Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Polanski's a victimizer, not a victim

By DeWayne Wickham

The important thing to know about Roman Polanski is that he is a pedophile.

Last week, the U.S. government filed an extradition request with Switzerland to have the 76-year-old Academy Award-winning director return to this country to faces charges related a sexual encounter he had with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

Since his arrest last month after he arrived in Switzerland from his home in France to attend the Zurich Film Festival, Polanski's supporters have mounted a campaign to keep him from the clutches of the U.S. justice system.

They circulated a petition that demands his release while decrying his detention by Swiss police for what they describe simply as a moral charge. Among those signing it are a who's who of movie directors, including Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme, John Landis and Martin Scorsese. While their hearts may be in the right place, their heads are in the sand.

Thirty-two years ago, Polanski plied a girl with champagne and Quaaludes to loosen her inhibitions. Then he sodomized her.

After listening to the girl's testimony, a grand jury issued a six-count indictment against the Polish-born director that included charges of rape, sodomy and lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14.

However, when the young victim's lawyer said the girl didn't want go through the spectacle of a Hollywood trial, Polanski got a big break. He was allowed to plead guilty to the single charge of "unlawful intercourse with a minor." But before he was sentenced, Polanski fled to France, where he had an affair with Nastassja Kinski. She was just 15.

Polanski is a pedophile, by any definition. Yet instead of snatching a child off the street or entering their bedroom late at night through an unlocked window, he used guile and his celebrity to have his way.

In the Los Angeles case, he wooed the young girl away from her mother with the false claim that he wanted to photograph the child for Vogue Hommes, a French fashion magazine. After feeding the girl alcohol and drugs, Polanski took partially nude photographs of the child before performing anal sex on her.

Afterward, he took the girl home and told her not to tell her mother what he'd done. But she did, and Polanski was arrested.

Polanski's supporters want us to believe his apprehension in Switzerland is a violation of some cultural code of conduct. "By their extraterritorial nature, film festivals the world over have always permitted works to be shown and for filmmakers to present them freely and safely, even when certain States opposed this," the petition states.

That's buncombe.

Polanski wasn't arrested because of his art; he was jailed because of the sexual offense he committed against a 13-year-old girl - a crime he admitted to before fleeing. They also claim Polanski was the victim of judicial misconduct. The judge, they say, was going to renege on a commitment to incarcerate Polanski for only 90 days. If he hadn't fled, supporters say he would have received a much longer sentence.

They want us to see Polanski as the victim, not a victimizer.

In a 1993 civil suit brought against him by the girl - who was then nearly 30 - Polanski invoked his right against self-incrimination when he was asked whether he fed her champagne and drugs before assaulting her.

Roman Polanski has evaded justice for 38 years. It's time he pays a price for the awful crime he committed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Obama's most loyal supporters are a problem

By DeWayne Wickham

Barack Obama has a simmering race problem.

The nation's first black president, who relied heavily on black voters to reach the Oval Office, is coming under increased criticism from blacks who think he's not doing enough to address their concerns.

So far, this talk hasn't gotten much national media attention. Obama's approval rating among blacks is still in the political stratosphere, and many of his black supporters have a low tolerance for blacks who publicly question the president's decision-making, even when they agree with the criticisms.

But the grousing continues.

Recently, some black activists formed a group to monitor how Obama deals with black issues. Called the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission, the panel is headed by Julianne Malveaux, an economist and president of Bennett College for Women, and Ronald Walters, director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Center.

Panel leader Julianne Malveaux was asked during a recent interview in Essence magazine whether she should be more patient before taking the president to task.

"He's our brother ... but we're not his only constituency," the long-time Democratic activist responded. "He's not the president of black America. We have to make him do right. He's not going to do right just 'cuz. We've got to make him."

That's apparently what Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, tried to do when he broke his silence over the slow pace of Obama's efforts to fill about 90 vacancies on federal appeals and district courts. Henderson complained the president is kowtowing too much to congressional Republicans, who see his outreach as a weakness.

"I commend the president's effort to change the tone in Washington," Henderson told The Washington Post earlier this month. "I recognize that he is extending an olive branch to Republicans ... but so far, his efforts at reconciliation have been met with partisan hostility."

That public breach of the black community's "speak no ill of Obama" rule followed a festering rift over the Obama administration's decision to exclude from his budget $85 million for black college aid that was in the last two budgets of Republican President George W. Bush.

