Make America Great Again

Social media isn’t real life.

I think people tend to forget that from time to time. In a lot of ways, what people post to social media isn’t necessarily the truth, but life and opinions glimpsed through various filters.

Last week, Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo took to social media to demand that Mark Poloncarz, “reverse his stance” on welcoming Syrian refugees to Erie County. I reacted to that in some detail in this piece. There, I was wrong about something very important that shouldn’t be overlooked. I wrote, “[w]atch Monday as his colleagues in the majority caucus inevitably echo his clarion call; people with no say over the matter demanding that another guy with no say over the matter do something.”

That’s not at all what happened.

Indeed, Lorigo was silent pretty much all week in advance of a meeting of the legislature that took place Thursday. He had a surrogate or two battling valiantly in his corner on social media all week, but there was nary a peep from other high-ranking Republicans or elected officials, with the notable exception of Republican Legislator Kevin Hardwick, who told WBEN that “[t]o shut the door on these people doesn’t seem like a very American thing to do. You’re balancing your own security versus what you should do as an American. It’s a difficult thing to balance.”

No one backed Lorigo. There were whispers all week about saving face; saving Lorigo from himself. Amendments were offered that toned down the more outrageous rhetoric in Lorigo’s resolution, and the legislature ended up voting to hold an information session, rather than agreeing to hold a three-top public hearing circus.

Brian Brown-Cashdollar – speaking for himself and not in his official capacity as the Development Director for Buffalo’s International Instituteone of several local refugee resettlement agencies – wrote an open letter to Lorigo on Friday, 

…if you expect to be treated seriously, then you should conduct yourself in a serious manner. Security concerns addressed by serious people are handled quietly. If you were sincerely concerned about the safety of your constituents, you would have contacted the County Executive privately. You would have approached Homeland Security and the State Department privately and inquired about the threats posed by refugees being resettled to the Western New York.

You would have learned the sad migration taking place in Europe has nothing in common with the refugee resettlement process in the United States. And increasingly it’s looking like it had nothing to do with the attacks in Paris either. You would have learned that refugees coming to the US are more rigorously screened than any other population of arriving immigrants. You would have learned since 9/11 there have been approximately three instances where the security professionals had concerns about the adequacy of the screening procedures, and they quietly slowed, limited, and after 9/11 temporarily halted the admission of refugees. You would have learned that procedures were adjusted and resettlement resumed, bringing much needed talent and energy to our communities. This has always been handled responsibly, respectfully, and discretely.

That gets to the heart of the matter – is any of this out of genuine security concerns, or is this all about politics? We know that a very slight majority of Americans say they support admission of Syrian refugees through the resettlement program, and Congress just passed a bill halting any refugees from being resettled in the United States from Syria or Iraq until some as-yet-undefined security assessment is certified as to every one. Never before – not after 9/11, nor in 2011 – has the refugee resettlement process or the admission of refugees been so starkly politicized.

In large part, this politicized hysteria over Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States is designed by conservatives to promote two distinct threads: 1. that Democrats are willing knowingly to put Americans at risk (although the supposed rationale is never articulated); and 2. that Obama is an un-American foreigner more concerned with _____ than _______. The second is an old yarn that dances in step to the traditional explicit and implied charges that Obama is fundamentally not “American” enough. The first echoes the charges brought against people who opposed the Iraq war – that they were un-Patriotic; that they were traitors. It’s a short walk from “freedom fries” to today’s reflexive, reactionary hysteria.

We have resettled refugees for years without incident – we have accepted refugees from enemy countries like Lebanon, the Soviet Union, and from war-torn, terrorist-filled places like Iraq. We’ve taken them in especially from places like Vietnam, where our own involvement helped bring about the crisis. Even in the very rare instances where someone turned out to be bad, no bad acts occurred. The edifice that the anti-immigrant populists have erected is emblazoned with, “Daesh will infiltrate the Syrian migrants”. This is true; however, as I wrote earlier, the legal, regulatory, geographic reality for migrants in Europe is completely different for those selected for resettlement in the United States. In fact, it can be argued that Daesh/ISIS, as currently consitituted, did not even exist when the current refugees arriving from Syria first applied for resettlement. It is also palpably true that terrorists don’t have to – and won’t – wait to undergo a strenuous and lengthy refugee resettlement process to enter the U.S. when anyone with a Belgian or French passport can travel here as a tourist without first obtaining a visa.

The people who have left Syria in the last few months and who are now applying for refugee status are not yet in the U.S., and won’t be for two years while their identities are ascertained and their security risk determined. Clearly, people whose identities can’t be verified won’t be let in. The refugee resettlement program is to a great extent handled here in the U.S. by faith-based organizations. The Catholic Bishops and the Evangelicals have already condemned the ban on – and scapegoating of – refugees from Syria, some of whom are Christian, many of whom are intact family units. They don’t endure 2 years in a refugee camp in Jordan with their kids just so they can come here and be part of a sleeper cell.

If people think that there are security holes in the vetting process, that is, I suppose, news to everyone who does this on a daily basis. If genuine concerns exist, certainly a pause – much less an outright ban – is not necessary for intelligence agencies to do something more to make changes or enhancements to the process. Some of the more extreme suggestions I’ve seen online or heard on local hate radio – for instance, that we round Muslims up in camps, or deport them, or require them to be registered with the government and carry a special ID, are downright anti-American and on their face violative of the Constitution.

Local AM talk radio has been unlistenably irresponsible and packed with lies. Tom Bauerle said that there were no families among the Syrian refugees – that it was all men of military age. That’s not true. I heard that these refugees are “pedestrian blitzkrieg”. That’s not true. I heard that this is an “invasion”. That’s not true. I heard that Muslim countries weren’t taking them in. That’s not true – in fact, Turkey has taken 2.2 million refugees, and Lebanon has taken 1.1 million. Jordan is sheltering 1.4 million. When Tom Bauerle – who has spent the better part of the week as a human thesaurus re-expressing how he doesn’t want Syrian refugees, “in my country” – has to admonish regular caller “Rambo Jim” to cool it with the Holocaust boxcars-for-Muslims scenarios, you know that a rhetorical, political, legal, rational, and human line has been flagrantly crossed.

