a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Marijuana reform in Maryland — time to pitch in

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th December 2013

Substance abuse policy is hard; on the one hand, no one wants more harm from the overuse of alcohol or drugs.  Those harms vary in intensity from one substance to the next, but include both harms to users from addiction, risky behaviors like needle sharing, or direct physical effects on the body and brain, and harms to others from unsafe behavior or criminality to support the costs of substance abuse.

On the other hand, neither should anyone want drug policies that are unnecessary, ineffective, and/or unfair. While some drugs may warrant continued prohibition as too addictive and/or too harmful, there’s always the question: on exactly what basis does society arrogate to itself the right to tell individuals what they can or can not consume?

It’s instructive, I think, that U.S. constitutional history very much points to a “hands-off when possible” approach: the 18th Amendment experiment of alcohol prohibition, ratified in 1920, was followed, very quickly indeed, with its repeal by the 21st Amendment in 1935.  The American people considered the issue, and decided that alcohol — still by far the most widely abused substance of abuse reported by treatment admissions — is nevertheless not a substance that inevitably or usually brings about overconsumption, addiction, or long-term impairment, and that its prohibition caused problems worse than its legal availability ever had.  Instead, we regulate alcohol consumption and sales by taxation, by restrictions on when and where it can be sold, by seeing to it as best we can that minors can’t obtain it, and by cracking down on unsafe behaviors like driving under the influence.

It’s time we did the same with marijuana.

Racial disparities in marijuna possession arrests

Black/White marijuana possession arrest rate ratios, by Maryland
county, 2010. Source: “The Maryland War on Marijuana in Black and
,” ACLU Maryland. (2013).  Click image to enlarge.

Source: “The Maryland War on Marijuana in Black and White,”
ACLU Maryland. (2013).  Click image to enlarge.

Why? To me, the strongest argument is that marijuana laws are manifestly unequally enforced and thus manifestly unjust: in a recent national study, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,”  the ACLU has shown that in state after state, and county after county, black Americans*  are arrested for marijuana possession at rates generally anywhere from twice to eight times that of white Americans — despite basically identical marijuana usage:

The War on Marijuana has largely been a war on people of color. […] In 2010, the Black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000.  […] In states with the worst disparities,  Blacks were on average over six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents in the same county. […] These glaring racial disparities in marijuana arrests are not a northern or southern phenomenon, nor a rural or urban phenomenon, but rather a national one.

The ACLU of Maryland finds a similar picture in our state*:

In every county in the Free State, Blacks are disproportionately targeted for enforcement of marijuana laws. The glaring racial disparities are as staggering in the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington D.C. as they are on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland. They are as likely to exist in large counties as small, in counties with high median family incomes or low median incomes. They exist regardless of whether Blacks make up a large majority or small minority of a county’s population. And the disparities have only gotten worse over time.


The erosion of civil rights and civil liberties
Whether in Maryland or nationwide, these disparities are both huge wrongs in themselves, if we believe in equal justice under the law — guaranteed by the 14th Amendment — and strong indications that marijuana policy is far less about public health than effectively (and often purposely) about a race war by other means, featuring casualties and prisoners who are overwhelmingly black.

As author and former ACLU executive Michelle Alexander has put it, we’re witnessing “The New Jim Crow“:

Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.  In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.

Ms. Alexander’s book is excellent in showing how these arrests and sentences ruin lives, and how punitive drug policies have driven the erosion of all of our constitutional rights.  Stop-and-frisk and racial profiling did not originate with Mayor Bloomberg’s NYPD; surveillance abuses did not begin with the NSA or Metro bag searches; erosion of the right to trial did not begin with the NDAA. Rather, all of these developments were foreshadowed more or less explicitly by judicial rulings, legislation, or executive actions connected to the “War on Drugs” — e.g., Operation Pipeline (DEA, 1984: profiling); Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986; mandatory minimums); California v. Acevedo (1991; warrantless search);  Florida v. Bostick (1991; suspicionless search); Ohio v. Robinette (1993; “consent”); Deal v. United States (1993: ‘stacking’ of 924(c) charges enabling the threat of near-life sentences for combined drug/gun violations).  The net effect was to uphold and expand an allegedly “tough on crime” agenda advocated via racial “dog-whistle” rhetoric especially by Nixon and Reagan, and ratified by “me too” politicking and policies by Clinton.

Legalizing marijuana in Maryland won’t make these precedents, programs, and policies go away — but it will reduce their application.  That may be the first step to rebuilding a justice system built not for incarceration and volume, but for, well, justice.  Black, white, or Hispanic; Christian, Jewish, or Muslim; activist or not;  marijuana user or not: push back against the war on marijuana — both the biggest and arguably the least justified part of the War on Drugs — and the rights you restore or preserve will be your own.

