Monday, January 16, 2006

Intellectually Bankrupt Republicans Play Fast and Loose by Playing Party Politics with Sex Offender Issue

Bankrupt of any new, modern, or real ideas, the Republican caucus in Olympia is attempting to appeal to the raw emotion that is easily conjured up when voters think of the proper punishment for people who molest, rape and kill children with sexual motivation. Republicans apparent motivation is that they believe it will pay election dividends in 2006. But will it deal more effectively with the crimes of sexual offenders?

Okay! There is no pro sex offender lobby group in Olympia. No one is going to go before a Washington State legislative committee and argue that we should be more tolerant with sex offenders. In fact Washington State has led the nation in tough laws dealing with sex offenders over the years. Laws that call for indefinite civil committments of sexual predators when prison sentences end for instance.

Why then have the Republicans chosen to turn this issue into a circus sideshow during the current session of the Washington State legislature?

The Republican caucus in Olympia decided prior to the session they needed a hot potato political issue to run their election campaigns around in 2006. They have revealed this strategy by their actions in Olympia since the start of the legislative session. They decided that the center piece of their platform in 2006 would apparently be sexual offenders. With the politicizing of this extremely emotional and polarizing issue they believe they have found a win-win election wedge issue for 2006.

Republican conservatives only need to focus the media attention away from their shortcomings as leaders with any new ideas or the more pressing problems of the State and towards labeling Democrats, in the minds of the 2006 electorate, as being a party reluctant to punishment sex offenders. It is somewhat ironic due to the fact that Washington State, as indicated before, has some of the toughest laws already on the books in the nation when it comes to dealing with sex offenders.

The Democratic response to this has been to propose tougher penalties for sex crimes also, in a effort to address the Republican concerns. House bill 2411 primary sponsor is Mountlake Terrace Democrat Al O'Brien, a retired Seattle Police Sergeant who served for 29 years in that capacity. The Democratic proposals mirrors the Republican proposals, for the most part, but also reflect input from victims, advocates for victims, prosecutors, police, and the legal community.

You must remember the Republican Legislative opening day ploy to just skip the regular legislative hearing process all together and pass a sex offender bill immediately that day without any input from anyone. When the Democrats rejected this proposal the pre-made radio ads quickly followed, in key Democratic districts, indicating that the Democrats had voted against getting tough with sex offenders or were being soft on crime.

What total bullshit!

At the end of a recent emotion packed hearing on a Democratic sponsored bill to strengthen sex offender laws, Republican John Ahern of Spokane offered that he had recently talked to unidentified “Moslem” who’s opinion on what to do with sex offenders he agreed with. “They just kill them” he then added. Said before an audience, at the committee hearing, composed predominantly of emotionally spent victims, and the relatives of victims, the statement played pretty good to say the least. I would say that Ahern was preaching to the choir on this one. A Democrat on the committee quickly added that this is the same culture that often kills women outright if it is perceived they have in someway brought dishonor to the family, inferring that maybe the Ahern analogy was a little extreme and somewhat off point.

Let’s just form a posse and when one of these perverts rapes or molests a child will catch them and just string them up. No need to pay attention to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the rule of law, evidence, or a trial, is apparently the current Republican position. Nor are the circumstances or relationship of the victim to the offender ever to be considered. But, the reality of prosecuting these types of crimes is much different to prosecutors, the police, and victim advocates who are often dealing with young or reluctant victims and with such things as the rules of evidence or placing compelling proof of guilt before the jury.

The Democratic caucus in Olympia has a tough job framing their position on this issue in the mind of the average voters. It's easy for the Republican caucus to just say “hang them all”. The Democratic position has more nuances to it and prosecutors and police say the democratic position may actually lead to more actual convictions for longer time then the Republican hang them high or lock them up and throw away the key rhetoric. But most voters apparently have trouble with nuance when it comes to sexual offenders.

Although Democrats have proposed laws that mirror the popular trend toward a version of Jessica’s law, which is named after Jessica Lunsford, a 9 year old who was raped in murdered in Florida, that calls for 25 years to life in prison for sex offenders who commit violent sexual crimes against children. The Democratic legislative proposal mainly differs when it comes to victims who are known by the offender. It must be added that the Democrat proposal does not protect people in positions of authority like a coach or teacher or pervert priest. The Democratic proposals also orders closer monitoring of convicted sex offenders with such things as tracking by global positioning satellite.

