Failure, corruption, and impunity: A story of Chicago justice


22-year-old Rekia Boyd was shot by off-duty police officer Dante Servin in 2012.  Last week, a judge acquitted Servin of all charges.

22-year-old Rekia Boyd was shot by off-duty police officer Dante Servin in 2012. Last week, a judge acquitted Servin of all charges.

On March 21, 2012, off-duty Chicago police officer Dante Servin fired five shots (from an unregistered gun) into a crowd at Douglas Park.  One of those shots fatally hit 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in the head.  Servin claimed he saw a man in the crowd pull a gun, but no weapon was ever recovered.  Boyd died the next day.
This week, the justice system failed Boyd and her family in a way that would almost be funny in its level of fucked-upped-ness if not for the appalling consequences.  
On April 20, 2015, Judge Dennis Porter acquitted Servin of all charges.  I’m going to enumerate the ways in which this is simply crazy—  another drop in the tidal wave of evidence that cops operate inside an absolute bubble of impunity.
1.) Servin did not act recklessly?
Servin was charged with manslaughter—  not murder—  for his actions.  (We’ll get more into the charges in a bit.  Spoiler: It gets worse.)  The requirement for a manslaughter conviction is that prosecutors must prove that the accused “acted recklessly.”  Judge Porter said that while he did not doubt that Servin shot and killed Boyd (!), he didn’t think prosecutors proved he acted “recklessly.”
2.) Servin did not have to defend himself.
The judge had granted Servin’s request for a “directed verdict.”  This essentially means that the defense argued that the prosecutor’s case was so weak that the case should not move forward.  According to the blog Prison Culture, a directed verdict is an extremely high standard, and requests are rarely granted.
Except in this case.  The motion was granted.  Servin didn’t have to put up a defense.  He did not testify.  Prosecutors did not get the chance to cross-examine him.
3.) Servin wasn’t convicted of manslaughter…because the evidence points to murder?

There is mounting evidence that Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez simply (and perhaps intentionally) tanked this case.
Now remember when I said the judge found that Servin didn’t act “recklessly”?  Judge Porter actually found that Servin did not act recklessly because he acted intentionally when he fired into the crowd.  That’s not manslaughter; That’s murder.  But Alvarez did not charge Servin with  murder.  In a piece of legal reasoning that pretty much makes my head explode, the judge let Servin walk because he found Servin acted intentionally when he shot and killed Boyd.  In other words, evidence points to the fact that he murdered her.  So he can’t be convicted of manslaughter.  Because of the (alleged) murder.
So was this just a mistake?  Did Alvarez undercharge Servin because she honestly thought the police officer committed manslaughter?
That’s what Alvarez maintains.  However, that doesn’t jive with what happened in the case of Miguel Adorno in 2010.   In circumstances shockingly similar to Servin’s case, as reported by the Daily Kos, Adorno fired a gun into a party in Chicago and hit a bystander in the arm.  He was charged and convicted with attempted murder and given a 15-year prison sentence.  The prosecuting attorney?  Anita Alvarez.
Adorno appealed the charge and conviction, and the State found:

Illinois courts have clearly and consistently held that when a defendant points a firearm in the direction of an intended victim and fires the weapon, he has not acted recklessly. People v. Sipp, 378 Ill. App. 3d 157, 166 (2007). Because defendant knowingly fired his gun in the direction of the crowd, a reckless conduct instruction was not appropriate. We do not find the court abused its discretion in refusing to instruct the jury on reckless conduct…

Furthermore, specific intent to take a human life is a material element of the offense of attempted murder, but the very fact of firing a gun at a person supports the conclusion that the person doing so acted with the intent to kill.

So then what was so different in Adorno’s case? Why was Adorno charged and convicted with murder, while Servin was  not?
Well, Adorno wasn’t a cop.  Protected by privilege.  Sanctioned by the State to fire a gun, kill an innocent young woman, and walk free.
Servin gets his life back with nary a scratch on him.  In fact, he is currently in the process of returning to active duty on the force—  he’s been on paid desk duty since the events of 2012.  The lives of Rekia Boyd’s family, however, will never be the same.
One final kicker: According to the Chicago Tribune, this is the first criminal prosecution of a Chicago police officer in nearly two decades.  So I guess this is justice?

