The Daily Dog: Showdown at the D.C. Corral

Living up to his stature, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions said very little during his testimony on Tuesday. After opening statements that painted a dismal picture of the United States as a nation embroiled in drugs, gangs, and crime, Sessions the Napoleonic lawman proceeded to invoke imaginary legal privileges to avoid answering for his own alleged miscreant activities.

A vicious cycle of untoward and criminal activity does consume the nation, but our communities are not the wastelands of decay and street vice that Sessions and his boss like to portray. Instead, what our leaders must correct is their own consistent and criminal exploitation of the American public and Washington corruptness as a whole. A country can only be as good as its leaders.

Though they may not be called gangs, the political appointees, business associates, cohorts, and family members that have usurped positions of power among Washington, D.C. insiders are very much the new gangs of America. They function in secrecy, under the auspices of sworn loyalties, and for the benefit of the group, rather than the American public.

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Sessions dutifully salutes Supreme Leader.

Mark Twain once said that if a person wished to observe the dregs of society, they need only visit the local jail during the changing of the guard. His broad condemnation of those in positions of oversight, but with none to answer to, echoes loudly in today’s authoritarian-leaning government. Washington gangs have become so emboldened as to protect their own that, regardless of title or power, are still accountable for their actions.

Sessions’ selective memory and refusal to answer questions with impunity for want of unspecified privileges is perhaps the most significant example of Washington corruptness in the modern era. It is corrupt not only because Sessions believed he had a right to refuse, but also because no person in authority could or would hold him accountable. When combined with his perception of America as a crime-ridden badlands where everyone deserves the maximum punishment, Sessions position as chief prosecutor should strike fear in the hearts of every person.

The tendency for Washington’s elite to govern with immunity from the constraints of rules, regulations, and law has been a growing concern in the age of big government. However, since the rise of Trumpism there is an accelerated urgency to isolate the leadership and to grant unconditional license to gang members — the few handpicked men and women — who decide the nation’s fate.

While Sessions and his colleagues congratulate each other on duping the public and while Congress continues to dismantle American health care in secrecy, random crimes will happen on the nation’s streets. Those crimes, though they may be personally traumatic for victims in Boise or New York City alike, will not have the impact of the crimes committed by one president, one attorney general, or by the Gang of 535.

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“I’m reminded of the dregs of society…every time the president gets on that damn Twitter!”

Men and women turn to crime for various reasons — some for need, some for lack of morality and values, some out of desperation. Their acts do not warrant the dismal portrayal of America by either Sessions or the president. However, when a majority of Congressional members are millionaires and of a privileged class in America, their collusion in crimes against the public rise to a level more serious than any street crime Sessions may describe.

While Twain used the analogy of jails, we could rightly say that to observe a nation’s underbelly, one need only look to its capital and government. Remember, he also wrote “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except for Congress.” His words ring truer today than ever before.

Save the Swamp

The National Geographic Society and other recognized scientific organizations have called swamps among the most valuable ecosystems on earth. Swamps are unique in the delicate balance between land and water. They are strongholds of flora and fauna, full of biodiversity and growth. Millions of years ago, swamps served as catalysts in the creation of coal and other fossil fuels that drive modern technology.

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The birthplace of civilization and intelligent life. Trump not included.

As he returns from the Middle East this weekend (or did he return from the Middle East when he arrived in Israel…we haven’t figured that one out yet), President Trump, with his real estate developer’s appreciation of swamps probably learned nothing about the mother of all swamps. The Fertile Crescent lowlands that lay between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are considered the birthplace of civilization where modern life as we know it emerged.

American values, rights, and 250 years of constitutional history that comprise modern life in the United States are endangered species under the Trump administration. The rest of the world should be paying close attention to what happens in America’s favorite Swamp for the next three years.

It has been five months since the swamp-rat arrived in Washington, D.C. amid pledges and chants to “Drain the swamp!” However, draining the proverbial wetland of corporate lobbyists and special interests groups must have an “alternative” meaning in the new capital of Trumpington. Instead of keeping his promise to supporters, the president simply moved the money closer.

