Monthly Archives: November 2011

Going Down to the Barn: Characters of the Walking Dead

It’s been a very long time since I’ve talked about anything remotely close to a television series, but I had a random thought this morning to write a bit about The Walking Dead on AMC.  I’ve been watching the show since it first began last year; while I haven’t read any of the comics, I have wiki’d myself some insight into the plot.  The current season has primarily centered around two things that haven’t really changed: Hershel’s farm and Sophia’s well being, neither of which has really moved forwards.  But for tonight, I wanted to write about something specific: not just Sunday’s “mid-season finale” episode, but a particular scene.  If you’re a fan and you haven’t seen the episode, you probably shouldn’t read any more of this.

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Rwanda isn’t a Model for Anything but Autocracy

About a year ago, I attended a conference about human rights in Africa.  One of the keynote speakers was a PhD candidate in justice studies who spoke mostly about the Arizona state legislature’s divestment related to atrocities in Darfur.  But she made an off-hand comment about Rwanda that made me double take. I’ll paraphrase it to something like “the streets are clean and the cities are safe, it’s come a long way since 1994!” It wasn’t the main point of her speech, so I shook it off, but not before writing a small post about my own thoughts on Rwanda. But it seems it might be time for another.

I attended an event last month where I saw Carl Wilkens speak. Wilkens is well known for being the only U.S. civilian to remain in Rwanda during the genocide, where he helped aid many Tutsis that were in hiding.  He had a lot to say about his work at the time and his personal story, and it was very moving.  I picked up a copy of his recently published memoir and hope to read it soon.  Hearing him speak, I could tell he cared a lot for Rwanda’s well being – he continues to do work there and seems to have a deep connection with the country.  Given what he went through, it’s hard to blame him.  During the Q&A portion of the event, though, I was struck by his strong support for the current regime there.

First, someone asked how Rwanda had changed.  Wilkens qualified that the government was somewhat overreaching and even used the word “autocratic,” but also argued that the streets were clean, crime was down, and people were safe.  He ignored that petty criminals are whisked away and never seen again and that the civil society and press are severely choked by government restrictions (both of which I mentioned in the aforementioned post).  Recently, the genocide survivors group Ibuka condemned Paul Rusesabagina’s Lantos prize.  Ibuka is one of the biggest survivor groups, but it has been aligned with the government ever since its more outspoken leaders were purged by Kagame in 2000.

And then someone asked what African country could be seen as a model for the way forwards. I was expecting something like Botswana, but instead got accolades for Rwanda again.  Wilkens explains that the Rwandan government was establishing infrastructure, citing efforts to lead an information-based economy in Kigali to lead the region. As some have mentioned, that can’t be the only solution.  An authoritarian government that stifles opposition cannot grow much further than Rwanda has.

Once you clean up your streets (by banning plastic bags and arresting people for begging) and shore up your border (by invading your neighbors and stealing their resources) and win “popular” elections (by intimidating and threatening opposition groups), you can’t call your country a beautiful model for new African governance. I’ve spent years learning about Uganda, and I sure as hell love a lot of things about that country. But in learning to love that country, I’ve also learned to call a spade a spade. No matter how close you are to Rwanda, it’s important to take a step back and call an authoritarian government what it is, with no excuses or apologies.

Why I Will Never Vote to Drug-Test Welfare Recipients

Wednesday night I sat at home aghast at a lot of things. I was watching the Republican Presidential debate, for one thing, but I was simultaneously reading reports (both links are videos) about police violent cracking down on protesters at Berkeley and also hearing about Joe Paterno’s defenders at Penn State rioting and giddily flipping over a news van. But one thing that caught me off guard was one of the polls on Facebook’s questions app.

A number of my friends had voted “yes” on the question, “Do you support drug testing to get approval to be on Welfare?” Now, I’m a vehement no, but I know that A. a lot of my friends are pretty conservative, and B. there’s a strong (and incorrect) stereotype about the people who need welfare and how many are addicts who should just pick themselves up and work harder. But I didn’t vote, initially, because I’ve never answered a question before. Then my wife decided to take a gander, and reported back to me.

So, I voted, because that’s a lot. And at the time of this posting (Thursday night at 7:30), it was 2.2 million for, 108,000 against. I thought I would move on, but this morning I was still a little irked about it, so I threw this piece together. I naively hope that it changes some minds, but at the very least I’m putting my opinion out there, which is practically what the internet is for these days, right?

The Mythical Relation Between Drugs and the Poor

Apparently everybody thinks that the poor do drugs all of the time. I’ve heard, time and again, that the poor wouldn’t be so poor if they kicked the habit and got jobs. If they just picked themselves up, they’d be fine and dandy. Before we assume that this is true, we should acknowledge something else that is true: mental disorders, physical disability, trauma-related disorders, and depression are all things that can lead to substance abuse – and are also found in low-income communities. Now, do they use drugs at a higher rate than the rest of us? Michigan was the first state to implement drug testing for welfare recipients in the 90s, and it found that 10% of recipients were drug users. And a subsequent survey found that 9% of all Michigan residents, on welfare or not, were drug users. Regarding a similar law passed in Florida in the late 90s, some researchers have already said that such assumptions about the poor are “unwarranted.” In fact, another study showed that only 5% of those applying for assistance failed a drug test.