Towards the end of an obnoxiously reactionary week, people on a Southwest flight had a fellow passenger detained prior to a flight because he committed the crime of speaking Arabic. The pizza maker was chatting with a friend and someone felt “uncomfortable”. The man called police, and was ultimately allowed on the flight. He also committed the crime of holding a white box, and had to prove to his fellow passengers that he was flying with baklava. He shared it with these people.

Pizza shop owner Maher Khalil emigrated from Palestine 15 years ago. He says he had never experienced discrimination before the incident Wednesday at Midway International Airport.

“We came to America to have a better life,” Khalil explained on Friday. “Everybody in America is from different countries. I’m one of them. I’m an American citizen.”

…”I swear, I never had that feeling before,” Khalil said. “I felt like we’re not safe no more in this country. Because I’m Arab, I cannot ride the airplane? The person who complained is the one who should be kicked out, not me.”

We’re on a precipice – the question is whether we jump or begin walking this anti-American madness back.

Europe has taken under 300,000 refugees, and France has re-stated its commitment to take 30,000 of them in spite of last week’s attacks. The United States was on track to accept 10,000 of them (propagandists are accusing Obama of 10x or 30x that). The screening protocol is well-documented, multi-faceted, and extremely thorough. They work in conjunction with local resettlement programs. The refugees we see in Europe – the ones described on the radio as an “invasion” – come from Syria to Europe by raft or by land. They can’t do that to reach the U.S. It’s turned out so far that exactly zero of the Paris attackers was Syrian – all of them were French or Belgian and could, ostensibly, board a flight to the US on any given day, without a visa.

Perhaps the most craven local political hypocrite of all is Representative Chris Collins. When asked about halting the resettlement of Syrian refugees, he said, “I’d rather err on the side of safety. Safety first, second and third.”  When confronted with the fact that the perpetrators of the Paris attacks held Belgian passports, he said, “he didn’t want to disrupt international travel. ‘One thing we can’t do,’ he said, ‘is overreact in a way that would make ISIS very happy.’”

The problem is that the scapegoating of Syrian refugees – including Kurds and Christians – makes ISIS, “very happy” indeed. More importantly, our gun laws are so lax that, so far, 2,043 people on the FBI’s terror watch list have been legally allowed to purchase guns in this country. “The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used to clear gun purchases, is not cross-referenced with the FBI’s list of potential terrorists.” Republicans, backed by the NRA, have consistently failed and refused to close this significant loophole, thus putting the lie to all of their self-righteous bleating about security.

In response to that, Collins says it’s a “red herring”, and that, “[i]t goes back to the liberal left’s thought that you can legislate against bad people.” Sort of like voting for a “pause” to re-assess the security and identity process used to resettle Syrian refugees in order to prevent terrorists from gaining entry to the U.S.

If we’re assessing risks, the greater risk is that our domestic intelligence services don’t know enough about Belgian or French terrorists whose passports enable them easy travel to the US. The risk isn’t from families awaiting resettlement screening, but from disaffected, unemployed Belgian youth of Algerian or Moroccan extraction who are on a French watch list but not an American one, and who hold a passport from a visa waiver country. What we should be doing is growing our intelligence sharing with European allies and shoring up our surveillance, human, and signals intelligence as it relates to anyone seeking entry to the United States via any means.

But from a political standpoint, I don’t think that conservatives pushing the refugee-scapegoating meme have property thought out how this all affects their position on gun control generally. In the wake of myriad recent mass shootings, gun control advocates have called for strengthening of our background checks, closing of loopholes, and uniformity of regulations in order to better prevent bad people from obtaining firearms. While the overwhelming majority of gun owners are law-abiding and responsible, we should put controls in place to protect Americans from preventable gun violence. The NRA and other gun advocacy groups oppose any tightening of these regulations as violative of a legally inaccurate, absolutist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.

But if we have to implement stricter background checks on Syrian refugees to protect against the small number who might seek to do us harm, mustn’t the same argument be valid when it comes to reasonable gun control measures?

While everyone was paying close attention Thursday to a county legislature debating amendments to a toothless piece of irrelevant paper, everyone overlooked something that passed unanimously. The Legislature authorized County Executive Poloncarz to enter into a contract with the NYS Office of Indigent Legal Services to accept a state grant of $1.35 million, and to contract with the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer’s Project to deliver the servcies anticipated under that grant.

The grant specifically expands the county’s ability to provide legal representation in criminal and family court matters to indigent non-citizen, immigrant persons in Erie County. This specific grant is put in place to ensure that indigent defendants are represented adequately where criminal and immigration matters intersect.

What this means is that, on the same day that the county legislature wasted time responding toothlessly to a remote possibility that refugees might commit bad acts, it expressly authorized the use of state funds to represent immigrants who were already accused of actually having commited them.

Ultimately, the blood libel that Democrats or liberals are willing to put Americans at risk is beneath our discourse, and the time for politicizing security fell from the skies 14 years ago.

We can do a hell of a lot better than what’s happened over the last week. In response to terror in France, we succumbed to fear and unfounded political reaction. In 1941, FDR declared that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In blaming the victims of ISIS for ISIS’ crimes, we indict the very notion of what America is supposed to be, and for what it is supposed to stand.

The Refugee Process: Bosnia Edition

I’ll have more to say later about this past week’s descent into anti-refugee, anti-immigrant hysteria – from what the Erie County Legislature did on Thursday to Donald Trump’s descent into registration of Muslims already in the country, echoing the Nazi precursor to the Shoah. That’s before we get to the banality of drive-time hate radio callers expressing a desire to send Muslims in the US to camps in “boxcars”.