Ways forward in Maryland
Fortunately, momentum is building in Maryland to do just that.  First, the ACLU of Maryland is re-committing to a strong push in the coming legislative session to decriminalize marijuana possession.  Reacting to the national ACLU report in June, Maryland’s ACLU legislative director Sara Love said,

“Marijuana decriminalization efforts in the Maryland General Assembly advanced further than ever before this past session. With this momentum and the new report, the ACLU of Maryland will continue advocating for reform of Maryland’s racially biased and aggressive penalization of marijuana possession, which has torn communities apart, not improved public safety, not eradicated use, and has been a colossal waste of money.”

At least as importantly, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur announced that she will propose marijuana legalization if elected.  Her campaign issue pages and well-researched legislative plan lay out some of the same reasons noted above — and points out that between revenues from taxation and savings from reassigned law enforcement priorities, Maryland could benefit hugely from legalizing marijuana:

Adults 21 and over will be allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana without violating state law… Smoking of marijuana will not be allowed in public, indoor or out.  …It will continue to be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana… It will continue to be illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase, possess or consume marijuana. […] As governor, Heather Mizeur will legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana, generating up to $157.5 million in new annual revenue.  The revenue will be used to create a dedicated funding stream for her proposed expansion of Maryland’s early childhood education system.  […]  The financial cost of criminalizing marijuana is significant.  According to a 2009 study, our state wastes as much as $281.7 million per year enforcing overly punitive marijuana prohibition laws.

That’s a turnaround of nearly half a billion dollars — in a state forced in its last budget to cut mental health funding by $7 million and cut contributions to state employees and teachers pension fund by $100 million.  But above all:

Legalizing and regulating marijuana will save tens of thousands of people from misguided and unnecessary involvement in our debilitative criminal justice system – 43% of whom would likely end up becoming recidivists entangled in the system time and again.

Our choices
Like all Americans, we in Maryland have a choice.  We can sit idly by and agree with nay-sayers like Doug Gansler, one of Mizeur’s Democratic competitors, whose spokesman claimed there “does not appear to be a groundswell toward full scale legalization” — despite widespread, bipartisan support in the state for just that. We can shrug our shoulders and walk away from the chance to build bigger, better coalitions for our rights and civil liberties.  We can walk away from confronting what may well be the single biggest systematic injustice — in terms of unnecessary humiliations, arrests, derailed lives, and occupied jail cells — in Maryland and the country.

Or we can pitch in for marijuana reform in Maryland.

Let’s educate ourselves and others about this issue.  Let’s do all we can to support ACLU of Maryland’s marijuana decriminalization legislation this session.  And let’s do all we can to support and reward gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur for her bold support for marijuana legalization, for her political courage, and for her good sense.


* FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data does not provide separate Hispanic arrest totals; these are likely counted as white in UCR data.
** Note that Montgomery County does not distinguish itself in this regard, either.  From the ACLU Maryland report: “Between 2001–2010, Black arrests went up by 45%, even though the Black population increased by less than half that much. By 2010, Blacks made up 18% of Montgomery County’s population, but 46% of all marijuana possession arrests. These statistics likely underestimate race disparities in marijuana possession arrests, as Montgomery County has Maryland’s largest Latino population, which was not accounted for in the data reviewed.”

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Van Hollen OK on Medicare — but “willing to consider” Social Security “spending reform”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st November 2012

Click image to view C-SPAN clip of Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD-8) discussion of
Medicare and Social Security in the context of the “fiscal cliff” — running from
~8:15-14:30 in the full C-SPAN video of his interview with Wall Street Journal
deputy editor Alan Murray.

Last week I got a worrisome Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC)  e-mail: the Wall Street Journal was reporting that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD-8),  my Congressman — and the ranking Budget Committee member — was open to  “cutting entitlements,” as a part of negotiations around ending tax cuts and avoiding the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  Journal reporters Janet Hook and Carol Lee added that Van Hollen — who was attending a Wall Street Journal confab with CEOs — said “changing Social Security and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations,” and that “I’m willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan.”

Personally, I think the current deficit mania is disastrously misguided at a time when the economy is still struggling.  But  I certainly want Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts completely off the table — so I called Van Hollen’s DC office to say so.  A staffer told me he’d been misquoted, leading me to wonder, “So what exactly *did* Van Hollen say about Social Security and Medicare?

Luckily, it turns out that the interview was taped by C-SPAN, so I could see for myself; the relevant remarks started around the 8:15 mark and continued for another six minutes.

