Thursday, March 6, 2014

Olympic Games and the Poor

The Olympian is a difficult foe to oppose.
— Homer, The Iliad

Now that the Olympics are over and Sochi proved itself such a triumph (and eagerly awaits the Winter Paralympic Games that begin almost exactly one week after Mr. Putin invaded Crimea,) we can begin looking forward to the summer Olympics of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. They will, in some respects, involve the same kinds of things that the Sochi games involved although their conclusion will not be punctuated by Brazil invading another country since that does not happen to comport with its mind-set. There will, however, be similarities in what the two cities experience and a select group of Sochi residents may want to go Rio de Janeiro to describe for its residents how the whole thing worked out for them and what their impoverished residents can anticipate.

Countries that host Olympic games are always eager to show the world their best sides and in the case of the residents of Sochi that meant a number of people living in towns near Olympic facilities contributed to the redevelopment of Sochi in order to help it become the magnificent venue it was.

The village of Vesyoloye on the outskirts of Sochi was typical of the sorts of communities that contributed to the success of the games. On Akatsiy street, for example, the residents have for years had neither running water nor a sewage system. The communal outhouse that the residents enjoyed using was ordered to be torn down by a judge because authorities said it was an eyesore, being adjacent to the new super highway being built. (The judge ordering its destruction told the residents to get an eco toilet. Some residents told reporters they were using buckets instead.) The $635 million highway that was built to get people in and out of Sochi cut many of Vesyoloye’s residents off from the city center. One resident on that street told a reporter: “Everyone was looking forward to the Olympics. We just never thought they would leave us bang in the middle of a federal highway!” Thousands of people in Sochi were dislocated and promised new homes that three weeks before the beginning of the games had not been provided. Some Sochi residents who had not been displaced had a new neighbor in the form of a dump that was created to contain Olympic construction waste. Construction waste has polluted rivers and streams. Although the affected residents contributed to the success of the Olympics in their modest ways, none of them was given tickets to any of the events. It should not be hard to organize a group to visit Rio in order to tell its citizens what to anticipate. They may be too late.

Slum dwellings in Rio de Janeiro are called favelas. With the prospect of the Olympics, rents in slum areas for favelas that have wonderful views have begun to climb in anticipation of the games although photos do not make it immediately apparent why visitors to the Olympics would want to stay in such places. Reports suggest that if the dwellings themselves are not desirable, the land beneath them is and prices of the favelas are soaring.

In some areas where the government has made efforts to relocate residents so the slums can be redeveloped in preparation for the World Soccer Cup and the Olympic games, residents have resisted. Commenting on events, Christopher Gaffney, a professor at Rio’s Fluminense Federal University said: “These events were supposed to celebrate Brazil’s accomplishments, but the opposite is happening. We’re seeing an insidious pattern of trampling on the rights of the poor and cost overruns that are a nightmare.” Evictions are taking place in slums all over the city. In some places those who refused to move continue to live in the rubble left when their slum dwellings were destroyed. The owner of one slum dwelling that was razed to make way for an express way was told by the government she could accept $2,300 for her house when adjacent residences were selling for $50,000, accept an apartment in a distant housing project or take nothing. The replacement apartment she was given is 35 miles from the center of Rio. Amnesty International says 19,200 people have been moved since 2009. Another advocacy group estimates 100,000 people will eventually be moved to make way for the Olympic facilities. These figures notwithstanding, displaced Rio residents should not feel too bad. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics 1 million people were displaced. For the 1988 Korean summer games 720,000 people were displaced. There is one group of people who should feel bad but don’t. The International Olympic Committee.

The International Olympic Committee selects the sites for the games. That Committee can think of nothing worse than having the summer and winter games take place in the same venue every four years thus depriving Committee members of the pleasure of travelling around the world being sumptuously entertained by countries hoping to host the games.

