May 23, 2008

Kill Bill?



On May 6th in Georgia, William Earl Lynd, 53, became the first death-row inmate executed in the U.S. in seven months.  Executions have been on hold all these months while the U.S. Supreme Court decided whether or not lethal injection protocols are constitutional.  In an overwhelming vote of 7-2, the Court decided they were constitutional and execution chambers in the 36 states that allow the death penalty are preparing to return to duty.  

 The Court’s decision, and Lynd’s execution, have provided another national platform for passionate voices to be raised over the use of death penalty.  What’s interesting is how loud and zealous the voices on both sides are when we consider that the death penalty itself affects a relatively small number of people.  There are 3,263 people on death row, 669 of them in California (which has by far the largest death-row population in the country).  Yet, the death penalty is constantly on the front page of newspapers, the lead story on TV news, and a litmus test for many voters on which candidate they will vote for.  Why is this one issue so foremost in our heads and hearts?  Because when people pass laws about who should live and who should die, they are defining themselves as community.  They are proclaiming their values, not through bland patriotic rhetoric, but through their deliberate actions.  We know that when the government kills in war, we all have our hands on that trigger—and when they execute in peace, we all have our hands on that syringe.

So what does the death penalty say about us?
The primary purpose of the death penalty, like all laws, is to protect the innocent.  Theoretically, if someone deliberately murders someone else, executing that person protects the rest of us by removing him from society, never again to be a threat.  But, as always, there’s a big difference between theory and practice.  While it’s true that the death penalty may protect us from the few individuals it does execute, it does not come without a price tag.  What Californians have to decide is whether or not we’re paying too much for what we’re getting.

How Much Money Does the Death Penalty Cost?
Every society is on a limited budget.  Therefore, priorities have to be made and every society must face some difficult choices about how to get the most protection out of each dollar.  California’s current $16 billion deficit threatens to handicap or destroy many institutions designed to protect society—and to save lives.  Already a $2-billion cut in school programs and health care for the poor has been approved by the Legislature.
Our hospital situation was already bad, now it can only get worse.  Los Angeles County alone lost 27 acute-care hospitals between 1994 and 2004; 7 other hospitals reduced services or cancelled their mental health units.  Trauma centers, which save hundreds of lives by providing immediate, specially trained medical care for life-threatening injuries, have closed throughout the state.  Of L.A. County’s 23 trauma centers, 13 closed or were downgraded into emergency rooms.  The Hospital Survey and Construction Act of 1946 compelled hospitals to achieve 4.5 beds per 1,000 people.  In 2003, California’s ratio had dropped to 1.9 beds per 1,000.

Public schools, which protect our future by providing citizens who are competitive in the economic marketplace and educated in the needs of democracy, have also fumbled the ball.  Some inner-city students go through classes without textbooks.  Perhaps the greatest threat to California’s future is the fact that our students rank next to last in academic achievement in the United States.  We rank 50th in the nation (including District of Columbia) in school staff to student ratio, 51st in librarians ratio; 51st in guidance counselor ratio, and 49th in teacher ratio.  A 2007 study ranked California 34th in its students’ potential for success.  That’s not surprising when our students test below the national average in math, science, reading, and writing.  And current budget woes have caused the state to cut $4.8 billion from education and to issue pink slips to 24,000 teachers, librarians and nurses in our public schools.

While money is lacking in those areas, California has not hesitated in spending $114 million a year of taxpayers’ money on the death penalty (beyond the cost of lifetime imprisonment, and not including post-conviction hearings that cost millions more).  According to a 2005 Los Angeles Times study, we pay $90,000 more a year per inmate to keep them on death row rather than in the general prison population, which adds up to $57.5 million annually.  California’s Attorney General spends 15% of his annual budget ($11 million) on death penalty cases; our state Supreme Court spends $11.8 million appointing lawyers in death penalty cases; the Office of the State Public Defender and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center spend $22.3 million defending indigents in death penalty cases.  A 2008 study by the ACLU of Northern California concluded that to execute all the people currently on death row will cost $4 billion more than if they had been sentenced to life imprisonment to die of disease, injury, old age.  State after state has conducted cost-efficiency studies of the death penalty—most recently New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Tennessee, and Texas—and all have concluded that the death penalty costs significantly more than sentencing someone to Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOPP).

