Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Baby Mama Club

I try to stay away from blogging on courthouse issues, my day-job being, as it is, criminal defense in Milwaukee County. I could tell stories all day, every day about courageous and outrageous behavior by the many judges before whom I have had the honor of appearing. I don’t need – and my clients certainly don’t want – to worry about whether I have offended some judge in print such that he or she is subliminally or overtly punishing or (worse) ignoring me as I try to get them to give my clients a fair shake.

But the Baby Mama decision has been kicked around like a football by the usual gang of right-wing radio and blog "personalities" in their continuing effort to pooh-pooh any namby-pamby exercise in racial sensitivity, that I thought I would throw another perspective (mine) into the mix.

I personally know everyone involved in the decision – Joe Wall and I both started work in the DA’s office on my first day as a lawyer in 1986; Judge Kessler was once a neighbor; and it is not unusual to encounter the whole doggone Court of Appeals in the elevator of my office building (they are on the 14th floor, I’m on the 10th). Both Wall and the three appeals court judges involved are prime examples of the kind of fine legal and (more importantly) judicial talent that you will find more often than not on the bench in Milwaukee County. Although they reach different conclusions under different analysis, all four are toiling in good faith as they struggle to strike the difficult balance between understanding and accommodating without excusing the often-taboo impact of race and the treatment of the underclass in criminal courts. The bottom line for me is that, although I understand exactly what Judge Wall was trying to get at in his remarks, he did it in a way that tainted the sentencing process such that there has to be a re-do.

Some people can serve for decades on the bench and have no discernable concern about the growing underclass, the impact of poverty and the legacy of racism on the children and adults who make up a majority of those charged with crimes in Milwaukee. This is certainly not the case with Joe Wall. Exhibit One in the defense of his language in the Harris sentencing is his brilliant piece in the Journal Sentinel in 2003 explaining the nexus between poverty, race and the loss of hope and, too often, life for many city children. Joe was the kind of judge who was unaccepting of the damage he saw in the lives of those who appeared before him. As an outsider to the underclass experience – as 99% of the judges and lawyers in the Courthouse (myself certainly included) are – he made a major effort to understand what the hell is going on with those who have fallen out of the bottom of straight society.

He did an exemplary job doing just that in the J-S piece. He did not do so well on Harris’ sentencing date, making the mistake of guessing rather than knowing about Harris in particular and, in his off-the-cuff exposition of the women-supporting-men phenomenon in inner city economics, getting in over his head on what is, more than anything, a symptom of societal breakdown rather than the disease itself.

Women remain the bedrock of economic and residence stability (such as it is) in the inner city. This has been the case before, during and after the AFDC era. Women are generally in a better position to do so based on the nature of child-bearing and rearing and because they are more employable in the entry-level service industry that make up the majority of available employment in post-industrial inner-city Milwaukee. The home-is-where-I-hang-my-hat situation of many young unemployed men in the inner city, as they float between the women in their lives – ex-wives/girlfriends/baby mamas, current wives/girlfriends, their mothers, and others in the extended family – is nothing new or unique to the kind of drug user/small-time dealer that Wall was sentencing. Much has been written about the historic emasculation of the black male, during and after slavery and is a major part of the continuing legacy of that crime. Whether Landray Harris is part of that history or a victim of his own selfish mistakes, I can't say and, more importantly, neither can Judge Wall. He certainly didn't know enough about him to make his living and financial situation -- much less that of "every fourth person" -- even a minor issue during the hearing.

Although the use of the term "baby mama" and lumping Harris in with some unidentified "you guys" who supposedly find working women to support them are the phrases that cause the most problems for Wall in terms of casting a racial tinge to the proceedings, it is not the worst of his attempt at educational sarcasm on that day. The most offensive, I think, is his wondering out-loud whether all these men and women belong to a "club" to make these nefarious living arrangements. Although he meant it as a joke (and despite his excited reaction to the opinion), Joe Wall knows better than that and those comments really belittle what is a very serious systemic problem. His understandably-frustrated thinking-out-loud at the Harris sentencing does not do him or the problem he feels so passionately about any good.