In the meantime, here is a series of Tweets from a Bosnian refugee explaining the process her family endured when they registered with the UN as refugees.

When they tell you that we don’t know who these people are, or that they have insecure feelings about the vetting process, consider that this was the process 20 years ago for a family from a westernized, modern country. The process for the small handful of refugees from Syria is already much more stringent and, pardon the pun, byzantine.

 

American Daesh

Who said what? Can you tell which statements are from the Daesh claim of responsibility for last week’s Paris attacks, and which statements are from “Christian” pastor Steven Anderson?

“…this sinful nation of France”

“…the capital of prostitution and obscenity…Paris”

“…you love death so much, you bought the ticket, you love worshiping Satan!”

“…the Bataclan, where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party”

“…that’s what these people should think about before they go into such a wicked concert”

“France is a sinful, wicked nation.” 

“Paris…the sodomite capital…a wicked place where adultery is the norm”

Have fun!

Lessons in Empathy, Humanity, and Geography

The bodies of Paris’ fallen weren’t yet cold before the ghouls sprung to action.

I saw it plenty on Facebook on Saturday, but by late in the day Conservative Erie County Legislator Joseph Lorigo had Tweeted the following:

The Syrian refugees are trying to escape a vicious civil war that has been going on since 2011. They are trying to escape the very members of the Daesh death cult (aside: why to call it Daesh and not ISIS/L) who perpetrated the terrorist attacks in Paris Friday night. However, Daesh has taken advantage of westerners’ empathy and of the European Union’s open market and borders to infiltrate the ranks of the refugees and to kill innocent people. Based on current reports, we should be more wary of letting in people with Belgian passports.

The EU’s open border scheme is commonly referred to as the 26-member “Schengen” area, named for the Dutch city where the treaty creating it was signed. Although many of the refugees have arrived in Greece – a Schnegen state – it is not contiguous with any other. The refugees have largely passed from Greece into non-EU states Macedonia and Serbia before arriving in EU/Schengen member Hungary. Overwhelmed by refugees it didn’t want, Hungary quickly sealed parts of its border with Serbia, causing migrants to instead head for non-Schengen EU state Croatia. From there, they have been processed and allowed passage through Schengen-EU members Slovenia and Austria into Germany, which has all but invited them.

The point of all of this is that these small, often poor, southeastern EU members are ill-equipped to properly process and vet everyone coming through. This is a serious problem for Europe, and one it needs to get a handle on quickly because of the admitted Daesh infiltration. This is difficult, but not impossible.

When France says it’s closing its borders, it doesn’t mean it’s not letting anyone in or out – it means it is re-establishing border controls that it took down when Schengen was implemented. Until last week, anyone wishing to travel between France and literally any one of its neighbors did not generally have to stop and show a passport upon entry or exit; there were no customs or passport controls, like when you travel from New York to Connecticut. Now, France has re-established passport / identity card checks on all of its points of entry, which likely spells the end of the Schengen experiment, at least for the time being.

The United States, by contrast, is neither a member of the EU, nor a signatory to the Schengen agreement. Likewise, its territory is not contiguous with that of Europe or the Middle East. A Syrian refugee has to board a plane or ship in order to get to the US, and must have a valid passport or refugee travel document and requisite visa or other permission to do so. The process to obtain a US visa is not a simple one, and subjects an applicant to a background check and consular interview.

Even members of countries that belong to the US visa waiver program have a series of hurdles to jump before they’re allowed entry into the US. These travelers are subjected to screening before they’re let on the plane, much less upon arrival at their point of entry. It’s safe to say that our Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection are selective and cautious about whom they let into the country; especially by air, and especially with a passport from a war zone, or with a Red Cross refugee passport. The State Department’s underlying resettlement process takes 18 – 24 months to properly vet and screen refugees coming to the US. It’s also safe to say that any refugee seeking passage to the United States from Europe will be subjected to a level of scrutiny about which you or I would become so incensed, that we would write scathing Facebook posts or Yelp reviews condemning it.

As the Syrian refugee crisis was gearing up, local news outlets reported in September that up to 300 Syrian refugees were likely to eventually settle in western New York. (WGRZ, Buffalo News, Buffalo News, Business First, WIVB). They would not simply teleport to WNY en masse to impose Sharia Law on Erie County. In his Tweets, (and in the social media postings I have seen from other Republican mouthpieces in the last 48 hours), Lorigo pushes the fiction that it’s somehow Mark Poloncarz who is personally inviting these 300 Syrian refugees to western New York, or – more to the point – that Poloncarz has some say in the matter. He doesn’t, and it’s not.

The County Executive and the County Legislature have no power to exclude people legally present in the United States from settling here. County government – neither Poloncarz nor the legislature – has no say in who gets to settle here.

There are four refugee resettlement agencies in western New York – Journey’s End, the International Institute of Buffalo, Jewish Family Services, and Catholic Charities of Buffalo, which combined assist about 1,500 refugees every year. Recent refugees resettled in western New York have arrived from war-torn places like Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, the Congo, and Eritrea, yet at no point did any politician take time out to concern-troll about security on Twitter about any of them.

The United States is expected to welcome about 10,000 Syrian refugees. That isn’t just a comparative drop in the bucket, but a Californian drought. By contrast, the EU has brought in 270,000 refugees, Lebanon has welcomed 1.1 million, and Turkey has 1.7 million.

The opportunity to politicize a human tragedy of epic proportions is, no doubt, irresistibly tempting for some. Add in the opportunity to exploit hysteria, fear, and racism, and you’ve got a toxic brew of resentment waiting to be stirred. It’s especially palpable in a place like Buffalo, which is just getting back its economic sea legs.