Because counties that seek the death penalty must pay for the costs, many smaller counties have faced bankruptcy, reduction of social services, and/or increased taxes in order to pay for a death penalty trial.  Studies indicate that putting more police officers on the streets would reduce crime and make us safer; yet, budget cuts have forced the early release of thousands of prisoners while at the same time forcing some smaller counties to reduce the number of police officers and firefighters.  In 1988, Sierra County, California cut their police force in order to pay for their death penalty trials.  District Attorney James Reichele explained, “If we didn't have to pay $500,000 a pop for Sacramento's murders, I'd have an investigator and the sheriff would have a couple of extra deputies and we could do some lasting good for Sierra County law enforcement. The sewage system at the courthouse is failing, a bridge collapsed, there's no county library, no county park, and we have volunteer fire and volunteer search and rescue.”

I know some will ask, “How can you put a price on justice?” and “What if it were your mother or son who’d been murdered?”  Fair enough.  But given the current cost of the death penalty, my family is much more at risk from not having enough police on the street, firefighters in their stations, thousands of inmates released into our communities, and from a critical lack of hospital staff.  There are 7,000 deaths annually in hospitals from errors in medication, partially due to understaffing.  That’s 7,000 every year versus the possibility that an inmate sentenced to LWOPP might possibly escape and kill again.

Continue reading "Kill Bill?" »

May 01, 2008

Barack pulls the plug...

Kareem_wright_2 Barack Obama has made the extraordinary effort to cut all ties between himself and Rev. Wright. There really was no choice for Senator Obama because he was seeing first hand how the rants of Reverend Wright negatively affect the sensibilities of most patriotic Americans.

Mr. Obama took issue with several statements that were made by the Reverend with regard to the recent controversy caused by the Reverends sermons while he was the Pastor at Senator Obama’s church.

Reverend Wright is very critical of many aspects of American life that involve racism and discrimination. However, he tends to go way overboard when venting about real and perceived bad deeds done to people of color. Most people would concede that there are many facts supporting his position but the Reverend goes to the max in labeling America as a racist oppressive society. There seems to be no good that can happen in America according to Reverend Wright. And most Americans, including Senator Obama, believe that there is plenty of good left in America.

The most disturbing part of the Reverends campaign was watching him make use of the media attention that has focused on him. He really seemed to relish a platform that allowed him to vent his views one more time. Most people have dismissed him as a crank but he doesn’t get it. The Reverend suggests that those who criticize him don’t get it. I think the Senator has the best idea as to what to make of the Reverend. It’s time to leave him to his own devices and supporters and move on. The coming election is too important an event to ignore.

April 18, 2008

What's goin' on across this land?

    The following lyrics are from a song about a soldier returning from war who’s trying to catch up on what he’s missed while being overseas.

Hey, baby, what you know good?
I’m just gettin’ back, but you knew I would.
War is hell, when will it end?
When will people start gettin’ together again?
Are things really gettin’ better Like the newspaper said?…
Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend.
Money is tighter than it’s ever been.
Hey, man, I just don’t understand What’s goin’ on across this land.

What makes those lyrics all the more poignant—and disturbing—is the fact that Marvin Gaye wrote them as part of his "What’s Goin’ On" album, which was released on May 21, 1971—37 years ago next month. Unfortunately, those same words, which were supposed to represent the Vietnam veteran, could be spoken by any young soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan today.

“War is hell, when will it end?” That’s what Americans have been asking ever since President Bush stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln in front of his victory banner that proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003—five years ago next month. Since that banner was hung, 3,898 Americans have been killed in Iraq.

“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job/Money is tighter than it’s ever been.” Unemployment has spiked in recent months, rising to a three-year high. Food and gas prices are at their highest. Many economists are finally admitting that we are indeed in an economic recession with no foreseeable end.

When it comes to politics, most people are smart enough to reach their own conclusions about candidates. You’d have to be crazy to vote for a candidate just because some celebrity endorses him or her. After all, what does fame in acting or accomplishment in sports have to do with knowledge in politics? Pretending to be a cop in a blockbuster movie or tossing a ball through a hoop doesn’t make you an expert on domestic or foreign policies.

Yet, here I am writing about politics.

My achievement in basketball provided me with the platform to reach you, but it’s my achievement as a historian that provides me with some small measure of expertise. I’ve been writing books as long as I played professional basketball, so I’m not writing here as Kareem the athlete, I’m writing to you as Kareem the historian.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from all my years reading and writing about history can be summed up by the famous statement attributed to American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” When I listen to Marvin Gaye singing those lyrics in “What’s Happening, Brother,” and I realize that here we are 27 years later wondering when the war will end and how we will keep our jobs and feed our families, I can’t help but look around for someone to lead us who has the ability to learn from history. To make sure we aren’t doomed to repeat our past mistakes.

