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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.

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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.

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 | Racism: Victims on both sides

Jim Allen

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I’ve just seen this Anniston Star photo of the June 3rd George Floyd “protest” march in Heflin. As you can see, a very mixed crowd, black and white, young and old, all peaceful. But serious. What especially got my attention was that sign a lead marcher is holding, the big print saying “Stop Hate, Teach Love.” And the fine print from Nelson Mandela explaining: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin . . .”

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Would this apply to Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis policemen who killed George Floyd? The man’s very name suggests he was somehow “to the manner (if not the manor) born.”

“Chauvin” is a French family name. We get the term “chauvinism” from Nicolas Chauvin, a French army officer of the new Republic and later under Napoleon who was notorious for his excessive, extreme patriotism, and portrayed as such in popular drama of the time. So our English term “chauvinism” means “irrational and extreme belief in the superiority or dominance of one’s own cause, group, race, sex, nation etc.” It’s used most often in academic writing, in plain language “Us vs Them-ism,” seeing the ”them” as enemies. As in violent racism.

So, was Derek Chauvin born a violent racist?

I don’t think so. I’ve searched the internet for photos of him as an infant or young child, looking for clues to his childhood development, hoping to see if he looked happy, or angry, or sad. I didn’t find any photos at all.

But I persist in believing that human infants are born with various kinds of potential. But with a bias toward “playing well with others,” since ours is after all a gregarious species. So a child who grows up wanting to hurt or kill others must have come under the influence of – or perhaps we could say was infected by the virus of – something like chauvinism. In an important sense, then, another victim.

Not that it’s wrong to be very angry about what Derek Chauvin did, not that he shouldn’t be prosecuted and punished under the law. But as we mourn the death of George Floyd, let’s also grieve for the child Derek who was taught hate instead of love, that hurting child who may still be hiding inside this man.

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The sign says “Teach love.” I’m afraid the hardest part is learning love, shaking off that viral Us vs Them disposition to see enemies everywhere. I like what contemporary Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh declares: “No person is the enemy.” But didn’t we get the same advice two thousand years ago from Jesus? – “Love your neighbor – no exceptions!

We are all in this together.

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Opinion | COVID-19 has changed our state’s industry and workforce landscape, our goal remains the same

Tim McCartney

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The human toll of COVID-19 is unprecedented in Alabama, and businesses of all sizes have taken a shellacking due to the pandemic. As such, our tactical focus for workforce development has transitioned from filling positions in the tight labor market we enjoyed in February to pandemic response, incumbent worker training and dislocated worker training today. The future of work has accelerated ten years in three months.

The Alabama Workforce Council (AWC) is working with the Ivey Administration and partners across the state to share best practices, key facts and resources for employers, employees and those who have been recently unemployed.

While the immediate focus of our efforts has transitioned to workforce recovery and response efforts to COVID-19 through our work with informational webinars, workforce recovery surveys, and resources for businesses (all available online), the AWC and AlabamaWorks remain steadfastly committed to the Governor’s attainment goal of adding 500,000 highly-skilled workers to Alabama’s economy by 2025. Notably, in these uncertain times, this goal has not changed.

Creating a highly-skilled workforce and resilient economy, even one that will be recovering for the foreseeable future, is necessary for Alabama’s economic vitality. For those who have become unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19, reskilling or upskilling now can lead to sustainable in-demand career pathways that produce measurable benefits in the future.

Success Plus, the formal name for the Governor’s postsecondary education attainment goal, outlines the need to add an additional 500,000 Alabamians prepared for in-demand, high-wage careers to the workforce by obtaining credentials, certificates or degrees in addition to a high school diploma by 2025. Moremust be done to create stackable pathways that allow individuals to earn credentials through career-specific education and shorter-term programs that prepare them for immediate employment and future advancement.

To this end, Alabama has established a quality-assurance process for credentials through the Alabama Committee on Credentialing and Career Pathways (ACCCP). The ACCCP is tasked with identifying in-demand occupations in Alabama, developing competency models and career pathways for each of the in-demand occupations, and identifying related credentials of value associated with each of the in-demand occupations.

Additionally, on June 8the Alabama Workforce Council will launch the Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies,which will survey employers in each sector and region of the state to assist the ACCCP with identifying these in-demand occupations as well as the related competencies and credentials of value aligned to those occupations.

