families." Oakland, CA, September 2015.

11. Calculated from "Executions In The U.S. 1608-2002: The Espy File." Death Penalty Information Center.

12. Calculated from Chris Wilson. "Every Execution in U.S. History in a Single Chart." Time. 24 July 2014.

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Illinois Cop's Death Will Be Declared A Suicide: Officials

Tue, 2015-11-03 22:20

CHICAGO (AP) — Authorities will announce that a northern Illinois police officer whose shooting death led to a massive manhunt in September committed suicide, an official briefed on the crime investigation told The Associated Press.

The Lake County Sheriff's Office has called a Wednesday news conference to announce "conclusive results" of the investigation. The official spoke to the AP Tuesday night on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

The investigation into the death of Lieutenant Charles Joseph Gliniewicz determined that the Fox Lake officer died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, other media outlets reported Tuesday, all citing anonymous sources.

A spokesman for the Lake County Sheriff's Office, Christopher Covelli, declined any comment Tuesday evening. The office said in a statement that it would not comment until the news conference.

Gliniewicz, a U.S. army veteran affectionately known as "G.I. Joe," radioed on Sept. 1 that he was chasing three suspicious men on foot. Backup officers later found his body 50 yards from his squad car.

Authorities said in October that the officer, 52, was shot with his own weapon.

He was struck by two rounds, one that hit his ballistic vest with the force of a "sledgehammer" and another that pierced his upper chest, Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Commander George Filenko said at the time.

After Gliniewicz's shooting, a massive manhunt ensued, with hundreds of officers searching houses, cabins and even boats on a chain of area lakes. Authorities released a vague description of three suspects, though no one was ever arrested.

Flags flew at half-staff in honor of the 30-year police veteran after the shooting in Fox Lake, a close-knit community of 10,000 residents located about 50 miles north of Chicago. Signs with the officer's picture hung in storefront windows.

The tattooed officer with a shaved head was described by those who knew him as tough when needed, but also as sweet and a role model to youngsters aspiring to go into law enforcement.

More than 100 investigators stayed on the case for weeks, though questions arose in mid-September, and investigators began to concede that they could not rule out suicide or an accident.

One hint came when Lake County Coroner Dr. Thomas Rudd announced that Gliniewicz was killed by a "single devastating" shot to his chest. That prompted an angry response from Filenko, who said the release of such details put "the entire case at risk."

Gliniewicz's family dismissed the suggestion of suicide. His son D.J. Gliniewicz said his father "never once" thought of taking his own life, and described how his dad spoke excitedly about what he planned to do after retiring.

Gliniewicz had four children.


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'This Changes Everything' Moves Focus to Communities on Fossil Fuel Frontlines

Tue, 2015-11-03 16:28
Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis visited Chicago to host a sold out premier showing of their new documentary film, This Changes Everything.

I wasn't expecting to enjoy it. I know the issue well. I've seen plenty of climate change documentaries before. But the filmmakers won me over at the start by admitting they aren't excited by climate change movies either. And like me, they're sick of hearing about the polar bear. I was getting so many weekly mailings about saving the polar bear I started to hope we'd have just enough arctic flooding to drown them. Did you know they're the only bear that eats people? A grizzly may attack if it feels threatened but it won't eat you for dinner.

Klein and Lewis take a different approach by focusing on people, particularly communities most impacted by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Indigenous leaders facing tar sands extraction, ranchers in the Powder River Basin, opposition to India's coal power plant rush and others profile how powerful movements grow from people protecting their own communities.

It's fitting that Klein and Lewis came to Illinois, a state that sadly illustrates how major-grant funded green groups are failing communities on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction and pollution. They gave a shout out to two groups who helped host the screening, Rising Tide Chicago and 350. I've seen volunteers for Rising Tide Chicago spend more time visiting southern Illinois and meeting with anti-fracking activists than the paid staff for most of the Chicago-based groups claiming to speak for the statewide environmental movement.

During the Q&A two women interrupted to make sure the audience heard about a rally against petcoke piles on Chicago's south side. She challenged the mostly white, north side audience to recognize what's happening in frontline communities in the seemingly distant south side of Chicago, 40 minutes away. It was nice to see Avi Lewis hand over his mic to make sure the activists were heard.

As she spoke, I considered that if it's easy to for an audience already aware of climate change to ignore what's happening on the south side of Chicago, how much easier is it to forget the coal mines and fracking fields four to six hours away on the south side of Illinois? Chicago is such an active, dynamic city that it's difficult for people to keep up on what's happening in their own neighborhood, much less rural downstate. I probably should have discarded my stereotypical central Illinois polite reserve and spoken up. Even in a large room of people sympathetic to communities on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction, the areas of Illinois most impacted by mining and drilling went unmentioned. The rural sacrifice zones of Illinois are out of sight, out of mind.

It's partly why several Chicago-based groups felt entitled to negotiate with industry lobbyists over a bill designed to launch a fracking boom in Illinois over the clear, repeated objection of people in impacted areas. No grassroots group from southern Illinois was at the table during closed-door negotiations on the state fracking law.

More recently, some of the same groups met for over a year in Chicago to write the Illinois Green Jobs Bill without including any grassroots groups from the southern half of the state. At least two groups at the table receive funding from the natural gas industry (Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Chicago Clean Energy Trust). The result of excluding frontline communities shows in a bill that proposes a cap-and-auction system likely to spur more natural gas generation and fails to direct green job growth to low-income, rural extraction regions that are already missing out.

Even more recently, the Illinois Environmental Council, along with it's lead sponsor organizations, issued a policy position on fracking, once again without including southern Illinois anti-fracking groups. Banning fracking isn't even mentioned as a goal, despite growing opposition to the practice. Rather than make the case for banning fracking, they devoted paragraphs to defending their role in helping to pass a bill that Governor Pat Quinn said was designed to launch an Illinois fracking boom. Low-income communities become sacrifice zones not only due to fossil fuel companies but also because big green groups and their major donors almost always seem to have other priorities.

Klein spoke during the Q&A about the need to view the challenge of climate change as more than a chart of carbon levels in the atmosphere. The focus "This Changes Everything" puts on frontline impacted communities is an example Illinois and the global climate movement must follow.

Approaching the problem as a social justice struggle for people defending their homes is the best chance we have to confront the climate crisis. It's an excellent film to screen for community groups organizing resistance to fossil fuel destruction.

