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Opinion | My unforgettable college stabbings (Reacting to violence: A personal history)

Stephen Cooper

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Violence can and does occur anywhere at any time to anyone. While our current mass shooting epidemic has thrust this fact of being alive into our daily consciousness, I learned this lesson long ago. First, I learned when I was mugged and stabbed in the early ’90s during my freshman year at Tufts University, a private liberal arts college in the suburbs of Boston; then later, during my senior year, when I lived off campus with a mentally ill man who stabbed three girls, all students too, at a party; and finally, still much later, when I embarked on a career as a public defender, defending poor people charged with crimes, often violent ones.

But let’s start with my own stabbing. It was a rainy Monday night when it happened. I’d just entered the campus on a footpath adjacent to my dormitory. On the other side of the path was a large, well-lit athletic field, which, when the weather wasn’t foul, was populated by people walking, jogging or exercising their dogs. I was coming back from an assignment at a museum near Harvard for my art history class and was hurrying to get out of the rain. I was wearing one of those once ubiquitous yellow Sony Sport-Walkmans and blasting “Burnin’,” one of my favorite Bob Marley albums, when I heard footsteps behind me.

There were three of them. “Townies” was what the police called them: young men who resented and occasionally preyed upon the presumed (often correctly) affluent college students who came from near and far each year, infiltrating their town. They were a multi-racial crew, one black, one white and the third Latino; all three wore puffy “Starter” athletic jackets that used to be in fashion and each had a bandana covering his face to his eyes – the first thing that tipped me off to the trouble I was in.

Before I could react, the Latino guy grabbed me by the neck and the white guy pulled out a large Rambo-style Bowie knife, which he waved menacingly close to my face. The black man, a behemoth suitable to play linebacker in the NFL, stood in front of me, his arms folded, glaring. The white guy told me to “give it up,” but I told him I didn’t have anything. He said “empty your pockets,” and shaking, I pulled my keys and a few coins from my jeans before things turned violent.

Raising his knife high, the white guy suddenly brought it crashing down, stabbing me right in my left thigh. I stumbled backward, and it’s that stumble that probably saved my life, because that’s when the white guy tried to stab me in my chest. Later, at the hospital, the impression the knife-point made on my chest where it had failed to pierce the skin was a vivid reminder of my near mortality – a hickey from the grim reaper himself.

After they stabbed me, I crumpled to the ground, and they ran. Canvassing the area later, police recovered my Bob Marley tape on a nearby side street; it was broken. So was I. I remember clutching my chest thinking I was going to die before seeing the river of blood running down my leg. It’s weird, but in the moment, I was joyous because as potentially fatal as a stab wound to the leg can be, and even though I knew this subconsciously, I realized I hadn’t been stabbed in any major organs. I couldn’t stand but was able to crawl up an embankment to the front of my dorm to eventual help.

Now, one stabbing experience is surely enough for anybody. But violence can and does occur anywhere at any time to anyone. And while it’s unpredictable violence like lightning can and does strike twice; in my case, it did. One of my roommates in my senior year, an acquaintance before we moved in together, was, unbeknownst to me, seriously mentally ill. Before moving in with me and a mutual friend, he’d been receiving residential mental-health counseling; it didn’t work. One night, at a party I fortunately didn’t attend, he stabbed three girls before being apprehended, prosecuted and eventually sent to a mental institution. My memories of that event include his surreal, disheveled image on all the local news channels and having to scale a back fence to avoid reporters seeking comment, sneaking off to the airport and home.

After graduating, I didn’t give much thought to my unforgettable college stabbing experiences. If anything, I did what I could to bury the unpleasantness of their memory, with their violence, fear and pain. But after college, I went to law school and eventually became a public defender. For close to a decade, I represented indigent men and women charged with serious, often violent, crimes in D.C. Then, for another three years, I represented men sentenced to death in Alabama.

During my public defense career, I was often exposed to brutal violence: vicious murders and rapes and the most horrible, heinous assaults imaginable. Once I defended a woman who walked up to a baby carriage and punched the baby inside in the face. Another time a client of mine sexually assaulted and stabbed to death a woman and her daughter; he’d been terribly neglected and abused as a child and erupted after what he perceived as their rejection.