Outrage among supporters of the nation's 105 historically black higher-education institutions has been an open secret. Tom Joyner, whose syndicated radio talk show airs on more than 110 stations across the nation, wrote the president during the summer asking him to restore the funds.

So far, that hasn't happened. White House officials say the money was part of a one-time, two-year grant to black colleges. Critics said Obama should have continued the grant, which will be hard to replace for many financially strapped black schools.

"It suggests that HBCUs are not a priority," Lezli Baskerville, who heads the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, a lobbying group for black colleges, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This growing discontent among black activists is compounded by political fissures dividing Obama and some black politicians.

Obama tried mightily to persuade former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to endorse Creigh Deeds, a fellow Democrat and the party's candidate for governor in Virginia's Nov. 3 election. But Wilder, the state's first black governor, recently announced he'll remain neutral. His refusal to support Deeds in the close race could cost Democrats the election.

In New York, black politicians reacted angrily to Obama's push to get black Gov. David Paterson to drop his bid for re-election and clear the way for a bid by the state's white attorney general.

Obama needs to get a handle on his race problem. Otherwise, he could be drawn into a very public feud with members of his most loyal constituency.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One billion hungry people need action now

By DeWayne Wickham

If you didn’t know it, this past Friday was World Hunger Day. To make sure I knew it, a press aide to Hillary Clinton invited me to join a conference call with the secretary of State and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who touted the Obama administration’s commitment to reducing hunger around the world.

There are a billion people who are chronically hungry. That’s roughly one of every seven inhabitants of this planet. Hunger is a far greater pandemic than AIDS. Nearly 16,000 children die of hunger every day, according to Bread for the World, a Washington, D.C., faith-based organization that advocates for the hungry. That amounts to more deaths in a single year that the total of all the people who died violently in wars over the past 50 years.

“We are very pleased to be part of a commitment, along with other nations, of more than $22 billion over three years to spur agriculture-led economic growth,” Clinton said. That money will be used not just to the delivery of food to starving people but to pay for programs that provide food security for countries where hunger is widespread.

Food security is diplomatic-speak for what the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi said: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Helping poor countries feed their hungry masses is not just a grand humanitarian gesture; it is good diplomacy – a refreshing change from the jingoism and dollar diplomacy of previous administrations.

“Our goals should be to increase the availability of food by helping people in countries produce what they need, to make that food accessible to those who need it, and to teach people to use it properly so that they can make the most of it,” Vilsack said.

Understandably, it is the Obama administration’s efforts to keep Iran and North Korea from joining the world’s nuclear club and end the long-running conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East that grabs the headlines. But it is the shortage – or unavailability – of food that is the immediate threat to global security.

Last year there were food riots in Haiti, Bangladesh, Egypt, Mexico and Pakistan. Since 2007, there have been more than 60 food riots around the world, Clinton said. That’s a warning shot that shouldn’t be ignored. The Obama administration’s effort – along with that of other members of the G-8 (the countries with the world’s eight strongest economies) is movement in the right direction.

I’ve seen what chronic hunger does to people in places like the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The long-term strategy for the reducing the widespread hunger there and elsewhere in the world poor nations the resources they need to sharply increase their production of food. That won’t be easy.

For example, there is little arable land in Haiti, a once lush-green Caribbean nation. Trees are used for fuel by that country’s poor, a vandalization of the landscape that robs the soil of vital nutrients needed for agriculture – and condemns millions of Haitians to a life of hunger and despair. A part of the answer to Haiti’s food shortage is the biotechnology (the use of scientifically altered seeds to improve food production) that Clinton and Vilsack said the United States will share with other nations to jumpstart their food production.

But as the deadly food riots in Haiti and other places last year indicate, there is an urgent need to feed hundreds of millions of starving people around the world now – and then teach them how to fish.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Flight attendant on hijacked plane says Hill is no killer

By DeWayne Wickham

The excited voice on my answering machine was that of a woman who had read my recent column about Charles Hill, an American who skyjacked a plane to Cuba 38 years ago.
Hill and two other black revolutionaries were driving from California to Mississippi with a trunk full of high-powered weapons and dynamite the night of Nov. 8, 1971 when they were stopped outside Albuquerque, N.M. by New Mexico state trooper Robert Rosenbloom. In the ensuing confrontation, the trooper was shot dead.

