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Two Americas….Three Decades of Injustice

November 30th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


On Wednesday night, Mitt Romney made a point
of taking potshots at John Edwards for Edwards’ “two America’s” campaign theme. “We do not have two Americas,” said Romney with a self-righteous flourish.

Oh, but we do. Twenty-two percent of all American children
live below the poverty level. Forty-seven million Americans are without health insurance. But nowhere is the schism more evident than in the U.S. criminal justice system.

For example: a white felony defendant with no criminal record
stands a far higher chance of having the charge reduced to a misdemeanor or infraction than a black or Hispanic in similar legal circumstances. If a white, an African American and a Hispanic kid, each with no prior criminal records, are all charged with the same offense, the African American kid is six times more likely to be incarcerated than the white kid; the Hispanic kid three times more likely.

Then there is the case of Gary Tyler. Tyler, 49, has been in prison in the Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola for over 30 years. At age 17 he was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old white boy in the fall of 1974 in Destrehan, Louisiana, during the height of that town’s school integration crisis. Tyler is black.

A federal appeals court ruled that Tyler’s murder trial was “fundamentally unfair,” but Tyler has never been granted a retrial. Three pardon boards have recommended to two Louisiana governors that Gary Tyler’s life sentence be commuted, but neither governor has taken action.

Now Amnesty International is pushing
for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to pardon Tyler before she leaves office in January.

Yet it’s the details of Tyler’s case
—and then of another Louisiana case—which demonstrate the unequal justice that too often still exists in America.

A series of columns written earlier this year by the New York Times’ Bob Herbert tells the story better than I can. Here are some clips:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, National politics | 26 Comments »

Why I Heart (and fear) the Anti-Evolutionist—and you should too

November 29th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

(NOTE: This is cross posted at Huffington Post’s Off the Bus section.)

Watching the YouTube/CNN debate Wednesday night,
I was appalled to realize that, if I alone was charged with choosing the next president of the United States, and the only possible POTUS candidates were those standing on the St. Petersburg, Florida stage last night (and Anderson Cooper was definitely not an option), God help me, I’d choose the guy who doesn’t believe in evolution.

Yes, of course, I’m opposed to nearly all of Mike Huckabee’s stands on the issues: abortion, gays in the military, capital punishment, stem cell research and so on. But, when fielding the YouTubers’ questions, while undeniably conservative, he also appeared remarkably un-poll-driven, thoughtful and compassionate. Plus he didn’t seem to need to insult everyone who held an opinion other than his own.

And weirdly, all through the evening it was Huckabee
who seemed to be the candidate most willing to be the President for all Americans–rather than just for Republicans.

Not so for the others on the stage:

Mitt Romney still comes off like a guy playing a candidate on television, a casting director’s creation. He waffled irritatingly on any question that demanded he not behave like a Republican Ken doll, and tied himself in Boy Scout knots over his former (gasp) support of gays in the military. When confronted with McCain’s articulate hammering on the issue of waterboarding, he was completely on the ropes.

Then when Cooper cornered Mitt about whether he believed the Bible was, page for page, line for line, literally all true—while Huckabee, the evangelical preacher, handled the question without completely alienating those of us who don’t look to The Book of Revelation for life instruction—Romney was suddenly a man wishing he had urgent business elsewhere.

As for Fred Thompson, there was his bizarre and clumsily-produced attack ad. And with each passing day, he looks more distressingly like a very tall bullfrog. I think he’d be swell at providing a character voice for the next Pixar movie. But, trust me, the Republicans are not going to select a bullfrog as their candidate.

McCain had a couple of winning moments (condemning torture), and a couple of crazy dude moments (Shouting at Ron Paul that Paul’s attitude would have helped Hitler win, or whatever it was he said.)

And Rudy? Well, the polls suggest he’s still probably the one to beat, although he’s polling poorly in Iowa and, there are a zillion ways he can implode. He explained himself awkwardly on several of issues, like the 2nd Amendment question that had him scrambling frantically for the right I Like Guns tone. But, he broke out well with his opening jab at Romney on immigration: “Mitt had a sanctuary mansion, not just sanctuary cities,” referring to the fact that undocumented workers had been found to be employed at the governor’s mansion during Mitt’s tenure.

