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On The Bus in Oaktown

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Riding the bus around Oakland as I do is sometimes boring, sometimes maddening—but yesterday it was illuminating. I was sitting under my headphones as usual when two adorable teenage boys got on; one of them was carrying a bottle of unopened vodka—no bag, just the bottle. The kids were certainly underage, maybe 15, so I noticed, but soon went back to my music, tuning out. A few minutes later I heard a hubbub on the bus, and saw that women were shouting and the kids were laughing. Curious, I took off my headphones.

Two or three women were yelling at the kids, asking them how old they were, and why they were boldly carrying a bottle of booze out in the open. They weren’t yelling at them for the alcohol per se, but because, they said, the kids were likely to be stopped by cops, arrested, sent to Juvenile Hall and who knows what else. The kids were being totally good-natured about the whole thing. At some point I said to one of the women, “It Takes a Village,” and she nodded and said “That’s right.”

“You should have it in a bag,” I told the boys. Seated across from me was a nearly toothless man holding a frayed backpack, from which he drew an old plastic bag and handed it to the kids. We all applauded as the boys, still laughing, bagged the offending bottle.

“This is great,” I said, as the conversation continued, mostly about black men and cops. I almost hated to get off at my stop.


Does the Jury System Work?

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Lady-justice-jury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From what I’ve been reading online, and hearing on National Public Radio from callers and talking heads of every political stripe, I’ve formed a few tentative conclusions as to why George Zimmerman was found innocent.

1. A jury of six, as opposed to twelve, vastly increases the chance of reaching a unanimous decision. (That’s just commons sense.) Why the jury was six I don’t know, but it seems that anything goes in the State of Florida.

2. A jury composed of one gender exclusively, whether male or female, should not in my opinion be permitted.

3. A jury composed of five people of one color or ethnicity and only one person of  any other, should likewise be impermissible (IMO). In this case the jury was composed of  five white women and one who, like GZ, “identifies as Hispanic,” according to

In many therapeutic workshops and political groups I’ve participated in over the years, any time the ethnic composition resembled this kind of near homogeneity, the facilitator openly acknowledged it before beginning the main focus of the group, and invited discussion. It was part of the process, thought necessary: when a group is nearly homogenous but for one or two lonely others, it’s a setting for conflict, whether hidden or overt. No, I’m not suggesting that trial juries begin deliberations with a therapy session—but come to think of it, why not? In my version of Utopia they would! In the world as it sadly exists, we could at least remedy the situation by, again, not allowing this kind of jury composition (IMO).

4. So far, the one jury member who has spoken was white. Among other things, she said:

George Zimmerman's mother

George Zimmerman’s mother

“For whatever reason, Mr. Martin…decided to confront Mr. Zimmerman and threw the first punch.”

Just how does she know this? As far as I know, nobody alive other than GZ knows if that’s what happened. Maybe the defense put it forward as their narrative—but nobody knows if it’s true for sure, and

Trayvon Martin's mother

Trayvon Martin’s mother

we probably never will. George Zimmerman’s and Trayvon Martin’s mothers each identified the voice calling for help on the tape as belonging to her own son.

This juror, known as number B-37, said that when the women started deliberating, three of them wanted to acquit, two wanted to convict GZ of manslaughter, and one wanted murder in the second degree. After reviewing the law and the evidence, the person who initially wanted second-degree murder changed her vote to manslaughter. She said they reviewed the case “again and again,” and, “Some jurors wanted to find Zimmerman guilty of something, but there was just no place to go based on the law.”

What it comes down to (IMO) is that the system does not always work, and the reason it doesn’t is that human beings, as I’ve recently emphasized elsewhere, are innately flawed. If the prosectution puts on a better case than the defense, as appears to have happened here, the evidence or lack of same doesn’t even matter so much. Even something seemingly trivial like one attorney being more dynamic or better-looking, can easily sway a juror to believe him or her. On top of these inevitable human weaknesses, jurors are supposed to come in with the least possible amount of information on the case—so when it comes to a trial like this one, which has been written and sp0ken of everywhere during the past year, those who end up on the jury are not exactly brilliant, alert citizens who keep a sharp eye on what’s happening around the country and the world.

