Old News – Volume One

With everything happening in Ferguson, MO, I wanted to take a few minutes to write about Trayvon Martin.  I know, that’s over.  Everyone else is writing and talking about Ferguson.  But there are two things I firmly believe.  The first is that it is almost impossible to talk about current events beyond the physical facts.  Who, what, where, when, and how are fine.  Why, however, is problematic.  The second is that lessons are only learned with time.  If we fail to revisit events, we will never learn from them.

Since it has been a long time, here is a brief reminder of the who, what, where, when, and how.  Trayvon Martin was a young man, I think a junior in high school, who had just purchased some candy.  He was unarmed and walking through George Zimmerman’s neighborhood.  Zimmerman called 9-1-1 to report Martin, even though there is no evidence that Martin was doing anything wrong.  The 9-1-1 dispatcher specifically told Zimmerman not to confront Martin.  Zimmerman ignored those instructions.  A fight followed during which Zimmerman shot and killed Martin.  The DA did not immediately press charges saying that there was not enough evidence to counter Zimmerman’s claim that he killed Martin in self defense.  When the press picked up the story, more than 2 million people signed a petition to get Zimmerman charged with a crime.  There were rallies, etc.  The DA then changed his mind and charged Zimmerman with second degree murder.  Zimmerman was acquitted.

These are the facts as I remember them.  Notice I left out the main thing that dominated the media coverage from the time of the shooting all the way through the aftermath of the trial – race.  Race was the primary reason why given by the commentary at the time.  I am still not in a position to definitively state why Martin was killed, why his death sparked such a reaction, or why Zimmerman was acquitted.  I suspect race was a strong factor in the first two, but that is just my suspicion.  However, even without knowing the why, there are still some lessons that can be taken away from these events.

The first is that there is a clear difference between morally correct and legally correct.  The trial verdict was a moral abomination, but from what I can tell, it was the correct legal outcome.  There just wasn’t enough evidence to prove Zimmerman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  From a moral perspective, Zimmerman was clearly responsible for everything that happened that night. From a legal perspective, there’s reasonable doubt.

The next lesson is that district attorneys, police officers, judges, etc. should never let public pressure influence the way they do their jobs. I understand the feelings people had. An innocent person was killed. That is outrageous and unacceptable. Of course people demanded justice. But, people were demanding moral justice, and the legal system is not equipped for that. The DA knew he didn’t have a solid legal case. He should have stuck to that. Having a trial that resulted in an acquittal didn’t help anyone.

The next lesson is that we can’t pick our symbols. Trayvon Martin’s killing was a tragedy. It is, however, a far too common tragedy. Most of the victims get a brief segment on the local news. They don’t inspire a social movement. If we could pick our symbols, OJ Simpson would not have been one. That case had nothing to do with race, but it became a racial issue. Martin became a symbol.  I’m sure his family would rather he hadn’t.

The next lesson is that our country is faulty.  I kept wanting to say broken or damaged, but that isn’t right.  The flaws were built into our country.  They weren’t caused by wear and tear.  The obvious fault is that racism was built into our country.  There’s just no way around that.  It’s in the Constitution.  When we fought a bloody civil war to remove it from the Constitution, we replaced those laws with Jim Crow.  And now, we have the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act and it taking about five minutes for states to restrict the franchise.  The other fault is that the adversarial trial system for criminal law is a bad idea.  I understand that it is better than the rule by fiat that came before.  I understand that a jury trial is democratic.  And I understand that when the second amendment sort of made sense, before we even had police forces, let alone detectives, forensics, and the internet, it was probably the best we could do.  But times have changed.  There is no longer any reason why there should be adversaries in the process.  If an injustice was done, everyone’s goal should be Justice.  It is beyond the scope of this to talk about how to change things, but a system that works better or worse depending on the skills of your advocate (aka the size of your pocketbook) is a faulty system.