Poloncarz issued the following statement Sunday, including a response to Lorigo. Emphases mine:

Our thoughts go out to our brethren in France and we stand by our French compatriots after this horrible attack. On Friday evening immediately after the Paris attacks I contacted Central Police Services Commissioner John Glascott and Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth, Jr. to determine if there were any terrorist warnings or other information on potential terrorist attacks in the United States. The Commissioners, who are in constant communication with federal and state homeland security agencies regarding potential terrorist threats, advised me there were no credible threats reported. Since then the Commissioners have provided me with ongoing reports from the Counter Terrorism Center at the New York State Intelligence Center, a division of NYS’s Homeland Security Department. I also spoke to Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard, who informed me that his office had no knowledge of any credible threats. The Sheriff and all Erie County departments take any threat very seriously and will remain vigilant going forward.

In regard to Legislator Lorigo’s comments, I am disappointed both by his comments and his ignorance of the process of resettling refugees in our country. Erie County government is NOT an active participant in the re-settlement of refugees. The decision to allow refugees of any nationality into our country is made by the federal government and the placement of refugees who are legal immigrants into communities in the U.S. is made by the federal and state governments. Neither the County Executive nor any branch of Erie County government has any say in whether any refugee is resettled in our community, nor can we prevent a legal immigrant from being resettled here.

In New York, local not-for-profit resettlement agencies work with federal and state agencies to place refugees into communities based on the ability of the agency to support them. Local resettlement agencies include Catholic Charities of Buffalo, Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, Journey’s End Refugee Services, Inc., and the International Institute of Buffalo. Once a refugee is placed in our community through one of these agencies, Erie County’s Department of Social Services may work with the agency and individual, if the individual qualifies for any federal or state benefits, to ensure a better transition into the community.

Many of the refugees fleeing Syria are Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians who fled their country because they had no choice. As such, I am very disappointed by Legislator Lorigo’s statement, which seemed to be stoking the fires of Islamophobia. While we all must remain vigilant, it is important to note that our region has a long history of being a new home for immigrants from around the world who fled civil war or faced persecution in their homeland, including Iraqis, Burmese, Somalis, and during the past two years a small contingent of Syrians. All of these people have been vetted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office, a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, before being admitted to our country and placed in any community.
Erie County’s limited role, working with our partner agencies, is to help individuals who have been legally admitted to our country regardless of their religion or country of origin adjust to a new home. In that role, as always, we will continue to remain alert against terrorism in any of its forms, foreign or domestic.

What is all this? Joe Lorigo  – the majority leader of the do-little County Legislature – sees an opportunity to expoit people’s fears to grab a headline, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t take advantage of it. Watch Monday as his colleagues in the majority caucus inevitably echo his clarion call; people with no say over the matter demanding that another guy with no say over the matter do something. I’ve already been accused of holding a “cynical” and “insulting” opinion on this topic when expressed via social media. Perhaps – it wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last, but it represents my observation of what’s happening.

When there’s a mass shooting in the United States and gun control advocates express a desire for fewer guns, or that people be subjected to tighter restrictions on their ownership or possession, we’re told that we’re anti-Constitutionalist traitor motherfuckers and that these things wouldn’t do a stitch of good. Yet somehow excluding 300 Syrian families from resettling in WNY is magically going to prevent terrorist attacks?

Scott Whitmire, a former WNYMedia.net colleague of mine, is more conservative than I, and we frequently disagree – especially when it comes to gun violence. After recounting a few recent cases where Americans rushed into danger to help save strangers to whom they owed nothing, he wrote this:

I won’t claim that this “have a go heroism” is uniquely American: It is not. It is, however, an intrinsic part of our DNA. We enlist by the millions to fight wars not our own. We rush towards danger, we hear the call, the sound of gunfire and we fight. Often, we prevail. Often our cause is not ours, but the cause of those that cannot take their quarrel to the foe.

After the carnage in Paris last night, many are calling for halting all influx of refugees from war-torn Syria. Pictures of dubious provenance are being circulated purporting to show that all of the refugees are fit, trim, fighting age males. The implication is that the stream of refugees is an undercover army or somesuch. People are saying that Paris is the result of allowing streams of Muslims into France. People are explicitly blaming the refugees. People are using these events to paint all Muslims with this bloodied brush. Others point out that the refugees are refugees precisely because of the actions of ISIS and their ilk.

I am not particularly interested in entertaining a conversation that paints a billion and half people with the actions of dozens. Or hundreds. Or thousands. This is barely statistical noise. The conversation we need to be having is this: What is the risk posed by taking in the refugees, and are we willing to bear that risk.

Make no mistake: Welcoming 100,000 people from that region virtually guarantees that we will be bringing in some who are either already jihadists or are easily recruited to that end. If only 1% of the refugees fit the profile of current or recruitable jihadi, that’s about 1000 individuals. If 1% of that pool is actually motivated to action, that’s 10. Paris was carried out by 8. You may dispute my numbers, they are, after all, only guesses. Depending upon who you ask, that 1% could be anywhere from 0.1% to 30%, I feel comfortable with 1% as a reasonable guess.

Bringing in 100,000 Syrian refugees thus significantly increases the odds that we will see a Paris/Mumbai style attack here. Even screening out the active jihadist won’t change that fact as often terrorists are recruited after moving.

We owe the Syrian refugees nothing.

It’s a pernicious threat because it’s so decentralized. The only response to decentralized threats is a decentralized response. No other nation on earth is as equipped to deal with such a decentralized threat. Remember, we’re the ones that run at the jihadi on a train when he’s armed with a rifle. We’re the ones that run toward gunfire on a campus. And these were unarmed folks. We’re the ones that own guns at a rate that far outstrips every other nation, civilized or no.

