Truth and Reconciliation

Traditional South American Indians : a ClanDoes the United States need to consider appointing a truth and reconciliation commission?  This week I caught a news story about the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which concluded its work on December 15, 2015 to uncover the truth about Canadian mistreatment of aboriginal children and to seek reconciliation between the aboriginal community and larger Canadian society.  The occasion of the release of the report was recognized with a statement by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in which he praised the work of the Commission, its search for truth, and affirmed the need for continued reconciliation.

This got me thinking about how issues of race and inequality continue to be problems in American society. From the multitude of press stories about seemingly unjustified police shootings of Black men to the recent U.S. Supreme Court argument regarding affirmative action in college admissions we see issues of race, inequality, and social injustice continuing to be a part of the American social and legal landscape. It amazes me that even in the 2016 Presidential campaign we see issues of race, prejudice, and fear continuing to be successfully exploited by candidates.

Diverse People Holding Hand Truth ConceptAbsent a national effort to seek out the truth of our history, it will be very difficult for our nation to move forward in healing the deep wounds created by a century of slavery (I’m counting from the nation’s founding; I recognize that the actual history of slavery in North America is much longer) followed by a century of Jim Crow and segregation, followed by decades of prejudicial policing and economic injustice. For most White Americans these issues are mentally relegated to the area of “Black History” with the implication that it’s of little relevance to them.  I wonder if it is in the labels that truth gets lost.  Maybe there is no such thing as “Black” history or “White” history, only a shared universal history found in whatever truth we can recover from the past. Slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow were not only Black experiences, they were an experience of all who lived during those times and are a legacy that all contemporary Americans have inherited.

Our search needs to be for something greater than a collection of facts that we call history, it should be for truth, no matter how messy or inconvenient it may be.  Truth is not about vilifying or shaming, but about seeing ourselves as honestly and accurately as possible so that we can find reconciliation and freedom from the past.  Denial is the product of a dysfunctional mind whereas truth is a pathway to healing from the dysfunction.

None of this is a novel idea.  We’ve long known that one of the most important steps for a person struggling with an addiction seeking to become sober through a 12-Step program is a fearless and searching moral inventory followed by an effort to make amends except where it would be harmful.  Religious traditions have long recognized that truth and repair are predicates to redemption. For example, this week I was attended the Friday evening service at Congregation Shomrei Torah and I read the following in the Jewish prayer book:

“You cannot find redemption until you see the flaws in your own soul and try to efface them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. But whether it be an individual or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of his flaws is shutting out redemption.  We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”

Our national failure to seek out the truth of our history tethers us to the past. Sure, we all know the factual history that slavery and segregation once existed in the United States.  What is lacking is the visceral connection that comes through a “searching and fearless” inventory that reveals the truths behind the history. It’s more than just knowing the basic facts, it’s understanding the why, the how, and the impact. The stories of both the oppressed and the oppressor must be told and heard.

ReconciliationWhen used in this context, truth is not something that is defined by a particular group.  It’s not the property of the oppressed or the oppressor, but is owned by both.  Without truth reality becomes distorted and both the oppressor and oppressed suffer. Consider the bizarre reasoning of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who recently wrote that slavery didn’t strip the slave of his or her dignity. Such reasoning is the intellectual denial of the truth.

Having sought out the truth, we then seek reconciliation with each other.  As a lawyer working in the American legal system, reconciliation is a somewhat foreign concept to me. The system I work in proudly declares itself as an adversarial system where we seek to determine guilt, innocence, or liability, and then impose some form of retribution either in the form of jail or money.  Repairing the relationship between the parties is not the goal and is rarely achieved. Therefore, I find it tempting to reduce reconciliation to its most simplistic concept and regard it as nothing more than apology, but that’s incorrect. In researching reconciliation, I found an interesting paper on reconciliation in Rwanda by Eugenia Zorbas in the African Journal of Legal Studies in which she writes:

“Reconciliation is a vague concept. In the wake of mass violence there is no goal past which ‘reconciliation’ has been achieved. My premise is that legal (prosecutorial) instruments, striking political compromises, publicly acknowledging the wrongs inflicted on victims, and other measures, as ‘messy’ as they may be, are all more acceptable than doing nothing.  I label ‘doing nothing’ unacceptable first because of its ‘shocking implication that the perpetrators did in fact succeed’. Indeed, silences makes us complicit bystanders to the perpetrators of yesterday. Secondly, inaction is unacceptable because it leaves grievances, fears of reprisals, and cultures of impunity to fester, encouraging cyclical outburst of violence by the perpetrators of tomorrow… ‘Reconciliation’ is the umbrella term I will use to refer to this series of messy compromises, though it may be inconceivable or offensive to some, is thus the only sustainable and genuine form of prevention in societies that have undergone mass violence.”

