Mother Jones Daily: Briefing

Tainted in Texas
Tobacco’s World Fallout

Tainted in Texas

The sole testimony of a rookie narcotics agent in small-town Texas led to the conviction of 38 people in 1999. The narcotics officer, Thomas Coleman, was lauded as a hero and named Texas Lawman of the Year, Andrew Gumbel of London’s Independent reports. But those cases and convictions left the African-American population of Tulia, Texas, bewildered and outraged. As time passed, the officer’s testimony and legal procedures of the ruling court came into question, and what started with a New York Times editorial and NAACP suspicion has proven to be one of the most obvious instances of what Tom’s Laura Flanders refers to as “ state-sanctioned apartheid” since before the Civil Rights Movement.

According to Gumbel, half of the town’s black males suffered what Judge Ron Chapman has ruled wrongful convictions. Of the 46 people arrested, 39 were black, and the remainder were involved in interracial relationships, writes Silja J.A. Talvi of AlterNet. Aside from Coleman’s testimony, no evidence — none of the alleged substances, no suspicious cash flow, no other witnesses — was presented. Many of the arrested had no criminal history, but some convictions were for sentences of up to 99 years.

Since the initial rulings, Coleman’s history of deceit and bigotry has come to light, rendering his testimony moot. His common use of racial slurs and blatant dishonesty about his own criminal record led Judge Chapman to recommend that each case be overturned in a court of appeals. It’s a victory for the families of Tulia, but, analysts argue, it’s also an appalling account of the US’s current justice system, an example of what Gumbel calls “institutional racism.”

Talvi notes that Deborah Small of the Drug Policy Alliance expresses a belief that “[P]oor communities are victimized every day by these same kinds of policies that provide incentives for [law enforcement] to make as many arrests as possible.” And Flanders opines that, while the Texas government may have found an appropriate scapegoat, the law and justice system possesses more than the proverbial quota of one bad apple when it comes to racists:

“Tom Coleman routinely used the so-called ‘n-word’ and other racial slurs on the job — even in front of his superiors in the course of his investigation. His racism wasn’t so ‘unorthodox’ after all. And while 46 innocent people, unable to hire effective counsel, suffered in jail, Coleman was named Texas Lawman of the Year. It all happened on Gov. George W. Bush’s watch.”

Meanwhile, Talvi views the debacle through a magnified political lens, professing that the intersection of criminal convictions and abuse of power are not unique to the Lone Star state:

“Indeed, Tulia should serve as a wake-up call, because the American drug war has evolved into the most currently visible symptom of an absolutist law-and-order mindset. It has sucked state and federal budgets dry and fed an insatiable prison system; it has taken precedence over constitutional rights to privacy, unreasonable search and seizure and due process – no matter what a person’s color, class or creed.

The drug war, and the attendant concentration of power into the hands of prosecutors and away from judges, individuals and their defense attorneys, has become a full-blown frontal assault on the integrity of the American criminal justice system.”

Tobacco’s World Fallout

Big tobacco companies may be on the defensive at home, smarting from lawsuits, smoking bans and the changing attitudes of an increasingly health-conscious populace. Their global marketing campaigns, however, appear to be runaway successes. The extent of that success was revealed last week, when a World Health Organization report predicted that cancer rates worldwide would rise 50 percent by 2020. And as the London Independent‘s Steve Connor reports, Western cigarette companies’ aggressive advertising tactics — such as the targeting of ever-younger smokers — in the developing world will be a key component in that rise. Of course, Big Tobacco had help from friends in high places. As Mother Jones‘ Colleen O’Brien reported, for the last two years, the Bush administration has done everything in its power to kill a world treaty aimed at curbing smoking.

Seagoing Sludge
Nigeria’s Election Entropy

Seagoing Sludge

How much waste do ships illegally dump into the Pacific? Even the government wants to know. Environmental investigators have discovered that many ships illicitly dump toxic sludge into the Pacitifc Ocean. According to Craig Welch of the Seattle Times, recent indictments of crewmen have led to millions of dollars in fines and, in some cases, prison sentences.

