Walking while black, then dying.

A few weeks ago, a young African-American man wearing a hoodie on a warm night, was stopped by a suspicious off-duty African-American Charleston police officer.  A few minutes later, that young man was dead. The police investigation ruled the death a suicide, saying he shot himself in the head with his own gun.

Yesterday I attended a “town meeting” hosted by the Charleston chapter of the NAACP inviting public comments about racial profiling. Numerous people stood up and told us about the ongoing and frequent stops and frisks they are subjected to by the Charleston police for nothing more suspicious than not being white.

I’m a fifty four year old blond and graying white guy and I've been stopped by the police just three times in my life. All three stops were for speeding in my car and they all happened within two months back in the late 90s when I lived in Salt Lake City.

I heard from a few young black guys last night and spoke with them afterwards who said they get stopped by the police three times EVERY WEEK!  I apologized to one guy and he said “don’t worry about it. It’s so common that we just don’t even think about it anymore.”  Yet this guy finally got "Veteran" license plates on his car (he'd done a tour through Iraq), in an effort to stop getting pulled over for "driving while black".  No charges have ever been filed.

Another guy said he made an illegal left turn into a gas station and got stopped, frisked, and cuffed by the cop from his neighborhood who he knows by name. He then had his life threatened by the police sergeant who was called to assist with the harassment.  No charges were filed.

My immediate thought is that this must be some southern racist hold-over from the past. I thought that police procedures and policies up north must be better. I spoke with a minister who’s lived in many places around the country, both north and south. He says it’s the same everywhere he’s lived but up north it’s not so much white against black, as rich against poor.

As an experienced “business-guy”, I immediately think this policy of stopping people for not being white MUST be effective at reducing crime or it couldn't possibly be sustained. Why would the police purposely disenfranchise and antagonize a large percentage of the population if they were not seeing a significant benefit from it? The question is, what's the benefit they’re seeing and who is receiving that benefit?

So what ARE the possible benefits of stopping and frisking and harassing numerous non-white people?

Is the benefit reduced crime rates? Are people who are about to commit crimes, or people who are about to sell illegal drugs, or people with unlicensed weapons, or people with stolen property regularly found through this policy? Is stopping and frisking actually catching criminals and taking them off the streets?  Serendipitously, the New York Times had an article about exactly this subject today.   

Have you seen the movie “Minority Report” starring Tom Cruise? It takes place sometime in the future when a number of “gifted” people are discovered who can foresee violent crimes which will occur in the near future. Perpetrators of the crimes are arrested before committing the crime. Is this where our society is hoping to end-up? Is that the kind of society we want to live in, where people are arrested for their thoughts, not their actions?  

Or is the benefit realized in keeping a large segment of our population in constant-enough fear so that they never even think of committing crimes? If so, has the crime rate gone down with this policy? Again, is it worth purposely disenfranchising and antagonizing a large percentage of the population for this reduced crime rate, if it is actually occurring?

Or is the benefit realized from having more bodies filling more for-profit prisons? America has the highest incarceration of any country in the world, any country in history. Almost one percent of our population is in prison or jail.  Almost ten percent of non-whites are locked-up. Is locking-up people for minor infractions actually a benefit to our society? Or is locking people up a detriment to our society - a waste of creativity and talent from which we will never recover?

I like to follow problems to their root-cause. If crime from non-whites really is such a problem that it IS effective to stop random non-whites on the streets and search them, perhaps it would be better if we discovered why those people are committing crimes. Given the choice between living a comfortable “normal” life, or a life of crime, why would anyone choose to put up with the stress of criminal activity?

I met a guy a couple years ago who has since become a very good friend. He’s funny, honest, open, thoughtful, loving and loyal. He told me that in the late 90’s he gradually found himself at the top of a large cocaine distribution business in Charleston. He had dozens of people working for him. He told me that one Tuesday night while his wife and kids were sleeping upstairs, he and his lieutenants were sitting around his kitchen table counting the weekly revenues – all cash – it totaled more than a million dollars. That’s when he got really nervous and realized he needed to find a way out of that life. Unfortunately, he was discovered and arrested before that happened. He said his arrest was a HUGE relief. He hadn't realized just how stressful his life as "drug lord" had been until it finally ended. He saw his eight years in prison as an opportunity to start his life over. I met him two weeks out of prison and he was more joyful than almost anyone I've ever met.

