bookmark_borderAppeals court made right decision in Tsarnaev case

On Friday, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the death penalty verdict for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The court ruled that the judge in Tsarnaev’s trial was not thorough enough in screening potential jurors for bias, and as a result, at least two people made it onto the jury without disclosing everything that they knew, or posted on social media, about the case. Tsarnaev has never denied carrying out the bombing with his older brother, Tamerlan, and the appellate court’s decision does not affect the jury’s guilty verdict, only the death sentence. The Department of Justice will need to decide whether to accept a sentence of life in prison for Tsarnaev or whether to re-do the penalty phase of the trial.

In my opinion, this decision was the right one for a simple reason: a woman known as Juror 286, who become the forewoman of the jury, failed to disclose that she had posted online about the case 22 times. She tweeted about being “locked down” with her family during the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers and about her sadness at the death of 8-year-old Martin Richard. Additionally, she retweeted celebratory messages after Tsarnaev’s capture, some including the ubiquitous phrase “Boston Strong” and one referring to Tsarnaev as a “piece of garbage.” The defense team asked the judge to excuse this juror for cause, but prosecutors described her tweets as “innocuous” and the judge apparently agreed.

The fact that someone was allowed onto a jury after calling the defendant a “piece of garbage” is outrageous. It would be difficult to imagine something more disqualifying, and more indicative of bias, than that. Calling someone a piece of garbage is not innocuous under any circumstances.

Making things worse, another individual, known as Juror 138, posted on Facebook that he was reporting for jury duty and repeatedly engaged with people who commented on the post throughout the day. One of the comments urged him to “play the part so u get on the jury then send him to jail where he will be taken care of” and another predicted that Tsarnaev would have “no shot in hell” if Juror 138 made it onto the jury.

Death sentences have been overturned in federal court before for far less. Triple-murderer Gary Sampson, for example, had his death sentence overturned when it was discovered that a juror failed to disclose a domestic dispute with her husband and the fact that her daughter went to jail for drugs.

Former Boston FBI director Richard DesLauriers called the Tsarnaev ruling “an unfortunate example of judicial activism and “a slap in the face” to the jurors. But it’s not judicial activism to logically apply principles of fairness and impartiality. And to be honest, anyone who calls a defendant in a criminal case a “piece of garbage” and then fails to disclose this during jury selection deserves to be slapped in the face. It’s sad that everyone has to go through another penalty trial, but when you look at things objectively, a verdict rendered by a jury whose foreperson called the defendant a “piece of garbage” is not a legitimate verdict and cannot be allowed to stand.

bookmark_borderBullies protest against Confederate flag towel

I thought it was ridiculous when I heard that dozens of people in Minnesota decided to protest against a Confederate flag at their neighbor’s house. But then I saw a news article titled, “Protest calls out white silence after Confederate flag towel displayed on Evanston beach.” I did not think that such a thing was possible, but this towel protest reaches new levels of ridiculousness.

Reading the full story behind these events only makes this incident more appalling. The offending towel was first sighted on Wednesday at Lighthouse Beach in Evanston, Illinois, where a group of beachgoers had draped it over a fence. LaShandra Smith-Rayfield saw photos of the towel posted on social media and decided to drop what she was doing and drive to the beach to confront the towel owners in person. She posted a video of the confrontation on Facebook Live. In the video (since deleted) she reportedly told the towel owners, “I can’t feel comfortable in my own neighborhood. That flag right there is my swastika.” Then, a small group of protesters arrived at the beach and held Black Lives Matter signs until the towel owners left. Another small protest took place at the beach Thursday, followed by one on Friday which was attended by 300 people, including the mayor.

The Facebook event for that protest was titled, “No one is free until we are all free,” which is ironic because the protest seems to have been dedicated to taking away people’s freedom to go to the beach without being bullied and harassed.

Smith-Rayfield’s actions in instigating a confrontation with a group of beachgoers and then organizing a protest against them are utterly despicable. People have every right to possess and use any type of towel that they want. The group of people who hung the Confederate towel on the fence were doing absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever. Yet Smith-Rayfield chose to drop what she was doing and drive to the beach to verbally attack them. Then she and her supporters held not one, not two, but three protests against these people who were doing nothing wrong. In this time of relentless attacks on the Confederate States of America and its iconography, this is one of the most bigoted, intolerant, and aggressive instances of bullying I have heard of yet.

“Me speaking out against hatred does not make me anti-patriotic,” Smith-Rayfield told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It actually makes me patriotic… Every person on that beach walked past it. In my video, you can see people walk on past it. Why is it okay to walk on past it?”