What if we’re not all supposed to be feminists?


rosieI know, I know.  The title of today’s post probably has you wondering if I’ve been kidnapped and replaced by a MeganBot meant to undo all my work to promote women’s rights. Don’t worry, I’m still here.  (I’d have figured out a way to send a Snapchat distress signal by now, guys.)
But I do want to raise this question: Should all people identify as feminists?
I watched a video today from performer Katie Goodman, who has delivered a witty song about whether or not you should call yourself a feminist (spoiler: you should). After describing an anonymous actress who denounces the term, Goodman goes on to sing/announce that since the actress presumably appreciates equality, driving cars, and voting, “Sorry, babe, but you’re a feminist!”
“Feminism” is currently experiencing an explosion of popularity, with celebrities like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Emma Watson freely using the term to identify themselves.  Added to this, male public figures like Aziz Ansari and John Legend are also joining Team Equality.
In many ways, this is fantastic news. It is a positive and encouraging sign that more folks are willing to wave the feminist banner.  ”Feminism” is losing its status as a dirty word.  Stereotypes associated with the movement (man-hating, bra-burning, lesbian, prudes, sluts, bitches) are slowly  being eradicated.  And, although we have a long way to go, it has become more acceptable recently for women and men to publicly call sexists out on their bullshit!  These are all great developments, which hopefully will lead to a world  in which all spaces, physical and virtual, are safe and free for women.
But I take issue with the argument that because you have benefited from decades of the feminist movement, you are automatically a feminist.  All women and men have benefited from feminism, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still sexist people and ideas out there. If you’re a politician who calls yourself a feminist, but then supports abortion restrictions, I’m going to give you some serious side-eye.
Normally, I do not believe in defining anyone’s feminism.  I would never want to scare people from identifying with a movement that does have a fundamentally simple principle: Women and men are equal. But I also don’t think that we should lasso everyone into a big feminist kumbaya campfire.  After all, if we are including in our membership those who do not embrace feminist principles, what does the word mean anymore?  As Jessica Valenti asked, “If everyone is a feminist, is anyone?
At times, it seems like this growing fascination with feminism is more trendy than empowering.  I am nervous that we are watering down the meaning and history of feminism to make it more palatable.   I am suspicious that celebrities and public figures are jumping on the feminist bandwagon to sell more stuff, not to create a more equal society.  And I am afraid that we are on a dangerous trajectory to post-feminist feminism: a feminism that celebrates itself but ignores the gender-based injustices still occurring in the world.
We cannot forget that feminism is a historically activist movement.  That doesn’t mean you need to be an activist, yourself, to identify with it.  But the movement is born from centuries of oppression, biological reductionism, and internalized and externalized misogyny.  We cannot forget these important roots or whitewash the movement into a rah-rah girl power trend that contains no substance.
Feminism is constant questioning.  Feminism is a fight.  I’ll be the first to pop the champagne bottles when every man and woman espouses feminist principles.  But  I am unwilling to compromise those principles in the mean time.

The Personal is Political: Angelina Jolie Edition


Angelina_Jolie_Cannes_2013In a New York Times op-ed today, Angelina Jolie publicized her recent decision to surgically remove her ovaries after learning she was at a heightened cancer risk.
Jolie discovered in a blood test two years ago that she carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that brought with it an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.  Shortly after receiving this information, she underwent a preventative double mastectomy— a decision she also publicly announced in order to spread awareness about options available to women with the same genetic mutation.  In today’s op-ed, Jolie explicated the complicated decision-making process that led to her choice to remove her ovaries (a surgery that forces the body into premature menopause, carrying with it a host of side effects).
Her letter is truly an example of bravery.  Not only has the award-winning actress and humanitarian  undergone a life-altering procedure, but she has shared a highly personal decision that affects her body, mind, future and family.
That act is empowering for all women.  In an age where we are still seeing (mostly male) legislators try to exert control over women’s medical choices, Jolie owned the narrative about her own body and health.  She spoke about her reproductive capabilities, her ovaries, her breasts, her uterus.  And, most importantly, she did not apologize for it, as women are socialized to do in the name of delicacy and “privacy”— itself, a construct that perpetuates the silencing of women’s experiences.
In speaking up, however, Jolie was careful not to fall into the second-wave-feminist trap of speaking for all women.  She said:

I did not do this solely because I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, and I want other women to hear this. A positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery. I have spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths. There are other options. Some women take birth control pills or rely on alternative medicines combined with frequent checks. There is more than one way to deal with any health issue. The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally.

By making this statement, Jolie has exemplified a nuanced feminism that recognizes the full humanity of women.  Women are not a monolith with singular health care beliefs, needs and options.  Rather, each person must independently make decisions that are right for her unique situation and history.

The Suburban Poor


The Atlantic this morning discussed the rise of suburban poverty.
The suburbs have offered more affordable housing options for low-income populations in recent years– largely due to higher income citizens moving back into rehabilitated downtowns and driving up housing prices.
The concentration of poverty in suburban areas brings a host of unique problems. The suburbs lack the infrastructure and transportation systems to help people access jobs.  Jobs available in the suburbs don’t keep up with the cost of living for low-income, low-educated residents.  And social services available in urban areas have not yet expanded into the suburbs.
The population shift, itself, is ironic and problematic.   After all, the suburbs were originally a destination for well-to-do white middle classes escaping the decay of urban life in the mid-twentieth century.  These new residents followed the migration of many  big manufacturing centers into the peripheries of northern cities. In the suburbs, jobs were plentiful, prosperity bloomed, etc.
In the urban city centers, however, jobs dried up.  And due to legally-sanctioned neighborhood segregation, recently-migrated poorer black communities became trapped in areas that afforded no real economic opportunity.
Now that we are seeing the reverse trend–high-income populations moving back into the city, while poorer populations are priced out– the labor market continues to not match up.  Sure, there are still big office parks in the suburbs, and with them accompanying jobs for lower-educated populations (service, cleaning, food, etc.), but, as The Atlantic article mentions, transportation to these employment opportunities is completely lacking and wages for these jobs often do not approach the cost of suburban life.
The practical concerns of this trend–transportation, access to social services, proper political representation– are immediate and scary.  But to take a step back, I want to raise some important questions about urban and regional planning.  Namely, how do we get ahead of demographic shifts that are the result of the housing market and cost-of-living?  How do we start planning for economic opportunity rather than responding to the lack of it?  How do we match the labor market to education to economic need?
Of course, this is all easier said than done.  But we can’t afford to keep reacting to population changes, instead of planning for how they will look.

Mo’ Treatment, Mo’ Problems


A recent UCLA study revealed that higher-earning doctors get paid more for ordering more procedures per patient.
In other words, doctors aren’t earning their keep by improving health outcomes for patients, but by ordering potentially expensive tests, services, and treatments.  Those costs eventually trickle down to the entire system, contributing to America’s current healthcare crisis.
To further explain:
The United States for years has had the most expensive, least effective healthcare in the developed world.  The crisis can be attributed to a lot of messy, intertwined problems–perverse incentive structures, insurance gaps, neighborhood conditions, current work structure for professionals, and lack of hospital funding.
But the main problem is healthcare costs.  Ironically, the Affordable Care Act, for the most part, defines the problem as insurance coverage.  But, although coverage is very important, it’s only a piece of the puzzle.  How much does having insurance matter if your premium is so expensive as to make it a burden, or if you’re forced to foot more of your bill privately because your insurance covers less?
At worst, the issue of “insurance coverage” is a red herring.  It is the costs of certain procedures, tests, medicines, etc. that cause insurance premiums to soar and place disproportionate burden on individuals, employers and the government.
This problem of healthcare costs is exacerbated by the funding conundrum faced by hospitals and medical professionals.  Without being able to properly cover costs of operation, professionals often “overtreat”– order medically unnecessary treatments, services, and procedures in order to receive reimbursement from insurance.  And guess who is the biggest payer in the system?  Medicare.  That means you, taxpayer.
And, to be clear, research shows that ordering extra procedures and “overtreating” has no impact on health outcomes.  That extra X-Ray, CT scan, lab test, stent, prescription?  On aggregate, it doesn’t make people better.  It is purely a matter of money.  In fact, overuse and unnecessary care has been found to account for one-third to one-half of all health care costs.  (For more on this, read Shannon Brownlee’s Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer.)
This is what the research points to: More procedures, more money.  To be fair, this is not a case of greedy doctors gaming the system, and then rolling around in their convertibles with the wind in their hair.  There is a genuine financial burden and pressure on medical establishments which leads to this behavior (especially on under-funded public hospitals).
But, as the UCLA researchers suggest, we need different payment reimbursement mechanisms, so that reward is not placed on more procedures, but on healthier patients.
For sure, this is easier said than done.  And any evaluative measure creates incentive to game the system (for example, doctors cherry-picking healthy patients and refusing to treat sicker people who might affect their stats).  But the current “fee-for-service” structure isn’t cutting it, and is actively damaging the nation’s healthcare system.