Some studies have definitely shown that those on welfare are more likely to use drugs or be dependent on them, but they are quick to qualify that if they stopped using drugs they would still be living in poverty because of illness, poor education, and unemployment.  And let’s take a second to note that addiction isn’t easy to break, and often one needs support in order to successfully kick a strangling habit like substance abuse. In 1996, over 200,000 people qualified for SSI because of disabilities related to drug addiction and alcoholism. That category has since been eliminated, and those people no longer have that support. Often, drugs are used as escapism, and being stranded without support will only lead to more abuse and less treatment and recovery. This is not the way to actually help people help themselves, nor is it the way to build a healthier society.

Oh, and it’s Unconstitutional

No authority can search you (or your property) without reasonable suspicion. That’s the law, and it includes taking urine samples. And applying for welfare is not reasonable cause, because – as we’ve discussed – there’s no reason to suspect that the poor are more likely to be on drugs. And that’s where the glorious Fourth Amendment comes into play. The wise authors of our Bill of Rights stated that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”  Which is why the Supreme Court decided in Chandler v. Miller that Georgia could not drug test elected officials, and why state efforts to drug test welfare recipients in the late 90s also faltered. This is also why Florida’s current drug-test-for-welfare program is on hold. Because it’s unconstitutional.

The Race Issue

In America, you can’t talk about “the poor” without talking about racial minorities. Most of our communities of color are disadvantaged, and many residents in these areas need assistance like welfare. Many are also targeted for drug use. Which is where policy regarding the poor is also policy on race. The National Poverty Center lists the 2010 poverty numbers with 27.4% of blacks and 26.6% of Hispanics living in poverty while less than 10% of whites (and 12% of Asians) did. So, we know the poor are predominantly minorities. Which is what makes it interesting that a study from The Sentencing Project (PDF) found that race had virtually no effect on the levels of drug abuse, stating that the disparate numbers were actually the result of law enforcement policy, saying that:

Police agencies have frequently targeted drug law violations in low-income communities of color for enforcement operations, while substance abuse in communities with substantial resources is more likely to be addressed as a family or public health problem.

And yet, The Drug Policy Alliance found that, in New York, young white people are more likely to use marijuana, but that black people were arrested at seven times the rate of whites and Latinos (PDF). The narrative continues to argue that the poor and the colored are the ones using drugs, when it’s really that poor minorities are just the ones being arrested for it. The stereotype affects the mentality of the law enforcement, who in turn reinforce the stereotype with disparate statistics every time they choose to arrest and jail minorities and only confiscate the white offender’s drugs, maybe with a warning.

An Unnecessary Hurdle

Last week I was talking with one of my clients in Glendale. He has lived in the U.S. over a year and is a permanent resident. Unable to get a job, he had run out of money a long time ago and relied on his roommate to pay rent. With his roommate moving, he applied for public housing. Lo and behold, to qualify for public housing in Glendale you have to work within city limits for five years. Because the type of people who can work for five years are the ones most likely to need public housing. And this is just a minor example of how we continue to place hurdles in the way of the poor, essentially keeping them that way forever.

Barbara Ehrenreich detailed how we have criminalized poverty ten years after writing her book on how the poor struggle to get by. She explains that food stamps have increased by huge numbers during the recession, but welfare has barely moved because it is so difficult to actually qualify. You can’t qualify for disability without medical documentation, which costs hundreds of dollars for those without health insurance.  Plus, the bullshit welfare system that we have now, ever since Clinton “reformed” welfare, provides supplemental income – which means you have to get a job first, then the government will help, which deals a huge blow to those who can’t find jobs. Ehrenreich explains how one couple down on their luck had to apply for 40 jobs per week while attending daily “job readiness” classes just to get assistance, which is a tall order for anyone having trouble paying for gas, a bus ticket, or a baby sitter. And that’s just to qualify for welfare.

If you find yourself worse off, you face constant harassment at the hands of useless laws like loitering, jaywalking, and the like. Ehrenreich also tells an anecdote of police raiding a homeless shelter to arrest the homeless (while in a shelter) for prior offenses like sleeping on the sidewalk. Las Vegas has even made it illegal to give food to the needy unless you’re a certified organization. When I was in high school I volunteered at a food bank where the poor had to bring proof of residence in order to receive meals – apparently the homeless weren’t allowed food (I didn’t volunteered there again). When you’re not poor, it’s easy to not realized just how many obstacles are on the path to assistance for those who really need it.