For nearly four decades, there was no information on which of the three men — Hill, Ralph Goodwin or Michael Finney — had fired the fatal shot. If the cops had an idea, they didn’t say. And from their self-imposed exile in Cuba, the three fugitives revealed little about the fatal confrontation.

But the 66-year-old former flight attendant who left the message on my phone believes she knows.

Elizabeth Walthall was working TWA Flight 106 the day the three men, members of the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group, stormed aboard the jet as it sat on the tarmac at Albuquerque airport.

They demanded to be taken to Africa, but the plane wasn’t equipped for a transatlantic flight, so they settled for Cuba, she said in a telephone interview from her home in Pinehurst, N.C.

Walthall said the skyjacking occurred the day before Thanksgiving. The plane was scheduled to fly to Philadelphia, where it was supposed to arrive in time for her to have dinner the next day in her hometown of Camden, N.J.

When the three men came aboard the plane, Walthall said, Hill brandished a knife, Goodwin carried a briefcase and “Finney had the gun.” It was that gun, and what Finney said he’d done with it, that convinced her he killed Rosenbloom.
“I’ve already killed somebody ... I didn’t like it, but I could do it again,” she said Finney told her at one point during the flight when he tried to silence her nonstop chatter.

At another point during the flight, Walthall said Goodwin, who seemed very remorseful, told her of Rosenbloom’s death that Finney “got crazy and he shot him and killed him.”

Why did Walthall want me to know this? Because I’d written that improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba could prompt Cuba to send Hill back to the U.S. to be tried for skyjacking and murder. Walthall wants potential jurors to know Hill wasn’t the triggerman.

“I think I know enough that he didn’t commit that murder that it would be criminal of me not to say so,” she told me. “I’m in favor of capital punishment ... but I don’t believe in punishing someone for a murder they didn’t commit.”

When it comes to the death penalty, the passage of time probably will be a greater help to Hill — if he’s ever tried here — than any testimony Walthall might offer. Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill that abolished New Mexico’s death penalty.

But her testimony might help Hill , 59, get a lesser sentence than the life without parole that Richardson said will now be given to “the worst criminals.” With diplomatic contacts between the United States and Cuba on the rise, Hill could soon end up in an U.S. courtroom, where he will need a jury to hear what Walthall has to say about who killed Rosenbloom if he expects to ever see more than the inside of an American prison cell.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, ironic but not undeserved

By DeWayne Wickham

It is more than just a little bit ironic that Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just hours before he met with his war council to consider how many more troops the United States will commit to the 8-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Of the 120 men and women to receive this international honor since 1901, President Obama is one of a handful of heads of state to get it while still in office and the only one awarded that prize while leading his nation in war.

Just two other U.S. presidents received the Peace Prize while in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 for using his bully pulpit to end conflicts in Europe and Asia. Woodrow Wilson got his in 1919 - just months after the end of World War I - for his role in creating the League of Nations, the body he hoped would prevent future wars.

In 1990, a year after the Soviet Union ended it military occupation of Afghanistan, the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave it to Mikhail Gorbachev for permitting the political changes that ended Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe.

So, understandably, Obama was as humble in acknowledging the committee's action,. "I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations," Obama said in a hurried statement from the Rose Garden. I'm sure he knew critics would latch on to the Feb. 1 nomination deadline - when Obama had been president just days - while conveniently forgetting that the vote occurred in October.

But Obama's soft peddling of his honor didn't pacify critics. "I'm not sure what the international community loved best; his waffling on Afghanistan, pulling defense missiles out of Eastern Europe, turning his back on freedom fighters in Honduras, coddling Castro, siding with Palestinians against Israel or almost getting rough on Iran," harped Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C.

How about all of the above? While the decision reeks of irony, the recognition is hardly undeserved. He earned it by deciding to scale down and retool the missile defense system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. While the Bush administration said it was meant to shield U.S.allies in Europe and the Middle East from Iranian missile attacks, Russia saw it as a U.S. threat in its backyard.

Scrapping that land-based system for one that relies heavily on ship-board missiles makes Russia less jittery - and the world a safer place. Ensuring this nation is on the right path in Afghanistan before sharply increasing the U.S. presence there is not "waffling;" it's good leadership. It sends the right message about the Obama administration's intention to defeat the forces that attacked us on 9/11 and end as quickly as possible a war he inherited from his predecessor.

