Category: History

HistorySocial Justice

Do we need prisons?

Should we end prisons? I have been thinking through this question since reading a recent New York Times article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s efforts to dismantle, if not slow the role of, the prison industrial complex. Her focus has been the California prison system and has a book you should check out called The Golden Gulag.

Whatever your views on the criminal justice system, you owe it to yourself and your community to read the article. Angela Davis has been talking about this for decades.

My current thinking is that the prison abolition movement is really about getting a dialog going to question our assumptions about prison. Even getting the prison population down to 1980 levels would be a positive step.

For example, the definition of what constitutes a crime itself is constantly in flux. A good deal of Nobel Prize winners were imprisoned, from Martin Luther King to Andrei Sakharov. People in Georgia serve prison sentences for selling marijuana, in Colorado and California marijuana sellers get venture capital. Missouri wants to imprison doctors for performing safe abortions. So even in the “nation of laws”, the laws are arbitrary, are not equally applied across race, gender, and class, and can change in an election. But the sentences are still extreme and rip apart families and communities.

I struggle with the issue of violent crime. I don’t think the people who stole my bike or car radio need to have their voting rights suspended or their families jacked up. I don’t feel that serial murderers need to be on the street. But most of the countries with low murder rates don’t lock up murderers indefinitely. Those countries seem to take rehabilitation seriously.

Let’s put it this way. Somehow, Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, South Africa, and Liberia found a way to reintegrate people who’d committed unspeakable crimes. Surely if broken child soldiers can be put back together in poor countries, then there has to be a way to put back together the people that we now lock up and put away indefinitely in the “nation of laws”.

A dialog needs to happen.

As usual I’m on the hunt for data, particularly in Georgia.

What do you think?

HistoryPoliticsTravel

Austria as harbinger of change

Last night the, right-wing Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned. He was allegedly videotaped asking a Russian citizen for donations in exchange for government contracts. It is a trope all too common in the democracy of my citizenship, tragically banal as mass shootings.

The impact in Austria was the apparent collapse of the current governing coalition of centrist+right parties. There were protests in Vienna, and the president has called for September elections. The people might need them sooner.

I hope that the elections bring about a political change that invokes the kind of open and forward thinking Austria, the kind of Europe even, that the world is desperately in need of.

Austria has no dearth of vision. The cover photo is of Ute Bock — a Vienna educator who worked on behalf of asylum seekers, especially with respect to educational opportunities, access to housing, and fairness in policing.

Bock’s legacy lives. When I arrived in Vienna, I encountered a poster featuring Katerina Anastasiou, top candidate of a coalition of the Green, Communist, and other leftist parties called KPÖ PLUS.

The agenda described on their website, emphasizes equal housing, job opportunities, and the dismantling of fascism. I’m too far removed for a subtle understanding of Austrian politics — I don’t even pretend to speak German — but the basic outline seems more in the line of public service than fascist money for favors.

To quote from one of Anastasiou’s recent speeches:

The Europe we want does not exist yet, but it lives in us!

So reminiscent of the last lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address

that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth

That the left is sounding a call for support of immigrants and access to housing is not surprising, I learned that they’ve been effective at it in Austria — Vienna at least since the early 20th century.

These are photos I took outside of the Karl Marx-Hof public housing complex, erected in the late 1920’s. To equate it with the oppressive housing complexes of the US is a sacrilege.

The day I visited, the grounds were vibrant. 20-somethings debated in the courtyard. In the steps leading to the entrance, the diversity of Vienna was on display, as Somalian, Bangladeshi, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Eastern- and Austrian-Europeans went about their way basking in the sun. Kebab vendors sold savories and outlined the veggie prospects to me.

As I entered the courtyard I encountered the following plaque

A testament to the 60 families, residents of the Marx-Hof, that had been executed by the Nazis in 1938 and 1939.

Austria’s gift to humanity is its ability to build from the memory of unspeakable horror. To help bring about that vision of the world to which we all aspire. I am with them as the continue the long march forward.

HistoryTravel

Stalinists in Georgia (the state)

We dined at the restaurant Lingenhel Käserei in Vienna on Wednesday night. It had an installation by the Georgian (as in Tbilisi) Helmut Spudich.

The title of the installation was “Georgia on my mind”!

This Op Ed by Stacey Abrams makes clear the case that the current government of the US State Georgia has been spinning into a one party, patriarchal, oppressive, racialist, and anti-democracy state for some time.

It is time to remove the would be Stalinists.

Data ScienceHistorySocial Justice

Remembering Bill Jenkins

As Chelsea Manning is again sent to jail for refusing to abandon basic press freedoms, I am reminded of Bill Jenkins.

Mr Jenkins passed away recently. He was an epidemiologist (and Morehouse graduate ) who bravely exposed the horrific Tuskegee experiments, as Ms Manning exposed egregious human rights violations that occurred during US military operations.