This is a guy with many talents – clearly management of small organizations being one of them. Yet as a poor black kid growing up in Charleston, he didn't have a lot of opportunities to earn the kind of living he wanted. Cocaine sales offered that opportunity.

What if we, our American society, offered every kid an opportunity to get a good start in our economy? What if every kid coming out of high school and college was guaranteed a good job whenever they wanted it? (If they could be professional enough to keep it). A good fulfilling job making a difference in the lives of people in their community. A job paying a living wage, and providing full health insurance. That’s exactly what the Job Guarantee program I’m proposing would do.

Would employing disenfranchised youth reduce crime more effectively than stopping and frisking every non-white once every few days?   I think it would.

Would guaranteeing a job to anyone who wants one be less expensive and more beneficial to our society than incarcerating almost one percent of our population?  I think so.  

Would having the federal government provide grants to local non-profit organizations employing otherwise unemployable people provide a net-benefit to our economy by giving more people more dollars to circulate to more businesses - helping improve the economy for ALL of us?   My study of economics tells me that is exactly what would happen.

Or are non-whites being harassed and incarcerated solely because some people - probably rich white people - are getting very rich off this policy? If so, I have a way to fix that too – let’s implement the 100:1 take-home pay range.

Let’s start the job guarantee program and see ALL our youth for what they really are – productive, creative Americans eager to have a fulfilling life by making a contribution to our society and advancing our civilization.

I met the singing man.

One night last week, on my way back home, I stopped at a local gas station to fill up two water jugs I keep in the car.  (A habit I acquired while living in the desert for two decades.)  A thin young black man in tattered clothing was leaning against the front of the gas station building. Once he saw my water jugs, he directed me to a short hose connected to a faucet on the side of the building which worked perfectly for filling the jugs.  He said he was the night clean-up guy at the gas station.  He looked to me like he was living on the streets. Since I had been so close to doing the same a few years ago, I’m always interested in the stories of people who are at that extreme end of the American economy.  If my car hadn’t been big enough to sleep in, and if my nephew hadn’t let me surf his couch for a few months, I could have been this guy. 

This guy says he ran away from an abusive career military father and has been a local in this neighborhood ever since.  He’s been sleeping under the I-26 overpass bridge, literally a stone’s throw away from this gas station, since 1996 when he was eighteen years old.  He was born the year I graduated from high school.  He’s two years older than my son. 

I asked where he bathed. With a wry smile he said “what’s that?” “When I occasionally get a shower, the water comes off me black. I’ve learned to wash my arm-pits and other parts so I don’t smell, and I use deodorant, and I wash my clothes every week. I don’t want to offend anyone.”  And he didn’t smell, even when I gave him a hug before I left.

He wanted me to know he is not like some of those other “ignorant niggas” from South Carolina because unlike them, he has lived many different places around the world while growing up and “knows how to work and talk with white people”.  (I’ve been getting hints over the last year that the cultural divide between South Carolina blacks and whites is wider than I can imagine.  This is another one of those hints.)  He said he got third place in a singing contest a couple years ago and some people call him “the singing man”.  He sometimes sings at weddings and parties.  Unfortunately he didn’t demonstrate his singing voice.  I would have sung harmony with him. 

From what I saw, here is a bright, articulate guy, hustling a few under-the-table, very part-time jobs, all paying well less than minimum wage.  And he’s being exploited.  Yes, he is certainly missing a few components that would allow him to be a “normal” employee, which is probably why he hasn’t been able to get a full-time job his entire adult life.  But honestly, which of us isn’t missing a few components?  Some of us are just better than others at covering those holes up, allowing us to win the job offers, and leaving poor bastards like the singing man living under highway overpasses.

I told him I’m running for Congress specifically to help people like him and all of us who aren’t multi-millionaires but are at the mercy of their whims. He asked what Congress does. “What’s their purpose?”  Hmmm.  Yes, he clearly wasn’t paying attention in high school civics class, but the child-like honesty of the question caught my attention.  How do I sum up what Congress is supposed to do in just a sentence?  I finally said, “Congress makes law to help people like you and me.  But lately they’ve been helping only rich people.”  He said he’d be happy to hand things out for me, or take surveys or collect signatures because he meets lots of people, so I gave him a stack of my Cherny-for-Congress business cards.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the singing man.  Why should some bright guy, though not well educated, who grew up with the handicap of being born into an abusive family, be cut out of the workforce, be cut out of achieving what he can dream, simply because of the situation he was born into?  Accidents of birth shouldn’t determine what people can achieve.  That isn’t the American dream.  No one should find that sleeping in a hole in the dirt under a highway overpass is their best option in life. 

