Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns

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 )

The parallel tragedy

Posted on May 19, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

Normally tranquil Jonesboro was rocked in the first minutes of Mother’s Day when gunfire erupted at a private party in a popular downtown venue. Two suspects are in custody, accused of killing one person and wounding six others when they fired into the crowd.

In smaller communities, violence like this hits close to home for just about everybody.

Local teachers know a lot of the kids involved in Sunday’s tragedy, as do local police. Countless local residents have been inside the location of the shooting, since it was a longtime restaurant setting before becoming a rent-out space for events and organizations.

A local church group had to cancel its weekly Sunday night services hosted there, but members still congregated outside to pray.

Young Monterio Barnes lost his life in the shooting, which forever changed the honor and recognition of the maternal holiday for his family into heartbreak and desolation.

“You don’t know which is worse, the shock of what happened or the ache of what never will.” The words of English author Simon von Booy resound with relevance and poignancy, although the magnitude of grief in such moments defies literacy or description.

As expected, the main suspect is no stranger to entanglements with law enforcement. Kalius Lane is only 20, but his brief stint as an adult is already peppered with a lifetime’s worth of police run-ins and arrests.

In addition to being out on bond for a kidnapping and armed robbery charge in Osceola, a local news outlet detailed no fewer than 12 incidents reported by the Jonesboro Police Department involving Lane from April 2015 to January 2017—including one in which Lane was allegedly seen in a local hospital with a gun in his back pocket.

In an unusual twist, Lane began posting about the shooting investigation on his Facebook page about 10 a.m. on Sunday.

He shared the press release about the crime from the Jonesboro Police Department and then posted, “This [expletive] sad [expletive] slandering my name frfr 100 Case beat.”

About fifteen minutes later, he added another post: “Feds wanna lace put me on murders tryna case,” which was followed by a middle-finger “bird” symbol, a police officer emoji and a palms-up shrug emoji.

An hour later, this: “The rest of my life just gone over some [expletive] Ian do. [Expletive] wanna cover up for the next [expletive] 100 Dirty world frfr,” followed with another bird.

Around noontime, a barrage of posts included this: “[Expletive] I’m shooting for and Ian get touched,” followed by laughing-to-tears emojis.

That indecipherable mess is a compounding, parallel tragedy.

It’s worth remembering that the state of Arkansas committed approximately $130,000 in resources to the suspected shooter’s education, including English classes every year.

That is not said in mockery. It’s posited in the spirit of pondering aloud the prudence of that investment in its current form as part of the far-flung public education system.

Maybe we should reconsider the one-size-fits-all approach funneled into schools, in terms of whether it truly serves kids coming from neglected, parentless, impoverished or other at-risk situations.

Rather than funding one large system, would that money be better invested in individual children at a younger age when home circumstances throw up early red flags?

It’s too late once a kid pulls a gun at a party.

But this shooting suspect was once an elementary student. Probably in class with 25 other kids. Possibly in a school with high free-lunch counts and low test scores.

Money spent that permits a child to slip through the cracks is more than mere waste. It paves the way for greater losses later on: damages caused by crime, court and incarceration costs, unrealized earnings and tax revenue. Not to mention the incalculable loss of individual potential, and what might have been.

We see this pattern over and over. It’s time we open up discussion on what has to change to alter it, with a willingness to slaughter some sacred cows if necessary.

Who’s to say that front-end loading the same $130,000 on private tutoring and mentoring through junior high wouldn’t produce better English? Maybe better behavior? Then as an alternative to traditional high school, provide an accelerated technical school path to a practical career. There might even be federal financial aid available for that. Or maybe lottery money.

Heaven knows we need resurgence in the skilled trades. Good plumbers, electricians, carpenters all stay busy.

The difference in cost to society between a kid launching a lifetime of productive work at 20 and a kid going to prison for life at 20 is literally in the millions.

We’re already spending significant money on every child’s education. It’s not too much to insist on equally significant results, or at least sufficient vigor to demand exploratory change when status quo inertia produces failure.

Uneducated kids who can’t communicate are tragedies unto themselves. Instead of being surprised when they beget further tragedies, shouldn’t we be trying more innovative things to prevent that first tragic deficiency?

Tomorrow’s violent criminals are in primary school today. Their paths can be changed. But not if nothing else changes first.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Pomp and intolerance

Posted on May 12, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , |

Magnolia blossoms signify May, which in turn sprouts college graduations and their annual byproduct: commencement speeches.

