TRUMP IN CONTEXT

Posted March 10, 2017 on 5:24 pm | In the category Europe, Germany, Politics, Press, TRUMP, Turkey, Uncategorized | by Jeff

“Liberalism itself has failed, and for a pretty good reason. It has been too often compromised by the people who represented it.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72

So, is Donald Trump just the tip of the iceberg? Elections coming up in Europe might help tell us whether the age of Western liberal democracy is heading towards the exit.

While we rightly pay a lot of attention to the national disaster known as Trump it may be that he is only the first among many. The first clue that the West was heading into stormy weather was the UK’s Brexit vote – a vote that forced the Prime Minister out of office, replaced him with a pale imitation of Margaret Thatcher and has proven to be a first crack in the European Union. Then came Trump’s surprise win which has produced the beginnings of a major make-over of America’s economic and social reality, and not for the best.

But obsessing on Trump allows us to ignore a trend that has been developing for some time. Recent or upcoming elections in France, Hungary, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Poland have all indicated that Western liberalism is in decline. Poland now has a nationalist government with a shaky relationship to the EU; NATO member Turkey has effectively eliminated a free press while it heads toward a major policy conflict with the U.S. over Turkey’s unwillingness to accept American collaboration with Kurdish fighters in Syria; France is looking at a national election in which the National Front’s right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen is almost surely going to be one of the two finalists for President with a serious opportunity to win; The Netherlands’ parliamentary election this month is very possibly going to hand a victory to Geert Wilders’ extreme right-wing Freedom Party; and Hungary has already elected a Prime Minister who has turned the country against much of what have been Western values. Add to these, the strong arm tactics of Netanyahu in Israel, the rise of Russian influence in Serbia, and the rising risk to Merkel’s reign in Germany and we have the approach of a new world order.

There has been considerable press discussion of the role of Russia in all of this but the press might better put its efforts into exploring the failures of the West to develop and maintain working economies that provide jobs and benefits to restless, discouraged populations. There are exceptions – notably Germany and Canada – but by and large the West has produced an environment in which the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing, the opportunities for high quality lives have diminished for most people and economic growth is almost non-existent.

While Trump’s electoral victory no doubt hinged on many issues, in the states where it was decided, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin – the economy rose to the top. Whether Trump has the solution is highly questionable but a moot point. Probably he does not, but the Clinton campaign managed to largely ignore the issue and the people who felt it the most. This issue may also be playing out in France, the Netherlands, the UK and the rest of Western Europe. “It’s the economy, stupid” was the mantra that Bill Clinton ran on successfully in the 90’s; it may still reflect the dominant issue that affects the most people throughout the world and that determines the winners and losers of elections. So investment in defense grows while investment in production declines and the quality of the lives of the people our defenses protect remain in the background. Go figure.

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IS THE AMERICAN PRESS UP TO THE CHALLENGE?

Posted January 28, 2017 on 7:11 pm | In the category Politics, Press, TRUMP, Uncategorized | by Jeff

I take a grave view of the plight of the press. It is the weak slat under the bed of democracy.
A.J. Liebling

With the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President, the United States is now faced with the rather considerable task of making him appear to be the new normal. The press, in particular, will struggle with the task of being fair to him while not ignoring his past behaviors and the ongoing and emerging truths about his personal ethical background, business behaviors, and tendencies toward self-serving grandiose rhetoric in support of his own ego. And then, there are the lies. The traditional press tends to avoid calling politicians – especially presidents – liars but we seem to have entered a non traditional situation in which the President is not shading the facts but is rather ignoring them in order to manufacture new, “alternative facts”. This has led our two major newspapers – The NY Times and the Washington Post – to begin ongoing logs of Trump’s lies. There is no need to regurgitate the list of lies to date here – any sentient human can follow those in the daily press and even on major TV network news programs.