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Trump sharing the real estate developers’ creed: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

In January, Forbes published a list of Trump’s cabinet appointees accompanied by their estimated net worth. From Betsy DeVos’ (Education) $1.25 billion to Steven Mnuchin’s (Treasury) $300 million, one must wonder how lowly Jeff Sessions, arriving at the Swamp in the family jalopy, warranted an invite to head the Justice Department. With a net worth in the meagre seven figures, Sessions is either willing to serve or hoping to earn, or both.

Sessions has already made his mark with the new administration by viciously attacking progressive criminal justice policies that America wants. When as many Americans have criminal records as college degrees, how could the public not want reform? Between instructing his deputies to pursue the harshest charges and punishments and vowing to crackdown on marijuana legalization efforts, Sessions has offended a majority of the country. Additionally, the Justice Department’s immigration roundups and Sessions’ stance on sanctuary cities have incited protests across the nation. Apparently, Sessions has no problem serving Trump’s interests and not the American public’s.

This week, Esquire published a scathing assessment of the Sessions’ Justice Department’s involvement in a mortgage foreclosure case in Oregon. According to Esquire’s article, Sessions and Justice backed corrupt mortgage lenders over a military veteran with 80% disability. When Jacob McGreevey returned from a third tour of duty to find his home foreclosed, he took on the mortgage company that allegedly violated the law. He did not expect to be fighting Sessions and the Justice Department, too. McGreevey should have been protected under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, and Sessions should have upheld the federal law.

At least that’s how things should have worked before Trump invited his fellow swamp rats to his table.

The DOJ website features a Supreme Court opinion excerpt states that the SCRA “must be read with an eye friendly to those who dropped their affairs to answer their country’s call.” Additionally, Section 4041 of the SCRA outlines enforcement by the attorney general. The text of the law authorizes the attorney general to act “against” the party who violates the act, not the servicemember. In defending the indefensible, Sessions appears to be acting on behalf of special interests — perhaps to earn a crumb and break into the $10 million club to impress his boss.

Forty years ago, recognizing their unique value, America began protecting wetlands and swamps. The Swamp is in greater peril than ever under Trump. He, and the other rats that greedily followed, descended on Washington like the real estate developer salivating over marshland. The problem with real estate and wetlands, however, is the lack of solid foundation. Trump is building an empire at the public’s expense. It will eventually sink and then he will do what he has always done — cry bankruptcy and ask for a bailout.

Digital Flower Power

This week, visual artist and activist Robin Bell elevated the modern art of resistance. An outspoken opponent of the Trump administration, Bell combined creativity, technology, and political messages to accomplish what has only been possible by vandalism in the past.

Bell used projectors to cast high-resolution images onto various buildings and monuments around Washington, D.C. In one slide focused on the Department of Justice façade, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears in a Ku Klux Klan robe with the hashtag “SessionsMustGo.” For other anti-Trump and anti-Sessions activists, the image is both welcome and exciting.

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A new look for the Department of Justice headquarters. (Photo Robin Bell)

In contrast, for Sessions and law enforcement agencies, Bell’s ingenuity is a grating reminder that regardless of titles and authority, they are ultimately powerless against human resolve, against resistance, against the core principle of America: Freedom of Speech.

In eras of political unrest during the 1960s, through the Nixon scandals, and even up to early opponents of George W. Bush, technology remained unavailable or too expensive as a tool for average protesters. It has always been easier and cheaper to spend $1.99 on a can of spray paint to send a message. Once activists vandalized public or private property with Day-Glo painted messages, they were criminalized and denounced. Every painted message detracted from legitimate grievances against the government because law enforcement villainized the jailed messenger as merely a delinquent.

Bell’s visual protests demonstrate how the tables have turned, tilting the balance of power in favor of the resistance. In the sometimes-delicate balance between freedom of speech and destruction of property, freedom of speech wins where no damage accompanies the message.

