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Josh Moon

Opinion | Ivey gets serious about coronavirus. Finally

Josh Moon

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photo via Governors Office

Finally.

For the first time since the COVID-19 crisis began in Alabama a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Kay Ivey finally, on Friday, seemed to grasp both the gravity of the situation and her role in it. 

Finally. 

Up until Friday, Ivey had resisted calls for more restrictive guidelines barring Alabamians from moving about the state to shop and carry on as usual. While she had taken a handful of steps, she had been hesitant to do more.

Famously, or infamously maybe, she excused away not doing more by telling people that Alabama isn’t New York, California or “even Louisiana.” 

I have never understood what that meant, exactly, and no one I’ve asked has been able to explain it to me. Was she saying the virus, which has infected nearly 600 people in Alabama and almost 100,000 across America, was less likely to infect the human bodies positioned within the state borders?

Did she mean that Alabama air was different? Or maybe all of those chemicals we’ve been consuming from our polluted waters made us uniquely resistant to coronavirus? 

But on Friday, it seemed, a contrite and pleading Ivey told the state that more had to be done. Her tone, her words and her actions conveyed a much different message than her previous press events. 

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While she still refused to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, she issued one without calling it that. It’s being called a “safer at home” policy.

Ivey ordered closed a long list of non-essential businesses and facilities around the state, including department stores, clothing stores, most parks and athletic venues and pretty much all forms of entertainment venues. They will all be closed by 3 p.m. on Saturday. And they will remain closed until April 17. 

Finally. 

As she made this announcement, Ivey talked of the difficulty of the decision, and how you can’t bring a dead business back to life — of how people who work at these temporarily closed businesses are losing vitally important pay and are suddenly at risk of losing everything they’ve worked for. 

And that’s all true. But don’t think that hasn’t also weighed on the people who have called for such closures long ago. 

In fact, in many cases, we had these businesses and employees and their futures in mind when we called for everyone to take things more seriously sooner. Because doing so would have lessened the impact of the virus and allowed life to return to normal — or some form that resembled the old normal — a lot sooner. 

My family operated a small business for years. We operate one now. I make a living working for several small businesses. I know the work and worry that goes into them. I know the risk and sacrifice it takes to make a successful one. And I know the unique, caring relationships that are developed in a small business between owners and employees. 

The last thing I want is to see them fold, or be forced to lay off employees who are like family. 

But I also know that while reviving a dead business is almost impossible, reviving a dead person is actually impossible. 

And the health and safety of people have to be the first priority — not the businesses. 

Friday’s press conference — or, actually, it wasn’t a press conference, but more of a speech followed by responses to submitted questions — was the first real indication that Ivey understood that businesses might have to temporarily suffer in order to save hundreds of lives in this state. 

Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall a single mention of Trump or his insane plan to open things up next month and get the economy rolling again or Ivey’s insistence that the economy was just as important as people. 

It was an important pivot for her. And one that could save lives and lessen the impact of COVID-19 in this state. 

However, as my APR coworker Chip Brownlee has pointed out in stories and graphs, Alabama’s current trajectory in terms of how fast the virus is spreading looks more like Louisiana than Georgia or Florida. That’s a problem, because Louisiana is widely regarded as one of the states with the worst outbreaks. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and basically America’s most trusted doctor right now, discussed new, very restrictive measures being taken by Louisiana officials to slow the spread of the virus. Fauci said it’s likely that Louisiana officials will look back and realize that those measures should have “come a little bit sooner.” 

Let’s hope Ivey and Alabama officials don’t find themselves in a similar situation.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Merrill’s opinions on vote by mail not supported by facts

Josh Moon

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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. 

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Case closed. 

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. 

Swell. 

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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Opinion | It should be clear by now: Kaepernick was right

Josh Moon

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A lot of people owe Colin Kaepernick an apology. 

If nothing else, surely the last few weeks of horrible, horrible racial incidents have left even the most adamant Kap haters reconsidering their positions.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re thinking the man has a point: That justice in this country isn’t color blind.

And that the promises of justice and equality, represented by the United States flag and anthem, often fall well short for black men in this country. 

Then again, if you didn’t understand before now, there’s a good chance that watching ANOTHER black man be choked to death in broad daylight on an American street by a police officer — as three other police officers defended him — then you’re probably not inclined to understand now. 

George Floyd, the man we’ve all now witnessed dying on a Minneapolis street, as he begged a cop to let him breathe, did not deserve to die. Hell, he didn’t even deserve to be handcuffed and tossed down on the street, much less to have a cop put his knee on his throat until he died. 

A store thought Floyd was forging a check. A person at the store called the cops. And a few minutes later Floyd was dead. 

This, in a nutshell, is why Kaepernick began his protest several years ago. Why he sacrificed his NFL career. Why he has endured the death threats and vitriol. 