The irony is as biting as a rice field mosquito.

This year’s headlines regarding institutions of higher education have been dominated by college students and administrations thwarting, bullying and canceling speakers of all sorts. So prevalent has the practice of unruly and unreasonable on-campus opposition to reasoned discourse become that the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression modified its 25-year tradition of “Muzzle” awards.

Normally, the center selects eight to 12 recipients which are held up as oppressors of free speech. They typically include elected and appointed officials, judges, lawmakers, regulatory agencies, organizations, administrations, governments, schools and colleges.

Last year, in light of “an epidemic of anti-speech activity” across America’s campuses, Jefferson Muzzles were awarded exclusively to 50 colleges and universities. Thankfully, none of them call Arkansas home.

But the trajectory of the alarming trend is astonishing. In 12 of the first 14 years of awarding Jefferson Muzzles, recipients included no colleges at all. From 1992 until 2005, a mere four colleges or universities received the dubious awards. Over the next decade, only 13 colleges and/or their administrations were given Jefferson Muzzles.

That a crop of 50 could crowd out every other category in 2016 casts a dispiriting complexion on the state of academia.

This year’s lone higher ed Jefferson Muzzle “winner” is Pierce College in California, which threatened a student with expulsion if he did not stop passing out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus. The student was told to get a permit and then directed to limit his distribution to a “free speech zone.”

That zone comprises 616 square feet—out of a 426-acre campus. Math majors might quickly calculate that Pierce College thus devotes 0.003 percent of its real estate to free speech.

The Jefferson Muzzles called out half a dozen colleges in 2016 for either disrupting or disinviting commencement speakers, and the TJ Center now has another prime candidate for next year’s consideration.

Baccalaureate candidates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Fla., booed and turned their back on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at this week’s commencement ceremony.

There had been protests prior to her speech, criticizing her for favoring the use of tax funds for children to attend private religious schools—a curious stance considering all of the Bethune-Cookman graduates were students at a private religious college, and most benefited from tax-funded financial aid.

Modern commencements have migrated away from the solemn occasions they once were, but most still preserve a modicum of respectful conduct and mannerisms.

Not so at Bethune-Cookman. The heckling got so bad that university president Edison Jackson halted DeVos early on to sternly address the class of 2017. “If this behavior doesn’t cease,” he said, “your degrees will be mailed to you.”

Four years of collegiate training seems like more than enough to foster a full understanding about the critical roles free speech and the open exchange of ideas play in securing liberty.

DeVos tried to speak of the knowledge gained from conversing with those with whom one disagrees. The jeering students didn’t seem to realize that scholarship and intolerance are utterly incompatible. An aptitude for study is irreconcilable with prejudiced closed-mindedness.

The opposite of a scholar isn’t a dunce, but a bigot.

Fool’s caps would have been more appropriate than mortarboards for the Bethune-Cookman seniors who chose to face away from the stage containing not only DeVos but their own university faculty.

Sadly, the behavior on display was most disrespectful of Bethune-Cookman’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. As a child of freed slave parents, she recognized at a young age the vital importance of literacy, which led her to devote her life to learning.

She began her teaching career at a missionary school, and in 1904 founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which would eventually become Bethune-Cookman. Her fervent faith was a driving passion with which she imbued her students: the rigorous curriculum designed to achieve self-sufficiency for her girls began at 5:30 a.m. with Bible study.

Bethune couldn’t afford to turn her back on people she disagreed with. Not unless she wanted to abandon her vision and life’s work. Indeed, many of her wealthy benefactors started out as skeptics of the school’s value and future; she won them over by engaging them.

The story goes that when she got word of a white Daytona resident who pointed a rifle at some of her students as they walked past his house, she responded with courtesy rather than confrontation.

Her gift for garnering good will through dialogue soon resulted in that same man pledging to protect “Old Mary” and her students with his life.

Perhaps the most dismaying aspect of the Bethune-Cookman University incident is seeing college graduates, standing at the threshold of life, succumb so willingly to fear. How fragile their conviction about beliefs and principles must be if it cannot withstand even a wisp of voiced disagreement.

It takes courage to be at the vanguard of free speech. Maybe that should become a required course.