This is one of the most preposterous questions I have ever heard. Not only is it okay to walk past a group of people minding their own business, it is an obligation. Unless, of course, one wants to compliment the towel or ask where the owners bought it, which would be totally justified because in my opinion, a Confederate flag towel is awesome. But when it comes to making negative or critical comments towards a person or people who are doing nothing wrong, that is morally impermissible because it is an act of aggression. For Smith-Rayfield to imply that bullying and harassing innocent people is not only acceptable but is morally required is preposterous. She is not “speaking out against hatred.” She is aggressing against innocent people.

Disgustingly, the mayor of Evanston, Steve Hagerty, praised Smith-Rayfield’s “courage and persistence.” But what Smith-Rayfield did was an act of cruelty, aggression, and bullying. This has nothing to do with courage or persistence, and it is disturbing that an elected official would praise such a thing.

Terri Turner, who attended one of the protests, said that she and her daughter were up till 2:30 a.m. “trying to process how heinous that was.” She was not referring to Smith-Rayfield’s decision to attack an innocent group of beachgoers; she was referring to the Confederate flag towel itself. This reaction is bizarre and incomprehensible. There is nothing “heinous” about a Confederate flag towel. It is a towel demonstrating pride in Southern heritage. Smith-Rayfield’s actions in instigating an argument with innocent people, as well as Turner’s own decision to attend a protest condemning these same people, are what is truly heinous.

People have a right to go to the beach and display any type of flag or towel they want without being insulted, yelled at, or harassed. If you think that disliking someone’s towel gives you the right to go up to them, berate them, and organize protests against them, you are not only 100% wrong but you are also a mean, nasty, intolerant bully.

One bright light in this dismaying series of events is that while Smith-Rayfield was verbally attacking the group of innocent beachgoers, an African-American veteran decided to intervene. According to a series of tweets describing the encounter, this man told Smith-Rayfield that “she’s the one causing the problem,” that the towel owners were “minding their business,” and that he “fought for their right to display that flag.” He is 100% right. Interviewed later by the Chicago Sun-Times, this brave veteran said that he personally believes the Confederate flag is wrong but also believes that people have the right to disagree and that he served in the military to protect that right. This guy showed true courage, tolerance, and empathy. If only more people behaved this way towards those with whom they disagree.

bookmark_borderBullies protest against Confederate flag at neighbor’s house

In Cold Spring, Minnesota, bullies are protesting against a homeowner’s decision to fly a Confederate flag.

The leader of the bullies, 20-year-old college student Jayda Woods, said of her neighbor’s flag: “To me, it just looks like a big thing that says ‘I hate you’ on it. ‘Stay away’ kind of thing, and just, ‘You’re not welcomed here.'”

“We’re not going to just stand by and have this flying in our neighborhood, right next to all of these kids, right next to the school where everyone’s driving by,” she added. “That’s just something I don’t want to live with for our town.”

Woods organized two protests, which involved dozens of people gathering with signs outside the offending house. She and her supporters have also written what she describes as “positive messages” in chalk on the sidewalk. These messages include “Black Lives Matter” and “Real Americans don’t fly traitor flags.”

To organize protests against a flag that a private citizen is flying on his/her own property displays a complete lack of tolerance and a complete lack of respect for the rights of one’s fellow citizens. First of all, Woods’s perceptions that the Confederate flag means “I hate you” and “stay away” are baseless. People fly Confederate flags for a variety of reasons, including pride in their Southern heritage or a belief in states’ rights or resistance to tyranny. Additionally, having negative feelings towards something (even if these feelings are valid and understandable, which is not the case in this situation) does not give a person the right to demand its removal, especially if it is located on another person’s private property. People do not have a right to never see anything they dislike while walking, driving, or jogging around town.

The homeowner who is flying the flag is doing absolutely nothing wrong. These attempts to pressure and browbeat this homeowner into stopping something that he/she has every right to do are acts of aggression and bullying. Woods says that she is not going to stand by and allow the flag to exist in her town. But that is exactly what she is obligated to do. What individuals do on their own property is none of her business; she and her supporters do not have the right to decide what other people in their town and neighborhood are and are not allowed to do.

Not to mention the fact that the Confederate flag is not a “traitor flag,” and calling it that is the exact opposite of a positive message.

“It is his First Amendment right, freedom of speech,” said Woods. “But what I would just like is at least a letter from the city of Cold Spring or from ROCORI High School, just asking him to take it down.”

This is contradictory. Woods is essentially admitting that the homeowner has a right to fly the flag while simultaneously asking the government to make him get rid of it!