Van Hollen began with Medicare, and to cut to the first chase, he did not advocate increasing Medicare eligibility age as the Journal had reported.  Instead, Van Hollen’s ideas were generally about seeking efficiencies in Medicare rather than reducing access to it:

We need to move Medicare away from a fee-for-service system. And we’ve begun to do that.  Because fee-for-service systems contains no incentives for anybody in the system to contain costs.  … We’ve actually begun to put in place the building blocks to get there: accountable-care organizations, bundled payments.

I think we can make significant savings in the area of … dual-eligibles: people who are on Medicare and Medicaid –  a relatively small percentage of the overall Medicare/Medicaid population but a very high percentage of the costs. And there are lots of misaligned incentives between the Medicare and Medicaid payments.

You can look at things like redesigning “Medigap” policies, because right now, some Medigap policies actually create incentives for people to spend a lot more on Medicare.*  […] 

What I think we should avoid is …simply transferring [health care] costs on to other individuals.  I think our first focus should be on trying to contain overall healthcare costs

Regarding substituting “premium-support” voucher plans for Medicare, Van Hollen responded:

…the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office looked at that and concluded it does not contain costs, it simply transfers costs. …what they concluded was if you simply …provide a voucher to go out there in the private health care system, as you know, in the private health care system costs have been rising at at least the same rate as in the Medicare system.   […]  Simply transferring somebody out of Medicare to the private health insurance market, it will save Medicare money, but …by requiring premiums to go up dramatically on these individuals whose median income is $23,000 right now.

I quite agree with Van Hollen’s opposition to “here’s a lump sum, go figure it out” voucher plans that discourage seeking medical help and transfer costs to the poor instead of helping them.  People more knowledgeable than myself may take issue with some of Van Hollen’s Medicare suggestions — e.g., maybe there can be good reasons for dual eligibility (though less so for inconsistent subsidies).  But overall, and to his credit, Van Hollen’s solutions are quite a bit less less draconian than simply raising the Medicare eligibility or retirement ages — a.k.a. “hope you die first.”

Turning to Social Security, however, Van Hollen stumbled right out of the block:

 In Social Security, number one, I think we should create a process like we had with Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. 

Read the rest of this entry »

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A city’s ‘city issue’ issue

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th March 2012

Early last month, my city’s City Council voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution about the infamous Citizens United ruling, which concluded:

WHEREAS, the Takoma Park City Council supports efforts to see the ruling overturned or a Constitutional Amendment proposed that would reaffirm fair opportunity in the electoral process for individual people.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Council of the City of Takoma Park supports efforts to reverse the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and supports efforts to open the electoral process to the broad group of citizens who wish to participate effectively in the affairs of their country.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

2/6/12 Takoma Park City Council: session on
legislative updates and gas tax/Citizens United resolutions
(may require installing Microsoft Silverlight video software).
The first 4 minutes can be skipped for this discussion.

I was surprised to learn my own councilmember, Seth Grimes, was against it; I was even more surprised to learn why he and Councilmember Tim Male voted “nay.”  From the “GranolaPark” (which is as reliably dismissive of such causes as the name implies) account in the Takoma/Silver Spring Voice:

Tim Male … firmly rejected two proposed resolutions, one calling for the reverse of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision  […]  Male said there was “no value” in the city passing the resolutions. In the first place the Citizens United case was not a city issue. Secondly, Takoma Park supporting a liberal cause would not be a surprise, nor would it carry any weight  with the legislature, he said […]  If the city is to make a progressive stand, he said, let it be for something “hard to do.” The city’s rent control policy, for instance, comes at a price that residents are willing to pay for the sake of principle.

Seth Grimes also failed to [vote] for the resolution against the Citizens United decision. He didn’t see it as a city issue, either, and said constituent concerns should be brought up with elected officials in the appropriate jurisdiction.

Grimes, July 2007: “…I attended tonight’s Takoma Park, Maryland City Council
meeting to urge the City Council to vote in favor of an impeachment resolution,
which they did. It’s a very important step that shows the world where we as
individuals in Takoma Park stand and we all hope that it will set an example for
other people in the United States who feel as we do to urge their representatives
in Congress to take steps toward the impeachment of Vice President Cheney
and President George Bush.”

(Video by Michelle Bailey, published 09/18/07 at

One reason I found this surprising was that not too long ago, Seth Grimes had quite a different view.  In 2007 he was videotaped supporting an impeachment resolution; he uploaded a copy of the video himself in November 2008, and I recall seeing it or another one like it on his campaign web site* during his uncontested run for office last November.  All that notwithstanding, Grimes had signaled his “no” vote a few days before the council session in his blog, writing:

I have misgivings about the other item. The Citizens United decision is bad news — corporations are not people, and heavy corporate spending in electoral campaigns is pernicious — but Citizens United isn’t a city issue. Should the city devote time and resources to this question? Again, please share your thoughts.