How Time is contributing to the myth of post-feminism


Time issued a poll Wednesday asking readers to vote on which word should be banned in 2015 (because that is apparently hard-hitting journalism these days?). The words included “basic”, “obvi”, “bae”, “turnt”, “feminism”….
Hold the fucking phone.
Here was Time’s reasoning:

feminist: You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.

Right, because the idea of feminism being normalized in popular culture is…a bad thing?
I would give Time the benefit of the doubt if they problematized the “celebrification” of feminism (especially given how artists might be profiting off this appropriation).  But that’s not what’s happening here.
Time is trying to play flippant and cool and Oh my God, Feminism is, like, so 2013 in an attempt to stay culturally relevant.  But let’s be clear: this attitude is dangerous.  It contributes to a society where people– women included– think we are post-feminist and post-equality.
That’s a nice fantasy, but here are the facts:

  • 1 in every 5 women has been raped in her lifetime (not to mention that sexual assault is notoriously under-reported)
  • 1 in 4 women will be the victim of intimate partner violence
  • Women still earn 77 cents on the dollar for every man in the same profession
  • Women pay more for health care coverage yet receive less benefits
  • Women make up half the world’s population, but only 21.8% of lawmakers worldwide
  • Women are called bitches for expressing opinions, bossy for displaying leadership skills, sluts for expressing their sexuality, prudes for refusing sex on command, emotional for being empathetic, and  high maintenance for having goals.
  • Oh, and all of these.

So tell me again how feminism is obsolete?

The Economics of Taylor Swift


640px-YouTube_Presents_Taylor_SwiftI finally caved and bought the new Taylor Swift album.
I had been patiently awaiting the arrival of 1989 on Rhapsody (aka Spotify for old people), the monthly subscription music service I use, only to discover that Miss Swift will not be releasing her album to any streaming services.  In fact, Swift recently pulled her entire music catalog from Spotify– what many consider an implicit chastisement of the company’s unfair compensation structure.
I wanted to be angry at T-Swizzle, but two things stopped me:
1.) Taylor Swift is a national treasure and to be angry at her is, on the cosmic scale, tantamount to murdering a unicorn.
2.) Swift is standing up for her rights in an industry that has seen album sales plummet and artists earn less and less of the money they put into their work.
It can be hard to have sympathy for a person who complains about money, yet retains a cool $200 million net worth.   But Swift’s stance reflects labor rights issues that are occurring across industries.  As more content airs online– with the expectation that such content will be available free– artists and creative-types (everyone from journalists to porn stars) have struggled to earn their fair share.
In this vein, Swift’s credo has been pretty simple: Pay me for the work that I do.
“Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently,” Swift wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.”
This is not to say that artists earn a tremendous amount on album sales (one account says that for every $1,000 in sales, the artist earns back a mere $23.40).  But it’s likely more than the estimated $.007 per stream an artist receives on Spotify.  And the more artists earn from actual music, the less they will have to recoup  in ticket sales, which rose 400% between 1981 and 2012, or by branding every iota of their existence (those who decry the celebrification of musicians would rejoice).
Swift may be an artist fighting a losing battle, and many have trumpeted the end of The Album as we know it.  Regardless, it’s pretty cool to see a woman take an unpopular stance, leverage her past success, and demand fair pay for her work.  And kill it in the process: 1989 sold 1.287 million copies in the first week of sales alone.

