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Class and the Democrats – posted 4/23/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/29/2016

April 24, 2016 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on April 29, 2016 under the title “The party that lost its way”.

When historians of the future assess what happened to the Democratic Party in 2016, they will need to look at the issue of class. Americans do not typically talk about it. Class is a dirty secret in American politics. We all pretend that everyone in America is middle class, even when it is so obviously not true.

That buzzword phrase “income inequality” has shattered the myth that everyone in America is middle class. The divide between the top 1% and everyone else has become an enormous chasm. As Bernie Sanders has articulated, over the last 40 years or so, the economic gains have not been equally distributed. The 1% has, in extraordinarily greedy fashion, hogged a hugely disproportionate share of wealth.

Some seem to think it is class warfare just to state the obvious and acknowledge these facts. But there are so many millions of Americans who have been left behind and left out. These folks are everywhere around the country. I do think there has been massive denial about the extent of the dysfunction.

Here is my short list: lousy education and too expensive colleges, exploding college tuition debt, low paying jobs with not enough hours and benefits, high rent and too many evictions, mass incarceration of the poor and minorities and millions still without health care coverage. And that is just for starters.

Historically, at least since the time of FDR, the Democratic party has liked to think of itself as the political party that defended the interests of working class Americans. The legacy of FDR has been powerful. For a long time Democrats were able to ride on FDR’s great accomplishments and prestige.

However, that time is now gone. Many Democrats profess shock at the emergence of Donald Trump and worry about his white working class base. How, they wonder, can these voters support someone like Trump who is a billionaire and hardly a person who can be mistaken as a supporter of worker causes? I think these mystified Democrats are missing the point about why Trump has the followers he has. It has much to do with the failure of the Democrats to offer these left-behind voters anything or to care about them.

Although phony and demagogic, Trump is speaking to real needs. He has been talking to the reality that working class people, including white working class people, are being consigned to being a permanent underclass. Since the 1970’s, the American dream has been wrenched away from these workers. Or to quote George Carlin: “It’s called the American dream because to believe it, you have to be ASLEEP.”

I think the problem for the Democrats is that party leaders have lost their way. They gave up on being the party of the working class, a class that has massively suffered over the last 30 years. Instead they decided to become the party of young professionals, the upper 10%, and they adjusted their message that way. So unlike the Republicans who support the upper 1%, the Democrats support a broader strata of high income people who are comfortably ensconced in capitalism.

The Democrats just assumed the working class would hang around and support them because they had nowhere else to go politically.

Of course, many Democrats have not been reconciled to this shift away from concern about the working class. The struggle between the Sanders and Clinton forces reflects this tension and it is, in fact, a struggle for the future direction of the party.

Many progressives in the party, whether supporting Sanders or Clinton, do want an aggressive attack on income inequality. And when I say aggressive attack, I mean an FDR-style agenda with major job programs, serious infrastructure repair, support for the labor movement, and a new offensive against poverty. The progressives are dead set against more Middle Eastern wars and the interventionism that has characterized American foreign policy for a generation. Serious progressives want a 21st century New Deal.

Part of the concern about Democrats taking large campaign contributions is a recognition that a party beholden to powerful interests is unlikely to do more than window dressing on income inequality. The party has a credibility gap around whether the talk about tackling income inequality is real or meaningless gestures.

Since the 2012 election, the media has featured many stories about Republican autopsy reports. You don’t hear about a Democratic autopsy report. While Democrats have retained the White House for the last two presidential elections, the Republicans have cleaned their clock in state legislatures, governorships, and Congress.

If the Democrats are so successful, how come they keep losing as much as they have all over the country?

I would cite two authors who have most clearly described the class issues inside the Democratic coalition. They are the late Joe Bageant and Thomas Frank, the author of Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?

Bageant, the author in 2007 of the very entertaining, humorous and astute book, Deer Hunting With Jesus, returned home to Winchester Virginia, a solidly working class town, after a 30 year absence. He zeroed in on the class issues and the general decline in the quality of life of his neighbors.

Bageant sympathetically shows how many of his Red State neighbors became Republican by default. He says many of his neighbors have never even met anyone who would self-describe as a liberal. The world Bageant described isn’t politically competitive. It’s Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage on the radio, or contemporary Christian stations. Ultraconservatism is a given.

