April 12, 2021

Thoughts as Prosecution in Chauvin Case nears the End

 As I write this, the state’s case against former police officer Derek Chauvin is nearing its end. The last prosecution witness is use-of-force expert Seth Stoughton, a criminal justice law professor, who apparently has analyzed the last minutes of George Floyd’s life instant by instant.

In light of my last post, “To Protect and to Serve,” the most interesting thing Stoughton has said concerns the concepts of threat and risk. Threat, he explained, necessarily involves the ability of a person to cause harm to an arresting officer, the opportunity to do so, and the apparent intention to do so. Police officers often justify shooting civilians by saying that they felt threatened. But Stoughton defined risk as simply a situation involving a potential threat. “While threat can justify use of force, risk can’t,” he said. Too often, I think, officers react not to threat but to risk they find uncomfortable.

In the case of Derek Chauvin’s handling of the arrest of George Floyd, it is impossible to see a prone, handcuffed, and weighted down George Floyd as representing a threat. He doesn’t even appear to represent any sort of risk to the officers on the scene.

The questioning of Seth Stoughton clarifies what happened to Floyd. He did not resist arrest, but he resisted being placed in the back of a squad car. He was, he claimed, claustrophobic. He was then removed from the squad car and placed on the street. This raises the question of what the arresting officers were intending to do. Were they trying to convince him to get back into the car? Were they eventually going to order a more spacious vehicle in which to place Floyd? Or were they just intending to kill Floyd to get him off their hands?

If Derek Chauvin is put on the stand—this hardly seems a good strategy by the defense, but it might be done as a last-ditch effort to avoid an inevitable conviction—I would hope that the prosecution will ask him what was his intended end game.

April 4, 2021

To Protect and to Serve

Watching the Minneapolis trial of Derek Chauvin, it is natural to ask what Chauvin’s defense can possibly be. The prosecution has offered witnesses to George Floyd’s life and his final day. Floyd was hardly a perfect human being, but he has at least been portrayed by witnesses as a sympathetic character. We have heard from his girlfriend. We have heard from bystanders appalled by the treatment he received at the hands of the Minneapolis police. We have been told that Chauvin’s behavior was unauthorized and uncalled-for. And, of course, we have seen the horrible videos.

Unless Chauvin’s defense team can pull an unexpected rabbit out of a hat, only three arguments appear available:

  1. Police have a difficult job, and civilians cannot fairly second-guess them. Their actions are beyond question.
  2. George Floyd had medical problems, used drugs, and succumbed to treatment that an ordinary (i.e., healthy) person would have survived.
  3. George Floyd was a big strong man—a man much larger than Derek Chauvin—and therefore a threat to the policeman. Extraordinary means were required to subdue him.

That we shouldn’t second-guess police actions is a conventional argument that is wearing thin in this age of Black Lives Matter. Too many unarmed black males are dying at the hands of police. The argument that the police must be given license to do anything they believe necessary in the line of duty simply won’t fly with the public these days, and I suspect it will be similarly unpersuasive to the jury. The defense will likely bring out this argument anyway, on the theory that it can’t hurt. (But it actually might.)

Blaming Floyd’s health and lifestyle is likewise a stretch. Yes, he was a drug user with a heart problem, but we learned last week that he worked out regularly and showed no evidence of being at death’s door in the videos from his last hour of life. Moreover, it is not hard to believe that one can die from being handcuffed on the ground with a knee on one’s neck for nine minutes. One’s general state of health is not likely to be particularly relevant in such a circumstance. Although EMS personnel and a cop tried to resuscitate Floyd, at least one of the first responders assumed that he was dead before he was loaded into the ambulance. It will be difficult for jurors to conclude that George Floyd’s death was not the direct result of the actions of Derek Chauvin. Nonetheless, expect the defense to blame the victim for his own demise.