Musings on the midterms


I woke up Wednesday morning to…disappointment.  Expected disappointment, but disappointment none-the-less.  Republicans took the majority in both the House and Senate by a landslide, winning 10 of 13 hotly contested Senate seats and picking up 10 additional seats in the House.
I’m not going to do a thorough analysis of why this happened– the Internet provides plenty.
I will say that we need not lose all hope just yet.  Two reasons for this:

1.) The Republican majority will probably set up a very nice 2016 presidential election for Democrats.  It’s the nature of American electoral politics to react and swing full force in the opposite direction when the current direction isn’t producing immediate results.  And while Republicans have been bandying about several names for their presidential hopefuls, there really hasn’t been one great rising star.  Democrats, on the other hand, have hitched their wagon to Hilary, and it’s looking like that will be fruitful.

2.) After the last five years of tea party shenanigans and embittered legislative politics, new Republican leadership is toeing a careful line.  No more threats of government shutdown (at least not yet), no more hijacking of the national political agenda.  I won’t count my ducks just yet, but there have been sides that we’ll be seeing the gentler side of the GOP– one that is willing to cooperate and find common ground with Democratic legislators and, well, govern (Republicans are keeping an eye on the 2016 election, too, after all).

So, it’s bad, but maybe not doomsday?  We’ll find out soon enough.

Education for Sale


graduationEarning a high school diploma is tantamount to taking your first step on the ladder of American success– wedged somewhere in between your first high school job as a pizza delivery guy and your first college job as a…pizza delivery guy.
But without that essential first step, life is…bleak.
So those who have not graduated, for whatever reason, find themselves an easy target for scammers.  And these scams represent a disturbing national trend:  Education is increasingly becoming an avenue for profit, rather than a social good.
The FTC announced last week that it is pursuing a case against several companies selling fake diplomas online.   These ‘diploma mills’ claimed customers could earn an official high school degree by paying $200 or $300 in fees and taking an online test.  Their marketing materials assured  degrees could be used to apply to college or for jobs, when in reality they are quickly exposed as invalid by potential employers and schools, according to the FTC.
Diploma mills are money makers.  One Florida company being investigated reportedly raked in $11 million from the scheme.  It makes sense: the schools prey on anxiety of people in a powerless situation looking for a quick fix.
The scam, however, reflects a few concurrent trends worth exploring:

1.) The Upward Spiral of Accreditation

The power of the paper has been steadily growing over the past decade.  Jobs that used to require a high school diploma now demand a bachelor’s or even master’s degree.  This is partly due to economic shifts.  Manual labor jobs, which did not require any specialized accreditation, have largely been replaced by more efficient technology or machinery, leading to an overabundance of labor in relation to jobs available.  To distinguish oneself among the glutted labor market, you must make yourself unique.  Adding some alphabet soup after your name (BA, MA, PhD, MD) has been the encouraged path for most– even though the degree may not in any way reflect the skill set you need for a particular job.


It leads to a perverse upward spiral of educational attainment.  If more people have high school diplomas, you need that bachelor’s to set yourself apart.  But once everyone has bachelor’s, you better get to working on that M.A. and so on.


Which leads to…


2.) The Rise of the Education-Industrial Complex

The market for education— and I specifically use the word market– is growing FAST.  And for-profit institutions have taken notice.  Hence, we see the diploma mills.  The for-profit colleges that encourage students to take on an absurd amount of debt to attain a meaningless degree (those colleges are lining their pockets with federal loan money that their students cannot hope to pay off).   The contracted charter schools that promise to run a cheap, efficient school with underpaid teachers and staff, yet somehow achieve equal education for all.  Selling education is a logical way to make a buck.