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Because these sorts of awful acts are far too common for black men in America. The prevalence of the cell phone camera has made that abundantly clear over the last several years. 

It’s hard to imagine how many of these incidents were swept under the rug in years past. Especially after the actions of other cops, district attorneys and judges to protect the dirtiest of cops have also been exposed. 

That sad fact was highlighted in the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in Georgia in February. Even with video evidence, it took a new DA and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation becoming involved before the two men who hunted Arbery down were arrested. 

All because one of the men was a retired investigator who worked for the DA’s office. 

Because why mess up the life of a white man simply for shooting one black man who might have done something at some time? 

But the deck stacking won’t stop with the arrest. 

If the murder of Greg Gunn in Montgomery back in 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the entire system is rigged to ensure the bad cops never face full justice for their crimes. 

After Gunn, who was walking home after a poker game in his neighborhood, was murdered steps from his own front porch by a white cop who thought he looked suspicious, the cop was — to the shock of almost everyone — arrested within a week and before a grand jury could rule. 

Other cops — even ones who privately admitted to me that the cop, Aaron Smith, was in the wrong — pitched one hell of a hissy fit when the arrest warrant was issued. They threatened a walk-out. They showed up to sit in the courtroom during one of Smith’s early hearings. The mayor of the city vowed to keep Smith on the payroll. 

And then the real shenanigans started. 

Judges started to bail on the case — eight in all. The Alabama Supreme Court issued an unprecedented ruling that removed a black judge from the case. The appointed judge moved the trial from 70-percent-black Montgomery to 70-percent-white Dale County. 

After all of that, and even with Smith admitting to investigators that he never had probable cause to stop, chase or shoot Gunn, the best prosecutors could do was a manslaughter conviction. 

And in one final slap to the faces of Gunn’s family, Smith was released on bond while he appeals his conviction. He’s out today, having served only a few weeks to this point for a murder committed more than four years ago. 

This is the system that black Americans must traverse in this country. One that leaves black parents rightfully concerned that the men and women all of us white people call for protection might just be the executioners of their children. 

The rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution are not based on skin color. But too often, the protection of those rights by cops, DAs and judges is. 

That’s not right. And all of us should be willing to say so. 

And maybe admit that Kaepernick had a point.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Gov. Kay Ivey moved the football again

Josh Moon

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I understand how Charlie Brown must have felt. 

The disappointment and surprise when Lucy moved that football one more time. The betrayal. The embarrassment. The anger. 

I know those feelings, because far too often I’ve experienced them with Alabama politicians. I want so badly to believe that our elected lawmakers are good and smart people who care about the citizens of the state. That they’re not money-grubbing, selfish dolts who will sell us all out for a nickel and new socks. That they will lean on science and facts when crafting policy and ignore the noise from the ignorant minority screaming the loudest. 

And so, far too often, I believe in someone who I know, deep down, is just going to let me down. Who’s going to move that football at the last minute. 

On Thursday, it was Gov. Kay Ivey moving the football. 

It seems like only last month that I was writing a column praising Ivey for her sound judgment and decision-making. That’s because it was last month when Ivey ignored the screaming crazies calling for a “reopening” of Alabama in the midst of a global pandemic that is, quite clearly, getting worse in this state. 

Ivey listened to real doctors. She leaned on facts. She had a cute comeback — “data over dates” — to shoot down any notion that a calendar day would carry more weight than the data showing infection and hospitalization rates. 

We had a governor making sound decisions rooted in public safety and health. She refused to budge on the matter and refused to let money outweigh the value of human life. 

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It was a great time to be alive in Alabama. 

And then, Kay Ivey moved the football. 

A week ago, after telling people that it would be data that determined when Alabama reopens, and that she would follow the White House guidelines for reopening, she did neither. Instead, she did exactly what she said she wouldn’t do — used a date to determine that it was time to lift restrictions. 

The lockdown had gone on too long, Ivey said, and it was time to lift it. 

She did so as positive cases were on the rise. And with absolutely no plan for comprehensive testing and tracing — the one thing that Ivey and all medical experts said we HAD to have before we could safely lift restrictions. 

Then, on Thursday, Ivey was back again to lift more restrictions — the day after the mayor of Montgomery told the world that his town and the surrounding three counties are out of ICU beds because of a massive outbreak of new cases. Hospitals in Montgomery are now transporting ICU patients to Birmingham. 

Still, there went Ivey, lifting restrictions to allow strip clubs and concert venues and casinos to reopen. Just in time for the Memorial Day weekend rush — a coincidence, no doubt. 

The reason for all of this is easy to understand. 

There is no plan to save people. 

The testing and tracing we were supposed to have — that would have allowed us to more safely reopen and go about our lives while the carriers of the virus and those exposed to those people are sequestered — have never materialized. And it is painfully obvious at this point that we will never have it. 