Resist 05242017Digital resistance is the new marching civil disobedience. From online petitions to the @ResistanceParty Twitter feed; from instantaneously capturing HD-quality video of authoritarian misconduct to Bell’s projections, those who once had no voice are discovering tools to help them speak up. Digital activism is available to practically every citizen — with the added benefit of anonymity for those who would rather protest from the comfort of their living room.

As technology becomes more affordable and more widely available, digital resistance is increasingly based purely within the purview of First Amendment rights. As such, it places the government in the precarious position of being unable to suppress dissent without becoming an oppressive villain. When expression breaks no law, activists no longer risk being criminalized for an opinion. The government, however, will easily be condemned for trying to outlaw such tools as Twitter or light.

Robin Bell generates and spreads political messages with pure light. Whether that light shines on the street, a monument, the White House, or Trump Tower, it does no damage except to those who try to hide in shadows. Bell is neither a vandal, nor a trespasser. Bell has discovered a way to make a message visible during the darkest hour.

The people have found their voices. They have new tools. They have broken no laws in their righteous and protected expression. Let the light shine.

Uncorrected

If making America great means returning to a time of over-privileged white establishment and mass incarceration, then President Trump’s agenda moved a step closer this week with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ policy shift on federal criminal prosecutions. The mid-week announcement rolls back Obama-era administration guidelines on charging and sentencing.

Sessions’ directive to federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charge and longest and most severe associated sentences is a return to an ineffective and expensive war on crime and drugs. Obama-era policies on incarceration and criminal justice reform enjoyed bipartisan support and success during the past eight years, but Sessions — like his boss — seems acutely unaware of educated strategy decisions. While he grandstanded for the press, former prosecutors and policy-makers across the country were left scratching their heads over his personal war against America.

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A typical window in a 1-bedroom American suburban home.

As the country’s prison population has burgeoned since the 1970s, criminal justice reform has become an increasingly hot topic for both state and federal administrations. According to The Sentencing Project — a leading reform non-profit — more than 2 million Americans live behind bars in America. Countless more are subject to some form of government supervision like parole or probation.

The application of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, draconian sentencing guidelines, and the erroneous presumption that harsh punishment deters crime have all come under fire in recent years. Reports sponsored by reform-oriented non-profits like the Brennan Center for Justice and Sessions’ own department have repeatedly debunked the ideas driving tough-on-crime incarceration. Despite the contradictions and lack of empirical data showing any correlation between crime rates and incarceration, Sessions ordered a return to the failed policies of mass imprisonment and long-term sentencing that government leaders and activists have been struggling to correct.

Even before a trial and conviction, an unfortunate corollary of Sessions’ policy is that it will lead to more pressure on the accused. The “throw the book at ‘em” theory of prosecution often scares defendants into plea bargains and false convictions. The American criminal justice system has become reliant on the plea bargain as opposed to the jury trial. According to the Supreme Court of the United States, over 90% of all convictions are a result of some type of plea. Excessive charging and threats of severe punishment, like those advocated by Sessions, adversely influence a defendant’s ability to exercise his constitutional rights in a trial.

This week’s policy shift combined with Sessions’ reticent attitude toward consent agreements concerning police reform demonstrate a possible and unfortunate return to abusive and racially and economically motivated government policing. It is another step backward by the current administration — a step in the direction of antebellum conventions that America has long since outgrown.

The United States is a drop in the bucket in terms of global population, representing just five percent of the world’s people. However, our country holds a disproportionate amount of the planet’s prisoners at 25%. One-quarter of all men, women, and children living behind bars on Earth do so in America. It is not a statistic that contributes to greatness.

President Lincoln had a vision to make America great by eliminating slavery and racism. Franklin Roosevelt strove to lift families and the country from poverty and depression. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought to elevate America through advances and equal rights. Most recently, President Obama championed criminal justice, police, and prison reform. In each instance, America became greater through progressive social evolution and respect for human rights — setting the bar high enough for the rest of the world to admire.