Increased diplomatic contact with Cuba, recognizing the Honduran president's claim to office after he was ousted by a coup and acknowledging that Israel isn't always right and the Palestinians aren't always wrong is a better road to a more peaceful world than the ones previously taken by other U.S. governments.

The Nobel Peace Prize should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses," Alfred Nobel said in his will of award he endowed.

By that standard, Barack Obama has done a lot in a short period of time to earn such a lofty honor.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

38 years later, Hill still struggles with demons

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA — By his own admission, Charles Hill is a skyjacker. Prosecutors in New Mexico say he's a cold-blooded killer, too. They want to try the one-time member of the Republic of New Afrika, a Mississippi-based black separatist group, for the November 1971 killing of a state trooper.

Hill arrived in Cuba 38 years ago aboard a TWA flight that he and two other black activists allegedly commandeered at gunpoint from the Albuquerque, N.M., airport 19 days after prosecutors say one of them shot trooper Robert Rosenbloom on an isolated stretch of New Mexico highway.

Back then, Hill and his companions, Ralph Goodwin and Michael Finney, were foot soldiers in a movement that advocated the creation of a black nation — by ballot or bullet — in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The car they were in that night had a cache of high-powered weapons and dynamite in the trunk.

"I regret that a life was lost, but it had to be that way," Hill told me. "He drew his gun and he was going to kill us."

That's Hill's version of what happened — one that New Mexico prosecutors would no doubt love to challenge in a U.S. courtroom.

In the years since his flight to Cuba, Hill has been a "fixer" for Americans who come to Havana. Fluent in Spanish, he prowls hotels looking for people from the States who need help navigating their way through Cuban society. He knows all the best restaurants and bars. He knows the best places to buy cigars, to rent a car or to satisfy a visitor's offbeat requests.

When a New York lawyer in the hotel where I was staying told Hill she wanted a reading from a Babaloo, a high priest of the Santeria religion that is widely practiced among black Cubans, he arranged it in a couple of hours. This is how Hill makes a living. The money he earns gives him a standard of living higher than that of most Cubans. But his life in Cuba is no paradise.

Hill is a tormented man — tormented, I believe, by what happened on that lonely stretch of New Mexico highway 38 years ago. He doesn't say as much, but it doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure out he has demons.

"I'm a part-time alcoholic," he told me when he showed up in a drunken stupor an hour late for a meeting with me. "I'll be drunk for a week and then sober for three or four months."

During my talks with him over the past two years, Hill's alcohol binges always followed talk of Rosenbloom's killing. But when I asked Hill if there was a link between the shooting and his bouts of heavy drinking, he denied it.

"I started drinking because of me," Hill said, slurring his speech and pursing his lips as if to punctuate his words.

I don't buy it.

Hill yearns for the life he left behind. Whenever someone from the U.S. visits Cuba, Hill asks for any newspapers, magazines, movies or music CDs they might have brought with them. Every day, he gets up around 5 a.m. to listen to American radio broadcasts that overcome Cuba's efforts to block radio signals from the U.S.

Hill yearns to return to a place he knows he can't go. He would likely spend the rest of his life in prison if he ever goes back to the U.S.

Hill says he won't do that willingly — and doesn't believe the Cuban government would force him to return.

So he spends his days here in limbo, haunted by the memory of the crime that bought him to Cuba and the knowledge that he can never go home.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Skyjacker says he's in Cuba to stay

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA - When you talk to Charles Hill, you sense that he knows more than what he says about how his time in Cuba will end.

A wanted man who has spent nearly two-thirds of his 59 years on the lam, Hill and two other men skyjacked a plane from Albuquerque, N.M., to Cuba in November 1971. They fled the country after one of them (Hill won't say who pulled the trigger) killed New Mexico state trooper Robert Rosenbloom during a highway confrontation.

In the years since the three fugitives - members of the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group - arrived in Cuba, Ralph Goodwin drowned while trying to save another swimmer and cancer took the life of Michael Finney. Hill is the lone living member of the trio wanted for Rosenbloom's murder - a crime for which he thinks he's done his time.

