Alexander Cockburn: Surefooted Mountain Goat of Radical Journalism

It is the symbol of the mountain goat that carries my astonishment and grief at news of the death of Alexander Cockburn.

“It stays at high elevations,” says Wikipedia of the mountain goat, “and is a sure-footed climber, often resting on rocky cliffs that predators cannot access.”

Such was the writing of Alex, who always leapt and clattered upon the highest and stoniest peaks. Language for him was not to be wasted in comfy meadows. He reminded readers, syllable by syllable, that human beings are good enough to expect the best from themselves and their history.

Thanks to the editorial support of Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, the Texas Civil Rights Review was able to share more than a hundred stories with CounterPunch readers. I would now and then send notes to Alex expressing my gratitude for his editorial support. He would now and then reciprocate with messages of encouragement.

“THANKS GREG KEEP ON SLUGGING,” he wrote once. So the best way I know to remember Alex is to keep on slugging away! –gm


Irma Muniz: Open Letter for Meeting with Obama

July 21, 2012

Dear Friends:

My name is Irma Muñiz and I have struggled for many years to free my husband, Ramiro “Ramsey” Muñiz from imprisonment for a 1994 conviction and excessive sentence of life without parole for a non-violent drug offense. Ramsey and our family have endured pain, agony, and nearly 20 years of suffering. Ramsey is now turning 70 years of age and we refuse to let him die in prison.

Wrong perceptions and judgment, mistakes, withholding evidence, and Ramsey’s political background contributed to his convictions. He was a community activist during the Civil Rights Movement. Ramsey raised political consciousness in Texas and the Southwest. He enabled many to gain a political voice and seek public office at local, state, and national levels. He incurred legal problems as a result of this activism.

We have fought my husband’s case for many years, but all appeals have been exhausted as the laws favor the government. I now seek an audience with President Barack Obama so that I can present my husband’s situation to him. I seek letters of support.

To send a letter of support by mail, please print and sign the sample letter and mail it to me so that I can compile it with others. See the sample letter on the next page.

To send a letter to President Barack Obama by email, go to the “submit questions can comments” section of the White House website. Copy and paste the letter and sign it or write your own.

Thank you in advance for helping me to free my husband from his wrongful incarceration since 1994. To learn about him, go to:

Very truly yours,
Irma Muñiz, Chairperson
National Committee to Free Ramsey Muñiz

Sample letter

July 21, 2012

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Re: Meeting Requested by Irma Muñiz, wife of Ramsey Muñiz
July 21, 2012

Dear President Obama:

I write to express my support for Irma Muñiz, who seeks a meeting to discuss the case of her husband, Ramiro “Ramsey” Muñiz. This will allow her to present information about her husband’s situation and seek your assistance.

This humanitarian issue pertains to the suffering that incarceration has on families. Irma Muñiz and her family have struggled for many years to free a husband, father, and son-in-law who is turning 70 years of age.

You and First Lady Michelle Obama stress the essence of the family. As President of the United States, we ask that you grant Irma Muñiz a meeting and allow her to share one family’s perspective on suffering. Her experience can serve as an example to many who seek a means of overcoming hardship through faith and the love that God gives to all families.

Very truly yours,

A New Book on the “Texas Model” — Part I

By Nick Braune

A teacher friend raved to me about a funny but also very informative new book about this troubled state: As Texas Goes, by Gail Collins. Although I told him I would look it up, I wasn’t going to, until it clicked who Gail Collins is. I had drawn a blank momentarily because I was picturing a Texas writer, then I recognized who she is, the very clever, skewering, biting, regular political columnist for the New York Times. (Love the Times or hate it, everyone knows that its editorial writers are world-class — not everyone who wants to write for the Times gets to.)