What I repeatedly saw as a public defender but had never before connected to my own stabbing experiences is that while violence can and does occur anywhere at any time to anyone, our response to violence does not need to be random, reactive or retributive, as it often tends to be. What I didn’t and couldn’t have realized in college, without my subsequent public defender experience, is that violence and the people who commit it are, more often than not, themselves the product of a cruel and unforgiving world, one often made even more excruciating to navigate through the debilitating fog of mental illness.

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What I saw as a public defender was that violence rarely occurs in a vacuum. Very often, it swirls up from egregious economic and emotional deprivation and/or from beyond-the-pale physical and mental suffering. Hardly ever are people wantonly violent just for the fun of it. And that’s why as a society, we can’t just exterminate other humans or lock them up and throw away the key – no matter how violent they’ve been. Because although violence can and does occur anywhere at any time to anyone, the impulse to violence is almost never completely random; almost always it’s a long-festering expression of searing and savage pain — pain that is itself a frequent byproduct of violence, physical or emotional or both.

If we want to live in a better and safer world together we have to be willing to investigate and get to the root of the mental imbalance and pain that can cause a woman to reach the point where she can punch a baby. We have to want to help a man who stabs three different women, one after the other, when he should be reveling in the prime of his life. If we want to help people avoid and overcome impulses to act violently, we have to be willing to determine the causes of their actions before there can be any hope of squelching them. As Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project has written, “How a society chooses to advance public safety is very much a function of how it conceptualizes the problem.”

Violence, be it emotional or physical, is a fact of being human. No one will be able to completely avoid it in a lifetime. Indeed, as James Baldwin wrote, “[E]very person, everybody born, from the time he’s found out about people until the whole thing is over, is certain of one thing: he is going to suffer. There is no way not to suffer.” But it is our reaction to suffering and to violence, our desire to root out its causes and prevent its reoccurrence, not the exacting of punishment for it, that will determine our humanity.


Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq

 

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq

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Opinion | COVID-19: Living in a state of alert

We will resort to our survival mode and exhibit moods and behaviors that are very much like those of individuals who have experienced trauma such as battle or extreme loss.

Lynn Beshear

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Borrowing a phrase from a recent communication by the National Council for Behavioral Health: as a result of COVID-19 everyone is living in a state of alert.” The effect of that on human beings is that we will resort to our survival mode and exhibit moods and behaviors that are very much like those of individuals who have experienced trauma such as battle or extreme loss.

Indeed, individuals on the Gulf coast and the west coast have experienced recent extreme losses of property, lives and livelihood due to Hurricane Sally and rampant fires, further compounding the impact on them of the COVID pandemic. In short, many in our state and country are in the midst of a mental health crisis. This is not a personality defect or sign of weakness. It does not just affect one type of person. We all can experience mental and emotional health issues.

So, what can we do? First, recognize that everyone is having these experiences to some degree. What we have learned about a major crisis is there are predictable emotional highs and lows as our state, country and the world move through the six stages of a disaster: pre-disaster, impact, heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment and reconstruction. If there is any good news about this situation it is that critical conversations are taking place in homes and workplaces. Individuals from all walks of life feel freer to share their feelings and fears, to listen to each other and to act decisively.

On the other hand, we know millions of Americans and Alabamians are suffering tremendously. According to a June 2020 Centers for Disease Control poll, forty percent of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use issues since March. For frontline healthcare workers and first responders, the impact of COVID-19 and the resulting increasedcritical care workload, is immense. Providing those levels of care has led to stress, anxiety, fear, substance use, suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues that for many individuals has resulted in a state of PTSD. This is true for individuals and families, regardless of direct care-giving involvement.

How can we improve mental health for ourselves, our family, coworkers and friends?

First, start the conversation. Everyone needs to feel they are “seen” and fully informed of options. Don’t hide your own feelings or genuine concern for those of others. Look for common experiences, while sharing useful and accurate information. In the work environment, a buddy system could be a vital strategy to ensure that no one is further isolated.