But most often when these crimes happen it is in the family setting and done by someone known to the victim. Prosecutors believe victims in these types of cases will be reluctant to testify or supply evidence if it means a parent or relative will be put away for life. Juries will also be reluctant to convict sex offenders knowing that these new laws will mean life in prison. This is the argument that stronger laws may in effect end in less convictions than under the current laws on the books. Democrats are walking a fine line here in a effort to get it right. They have been listening to victims, prosecutors, the police and victim advocates about what type of laws would work best in the real world situtations, not just what may make a good sound bite on conservative talk radio or a divisive issue in a future election campaign. Several bills have also been proposed by Democrats to deal with the aftermath of these sex crimes on the victims. Such as victim avocation and counseling.

Today Americans are bombarded daily on radio and the cable news channels with one sensational story after another about a sexual predator somewhere wreaking havoc. The media realizes the high emotional appeal this has to Americans and the potential boost to their ratings. The Washington State Republican caucus is simply trying to use this lurid appeal as a political tool to manipulate public opinion in their favor at the polls.

Overall the attempt by the Republican caucus to overly politicize these issue shows a lack of any new ideas of substance by the GOP on the major problems that this state faces. These, like other Republican “wedge” issues, do more to further victimize the victims of sex offenders by overstating the problem and polarizing interest groups. Who want to do the right thing? They have in effect turned the devastated lives of these victims into a political football they hope to kick thru the uprights come election day in November 2006.

Also see prior post on this subject: No strikes your out!

Blogger artistdogboy note: This story reflects artistdogboy's personal opinion and not that necessarily of his brother Representative Al O'Brien (D)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Million Little Pieces of Bullshit

There is nothing more disgusting or lower, in my book, than dreaming up a fake drug addict alcoholic recovery story. Then pandering it into a best selling book while claiming all along it’s a real life rags, crack head criminal to riches, recovered whole human being autobiography. All just so you can make money apparently?

Now this! The publishing world's developing scandal of the year concerning the NYT best selling blockbuster book “A Million Little Pieces” by author James Frey. Seems that The Smoking Gun website while trying to get a mug shot of the author, was having trouble finding much of anything near the criminal record that Mr. Frey claimed for himself in his book. The writer claimed to be a suicidal, super badass, coke snorting, crack head, criminal, prison hard ass in his book, who subsequently goes straight and lives to tell about it. The book is sort of a “bottom this” tale of whoa followed by redemption by the simple realization that he been morally “weak”.

What happens if some addicted or alcoholic person out there has been inspired to try to get sober based on Mr. Frey’s book, and now finds out it's all just bad bullshit fiction? Will they follow through? The TSG revelations, if true, will certainly reinforce the bullshit quotient stereotype with every rehabilitation cynic from here to Timbuktu.

For Christ sake, people are dying out here, and alcoholics and addicts really need to be told the truth if they are to have any chance of recovery, not more self-grandiosity intellectual psychobabble bull crap. Being a liar is one of the things normal people always seem to claim drug addicts and alcoholics are synonymous with being all about. This is true; at least for the un-recovered ones I’ve known. In fact one of the biggest maladies of addiction and alcoholism, and the lowlifes it ensnares, is consistently being able to separate truth from the delusion.

But what’s worse then conning Oprah Winfrey into turning the goddamn book into a best seller by making it one of her book club selection. “Like nothing you've ever read before”, says Oprah. We all know that most of the women that watch Oprah are wound a little too tight anyway and they have limited real life experiences to compare to reality, other then that filtered through the chief “go girl” herself. But if Oprah says your book a dandy then you’re suddenly a best selling author.

Apparently most of the story of the miraculous turnaround is fabricated, according to The Smoking Gun. Who seem to have done their homework here before going forward with the story at their website, since they are under threat of legal action by the author’s attorneys for publishing their revelations about the "real" Mr. Frey.

The worst part maybe that Mr. Frey has been transformed to the level of recovery guru status by the mind boggling success of the book and Oprah's lavish praise. This has lead to calls from substance abusing admirers asking for help. He apparently rejects the concepts of 12-step recovery for a personally developed program he calls “holding on”. TSG adds:

Frey's reported post-Hazelden recovery was unorthodox, hinging on his ability to continually surmount temptation, thanks to a superhuman will that helped him avoid using at the same time he was purposely placing himself in situations where alcohol and drugs were prevalent. For those struggling with substance abuse, Frey is a shiny, relapse-free success story, a man who beat formidable odds with steely resolve.

Well I hope he's holding on to his ass, because someone ought to give it a swift kick. Superhuman will my ass!

