Lock ‘em up!
That seems to be Alabama’s answer to every problem. Well, every problem but public corruption, in which case we find every possible reason not to lock ‘em up, even when we’ve determined they’re guilty as sin.
But if you’re not wearing a suit and tie and hobnobbing with bigwigs, watch out. Because we will lock you up for the cruelest of reasons or for little reason at all.
Take Alabama’s capital city, for example.
Montgomery’s had its issues over the last few … well, since it was founded, with locking people up improperly, particularly those people who are deemed to be a nuisance to the important people in town.
Like, say, those pesky freed slaves who acted like freed men and women after the Civil War. Or the black people who wanted civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. Or the black people who ventured into “white neighborhoods” during former Mayor Emory Folmar’s tenure. Or the poor people who couldn’t pay their exorbitant fines the last several years.
All the way to now, and panhandlers.
Montgomery’s City Council last week voted unanimously to expand upon Alabama’s law against panhandling, adding a minimum of two days in jail for a first offense, unless suspended by a judge. Additional offenses would add more jail time and remove the judge’s discretion.
And … problem solved. No more poor people.
Because all that’s standing between the men and women who beg for money on street corners and financial security is their will to get out there and give a good effort.
Or, well, that’s one of the things we all tell ourselves when we ease past them, windows up tight. We also say that those people are probably scam artists, that a guy we knew once saw one of them hop in a Mercedes after a day of panhandling and drive off, pockets stuffed with cash. Or they’re probably drug addicts or alcoholics and the money will only go to feed their bad habits, and so not giving them money is the true gift.
Except, all of that is complete and utter BS.
A few years ago, a group of businesses in San Francisco hired a research firm to investigate the abundance of panhandlers in that city as part of an effort to better understand the issue before passing laws. What the firm found was rather heartbreaking.
Most of the panhandlers took in less than $25 per day. The majority were disabled, minority males between the ages of 30 and 50. Over 94 percent of the panhandlers observed used the money they took in exclusively to purchase food.
Nationally, other studies of panhandlers and of the homeless population in general have found high occurrences of mental health problems. There are also large numbers of military veterans. Almost all had once held steady employment but experienced a traumatic event in their lives.
That’s who these folks really are.
I don’t tell you any of that to encourage you to give, or to make you think that all panhandlers have a heart of gold and the best intentions. That’s up to you, and you should always protect yourselves and your family members first.
But I’m tired of seeing people — other humans who are deserving of respect and decency — tossed into cages because they’re an inconvenience, or because some group of people have deemed them to be an eyesore. And I’m really, really tired of cities paying their bills by squeezing the poor and desperate for every dime they can.
Because what Montgomery is doing isn’t solving a problem. It’s creating about 10 more. The panhandlers will be arrested, over and over, and they’ll clog up jails and rack up fines that are impossible to pay. Even if, by some miracle, they find help and compassion in a better city or from better people in that city, they will face a mountain of debt that will follow them for the rest of their lives.
In the meantime, the cops in a city with some of the highest crime rates in Alabama will spend their time hauling in and processing poor people whose lone offense was to stand on a corner with a cardboard sign.
But there is hope. Like most new Alabama laws, this one is very likely unconstitutional. Federal judges across the country have been striking down anti-panhandling laws on the basis of free speech. Montgomery’s will likely face a similar fate.
If that happens, maybe it will force someone to figure out a solution to a problem that doesn’t end in people going to jail.
Opinion | Racism has broken America. We can fix it
The happiest day of my life was March 9, 2018 — the day my daughter was born.
People who know my wife and me, or who follow either of us on social media, can likely tell that we’re crazy, helicopter parents who think our little Andi Lou is perfect. Because, well, she is.
We also worry — A LOT. About everything. As we try to keep this little live wire safe and happy. It’s like a never-ending stream of what-ifs and what-abouts and should-we’s.
Honestly, it’s exhausting. And there are times when I think it’s overwhelming.
And then someone like Devin Adams gives me a glimpse into a world that I know nothing about. A world that I will never walk in. A world that will forever remain foreign to me.
That’s the world navigated by the parent of a black child.
Adams, a senior on the Auburn University football team, on Tuesday tweeted about using his football gear to stay safe in everyday life. Not the pads and helmet, but the jersey and other clothing that identifies him to cops as an Auburn football player.
