Sledgehammers, Shopping Carts, Flight Tickets, and Nutter

In a series of shocking displays that can be described as nothing short of bizarre, Democratic State Representative Tom Brower has recently undertaken an aggressive personal crusade against the epidemic of homelessness that has come to ravage his home state of Hawaii.  The disgruntled public official has taken to patrolling his district of Waikiki-Ala Moana, armed with a sledgehammer, which he uses to forcefully destroy shopping carts that have been left behind by members of the local homeless population.  Brower was apparently driven to take matters into his own hands amid the region’s escalating epidemic of homelessness, attempting to clean up one of the neighborhood’s “biggest eyesores” (as he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser): the remnants of vagabonds’ castaway luggage carriers.  While one can only surmise as to how effective the act of lashing out against an inanimate symbol of desolate poverty could be, the practice of attacking the symptoms of destitution–rather than the root cause–seems to have caught on among politicians from various other cities across the United States.

Brower (nicknamed the “Evil Miley Cyrus“) also admits to frequently waking up any sleeping vagrants that he finds lounging about throughout the city, bellowing orders such as, “Get your ass moving!” in an attempt to clear them off the streets.  Ironically, however, Brower insists that he never disturbs sleeping have-nots during nighttime hours, out of respect for their circumstances.  And there is quite a set of circumstances to be taken into consideration on Oahu, indeed: between 2005-2007, the homeless population of the island increased by a staggering 28.6% [1].  Homelessness is certainly becoming an urgent problem in Hawaii, and Brower’s measures are not the only actions that have been taken by government officials in an attempt to counteract the epidemic.

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Another doomed attempt to combat the rapid increase in Hawaiian homelessness is scheduled to debut itself during Hawaii’s fiscal year of 2014.  Entitled the “Return to Home” program, this new government initiative will be providing one-way airline tickets to select destitute individuals, flying them back to the United States mainland in the hopes of reducing the island state’s population of more than 17,000 homeless people.  Critics say that the program could create the illusion to those seeking to take advantage of it that there will always be a guaranteed flight back to the continental U.S. waiting for them in the event that it becomes necessary to leave the island, but supporters of this new provision argue otherwise.  According to the project’s enthusiasts, only as many as 100 people per year will be eligible to participate in it, limiting the potential for its services to be taken advantage of. [2]

Similar methods of dealing with socio-economic challenges such as these have been observed recently in other American cities, as well.  In New York City, the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg has on occasion utilized a program which is not unlike Hawaii’s upcoming “Return to Home” program in order to combat its own epidemic of homelessness.  From 2007-2009, the city paid for the airline flights of 550 struggling families with the intention of aiding them in making their pilgrimage elsewhere, all in the hopes that they might settle down and live more comfortably in some other part of the world.  New York City’s Department of Homeless Services is in charge of coordinating these assisted excursions, whose annual expenses consume roughly $500,000 of the city’s yearly budget.   Supporters of the initiative extoll that the program is far more affordable than the alternative option, which is to provide housing for these families through the city’s system of homeless shelters at an annual cost of approximately $36,000 per family.  Apparently, it is simply cheaper for the city to send such disparate people elsewhere and forget about them entirely, showcasing yet another depiction of the government’s recent inclination to address merely the symptoms of debilitating poverty (in this case with the intention of saving city money), rather than remedying its underlying causes. [3]

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In Philadelphia, the so-called “City of Brotherly Love,” neither shopping carts, nor homeless individuals themselves have become the focus of such eradication efforts by local officials.  Instead, the city’s own destitution crisis has prompted an attempt at a different sort of extrication, altogether.  In March of 2012, the city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, announced that a ban on the feeding of homeless people would soon go into effect at any of the city’s outdoor locations that generally draws a high level of pedestrian traffic.  Unconvincingly citing sanitation issues and a concern for the individual dignity of those receiving the food donations as being the primary motivation for passing the ban, Nutter declared:

“Providing to those who are hungry must not be about opening the car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.” [4]

He went on to insist that every individual deserves the right to eat a proper meal in a comfortable, indoor setting, a belief which he proceeded to reiterate in numerous interviews:

“My motivation is not to exclude anyone.  I want a hungry person in need to know they can go to a clean, dry place.” [5]
The mayor’s spokespeople echoed similar sentiments, among them, Mark MacDonald, who spoke with USA Today on behalf of Nutter, claiming that the ban was aiming to force the homeless to go indoors to eat their meals in the hopes that they might become subjected to other health services (or so he alleged):
“This is about an activity on city park land that the mayor thinks is better suited elsewhere.  We think it’s a much more dignified place to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant…The overarching policy goal of the mayor is based on a belief that hungry people deserve something more than getting a ham sandwich out on the side of the street.” [6]
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At no point did Nutter or his representatives address the point that few individuals, if any, would rather starve on the street than eat a much-needed meal in an outdoor environment.  Nor did they offer to provide an indoor dining environment for the homeless, despite being so seemingly passionate about this detail.  This is comparable to the fact that at no point did Rep. Tom Brower address the fact that lashing out against shopping carts (or any other artifact common among the poor) would have absolutely no impact on reducing Hawaiian poverty levels.  Regardless of the empty gestures committed in either case, or by either of the two ultimately powerless political saps, the obvious truth of the matter remains unchangeable: homelessness doesn’t cease to exist simply because one of its many physical symptoms goes under attack from some desperate politician.  No individual or group of individuals can reduce the level of destitution in society simply by destroying a vagabond’s shopping cart, or by forcing him to eat indoors, or by purchasing him a plane ticket to some other faraway place–doing so may at most conceal some of the more obvious aspects of the economic suffering of a society, if even that.

While the outwardly freakish wrath being wielded by Rep. Tom Brower against both inanimate objects and the sleeping impoverished alike is simultaneously alarming, comical, and ultimately pathetic, the underlying motivation behind such outbursts is actually a relatively common theme among politicians nowadays.  Powerless to prevent the onward march of society towards escalating poverty and economic despair as the financial climate of the 21st century continues its downward spiral, desperate politicians like Brower, Bloomberg, and Nutter can only be expected to continue to do what is typical of elected officials in such times of social distress: lash out by passing laws, all of which are enforced with violence.

Whether on a scale of pitifully-channeled, simple-minded, and childish aggression directed toward an inanimate object–such as in Brower’s case–or in a more complex and sophisticated manner, involving the ill-conceived redistribution of wealth (as has been exhibited by Bloomberg and Nutter), politicians inevitably have only one card available for them to play: the use of force.  And (as has been demonstrated so conveniently by the outcome of Brower’s tantrums) beating a misplaced shopping cart with a sledgehammer does nothing to alter society’s level of poverty–if anything, it only makes the vagabond with little else to carry his cargo around in even poorer than he had been to start with.  Neither of these scenarios differs from one another with any measure of significance, in that respect.  Poverty is poverty, and force is force, and politicians are ultimately powerless to treat even the symptoms of poverty through such brutish means.  And if they are so unable to treat even the very symptoms of destitution, how could they ever possibly hope to cure the root cause of the condition itself–whether they choose to brandish either a sledgehammer or a scrawled edict to aid in the attempt?