For me, that person is Barack Obama. I believe that because his personal history has taught him so much. His parents came from modest means and knew the hardships of tough economic times. Barack learned from their struggles, which motivated him to move to Chicago to become a community organizer to help make the lives of people in poor neighborhoods better. Even after getting his law degree from Harvard, he continued to help people in need by practicing civil rights law. That, and everything he’s fought for as a state senator and U.S. senator, convince me that this is a man who will use his knowledge of and respect for history to lead us into a future that avoids the mistakes of our past. And that future promises to make all our our lives better.

April 16, 2008

Horton hears a racist


(Michelle and Barack with daughters Malia and Sasha)

Barack Obama is my choice for president. I’ve already explained why in previous blogs. But if Obama isn’t elected, it would be hard to blame racism. Republicans aren’t going to vote for him, not because he’s black, but because, even worse, he’s a Democrat. And for the most part, Obama has garnered more popular support among white voters than any other candidate. If Obama is elected, I believe that through his leadership skills and intelligence he will usher in a dynamic new era of government by inclusion rather than secrecy. Like John F. Kennedy, Obama will inspire a younger generation and invigorate the older generation to take greater part in their government, society, and community.

But there are many obstacles this New Era will have to face. A sagging economy. War abroad. Faltering education.

And, worst of all, the movie Horton Hears a Who.

This isn’t a review of the movie, it’s a review of how Hollywood sometimes contributes to the divisiveness within the country. Ironically, Horton Hears a Who has done more damage to our society than the recent slate of politically motivated movies about the war in Iraq (Rendition, Stop-Loss, Lambs for Lions, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, etc.) has done good. For one thing, more people saw Horton than saw all the other movies combined.

How can a beloved Dr. Seuss story do so much harm? Well, the original book by Dr. Seuss is just fine, a timeless tale that has been delighting children since it was first published in 1954. The story of the brave elephant that is willing to endure the harshest condemnation from his friends and community in order to protect those in need is a wonderful lesson for children.

But then along comes the movie. To make the story long enough for a full-length movie, a subplot was added about the mayor of Whoville who has 96 cheerful daughters and one brooding son. This is where things take a nasty turn. Basically, the mayor ignores his 96 daughters in order to groom his uninterested son to become mayor. Why doesn’t he groom one of his much more enthusiastic daughters? And, of course, it is the brooding son who, in the end, saves the entire world of Whoville. The daughters? They get to cheer from the sidelines. While it’s true that in the book a “very small shirker named Jo-Jo” does add his tiny voice to the din and thus saves Whoville, but that promotes the idea that we all have our part to play in our community, not that sons are smarter than daughters.

“Hey, it’s just a cartoon,” you might say. But this particular cartoon will be seen by millions of children around the world. And they will come away with a clear impression that a single son is worth more than 96 daughters. Those boys are inherently more valuable than girls, and more likely to be successful (in this case, in saving the world) than girls.

What’s especially insidious here isn’t just that the subplot was written and approved and filmed, but that since the movie has come out, there hasn’t been a popular outcry about it. That we don’t even ask why, in the years it took to make the movie, no one along the line said, “This isn’t a good message to send to our kids.” Is it because sexism is so ingrained in our society that we don’t even flinch at it when it’s shoved in our faces?

What’s all this have to do with racism?

Well, if our society is willing to tolerate any form of social injustice and discrimination toward any single group, then they have created a breeding ground for injustice throughout society. If we allow sexism, ageism, homophobia, religious intolerance, then racism can only flourish as well. We expose our impressionable children to funny cartoons about wacky animals voiced by famous actors and what do we think is going to happen. Will a little girl step out of Horton feeling empowered and motivated, or just slightly less capable than the little boy walking beside her?

I don’t think the filmmakers are evil or that they deliberately set out to send this awful message. Somehow it seems worse that they didn’t notice.

Maybe after eight years of Barak Obama’s presidency, our society will have evolved to a place where the filmmakers and the audiences won’t tolerate even the subtlest forms of discrimination. At least with Barak Obama, we have hope that such a world might be.

(Photo credit: Barack Obama)

April 11, 2008

Elections 2008, who is your choice?