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Rookie Founder Tavi Gevison on Feminism and Facing Your Fears

Tue, 2015-11-03 15:50
Before there was Lenny Letter and the show, Girls, on HBO, there was Rookie magazine, the online publication geared towards teenage girls about love, life, friends, fashion and pop culture founded by Tavi Gevinson. Giving high school women a voice and the encouragement to embrace their questions, fears and successes, Rookie paved the wave for a whole new era of what it means to be a girl.

Founder Tavi Gevison is an American writer, magazine editor, actress and singer. She exploded on the style scene at the age of 12, due to her fashion blog, Style Rookie. By the age of 15, she shifted her attention to pop culture and discussions of the world from a young woman's eyes as the Editor-in-Chief of Rookie Magazine, aimed at and written by teenage girls. In both 2011 and 2012, she appeared on the Forbes "30 Under 30 in Media" list. In 2014, she was named one of "The 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014" by Time magazine. Tavi is currently pursuing acting both on stage, having just finished This is Our Youth and just about to start The Crucible on Broadway, and in film, starring in titles like Enough Said besides Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Galdolfini. All this, and she is only 19.

At the end of every year, Tavi publishes a hard-copy yearbook, a compendium of online articles from Rookie, along with illustrations, dioramas and more. Over Chilled Peanut Satay Noodles, with marinated tofu and seasonal pickles, the Lula '99 Turkey Sandwich, with avocado and chile aioli, and a Grain Bowl with bitter greens, wood grilled apple, celery, white cheddar, and hazelnut vinaigrette from Lula Cafe, Tavi and I discuss the release of her final yearbook, Rookie Yearbook Four. We also discuss feminism, facing your fears and the best beauty tip of them all: self-confidence.

Enjoy my latest podcast with Tavi Gevinson on The Dinner Party To Go Podcast on WGN Radio's WGN Plus.

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Peter Ludlow Officially Resigns From Northwestern Amid Harassment Charges

Tue, 2015-11-03 14:25

Philosophy professor Peter Ludlow has resigned from Northwestern University, the Evanston, Illinois-based school confirmed Tuesday. 

Ludlow resigned his tenured professorship on Monday as the university prepared to fire him after determining he sexually harassed two students. Ludlow's behavior was "an affront to the standards" of Northwestern, the university said, and the private school "regrets the pain that was caused by his actions."

"Ludlow's resignation came in the midst of a hearing before a faculty committee considering the case," Northwestern said in a statement. "Ludlow has not taught any classes at Northwestern since March 2014."

The allegations against Ludlow have attracted intense scrutiny since February 2014, when a female undergraduate filed a lawsuit against the school claiming Northwestern failed to punish him following her report that he sexually assaulted and harassed her in 2012. Northwestern concluded then that Ludlow made "unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances" toward the student, and denied him a promotion. 

A female graduate student came forward to Northwestern in March 2014 to accuse Ludlow of sexual harassment, but she did not file a lawsuit. Ludlow filed defamation suits against both students, several news outlets and university administrators, as well as a gender discrimination complaint against Northwestern, all of which have been dismissed, according to court records.

Northwestern considered mediation with Ludlow regarding his suit a year ago, but backed off following complaints from his harassment victims and other students. The case against the students and administrators was finally dismissed this August. 

Neither Ludlow nor his attorneys immediately responded to requests for comment. 

The graduate student who accused Ludlow of harassment, and asked to remain anonymous, said it was a relief the process was finally over.

"It wasn't an easy decision to come forward," the student told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "I did not take this lightly, and it has not been easy at any juncture. I don't want anything from anyone, I just want to believe this is a system we can put our trust in."

The only lawsuit that's still alive, and the only one that even made it to discovery, was the state court complaint from the female undergraduate accusing Ludlow of violations of the Illinois Gender Violence Act. 

The undergraduate and her attorneys told HuffPost they did not plan to comment on Ludlow's resignation. 

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ludlow is planning to move to Mexico.

Northwestern spent the past few months going through an adjudication process with Ludlow in regard to the sexual harassment charges. 

The graduate student noted that she felt there was irony in most of the lawsuits coming to a close more quickly than the university's internal process. 

"It's 20 months of my life," she said. "It's bittersweet, kind of hard that he just gets to walk away, but I mean, I'm free for the first time in 20 months."


Tyler Kingkade covers higher education and sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can contact him at, or on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.


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Patrick Kane's Rape Accuser Withdraws From Investigation

Tue, 2015-11-03 13:56

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Nov 3 (Reuters) - A woman who accused Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane of rape has told prosecutors that she no longer wants to cooperate in the investigation, five sources with knowledge of the case told The Buffalo News.

The investigation has created a great deal of stress for her and her family, and she no longer wants to participate in the case against the National Hockey League All-Star, she told authorities, according to the News.

The woman, whose name has not been disclosed, accused Kane, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, of raping her in his off-season home in Hamburg, New York, a Buffalo suburb, early on Aug. 2 after the two met at a nightclub.

One of the News' sources said the woman spoke to investigators at the Erie County District Attorney's Office and then signed a "affidavit declining prosecution" document, which is now being considered by District Attorney Frank Sedita.

The woman first asked Sedita's staff about the status of the investigation before saying she no longer wants to cooperate, one of the unidentified sources told the News.

Kane, 26, had denied the allegations and the News reported in September, citing sources, that DNA evidence did not support the woman's contention she was raped.

Although Kane's DNA was found on his accuser's shoulders and fingernails, it was not found in her genital area or on her undergarments, unidentified sources told the newspaper.

Sedita was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday. (Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington)

Also on HuffPost:

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An Open Letter to Airbnb "Regular People" Hosts: Airbnb Is Selling You Out

Tue, 2015-11-03 13:39
As San Franciscans contemplate Proposition F, a measure that would crack down on Airbnb rentals, I would like to address the "regular people" hosts who are trying to use Airbnb to make ends meet. Airbnb likes to portray "regular people" hosts as the face of its company. These are people who rent out a spare room to tourists to make some extra money in these difficult times. What could be wrong with that?

Nothing is wrong with it. Indeed, I think that use of their home is legitimate. But here's the problem that none of the "regular people" hosts who testify at public hearings and who are the face of Airbnb's $10 million "No on Prop F" campaign have been willing to admit: an increasing amount of Airbnb's commercial activity in cities like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles does not come from the listings of "regular people" like themselves, who are merely renting out a spare room. Instead, it comes from professional real estate operatives, some of whom are renting out dozens of properties, and who are removing badly needed housing from the local market and turning entire buildings into "Airbnb hotels." Many of these landlords are evicting thousands of people and getting rid of rent-controlled housing, making the housing stock available exclusively for tourists.