So, to come full circle. We take horrific risks, often on behalf of those to whom we owe nothing. Innocent Syrians fleeing civil war are precisely such people. Bringing them here is a risk, but it’s a risk we are uniquely prepared to face, at least outside of the democrat controlled places like NY. Should we do it? Should we let them in? If so, how many? How do we screen them? Where will we house them? I don’t know. I do know that we should fight the urge to reflexively turtle the fuck up.

As an ancillary point to all this, I’ve made no attempt to assess long term risks and benefits, but these also need to be part of the conversation. I know that the divide on this issue is largely along the same lines that divide us on gun control. If you accept the premise that a decentralized response can mitigate the risk posed by the influx of refugees, perhaps those on the left could offer some changes in their demand for our disarmament. You may find that people are more supportive of taking risks if you decide to defend rather than attack their ability to meet those risks.

I don’t advocate generally for disarmament – merely that we do what we can to try and prevent violent maniacs from having barrier-free access to firearms. I don’t advocate for barrier-free entry to this country for anyone claiming to be a refugee, either. We have processes and investigatory procedures in place to assess whether an applicant is to be allowed into this country. If you think back to the 1990s, this country took in hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo. How many Bosnian-Americans have committed some act of terror in this country?

But Whitmire’s underlying point is valid – we stick our necks out for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free all the time, and we shouldn’t knee-jerkedly reject the small handful of Syrians we’ve agreed to take in just because of what happened in Paris. We shouldn’t stoke fear and hatred to gain political points or advantage.

Out of many millions of Syrian refugees, here we have one –  maybe a few – who committed an atrocity. We must fight and reject terror, regardless of its perpetrators or aims. We should also reject political efforts to exploit fears and prejudices, and render the words “refugee” and “terrorist” synonymnous. We should especially do this when it politicizes a tragedy before its dead have had the dignity of burial. Joe Lorigo takes to Twitter, grabs a headline, and implicitly alleges that Poloncarz would knowingly or intentionally put western New Yorkers at risk.

That, to me, is truly the more cynical and insulting notion.

The Safest Space is the First Amendment

This simply amazing video is making the rounds. You need to see it.

That video depicts students and faculty at the University of Missouri harassing and assaulting two journalists, including undergraduate MU photojournalism major Tim Tai, who was freelancing for ESPN. These protesters affirmatively prevented two photographers from doing their jobs. More ominously, towards the end of the video, Assistant Professor of Mass Media Melissa Click called for “muscle” to help physically assault and remove the videographer – MU junior Mark Schierbecker – from the area.

So, we had a faculty member – an employee of a public, government institution – calling out for people to help her assault a student in a public space at a public university for the vicious crime of documenting a news event. Adding to the irony, Click chairs the Student Publications Committee on campus. The blonde woman with the North Face yelling at Tai to, “back off” is Janna Basler, UM’s director of Greek life and leadership.

Click has since apologized and resigned one of her appointments. (Text here). As usual, internet cretins have called in loads of death threats and worse. The chairman of the communications department on campus wrote,

Faculty (and students) have a right to express their views, but they do NOT have the right to intimidate others. This has been an awful time for the university, but that in no way condones intimidation.

The underlying purpose of the protests themselves is laudable – to confront and end systemic racism at the university. The protest organizers, “Concerned Student 1950“, invoke the year that black students were first allowed to attend that school. They use the tactics of the 1950s and 1960s to battle against racist incidents that took place at the school for which its administration had no reaction whatsoever. It wasn’t until the football team threatened to boycott and forfeit a game to spur some sort of positive action from the administration.

But it was charges of persistent racism, particularly complaints of racial epithets hurled at the student body president, who is black, that sparked the strongest reactions, along with complaints that the administration did not take the problem seriously enough.

The video above was shot in the wake of the University president’s resignation. The protesters randomly – and virtually – cordoned off an area of the quad where they were encamped and physically blocked reporters from doing their jobs. If you hold a public protest on a public space at a public university, you don’t have the right to assault a reporter, to touch him in any way, to censor the reporting, or to otherwise use force to remove him from the premises.

In response to the imbroglio, Tai wrote,

As a photojournalist, my job is often intrusive and uncomfortable. I don’t take joy in that. …You take the scene as it presents itself, and you try to make impactful images that tell the story. … And sometimes you have to put down the camera. But national breaking news on a public lawn is not one of those times.

If you show up to a protest in a public place, you don’t get to withhold consent to be photographed or otherwise documented by reporters.

I don’t know why another student with a camera reporting for the NY Times or ESPN renders your “space” “unsafe”, but what those people did to those reporters has absolutely nothing to do with “political correctness”. The 1st Amendment trumps your desire to be left alone if you do it outside in public.

What you see in that video has to do with fascism – pure and simple. Those students and faculty were no different from blackshirts or militia intimidating and assaulting reporters in pre-1975 Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, or pre-war Italy. Harrassment and violence against members of the press, and aggressive hostility against press freedoms is a hallmark of anti-democratic totalitarianism.

The students – they get the benefit of the doubt. It’s neither novel nor surprising that students would be somewhat ignorant of the 1st Amendment and how it works. But the adult members of faculty and administration – their behavior is shocking and inexcusable.

Basler and Click tried to regulate First Amendment activity in a public forum (i.e., the media’s peaceable assembly and newsgathering).* That potentially exposes them and the University of Missouri to liability under 42 USC § 1983, a federal law that allows individuals to sue public agents and entities for deprivations of civil or constitutional rights. Because of the physical contact shown on the video, it’s even possible that they could be liable for assault in the third degree under Missouri law.

Ultimately, that behavior undermines whatever point the protesters are trying to make. The 1st Amendment not only protects the protesters’ right to demonstrate, speak, and assembly, but it also protects the rights of reporters to photograph, video, and report.