Warmlines, such as Wings Across Alabama’s phone line [1-844-999-4647] are there for anyone to call. Peer support is offered through dozens of organizations by trained peer specialists who have been successful in recovery. They help others to stay engaged in the recovery process and reduce the likelihood of relapse.

Alabama’s nineteen local mental health authorities and other mental health related organizations around the state offer direct services. Providers have implemented innovative ways to serve individuals through telehealth therapy, virtual group meetings, and drive-throughs for medication or information.

What can we do today is to turn our worries into action? Do not wait to seek help or help someone else. Create a mental health safety plan for yourself or family and friends about whom you may be concerned. Take breaks from social media but stayhealthily connected with friends and family.

To further expand accessibility to care, Alabama is transforming the approach to prevention and early intervention regarding mental health. From initiatives like the First Episode Psychosis program, the School-Based Mental Health Collaborative and ourIndividual Placement and Support-Supported Employmentprogram, to the Stepping Up Initiative’s goal to reduce the number of individuals with mental illness in jails, the Alabama Department of Mental Health is creating preventive and restorative programs for recovery.

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Remember that behavioral health is essential health. Prevention works. Treatment is effective, And, people can and do recover from mental and/or substance use disorders. Most of all, we must be kind to each other; it is good for our own mental health.

To find resources and assistance for mental health services visit: www.mh.alabama.gov

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Opinion | Air superiority then, space superiority now: the Battle of Britain 80 years hence

The United States and her friends cannot allow a country that is utterly opposed to freedom to control space.

Will Sellers

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(VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Eighty years ago this week, hurricane season ended when the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain by stopping the Nazi war machine at the edge of the English Channel.  Before the summer of 1940, Hitler had derided Great Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. Göring’s seemingly superior Luftwaffe pilots were outdone by the young British RAF, aided by friendly forces—not the least of which was a squadron of Polish pilots. They had shown the world that the Nazi juggernaut could be countered through perseverance, aided by the novel design of quick and lethal airplanes: the spitfire and hurricane.

Churchill named this battle when he declared after Dunkirk that with the conclusion of the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain would begin. Unlike past battles, the critical objective was as amorphous as it was strategic: the achievement of air superiority. It was a testament to the fact that warfare had changed forever, tilting the scales in favor of technology over brute strength.

Even Hitler and his retinue of yes-men knew that subjugating Britain would require a risky and complex invasion. The English Channel, though relatively narrow at some points, served as a giant moat that required amphibious landings on slow-moving vessels, which would be vulnerable to attack from above. Nazi control of the air would be the key to a successful invasion. With proper preparations for a seaborne invasion many months out, Göring pushed for an air campaign, and Hitler approved.

The Luftwaffe’s first objective was to destroy RAF airfields, but Luftwaffe planes were not designed for this mission, and their pilots—though experienced—were no match for the RAF’s pilots in spitfires and hurricanes. These planes had unmatched maneuverability, and home-field advantage played an equally important role. The British had a superior early warning radar system that enabled them to plot the likely flight path of incoming enemies and to scramble their gassed and fully loaded planes efficiently. Over Britain, each downed German represented not only a lost airplane but also a lost pilot. Maintaining air superiority was a fight for survival, and the British pilots knew that the fate of freedom for their island, and perhaps for civilization, rested on their shoulders. They turned the tide of the war in fighting, as Churchill noted, “undaunted by the odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger.”

While the concept of air superiority was initially academic, the Battle of Britain proved it critical to modern military success. Since then, the need for air superiority has remained unquestioned. A country might not win with air superiority, but failure was guaranteed without it. The use of airpower to master the skies has been the first order of business in every major conflict since World War II. Even today, with the development of defensive missile shields and the capability of intercepting incoming aircraft and missiles, air superiority is and will remain a critical objective in any conflict. But air superiority is starting to give way to space superiority.

As we become more and more dependent on satellites, and as human activity in space becomes less of a novelty, controlling space will be critical not only for commercial and economic success, but also for global stability and the defense of our nation. The nation that controls space will control the destiny of the entire world. To be dominant in space is to be dominant period, and the dominating nation will have the final say over many aspects of our lives.

Those who would object to the militarization of space do not understand, or refuse to see, today’s reality. The activities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in space are similar to those of the nations who sought to control the sea in the 19th century and the air in the 20th century. At present, these activities are largely unchecked by other nations and international organizations.

