Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns

Eclipse Fever

Posted on August 18, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Monday will mark a milestone of celestial proportions. The swirling orbits of the sun and moon will align to produce the first total eclipse to span the entire U.S. in nearly a century, and the first to touch any portion of the country in nearly 40 years.

The last total eclipse to slide from sea to shining sea across America was in 1918, and Camden was right on the centerline path.

While none of Arkansas this time will be in the “path of totality”—that roughly 70-mile-wide shadow that will sweep over the land turning daylight into nighttime—the Natural State will get a full dose of a major partial eclipse.

In the northeast part of the state, residents are only a short drive (two to three hours or so) away from being able to see what has been repeatedly described as simply an indescribable vision.

In 1925, a total eclipse clipped the northeast U.S., and the New York Times front-page coverage was awash with superlatives about the sight.

“A Brilliant Show … Thrills Millions” the huge headline proclaimed, adding “City Halts to Gaze.” “Corona Divinely Beautiful,” one subhead read, and another reported that the watching multitude was “Awed by Jewel of Light Hanging from Luminous Ring.”

That “diamond ring” effect is visible in the totality zone, and it’s part of the “Baily’s beads” phenomenon. Those are little bright spots of light formed just prior to and just after totality in which the sun’s light is peeking around the rough edges of the moon’s surface.

Right before (and right after) the total eclipse occurs, the beads of light blink out until there is only one left, and the resulting image then resembles a ring with a single light-splashed diamond.

Most people have seen photos of total eclipses of the sun, and if you haven’t, any Internet search will return loads of them.

But the event promises to be one for which a photograph can simply not do justice. All previous witnesses attest: You have to see it to truly appreciate it. So “totality trips” are being planned with eager abandon.

Nationwide, more than 12 million people live within the path of totality, and while estimates vary about how many Americans will be driving to an “umbra site” for viewing, all predictions are in the millions.

The magnitude of the dip in workday productivity and the spike in non-rush-hour traffic jams will thus likely be momentous—as will the accompanying economic rarity of “eclipse tourism.”

From where the moon’s shadow will make landfall in Oregon to where it launches seaward again in South Carolina, towns and cities small and large will be cashing in on the cosmic spectacle. All along the totality path, hotels have been booked for months (sometimes years) and local populations are expecting to multiply, sometimes by tens of thousands.

Unassuming Casper, Wyo. (population 55,000) will be a prime watch spot, and if you happen to find an available hotel room, expect to pay well over $1,000. Some Airbnb properties are going for $5,000.

Hopkinsville, Ky., is a quiet town of 32,000, but because it will feature one of the longest eclipse durations in the nation, officials anticipate crowds totaling as many as 200,000 for Sunday and Monday. The city has been planning for eclipse traffic for five years, and the boost to the local economy might be as much as $30 million.

Nashville, Tenn., is one of the largest cities in the totality zone, and planners there are expecting a $20 million shot in the arm from overnight visitors arriving for the eclipse.

By all accounts, investing some time and money on Monday to witness the total eclipse will produce a priceless return. “It’s an experience that does not seem of this life or this world,” one astronomy author observed.

In addition to spectacular visuals—the “shadow bands” that radiate on light-colored surfaces can never be photographed, only seen by the naked eye—it’s a total-body encounter.

Because all the sun’s rays are blocked, the temperature can drop precipitously and noticeably, fooling plants and animals that night is at hand.

Seeing starlight at midday will be weird enough, but the glow from the sun’s revealed outer atmosphere is said to be odd and surreal. We normally never see solar plasma; little wonder everyone who gets a glimpse of it in the corona during an eclipse is awestruck.

There’s a siren-song aspect to eclipses, however. Their beauty belies a menacing peril: Looking at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can cause immediate, irreparable damage to your sight, and in some cases blindness. Eye safety is a must if you intend to catch the eclipse fever. Solar-film protective glasses are available lots of places; some experts prefer welding goggles.

Ironically, it is perfectly safe to remove eye protection during the brief period of total eclipse. It’s recommended, in fact; otherwise you won’t get the full extraordinary visual effect.

If it’s cloudy or you can’t make it on Monday, don’t fret. Another total eclipse will appear in 2024–and it will feature a totality path right through Arkansas.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Speaking of federalism

Posted on August 5, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

Aug. 1 was the designated day when the rubber starts meeting the road for 700 or so new laws in Arkansas. It marked the passage of the 90-day citizen referendum period following the end of the legislative session, after which laws without specific effective-date clauses go into effect.

One law that didn’t get passed (or even proposed) was to declare Tuesday Arkansas Federalism Day. That is, after all, the merit-worthy governmental system which lends the credence and authority to our state motto’s core principle.

Each of the United States is still free and independent in many ways, despite continual congressional encroachment, to enact legislation governing the broadest spectrum of everyday activities. The resulting blessings and curses, silliness and seriousness, praises and protests, and all other emanations in response to the assorted acts of the 91st Legislature in actuality serve to strike a celebratory chord.

Federalism not only lives, but thrives, and thank goodness it does.

It celebrates diversity at its most fundamental core. From the very start, which is to say from the earliest colonial times, the people of the various states were different. The states themselves were different, too—topography and climate helped create diverse dictates, mandates and habits regarding lifestyles, language and legacies.