The survey will be conducted between June 8 and June 15, 2020 and, going forward, the survey will be conducted annually to assist the ACCCP’s 16 Technical Advisory Committees (TACs) with their work oflinking credentials of value to one or more specific competencies needed for a job. Ultimately, this will allow employers to create competency-based job descriptions that list the specific skills required for a job, rather than using associate or bachelor’s degrees as placeholders. Therefore, it is vital that employers of all sizes, and from each industry sector, provide responses to the survey. The TACs will receive the results of the Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies at the June 17, 2020 ACCCP meeting.

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It is clear that much work remains to be done. COVID-19 adds challenges to our ultimate goal, but the Alabama Workforce Council and AlabamaWorks knows that – regardless of the pandemic – clearly identifying in-demand jobs, with their related skills, and facilitating more opportunities for high-skill, high-wage careers is now more important than ever.

To learn more about the Alabama Workforce Council’s response to COVID-19 and to learn more about Governor Ivey’s vision for creating 500,000 highly skilled workers by 2025, visit www.alabamaworks.com.


Tim McCartney, formerly of McCartney Construction in Gadsden, is the chairman of the Alabama Workforce Council.

 

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Opinion | It’s past time to turn the page on racism, racial violence in America

Anthony Daniels

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On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy sent National Guard troops to accompany the first black students admitted to the University of Alabama.

In an address to the nation, he said, “It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”

Sixty years later, that task is still at hand. The job is still far from done. And more and more often, it even seems like we’re losing ground. It has sure seemed that way this week and, indeed, over the last few months.

We’ve been through this before.

Ahmaud Arbery is not the first African American to be ambushed and murdered by men claiming to be protecting their neighborhood, simply because he seemed out of place. And it’s not the first case of such a murder being swept under the rug.

Breonna Taylor is not the first African American to be killed in their own home by police searching for a suspect who wasn’t there.

Christian Cooper is not the first African American to have the cops capriciously called on him and be falsely accused of menacing a white woman.

And the latest tragic miscarriage of justice, George Floyd is not the first African American to be brutally assaulted and killed at the hands of police officers. And his violent death is not the first to be videotaped and broadcast across the internet, social media, and television. The question is: how do we make it the last? How do we ensure his death and our anger isn’t in vain?

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For too many of us, institutional racism is a fact of daily life. And when the system begins to crack and crumble under the strain of decades of injustice and inequality, only then do we say ‘enough is enough.’ Only then do we go through the same cycle we’re going through right now. Anger is warranted, but it’s not enough to get enraged, despondent, frustrated, and mad. It’s not enough to protest. It’s not enough to lash out. And it will never be enough until we begin to act to change the underlying and lingering conditions that make racism a reality – that makes it part of the American experience.

If you think the system is already working fairly for all people, I ask: by whose standards? Not mine. Our laws, our leaders, and our system of government were never intended to be stagnant.

If you find it acceptable to try to turn victims into suspects, looking for any way possible to justify ruthless behavior, I ask: for every instance of injustice recorded, how many more have gone unreported? The answer is too many to count. What accusations would have been dug up and leveled then? We will never know. After all, it’s much easier to defame someone who’s not alive to defend themselves.

Of course, we won’t all agree on the best course of action, but I hope we can all agree that the status quo cannot continue and that action is required. That’s all the more reason we need to start talking. And to those who don’t want to have this conversation, who may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, let’s not give them a choice. Let’s make it an issue. Let’s prioritize recognizing right and reality instead of inviting shame and violence. Let’s start today and not stop until we succeed.

We simply cannot allow this to be another situation where we shout, we scream, we cry, and then we clean up and move on to only do it all over again down the road. What will this week’s protests lead to next week or next month or next year? Starting now, we must have this conversation at every ballot box at every election – municipal, state, congressional, and so on. If you want your voice heard, presidential cycles are fine, but real, actionable change begins at the local level. Mayors and city councils appoint police chiefs. We elect District Attorneys, Sheriffs, Legislators, Judges, and Coroners. State Representatives and Senators make laws but law enforcement applies them. We all have a role to play in righting the wrongs by revisiting outdated and close-minded policies that continue to plague communities across our state and replacing them with a new vision.

Similarly, when I look at my young son, I wonder how I’m going to have the conversation with him. What am I going to say during “the talk” that black parents have, for generations now, had to have with their children? And how am I going to say it? How am I going to teach my son to protect himself? What are you telling your children?