For those of you who are truly "regular people" hosts, you are being poorly served by Airbnb. The company knows that its service has been invaded by professional operatives because it has access to its own data. Airbnb could have designed its platform to serve your needs, instead of the professionals. It could have self-regulated by kicking all the professionals off the platform. Airbnb has the data and knows who they are.

Instead, it is cynically using you, the "regular people," as human shields to hide behind, and to deflect criticism, so that the public and the media won't recognize what it has become.

When I became an Airbnb host
I became an Airbnb host in San Francisco about nine months ago. Last January I watched Katie Couric interview Airbnb's 34-year-old billionaire CEO, Brian Chesky, and that's when I first realized that something didn't add up.

Couric asked Chesky if his company inspects its hosts' homes for safety and fire hazards. Chesky replied, "We want to be a gold standard," saying that he has 100 employees devoted exclusively to safety and that "hosts verify their IDs by connecting to their social networks and scanning their official ID or confirming personal details."

So to test Airbnb's system, I signed up as a host. I took a few photos of my house, inside and out and uploaded them to the Airbnb website, and within 15 minutes my place was "live" as an Airbnb rental. No background check, no verifying my ID, no confirming my personal details, no questions asked. Not even any contact with a real human from their trust and safety team. Nothing.

I could have used photos of my neighbor's house, or even photos saved from the website of Better Homes and Gardens. Within an hour, I had my first inquiry from a guest. Within a couple of months, I had over a dozen reservation requests that would have netted me at least $4,000 in short-term rental income. This had the makings of a seriously lucrative enterprise.

Indeed, an accidentally leaked memo from huge real-estate developer Coldwell Banker Commercial estimated that a landlord could more than double net annual income by renting to Airbnb tourists than to local residents.

I was impressed and appalled at how easy Airbnb's website made it.

When Couric asked Chesky about fire safety, he replied that Airbnb, a company valued at $25 billion, doesn't do fire and safety inspections. Instead Airbnb offers free smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors to its hosts. When Couric pushed a bit further, Chesky talked about their "self-administered" system.

"We want to make sure that the codes and regulations are modernized," he said. "A lot of the laws are 20th-century laws, or sometimes even 19th-century laws, in the 21st century."

I decided to take Chesky up on his "gold standard" offer of receiving a free and "self-administered" smoke and carbon-monoxide detector for my Airbnb home. I requested one via the Airbnb website, and my query received the briefest of e-mail responses, directing me to a particular Airbnb webpage. But on that page, instead of offering me a free detector, it offered me a free "Emergency Safety Card," saying I could use it to "list emergency numbers, exit routes, and other resources" for my guests.

Apparently, the offer for a free smoke detector had expired faster than a Groupon coupon. But the Airbnb representative didn't mention that, nor did Chesky in his interview with Couric.

Besides checking the background of its hosts, or monitoring if they are professionals with multiple properties, Airbnb also has no quality control over the types of guests. Neighbors suddenly find themselves living next door to a "hotel" where complete strangers are traipsing in and out, keeping tourist hours, in close proximity to children, seniors, and other vulnerable populations. That's true of regular hotels as well, but usually they exist in areas that have been zoned for such activity.
All of this revealed to me a "credibility gap" between the company's public face and reality.

But the biggest gap of all is in how Airbnb portrays its "regular people" hosts. A 2014 investigation by Eric Schneiderman, New York state's attorney general, found that nearly 40% of Airbnb's revenue in New York City, some $168 million, came from hosts who had at least three listings on the site. Data analyst Tom Slee plucked info from the Airbnb site in September and found that of the 30,268 listings in New York City, 44% of guest visits are to hosts with multiple properties.

These are not "regular New Yorkers" renting a spare room -- not too many can afford to have control over multiple properties. They are professional operators who took on multiple leases in desirable locations.

One of those operators, Robert "Toshi" Chan, was revealed to be the Airbnb "host" of more than 200 apartments in dozens of different buildings, known collectively as Hotel Toshi. Eventually, Toshi's illegal operation was shut down, and he agreed to pay a $1 million settlement for not obtaining proper hotel permits or insurance.

Under political pressure, last year Airbnb kicked off some of the worst violators, but recent data indicates little has changed. Its service is eating up affordable housing for local residents.

In San Francisco, various studies have found that a third of Airbnb rentals are controlled by people with two or more listings, and 40% of revenue comes from Airbnb hosts with multiple listings.

In Los Angeles, another study revealed that while a majority of hosts were "regular people," those rentals generated just 11% of the company's revenue. The other 89% was generated by professional landlords and agencies, many of whom were renting out dozens of homes for absentee home owners.

The tragedy of Airbnb: it could be a good idea
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in all this is that at the core of Airbnb is a really good idea. It has cleverly used Web- and app-based technology to bust open a global market that connects tourists with financially strapped homeowners. After interviewing some of Airbnb's "regular-people" hosts, I'm convinced that this service legitimately does help them make ends meet.

But by taking such a hands-off, laissez-faire attitude toward the professionalization of hosting by greedy commercial landlords and multiproperty agents, Airbnb has become its own worst enemy. As the number of victims piles up, it undermines its own "sharing and trust" ethos.

Airbnb could showing some good corporate leadership, and meet cities halfway by:

* With one stroke of the computer mouse, Airbnb could "evict the evictors" -- de-list from its website any professional landlords or property managers operating multiple properties as tourist hotels. It has the data and knows who they are.

*Cooperate with cities like San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Portland, which require hosts to register with local agencies, by de-listing any unregistered hosts.

* Stop refusing to supply the data that cities need to enforce regulations and taxation, including the number of rental nights and rates charged by each host.

* Pay the same hotel occupancy taxes that hotels pay in all 34,000 cities in which Airbnb operates, or collect taxes from the hosts and turn them over to the cities. Airbnb's latest company line is that it wants to pay its taxes, but the laws are so complex from city to city and country to country that its lawyers haven't had time to figure it out. But that's ridiculous, no other corporation (except Uber!) gets to set up operations all over the world first, and only secondarily start paying taxes or following local laws "after we've had time to figure it out." You figure those things out first, THEN you start operating. Airbnb now crows that it has begun paying hotel taxes in about a dozen cities -- but only after significant political pressure was exerted, it has done nothing voluntarily. And at the rate it is "figuring it out," it will take Airbnb 50 years to pay taxes in all 34,000 cities. No other company -- not Google, Apple, Microsoft, Ford, Dupont, all of which have global operations -- have asserted a corporate right to "operate first, follow local laws and pay taxes second."