c399f805-cd08-4fdd-97cc-21559c10f305In other words, we can’t simply declare the injustice over and then move on with life as if nothing happened.  Unfortunately, moving on without reconciliation has been the American approach to social injustice to date.  Whether we’re discussing slavery and segregation, native American genocide, or political persecution of communists and socialists, our solution has always been to declare the injustice to be unlawful and move-on. We outlawed slavery, then 100 years later outlawed segregation. We’ve outlawed employment and housing discrimination.  We’ve even outlawed laws that outlawed interracial marriages.  Yet not once have we ever engaged in national soul searching for truth followed by overt action intended to heal the wounds. In the meantime, we see repeat performances of the old demon of racism in our society.  Perhaps it’s not too late. Maybe if we seek truth and reconciliation we can end the denial and start healing some of the wounds that are festering in American society.

 

The Hostile Holiday Greeting

Happy Everything to Everyone written on wooden with Santa HatThis week I received a telephone call from a salesperson who was trying to sell me a product that I have no interest in or need for.  It was one of those cold calls where the sales person knew my name and asked for me personally.  I was polite, but firm, in telling the sales person that I wasn’t interested and asked them to please take me off their calling list.  I said goodbye and prepared to hang-up the phone when the salesperson says:  “You have a Merry Christmas Mr. Abrams”, which on the surface is not something I find offensive, but his greeting was delivered to me with a tone of contempt and hostility that left me feeling a bit stunned.

I don’t celebrate Christmas, the holiday is not part of my religious tradition.  But I’m not one who finds a cheerful “Merry Christmas” to be offensive.  I tend to use the phrase “Happy Holidays” when delivering my own season’s greetings because it feels more genuine to me.  It feels a little off for me to use the phrase “Merry Christmas” since it’s not a holiday I celebrate.

What I don’t understand is how the various season’s greetings moved from  social kindnesses to statements of division and defiance.   I’m not talking about the negative responses by the recipients of the greeting, but hostility on the part of the person extending the greeting.

For example, in recently weeks we’ve witnessed the  “Merry Christmas” greeting utilized as a political statement of defiance adopted by some politicians.  According to CNN, during a campaign stop in October, Donald Trump pledged to his supporters that he would always say “Merry Christmas” and that “…you can leave Happy Holidays at the corner”.

Closer to home in Harris County, Georgia, and perhaps even more divisively, is the story reported by the Washington Post of the local Sheriff, Mike Jolley, who posted a sign “welcoming” visitors that says:

“WARNING: Harris County is politically incorrect,” the sign states. “We say: Merry Christmas, God Bless America and In God We Trust. We salute our troops and our flag. If this offends you … LEAVE!”

I’m dismayed when I see things like this sign.  I’m left wondering if Mr. Trump or Sheriff Jolley understand that they are really changing the nature of the Christmas holiday and greeting through their statements.  They’ve unwittingly, or not, transformed the holiday from a season of good will to something that is much less inclusive and appears much more aggressive to me.

It’s oddly ironic the way people such as Mr. Trump and Sheriff Jolley are co-opting the Christmas greeting into some sort of quasi-religious patriotic statement. What they’re offering is something very different than the freedom we Americans aspire to.  Instead, they’re demanding conformity as a predicate to inclusion.  I wonder if either has really thought much about freedom, what our troops fight to protect, or the dignity that is bestowed upon all human-beings through concepts of religious sacredness?

I am free to be MELouis Brandeis, a United States Supreme Court Justice, during the challenging first half of the 20th century considered the nature of freedom and is quoted as saying:

“The right most valued by all civilized men is the right to be left alone”

In the end that’s really all most of us really want isn’t it? It’s not about “political correctness”, whatever that really means.  It’s about simply being accepted as we are.  Surely, in the land of the free, I can chart my own path and decide how to greet people and what holidays to celebrate without being invited to leave town?

Art Is The Foundation

Last weekend, while visiting in my in-laws in Cleveland, Ohio for Thanksgiving, I was able to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art.  The museum was hosting an exhibition called “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse”.  The exhibition contained many impressionist paintings, which are always favorites of mine.

Garden PosterFor me, visiting an art museum is a spiritual experience.  As I walk through the galleries, studying the expressions of the artists’ imaginations, it’s as if I am drinking in an elixir that opens my mind and helps me see the world both as it is and as it could be.

I’m at a loss to understand why the arts are relegated to a second place status in our national culture and in our education system.  It often seems to me that many of our leaders regard the arts as a nice frivolity that has no economic value. The logic seems to be that only math and science are needed to compete economically and for innovation.  In my opinion, to regard art as secondary or as a frivolity is profoundly ignorant and absolutely detrimental to society.

Art is foundational to both economic and technological progress.  Exposure to art opens our minds to the possible and gives us a fresh perspective on what already exists.  Art education is where we learn to create, to imagine, and to communicate our innermost thoughts and ideas. Science and math are of little value in the absence of imagination and creativity. Before you can build it, you have to imagine it.

