Why I Marched In The Black Lives Matter Protest

Dion (not his real name) was arrested for trespassing at a city bus stop.  He was a 15-year-old black boy with the sullen attitude common to teenagers. He liked to hang out with his friends and could be sarcastic to adults in that teenage way that is so annoying when you are middle-aged and probably infuriating to a poorly trained police officer. He was neither a thug nor an honor student. Just an average kid.  He had to take the city bus across town to his school, and he changed buses at the downtown plaza where he liked to hang around and see friends on the way home.

The Leon County Courthouse

I was a brand new attorney, fresh out of law school, beginning my career in the Juvenile Delinquency Division of the Public Defender’s office. The job was indoctrination under fire.  Within three days of bar admission I took a case to trial where I won two of three counts at trial and the remaining count was reversed on appeal. When Dion’s case hit my desk, I was amazed that the State Attorney would pursue a charge of trespassing at a public bus stop.  After all, bus stops are public places, how can someone possibly trespass at a bus stop? I figured that I could hang out at the bus station all day long and not worry about being arrested. Why couldn’t Dion?

Orlando Police Response to a Non-violent Protest

Dion decided to go to trial and I began preparing.  It would be one of my first trials and I prepared with all the enthusiasm and optimism that young lawyers bring to the legal profession.  I kept searching for the motivation for this case. Why did anyone care about this child staying too long at the bus station?  It was not a case where Dion had stayed at the bus station all day long.  He merely missed one cycle of the bus before being arrested.  Researching the case, I learned that Taltran, the company that operated the Tallahassee City buses, kept photographs of everyone who was trespassed from the bus station, so I subpoenaed those photographs. 

Stop Police Brutality!

My subpoena resulted in a call from the City Attorney to my boss, Nancy Daniels, the elected Public Defender.  He wanted her to reign in her newly minted Assistant Public Defender, but Nancy Daniels backed me up and refused to censure my work.  When I got the photographs, I found that, other than two white men who appeared homeless, all the people who received trespass warnings at the bus station were young black men.   

Law Enforcement Muscle

The main bus stop in Tallahassee where Dion was arrested is named C.K. Steele Plaza, after a Tallahassee civil rights leader who fought a long and difficult battle to integrate the city’s bus service in which he was repeatedly arrested. I was appalled that these arrests were happening in the shadow of the statue of the civil rights leader who fought for the rights of young men like Dion to ride the bus. 

Before the trial, I subpoenaed the arresting officer and the leaders of Taltran to appear as witnesses. The trial was scheduled to begin in the morning but kept getting delayed until late afternoon.  During the day, before the trial started, I felt a sense of satisfaction whenever I would leave the courtroom during a break and see the arresting police officer, the City Attorney, and the Taltran representatives all sitting on the hard wooden benches in the hallway.  I knew from my own experience that those benches quickly became uncomfortable and that spending a day sitting on them was probably quite miserable for them.  

Law Enforcement or a military operation?

When the trial finally started, I encountered what felt like a wall of denial.  When I raised constitutional arguments against the idea that the city could trespass its own citizens from the bus station the judge told me that he did not want the constitution argued in his courtroom. Nobody cared when I laid out all the photos of the black boys given trespass warnings in front of the Taltan representative and when I asked him if he noticed what they all had in common he replied that they were all young and then looked up at me with a huge grin on his face.  I was stunned by his denial of what seemed obvious to me, and then I realized that I was working in a system that existed in a perpetual state of denial.  When the judge found Dion guilty, I felt my innocence begin to fall away. 

The coming years reinforced the lesson I learned that day.  After a while it seemed normal for me to arrive in the courtroom early in the morning to meet with a room of young black faces who had been arrested the night before.  Sometimes there were poor white children, but rarely did I ever see a middle class or wealthy child.  The system has a way of conditioning you to accept the absurd and I soon stopped thinking about how bizarre it was that non-violent children were brought to Court in shackles and jumpsuits. After a while, I even stopped wondering why judges didn’t question the fact that there were court-appointed attorneys defending children in their court who went years without ever filing a protective motion or taking a single case to trial. At one point, I worked on the issue of children in adult prisons in Florida, back when you could search the inmate database by age and found that the list of inmates in adult prison under age 16 was comprised only of black children.  

Orlando Police

Working in juvenile delinquency court took me into the lives and neighborhoods of Tallahassee’s black children.  I visited underfunded public schools where the architecture and surrounding fences reminded me of a prison.  I accompanied investigators on interviews conducted inside dilapidated homes deep inside Southside neighborhoods that I never knew existed. I met children who needed basic healthcare and things like glasses. I saw children floundering in a grossly underfunded foster care system where children removed from abusive homes to be housed on conference room floors of state office buildings and fed out of vending machines (I was part of a successful class action led by FSU Professor Paolo Annino to stop this practice).  I saw children in need of mental health care being sent to private delinquency programs that contracted to provide mental services but had not a single licensed mental health professional on their staff.  I watched the video of a black child being murdered by guards in a bootcamp, knowing that children whom I represented were in the same program. Later I saw those guards found not guilty in a trial that some experienced criminal defense attorneys told me the prosecutors seemed to be trying to lose.  

Seemingly endless waves of law enforcement

It was because of Dion and the hundreds of other black children whom I saw arrested, mostly for non-violent crimes and minor drug offenses, that I felt compelled to join in the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Orlando.  The issues are too important, and the injustices are too great, for me to ignore.  

One hundred years ago the Wobblies changed life for American workers based upon the belief that “an injury to one is an injury to all”.  In a world that was much more segregated than today, they created a labor union that included men and women of all colors and ethnicities. The Wobblies became one of the most potent, effective, and feared labor unions in American history when they took away the ability of the bosses to use race and ethnicity to divide and conquer workers.  


Walking the streets of Orlando, doing my best to maintain social distancing in a large moving mass of people, I thought about the Wobblies, the battles they fought, and the things they achieved.  I thought about how the injustices that Black Lives Matter is fighting are bigger than just a militarized police force recklessly killing black men.  People use the words “systemic racism” and they’re right, it’s an entire system of oppression that harms everyone.  People of color get the worst of it for sure, but it robs the larger society of all that oppressed people could otherwise contribute to our nation.   

The inequities are pervasive and for too long have been allowed to exist. The injustices and inequities are strikingly obvious in places like

  • public schools that cannot afford music or art and are built to look like prisons 
  • neighborhoods without banks, hospitals, libraries, or museums
  • inadequate consumer protection laws that allow dishonest businesses to flourish by ripping off the hard-earned wages of working-class people
  • the excessive overuse of incarceration
  • incarceration for profit
  • criminalizing social problems rather than addressing the root causes, in a nation that has the largest prison population in the world and in history
  • Judges and legislatures who create rules such as qualified immunity which make it exceeding difficult for victims of police brutality to succeed when suing for the harms and indignities they have suffered 
  • A legal system obsessed with procedure and comfortable with obvious injustice as long as the proper procedural rules have been followed.