The defense is probably going to offer the explanation police who kill most often trot out—that the defendant felt threatened and did what he—always he—had to do to protect himself. We are seeing the jury being prepared for this argument: George Floyd is big—and, implicitly, black and threatening—and Derek Chauvin is small and white. But the usual logic doesn’t work here. Floyd was immobilized on the ground and handcuffed. Anyone can see that he posed no credible threat to Chauvin or anyone else. Chauvin did not appear to be afraid of Floyd; instead, he seemed indifferent to his fate and in no hurry to conclude that enough force applied to the supposed miscreant was enough. But Chauvin or an attorney on his behalf will, no doubt argue that he felt threatened and did what he needed to do for his own safety.

Many police departments have adopted the slogan “to protect and to serve” (or “to serve and protect”). These infinitives indicate neither a subject nor an object. We are expected to infer that the police force exists to protect and serve civilians. Too often, however, the police protect and serve their own interests. When a cop is threatened or, more importantly, feels threatened, rightly or wrongly, the inclination is not to protect the public, perhaps even a perpetrator, but to protect him- or herself. This is a perfectly understandable impulse, but it is one that training should eradicate. Being threatened comes with the job. Police on the street need to recognize that and understand that even sacrificing their own safety or life may be necessary to protect those they are supposed to serve. Derek Chauvin cannot reasonably argue that he was protecting his prisoner or himself. In the various videos, he seems simply to be a self-satisfied sadist, and, one suspects, a racist. 

Police unions nearly always defend their members, irrespective of how outrageous their behavior may have been. It is gratifying that, in the Chauvin trial, police officials are actually testifying against a police defendant. We can hope that this is the start of a trend. Nonetheless, it is hard to get twelve Americans to agree on much of anything these days, and the verdict of the jury is very much in doubt.

Pray for justice for George Floyd.

April 3, 2021

What Do You Like about Donald Trump?

Donald Trump
Donald Trump
The question persists: What do people like in Donald Trump? Many Trump voters saw their votes as giving the finger to a government that, for whatever reason, they saw as not working for them. Others thought Trump would accomplish particular policy goals—outlaw abortion, end immigration, withdraw from foreign entanglements, create a whites-only Christian America.

Nominally, Donald Trump has lost his hold on power. His ability to influence policy is now minimal and will only be diminished as the former president is increasingly occupied with his very considerable legal troubles. He nonetheless commands a large following. One must ask what attributes Trump has that account for such affection.

It is easy to list, at least partially, traits that may be appreciated by Trump’s followers. Which of these account for the esteem in which he is held? Is his

          • Mendacity
          • Sarcasm
          • Cruelty
          • Volatility
          • Arrogance
          • Hypocrisy
          • Narcissism
          • Pettiness
          • Lechery
          • Ignorance
          • Vindictiveness
          • Irresponsibility
          • Corruption
          • Malevolence
          • Indifference
          • Amorality
          • Dishonesty
          • Duplicitousness
          • Capriciousness
These Trump virtues do not endear the former president to me or to most of my friends. Which of them, dear Trump reader, do you most value?

March 28, 2021

Defending Benjamin Franklin

I am a graduate of  Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Benjamin Franklin was established by the Orleans Parish School Board in 1957 as a school for gifted students. It has always had a selective admission process and a college preparatory curriculum. I entered Franklin in 1961 and graduated in 1964. Virtually all Franklin graduates attend college.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and damaged the school’s facilities in 2005, Franklin became a public charter school. It continues to be the highest-rated Louisiana high school and one of the highest-rated high schools in the country.

Recently, the Orleans Parish School Board became concerned about schools named for slaveholders, Confederate officials, and advocates of segregation. Remarkably, Franklin is one of the schools the board may rename. I had no idea that Benjamin Franklin once owned slaves (but see below). Fortunately, the board has solicited public comments regarding current school names and possible alternatives.

Below is an essay I sent to the Orleans Parish School Board a few days ago in defense of the name “Benjamin Franklin High School.” Although I address morality-based renaming of objects and institutions only obliquely, you can possibly guess that I have some ambivalence about the enthusiasm with which renaming has lately been pursued throughout the nation. That ambivalence also applies to the way individuals are being shamed or fired for past statements or actions. But I have no ambivalence about the need to retain the name “Benjamin Franklin High School .”