All those state differences, refined through the decades, is what makes and keeps America interesting.

Texas has had 75 mph speed limits for years. We’re just now getting ours.

High school students in other states may or may not have to take personal-finance classes. It’s the law in Arkansas now.

Not every state lets suckers (mis)use their debit cards to play the lottery. It became officially accepted legal tender here on Tuesday. Some states don’t even have a lottery. And among those that do, they manage and regulate them differently.

Being united but different states makes for wonderful travel experiences, and one of the prime indicators of locality is the way we talk. Dialect is often a dead giveaway precisely because words, pronunciations and speech are so regionally rooted.

A couple of Ph.Ds studied the matter as part of a linguistic survey project at Harvard, and then visually mapped the informative and amusing results.

What do you call insects that glow at night? the researchers asked. Here in the Natural State, and across the whole South and most of the Midwest, they’re lightning bugs, of course. Get west of the plains of Kansas, however, and folks all call them fireflies.

Is a privately hosted sale of household items properly termed a garage sale, a rummage sale, a yard sale or a tag sale? It depends. Arkansas looks pretty split on the map; more along the eastern Mississippi River border favors the “yard” prefix, while the Northwest Arkansas area prefers “garage.”

There’s a solid Southern color block on the map for the answer to how a group of people is rightly addressed: We all say “y’all.” But up north and out west, it’s “you guys,” hands down.

When you’re thirsty for a carbonated beverage, where you live colors your drink request. Californians and New Englanders will ask for a soda. Northerners want a pop.

In Dixie we’ve turned a brand generic. Give us a coke.

Water fountain or drinking fountain? The latter in the South and East, the former beyond the Rockies.

A freight hauler is a: (1) semi/semitruck; (2) tractor-trailer or (3) eighteen-wheeler. Most of the nation falls into camp 1. There’s a camp 2 patch up in the northeast, and most of Louisiana and Mississippi and part of Arkansas belong to camp 3.

Do you lace up sneakers or tennis shoes? If you said sneakers, you ain’t from around here, or anywhere even near here.

Caramel is a pretty simple word, but the number of syllables pronounced is completely dependent on geography. The syrupy, three-syllable vocalization is limited to the lingering vowels of the Deep South.

Another drawling divide: the second “a” sound in “pajamas.” North of the Mason-Dixon they all incorrectly rhyme it with “jam.” Everybody knows it’s an “ah” sound, like “father.”

And hard as it is to believe, most Americans verbally mangle the obvious sounding out proscribed by the spelling of the word “lawyer.”

If you thought the “loy-er” pronunciation was limited to New Yorkers and their neighbors, think again. We who say “law-yer” belong to the rapidly shrinking minority.

The map depicting what miniature crustaceans are called looks like a colored layer cake: red across the southern bottom for crawfish, green in the middle for crawdad, and blue all along the Canadian border states for crayfish.

I decided to test the validity of an interactive graphic quiz published by the New York Timesfeaturing 25 questions from the original Harvard Dialect Survey (which had more than 100).

The online exam claimed it would produce my personal dialect map from my answers.

I dutifully replied to each query, and after the final submission, the map popped up as promised.

It’s unnerving to seem so easily predictable that a mindless tabulation tool can peg you.

But there it was. The dot for the city named most similar to me was sitting smack-dab in the Arkansas center.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Magical feat

Posted on August 1, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Dumbledore. Hogwarts. Hermione. Hagrid. Voldemort. Muggles. Quidditch. Patronus. Gryffindor. Horcrux. None of those words were in anybody’s vocabulary back before June 1997, except one.

J.K. Rowling’s head had been full of the wizarding world of Harry Potter et al. for six years when she finally persuaded (after a dozen rejections) a publisher to roll the dice on her book. It was a small gamble: The Bloomsbury Publishing first print run was only 500 hardback copies, and two-thirds of those went to libraries.

That English first edition bore the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Executives at Scholastic Corp., which bought the American rights for publication, worried that younger readers on this side of the pond might confuse the title with philosophy, so they substituted “Sorcerer’s Stone.”

The title edit seems like a heresy now, in hindsight, especially since the book explicitly mentions French alchemist Nicolas Flamel, and the Philosopher’s Stone is a legend dating back at least 1,600 years.

But at the time the book was still relatively unknown, though proven popular in England, so license was lamentably taken. No one dreamed or predicted the ensuing phenomena.

It’s rare for a single author to literally change the world, especially one as unpresuming as Joanne Rowling. (The J.K. nom de plume was another change, courtesy of the publishing industry; her Bloomsbury agent thought a feminine name might stunt sales among male readers. Joanne actually has no middle name or initial.)

Indeed, the literary feat of the Harry Potter book series is nothing short of magical.

In Wikipedia’s list of best-selling books, which excludes those of a religious, ideological, philosophical or political nature, fewer than 10 individual volumes have sold 100 million copies or more in the annals of publishing. Every author on the list has been dead for decades, some for centuries, except one.

In the book series category, the Potter septuple set dwarfs other well-known and hugely successful competitors such as Twilight, Nancy Drew and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Collectively, Harry Potter books have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide. That’s 12 times the Divergent trilogy sales, and 20 times the Hunger Games series.

