Bill, Backstage

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I was honored last week to take some photos of former Pres. Bill Clinton at NWF’s Conservation Awards Gala. Prior to his acceptance of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Clinton mingled backstage with the other awardees (including Rue Mapp and Dr. David Suzuki) and some other distinguished guests. I can’t really share any of the others pictures (it was a private gathering), but I think I’m OK to post this one since he’s the only person you can identify.

Surrendering the Bill of Rights in the 21st Century

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Three stories I read today shared a common thread: the slow, but ubiquitous degradation of some fundamental freedoms in name of the modern police state. It began with a post over on bOINGbOING about police in America seizing citizens’ property for “suspected” involvement in narcotics trafficking. Cory Doctorow writes:

The story…revolves around the notorious town of Tenaha, TX, a small town on US 59 where a corrupt system allowed cops to pull over people — mostly brown people — and simply take away all their possessions: their cars, their cash, even the gold crosses around their necks.

I first ran across this issue on an episode of The Good Wife (of all places), and the type of search highlighted by the episode was given greater publicity when the Supreme Court ruled on a similar case earlier this year. It touches on a number of issues, but the story discussed by bOINGbOING is very much about the immoral seizure of property:

In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.

If you’re driving down the road in one of these communities and get pulled over (for speeding or driving “too close to the white line” or whatever), and you’re black or brown, there’s a decent chance the police will attempt to confiscate your valuables:

Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. A finding of discrimination could bring judicial scrutiny. “It was a highway-piracy operation,” Guillory said.

It was after reading this story that I happened across Charles Pierce:

Almost all of the extra-constitutional atrocities attributed to the “war” on terror have their philosophical — and, in many cases, their literal — roots in the equally futile “war” on drugs. It was there where the Fourth and Fifth Amendments first took a beating similar to the one that Edward Snowden revealed they are currently enduring on the part of the NSA.

MARC CommutersThus, story No. 2: if you hadn’t heard the news, the Drug Enforcement Agency is “funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.” In and of itself, this is crazy enough, but Pierce makes the necessary connection:

Consider how unremarkable drug-testing without probable cause — which is essentially both an unwarranted search and forcible testimony that might be incriminating — has become. Not even the Major League Baseball Players Association, the most powerful union in the country, can stand up against it any more.

For many of the people profiled in the New Yorker piece voluntarily surrendered their property. They did so because authorities threatened to charge them with felonies, or deportation, or said they would lose their kids. But this voluntary acquiescence to our modern police state is everywhere. Cue story No. 3 about the TSA’s new tactical teams:

The teams, which are typically composed of federal air marshals, explosives experts and baggage inspectors, move through crowds with bomb-sniffing dogs, randomly stop passengers and ask security questions. There is usually a specially trained undercover plainclothes member who monitors crowds for suspicious behavior, said Kimberly F. Thompson, a T.S.A. spokeswoman. Some team members are former members of the military and police forces.

The entire security theater apparatus we’ve established around travel in the United States is incredible. Here’s Digby:

But the effect of this isn’t, in the end, to make little old ladies feel safer by confiscating the 8oz bottle of Geritol in their handbagsIt’s to train citizens to submit to authorities without probable cause. That’s exactly what’s happened in airports, after all. Americans are so docile about it that people in other countries are astonished to see us taking off our shoes and otherwise disrobing at airport security without even being told. (They don’t have to.)

And so here we are, in 2013, going about our daily lives, wrapped in the protection of all our law enforcement personnel and no longer in the protection of the Bill of Rights.

Will New Mexico Join the War Against Voting?

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It’s been a while since I’ve delved into politics in this space, but with the 2012 Legislative Session in New Mexico starting today, a particular piece of legislation has me worried. What’s worse, it comes from the lawmaker representing my hometown in Silver City. I’m speaking, of course, of the voter ID law proposed by Silver City Republican Dianne Hamilton.