A legal system disconnected from justice is the foundation upon which abusive cops and militarized police forces thrive.  Unfortunately, we live in a time when our courts are being packed with judges selected from the Federalist Society, a group whose members believe that it is improper for judges to concern themselves with matters of justice.  The Federalist Society philosophy, which they refer to as “textualism”, is a reincarnation of the legal positivism that was pervasive in the courts of Nazi Germany.  

They had to be sweating like crazy in those helmets and jackets

Unless and until the United States makes significant societal changes, that go beyond our methods of policing, we will fall short of our promise of equality under the law.  It’s not enough to simply tone down our police tactics, we need structural change in our legal system, our laws, our educational system, our healthcare system, our mental health system, our gun laws, and in how we regard each other such that we can look upon a struggling person with compassion rather than condemnation. I marched because I know that we can create a better America where young men like Dion are given fair treatment and an opportunity rather than due process on the way to a prison cell. 

One of several helicopters over the protest

I will close by saying that racism is more than just the language we use. It’s the laws we enforce, the access to education our society provides, the healthcare our people receive, and it’s who we see as deserving and who sits on the outside. It’s who can sit at a bus stop without being deemed a criminal.

Armed Protestors And The Politicians Who Support Them Threaten Democracy

A person who goes to a protest dressed in military style clothing and carrying an assault rifle is not a patriot, or a freedom fighter, or any sort of a great American. They are, at best, a vigilante who lacks the most basic understanding of democracy and free speech and at worst is a thug seeking to destroy social order and the foundations of our democracy.   

It doesn’t matter how many flags these nutjobs carry, or that they carry signs with patriotic clichés and catchy phrases. It doesn’t matter that they wrap themselves in a twisted interpretation of the second amendment.  What matters is that they have violated the very core values necessary for democracy to function, for our communities to peacefully exist, and for our nation to be ruled by laws that apply equally to everyone.

A sitting president who condones and encourages these thuggish threats of violence, should be removed from office without delay. Any elected official who encourages armed thugs to liberate the states governed by an opposing political party in the middle of a national crisis is waging psychological warfare upon our Democracy and in my opinion is committing treason in violation of their oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. 

Contrary to what some politicians and the know-nothing talking heads who promote conspiracy-driven paranoia say, the United States Constitution does not contain a right to armed protest or revolt.  In establishing a democratic form of government, the framers of the Constitution sought to put an end to the repetitive cycle of violence that was necessary for political change in Europe at the time our nation was founded.  The Framers embraced the idea of a peaceful transition of power, and that has been the established norm in American society for over 200 years.  Our Constitution enshrined free speech and peaceful assembly in the First Amendment, which prohibits laws that restrain speech or peaceful assembly and guarantees a right to petition the government for redress of grievances. In creating these rights, along with regular elections, the framers rejected violence as a mechanism of change.  This rejection of violence as a mechanism of change is very clear in Article 3 section 2 of the Constitution which defines treason as levying war against the states or adhering to their enemies or giving them aid and comfort. 

It is only a matter of time before one of these armed protests go awry and those trigger-happy chocolate soldiers will let lose the dogs of war that they have been systematically and deliberately programmed to covet. It is impossible to know where things will go from there, but I don’t see anything good for anyone happening from that point forward.  

History teaches us that democracies rarely fail in a single moment. Instead, they are dismantled over time before the eyes of citizens who fail to realize what’s happening until it’s too late.  The United States is clearly following the historic pathway of other countries, including Nazi Germany, who moved from a democratic enlightened nation into an authoritarian unenlightened form of government.  Nothing raises this alarm more than Donald Trump and right-wing media’s call for armed protestors to liberate their states from lawfully elected leadership by Democrats. As Harvard Political Science Professor Steve Livtskey wrote in his 2018 book “How Democracies Die”:  “Authoritarian politicians cast their rivals as criminal, subversive, unpatriotic, or a threat to national security or the existing way of life.” Years of brainwashing, or conspiracy theories, or half-truths and innuendo designed to make people see themselves as “Conservative” and view their nation through a lens of “us” and “them” such that they hate other Americans, who are really not materially different from them, is fraying the social fabric necessary for us to respond to a national crisis such as the Coronavirus pandemic.

We are creeping ever closer to losing the very things that once made America great.  All it’s going to take is one of these protests flaring up into a gunfight.  This will likely spark two disastrous events.  The right-wing militia groups, who are already looking for a justification for violence, will then likely join and the violence will expand.  The President, justifying his actions by violence in the streets, an economic disaster, and a pandemic will then declare a State of Emergency, and send in Federal Troops. Elections will be suspended, and American democracy will be lost. The Republican majority Senate, eager to hold power, will block any legislative opposition, and the Judiciary, which has been packed with legal positivist judges from the Federalist Society, will go along.   

Let’s hope that I’m wrong about all this, but we are following a well established historical pattern and I don’t see any exit ramps on this road. 

“We Hold These Truths To Be Self Evident…”: Enlightenment vs. Evangelical Amercia

Reading the news about American politics these days feels like I’m watching a slow motion train wreck. It’s much more than the nut job reality television personality who inhabits the oval office, it’s the whole atmosphere of combat politics being played out like some dystopian reality television show that disgusts us while captivating our attention.  Entertainment politics that produces almost nothing other than tax cuts for the wealthy and division among the masses.

American Politics Are Like Watching A Slow Motion Train Wreck

The latest bit of insanity has been states like Alabama and Georgia passing laws intended to criminalize abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or severe fetal deformity. Florida hasn’t joined the crazy parade yet, but it looks like we may soon go down the zealot rabbit hole as the Republican Party morphs itself into an American version of the Taliban, armed with both guns and zealotry. State Representative Mike Hill, from Pensacola,  recently said he intends to submit anti-abortion legislation similar to Alabama and declared that G-d told him to stop pursuing restrictions that allowed for exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and the health of the mother. 

I find it strange that nobody seems to question whether Representative Mike Hill is truly a modern day prophet.  Hasn’t history shown us enough false prophets that we should at least be skeptical about such claims? Incidentally, this was just a few days before Representative Hill seemed to be in agreement with a constituent’s suggestion that Florida should enact a law providing for the execution of homosexuals based upon the constituent’s understanding of the Bible.  I suspect that neither Hill nor the constituent have ever actually read the Bible.  I say this because during that same town hall meeting, when bashing the Supreme Court to his constituents, Representative Hill told them that the Florida constitution doesn’t contain a privacy provision.  Representative Hill is either a liar, or he’s never read the Florida Constitution and probably shouldn’t be talking about it.   Article 1, section 23 says:

Right of privacy.—Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life except as otherwise provided herein. This section shall not be construed to limit the public’s right of access to public records and meetings as provided by law.”

As a supporter of reproductive rights, and having fought to protect women’s rights to make healthcare decisions during their pregnancies, I feel increasingly anxious about the direction American law may take in the near future on this and many other matters.

Critical Thinking Skills

As person trained in law and science, I spend a lot of time challenging my own ideas and perspectives on any subject that I’m trying to understand, which is what I’ve been mentally doing with this and the many other bizarre political happenings of our time. 