I have been answering questions for a long time, and I think it is time to ask you one:

"Who would you vote for president? As you all know Obama is my choice for president for all the reasons mentioned in my past posts. Now, what is your choice? Who will have the privilege to receive your vote?"

March 24, 2008

Obama, the Rev. Wright and the legacy of Emmett Till

Obamawright The recent uproar about Barack Obama’s former pastor has pushed a very explosive issue into the presidential campaign. The issue of our country’s history with regard to race is one that Sen. Obama literally embodies in his physical being as well as various political stances he has taken.

I’m responding to the attacks that he has endured because of the statements made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama has pointed out the failures our nation has made in trying to live up to the words in the Declaration of Independence that state that "all men are created equal." I am mentioning these events to give a more complete background to the Rev. Wright’s comments from his pulpit.

From his perspective, America is not always able to deliver on some very important issues, and the effect on him over time is to become enraged and at times to overreact. The wonderful thing about life in America is that we can address and remedy even the worst of problems when the collective will of our nation comes into play. The civil rights movement would never have achieved what it did if this were not true. That potential gives us the hope that Sen. Obama so articulately identifies as the force that can bring us together to effect positive change. I, for one, hope that people will unite and work together to make sure that the unfortunate events of the past do not kill the positive potential of our future. Together we can make the dreams of the Founding Fathers a reality for all Americans.

An example of this situation can be seen in the mess that developed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck. Racist policies that were in place in the 1920s and '30s caused a hugely disproportionate share of grief to fall on the shoulders of the black residents of New Orleans. The decision to build homes in an area that is 12 to 15 feet below sea level, immediately adjacent to a lake and also located on a shoreline that sees hurricanes every hurricane season, could only be seen as wishful thinking. This disaster was bound to happen whenever a hurricane hit the coastline somewhere near New Orleans. A direct hit wasn’t even needed to inflict damage.

Continue reading "Obama, the Rev. Wright and the legacy of Emmett Till" »

March 17, 2008

Exchanging e-mails with Obama


(Sen. Barack Obama, seated at center, with his junior varsity basketball team in the 1977 yearbook of the Punahou School in Honolulu.)

I was exchanging some e-mails with Sen. Obama and he was able to answer some questions that people have run by me when his name comes up. The one issue that people raise the most is that people question Sen. Obama's ability to lead all of America.  I asked him  the following questions.

Q. You have made an appeal to lead all of America. What were the obstacles to conveying that message?

A. One of the biggest obstacles we've faced is the cynicism many Americans have about politics. And I understand it. Year after year, politicians make promises on the campaign trail but then go back to Washington and nothing changes. Because the lobbyists write another check or partisan bickering stands in the way or politicians don’t say what they mean or mean what they say. But I'm hopeful because all across this country, I'm meeting Americans who are willing to stop settling for what the cynics tell us we must accept and reach for the kind of real change we know is possible. And that's what this campaign is all about.

The tarnished image that has become the fare of America in many parts of the world is a great concern for many people who will vote this fall. The Iraq War has changed many aspects of how we are seen in the world.

Q. What should our approach be to diplomatic relations with the world at large?

A. I'm running for president not just to end the Iraq War -- a war I opposed from the start -- but to end the mindset that got us into war. And that includes the Bush-McCain-Clinton policy of not talking with leaders we don't like. I don’t think that approach makes us look tough; I think it makes us look arrogant. I agree with President Kennedy, who once said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." And that's the kind of diplomacy we will re-establish when I am President.

Sen. Obama feels that the time he spent as a community organizer in Chicago gave him an insight as to how to shape his tactics in the political world.

Q. How did community organizing affect your political outlook?

A. What I learned as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago is that together, ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. That's a lesson I carried with me in the Illinois state Senate, when I brought Democrats and Republicans together and passed the most sweeping lobbying reform in 25 years. It's a lesson I've carried with me on this campaign by reaching out to Americans of every race, region, and political party. And it's a lesson I'll carry with me to the White House to enact a middle-class tax cut, pass universal health care, and bring about real change in this country.

Finally, I mentioned to him that I've seen several pictures of him playing basketball. He told me that basketball was a passion for him throughout his lifetime and should he get to reside in the White House there would absolutely be a hoop on the White House grounds.

March 07, 2008

Political maelstrom

Kareem_flag It seems that I have stepped into the political maelstrom forming as the November elections approach.  Rocky has asked about how the Republicans are trying to portray Obama as a Muslim and how it might affect the race. 