Airbnb could have enacted those measures on its own. Instead, it is spending more than $8 million to defeat Proposition F, which proposes reasonable regulations. If Airbnb already had done the right thing, Proposition F would have been unnecessary.

Whatever its remarkable origin as a rags-to-riches story that began in Brian Chesky's living room, Airbnb is no longer simply a platform of "regular people" hosts. Instead, it has morphed into a giant loophole for professional real-estate operatives, allowing them to evade long-standing city laws that previously had protected the local housing stock by banning short-term rentals to tourists. The fast-growing company and its politically connected investors have shown no interest in killing their golden goose. So goes the "sharing" economy.

Steven Hill ( is a Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation and the author of the book, Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers. You can follow him on Twitter: @StevenHill1776.

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Douthat and the Desire for an Unchanging Church

Mon, 2015-11-02 15:34
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's critique of the direction of Catholicism under Pope Francis has recently come under attack from some prominent American Catholic theologians. However, my concern is not on the theological credentials of Douthat or whether he should use the pages of the New York Times as a pulpit to pontificate on the hermeneutics of the leadership of Pope Francis. My goal in this essay is to engage the substance and presuppositions of his claims about Catholicism. Theologians who disagree with Douthat should enter into a healthy and robust dialogue with him and show why and how the claims of his argument lack merits. Every Christian is capable of doing theology when they reflect on their faith. I appreciate the sentiments of the theologians who signed the petition against Douthat but I do not share in some of their convictions. Douthat like every other Catholic and free American has a right to reflect on what he understands about faith, Catholic identity, doctrines and the directions of his church. In doing this, he has the right to call forth those values and virtues in American Public Square and political discourse to shed light on faith's connections and consequences for the common good of the United States. I do not agree with many of Douthat's conclusions, but I admire his desire to publicly and strongly uphold and defend his Catholic convictions through the storied pages of the New York Times.

What is problematic in Douthat's writings so far on Pope Francis is that it lacks a sense of history. Without a broader understanding of the history of the development of Catholic beliefs and practices, Douthat confuses disciplinary regulations with belief; and the cultural forms of sacramental celebrations with their essence. To give one example, his argument that changing the disciplinary regulations about reception of communion which allows divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion will empty the indissolubility of the sacrament of matrimony is a non-sequitor. Annulment process is a regulatory protocol introduced to address the status of those whose marriages have failed. It is not an article of faith and can be changed anytime to make it a more effective process for healing and restoration of broken lives. Changing the annulment process does not change the essence of marriage, Holy communion or the sacrament of reconciliation. Thus to charge Pope Francis of clearly inclining toward 'the liberalizing view' and of consistently maneuvering the process to advance this change is not only an ad hominem argument but lacks any factual support. If one Pope introduced annulment as a response to the challenges facing Catholics in his times, why shouldn't another pope seek for new approaches to better serve the needs of Catholics in order to realize the intention of the Lord Jesus in instituting these sacraments?

Furthermore, to argue as Douthat does that the inseparable link between Holy Communion and the sacrament of reconciliation is being torn by those who propose allowing communion for divorced and remarried Catholics shows Douthat's limited understanding of the history of the sacrament and the Holy Eucharist. The sacrament of Reconciliation is not more efficacious than the Holy Eucharist in taking away sin. The penitential rite at the beginning of Mass is not meant to be a mere window dressing. Traditionally, the church has taught that this little confession does take away venial sin, but in the words of absolution said at Mass the priest asks God to 'forgive us our sins' not 'some of it', but all of it. While traditional Catholicism upholds the importance of sacramental confession for all who are conscious of any sin in their lives, and discourages 'unworthy reception' of communion, it leaves the ultimate judgment on individual conscience. The quest by Douthat for a rigorist and pure church is at the heart of his unease with Pope Francis. Also he confuses the contingent means for realizing the ends of the sacrament with the essence of the sacrament, and fails to appreciate the historical development of the sacramental practices and the limitations of these practices in mediating fully what God wishes to offer to the Church. This is a major weakness in his essays.

Finally, without an appreciation of the history of the synodal and conciliar traditions of the Church, Douthat and Catholics like him are unfortunately obsessed with a siege mentality about the future of the Church. He sees dialogue and disagreement at the Synod as a sign of confusion rather than a summons for discernment about the movement of the spirit in history. He interprets Pope Francis' openness to listening to what the Spirit says to the Church rather than impose his will on bishops and cardinals as was the case in recent papacies as a veiled stratagem for changing the church in his own image and likeness. At the heart of Douthat's unease about the papacy of Francis is his desire for an unchanging church, and his innocent romantic ideals of a transcendental ecclesiology of an ahistorical Catholicism. But Catholicism from her origin has always been a changing and reforming church. Thus the cultural bereavement of Catholics like Douthat or their public disagreement and excoriation of the pope are hewed from a certain ideological reading of a presumed synchronist and pure Catholicism, untouched by historical forces. Such Catholicism exists only in the innocent pietistic world of Douthat. So what is at stake here is not simply of a doctrinal and dogmatic fortress which may wither in Catholicism, but rather of the renewing fire of the Spirit which will be smothered if the Church does not open herself to the gift of prophecy from the Spirit whose wind blows wherever and whenever she pleases.

Pope Benedict XVI then as Cardinal Ratzinger once said in an interview that "Catholicism is fed by the whole of the history of belief, but in its characteristic form it developed in the Western Church. In that sense, much of what we today call a Catholic way of thinking is not beyond the limitations of time, nor is it unchangeable." My contention in this essay is that Catholicism is a great river with many cultural and historical tributaries all contributing in enriching this sea of love watering the city of God on earth. If this is true of Catholicism, then one should become increasingly conscious of the limitations of forms of thinking and acting within the church which could narrow the full expression of Catholicism as a world church. Every act of believing is conditioned by the historical and social context of the believer and every analysis of faith is influence in most cases by the locus of enunciation of the writer or theologian. To elevate one's thinking to a metaphysics or to apotheosize one's culturally conditioned understanding of Catholic orthodoxy as some abstracted totally packaged revelatory gift from God above is problematic and misleading. It is so easy to sustain such debates in the comfort of Times Square rather than from the dumps of history like Pope Francis. However, when you are dealing with other counter narratives of faith and of divinity, of history and the last things like some of us theologians from Africa and Asia in the encounter with Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and African Traditional Religions; when you are dealing with a congregation relying only on prayer for answers to sickness, witchcraft and failed governments; when belief for you is a matter of life or death in the face of religious persecution the limitations of Western debates in a post-Western Christianity immediately becomes clear. The versions of Western ways of thinking about the God of Jesus Christ embraced by Douthat and the Western canons of inclusion and exclusion through religious narratives of sin and righteousness embedded in Western Christianity is coming to the end of the road. It is no longer offering valid answers to new questions here in the West nor is it satisfying the new contexts of faith outside the West. Pope Francis knows this because the Cardinals chose him from a non-Western end of the earth to challenge, reform and transform Catholicism from this form of thinking and acting so that Catholics can encounter a God of love and mercy and not simply a metaphysical and idealistic God. Pope Francis is making it possible for God to surprise us by opening our eyes to new things and asking us to step into a new future by not putting new wine into an old wine skin.