This is especially so since coverage of the Court of Appeals action has been seized on by the opportunistic know-nothing local right-wingers, who would just as soon have judges call defendants "thugs" and worse during such hearings. The J-S even brought one of their many spoiled suburbanite columnists, Mike Nichols, into the fray, accusing Judges Kessler and Curley of "piffle" and calling on all judges everywhere to throw caution to the wind and tell us what they really think. It is this kind of ignorant bloviating you get from grandstanding right-wingers and other prissy writers who wouldn’t know the demands of justice if it came up and bit them in the ass.

In trying to make sense of the non-sensical, Wall ended up confusing things further; about the nature of the dysfunction we are all concerned about, the proper demeanor of a judge who is about to take away someone’s liberty for a number of years and about the discretion needed when saying something that will be presented to the reviewing court on a transcript that you know will include no footnotes, sidebars or expanded explanation for the later benefit of the Court of Appeals.

Without getting too much into the precedential particulars (for that, as usual, see my friend and bass player, IT), in the end, Judge Brennan gets some things right in her dissent by saying the defendant failed to establish that Wall’s comments had any impact on the result. But Judges Kessler and Curley are right to recognize the racial implications of the language used and to hold trial judges to a higher standard of avoiding even the slightest hint of those types of considerations in sentencing.

Joe Wall’s excellent reputation precedes him and, knowing him as a friend and a judge, I know he meant no racial disparagement whatsoever. Quite the opposite – I think he was trying to breach the divide and reach some tough-love understanding. However, there are some judges who I would not trust with such language. It is the language and not the judge that becomes the issue with naked words on the page of a transcript. His silly complaints of "political correctness" notwithstanding, it is the defendant that gets the benefit of the doubt – not Joe Wall.

Wall sentenced Harris to two years in-custody and three years ES, with a chance to cut the incarceration time with boot camp and/or early release. It’s a result that some defense attorneys would consider pretty good for a guy caught with over 15 grams of cocaine in the midst of a ridiculous, expensive and fruitless "war on drugs". It’s the kind of relatively moderate sentence we expected from Judge Wall. I know several judges who would studiously keep the record clean of any Baby Mama controversies and hammer the guy much worse. I worry much more about them than the once-and-future Judge Wall, but it best for everyone that they keep their more strident sanctimony in their hat.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Grassroots Northshore Inaugural Ball

Mike Plaisted and the Change (We Can Believe In) are playing at the Grassroots Northshore Inaugural Ball tonight, starting at about 8:30. Come and celebrate history and get ready for the hard work to come. UPDATE: It was a GAS! Thanks to Tom and Ron for the hard-driving support! Can a European tour be far behind??

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Crawling Through the Wreckage

Watching Junior Bush take a last, ridiculous victory lap around the East Room Thursday night, I could think of nothing but that last disgraced president who chose that venue to say goodbye to the last of the loyalists. An hour or so before he left the White House for the last time, in deserved disgrace, Richard Nixon had a near-psychological breakdown in the East Room in front of several hundred stunned family members and staff, putting on reading glasses and blubbering about "T.R." (Nixon imagined himself a Teddy Roosevelt soulmate) and his mother and father. You could see Henry Kissinger, David Eisenhower and other final enablers giving subtle signals to each other – Have we seen enough? Should we go get him? – as they watched in horror. Eventually, he sucked it up, got out of the room and on the helicopter, never to darken the People’s House again.

It was a pitiful performance and the most revealing video in presidential history. The stagecraft failed and his dream destroyed, Nixon stood naked before the country and cracked up. At last we could see how disturbed he was; how truly psychotic. It let us understand why he sat in the Oval Office, tape recorders whirring, spinning his selfish webs of revenge and deceit, plotting to protect himself from himself.

It was a gift, really, for him to let himself go like that. Like Jimmy Cagney at the end of Angels With Dirty Faces – when he gets fried in the electric chair, crying like a sniveling coward, after telling the boys on the street that he would go proudly and "spit in their face" – maybe Nixon was sending us a message that he couldn’t bring himself to speak in words: That he was weak, he was wrong, he was sorry and he was gone.