In sum, the increasing demand for a degree has led to an expanding market– and some capitalist vultures who want to suck off the carcass of education.

So what is to be done?
In theory, it would be good to reduce the demand for such meaningless and expensive paper.  People are getting degrees just to get degrees–because it puts their foot in the door (and let’s not even get started about what a barrier to success this is for people of low socioeconomic status!).
Education shouldn’t be a degree factory, though.  Education should impart on students general problem solving and critical thinking, and then maybe provide skill sets that reflects the actual job market and not the imagined one of years bygone.  This is easier said than done, however, and doesn’t address the current pressures of the labor market that are driving this demand.
In the mean time, government and social oversight of those who would take advantage of these market pressures is extremely necessary.  Education should be a public good, not an opportunity to skim off the top.  The FTC’s investigations into diploma mills and for-profit colleges are an important first step, but we also need to spread the word that not all degrees are created equal– and that knowledge is something more than the letters behind your name.

Telling kids sex is fun, and other signs of the impending apocalypse


sexfunI read an interesting piece this morning: “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?
The author, a sex-positive parent, discusses the discordance between her son’s sex education at home and the farce that occurs in public schools.  She has taught her son the proper names for things, honestly answered all his questions about sex, and even, gasp, admitted that adults have sex primarily for pleasure (aside: she makes this Darwinian/scientific in a really awesome way– explaining to her son that if sex didn’t feel good, there would be no incentive to reproduce, and a person’s genes would never pass on).
From the piece: 

Our son asked why they didn’t tell him this stuff at school. The mate explained that adults stupidly think that if you tell children the truth about sex, they’ll have sex earlier than they really should. He added that the evidence indicates otherwise.

And I was off thinking: How funny that we can’t bring ourselves to tell our children the most fundamental truth about sex, that most of the time we have sex, we have it for pleasure.

It is astonishing that adults are so uncomfortable with such a simple truth, and that instead of admitting that a normal human function is…well, normal, we mask sex in a cloud of shame that follows children into their adulthood.
It is this line of thinking and speaking that leads to high-risk behaviors.
The path is simple and tragic: Child asks a normal question.  Adult responds with guilt, shame and fear.  Child learns to associate sex– and being curious about sex– with shame.  Instead of asking honest questions (say, about birth control), they have learned to keep quiet and instead engage in risky behaviors.
And by “risky behaviors,” I mean all the things you would think: not using protection, using protection wrong, etc.  But I also mean more subtle behaviors.  Sleeping with someone who doesn’t care for you.  Being silent when something is uncomfortable.  Not expressing your desires.  Being coerced into something you don’t want to do.  These responses have long lasting implications on one’s adult relationships, and affect how we relate to each other as humans.
And what is this costly silence accomplishing?
You can make the long Foucault-ian argument: tightly controlling discourses about sex reproduces existing social structures and (racist, sexist, homophobic) power dynamics.  Sex was de-normalized, so to speak, and made into a medicalized, theorized thing (rather than a really fun activity!) over the past three centuries  in order to exert social control.  In other words, we shame sex outside of marriage, non-reproductive sex, and non-heterosexual sex to exalt the institution of marriage, which in turn props up the current social order and labor system (Foucault doesn’t go quite this far in A History of Sexuality, but admits it is a possibility).  Which is why we can’t have a discussion about sex as pleasure, because sex can only exist for reproduction.
As a hippie Marxist, I think this is true and could always delve further down that rabbit hole.  But a whole other part of me just wants to scream: Stop.  It’s 2014.  The divorce rate is high.  Teen pregnancy is high.  Sexual satisfaction is low.   Kids are confused and ashamed, and that’s no way for generations to grow up.
The alternative is beautiful and easy: frank discussions about sex and sexuality.  Full expression for each individual.   Safe, loving, and purposeful decisions being made by fully informed human beings.
Cultural shifts, of course, are never quite so simple.  But I think that in an era of Miley Cyrus’ and Rihannas (and Steubenvilles and Robin Thickes and Terry Richardsons), the time is ripe to have more honest conversations about what we really want to teach kids about sex.

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