Bageant did not see liberals or leftists seriously engaging and trying to counter Republican fallacies.He complained yuppie professionals tended to stereotype and look down their noses at blue collar people. He thought the attitude was snobbery but what he described was primarily an absence of effort on the part of progressives to reach his community.

Thomas Frank comes at these issues in quite a different way. He shows how the Democrats instead of being a left party confronting an epic economic breakdown became a party of professionals talking about entrepreneurship. The Democrats have been the party of liberal plutocracy, supporting terrible trade deals and ideas like bank deregulation.

Frank depicts how professional class liberalism is a progressive mirage bathed in its own sense of high self-regard. Listen, Liberal brilliantly unpacks the liberal class ideology: the cult of expertise, the reliance on Big Money, the obsession with meritocracy, passivity toward the destruction of unions and love for techno-innovation.

Like Frank, I would argue that, to date, the Democratic Party has failed to seriously grapple with income inequality. It remains to be seen what kind of Democratic Party we will get. Recent history shows it is not enough simply to assume the Republicans will be so horrible that voters will have no choice but to vote Democratic.

Losing interest in working people is a recipe for Democratic disaster.

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Where is the Outrage for Jeffrey Pendleton? – posted 4/10/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/15/2015

April 10, 2016 5 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on April 15, 2016 under the title “Why did Jeffrey Pendleton die in jail?

Over the last couple years, these names have come into our collective lives: Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, There are quite a few others who experienced the same fate I am not naming, All were African-American and all died in police custody or at the hands of the police in circumstances that could best be described as questionable.

The deaths contributed to the creation of the national movement known as Black Lives Matter. The people who died lived in places all over the United States. None, however, were from New Hampshire – until now.

Now we have the little known, terrible story of a New Hampshire man, Jeffrey Pendleton, which has received scant local media attention. Pendleton’s story is New Hampshire’s version of Sandra Bland, the Black woman who was pulled over by a policeman in Texas for a lane change and who inexplicably died in jail a few days later. Like Bland, Pendleton was wrongly jailed and he died mysteriously alone in his jail cell.

The question has to be asked: where is the outrage? Why so little reaction to Pendleton’s death?

On March 13, Pendleton, a 26 year old, homeless, African-American man from Nashua was found dead in a jail cell at Valley Street Jail in Manchester. Pendleton had been in jail for five days when he died. He had been arrested on March 8 on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. The Nashua District Court had set Pendleton’s bail at $100 cash, an amount he could not afford to pay. As a result, he went to jail.

No one seems to have any explanation for why he died. State and prison officials have had precious little to say. A Union Leader article quotes a Nashua police captain who says the Nashua police did everything correctly in the case.

Dr. Jenny Duval, deputy chief medical examiner for New Hampshire, performed an autopsy and said from her examination there was no evidence of any natural disease or physical trauma. The exam found no needle marks. Dr. Duval looked into Pendleton’s medical history and she said that he had appeared to be in good health.

Dr. Duval ordered additional tests and hoped that test results will determine the cause and manner of death.

While for me the Pendleton case prompts many reactions, I would begin by asking: why was he in jail? And why would an apparently healthy young man just die?

The jailing of Pendleton for failing to pay $100 bail on the pot charge is all too typical of the callous and uncaring way poor people are treated in New Hampshire. No way would most people be going to jail for that. They would come up with $100. Pendleton was jailed for being too poor to pay $100. Why is the state using such a harsh penalty, jail time, for such a minimal charge? The cost of incarceration, housing and feeding, so exceeds the charged offense.

When people talk about the criminalization of poverty, this is a good example. Pendleton was not a danger or a flight risk. Those are the reasons typically invoked for bail. I would also point out that pot is now legal in multiple states and when our state decides to enter the 21st century, it will be legal here. Everyone who is honest knows it is only a matter of time until pot will be legal in New Hampshire. New Hampshire remains the only state in New England that has not decriminalized marijuana possession.

It is both sad and wrong that Pendleton was jailed for a non-violent activity that would not have been punished at all in multiple jurisdictions.

One prominent New Hampshire defense attorney told me that he thought if Pendleton had not died he would have served 30 days. Then, when he appeared in court, he would have been released on time served and the case would have gone away.

Poor people so don’t count. Money-based bail regularly means that poor defendants are punished before they get their day in court. Probably poor people end up doing more time than if they had a court hearing and were convicted immediately.

