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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.

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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 | State senators should remove Del Marsh from leadership

“Del Marsh has left the governor and the members of the Alabama Senate with no choice but to remove him from his positions on the COVID-19 task force and as leader of the Alabama Senate,” former State Rep. Craig Ford writes.

Craig Ford

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Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh during a 2018 Senate committee hearing. (SAMUEL MATTISON/APR)

I couldn’t believe it when I saw State Senator Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the leader of the Alabama Senate, say he wants to see more people get the coronavirus!

During an interview with CBS42 News, Sen. Marsh was asked if he was concerned about the growing number of confirmed cases of people infected with COVID-19 in Alabama. His response was, and these are his exact words, “I’m not as concerned so much as the number of cases, in fact, quite honestly, I want to see more people because we start reaching an immunity as more people have it and get through it.”

The next day Sen. Marsh made a weak attempt to walk back his comments by saying he “chose his words poorly.” But he didn’t apologize, and he stood by his claim that he wants to see us get to herd immunity.

First, we don’t know if herd immunity is even possible with COVID-19. Doctors, medical researchers and public health experts have all contested the idea of herd immunity and say that even if it is possible it will be a long way off (medical professionals at Johns Hopkins University say it’s not possible for it to happen in 2020).

To reach herd immunity, somewhere between 60 percent and 90 percent of the population will have to be infected with the disease. Right now in Alabama, we are only around 1 percent.

For us to reach a 60 percent infection rate and potentially get to herd immunity, a minimum of 2,941,911 people in Alabama will have to contract COVID-19. Assuming the death rate stays the same as it is now (roughly 2 percent), it would mean that 58, 838 people would have to die for us to get to herd immunity, and that’s assuming it’s even possible.

But even if herd immunity is possible, our elected leaders should never wish for people to get sick with any disease, let alone one that is killing people!

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And for Sen. Marsh to attempt to justify his cruel and ignorant comments as merely choosing his words poorly is almost as offensive and disrespectful as the comments themselves!

Any decent human being with a conscience or sense of moral values would apologize and offer their resignation immediately. But Del Marsh’s pride won’t allow him to admit he is wrong or apologize for anything, even for wishing illness and death on the people of Alabama.

Sen. Marsh’s words show what is in his heart and in his head. And what is in his heart and in his head is clearly not in line with the thinking of medical professionals or the values and best interests of the people of Alabama.

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For ten years, Sen. Marsh has run the Alabama Senate as the Senate pro tempore. And because he holds that position he also sits on the governor’s COVID-19 task force. Clearly he has no business being in either position, and I encourage Gov. Ivey to remove him from the COVID-19 task force immediately.

It is also time for the members of the Alabama Senate to demand Sen. Marsh’s resignation. If he refuses then senators must call for a vote of no confidence and remove him by force.

Senators cannot stay silent on this. Staying silent is the same as condoning what he said.

As a resident of Etowah County, I specifically call on our state senator, Andrew Jones, R-Centre, to step up and demand Del Marsh’s resignation. He is the only voice we have in the State Senate, and it is his responsibility now to use that voice. I would also encourage him to sponsor a resolution in the State Senate censoring Sen. Marsh for his thoughtless and heartless comments.

I never thought I would live to see the day when an elected official would openly express his or her desire to see the people of our state and our country get sick with a virus, especially one that could kill them! Worse is that Sen. Marsh won’t admit he is wrong or apologize for what he said.

Del Marsh’s words are a disgrace and a potential death wish for every single person in Alabama, not to mention a slap in the face of those who already have died from COVID-19 and their families.

Del Marsh has left the governor and the members of the Alabama Senate with no choice but to remove him from his positions on the COVID-19 task force and as leader of the Alabama Senate.

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Opinion | Sessions’ anti-animal protection record

Marty Irby

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Former Sen. Jeff Sessions during a hearing on Capitol Hill. (VIA CSPAN)

Jeff Sessions has had a long career in politics and countless opportunities to demonstrate opposition to cruelty to animals. Yet, in 20 years in the Senate, it’s hard to put your arms around a single positive thing he did. Sure, Alabama is an agricultural state, with a rich tradition of hunting, but we’re not talking about those things.  We’re talking basic decency when it comes to treating the least among us and showing mercy for God’s creation.

The first political campaign I ever volunteered to work on was Sessions’ first bid for the U.S. Senate in 1996. I liked so much about him and his pledges, but boy, did I learn that caring for animals was not part of his worldview.  I grew up in the horse industry, showing horses and competing, and I understood from a very young age that most Alabamians are connected to animals, especially those of us who grew up in rural areas.

One type of cruelty that Republicans and Democrats took on during the two decades that Sessions served in the Senate was dogfighting and cockfighting.  But, surprisingly, they didn’t find an ally in Sessions. During the 107th Congress, Republican Senator and large-animal veterinarian Wayne Allard attracted nearly two thirds of the Senate on his bill (S. 345) to close the loophole in the Animal Welfare Act that allowed interstate shipment of fighting birds, but Sessions was an opponent. And in the 108th Congress, he failed to cosponsor the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act (S. 736) to establish felony-level penalties for dogfighting and cockfighting. In the 109th and 110th Congresses, Sessions failed to support animal fighting legislation (S. 382 and S. 261) to establish federal level penalties for dog and cockfighting. And in the 112thCongress, Sessions was among a handful of Senators who voted against efforts to make it a crime to attend a dogfight or cockfight or to bring a child to such a spectacle (Roll Call Vote # 154).

