John Legend is the best

Remember when I pre-ranted that the Oscars were not gonna acknowledge the human rights disgrace that is our criminal justice system. And then John Legend was all like “…Selma is now”

Yeah, that was the best. And I guess it wasn’t just a pang of celebrity conscience. This week he started an entity called FREE AMERICA, a campaign to end mass incarceration in America.

In an interview with the Texas Tribune he says “…a lot of times people that are incarcerated are forgotten about. kind of put them in prison and forget about them and forget about the fact that they are people with families, with histories, with stories, stories that are meaningful and we can all learn from”. It’s not like Legend is coming from this all of a sudden. His 2010 album with The Roots was pretty moving. But it was oblique, and the themes were less concrete, and maybe just a little too positive for some ears.

maybe just a little too positive


Next month Legend is gonna cohost a criminal justice event in D.C. Killer mike is gonna be there.

If Killer Mike doesn’t think you’re a duckboy, well, then you’ve arrived.

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Oscar on Trial | The Marshall Project

Quick piece from the Marshal Project. To me it underlines how a self-congratulatory Hollywood establishment has mostly failed to produce/award movies that do much to reshape how we view criminality. And I get it. Are you not entertained.


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Not in Our Town


When I moved to Billings a four years ago my boss invited me to a meeting of Not In Our Town. I went, but I wasn’t really that engaged. They were arranging festivities for MLK Day. The events were stirring, kind of, like when you force yourself to go to church, and the preacher says something you know you ought to care about, and reminds you of something you felt more strongly in the past.

Just a dissonance. The old civil rights movement was over. And MLK rhetoric did not seem to address the racism involved in our criminal justice system. Nobody said Mass Incarceration. Nobody said stop-and-frisk. People were aware that racism was real, but the days events were about unity, and everyone caring together, but not demanding any change.

Back then I was an outsider. I was supposed to be here for a single year of AmeriCorps service. It didn’t go that way. I finished up and got a little job and stayed here for thee more years. Now I’ve spent more time in Billings than I have anywhere else since I was a little kid. As I spent more time here I came to realize the need for (and the courage of) an entity like Not In Our Town.

I have this laundry list of encounters with blatant racism. It’s such a casual occurrence, and because of the way I look, which is basically like a police officer (I’m six feet tall, sort of athletic, starting to go bald and I keep my hair cropped very short) people often are surprised that I find their speech offensive.

Sometimes it’s just dumb young people. I had a roommate tell me we should just fence all the Native Americans in on the reservation. And another told me that “our Indians are just shitty”. And a third was trying to defend the stars and bars on his arm.

It’s more frustrating is when it’s from people who should be are leaders. People with authority who casually use the N word in the workplace. Or people who teach little kids acting like all Indians are drunks. Or the way someone talks about a black coworker. People say something abhorrent, and there’s this expectation that I’ll agree and then we’ll vent together.

At first I would ignore it. How could it be real? Did I really hear what I thought I heard? Plus, I was a guest here. Why should some guy from the west coast get to come in and tell people what’s what? What good would scolding do? But somewhere along the way I started getting in people’s faces a bit…

The Ferguson non-indictment was a big moment for me. I was watching the speech on TV at the gym, and just getting madder and madder. Finally I had to get off the treadmill, away from the TV. On the way home I decided I needed to at least go wave a sign in protest. Which is just so not how I am was. I tried to get people I knew, a few locals from AmeriCorps to come out and join me. But they straight up victim blamed. I tried everyone, and then I kind of put out a beggarly query to the local ACLU and NIOT. I didn’t see a reply. So I just told Facebook that I was gonna go wave a sign for an hour at the court house, and if some other people showed up, I’d stay longer.

When I got out there it was just myself. But after about 15 minutes there were 10 or so people. And by the end of the night there were 30-40. NIOT and ACLU had just called people out. (Later I found a reply on my Facebook page.) I felt completely energized. This a problem that’s been real for so long, and is so out of control, and now people are willing to come out and be pissed about it. That dissonance between an MLK celebration and the urgency of now, it was bridged for a minute.

I think the other thing I realized was that putting yourself out there, and just saying the way we are, the laws and norms we’ve created, saying that it is wrong, nets you a lot of resentment (Some pretty nasty comments in response to my quote in the Billings Gazette). And NIOT has been contending with that resentment for 20 years.

Not In Our Town is not simply back patting on MLK day. They are keeping a frustrated movement from petering out. And maybe now they have the cultural language to broaden that movement.

Also you should read Ta-Nehisi Coates on how Blue Lives Matter.


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Going forward

Next week something will happen. Ebola will retake center stage, or ISIS will kill someone in HD. And the struggle will fizzle. And I’ll throw my hands in the air, asking what is a good boy to do when protesting in the streets isn’t sexy any more. For anyone who cares about the injustice in Ferguson or any place like it, Gideon’s Army offers answers.

The documentary follows a few young public defenders in the south. They dedicate their time and effort to people America has devalued and dehumanized, or in the current lingo, demonized. They trudge through endless plea deals, college loans and failure.

They constantly lose to prosecutors who hold most of the cards and their subsuming profession leads them to fail the people in their private lives.