I think the answer is found in the reason there is this marriage between evangelical Christians and “conservative” politicians and pundits such as Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh (a group, who collectively have been married 10 times). The lack of moral compass among these men has been well documented in the press, yet they remain heroes to many whose identity is tied to biblical morality. 

The common ground between these two seemingly disparate groups isn’t morality or religion.  It’s the rejection of Enlightenment thinking, which I call “evangelism” and it poses a direct threat to American democracy which is rooted in Enlightenment ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.  It was Enlightenment ideas which undermined the authority of the Church and monarchs and gave rise to the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the American Revolution which created the United States. 

Evangelism is not simply a religion, but a push-back against Enlightenment thought and is an outright  rejection of science, reason, tolerance, and natural rights.  It seeks to replace data driven analysis with faith and belief, progress with tradition, and universality with tribalism.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized science, reason, and a belief in natural rights. The Enlightenment was a potent antidote to the religious stranglehold of the day where the Church and government were entwined and religion restrained progress and the expression of ideas.   

Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press are Enlightenment Values

Evangelistic thinking is what drives the Taliban and other religiously based terrorist groups to want to attack the West.  It’s not that they “hate our freedom”, it’s that our science, reason, and tolerance challenge their beliefs and societal structures.  Trump and the members of the fascist posse routinely reject science, reason, calls for tolerance, and any notion of natural law. In many ways they have much more in common with the Taliban than with founding fathers such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. They are clearly anti-Enlightenment thinkers who, while not adopting Christian Evangelical religious beliefs, hold an Evangelical mindset.

Allowing Evangelism to triumph over enlightenment thought would be tragic.  To say that Enlightenment thinking transformed the world for the better is an understatement. Rather than stripping us of our humanity through a loss of divinity, Enlightenment thought brought out our very best, stopped historical injustices, and gave us freedom and leisure on an ever increasing level that was previously unimaginable. 

Prior to the Enlightenment, if a child was dying from disease, it was attributed to divine will.  Generations of mothers prayed over their sick children to no effect.  The Enlightenment brought the application of science and reason to fighting disease and sickness and, in a few generations, reduced the infant mortality rate from 20-30% in colonial times to 0.05% in modern times.  In just over two centuries, life expectancy has risen from approximately 30 years worldwide to more than 70, and no country in the world today has a lower life expectancy than the highest country did in 1800. 

Science has allowed us to improve our lives

Not only are our lives longer, but we enjoy higher quality lives than at any time in human history.  Famine used to be a regular occurrence, but through scientifically based agriculture (rather than praying for a good crop) what famines do exist are largely the product of political conflicts rather than natural disaster. In the United States one of our fastest growing and most significant health problems is obesity, a disease resulting from overabundance rather than scarcity.  Compared to famine, I prefer an obesity epidemic.

Enlightenment thinking brought about the end legal slavery, massively reduced racism and ethnic violence, emancipated the majority of women on the planet, and provided the highest protections in history for speech and artistic expression.  All of these things were accomplished in the face of Evangelistic thinkers who argued that such ideas offend their deity and that Armageddon is about to descend. 

Despite all we hear about violence and poverty, we have the lowest rates of global poverty in recorded history and the lowest rates of people dying due to violence and war in recorded history.  For a detailed examination of these facts, including statistical tables, I recommend Steve Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”.

The Founding Fathers were Enlightenment Thinkers

If the United States is defined by any specific feature it is our commitment to democracy, rule by the people rather than by Kings supposedly appointed by G-d, is a product of the Enlightenment. Our nation is not a product of G-d or of any biblically ordained prophecy, but of reason, logic, science, and a deep belief in the natural rights of human beings. To state otherwise is to deny history.

Founders such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison were all students and followers of Enlightenment philosophers. They rejected Evangelical thought and most historians see them as deists (G-d created the world, but does not directly interact with it.)  They believed that all men were created with rights, a concept known as “natural law”.   We see this in Jefferson’s writings in the Declaration of Independence in which he wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson was an Enlightenment thinker

Jefferson is clearly a describing natural law approach to human rights, one of the Enlightenment’s values. Note, Jefferson is not rejecting religion per se, he still envisions some sort of a creator, but he’s speaking of enlightenment values.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the amazing success and transformation of our world by Enlightenment ideas, it is between Enlightenment thought and Evangelism that is the battle ground, not just in America, but the world today.  Populist leaders word-wide are running on anti-Enlightenment messages, such as the anti-immigrant messages espoused by supporters of the Brexit vote.  These messages appeal to emotion, usually fear, rather than reason. 

We see Evangelical thinking promoted by politicians in modern America who call for “thoughts and prayers” when we experience yet another mass shooting from a crazed person with an assault rifle while our government refuses to fund research into gun violence. 

While Trump is hardly a model of Christian virtue, he is deeply evangelical in his thinking and in his absolute rejection of Enlightenment values.  Bothersome facts and data, such as those on climate change, he rejects out of hand, preferring instead his own mythology.  Where Enlightenment values encourage a respect and fair dealing with all other humans based upon the belief in natural law, Trump and Evangelical thinkers retreat into tribalistic thinking and view foreigners and strangers as lesser.  I want to stress here that when I speak of Evangelism, it may be wrapped in paper-thin religious dogma, but it’s completely divorced from an in-depth understanding of theology such that the most repeated commandment in the Bible “Do not oppress the stranger” is ignored. It is a mistake to confuse evangelism with religion. I believe that one can be religious and not be Evangelistic.

Loss of reason and truth gives rise to conspiracy theories

Once people abandon the demand for reason, scientific inquiry, and fact based conclusions, conspiracy theories can run rampant.  Recall the alt-right conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, where Trump supporters spread the rumor that Hillary Clinton was running a child-sex ring out of a Washington, DC pizza restaurant. Conspiracy theories are the stock and trade of propagandists such as Rush Limbaugh who is a master at innuendo based upon selective fact-picking.  Of course, even Rush Limbaugh doesn’t come close to the outlandish conspiracy theories promoted by websites such as Info-Wars who convinced followers that the  Sandy Hook murders were staged and that grieving parents were fakers.   

It is tempting to think that Evangelism is strictly a right wing philosophy, but that would be unfair.  The left has its own forms of Evangelistic thought, although it has failed to achieve the political power of right wing evangelist thought.  For example, the anti-GMO movement is based largely on emotion and lacks any rigorous scientific support for its claims that genetically modified foods pose a health risk. Likewise, there is very little scientific support for claims that there are health benefits to organic foods.  Another example would be leftists who object to research into nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. We’ve even seen left-wing conspiracy theories that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11, 2011 attacks.  Is any of this that much crazier than the American right’s denial of climate science?  I believe that one very rarely finds Enlightenment thought at the political extremes because extremism is almost always disconnected from reason and logic. 

In my field of law I believe we’re seeing this anti-Enlightenment  movement in the Federalist Society which, founded in the 1980’s, now yields a lot of political clout and which promotes benign sounding legal theories of “legal restraint” and “textualism” as remedies for what they describe as “judicial activism”.  Basically, the Federalist society recruits 1st year law students into its membership and then indoctrinates them into its fundamentalist legal philosophies which they claim to be the “true” and “original” way of interpreting laws and the Constitution.  For members of the Federalist Society, adherence to this legal doctrine is paramount regardless of the outcome.  They believe that justice is no longer a concern of the law and they believe that Courts should only recognize those rights specifically stated in our Constitution.    