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

State of Nature

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

Sudden the thunder was drowned—quenched was the levin light—

And the angel spirit of rain laughed out loud in the night.

Loud as the maddened river raves in the cloven glen,

Angel of rain! You laughed and leaped on the roofs of men[.]

–Robert Louis Stevenson

The news and numbers surrounding the torrential flooding concentrated in a few northeast counties in Arkansas are sobering.

Record-setting rains led to record river levels that topped century-old levees, resulting in nine breaches (at least). The swollen Black River gushing forth at flow levels approaching that of Niagara Falls—more than 80,000 cubic feet per second. Water rising near the Lawrence County town of Portia on Wednesday at one foot per hour.

Local commutes that normally take 30 minutes re-routed around closed highways and bridges to create four-hour detours. Mandated and voluntary evacuations by the hundreds in that eerie calm following the storm but preceding the predicted and dreaded deluge.

More than 50 homes destroyed in river-ravaged Randolph County, another 150 damaged, with some 50 rescues by authorities (so far). More than 100,000 of mostly planted acres submerged (for now). More than 16 million bushels of rice imperiled. Yield and production setbacks to levels of three decades ago (or worse).

Yet as blunt as the blow of Mother Nature has been on these rural communities linked by fertile fields and far-flung roadways, it served to showcase human nature at its most neighborly.

Volunteers have poured forth like a counter-flood. Rising donations have surged to stave off the destitution of destruction. Multitudes of prayers have been launched heavenward to meet and transcend the moisture-laden clouds.

Whether manning shelters, ferrying supplies or filling sandbags, salt-of-the-earth Arkansans have mobilized in myriad ways against the disastrous muddy tide.

Local feeds on Facebook are full of stories of indomitable human determination and adaptation. Photos of a father and his son fishing from their front porch. Information and instructions about how to help, where to help. Images depicting the disparaging state of emergency, and others portraying the uplifting power of support. Shares and likes galore to rescue workers and responders, national guard troops, police and firefighters.

This catastrophe has put Northeast Arkansas on the national stage, and our people are making the state proud.

Amid a time of great despair, it’s insightful and inspiring to see residents pulling together and pitching in. There’s been no griping about the dusk-to-dawn curfew, no mass looting or other criminal opportunism while the men and women in blue and khaki are preoccupied.

Mayors, sheriffs and other officials have not only taken notice but also taken the chance to praise. “We’ll get through this” is the attitude displayed on every brow, the sentiment shouldered with every act; it’s a collective and collaborative understanding.

The stanza above was taken from a Stevenson poem written in the last year of his life while he was living in Samoa. Titled “Tropic Rain,” it starts out much like a mere narrative of a wild cloudburst. But Stevenson’s poem progressed beyond observation and into a deeper introspection.

After telling how the sleepers sprang from beds and the roofs roared beneath the rain, and the mountain shouted and shook with brooks in response, and the rain finally ceased so the day returned “rosy, with virgin looks,” he reflected on the entire event.

And methought that beauty and terror are only one, not two;

And the world has room for love, and death, and thunder, and dew;

And all the sinews of hell slumber in summer air;

And the face of God is a rock, but the face of the rock is fair.

The world is vast in all its dimensions. This flooding is nowhere near over yet, and nobody knows for sure what hazards and menaces still lurk in its murky wake.

But this much is clear: In the face of a first-magnitude calamity, the residents of Northeast Arkansas mounted a first-class response.

Revelatory trend

Technology has an amazing way of sparking social and cultural innovation. For most of mankind’s millennia, the birth of a child brought forth not only joy and awe of creation, but also surprise. It was simply impossible to predict the gender of an unborn child. There were superstitious rituals and customs, but that’s all there was.

Advanced sonography changed everything—and created a whole new tradition: gender-reveal parties.

I attended my first such party last week. The idea is to dramatically announce to family and friends whether the unborn child is a boy or a girl, with the decor highlighting the choices in equal pink and blue measure.

The moment of truth came when the father tossed a basketball through a hoop, and out popped a pink balloon and streamers.

I had previously watched instances on social-media video where an ag plane dropped a load of colored dust in a field flyover, and where a father used a rifle to shoot a target that exploded with properly tinted powder. It’s a small but satisfying nod to our federalist roots that the novel means employed tend to reflect regional identities.

What’ll they think of next?

