Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What should worry us all about Seattle cop punching incident

By DeWayne Wickham

In a video flashed around the world, Seattle policeman Ian Walsh is seen punching Angel Rosenthal in the face after she pushed him while trying to keep a friend from being arrested. Five days later, the 17-year-old girl was charged with third-degree assault in the incident. Her friend, Marilyn Ellen Levias, had been stopped for jaywalking.

Walsh took Levias into custody when she refused to identify herself and tried to walk away to avoid getting a ticket. The clash between the white officer and the black women produced rare alignment between the inhabitants of distant ideological universes — and could offer an equally unique opportunity to solve a deeply rooted problem. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a liberal civil rights activist,said the blow Walsh struck was not justified, and conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly agreed that it wasn’t a measured response to Rosenthal’s provocation.

This agreement should be used to bolster the efforts to take on the behavior of bad cops and the warped thinking of those young blacks who flout authority.

For far too many blacks, police are perceived as an army of occupation, not a force that protects and serves their community. This perception and the inexcusable behavior of Rosenthal and Levias — as well as the viral video — turned a jaywalking incident into a worldwide news story.

In using what was clearly excessive force to ward off Rosenthal’s interference, Walsh showed a lack of training — or a lack of desire — to handle the situation better. Even so, he had good reason to believe he’d suffer no great penalty for what he did.

In the past, such misjudgments by cops have resulted in deaths — extrajudicial capital punishments — and sparked major race riots. Among them: the 1979 killing of Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance salesman who was beaten to death by five Miami cops after he was chased down for running a red light; the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, by four New York cops who said they mistook him for a rape suspect; and the 2008 shooting of Robert Tolan in Bellaire, Texas, by a white cop who said he believed Tolan, the son of former pro baseball player Bobby Tolan, had just gotten out of a stolen car.

In all these cases, the officers were ultimately acquitted. This imbalance in the scales of justice, I suspect, causes some cops to think they can mistreat blacks and get away with it.

Something has to be done about this.

And something has to be said about the bad attitude and misbehavior of people like Rosenthal and Levias, who think they can contemptuously challenge authority, even when they have committed a crime. This was not their first run-in with the law. In November, Rosenthal was charged with second-degree robbery when she allegedly punched a 15-year-old boy in the face. Two years ago, she was charged with stealing a minivan. In 2009, Levias was charged with third-degree assault for allegedly pushing a sheriff’s deputy.

The tendency of cops to mistreat blacks and the alarming way some young blacks respond to authority is what should alarm us about the Seattle incident. It's this pattern of behavior that must be addressed so brush fires like this don’t again spark deadly race riots.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Racism in Cuba: Debated by blacks here, attacked by blacks in U.S.

By DeWayne Wickham
HAVANA — Nancy Morejon says she doesn’t want to get into a war of words with Cornel West. While all-out combat might be avoidable, a bruising skirmish has already occurred.

In many ways, Morejon and West are kindred souls. One of Cuba’s best known contemporary writers, she champions the rights of women and blacks in this island nation. He’s a Princeton University professor and an irascible public intellectual whom President Obama once called “an oracle.” The two are at the center of a festering debate over racism in Cuba, a country that thought it long ago escaped the swamp of racial bigotry and discrimination.

“I don’t want to look arrogant, especially with Cornel West. But I believe he sat on the side of something he doesn’t actually know,” Morejon said of the open letter West and 59 other African Americans sent to Cuban President Raul Castro late last year. In it, they accused his government of mistreating civil rights activists and a “callous disregard” for its black population.

But underlying the American letter and the Cuban response is the more subtle question of the role racism and racial prejudice play in Cuba, a nation whose social mores once mirrored those of America’s Jim Crow era. Surprisingly, even as Cuban intellectuals dismiss the attempt of their African-American counterparts to stand up for them, they talk openly about Cuba’s racial problems — and the solutions that are needed.

Despite the Castro regime’s public pronouncements against racial discrimination, the signs of racial disadvantage, if not outright racial prejudice, are easy to find. The best jobs in Cuba’s growing tourism industry are overwhelmingly held by whites. Hotel doormen, chambermaids, tour guides, translators or restaurant waiters can earn more tips in a day than a doctor or government bureaucrat is paid in a month.

“Yes, there is racism in Cuba,” Tomas Fernandez Robaina, a prolific writer about the social condition of black Cubans, told me. The country “engaged in romanticism” when Castro ordered an end to racial discrimination nearly a half-century ago, Fernandez said. “Now we understand it will take more than goodwill to get rid of it, something Americans should know better than Cubans.”

That’s an amazing level of frankness in a country that its critics say has little tolerance for painful introspection. Out of this openness has come talk of a solution that sounds surprisingly like the affirmative action programs that continue to divide Americans. Cuba cannot simply give blacks new track shoes and expect them to compete with the nation’s most gifted runners, said Heriberto Feraudy Espino, president of the National Committee on Racial Discrimination and Racism. They will need some special help to catch up.

Cuba’s struggle for racial equality dates back more than a century. It is rooted in the changes wrought by the U.S. occupation of Cuba (1898-1902) and the brutal annihilation in 1912 of the leaders of a black movement for racial justice. It predates the Castro regime but has survived its condemnation.

Morejon said West should have spoken to some of Cuba’s leading blacks before signing a letter that mischaracterizes their struggle. “I believe that this dialogue that we haven’t had is necessary,” she said yearningly.

