Rays of Light or Dying Candles?

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At last! Some good news on the legal front! Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced significant changes to federal sentencing practices that should reduce the number of people serving long sentences in federal prison for low-level drug law violations. Finally we see a sign that this administration is trying to construct a more humane and sensible policy towards America’s war on its own citizens – the unending War on Drugs. These changes are long overdue, and may be due to the staggering costs of prison confinement on our nation’s budget. But let’s give President Obama and Attorney General Holder credit for beginning and doing so in a decisive way. Let’s hope Holder’s ray of light will be the first of many when it comes to our country’s drug policies.

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Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin

On Monday, August 12, Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin found that the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices are unconstitutional because they create a policy of indirect racial profiling. She said, “The city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner.” The judge appointed a federal monitor to ensure that the NYPD changes its ways. It’s encouraging to see a police department held accountable for unconstitutional practices which unfairly target certain young people, sucking them into the depths of the criminal justice system. Sadly, Mayor Bloomberg has appealed the judge’s ruling and–sounding like a spoiled brat caught terrifying the neighborhood–referred to the judge as “some woman” who knows “absolutely zero” about policing. Whether the judge’s decision becomes a ray of light or a dying candle is now in the hands of an appeals court. My grandchildren would say Mayor Bloomberg needs a “time out.”

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On August 11, CNN aired Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s documentary on marijuana, Weed, an extraordinary ray of light, not only for the way he framed the issue and for the program’s quality, but also because of his public apologia. Dr. Gupta had the guts to say, “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.” Dr. Gupta’s message is significant not only because he is a well-respected national figure and media rock star, but also because he was President Obama’s first choice to be Surgeon General of the United States. Dr. Gupta showed us all that “getting it right” is more important than “being right.”

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Last week also produced a series of investigative reports by Reuters detailing extensive and systemic illegal behavior by DEA agents using NSA surveillance and then covering up their source. I recently predicted that the administration would find a way to mollify the media and turn its attention away from our government spying on its own citizens. Hopefully, this series and others in the pipeline will prove me wrong. That President Obama continues to say “we don’t have a domestic spying program” is extremely troubling, and his refusal to be truthful about the nature and full extent of NSA’s program and the use by the DEA, FBI, etc. of its results will be a legacy he may forever regret. He should take a lesson from Dr. Gupta and admit “we have … misled,” and apologize for his role. Whether these stories become rays of light or dying candles depends on the continued outrage of the public, the tenacity of the media, and the willingness of an administration to do what is right.

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“Moral Mondays” citizens protesting.

Finally, just this past Monday, one of my favorite rays of light grew even brighter. Here in North Carolina a movement, which began last April, continues to grow. “Moral Mondays” began as a protest against legislation being considered by the North Carolina legislature to limit voting rights, reduce funding of unemployment and medical care, limit a woman’s right to choose, and lower corporate taxes while cutting funding for public education. The NC legislature is now long gone, but in Charlotte, NC the latest of the “Moral Mondays” generated crowds not seen since the Vietnam War. Many attended because of a single issue, but a growing number come because they are deeply disturbed by what is going on in our community, our state, and in our country. They are bothered by the lack of dialogue and unwillingness to listen or compromise that defines leadership on both sides of the aisle. Their willingness to “show up” on “Moral Mondays” is the brightest of the rays of lights I’ve witnessed in a while, and it will not be “snuffed out” by deaf ears or indifference. To paraphrase Gandhi, those who attend “Moral Mondays” are there to begin “the change they want to see in the world.”

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