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Rollerblade_444692_1510740Last fall, VICE published a piece by Brian Aitken, a man who had recently moved to New Jersey, where he narrowly escaped seven years in prison for possession of guns that were legal in his previous home of Colorado but banned in the Garden State. Only after an executive order from Governor Chris Christie commuted his sentence was Aitken set free—if being stuck with a lingering felony charge can be called freedom.

Disagree about gun laws all you like, but New Jersey is pretty nuts about theirs. It’s less about Second Amendment specifics, or ideologies (unless yours involves more people crammed into US prisons), and more about making criminals appear out of thin air. It doesn’t sound so terrible when you read that New Jersey doesn’t recognize Pennsylvania concealed carry permits, for example—unless you happen to have someone passing through and unaware of the nuts and bolts of interstate laws. Last October, a Philadelphia mother of two was pulled over for an unsafe lane change. Shaneen Allen, 27, told the officer that she had a handgun and bullets in her vehicle, and then showed the cop her Pennsylvania concealed carry permit. Bad idea. Now Allen, who had been robbed more than once—which was her motivation for buying the gun in the first place, along with protecting her two kids—is charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and faces three years in prison.

Lately, there’s been a great deal of positive push-back against federal drug mandatory minimums, but not much resistance to firearm minimums that punish people for selling drugs and owning a gun—even if it was legal in another jurisdiction, and even if it was never displayed.Guns may be a politically loaded (pardon the God-awful pun) object, but owning one is not the same as committing violence. These kind of laws should be filed away with low-level drug prohibitions as unjust restrictions on consensual activity.

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steigerwald-montage-2I could have written many more articles, with many more examples, I realized while rewatching season two with my mother.

All of the dirty DC dealings in Netflix’s House of Cards arguably make it the most cynical of the current crop of highly-acclaimed and talked over television shows. However, the epic Game of Thrones – in spite of its fantastical elements – paints an even more brutal picture of the vile nature of politics, and the ruinous nature of wars with even the noblest stated intentions.

The HBO series, set in the magical-tinged fictional land of Westeros, is nearly finished with its fourth season. The show is often criticized for its graphic violence – though that usually has a larger purpose – and laughably gratuitous sex scenes. But neither gore nor smut is the point. The truly entrancing quality of the show (carried over fromthe books by George R.R. Martin on which it is based) is the scads of gray, but sympathetic characters to worry over. Indeed, there are flawed, but compelling characters on every side in the series’ ongoing war to win the Iron Throne. Hence the tension that comes from watching, and from the knowledge that there is no happy ending in store for everyone. Hell, there may be no happy ending for any of these characters.

On Monday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an exhaustive comparisonbetween the dragons of would-be Westeros queen – and George W. Bush proxy, according to both liberal and neocon interpretation – Daenerys Targaryen and the game-changing quality of nuclear weapons in warfare. This side-by-side mostly works, but the ideology of Daenerys remains more interesting than her monopoly on dragons/WMDS. For all her conquering hubris, Daenerys considers herself on a humanitarian mission to free the slaves of various cities that lie along her route to win the throne. She is well-meaning, deeply principled, and yet she is shown bumbling into cultures of which she has no awareness. It’s sometimes hard not to read her journey as a parallel with US foreign policy (even if necons prefer to twist that into praise of the Bush doctrine). If Daenerys says she means to bring freedom with her army; if she shouts her noble, chain-breaking mission from the hilltops, everything is sure to end well. And if she savagely punishes the slave masters in various cities, well, they deserved it and there shall be no negative consequences from changing culture by military force. (There will be, though, because this show is that good.)

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potIn the last two years, it’s been tempting to preemptively celebrate the end of the war on drugs. Consider that more than five years ago, only libertarians, the occasional radical leftists, or politicians named Ron Paul were seriously talking about the need to end this disastrous policy.

Now suddenly recreational marijuana is newly legal in two U.S. states, the House has voted to restrict the Drug Enforcement Administration from going after medical medical marijuana in the 22 states (plus DC) where it’s legal, and mainstream politicians are fighting over who can seem the most relaxed about legal weed (admittedly, with plenty of exceptions).

Nevertheless, the urge to pack it in, say “job well done,” and assume that social progress will roll in the direction of ending the war on drugs is a dangerous one.

It’s dangerous not just because of the countless people imprisoned for consensual drug crimes who are still filling our prisons to bursting. And not just because we still haven’t legally won on marijuana, even though 38 percent of Americans admit to having tried it, and a majority has supported its legalization since last year.

The “mission accomplished” mentality is really dangerous because the hard part is still ahead. Reformers will soon have to press on to legalizing the harder, more dangerous drugs as well.