I don’t think it should affect the race because -- it shouldn’t affect the race.  Sen. Obama chose the Christian faith at a time when that decision was an issue in his life.  He has remained committed to his Christianity.  So in terms of religion, he is no different from any other candidate. 

The office of the president of the United States is not supposed to be administered in a manner that indulges the president’s religious beliefs.  The aspect of separation of church and state makes it possible for all of us to get along in terms of politics and public policy.  We must thank the Founding Fathers for their wisdom in this matter.  It is my hope that Sen. Obama's middle name or his father’s name do not create issues that have no place in the campaign.  Obama is 100% American, and I see no reason to fault his patriotism.

Regarding my blog on Mbenga –- I did not try to suggest that liberty and freedom are not accessible in other nations.  I simply was expressing my joy in knowing that those rights and privileges are still accessible in the U.S.A. 

March 04, 2008

Castro moves on

(From left: Castro at Hotel Theresa, Harlem. Top right: Castro and Malcom X. Bottom right: Fidel Castro)
Cuba has gotten some intense media attention recently because of the “retirement” of Fidel Castro, who has passed power on to his brother Raul.  Most informed people see this as nothing more than a sham.  Raul Castro will probably maintain the totalitarian monopoly of power that was established by Fidel in 1959.  But it seems that the possibility of change has made people start to hope. 

I have always been aware of Cuba because of the influence of Cuban music on jazz.  This was not a one-way street, either.  Cuban musicians were profoundly influenced by the work of Duke Ellington, and there were a number of Cuban bands that featured songs composed by the Duke.  Harlem was an important location for this interplay between the two cultures.  Many people from the Caribbean came to New York and got to experience first-hand the evolution of jazz music.  Spanish Harlem was a magnet for aspiring musicians from the Caribbean and the music venues of Harlem accommodated their tastes quite readily.

Continue reading "Castro moves on" »

March 03, 2008

With Barack ...


I've been all over cyberspace as one of the participants in's music video (Yes We Can)  supporting Barack Obama. I'm very pleased to be one of those who feel that he has what it takes to be president. I first met Senator Obama in the summer of '06 at the Senate building in DC. I was immediately taken with his intelligence and ability to connect with people.

Since that time, his political vision has impressed me as being able to reunite our country along the fault lines caused by the policies of the current administration. Someone who can lead all of us would be the the ideal candidate, and I feel that Barack is that someone. I am looking forward to having the chance to vote for a candidate with his gifts.

I've been amused to see how Mr. Obama's critics have tried to pull him down by criticizing his "lack of foreign relations experience." I'm not aware that either Hillary Clinton or John McCain has any huge advantage in the awareness necessary to deal with the foreign relations aspect of the presidency. Only people with a Cabinet or State Department background can immediately state their readiness in that area. Mr. Obama has the intelligence and leadership qualities that will serve him well should he win the nomination and election.

Advisors play a central role in foreign policy areas and all of our presidents have relied on the help of those advisors to form their foreign policy agenda. As president, Mr. Obama will do the same. I'm sure his ability as an inspirational leader will help to attract the best advice.

February 05, 2008

Musicians play politics and kareem abdul-jabbar I was honored to work with of the Black Eyed Peas at the Record Plant in Hollywood and help him with the "Yes We Can Video" inspired by Barack Obama's speech. 

In less than one week, over 6 million people went to Dipdive and over 2 million people saw the video on YouTube! Will feels that in times like these, it is important for all of us to make political statements.

Will is making a difference with his art, and I think he is to be honored for his willingness to take a stand. In this day and age, that shows real courage.

I can remember back in the '50s when the brilliant blind vocalist Al Hibbler went to the South in support of voter registration. He got arrested and was ridiculed by the town's law enforcement establishment in the town where he was demonstrating. Nonetheless, his courage and commitment was out there for everyone to see. It is because of people like him that we overcame Jim Crow.

Click here to hear tell me what it was like to create "Yes We Can."

Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

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Kareem_READ The American Library Association (ALA) is pleased to announce that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has joined the popular Celebrity READ poster series. The Celebrity READ poster campaign is one of the most effective ways to encourage people to get a good education, improve their reading skills, and to read for sheer enjoyment.
Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is the 2008 Honorary Chair Library Card Sign-up Month, which takes place in September. He will also appear at the American Library’s National Convention on June 28th and 29th at the Long Beach Convention Center to sign his poster.

To purchase Mr. Abdul-Jabbar's poster and to view the entire line of Celebrity READ Posters, please click here. now!

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