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NRA Repeats Same Old Misleading, Racist Tropes in New Anti-Clinton Video

Mon, 2015-11-02 14:52

Now that the 2nd Amendment has become an issue in the looming 2016 presidential campaign, it was just a matter of time until the NRA got its own campaign playbook together and started adding its voice to the political fray. So it was hardly a surprise when the NRA released its first political message right out of the mouth of Wayne LaPierre, who claimed he was responding to Obama's appearance at a police chief's meeting in Chicago where the president dutifully repeated his call for 'common-sense' laws to help end the everyday carnage from guns.

The NRA's campaign message turns out to be a riff on the "we don't need no stinkin' new gun laws" mantra that was first promoted by Donald Trump. And once Trump said it, all the other Republican presidential pretenders fell into line with what has become official policy for the NRA. And why don't we need any more gun laws to stop what Wayne-o calls the "bloodshed?" Because all we have to do is "enforce the federal gun laws" and "direct every federal jurisdiction to round up every felon, drug dealer and gangbanger with a gun" and the problem will be solved right then and there.

But Obama won't do it, and if she's elected Hillary won't do it because they "wait for a crime that fits their agenda and blames the NRA." Which is another way of saying that instead of locking up all those bad guys with guns, the Democrats just want to pass new gun-control laws. "President Clinton and President Obama use the carnage to campaign for new gun laws" says Wayne-o, and the result of not enforcing current laws is that "thugs" like Darius Brown (picture of Brown with voice-over from Wayne-o) don't go to jail and instead end up shooting a nine-year old girl.

So here we have the NRA game plan as we inch towards election 2016. Blame it all on the Democrats who don't enforce crime laws, tie them to "thugs" who are always young men of color, and make sure to remind everyone that urban "bloodshed" has nothing to do with guns. Doesn't it remind you just a bit of the Willie Horton campaign ads that secured the White House for the first iteration of George Bush? But if the Horton campaign was short on facts and long on emotional, racist-tinged images, it can't be compared to the misrepresentations and racist-laden messaging this time around.

Let's start with the charge that Clinton and Obama won't enforce laws and are "soft" on crime. In 1993, the national violent crime rate was 746. Eight years later, at the end of the Clinton administration, the rate had fallen to 506, a decline of 33 percent. Eight years after that, at the end of Bush II, the rate stood at 457, a further decline of 10 percent. In 2014, seven years into Obama, it's at 357, a drop from the end of Bush's tenure of 22 percent. Since 1993 the violent crime rate has declined by 52 percent, of which 90 percent disappeared during the administrations of two, crime-loving Dems.

In the rush to get Wayne-o's comments up there right after the president addressed the police chiefs, the folks who produce those insipid NRA videos might want to take another look. Because the picture of "Darius Brown" is actually a picture of Jamal Streeter, one of three young men charged in the murder of a 13-year-old teenager named Darius Brown. Oh well, if every young man of color is either a gangbanger or a thug, how hard is it to get them all mixed up?

It's not hard at all if you've decided that, everything else failing, you'll fall back on the time-honored issues of race and crime in order to galvanize your political base and garner some votes. I happen to believe that most Americans, gun owners or not, will see right through this stupid charade even if Wayne-o and the NRA haven't yet figured it out.

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Fall-Flavored Beer Cocktails That'll Turn Up Thanksgiving

Mon, 2015-11-02 14:14

We're smack dab in the middle of fall, which means two things. 1. The hurricane of holiday parties is swirling right around the corner and 2. Your local beer aisle has reached peak levels of seasonal beer mayhem.

So how about getting creative with all those bottles of pumpkin- and apple-spiced everything? 

Since mixing beer (especially flavored ones) with liquor can be a bit tricky, we turned to the experts at Brew'd, a pub in Honolulu that specializes in craft beer cocktails, for a little guidance.

"It's all about enhancing the flavor of the beer by using different ingredients," Adam Golash, the pub's beverage director, told The Huffington Post.

When coming up with your own concoction, Golash suggests thinking of the beer's flavor as a food item, instead of a beverage.

If you have a pumpkin flavor, for example, think about what you'd add to a pumpkin pie. For most seasonal beers, such as apple ales, Golash suggests using a bourbon because "you get little hints of vanilla." Spice flavors, like cinnamon or spiced rum, work well, too. 

As far as the pouring ratio goes, Golash sticks (roughly) to half and half: half beer, half everything else.

Below, seven tasty beer cocktails that will turn up any seasonal soirée. Make sure you check out the Apple Pumpkin Bourbon and the Double Rumpkin, which were made specially for HuffPost by Brew'd.

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What You Should Know About the New Illinois Public Schools Data

Mon, 2015-11-02 11:57
Another round of new public school data has been released as part of the annual Illinois Report Card, including student and teacher demographics, ACT scores and financial information.

While the objective of the statewide education report card is to provide parents, teachers, administrators and the public with more insights on how Illinois' schoolchildren are performing academically, some key data has yet to be published -- namely the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) scores from last spring -- and those results won't be released until at least late November.

Illinois is one of 11 states now administering the PARCC exam, which is based on more rigorous Common Core standards. The exam replaced both the ISAT and PSAE tests and may be used to phase out the ACT test as a determinant of college readiness, writes the Daily Herald's Susan Sarkauskas.

The new report card data show a dismal 46 percent of high school graduates were "ready for college," meaning more than half failed to score at least a 21 on the ACT. Statewide, the average score was 20.5.

Here's how students scored on the ACT by subject, with benchmark scores in parentheses:

  • English (18): 61 percent

  • Mathematics (22): 40 percent

  • Reading (22): 39 percent

  • Science (23): 35 percent

  • All subjects: 25 percent

Even more troubling, reports the Chicago Tribune:

  • Only 24.9 percent of 2015 public school graduates statewide scored high enough on all four ACT subjects to be considered college-ready. That percentage was up from 24.2 the year before.