Because disposal of sludge is time-consuming and subject to environmental regulations, some shippers install clandestine hose systems that pump oil-laden waste overboard. Upon their return to shore, the hoses are easily removed or disguised, leaving no evidence of the jettisoned sludge. While cruise ships and vessels from other nations have admitted to illegal dumping in the past, the recent instances merit alarm because, the US Department of Justice says, they are “so pervasive within the maritime industry.” A Washington State Environmental Protection Agency official’s interviews with crew members found illegal dumping to be “accepted practice” in the industry.

Welch’s report supports the Justice Department’s assessment, revealing that in some cases, dumping all of a ship’s waste was routine. Additionally, crewmen, often under pressure from officers and managers, regularly falsified waste-disposal receipts and ship logs. In one case, Boyang Ltd., a shipper of seafood, disclosed that for seven years, its fleet of 12 ships illegally discharged its waste into the Pacific Ocean. Scientists fear that even small amounts of waste can damage marine ecosystems. Last year, a study projected that ships illegally dump 65 million gallons of sludge. But new information leads Justice, the Coast Guard, and other authorities to believe that estimate is far too low.

While there is reason celebrate the stepped-up enforcement and recent convictions, inspectors are wary of the work that lies ahead. According to Welch, investigators feel “they may just be scratching the surface.” One source believes imminent discoveries of illegal dumping will overshadow the effects of accidental spills, and warns that recent discoveries are merely “the tip of the iceberg.”

Nigeria’s Election Entropy

It is a landmark event for Nigeria, and it ought to be a hopeful one, but many Nigerians are instead dreading the start of elections this week. As the first polls organized by a civilian government in decades, the elections are expected to cement Nigeria’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law. The lawlessness of the run-up, however, bodes ill for their success. Indeed, recent months have seen spikes in ethnic violence and political killings, and rioting and sabotage have crippled pumping in the oil-rich but deperately poor Niger Delta region. As a result, Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country and a linchpin of regional stability — is on a knife-edge. Even the President, Olusegun Obasanjo, is worried about what chaos the polls might bring, Agence France Presse reports.

“‘Any election conducted in the prevailing circumstances will be tainted by the scale of its corrupted political environment’ … ‘Politicians seem to live in fear of each other, not as competitors for the people’s mandate, but as rivals at the mercy of each other’s stones, sticks, bullets and insults deployed by paid and organised thugs.'”

The editors of the London Guardian, meanwhile, offer a primer on the issues surrounding the upcoming elections.

Sentencing Severity
Georgia’s Banner Bantering

Sentencing Severity

Last month, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would drastically reduce judges’ ability to give out sentences lighter than those recommended by federal guidelines. At the behest of Florida Republican Tom Feeney, who says judges have grown too lenient in meting out punishment, the amendment was tacked on to the popular Amber Alert bill, which notifies the public when a child is kidnapped. As critics point out, Feeney’s eleventh-hour measure is by no means restricted to kidnapping and abuse cases — its blunderbuss approach would apply across the board. What’s more, if lawmakers don’t remove the offending restrictions soon, the amendment will likely pass, riding the coattails of the uncontroversial Amber Alert initiative.

The editors of Newsday are worried by Feeney’s proposal. There is a reason judges are given some leeway in sentencing, they argue: not all cases are exactly the same, even if the crimes are.

“Feeney is alarmed by increasing instances of leniency — up from 9.6 percent of non-immigration sentences in 1996 to 14.7 percent in 2001. But the sentencing guidelines are just that — guidelines. They were imposed to ensure some consistency in sentencing, not a mindless inflexibility. Feeney’s amendment would push the system into rigor mortis, limiting the acceptable reasons for leniency and, for the first time, barring any reason not specifically spelled out in the guidelines.