___________________________________


As a member of the Benjamin Franklin High School Class of ’64, I was aghast upon learning that the name of my high school had suddenly become subject to change. Renaming Benjamin Franklin would be a travesty. I am writing to discourage such an eventuality and to offer rationale for the status quo.

I am proud to be a Benjamin Franklin alumnus, and I am confident that this attitude is common among Franklin graduates. I am supremely grateful to the Orleans Parish School Board for creating the unique school that gave me and many other New Orleanians an educational opportunity that would have otherwise been unavailable. The affection in which Benjamin Franklin is held by its alumni is attested by the existence of an alumni association and by graduates willing to support the school financially.

I do not recall being lectured on the accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin during my high school career, but I am confident that students were generally aware of the significance of the school’s eponym and harbored no reservations concerning the school’s name.

Not infrequently do I brag about my high school, an institution that has justly received national recognition and which has a reputation that will require a degree of rebuilding should it become known by another, less appropriate, name.

It is difficult to know where to begin enumerating the virtues and accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin. They are legion, but brevity will, no doubt be appreciated. What follows is not comprehensive.

Benjamin Franklin is probably best known as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. The story of our nation’s early history cannot be told without many references to Franklin, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. Constitution. He was our first Postmaster General and, as Ambassador to France, was instrumental in enlisting France on the American side during the Revolution and in concluding the peace with England.

Additionally, Franklin was an inventor, scientist, writer, philosopher, and civic activist. He was a dedicated proponent of free speech and of the value of religion generally. He made significant contributions to the fields of publishing, demography, physics, oceanography, meteorology, music, and the practical arts. Through his writing, Franklin encouraged virtues we have often considered fundamental to the American character: thrift, honesty, desire for education, industry, tolerance, piety, and communitarianism.

Yes, Benjamin Franklin once owned a couple of slaves. In his time, this was common among the well-to-do. However, Franklin freed his slaves and, thoughtful, philosophical, and progressive man that he was, became an abolitionist later in life. He argued for the education of blacks and their integration into white society, and he led the Pennsylvania Abolition Society as its president. By contrast, George Washington, whom Americans rightly hold in the highest regard, owned many slaves but failed to free them even upon his death. Other Founding Fathers were likewise less enlightened regarding human freedom than was Benjamin Franklin.

We do our forebears a disservice when we judge them by contemporary standards, thereby depriving ourselves of enlightening rôle models. But we need hardly devise excuses for Benjamin Franklin. Whereas he was not a perfect human being, we cannot conscientiously accuse him of approving of chattel slavery. Although he once accepted the institution of slavery, he came to see it as wicked. To deny Franklin’s value as a rôle model because he once held views we today find odious, despite his eventually repudiating those ideas, is to deny the value of repentance and rehabilitation, perhaps even the value of education itself.

“Benjamin Franklin” is, in fact, an excellent name for a high school in general and for the college preparatory high school in New Orleans in particular. Franklin students are encouraged to pursue excellence, to seek out and act upon facts, and to contribute to the improvement of society—activities Benjamin Franklin pursued throughout his long life.

If we choose to name our schools only after persons who, according to contemporary standards, led not only exemplary but spotless lives, I fear we will only name schools after Jesus Christ. Not even Moses or Mohammed are viewed as completely faultless, even by those who most admire them.

I applaud the effort to remove from places of honor the names of those who advocated for slavery or who rebelled against the Union to preserve the peculiar institution. Let us not memorialize the names of John C. Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, or Jefferson Finis Davis. But no American should be embarrassed to claim Benjamin Franklin as a fellow citizen. New Orleans should be proud to have an extraordinary secondary school named for him, as I sincerely hope it will continue to have.

Lionel E. Deimel, Ph.D.
Benjamin Franklin High School Class of ’64
Indiana, Pennsylvania
March 26, 2021


March 19, 2021

Taking the Cats to the Vet (Day 2)

 See “Taking the Cats to the Vet (Day 1)” about my aborted veterinary appointment for cats Linus and Charlie.