In a story that appeared in several news outlets this weekend, Hamilton reiterated her desire to reintroduce the bill, which has failed in the past three years it was offered:

She says the system should change to make sure the integrity of elections is upheld. “I don’t think this is a poll tax. I don’t think this is discriminatory. I do think it is time for this law,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton argues, without one scintilla of proof, that voting in New Mexico is somehow compromised. But is it? Last year, New Mexico’s Secretary of State, Dianna Duran, alleged that 117 foreign nationals had registered to vote and that 37 of those individuals had cast ballots. Those figures were revised down late last year after the ACLU of New Mexico filed suit to determine the veracity of those claims. Duran wouldn’t release the names because the information she was citing came, apparently, from DMV records.

In other words: they had driver’s licenses.

Now, whether non-citizens should be issued a drivers license is a separate issue. It’s pretty obvious, however, that a voter ID law wouldn’t have prevented this fraud, since the individuals possessed the ID the legislation calls for. In addition, Duran has said that many of the 19 foreign nationals who cast ballots likely did so “mistakenly, thinking they had the right to vote.”

This hardly seems like the rampant abuse of a system in a state where 607,700 people voted in 2010’s general election.

What’s more, these latest efforts at solving a non-existent problem come after years of similar machinations. David Iglesias was canned for neglecting to follow the mythical rabbit down the voted fraud hole. But this non-existent problem is one that just won’t go away, either in New Mexico or across the country.

Charles Pierce was all over this issue in 2011, and drew needed attention to it again in rememberance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day:

Race has popped up in the campaign this year. Newt Gingrich tripped over it while talking about food stamps and let’s not even deal with the preposterous lie that Rick Santorum told about how he really said “blah people.” Both of them were talking in gussied-up code, and they professed to be mystified as to how anyone could possibly think such a thing. And, of course, race has been a central theme (never a subtext; don’t even try to make that case) in the irrational hatred directed at the current occupant of the White House. And it’s not possible to read Lyndon’s great speech — in which he called out  “every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny this right” — and not think of all the smart little clerks all over the country with their smart little voter-ID laws who are so damned mystified as to why people are so upset.

That’s the thing: these proposed laws, intentionally or otherwise, are aimed directly at minority voters, something which is recognized by the Department of Justice:

“Despite our nation’s record of progress, and long tradition of extending voting rights – today, a growing number of citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that Dr. King fought throughout his life to address and overcome,” Holder said at an MLK Day event in Columbia, S.C.

Holder’s remarks in the Palmetto State come just weeks after the Justice Department blocked the state’s new voter ID law from taking effect, citing an unfair burden on minority voters.

The Department of Justice recently vacated a South Carolina law that was designed to combat voter fraud by requiring a state ID. DOJ found the law unfairly targeted minority residents, in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. While I welcome the action on the part of the DOJ, it’s a small victory in a larger battle: the GOP War on Voting.

“One of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time,” Bill Clinton told a group of student activists in July. “Why is all of this going on? This is not rocket science. They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate” – a reference to the dominance of the Tea Party last year, compared to the millions of students and minorities who turned out for Obama. “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, these efforts could disenfranchise almost 5 million Americans this year:

“If you’re poor…and you don’t have a birth certificate or a credit card, then it becomes extremely difficult to get those things so you can get out and vote,” Norden notes. “Some of those people are going to get ID [and be able to vote], but some of them aren’t.”

At least 16 states have tried (and many have succeeded) passing legislation aimed at “solving” the voter ID problem. That’s quite a bit of effort for an issue with precious little evidence supporting it. The penalties for voter fraud are so high (incarceration for citizens, deportations for non-citizens) that it’s outrageous to expect that there’s any wide-spread voter fraud. But that hasn’t stopped legislators like Hamilton, who postponed her retirement in order to introduce her bill again this year:

“I guess I’m Don Quixote – better make that Donna Quixote – tilting at windmills,” Hamilton said of offering another voter identification bill in the legislative session that begins this week.

Tilting at windmills—I couldn’t have put it any better myself.