All of the foregoing notwithstanding, there is one thing rich and poor alike can feel good about. At the conclusion of the Brazilian games, Brazil will not invade any of its neighbors.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cops and Muslims

The Law is the true embodiment
Of everything that’s excellent.
It has no kind of fault or flaw,
And I, my Lords, embody the Law.
—Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, Iolanthe

One of the first questions law students are taught to ask is: what does the case stand for? The case of Hassan v. City of New York stands for the proposition that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Therefore, we learn, you cannot collect damages from a bad actor of whose bad acts you were unaware even though they affected you. But if someone else discloses what a bad actor is doing that affects your rights, the person who let the cat out of the bag may be responsible to you for any injury that bad actor caused you. Since we now live in a time where we are learning on a daily basis of the unwarranted intrusion of the government in our private lives, it is useful to keep relevant court decisions in mind and to understand this legal precept. The other thing the Hassan case teaches is that some judges reason in peculiar ways.

The Hassan case was brought by assorted Muslims and Muslim groups who learned, through a story published by the Associated Press, that ever since 9/11 they have been the subject of surveillance by the New York City police department because of their religious affiliation. Following 9/11 the police department thought Muslims might be planning to do more bad things even though only a very few were involved in the events of 9/11. People who were targeted by the department and became plaintiffs in the lawsuit included a decorated Iraqi war veteran, the owners of a grade school for Muslim girls and a coalition of Muslim mosques. Because they were Muslims and those involved in the 9/11 attack were Muslims the police department thought it made sense to keep an eye on them.

In the complaint that was filed by the plaintiffs, several examples were given of the harm that the plaintiffs had sustained once news of the tactics of the New York City police department’s surveillance operations became public. Among the losses were diminution in property value of the property that was identified as a Muslim school for girls, loss of revenue by businesses that were identified as having been targeted and diminished employment opportunities for individuals who were identified as being monitored by the police.

New York City asked Judge William J. Martini to dismiss the complaint and on February 20, 2014 he did so. The only part of his decision that is of interest to us is his conclusion that the harm, if any (and he declined to say whether or not the plaintiffs had suffered any harm) was not the actions of the police department in conducting what many would say was the clearly illegal surveillance of the Muslims, but rather the disclosure of the surveillance by the Associated Press. It is a brilliant piece of sophistry.

Judge Martini observed, quite correctly, that so long as no one knew of the police department’s illegal activities no harm was suffered by the objects of its surveillance. That is the sort of logic that would immediately appeal to the NSA but had little appeal, as we now know, to people like Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil and Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. At the UN General Assembly, President Rousseff accused the NSA of violating international law by collecting personal information on Brazilian citizens and the Brazilian diplomatic missions. Chancellor Merkel was equally upset. She told President Obama that the tapping of her cell hone was “like the Stasi,” the East German secret police. Neither woman expressed any anger at Mr. Snowden although as Judge Martini would have told them had they asked, it was he and not the NSA at whom they should be angry. But for Mr. Snowden’s disclosures they’d have been unaware of the fact that they were being spied on and, therefore, would have had no reason to be upset.

In dismissing the Muslims’ claims Judge Martini said: “None of the Plaintiffs’ injuries arose until after the Associated Press released unredacted, confidential documents. Nowhere in the Complaint do Plaintiffs allege that they suffered harm prior to the unauthorized release of the documents by the Associated Press.” When they didn’t know they were being illegally targeted, the Muslims suffered no harm he concluded. Applying his logic to the facts of the case, he apparently thinks the Muslims could sue the Associated Press and allege that its disclosure of the illegal acts of the government rather than the acts themselves were the evil for which the plaintiffs should be compensated. President Yousseff and Chancellor Merkel should be mollified by the judge’s reasoning and should join those in Congress who vilify Mr. Snowden and call him a traitor for having disclosed what many would consider felonious activity by a government agency. Like the Muslims, however, a few of us will still be puzzled by the reasoning of those in Congress and the reasoning of Judge Martini.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gays and Rights

It is never too late to give up our prejudices.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

There are things to be grateful for. Our bigotry is much more civilized than bigotry found in other countries. Just compare.