March 14, 2021

Cat Carriers
Cat carriers on the floor. I saw
Charlie in the carrier at the
right.

7:30 p.m. For about a week, I have had two cat carriers on the floor in plain sight. Initially, I had the front flaps open and new catnip toys inside. When getting ready for our vet visit last week, I closed the front flaps and opened the top flaps of the carriers to make it easier to put the cats inside. I am surprised to see Charlie inside one of the carriers and enjoying the cat toy. I hope this is a good sign for our appointment this Thursday, March 18.

March 18, 2021

9:17 a.m. The cats are making themselves quite conspicuous. They cannot get into my bedroom (and, therefore, under my bed) or go upstairs. They have, no doubt, recognized that this is abnormal.

9:30 a.m. Lauren, the student housekeeper, arrives at her usual time. I confirm with her the schedule for capturing the cats.

9:54 a.m. I return downstairs and see no cats. A quick look around finds Linus behind the Clavinova. Charlie is in a dark corner next to a bookcase, an unusual place for him to be. So far, so good; they are limited to a confined area and I know where they are.

1015 a.m. I go briefly into my bedroom. Charlie is lying near the door when I come out. After sitting down, Charlie climbs onto my lap. I pet him for a long time. He seems unusually alert. I do not see Linus, who probably is still behind the Clavinova.

11:02 a.m. I eat a quick lunch, expecting to begin corraling the cats not later than noon and leaving for the Cat Clinic by 12:30 p.m.

11:20 a.m. I turn on the television and sit in my recliner, watching a program I recorded the day before.

11:22 a.m. Charlie jumps up on my lap. This is what I was hoping for, though having Linus on my lap would have been a happier circumstance. I watch television and pet Charlie for a long time.

11:58 a.m. It’s time to move. I put on my gloves—mostly in anticipation of dealing with Linus—grab hold of Charlie, walk over to his carrier, deposit him inside from above, and close the top flap. I then take the carrier upstairs. I fetch Lauren, my assistant cat catcher, and we proceed downstairs, closing the door at the top of the stairs behind us.

As I expected, Linus has remained behind the Clavinova. I suggest that we pull one side of the instrument away from the wall, allowing me to go behind it and grab Linus. Before I can step behind the Clavinova, however, Linus runs out at full speed and sprints up the stairs—big mistake on the part of the cat. He is now cornered on the top step. I pick up Linus with a vice-like, glove-protected grip, and Lauren helps me secure him in his carrier.

12:19 p.m. I back the car out of the garage. Lauren and her sister, who has joined the project, each take a cat carrier to the car. Once the cats are in the back seat and belted in, I leave for the trip to the vet.

1:50 p.m. I arrive at the Cat Clinic. The ride has been uneventful. I heard a few whines from Linus early on, but the cats were quiet for most of the trip. Alas, it rained the whole way. The trip is a long one. I became a client of the Cat Clinic when I lived in Mt. Lebanon, and I continue to be one because I like Dr. Bebko and the fact that only cats are treated at the clinic. Cats can be frightened in a waiting room with large dogs.

The pandemic has changed the mechanics of my annual visit. I pull into the driveway and call the clinic. I am told to bring the carriers into to the foyer. I do that and proceed to the parking area in back. I catch up with my reading while waiting for a phone call.

2:34 p.m. I get the call telling me that my cats are ready to be picked up. I supply my credit card number for payment and have a brief conversation with Dr. Bebko. I drive forward on the driveway and go inside to retrieve the cats and their paperwork. After buckling the cats into the back seat, I set off for home. It rains all the way, hard.

4:04 p.m. I arrive back home, take the carriers inside, and open the front flaps. After a moment’s hesitation, the cats scatter. I hope that I can go a full year without having to put the cats into their carriers again. My anxiety about having to do this begins about January.