The Federalist Society poses a direct threat to Enlightenment values in our legal system

Our courts are currently being packed by members of the Federalist Society and I worry that we are soon to be ruled by a generation of judges who believe that they can interpret the law with the mind of an 18th century framer of the Constitution, and that emerging standards of justice are not their concern.   In their minds, Courts seeking to create justice, such as ensuring fair voting districts, is an “activist” activity and that they should divorce their thinking from ideas of justice. 

It may be that abortion isn’t as much about men trying to dominate women, but more about a part of a larger framework rejecting Enlightenment thought arising from a delusional belief by Evangelical thinkers that we can turn the clock back to an imagined golden time when science, reason, and logic didn’t discredit their narrative about the world and morality. Moreover, the men vs. women arguments worry me because I worry that such arguments will create division, alienating men from the up-coming battle to protect reproductive rights and Enlightenment values.  

Ultimately the struggle that our nation and world faces is much larger than any single issue such as abortion. Evangelistic thinkers are obstacles to human progress who seek to return us to an age in which we are ruled by people claiming divine right rather than the rule of law. If they succeed, America may continue to exist in name, but the spirit, the ideas and values that made us one of the great nations of history, will be lost. 

The American Gilded Class

As I read the news reports regarding the Senate confirmation of the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, I feel increasingly sick.  The whole mess is reflective of the sad state of American politics in the 21st century.  The recent allegations of sexual assault add to the ugliness in a way that’s becoming increasingly predictable in American society.  I find it depressing.  As a male who loves the women in his life, and who tries very hard to always treat women with respect, these headlines tear at my heart.  I’m torn between my desire to believe that those who wear the judicial robe, especially on our highest federal courts, are of the best ethical fiber of the legal profession, and my belief that most sexual assault claims are truthful.   I’ve been a lawyer too long to cling too tightly to either belief, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting those beliefs to be true.

I started my legal career as a criminal defense attorney, so it’s ingrained in me to think about the weakness of an allegation of misconduct or criminal behavior.  As every defense attorney knows, time favors the defendant because memories fade and witnesses disappear, which lessens the likelihood of a crime being proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  However, for the same reasons, time does not favor a person who is seeking exculpation or who has need to prove his or her innocence.  The skeptic in me wonders about the fairness of judging a 30-year event that is raised at the last minute in a highly political situation.  Another part of me fears an unethical ideologue, who may have an internal hostility towards women, deciding cases that determine the course of American law for years to come.

 However, as I read about this long-ago event, and I hear the stories of prep-school life, there is another part of me that is so tired of the “good ole boy” network that protects the privileged from their mistakes and from the legal system that they run and to whose judgments the rest of us are subject. I am weary of our nation being ruled by people who were born into a system of societal nobility that provides them with the best educations and the best opportunities while the rest of us work our asses off trying to climb the social and professional ladders as they take the elevator to the top based on a myth that they’re smarter, harder-working, and morally superior.  On paper they look great because their records are usually stellar given the protection they receive from their social class and the schools they attend. 

A friend of mine who is college professor recently shared with me his frustration at evaluating the grades of students from elite private colleges because of the well-known grade inflation at those schools where faculty must justify in writing giving any student a grade less than a B.  This grade inflation makes their graduates more competitive for admission to the best graduate programs, which in turn, increases the prestige of the private college. 

There is a caste system in our country that is driven by education inequity and the existence of a system of elite private schools and colleges.  Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush, all went to private preparatory schools, as did 4 of our current Supreme Court justices.   It should also be noted that the public schools that the remaining 4 justices attended were either magnet schools or exceptional public schools.  None of our recent Presidents or current Supreme Court justices went to public schools that were struggling under-funded institutions located in poor neighborhoods.  Additionally, only 10 percent of American students attend private schools.  Clearly, graduates of private schools are grossly over-represented in the White House and on the Supreme Court. 

Of the current Supreme Justices, they all are alumni of either Harvard or Yale Law schools (Justice Ginsberg graduated from Columbia but was also a student at Harvard).  There are 205 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association in the United States, yet graduates of all but two of those schools are completely absent from the upper echelon of American law.  Justice Scalia, in one of his final dissents, noted the lack of diversity on the Court and wrote:

“the Federal Judiciary is hardly a cross-section of America. Take, for example, this Court, which consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers18 who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans19), or even a Protestant of any denomination. “ Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2629 (2015)

It’s interesting that Justice Scalia wrote these words. Scalia grew up in Queens and attended public school through 8th grade.   He was awarded a scholarship to a Jesuit High School where he graduated as valedictorian.  I see him as someone who started out as an outsider who made that extremely rare transition to an insider.  The other interesting thing about Justice Scalia is the way that those who knew him, even when they disagreed with his judicial philosophy, spoke of his kindness and friendship.  Justice Ginsburg referred to him as her best friend, and Justice Kagan became his hunting partner.  Whatever his faults, and I take issue with a lot of his decisions, his reputation as a gentleman is legendary among those who knew him.

The promise of America has been of opportunity.  Growing up we are told one of the great things about our nation is that our potential in life is not determined by birth and parental lineage.  However, when you look at who gets to run the show and make the big decisions, it’s clear that promise remains unfulfilled. 

No Farting In Bed and Other Unwritten Rules that Preserve Democracy

Much to my long-suffering wife’s disappointment, there is no law against a person farting in a bed occupied by two people.  However, as she is inclined to remind me, generalized unwritten rules of marital bliss dictate that one refrain from offensive emissions.  I value my wife and am quite content to stay married to her, so I do my best to treat her with respect and to restrain myself from breaking the norms of marital behavior.

The unwritten rules, norms, that govern and maintain peace in our lives often go unnoticed until broken.  For example, if I accidentally step on your toe as I pass you in a hallway, it is expected that I will say “excuse me” and offer a moment of attention and acknowledgement of your discomfort.  For your part, I don’t expect that you will sue me for battery as the result of an unintentional bump, although the law may well entertain such an action.  Instead, in most cases, my apology is sufficient.  We do this because it maintains the social fabric that allows our society to function despite the harms, insults, and embarrassments that we sometimes inflict upon each other. If either of us fails to play our part in the unwritten rules of our interaction, trust is broken and we are left with anger and feelings of being wronged.

Although I spend a lot time in conflict in my law practice, there are some unwritten rules that govern behavior between lawyers that make a big difference in preserving our sanity and our ability to civilly resolve our clients’ disputes.  First, contrary to what you may have seen on television, good lawyers don’t fight about unimportant things and we don’t insult each other.  If opposing counsel needs a few extra days to complete a response to a motion or lawsuit, it’s bad form to deny the request.  When opposing counsel makes a foolish mistake, a good lawyer will avoid humiliating him or her in front of their client.  Perhaps most importantly, we don’t lie to each other.  A lawyer who breaks these unwritten rules will soon find him or herself ostracized within the legal community and judges take a very dim view of such behavior.