There was a time when the United Nations was capable of limiting space to peaceful means. Similar to the control of nuclear weapons, the United Nations provided a means of achieving an international consensus that limiting weapons in space was beneficial for all nations. But, as with any large organization attempting to achieve consensus among diverse groups, the only real agreement among nations became the lowest common denominator. Thus, UN limits on the militarization of space are limited, weak, and ineffective.

This void of international leadership is being filled by a resurgent Communist China, intent on achieving world domination—a long-term national goal. With few international limitations, the CCP is seeking space superiority to impose its ideas on the world and thereby supplant civilization’s shared liberal principles. The UN has been aggressively helpless or simply unable to check China’s dreams of space superiority. While the CCP has yet to obtain the domination it seeks, it is clearly on track with covert military missions, like developing its own GPS system that would aid in obtaining space superiority.

The United States cannot let this happen. Students of history know that many of the great and terrible military conflicts could have been prevented or mitigated with proper foresight and preparation. Unless the United States acts soon to check CCP aggression in space, we may have extremely limited choices in the future.

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Our new Space Force must explain the seriousness of this threat and develop strategic plans to protect space from the domination of any one country. This grand effort will require allies who not only understand the threat, but who are financially able to join with the United States to dominate space for peaceful purposes. The free world’s shared cultural and civic traditions could form the basis for ensuring that space can never be dominated by one country.

During World War I and in the following decades, Churchill stressed the importance of developing radar, the tank, and the airplane. Without these developments, the Battle of Britain would have ended much differently. As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of victory at the Battle of Britain, and as we understand the strategic necessity of air superiority in protecting the island nation from foreign invasion, we should recognize the strategic necessity of space superiority today.

The United States and her friends cannot allow a country that is utterly opposed to freedom to control space and, in turn, Earth. The free world must develop space first and create enforceable laws to allow space to be an extension of the liberty we currently enjoy. In order to do that, we must overhaul our outdated legal regime concerning the development and deployment of space technologies, support the private development of space properly, and remove the bureaucratic barriers hindering important breakthroughs. We must not surrender space to totalitarians who would use it to subjugate free peoples around the globe. If we heed the call to action and engage in this new endeavor, we can ensure that the limitless possibilities of space are secured for future generations.

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Opinion | Changing lanes on the Alabama Workforce Superhighway

As we come out of the pandemic we have a new view of the world and with our innovative hats on, we now look at workforce issues through a new and different lens.

Ed Castile

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Hello friends and welcome back to the Alabama Workforce Superhighway! Our last stop was the AlabamaWorks Virtual Workforce Conference in September. The conference gave us a lot to think about on the drive ahead. It was great to be among workforce professionals again to share and discuss where we are as a state and, just from a mental perspective, I needed it!

We have so many opportunities staring us in the face that we did not have pre-COVID. The work we have all been doing is more important now than ever before. Did our previous challenges go away due to COVID? Absolutely not!

Our workforce issues may have been “timed out,” or perhaps they were on a break, but those issues continue to be our challenges. So, not only should we remain focused on our Success Plus goal of adding 500,000 workers in our workforce with credentials of value by 2025, we must also help our companies get back to work and work with their current and future employees.

We need to make sure they are technically ready for the impending automated world and assist them with all the tech-savvy tools that are being developed as part of Industry 4.0 and the ever developing “Smart Factory” concepts.

Alabama is rapidly moving in this direction, and we must have the workforce to meet the demands. This is one of the foundations for Gov. Kay Ivey’s Success Plus plan. In almost every speech and presentation Ivey delivers, she mentions how absolutely critical our workforce is and that they must be ready for the work we are recruiting into Alabama.

To say 2020 has been strange, would be a colossal understatement and it keeps on giving! 2020 started as a typical year when many were planning and working with high hopes for a productive legislative session, school year or university semester, or simply hoping for a beautiful spring. Little did we know COVID-19 would turn us all inside out and literally stop the world in its tracks.