On February 28th, I responded:

I wish I’d seen this sooner. I’ll share my thoughts per your request, even if it’s too late for the Citizens United vote.

I think you’re making a mistake if you remain committed to avoiding national political issues and resolutions of this kind purely on principle.

It won’t surprise you to hear me say it’s important for its own sake: sometimes national leaders fall down on the job, so sometimes they need to hear from local politicians. And when you and city council say something, you have a particular kind of recognition and respect that I don’t. Don’t let people tell you your statements would be discounted just because it’s a Takoma Park resolution. You’ve taken the trouble to run for office, and you’ve been elected. That matters.

I also don’t think this resolution or others like it need to take significant resources on the part of the city. The resolutions are generally written for you, you’ll have to listen to people advocate for it regardless, you’ll take as much or as little time to discuss it as you like.

But I think it’s also particularly important even when one is focused, by preference, on a purely Takoma Park agenda and goals.

That’s because part of what sets Takoma Park apart is precisely its reputation for not shying away from national issues when a reasonable, timely, cogent statement can be made. I think both current and prospective residents really value that. And I don’t mean in just a vague, “that’s nice” way, I mean in a way that makes people want to live here.  Therefore, that reputation is indirectly a part of what helps maintain the unique population and unique political climate that are so important to accomplishing your local political and policy goals.

We’re proud of the Nuclear Free Zone, of the impeachment resolution, of the sanctuary city status, of votes condemning the Iraq war or the PATRIOT Act. So whatever your feelings about any particular “national issue” resolution per se — whether Citizens United or anything else — I hope you’ll reconsider ruling out supporting any such resolution in the future. I think you’d be upholding a proud Takoma Park tradition. And I think that, too, is a part of your job.
(links added)

I’ve had no real answer to my comment or an emailed version of it I sent. When I told Councilmember Grimes during a conversation that I was surprised because of his former support for the impeachment resolution, he basically simply acknowledged that he was for that then but wouldn’t be for it now– which isn’t an explanation, more just a restatement of the situation.

In watching the city council discussion of all this, the only other thing I saw was that he noted the results of an extremely sparse canvassing of our Ward, in which the handful of opinions he got were split — 7 for, 7 against, 2 hard to interpret — on the value of resolutions about non-city or indirectly city-related issues. It’s hard to believe this could have tipped Mr. Grimes’s opinions one way or the other, though he seemed at pains to suggest they had a bearing. Mr. Male’s opinions were oddly formulated, too, as if city council decisions only have value if they are surprising or difficult to make. That’s a measure of *newsworthiness* perhaps — but that shouldn’t be the yardstick a representative measures his success with, representativeness and faithfulness to one’s principles should.

At any rate, my goal here isn’t to be hostile or to embarrass. Rather, I hope Mr. Grimes, at least, reads this supporter’s comment again, takes a look at that video, recalls how he felt and what it meant for those of us supporting that impeachment resolution — and changes his mind. He was right in July, 2007. There’s no reason he can’t be right again.

* UPDATE, EDIT, 3/11: The link leads to a post on Seth’s Facebook page, posted in August on the day of his announcement there that he was running for City Council.

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Thinking about free speech, bad speech, and more speech

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th March 2012

A friend recently pointed out a piece by Jonathan Turley, “Free speech under fire,” and wrote, Don’t forget, the cure for offensive free speech is more free speech (discussion, debate, dialogue) — not suppression of free speech.”

I don’t disagree in the cases Turley describes — I think the judge got the case he leads with wrong.  (Well, for lack of legal training I guess I should rephrase: I hope the judge got this case wrong.)  An assault is an assault, it can’t be excused by claims (far-fetched ones at that) that the assault was a response to hate speech.  Likewise, I don’t support criminalizing Holocaust or genocide denial, as happens in Europe.

But I think my friend’s statement still begs many questions of what all counts as “suppression” of free speech.  Who is actually capable of it?  Are we talking about legislation and enforcement, or citizens’ and political groups own choices to condemn speech and boycott its supporters?  Does the word “suppression” encompass “discouragement” or “regulation”?  To cut to a couple of chases: “don’t be telling us not to ask people to boycott Rush Limbaugh or oppose Citizens United!  You’re suppressing our speech!” 🙂

I’m trying to make a friendly but serious point.   It needn’t be all we consider, but as a starting point, our First Amendment is in this respect strictly and (I think) rightly about government abridgment of free speech — “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech. It’s not about the rest of us penalizing bad speech, or agitating that others do so; that’s arguably a great deal of the point of free speech.