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby supported the prohibition on attending animal fights, and later, Sessions’ successor, Doug Jones, co-sponsored legislation to ban animal fighting everywhere in the U.S. – the Parity in Animal Cruelty Enforcement (PACE) Act – a provision included in the 2018 Farm bill, with six of seven of Alabama’s U.S. Representatives favoring the anti-animal fighting language.  President Trump signed that provision into law, and it took effect in December 2019.

Sessions has been hostile to other reforms, opposing an amendment to the 2005 Farm Bill to stop horse slaughter by prohibiting the use of tax dollars to fund USDA inspection of horse slaughterhouses.

Sessions voted to table an amendment to the 2000 Interior Appropriations bill to prohibit the use of funds  to authorize, permit, administer, or promote the use of any jawed leghold trap or neck snare in any unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Animals trapped by these devices, which sometimes ensnare family pets or endangered species, suffer crushed bones, gangrene, and starvation.

Sessions failed to support reforms to stop the abuse of cows too sick or injured to walk and then dragged into slaughterhouses, putting consumers at risk of consuming diseased animals. Just months after Congress failed to address the matter, the USDA determined a cow slaughtered in Washington state had Mad Cow Disease. That cow was a “downer,” and if the ban on slaughtering “downers” had been in place, it would have never been dragged into the slaughterhouse and created a global food safety panic. This was the first finding of a cow with this disease in the U.S., and in response, more than 80 nations closed their markets to U.S. beef imports, causing a loss to the cattle industry in excess of $10 billion.

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And in the 113th, 114th, and 115th Congresses, Sessions failed to support the Republican-led Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, an amendment to the Horse Protection Act of 1970 that would ensure the protection of the Alabama’s official state Racking Horse whose world grand champion is crowned in Priceville each year.

As a native Alabamian, and a life-long Republican who cares about animals, I got turned off to my political hero when he showed such a hard heart toward animals. Whether hunters or non-hunters, farmers or just consumers, most every Alabamian I know cares about animals.  It’s a shame that Jeff Sessions didn’t figure that out about Alabamians in his long tenure in Washington. Alabamians should step up against animal abuse and send an electoral verdict that cruelty is never acceptable.

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Opinion | Solving Alabama’s unemployment crisis is a matter of patriotism

Craig Ford

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Patriotism is at the top of my mind these days as we prepare for this weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations. I feel a great sense of pride in our nation, even though I often disagree with political leaders at various levels of government.

You can love your country and love many things about your country but still see problems and areas where we can do better as a city, state or nation. And one of the areas where we seem to be struggling here in Alabama is with our unemployment situation.

No one in leadership could have predicted that the coronavirus would hit us the way that it has, and our leaders have struggled to balance the need to keep our people healthy with the need to keep our economy running.

It’s a difficult balance, and while the numbers of new infections of the coronavirus keep going up and keep getting media attention, we are also seeing our unemployment benefits being stretched to the max.

The Alabama Department of Labor is understaffed and overwhelmed by the flood of people filing for unemployment benefits. The Department’s employees are making a heroic effort to make sure that those with legitimate needs are getting the help they need to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. But even so, the unemployed have to wait for hours just to get a ticket that would allow them to speak with an employee and file a claim for their benefits.

But what’s even more concerning is the fact that the state’s unemployment fund is on track to become financially insolvent by the end of the summer. If that happens, then the state will have no choice but to borrow more money from the federal government.

Of course, everyone’s hope is that this coronavirus will begin to slow down, a vaccine will be invented, and business will be able to return to normal. Most people don’t want to rely on government checks to survive and would much rather get back to work as soon as possible.

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But for now, at least, the economy is recovering slowly and our unemployment rate, while improving, is still over 6 percent. And that means that, even with borrowed federal money and the recently announced federal extended benefits program, Alabama is still in trouble and our unemployment funds are still in a dangerous situation.

As bad as the situation is, there is a possible solution that our state leaders can and should be considering, if they can get past their current bickering.

The federal government has already sent funding through the CARES Act to help the state battle the coronavirus. Most of that money should be going to providing healthcare services, such as testing for COVID-19, and personal protection equipment like masks and gloves for healthcare workers and employees in essential industries.

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However, there’s no reason why some of that money can’t also go towards our unemployment program to help those who are out of work because of the coronavirus.

If some state leaders think they can use up to $200 million of that money to build a new State House, then why can’t they use that money to keep Alabama families fed and housed for a few more weeks?

As the legislative session came to an end a few weeks ago, lawmakers and the governor went to war with each other over how to spend that money. Instead of fighting over pet projects, they should be putting that money into Alabama’s families to help them survive this crisis.

The Fourth of July is all about patriotism, and there’s nothing more patriotic that solving our unemployment crisis and helping Alabama families get back on their feet.

