"What does not change / is the will to change"
--Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tiny Fingers -- for Joss

Jocelyn cheering during 2013.
I wrote this poem eight years ago, next week, a week after my niece Jocelyn was born. It was published in the Artsbridge/River Poets 2007 Anthology, The Eclectic Muse in 2007. Its style is markedly different from my current style, but I post it today because it is Jocelyn's 8th birthday. Happy birthday, Joss.
for Jocelyn, seven days old

Tiny fingers

like the smallest twigs
tossed off trees
in a storm, scattered

across the yard,

fragile, like the last
warm day of fall
or news pages

dried and yellowed,

flitting in the breeze,
or a moment of quiet
in Khartoum, in Baghdad

or on the back streets

of this coughing
industrial city.
I can feel you

twitch and turn

in my arms
against the rhythms
of your new breath

under fluorescent lights,

against the hum
of air conditioning and
pinch of feeding tubes,

in your room with a view

of the city and the river,
as our voices, set
like sax solos above

the clinical din

of machines.
What could you
be thinking, dreaming,

seven days old,

nurses on strike
outside your window,
as you raise your hand,

cover your face,

try to pull
the tape off
that holds your

feeding tube

in place?
What could you
be thinking,

fragile fall day

the sun out,
your parents
waiting to take you


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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

UPDATE on earlier post

I posted Saturday about the decision by FIU in Florida not to issue press credentials to the Miami Herald beat reporter, saying that the move was part of a larger trend in which organizations use access to punish reporters for coverage that is perceived as negative.

Today, as reported in the Herald and tweeted by Jim Romenesko, FIU has issued credentials to the reporter. Good call.

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Helmetta plans to yell 'cut!'

Apparently, public officials in Helmetta have grown camera shy. Not that I blame them, given recent events. But that doesn't mean the borough should be passing local laws that would ban the videotaping of public officials.

As NJ.com reports, Helmetta
is considering new legislation that could make it harder for residents to use smartphones inside public buildings.

Exempting public meetings, the proposed ordinance will prevent visitors to Helmetta's municipal buildings from taking video or photographs without an approved permit.

The ordinance states that the permits will be issued at the borough's discretion, and that any resident who receives one will be barred from interfering with the normal business operations of municipal employees and filming them or other visitors without expressed consent.

If approved, violating the ordinance could result in a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and up to $2,000 in fines.
The ordinance, as NJ.com also reports, that "Herb Massa, borough administrator, confirms that the ordinance is indeed a direct result of a recent scandal" that led to the resignation of a Helmetta police officer. The officer resigned after a video surfaced in which he tells a resident that the police do not have to follow the constitution. (The police obviously have to follow the constitution, as we all do, though it also is part of their oath of office.)

Helmetta accepted the resignation. What should have followed were efforts to make sure the handful of officers who populate its police force are schooled in constitutional law. Instead, the council is opting to pull the shades down on its residents, to require residents to get permission from the government when they want to document potential abuses by the people who may work for the government.

Massa told NJ.com that
"When they come into the building and people are conducting business, there has to be a reasonable expectation that the financial information is secure and not in the next 15 minutes up on Facebook." 
That makes sense. I'm not arguing that there cannot be some limits on video, but the ordinance as reported seems overly broad. No one wants sensitive financial information broadcast on Facebook, though it is important to remember that things like tax bills, water and sewer bills, tax liens, applications for permits and licenses, voter registrations, etc., are all public records. There are not that many things that might be considered sensitive and, even for those that are sensitive (credit card and bank account numbers come to mind), a municipality should be able to craft a tightly focused ordinance that protects that information without infringing on the right of citizens to hold their government up to public scrutiny.

But this is not really about sensitive information -- at least, it doesn't appear that way to me. That this is being drafted in response to the video of a police officer telling a resident that the officer is exempt from the Constitution is all we really need to know. 

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Are we criminalizing art and the imagination?

A Maryland middle school teacher has been removed from the classroom, placed in police custody and had his house searched -- all because he wrote and self-published a dystopian sci-fi novel that imagined a mass school shooting.