Of course there will always be outliers – Fox News, which is to be expected, and the NY Post which seems to be Trump’s personal choice as newspaper of record. And it has been disturbing to note the overly cautious approach of the PBS Newshour which so far has avoided calling out the Fabricator in Chief. But CNN has made an obvious commitment to fight back from Trump’s lies about its coverage of the U.S. intelligence agencies’ investigation of reports of Trump-Putin conspiracies. As for the Alt Right news outlets like Breitbart News, there is no reason to expect them to become honest now that their use of fake news has helped elect their man. And the White House news operation is for now led by Sean Spicer who almost immediately made a fool of himself while embarrassing an office that, under past Presidents has at least made a pretense of honesty and commitment to facts.

So, with a daily dose of bizarre tweets from Trump, a threat to close the White House to working press, a press spokesman committed to ignoring facts and manufacturing fantasies designed to protect his boss, a freeze on information flow from government agencies, a cast of lieutenants organized purposely to mislead and a public not always inclined to do the work of separating fact from fiction, the press has a major challenge.

If the past can be trusted as a clue to the future we can expect the Washington Post to continue to provide leadership in providing tough, fact-based journalism that has been their hallmark during the campaign. The NY Times can be predicted to be tough but possibly somewhat less inclined to do the kind of hard reporting that has characterized the Post under Managing Editor Marty Baron. Several other papers can be counted on for solid work, among them the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and the McCatchy papers.

Editorials and op ed pieces will continue to cover a range of opinion which is appropriate. But it is up to the reader(s) to assess these pieces with an eye to the background of the authors. For an obvious example, if Newt Gingrich offers his wisdom it is safe to assume that it will be self-serving, pompous blather. We are all left with the need to remember, “reader beware” and to actually think about what it is we are reading, from whence it comes and whether it has a basis in fact. This is not always easy, but newspapers have a record and while all have made mistakes in the past (see Judith Miller on Iraq War in the Times) all have an historic record that provides a basis on which to form a judgment. So fasten your seat belts and get ready for one scary ride.

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One last chance for Cyprus

Posted January 13, 2017 on 8:35 pm | In the category Erdogan, Europe, Greece, Turkey, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago and the always somewhat fragile agreement between Northern Ireland, part of th eUK  and the independent Irish Republic there is only one place left in Europe where a dividing line separates parts of what had once been a united country: Cyprus.    A Nomansstrip runs through the capital city of Nicosia, and beyond, that divides the country into a northern part, with an ethnic Turkish population, occupied by Turkish troops from the mainland, and an independent southern part populated by ethnic Greeks.  Previous attempts to unite the two parts have failed but once again discussions are going on.  Much depends on the approval of the Turkish government in Ankara, which is by no means a certainty, as well as agreement on land exchanges, and a method for organizing a single government for the entire island, built on two somewhat autonomous provinces.  There are many problems to be resolved, but also much to be gained if agreement can be reached.  It would in particular  be a very welcome development for the European Union, to which the southern part belongs – and the newly united one would  presumably enter – as it would be a demonstration of trust in the future of the EU despite the unwitting British effort to demolish it.  Stay tuned!

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Competing in the Information War

Posted December 17, 2016 on 10:58 am | In the category International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy, Uncategorized | by Jeff

“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”
― Edward R. Murrow

In March of 2014 this blog published a lengthy post about Russia’s growing and America’s shrinking public diplomacy efforts, specifically international broadcasting. So here we are now with a population beginning a flirtation with Russia and its president – a man with an easy solution to his troublesome media – jail them, kill them, or both. Some of this new American infatuation with Russia and Putin is certainly due to the full force gale of Trump and his Breitbart accomplices, but there is considerable evidence that Russia Today TV has made successful inroads throughout the West. It has done this with a well supported, worldwide broadcasting effort with enough real news to gain a degree of credibility while slipping in the news that is not real when it suits them.

On a recent trip to Italy we had access to three government supported English language TV stations: BBC occasionally, Russia Today regularly throughout the day and an English language station operated by China. CNN International – a private organization of mixed quality – was also available. On a trip to Germany a few years ago we had access to CNN which was having a Wolf Blitzer extravaganza about the balloon boy and Al Jazeera English which was by far the better of the two.