Behavior norms and restraints are rapidly decaying in American government.  Harvard Political Science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their recently published book How Democracies Die provide a detailed history and warn us that loss of democratic norms and restraints is historically associated with the collapse of democracy and the rise of  authoritarian rule.

A dysfunctional president, a bad Supreme Court Justice, or an indentured Congress might give us poor policy and temporarily strain the boundaries of our democracy, but they are unlikely to cause the demise of democracy or give rise to authoritarian rule. However, the loss of unwritten norms and restraints on our behavior towards one another increases the polarization in our society and in our government, which is measurably leading to the breakdown of democracy.

This is not a party issue or an issue of conservative versus liberal or of Democrat versus Republican. This is about whether we continue to exist as a democracy.  In the time that I’ve been writing this piece, the news has exploded with comments between two prominent politicians from different parties who are arguing about who would win a fist fight.  This type of rhetoric is ridiculous and is destroying us.  Playing “hardball” with a “the other side is the enemy who must be destroyed at all costs” mentality is what happens when democracies are failing.  We need to put a stop to calls to lock up political rivals and stop delegitimizing anyone outside our camp or who challenges an idea or tradition.  Such calls are a return to McCarthyism and have no place in our democracy.

American democracy is not going to be saved by our politicians, at least not as long as voters continue to mistake norm breaking, obstruction, and lack of restraint for vision, commitment, and leadership.  It is up to each of us to do what we can to reduce the polarization and to turn away from those who would have us depart from the unwritten norms and restraint that are foundational to functional democracy.  We have to say “enough” to the politics of obstructionism and delegitimization.  We have to reject the idea that our patriotism is measured by our political party affiliation, our religion, our skin color, our ideas of public policy, or even in what position we sing the national anthem.  I believe that true patriotism is measured by our commitment to each other and to the democratic norms and restraint that have historically allowed our nation to survive.  The choice is ours, we can continue to fart in the bed, enraging our partners until they reach the breaking point, or we can exercise some restraint and civil behavior and maintain the relationship.

Reflections on 30 Years In Tallahassee

Thirty years is a long time, unless you’re looking backwards wondering where the time went.  It doesn’t seem possible to me that it’s been exactly thirty years since I first moved to Tallahassee.  The memories of that time are some of the best I’ve collected in my time on this planet.  I was 23 years old and eager to explore the world.  I’d spent the prior six years of my life working and going to school in Pensacola, Florida, a town I never wanted to live in and that I feared being stuck in forever.

I remember that I came to town, driving my 1984 Nissan Sentra, with very little money, no place to stay, an old guitar, and Princess, my Labrador retriever puppy. I carried a small tent with me and had this idea that I would tent camp for a few nights if I couldn’t find a place to stay.  Fortunately, I had friends who agreed to let Princess and me sleep on their living room floor while I started my life in Tallahassee.  Using the print classified ads in the Florida Flambeau, I was able to locate a room in a house with two other students whose names I’ve long since forgotten, but whose antics, such as getting drunk and covering our single telephone with pink frosting, I remember all too well.

Florida State University Campus

I could only afford the tuition for two classes that semester, but I quickly fell in love with Florida State.  Each day it seemed that my world became larger and more interesting.  It wasn’t just the classes, it was the campus itself.  Every day I was meeting new people who took my mind and imagination to new places with their conversation and the stories they shared.  I worked nights as a computer operator at the Tallahassee Democrat, and this job provided me with time to consume books and fall in love with the ideas I found in their pages.

During that time, I read several books per week.  One day I wandered into Rubyfruit books and met a lovely woman who I learned could be relied upon to always recommend an excellent read.  I was oblivious to the fact that Rubyfruit was somewhat radical and identified as a gay and lesbian book store.  I just knew they carried more interesting books than the B. Dalton’s at the mall and they always greeting me warmly.

I love the natural beauty found in the Tallahassee area.

It was such an exciting time of growth, exploration, and everything that is wonderful about being young and free. I remember the afternoons spent fishing from a rowboat on lake Talquin where I would always see a huge old alligator laying in the same spot in the shoreline grass.  I remember exploring the dirt roads and trails of Apalachicola National Forest and a glorious afternoon my brother and I spent swimming in a sinkhole with our young dogs.  More than places, I remember meeting new friends, a few who continue to be in my life to this day.

To be sure, there was plenty of struggle.  Money was always short and would be for years to come.  The guitar I’d brought with me landed in a pawn shop when I hocked it to pay my rent.  My progress through school was slow and my grades were less than impressive as I spent too many hours working to support myself and pay tuition and socializing with an intensity that I had never done before or since.

If I’d never come to Tallahassee, I would have never met my friend, Howard.

Mostly though, I remember people who I met along way.  Intimate friends and passing strangers who enriched my world with their wisdom, kindness, and stories.  Jack, the hot dog guy from New York, who used to stand in front of Strozier library selling all beef hot dogs from a little stand and who always had an encouraging word for me.  I remember Virgil Goedkin, a chemistry professor, who helped me figure out a way to stay in school when money was tight and who was the first person I ever knew who died of AIDS and who was one of eight members from a family of hemophiliacs who died from the disease.  I remember Dan Borato, my clinical psychology professor, who I thought was crazy, but who I’ve since learned was so wise that I still quote him to this day.  I remember wandering into a musical theatre play while walking around campus one night, thinking it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen, and there began a love of live theatre and performance that endures. And there is so much I could write about FSU Hillel, where I found community and deep friendships that continue to this day.

The old and new of Tallahassee, looking North from the new pedestrian over-pass on S. Monroe Street.

Many old Tallahassee landmarks have disappeared in the past 30 years.  The old dairy on Monroe street is gone, which was across the street from the Albertsons, which is also gone; the Brown Derby Restaurant was still open and located in the parking lot next to Tallahassee Mall when I came to town. Morrison’s cafeteria was in both malls and my friends and I would often go there for cheap meals.  The Barbershop in Northwood Mall cut my hair for years.  I remember great times with friends at Buffalo Wings and Rings, sitting on the second story balcony overlooking Pensacola street before it was rerouted around the stadium.  I remember the FSU Stadium as a simple steel structure and being able to simply walk in and stand on the field during a semester break.  In 1988 you should still drive down Woodward street, right through the middle of campus, and I don’t remember any parking garages at FSU back then.  When I registered for class I had to use this awful dial in phone system that was always busy, and it took hours to get through only to find the class you wanted was already full.  It’s a testament to our determination and grit that we got registered for any classes at all.   I remember when the old airport terminal was still in use and when TCC was a small unimpressive community college that my friends sometimes called “Tee Hee Hee”, even when they were taking classes there.

So Many Memories of Times Spent with Friends

It was inevitable that my life would progress and that my youth would give way to adulthood, and then to middle age.  Over the years I’ve lost a lot of hair, put on a few pounds, adopted some great dogs, and gained a wonderful wife.  I’ve had careers in law, technology and nursing as I’ve wandered the planet in search of purpose and direction.  My life has given me opportunities to do things that I never anticipated, such as flying airplanes, sailing boats, and travelling to places like Israel, Hawaii, Alaska, France and the Galapagos. So many things have happened that I never imagined back in those days.