Rudy certainly had most of the good jokes: “Not bad to have a Republican who can beat Bill Clinton,” he quipped when he was challenged on the successful lawsuit he brought while New York mayor to yank the federal line-item veto away from Clinton. And then there was his Yankees riff: “when I was mayor of New York City, the Yankees won four world championships….and since I’ve left being mayor of New York City, the Yankees have won none.”

Yet it was, Huckabee, not Rudy, got the biggest laugh of the night with his answer to the WWJDCP? question. (What Would Jesus Do about capital punishment.) ”Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson,” said Mike and the audience loved it (in part, maybe, for its off-handed slap at the I’m-more-Christian -than-you-are hypocrisy that has run rife through this campaign).

Huckabee also scored the biggest applause line of the night with an answer that was not very Republican sounding. I’m talking about his eloquent defense of college scholarships for undocumented kids: “With all due respect,” Huckabee said, “we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We’re a better country than that.” And there was wild cheering because, well, we are a better country than that.

Here’s the thing: If the 2008 presidential match-up turns out to be Rudy against Hillary, I think and hope Hillary will take it, although even that is by no means clear. But if by some chance dark horse Mike Huckabee is the Republican nominee, we Dems could be in deep trouble. When I drove to Montana this summer and, while on the road, questioned people about their views on issues, it quickly became very clear to me that Americans are sick of the vicious partisanship, sick of the poison. They want a uniter not a divider.

And, while we’re on the subject, Andrew Sullivan got it right in his essay in December’s Atlantic Monthly: Obama is a uniter. But in a Huckabee Clinton match-up, rightly or not, the candidate I suspect is most likely to be viewed as the uniter by a big portion of the American electorate…. is the one who thinks Darwin got it wrong.

Posted in Elections '08, National politics, Presidential race | 25 Comments »

Writer’s Strike: No Contract….But at Least a New Food Blog

November 29th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


The WGA and the studios have agreed to go back to the table
to talk for at least one more day (they’ve been talking since Monday). Nobody’s willing to say much about how (or if) the talks are progressing, but, according to last night’s Hollywood Reporter, the fact that anybody’s still chatting at all is a vaguely good sign. The LA Times says that the gap between warring parties still remains wide. If things fail to at least inch forward by Friday, strike watchers predict that negotiations could stall until after the holidays.

In the meantime, when not picketing,
stir-crazy screenwriters are finding ever more creative ways to fill their time, and to lower their individual and collective anxiety levels. (When prevented from writing, writers—any kind of writers—are a notoriously nervous bunch.)

The most recent of these strike-fueled activities is a new LA food blog called Food Coma LA, produced by the gorgeous, talented, and extremely antsy….Kelly Fremon. (Yes, she is related to me. She’s my fabulous niece.)

A quick rundown on Kelly
—just so you know this post has zero to do with nepotism. (Or, if it does, it’s well-deserved nepotism.) Kelly was listed this year by Variety as one of the “10 Screenwriters to Watch” after her quirky/funny spec script, “Ticket To Ride” was bought and developed by Ivan Reitman (the guy who did Animal House, Ghostbusters and the like). The film will start production next month for Fox’s Atomic division. She’s also writing—or at least was until the strike hit—a remake the French film “Intimate Strangers” for Paramount, with Hillary Swank set to star.

Now, like most screenwriters, Kelly’s going berzerkers with the inactivity. (One can’t picket all the time.) Hence Monday’s blog launch—with much more to come.

So go check out Food Coma, and try out the soup recipe.

Hey, it’s the least you can do to support our city’s striking screen scribes, right?
Of course, right.

Posted in American artists, media, unions | 21 Comments »

Couch Potato Kids & LA’s Lawbreaking School District

November 28th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


The Los Angeles Unified School District is breaking the law.
Specifically, it does not comply with a state law that requires a certain amount of physical education per kid per week: 20 minutes a day in elementary school, and 40 minutes a day in middle and high school.