International broadcasting, as a part of public diplomacy is cheap, has in the past been effective, and can reach millions of people – as the Russian program does. But in the great competition for American taxpayers’ money, U.S. armament companies win, with the help of job hungry Congresspeople. So we are spending over $500 billion on defense, including billions on costly and frequently failed weapons systems and can barely squeeze out $750M for international broadcasting. To put it in a different perspective, Russia, with a broken economy, currently spends in excess of $1.4B on international broadcasting, the U.S.spends ca. $750M. China spends an estimated $7B.

Looking to the future, the Congress recently provided a clue by passing the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that includes an amendment that would “permanently establish the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position as head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that oversees all U.S.-funded non-military international broadcasting, while removing the nine-member bipartisan Board that currently heads the agency.” The philosophy behind the historic role of the Board has been that it serve as a firewall between broadcasters charged with providing honest, fact-based reporting and the ideological whims of politicians. It served the interests of the country through the years of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama.

Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America made major contributions to ending the Cold War by providing honest journalism to countries behind the iron Curtain, but any lesson from this seems lost. The likely emasculation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors indicates that it will likely not survive the presidency of Donald Trump who may instead finally get his very own TV and Radio Networks to do with as he wishes. Under the new law the CEO who will take over the responsibilities formerly belonging to the bipartisan Board will be appointed by the President. What could possibly go wrong? Well, how about Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon for CEO?

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Now you CETA, now you don’t

Posted October 14, 2016 on 5:57 pm | In the category Canada, Europe, Germany, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

Picture this scene. You are sitting in the splendid bier garden in front of the splendid Jagdschloss on Rotkreuzplatz in splendid Munich on a splendid June afternoon, minding your own business while meditating on the Augustiner situated in front of you, when someone comes along and staples a poster on one of the trees affording you shade. Oh no, the political junkies have dared to come into an area off limits to them. One of the Lederhosen or Dindl servers will soon remove this poster but what is it all about? Why, it says STOPP CETA!
What is that? Never heard of it. Read on and you find out it is the proposed Canada-European Free Trade Pact. They never pay any attention here to Canada, unless the hockey team is pummelling the German one, so what do they care about a free trade pact? As it turns out, by mid-October this is the headline event in the papers. On October 27 Prime Minister Trudeau, his photo once again prominently displayed (Journalists just eat up his good looks and youth on a continent where politics is dominated by unappealing old men – Merkel is an exception but not on the youth side), is supposed to sign the CETA agreement, already approved by the EU representatives. But now that the UK has bizarrely left (or so it seems) the European club, the fractures in the among unity of the rest of Europe are becoming more and more evident.
It turns out that CETA, and any foreign agreement approved by the EU must after that be approved by the parliaments of each country. BREXIT has changed the rules on this.  If the Brits can just take their ball and go home, so can anybody else on the supposed team. And anybody else includes some real wild cards these days; Hungary, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, even Denmark and the Nethelands, have very different views about immigration and globalization, for instance, than do Germany and Sweden.
But experts are willing to bet that all of these countries will sign the document when it is on the table in Brussels on October 27.After all, as has been pointed out by many leaders, if you can’t make a free-trade deal with Canada, the non-European land that is closest in its laws and general views to those of Europe, who could they make a deal with?
But they had all forgotten Belgium, the least governable country in the EU. It turns out, as they now all know, that the Belgian constitution says that each of the three main parts of Belgium – the French-speaking Walloons in the south, multilingual Brusselians in the centre and the Dutch-speaking Flems of the north – must agree unanimously or the government in Brussels cannot give Belgian approval. And now it is the Walloons who seem to be leaning to saying no, thus scuttling the whole deal, which took 7 years of negotiate. No doubt they we will be facing tremendous pressure in the next two weeks – the French President is there as we speak – but it may be that this CETA Non-Pact will signal the end of a functioning united Europe – and of the Euro, if it does not get signed on that table on October 27.