March 11, 2021

Taking the Cats to the Vet (Day 1)

March 11, 2021

10:04 a.m.  I am relaxing a bit, steeling myself for the annual trauma of getting my two cats to the veterinarian. It is not the trip to or from the Cat Clinic and Hospital that I dread, but the hazardous task of capturing the critters and placing them in their carriers. As this job is prone to inflict injuries, I am wearing jeans and my heaviest long-sleeved woolen shirt. Gloves are within easy reach.

Charlie and Linus do not normally seem high-strung. They are both lap cats who often arrange themselves on my lap when I sit down to watch television. (Although Charlie will sit on my lap, he actually prefers lying across my chest with his head on my shoulder.) Getting the cats ready for their annual veterinary visit involves (1) finding them, (2) capturing them, and (3) placing them into their temporary cages. Each of these steps can go awry.

I don’t know where either cat is at the moment. I haven’t seen them since I gave them their breakfast. To limit where they can hide, a number of doors are closed, and I spent much of my day yesterday straightening up, so that a crazed cat can do as little damage as possible. I blocked off known hiding places as best I could. Extracting a cat who doesn’t want to move from under a bed is a trying enterprise. The cats may be upstairs now, but I am confident that they will come downstairs eventually.

I schedule my veterinary appointments on a day when a student housekeeper can help with the requisite three tasks. Having a second person available, particularly a swift, young one, can be a great help. Actually, the second person is essential.

Either cat can give me a hard time, but working with Linus is by far the more difficult. Linus has never liked to be picked up and carried even though he loves laps and being petted. When picked up, he tends to fight as if his life depends on it. He does so with no holds barred, and he runs away after extracting himself from my clutches. (This is the point at which first aid may be necessary.) I am cautiously optimistic today, as Linus has seemed less skittish of late and occasionally allows me to carry him short distances without inflicting injuries. Charlie is generally more coöperative and likely will not put up too much of a fight once I’ve taken care of his more troublesome brother.

10:43 a.m. A quick check upstairs locates neither cat. I’m concerned but not yet panicked. I also check under my bed, even though I have been keeping my bedroom door closed. Both cats like to spend time under the bed, and I am gratified to find the area cat-free.

11:00 a.m. I’m taking a quick trip to Arby’s to get a sandwich for lunch. This allows me to take my mind off the cats for a while.

11:36 a.m. Lunch is over. Cats are still in hiding. I’m going to sit down and watch television for a few minutes, as this is usually an invitation to the cats to join me.

11:58 a.m. The television-watching strategy is unsuccessful. It is time for a thorough search of the house. Despite searching upstairs and down-, my helper and I discover no cats, having looked behind and under furniture, in bathrooms and closets, and into every nook or cranny that seems like a possible hiding place. Where could they be? The cats never disappear so completely. I try sitting in front of the television again. I spread some cat treats on the floor, which usually act as cat magnets. No cats appear.

12:35 p.m. Time to call the Cat Clinic to say I will either be late or will need to reschedule. A recorded message announces that the staff is at lunch.

12:43 p.m. After two more bootless calls, I decide to leave a callback message. I say that I may not make my 2 p.m. appointment and should be called as soon as possible.

1:15 p.m. My call is returned. I explain that I cannot find my cats and will be, at best, late. We decide to reschedule for the same time next week. Sigh!

1:45 p.m. I go back to watching television. (The Pittsburgh Pirates are playing a spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles.)

2:18 p.m. Linus appears upstairs from God knows where. There’s still no sign of Charlie. Linus runs downstairs, past the field of cat treats, and disappears behind the Clavinova, a favorite hiding place in times past. I look over the instrument and see him staring up at me sheepishly. I begin to think that the cats somehow knew what was in store for them today, but I don’t know how they might have known that.

3:15 p.m. Charlie jumps into my lap as I’m watching television. I have no idea where he came from. A few minutes later, he discovers the treats on the floor and devours most of them.

3:58 p.m. Linus discovers the few treats missed by Charlie.

