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Burn Baby, Burn

I remember it as if it was yesterday. The acrid smell of smoke wafted through air. The hot and humid night made sleep all but unreachable. The skyline glowed with the orange light of burning buildings. Yet, I laid there with eyes closed hoping to slip through the gates of the dream state. But it was difficult with the distant sound of machine gun fire, the rumble of tanks and armored vehicles less than a quarter mile distant. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Division’s troops had arrived, but the violence was irrepressible. The official death toll was rising, but from a reliable insider, I learned it was much higher than the public was led to believe. I was living in a war zone and frankly, it wasn’t a lot of fun.

US-RACE RIOTS-DETROIT

Near my home (AFP/Getty Images)

This wasn’t Vietnam. It wasn’t the Middle East. The year was 1967. The city was Detroit. Riots engulfed the city. A police raid on a speak-easy sparked one of the deadliest and destructive riots in the history of the United States. I was a young, married man with an expectant wife. We were afraid that if “the time” came, we’d be unable to get to the hospital. It was an exciting time.

It was a time of turmoil and tumult as our nation was being transformed and awakened. Vietnam, civil rights, a music revolution, the space age, and people were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. I was already pretty open-minded, even for a twenty year old. But it was hard to understand what’s happening on the inside when you’re looking in from the outside. I had friends in the inner-city. I spent time in the inner-city. But the fact is … I was a young white boy of some privilege cast into a bizarre reality and the best I could do was guess about what I was seeing and hearing.

I must confess that as I watched news reports, I was conflicted. I was far from alone in wondering why “they” were burning “their” own neighborhoods. Never mind that simply by defining matters with words like “they” and “their”, I was, in a subtle way, answering my own question. If it was “their” neighborhood, then by definition, I must be a part of “our” neighborhood. One might reasonably conclude they were different … and they were. In that difference rested much of the unrest that fueled the war that raged in my home town.

With the passage of fifty years almost to the day, I’ve learned and experienced much. But I’m still not fully capable of explaining why the rioters laid torch to homes and businesses in their own backyards. Much of Detroit still carries the scars of that week in 1967. Many neighborhoods never recovered. In retrospect, it seems like a more appropriate course of action would have been to burn our neighborhood. After all, with my pedigree, I was deemed to carry some of the responsibility for their state of hopelessness. Perhaps that was the intent of some of the rioters and that was the reason tanks were stationed at East Jefferson and Alter Road only five blocks from my home. Alter Road also happened to be the boundary line for the more affluent Gross Pointe Park. That’s another way of saying, “our neighborhood” rather than “their neighborhood”. Such boundary lines existed between cities. They also existed between ideas, opportunities, and lifestyles. They could burn theirs, but they couldn’t burn ours.

Now I look back fifty years and I still wonder. Why were there “ours” and “theirs”? Why were “they” so unhappy with “theirs”? How unhappy do you have to be with your world to destroy it? Is it the smart thing to do? I still guess, but with a little more accuracy than before. I’m sure the answer is complex, but from my non-expert perspective, I harken back to the song “Me and Bobby McGee” where Janis Joplin sings, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

From my standpoint, as Detroit burned, people were losing homes, jobs and whatever remained of hope. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. There was precious little to gain unless you count the color television sets some carried from the flaming hulks of retail stores in the neighborhood. I wondered at the time – how many of those looters had homes in which to watch TV after the flames were finally extinguished?

It was all a nightmare, something that couldn’t happen in my country. After all, this was the United States of America. Those things only happened in third world countries, not here in the good ole USA. But I heard the gunfire with my own ears. I smelled the burning buildings. I saw it all and it was real, very, very horridly real.

Some people viewed it as a one-time thing. It could never happen again, could it? Yet, it’s happening as I speak. A large group of people are burning their neighborhoods. On every newscast, in every news magazine, in nearly every blog, I see the flaming embers of our homes rising skyward. A group of Americans large enough to elect a person who is clearly dishonest, clearly rooted in self-interest, a narcissist with an ego bigger than any seen since Nero, and with such a glaring level of incompetence in the art of governance and with an indescribable lack of knowledge of foreign relations, human relations and economics is putting torch to the American dream.

In 1967, we were in the midst of a revolution where people were fighting for recognition and inclusion. Fifty years later, a counter revolution has been launched – one that divides, one that creates hate for specific groups, one that robs from the poor to give to the rich. The flames are being fanned by those who don’t seem to understand that they are the victims of their own wrath. The chickens have elected the fox as the mayor of the hen house.