"I paid my price for that. I paid for that with the 38 years that I've been here in exile," he told me Saturday.

The murder and skyjacking charges he faces won’t be satisfied that easily.
In fact, the FBI and New Mexico prosecutors, no doubt, hope the thawing relationship between the Obama administration and the government of Raul Castro will cause Cuba to ship him back to the United States.

At first, Hill told me he doesn't think that's going to happen. "Cuba is now my home and the Cuban government won't turn its back on me after all these years. I have no worries about that," he said during an interview outside the Hotel Nacional, which was once a favorite haunt of the Cuban elite and American mobsters before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

But Hill has good reason to worry. Late last month, Bisa Williams, the deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, headed a U.S. delegation that was in Cuba for a one-day meeting to discuss re-establishing direct mail service between the two countries. Instead of returning to the U.S. after the talks ended, Williams quietly extended her stay for five days and held unannounced talks with a senior official of Cuba's foreign ministry - the first such high-level talks in seven years.

Despite his denial, Hill knows movement towards normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba doesn't bode well for him and dozens of other American fugitives in this Caribbean Island nation. It'll ratchet up the pressure for his return to the U.S. to face murder and skyjacking charges.

"If it happens, it happens," he said, just moments after assuring me that Cuba won’t return him to the U.S.

"I need someone to write a book about my life,' Hill said.”I need someone to tell my story who understands what could happen back then when a cop stopped a car with three black men wearing Afros.

"I regret that a life was lost, but it had to be that way. He drew his gun and he was going to kill us," he said of the deadly encounter with Rosenbloom. That's his version of what happened, which New Mexico prosecutors would love to challenge in court.

I don't know if they'll ever get that chance, but I think Hill does. I think, in his mind, he's already written the final chapter of his life. I think he's scripted his ending and is prepared for whatever will come.

"I'll be here forever," he said, with a glassy look in his eyes. "This is where I live and this is where I'll die."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Change is mantra of Cubans, too

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA — The anticipation of change here is as thick as the air that drenches a body in sweat in the time it takes to walk a single block in this sprawling city.
Change was the mantra of Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign — and it’s the hope of virtually everyone in Cuba these days.
For some, the change they seek is geopolitical.
"We are ready to sit down with the United States to have a discussion about everything," said Josefina Vidal, director of the North American division of Cuba’s foreign ministry.
Vidal, inspired by stepped-up diplomatic contacts with the U.S. since Obama took office in January, told me her government is anxious to broaden its dialogue with the Obama administration.
"We have noticed with the Obama administration that there has been a change in tone," she said.
She cited a long list of what her government wants from America, beginning with an end to the economic blockade imposed nearly half a century ago.
Others hope to achieve change through art, not politics.
Gloria Rolando is a small, soft-spoken Cuban filmmaker who believes Cuba must confront its past before it can secure its future. She recently returned to Havana from Santiago de Cuba, a city in the southern region where she was doing research for a film about one of this nation’s darkest chapters.
"This is a story too many people don’t know about, but it must be told," she said in a barely audible voice of determination.
She was talking about the massacre of members of the Independents of Color, a Cuban political movement wiped out in 1912.
The group, created in 1908, consisted mainly of black veterans of Cuba’s war of independence, which Americans call the Spanish-American War. They pressed the Cuban government for racial equality and protested the mistreatment of blacks across the island. Urged on by the United States — which had occupied Cuba twice between 1898 and 1909 and threatened to reoccupy the island if the protest movement wasn’t crushed — the Cuban government responded with brutal force.
Over a few days in the spring of 1912, the Cuban army hunted down and killed more than 6,000 members of the Independents of Color. Successive Cuban governments have largely suppressed the history of this awful event. But Rolando’s effort to make a movie about what happened recently won the backing of the current Cuban government, whch will make it easier for her to finish this film.
Digna Castaneda, a senior history professor at the University of Havana, is more contemplative about the idea of change — but no less hopeful.
"This is an important moment for both the United States and Cuba," she said. "No one ever thought a black man could be president of the United States. That’s a victory your country must share with us. It has brought change to your country and I think it will help bring change to mine."
Cubans are ready for change. What form it will take is still unclear — and less important than its anticipation.
Change is in the air in this country. It’s a subtle breeze that stirs the imagination of Cubans about the possibilities for a better life here and improved relations with its American neighbor.