Craig Ford is the owner of Ford Insurance Agency and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

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Opinion | Gov. Ivey: This is our time, Alabama

Gov. Kay Ivey

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In a few days, America will celebrate her 244th birthday. Traditionally, many towns and cities around the country light up the night with fireworks and music festivals. In 1776, John Adams predicted that Independence Day would be “celebrated by succeeding generations” with “pomp and circumstance…bonfires and illuminations.”

However, largely because of COVID-19, this year’s observance of our country’s birth will likely be a bit more subdued than previous years. While unfortunate, this is certainly understandable.

Today – and very likely in the days that will follow – instead of talking about what unites us as one nation – other conversations will occur that are, quite frankly, a bit more difficult and challenging. 

My personal hope – and prayer – for this year’s 4th of July is that the marvel of our great country – how we started, what we’ve had to overcome, what we’ve accomplished and where we are going – isn’t lost on any of us.

We are all searching for “a more perfect union” during these trying and demanding days.

Over the past several weeks, our nation has been having one of those painful, yet overdue, discussions about the subject of race.

The mere mention of race often makes some people uncomfortable, even though it is a topic that has been around since the beginning of time.

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Nationally, a conversation about race brings with it the opportunity where even friends can disagree on solutions; it also can be a catalyst to help total strangers find common ground and see things eye-to-eye with someone they previously did not even know.

Here in Alabama, conversations about race are often set against a backdrop of our state’s long – and at times – ugly history on the subject.

No one can say that America’s history hasn’t had its own share of darkness, pain and suffering.

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But with challenge always comes opportunity. 

For instance, Montgomery is both the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the cradle of the Confederacy. What a contrast for our Capital City.

The fact is our entire state has, in many ways, played a central role in the ever-evolving story of America and how our wonderful country has, itself, changed and progressed through the years.

Ever since the senseless death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of Alabamians – of all races, young and old – have taken to the streets of our largest cities and smallest towns in protest to demand change and to seek justice.

These frustrations are understandable. 

Change often comes too slowly for some and too quickly for others. As only the second female to be elected governor of our state in more than 200 years, I can attest to this. 

Most of us recognize that our views on issues such as race relations tend to grow out of our own background and experiences. But, fortunately, our views can change and broaden as we talk and learn from each other.

As a nation, we believe that all people are created equal in their own rights as citizens, but we also know that making this ideal a reality is still a challenge for us.

Even with the election of America’s first African American president 12 years ago, racial, economic and social barriers continue to exist throughout our country. This just happens to be our time in history to ensure we are building on the progress of the past, as we take steps forward on what has proven to be a long, difficult journey.

Folks, the fact is we need to have real discussions – as an Alabama family. No one should be under the false illusion that simply renaming a building or pulling a monument down, in and of itself, will completely fix systemic discrimination.

Back in January, I invited a group of 65 prominent African American leaders – from all throughout Alabama – to meet with me in Montgomery to begin having a dialogue on issues that truly matter to our African American community in this state. This dedicated group – known as Alabama United – is helping to bring some very legitimate concerns and issues to the table for both conversation and action.

As an example, Alabama will continue to support law enforcement that is sensitive to the communities in which they serve. We have thousands of dedicated men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our state every single day. But we can – and must – make certain that our state’s policies and procedures reflect the legitimate concerns that many citizens have about these important issues.

I am confident all these conversations – and hopefully many more – will lead to a host of inspirational ideas that will lead to a more informed debate and enactment of sound public policy. 

We must develop ways to advance all communities that lack access to good schools, jobs, and other opportunities. As governor, I will continue to make education and achieving a good job a priority – it distresses me that some of our rural areas and inner cities face some of the greatest challenges in education.

There are other critical issues that must be addressed, and I will continue to look for solutions along with you.

Everyone knows government cannot solve these problems alone. Some of the greatest solutions will come from private citizens as well as businesses, higher education, churches and foundations. Together, we can all be a part of supporting and building more inclusive communities.

In other words, solving these problems comes from leaning on the principles that make us who we are – our faith – which is embodied in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

My beliefs on how to treat people were shaped in Wilcox County and my faith was developed at the Camden Baptist Church. 

The bible tells us over and over that our number one goal is to love God with all of one’s heart and then to love our neighbor as we love our self. That is what I strive to do every day.

When anyone feels forgotten and marginalized, compassion compels us to embrace, assist and share in their suffering. We must not let race divide us. We must grow and advance together.

Being informed by our past, let us now carefully examine our future and work towards positive change. Together, we can envision an Alabama where all her people truly live up to the greatness within our grasp. We cannot change the past or erase our history… But we can build a future that values the worth of each and every citizen.

So, in closing, my hope and prayer for our country as we pause to celebrate America’s 244th birthday, is that we make the most of this moment.

As for our state, let’s make this a time to heal, to commit ourselves to finding consensus, not conflict, and to show the rest of the nation how far we have come, even as we have further to go. 

These first steps – just as we are beginning our third century as a state – may be our most important steps yet.

This is our time, Alabama. May God continue to bless each of you and the great state of Alabama.

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