I whisked over to Barnes and Noble to snag one: Gail Collins skewering Texas…it’s got to be good. And – let me be clear — my trip to the store was worth it. The book is fairly short, refreshing, and a real kick. It has everything, from current digs at Governor Perry’s incoherent, “oops” campaign for the Presidency to a demystified interpretation of the historic, sentimentalized, Alamo stand of Davey Crocket: Historic, maybe; heroic, maybe; stupid, stubborn and adolescent, surely. I am constantly aware that Texas is not normal, but I have lived here so long that I forget just how people outside the state look at it. And Gail Collins’ book is a brutal, friendly reminder.

According to Collins, Texas always thinks it should be a model for other states. Governor Perry, for instance, campaigned for president in 2011, touting some economic miracle which Texas could provide for the nation. But of course few people rushed to Perry’s incoherent model once they found out that Texas has very high foreclosure rates, is 49th in average credit scores, is 38th in average hourly earnings in manufacturing, and surpasses every other state except four in child poverty rates.

Twelve years before Perry was bragging about how America should model itself on Texas’ economy, George W. Bush was campaigning for president saying that Texas is a miracle model for education.

That campaign was twelve years ago and, not incidentally, Texas is still low (42nd) in the number of high school graduates going to college. Eighth graders in Texas are three percent below the national average in reading, and yet the amount of state aid per pupil is 47th in the country. Collins shows that higher education (from community colleges, on up) is also cheated by Texas: Texas only has two public institutions listed in America’s “100 Best” colleges and universities (U.S. News and World Report’s famous ranking). Two out of a hundred, and UT is ranked 45th and A&M is ranked 63rd.

Want to shudder, remembering Governor George Bush’s “Texas model” of education and how America fell for it? Get Collins’ book, which has a few chapters on education:

“Then came the 2000 elections. During the campaign George W. Bush couldn’t stop talking about education. ‘It’s important to have standards,’ he’d say, holding up his hand to indicate the setting of a bar – a gesture that seemed to indicate the standards he had in mind were about five feet high…As a presidential candidate, George W Bush wasn’t just issuing general promises to improve the schools. He claimed to have the secret recipe.”

But in actuality, according to Collins, Texas’ education testing model was phony and ill-conceived, to the extent that the Bush/Perry Republicans are now denying they ever pushed it.

The Ideals of Harry Belafonte — and Obama? — Part II

By Nick Braune

My column last week discussed the new autobiography of Harry Belafonte, who was raised in poverty and considerable misery during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and who joined the U.S. Navy at 17 years of age during WWII. He wanted to do something important with his life, as well as to escape poverty. In the autobiography — I read every word of it and studied the pictures — there is a photo of Belafonte in uniform, looking proud and really young.

With his aspirations awakened, Belafonte became disturbed as he watched how blacks were used and abused in the segregated military. (He himself was falsely accused of some infraction by a racist officer and was thrown into a cell for two weeks.) But after serving his country well and reentering civilian life following the war, he was far more mature than when he left and he viewed the poverty of those around him and the continuing racial discrimination in the country more methodically. He knew he personally had to escape poverty, but he also knew he must spend his life fighting for social justice for others. And he did.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, Belafonte became America’s most prominent black entertainer: a singer, an actor and an important civil rights activist and strategist, playing a formative role for racial justice, particularly in the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s. And he also played a later role in the fight against South Africa’s Apartheid. I was gripped by his book and his life — yes, he is still alive, almost 80, and still an activist.

I savored his comments about his decision to use his music and acting training for the liberation of mankind. He could have been a successful crooner like Frank Sinatra, but he explains clearly that he rejected singing about how the moon is blue and I ‘m in love with you. He rejected becoming either a crowd-pleasing slick operator like Sinatra or a self-effacing Sammy Davis, Jr.