In Abuja, Nigeria in early February, a mob attacked young gay men, dragging some of them from their homes, beating them with clubs and whips and shouting that it was “cleansing the community.” When the victims were turned over to the police, they were given further beatings. The mob was inspired to attack by a new law that was signed by President Jonathan Goodluck, The law provides for a 14-year prison sentence if a person is convicted of being gay.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has promised to sign a new piece of legislation that prescribes life sentences in prison for acts of “aggravated homosexuality.” Among the acts proscribed are repeated sexual acts among consenting adults of the same sex. The also law applies to Ugandans living abroad who may be extradited if they violate its terms.

Russia, too, has recently taken steps to protect itself from the scourge of what its gay (as in cheerful and of unfailing good humor) president, Vladimir Putin, objects to. In 2012 in Moscow, city and district courts upheld a Moscow ban on gay pride parades. The ban is to remain in place for 100 years. The ban seems harsh until one realizes that it was imposed as a courtesy to the gay community. It takes a long time to organize a gay pride parade and by letting the community know that the ban will be in effect for 100 years the gay community will not waste its time planning such an event. On June 30, 2013 President Putin signed a bill banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” subjecting violators to arrest and fines. Another permits police to arrest and hold for up to 14 days, tourists suspected of being gay or pro-gay. All of which brings us back to the United States which, as I said, is much more civilized in discriminating against gays.

Consider Kansas. It just decided, at least for now, to tone down its anti-gay legislation. On February 12, 2014 the Kansas House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2453
known as the Religious Liberty Bill. Drafted by bigots whose intelligence is defined by their beliefs, it was a bit hard to understand. The bill provides that “if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of [an] individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender” such a person or religious entity shall not be required by any governmental entity to, among other things: “provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges. . . related to (sic) or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.” The bill passed the Kansas House on February 12, 2013 by a 72 to 49 vote. It looked like it was headed to similar success in the Kansas Senate until the president of the Senate raised concerns as to how it might impact public safety if firemen with religious beliefs went to a burning house occupied by a gay couple. Although it is unclear how putting out a fire is “related to the celebration of, any marriage, etc” she felt that language could in fact impact public safety and firemen unwilling to provide services to married gay couples might decline to extinguish the blaze. As she explained: “I believe that when you hire police officers or a fireman that they have no choice in who (sic) they serve.” . A close reading of the bill suggests that its impact on public safety is the least of its problems. Kansas is not, of course, alone. Bills in Ohio, Mississippi, Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma permit people to assert religious freedom defenses if sued by gays whom they refused to serve.

Bigotry is not restricted to legislatures. U.S. News and World Report had a picture of E.W. Jackson, a former candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia, addressing a group of demonstrators in front of the federal courthouse in Norfolk, Virginia. He was lamenting the fact that a federal judge had struck down Virginia’s law banning same sex marriage. Mr. Jackson is black and an enthusiastic supporter of laws that discriminate against gays. He probably is too young to remember when Virginia said it would have been a felony for Mr. Jackson to marry a white woman. Had he done so he and his wife could have been sentenced to prison for up to five years.

Ted Cruz, the United States’ answer to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has introduced a bill in the United States Senate to permit states to define marriage any way they see fit. As Mr. Cruz explained, the bill “respects the definition of marriage held by the people of each state and protects states from the federal government’s efforts to force any other definition upon them.” Mr. Cruz does not think the U.S. Constitution should keep people from discriminating against their citizens if that’s what a majority of their citizens want. Kind of the way Virginia did it before the U.S. Supreme Court said blacks could marry anyone they wanted to marry. Mr. Cruz would probably have opposed ending the ban. He’s for what he believes even if it tramples on a minority-kind of like presidents Goodluck, Museveni, and Putin.