George W. Bush isn’t worthy to serve Nixon and Pat cocktails in San Clemente. He remained, to the end, an unrepentant, spoiled punk, who is leaving office the same way he came in – smug, stupid and shameless. The charm offensive conducted by him and Dick Cheney in the past month or so has been stomach-churning in its audacity and unspeakable in its lies. As he smirked and winked through one last teeth-grinding performance before his own assembled collection of dead-enders, you had to wonder just who he thought he was talking to. Was he trying to put a slick gloss on his disastrous presidency to try to rescue the Republican party, which will never recover from his failures and hubris? Why would he care what the history books write about him when he never cared about anything but the wealth of his benefactors? Do these people really think anyone is listening to the gibberish they have been churning out in this pathetic Legacy Tour?

So Junior Bush, unlike Nixon, denies us the satisfaction of seeing any of the sorrow or remorse for his failures and crimes that he might have been able to muster in his small heart. To do so would have been a shocking instance of the kind of introspection and intelligence of which this small man is so obviously incapable. After undeservedly basking in the glow of Barack Obama’s historic moment, Bush will slink off to his new mansion in Dallas this week, the rewards of his service to the unbearable elite and the cushy pension of even our worst presidents waiting for him. The wreckage of his eight years in power is immense, but the burden is lifted ever so slightly by the fact of his leaving.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Us Derangement Syndrome

As usual, Still-President Junior Bush disappointed in his last press conference Monday morning. Too bland to be interestingly psychotic like Nixon; too stupid to be sad about all the unnecessary death he has caused like LBJ; so clueless he makes Reagan look like he knew what he was doing – it was and is impossible to get an emotional handle on this most vapid and vacant of presidential hand-puppets. And, yet, we hold out to the bitter end for any flash of reality-recognition from this dimmest of bulbs. Come on – couldn’t he at least pretend he "gets it", just once, just for us?

Alas, no. Bush waltzed through his last presser without a care in the world, with one eye on his script and another on the clock ticking down his long-sought Final Days.

As usual with Bush, insights were few, but it is amazing how reactive (reactionary?) Bush admitted to being. Making excuses to his ignorantly simplistic economic base for abandoning his supposed "free-market principles" (principles...Bush...HAH!) by agreeing to the various bailouts of the financial industry, Bush yammered "well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act too". Faced with a decent question about his decimation of America’s moral standing in the world by all manner of international lawlessness, he blames it on...wait for it..."Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here?" Well, no, tell us, President Dipshit, what was it like around here? Do you think maybe that’s why Bin Laden still sits in his cave laughing all day long? Push a button with Bush and anything can happen as he flails around trying to fix his many failings by making everything ten times worse.

And so, since Bush has apparently passed up his last opportunity to get on his knees and beg us all for forgiveness (even if he did, the answer would be "no forgiveness for you" anyway), we have to look to others on which to take out our frustrations with the Bush Disaster. I suggest we look to ourselves. After all, we all let this happen, in one way or another:
  • Ralph Nader voters let it happen in 2000 when they selfishly insisted on some kind of impossible purity and took enough votes from Al Gore in Florida and other states to make it the close call that it was.
  • We let it happen in 2000, when we allowed Bush to take office after democracy was hijacked by judicial fiat in the Supreme Court.
  • We let it happen in 2001 when Bush stood on the pile at the World Trade Center and grandstanded over the wreckage and the dust of the dead at his feet.
  • We let it happen when Bush rolled the Congress into passing his tax cuts for the rich and the Patriot Act.
  • We let Rumsfeld and Cheney happen.
  • We let it happen when Bush invaded and occupied Iraq in the Stupidest War in American history.
  • We let it happen when too many of us turned our nose up at John Kerry in 2004. If there is one thing this country needed for its own self-respect, it was to make Junior Bush a one-term president. His getting another four years was inexcusable.
  • We let it happen when Bush went to Jackson Square in New Orleans after Katrina for a TV show and took the lights out of town with him.
  • We let Guantanamo happen.
  • We let the politicization of the Justice Department happen.
  • We let Blackwater happen.
  • We let random warrantless wiretapping happen.
  • We let (fill in your favorite Bush Disaster here) happen.