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

Ghosts of hearings past

Posted on March 24, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , |

C-SPAN is hardly known for its dramatic programming, but viewers this week were treated with coverage of the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

By most objective accounts, Gorsuch sailed through the hearings with an affable and unflappable demeanor to complement his considerable and demonstrable legal qualifications.

He’s now virtually a cinch to be given a SCOTUS robe and seat, and American jurisprudence will be the better for it—despite wailing to the contrary that almost literally was plucked from the “sky is falling” worries Democrats expressed 30 years ago at the Antonin Scalia hearings.

In a play off the old advertising campaign “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” which showed an Ella Fitzgerald high note shattering a wine glass, guess whether the following statement was uttered this week or in 1986: “There have been at least some reports that [overturning Roe v. Wade] was one of the considerations in your nomination.”

If your gut told you that the more things change, the more they stay the same, congratulations! That sentence is straight from the Scalia hearing transcripts.

Here’s the exchange that preceded it, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy, who barely muttered a greeting before tossing his first mortar: “if you were confirmed, do you expect to overrule the Roe v. Wade?”

A clearly taken aback Scalia replied, “Excuse me?”

The Massachusetts senator rephrased slightly. “Do you expect to overrule the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision if you are confirmed?” he asked.

Like most nominees before and since, Scalia explained it would be improper to answer that question, and elaborated. “Let us assume that I have people before me arguing to do it or not to do it,” he said. “I think it is quite a thing to be arguing to somebody who you know has made a representation in the course of his confirmation hearings, and that is, by way of condition to his being confirmed, that he will do this or do that.

“I think I would be in a very bad position to adjudicate the case without being accused of having a less than impartial view of the matter,” Scalia said.

It is clearly unwise to prejudge publicly any case that might ultimately come before the court, especially one so contentiously debated in legal contexts. But special interests consider wisdom and common sense mortal enemies if either threatens their agenda.

So lobby servant Kennedy pressed on. “Do you believe in [the concept of stare decisis]? What is it going to take to overrule an existing Supreme Court decision?” he asked.

“As you know, Senator,” Scalia answered, “they are sometimes overruled.”

“I am interested in your view,” Kennedy continued.

“My view is that they are sometimes overruled,” Scalia said, and then added, “I will not say I will never overrule prior Supreme Court precedent.”

Thirty years hence, the nominee selected to succeed Scalia faced the same opposition from the same special interest, which hurled the same mud hoping to smear another imminently qualified jurist. But Gorsuch was definitive and defiant about any expressed White House litmus test regarding abortion tainting his integrity as a nominee.

Had he been asked by President Donald Trump to overturn Roe v. Wade, Gorsuch said, “I would have walked out the door.”

Sen. Kennedy is long gone, but some faces still have recurring roles in this three-decades-later sequel.

Sen. Patrick Leahy posited this contemplative query to Scalia in 1986: “Does the word ‘justice’ have content to you?”

In 2017, here’s one of his probing questions to Gorsuch: “Would the president have the authority to ban all Jews from America?”

Then-Sen. Joe Biden was also in the judiciary committee hearings for Scalia, asking about whether the nominee subscribed to the view of the Constitution as a “living” document.

“What I think,” Scalia responded, “is that the Constitution is obviously not meant to be evolvable so easily that in effect a court of nine judges can treat it as though it is a bring-along-with-me statute and fill it up with whatever content the current times seem to require.”

And yet judicial activism produces that precise result, which is both undemocratic and divisive. It’s why partisans can praise Roe v. Wade as “settled law” in one breath and deny Citizens United as such in the next.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, in trying to pry an abortion-rights answer out of Gorsuch, went so far as to worry aloud that the “law” as it exists “could be struck down with one decision.” Her fears exist because that “law” was foisted on the nation with one decision, rather than legislated through the democratic process or added to the Constitution in the amendment process.

Special interests that want to live by the gavel can also die by the gavel. After all these decades, Roe v. Wade‘s legal doctrine remains unsettled for the very reason that it was poorly adjudicated to begin with.

As Scalia often opined, justices are poorly equipped to be lawmakers. We are fortunate that lawmakers acting as mouthpieces for special interests in confirmation hearings are equally unfit to be Supreme Court justices.

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

Hibernophilia Day

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

Today is the day for all good hibernophiles to celebrate the object of their affection. That is, the lore and life and culture of Hibernia.