Albert Einstein, often considered the greatest scientist of the 20th century, is quoted as saying:

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.”

Additionally, the arts were so important to Einstein that he is said to have remarked,

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician.”

In more recent times, the founders of the two largest technology companies, Microsoft and Apple, both pointed to the importance of art in the development of their companies.  Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, stated:

“I have seen the critical role that the arts play in stimulating creativity and in developing vital communities….the arts have a crucial impact on our economy and are an important catalyst for learning, discovery, and achievement in our country.”

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, also recognized the importance of the arts when he said:

“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

We cannot ignore the value of art in simply improving the quality of life in our communities.  Consider the cultural differences between living in Paris, France, with its many artistic resources and influences, and a less artistic city, such as Jacksonville, Florida.  Paris is legendary, largely because of its artistic richness.

Violinist playing in black background.I am fortunate.  I have the arts in my life.  I had art and music in my elementary school when I was a child.  I have access to great music and just about any book of literature I could ever want to read.  I play guitar, violin, and banjo.  I see theatre and have written and performed a musical play in two Fringe Festivals.  In my life I’ve been able to visit some of the great art museums of the world such as my recent visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art.  I know the impact art has had on my life, but I also know that many people don’t have the arts in their lives. We must make sure that art is in our schools and in our small towns and communities.  Now more than ever, we need the inspiration that art provides us to see our world in new ways and to recognize the potential that surrounds us.  After all, it all begins with the arts.

The Rewards of Friendship

A few days ago I received a letter from the President of the Florida Bar. The letter informed me that although I’d been nominated for a pro bono service award, another lawyer was selected to receive the award. When I read the name of the recipient, I smiled and felt a deep sense of pride and contentment. The lawyer selected is one of my closest friends, James Cook, a man whose influence upon me, and my development as a lawyer, can’t be overstated.

This got me thinking about friendship and its impact upon our lives. I’ve never seen myself as one of the “popular kids” and superficial conversation is often quite difficult for me. I’m quite content to be alone reading a book, playing my guitar, or working on my computer. However, I’m nowhere near a complete hermit. I love small dinner parties with close friends where we share stories and great food. I’m very fortunate to have small group of close friends who I have known for many years and with who I feel that I have deeply meaningful relationships.

We all meet many people, probably tens of thousands, in our lifetimes. Yet, most of us have only a few close friends. What distinguishes those who become acquaintances from those who enter our inner circle of friendship? Aristotle wrote that a friend is a single soul living in two bodies and I suspect there is truth to that statement. When I think about my friend, James Cook, an image of our shared passion for justice and life-long scholarship comes to mind. I know that James “gets” the things that are important to me.

However, one might argue that shared passions could just as easily result in competition and rivalry. Consider two young baseball players, both talented and passionate about the game. While it’s true that they might find connection through their shared passion and experience, it’s also likely that they could end-up as competitive rivals.

Science many offer an explanation for why some become friends, others acquaintances, and others our competitors. According to an article published by Psychology Today friendships are established by self-disclosure and reciprocity. Research also shows that once established the friendship is maintained by acceptance, unconditional support, loyalty, and trust. However, the single most important factor in determining who becomes our best friend is more surprising:

“We become best friends with people who boost our self-esteem by affirming our identities as members of certain groups…”

That is, we find validation for our identity from our best friend. This makes sense to me. When I think about my friend James Cook, I think about the kind of person he is and my admiration for both his skill as a lawyer and his dedication to justice and scholarship. These are qualities I seek to cultivate and aspire to in myself. When approached from this perspective, our best friends are those who provide us with a double reward. Like all friends, they provide us with the connection that comes from the friendship itself, but they also provide us with connection to our own identity.

In some ways, this is a little depressing. I like to think that the joy I derive from my friend receiving the award is rooted in some altruistic characteristic within myself. However, if the science is correct, then my joy might be rooted in a sense of self-validation that lawyers like James and me are worthy of award and recognition. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing though. After all, finding within one’s self a connection to the common well being of our fellow human beings, even when it validates our own identity, is hardly a moral failing of epic proportion. Indeed, isn’t this the foundation from which all brotherhoods arise?

Regardless of the underlying psychology, I can’t help but feel fortunate to have James, and my other friends, to share this experience we call life.  Maybe it’s true that we’re all alone in the end, but having a fellow traveler around to share the journey sure makes the whole experience much more meaningful.

 

 

Vulnerability In An Age of Fear

The story of the terror attacks in Paris dominates the news here in the United States. Not only are we told of the horror of the attacks that have already occurred, but we are also warned of threats of future attacks directed against American public places. There exists a great sense of urgency to these news stories that unless we embrace the calls for fear and alarm and pay close attention to the continuing news feed we are somehow putting ourselves at risk. It’s not clear to me exactly what it is we’re supposed to do other than become alarmed and soak up every bit of detailed information we can from the news media. I know some state governors have answered the calls for action by declaring that they will not allow Syrian refugees to find a safe haven in their states. I’m not sure where the Constitutional authority for such a decision comes from, but I am confident that many tax dollars will be spent finding out. Fear is the business of terrorists and politicians.