Sources:

  1. N/A. “Hawaii lawmaker wages campaign against the homeless and their belongings with sledgehammer.”  Russia Today.  19 Nov. 2013. http://rt.com/usa/hawaii-sledgehammer-homeless-possessions-986/
  2. Wing, Nick.  “Hawaii ‘Return To Home’ Program Will Pay To Fly Homeless To The Mainland.”  Huffington Post.  25 Jul. 2013.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/25/hawaii-return-to-home-homeless_n_3653498.html
  3. Bosman, Julie.  “City Aids Homeless With One-Way Tickets Home.”  New York Times.  28 Jul. 2009.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/nyregion/29oneway.html?_r=1&
  4. Dunn, Mike.  Hunter, Walt.  “City To Ban Street-Corner Feedings Of Homeless.”  CBS Philadelphia.  14 Mar. 2012.  http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2012/03/14/nutter-announces-ban-on-outdoor-feeding-of-homeless/
  5. Hill, Miriam.  “End to feeding homeless in city parks?”  Philly.com.  14 Mar. 2012.  http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/heardinthehall/publicfeeding.html?c=r
  6. Pearce, Matt.  “Homeless feeding bans: Well-meaning policy or war on the poor?”  11 Jun. 2012.  http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/11/nation/la-na-nn-homeless-feeding-bans-20120611

The Latest Trials and Tribulations of Activist Rich Paul, Modern Folk Hero

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Activist Rich Paul, Outside of the Cheshire County Courthouse

The remarkable story of jailed New Hampshire marijuana activist Rich Paul has become widely shared and justifiably celebrated in the past year or so since his troubles with the state first began. His story has been diligently covered by a variety of both major and independent news and blog sites, and was most notably featured not just once, but twice among the outlandish and eye-catching stories of the tremendously-popular VICE media group, which could arguably be nicknamed the “front page of the internet.” After refusing to accept the state’s bribes in exchange for pleading guilty to charges of drug trafficking, the heroic activist (who first gained notoriety after starting the public marijuana “4:20 rallies” in New Hampshire) turned down offers of shorter jail-time and other lesser sentences in order to stick to his principles. In fact, he even went so far as to refuse the final plea deal that was offered to him on the day before his trial proceedings began, which would have resulted in his having to spend absolutely no time in jail and an immediate sentencing for an extended period of probation instead. However, selling his own morals out in such a slippery manner and admitting guilt for a peaceful act that had ultimately been his own choice (and which had left no victims in its wake) would have been utterly unthinkable for someone as principled and true to himself as Rich Paul.

(As a side note: I will from here-on continue to refer to him as “Rich,” due to our status as friends who operate on a first-name basis, and because it would seem weird to refer to him as “Paul” or “Rich Paul” for the rest of this article.  Also, I don’t think he’d like it if I did.)

On the contrary, wrongfully condemning oneself to admitting false guilt for having committed an act that is only considered criminal in the eyes of a morally-bankrupt and predatory organization such as the state would have been far more damning for any truly honest person than whatever sentence could be delivered by robe-wearing men in positions of judicial “authority.” Rich is indeed so hardcore about his beliefs that he was willing to risk a sentence of up to 81 years in prison in order to stand up for his actions–and all just for selling medically-harmless products to those who willingly wanted to buy them from him. Since the very beginning of his struggles with the state, he has refused to cooperate with authorities or betray either himself or his associates, even when he was threatened and bribed by FBI agents to wear a microphone into an establishment formerly-known as the Keene Activist Center.  At the time, the “KAC” had been a regular gathering place where a noteworthy group of New Hampshire-based libertarians engaged in social functions of an exclusively peaceful nature.  Unfortunately, the KAC came to find itself under official speculation due to the anti-establishment viewpoints of its members, but the investigation seems to have fizzled out following Rich’s refusal to participate in it.

Rich has remained incarcerated since April 18th, 2013, and is serving his time in the Cheshire County House of Corrections for five drug-related felony charges for which he was sentenced on June 7th (including one conviction for a piece of paper, wrongfully presumed to contain LSD).  However, Rich and his countless supporters argue that his actions never hurt anyone in the first place. His courageous determination to stand up to the unjust drug laws that so many across the nation are beginning to find the courage to speak out against makes him deserving of any drug war activist’s moral support.  However, I should note that my recent investigations into Rich’s well-being have only revealed that he needs support from the activist community now more than ever.