The next lesson is that at least one of the tributaries that feeds the American River is poisoned.  Rather than drying or damming that tributary, we try to dilute it.  But, it is too strong a poison to be diluted.  Proof of this is the fact that Zimmerman actually has and had supporters. People actually believe he was the victim and was right to defend himself. To believe that goes beyond ignoring the fact that Zimmerman started it and forgetting that if Zimmerman hadn’t been carrying a concealed weapon Martin would still be alive. It goes beyond ignoring the fact that the 9-1-1 dispatcher told Zimmerman to leave Martin alone and forgetting the fact that Zimmerman was a grown man picking a fight with a high school student. In order to believe that Zimmerman was justified, a person needs to believe that every time a black person is slighted, it is the moral duty of the black person to simply take it. In order to believe that Zimmerman was justified, a person has to believe that every young black man really is a threat. In order to believe Zimmerman was justified, a person has to believe that his rights have more value than a young man’s life. It’s like all the bigots are looking for a reason to spew, and the killing of an innocent is the reason they picked. That’s some serious poison. A young man was killed for no reason, so they decide to use it as an excuse to tell the world how bad they have it. There is no acceptable way of looking at things in which Zimmerman is a victim.

The last lesson is that Zimmerman killed an innocent teenager.  The bottom line is Trayvon Martin was killed for no reason.




Dealing With Depression

There’s been a lot of posts on social media about depression since the news of Robin Williams’ death broke.  That’s probably a good thing.  When something sad happens, it is nice if something positive can come of it.  And making more people aware of the seriousness of depression is certainly a good thing.  Yet, two types of posts that I’ve seen repeatedly have really annoyed me.

The first is the one that says something to the effect of, “Share if you would stay up all night to talk someone out of suicide.”  What kind of person would be despicable enough to go to sleep while believing that someone may kill themselves?  “Well, I’m tired and I’ve gotta be up early.  If you do decide to kill yourself, please go into the bathroom so it’s not too hard to clean, OK?  Thanks.”  Come on, no one’s that cold.  Plus, there’s an underlying implication that people would still be alive if only someone had been willing to stay up with them.  It’s hard enough on friends and family without people suggesting crap like that.

The second one is the one that says something like, “Be kind, you never know what troubles that person is dealing with.”  This bothers me mostly because there are about a million reasons to be kind, and the fact that a person might be dealing with something really isn’t one of them.  Be kind because it’s the right thing to do.  Kindness begets kindness.  The golden rule and such.  If the reason to be kind was because someone might be dealing with something, is it ok to be a jerk as long as you’re sure the person isn’t dealing with anything?

Anyway, that’s my little rant.  I want you to be kind, regardless of what other people might be going through.  And if you really think someone might kill themselves, call a medical professional or take the person to the hospital.  You won’t get a good night’s sleep, but at least the person might get the help they need.

Monday Night Jazz

I went to see Renee Rosnes in Hartford’s Bushnell Park tonight and had two competing things on my mind.  One was how great it was, not just the band, but the whole experience.  The band was fantastic:  Renee Rosnes on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Carl Allen on drums, and Steve Nelson on vibes.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  Add to that that the show was free, outdoors, and it had a nice sized crowd.  If it were spring or fall, it would have been about perfect.

The other thing wasn’t so great.  When we listen to music lately, my daughter has started asking me, “Is this a boy or a girl?”  I usually just answer based on who is credited with the recording, but sometimes that gets awkward.  If we’re listening to the Campbell Brothers, but Shirley Jackson is the featured vocalist, I don’t know how to answer.  So, I’ll say something like, “Both.  A girl is singing and boys are playing the steel guitars.”  The more music we listen to, the more I notice that when there are girls at all, the girls are almost always singing and the boys are almost always playing the instruments.  Of course many women play instruments, usually guitar or piano, but they are almost always more famous for their singing.  Aretha Franklin plays piano, Bonnie Raitt plays guitar, Diana Krall plays piano, Cassandra Wilson plays guitar, but they are all more famous as singers.