This issue first came to light in June when the California Center for Public Health Advocacy used the Public Records Act to find out if the state’s schools were complying with the PE statute. Answer: They weren’t. Or more specifically, 37 out of the state’s 73 districts were failing to require even that bare minimum 20 (or 40) minute workout. Elementary schools complied the least, and even when kids were in PE, it seemed in a lot of the schools, they spent very little time actually exercising.

Worse, it turned out that the highest number of flagrant violators congregated in Southern California where seven of 16 districts failed to comply—LAUSD prominently among them.

Following the report, a group of kid advocates led by Robert Garcia of The City Project, plus a string of health-related non-profits like City of Hope and the American Diabetes Association, sent a letter to LAUSD superintendent Admiral David Brewer in which Garcia and company laid out how off-kilter things were in the PE realm.

They brought up such points as:

–At LAUSD’s South Gate High School,
1,600 children took the state FitnessGram test and not one passed.

–Forty LAUSD schools did not have a single physically fit student.

They also mentioned the much-publicised obesity epidemic
that is plaguing California’s kids (and the nation’s kids, for that matter), and the spike in childhood diabetes.

So how did the good Admiral respond to these alarm bells?

“He didn’t,” Garcia told me. “We have not received the courtesy of any reply at all. He hasn’t engaged in any kind of dialogue”

Garcia’ went on to talk to educators individually and, while some shared his concern, others told him that there was no time for PE.
“They said they were too busy preparing kids for the tests required by No Child Left Behind, that there aren’t enough hours in the day. They keep thinking they can separate out the child’s mind and body,” Garcia said. “But we see over and over again that kids do better in school and are more likely to stay in school, if they have enough physical activity.

After months of being stonewalled by Brewer, Garcia and company decided to enlist a bigger-footed ally: UTLA—the teachers union.

The union got on board immediately. And, at an 8:30 press conference
this morning, UTLA announced its plans to launch a campaign to “push for critical changes in LAUSD’s current PE program.”

Let’s hope it works.

It’s refreshing to see UTLA embracing the role of change agent in this case,
since so often in the past it has been obstructive. And, let’s be honest, if change of any kind—large or small— is going to take place in this district, Admiral Brewer is unlikely to be the one to lead it.

Posted in Education, LAUSD, Public Health | 24 Comments »

Our Firefighting Felons

November 27th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

The California prison system has been in such bad shape in so many ways for such a long time, it’s almost shocking to find one element of the system that seems to be working. That element is the fire camps.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
runs 42 adult fire camps-–37 of them with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, five more with the LA County Fire Department. Upwards of 4,400 inmates work on 200 fire crews that log in three million person hours a year battling wildfires, and other emergencies. Several of those crews worked this past weekend’ to help contain the Corral fire in Malibu.

The fire camps seem to succeed on multiple levels.
Their inmates are less likely to return to prison. Correctional officers like working in the camps. And, instead of costing the state of California more than $42,000 per offender per year, as is the case inside prison, fire camp’s per inmate price tag is around half that or less. Moreover, with the work they provide, the fire camp inmates actually save the state money—approximately $80 million a year. Not exactly chump change.

Ken Cox and Janette Cox
(who are neither married nor related to each other) were two of the correctional officers who accompanied the firefighting crews from Camp Ishi in Northern California’s Tehama County, to the Malibu base camp. They both told me they are ardent fans of the program.

“The camps are the best system in the CDC,”
said Ken. “The inmates get out a place like Ishi with real skills that they can take into the world after they’re released. We have guys who go out and get jobs as Hot Shots in the Federal system afterwards.”

Sergeant Dan Billeci, who also came with the crews from Camp Ishi,
agreed. Even those who don’t pursue firefighting, he said, gain a sense that they can succeed at something, “which means they’re less likely to come back to the system”

Not everyone succeeds, of course.
“A lot of guys come back to us,” said Ken. But fewer fire camp graduates stay stuck in the revolving door than the 70 percent who return to California’s prisons after they’re paroled.