My American dream is that the singing man, or anyone, regardless of their specific accidents of birth, regardless of what personality components they’re missing, can find their purpose in life and with some luck and plenty of effort, they can earn a decent living focusing on that purpose.  Unfortunately, the bar to cross to get a job in private industry is a bit too high for some people with too many missing components – too many handicaps from their accidents of birth. 

And frankly, there are more people than jobs – as a matter of federal policy based on faulty economic theories. So with our current game of capitalism, some people will always be unemployed. The headlines on July 4th said we now have only 6.1% unemployment. Yippee! That’s only twelve million people with no source of income.  As many people as the entire population of the New York City tri-state area, wondering how they’re going to make next month’s rent, afford gas to get to any possible job interviews, get food next week.  

The sad truth is that most of those people will struggle to reduce their living expenses, and scrape by with under-the-table exploitative jobs like the guy I met last night, never finding a full-time job providing a living wage.  They will live week to week, from one hustle to the next, and slowly die a miserable life.  With the current rules of this game of capitalism we’ve been playing, that’s just how it’s set-up. 

A guy I worked with at IBM in the early 2000’s got laid off just a few months ago.  He’s now in his late forties.  He’d been making over $100k annually for the past twenty years, has four kids, one in college, a big house in a nice neighborhood on the coast of Florida, and he can’t find any job anywhere in the country that will give him that kind of income again.  That’s the same situation I found myself in by the end of 2008.  I’m sad it’s still happening six years later, even with just a 6.1% unemployment rate. 

Past labor secretary and creator of the movie “Inequality For All”, Robert Reich says the majority of new jobs added to the economy since the great recession have been part-time jobs.  Employers simply aren’t hiring people for full-time work anymore, finding that keeping a collection of part-time workers lowers their costs (they don’t have to provide insurance), and keeps their workers eager for more hours, whenever they can get them. Exploitation. Our economic recovery since the great recession has been great for the one percent.  Not so great for the rest of us. 

How can we stop the exploitation?  How can we give people with too many missing components to ever work in private industry a chance to participate, to find their purpose and work at it, earning enough that they don’t have to live under a highway overpass?

That’s what the Job Guarantee program I’m proposing would do.  Anyone who wants a job, and can be professional enough to keep it, can get a job – guaranteed.  A job providing a minimum living wage, probably $15/hour plus full health care coverage, working at one of a number of local non-profit organizations doing good work in local communities.  While this program wouldn’t help my old IBM friend keep his house and six-figure lifestyle, it would keep future generations of IBM’ers from losing their houses.

Think about it.  If the kids currently getting out of college and facing dismal job prospects knew they could get a decent job at a published wage, no matter what, they might just limit their future expenses to little more than the wage provided by the guaranteed job program. So when they get thrown out of their career tracks in their late forties as I did, as my friend did, as millions of Americans have been, they would not be relying on their six-figure incomes to survive. Yes, it might take a couple generations before the majority of Americans stop living beyond their means, but eventually, job losses and career exits won’t be the financial losses and life destroying events they now are.  Instead our kids and their kids will see job changes as just another mild transition in life and as opportunities for new beginnings. 

Perhaps more importantly, the job guarantee program would set the bottom end of the salary range in America.  Who would flip burgers for eight bucks an hour of part-time work when they could do meaningful work helping other people for fifteen an hour, forty hours a week, with healthcare coverage?  Employers would have to step-up their game to entice and keep employees. 

Of course the first objection people have to this idea is, “won’t that increase the prices of hamburgers at McDonalds?” If the Job Guarantee program were implemented by itself, yes, most likely management and investors would require the same level of profits and would raise prices to get those profits.  However, coupled with the 100:1 take-home pay range, the executives and primary investors of McDonalds would no longer be able to take-home multi-million dollar salaries.  Add in the additional tax enticement for businesses that become sustainable and socially responsible by becoming B-Corps, and it’s likely more profits would remain inside the company, spent on the business, the facilities, the products, research and development, and most importantly on employees.  If every business found themselves with more operating cash, more happy and dedicated employees, improved facilities and better products, hamburger prices may well go down! 