The day after Jeffrey Pendleton died, the U.S. Justice Department released a letter to state chief justices and court administrators around the country suggesting they change their practices on fees and fines. The letter explicitly stated:

“Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.”

The letter came a day too late for Jeffrey Pendleton. How does the state plan to make amends to a dead man? I don’t see anybody jumping up to take responsibility.

Ever since the events in Ferguson Missouri, awareness has increased about the broader problem that many courts in America have been imposing exorbitant fees and fines on people who have committed relatively petty offenses. It is and remains modern-day debtors’ prison.

Too many cities and towns are relying on court fines and fees to pay down municipal debt. In a report released by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors on Fees, Fines, and Bail, the authors note the increasing municipal reliance on these fines in America. The report states that in 1986, 12% of those incarcerated nationally were also fined. In 2004, the number had climbed to 37%.

Prior to his death, Jeffrey Pendleton was not some marginal, unknown homeless person. He had been a plaintiff in two lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire. In the first case in March 2015 the court forced the town of Hudson to pay damages for the unconstitutional and illegal way they treated people who were peaceful panhandlers. In the second case, Pendleton spent 33 days in jail for walking in a park adjacent to the Nashua Public Library. The police charged him with criminal trespassing for walking through the park after he allegedly violated a verbal “no trespass” order. Nashua had to pay Pendleton and his attorneys for violation of his constitutional rights.

At this point, it is impossible to know if Pendleton’s activism played any role in what happened to him. I would hope that a thorough and fair investigation will get to the bottom of Pendleton’s tragic death. It is hard to fathom how and why a 26 year old spontaneously dies if that is what happened..

The New York Times reported that Pendleton had arrived in Nashua in 2009. He had worked low wage jobs in fast food restaurants. After a divorce in 2013, he became homeless and he started sleeping in the woods. He spent the winter of 2013-14 outside in a tent.

Pendleton worked at a Burger King in Nashua. In the press, a co-worker was quoted saying he made $8.50 an hour at most. That money is a little above New Hampshire’s paltry minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, far and away the lowest in New England. The money Pendleton made was not enough for any kind of apartment and it was apparently not enough to pay bail.

In February, Pendleton had participated in the Fight for $15 campaign which advocates for a higher minimum wage. He had demonstrated outside the Burger King where he worked. Maybe if Pendleton had been making a higher wage none of these events would have happened.

In an article that appeared in the Huffington Post, Attorney Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire and Pendleton’s lawyer, described Pendleton as a “really sweet” and “kind” person whose troubles with the law were primarily a result of his poverty. Attorney Bissonnette also said the following:

“He got involved in these cases not because he thought he would obtain some sort of financial windfall but because he believed these cases could bring relief to other poor people who were struggling to get by and who were having interactions with law enforcement. He cared about how the cases that we were handling could potentially change police practices in the future.”

I must say I remain puzzled by how little coverage Pendleton’s death has received in New Hampshire media since March 13. Most of the stories that have been done come from outside news outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian. I did hear one story on New Hampshire Public Radio. When I have asked friends and acquaintances about Pendleton’s death, they have invariably not heard about it.

There have been a lot of stories about bobcats and also about the St. Paul’s preppy and the tragedy of his temporary detour from Harvard but almost nothing about a dead young black man. Based on the coverage, maybe black lives don’t matter.

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Kevin Turner and the NFL’s Evolving Stance of Doubt – posted 4/3/2016

April 3, 2016 Leave a comment

As someone who follows news about pro football, I would have to acknowledge how often these days football news is punctuated by stories about the deaths of former players. Usually they die young. The most recent example is Kevin Turner.

Turner, who died at age 46, had an 8 year NFL career. He had been a blocking fullback for the Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles back in the 1990’s. He had played college ball at Alabama. Turner was an extremely talented offensive player who spent much of his career plowing into linebackers and defensive linemen which was often not a glory role.

More recently, Turner was one of the lead plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit filed by the players against the NFL. He was widely respected and popular in the NFL player community. After he died, I saw innumerable tweets from former NFL players remembering and honoring him.

In 2010, Turner received the diagnosis of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had suffered more concussions than he could count. As a player he had been prone to “stingers”, which are injuries to the neck and spinal cord. Turner was certain football contributed to his medical condition. He was quoted in 2011:

“Football had something to do with it. I don’t know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys.”