I waited for Belafonte’s comments on Obama, our first Black president who might have represented the audacious hopes of the 1950s and 1960s. True, Obama in his first month of office would appoint a black Attorney General (Erik Holder) and soon would put the first Hispanic (Sonia Sotomayor) on the Supreme Court, but has Obama represented the audacious commitment to equality and justice that he seemed to promise? Not according to Harry Belafonte, one of the great living progressive figures from that decisive mid-twentieth century period:

“For all his smoothness and intellect, Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the disposed, be they white or black. Frankly, I would have thought the first black president would work especially hard to alleviate the plight of inner-city black Americans. I appreciate the passage of the stimulus package. I understand that a national health insurance bill helps us all. But why, I have kept wondering, hasn’t he used his power to bring more humanity to a justice system that imprisons one out of every three black males in America, giving us the largest prison population in the world? I would like Obama to say forcibly that racial problems exist. Show some heart, put some skin in the game. By tacking to the political center, disassociating himself from the left, he has all but abandoned the poor. And who else, after all, speaks for the poor but the left?”

Harry Belafonte: Veteran, Singer, Activist — Part I

By Nick Braune

I am currently savoring the new autobiography of Harry Belafonte, My Song. Hearing about it last weekend, I whizzed over to Barnes and Noble. Belafonte has been on my mind because my spring Social and Political Philosophy class did a project about the 1950s.
A fellow teacher suggested I ask a student to research Belafonte, but no student seemed interested and only two out of the ten students in the class recognized his name. I told them excitedly that Belafonte had been on the Ed Sullivan Show, had made movies and albums, and had hosted TV “specials.” He was, I explained, also a civil rights leader, was at the 1963 March on Washington, and is pictured in a famous photograph with Coretta Scott King at Martin Luther King’s funeral. But nothing seemed to ring a bell. Students just hadn’t heard of him.

Never giving up, I told the students about Belafonte’s famous song “Day-o,” about loading bananas on a boat in Jamaica. This (“Calypso”) was the first LP album ever to sell a million copies…I tried singing Day-o…but it still didn’t work. (I gave my best disgusted stare…good grief, you students are pathetic. But they just as strongly stared back…good grief, you are old. And I knew they won the glaring match.)

Back to the autobiography. Harry Belafonte had a tough childhood, having been born in Harlem in 1927 to alcoholic parents and being shipped off sometimes to live with relatives in Jamaica. His family was sadly frantic just to stay alive in the Depression years.

Ambitious to do something important, he left home to enter the Navy during WWII, disguising the fact that he was blind in one eye due to a childhood accident playing with scissors. He served his country but simmered with rage at the discrimination he witnessed, being one of the “lowliest and most expendable sailors in the U.S. Navy, the black ones.”

When more than 200 black sailors were killed in an explosion while loading munitions in Chicago, there was a walkout there against institutional racism. Belafonte was one of the black sailors sent to replace the sailors who went on strike. “As we arrived on the scene, with mangled structures and debris still in evidence, those sailors [who had walked off the job] were being court marshaled, 50 of them sentenced to long terms for mutiny.” The Navy found its quota of black live munitions handlers just as Belafonte arrived, so luckily he was shipped somewhere else. He was happy to leave, but angry. Interestingly however, ongoing public sentiment over the Port Chicago disaster helped desegregate the armed services in 1948.

Witnessing continuing discrimination after the war, Belafonte dedicated his life to fighting racism and economic injustice. (Remember Hector P. Garcia of Mercedes felt the same way after WWII and formed a prominent civil rights group for Mexican Americans, the American G.I. Forum.)

One of the many stories related in Belafonte’s book concerns his response to the Ku Klux Klan’s murder of young civil rights workers in Mississippi. Belafonte and his friend Sidney Poitier went to Mississippi to protest the racism there, and Belafonte remembers facing considerable danger in the small town of Greenwood. A helicopter had even flown over Greenwood dropping leaflets to stir up the townsfolk against blacks and outsiders.

Poitier, who was scared out of his wits and perturbed at Belafonte for getting him into the small town with just a few civil rights workers around for protection, began singing “Day-o.” (Belafonte’s autobiography describes this song as “a cry from the heart of poor workers, a cry of weariness mingled with hope.”) “Day-o, day-o. Daylight come an’ me wan’ go home.” And then everybody in the small meeting hall sang out, “Freedom, freedom. Freedom come an’ it won’t be long.” Somehow the danger passed and they got home safely.