Rich has recently been denied access to the jail’s freshly-enacted “partial release” program by the facility’s superintendent, Richard Van Wickler.  The program was first introduced to the jail’s “eligible” inmates on September 26, 2013, allegedly with the intent to allow prisoners to leave the grounds for extended periods of time.  Under the condition that participants in the program pay $20 a day to wear a bracelet that acts as a tracking device that monitors their every move, those who are approved for the experimental approach to “correction” receive more preferable experiences than simply sitting in jail cells for the duration of their sentences.  However, in the almost two months since the policy was brought into existence at the jail, only a few inmates have ever been approved by Van Wickler (the man who holds the ultimate say over which prisoners are granted access to the program). One such individual, despite having been convicted of embezzlement–a far more serious crime, and one which establishes a very clearly identifiable victim, unlike in that of Rich’s case–was approved for partial release by Van Wickler, but later ultimately denied the grant by the local prosecutor. Van Wickler’s sole justification for letting a thief go, rather than a peaceful merchant, was as follows: “I just don’t think that he [Rich Paul] will stay out of jail.”  It is also interesting to note that among those who have been approved for the program is a fellow marijuana convict.  But such is often the logic used in a system where personal pull holds more sway than honest and upright justice, in terms of right and wrong.

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Rich in Action with His Now-Infamous Bullhorn

Following his incarceration, Rich began composing a motion to be presented before the courts as an argument that he was deserving of either a home confinement sentence (rather than outright jail-time), or of being let out on the terms of a work release program.  Shortly after being taken into custody, his progress on the motion was cut short after his keyboard privileges were suddenly denied on the grounds that other inmates in the past had abused such privileges. It was not until Rich was transferred to a new cell block that he regained the use of a keyboard through what seems to have been little more than a bureaucratic clerical error that worked in his favor.  Upon its completion, the motion and its accompanying collection of information were presented to the court by friend and fellow activist Ian Freeman (founder of FreeKeene.com, a website for which Rich has remained an active contributor, even during his time spent in jail).  The accompanying selection of facts that was submitted with the motion included over 170 pages of marijuana facts and statistics, in addition to the deeply moving and detailed statements Rich had penned in order to address both his existential innocence and personal suffering as a result of having been wrongfully caged for a victimless act.  The motion presented four requests to the courts that could possibly have been granted to him: that he either be released early as a result of the time he had already served, that he be granted home confinement in the event that he were to be denied his request for early release, that he be granted work release in the event that he was denied the request for home confinement, or finally, that he be granted a hearing on the matter if all else had failed.  Both the prosecutor and the judge granted Rich access to either a home confinement or work release program, but superintendent Van Wickler denied him both.

As a result, Rich’s only remaining option is to stay in jail until his upcoming release date, which will be determined by an executive decision based on his “good time” spent in jail. His only other option for an early release would have been a bail motion, which has been denied by the Supreme Court.  Hopefully, the Supreme Court will overturn his conviction during the appeal process (which will begin in January), a decision which may take up to two months before being made.  During the appeal proceedings, Rich’s best hope lies in New Hampshire’s unique and groundbreaking new state law, which authorizes defense attorneys to explain the legal process known as “jury nullification” to members of a jury during the actual court proceedings.  Jury nullification is the avenue through which jurors are legally permitted to determine the outcome of a case, based not only on its facts and circumstances, but also upon their own consciences regarding the very nature of the law itself: it gives individuals the ability to vote “not guilty” on behalf of individuals who are being tried for breaking a law that is altogether immoral.

Ultimately, if even one juror in Rich’s case were to vote “not guilty,” (despite whatever evidence might exist that could legally incriminate him) simply because they felt that marijuana prohibition is wrong as a practice altogether, Rich would legally have to be found innocent.  No other state has ever allowed such an important aspect of the justice system to be clarified in a courtroom before members of a jury, despite the complete legality of the procedure.  In fact, many states have attempted (often successfully) to prosecute jury rights activists for jury tampering upon becoming aware of efforts to educate individual jurors about their rights to vote their conscience during the trial process.