Dare I utter the word STUPID here and be branded a classist intellectual snob? Why the fuck not? I can prove my case with one small anecdote:

Juror B-37 was asked if she would feel comfortable having George Zimmerman as a volunteer watchman in her neighborhood. Why certainly, said she; after all, “George has learned his lesson.”


Latuff Cartoons

And oh yes—Georgie even got his gun back.

I rest my case.

The George Zimmerman Verdict

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Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford

Trayvon Martin Protest – Sanford (Photo credit: werthmedia)

Innocent of What?

The System Failed”  chanted protesters when the Zimmerman verdict came down. My own first response was somewhat less eloquent: “Motherfucker!” I shouted to my radio at 4:30 this morning.

I tried to console myself with the thought that George Zimmerman will have to live the rest of his life with the guilt and knowledge of what he did. It’s one of the reasons I’m against the death penalty: murderers should live and suffer guilt. But we all know I’m fooling myself: sociopaths don’t experience guilt.

George Zimmerman went looking for trouble, and he found it. Or rather, caused it. Even if Trayvon did beat up on him (doubtful), it was he who was self-defending, not the sociopath who set the whole thing in motion with his paranoia and racism.

Yes, it was racism. But no, that doesn’t make Trayvon Martin a modern day Medgar Evers, as some are claiming. They’re turning the case into a civil rights tragedy, grouping it with of all those who died for the cause of freedom. Unfortunately, Trayvon was a victim, like Oscar Grant in Oakland, shot in cold blood by a cop who was jailed for a year. Or like Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, and Abner Louima in Brooklyn, and dozens of others we can name from recent times, and hundreds, thousands, throughout history.

I remember when my kids were teenagers and we had my generation’s version of The Talk: not about the birds and bees, but drugs. Now The Talk for black parents is about how to keep their kids from being killed by cops and vigilantes on the streets of Amerika. Again, I understand why black people want to turn Trayvon into a civil rights martyr, but, sadly, he was a tragic victim.

George Zimmerman’s brother wasn’t in the courtroom when the verdict was read: he was in New York preparing to speak to the media, by his own frank admission. He actually said this, said he wanted to be in New York so he could speak to the media. (Weren’t the media hovering in Sanford?)  He must be planning to launch some kind of relevant career on the back of his brother’s fame. As a politician no doubt.

How could the jury find Zimmerman innocent? Innocent of what? Why were there only six on the jury? I suspect it’s more difficult to get 12 people to agree unanimously to any verdict. And six women! Surely some of them were mothers? It’s a true heartbreak, and simply unfathomable to me.

The whole thing lends new insight to the joy that black people felt about the OJ verdict. With our allegedly enviable democracy, with all the high ideals built into the legal apparatus, will this country ever become a place of true justice?

Later the Same Day:

This verdict seems to be consuming the country as much as OJ’s did. My chosen media is KPFA, a leftish radio station in the Bay Area, where experts and non- are calling in. Naturally, this is inspiring more commentary of my own.

For instance: one caller suggested that  minority  parents not let their kids go out wearing hoodies. Jesus Christ! That is exactly like telling women not to bare their legs or show cleavage so they won’t be raped. Hell, I’ve worn a hoodie! It’s a freaking sweatshirt with a hood on it. Nobody should be shot for wearing one!

Another thing: Up above I expressed disbelief that the six-woman jury did not feel more compassion for another woman’s child. But I’d temporarily forgotten that white women, of which I am one and can shamefully attest, fear young black men on the street–and five of the six were white. I’d give anything to know how the lone black woman fared, what she thought and felt and if she was able to contribute much to the proceedings.

Demonstrations are happening all over the U.S. this day. 3:00 in Oakland. Listen to local radio or search online for information.

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A Dignified President and Movie: Brief Review

The best review of Lincoln–meaning the one I’m most in agreement with–is at the Chicago Trib. I know, that’s a real copout; but since I feel unable to do Lincoln justice, I’d just as soon direct readers to a review that does, and only mention the few insights/opinions of my own that aren’t covered in it. There are surprisingly few.