I’m reminded of another blog post that I wrote on my law practice website almost exactly a year ago when a gunman entered Strozier library at Florida State. I’ve decided to resurrect that post to share with you now in hopes that it might provide you some peace of mind as we endure the media blitz:

This morning, like the rest of Tallahassee, I awoke to the news of the shootings at the Strozier Library on the Florida State University Campus. I thought about this, and other recent events of violence this morning as I walked along Monroe Street through the middle of downtown Tallahassee. It’s a beautiful crisp fall day in Tallahassee. The sunlight being reflected off the buildings in downtown absolutely shimmers. People are friendly with me as I pass them on the street and the cold fall air is invigorating to me as I walk along.  Observing my surroundings I was reminded that, despite all the problems, there remains great beauty in the world if we take time to notice it.

I thought about Stozier and the many other libraries where I’ve so many hours of my life. For me, libraries were so much more than just a place of knowledge; there were places of refuge. In high school the library was a place where I could find escape the hoodlums and social nonsense that are part of a public school education. In the books and periodicals I found glimpses of a future I wanted to build for myself. I still remember the book with the red cover that I found and used to teach myself to play guitar. Libraries are places of escape where I can put together my dreams.

However, it occurs to me that this week my other places of refuge have also been violated by gun violence. The synagogue attack in Jerusalem resonates in my mind as being yet another senseless act of indiscriminate violence in a place where I have often looked to find refuge from the world and direction in life.

As I was walking I thought about how does one go forward from these types of events? For me the answer is that I’m going forward with a willingness to be vulnerable. I am not going to arm myself or live in fear. I don’t think the solution is reprisal, increased security, or more guns. Besides, I don’t really have the power to control any of those things. I’m not politically powerful, so I know others will shape that public policy along their own interests. Other people decide security issues. I don’t own or intend to purchase a handgun. However, I can go out into the world and work to bring light and justice into the lives of others. I can do my best to help others find their dignity and self-worth such that they won’t feel compelled to turn to guns or violence to feel respected. I can remember that all lives matter and no human being is disposable. I can do my best, as Father Greg Boyle reminds us, to create a circle of compassion where nobody stands outside the circle and the margins that separate people are erased.

 

Civility and Respectability Politics…

I recently attended an alumni event at my alma mater, City University of New York School of Law (CUNY). It was wonderful to return to CUNY Law, reconnect with the school, see the new building, attend the Continuing Legal Education program, visit with the faculty, and generally drink the CUNY Kool-Aid. Perhaps the best part of the weekend was getting to spend time with my nephew, Chase, who is currently a 1st year student at CUNY Law. I’m very proud to have a legacy at CUNY and I love hearing about his experiences at the law school.

It was during a conversation with my nephew regarding the importance of civility in the practice of law and how, when advocating, it’s important to find common ground and connection with others who may not share our views that my nephew told me that some of the students in his law school class rejected such an idea as being “respectability politics”, a label that renders the option invalid.

I’d never heard the term “respectability politics” before and I became curious as to where the term originated and what is its actual meaning. According to Wikipedia, “respectability politics” is defined as

“attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.”

One of the most interesting pieces I located on the history and application of respectability politics was written by Randall Kennedy and published in the October 2015 edition of Harpers Magazine. The author reviews the important role that respectability politics played in the 20th century civil rights movement. He also notes that this approach has fallen out of favor and is now often criticized by black activists:

“This approach has recently become a target of much derision. It is denounced as a flight from blackness, an opportunistic gambit, a cowardly capitulation, a futile exercise, and an implicit concession that racist mistreatment is excusable unless committed upon a perfect black victim.”

This concept challenges one of my strongest beliefs, that is, when seeking social change or conflict resolution, it is useful to find common ground whenever possible. I strongly feel that the more people see themselves in kinship with each other, the less likely they are to seek to oppress or mistreat each other.

I’ve been contemplating this idea for several days now and I have to admit that I’m disturbed by this idea that finding common ground with opponents is somehow improper. Certainly, it’s not my role to pass judgment or dictate how other people seek to liberate themselves from societal mistreatment and abuse. I’m not a person of color and I’ve not experienced the discrimination and racism that continues to exist in the world. On the other hand, my life’s work is to create justice and give a voice to people whose voices are often unheard.

The idea of respectability politics is not limited to ending racial discrimination, but can be and is being applied in many different contexts. In my own Jewish community, respectability politics is especially dominant and is seen as a defense and rebuttal to anti-Semitism. When the Bernie Madoff scandal was in the news, many Jewish leaders expressed concern that Madoff’s misdeeds would be used to justify anti-Semitism in the United States. The Jewish community often seeks to rebut criticisms of Israel by showing the many great accomplishments of Israel and its similarities to Western culture. Scholars also note the use of respectability politics in the gay rights movement.