“I’ve been asked so many times why I wear Auburn gear all the time…,” Adams tweeted. “then they hit you with ‘YoU MuSt wAnT pPl tO kNoW YoU PlAy FOoTbAlL oR SoMEthINg’…. Lol not even knowing sometimes it’s a protection mechanism to just make it home safe.”
Other black players responded that they do the same thing.
Think about that.
You can dismiss it as an exaggeration if you like — and maybe in some cases, it could be — but this is how a young, college educated guy in one of the safer cities in America feels every single day.
He fears for his life to the point that he has altered what he wears every day to make OTHER PEOPLE more comfortable with him. To make cops not automatically assume he’s a criminal. To lessen the likelihood of a deadly encounter.
Now, imagine sending your child out into that world every day. Imagine how Adams’ parents must feel — both knowing that he carries that fear and that the danger he faces is very real.
Look, we can throw rocks back and forth at each other forever, and place blame on this person or that group, but at the end of the day, we know this is wrong. That young men feel this scared on a daily basis in our country, in our states, in our communities is simply wrong.
And it is something that every single one of us should want to correct.
We certainly want that safety for our white kids. We’ve moved mountains and rewrote laws to make sure they’re safe and protected. We’ve built new cities and schools. We’ve put fences and regulations up around our neighborhoods.
But along the way, we vilified black citizens in the process.
For far too long (and even today in some spots), especially in the South, a “safe neighborhood” meant a neighborhood without black families in it. A “safe school” meant a school without many black students enrolled. Keeping your community safe meant isolating the black citizens to one specific area, dubbing it “n– town,” and telling your children to steer clear of it.
These things are what led us to today. To the fires and the protests. To the anger and anguish. And to Devin Adams’ heartbreaking fear.
We have to do better.
And yeah, I know that’s a common sentence these days. One that’s tossed around without much thought. But I actually mean it. And I have an idea of how to make it happen.
Affect those around you.
Racism grows and spreads because it is not challenged. Racism flourishes out of fear — usually of the unknown.
Don’t allow that with the people you can affect. Don’t stay quiet when friends and family members say ignorant things or pass along ignorant, clearly wrong information. After all, if they’re bold enough to say something stupid out loud, why shouldn’t we be bold enough to say something right?
But most importantly: Teach your children — and anyone else who will listen to you — that the color of a person’s skin is as meaningless as the color of their shoes, and that skin color should never, ever be a barrier to friendship and love.
Racism is learned. And it’s just as easy to teach kindness and inclusion.
My daughter will never hear her parents use racist rhetoric or see us discriminate against anyone. She will play with kids of all races, and it will be as normal as a summer bike ride. She will watch animated shows with black and brown characters and will never know that there was a time when such a thing was incredibly odd. She will one day learn that she is named after a Civil Rights heroine, and she’ll learn that real history too.
These are not grand gestures. They’re literally the least we can do.
But I have to believe that if all of us focus on being decent people and changing and molding those we can, it will matter eventually. At least enough that Devin Adams’ children won’t have to wear football gear to feel safe in their own communities.
Opinion | The people have always been more important than the monuments
Two participation trophies fell in Alabama on Monday night.
No tears were shed.
On the same day that the state “celebrated” Confederate Memorial Day — which is somehow still a state holiday some 150 years after the traitorous South surrendered in its quest to make legal the ownership of other human beings — a large monument in Birmingham’s Linn Park went away piece by piece and a metal statue of Robert E. Lee was toppled and hauled away from its spot outside of a Montgomery high school.
This is progress, I guess. At least those eyesores are gone (for now, in the case of the Lee statue), even if the attitudes that kept them in place remain.
It is no secret by now that I have never understood the fervor with which so many people in this state cling so tightly to reminders of defeated traitors who fought to enslave black people.
I mean, I understand why racists cling to them. I don’t understand how those who claim to “not have a racist bone in my body” also cling to them. I don’t understand our state lawmakers creating laws to protect them.
Monuments are meant to honor the people depicted in them. You don’t see us creating monuments of the 9/11 hijackers at the former World Trade Center site, do you?
You know why? Because while that day was historic and we’ll want to remember those who died forever, we don’t honor those who caused that devastation.
But then, I don’t actually think anyone is confused by this. The cries of “protecting history” or “not erasing history” are nothing more than phony excuses meant to mask the true intent of cowards too ashamed or too scared to say what they really mean.