Moreover, “freedom of speech” and “guaranteed, unregulated, unopposed amplification of speech” are not the same thing; that’s why the former is guaranteed, and the latter is not.  For example, Rush Limbaugh will always be free to say disgusting things about people he disagrees with, even if his radio program dies for lack of advertising — he’ll just be saying them to his drinking buddies at the Lowlife Saloon, not to a nationwide audience.  Likewise — and to recall an example where *my* ox was gored — the Dixie Chicks remain free to make new music and seek new audiences when their fan base got upset about Natalie Maines’s “ashamed of Bush” remark.  I think what happened to the Dixie Chicks was unjustified and even a demonstration of a “fascist impulse.” But I’m for free speech — not consequence-free speech; while a law against criticizing the president would not be fair game, the conservative listeners boycott of their music was.*

Turning to another example of often-offensive free speech, corporations and groups should be able to advertise on behalf of favored candidates — but it’s not “suppressive” to insist on spending limits or transparency.  By contrast, the Citizens United ruling is the very apotheosis of “more speech” — indeed, it’s “all but unlimited speech which no one has a prayer of adequately rebutting in the same volume” — as a supposed cure for the other guy’s speech.  But this particular “more speech cure” is a new and worse disease; true, I can write a blog post or upload a video rebutting some Super PAC lie — yet “more speech” rebutting “bad speech” — but the fifty people who see those rebuttals are a drop in the democratic bucket compared to the millions who see the TV ad or radio spot I’d be responding to.

This kind of issue — how to oppose offensive and/or  free speech — can be fraught even in relatively small-scale, local settings. For example, last fall a letter was circulated to Montgomery County, Maryland politicians asking them to sign a statement condemning an Islamophobic presentation at a local Republican women’s group.  Later on, a second letter requested that an Annapolis hotel not host a conference scheduling a number of Islamophobic speakers.

The first letter — elected officials signing a letter criticizing an event — arguably verged on government abridgement of free speech. But “verging on” and “being” are different things; since the letter merely found the Islamophobic event “inappropriate” and saying rhetoric of the kind “had no place in” the county.  This wasn’t attempted abridgement of free speech so much as free speech of their own.  The second letter was actually an easier case from my perspective: one group of private citizens asks another to reconsider a course of action.  Given the (insultingly overblown) fears this raised for the conference organizers, though, the letter resulted in a small police presence at the conference.  While not arguing against the right to draft and send the letter, a simple counterdemonstration or request to speak as well might have been a better choice of tactics.

In both cases, the group I was a part of took slightly different approaches to those of the lead organizers.  We worked with the circulator of the letter to stage an informational forum about the “Creeping Sharia” myth, and we joined in a counterdemonstration at the Annapolis hotel without signing the letter asking for the hotel to disinvite the convention.  I think those were good choices — but I don’t think drafting or signing either letter would have been beyond the pale, either.  Far from being suppressive of free speech, they were most properly understood as examples of precisely the “more free speech” — nothing more, nothing less — that my friend supports.

As do I.  What I’m saying is that we make it much too easy for ourselves by claiming a “free speech absolutist” mantle when it can’t possibly be true.  I don’t know where my friend stands on the Rush boycott or Citizens United, but the point is that sometimes whichever side one is on, someone’s speech is diminished — Limbaugh’s, or those encouraging a boycott; an Islamophobe’s, or those seeking to mobilize public opinion against him; corporations wanting to engage in unlimited, unregulated advertising, or people rightly feeling their own citizenship is rendered inconsequential by comparison.  In such cases, we must decide what we believe free speech is for, and whether that value is compelling enough for us to intervene.

There are other distinctions and issues to to be made in the two cases, e.g., a public figure trying to humiliate a private figure vs. a public renouncing a group who had sought the limelight; the possibility of monopolistic radio station collusion in the Dixie Chicks boycott; etcetera.  But for the purposes of discussing the right to object to their speech by penalizing their businesses, the broad similarities outweigh them.

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Testimony against a proposed county loitering bill

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th November 2011

Get Microsoft Silverlight

Montgomery County Council Public Safety Committee
public hearing on loitering bill 35-11; my testimony part begins
at around 16:30, but everyone’s testimony is well worth
listening to.

On the evening of Tuesday, November 15, I joined seven other people testifying before the Montgomery County Public Safety Committee about the proposed loitering/”prowling” bill 35-11, introduced by Councilman Phil Andrews.  As I’ve explained in a post on the “Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition” blog, I think this is no better than the youth curfew I wrote about in the prior post.

My testimony is below; I’ve added a few links where appropriate. I’ll describe the hearing and the testimony of others in a separate post.

I’d like to thank Professor Andrew Taslitz of Howard University for connecting me with Howard Law students Maryam Mujahid (editor of the Howard Law Journal), Marc Watkins, and Michelle Mills. I’m very grateful to each of them for their generous help on very short notice. Their research and review work was invaluable; any errors are mine alone. It was also great to meet Marc, Michelle, and fellow law student Darien Jones at the hearing.