We must consider whether or not respectability politics allows us tell the full and honest story of our history and reality. Part of the work that people have to do when recovering from injustice and trauma, whether as the victim or the perpetrator, is to deal with the messier truths of experience. I recall an article in the New York Times about the Rwandan genocide and the process of reconciliation happening within the country and how both perpetrators and victims are working together to heal from the genocide.

When I think of more recent American events, I wonder if it is accurate for me to view Michael Brown as a violent person who gave the officer in Ferguson, Missouri little option but to shoot in self-defense while also seeing him as a victim of injustice? I know from my own work as an attorney that the combined effects of racism, economic injustice, and oppressive policing push people beyond their breaking points and strip them of their connection, hope, and dignity. In this respect, Michael Brown is a symbol of the lives, hopes, and aspirations that have been lost due to the unaddressed injustices in American society. He’s not seen as a victim because he’s a model citizen, but he can be viewed as a victim of societal injustice. This bring us to the point that I do think is significant about a rejection of respectability politics, that  blame is reflected back on the larger society that allows the injustice to continue. I see truth in that reflection.

I find that people connect with even the most imperfect story if you give them the opportunity to see the commonalities of human experience. I was once privileged to witness a very large tattooed Latino ex-gang member bring a group of white upper middle class housewives to tears through his sharing of the story of his life, which included his being a victim of abuse and poverty, then evolving into a very angry and dangerous criminal, followed by his recovery of his humanity. He didn’t project that he was like them in order to gain acceptance, but he did share with them his very real suffering, his acting out, his shame over his own actions, and his efforts to find re-connection and redemption.

One can argue that respectability politics is rooted in a belief that only some, being those who conform, are worthy of justice, and that those who don’t conform are not. I agree that such a paradigm isn’t justice, but privilege for the conformist and the members of the dominant group. However, I do think there is value in the self-empowerment ideas behind respectability politics. The idea that members of an oppressed group guide and encourage each other to rise to their highest levels, despite the existence of oppression, fits very well with my own personal philosophies that it takes a village, but that I am the only person over whom I have any control. In some ways this conflicts with my belief that self-empowerment also includes authenticity. I am not empowered if I am only accepted to the degree that I am like other people. True freedom and empowerment has to include the ability to be one’s true self to the degree that it doesn’t intrude upon the rights and well being of others.

I don’t see civility and seeking common ground with others as forcing respectability politics. We can find common ground, develop connection, and form alliances without disempowering ourselves. In the practice of law you can be an aggressive advocate and attorney without being uncivil and without reducing your opponents to one-dimensional villains. According to a resource from the American Bar Association:

“Civility in the legal profession is generally defined as “treating others, opposing counsel, the court, clients, and others, with courtesy, dignity, and kindness. Civility for an attorney means treating opposing counsel the way the attorney would want to be treated i.e., the golden rule”

CompassionCivility is absolutely necessary for me to function as a lawyer. Maintaining civility keeps my focus on the law and facts of a case, which is where I am most effective.  When civility is lost in a legal dispute you wind-up fighting about everything and often accomplishing very little. The litigation becomes more about beating the other guy than persuading the Court or jury. Acrimonious disputes create unnecessary stress in an already extremely stressful business – a factor that I think greatly contributes to the high rates of substance abuse, depression, and burnout in the legal profession. Lastly, I find that being a civil person is simply good mental hygiene.

The American Bar Association, in its guidelines for lawyer conduct, notes the importance of civility:

“Deteriorating civility, in former ABA President Lee Cooper’s words, “interrupts the administration of justice. It makes the practice of law less rewarding. It robs a lawyer of the sense of dignity and self-worth that should come from a learned profession. Not least of all, it … brings with it all the problems … that accompany low public regard for lawyers and lack of confidence in the justice system.””

Regarding civility, Justice Kennedy, a favorite jurist of mine, is quoted as saying:

“Civility has deep roots in the idea of respect for the individual . . . respect for the dignity and worth of a fellow human being.”.

There are few people who are more passionate about the dignity and worth of their fellow human beings than the law students with whom my nephew studies. It is my hope that while they examine the weaknesses and unfulfilled promises of respectability politics that they also recognize its strengths and accomplishments. Lastly, I hope that they become the change they seek and that they approach the practice of law in a way that affirms the dignity and worth of the judges, lawyers, clients, and even the opposing parties with whom they come into contact.

 

 

Modern Slavery – Yes, it happens in Tallahassee

Few things are more precious to us Americans than freedom. However, it may surprise you to know that not everyone in our nation is free and that slavery is a growing problem in our country. At this past week’s meeting of my Rotary club, Terry Coonan, director of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, gave an especially compelling presentation on Human Trafficking. I was looking forward to his talk because I gave a sermon at my synagogue a few years ago on the Tomato on the Seder Plate initiative of Rabbis For Human Rights of North America which focused on the problem of slavery in Florida’s agricultural industry.