  • Just 26 high schools in the state had 50 percent or more of their graduates reach those four college-ready scores, the Tribune found. And those schools are the perennial high performers, including high-ranking, selective-enrollment schools in Chicago and several affluent districts in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties.

  • Meanwhile, high-poverty schools in Chicago and downstate posted the lowest ACT scores in the state and some had less than 5 percent of students considered ready for college classes.

Here's what else you should know from the 2015 Illinois Report Card.

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Paintball Gun-Wielding Robbery Suspect Shot, Killed

Mon, 2015-11-02 11:46

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A Chicago grocery store customer holding a concealed carry license shot and killed a suspected robber on Saturday night.

The suspect, Reginald Gildersleeve, 55, allegedly entered Agencia Mexicana at around 7 p.m. wearing a mask and pulled out what appeared to be a gun, The Chicago Tribune reported.

He was actually holding a paintball gun, Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told The Huffington Post. 

Gildersleeve allegedly declared that he was robbing the store, then pointed the paintball gun at an employee and forced her towards the back of the business, according to the Associated Press. A customer, who was legally carrying a concealed gun, then shot Gildersleeve multiple times, fatally wounding him. 

His stepson, Igbinosa Oronsaye, said Gildersleeve didn’t deserve to be killed.

“Now my heart feels like ice,” he told the Tribune. “I loved that man so dearly."

No one else was injured in the incident. 

Spokesman Guglielmi told HuffPost that the customer who shot Gildersleeve will not face charges, since officials consider the shooting to have been self-defense.

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With Automatic Voter Registration, Illinois Poised to Reduce Recidivism

Mon, 2015-11-02 09:34
If the Illinois General Assembly passes Senate Bill 2134 - automatic voter registration - it may not increase voter participation as much as anticipated but it could be one of the most effective anti-crime laws in the state.

Just like the Oregon statute that became the first of its kind in the country this March, the bill would implement automatic voter registration for any Illinois resident who gets a driver's license or a state identification card.

One of the criticisms offered for the Oregon law was that too many indigent and minority people lacked any interface with the Department of Motor Vehicles because they can't afford the fee for the license/identification. These people wouldn't be automatically registered in Oregon under the new law.

But Illinois might not have that problem if Senate Bill 2134 passes.

Illinois is unique in that it is one of two states with a program that allows people released from prison to exchange a prison ID/discharge papers for a state identification card for free. If the automatic voter registration bill passes, then an Illinois prisoner could leave confinement and be registered to vote - and have identification to apply for jobs - the very same day, even if he has no money. This is important because many released offenders in Illinois don't know that they are eligible to register to vote.

Research from the Florida Parole Commission indicates that recidivism rates for those released offenders who had their right to vote restored was only 11%, as compared with 33% for an entire cohort of convicted felons. That's a 67% decrease in reoffending when felons' voting rights are restored. In a state where recidivism is 51.7%, a reduction is clearly needed.

Re-registering to vote was the easiest part of my re-entry back into society after more than six years in prison. I was released on March 18, 2014, applied online in April and had my voting rights restored through the mail by May 5, 2014.

Even though it was my right and I was legally entitled to vote, just the fact that civic participation was one area of my life where I wouldn't face discrimination gave me a bit more confidence in re-entering society. Re-registering to vote made me feel legit, like I wasn't so bad.

When I voted in the Congressional midterm election in November, I learned that few ex-offenders turn out on the first Tuesday of November with me.

Only one study, published ten years ago, attempted to predict whether restored felons actually vote. Jeff Manza and Marcus Britton, both at Northwestern University at the time, and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota found that about 30 percent of felons would vote when given the chance.

If the restoring the right to vote is so meaningful that it can draw a released offender away from re-offending, then the fact that less than a third of those people use that right shouldn't make sense, at least not to people who have never been incarcerated.

To me, it makes sense. The reason why the Florida study suggests that the mere registration to vote, not actual voting, helped released prisoners to keep away from crime is the value of symbolism in a marginalized person's experience.

Whether the restoration comes hard-fought or not, reinstatement of voting rights represents formalized redemption and a re-acceptance in society, a rare feeling when you're wearing the Scarlet "F" as you exit prison. And if that feeling of redemption is delivered to someone early enough, it can affect how a released offender approaches the challenges that remain ahead of him.

Social workers and parole and probation officers have become so preoccupied with the practical elements of an ex-felon's life - jobs, housing, medical and mental health treatment - that they concentrate more on what these things do rather than what they represent to someone like me. In Illinois, an ex-offender can trade a badge of an old life (prison ID) for an icon of a new life (the state identification card). If Senate Bill 2134 passes and his right to vote is restored at the same time, it's a sign that he's back and he, too, isn't so bad.

Recidivism rates in the eleven states that permanently bar convicted felons from voting aren't good. In 2010, Florida had the highest recidivism rate in the country and the largest population of disenfranchised citizens. I take that as a sign.

Automatic voter registration in Illinois has the potential to keep returning citizens from going back to prison and that alone makes it worth passing, even if it's just a start in maximizing voter participation.

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Wisconsin Students Trumped The Rest With Their Pumpkin Decorating

Fri, 2015-10-30 16:15

Some students at Lance Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin decided to get hilariously topical during a pumpkin decorating contest this week. 

As with the ongoing national primaries, this school contest was undecided at the time of publishing. Regardless of that outcome though, you won the Internet today, kids.


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Five Scary Coal Industry Tricks This Halloween

Fri, 2015-10-30 14:40
Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, and as the mom of a five-year-old, it just keeps getting better. This year, the whole family is dressing up like rock stars, and I'm looking forward to a great night of fright here in our small West Virginia town.

But this Halloween, the coal industry is up to some genuinely scary tricks. With the release of the Clean Power Plan and the approach of international climate talks in Paris, the coal industry is doubling down on its attempts to stop the transition to clean energy in its tracks. As director of the Beyond Coal Campaign, I'm working with thousands of people to banish these ghouls and goblins, so that my daughter grows up in a world that isn't haunted by the specter of air pollution, water pollution, and climate chaos.

Here are five scary tricks from the coal industry to watch for this Halloween:

1. Trying to bewitch our progress on climate

In recent weeks, the coal industry has ramped up its full-out attack on the Clean Power Plan, which is the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) roadmap to reduce climate-disrupting carbon pollution from the power sector. In Congress and in the courts, the coal industry and its political allies have introduced measures intended to block the Clean Power Plan.

They won't succeed though - a recent report found the U.S. is leading all industrialized nations of the world in the shift away from coal, and even here in West Virginia, power company executives are recognizing that coal isn't coming back. But the fight for the Clean Power Plan will be intense over the coming months, and we'll need help from everyone to get it safely over the finish line. You can attend a public hearing to support the Clean Power Plan this November in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Denver, or Washington, D.C. - sign up here!