Even though it’s been eight years since the final book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) was published, its record of 11 million copies sold in the first day of release is a record of spellbinding proportions. The only rival to come close—within 2 million copies of that number—is the preceding Potter book, that of the Half-Blood Prince.

For perspective, consider the best-selling books from last year. The Girl on the Train sold more than 800,000 copies in 2016, ranking it second.

The script for the new theatrical play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (not a novelization, but the actual character lines in playwright narrative) topped the list, selling more than 4 million.

Book sales alone, while a staggering measure of stupendous accomplishment, are only part of the Harry Potter story of cultural domination.

The first book sat atop the New York Times best-seller list for so long that other publishers finally pressured the Times to split its list, and distinguish between adult and children’s fiction–essentially giving the Potter book its own category.

Hollywood couldn’t resist tapping into the frenzy either, and the eight-film franchise (the Deathly Hallows novel was covered in two movies) proved as astronomically successful as the books.

Rowling had a heavy hand in their production, reserving script-approval rights and insisting on an all-U.K. cast, for example, and the results reflect favorably on her instincts. Film versions of fabulous novels often fall short; Harry Potter movies not only measured up, they raised the roof.

All of the Harry Potter motion pictures are included in the Top 50 grossing movies of all time. The last one, Deathly Hallows Part 2, earned $1.3 billion worldwide, and the total film series grossed more than $7 billion.

“The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme parks are rumored to be on par with the enchanting nature of the books and movies. Merchandise sales add billions more to the revenue stream that can be traced all the way back to a single mom’s first fantasy manuscript—which 12 publishers all now greatly regret passing on.

I’m fortunate that the first two decades of the Potterverse coordinated with my own children’s coming of age.

I remember well my introduction to Rowling’s world, as a beach read that, much to my own surprise, I simply couldn’t put down. The summer releases of subsequent volumes often coincided with our family vacations, and we’d be up until the wee hours poring over the next installment.

More than once we attended a midnight viewing of the newest movie release, and though I was never in character costume for the event, I was accompanied by several who were.

The original Harry Potter generation is now old enough to start having children of their own. More than 4,000 pages of J.K. Rowling prose, and all the Hogwarts students’ adventures, patiently await them.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Railway reverie

Posted on July 22, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

“A something in a summer’s day,” begins an Emily Dickinson poem that praises the long, lazy contemplation that often launches and lingers in July shade.

Squinting against the westward sun in my daily drive home, and glancing at the railroad tracks parallel to the highway, I’m drawn once again to dreaming about rural rail travel in the Natural State.

First, let’s lay a few facts on the brightly sunlit table.

Remember that TV commercial a few years back when gasoline prices were high in which a freight-train company boasted of moving a ton of cargo 400 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel? It’s more than just true; it’s conservative. The national average is around 430 miles per gallon, and some lines exceed 500 miles. A ton is 2,000 pounds. Or roughly the weight of a dozen people.

Passenger rail travel is 17 times safer than automobile travel, based on fatalities per billion miles. A dozen people dead in one year from train wrecks is a bad year. More than 30,000 people killed in car crashes is an annual average.

Texting and driving is bad business. It’s a horrible habit that has already killed and injured countless people. It’s also not going away. Forget stats, just look around next time you’re in your vehicle. Or look in the mirror.

Arkansas is a rural state, with regional population centers serving smaller communities in hub-and-spoke fashion. Whether northeast, northwest or central–people in little towns travel to big cities for work, health care, college, shopping, dining and entertainment.

The mode of transportation is almost exclusively the automobile. Many roads run right alongside railways.

Arkansans love their cars, or more accurately, their trucks and SUVs. When Popular Mechanicsmagazine published its list of “Unofficial State Cars” last year, the GMC Yukon prevailed in Arkansas, where it sells at 407 percent of its national average.

Nobody ever said automobiles were cheap, and they aren’t. The AAA estimates the average annual cost of owning a vehicle at $8,000. With well over 2.5 million vehicle registrations in Arkansas, discounting for commercial and public registrations, our collective yearly tab could still be in the $15 billion range.

Measured in annual miles driven per licensed driver, we’re a little above the national average at 15,000 per year. We criss-cross our state in two-, three- and four-hour driving trips frequently and regularly. Football season features throngs of motorists flocking to and from Fayetteville, Little Rock and Jonesboro.

Many people make weekly business trips to the state capital from those same corners.

Viewed in an aggregate analysis, all those facts present a bona fide opportunity. Here and now, 148 years after the ceremonial Golden Spike celebrated transcontinental unity, it’s time for Arkansans to come into the age of rail travel.

Granted, since rail passenger service was never prevalent here, the notion feels foreign. But habits can be changed, and should be when they save money, energy and lives.

Then there’s the cost. Trains have always been viewed as prohibitively expensive to set up, run and maintain. But innovative inspiration arrived via Vermont, where an outfit called AllEarth Rail recently unveiled new, value-driven ideas for restoring commuter rail service.

Headed up by energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, AllEarth Rail is using 1950s-era Budd rail diesel cars to slash costs and drastically improve efficiency over traditional diesel multiple unit (DMU) systems. The Budd cars are basically self-propelled passenger cars, with a compact but powerful diesel engine mounted below the floor.