If you’re pondering the link to St. Patrick’s Day, it is traced to antiquity. Hibernia was the name used by the Romans to refer to the island we now call Ireland.

And everyone’s a hibernophile, to some degree, on March 17.

The Chicago River runs green, and if you haven’t watched the time-lapse video of the dyeing, it’s worth a couple minutes of YouTube time.

St. Patrick’s Day parades across America boast amazing durations, some even preceding independence. New York’s first parade was 1766, Philadelphia’s in 1771 and Boston’s in 1794.

Unlike most metropolises, which host their observances on the nearest weekends, Savannah’s historic parade—sponsored by the Hibernian Society since 1824—is always held on the actual date. Despite its frequent workday scheduling, hibernophiles in Savannah turn out in numbers matching those in much larger cities.

But celebratory processions are a product of the holiday, not the cause of it.

It’s easy enough to forget the reverence of the day because of the revelry surrounding it. Especially so since the Irish penchants for festivity are so inculcating. The wearing of the green, the witticisms and proverbs and toasts, the gift of blarney, the legends of shillelaghs and leprechauns—they all seamlessly slide in alongside the shamrock and the patron saint.

The lilting blessings complement the sacred and comprehensive prayer of St. Patrick’s breastplate (which no true hibernophile can ignore). That’s the powerful protection prayer, penned in the fifth century, whose more familiar lines include “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me …” and a continuing litany of like construction invoking not only Christ, but also God and listing perils and temptations. Its words were set to music in the 1889 hymn “I Bind Unto Myself Today,” the title taken from the prayer’s opening line.

Collectively it all casts a broad vision of the enduring qualities hibernophiles hold dear: Irish love of life coupled with intense religiousness, sprinkled throughout with impish humor.

Part of the lure stems from Ireland’s ancient roots, which reach back millennia without the curbing effect of Roman conquest.

The early Brehon Law is a fascinating study in itself, and its shaping effect on the Irish society until it mixed and merged with adoption of English jurisprudence in the 17th century is notably relevant.

The native legal system invoked no state power, and was remarkably pragmatic and often ahead of its time on issues such as women’s rights. It emphasized restitution rather than punishment in criminal matters, and addressed with particularity many of society’s most basic details. For example, according to Brehon dictates, a doctor’s house was required to have four doors that opened out so patients could be seen from every side.

Its precepts and principles sought fairness and justice, and the Brehons—arbitrators and jurists, rather than legislators—often made decrees in forms of shrewd and sagacious statements.

Those centuries of early Irish law begat many of the popular proverbs surviving to this day. Adages such as “Many a time a man’s mouth broke his nose,” and “Everyone is wise until he speaks,” are traceable to Brehon traditions.

The early doctrines often meshed easily with early Christianity, too. Brehon Law demanded that “whoever comes to your door, you must feed them and care for them with no questions asked”—such blind hospitality was legal requirement, not custom or cultural etiquette.

Drawing from such a deep and rich well, the wealth of treasured Irish blessings isn’t surprising, whatever the occasion. Beyond the familiar “May the road rise to meet you” toast, here are a couple more worth savoring this Hibernophilia Day.

May you be poor in misfortune,
Rich in blessings,
Slow to make enemies,
Quick to make friends.
But rich or poor, quick or slow,
May you know nothing
    but happiness
From this day forward.

Fishing figured prominently among Irish pastimes, even so far as to provide a Gaelic twist on the bird-and-bush aphorism declaring that “a trout in the pot is better than a salmon in the sea,” and a similar-themed toast:

The health of a salmon to you: A long life, a full heart and a wet mouth.

However you might pay tribute on this St. Patrick’s Day to the delightful Irish people and traditions, do so with a nod toward their universally adoptable spirit that well regards God, nature, heritage and language.

I’ll leave you with appropriate excerpts from a poem attributed to Thomas Langan, titled “Where is Ireland?”:

Wherever there’s a song to sing,
A friend that needs a hand,
A cause to follow, come what may—
There is Ireland!

You’ll know it by its laughter,
You’ll know it by its tears,
You’ll know it by the warmth of heart
That lasts through all the years.

Ireland is everywhere today.

May you read a little Thomas Moore, watch a few scenes of The Quiet Man, hum along to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and find yourself among friends.

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

Innovation green light

Posted on March 10, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Trump administration’s education department will be quick to reward outside-the-box thinking. But it’s far from obvious to entrenched bureaucrats or legislators.