The parallels between Detroit in 1967 and America in 2017 are striking. In both cases, a large group of people has risen up demanding recognition. Both groups elected to destroy the neighborhood. In Detroit, some of those who burned and looted legitimately felt they had nothing to lose. What makes this uprising infinitely more inexplicable is that the neighborhood that is burning isn’t “theirs”, it’s “ours”. And this time, we do have something to lose. The losses will be material and spiritual.

Pittsburgh, not Paris! Are you kidding? America is aflame. Assuming you’ve been watching, you should notice by now that “the rule of law” is in serious jeopardy. The moral high road that once ran through the heart of America is closed to all traffic as truth has lost its currency. The President offers whatever pabulum necessary to appease the masses. “I’m going to be the jobs creation President,” he sings as he destroys relations with our primary trading partners. I doubt you have to hold a degree in economics to see that words and actions are fighting like two cats in a burlap sack. Fake news is the order of the day. He destabilizes the Middle-East while enriching himself and his cohorts. The only real jobs he’s creating with his policies are for your children and they’ll be on the frontlines of the next war.

detroit troops

Not in America?

Just as was the case in 1967, a neighborhood is being engulfed in flames. The major differences this time are – it’s our neighborhood and we have a lot to lose. I fear the day will come when we look back on this time and say, “That was when America was great.”

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Trump’s Trolley Kills Five

trumpyWell, America … you have murdered the trolley workers. Their blood is now on your hands. Let me be clear; a minority of Americans can rest peacefully, albeit, fearfully. They at least tried to pull the lever. They just couldn’t get enough help from their fellow Americans who “voted their consciences” or didn’t vote at all.

Ok, I get the feeling your face is dressed in confusion. “What the hell trolley is he talking about? Who died?” Let me back up and explain.

The “trolley problem” is a well-known thought experiment in the field of ethics. You remember ethics? They used to be common in the halls of government in this country.  In the trolley problem, you are confronted with a serious dilemma.

A trolley car is out of control and careening down the tracks where five workers don’t see or hear it coming. If nothing is done, the five workers will assuredly die. You see this and happen to be standing by a large lever. If you quickly pull the lever, the trolley will be directed onto another track where you see one worker who will unquestionably be killed. Do you pull the lever to save five lives at the expense of one life?

If you pull the lever, you will be directly responsible for the death of one man. If you don’t pull the lever, you didn’t have a direct role in anyone’s death. There are those that will argue that you are responsible for five deaths, but you can legitimately say you did not personally take action that resulted in these tragic deaths. That’s the gist of the trolley problem. Kill one person or take no action and allow five to die.

After a few days of the Trump administration, sane people all around the world are shaking their heads. An increasing number of Trump supporters are shaking their heads. We’ve been subjected to a sequence of utterly insane actions from “The Donald”. It only promises to get worse.

Yet, in November past, huge numbers of Americans didn’t vote or they voted their consciences and wouldn’t vote for the viable alternative because they didn’t “like” her. They stood by the lever and watched as the trolley ran over America’s future. The magnitude of the slaughter is already immeasurable and it’s just getting started.

The trolley rolls on and some Americans still stand idly by staring at the lever. Some now deal with the lever by intentionally looking in the other direction. If you don’t watch the carnage, you can’t be responsible for it can you?

A seemingly intelligent friend is now dealing with the situation by not watching, listening or reading the news. An ostrich with its head in the sand can’t pull a lever. People that haven’t even heard about Trump’s completely nonsensical way of paying for his nonsensical “great wall,” can’t pull the lever. They – with intent – ignore the existence of the economic realities of how tariffs work (a tax on Mexican imports is paid by Americans, not Mexico) and aren’t going to be thrilled watching as their food choices dwindle and the prices increase on those remaining. After we get to that point, it’ll be too late to pull the lever.

Trump supporters and non-supporters alike are shaking their heads on the immigration ban. Immigrants from seven countries are barred, while immigrants from others such as Saudi Arabia, aren’t included in the ban. You remember Saudi Arabia don’t you? That’s the country at the center of the Wahhabi Sunni sect, the most radical and dangerous Muslim group in existence. The overwhelming majority of the World Trade Center terrorists were from Saudi Arabia. But they’re not on the list. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Trump has extensive business dealings there. Wake up and pull the lever!

Trump fires the acting Attorney General because she gave him her best legal advice as she promised during her confirmation hearings. Pull the lever!

Trump removes the generals from the National Security Council and replaces them with a radical right wing pal. That kind of thing worked for some German leader in the 1930s didn’t it? Pull the damn lever!