A renovated Budd car costs 85 percent less than a new DMU car, requires half the crew and can seat half again as many riders more comfortably. Operationally, Budd cars provide high flexibility at low overhead. Maintenance costs are minimal (engines can be completely changed out in an hour), acceleration is good (54 mph in 90 seconds) and no costly switch engines or crew are required for en route divisions.

That means a single train can cost-effectively serve multiple destinations. There’s also no need for costly turnarounds at terminals; Budd cars have engineer controls at both ends.

Blittersdorf predicts AllEarth Rail can provide regional rail service at one-third the cost of Amtrak. That kind of savings makes Arkansas commuter rail transit worth a second (and third) look.

Maybe our own passenger-train initiative is anchored around major state universities, where funding might be coupled with educational investment as a built-in added benefit to students.

Costs could be minimized by keeping schedules and stops simple at first, and adapt as demand emerges. Consumer behaviors change when alternatives appear, and the perceived barriers to railroad riding would easily evaporate once it became available and commonplace.

Who predicted Uber’s popularity? If we had weekday morning and evening commuter trains running to UA, ASU and UALR, and weekend and holiday schedules anchoring sports and other calendar events, it’s anybody’s guess what additional entrepreneurship possibilities would arise around the newfound market of riders.

The state and taxpayers already heavily subsidize planes and automobiles. Trains would provide some real safety solutions, some needed relief to congested roadways and some welcome reduction on the carbon energy grid.

All aboard!

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Spirit of ’31

Posted on July 7, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

There is something momentous about a large and diverse population aligning along a universal plane of thought.

That’s what still happens every Fourth of July in America.

It was visible in Facebook feeds from sea to shining sea, which featured quotes, photos and videos honoring our national birthday. Posts were as varied as people themselves, and all highlighted what so proudly we hail. Some posted snapshots of their families adorned in red, white and blue. Some filmed fireworks. Some shared famous speeches or essays.

Every expression centered around the same theme, whether comic or romantic or dramatic. The love of liberty evokes the full spectrum of spillover emotions; the tear erupting from joy and hope is no less damp than that born of sympathy for struggle and sacrifice.

All were encompassed in achieving our Revolution; all are enshrined in our remembrances.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries after Thomas Jefferson’s declaration was adopted, Independence Day still harmonizes us to the common chorus of patriotism on parade.

John Adams predicted as much, with uncanny accuracy. He foresaw a national anniversary festival “with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”

The only smudge on his crystal ball obscured the date; Adams thought it would be July 2, when Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t technically adopted until July 4.

One notable and unexpected observer of a Fourth of July celebration in 1831 was a young French fellow who would, seven years later, publish a book chronicling his stay in America and his observations on our democracy.

The pen of Alexis de Tocqueville was not idle during his visit, and in addition to abundant notes Tocqueville also wrote numerous letters to his family in France. Those personal messages, contemporary to his daily activities as a visitor, are easier reading than his scholarly masterpiece work detailed with analytical scrupulousness and annotation.

The voyage across the Atlantic took 35 days, and a month at sea in those days and conditions is essentially incomprehensible for us today.

Tocqueville kept up his spirits, however, and shared stories of the adventure. Writing to his mother, he described his fellow passengers: “We didn’t really mingle until the sixth day, when everyone crept out of his hole. … I should like to acquaint you with the inhabitants of our little world, who, not counting a cow and a donkey, number exactly 181 by my reckoning, 30 housed in the cabin section, 13 in steerage, 120 in the bow, and 18 crew.”

When Tocqueville arrived in New York, he immediately began sharing his revelations regarding American propensities about work ethic, hospitality and food consumption.

He noted that the typical day began early with a couple hours of work before breakfast at 8.

“[W]e were quite surprised at first to see women appearing at the breakfast table with faces carefully made up for the day,” he wrote on May 14 to his mother. “We are told that this is customary in all private houses. Paying visits to a lady at 9 in the morning is not thought improper. …

“[W]e are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets,” he added. “Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack.”

In another letter the next day he reported the “incredible contempt” Americans had for distance on this sprawling continent.

Navigation on “immense” rivers and canals in America made travel consistently possible at “4 leagues an hour [12 knots],” he wrote. “Thus, people do not say that one is 100 leagues away from one’s destination, but 25 hours.”

In June, while visiting Sing Sing (Tocqueville’s official purpose in visiting America was to study prisons), he wrote to his father that “this population is one of the happiest in the world.” He credited American contentment to a universal spirit of industry that left no time for “troubling the State.”

“The more I see of this land, the more convinced I am of this truth,” he said, “that there are virtually no political institutions radically good or bad in themselves and that everything depends on the physical conditions and social state of the people to whom they are applied.”

On July 4, 1831, Tocqueville was visiting Albany for administrative meetings, and encountered the state capital’s celebration of the 55th anniversary of American independence.

The parade and ceremony culminated in a large church, where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in its simple language (he characterized the reading as “in no way a theatrical performance”). But the effect he beheld awed and astonished him.

“It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there,” he wrote in a letter.

“In this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with [a previous] one … with which, for a moment, it shared all these generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”

Goosebumps in July continue to be a uniquely American tradition. May it always be so.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Hard to watch

Posted on June 30, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Most videos of vicious criminal attacks like the ones released this week from New Orleans and Georgia carry a warning: “Contains graphic content” or “Viewer discretion advised” or “May be disturbing to some viewers” or similar. Inevitably, what frequently appears next on the screen should be extremely disturbing to all viewers.