Looking back I can see that time has taken its toll. Not all my friends survived our wild days and we didn’t all make it to middle-age, but I carry their memories in my mind and in my heart.  New friends have come into my life to fill those spaces, but never truly replacing the ones who are gone.  Jack, the hot dog guy is gone, his stand replaced by a commercial vendor in a little building. Rubyfruit Books gave way to Borders, which gave way to Amazon.   Indeed, print books now seem to be losing to digital media. The last time I was in Strozier library, the entire bottom floor was computer terminals and the upper floors, where the books are kept, was completely empty.  But for every loss, there has been something positive. Locally, I love the new Cascades Park and the St. Mark’s bike trail. T.C.C. has grown into an amazing school.  No more terrible phone registration, students now register online and even take classes online. Tallahassee now has a rather handsome, although nearly empty, airport terminal.

A reunion of friends from our days at FSU Hillel.

These days, I watch my young nieces and nephews, and the children of my friends, launching into the world, and I remember that time 30 years ago when I stepped out  into the world.  I hope that their experiences will be as amazing as mine were and that they’ll find the love and beauty in the world that welcomed me so many years ago.  I hope that they’ll find friends who share the journey of their lives with them.  For me, living in a society that often feels youth obsessed, it’s tempting to think that my time is done, but that’s not true.  There are still adventures waiting if I have the courage take the journey.  There are still friends to made, books to read, stories to shared, and life to be lived.  Someday it will be over, but right now as I live in the body of a middle-aged man, that young man who wanted to explore world is still living inside me, and he allows me to see wonder in the world and possibilities that I didn’t see the day before.

Sexual Assault And Our Lack of Trust In Women

Is it simply a coincidence that the wave of women coming forward reporting sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior comes approximately a year after a woman, Hillary Clinton, won the popular election to the office of President of the United States, but was denied that office by the electoral college?  I don’t think it is. I think that the election became a referendum on the status of women in our society and the outcome doesn’t flatter us.

We all witnessed the infamous video of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and getting away with.  Perhaps more stunning was how so many people were able to disregard this video and justify their continued support of Trump on the basis that Hillary Clinton was so untrustworthy that no sin of Donald Trump would ever make him a worse choice than her.

This really became the theme of the Trump campaign and has been the stock and trade of many pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. I remember watching one of the debates in which Donald Trump repeatedly called into question Hillary Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness utilizing a common technique of abusers called gas-lighting.  With gas-lighting, the abuser repeatedly states blatant lies as fact, often saying things like “people are saying”, “everyone knows you’re…” in order to sow seeds of doubt regarding the victim’s credibility.  It’s a brainwashing technique that has been used by abusers, dictators, and cult leaders and is alive and well in modern American politics.

Sadly, in my life, I have seen gas-lighting used most effectively by men against women.  I’ve witnessed it time and time again in nearly every setting where a man’s power is threatened by a woman.  What is even more surprising is how often women readily join in and support the gaslighting of another woman who dares to step out of line. We need to recognize gaslighting for the form of abuse that it is, but I don’t see any signs of that happening.

Our culture has a long tradition of not trusting women.  Most Americans who are religious practice one of the Abrahamic faiths in which the very first story in the Bible is the creation story where it’s Eve who first eats of the forbidden fruit and is often blamed for our expulsion from Eden (I would strongly argue that this is not a correct interpretation of this story, but I do think it is how a majority of people read the story).  Within the creation story we see G-d seeming to endorse an subservient position for Eve: “…your desire shall be for your man, and he shall rule over you.” This preference for the masculine is reinforced in Abrahamic religions in which G-d is usually referred to in the masculine form, and in many traditions women are excluded from portions of ritual life or considered disqualified to serve as clergy. The religious message isn’t simply that women are dishonest, but that they are impulsive and have poor judgment and that when a man allows a woman to lead, it will corrupt him.

In American history the institutionalized lack of trust in women is pervasive.  Women were denied the right to vote until 1920.  In many states, married women were legally considered incompetent to contract and their property belonged to their husbands. The law did not protect women from sexual assault by their husbands. These are not ancient laws that were abandoned long ago. Such laws have are within living memory and were in force for the majority of our nation’s existence. The Florida Supreme Court wrote, as recently as the 1940’s: “The common law as interpreted by this Court does not recognize capacity in a married woman to contract.” Hogan v. Supreme Camp of Am. Woodmen, 1 So. 2d 256, 258 (Fla. 1941).

We are a product of our history and old biases and ideas that often lurk in the deepest depths of even the most educated and progressive minds.  It’s not simply that we accept “boys will be boys”.  It’s that our society carries an inherent bias against the competency and trustworthiness of women that continues to be a strong force to this very day.  It’s why voters were so easily mislead regarding Hillary Clinton and why victims of sexual assault have felt often felt powerless.

Recall the Jameis Winston case, in which the woman who claims she was sexually assaulted immediately reported the incident, but the police failed to vigorously investigate the alleged crime despite the serious nature of the alleged offense.  It is worth noting that when the alleged rape was first reported, the woman didn’t know the name of her alleged attacker, so I see this as more than just the local police trying to cover up for an athlete. I think the unspoken truth in that case is that the police simply didn’t take her seriously, and, if the case hadn’t led to a star football player, we never would have heard another word about it.

Many of the women who have come forward have said that they didn’t speak up because they were afraid that people wouldn’t believe them or take their claims seriously.  Whenever a complaint of sexual misconduct is made, we need to take it seriously and ensure there is no retaliation against the person making the report.  I’m not one to say that women never make false allegations.  I’ve done enough criminal defense law to have long abandoned that idea, but I also know that we don’t question the victim’s credibility to such a degree when it’s a man complaining that he was hit by another man.  I also know that this bias isn’t limited to men.  One of the earliest lessons that I was taught by a very effective and experienced female criminal defense attorney was to choose as many women as possible when selecting a jury for a sexual assault case with an adult female victim. She told me, women are skeptical when another woman claims she’s been raped and they don’t feel the guilt that a male juror does.

Legal scholar and Harvard Law Professor, Alan Dershowitz, wrote: “The struggle for morality never stays won, it’s always in process”.  As our society has evolved we’ve often been shocked to see what injustices we’ve turned a blind eye to and that people who we’ve regarded as leaders have become the symbols of those injustices.  I think we have to remember that while evolution can be a slow process, there also times when rapid changes occur.  I hope that this is one of those times and that we emerge as better and wiser people.

My Kol Nidre Talk

I’m currently in my second year of a two year term as president of my synagogue, Congregation Shomrei Torah.  It is customary for the synagogue president to give the sermon or “drash” on Kol Nidre, the evening service that begins Yom Kippur, what is often called the holiest day in the Jewish year.  It has been my honor to give this talk for the past two years.  I hope that I have been able to share some words that have been meaningful to people.  

Tonight, I’m going to talk about why what happens in synagogues saves lives.