To their credit, the city council responded to this request with the following statement: “The City of Cold Spring does not condone racial discrimination or the display of racist icons. The city strives to be a welcoming community for all persons regardless of race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender identification, age, ability, place of origin, citizenship status and veteran status. All citizens have the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution. The right is fundamental to our democracy and protects us all against tyranny. For that reason, the city can make no laws that abridge any citizen’s right to freedom of speech regardless of how offensive the speech may be.”

Woods has even started a petition to ban display of the Confederate flag, in which she calls the flag “highly intolerable, especially flying next to a school where ALL students and staff should feel welcomed and safe. It is extremely important to me that ALL students and all people who enter the ROCORI community are treated with respect.”

But her attempts to force the removal of the Confederate flag are, ironically, disrespectful and intolerant towards those with different views from her. Do people who are proud of their Southern heritage not also deserve to feel welcomed and safe? Do people who see the Confederate flag as a positive symbol of rebelliousness and freedom not also deserve to be treated with respect? Anyone who truly believes in the values of diversity, inclusion, and tolerance would accept and celebrate the right of each person to fly the flag of their choice.

bookmark_borderDemocratic senators demand flag discrimination

A group of 34 Democratic Congressmen and Congresswomen are demanding that Defense Secretary Mark Esper explicitly ban the Confederate flag while allowing other flags, such as the Pride flag and Native Nation flags. Earlier this month, in response to intolerant bullies’ demands, Esper issued a policy banning the Confederate flag from being displayed on property controlled by the Department of Defense, including ships, aircraft, office buildings, porches of military housing, and common areas of barracks. But instead of singling out that flag, the language of the policy simply lists which flags are allowed, a category that includes state flags, the POW/MIA flag, military flags, and the flags of allied countries, effectively banning all other flags. Left off the list were not only the Confederate flag but also the Pride flag, Native Nation flags, the Jolly Roger, and sports teams’ flags.

“While we applaud the department for taking steps to remove the Confederate battle flag from our military bases, the action unnecessarily avoids a clear rebuke of this oppressive symbol while simultaneously limiting how service members can freely express themselves in line with our values,” the Representatives wrote. “We ask that you immediately revise the new policy on flag display, explicitly ban the Confederate battle flag, and ensure that service members can express support for diversity and inclusion through the display of sovereign Native Nations and LGBTQ Pride flags… The department must have the strength and courage to be able to simultaneously stand against a symbol of hate and oppression in the Confederate battle flag while allowing the display of support for civil rights, equity and justice. We do not honor or display the Parteiflagge of Nazi Germany on our military bases, and any decision on the Confederate battle flag must likewise be unequivocal: it must be banned outright.”

Contrary to what is claimed in the letter, the Confederate flag is not a symbol of hate or oppression. It is simply a symbol of the Confederate States of America. Some people fly it as an expression of Southern heritage and some people fly it as a symbol of individuality, freedom, and resistance to government authority. There’s nothing hateful or oppressive about that.

Ironically, banning the Confederate flag is hateful and oppressive. The letter expresses support for diversity and inclusion, but banning one flag while allowing others is the exact opposite of diversity and inclusion. It is particularly disturbing that the Representatives want soldiers to be able to “freely express themselves in line with our values.” The letter appears to be stating that soldiers should only be able to express themselves if their values are the same as those of the letter’s authors. That is not freedom of expression. True freedom of expression means having the right to express one’s views regardless of whether those who hold political power approve of them. Truly supporting diversity and inclusion means not only embracing differences in sexual orientation, gender identity, and race; it also means embracing differences in culture as well as in ideology. We cannot have an inclusive society when Native Americans are able to honor their heritage with flags while Southerners are not. We cannot have diversity without the Confederate flag.

These Democratic Representatives are demanding that only flags that are in line with their values should be allowed. This is the epitome of intolerance and bigotry, and to use the language of diversity and inclusion in the service of such a non-inclusive cause is a perversion of these words. To unequivocally condemn the flag of a small, agricultural nation that existed for four years in the 19th century and happens to be frowned upon by today’s political establishment, as the letter demands of Secretary Esper, is the exact opposite of “strength and courage.” It is bullying.

I believe that soldiers should be able to display any flag that they want, including the U.S. flag, the Confederate flag, the Gadsden flag, the flag of any nation, state, or city, the Pride flag, the pirate flag, or the flag of any sports team. But if the Confederate flag is going to be banned, it is only fair to ban flags favored by those on the left-hand side of the political spectrum as well. Let’s hope that Esper displays true strength and courage by standing up to the Democrats’ intolerant demands.