Modern slavery, which includes both worker and sex trafficking, is a worldwide problem. According to a 2013 White House report, it is estimated that there are 21 million people who are being held in bondage in the modern world. This is the largest number of people living as slaves in human history. One might think that modern slavery is relegated to the third world countries and remote areas of the world, but modern day slavery is happening throughout the world, including the United States, in both our urban and rural communities. It is especially pervasive in the sex, agricultural, and the hospitality industries. In modern slavery people are not kept captive with chains. Instead, traffickers use force, fraud, and coercion to keep people enslaved.  A huge industry, modern slavery generates between $9-12 billion annually in the United States alone. It is said to currently be the second largest criminal industry behind the drug trade.

Even relatively tranquil communities such as Tallahassee are not immune from this problem. One of the major sex trafficking prosecutions in the past 10 years, the Melchor case, began when two women being held captive in a private home in the Killearn neighborhood of Tallahassee escaped and ran door to door seeking help. The women, who had come to the United States based upon the promise of jobs, were forced into prostitution utilizing a mobile brothel model where they were driven to apartments and mobile homes on the outskirts of Tallahassee and forced to perform 25-35 sex acts per night.  An ensuing two-year investigation revealed an international conspiracy that trafficked women from South America into multiple Florida cities for the purpose of forcing them into prostitution.

Melchor is not the only case to arise in the Florida panhandle. The Destin King labor trafficking case involved workers at the Sandestin Hilton and other hotels along the Gulf Coast. The workers were young women aged 19 -23 from eastern Europe who came to the United States upon the promise of employment at Disney. When they arrived in the United States they were told that the promised Disney jobs weren’t available, but that they could work at hotels in the Florida panhandle. They found themselves living 15-20 people in a single condo, while working for less than minimum wage.  As if paying less than a living wage wasn’t enough, their employers charged them for things such as rent, job placement fees, transportation fees, and $1500 – $2000 for visa processing fees. The young women were not employed directly by the hotels, but they worked for subcontractor corporations that negotiated contracts to supply the workers to the hotels. The subcontractor corporations were able to submit low bids for the contracts due to their failure to pay even a minimum wage to the workers. The hotels were able to claim ignorance of the situation because the women weren’t employed directly by the hotel, although one has to question whether or not the hotels were simply turning a blind eye to the exploitation when they unquestioningly accepted such extremely low bids from the contractors.

You can do something to help!
You can do something to help!

As individuals there are some things we can do to help combat modern slavery. There are a number of websites that list possible signs of Human Trafficking such as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. I’m not going to reproduce the list here, but I do encourage you to make yourself familiar with the possible signs. One thing that I will say is that it is absolutely necessary that we slow down, recognize, and engage with people who are often invisible in our society. We have to take time to notice the hotel maid, the streetwalker, the runaway youth, the homeless, and the agricultural worker and report instances where we suspect involuntary servitude may be happening to the toll free human trafficking number 1-888-373-7888. We need to support businesses that are willing to join Fair Food and Fair Trade programs and to encourage other businesses to join through our purchasing decisions. I also would suggest that supporting businesses that allow their employees to join unions and engage in collective bargaining is yet another way of combating human trafficking.

I hope that this post will inspire you to want to learn more about this huge injustice. I believe that the more attention that can be brought to this subject, the better. As I think about this topic, I can’t help but recall that the Hebrew Bible, at least 36 times, more than any other commandment, repeatedly reminds us that we must treat the stranger kindly because of the Jewish people’s own experience with slavery in Egypt. This is not an issue we can afford to ignore.

 

The Lawyer as Artist

In 1989 Salman Rushdie was quoted in the London Independent as saying:

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

To me this sounds a lot like the work of a lawyer. Is there a connection between artistic creation such as one finds in poetry and the practice law? Can a lawyer be an artist, or are we merely logical thinkers who rarely color outside the lines society draws for us?

When I was a law student attending City University of New York School of Law I lived in Brooklyn. When the long hours of studying law exhausted my energies I would sometimes take the subway into Manhattan, or “the city” as genuine city dwellers call it. Once in there, I would go to the Pastel Society of America where they offered inexpensive classes in pastel painting led by the top pastel painting artists in the United States. I loved these classes and found the process by which these incredible artists created their paintings to be fascinating. Through these classes I began to see that a tree is more than just green and brown, but is really a collection of an endless variety of different colors spanning the entire rainbow. Indeed, the only limit on the colors found in a tree is that created by the artist’s own mind. When I would return from my expedition into the world of art and creativity to the “logical” world of law I noticed that my understanding of the cases and legal principles I was studying seemed to be enhanced. I wasn’t just rejuvenated – I was inspired. It occurred to me that, after the classes, I was seeing law differently, and this led to a continuing curiosity into the intersection between law and art.