But they’re organized. They have this unique support group called Gideon’s Promise that trains and keeps up with young public defenders in an effort to keep them engaged, and to keep them from jumping ship when more lucrative legal careers present themselves. They have that fraternity from suffering. They share that truly empathetic ear. And they are mentored and grow into mentorship roles.

They win sometimes, and it’s so sweet. Gideon’s army is instructive for people aching for something more edifying than the same old rants, frustration or dialogue.

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Fruitvale Station

Private screenings of Fruitvale Station at Shiloh 14 in Billings! Cry your eyes out in front of the big screen with nobody there to judge you.

The biopic is pretty straight forward, and probably a little sugar coated. How could this guy have so many epiphanies in 24 hours? For the first 20 minutes or so, I thought suspension of disbelief would be near impossible. That changed with a poignant flashback. Oscar Grant is about to sell some pot, and the money it will generate will allow him to meet his familial obligations. He looks out on the bay and remembers his time in prison.

How Fruitvale uses that experience is valuable for what it is not. There’s no meeting the roommate or fighting in the yard. There’s no adolescent mockery of prison rape. Instead the only prison scene is the meeting between Oscar and his mother. By drawing our attention to Oscar’s connection to the outside world, we remember he’s a human/father/son. Oscar’s mother wants to know about his bruises and challenges in prison, but he continually shifts their conversation to the outside.

Called a snitch by a rival inmate, Oscar flashes into something violent for a moment. Regaining composure he absorbs the slight and sits back down. But his mother scolds him and says she won’t visit him inside anymore. She walks out on the visit, refusing to accept his apologies, as guards descend on him. He looks like a helpless boy.

Shifting back to the present, Oscar dumps a large bag of Pot into the bay and scuttles the drug deal.

When I write it down, the whole thing seems incredibly cheesy. But the prison flashback was the turning point for me. I totally bought into the movie after that scene. Fruitvale Station works because it takes such common material, such a tired story of injustice, and makes you care again for a minute.

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Bastille Day

0200 MST; Read verdict, slightly drunk, coming down from euphoric night of dancing at a folk festival. Get mad, go to sleep.

1100; Share the verdict with friends over brunch. Shocked by their indifference. Retreat to smartphone and twitter.

1110; Perkins assessment of US justice system seems about right.

1130; Bloody Mary, black coffee and cheese make me feel ok for a while.

1230; Reading more, not that interested in the Chinese flute player. Friend asks me “really? you’re doing that?” I’m pretty offended.

Tweet says organize. I am not organized or organizing

The flute player says he saw two butterflies. He asks what Montana was like a thousand years ago.

1300; Tibetans are doing their song and dance. (We left the China stage) I’m pretty moved in spite of myself. They cite self immolation. They can’t go home. They’ve never been home.

I see a butterfly

1315; Pissed off at America’s justice system. Pissed off at myself for playing around instead of organizing.

Is that a tear, or do I have sunscreen in my eyes?

1500; Driving home. I am venting about the homogenous jury. spewing nearly incomprehensible. Mad it’s a bunch of white women. Mad so many black men are disenfranchised.

1945; Walk into my house to find a small arsenal on the table.


2000; Jubilant room mate tells me “I told you so”. A genuine Zimmerman supporter sleeps a wall away from me. He’s happy that the justice system worked.

Is he a piece of shit? He’s a veteran. He has valid life experiences. Is it worth my time trying to engage him. Why don’t I just move back to a coast?

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Werner Herzog – Bad Lieutenant

The German auteur Werner Herzog has devoted a good portion his most recent work to the American criminal justice system.

In 2009 Herzog directed Nicolas Cage in a remake of Bad Lieutenant.  Herzog famously moved the setting from New York to post Katrina New Orleans “after the collapse of civil order” (Herzog interview, jump to 13:50).  Bad Lieutenant confronts police brutality and corruption with typical bombast and a twisted sense humor.  He says “Let’s be as vile and debased as it gets right away… just… and never let the audience down from there.”  Also there’s an iguana.

I suppose a serious man would argue he’s being flippant about a system that destroys thousands of lives for the sake of political patronage and prison dollars (Read the amazing eight part series “Louisiana Incarcerated” in the embattled Times Picayune).  I don’t think that’s giving him enough credit.  Herzog keeps exploring and critiquing the criminal justice system.  Besides Bad Lieutenant he’s recently released “Into the Abyss” and “On Death Row” which take a unique look at the death penalty.

If anything, Herzog is just following themes isolation and violence where they take him.  Before focusing on the US South, Herzog was interested in how people deal with solitary confinement and isolation in Grizzly ManLittle Deiter Needs to Fly and Rescue Dawn.

This stuff is always kind of a pain in the ass to watch because it’s unconventional.  He never plays the right music and doesn’t bother much with straightforward storytelling.  The fact that he made the somewhat conventional On Death Row to complement Into the Abyss underscore his willingness to challenge and evolve the documentary.

I’d argue that he’s taking us closer to the subject, and making audiences feel or know their subjects in a way that’s better and more meaningful than traditional fact based documentary.  But what do I know? Maybe he’s just making the same old stories more fun for a chattering class…

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