Everyone is accounted for now. I still have no clue as to where the cats have been or why they decided to go there. Next Thursday, I plan to close the door at the top of the stairs, thereby confining the cats downstairs. They must have hidden somewhere upstairs. I hope that today’s episode will not be duplicated next week.

I will report on our visit to the Cat Clinic next week.

March 9, 2021

Annoying Squeeze Bottles

“Empty” Bottle of Kraft Tartar Sauce
“Empty” bottle of Kraft Tartar Sauce

Many products are packaged in squeeze bottles—ketchup, mustard, salad dressing, barbecue sauce, dishwashing liquid, among other products. There is a certain convenience in this packaging, but squeeze bottles are not always ideal, and some are annoyingly inadequate.

On the positive side, squeeze bottles allow the dispensing of the product in a convenient manner without the need to employ any special implement. (In former times, this would have been seen as uncouth in the case of food products, but these times are less formal.)

The most obvious problem with the squeeze bottle arises from the viscosity of the product. Vinaigrette salad dressing or dishwashing liquid is easily dispensed from such a container because the contents flows freely. In fact, squeezing isn’t even really necessary. Mustard or ketchup is dispensed with more difficulty because the product is thicker. (Heinz once described its ketchup as “slow good” because it came out of a glass bottle slowly.) Mustard or ketchup is easily obtained from a fresh bottle, but, as the bottle empties, it takes longer and longer to get condiment out of the bottle. And, when little product is left, it is hard to extract the last few drops of your mustard or ketchup.

When the condiment in the squeeze bottle is tartar sauce, dispensing is even more problematic. Because tartar sauce is quite viscous, even trying to get it out of a full bottle can be troublesome. One tends to get a large dollop, followed by nothing at all as the sauce flows leisurely toward the cap. Moreover, that dollop exits its package almost explosively, not landing on your plate quite where you intended. Tartar sauce should not come in squeeze bottles.

Finally, the shape of some squeeze bottles seems designed to frustrate the consumer. Kraft Tartar Sauce is not the only product sold in a bottle similar to that pictured above, a bottle with a narrow mouth and a body that widens, narrows, and widens again. Because tartar sauce flows with such difficulty—it is both viscous and inhomogeneous—after squeezing and hammering the bottle on the table, some sauce stubbornly remains in the bottle. Just try to get it out! The mouth is too narrow to insert any normal-sized spoon, and, even if you manage to insert some implement into the bottle, the irregular shape assures the impossibility of removing everything inside. In fact, the packaging is so horribly dysfunctional, that one wonders whether KraftHeinz designed it so that customers must buy replacement bottles sooner than they would were the packaging more user-friendly. Tartar sauce should be sold in glass or plastic jars with wide mouths and straight sides.

Would that manufacturers selling products in squeeze bottles took customer usability more seriously. Not every product sold in a squeeze bottle should be in a squeeze bottle.

More Thoughts on the Filibuster

My recent post about the filibuster (End the Filibuster) was, perhaps, unduly negative. There are circumstances under which the filibuster might indeed operate as its advocates say it does (or should). Unfortunately, it does not work well in the current circumstances. For many years now, Republican senators have been determined to stop nearly every bill supported by Democrats. In fact, Republican senators have actually not wanted Democratic support except when it was absolutely essential. There is every indication that their attitude toward the Democratic agenda has not changed. What I wrote about the filibuster assumed that Republican senators were not about to have a change of heart.

Assume, however, that at some future time, both parties had a genuine concern for democracy and for the citizens of the Republic. If the party in power proposed a bill whose general purpose was agreed upon by both parties, the minority party would have every incentive to achieve a compromise bill that was more to its liking. The 60-vote requirement would provide more incentive to the majority party to compromise than it would have in the absence of the filibuster. This is how proponents of the filibuster think it should work.

I remain in favor of getting rid of the filibuster because the GOP currently is not interested in democracy and the welfare of the citizenry. It is only interesting in power and opposing anything offered by the Democrats.

There have been proposals to modify the filibuster to make it less draconian. Perhaps one of these proposals could be helpful. I doubt it, but stay tuned.