Drug War Still Racist, Even in 'Liberal' Austin

Although rates of drug usage are about equal between white and black Americans, black folks are ten times more likely to go to prison for it.

In ‘liberal’ Austin, Texas, black folks are imprisoned for drug crimes at a rate of 300 per 100,000, compared to 10 per 100,000 for whites, resulting in a risk of imprisonment that is 30 times greater.

These are some of the findings that the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) reports in “The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties” (12/4/07). Scott Henson has extracted the Texas numbers at Grits for Breakfast.

Here is our choice for top paragraph from the report:

This report is the first to examine the relationships between these sociodemographic structures and the specific annual rate at which people are admitted to prison for drug offenses. Results of our analysis indicate that the drug imprisonment rate is related to the strength of local labor markets and the ways that our
communities are racially and economically stratified. On average, counties with higher unemployment rates, higher poverty rates, and larger percentages of African American citizens tend to have higher rates of admission to prison for drug offenses (emphasis added).

In truth, the drug war, like other American wars, is a race war and a class war. In the European Union, with a population approaching 500 million people, they have a total of 56,000 people locked up for drug offenses. Here in the USA, with a population closer to 300 million, authorities have imprisoned a total of 509,000 for drugs. Americans are having themselves locked up for drugs at a rate 15 times higher than Europeans.

Why do Americans put up with these rates of imprisonment? Because the rates have been adjusted to cater to white privilege. Nationally in 2002 America locked up black drug offenders at a rate of 258 per 100,000, which is ten times more than the rate of 27 per 100,000 for whites.

“The white majority can ‘afford’ the costs associated with mass incarceration because the
incarcerated mass is disproportionately nonwhite, ” says David Cole of Georgetown University Law School.

Says the JPI report: “If drug laws were enforced among whites as they are among African Americans, those who are currently privileged by the status quo would no longer be able to “afford” punitive drug laws and drug enforcement practices. If these laws and practices were to become “unaffordable” to privileged subpopulations through equitable hyper-enforcement, they would quickly become a thing of the past.”

Sadly, this is the logic of America’s racist profile across the globe. If white Americans were aware of half the pain caused by the policies they deploy against the darker-skinned populations at home and abroad, wouldn’t there be a better chance at world peace?

Finally, international comparisons suggest that white Americans support their own incarceration for drugs at rates about 2.5 times higher than Europeans. Is there any evidence more plain than this to prove that supremacist logics actually lower self-respect?

Note: all numbers rounded for readability. Get the decimal points at JPI–gm

Here’s Debbie Russell’s take:

A new Justice Policy Institute report reveals: Travis County ranks 2nd in Texas and 24th in the nation for the disparity in blacks to whites incarcerated for drug convictions.

“…Travis County sent 31 times as many black folks as white folks to prison for drugs, by comparison Dallas, with a much larger black population, the ratio was 9-1. In Harris and Bexar Counties, both, the ratio was 19-1.” (Henson, Grits: see the chart for highest Texas counties).

TX counties ranked by black population for 2000, but Travis’s black population has been declining since then, while Harris County increased by 50,000+ in 2005 alone. So Harris and Dallas counties have over 2x the general black populations than Travis, but Travis incarcerates blacks 2-3x more than those counties (for drug offenses)!

So does this mean that TRAVIS COUNTY is the 2nd MOST RACIST COUNTY in TEXAS? (against African-Americans).

Having just returned from the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans, I have concluded that drug-related incarceration rates for African-Americans is perhaps the most precise contemporary measuring tool of racism (especially in the south: Hispanics seem to be profiled “equally” across the nation)…massive incarceration of this population is in direct relation to lessening economic opportunities (can’t afford college, can’t get a job, so jail or the army’s front lines for many), the breakup of families, the loss of voting rights with felony records…it’s simply the new Jim Crow.

This is a CRITICAL issue that must receive REAL attention, not just lip service.