Ironically, these types of videos are typically captured by security cameras, often without audio, and usually with a “wide angle” lens that minimizes detail. Thus they’re nowhere near as graphic as the simulated violence projected on massive movie screens, which features gruesome closeups of blood and gore and amped-up sounds for blows and gunshots.

But even the most empathetic moviegoers understand, deep beneath their artificially induced fears and horror, that these are all actors. They are people pretending to be bad guys. As soon as the camera stops filming, they all laugh and joke together.

There’s no real violence, no real blood, no real harm. Movie pseudo-violence is, in essence, a conjoined twin of fake news.

In contrast, watching security-cam footage of an attack invokes a series of shattering realizations: These really are bad guys. Those really are innocent victims. They really did get hurt. This actually happened. I’ve been in similar places and situations—it could happen to me!

In case you missed the revelatory and very disturbing videos that have gone viral in recent days, here’s a recap.

The first video shows a Bostonian pair strolling along in the French Quarter last Saturday night (in New Orleans for a religious conference, as it turns out), when suddenly a group of young men is seen running up from behind them.

One of the ambushing attackers leaps onto the back of the tourist on the left and drags him down in a choke hold, as another pummels him.

The other tourist turns, startled, to see what’s happening to his friend.

Ominously, the largest of the attackers is right behind him—unseen—with his arm back and ready to strike.

His full-force right hook blindsides and cold-cocks the tourist, who tumbles face-first onto the sidewalk, where a pool of blood forms beneath his motionless head.

In 15 short seconds, it’s all over. The victims are robbed and left to deal with the aftermath of their injuries.

The tourist knocked unconscious is still in critical condition.

Just hours earlier, a few blocks away, another video surveillance camera captured a lone man walking on a sidewalk—as another man trails him.

Suddenly the trailing man begins to trot, and as he gets within striking distance he unleashes a vicious roundhouse blow from behind to the right side of the victim’s head. When the slugged man staggers back to his feet, the attacker resumes swinging.

Ultimately the victim is able to flee across the street and out of camera range.

Over in Baxley, Ga., an assault on a female food-stand owner was video-recorded last Thursday. Two customers, a man and wife, evidently complained about their chicken being cold.

The owner apologized and refunded their money.

That wasn’t enough for the pair, who began hurling obscenities at the woman. When the owner came outside to tell them she had called the police, the female suspect went berserk in a flailing attack that broke the owner’s nose and backed her up against the wall.

What unfolds next on the video is chilling and indeed hard to watch.

The owner’s 15-year-old daughter gets out of their truck to help her mom. On the video she can be seen focusing on the female attacker. She is not watching, and does not see, the very large male attacker outside her frame of vision.

In a split second, he steps forward and drives a blindside straight-right punch into the petite teen’s face.

Her head is savagely snapped back and she is knocked off her feet. She tries to stand up but is visibly dazed as passers-by arrive to help.

“Who does that?” her mother said later in an interview. “Who punches a child like she’s a grown man standing there?”

The Baxley police chief said, in his 41 years on the force, “I have never seen anything like this.” If you watch the video, you’ll likely echo his sentiment.

Assaults are the most common of all violent crimes. Nationally, the rate of aggravated assault is nearly 50 times that of murder.

Louisiana has been a top-10 state for assaults for decades, and it also holds the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the land—for the past 27 years.

But cowardly criminals ambushing vulnerable victims pay little attention to state borders. With video cameras becoming ubiquitous, we’re all able to witness more criminal brutality at its ugliest.

Most of us cannot imagine blindsiding a stranger to steal his or her wallet, or slugging a child in the face when she’s not looking.

We must commit to more deeply study the factors that cause anybody in an advanced civilized republic to behave that way as a normal course.

It’s not only a shame that our society discounts concussions and broken jaws as “minor” injuries when dealing with violent criminals. It’s a national disgrace.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Statehood cartography

Posted on June 23, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

June is statehood celebration month for Arkansas, which was admitted to the union as the 25th state on June 15, 1836.

We were truly the Natural State back then, with a scant population dotting the broad expanse inside our freshly decreed borders.

A cartographic document published by H.S. Tanner at the time illustrates the scarcity of towns. The counties aren’t fully formed, and precious few recognizable incorporated areas are present.

Up in the northeast corner, for example, no towns are listed at all in Greene, Mississippi or White counties. Among the small number of towns that are listed—no county boasts more than two—the names are mostly unfamiliar.

Good luck finding Jackson, once the county seat of Lawrence County, although a diligent sojourner can still navigate his way to the appropriately named Old Jackson Cemetery.

What’s left of Davidsonville is memorialized in a state park, and the only other Randolph County town marked is Columbia, which time has mostly obliterated except for an old church and cemetery.

Over in Jackson County, Litchfield was another early county seat that is gone with the wind, and the only outpost named on the 1836 map.

In Crittenden and Independence counties are the only two Northeast Arkansas towns which survive intact on modern maps: Batesville and Marion.

St. Francis County lists two towns: Franklin and Walnut Camp, neither of which exist today; Franklin was located in what now would be Cross County, near the St. Francis River.