Sure, some fought the good fight, opposed it all, organized, litigated, blogged, etc. But it wasn’t enough, now, was it? The radical Bushies still got away with it. Their contributors got more than their money’s worth. There was a time during the Bush years that the Constitution hung by a thread, almost falling into the abyss of mad power grabs. The Bushies – those of them that don’t stay behind to poison the federal bureaucracy – will leave town with their heads high and their pockets full of loot. And, glad to see them go, we’ll let them, without the prosecution and the jail time they deserve.

There were many times in the past eight years we could have stopped the madness; through Congress, in the courts or in the streets. Bush’s name will always be on the history of these hard years, but the blame is – or should be – on us.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

How Tommy Toy Changed My Life

In late 1975, I was 20 years old, a college drop out; looking for some meaning in life and a decent job. I was working painting the walls of the Jackson Center, a home for the developmentally disabled in the inner city (interestingly, now being renovated into a Days Inn). It was an okay job, but I was running out of walls to paint and was interested in something more public and interactive.

I saw an ad in the paper and went to one of the original Cousins sub shops that was downtown on Wisconsin Avenue to apply for a job opening. The shop was closed, but there were a couple of guys in there taking applications for a new shop that was opening soon on the Marquette campus at 17th and Wisconsin (only the fifth in the chain at the time). I approached timidly, saw the shop was closed, and started walking away. "Hey, where are you going?" said one of the guys inside. "Uh, you look closed," I muttered. "Well, do you want a job or not?" he said. "Uh, sure..." "Then fill this out – and wake up a little bit," said Tommy Toy.

He was being funny. Sarcastic, impatient and funny. He was screwing around with me and he didn’t even know me. It was a test, not that he took his sandwich shop job or me very seriously. But, with Tommy, there was no point doing anything without jazzing it up a little bit. He was wondering – was I going to be a fun guy to work with, or was I going to be a drag? I guess he decided I was alright. I’m not sure, but I think he hired me on the spot and told me to show up at the Marquette store on Monday.

So I did and worked at Cousins for nine months or so, until I took a job at Peaches Records in late ‘76. Tommy ran the Marquette store for a while, trained us, and moved on fairly quickly. I don’t remember working with him as much as I remember that first encounter with the total stranger who made me get back in the store and apply for the damn job I wanted. He had a tremendous force of personality, all driven by his good sense of humor and a somewhat serious, no-bullshit purpose. "Get with the program so we can have some fun already" appeared to be his motto.

I ran into Tommy a couple of times in later years when he bartended on the East Side – at Century Hall and Hooligans a couple of times, but the last time was at least 20 years ago. I was sad to read about his death from a heart attack last month in a very thoughtful obit in the Journal Sentinel. He knew a million people and didn’t know me from Adam, but he would always pretend to when I ran into him those couple of times. He certainly had no idea how he changed my life. But he did.

Now, most people wouldn’t identify their first fast-food job as a major turning-point in their life. It’s a long story, but: Cousins begat Peaches; begat UW-Madison for education degree; begat MPS substitute teaching; begat law school; and so on. I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t meet Tommy Toy that day and get the Cousins job – it seemed to set a lot of things in motion for me that might not have happened otherwise. Meeting Tommy was one of the happy accidents of my life, one of those fleeting encounters that somehow creates direction from chaos, meaning out of confusion. It seems, from that day on, I was always working at an interesting job or going to school or doing something positive. Something about that day propelled me forward.

Of course, I never realized all this until I heard Tommy had passed. But that’s the way these things are, when you hear someone you know has died and remember how you know them. I imagine, if I had told him about all this across the bar, he would have listened very intently until I was done – and then laugh uproariously, buy me a shot and tell me to shut the F up. And, as usual, he would have been right.