There is no way politicians sitting in Washington can foresee every situation that judges will confront. Justice requires flexibility so that punishment can fit the crime and the criminal.”

The Washington Post‘s editorial board, meanwhile, rails against the amendment’s cold-hearted perversity. While judges would be prohibited from reducing sentences based on extenuating circumstances, the editors note, they would remain free to impose harsher sentences. Further, the bill’s passage would subject all decisions to direct congressional oversight — an attempt to intimidate judges into adopting a tougher approach, no matter the circumstances.

“To make matters worse, it would require the Justice Department to report to Congress each time a judge makes a downward departure — so that judges everywhere could expect congressional scrutiny whenever they showed mercy.”

Georgia’s Banner Bantering

It’s a touchy time when legislators are called upon to make laws that defer to hard-won histories while simultaneously upholding the public’s right to speak. In the state of Georgia, recent legislation has left lawmakers to tackle a complicated question: What are the implications of displaying a historical symbol when that history, for many, illicits the memory of a time when freedom was not as inclusive as it is today?

Black lawmakers in the Georgia House of Representatives are fighting a call for a referendum regarding the state’s new flag, reports the Associated Press. If a majority of citizens reject the new design, a new vote could resurrect a flag from 1956, which has the Confederate battle emblem as a prominent feature. It’s a citizen’s vote, in the spirit of government by the people, for the people. But for many African-Americans, the emblem is an aggressive symbol of enslavement. Because a new flag has already been approved, a certain exasperation was expressed by Georgia’s Ed Harbison, a Democrat and leader of the Black Caucus, who quipped, “We don’t want a referendum on a new flag. We’ve got a new flag.”

The editors of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution mirror that exasperation , accusing Republican Governor Sonny Perdue, a main proponent of the referendum push, of pandering and not focusing enough energy on the state’s more pressing problems.

“As governor, Perdue is responsible for getting the state out of the mess he got it into with his ill-conceived promise of a referendum. He should have pressed for legislation calling for a referendum that did not offer the objectionable 1956 flag as an option. Instead, the governor is twisting this way and that, hoping that he won’t have to provide leadership on this volatile matter.

This fight over the state’s choice of brightly colored textiles has distracted mightily from more important matters such as the budget, health care and education. The General Assembly should put an end to the flag foolishness once and for all by installing the pre-1956 flag and dumping the idea of a divisive referendum.”

Buffalo Bullying
Teaching Preaching?

Buffalo Bullying

In Lackawanna, the plea bargains keep coming. Just this week, the fourth of six Yemeni-American men accused of supporting Al Qaeda pled guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence, and the government is billing the trial of this alleged “sleeper cell” from upstate New York as a victory in its homefront war on terror.

Many observers, though, are troubled by the tactics used to extract these guilty pleas. In particular, prosecutors threatened to brand the defendants “enemy combatants” — which means they’d be handed over to the military, held incommunicado and stripped of legal counsel, like Jose Padilla, the so-called “Dirty Bomber.” The editors of the Christian Science Monitor find such intimidation indefensible, and suggest that the government only resorted to them because its case was weak.

“In other words, the government said, convict yourself or we will strip you of your rights and you can rot in jail. That doesn’t sound like respect for due process and trial by jury.

Prosecutors also threatened to bring treason charges that carry the death penalty. That’s hardball, but within bounds, since the defendants would have a lawyer and a jury trial.”

Of course, fallout from the terror trial isn’t limited just to the six defendants. As JoAnn Wypijewski reported in last month’s Mother Jones, the arrests have had a chilling effect on Lackawanna’s close-knit Yemeni community.

Teaching Preaching?

President Bush’s Education Secretary Roderick Paige incensed several groups affiliated with education and the freedom of religion with comments he made to a Baptist news magazine. According to the Washington Post’s Alan Cooperman, Paige’s interview with the magazine reported that he prefers and promotes the teaching of Christianity in public schools .