North of Marion in Crittenden County, the map denotes the community of Greenock. A navigator today would find nothing but farmland where the early county seat once stood, and the funeral for the last person interred in the old Greenock cemetery occurred in 1935.

Izard County centers of population on the 1836 map are listed only as Pine Bayou and C.H., the latter of which may signify a “Court House,” given its proximity on the White River.

Looking over the rest of the state on Tanner’s cartographic rendition, only a handful of names still mark popular towns and cities: Little Rock, Benton, Hot Springs, Helena, Fayetteville, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Van Buren.

Several unincorporated communities, like Carrollton in Carroll County and Collegeville in Saline County, are featured on the old map.

City and town locations shifted over the 18 decades since the statehood map against a geography that’s largely unchanged. Our rich supply of rivers were all mostly named by 1836, and landmarks such as Magnet Cove in Hot Springs County and Sugarloaf Mountain and “Petite Jean” in Scott County were marked.

The latter mountain inspired visitor Washington Irving, a few years prior to statehood, to wax eloquent: “a picturesque line of waving highlands—of mingled rock and cliff and wood, with far bottom below.”

None of our prominent present-day lake destinations existed back then, of course, but the large oxbows along the Mississippi are shown, with Grand Lake down in Chicot County specifically called out.

In accordance with Missouri Compromise stipulations, Arkansas’ application as a slave state was paired with Michigan’s—though there were initially few slaves within the boundaries of the Arkansaw Territory when it was organized in 1819.

That would change quickly.

Census figures show that the slave population grew from fewer than 2,000 in 1820 to more than 111,000 on the eve of the Civil War. The reason for the influx was primarily the growth of cotton production in the southeast regions of the state, and as an early land of opportunity, the state’s overall population saw similar gains.

Only 12,000 souls called the entire territory (which included most of modern-day Oklahoma) home in 1820. Four decades later, state residents in a land mass roughly 50 percent smaller totalled 435,000 in the 1860 census.

Life in Arkansas in the late 1830s or early 1840s was still primitive, compared to northern and eastern states, and accounts from the time vary in describing the people that travelers encountered.

One German visitor related his stay in 1838 at the small Northeast Arkansas farm of a man named Saint, with an Irish wife: “Our hosts to all appearances are very religious people, and we had prayers every evening. … The house was built of logs, roughly cut. … A field of about five acres was in front of the house, planted with Indian corn …”

He also described a beautiful night in which the soft breeze and starlit sky kept him and two American co-workers, one of whom was a “strict Methodist,” from sleeping:

“[T]here was nothing more natural than that we should talk of the stars, then of heaven, then of religion; and as we entertained very different views, our conversation degenerated into a hot dispute which was put to an end to about midnight by a heavy shower of rain …”

That selection is taken from A Documentary History of Arkansas, which serves up 300 pages of letters, essays, editorials, legislation and other material to chronicle our state’s origins and progression.

Arkansas history is a rich but often untapped resource. The statehood anniversary is a good time to remedy that, even if only a little.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

American roulette

Posted on June 17, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

There are tens of millions of traffic stops every year. It’s the most common reason for a citizen’s interaction with police, according to a Bureau of Justice Survey.

More than 40 percent of people who had face-to-face contact with a law enforcement officer cited being a driver during a traffic stop as the reason.

Anything so common can become seemingly routine.

I’m among the millions who have mainly dealt with police through my driver’s side window. If the policeman approaches cautiously, it can spur a slightly indignant instinct.

I’m not a criminal. I’m not a threat. I’m just trying to get somewhere.

So why all the dramatic posturing, staying slightly behind my field of vision? Because for me it’s all routine. License, registration, warning or ticket, thank you officer.

But that’s the dichotomy. The routine traffic stop is a unicorn, with blood on its horn.

That’s what events like the one in Newport on Monday remind us, with shock and sadness.

A 15-year veteran of the Newport Police Department, universally praised as a compassionate officer intent on mentoring troublesome youngsters, responded to a routine call on his radio about a possible car break-in.

Except, for police, routine calls are really a form of American roulette. Spin the routine cylinder enough times, and eventually one winds up in the chamber.

That’s what happened Monday.

There had been previous reports of car burglaries in the area, and when Lt. Patrick Weatherford saw a young man on a bicycle leaving the scene, he gave chase on foot.

The “fleeing suspect” is often portrayed by defense attorneys as posing no threat; but that depiction exists only in the safety of the courtroom.

On the street, in the real world, police are rarely in greater peril than when pursuing a possible perpetrator. They don’t know for sure why he’s fleeing. They don’t know whether he’s guilty of anything. They don’t know if he’s armed and dangerous, or simply afraid.

They typically only find out when he pulls a gun and fires. Which often gives an officer about a quarter-second of warning.

It wasn’t enough time for Lieutenant Weatherford to take cover.

He is the second fallen Arkansas law enforcement officer this year. The first was Deputy Kevin Mainhart, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Yell County in May.

Police are extensively trained to assess situations, but they are not automatons or robots. They’re people, with human natures.

If they make the slightest mistake that lets down their guard for even an instant, in the wrong place at the wrong time, they can suddenly be facing mortal danger. Few other occupations are so unforgiving of such minor miscalculations.