= = =

Thanks for this chance to speak against the loitering/”prowling” bill 35-11. I question its constitutionality, necessity, and likely results.

The October 25 memo about this bill cites cases seeming to show laws based on the same Model Penal Code ordinance have withstood scrutiny around the country.

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From sundown towns to a midnight county

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th October 2011

Back to the future with the Montgomery County youth curfew
This summer, two bad events in Montgomery County came to dominate the attention of local politicians.  First, over the July 4th weekend, gang members from elsewhere gathered in downtown Silver Spring and then fought; one girl was stabbed but survived.  Then, in mid-August, a “flash mob” — an unannounced mass appearance, often pre-arranged by social media or text message — descended on a Germantown 7-11 and looted its shelves of chips and the like.  Concerns had already been on the rise about similar events around the country and around the world, so the 7-11 surveillance video quickly became notorious.

Reflecting the growing hysteria, County Executive Ike Leggett had already proposed a youth curfew in mid-July that was initially drafted as a quite draconian curfew.  An amended bill was submitted in late August that eliminated criminal penalties and provided a variety of “affirmative defenses” for daring to be OWY — outside while young — after 11pm on weekdays and after midnight on weekends.

A “witch hunt”?
Calling this “hysteria” and the curfew highly questionable policing and crime-fighting seems fair in light of a number of salient facts:

  • As Councilmember Phil Andrews has repeatedly pointed out, gang-related crime is actually down by nearly 50% over the last two years.
  • Less than seven percent of youth arrests under 22 in Montgomery County occur during the proposed curfew hours.
  • Montgomery County police rank and file oppose the idea, warning “Enforcement of a curfew misdirects scarce police resources,” and noting “Banning lawful activities of residents of our County based upon their age is not a solution to problems of real crime.”
  • Even current advocates of the measure like “Safe Silver Spring” — supposedly tasked with advising county leaders on crime prevention — didn’t so much as mention a curfew in an extensive list of recommendations at the beginning of the year.  And no wonder…
  • most curfew studies conclude they have no statistical effect on youth crime.

At a mid-October “Youth Town Hall” with county council members, high school student and leading curfew opponent Leah Muskin-Pierret aptly compared the curfew proposal to a “witch hunt” — based on paranoia, targeting a largely innocent, powerless group, and not really solving the alleged problem.

The “Sundown Town” comparison
Sundown Towns, by James LoewenBut there’s another, perhaps equally apt parallel from more recent — even current — American history: “sundown towns.” In his classic 2005 book “Sundown Towns,” James Loewen defined them as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus ‘all white’ on purpose.”

These jurisdictions ranged from those where black people were intimidated into leaving at gunpoint or by a lynching, through ones that posted signs saying “N*****, don’t let the sun set on you in this town,“ to those that enacted and executed their exclusions via only slightly more genteel city ordinances or development practices.  Hollywood generalizations notwithstanding, sundown towns per se were (and too many still are) not so much a deep South phenomenon as one of the border South, North, and Midwest.*

In Maryland, concentrations of “sundown towns” appear to be in Western Maryland, but also in Prince George’s County near DC and also a couple in Montgomery County — most notably Chevy Chase, one of the more or less “white glove”, development-based variety of sundown town.**

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County Council’s retreat loses respect — and Busboys

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th October 2011

Great — the Montgomery County Council has chickened out of voting for a perfectly reasonable resolution saying we’re spending too much on defense — because Lockheed Martin blackmailed an easily cowed group of legislators into shelving the resolution.

As the resolution lays out — that is, laid out — it’s not just appropriate for a county council to express an opinion about this issue, it’s high time:

“4. While military spending has been extraordinary during the past decade, huge cuts have been made at the federal, state, and local levels to domestic spending, including appropriations for Maryland and Montgomery County.
5. The economic and financial situation in the state of Maryland has led to reductions in revenues from the state to Montgomery County. These reductions impact funding for education, environmental programs, health care, safety net services, public safety, and transportation projects.”

Cramped school budgets, fights with the police force over benefits, looming state and local health care and services cutbacks and more: they can all be attributed in no small part to this country’s misplaced budget priorities.

But if you need it, there will be another daily reminder of our county council’s embarrassing retreat — the empty storefront at the former Border’s Books location in Downtown Silver Spring.  That’s because Andy Shallal — owner of the thriving Busboys and Poets bookstore/cafe empire in the DC area — has ruled out expanding to that location (or any other in Montgomery County) because of the County Council’s action. CityPaper’s Lydia DePillis reports:

Having already planted flags in Arlington and Prince George’s counties, Montgomery was a clear next step for Shallal. And indeed, he tells me he’s been looking at the now-closed Borders Books & Music space in Silver Spring, and has been approached by developers to open in Bethesda. But Shallal, whose outlets have lately been sporting banners encouraging passersby to “IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT WAR,” says MoCo has lost its chance. “County residents pay about $2.5 billion in defense spending,” he emails. “Money that is desperately needed for other services.”