According to CBS DC (where all of the information and quotations come from), Patrick McLaw was removed from school by "Members of the Dorchester Sheriff’s Office, the Cambridge Police Department and the Dorchester County Public School board" because he "allegedly penn(ed) two books under the alias, 'Dr. K.S. Voltaer,'” one of which "depicts 'the largest school massacre' in history." (UPDATE: It is WBOC that is reporting that police said McLaw was being investigated because of the books.)

The school district says McLaw "has been placed on a leave of absence pending an ongoing investigation 'due to significant matters of concern brought forth by law enforcement.'"
Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips told WBOC that McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation but the sheriff declined to disclose the current whereabouts of McLaw. Police swept Mace’s Lane Middle School for bombs and guns on the same day McLaw was taken in for the evaluation – coming up empty in the search.

“The information we received caused us to return to Dorchester County and immediately take the following steps,” Phillips said, according to My Eastern Shore MD. “A K-9 sweep was conducted at the Mace’s Lane School looking for explosive devices and other weapons. A secondary search was performed by police and school officials looking for suspicious packages or other items. Both of these searches were negative.”

“The residence of the teacher in Wicomico County was searched by personnel,” Phillips said, with no weapons found, reports WBOC.”A further check of Maryland State Police databases also proved to be negative as to any weapons registered to him. McLaw was suspended by the Dorchester County Board of Education pending an investigation and is no longer in the area. He is currently at a location known to law enforcement and does not currently have the ability to travel anywhere.”
It is a troubling piece of news -- mostly because it appears to criminalize the creation of art. Have we gotten to a point when writers have to worry that the product of their imaginations might land them in the cross hairs of the authorities? Absent other information -- such as a more detailed explanation of "the information" alluded to by Phillips and a detailed explanation as to why McLaw may have posed a threat -- this is the only conclusion I can come to. If all police and school officials are going on are two novels penned (allegedly) by McLaw, then they are conflating thought and action. They are saying that the products of his imagination are the same as his actions or, at the very least, that his thoughts must automatically lead to real-world action.

It is an assumption that is dangerous to a functioning democracy that is supposed to value free speech and thought. While all actions might start in the imagination (as Barbara Grizzutti Harrison said -- also quoted on Criminal Minds, of all things), not all things imagined result in actions, not all art is evidence of an intention or is representative of the world. There is distinction between what we think and what we do and the law -- and the government -- needs to respect this.

By the way, there is a petition drive going on asking that the district apologize and reinstate the teacher.

Here is the press release from the district. It doesn't mention the books directly. This story from WBOC says:
Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace's Lane Middle School had several aliases.  Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country's history set in the future.  Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.

Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale.  Not only was he a teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith's Heir."

Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County.  "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.
UPDATE: The Harrison and Criminal Minds attribution after writing this.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sick-leave rules get their biggest endorsement

California is poised to become the second state to require paid sick leave for private employees. As reported by Think Progress,

Early on Saturday morning, the California Senate passed a bill guaranteeing at least three paid sick days a year for about 6.5 million workers, sending it to Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Brown’s office said it supports the bill, and in a statement after it passed he said, “Tonight, the Legislature took historic action to help hardworking Californians.” Assuming he signs the bill, California will become just the second state ever to guarantee paid sick leave and the law will be the tenth in the nation.
New Jersey, of course, has two of those eight municipal laws, with six more expected to pass either legislatively or by referendum sometime this year. There also is a state-wide bill under consideration that has the support of Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson).

The California vote -- and the New Jersey actions -- signal a major split, with many Democratically controlled or leaning states backing sick leave and GOP states moving to stop the effort. Think Progress says 10 states, including Florida, have passed legislation to prevent local action.

California, however, is the largest state in the nation and home to one in 12 Americans. It also has one of the largest economies in the world -- bigger than many individual nations. That could give it outsized influence in the debate, because businesses operating there may ultimately opt to apply the California rules to all of their locations.