Debbie Russell
ACLU-TX, Central Texas Chapter president
member, City of Austin Public Safety Task Force

Houston is Death Penalty Capital of the World

Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Releases Report on Death Penalty Developments in 2007

Questions Regarding the Constitutionality of Lethal Injection Protocol Cap Year of Dramatic Developments in Nation’s Most Active Death Penalty State

(Austin, Texas) — The State of Texas accounted for 62% of all executions that took place in the United States this year, according to a new report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), a statewide, grassroots organization based in Austin. Only a U.S. Supreme Court decision to hear a Kentucky case challenging the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocol (Baze v. Rees) forced the state to put its death penalty apparatus on hold.

On December 7, 1982, Charlie Brooks was the first person executed by the State of Texas under its revised statute – and the first person executed by lethal injection. His execution ushered in a new era in which Texas emerged as the uncontested leader in the use of the death penalty in the United States.

“In a year when most other states proceeded cautiously with their administration of the death penalty, Texas continued to carry out executions at an alarming rate,” said Bob Van Steenburg, Vice President of TCADP.

“The majority of our elected officials failed to recognize the many flaws that characterize the Texas death penalty system – flaws that include an unacceptable rate of error when it comes to convicting the innocent, a crime lab scandal that drew national attention, and continued questions regarding the quality and competency of defense counsel, both during the trial and appellate stage of capital cases. Twenty-five years ago, Texas carried out the first execution by lethal injection in the United States. Today we mark this somber occasion by acknowledging twenty five years of a fatally flawed process.”

Fourteen DNA exonerations from Dallas County, the ongoing review of cases implicated by the Houston Police Department crime lab scandal, and investigations into potentially wrongful executions continued to raise questions about the reliability of the state’s criminal justice system. Such concerns about the risk of error led the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board this past spring to reverse its more than 100-year-old position of supporting the death penalty and instead call for its complete abolition in Texas.

Here are some highlights of TCADP’s report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2007:

  • In 2007, the State of Texas accounted for 26 out of the 42 executions that took place in the United States. Only nine other states carried out executions in 2007; none executed more than three people.
  • Harris County [Houston] now accounts for 102 executions, more than any state in the country except Texas as a whole, which has carried out a total of 405 executions since 1982.
  • Texas’ last execution of the year took place on September 25, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Baze v. Rees. The appeal of Michael Richard was denied when the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Sharon Keller, failed to grant his attorneys a 20-minute extension to deliver the appropriate paperwork. All scheduled executions – both in Texas and around the country – have since been stayed pending the outcome of Baze v. Rees.
  • Seven inmates scheduled for execution in 2007 received last-minute stays, due to concerns about their possible innocence, the fairness of their trial, or issues related to lethal injection. The execution warrant for an additional inmate was withdrawn after the discovery of suppressed evidence.
  • According to data available from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Office of Court Administration, 14 men were sentenced to death in Texas in 2007 (as of December 7). Over the last five years, the number of new death sentences in Texas has declined by approximately 50%, which mirrors national trends. The decline in new death sentences is particularly noteworthy in Harris County.

One person who was not executed as scheduled was Kenneth Foster, whose sentence was commuted to life in prison by Governor Rick Perry upon his receipt of a rare recommendation for clemency from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Foster had been convicted under the controversial law of parties for the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood, even though he was sitting in a car 80 feet away at the time of the crime. This was only the third such recommendation for clemency from the Board in 25 years, and the first such decision for Governor Perry in a case where the inmate faced imminent execution.

TCADP’s report also recaps the activities of the Texas Legislature, including the passage of House Bill 8, which expands the scope of the death penalty to repeat child sex offenders. “In a year when numerous states gave serious consideration to abolishing the death penalty altogether, some in the Texas Legislature pursued a bill that actually ran counter to the wishes of victims’ advocates and prosecutors throughout the state,” said State Representative Dora Olivo (D-Fort Bend).

While efforts to improve the system met with mixed success in 2007, many remain optimistic about recent developments. “There is promise for the future as increasing numbers of Texans express concerns about the reliability, fairness, and morality of our state’s death penalty system,” said Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of the Catholic Diocese of Austin. “The Church truly looks forward to the day when our state embraces a culture of life.”