Sure: realistically, Busboys and Poets is no economic match for Lockheed Martin, which turns out to be the largest employer in the county.  But Mr. Shallal’s penalty to the county, while perhaps small in the scheme of things, is a concrete example of the trade-offs we’re making every day with our outlandish defense budget and our seemingly endless warfare.  Lockheed was either bluffing or insane: our county — with its still-excellent schools, its services, and above all its work force — either was a good place to work and live, or it wasn’t. Passing this resolution wasn’t going to change that.

With respect, I think Councilmember George Leventhal was mistaken to say the resolution amounted to unwise “federal legislating.” It was no such thing.  It simply urged Congress to make major reductions in the Pentagon budget, and reinvest the savings in state and local needs.

Councilmember Leventhal got it right the first time when he endorsed this bill.  I hope he gets it right again — and soon — to vote for it.

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A flawed policy made worse — Metro’s random bag searches

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd January 2011

In mid-December, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA — better known as “Metro” — and its police force announced a new random bag search policy:

…police will randomly select bags or packages to check for hazardous materials using ionization technology as well as K-9 units trained to detect explosive materials. Carry on items will generally not be opened and physically inspected unless the equipment indicates a need for further inspection.

As described, the policy allows people approaching a station to decide to refuse the screening, of course — they just can’t then bring their bags with them:

Anyone who is randomly selected and refuses to submit their carry-on items for inspection will be prohibited from bringing those items into the station. Customers who encounter a baggage checkpoint at a station entrance may choose not to enter the station if they would prefer not to submit their carry-ons for inspection.

Opponents of the policy (including myself) deemed the policy unconstitutional, ineffective, and misguided — security theater that demands public acceptance of routine, suspicionless, unaudited (and therefore possibly profiling-based) searches for almost precisely zero security in return.  Thanks in part to a good deal of mobilizing by opponents — including an online petition and an evening of nearly unanimous public opposition — WMATA’s “Riders Advisory Council” (RAC), the institutional voice of Metro users,  overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on the Board to halt the program, and require their police department to consider alternatives in consultation with civil liberties advocates.

The RAC is — as its name implies — simply an advisory body, and it’s not clear how much weight the WMATA board of directors will give their recommendation. While the policy was apparently all but sprung on the board by Chief Taborn and WMATA General Manager manager Sarles, it’s not clear whether the board will even take it up at the next board meeting — scheduled for 1pm next Thursday — let alone come to a decision about it.

Be observed… be watched
As welcome as the 15-1-1 RAC vote was,  the real news of the January 5th RAC meeting may have happened earlier in the meeting.  During a brief question and answer session, Metro Transit Chief Taborn confirmed that bag search refusers would “be observed… be watched” for their decision by law enforcement:

Metro Transit PD Chief Taborn answers questions by Riders Advisory
Council members Diana Zinkl and David Alpert about the random bag
search policy begun in December. (Excerpt transcript)

DIANA ZINKL: And also, could you also clarify, one question that came up at our last meeting, where there was some confusion – the answer either from Deputy Chief Pavlik(?) or the other officer who was in attendance — is what happens if someone’s approaching a rail station, is stopped, does not consent to the search, turns around and leaves and goes to get on the bus.
CHIEF TABORN: What happens is that according to our policy, that person is free to go.  But with regards to law enforcement initiatives, there will be some actions, there will be some observations, because we need to establish why that particular person chose not to do it.  So there will be some activity that’s afoot.
DIANA ZINKL: Can you give us some specificity — given that I think everyone of us in this room has been in the situation that if there’s something that’s not working with the rail system you go and get on a bus — given that this is a very likely scenario, can you be a little bit more specific as to what’s actually going to happen to that person and what they will be… what their experience will be?  Because – I think – the reason I’m asking is that I think this is a very real scenario, and the answer that we received, that was received on Monday, indicated a fair amount of ambiguity and uncertainty from the officer…
CHIEF TABORN: Well I can tell you without any uncertainty that that person would be observed.  And what that means to you is different than what it means to me, but that person would be observed.
DIANA ZINKL: Well could you clarify what ‘be observed’ means?
CHIEF TABORN:Be observed. Be, be observed. Be watched.
DIANA ZINKL: And when they try to get on the bus, what would happen?
CHIEF TABORN:That will be activities that law enforcement will use just as any regular law enforcement has to establish probable cause, to find out who, what, where, why, and when.