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Matt Lauer’s Gift to America’s Press and Electorate

Posted September 11, 2016 on 11:16 am | In the category Election, Politics, Press, Uncategorized | by Jeff

Last Wednesday night NBC’s Matt Lauer hosted what was to be the first serious discussion of security issues by candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. By all counts the evening was a disaster for Lauer. With each candidate appearing – separately – for 25 minutes Lauer managed to spend almost half of Clinton’s time on repeated questions about her email server while Secretary of State. It was as if Reince Priebus had written the script. Lauer then got to some of the real issues but, having wasted half the allotted time on the email nonissue, was constantly interrupting Clinton and telling her to hurry it along while she attempted to provide rational, specific answers. It was embarrassingly unprofessional, useless to potential voters and an insult to the viewers.

Lauer followed with a series of questions to Trump that included no followup, no corrections of obvious lies, and no attempts to get him to actually address issues on which Clinton had provided detailed answers. Whether you agreed with Clinton you at least knew where she stood. Trump was even allowed to get away with the old “secret plan” trick that Nixon used to avoid saying what he intended in Vietnam (a plan that turned out to cost an additional 20,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Asian lives – in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).

Lauer’s gift to America arrived the next day. It began with an editorial in the Washington Post that ridiculed Lauer’s performances and called out the Post’s rivals in the press for their weak, even cowardly, coverage of the Trump campaign as well as their mindless focus on the nonissue of Clinton’s email server. As Charles Pierce has pointed out on his Daily Politics Blog for Esquire, while the Post’s editorial did not mention names, certainly the New York Times comes to mind. The Times’ editorial stance against Trump has been solid while its reporting has harped on the same litany of non- and phony issues that has kept cable news and talk radio twisting reality to its listeners’ interests.

Others have followed. Andrew Bacevich in an op ed in the Boston Globe, late night TV hosts joking about it, social media full of viewers’ rants, NBC executives reported by CNN to have said his performance was “a disaster” and the Chairman of NBC News felt compelled to defend Lauer in an internal memo released to the LA times

The Washington Post was singled out by Trump during the primaries and its reporters were no longer allowed access to the campaign. In response, the Post did what it does best: continued to report the news as it sees it, much as it did during Watergate. The Managing Editor of the Post is Marty Baron who came to the Boston Globe and took on the Catholic Church over its record of child abuse, against the advice of some who feared reprisals by the Church. We know how that worked out

So, Lauer’s gift has been to force some part of the press to look at itself and consider its own performance. Whether it is a gift that keeps on giving remains to be seen, but the evidence will be there for all to see. Will the mainstream press give priority to major issues and stop harping on fundamentally meaningless issues like Clinton’s personal emails? Will it not be bullied by Trump’s arrogant behavior and demand actual answers to questions about meaningful policy issues? Will it push back on Trump’s comments about Vladimir Putin and report the reality of Putin’s behavior and its risk to the U.S. and its allies? And will the press stop catering to the American fringe by regurgitating right wing fantasies on Vince Foster’s death, Whitewater, Clinton’s personal emails and President Obama’s birthplace?

Hillary Clinton is by no means a perfect candidate. But the press owes us its best efforts to treat her fairly by seeking from both candidates answers to the serious questions we face. Anything short of that is a dereliction of duty,

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The Brexit and other comedies

Posted July 19, 2016 on 4:33 pm | In the category Europe, Palin, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

Remember the good old days when the very concept of British comedy was not an oxymoron? Shakespeare had several good shows, Alec Guiness and the lads were terrific as a bunch of bungling robbers or, on occasion, even ladykillers. The Carry on Boys carried on in their (to many folks) hilarious ways and Marty Feldman and the crew added a touch of lunacy to the overall mixture. And let’s not forget the young Peter Sellers as a union boss, an Indian second-string actor mistakenly invited to a Hollywood party, or the many-gendered leaders of a mock republic. And to top it all off, there were the incomparable Pythons, who dominated tv for nearly a decade, adding such signature lines   to the general vocabulary as the brave Sir Robin’s admonition to the  band of  (un)happy warriors to “run away, run away” when under pressure, or Sir Gawain’s analysis of his physical condition – “it’s just a scratch” – as his limbs are lopped off  by the giant guardian of the road.