In addition, there is no true guidance from the White House, and what little has come from there, we’ve mostly ignored. We’re supposed to have at least seven straight days of reduced positive cases. We don’t have one day. 

There’s also the Idiot Factor — the groups of crazy people screaming about tyranny and government overreach because they have to put on a mask to shop at Publix. These are the same people who think strapping a bulletproof backpack on their kids to go to school instead of expanding background checks is simply the price of freedom. 

Add it all up, and it’s pretty easy to see what Ivey did: Tossed up her hands and said to hell with it, y’all be careful out there. 

And that’s disappointing. Because I believe the majority of Alabamians — and there are polls to back this up — were grateful for her measured approach and data-driven decisions. And I think most understand that there are ways to both reopen the economy and still keep in place restrictions that both limit the spread of the virus and impress upon people the danger it still poses. 

But we’re not doing that. Not anymore. 

Instead, we’re back to taking the easy way, back to catering to big business and rightwing crazies, back to ignoring science and data. 

The football was moved again.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Alabama’s long-overdue prison bill

Josh Moon

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Although scientists haven’t yet confirmed it, there is a cure for COVID-19: Incarceration in an Alabama prison. 

It’s amazing, really. 

If you work in the prisons or visit an Alabama prison, you get the coronavirus. If you’re an inmate who leaves an Alabama prison for a short period of time, you also get the virus. 

But inside those walls … you’re as safe as a baby. 

According to APR’s Eddie Burkhalter, who has covered Alabama’s atrocious prisons better than anyone in the state over the last several months, Alabama Department of Corrections officials contend that there is just one — ONE! — prisoner in the entire ADOC prison population who currently has COVID-19. 

Out of more than 22,000 prisoners. 

There have been nine prisoners to test positive for the virus over the last few months. All of them tested positive at medical facilities outside of the prisons while they were undergoing other treatments. 

There are 36 confirmed cases of prison workers testing positive. 

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But still just the one inmate. 

A major medical miracle. We should alert Fauci and Birx.

On the other hand, maybe it’s simply one more case of Alabama treating its prison population as though the men and women inside those walls are something less than human. Hell, something less than mammals. 

Actually, there’s no maybe about it. That’s definitely what’s happening. 

We’re not testing inmates, so, tah-dah, no inmates are sick. Even when we know from inmates and guards and prison staff that inmates are most definitely sick. And that many of our prisons have now established quarantine areas where dozens of prisoners are being housed, away from the general populations. 

But we’re not testing them. Or providing them much treatment. 

A few days ago, a woman at a Birmingham-area prison work facility was essentially left to die in a stairwell, according to another prisoner, because guards and staff were too afraid to help her get to the medical clinic upstairs. The reason they were afraid was because the prisoner, Colony Wilson, had exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. 

She died gasping for air. As several people stood over her and around her, doing nothing. 

It is the latest in an ongoing string of horrible, terrifying, unconscionable incidents within Alabama’s prisons, most of which have resulted in the deaths of dozens of inmates over the last few years. 

Because Alabama prisons are hell on earth. 

And that is not an opinion. It is a fact confirmed by anyone who has ever spent time in, worked in, toured or investigated incidents that have occurred in those prisons. Justice Department investigators agree. A federal judge agrees. 

Our prisons are poorly staffed, poorly funded and poorly maintained, and our inmates are poorly guarded, poorly fed and poorly treated for ailments. And no one cares. 

But you will. 

Mark my words, we will pay for our treatment of Alabama prisoners — all of us will. I know this because it is one of the few guarantees of life: You cannot dismiss and mistreat groups of human beings for decades on end and not pay a price for your sins. 

We have a big bill coming due. 

And I guarantee you one other thing: That bill would have been much smaller, much more easily managed had we simply done the right things from the start. 

Had we properly staffed the prisons with guards who weren’t paid so little that smuggling contraband was the only way to pay their bills. Had we provided inmates with actual tools to rehabilitate themselves. Had we treated their medical ailments properly. Had we shown a genuine interest in their contributions to society. 

We had an opportunity to show a group of mostly young men that the love and direction most of their early lives did exist. We could have proven to them that there are people who care about them, who understand that every life — even the ones outside of the womb and encased in non-white skin — are precious. 

But we didn’t. And those people found refuge with other wayward men and women — in violent gangs and prison cliques. They found an income selling drugs and selling humans and doing all the bad things that people buy all those guns to stop. 

And we pretended like it didn’t exist. Like they didn’t exist. 

So, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re just not testing inmates for a deadly virus. It would fit the pattern of ADOC and this state in dealing with our prisoners. 

But know this: the manner in which a state houses and cares for its worst people is the truest measure of the heart of the people leading that state.

Alabama’s heart stopped beating long ago.

 

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