I thought about Tommy Toy today while having lunch at the Cousins on Port Washington Road. I was having my usual – cheese steak with mayo, the daily ingestion of which while I was working there permanently destroyed my skinny former self – when I noticed a young woman in the corner with a TV and some papers on the table in front of her. The graphic on the TV said "Cousins Training DVD". We didn’t have a DVDs, VCRs, cassettes, 8-Tracks, LPs or even 78s to train with back in 1975. All we had were people like Tommy Toy, a sharp knife, and big bins of bread to slice and fill with perfectly fine food.

I muttered something to the new hire about my history with the franchise and wished her well. All young people deserve at least that one person who moves them forward, either by accident or design, knowingly or unknowingly. I know I’m lucky I had one.

Friday, January 02, 2009

WISN: A Wing-Nut in the Newsroom


Clear Channel’s WISN is running a promo spot this week about how wonderful their all-wing-nut-all-the-time lineup is. And what a line-up it is! They have the unapologetic racist, Mark Belling, winning his afternoon time slot by successfully exploiting and validating his audience’s darkest instincts. In the morning, they feature a steady stream of third-rate "talent" like drive-time chucklehead Jay Weber and hyperventilating Madison import Vicki McKenna to carry the daily Republican message and otherwise poison the political environment. Nationally, they run the table in the race to the bottom with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the ridiculously apoplectic Mark Levin.

You could listen to the station all day and night and not find one legitimate opinion backed up by one true fact. That’s WISN for you – beating you over the head the license they hold from your very own government.

Of course, the never-ending parade of fabricating squawkers have to catch their breath once in a while during the broadcast day. They will certainly step aside for commercials, the printing of money by use of the public airwaves being the sole purpose of all for-profit radio stations. Then at the top of every hour, WISN pretends to lurch back from their right-wing fantasy world and present "the news". It might be only a minute-and-a-half of content, crowded by more commercials, traffic, weather and sports, but, still...They call it a "newscast", it sounds like a "newscast"; what the heck. If they want to pretend to be a good corporate citizen by giving their listeners a little unskewed information – even if it is only to placate the toothless FCC and their quaint "public service" expectations – let’s at least give them credit for that.

But, not surprisingly, WISN’s commitment to the "news" is as thin as its commitment to the truth the rest of the broadcast day. For one thing, their national news feed is from Fox News. The only difference between Fox News on television and Fox News on the radio is you can’t see Brit Hume smirking through the stories about Democrats on the radio. It was a couple of years ago that Fox took over for legitimate news organizations that had provided hourly news updates for affiliates like WISN for decades. Apparently, the wing-nuts complained that the truth was getting in the way of their shtick, and Fox News very existence is to give them a softer landing.

Then there is the local part of the "news" programming. Clear Channel never took local news seriously, actually trying to run it out of their studios in Cleveland several years ago, the "anchors" and "reporters" pretending to be in Milwaukee.

These days, the news during the day is frequently read by a "reporter" named Nick Reed. Reed has even anchored some of the station’s election coverage, I believe. Just one problem: Nick Reed is also a fire-breathing fill-in for WISN’s regular wing-nuts when they get days off.

So, there he is, the same guy who read the straight news yesterday is on the radio today, running the same talking points as the other wing-nuts, scoffing at the same Democrats, making excuses for the same Republicans. He is quite the little whack-job, too, obviously having gone to the finest finishing schools for such art. For instance, after the news of John Edwards’ affair broke last year, he followed a proud WISN tradition by making racist comments, saying we didn’t have to worry about Obama straying in such a way because a black woman would "slap the tar" out of her husband if such a thing happened. Get it? Black...tar. Classy, no?

No. But tomorrow, he’ll be back at the news desk (if they have one), churning out supposedly objective content, for people gullible enough to believe he is going to play it straight. Not that WISN gives a rip about tradition or journalistic ethics or anything else, but does anyone else see a problem here? Why would anyone believe anything Reed says during his "news" spots? What stories does he choose or not choose to fit the Republican agenda he drives on the right-wing shows? When he leads with the GOP reaction to a Democratic proposal rather than the proposal itself, do you think maybe he might be playing favorites? Gee, ya think?

As long as this is going on, why not just cast all pretensions of objective journalism to the winds and just let Belling read the news? What’s the difference? At least it would be entertaining to make him try to read straight stories all this year about Obama's high approval ratings. Maybe, just maybe, we might be lucky enough to hear his head explode.


