The Tragedy of Living to Learn You Were Right

In December of 1977, in only his second year on the United States Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion in the case of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Harry Mimms.  Now, 95-years-old and five years retired from the bench, Justice Stevens must watch his predictions unfold with tragic consequences.  His inability to convince two more of his colleagues to support his dissent four decades ago, literally killed Sandra Bland this month at a jail in Texas.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the case of Ms. Bland, tSandra_Blandhis is her.

Or rather, this was her, until she was pulled over by an officer in Texas two weeks ago, for failure to signal a lane change, forced to exit her vehicle under threat of violence, arrested, held on $5,000 bond, before eventually asphyxiating to death in her prison cell.

How does that happen?  How does a routine stop where no crimes were committed turn into an innocent young woman dying alone in a cell?

To answer that question, we turn to Justice John Paul Stevens.  Back in 1977, when the Supreme Court was faced with question of whether a police officer can order a driver out of a vehicle during a routine traffic stop without violating the law against unreasonable search and seizures, Justice Stevens was one of only three judges who seemed to think this was a bad idea.

Justice Stevens was absolutely right when he told his colleagues:

“The Court cannot seriously believe that the risk to the arresting officer is so universal that his safety is always a reasonable justification for ordering a driver out of his car. The commuter on his way home to dinner, the parent driving children to school, the tourist circling the Capitol, or the family on a Sunday afternoon outing hardly pose the same threat as a driver curbed after a high-speed chase through a high-crime area late at night.”

He was eloquent in warning us that:

“A woman stopped at night may fear for her own safety”

And he was without a doubt aware even in the 1970’s that a:

“Driver who presents no possible threat of violence may regard the police command as nothing more than an arrogant and unnecessary display of authority.”

Justice Stevens knew that there had to be some limit to what an officer can order an innocent citizen to do.  Some restraint or, “guarantee against arbitrary harassment.”  But on that day in 1977 he could not convince 2 more white men that he was right.  Because he could not do that, there is no such guarantee.  Arbitrary harassment by police officers is the rule of the day, and when people reach the limit of their indignity, some collapse under the weight.  Some take their own life.

And in this case, as in the thousands more, documented and undocumented stops police perform every day, this indignity is rationed out not based on sound principals of policing – instead it is delivered to those who can least afford to defend themselves.  Justice Stevens knew the poisoned fruit these seeds would grow and now that fruit has grown ripe throughout our nation.

His final argument echos hallow in the halls of American justice.

“To eliminate any requirement that an officer be able to explain the reasons for his actions signals an abandonment of effective judicial supervision of this kind of seizure and leaves police discretion utterly without limits. Some citizens will be subjected to this minor indignity while others—perhaps those with more expensive cars, or different bumper stickers, or different-colored skin—may escape it entirely.”

And so ends another night where I am ashamed of my fellow Americans for their failure to heed the warnings of wise and the kind-hearted.  Another night where I am ashamed of our inhumanity to man. Perhaps as he sits on his porch in Florida, drinking another bitter glass of lemonade under the shade of his porch, Justice Stevens shares in my shame on behalf of us all.

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Ending Homelessness in New York State

So, I have an idea to end homelessness in my state at 0 net cost to taxpayers.

This sounds ridiculous I know, but if you follow along, I think it turns out to be actually doable.  You can stop fake laughing now.

I will need help to go from “idea” to “plan” (right now it’s like 12% of a plan).

Here’s the basic outline:

Recent estimates put the homeless total for New York State at roughly 77,000.  Of these, there are maybe 17,000 outside of New York City – we should start with them, since NYC gets complicated.   The state has statistics on all of these folks and whether they live alone or as part of family, their estimated ages etc.  It’s reasonable to assume that if you are homeless you qualify for financial assistance from the state (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare), food stamps, etc).  Let’s ballpark that assistance at $800 per month.

There is a recent trend among hipster minimalists towards “tiny homes.”  These are basically solar powered single person units that can be built on trailers.  Here is an  Example of a Tiny Home in Upstate NY.  Homes like this cost (for a high end model) about $40,000 from stem to stern.

Also, the nice people at Tesla have come up with a game changer:  a solar battery cell for homes.  This can allow a solar home to run even after sunset without being hooked into the town grid.

Given that this is New York, and we can expect some rough winters, we also need to account for that, and one dual purpose option is the Solar Roadway being developed right now.  The basic concept is, these suckers generate heat, melting the snow, and also generating power the development.

Then, let’s look at transportation challenges faced by the extremely poor.  There is a new concept car scheduled to roll out in early 2016 called the Elio.  This car is an 84mpg trike, that costs $6,800.

We also have to consider the cost of hooking up the community to water and sewer, as well as having a fully functional health home on site [think primary care doctor, emergency services, mental health center and substance abuse treatment co-located in a single building].

Lastly, there would be the extra benefits of a planned community: community gardens scaled to the size of population, shared solar powered laundry facilities, a free for residents wi-fi hub.

I would have to do the square footage math to get an idea of how much land such an endeavor would take.  But let’s assume that you can get 83 acres for $250,000 (in Sullivan County).  That’s about $3,000 per acre, which seems reasonable.  Assume a home needs about an acre to be comfortable.

All together, we are talking at most, $60,000 per unit for land, vehicle, home and extras.  $60,000 per unit X 17,000 units is roughly one billion dollars.  Now, I know that seems like a lot of money.  But, think about what you get for that: 17,000 people in safe, energy efficient, easy to maintain housing, living in a community that has all the supports they might need.

But it gets better.  We do not do this program as a grant, out of the goodness of our hearts.  We do it as a loan.  So, as each unit fills up, the occupant signs off $200 per month (plus inflation) of their welfare benefits towards the cost of the property (or if they get work, $200 of their wages).   At that rate, in 25 years, the entire community is paid for lock stock and barrel.

Admittedly, this still leaves all the NYC nut to crack.  But, if it works, maybe those city homeless consider becoming rural New York residents.

Also, there may be education needs: 17,000 people is a big size, enough to anticipate some school age residents – but if that is the case, we can lease a space to a charter school – I have to imagine there are already some incredible education grants for schools whose entire population is below the poverty line.

So send me your thoughts.  If you want to help me with the formal planning, volunteer some time.  I think we can do this.