And I think it’s not too late for that conversation to take place.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In sports, as in business and politics, leadership counts

By DeWayne Wickham

Shortly after Baltimore Orioles’ manager Dave Trembley was fired in the wake of the second worst start in the franchise’s 56-year history, the team suffered a humiliating loss. The Boston Red Sox beat the Orioles 11-0. For the onetime pride of Baltimore, losing is the only thing this baseball team now does well.

Over the past 12 seasons, the Orioles have finished last, or next to last, in its division 11 times. In 1997, the year before this nose dive began, the Orioles won 98 games and lost just 64 — the best record in baseball’s American League.

The fall has been swift and steep.

The one constant throughout this run to futility: Owner Peter Angelos, who clumsily drove off the last manager who had a winning touch. The lesson in watching this debacle from the bleachers: Leadership matters. And how.

We’ve had far too many examples of failed leadership in the past few years, and the wreckage has been strewn wide and far in endeavors more consequential than men running around a baseball diamond. President George W. Bush in Iraq. The titans of Wall Street and the economic collapse. Most recently, BP CEO Tony Hayward and the unthinkable Gulf Coast catastrophe.

But leadership doesn’t just sink ships. It also saves them.

Apple’s Steve Jobs on Monday unveiled his latest marvel: the next generation of iPhone. Ask any Apple shareholder who endured Jobs’ absence from the tech giant whether leadership matters. (For that matter, ask a BP investor.)

And make no mistake, cheering a team on for decades is an emotional and financial investment. Any fan of any sport in any town in America knows this. The return on investment can be high or, as with my Orioles, non-existent. But a worthy franchise can lift a town at its moment of despair, as the New Orleans Saints did for that stricken city. The investment ultimately paid off.

I take no delight in reciting this sorry record of my hometown team. I remember the Orioles’ glorious past; their improbable 1966 World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers; their victory over Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in baseball’s Fall Classic four years later; and their World Series appearances from 1969 to 1971. From 1969 to 1983, the Orioles were arguably the best team in professional baseball. During that 14-year stretch, the team finished 1st in its division seven times and 2nd six times.

Ironically, in 1997 — the team’s last winning season — the Orioles spent every day of that campaign in first place. Davey Johnson, the team’s manager, was the American League Manager of the Year. But the same day he received that honor, Johnson, who didn’t get along with Angelos, quit. Since that day, the Orioles have had six managers, including Juan Samuel, who was named interim manager to replace Trembley.

That revolving door, and the team’s poor play afield, have turned this once mighty team into a professional sports embarrassment. Even a die-hard fan like me finally had to give up the season tickets I’ve had for 18 years. This investor has cashed out his shares.

I held on to those seats for so long because I didn’t want to be a “fair weather” fan. But the storm clouds have hung over Orioles Park at Camden Yards for so long that it takes the recklessness of a hurricane hunter to cling to the belief that better days are just around the corner.

Of course anyone fortunate enough to own a Major League Baseball franchise has a right to run it any way he sees fit — just not into the ground. That’s what Angelos has done.

It’s too bad Baltimore’s deserving fans can’t fire the owner.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day's reminder: democracy must be protected by all Americans

By DeWayne Wickham

How dare she? In the middle of a presidential news conference that was supposed to be about the government’s response to the BP oil spill, Helen Thomas had gall to go off script.

When President Obama called on her, the 89-year-old White House correspondent asked him about the blood of American troops that flows in Afghanistan, not the oil gushing out of a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico — the largest oil spill in American history.

Though the U.S. death toll in Afghanistan crept above the 1,000 mark just a few days earlier, Thomas was the only journalist to ask about that human carnage during Obama’s first full-blown meeting with the White House press corps in nearly a year.

“Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there?” Thomas pressed Obama. His answer, which sounded like a regurgitation of George W. Bush’s defense of the war he launched, was not nearly as important as the fact that no other reporter in the room showed even mild interest in the topic.

Coming as this did just a few days before Memorial Day — a national holiday that honors those who died in this nation’s wars — Thomas’ lone inquiry is a chilling reminder of how war has become an abstraction for too many Americans. In this age of around-the-clock television and Internet news, the fighting in Afghanistan — or for that matter, the winding down of the Iraq war — gets little coverage.

Capitol Hill isn’t overrun with anti-war protesters, and the outcome of November’s congressional elections won’t hinge on where candidates stand on the wars. And far too few of the current crop of politicians — and journalists — really understand the sacrifices our men and women in uniform make.

I do. Like a lot of members of my generation, I saw military service as a duty of citizenship, not a burden to be borne by someone else. As the war in Vietnam was heating up, I volunteered for a four-year stint in the Air Force and ended up serving a year in that war zone.

A lot of the guys who lived alongside me in Cherry Hill — a public housing complex on the southern edge of Baltimore — ended up in the military. Some volunteered; many were drafted. To the best of my knowledge, all of them served. When we came home on leave, we walked the neighborhood streets in uniform and were greeted warmly by just about everyone.

Back then, Americans seemed much more interested in war than they are today. Of course, some of this has to do with scale: Vietnam was a far bigger conflict that took a much larger human toll. And the randomness of the draft made every able-bodied young man a potential member of the armed forces. Eventually, of course, support for the Vietnam War waned and opposition to that awful conflict swelled.

Frankly, I prefer the anti-war protests of the ’60s to the indifference of today.

Democracy is like a muscle; if you don’t make good use of it, it’ll atrophy. If people genuflect to the notion that war is inevitable, or believe it is the province of a small group of men and women in Washington, then the shared sacrifice made by members of my generation — and the tenacity of Helen Thomas — will have been wasted.