While watching Renee Rosnes tonight, I couldn’t help but think of these conversations.  As I thought about them, I just kept wondering why.  Why is it so rare to find a female instrumentalist?  Is it overt sexism?  Are women not permitted to focus on instrumental music?  Or is it the less obvious, but harder to fight, kind of sexism where little girls never see female instrumentalists, so it never occurs to them to go that route?  Should I begin a steady diet of Regina Cater, Terri Lynn Carrington, Cindy Blackman, Geri Allen, and Renee Rosnes in our house?  I’ve promised myself that I won’t push my tastes on my daughter.  She can explore and like whatever she chooses.  I just hope she won’t ever spend time wondering about such things.

The Business of Baseball

If you follow baseball, you will inevitably hear someone say, “It’s a business.” Most people never stop to think about what a strange statement that is. On the one hand, it means different things depending on who uses it. On the other, it doesn’t really mean anything at all. Whichever hand you choose, it’s clearly meant to shut down conversations rather than start them.

When a GM or owner says, “It’s a business,” what is really meant is, “I know you don’t like this, but please don’t blame me. I had no choice. It’s a business with budgets and numbers and whatnot. Blame the business. Please, blame the business.” When the players say, “It’s a business,” what is really meant is, “I really hate what my team is doing, but I know if I complain openly, people will call me a whiner. I better say something so boring and non-committal that they’ll stop asking me questions. Please stop asking me questions.” When a reporter or analyst says, “It’s a business,” what is really meant is, “You can tell that I’m good at my job because I’m so jaded and cynical. I understand that players are commodities and fans are consumers. Please believe that I’m good at my job.” When fans say, “It’s a business,” what is really meant is, “Screw you. I live and die with this team, but I’m not going to let you hurt me anymore. Please stop hurting me.”

This is not unique to baseball. In any walk of life, layoffs are justified with, “It’s a business.” Employees try to shield themselves with, “It’s a business.” And consumers voice their displeasure with, “It’s a business.”

While it is true that baseball is a business, it is only trivially true. That is what makes the statement meaningless. Baseball is a business. Your doctor’s office is a business. Your kid’s daycare is a business. The corner gas station is a business. Your bank is a business. Your internet provider is a business. None of those statement tell you anything about baseball, doctors, daycare, gas stations, banks, or internet providers. Even though they are all businesses, they do not all have the same goals. They do not all have the same methods for achieving their goals. Saying that baseball is a business does not tell you anything about what a baseball team should be trying to do or how it should be trying to do it.

When a team does something like raising ticket prices, trading a player, or cutting payroll don’t be fooled by the explanation, “It’s a business.” Baseball is in no way a normal business. Most business can justify themselves by saying, “I’m here to make money. I saw an opportunity to become more profitable, so I took it.” Baseball is a legal monopoly. Baseball lets competing organizations vote on who is going to own a team. Can you imagine Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America getting together to vote on who gets to own Citibank? Baseball is a spectator sport. The goal of baseball is to entertain the fans. That is the business of baseball.

Quite a bit goes into entertaining the fans. Obviously, each team needs to make enough money to pay their employees, maintain their facilities, etc. They need to field entertaining players that the fans like. Winning is more enjoyable than losing. But, winning is not the business of baseball. The Cubs haven’t won in over a hundred years, but they are a very successful team. Anyone who goes to Chicago for the first time is told they have to see Wrigley, not US Cellular Field, even though the White Sox win more. Becoming a part of the community, or even a civic institution, can be huge for the fans.

All of the things that go into entertaining the fans create a delicate balance. It is difficult maintaining that balance. If a team raises ticket prices, they can afford better players, but they make it difficult for families to go to the games. If they sign a high priced free agent as a fan draw, they may block a promising prospect. If they trade a beloved player, they may get improved play on the field, but lose fan support. These are the decisions that baseball teams need to make. None of those decisions are made because, “It’s a business.”

GMs, owners, and players need to start being honest about the decisions they make and why they make them. The press needs to start asking for the actual reasons behind decisions. If fans continually feel like they are being lied to, if they don’t feel respected, they will find other ways to entertain themselves.  If that happens, baseball will have failed at its core business.