Most importantly, the job guarantee program would ensure that the singing man could earn enough dollars to sleep somewhere other than under the highway overpass, and discover which of his many talents might be his purpose in life.  Multiply that by twelve million and America really would be the land of opportunity.  That's why I'm running for Congress.  

What if George W. had said this instead?

I read about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s vow to punish Hamas for the murder of those three Israeli teens found in the West Bank.  We know where this story leads.  Israel and the Palestinians have been playing this game of revenge for lifetimes, with no end in sight.  No end in sight that is, as long as they both continue to respond in the same ways. 

America is fortunate that we are rarely faced with situations calling for national vengeance.  But that got me thinking about the last big vengeance-provoking event we faced and how we might have brought about a much better future for everyone by responding in an unexpected way.  A response that I think would have been more appropriate for what many people claim is our “Christian Society”.

What if President George W. Bush had responded to the September 11th attacks with a speech like this?

In trying times, when faced with difficult decisions, I always first ask myself “what would Jesus do”?  We have been attacked on our own soil by angry people from the other side of the planet.  As I think Jesus would, I must ask – what have we done to make these people so angry that they would sacrifice their own lives in order to kill random Americans?  I ask myself, what would make me so angry at someone that I would sacrifice my life to kill other people?

Fortunately we have a clear list of complaints from the man who claims to have masterminded this terrible loss of life and immense destruction – Osama Bin Laden.  I must say that his complaints have some merit when viewed through the lens of someone who grew-up in an Arab Muslim culture, especially for a fundamentalist believer in Islam.  I can respect a man’s deeply held religious convictions – I have my own – but religious faith only begins to explain how he could recruit a dozen people to give their lives to perform this horrible action. 

I could only contemplate killing myself along with the people who limited my future options if I felt that my future looked so bleak that the uncertainty of heaven or hell seemed like a better option than the life laid out before me.  Those men who flew those planes must have felt so oppressed by American actions that they thought death was their best option. 

Whether real or imagined, such strong feelings require a response from America.  First, an apology to all the people in the Arab lands – I’m sorry for the oppression you feel from the American actions and inactions of the past.  We have behaved selfishly with little concern for you.  That will now change.

Starting today, we will begin a gradual withdrawal of all our military forces from all Arab countries so that within five years, no American soldier will be stationed on Middle East soil. 

I wish we could withdraw faster but it will take at least five years for us to no longer have any national interest in the Middle East – that is to say when we no longer care about Middle East oil.  Until America reduces its dependency on fossil-fuels, we must protect the flow of Middle East oil.  That is why today I am announcing a broad federal plan to invest heavily in renewable and carbon-neutral energy sources instead of fossil fuels, so we will no longer have any reliance on Middle East oil.  I have set 2011, ten years from today, as the last year America imports any oil from the Middle East.  In 2011 we will have also reduced by one-third the quantity of petroleum we use from ALL parts of the world and our own territories.  That number will grow to 50% by 2021, and grow again in another ten years – 2031 – to a 100% reduction – no petroleum oil will be used in America by 2031.

Thank you Mister Bin Laden for the wake-up call.  I’m very sorry we didn’t previously take seriously your concerns about American involvement in the Arab lands. However, you claimed responsibility for killing thousands of our people, and if we find your claim valid, you will be held responsible for those deaths. I hope you will turn yourself in peacefully and face trial for your actions.  If not, we will find you and bring you to trial.

Just imagine how the man on the street in the Middle East would have felt about this.  How instead of providing a focal point for the anger of millions of young Arab men with no better options for their lives, we would have turned their attention away from America and back onto their own oppressive governments.  Perhaps that awakening would have brought about an earlier or more effective Arab Spring.  Instead we put a generation of young Afghanis and Iraqis in a war zone, raising them on a violence-filled life ensuring that violence is all they know. If instead, America had responded to 9-11 “as Jesus would”, those millions of young people in the Arab world would now have little experience with war or violence, leaving the minority of angry fundamentalists with fewer and less interested recruits for violence and suicide.  If thirteen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us one thing, it is that violence only brings about more violence. Responding to 9-11 with peace would have made the world a much better and safer place today for billions of people around the world.  Instead of being the target of anger for millions of disaffected youth in the Arab countries, America would now be a shining example of how a country should behave.