In Alabama, we must come to terms with our legacy of racism and commit to eradicating injustice or we will never escape this cycle. As a policymaker and leader in this state, I cannot tell my son or anyone that we’ve fully turned the page on our dark and violent past. But I can tell you what needs to be done. Change starts with commitment. Individuals must resolve to break this cycle and then influence their own neighborhoods and communities to do better. It continues with conversations among people of diverse backgrounds, seeking to understand each other and treat each other with equality, decency, and dignity as human beings. It becomes reality when together we take our values to the ballot box and hold our leaders accountable to enact policies that ensure justice for all.

I invite and I welcome all Alabamians to join me in the task as an obligation to each other and to ourselves. Together, let’s continue this work. And at the very least, let’s each reflect on the words of President Kennedy so many years ago, “We are confronted primarily with a moral

issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution . . . I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents.”

 

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Opinion | To close the homework gap in our schools, let’s close the partisan divide in Washington

Matt Akin

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As Alabama shut down its schools on March 16thand moved classes online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was saddened but not surprised when many Gulf Shores students told me they didn’t have broadband at home needed for their coursework.

Having headed school systems in Piedmont, Huntsville and now in Gulf Shores’ first year as an independent district, I am passionate about closing the digital divide. At Gulf Shores, I gave 6ththrough 12th graders computers to take home early in this school year. Kindergarteners through fifth graders had assigned devices at school.  As we shuttered the schools, we ordered 100 mobile hotspots for our students to access the Internet.

But schools can’t – and shouldn’t have to – close opportunity gaps all by themselves. The crisis that has closed our schools has created a rare opportunity for national leaders to close the digital divide and homework gap through the next economic stimulus. 

With schools closed, the digital divide looks more like a socioeconomic chasm. More than a quarter of Alabama’s population are not online at home. As a math teacher by training, I believe in using data to analyze problems like the digital divide, which comprises two challenges – adoption and availability.

Adoption is the greater problem – about 25 percentof American households with broadband access in their neighborhood haven’t even subscribed to it. The major barriers to adoption appear to be households not having basic computer hardware, digital literacy or an understanding of the internet’s importance to their lives.

But, while 95 percent of Americans have access to high-speed fixed broadband, about 22 percent of rural households don’t. And, because of problems with  availability and adoption, over 30 percent of African American and Latino youngsters didn’t have home internet and nearly half don’t have a laptop or computer at home.

For the sake of our students and their families, we need all hands-on-deck – educators, broadband providers, computer companies and tech leaders – to address the challenge.

With broadband deployment, we need a process driven by public spiritedness, not political patronage. The best companies and technologies should compete to serve every community from isolated rural areas to the inner cities.

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Let’s learn from the 2009 stimulus: Legislators and lobbyists funneled funds to favored companies and technologies. The results of that anticompetitive practice?  Just what one would think:  Duplicative networks in areas where broadband was already available, with billions of dollars squandered, while many communities remained without service.

I’m skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions. Wireless hotspots can close homework gaps in some communities. But elsewhere, wired connectionsmay be more cost effective and less expensive with faster download speeds for e-learning.

And we also need to regulate broadband intelligently. This crisis is a teaching moment.  U.S. broadband has risen to the challenge of a 34 percentsurge in internet demand during COVID-19.   But, in Europe, over-regulated networks are slowing down.

Why? While Europe regulated broadband as a utility, and investment suffered, the U.S. opted for a “light touch” approach that encouraged nearly $2 trillion in private investment. Our wise policy choices built robust networks that we can rely upon in these difficult times—and to rebuild our economy for better times.

To achieve what’s needed, Congress needs a bipartisan compromise, including an end to anti-competitive practices that exclude qualified providers and technologies—and an effort by broadband and computer equipment companies to help attack the divide. 

We have a job to do, and no time to waste.

Alabama’s Senators – Doug Jones and Richard Shelby – are well-prepared to reach across the aisle to form bipartisan consensus.  Broadband providers are providing free and discounted broadband to low income homes. But everyone needs to step up.

I wish Congress could have watched our students in the Piedmont schools after we provided them with computers and connectivity. Many mastered subjects such as advanced algebra they had previously struggled with because they couldn’t do homework online.

When our leaders in Washington bridge their partisan divide, communities across Alabama and America will bridge their digital divides. And many more students will bridge the gap between their performance and their potential.

Dr. Matt Akin is the Superintendent of Schools in Gulf Shores, Alabama, having held similar positions in Huntsville and Piedmont.

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