If Betsy DeVos is anything, she’s as anti-establishment as her boss (that’s why everyone in the education establishment opposed her). And yet, just like him, here she is.

And here we are:

In a prime position to seize an immense opportunity, if—admittedly an enormous “if”—our own state government leaders are adventuresome enough to live up to our old state nickname.

It’s been 13 years since the infamous Act 60 was pushed through our Legislature. It passed despite broad warning signs and red flags at the time from a state mirroring us in many ways (West Virginia), which was taking measure of its own consolidation failings 10 years after the fact.

In those ensuing years a lot has changed—politically, technologically, educationally.

Electorally we were among deep red states. Broadband penetration and all that it enables is reaching the most rural of areas. And nobody really disputes all the broken promises (lower costs, better test scores, etc.) of consolidation.

We took the “opportunity” motto off our license plates a long time ago, but it’s still spelled the same way.

If Education Secretary DeVos’ head could ever be turned by a powerful prospective pet project, it would be a well-planned blueprint for a statewide Rural Public School System. Not a patchwork approach that seeks to semi-urbanize schools out in the hinterlands. One that is specifically designed to maximize the unique characteristics of rural lifestyles with newly accessible modern learning technology.

Our population has been crying out for such a solution for decades. We’re nowhere near the most rural state, but still a decidedly rural one. Only 17 of our 75 counties are considered urban. Our economy is powered by agriculture.

But as recently as 2010, our state board of education bungled the chance to pioneer a distance-learning consolidation concept between Delight and Weiner. Both schools had high test scores, great graduation rates and tremendous community support, but also an enrollment figure below Act 60’s magically irrelevant number.

So naturally both had to be shut down.

Fortunately, many of the masterminds behind Act 60 have moved on from public service. The question is, has the failed mindset moved on as well?

Closed minds brought us nothing but closed schools, and barely moved any needles on student performance metrics. Open minds can launch us into the national limelight if we simply insist on innovative thinking for rural education from a totally rural perspective.

Samsung Electronics is repurposing 40-foot shipping containers into mobile classrooms for sub-Saharan countries to improve their education. Each serves up to 21 students, and is equipped with a 50-inch electronic board, Internet-enabled solar-powered notebooks, multifunction printers, Samsung Galaxy tablet computers and Wi-Fi cameras. A solar-panel roof generates nine hours of electricity a day, since many African communities have minimal power available, if any.

But our solution for remote rural communities continues to be rooted in 1960s-era busing of outlying students to expensive brick-and-mortar structures in larger population concentrations?

The enemy of innovation isn’t really backward thinking (which at least incorporates thought), it’s inertia. The need for better education ideas in rural communities isn’t new, but developments in broadband, smartphones and tablets, applications and programs, distance-learning, video-streaming and other connectivity and telecommunications products and services are.

Rural 12-year-olds today know more about technology than college grad students did a couple of generations ago.

In the not-too-distant past, the average kid in rural Arkansas had zero access to East or West Coast fashions, fads, shopping, trends, songs, menus or entertainment. All those divides, and more, have evaporated in the cyberspace revolution. The Coach bag that was once purchased exclusively on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive can now arrive in Nowhere, USA, in two days from Amazon.

Likewise with access to the latest schooling techniques, concepts, teachers, technology partnerships and information content. The finest lectures and speakers on anything are available on YouTube.

The reason to not use a television series like Legends and Lies: Patriots to help teach students about American independence isn’t because “we’ve never done it like that.” It’s because those kinds of tools and technology never existed before.

And now that they are now proliferating, we must push our thinking to expand even faster.

We have some wonderful organizations across the state already in place—the Rural Community Alliance comes to my mind first, but there are also others—to serve as effective, enabling collaborators on a rural initiative needed not only here in Arkansas, but in other states from Montana to Maine.

Task forces too often produce neither task nor force, but maybe that’s a start, providing it comprises fresh, non-establishment minds. Even the best-intentioned capital-city thinking is simply incapable of grass-roots inventiveness on rural education.

Four out of 10 Arkansans live rural lives. As suddenly and surprisingly as last Nov. 8, those rural communities represent possibly the best laboratories for profound shifts in teaching.

Rural education is a national challenge. It’s carpe diem time, and Arkansas ought to be a natural.

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

« Previous Entries

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