Turner used to tell a story about a Packers-Eagles game in which he played in 1997. He took a brutal hit on the opening kickoff where he saw stars. After that, he did not miss a play. Midway through the second quarter, he found himself on the sideline. He turned to his teammate Bobby Hoying and he said:

“Bobby, I know we’re playing the Packers. Are we in Philadelphia or Green Bay?”

Hoying then called the team doctors. The doctors held Turner out for two series. He played the whole second half as well as the rest of the season. That was the norm back then.

By 2013, Turner’s ALS had progressed. He had great difficulty using his hands. He described the progression this way:

“There’s so many things you can’t do. I’ll list the things you can. I can still walk around. I can’t carry anything. It takes away all of your independence. I can’t bathe myself. I can’t brush my own teeth. I can’t eat. I can drink but I can’t bring it to my mouth. I can’t dress myself. I can’t tie my shoes. If I can’t do it with my feet, I can’t do it.”

In his last years, Turner selflessly advocated for former players and he fought for more research on the connection between repetitive brain trauma, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and ALS. Turner pledged his own brain for research.

A key scientist in this research is Dr. Ann McKee from Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. She has studied the brains of 94 deceased NFL players. 90 had CTE. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. The Concussion Legacy Foundation has put out the best definition of CTE that I have seen.

“CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head…This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes..can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia.”

Shockingly, after years of denial, the NFL may now be signaling a new stance. In testimony he just gave before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Congress, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, Jeff Miller, forthrightly stated that there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE. Miller went on to recognize that Dr. Ann McKee and her colleagues at BU had found the disease in many players who died.

It is hard to overstate what a departure Miller’s testimony represents from previous NFL positions. For many years the NFL argued that research had not established any causal link between repetitive head trauma in football and CTE. It is hard to square Miller’s testimony with recent statements from Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell, while acknowledging Miller, still seems to be downplaying the risks of playing football. Here is Goodell this February:

“From my standpoint, I played football for nine years through high school and I wouldn’t give up a single day of that. If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get. There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.”

The NFL’s seeming new position does not appear to be reflected in recent statements by well-known owners of NFL teams. Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, said he is not convinced that medical and scientific research have established a link between football and brain disease. Jones claims a lack of data and research.

Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts owner, compared the dangers of playing football to the risks associated with taking aspirin. Irsay was quoted:

“I believe this: that the game has always been a risk. Look at it. You take an aspirin, I take an aspirin, it might give you extreme side effects of illness and your body…may reject it, where I would be fine. So there is so much we don’t know.”

On March 28, speaking to the media at the NFL owners’ annual meeting, Irsay went on to say, “Obviously, we are not going to go to a situation where we put players in almost balloon-like equipment, where it becomes a pillow fight, so to speak.”

Around the same time on March 24, the New York Times published an important story that showed the NFL’s concussion research was far more flawed than had been previously known. The Times showed that research done from 1996 through 2001 omitted more than 100 diagnosed concussions and calculated the rates of concussions using incomplete data. The NFL made concussions appear less frequent than they actually were.

The Times also found out that along with teams failing to report all of their players’ concussions, some teams completely failed to report any concussions. The Times’ article cites the Dallas Cowboys as an example. It also goes on to cite overlapping and intersecting interests between the NFL and tobacco companies. The two businesses shared lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants.

Given the contradictory statements from the NFL and its owners, it is hard to know if they have, in fact, evolved. For years the NFL used their resources to push the message that concussions were a non-issue. They cherry picked data, elevated flawed research and attacked scientists opposed to their party line. At this point, it is hard to believe any change of heart is sincere.

I believe the NFL is following a path described by authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their book, Merchants of Doubt. The NFL has been merchandising doubt to mislead the public about the connection between brain injuries and football. It is the same strategy followed by the tobacco companies who for years denied the connection between smoking and lung cancer. As one tobacco executive wrote, “Doubt is our product.”

The NFL can always in a cagey way say it is on the side of science and more research. They can say the science is in its infancy but the science is way more settled than they are acknowledging. Promoting an alleged controversy and doubt-mongering give space for the NFL to continue with minimal disruption and cost. It is actually a formula for inaction and delay.

In honor of Kevin Turner and the other players who have died prematurely, we need to be keeping it real with intellectual honesty. I am not arguing for any ban on football because players can make their own choices about whether they want to play but they should know: football can rob you of critical life capabilities while short-circuiting your life. It is a Faustian bargain.

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