But, not in Alabama. Yes, it was a kick in the gut and our hearts go out to the many who have suffered or lost loved ones due to the pandemic. But as Alabama usually does, we are fighting back. With good solid leadership by Ivey, an extraordinary Governor’s Office staff, a host of very smart cabinet officers and their respective department staffs, and most importantly, some very focused business leaders making good and sound business decisions, we are leading the nation in many aspects of our recovery.

In addition, as we come out of the pandemic we have a new view of the world and with our innovative hats on, we now look at workforce issues through a new and different lens. Yes, the drivers on the Alabama Workforce Superhighway are focused and determined with many great examples of courageous initiatives to assist our customers, overcome the issues and not only get back to pre-COVID productivity, but be even stronger.

So, what new opportunities has 2020 brought us when it comes to our workforce? Although the pandemic has brought many challenges it has also given us access to many people we did not have access to before. Who are these people? There are thousands who lost jobs that were vulnerable to the pandemic. Retail employees, hospitality and restaurant workers who in some cases were working two and three jobs to make ends meet, now have an opportunity to be trained for a less vulnerable job. Alabama has many jobs available as the world wakes back up. We NEED these people and our Alabama Workforce Stabilization Program is laser focused on these folks.

In the recent AlabamaWorks Virtual Workforce Conference we discussed the need for flexibility in order to adapt to change. To be successful in this “new normal” we must prepare our workforce by:

  • Creating new digital models for education and training
  • Upskilling (expand capabilities)
  • Re-skilling (acquire a new or improved skill)
  • Strengthening and enforcing safety measures
  • Reinforcing partnerships and pooling resources
  • Focusing on higher wage jobs
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Yes, the world has changed, but we in Alabama were already moving in the right direction.

There are many people to thank for our progress and to name just a few: Governor Ivey and her staff set us on a course to meet those needs with the “Strong Start, Strong Finish” education initiative and gave us a strategy for success through the Success Plus plan. Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth, his staff and the Senate Leadership are very engaged as is the House Leadership with Speaker Mac McCutcheon, budget chairs and other many strong Representatives and Senators across the state. They get it!

Yes, we got this! But, we are nowhere near done and as you already know this work can never stop. To borrow some words from a great song, “we can check out anytime, but we can never leave.” We can want to exit the highway, but we can never stop our drive on the Alabama Workforce Superhighway!

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Opinion | Former Sen. Brewbaker supports Montgomery tax referendum 

If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.

Dick L. Brewbaker

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(STOCK PHOTO)

I am in full support of the property tax referendum on the ballot this November. That may surprise some people because I have been critical of the performance of the Montgomery County Public School System in the past.

Until recently, student performance has generally been poor, financial management has been historically problematic, and there have been real and persistent problems with transparency. New Board leadership has worked hard to address these issues in a real way, but there is still work to be done.

However, whether we are talking about cars or public education, there is such a thing as trying to buy too cheap. Montgomery has been paying the legal minimum in property tax support for decades. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone that our schools’ quality reflects our financial commitment to them.

Yes, it’s true that more money isn’t always the answer, but it’s also true that money is part of the answer. Sometimes the bare minimum isn’t enough, and this is one of those times.

Most people who vote on this referendum will not have children currently attending MPS. If you are one of those people, vote yes anyway.

Our public school population is declining because many young couples with children are leaving our city because they know their children can get a better education elsewhere.

This loss of young parents will eventually kill this city. We have got to turn the schools around before Montgomery’s tax base is eroded beyond repair. Whether you have kids in the system or not, if you care about your local tax burden or the value of your property, it’s time to vote ‘yes.’

Need another reason to vote yes? Ok, here’s one:  Montgomery will eventually lose both our USAF bases if we don’t show the Air Force we are serious about improving our failing schools. Already less than half of the airmen stationed in Montgomery bring their families with them.

Many military families view MPS as so low quality that they won’t subject their children to them. If we don’t fix our schools, sooner or later we will lose Maxwell and Gunter. If you don’t believe that would be an economic nightmare for our city, ask around.

At the end of the day, passing this referendum is not only a vote to help children succeed, but also a vote to save the city in which we all live. It’s ok to be hopeful, it’s ok to be optimistic even about the future of Montgomery and its schools.

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If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.

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