Both Coxes also say that they like working at the fire camps
, in part, because the relationships between correctional officers and inmates are far less adversarial then elsewhere in the corrections system. “In the camps they come and talk to us,” said Janette. “Whereas in prison,” said Ken, “they don’t because they’ll be seen as snitches if they talk to us to much.” And prisoners often need to talk, said Janette. “It’s healthier.”

The only problem with the camps, according to the Coxes and Sergeant Billeci, is that most of them are rarely full. This is not, the officers say, for lack of applicants. “Lost of people want to come to the camps,” said Ken. But the bar for entry is set so high that many of those who might thrive in the firefighting program are prohibited entry.

In general, the rules are as follows; the applicants must be physically fit (sensible)
and can have no history of arson (Duh!), or sex offenses (okay, good call). But even those in for low level drug offenses often don’t qualify if they have a violent or a gang crime somewhere in their pasts. Yet sometimes those with no violence in their past are kept out too. “The selection system is very inconsistent,” said Ken Cox.

Certainly appropriate caution must be used in choosing applicants for the fire camps. Everyone wants to protect the program. Yet, the officers suggested in the course of our conversation that, in a state with catastrophically overcrowded prisons, maybe we could design a more responsive selection criteria so that guys (and women) who might otherwise succeed aren’t routinely rejected.

Put another way,
if we want to maximize the program’s potential to save money and rehabilitate lives, we need to open the fire camps’ doors a little wider.

Posted in criminal justice, Fire, Los Angeles County | 1 Comment »

The Fire This Time

November 26th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


As we’ve all heard by now, it was the third blaze in Malibu this year, and the worst Malibu fire in a decade and a half
—with 53 houses burning so quickly they may as well have made of cellophane, and another score badly damaged. We also know that due to the fact that an appropriately jittery Schwarzenegger ordered firefighters to Southern California early last week in advance of the Santa Anas, massive amounts of resources—both in terms of ground crews and equipment—arrived on the scene with remarkable speed.

Although there were all those homes the firefighters couldn’t save,
once they were on site in full strength, they worked with well-coordinated precision, and got the upper hand on the flames before the day’s light began to bleach from the sky. As early as 3 pm on Saturday, the dark, roiling smoke that had characterized the fire’s earlier hours, had changed to hazy gray plumes. By Sunday evening, the fire was at 70 percent containment.

This latest local inferno was called the Corral fire,
presumably because it started on a dirt road in Corral canyon, just north of Malibu. It must be challenging for those tasked with naming these fires to keep coming up with different monikers—as opposed to calling Saturday’s blaze….say….Malibu XXII.

I became aware of the fire at 6:30 a.m Saturday morning
after I was startled out of a very pleasant sleep by a phone call from my neighbor, Rebecca, who told me that the nearby hills were once again burning. Whenever Malibu burns, we in Topanga Canyon get jumpy. We know from experience that if the wind starts blowing the wrong direction, we could easily be next. In 1993, for example, the fire started in Old Topanga Canyon, raced to Malibu faster than a man could run, then blew right back to us in a big and scary way.

But when, by 10:30 a.m. the flames appeared to be in no immediate danger of moving anywhere near to Topanga, I poured myself one more cup of coffee, packed my dog in the car, and drove to Malibu to chat up some firefighters.

The people who had come from all over California and beyond
to battle our latest conflagration were, in their downtime, a friendly and talkative bunch. Here are a few of my notes—along with some photos I snapped while chatting. I’ve not quoted anyone by name, although only one person asked me not to. I figured there was no sense in taking a chance on…well….burning the people who were kind and courageous enough to do a very risky job in our behalf.