This is one reason why though the relative safety of marijuana — though be careful with that dosage, Ms. Dowd — is relevant, it’s far from the only important issue in the war on drugs. After all, taking the logic that safety is the concern, we could argue, as Slate’s Reihan Salam recently did, that “the war on booze deserves a second chance” since alcohol is more dangerous than weed.

This is one reason the conversation about legalization must not get bogged down in statistical calculations of danger. Yes, weed is relatively safe. Its schedule one classification helps prove the utter cluelessness of folks who profess to know enough to ban something for an entire nation. But even a scientifically rigorous prohibition on substances is morally reprehensible and will have the same kinds of predictable, bad effects that any kind of baseless government action will.

Consider the recent media and public outrage over the Georgia drug raid during which a 19-month-old toddler was critically burned when police threw a flashbang grenade into his playpen. The no-knock raid performed by the Habersham County Sheriff’s Department and the Cornelia Police Department was over the alleged sale of a small amount of meth by the nephew of the Phonesavanh family who had moved into their relative’s home after theirs burned down two months previous.

After little Bounkham Phonesavanh was sent to the hospital and put into a medically-induced coma thanks to these cops, Cornelia Police Chief Rick Darby swore they didn’t know a child was in the house. They protested that would have done things differently had they known. They also didn’t realize that the subject of their search wasn’t even there when they busted in the door.

Wanis Thonetheva, 30, had hours before supposedly sold meth to an informant. (Thonetheva was later arrested with an ounce of meth on him, so that seems probable for once.) For anyone else besides a police officer performing a no-knock raid, this excuse would be an embarrassment. What made police believe that a few hours was enough time between the alleged meth sale and the 3 a.m. door-kick to be sure nobody innocent would be endangered during the raid? Do they not know children exist?

On the other hand, for a drug war action, “we didn’t know” is just as reasonable as anything else. After all, if killing innocent adults, endangering your fellow officers, and destroying 500 years of English common law isn’t enough for a line to be drawn, why should simple toddler maiming be such an outrage? This isn’t weed we’re talking about, this is “not even once” meth.

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gccHere be the latest Bad Cop Blotter. I had a paragraph, then a smaller tangent about the civil liberties doozies that come with involuntary commitments, but VICE editor dubbed it too tangental. Which is fair enough, but is also an important reason why people might fear getting help for a loved one. Police may kill your mentally ill relative, or just take them to prison. Mental health officials may help them, and it may be a good thing, or they may be indefinitely detained and drugged for acting weird. There’s no good solution here that I can see.

After any mass killing comes the wave of stories that ask why no one saw the tragedy coming. Those who knew Elliot Rodger—who killed six people on May 23 in Santa Barbara, California—were likely aware he was disturbed. The 22-year-old had been under psychiatric care since the age of eight, according to the New York Times; Rodger suffered from anxiety, depression, and likely high-functioning autism, and he became progressively more and more isolated as he went through adolescence.

From what I’ve read, his parents tried to help him as best they could: His mother even called the cops when she found his distressing YouTube videos. On April 30, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies questioned Rodger—who managed to talk them out of searching his apartment—but they apparently never actually watched the videos before deciding he wasn’t a threat to anyone else, nor did they check the relevant databases to see if he was a gun owner. It’s easy to criticize the authorities for not divining that this reclusive loner was more violent than other reclusive loners, or to tut-tut at Rodger’s parents for not persuading the police to respond more aggressively, but doing so ignores the serious consequences of calling the cops on a mentally ill relative, and how limited law enforcement’s responses are.

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upside_down_us_flagA Blair County, Pennsylvania, resident named Joshua Brubaker got into some trouble last weekafter he hung an American flag upside down and painted “AIM” on it. Brubaker, who is part American Indian, was trying to make a statement after learning that the site of the infamous 1890 Wounded Knee massacre—and a 1973 conflict between the American Indian Movement and the FBI—was going up for sale. A graffitied flag is the kind of routine artistic protest often made by 19-year-olds who have just heard of Noam Chomsky, but it really pissed off L.J. Berg, an assistant chief with the Allegheny Township police. Berg—who says a woman who was in the military was offended by it as well—took it upon himself to take the icon down and charge Brubaker with desecration and insults to the American flag.

According to Flag Code, an upside-down flag is a distress signal, and some protesters have, like Brubaker, used it as a symbol for metaphorical or political distress. In 2012, a West Virginia McDonald’s flew an upside-down American flag at half-mast either in protest of Obama’s reelection, or, as the franchise owner later said, because a cable broke. Also that year a veteran in Spokane, Washington, had his upside-down flag stolen from his yard about two weeks after he first put it up to protest “a lot of political things.”