But is has been several decades since the Pythons ruled the comedy world, and it is with a sigh of relief that the world (or at least the European part of it) was treated to a new English comedy team arguably outperforming even John Cleese, Michael Palin, Erik Idle and the lads in their cleverness and creativity on the comedy front.  Now the cast of characters in this fiasco  is supposed  to include a prime minister, who demanded a plebiscite on leaving Europe, on the assumption that it would lose and his female replacement, when it didn’t,   the leader of the opposition (or one of the oppositions) and a windbag of a mayor with a Trump-copied hairdo, who has learned only one thing – to turn with the wind. And amazingly these were all real people, and they got the chance to act out their roles in real history, if their is such a thing, (can the US election really be real?)  and they succeeded in acting with a comic touch that impressed even veteran theatre people, though some thought that their frequent attempts at farce were a bit much.   And then, to top it off, each of the leaders of the Brexit, boys, taking the brave Sir Robyn’s advice to heart, jumped ship after they had won, which they could hardly believe and had no idea of what to do afterwards. (They are not the only ones)  The cartoonists of the German papers could hardly believe their luck as they sketched out the clownish crew racing for the row boats to escape in.  Now some critics have pointed out that this is a  plot too heavily drawn from French bedroom farces (and this at a time when the French Prime Minister is most memorable as the guy who hopped on his vespa wearing a moonman helmet in order to scoot off to his mistress one evening while his bodyguard followed in a car, or was it a bike?). In summary, the prime minister, assuming that his plan would fail, actually had misread the tea leaves and was forced to resign when the votes were counted, the  loud-mouthed supporters of leaving Europe actually had no intention (and no plan) of actually doing so and disappeared as fast as they could, and the new female prime minister immediately named the most outlandish of the Brexiters to be the new foreign minister.  He was met with derision of course by his European counterparts, some of which are real heavyweights unused to clowns and said so.

My brother and I had the great pleasure of being part of an overflow crowd on the day after Brexit in front of the large public-viewing screens in the Löwenbräu Biergarten in Munich, watching the European soccer championship quarter-final match between the Icelandic team, drawn from a country with 330,000 citizens, and England, drawn from a country with about 20o times as many people.  There was a table of Englishman near us, and a table of Icelanders not far away, and they of course each cheered for their home teams, though the English table became silent as the game progressed.  The rest of the crowd was made up mainly of other Europeans , who cheered loudly every time Iceland had the ball and marched triumphantly out onto the streets after Iceland won.  It was of course to some extent just a show of overwhelming support for a complete underdog but it was also certainly also a sign of the dark future for Great Britain’s future relationship with Europe.  And maybe that’s not so funny after all.

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And the winner is

Posted May 2, 2016 on 4:45 pm | In the category Republican Party, U.S. Domestic Policy, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

So what happens next?  Even CNN, the great publicizer of the complete outsider Donald Trump, will discover  that this story  has run out of steam and they will have great difficulty pushing that revved-up political locomotive onto the summer timetable.   The problem is that the main event has already been completed and there is really little  excitement to rev up on how Indiana, or any other last-minute primary state, might vote in the primaries from now on.  Bernie Sanders put in a splendid race for a very long time, but in the end he has no chance of winning this marathon against the too-well connected and experienced front runner, Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump was a newspaper person’s delight in the beginning for putting together  an  amazingly unpredictable sprint  that put him way ahead of his rivals, and left  him on track to continue to pull ahead after the  sprinting should have been history.  He will certainly cross the finish line well ahead of  a catastrophically weak field of supposed  favourites, who had no staying power for the long haul, and in fact dropped out like flies as the checkpoints passed behind them.