Patrick Kane Wins Again

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Just a few convenient days after his election as Supreme Court Justice, outgoing DIstrict Attorney Frank Sedita issued an unusual statement explaining that his office was not going to prosecute Patrick Kane for allegedly raping a young woman in August. The case has been plagued from the very beginning by strategic leaks of information seemingly from people with something to promote or defend. The vast majority of these leaks seemed to assail the alleged victim, accusing her of being a liar or a gold-digger or that there was a lack of forensic evidence to corroborate the allegation. The best that the alleged victim’s friends could do was leak to the News that she’s a really good person.

To recap: the first article I published explained why club owner Mark Croce engaged in blatant slut-shaming to the Buffalo News. I followed that up with a Kane case FAQ, and a further analysis of the victim blaming that was taking place in the press from literally the moment this news hit. Kane had an off-duty cop on his payroll, and he also told the News tales about the alleged victim and Kane supporters took that all at face value. Paul Cambria argued with me about the case on Facebook, and that made a bit of news, the leak about a lack of DNA evidence happened, and then the alleged victim’s mother attempted to perpetrate a fraud on her daughter’s lawyer, the public, and the system with an evidence bag. District Attorney Sedita held a dramatic press conference where he quite clearly expressed his personal prejudices about the case, indicating that a prosecution was going to be unlikely and explaining that he had exchanged exculpatory Brady material with the popular and wealthy alleged perpetrator’s legal team during the investigatory stage – something unprecedented, according to criminal lawyers with whom I spoke.

Over the course of this past week, we learned that the alleged victim was no longer going to cooperate with this District Attorney’s office, citing the “stress” of this investigation, and the case was ended two days after election day.

Here are some points to consider:

1. Kane isn’t “innocent”: Nothing’s Changed

He’s not even “not guilty”. Despite Mr. Sedita going miles out of his way to cast aspersions on the alleged victim and protecting the alleged perpetrator, no one knows what, if anything, happened between Kane and the alleged victim that night in August. One thing is for sure, because the alleged victim won’t cooperate, we’re unlikely to find out in a court of law what happened. I heard several male commentators take to the air over the last few days, including half of “Cellino & Barnes”, explaining that even a civil lawsuit was unlikely.

There was no trial—no jury, no nothing—to determine Kane’s guilt of lack of guilt. I haven’t seen anywhere that the alleged victim had recanted.

Sedita’s statement about what he characterized as, “this so-called ‘case’” added that it was, “rife with reasonable doubt.” But that’s not the standard at this stage – the D.A. was assembling evidence to present to a grand jury, which would be tasked with determining whether there exists probable cause that a crime occurred. Reasonable doubt is a job not even for the grand jury, but the trial jury. Sedita seems to have skipped all of those steps for one of two reasons; 1. he doesn’t believe the alleged victim and doesn’t want to trouble Kane with this anymore; and/or, 2. His office is notorious for being selective about prosecuting high-profile cases only where there exists a strong likelihood of success.

As a disinterested observer of this entire case, my impression was that the D.A.’s office was more interested in protecting the alleged perpetrator than the alleged victim; more worried about the hockey star’s reputation than whether something wrong may have happened one August night. I’m not saying that’s what happened—only that it is the impression that they left. 

2. Sedita’s Statement Raises More Questions than it Answers

I can’t recall another case of any sort where the D.A. so openly vocalized his sympathy with an accused, where law enforcement bent so far over backwards for an accused. Well, at least not since Antoine Garner allegedly murdered then stuffed Amanda Wienckowski in a garbage tote. Sedita told us that the, “physical and forensic evidence … tend to contradict the complainant’s claims.” Well, why have trials if we can just ask the District Attorney to find facts and assess credibility for us? You can see the entire statement and the News‘ reporting here. It sounds like a report of a trial that never took place; that took place only within the District Attorney’s office. The details that Sedita revealed raised more questions than they answered.

“The physical evidence and the forensic evidence, when viewed in tandem, tend to contradict the complainant’s claim that she was raped on Kane’s bed,” Sedita’s statement said.

Could she have been wrong? Whatever happened—could it have taken place in someone else’s bed? Room? On a couch? This was her first time in Kane’s house.

Sedita wrote that Kane “exercised his constitutional right to remain silent.” Sedita also wrote that Kane made “no known incriminating statements to any civilian.” Sedita also said Kane didn’t engage in “any conduct consistent with a consciousness of guilt.”

He was represented and advised by a competent and experienced criminal lawyer who, according to a radio interview this week, specifically advised him to conduct himself normally.

The DNA results “lend no corroboration whatsoever to the complainant’s claim of penetration.”

Perhaps there was no completion. Perhaps there was a condom. Perhaps it was a lesser included offense.  “Kane’s DNA was found under her fingernails and on her shoulders where there were bite marks.”

All of these factual inconsistencies exist in any case—large or small—and that’s why we have prosecutions and trials and arrests and presentments to grand juries.

3. A Big Win for Rape Culture

We’re already seeing articles explaining how Patrick Kane can rebuild his prior reputation of being a stumbling drunk who punches out cab drivers over pennies in change. Not satisfied with an end to the prosecution, Cambria made sure to mock the young accuser, “[s]tress and strain? Every week, my office would get pictures sent to us of this young woman at parties and social occasions, living it up…I do not believe she was suffering stress and strain.” Did Cambria produce these pictures to the News? Did the News follow up on that? Then why print it? Cambria is being paid to represent a client, he makes a statement accusing a young woman of having a social life, and the News prints it, verbatim, without even checking to see if it’s true. James Brown was right: This is a man’s world.

As all the Kane fans take to social media and condemn Kane’s accuser for being a gold-digging whore who should be sued—or worse—I have no doubt that something happened on August 2nd at Kane’s house that deeply troubled the alleged victim to the point where she accused Kane of rape. It might not have risen to the level of rape—she’s not a lawyer—but there exists absolutely no evidence that she was just out for a big payday, or that she concocted this entire story out of whole cloth as part of a grand scheme to extort money. The young college graduate and former cheerleader probably doesn’t need the grief that’s ensued.