As if to prove my point, wing-nut reporter Nick Reed was wearing his "news" hat this afternoon (1/5) when he "reported" on Obama's pick for head of the CIA. After announcing it was Leon Peneta, in the same breath, he "reported" that the selection created "shock" from unnamed someones, somewhere, because Peneta had no intellegence experience. Never mind that Penetta was emersed in all manner of intellegence as Clinton's chief-of-staff or even that he was an intellegence officer when he served in the armed forces. But the good wing-nut reporter never lets the facts get in the way of a good spin job that his compatriots or even he can use in the coming days. He sets 'em up, and, if McKenna gets the hiccups tomorrow, he'll knock 'em down.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2009 Predictions

  • Barack Obama will start his term with a tremendous amount of good will and support for his economic stimulus package – whatever it is – because too many people will want and need it to succeed. If Republicans get in the way on the basis of their usual petty nonsense, they will just dig a deeper hole for themselves.
  • Barack Obama will start his term with a tremendous amount of good will and support around the world as he tries put the nation in a position to recover from the tremendous damage done by the arrogant, radical and reckless Bush administration. Hillary Clinton won’t be home much as she jets around the globe on a mission to unruffle feathers and get America back to its deserved respected-leader status. Not all of the damage is reparable, but Obama will have an advantage because of his background, because he has Clinton leading the effort and, most importantly, because he is Not Bush.
  • America and the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief when our brave troops start coming home from Iraq. Violence there will increase, as the kind of thugs who have always run that country make their move. In the end, Iraq will end up right where it started – with the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the country presiding over a brutal regime. The only difference between that guy and Hussein will be that Iraq will be a theocracy, aligned with Iran, and even more of a potential threat to Israel. Nice work, Bush.
  • Obama will have a chance to appoint at least two Supreme Court justices and, unlike Bush, will nominate people with impeccable legal pedigrees and no discernable ideological tilt, except for the inclination to be fair, which is a lefty trait, anyway. Republicans and their wing-nut lap dogs will pretend they are all lefty socialists anyway, and the general public will ignore them and move on.
  • Obama will end the year with an approval rating in the high 60s or higher.
  • Talk-radio clowns will continue to be completely flummoxed by Obama’s success and popularity, and will suffer ratings problems as a result. By the end of the year, they will spend more than half their time talking about finances and sports. Locally, the radio wing-nuts will shill full-time for Scott Walker’s campaign for governor. Their in-kind contributions will not be reported to the Government Accountability Board.
  • The conversion from analog to digital television in February will be delayed when it becomes clear that the need for a converter box will take free TV away from millions of Americans who still don’t have the box and couldn’t figure out how it works if they did. UPDATE 1/8/09: And here comes the delay...
  • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will follow the lead of the Detroit Free Press and limit home delivery to three days a week. By the end of the year, the paper will stop pretending to have separate sections and fold everything into two sections; maybe one. The paper will resort to hysterical headlines and endless self-righteous campaigns, like its current one about drunk driving. If something is missing from the paper, referrals will be made to the on-line edition. No matter what happens, the J-S will continue to find room to run 25-inches of Patrick McIlheran's blathering three days a week. By the end of the year, his tedious right-wing talking-point recitals will take up 25 percent of the available non-ad column inches.
  • The Brewers spend money and, maybe, trade one of their young superstars to create a decent-enough starting rotation. Prince Fielder will come into camp having dropped 30 pounds. Corey Hart will drop his at-bat country music for Nirvana and, this time, have a complete season. National League pitchers will continues to be stymied by Ryan Braun, who will hit 45+ homers despite being the most-walked batter in the league. The Brewers will win 90+ and win the division.
  • Despite strong lefty credentials and occasional accidental brilliance, Plaisted Writes will not be recognized by the Shepherd Express' Best of the Blogs page. Also, sometime this year, society page embarassments Boris and Doris will be invited to a party where no one but them shows up. They will write it up as a wonderful evening with Lou Fortis, Rip Tenor (as S-E mascot Art Kubalek) and other close friends.