Here’s what they said:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fire, Los Angeles County, State politics | 6 Comments »

Weekend Short Takes: Experience v. Experience

November 24th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


In this morning’s LA Times, Michael Kinsley
wades into the discussion about which Dem presidential candidate—Clinton or Obama— has the right experience to govern well. Here’s the opening:

Hillary Clinton declared the other day
— apropos of whom, she didn’t say, or need to — “There is one job we can’t afford on-the-job training for: our next president.” Barack Obama immediately retorted: “My understanding is that she wasn’t Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. I don’t know exactly what experience she’s claiming.” As wit, that round goes to Obama. Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000, and that was her first experience in public office. Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004 and was an Illinois state senator for seven years before that. In terms of experience in elected office, this seems to be about a wash.

But, since she brought it up, how important is experience in a candidate for president? If experience were a matter of offices held, however briefly, then the best candidate currently running would be Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and former so many different things that you can hardly believe this is the same person popping up again. But that is ticket-punching, not experience.

Posted in Elections '08, National politics, Presidential race | 19 Comments »

Weekend Short Takes: The Cost of Serving Justice?

November 24th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


This story is a interesting offshoot
of the 60 Minutes bullet lead analysis story:

A lawyer named Staples Hughes had a client named Jerry Cashwell who, 20 years ago, confessed to being the lone killer of a Fayetteville couple, although another man went to prison for life for murdering the couple. (Cashwell went to prison too.) Now Cashwell is dead and so Hughes has come forward, hoping that the crucial facts that attorney/client privilege had previously prevented him from telling will now help to get a new trial for a man who is likely innocent.

But was Hughes really relieved of attorney/client privilege by the death of his client? Some people think not, and a grievance has been filed against Hughes with the North Carolina state bar. The morality of the situation is clear. Unfortunately the law may not be.

The News Observer has the rest of the story.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice | 2 Comments »

Weekend Short Takes: Hillary Hub

November 24th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


We all know that candidates and their minions
do what they can to influence the news cycle, but if you’re ever curious as to what kind of talking points Hillary Clinton’s campaign is attempting to feed the press on any given day, here’s the place to go.

Reporters have been complaining that lately Clinton
rarely takes spontaneous questions from the crowd or from reporters. Instead, it seems the staff often directs reporters to Hillary Hub for info and angles. Does it work? Track it and find out.

Posted in media, National politics, Presidential race | 2 Comments »

Happy Thanksgiving to Everyone! – UPDATED

November 22nd, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving?

I’ll get the ball rolling with a few of the things on my list:.

First….and always……I’m grateful for my brilliant, wonderful, soulful son
—who turned 22 yesterday! (And I’m also grateful for the terrific friends and family with with whom I am blessed.)

I’m grateful that we live in a country where freedom of expression is protected, in all its messy glory.

And, speaking of expression, I’m grateful for the smart, articulate commenters—right, left and middle— who are willing to bring their ideas and their verbal boxing gloves to this blog.

I’m grateful for the sprawling, crazy, ugly, gorgeous place that is Los Angeles—-hideous traffic and all. If you’re interested in finding solutions to the nation’s hoariest social problems, this Pacific Rim city of angels is the place to be. You name the problem, we got it. But, hey, therein lies the challenge.

I’m grateful for bluegrass, zydeco and blues—and for the fact that I recently managed to snag a couple of pretty damn decent Springsteen tickets for a So Cal night in the upcoming spring leg of his tour.

I’m grateful to Alex— one of the former gang members I’ve watched grow up, a guy who’s been through hell and back a couple of times—who called me yesterday just to tell me how well he’s doing, because he knew I’d want to know.

I’m grateful for the coyotes I hear singing outside my house tonight. (And I’d be doubly grateful if they would continue to avoid eating my cat.)


Okay, now it’s your turn. (And, while you’re thinking about it, something to listen to….in the collective spirit of Thanksgiving)

(And this too, at the suggestion of commenter Reg)


It’s a rather cool, eclectic set of choices
that features among those thanked: the LAPD, the firefighters, Fr. Greg Boyle, Steve Barr, Sunila Abeysekera and Hollman Morris—two men who fight injustice at great potential cost in Sri Lanka and Columbia—and Chuck Hagel.

Good list, guys!

PS: Light blogging through the weekend—
although I will be posting short items of interest, so check back.

Posted in Life in general | 16 Comments »

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