It is inevitable and a basic principle of physics that time moves in only one direction: forward. America will move forward through the next four years of the Trump presidency regardless of how many times the administration tries to force it backwards. Whether it is the attempted reversal of progressive and effective criminal justice policies or setbacks in the ideals that have made America great without Trump, time will win. The only question is how many Americans will suffer in the Trump Time Machine as it bumbles along uncorrected?

Blowing Smoke on National Policy

A showdown is looming on the horizon in the growing crisis of the impotence of federal government. States are becoming increasingly resistant to the rule of federal law on issues that have localized effects and individual importance. It is clear that blanket national policy does not always represent the interests of the people from region to region.

Though the States may be United, the country has reached an evolutionary point where America must learn to be one and divided at the same time. Fortunately, the foundation for such a concept was laid centuries ago when the founding fathers established federalism and embraced the two-tiered system of rule defined by the U.S. Constitution.

The question facing America’s leadership is what will be the tipping point in the new struggles between the states and the nation? Will it be health care, immigration, or an unlikely suspect named Mary Jane?

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Increasingly, mainstream America is embracing marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes.

This week, congress snubbed Attorney General Jeff Sessions when it renewed the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment as part of a new government-funding budget. A contentious appointee of Pres. Trump, Sessions entered office with guns blazing for the marijuana establishment. However, without money to go after states where the drug is legal for medical purposes, Sessions’ will be handcuffed before his guns are drawn.

 

First enacted in 2014, and renewed for every budget since, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment provides that no money allocated by congress in the federal budget may be used by the Justice Department to “…prevent them [the states having legalized medical marijuana] from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” Over 40 states are currently protected by the amendment.

Of course, Sessions can still mobilize federal law enforcement to crack down on the recreational use of marijuana. He has compared marijuana use to heroin and has publicly stated that good people do not engage in using the drug. His personal views and vendetta against pot use appear misplaced and out-of-touch with the states and their citizens.

Federal-state comity is an eternal tug-of-war between regional and national law and often full of conflict. America fought a Civil War over a disagreement between federal and state policies over slavery and racism. It almost destroyed the country, but had distinctly worthwhile moral and ethical implications. One hundred years after the civil war, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson and governor George Wallace clashed over Alabama’s continued resistance to civil rights ensured by the federal government.

While the marijuana issue pales in relation to racially motivated policies, there is some irony that Sessions, an Alabama politician, has been promoted to Washington, D.C. The city is the seat of federal government, but is also an autonomous entity with home rule where 64% of its residents approved legalization of recreational marijuana in a 2015 ballot initiative.

A capitol district resident can literally sit in view of AG Sessions and blow smoke in his face.

Of course, residents of states that have legalized recreational marijuana may still face federal prosecution, but the F.B.I. and other national law enforcement officials must have more serious issues to contend with today. Isn’t that what Pres. Trump has been telling Americans for the past year — that there are terrorists and “bad hombres” streaming into the country to cause havoc and chaos?

When Trump speaks of things that are archaic and obsolete, or bad for the country, perhaps he should avoid the U.S. Constitution and focus on the federal war on marijuana instead. The legalization movement is gaining momentum and at some point, all 50 states and the District of Columbia will have recreational use laws. Will the Justice Department still be pursuing enforcement when the entire country is against it?

In 2015, Colorado reaped over $1 billion in revenue from legal sales of marijuana. Across the Potomac, where Maryland is issuing legal grow permits, even former DEA agents and judges are bidding for cultivation licenses. It is clear that congress keeps renewing the Rohrabacher-Farr provisions because state representatives know that the revenue from marijuana sales is benefiting their home districts.

As states exercise more independence from over-reaching federal laws and policies, Washington must decide what battles are important. If federal leaders continue to push personal agendas and outlandish policies on the rest of the country, the best place for an impenetrable wall to be built might just be around the Capitol Beltway — to keep the likes of Jeff Session in, and the rest of the country free.