If TSG revelations that most of his experiences, claimed in A Million Little Pieces, are patiently false, it should be asked what the hell does Frey really know about recovery, and why would anyone believe anything he says about it or anything else for that matter?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Coal Mining Remains A Deadly Livelihood

Labor Day Roslyn, Washington 1922
"The labor movement is organized upon a principle that the strong shall help the weak" John L. Lewis

The year after my uncle, Clyde Fischer of Roslyn Washington, was born in 1908 there were 2642 accidental deaths attributed officially to coal mining in the United States. 1909 remains the year for the highest number of deaths recorded since modern official government record keeping started in 1900.

Since that time the death rates have declined steadily, as have the number of miners that make a living removing coal from the earth. In 1900 it was estimated that there were nearly 450,000 miners. Today the numbers are more like 108,000 miners total working to extract coal. There were officially 22 deaths in 2005 and, as we have painfully learned with the latest disaster at the Sago mine accident in West Virginia 12 miners died so far in 2006. Although mine safety has improved markedly over the years, due to pressure by organize labor and others, the latest deaths in West Virginia prove that mine safety is still an issue that needs to be addressed, and working in a coal mine is an extremely dangerous way for one to make a living.

Coal mining has always required a special breed of courageous workers. My uncle, who pasted away in 1977, was a miner who worked for nearly a quarter of a century in the coalfields of Roslyn, Washington for the Northwestern Improvement Company. A subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad that needed the mined coal to feed the railway’s coal driven locomotives of that bygone era.

The mines first opened in Roslyn 1886. Roslyn history is one of mining and a work force made up of many different diversified ethnic groups who came to Roslyn in search of work and fulfillment of their idea of an American dream. The town included Slavic, Italian, Irish, German Russian and other immigrants. Many spoke different languages other then English. There was ethnic and racial strife at times. In 1888 300 black miners arrived who where hired by the mining company to break a strike by white miners. Although this fueled racism and hatred to the boiling point it eventually led to these same black miners assimilated into community as the white miners took a live and let live attitude about the negro as time went by. In 1975 Roslyn appointed the first black city mayor in Washington State, who happened to be a direct descendant of the original black strikebreakers.

When I would travel to Eastern Washington I’d often stop to visit my uncle Clyde and his lovely wife Alice who had lived in the same house in Roslyn for many years. The house was located North of 1st street and Pennsylvania Avenue on the north hill in Roslyn. The houses of that town, which are constructed mostly with cedar and or other wood siding, always looked weathered and somewhat dreary to me against the backdrop of the hills. I thought it fit the hard times depressed feeling that the history of the town always conjured up in me. As you came into town you’d pass by the old NWI company store building where miners used to shop for all their goods, running a tab that would later be repaid by deductions from their pay.

Over shots of bourbon Clyde would spin tales of the ruff and tuff days of mining in that town. I got to know him better late in his life. He had suffered a stroke and was semi-retired at the time. He was living on social security and running a taxi business out of his house. He shuttled people between Roslyn and the small towns of Ronald and CleElum, which are located near by. Money was tight. For a time he had served as the deputy sheriff in Roslyn and even at one time been the local justice of the peace. But his health was failing now. I remember him as a powerful man during most of his life who my grandmother told me could bend a railroad spike in his bare hands when he was young.

When I would stop by his place on my way through town we often would have a drink and he’d share his experiences about Roslyn and his memories of the working life. We would talk of the boomtown atmosphere when Roslyn population was nearer to 4000 in the 1920’s with all the related wild and hard scrabble living that comprised life for most of the town’s inhabitants. I was fascinated with the history of the labor movement and  IWW and the melancholy and romantic struggles of the workers for better working conditions in this very dangerous of occupations that is coal mining.

Clyde Fisher was a member for a time of the IWW or “Wobblies”. He had no love for management or it exploitation of workers ever. Especially when it came to work safety, which he described as sometimes abysmal. Safety issues were more prevalent earlier on in his coal-mining career then at the end though. Later he became a member of the United Mine Workers of America. Because of union solidarity the workers would refuse to work in the unsafe conditions and the company would have to correct the problems before miners would be willing to return to work. Solidarity amongst miners was expected when it came to shutting down a mine that continued to allow dangerous working conditions. He told a story of once physically having to block the way of miners who wanted to return to work in a mine that the union had determined was unsafe and the union was attempting to shut down with a wildcat strike. The UMWA was well known for work stoppages when they deemed it necessary. All negotiating was done from what they perceived as the position of power drawn from their right to withhold their labor at a time of their choosing.