In 2013, the Force Science Institute conducted a first-ever study to systematically evaluate police officer responses to the threat of lethal force during a routine traffic stop.

Participating police officers were observed and filmed approaching a stopped vehicle in which the driver (a study confederate) engaged them in a 45-second verbal argument. The driver claimed he was his own sovereign nation and not subject to U.S. traffic laws, and was equipped with documentation to show the officers.

Each participant made three “stops” over several days during the exercise.

On the third stop, however, the driver had a handgun on the console (all firearms were loaded with Simunition blanks), and without warning grabbed the gun and opened fire on each participating officer.

Of 93 participants, 12 attempted to neutralize the driver, but only three of those successfully did so. The other nine were “shot.”

All told, the driver was able to aim and shoot at officers 90 of 93 times, with a mean weapon-discharge time of just over a half-second.

In contrast, it took retreating officers more than two seconds to reach the “mitigation zone” behind the vehicle, which offered the most safety because it limited the field of vision and weapon alignment of the driver.

Many officers were “shot” multiple times. Everything was videoed and measured: officer heart rates, startle-response motions, back-pedaling and side-stepping retreats, return-fire times.

The data indicated that officers who attempted to draw their weapons while retreating to the mitigation zone took 0.39 seconds longer to get there than officers who waited to draw once they reached the zone.

That’s barely more than the blink of an eye, but it drives home just how fast routine can escalate to exception for police—how quickly normal can become lethal.

Lieutenant Weatherford leaves a legacy of kindness and a loving family behind.

I also hope he leaves us all with a little more understanding, empathy and tolerance for our uniformed neighbors who willingly swear to protect and serve and, if required, sacrifice everything for us.

Official flags flew in tribute at half-mast this week.

A good personal gesture of honor is to remember that while it’s easy sometimes to second-guess police in highly polarized and politicized cases, they deserve a lot more than our second guesses. If you haven’t thanked an officer recently, now would be a good time.

Or maybe your next traffic stop.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Righting awful wrongs

Posted on June 2, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Last week I related the story of Ron Williamson’s wrongful murder conviction in Oklahoma, before being exonerated by DNA. Williamson was the subject of John Grisham’s first nonfiction book, The Innocent Man. Despite being utterly innocent, Williamson missed lethal injection by a mere five days.

The automatic appeals and slow pace of capital cases help prevent wrongful executions. But wrongful convictions of lesser crimes occur at normal speed among the throng of criminal cases clogging the courts.

Most exoneration efforts are targeted at murder and rape cases and concentrated in a few populous states, so there are no accurate figures on the total number of wrongly convicted persons. Data can be extrapolated, however, from existing research–and the scope is frightening. Research into death-sentence exonerations indicates an innocence rate as high as 3 to 5 percent.

Incidents of being wrongly accused are bound to occur. The challenge for the justice system when that happens is to attempt to ensure, as much as possible, that the legal process exonerates the innocent instead of wrongly convicting them.

An American University study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, sought to analyze why some innocent defendants are convicted and others are acquitted. Researchers identified 260 cases from 1980-2012 in which an innocent defendant was convicted but later exonerated. Those cases were matched with 200 other cases in which an innocent defendant was either acquitted or charges were dropped.

What they learned was a small set of variables often came into play in either helping or hurting people who are wrongly accused. Several were negative factors in Williamson’s case.

Weakness of prosecution’s case. The case against Williamson was circumstantial and flimsy.

Untruthful informants. Two witnesses lied in placing Williamson at the crime scene; one was a jailhouse snitch, and the other was the real killer.

Forensic error. Testimony involving hair recovered at the scene was misleading if not outright deceitful.

Tunnel vision. Once police zeroed in on Williamson, they simply didn’t keep their eyes or minds open. In retrospect, the blinders on investigators seem unbelievable.

Inadequate defense. Despite significant evidence of mental instability, Williamson’s attorney failed to raise competency issues.

The identification of powerful factors provides a good framework for reforms that can help our justice system reduce the number of wrongly convicted. Law enforcement organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police have publicly embraced recommendations to prevent erroneous charges.

Many local departments are implementing practices such as improved lineup procedures to remove bias, improved investigation protocols to prevent tunnel vision, and improved interview policies (like recording all interrogations) to better validate informant testimonies and confessions.

Law-and-order proponents, both liberal or conservative, commonly have deep compassion for innocent victims of violent crime. Those victims’ voices often go unheard; their suffering often slips off the radar amid polarized and politicized arguments over the causes, rates and solutions of crime.

But the wrongly convicted are also innocent victims, and their plight is perhaps the most obscured because of cultural lethargy regarding the presumption of innocence, which must be sacrosanct to protect the liberty of all.

In a 2013 survey sponsored by the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, an alarming 67 percent of respondents said the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” was being lost in our legal system. In a telling tidbit, the rate of concern was identical between Republicans and Democrats.

Unless you read a book like The Innocent Man, the notion of being wrongly accused, convicted and almost executed probably seems surreal to the point of impossibility in most people’s minds. Grisham chronicled the psychological trauma of going to prison for a crime you didn’t commit in highly evocative fashion.

Try to empathize with the shattered faith in American justice; the eternal disconnect between “official” and “truth;” the unrelenting paranoia stemming from an irreconcilable unreality. You know you are innocent, but the whole world condemns you as guilty.