2. Propping up zombie coal plants
From Ohio to New York and beyond, coal plant operators are seeking sweetheart deals to prop up zombie coal plants that can no longer compete on the open market. Fortunately, the Sierra Club and our allies are fighting back against these schemes, to ensure electricity customers aren't saddled with the bill for keeping these outdated coal plants on life support.

3. Releasing a witch's brew of toxic water pollution
Believe it or not, coal plants create the majority of toxic water pollution in this country - a witch's brew of nasty stuff like mercury and arsenic. Until recently there were no national standards for safely disposing of this waste.

Thankfully, that changed in September when the EPA released long-overdue safeguards for coal plant water toxics. The standards will eventually turn off the spigot of this pollution into our nation's streams, rivers, and lakes - a big victory for clean water and our families.

4. Ghostly haze in our national parks
Air pollution from Utah coal plants is threatening some of our nation's most treasured national parks. In recent days, over 100 outdoor retailers and 30,000 people have submitted comments to EPA calling on them to address this problem once and for all. Pro skier Angel Collinson wrote this great piece for Outside Magazine on what's at stake. Now we need EPA to do the right thing on #cleanair4utah. You can join in and send EPA a message here.

5. Monstrous attacks on clean air
At the state and federal level, big polluters have been working overtime to weaken or roll back common-sense clean air protections.

This month, for example, the EPA modestly strengthened safeguards against smog pollution, falling well short of what medical scientists said was needed to protect the health of our kids. Even after lobbying for such a weak update to the safeguards, polluters and their allies are still railing against the decision and recently decided to sued the agency in their effort to be able to pollute our air with impunity.

In Maryland, clean air advocates are fighting to have clean air safeguards reinstated that were yanked by Governor Hogan after he took office earlier this year. And in cities like Detroit and Baltimore, residents are still living every day in the shadow of highly dangerous coal plants that lack basic pollution controls, like scrubbers. It's a shame that in 2015 so many Americans still have to fight for their right to breathe, but it's a fact - and one more reason why we need your help.

These are scary tricks indeed, but don't be afraid. The Beyond Coal campaign is working hard to ensure all Americans enjoy the treats of clean air, clean water, and a safe climate. OK, I may be taking the Halloween theme a little too far here - these aren't treats, they're basic rights. And thanks to everyone out there working to move this country Beyond Coal, on this Halloween and every day of the year, the future looks brighter - and a lot less scary - for our kids.

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The Top 10 Most Haunted Places in Northern Illinois

Fri, 2015-10-30 11:32
With the City of Chicago at its eastern edge, Rockford in the middle, and the Quad Cities in the west, northern Illinois is the most populated and developed area of the state. Darkened corridors of abandoned factories, old farmhouses, and foreboding roads offer a stark contrast to this image of progress, however, and there is a lot more to this region than the bright lights of the city. As we at Mysterious Heartland can attest, northern Illinois is also rife with ghost stories and haunted places. Which will prove to be the scariest of them all?

10. Cigars & Stripes


Cigars & Stripes has been a long-time haunt for Berwyn beer and cigar aficionados, but its owner and his customers believe it may also be a haunt of a different kind. According to an article in the Berwyn/Cicero Gazette (available on the Cigars & Stripes website), several customers have seen a "shadowy figure" without arms or legs floating down the hallway toward the door leading to the beer garden. Ronn Vrhel, owner of Cigars & Stripes, has heard phantom footsteps on the basement stairs as well. Ronn's wife has also heard shouts and sounds of a party in the basement when no one was present. The ghost of Rose, a former owner of the establishment, is believed to linger in one spot at the bar and play "match maker." She is even credited for bringing together at least one pair of newlyweds. Typical poltergeist activity, such as glasses tipping over and lights turning on and off, has been experienced as well. The paranormal research team Supernatural Occurrence Studies recently investigated the location and walked away convinced that the reported hauntings were real.

9. Colonial Palmer House

Crystal Lake

Built in 1858 by Colonel Gustavus Palmer and his wife Henrietta, two generations of Palmers lived in this stately home. Mr. and Mrs. Palmer died within a few days of each other in 1884, and their son lived there another two decades before following them to the grave. The home was rented for the next few decades, until it was purchased by the city and became home to the Crystal Lake Historical Society. Oddly, the ghost stories associated with this home do not involve the Palmer family. According to legend, the house once served as an orphanage. The supervisor there was very cruel and abused the children. He punished them by locking them in the basement, where some allegedly died. To this day, it is said, the sound of children crying can be heard coming from the basement. The sound of children stomping on the floor or scratching on doors has also been heard. Some visitors have seen sad, cherubic faces peering through the basement windows.

8. Fox Run Subdivision


Shortly after construction was completed on the Fox Run Subdivision, some residents began to report eerie encounters. Most of these encounters centered on the tiny cemetery at the southwest end of the subdivision, but some -- notably ethereal singing, knocking, and a physically aggressive phantom wearing an old-fashioned suit -- were experienced by at least one resident in her home. The Fox Run Subdivision had been built over the former site of the Illinois State Training School for Girls, which operated between 1893 and 1978. The purpose of the "school" was to rehabilitate juvenile girls who had been convicted of a crime in the Illinois court system.

Inevitably, deaths from illness and suicide occurred at the facility over the course of its 85 years in operation. Girls without families, or who had been disowned, were buried in a cemetery on the property. Several infants were buried there as well, and today the cemetery contains 51 graves. Since the 1940s, visitors have reported seeing red eyes in the woods around the cemetery, as well as the specter of a woman in a white gown or flowing dress in the cemetery itself. Others have heard a crying infant. The developers of Fox Run agreed to maintain the cemetery in perpetuity, so it will always remain as a reminder of what was once there.

Find out where the rest of northern Illinois' most haunted places are at Reboot Illinois.

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Actor Michael Shannon on Chicago Theater

Fri, 2015-10-30 11:27
Ever wonder what your life might have been like if you dropped out of high school? Well, for actor Michael Shannon, it put him on the path to being nominated for an Academy Award by the age of 34.

Shannon was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Revolutionary Road in 2008. He played Nelson Van Alden in the HBO period drama series Boardwalk Empire from 2010-2014. His performance in the 2011 film Take Shelter led to further praise, gaining him the Saturn Award for Best Actor. He also played a riveting Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman (2012), and General Zod in Man of Steel.