His stories include the tale of the Roslyn mine explosions of May 12th, 1892 when 45 minors were killed outright. The newspaper accounts of the disaster indicate “A sheet of flames shot out of the shaft 150 feet in the air for several minutes. There were two distinct explosions following close after each other like rapid gun firing.” To this day it remains one of the worst coalmine disasters in Washington state history. Another disaster followed this one in October 1909 when another explosion at the number 4 mine in Roslyn killed 11 more miners and injured many others. These men knew each day of work meant risking their life.

In the course of talking with Clyde during one of my visits between 1973 and 1974 I ask him what kind of pension he had to show for his 24 years of working as a miner. Thinking he must of gotten some compensation for the many years of putting his life on the line. He simply stated that he had applied to the United Mine Workers Union and that he received a letter back informing him that he was “not eligible”. I nearly fell off my chair at the time. It was hard for me to believe that someone could work that long under such difficult working conditions and not qualify somehow for a pension or medical benefits. But as I learned more, this is exactly what was happening. By today’s standards I guess it not such a big thing. But in 1974 it was still a unthinkable outcome.

Seems that the leadership of the UMWA and the union’s pension trustees had instituted a rule made up more to disqualified miners then guarantee them a pension. It required that they apply for the pension during a specific “window period” after they retired from working in the mine. The rule was known as the “twenty out of thirty rule”. Because many men in Roslyn had not reach retirement age before the mines closed in 1963, or had started other careers when coal mining there was in obvious decline. Many failed to apply, being simple men, most failed to realize they were required to apply for pensions within a precise time frame. This caused many to find they were not eligible when they finally did apply. It was a callous demonstration by the leaders of the UMWA, especially “Tough” Tony Boyle, the union president at the time, that they were more interested in lining their own pockets then helping miners they had a duty to represent.

Boyle was subsequently convicted, and sent to prison for life, where he died in 1985, for conspiring to murder UMWA union reformer Jock Yablonski and his family after Yablonksi challenged him for the presidency of the union in 1969. Boyle ended up wining the election, but Yablonski then asked the federal courts to review the election for fraud. He was murder shortly after that. Yablonski a long time union reformer at odds with Boyle was also making substantial headway into uncovering widespread union corruption at that time. The corruption eventually turned out to include large misappropriations of union pension funds for the personal use by Boyle and his cronies.

When my uncle told me about the denial of his mineworker pension in 1974 I was infuriated. I commenced to write letters, directly to the union demanding a full explanation, and to just about every politician whom I felt may help correct this injustice. In the course of this I also contacted Chip Yablonski, the son of the slain union reformer in an off chance he may be of help. An activist lawyer for the United Farm Workers Union had recommended I contact Yablonski when I ask him for advise on how I should proceed. Chip Yablonski was a young lawyer at the time in Washington. D.C. As you would imagine he was deeply involved in continuing the work started by his murdered father to reform the UMWA. He needed little motivation, having lost his father, mother and a sister at the hands of Boyle’s hired killers.

Yablonski told me to send him everything I could about my uncle’s work situation. He indicated that my uncle's pension problem was not a isolated case. I had, by this time, accumulated a large file of letters and documents on my uncle’s work history and his efforts to become eligible for a union pension and medical benefits. Yablonski indicated that he intended to file a class action suit on the issue in Federal Court and that my uncle’s claims would become part of the action with those of other miners.

A year or more passed. During this time my uncle came to Seattle to sign up for Black Lung benefits which he also was eligible to receive. Seems that a letter I had written to Senator Magnusson had prompted the Social Security Administration to call my uncle directly to arrange a special appointment to determine his eligibility for black lung benefits. All these actions fighting for my uncle’s rights helped boost his spirits and his dignity and the feeling that a plain old workingman could stand up and fight for what had been unjustly denied him.

I was an organizer for the Office and Professional Employees International Union at the time all this was happening. One day I was sitting in my office in the Labor Temple in downtown Seattle when the phone rang. It was Clyde Fischer, who was shouting that he had heard from the union that he had been awarded his pension. He wanted me to drive to Roslyn that day to celebrate. Seems that the court had decided that the rule that denied him his pension was unreasonable. The action meant that approximately 20,000 miners would begin to receive their pensions and medical benefits previously denied them. This translated to an agreed on $2000 settlement for each miner for retro pension owed, and a $200 per month payment for life plus medical coverage. I, along with my Uncle and Annt Alice, were elated.

I drove over the pass that day and when I reached Roslyn we celebrated our victory by drinking whiskey and shooting off a few rounds into the summer night air from pistols we’d pulled from one of the kitchen cabinet draws, which happened to all contain some type of firearm. It seemed at that time like a victory for Clyde, the iconiclastic workingman and miner, and remains one of my fondest memories of a justice realized.