So the US is still a democracy and the voters have spoken.  It will be Donald against Hillary for the winner-take all runoff, and already the pundits who were wrong from the start about the Trump candidacy, are  confidently predicting it will be a rout  for Hillary.  Here’s my advice.  Look out for the underdog once again.  Big Donald did not get into this runoff by being a man without a lot of public support,  Au contraire.  He is turning out to have plenty of friends  in a population tired of an overstuffed establishment, and willing to ignore the  fact that Billionaire Don is an obvious high flyer in that group.  His great advantage is, however, that he has never been a politician, like all the other candidates, and made his fortune by other means.   Donald could be gathering his second wind, and some pundits are already suggesting it – that there may still be a long-distance runner out on the streets and the outcome might be much closer than  seems to be the conclusion that the experts,  who were wrong in the beginning, might be predicting once again.

 

 

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Another Tale of Two Cities

Posted January 21, 2016 on 12:17 am | In the category Canada, U.S. Domestic Policy, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

So the statistics are now in for homicides in North American cities in 2015.  Here are a couple for readers to consider.

Baltimore, a US city  has a population of 622,000.

Vancouver, a Canadian city, has a population of 603,500.

Baltimore, in a country which seems to have become ever more enamoured of guns in the last decade , including public display of them, had 344 homicides in 2016, the great majority delivered by such guns.

Vancouver, in a country whose laws aim at strict control of firearms, had 14 homicides last year.  The police reported that  they were disappointed because they like to see homicide numbers in single digits, as it usually has been  in the last years.

Nuff said.

 

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AMERICA’S POLICE: PROTECTORS OR THREAT?

Posted November 30, 2015 on 5:53 pm | In the category Terrorism, U.S. Domestic Policy, Uncategorized | by Jeff

On November 22, 2014, 12 year-old Tamir Rice made the mistake of playing with a toy gun at a playground in my old hometown, Cleveland, Ohio. A citizen called 911 to report that there was a person in the playground with what looked like a gun. Said citizen also told the dispatcher that the person might be a juvenile and that the gun might not be real. The police rolled into action with only the first part of that information, drove their car into the playground, opened the door and in the time you count one, one-hundred, two one-hundred Tamir Rice was shot, bleeding to death on the ground. The two cops stood around watching while Tamir said goodbye to his chance for a teenage birthday. When his 14 year-old sister arrived and tried to approach Tamir the cops forced her to the ground, handcuffed her and locked her in the backseat of the patrol car. The shooter was a white rookie cop who had flunked a Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Deputy exam (46%, when 70% is a passing grade), had been refused employment at several neighboring towns’ police departments, had been terminated after 5 months for poor performance at another neighboring police department, and then hired by Cleveland’s PD without a proper background check.

A year later Tamir’s family waits for justice. The prosecutor hired three outsiders to investigate and report on the incident and as in almost every incident of police abuse, the reports said that while tragic, the policeman’s action were “reasonable”. Tamir’s family hired their own experts (two separate California former police officials) whose reports are highly critical of the policemen – both the shooter and his colleague, or accomplice. A sidebar to the story emerged that an off-duty FBI agent appeared on the scene while Tamir was dying and administered first aid while the two cops stood around either bewildered, or just uncaring.

So- a year after Tamir’s death a grand jury continues to consider evidence. Perhaps justice will be done, but precedence is not a cause for optimism. The dice are almost always loaded in cases involving police killing citizens; there is always some real or imagined or made-up threat. For Tamir it is that he was reaching for his “gun” so the policeman had to shoot him in less than 2 seconds after arriving.

This is only one example of what may have been an historic epidemic of white policemen shooting black males regardless of age or real threat. Much of the current public awareness results from the ubiquitous presence of videos. And the judicial system seems to have been unable to address these incidents impartially, often now in the face of overwhelming eyewitness or video evidence. Currently there are at least three high visibility cases in various stages of potential or actual prosecution. In addition to the Tamir Rice case there is the matter of 17 year-old Laquan McDonald, shot by a police officer 16 times in Chicago, mostly in the back and mostly while lying on the street, and Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died while being transported to jail by Baltimore police. The Rice and McDonald cases are being presented to Grand Juries; the Freddie Gray case is being prosecuted in court in Baltimore after a Grand jury confirmed prosecution charges. These cases are tests of the American judicial system, but in a broader sense are tests of America’s basic values of judicial equity and fairness.

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