And what they really mean is that they still cling to this notion of white supremacy. They’re just too scared of the societal backlash to put on a white hood and attend the meetings.
These people see the removal of the Confederate monuments as a loss — a personal loss. Because that tie to the confederacy and the sad, pathetic belief that they were somehow superior because of the color of their skin has sustained them throughout their lives.
That’s why they cling so tightly to these relics of the past — because those relics represent their “heritage” and their worth.
It doesn’t matter at all that poor whites and poor blacks have so much more in common in 2020 than poor whites and rich whites. If the two groups ever bonded, ever formed a mutually beneficial coalition, they could — by the power of their numbers — change America overnight to a more just, more equitable country.
But they won’t, because poor white people would lose their ability to look down on someone. And really, what good is life if you can’t make certain that someone out there has it worse than you?
And so, here we are, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War and more than 60 years since Dr. King crossed the bridge in Selma, still fighting battles over race and discrimination and hatred and intolerance.
Maybe the protests of George Floyd’s killing will finally be the straw to break this thing. Maybe the days of everything being on fire, along with those awful images of Floyd, will instill in the minds of enough people that there really are problems.
Maybe we can finally stop holding onto these relics of the past and concern ourselves more with holding onto each other.
Opinion | How can any of this be a surprise?
I am a “race-baiter.” I have “white guilt.” I’m a “n—– lover.” I’m a “traitor to my race.”
Over the course of my 20 years doing this job, and writing my opinions on the state of race and equality in Alabama, I’ve heard it all. I’ve been called it all, and I have the emails to back it up.
These are the names that come flying at you when you dare point out that Alabama’s track record on racial justice is for crap. Or that this state’s love for the confederate traitors to the country is insulting and hurtful to the state’s black citizens.
Because the majority of this state does not want to hear it.
And that’s exactly why things are on fire right now.
For generations, we have not wanted to hear about the injustices and inequality, not wanted to acknowledge them, not wanted to make amends for them. Hell, we’ve got quite a few people actively working to make sure they’re never undone.
Whenever there were nonviolent protests, they were belittled, shoved down and painted as anti-American. Many times, when black men and women expressed rightful outrage, their cries were met with silence, indifference or outright retribution.
What did you expect to happen?
Did you honestly believe that you could keep your knees on the necks of an entire race of people for multiple generations and never suffer the consequences? Did you think there would be no bill to pay for those injustices?
Did you think that you could continue with mass incarcerations, school segregation and social unfairness and that those disenfranchised people would simply take it and move on? That there would never be a boiling over of anger and despair?
Really, it is the audacity of white people that has caused this.
Before you roll your eyes, consider this: Right now, in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, there is not a single statue of Martin Luther King Jr., who led his first church in the city. At the same time, every single school day, at a school where over 90 percent of the students are black, kids stroll past a large statue of Robert E. Lee.
On the grounds of the state capitol, there is a large statue of Jefferson Davis. And another to J. Marion Sims, the doctor who used to experiment on slave women to save anesthesia.
Oh, and did I mention that Monday is Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama — a paid, state holiday for state workers?
You know what all of that says?
We don’t care.
We don’t care if this hurts you. We don’t care if it fosters an attitude of hate and intolerance. And we don’t care that we don’t care.
People have this misguided notion, it seems, that all of these protests and all of this anger is over the killing of George Floyd. That’s not it.
Sure, Floyd’s death touched off the protests. But really, they’re about much, much more than that. They’re about the daily, everyday injustices and frustrations and annoyances and wrongs that are allowed to happen to minorities in America.
Wrongs that we refuse to correct or that we dismiss.
The traffic stop for rolling through a stop sign that ends with a teenager face down and multiple cops’ guns pointed at him. The job interviews that never pan out. The promotions that never come. The home loan that doesn’t go through. The police abuse that goes unaddressed. The school suspensions for minor offenses.
This powder keg has been building for decades.
How can it possibly be a surprise to anyone?
Opinion | Merrill’s opinions on vote by mail not supported by facts
Voting by mail does not lead to fraud.
We know this because voting by absentee ballot is essentially the same thing as voting by mail. And it is so safe that millions of people, including the U.S. military, the current president, most of his family, a good chunk of Alabama legislators and about half of Congress, do it every year and still the incidents of fraud are less than 1 percent.