I don’t often hear people describing lawyers as artists, but in my mind great lawyers think artistically as well as logically. I love going to art museums, plays, concerts, and reading great writing because, when executed well, they provide me with opportunities to see some aspect of the world from a different perspective. For me, art is fundamental. In my spare time I play and study music. I explore Tallahassee on my bicycle and take photographs. I’ve written and performed a play about economic justice. Even this blog is a creative outlet that allows me to play with ideas. I find that art is at its very best when it takes something that is familiar to me and lets me see it in a totally different way than I’ve ever seen it before.

So it is with law. I believe that a great lawyer or judge doesn’t just see law and justice as words on a page to be blindly followed and applied. Such an approach to the law would leave it forever stagnant and allow injustices to go undiscovered. Great lawyers recognize injustices and create for themselves and others, a constantly refining vision of justice. Consider that for nearly 100 years the law and the courts in the United States steadfastly held onto the rarely challenged notion that racial segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal” was justice. However, it took visionary lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall to show them a different perspective, that “separate but equal” would never be equal. Such work is as much art as it is logic. The question is how to tell the story such that the injustice of the status quo becomes undeniable.

The primary art form of the lawyer is that of storyteller. Our client’s cases are non-fiction stories that we advocate be viewed from a certain perspective. Our choice of words, the way in which we present evidence, the focus we give to certain facts, and the way in which interpret the law all become part of our storytelling vision. I know that many will read this and think that this idea of “storytelling” is justification for deception and dishonesty, but it’s not that at all. Effective storytelling is truthful. When a story becomes dishonest it loses the ability to fully engage us. Good stories are often messy and even the best cases usually present a challenging fact or two for a lawyer to deal with. It is the lawyer’s ability to weave the messy or difficult parts of the story into a collective whole with a positive truth for the client that I believe distinguishes great creative lawyers from the ordinary.

Many lawyers such as John Grisham, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Scott Turow have made successful transitions from lawyer to author. In fact, so many lawyers are interested in making the transition from lawyer to author that there actually was a panel called “The Law as a Platform for Writing” at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Bar Association. While I hear many stories of unhappy lawyers, I don’t see the interest in writing as a product of that unhappiness. Instead, I see it as evidence that many lawyers see the art in our profession, and once this is recognized, are compelled to give expression to that art in as many ways possible both in and out of the courtroom.

 

 

Mass Murder in America – Looking Beyond Legal Solutions

Until a couple of days ago, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about this week. However, the tragic gun deaths of nine students, and wounding of nine others, at an Oregon college is a topic that deserves attention. Predictably, this event has reignited political debates regarding issues such as gun control and allowing students to carry firearms on campus. While I think these are important discussions, and I support gun control legislation, I’m not convinced that either gun control or further proliferation of firearms will resolve the problem of mass shootings.   I say this because on many levels these events are more than simply legal problems and failure of legislation.

I recognize that law has its limits. We cannot seek to resolve our social problems solely through criminalization and regulation. I believe we need to take a closer look at what social forces are driving these events and consider how we can create change that stops the creation of people who are driven to commit mass murder.

When one looks back that the majority of mass shootings in our nation we see a recurring profile of the individuals who commit these violent acts. The group is exclusively male, most often white, alienated, unemployed or underemployed, and exhibiting symptoms of untreated mental illness. These are not professional criminals, gang members, or individuals with histories of long-term involvement in radical organizations, although they may take up a cause to justify their actions.

I would like to focus upon the issues of alienation and untreated mental illness because I feel that these two areas are ignored in most discussions. Human beings have a strong drive for connection. We are not solitary creatures. In fact, social isolation has been compared to smoking and obesity in terms of the magnitude of its impact upon our health. Yet we live in a society where the social fabric is decaying, and with it, opportunities to find social connection. More and more of our professional and personal lives have moved into the digital realm. I was recently talking with some young people about job hunting and I was encouraging them to go to the employer and talk with someone in person whenever possible as part of their job hunting strategy. I was surprised when they told me that this was no longer possible with most employers and that for grocery stores and other retail entities all job seekers are directed to the Internet. As I wrote in an earlier posting, social institutions of all sorts are declining in membership. I would argue that even where membership is steady, the social life of many institutions has declined tremendously in the past two decades. I remember years ago when the holidays of Chanukkah and Sukkot in my local Jewish community meant multiple invitations to parties and dinners. In recent years such invitations have become increasingly rare to the degree that I am surprised when one is extended.

Alienation creates worse health outcomes, not just physically, but also for mental health. We are not prepared to respond to  the increased mental health needs arising from increased alienation. The United States’ mental health infrastructure is completely inadequate and  is getting worse by the day. We do not have the providers and we  haven’t funded the research needed to deliver effective evidence based treatments. Even for those who have the financial resources to pay for care, it’s often simply not available or the quality of care is poor due to inadequate training of the provider.