You may have a noticed, we recently had a rather large thunderstorm named Irma come ripping through the State of Florida.  I don’t enjoy life much without air conditioning or internet, so I accepted an invitation from my in-laws to join them and my wife, Barbara, at their home in Cleveland, Ohio.  I loaded up my car with our two dogs, a cat, my favorite guitar, 3 laptop computers, a box of Blue Apron meals and I headed north.  I evacuated through Bainbridge, Georgia where I made the turn west towards Montgomery, Alabama and interstate 65.  At the point where I made the turn in Bainbridge I saw the most amazing thing.  This large group people was on the side of the road with tables, grills, and cookers in what looked like a big party.  Along side the road I saw signs inviting evacuees like me to stop and have a free meal.  Looking at this, I was really in awe because Bainbridge was clearly in the path of the storm, and yet here were these people giving out free cooked meals to strangers.  How awesome is that?  As I drove along, I thought about this, and wondered why we don’t see this kind of generosity and kindness when things are going well.  Why does it take impending disaster or crisis for us to be our most altruistic selves?  Why do we give away free food to refugees during times of crisis, but debate things like food stamps and school lunches during times of plenty?

Why does it take impending disaster or crisis for us to be our most altruistic selves?

This summer I read the book “Tribe”, by combat reporter Sebastian Junger, in which he tells the story of Great Britain before and during WWII.  When it became evident to the British government that war with Germany was inevitable and that the Germans were certain to bomb the British cities, there was great concern how the population would react. Never before had a civilian population been bombed.  The government feared that once the German bombs started falling, all social order would collapse, there would be mass hysteria and psychosis,  factories would stop producing goods, and the war would be lost due to public disorder.

The interesting thing is that’s not what happened. British society didn’t fall apart. In fact, the opposite occurred.  When the bombs started falling, crime plummeted, anarchy didn’t occur. In fact, conduct in the bomb shelters was so good the police never had to be called to restore order.  The more the bombs fell the more productivity in factories increased. Most surprisingly, Psychiatrists noted that patients with long-term mental disorders suddenly improved.  Suicide rates, dramatically decreased.

These phenomena generated the interest of social scientists who continue to study it and have been observed many times since during other times of crisis.  Sociologist Emile Durkheim found in his research that when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped and that psychiatric wards emptied. The same effect also applies to natural disasters.  Researchers found that despite news reports, crime rates in New Orleans actually decreased post-Katrina and that much of the looting was nothing more than people looking for food.  In the six months following the 9/11 attacks the suicide rate in NYC dropped by 20% and the murder rate by 40%.  As a nation, we saw no rampage shootings in the two years following 9/11.

Psychologist Charles Fritz studied the impact of disasters and the resulting improvements in mental health and he theorized that while modern society has greatly disrupted the traditional social bonds of human experience, disasters thrust us back into a more natural way of being by erasing class barriers, income barriers, and even the barriers of race and replacing them with a community of sufferers that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.

One earthquake survivor gave a less scientific explanation when he said that the earthquake achieved what the law promises, but doesn’t deliver – the equality of all people.

he said that the earthquake achieved what the law promises, but doesn’t deliver – the equality of all people

What about the effects of peace, stability, and affluence? As Jews living in modern America we are enjoying one of the most prosperous and peaceful times in all of Jewish history.  As Americans, we live in what is the wealthiest society that’s ever existed in human history.  Things should be good, right?

Well, let’s look at the data.  In the United States deaths for from overdose, suicide and alcohol related causes, commonly known as the diseases of despair, have increased dramatically since 1998.  For white women that number is a shocking 381% increase.  These numbers are the highest in the industrialized world and are in stark contrast to every other industrialized country where such deaths are decreasing.

The portrait of teens emerging from the data is only of a lonely disconnected generation where social life is conducted online rather than in person.

When we look at the data for our children we see some very interesting and disturbing trends.  On a positive note, psychology professor Jean Tweage, in a September 2017 article in Atlantic magazine reports that the data shows that American adolescents today are physically safer than any prior generation, are less likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs, are less sexually active, are less likely to smoke, and that teenage pregnancy rates are at historical lows. She also says that we have a generation on the verge of a mental health crisis.   She reports that rates of teenage depression have sky rocketed in recent years. Three times as many 12-14 year old girls committed suicide in 2015 as did in 2007. The portrait of teens emerging from the data is only of a lonely disconnected generation where social life is conducted online rather than in person.  Interestingly, the data stretching back to the 1930’s shows the lives of adolescents began changing in 2007 and the rate of change became exponential in 2012. What do you think happened in those years? (The iPhone was introduced in 2007, and in 2012 we reached a threshold where 50% of people had smart phones).

Modern society has perfected the art of making people feel not necessary

So, what’s the deal with us where our mental health improves in times of war and mass disasters, and deteriorates when things are good? Returning to Sebastian Junger, he postulates that “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.  Modern society has perfected the art of making people feel not necessary.”  This same idea is found in the writing of Rabbi Harold Kushner who said: “One of the basic needs of every human being is the need to be loved, to have our wishes and feelings taken seriously, to be validated as people who matter.”

As Jews, we are a tribal people living in an age of globalism.  Globalism brings many great things into our lives, but it comes at a cost, and that cost is emotional benefits of tribal connection and the loss of struggle.  In other words, alienation.

What does all this mean for us as a Jewish community and why I am talking about this on Kol Nidre?  It’s because this is where synagogues become important and save lives.  When people find connection and community in our synagogue we help immunize them from the diseases of despair that have become epidemic in America today.

To be counted in a minyan one isn’t required to be scholarly, observant, wealthy, or good-looking

In a global world, we provide the tribal component that is missing is so many of our lives. Judaism is often referred to as a tribal religion and we see elements of this scattered throughout our rituals.  For example, when we say Kaddish or read Torah, we are commanded to have 10 adult Jews present.  To be counted in a minyan one isn’t required to be scholarly, observant, wealthy, or good-looking.  Just being a Jew is enough, nothing else is required.  Tomorrow when we recite the Al Het and confess our sins, we do this as a community, not as individuals.  We share the burden of our sin together and together we seek a pathway to redemption. I also see this concept of tribalism present in the Torah. We’re all familiar with the many lines contained in the Torah that remind us to “love our neighbor as our self”.

Congregation Shomrei is a place that is rooted in tribal connection.  When we come to this synagogue, we combat alienation and despair.  We share more than just ancient ritual, we share a tribal connection.  We do this when we come to services or events and we put away our cell phones and we share the stories of our lives, when we stand on the Bimah as I am right now and we share our Torah or our ritual skills, when we feed each other with amazing Onegs, Kiddush lunches, and Shabbat diners, when we welcome children and new parents with baby namings and bris’s, then we watch those children grow up in our religion school, we see them become Bar or Bat Mitzvahs under the watchful eye of our volunteer Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutors, when we go out into the world together when we feed the homeless at the Kerney Center, when we watch each other grow older, when we support each other in times of sickness, With our Hevre Kadisha we even care for each other after death.  This year we expanded our tribal connections when made the important choice to extend membership to non-Jewish spouses because we realized that those who share their lives with our members are an indispensable part of our community. All of these things, help us to be a part of something that is greater than ourselves. The things that happen in these walls give our lives meaning and I invite you to be a part of this experience we call synagogue life.  For a small rural lay-led synagogue run completely on volunteer labor, this Congregation is amazing and there is great beauty in our community.