Michael Shannon is a co-founding member of Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre and continues to play there as he will this Fall in the play Pilgrim's Process, opposite Kirsten Fitzgerald. In addition, he will appear in four movies this Fall: 99 Homes and Freeheld-both of which are out in theaters now- and The Night Before, a holiday comedy with Seth Rogen out this November. The film Elivs and Nixon with Kevin Spacey should be out before January. A fifth movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Michael again plays General Zod, will be out in 2016.

Below, over cumin salmon and some bourbon, Shannon talks about the early days of Chicago theater, the Red Orchid Theatre Gala November 14 and working with Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Enjoy this latest episode of The Dinner Party with Elysabeth Alfano podcast on

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How Chicago and Illinois Are Trying To Keep Up With Explosive Growth In Ride-Sharing, Fantasy Sports

Fri, 2015-10-30 10:40
This week Illinois saw some examples of technology moving faster than government's ability to define and regulate it.

In Chicago, the city budget added fees to ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft amid protests from traditional cab drivers, who say ride-share drivers are unfairly being allowed to put them out of business.

Also, two state lawmakers introduced a bill to define and regulate daily fantasy sports operations like DraftKings and FanDuel. If not for smartphones, neither of these industries would exist.

"The focus on the legislation is not to tax fantasy sports. It's such a new technology that we don't really know how to do it. Frankly I think it's a loser politically to tell people we're going to tax your fantasy sports. Everybody likes it, it's popular," said Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, said in a press conference announcing the fantasy sports bill. "So my goal is to get the law on the books, make it a fair law, make it a comprehensive law and make sure that we protect players while making sure that people get to enjoy the games."

We discuss how Chicago and Illinois state government are trying to keep up with popular technology on this week's "Only in Illinois."

Here's the full video.

NEXT ARTICLE: Adding up Chicago's fuzzy math is a challenge and not just at city hall

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Disturbing Schools

Thu, 2015-10-29 19:22
So South Carolina has a special crime category called "disturbing schools," which seems to be creating just that: disturbing schools. Very disturbing schools.

Not that I need to single out South Carolina. In my brief stint teaching writing as an outside consultant in several Chicago high schools, some 20 years ago, I was smacked broadside with the observation that the city's educational system exhibited the behavior of an occupying army, at least in its low-income neighborhoods. Education was something imposed from above and force-fed to the students like bad-tasting medicine. It didn't honor the students' own culture.

What the kids needed was a generosity of understanding that the education system had no interest in giving them, preferring to help them along on their journey to adulthood with zero tolerance and metal detectors.

What has happened to our national intelligence, not to mention our national values? In the era of cellphone accountability, our lack thereof has a new poster boy: Officer Slam. Throw the insolent kid across the floor, break her arm if necessary, slap her in cuffs.

This is how we teach respect. This is how we teach math.

"I was screaming 'What the f, what the f, is this really happening?'" These are the words of Niya Kenny, the brave young woman who stood up to Officer Ben Fields as he manhandled her classmate this past Monday at Spring Valley High School, in Columbia, S.C. "I was praying out loud for the girl. I just couldn't believe this was happening."

The girl's infraction: staying glued to her cellphone and refusing to surrender it to the teacher.

Yeah, I know, that's insolent. But it's not a justification for "whatever it takes, just get the kid out of here." In an educational system where compassionate sanity holds sway, schools have counselors. In some schools (including a growing number in Chicago), innovative programs like restorative justice change the whole teenager-adult dynamic. They hold peace circles. All parties in a misunderstanding have a chance to talk -- and listen -- to one another as equals. Misunderstandings get resolved, not prosecuted.

Granted, such programs are complex and bring change over time. To the bureaucratic mind, discipline may seem better achieved by having "resource officers" -- policemen -- on permanent duty at the school. Arresting a kid is quick and to the point and presumably teaches everyone a lesson. Someone else can worry about the long-term consequences.

Except, zero tolerance and the like have been going on since the '80s. The long-term consequences are now. It's called the school-to-prison pipeline. It's called 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons in 2015, compared to less than 200,000 in 1968. And two more African-American teenage girls were welcomed into the American justice system on Monday: the girl with the cellphone and the girl who stood up in her defense. They were charged with "disturbing schools."

But the school had reacted to their behavior with the emotional intelligence of a 4-year-old: pushing, fighting, walloping a smaller kid into submission. What educational message is contained in this official behavior? Kids are either good or bad and there's nothing in between. Considering the possibility that some of the students at Spring Valley High might have troubled home lives and ache for guidance and support, how can Officer Slam be the guy that's called when there's an insolence issue in a classroom?

Maybe the school bureaucrats should try to learn something from Niya Kenny.

"I know this girl don't got nobody and I couldn't believe this was happening," Kenny said, voicing compassion for her classmate. "I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl. A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like 'no way, no way.' You can't do nothing like that to a little girl."

She added: "I was just crying and he said, 'Since you have so much to say you are coming too.' I just put my hands behind my back."

And she's rewarded for her courage and compassion by being slapped in handcuffs. God bless America.

Yes, Officer Fields was fired two days later. His cellphone-video performance absolutely could not be justified. His boss, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, told reporters that when he watched the video he "wanted to throw up." This is, indeed, a new era of police accountability that we have entered, with de facto citizen review boards composed of millions of people watching police behavior on YouTube. Thumbs down on this one. We have our scapegoat. Now let's get back to that math lesson, shall we?

What disturbs me the most about this event is that it's obviously not just another "isolated incident." The officer, known as Officer Slam to many of the students, had been throwing kids around for quite a while at the school and was facing a number of lawsuits accusing him of racial profiling. But he was just doing his job! His MO, and his racism, were tolerated until the video went viral. He worked in a context that dispensed education in an atmosphere of zero tolerance, and this context is what needs desperately to be addressed.

Ironically, law enforcement officials and politicians across the country, including, just the other day, FBI Director James B. Comey, have complained that what they call the "Ferguson Effect" -- the videotaping of police officers doing their jobs -- has been causing officers across the country to respond to problem situations with less aggression than they used to, and as a result, crime has been spiking.

This is not an evidence-based assertion, but my primary problem with it is its implicit assumption that the USA -- oh exceptional nation! -- is a Hobbesian hellhole. As Thomas Hobbes opined three and a half centuries ago: "The condition of man is a condition of war of everyone against everyone." Evil and violence are lurking everywhere, prevented from leaping out at us only by armed counter-aggression on the part of police or the military (who are blessed and good, so please don't trouble them with accountability).

Changing and strengthening people's relationships with one another doesn't enter into this way of thinking, but it's the only real foundation on which to create peace.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at


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