Trump appoints someone to head the Department of Education that has absolutely no experience with public education. The lever! The lever! Pull the lever!

Trump puts a guy with a B.S. degree in Animal Husbandry in charge of our nation’s nuclear arms.

This insanity goes on without end and no one’s pulling the lever. Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of the trolley car barreling out of control and screaming down the tracks. Whatcha gonna do? You can pull the lever or not. Either way, someone’s future is already bleak. Either way, you are responsible. But if no one pulls the stinkin’ lever, America’s going to be run over and it ain’t gonna be pretty. Do something or do nothing.

 

On the Failure (Success) of Cuban Communism

The first time I visited Cuba, I was just three years old. A young man named Fidel Castro had just graduated from college with a degree in law. Carlos Prío was president of a corrupt Cuban government. Bautista had not yet taken power. Even though I was a small child at the time, I still have some vivid memories of the Cuba of 1950, the narrow streets, the open stores and markets with meat hanging overhead, the sandy beach and a friendly police officer who carried me on his shoulders. This early experience in Cuba undoubtedly had a great impact on my lifelong love and intrigue with this beautiful Caribbean island.

Less than twenty years later, I had embarked on a career as a news reporter, writer and broadcaster. Thanks to the acrimonious relations between the United States and Fidel’s communist Cuba, I could no longer visit the island. Propagandists on both sides of the fence painted lurid pictures of their evil neighbors ninety miles away. As a reporter, I learned pure, unbiased, objective reporting was sometimes a noble goal, but was impossible to obtain. As often as not, it wasn’t even the goal. The news was and continues to be distorted with intent by the government, corporate sponsors and biased news reporters. I can guarantee you that our views of Cuba, the embargo and the people of Cuba are colored by the lenses we’re forced to look through as we try to interpret the island that has been taboo to Americans for more than fifty years.

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The Tea Party’s Assault on the 1st Amendment

You really have to love these guys. Well, maybe that’s pushing it a bit. But you have to admit, if they weren’t so inept and dangerous to our nation’s wellbeing, members of the Tea Party would be fun to watch – sort of like a kid with a feather and honey. They’re drawing a lot of attention to themselves with some pretty nonsensical and destructive behavior. The problem is they’re dragging more rational, clear thinking people into the maelstrom they’re creating. Blinded by their anger and deafened by their din, they rail against one cause after another.

The latest bit of pure insanity involves the issue of “net neutrality”. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t fully comprehend the significance of the issue and many don’t care because they believe the issue doesn’t impact them directly. Believe me, it does. It is one of the biggest issues facing our nation today. It threatens to undermine our entire concept of freedom.

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Who Shot Gabrielle Giffords?

I was in the middle of writing a column on the Republican grandstanding surrounding the idea of repealing the healthcare bill or as they call it, ObamaCare. That’s when the news flash arrived saying Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been shot. My heart dropped much like it did on that fateful day in 1963. I was saddened, disgusted and shamed to be a member of a society that breeds the kind people that can perform such heinous acts.

Giffords was a supporter of universal healthcare. She cared for her constituents, rich and poor. She answered to her conscience and used her strong intellect to make the decisions she felt were best for America. As I write this, the identity of the killer hasn’t been released. His motives remain a mystery.

As I do my best to resist anger and frustration, I ask “Who shot Gabrielle Giffords?”

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Book’s Progress

I’m please to report that book sales for “The Man on the Bench” are brisk and exceeding expectations. In part, I thank some great publicity from media like The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Pennisula Beacon, NPR and KPBS, and Channel Six in San Diego. Thanks to all. Keep spreading the word.

View the most recent TV show by clicking here.

The Man on the Bench

Feel free to view this as a self serving missive about my new book. The reason being – this is a self serving missive about my new book. The Man on the Bench is available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon. It’s already getting good reviews so why not sing about it?

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a piece about the death of a homeless, mentally ill man that became a good friend. When I wrote it, I knew my friend’s first name, but not his last. I decided to try and find his family and learn more about his past. The book chronicles the amazing story of Jeffrey Pastorino, the man we called the Mayor of Point Loma.

He sat on a bench for nearly twenty years. People thought he was crazy and by many standards, he was. But after discovering his past and the events that brought him to that bench, I began to wonder who was truly crazy. The path of that discovery turned out to be the basis for this amazing story. The life of this unlikely man serves as a beacon for all of mankind when it comes to dealing with our insecurities and shortcomings. For in the final analysis, we all spend at least a little time sitting on the bench. Learn more at www.54Candles.org.

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