As the Associated Press reports, it’s not the administration’s first move toward a blurring of the line between church and state — Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program has received criticism because it provides children with vouchers to schools that, some argue, are much more likely to be private and church-affiliated. Additionally, federal funds could be cut from public schools that don’t “provide teachers and students the chance to express constitutionally protected prayer.”

Paige’s indignant critics expressed fears that the Secretary’s opinions could spill over further into education policy. The AP reports that Barry Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, quipped that Paige ” … seems to have forgotten that he’s not the secretary of Christian education,” calling his commentary a denigration of religious diversity. And Sarah Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was equally outraged, Cooperman notes:

“‘Secretary Paige is right about one thing: Our public schools are filled with, as he said, many different kinds of kids with different values. But it is insulting for the secretary — who should be the advocate for the over 50 million children in our public schools — to say their diversity somehow compromises those schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is precisely what makes our public schools great.'”

Critics are requesting that Paige apologize and rescind his remarks or step down from his position.

China’s Cover-Up
Stealing Babylon

China’s Cover-Up

Last week, China finally broke its official silence on the deadly mystery virus known as SARS, bowing to reason and allowing health investigators access to the outbreak’s source, deep in a rural province. The bad news, however, keeps trickling out. As the Associated Press reports, a leading Chinese surgeon says Beijing is still downplaying the true extent of the crisis.

To many eyes, then, much of the blame for the rapid spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome can be placed at China’s door. Disgusted, the editors of the Boston Globe tear into Beijing for putting politics before public policy.

“In this case as in many others, China’s citizens have been placed at risk because their rulers act on the premise that truth is that which serves the interests of the party. But when Beijing lies to the [World Health Organization] about an infectious disease such as SARS, China’s rulers are exporting a political virus along with the bug that infects people with a virulent pneumonia.”

In the Financial Times, meanwhile, Minxin Pei has even tougher words for China’s rulers. Given its political structure, Minxin writes, China’s reaction was grimly predictable.

“For those familiar with the inner workings of the Chinese political system, Beijing’s response to Sars follows all too well a familiar but troubling pattern of crisis mismanagement: bureaucratic incompetence, inaction, secrecy, denial and half-measures.

As a rule, the severity of the crisis is played down and blame for the problem is assigned elsewhere. In many cases, even the very existence of a crisis is vigorously denied. Afterwards, keeping the official story straight becomes the overriding goal, subverting the urgency of containing the situation. This, indeed, is what happened when the HIV/Aids epidemic first hit China. Tragically, the Sars crisis shows Beijing failed to learn from that episode.”

Stealing Babylon

Within the war-torn lands of the Middle East lie some of the most ancient relics of early civilization, and archaeologists fear that the current conflict in Iraq will lead to the loss of many of the region’s antiquities. In addition to the damage bombing will inevitably cause to museums and libraries, many believe that, in a time of reconstruction and instability, looters will place priceless artifacts on the black market, reports Donald McLeod of the London Guardian.

Archaeologists’ fears are far from unfounded. In the first Gulf War, Diego Cevallos of the Inter-Press Service reports, 13 museums and six libraries were reduced to rubble. And nearly all traceable historical material that disappeared in the war’s aftermath was later discovered in illegal art and archaeology trade circles.

But most alarming is an apparent move by prominent dealers and collectors within the US to sanction and even organize such looting. A group of art traders, calling itself the American Council for Cultural Policy, recently met with Defense Department officials, reports Liam McDougal of the UK’s Sunday Herald. Scientists fear that the meeting was an attempt by the influential dealers to ease restrictions on Iraq’s antiquities laws. The group’s treasurer has called current policies “retentionist,” and favors the export and sale of some of the world’s oldest treasures to the US. While the group insists it only wants to help Iraq preserve its history, skeptics aren’t sold: This week, an international group of archaeologists petitioned the United Nations to “ensure that whatever body oversees post-war Iraq takes steps to preserve its priceless heritage from destruction and looting.”


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