Don’t separate yourself from the community

I’m told that it is customary for the synagogue president to ask you for money on Kol Nidre.  There is always a need for money in any synagogue.  To those of you how are able and have shared your financial wealth with us, I thank you. We couldn’t do it without your support, but what I hope that I have communicated to you tonight is how your support of Congregation Shomrei Torah translates into something that is much larger than mere dollars.  This really is about life in both a literal and a metaphorical sense.  For those of you who struggle financially, I want you to know you are not alone and that you matter every bit as much the big donors.  If all you have to share is your time or your stories, that’s fine.  We always need volunteers and there is always room for one more at our table.

I am going close with the words of Hillel from Piriki Avot who said: “Don’t separate yourself from the community” to which I would add, this is not just for your sake, but for mine and everyone else who is part of the Shomrei Torah Community. Our lives are at stake and you make the difference.  At Shomrei Torah we are all necessary.

Message To A Niece On Her 18th Birthday

To my wonderful niece on the occasion of your 18th Birthday:

How special it is to share a birthday with you and to reflect on how you’ve grown into the fine young adult woman who you are.  You are truly a gift in all our lives.  I regret that we cannot celebrate this occasion together.  As you mark the occasion of reaching legal adulthood, I think back on my 18th birthday so many years ago and I remember standing on the precipice of adulthood and not being sure what that meant or what lay head of me.  If I could go back, I would offer advice to that young man, but I can’t do that, so instead, I will share those thoughts with you on this special day.

Know that your life will be what you make of it.  It will never be perfect and all your dreams won’t come true.  It’s important to not be a prisoner of perfection.  Take notice of what blessings do come your way.  Happiness doesn’t come from achieving all our dreams, but in gratitude for the few that will come true and for the people with whom we get to share our lives.

Don’t be afraid.  You’re far stronger than you know.  You were built to survive and are well equipped for this life. You will sometimes fail, but failure won’t destroy you unless you let it. The lessons that have come from my failures have often been the very foundation of my future successes.  Go out into the world and explore for the simple joy of being alive. You will learn things that no classroom can deliver.  Your life is a story that only you can write.

Guard your time carefully. You only have so many days in this life. You may live to 100, but remember, not everyone gets to grow old.  Make time for the people you love.  Our parents and grandparents are mortal and time passes quickly.  Likewise, in business and love, follow the old adage to “fail quickly” and not waste time on careers and relationships that aren’t working.  Time will pass more quickly than you expect.

You will become the people with whom you surround yourself.  Seek out those who bring out the very best in you.  Be loyal to your friends and treat their friendship for the gift that it is.  Likewise, remember that your friendship has value and isn’t to be squandered on people who don’t see that.  Remember that not everyone who is nice to you is a friend, nor is everyone who argues with you, or opposes you, an enemy.  Do your best to find a mentor and then do your best to make them as proud of you as possible.  When it’s your time, mentor someone else and do your best to lift as many people as you can with you.

Forgive even when it isn’t deserved. Do this for yourself so that you can live your life as free from resentment and anger as possible. There is truth in the cliché that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.   Understand that forgiveness doesn’t mean you have trust an untrustworthy person or that you have to let a harmful person back into your life.  It merely means that you recognize the other people have flaws and make mistakes, and it’s about them, not you.  Don’t ever forget we all need redemption sometimes.

Lastly, live a life of balance.  Enjoy great food, but don’t be a glutton.  Be charitable, but also look out for your own interests.  Be honest, but tell every bride that she’s beautiful and every new mother that she has a beautiful baby.

With all my love,

You very proud Uncle David

Clemency Denied and a Pardon Granted: Equal Justice in America?

Florida Sends More Children To Adult Prison Than All Other States Combined

When I was a law student I worked on a clemency petition for a child who was sent to an adult prison in Florida for 9 years for her first offense.  At 12 years old, she entered prison as the youngest inmate in the Florida Department of Corrections. It is worth noting that Florida sends more children to adult prison than all other states in the country combined.  As I worked on her clemency petition I learned that in the weeks leading up to her committing the crime, robbery of her grandmother’s home, she had been examined by two psychologists who both recommended that she be given immediate in-patient care.  I also found out that the source of her distress was that she was being abandoned by her mother who had run off with a man she had met, dumping the young girl on a grandmother who didn’t want her and who communicated this to her by getting rid of the twin bed the child was sleeping on, forcing the child to sleep on the floor.  The state of Florida wasn’t there to help this child.  A prosecutor later told me there was no money for the mental health treatment she needed. Instead, the state provided her with a much more expensive 9-year prison sentence as an adult.

I argued the clemency petition before Governor Jeb Bush at the Florida State Capitol

I argued her clemency petition at the state capitol before then Governor Jeb Bush and his cabinet.  I told Jeb Bush about her history of abuse and abandonment.  How her Mother had left the country and had never once visited her in prison.  I told him about how she had earned a GED in prison and showed him her nearly flawless behavior record.  I shared with him her statement of regret.  I asked him to let her out of the prison where she had been for the past 5 years and showed him the plan for treatment and recovery that we had put in place.  As I spoke, Governor  Jeb Bush played with the pencils on his desk and rocked back and forth in his giant power chair. He didn’t seem to take much interest.  I don’t remember him asking me any questions.  When I had finished he politely thanked me for my presentation and nearly a year later sent a notice that he denied her request for clemency.

“Truthfully, I’d be happy to see many more pardons and acts of clemency coming from the President and our Governors.”

One tyrant taking care of another

As I read the newspaper reports of Donald Trump’s granting a pardon to an unrepentant former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I think back to asking for clemency for that young woman.  Truthfully, I’d be happy to see many more pardons and acts of clemency coming from the President and our Governors.  A shift towards a more compassionate criminal justice system in our nation is long-overdue, but that’s not what this is.  Instead, it’s a move away from a more compassionate system. It’s nothing more than one tyrant protecting another.  Trump didn’t pardon Arpaio  because Arpaio made a regretted mistake or because Arpaio has shown himself to be a man deserving of mercy.  Arpaio, a man who swore an oath to uphold the law, willfully defied that law and elevated himself to the role of judge, jury, and executioner when he defied an order from a federal Judge.  Trump pardoned Arpaio as a way of weakening Judicial authority and letting everyone know that, for those who are on Trump’s team, the Courts and the laws of our nation are not a factor.

“It’s nothing more than one tyrant protecting another.”

I wish that I could say that this is an anomaly in our legal system, but it’s not.  Too many times I’ve seen the well-connected and privileged protected by the system while people like the young girl whose clemency was denied by Jeb Bush are eaten alive by the system.  It really depresses me sometimes to work in a system that so often seems unfair.  I recall the words of a cynical law professor who said that the legal system exists to maintain the class structure in all but the most extreme cases.  I fear that soon, even extreme cases of injustice will no longer find a remedy in our legal system.