Spending Money on the Right Things

People continually argue that, it’s not a war on the poor and it’s not racism, it’s just about fiscal responsibility. We just want to make sure our tax dollars don’t go towards buying illegal things like drugs. So we put the poor through all of these steps in order to make sure that welfare money goes towards what it’s meant to. But, I say, why stop there? Other people receive public funds as well, and we don’t check them.

We should drug test all of the seniors on Social Security. I mean, they’re frail and dying, they’ve got to be on something. Have you seen Little Miss Sunshine? And while we’re at it, I know some friends in college who smoked weed and they were on state-funded scholarships. In a time when it’s harder to afford college, shouldn’t drug users have to fund their own addiction while we give scholarships to the ones who earned it? And we should definitely drug test anyone who wants a driver’s license. When I was teaching last semester, I got the impression that at least a few high school students do drugs, and yet they’re still allowed to drive. I don’t get it. It’s illegal to drive under the influence, but we don’t preemptively check. It’s like we’re just telling them it’s okay to do drugs.

But while we’re talking about watching our dollars, how much does it cost to administer drug tests, process results, and print out new forms and all of that? I mean, Florida’s currently-on-hold law stated that the state would reimburse applicants once they passed, which led to lots of additional costs when only 2% of applicants failed to pass the drug tests (no reliable data on how many chose not to get tested, for obvious reasons). Everyone knows that bureaucracy costs money, but they’re okay adding to it as long as it affects the poor. I mean, this isn’t to improve the welfare system at all, so much as it is about keeping them marginalized.

Why Uganda? Why Now?

So, I’ve been working on revising a paper about US relations with the ICC for the past week or so, and I find myself revisiting the issue of Obama sending 100 troops to Uganda to help hunt down the LRA.  I went to a professor of mine to talk ICC, and we ended up debating the deployment quite a bit, discussing the reasons for sending troops to Uganda now.

I wrote a pretty jumbled analysis of the decision already, but I concentrated on whether or not it was a good idea and if it would work. I barely scratched the surface of why. But it’s definitely worth asking. The LRA have been committing atrocities pretty much from its inception in the late 1980s. The ICC issued indictments for Joseph Kony & Co. in 2005.  The LRA were driven out of Uganda in 2006, and civilians have been leaving displacement camps for home ever since. Why is the US sending military advisers there now?

It’s definitely true that there is broad grassroots support for this type of action.  Between Invisible Children and Resolve, there are tens of thousands of supporters who have been writing letters and attending local lobbying meetings pressing the issue.  I was among over a thousand people who went to DC in the summer of 2009 after the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act was introduced, lobbying for its passage.  Ultimately the bill passed with more support than any Africa-related issue in US history (allegedly).  But that’s only part of the story.  The law passed last May, and the White House’s strategy was released last November. Why did it take nearly a year for (part of) the strategy to be implemented?

Some suspect that this is America’s pushback to Sudan’s power in the region.  The US pushed Sudan to oust Osama bin Laden back in the day, and Bush was a huge supporter of South Sudanese autonomy and later a critic of Khartoum’s actions in Darfur.  Obama has been similarly vocal about both issues.  So, it’s pretty clear that the US has staked out its position against the Sudanese government.  While it’s true that the LRA enjoyed Sudanese material and financial support as well as safe haven in the past, it seems that such a relationship hasn’t existed for years.  Because of this, I don’t think that the deployment of 100 troops in neighboring states is quite the statement to Sudan that others say it is.

One idea that is gaining some traction is that the US is rewarding Uganda for its actions in Somalia.  Uganda has been one of the primary military participants in AMISOM, the multilateral effort to fight al Shabaab. Uganda has also suffered from this engagement at home with the World Cup bombings in 2010 being linked to al Shabaab. The US hasn’t been publicly involved in fighting in Somalia since the debacle almost two decades ago, but it has been a longtime supporter of the mission. Indeed, several members of Congress at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the deployment in Uganda made mention of Uganda’s work in Somalia.  But I wonder if this really makes sense, but that stems mostly from my skepticism that Museveni cares that much about the LRA since he never really cared in the past unless it helped his image during election season.

One thing that I haven’t heard many say, and I think it’s worth addressing, is the state of US-ICC relations.  The Bush administration was staunchly opposed to the International Criminal Court, and even undertook a campaign of isolating the Court in hopes of destroying it. That is, until Colin Powell called the crisis in Darfur genocide.  That began a slow and gradual detente as the US abstained in the Security Council vote to send the Sudan situation to the ICC and then provided logistical support to the Ugandan military in catching Kony.  The Obama administration has been more involved with the ICC than its predecessor, and even voted in the Security Council to refer the Libyan situation to the ICC.  It seems like assisting in the apprehension of the ICC’s first indicted criminals falls neatly into this trend of easing the tensions between the United States and the International Criminal Court.