As I wrote at the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition blog, it got worse.  When RAC chair David Alpert followed up, Chief Taborn elaborated that “[a]t some point in time, as we work with the FBI and as we work with the Department of Homeland Security, we establish why” the person refused the search. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lessons of the Snowpocalypse

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th February 2010

Narnia in Takoma Park and other pictures from the Snowpocalypse
Slideshow created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
  1. Magnolia trees do not do well in heavy snow.  If 10 inches or more of snow are forecast, consider chopping down the tree, most of it’s coming down anyway.
  2. Vintage Comfortmaker gas furnaces are sentient, know the difference between good and evil, and have chosen evil.  They do this by arranging for their ignition devices to fail the morning after a blizzard makes your house and neighborhood inaccessible to repair technicians.
  3. To relight a vintage evil Comfortmaker (non-pilot light) gas furnace:
    1. turn the thermostat to its lowest setting
    2. go to the basement,
    3. return to the dining room for a flashlight
    4. return to the basement, turn off the electricity to the furnace and basement lights.
    5. wait 5 minutes.
    6. squeeze through a six inch opening to a 18 inch space behind the furnace, remove panel
    7. light a candle.
    8. yell upstairs to set thermostat to 65.
    9. repeat request loudly but without yelling because you don’t need to yell
    10. light wooden kebab stick in candle flame, wait
    11. when you hear a ‘click’ put lit kebab stick above burner-looking things where you hope gas will be pumped in 5-10 seconds.
    12. wait 15-20 seconds; relight kebab stick quickly at least once.
    13. second 21: FWOOMP.  Resolve not to peer in quite as closely next time.
    14. Since ignition device is still broken, set heat to 78; the furnace will go out, the house will cool, and you can repeat steps 1-14 whenever you’re cold enough.
  4. The co-op will have everything you need that you spent three hours buying inadequate substitutes for at Safeway.
  5. While deep snow is your enemy, it is also your friend, cushioning falls from ladders.
  6. Try not to use ladders any more than necessary.
  7. A cat staring at a door for five minutes is unnerving.
  8. When released into conditions of deep snow, cats will either
    • retreat immediately
    • vanish for unpredictable lengths of time
  9. When you look for a cat in deep snow, the cat will appear at the front door either
    • just after you’re done suiting up to go outside to look for her again dammit
    • just before you return from looking all over creation for her dammit
  10. When removing ice dams from a roof gutter, avoid being swept off your ladder by an avalanche of snow no longer blocked by those ice dams.  One way to do this is by not removing ice dams in the first place.
  11. When snow first falls, take time to really enjoy the serene beauty of the scene.  It’s the last time you’ll feel that way for days.

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Van Hollen: “public option is essential”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th September 2009

I received an e-mail from Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD-8) today that updates my knowledge of where he stands in the health care debate.

As Van Hollen might write, I’m pleased to report that he makes repeated and positive mention of the “public option” in his remarks, which naturally center on HR 3200, the “American Affordable Health Choices Act.” From the e-mail:

The American Affordable Health Choices Act fulfills the promise of bringing real change to America through two key provisions: giving Americans the choice of a public health option and providing universal coverage to all Americans. […]

One of the most significant elements of this bill will be the public health option. A public option is essential for creating choice for consumers and more competition for the insurance companies. The top 10 insurance companies have seen their profits increase 430 percent over the last seven years, yet the majority of Americans’ incomes have stayed flat while their insurance premiums have sky rocketed. A public option will keep insurance companies honest and bring health costs down for the American people.

This may or may not be a surprise to close watchers of the health care reform debate, but Van Hollen’s unequivocal emphasis — at least at this point — on the public option was welcome news to me.  Last year during the election he actually went further, endorsing a “single payer,” Medicare for all reform, but hasn’t opined on that since then as far as I know.

In an September 1 interview with Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, this is how Van Hollen handicapped the prospects for the public option:

Right now, you have Senate moderates saying they can’t pass a bill with a public plan and House liberals saying they won’t pass a bill without one. Is health-care reform between a rock and a hard place?

We need to let it play out more. In the House there’s a consensus in support of the public option, and people coming back from their districts continue to support a public option. Then we’ll have to see what the Senate does and where we go from there. As we come back, the White House will have to play a bigger role in this debate.

I wonder how he rates Obama on that score now; that’s somewhat less than a pledge to fight for a public option no matter what.  But given his continued support for a public option — a stance that is presumably in step with other House Democrat leaders — it’s important to support Baucus bill amendments like Jay Rockefeller’s that add the public option to the Senate bill.

EDIT, 9/25: “Representative,” “(D-MD-8),” and link to the congressional web site added.

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