Wrongly convicted victims endure a reality the rest of us cannot conceive. Tragically, their victimization continues once they’re exonerated, because legislative action hasn’t kept up when it comes to “making things right” for wrongly convicted victims.

They should receive compensation, but only 27 states offer any, though all ought to. Many times (as in Williamson’s case) police and prosecutors don’t even offer an apology.

They should never have to answer “yes” on employment form questions about arrests or convictions. There should be training programs to bring them up to speed with changes in society while they were wrongly imprisoned.

There should be treatment programs to help them heal the mental scars left from living in perilous prison environments that would traumatize any of us.

What we as a society can never really do is give back the life lost to exonerees. We cannot erase the unwarranted stigma, or banish the unjust prejudice, that may follow them forever. Knowing that, we should darn well bend over backwards trying.

It’s to our collective shame that here in Arkansas, we’re not—at least not yet.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

On wrongful convictions

Posted on May 26, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , |

John Grisham’s books are among my favorites for summer reading. Some are better than others, of course. But in addition to having Northeast Arkansas roots, Grisham also has a lawyerly way with words and intrigue. When it’s good, his storytelling of attorneys with a cause is great.

Most of Grisham’s collection of novels occupy a shelf in my library; the newest addition is his first work of nonfiction.

It would be easy to say The Innocent Man is one part biography, one part social commentary, but it’s so much more than just two parts. What it does wonderfully and powerfully is let the reader ride shotgun in a small-town tale of lost potential, murder and injustice.

Ron Williamson of Ada, Okla., was a burnt-out baseball prodigy in the early 1980s who struggled with substance abuse and bouts of mental illness in the twilight of his short-lived athletic career.

His habits and lifestyle positioned him as a possible suspect when a young waitress named Debra Carter was savagely raped and strangled. Grisham masterfully chronicles the myriad developments and circumstances that led to Williamson’s erroneous conviction, death sentence and near-execution before eventually being exonerated by DNA analysis.

All told, Williamson lost a dozen years of his life and most of his sanity while languishing on Oklahoma’s death row.

Filled with eye-opening insights and ironies, The Innocent Man is a timely read even though it was written a decade ago. Arkansas’ capital punishment laws and process were national news in the not-too-distant past, and when driven by fanatics on either side, death penalty discussions devolve rapidly into hard-line hostility.

It’s easy to adopt the unbudging “give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile” attitude when the other side is already demanding the mile with a closed fist and a grimace.

Dug-in attitudes recall the humorous old Irish poem about the faction fight over the birth of St. Patrick: “And who wouldn’t see right, sure they blackened his eye!”

Multifaceted subjects like capital punishment ought to warrant more compromising temperaments. No law-abiding citizen wants or supports wrongful convictions, and especially not wrongful executions. But it’s hard for most people to understand the complexity of circumstances that typically combine to produce an erroneous conviction.

For example, as many as 25 percent of DNA exonerations for homicide involved cases where there was a false confession.

Ask the average person to explain why anyone would ever falsely confess to a murder, and the response will probably be bewilderment. That’s largely because the average person has never been arrested and charged with a violent crime, and is thus unfamiliar with law enforcement in that adversarial context.

The one-sided perspective can promote an unquestioning faith in police, investigators and prosecutors.

As federal appellate judge Alex Kozinski wrote a few years back, “There are, we are convinced, no Edmond Dantèses and no Château d’Ifs in America today.”

But as human institutions, law enforcement and criminal court systems not only make mistakes but also are subject to malice and manipulation, and thus require checks and balances in the same anti-tyranny doses as other governmental arms.

You can’t read The Innocent Man without gleaning a greater understanding of how little power any unaided individual has once locked in the crosshairs of the justice system. Those with means to hire attorneys may have as much trouble imagining the truth being trampled beneath a wrongful accusation as they do understanding false confessions.

The fact that Ron Williamson had absolutely nothing to do with Debra Carter’s murder—he was at his mother’s house watching a movie that night—and yet still came within five days of being executed is chilling to contemplate.

Technology has shaped both criminality and investigation faster than legislative change can keep up. Capital crime statutes are not immune. But lawmaking is anything but a winner-take-all proposition.

The goal for a democratic society that still favors capital punishment is making sure the death penalty is reserved exclusively for and applied only to guilty murderers.

Conditions for the death penalty typically include aggravating circumstances based on the perpetrator’s actions. No matter how heinous a killing and how despicable the killer, if it doesn’t statutorily comport with a capital crime, there can be no death sentence.

Plus, the realities of jockeying charges, defenses and plea bargains often result in quirky and inconsistent capital convictions, i.e., one of two equally guilty killers testifies against the other in exchange for a lesser penalty.

Certain evidentiary elements also could become conditions for capital cases. A simple and presumably mutually agreeable requirement might be DNA validation or corroborating video before a jury can consider a death sentence.

Either of those would have disqualified death as a penalty in Ron Williamson’s case. Neither, however, would have addressed his wrongful conviction in the first place.

The National Registry of Exonerations lists only six cases in Arkansas, two of which were murders. But common sense tells us that with some 18,000 Arkansans in prison, the number of innocent people behind bars is much larger.

We can’t be OK with that, and I’ll explore and explain why in next week’s column.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

« Previous Entries

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...