Kane wins, and gets to carry on with his life, at least until the next drunken escapade or assault. The criminal justice system is the real victim here—it’s exceedingly difficult to prove and prosecute rape cases, and this entire freakshow hasn’t made it any easier. It hasn’t given women any assurance that they’ll be treated with respect or fairness if they accuse a powerful and influential man of an assault. It certainly didn’t do any favors for the victims of rape and sexual assault, or the people who make their lives helping them. It hasn’t done a stitch of good in terms of battling back against the rape culture pervasive not just in the fraternity of sports, but in our society overall.

Powerful males in law, law enforcement, Buffalo’s bar scene, and media pulled out all the stops to protect Kane and make the accuser’s life a living hell. The odds were stacked against her from the moment she called the cops in August. The leaks to the media—almost all of which were antagonistic to the accuser—were well-coordinated and devastating. The reaction on social media that I’ve seen is troubling. Quite honestly, from what I can tell, the truth and justice never had a chance.

Social Media Attacks Kane’s Accuser

I’ll link to this from this article at the Public, but I think this underscores the horrible outcome of the entire Kane case. All I did to find these was do a search for Kane’s accuser’s name.

#WNYVotes 2015

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Mark Poloncarz cruised to an overwhelming victory last night, defeating Assemblyman Ray Walter 65% – 34%. As a karmic aside, Poloncarz accomplished what Chris Collins couldn’t – re-election to that post.  In Lancaster, the town’s Republican slate – including thuggish incumbent supervisor Dino Fudoli – fared pretty horribly. Winning 58 – 42, Democrat Johanna Metz Coleman will become the town’s first female supervisor, and Democrat Diane Terranova will become town clerk. It was almost a clean sweep for the Democrats, and a humiliating rebuke for the Fudoli experiment.

What Fudoli seems to have learned from his erstwhile mentor Chris Collins is that western New Yorkers’ patience for obnoxious and thuggish political behavior has a short window.

Yesterday, an off-duty police officer coming in to vote at a fire hall in Lancaster overheard and accused Fudoli of muttering something about punching him in the face, and confronted him. It’s unknown whether Fudoli will be prosecuted, but it was emblematic of his ugly, bellicose, and childish behavior. The spectacle culminated in Fudoli and a representative from the Lancaster Police Benevolent Association calling in to Tom Bauerle’s show to explain their side of the story, Fudoli acknowledging he said something about punching the officer out, and that he had apologized. The gentleman from the PBA went on to explain Fudoli’s complaints about alleged police harassment by going into some detail about “suspicious vehicle” calls that prompted those incidents.

Western New York and Lancaster will be better off without Fudoli in elected office. I’m sure that “good government” and “good person” are not mutually exclusive.

Ray Walter – a good person – will go back to the Assembly and lives to fight another day. His campaign for County Executive was a bit quixotic, his sales tax proposal was fundamentally cynical, and he sell the idea of jettisoning a competent and hard-working incumbent. His inability to break 40% speaks volumes about Poloncarz’s continued political aptitude, both in policy and salesmanship.

We shouldn’t be electing judges at all, judicial candidates shouldn’t have to pander to an electorate, and cute ads with their kids hardly gives you an idea of a judge’s temperament or qualifications. Brenda Freedman defeated Kelly Brinkworth to go to Family Court, helped along by an ability to get her name on every fusion line while Brinkworth was only on the D line. No one voted for Freedman or Brinkworth on the merits, because no one had a clue about their respective merits. This was all about ballot placement and electoral fusion.

The County Legislature will maintain status quo, with Democrat Tom Loughran defeating challenger Guy Marlette, and Ted Morton easily defeated Democratic challenger Deb Liegl, in a hotly contested race.

On Grand Island, only two votes separate the two town supervisor candidates, so voting does matter. In West Seneca, incumbent Sheila Meegan defeated challenger Christina Bove. In something of a spectacle, apparent RINO Carl Paladino, in an email co-written by his dog, endorsed Democrat Meegan. The nexus of West Seneca shenanigans right now is that Scott Congel project by the Thruway near Ridge Road.

In Niagara Falls, incumbent Democrat Paul Dyster won re-election to become only the second three-term mayor in Niagara Falls history.

Finally, I watched with some interest that two TV stations use a Buffalo native but current New York City resident as a Democratic analyst. This person is a professional lobbyist and has been disloyal to Erie County Democratic Headquarters since Steve Pigeon was deposed from his chairmanship 15-ish years ago. (As an aside, this lobbyist wrote a book. At the book’s website, there were three glowing reviews; one from the author’s former boss, and the other two came from two newspapers the author co-owns). This person’s somewhat predictable analysis was that pretty much everything – any prospective result – was going to be bad news for Erie County Democratic Committee chairman Jeremy Zellner.

While the Democrats couldn’t seal the deal in the Liegl and Brinkworth races – in both cases due in part to the Republicans outmaneuvering the Democrats in setting up the minor fusion party lines – I think Zellner had a pretty good night, as his close confidant Mark Poloncarz won an overwhelming victory. Maybe WKBW and Time Warner Cable could find a more loyal, and local Democrat to comment on Democratic politics, they don’t seem to have a problem extending that courtesy to Republicans.

Buffalopundit Endorsements 2015

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Greetings, Goodenoughistan!

Usually around this time of year, I do a list of endorsements. I try to have fun with them; last year, whilst writing for a competing publication, I did my endorsement in verse.

Despite a high-profile County Executive race, this has been a very sleepy election season. Turnout will likely be pretty low – 20% is optimistic. That means that fully 80% of the eligible and registered electorate can’t be bothered to take literally a few minutes out of their day to exercise their franchise. People have fought and died for your right to vote. You pay lip service to supporting the troops for protecting our freedoms, but here you’re handed the right and ability to control the future direction of your town, city, and county, and chances are you can’t find five minutes between 6am – 9pm to fill in a few scantron boxes and feed your ballot into a scanning machine.