If you are not aware of the Tuskegee experiment, the US Health Service allowed Black men to be untreated for sexually transmitted diseases for three decades. It was a controlled experiment to determine the effects of untreated syphilis. The participants were all poor Black sharecroppers — men recruited through Tuskegee University, believing that they were getting free healthcare in exchange for helping to develop a drug to fight “bad blood”. None of those who had syphilis were given access to penicillin, even after the study supposedly ended. Many perished or suffered irreversible harm.

One outcome was the establishment of informed consent, and other ethical practices we take for granted when we walk into a doctor’s office, or signup for a clinical trial. Jenkins learned of the study, and started asking questions, despite being told to ignore it, or just “look the other way”. In the current climate, Mr Jenkins might have well faced prison. Some principles are worth suffering for, some causes are just that important.

Thank you Bill Jenkins, thank you Chelsea, and thank you to the others doing the right thing.

HistorySocial Justice

Let her lead!

The movement to criminalize women’s control of their bodies is front and center in Alabama and Georgia.

Notre Dame’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw recently took a stand for women’s equality in sports, and was man-splained for her candor and bravery.

The cover photo was taken in Sheroes cafe in Agra, India a place dedicated to supporting survivors of gender violence, providing a space “to come and discuss feminism and equal right“. It is indeed time for the she-roes to step up. There is a multitude.

True leadership is evidenced by the security of letting new spirits and flowers flourish.

Could all the male presidential candidates of all US political parties take a knee for the next four years? Really, is there any perspective or point that is not better articulated by one of the women running?

Since that seems the case, what if we all just agreed not to vote for a male candidate for a year or two or three? A “boycott”.

Alyssa Milano after all, has called for a sex strike.

Surely we would not lose too much after 250 years of male presidents?

HistoryMathematics

Remembrance for Poincaré

If you have read Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, the name Henri Poincaré might ring a bell. Poincaré was an early twentieth century mathematical master. One of his feats was an analysis of how three masses in mutual orbit behave. This analysis provides the foundation for chaos theory. In Liu’s science fiction book, the main character becomes obsessed with an online game that hinges on a world orbiting three suns — a cosmic version of Poincaré’s problem.

Poincaré is also the central figure in modern topology. He made an educated guess — a conjecture — that any 3 dimensional manifold ( I promise that you’ll get the feels for what a manifold is if you follow the link) that is finite in size and without boundary can be described by a 3 dimensional sphere. Basically if you have a shape that has no holes and can be fit into a box, then you can mush the shape into a sphere. Ok, just watch this video or try these games.

It took about a hundred years to prove Poincaré’s guess — Grigori Perelman did so in 2002 and was awarded (but refused) a Fields Medal and won (but refused) the $1 million Millenium Challenge. Poincaré accomplished intellectual gold in his short lifetime, giving us the formalization for gravitational waves and chaos theory among many other thins. He championed human rights and the Poincaré Institut actively continues his work.

On a whim I visited Montparnasse Cemetery where he rests with other family. The groundskeeper was so excited to point me to the location. I took some photos during a brief lull in the rain as the day’s national strike unfolded.

Fresh flowers — the Poincaré’s are not forgotten.

History

Visionary women of Atlanta

In honor of Black history month, thought I would highlight some inspiring murals that adorn Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue.

Mural to Black women leaders on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue.

The first highlights the contributions of four women to Atlanta. They are Selena Butler, Mathilda Beasley, Annie McPheeters, and Dorothy Thompson.

Dorothy Bolden Thompson was one of the true unsung lights of the Civil Rights movement. Employed for many years as a domestic worker (starting at the age of nine!) in Atlanta, she organized the National Domestic Workers Union, which “successfully improved the wages and working conditions of domestic workers in Atlanta, and other cities of the U.S.“. She was at one point a neighbor of Dr. Martin Luther King. I would like to think that their’s was a collaborative, mutually inspiring relationship. Ms Thompson organized successful strikes and protests to improve the lives of the women who performed the invisible, demanding, and often demeaning labor in the homes and offices of White families. Her story is to me so deeply inspiring and connecting. It is the story of the grandmothers and great-grandmothers and aunties, of the proud ladies of the church I attended as a child — the women with gnarled loving hands and unmatched fierceness and wit, the women who built and sustained a people.

Selena Butler (a graduate of Spelman College) is now considered to be the co-founder of the Parents Teachers Association — that is the PTA so ubiquitous across public schools in the United States. Concerned about the welfare of students, in the 1920’s Butler helped organize the first convention of teachers and parents united for better schools. Segregation being what it was, that first convention led to the formation of the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers Association. So inspiring was her work that U.S. President Herbert Hoover appointed her to the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection.

Mathilda Beasley was the first African American nun from Georgia.

Annie McPheeters was the first professional African American librarian with the Atlanta Public library. She was instrumental in developing the Auburn Avenue library and also taught library science at Georgia State University.

The second mural? That one is of Stacey Abrams who came within a percentage point of becoming Georgia’s first African American governor. Fittingly, she is giving a counter to the state of the union speech tonight (February 5th).

A mural of Stacey Abrams looks out over Auburn Avenue in Atlanta