Malcontents from across the political spectrum turn flags upside-down, but there are plenty of people who wish all these damn hippies would get locked up or whatever—as headlines like“Desecration or Free Speech?” reflect. In fact, the right to burn or deface the stars and stripes was only officially affirmed 25 years ago, in the Supreme Court case Texas vs. Johnson. That dealt with a communist named Gregory Johnson, who in 1984 burned an American flag outside the Republican National Convention in Texas and was subsequently arrested for vandalizing a respected object. He was sentenced to a year in prison under the 1968 Federal Flag Desecration Law, but in 1989 his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, which held that burning the flag was “symbolic” and protected free speech. Part of the court’s reasoning was that since burning a flag is a proper way to “retire” it, the prosecution of Johnson was based on his political motivations, not the actual action of burning, and you can’t arrest people for their beliefs in the US.

Subsequent federal laws to protect the flag have been either overturned or gotten stuck in a legislative quagmire, usually in the House. State restrictions on burning or defacing the flag have been overturned since as unconstitutional, but not without a fight—in Missouri, a judge overturned one such law in 2012 after a man successfully sued after his arrest for burning and tearing a flag in 2009, but that fight has continued in other courts. Freedom of speech aside, many Americans still think flag burning should be illegal—a 2006 Gallup poll found that a majority of respondents favored a Constitutional amendment that would allow legislatures to ban flag burning. (Fortunately, America is not ruled by opinion polls yet.)

But hold on—doesn’t all that mean the cops were clearly in the wrong when they arrested Brubaker? Not necessarily. He’s been charged with a third-degree misdemeanor under a 2010 Pennsylvania law that prohibits various desecrations of the flag that makes exceptions for “patriotic or political demonstration.” The legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Uniontold the media that Brubaker’s flag absolutely qualifies as political, and thereby protected, speech. The cops can argue that Brubaker’s actions aren’t political and attempt to make the charges stick—they’d just be very, very wrong. As Brubaker said, “If I don’t have a right to fly that flag upside down, which means a sign of distress, which this country is in so much distress right now, then what’s the point of having it?”

The rest of this week’s bad cops over here

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Earlier this month, news that a 9-year-old girl had been handcuffed and arrested for fighting last May in Portland, Oregon broke to much media attention and public outrage.

Portland officers David McCarthy and Matthew Huspek came to the home of Latoya Harris one week after her daughter got into a fight with another girl at the Boys and Girls club they both attended. Both girls were suspended from the club for a week, and the Harris girl apologized.

Everything should have been squared away, except the other girl’s mom called police after she saw her daughter’s bruised cheek. The officers interrogated the girl and since she, according to McCarthy’s report, “gave vague answers” and seemed nervous and cagey, they hauled her in, still clad in a swimsuit damp from her running through the sprinkler. Her mother was not permitted to come along, and it took her an hour to bus to the station and retrieve her child.

Harris says though she complained to various sources, including Portland’s Independent Police Review Division, nothing came of the matter, so she figured public shaming of the officers might do the trick. The reason the police board said there was nothing they could do? No laws were broken.

Portland law allows the handcuffing of suspects for felonies or class A misdemeanors, and fourth degree assault counts as the latter and that was the charge against the young Harris girl. After all that, the DA never charged the girl, and eventually the charges were dropped.

The savvy Ms. Harris was right about the effects of media attention and public outrage. There is now a push to change the law so that suspects in Portland under 10 can’t be taken into custody without a juvenile court order, among other small changes. This is good, but it it doesn’t change the fundamental absurdity of treating childish bad behavior like a criminal matter.

Nor does it change the fact that neither the local DA, the arresting officers, or indeed the mother who made the first frantic complaint used common sense. But American society has normalized the notion of a law and order response to every vice, every nuisance, and every bad behavior. Why should children be exempt?

Turns out they’re not — not even this month:

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  • Any excuse to post this again -- any.Here is my most recent VICE Bad Cop Blotter, in which I rant about the decriminalization of childhood.
  • Here is my most recent Rare piece, which is about the death penalty. Compare and contrast with my Antiwar piece on the same topic, and please note the same breed of moronic, I didn’t read it but I am angry anyway commenters ([whisper] I miss you Hit and Run. Except Tony [tears]).
  • My latest Antiwar piece was about the fight for journalism drones, and in it I fully admit my urge to Luddite scream when I think about domestic drones. So something for the techies AND the Amish! (Okay, not really.)
  • P.S. Antiwar is doing another fund drive, so if you want to donate to a lovely site that lets me write just about whatever I like, and also has been consistently antiwar since the days of Clinton, please consider doing so. 
  • Another thing you could do — if you are anywhere near Princeton, New Jersey — is go see Bill Steigerwald (dad, occasional Stag Blog contributor) and his friend Ethan Casey, also an author and traveler, go talk about their books on Thursday at the Princeton Library. Go see them at 7 pm, May 15. 
  • (I’ll be busy seeing Willie Watson on that date, though. Because, obviously.)
  • And hey, since there’s a proper hook and everything, maybe go buy dad’s Dogging Steinbeck book, which is full of ruminations on truth, America, literature, politics, and basically everything interesting in the whole wide world.
  • Ethan Casey also has books about his travels in Pakistan, Haiti, and America.
  • I’ve recently started almost-hate-reading the blog Saving Country Music — something about its style is so self-aggrandizing, hipster-country, that it drives me nuts. Also, the dude was down on Old Crow Medicine Show’s authenticity, which is something I cannot abide if you’re going to do it half-assed like that. Nevertheless, the dude did do a fine review of the new Willie Watson album. (And yet I still argued in the comments at 2 am.)
  • Tech Dirt on the FOIA-ed emails that reveal the full scope of the pathetic, creepy person that is Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis. Background on the insanity here and here.
  • Denis Lawson, AKA Wedge Antilles, the Rebel pilot who defies the red shirt curse (wrong Star, I know) will not be in the new trilogy because he’s more into being a cool, under the radar Scottish dude. Or something. I shed a conflicted tear, because I hate J.J. Abrams as a director, I hate every Star Wars after Jedi, and I am therefore not even sure I want the original trio in a new movie. But at the same time, George Lucas has been so terrible for so long that there’s almost a “fuck it, I don’t care, let’s see what these sequels are like” feeling that is appearing at last. (Or — OR — I still have a lingering belief that the addition of Harrison Ford will somehow make it all okay again.)
  • Via Jesse Walker, a beautiful demonstration of the power of correlation, not causation. 
  • The DOJ might be secretly pushing banks to shut down the accounts of porn stars and other disreputable folk. Very creepy articles that makes one want to bury gold in the backyard.
  • Jezebel commenters delight in story of homeschool girl kicked out of her prom because the dads wouldn’t stop leering at her. This is offered up as reason that “the homschooling community” is untrustworthy” and why you shouldn’t be allowed to homeschool without a teacher’s certificate. Okay then. In my day, homeschool prom was just a special place where rap songs are edited to a hilarious extent and people play Christian rock versions of “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees. In a world, awkward and terrible, but not this gross. I think there was some praying as well, but I tuned that out.
  • The confusing and racist origin of the ice cream truck song.
  • High heels are totally dumb and unfeminist (yeah, I said it, eat it third wavers). But Collectors Weekly has a fascinating look at their origins, as well as that of the corset, which is not great for you, but is not quite the iron maiden we’ve been lead to believe.
  • People are still being suspended for not saying or standing for the Pledge? Conservatives, let this shit go. Even ignoring the “under God” kerfuffle, this is a piece of socialist propaganda written by the cousin of the writer of the worst fucking Utopian novel in the universe. You know it’s creepy for children to be saying loyalty oaths in public schools, you know it’s unamerican. Let. It. Go.

Done, here’s the video of the day:

Can’t stop listening to this song. Can’t.

Oh, and bonus new Old Crow Medicine Show (sorry, Willie) song! Like “Wagon Wheel” it is actually a finished version of an old Bob Dylan sketch.

I look forward to Darius Rucker’s cover come 2023.

I also have this sweet new graphic.Check out the latest War at Home:

On April 2 at the Fort Hood, Texas, army base, Iraq war veteran Ivan Lopez killed three people, injured 16, then shot himself before he could be taken into custody by military police. Initial reports that Lopez may have been suffering from depression, a traumatic brain injury and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have made some veterans skittish about a tie between PTSD – which affects 155,000 troops – and the propensity for suddenly turning on your own people.

Certainly this sad incident is no reason to suddenly become terrified of all people with mental disorders or all veterans of various wars. Violence is rare in America, and contrary to the media and their panics, shootings like this are particularly rare (in spite of the creepy familiarity of the location). On the other hand, the staggeringly high rate of PTSD in returning veterans does suggest something good about humanity. It’s a tragic, costly, and endless lesson – but war is bad for humans, even those who make it happen. If 22 veterans a day by last year’s count kill themselves – more die that way than they do in combat since at least 2008 – doesn’t that suggest that there is something fundamentally harmful about war, and something sadly good about humans who react so badly to having participated in it?

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