First I have to say, I have a newfound respect for Tony Kushner, who wrote the script and seems to garner praise from critics any time he produces half a page of anything. I’m probably the only person in America who did not enjoy Angels in America. Even more important, I saw Kushner share a stage with Susan Sontag at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and if she hadn’t been there I swear I would’ve walked out after the first few minutes. Kushner was tongue-tied, stammering and sputtering in response to every question directed at him until Sontag broke in and took over brilliantly. Afterwards I heard audience members complain that she’d dominated him, but I didn’t see a bully, I saw a merciful rescue mission. He came off as so moronic he reinforced and solidified my opinion of him, as well as of the public who never seemed to notice the emperor had no brains. Now, having written a brilliant script for a nearly flawless movie, Kushner’s redeemed himself in my eyes, at least partly.

The best thing about the movie is, beyond a doubt, Daniel Day Lewis‘s performance–or rather, his channeling of the 16th President. This is no artifice or act, it’s a grok of Abraham Lincoln, as if he’s taken hold of Day-Lewis’s body, and perhaps his soul as well, for a period of time. Day-Lewis has proven himself a superb actor time and again–in My Left Foot and In The Name of the Father, for starters–but as Lincoln he’s outdone himself.

Sally Field is also wonderful; she complements her screen husband and completes the First Couple as totally believable. I kind of wish Field would stop running around radio and television shows repeating the same story over and over of how she had to fight for the part. I found it distracted me from seeing her as Mary Todd, since I kept looking for the weight gain and the age-transforming makeup. Come to think of it, she’s probably telling the story hoping that nobody will think she’s quite that old and fat! Ah, vanity, thy name is Sally! Another star turn worth mentioning is the always captivating Tommy Lee Jones as Senator Thaddeus Stevens, his voice instantly recognizable even when his face isn’t.

Historical dramas always make me hungry for more information. How is it that they teach us American History in every single grade of elementary school, yet we still never get the whole story? (They should just show movies in school!) Time for me to hit the Google research button–or better yet, crack open a book. Lincoln was largely based on Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s Team of Rivals; that’s probably a good place to start.

One Mo’ Time: Hollywood and Race

Red Tails isn’t my kind of picture (warriors; loud guns; noisy machinery), so I haven’t seen it. Years ago I didn’t go see Glory – about an all-black Civil War regiment – for the same reason; later I caught it on TV and loved it to death. Anyhow, while I can’t say anything much about Red Tails, now that I’ve heard it’s immersed in controversy, I want to jump into the fray.

Racial controversy in Hollywood is a recurrent theme, one I’ve written about several times. I still haven’t gotten over my shock and anger that Hollywood failed to notice two of my favorite movies, The Five Heartbeats and Set It Off. I saw the latter when it came out on DVD, so I don’t know what the audiences were like – but I saw The Five Heartbeats in three different theaters, each time dragging white friends along to see it with all-black audiences. Both those movies were, in my opinion, absolutely fantastic, and I’ve seen each of them several times. They were at least as good as any in their genres: one the story of a rock ‘n’ roll group, the other of a bank heist. Neither was nominated for any Academy Awards. At the very least, Queen Latifah, a mere child at the time, deserved an Oscar for her performance as a bad-ass gun-toting lesbian.

The most recent film to cause a racial dustup, prior to Red Tails, is The Help. The book as well as the film drew the ire of black women, particularly those in academia,  for a multitude of alleged sins: they protested that a white woman shouldn’t tell black women’s stories to begin with; the film trivialized the lives of black domestic workers; it overlooked sexual harassment and civil rights activism; and in the end it’s really just a white woman’s coming-of-age story.

The Help –  and its black and white ensemble cast — is being showered with awards left and right. I for one am thrilled that two female movies (i.e.,chick flicks),The Help and Bridesmaids, are knocking them dead at the award ceremonies. Meanwhile, Viola Davis, who won the SAG award for best female actor, probably did more to integrate Hollywood than anyone when she named her two greatest inspirations: Cicely Tyson and Meryl Streep.