As far as being a responsible citizen of a representative democracy, voting is quite literally the least you can do. Yet 80% of you won’t do it.

You people who are registered to vote, but don’t bother – you’re useless. You should be ashamed. You’re a disgrace. Go to elections.erie.gov and find out where you’re supposed to vote, and go. Plenty of campaigns and party committees will give you a ride if you need one – just ask them.

Here are my endorsements. They are mine alone, and do not in any way represent the opinion or decision of the Public, its authors, editors, or publishers, nor of the place I work, nor of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, where I am a member of the board of trustees.

County Executive

Mark Poloncarz is a personal friend of mine. I met him in 2003 when I was working to elect Wesley Clark and he was working to elect John Kerry. We then served together on the WNY Coalition for Progress. I have lit dropped for him, campaigned for him, and my firm represents the County in a small handful of cases. I also know and like Ray Walter. I don’t know him as well as Mark, but he’s a good guy – a mensch, I once called him – and he went to the Thruway with specific questions I once asked on Twitter.

Both of these candidates want the county to do well. Mark, however, is my pick.

Big surprise, right?

Substantively, do you remember when Republicans wanted a county manager as part of the charter revision process a decade ago? The elected County Executive would be sort of a charismatic leader, promoting the county, while a non-partisan professional manager would run the day-to-day operations. Mark Poloncarz is a policy wonk and a guy who is a strong and effective manager. He is as close as you’re likely to get to a day-to-day manager looking for ways to improve the delivery of county services, and also a tireless promoter of our region. He’s incorruptible, and he loves what he does, not afraid to get into the weeds of county government.

Ray’s hilariously named “fair share” tax proposal is an effort to rob from the poor to give to the rich and not-so-poor. Population alone isn’t how the 3% permanent sales tax revenue was meant to be shared among the various municipalties, and Ray’s effort to pit city vs. suburb when that’s pretty much the last thing we need to do is shameful. His shoot-first-ask-questions-later effort to scandalize a non-scandal also called his seriousness and judgment into question.

Judicial Races

A lot of people have complained about how the party bosses pick the judicial candidates, thus depriving the electorate of a choice.

My response: the electorate shouldn’t be choosing judges in the first place.

You don’t get to elect federal judges. Many other states also have governors appoint judges as vacancies come about. In Massachusetts, a nominating commission submits a name to the governor, who then passes it along to an elected “governor’s council“, which vets the candidate for qualifications and likelihood of impartiality, and then approves the lifetime appointment. The judge chosen never has to pander to voters, concoct silly commercials with their kids, or make any sorts of promises of any kind.

The judicial branch should be free from campaigns and elections, and you shouldn’t have to vote for a judge because of a cute video with their kids in it.

County Legislature

There are only two competitive races: Morton v. Liegl and Loughran v. Marlette. If Loughran holds on to his seat and Liegl defeats Morton, the legislature swings to a one-vote Democratic majority. Ted Morton has already been vetted based on his questionably ethical and un-declared loans from financial planning clients, and the electorate shrugged. For his part, Morton tried to smear Liegl with the taint of “fraud”, but it backfired because it was completely untrue. Yelling “fraud” is a lot easier than explaining the ins and outs of bankruptcy law, but the Republicans played too fast and too loose with the facts, as they did when accusing Poloncarz of being under some phantom investigation.

The attack pieces against Liegl are far more misleading. Those pieces accuse her of “bankruptcy fraud,” “cheating the system” and “concocting a scam.” A Buffalo News review of the claims found none of that to be true.

…David Jaworski, an attorney for Liegl and her family, called the Republican allegations “untrue and libelous” based on his personal knowledge and investigation into the records. Republicans have been unable to produce any other supporting evidence of their claims, beyond the initial bankruptcy trustee claim.

Morton’s ethics are questionable, his required disclosures were incomplete, and he essentially lied about his opponent. I don’t know what more you need.

As for Loughran, that’s easy: Loughran is sufficiently independent (he’s pissed the Democrats off here and there), and is a knowledgable and likeable business owner who definitely deserves re-election.

Town of Lancaster

If you live in the town of Lancaster and you vote for Dino Fudoli, I don’t  know what’s wrong with you. Mr. Fudoli is a petty and vindictive glibertarian who considers government to be the “enemy” and public employees to be moocher/taker garbage. In December 2014, Fudoli blamed the people who got stuck in the Snowvember storm for their own predicaments. Fudoli whined about a lack of county plows, but he never requested any using the decade-old computerized system towns use to do so – a system he ostensibly oversaw whilst in the County Legislature.

Fudoli is now fighting with the police union in his town because why not.

And Dino Fudoli doesn’t think it’s important for him to pay his property taxes on time, or possibly at all.

If you live in Lancaster, this is the best 8 minutes you’ll spend today:

If Fudoli thinks it’s unfair for the Department of Environmental Conservation to declare his property a wetlands, then he has the right and ability to bring suit for whatever redress to which he’s entitled. Nothing gives him the right unilaterally to stop paying his property taxes, nor does it explain his refusal to pay the property taxes on his former residence.

Who is thug “Richard Heaney”?

When a taxpayer fails to pay property and school taxes on time, the county must make the town and district whole, and then has to chase the delinquent taxpayer down. This sort of behavior is unconscionable from a public official and disqualifies this person from public office. Fudoli also took a very important stand in favor of maintaining a blatantly racist team name for the high school. He also doesn’t know how the internet works.

Polls are open from 6am – 9pm on Tuesday the 3rd of November.

Find your polling place and candidate choices here.

Please go vote like your democracy depends on it.