Untreated mental illness often brings people into the criminal justice system. I remember when I was doing contract nursing and I was sent to work in a local prison. I was stunned at how a majority of the inmates’ medical records showed the same profile of untreated mental illness; a history of childhood abuse or neglect; low IQ; and untreated addiction. Is it any wonder that the largest provider of mental health services in the State of Florida is the Department of Corrections? However, this also says that, as a society, we’re not committed to the prevention of crime and destroyed lives, only to reacting to the damage they cause.

One last story and I’ll close. When I was a law student I worked on a clemency petition for a young woman who, at age 13, was sent to adult prison in Florida for 9 years following the home invasion robbery of her Grandparents’ house. This child, and she was a child until the state of Florida stripped her of that status, had been evaluated by two mental health experts a few weeks earlier following a violent outburst. The mental health experts both recommended immediate inpatient treatment for her. Nothing was done, her behavior continued to escalate, and the State of Florida decided that rather than mental health treatment she was a criminal and made her the youngest person in the Florida adult prison system. It should be noted that her escalating violence was associated with her mother’s abandonment of her. During her 9-year prison sentence, neither her mother nor her grandparents ever visited her once. The recommended mental health treatment was never provided to her. I argued her clemency petition to then Governor Jeb Bush, who denied it. I guess he just figured that stuff like this happens.

In closing, I don’t believe that we’re helpless in the face of this problem.  As individuals, we can work to decrease alienation in our communities by simply going out into the world.  I know some will disagree with me, but a digital connection is not the same as being in the presence of a live person.  We can lobby for mental health research and treatment funding, not simply because of this issue, but because it creates justice in the world.   If we can do these things, our lives will all improve.

 

 

Life Lessons I Learned From Flying Airplanes

About 20 years ago, my wife gave me an introductory flying lesson as a birthday present. I loved the experience and was soon on my way to earning my private pilot’s license. I was fortunate to meet an exceptional flight instructor, Tony Hicks, while taking ground school through the Florida State University Flying Club. Tony, a former Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot, was a great instructor because he not only taught the mechanics of flying an airplane, but also the psychology of being a pilot. With Tony’s guidance and training I was granted my Private Pilot’s license on September 11, 1998. I enjoyed flying regularly until the events of another September 11th three years later forever changed general aviation. Although I’ve flown a few times since then, the cost of aviation, plus the loss of freedom associated with increased security, have pretty much grounded me, and many of my pilot friends. However, the lessons of aviation have stayed with me and I often think of aviation problem-solving when facing a problem or challenging situation on the ground. Here are a few of the lessons that often go through my head:

Fly the airplane – No matter what happens in the air, a pilot’s first and foremost job is always to fly the airplane. It doesn’t matter if the wing is on fire; you fly the airplane first, and then worry about the fire. In 1972 the crew of an Eastern Airlines L-1011 violated this rule with disastrous consequences when they flew their aircraft into the ground after they became focused on trouble-shooting a burned-out landing-gear indicator light.  This is true in life too.  Paying attention to our task and our mission prevents unnecessary problems and failures.  Things are going to go wrong sometimes.  Our job is to stay focused and not create disasters by neglecting the fundamentals while we try to solve what are often minor problems.

Know your Limits – Not all pilots are the same. Experience, training, and proper equipment can safely take one pilot where another would be at great risk.  Just because you have an instrument rating and spent some time in the clouds doesn’t mean that you’re ready to fly an instrument approach at an unfamiliar airport after a 3 hour flight, with 200-foot ceilings, gusting winds, rain, and ¼ mile visibility in a Cessna. However, you might be fine at your home field with 1000 ft. ceilings, 1.5 miles visibility, and light winds. It’s a pilot’s job to know his or her limits and know that those limits aren’t constant. Recent experience, proper equipment, and being healthy and rested all impact on a pilot’s limits. It’s true for life on the ground too.  Sometimes it’s better to wait until conditions have improved, or we have better prepared,  before launching a new project or trying something new. There are limits to the number, type, and severity of challenges we can all handle.

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – This is the prioritization for pilots when things go wrong. One of the best examples of this is Captain Sullenberger and the Hudson River landing. If you listen to this recording of his communications with air traffic control, it’s clear that his focus isn’t on talking with the control tower but on flying the aircraft and navigation. The reason for this is, there’s very little an air traffic controller can do to assist in an emergency other than get other aircraft out of the way.  A pilot’s first priority remains flying the aircraft, the second job is to know where the aircraft is, and where it’s going. Once you have those down, then you worry about talking to the tower. This is true in life too, when things go wrong our first job is to maintain personal control and do our part as best we can. Next, we need to figure out where we are, and where we want to go. Lastly, we can reach out to trusted others for guidance and assistance.