There have been exhaustive studies and audits completed to prove this point, including “research” conducted by a committee formed by Donald Trump three years ago. That committee found no real evidence of widespread voter fraud of any kind, only unique instances in which bad actors with access to ballots committed crimes.
The rate of fraud in the 2016 election was 4 in more than 130 million votes cast. There was no evidence of undocumented workers voting. No evidence of in-person fraud. No evidence of widespread absentee ballot fraud. No evidence of hacking. No evidence of dead people voting.
And most importantly, in states, such as Florida, that allow for mail-in voting, there was no evidence that casting a ballot by mail has ever spurred any increase whatsoever in voter fraud.
These facts are apparently lost on Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who, in an effort to attract the eye of Trump on Twitter, declared that Alabama would not have a direct vote-by-mail option to provide citizens with a safe, secure alternative to voting in person in the middle of a pandemic.
Merrill then followed that up with an appearance on CNN — an appearance he is apparently proud of since he’s retweeted a clip of the interview about a dozen times over the last two days — in which he bemoaned the clear and present danger that mail-in voting clearly brings.
And how does he know that voting by mail will increase fraud in elections? Because in Alabama, there has been voter fraud and 83 percent of the fraud committed has been absentee ballot fraud.
Well, except for a couple of minor points.
First, 83 percent of what number?
Six. Yes, Merrill’s 83 percent figure that he cited to support his position that mail-in voting is unsafe was reference to the 5 out of 6 convictions in voter fraud cases over the past eight years. (It’s likely that there have been just six convictions — out of millions of ballots cast — over the last 12 years, but searching for specific charges in Alabama’s online court filing system is nearly impossible.)
That’s right, Alabama has experienced a grand total of six voter fraud convictions over the past eight years. And five of those convictions were for tampering with absentee ballots.
However, it’s worth noting that not a single conviction involved votes in a statewide or legislative race. Four of them stemmed from the same incident in which workers rigged a city commission race in Dothan.
That’s probably because you can’t commit enough fraud to alter the outcome of such a race. You can’t have more votes than registered voters, and you can only steal so many ballots before someone catches on.
Regardless, six is the number of fraud cases Merrill was leaning on to justify his decision to not simply mail out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.
And here’s the second point that undermines this ridiculous argument: If absentee ballot fraud is so much of a problem that we can’t allow mailed ballots in a pandemic, then why hasn’t the Republican-dominated Alabama Legislature passed a single law to restrict absentee ballot access or make them more secure?
The legislature certainly hasn’t been shy about passing voter ID laws to address in-person voter fraud. That type of fraud occurs at roughly .0000013 percent. In Alabama specifically, we’ve had one conviction for in-person fraud in the past 20-plus years.
Still, the Alabama Legislature pushed through an absurd voter ID law a few years ago, requiring specific forms of government-issued photo IDs.
But for the fraud that is so widespread that we’re prepared to ask people to risk their lives, nothing.
Not a single bill. Not a single law. Not even a discussion of a bill.
So weird. Mail-in fraud is so worrisome that we can’t risk even sending voters an absentee ballot application unless they ask for it, but not so worrisome that state lawmakers will do anything at all to address it.
If I didn’t know better, I might think the Republicans running this state are really happy with some people voting by mail and scared to death of mail-in voting making it easy for massive numbers of Alabamians to cast votes.
Making this whole matter even more absurd is the “fix” that Merrill and state leaders have come up with to address the concerns of people who don’t want to risk COVID-19 infection by voting in person: Lie.
Alabama has included a new reason on applications requesting an absentee ballot. Voters can now select that they are “ill or infirmed” and unable to appear at the ballot box. Merrill, along with Gov. Kay Ivey, has instructed anyone who fears standing in line at a polling location during a pandemic to simply check that box. You don’t have to be ill or infirmed to do so.
Merrill loves to repeat the line you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts, and he should live by that now. Because the facts are decidedly against him on this.
There is no evidence that mail-in voting is more susceptible to fraud. There is no evidence that the absentee ballot system in this state has been subjected to widespread fraud. The only fraud Merrill can cite are six cases from small-town races, where the people involved had access to multiple ballots because of their employment.
In truth, there’s only one reason mail-in voting won’t be an option here: The more people who vote, the fewer Republicans get elected.
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