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Friends and Supporters Conduct Jury Nullification Outreach for Rich

Until that time comes, however, Rich has remained active, despite his incarceration.  During the course of his time spent in captivity within the Cheshire County House of Corrections (which has been pseudo-affectionately nicknamed the “Keene Spiritual Retreat” by fellow liberty activists), Rich has made efforts to maintain contact with the outside world as a content contributor for the aforementioned website “Free Keene.”  Blogging from time to time about the atrocities he has been forced to undergo throughout the duration of his involuntary stay in the facility, he has certainly shed some light onto the struggles of incarcerated victims of the drug war.  However, Rich and others now suspect that his honest and damning portrayals of the ugly realities of everyday cell-block life might be contributing to the recently-escalating levels of disdain and contempt with which he has been treated as of late.  Since publishing such gut-wrenching articles as, ” ‘House of Corrections’ is House of Horrors for Mentally Ill,” Rich has begun to find himself more and more frequently on the receiving end of a flurry of minor behavioral write-ups, which ultimately could add up to some less-than-trivial consequences.

Another factor in what might ultimately be a case of outright discrimination against Rich by his jailors for political or personal reasons could be his ongoing insistence that he be permitted to exercise his legally-protected religious freedoms.  Rich has repeatedly requested to meet with a clergy member of his faith and personal choice, but has been denied these requests by those holding the keys to his cell.  Following Ian Freeman’s decision to establish the duplex he calls home (which also houses the studio where he records his nightly talk-show, “Free Talk Live,”) as a parsonage for the newly-established Shire Free Church, Rich attempted to receive clergy visits from its ministers.  Van Wickler denied Rich’s requests to approve Wendy French, Freeman himself, or any other member of the Shire Free Church as Rich’s designated religious confidant.  Rich’s main point of contention with Van Wickler’s decision is that it violates his 1st Amendment right to practice the religion of his choice.  Furthermore, Van Wickler has accused the Shire Free Church of having established itself as a religious organization in order to become a so-called “Trojan horse,” attempting to enable its members to gain entry to the jail.  The superintendent has since prohibited henceforth any and all members of the Shire Free Church from receiving a “clergy” approval on his behalf.

The ultimate result of these varying factors is as follows, and could potentially lead to some rather dire consequences in terms of Rich’s maintenance of his “good time,” as well as his track record for personal conduct during his time spent at the correctional facility.  In a worst-case scenario, Rich’s release date could potentially come to be delayed as a result of repeated disciplinary offenses. Presently, both he and those close to him will continue to remain in a state of tension until his long-awaited release, which will hopefully fall between the dates of December 12th-17th, as long as everything goes according to schedule.

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Rich During A Previous Arrest for His Activism

During the course of his imprisonment, Rich has been written up a total of six times for various insignificant, petty, and downright cruel reasons.  Each of these six write-ups has resulted in an individual penalty of having his visitation privileges suspended for a full week.  As a result of these seemingly-minor disciplinary actions, Rich has already lost six weeks of visitation time during the course of the seven months he has already spent behind bars.  That’s a month and a half’s worth of time during which he has been denied access to any trusted companionship.  He has had to spend forty-two days alone, locked inside of a cage that comprises just one cell of a gigantic kennel that has been built by the government to contain countless more human beings just like Rich as captives, and far too many for victimless crimes.  It could even be argued that this is a violation of the 8th Amendment’s protections against the use of cruel and unusual punishment, although little can be done at this point to further pursue the matter.

One incident that resulted in such a write-up came about when Rich was asked by another inmate why he was no longer on duty pushing carts to transport items around the jail complex.  When he responded that it was due to a guard’s personal issues with Rich, the guard in question revealed that he had been eavesdropping on the two’s conversation, and subsequently wrote him up for purely personal reasons.  Another incident that could serve to trigger similar trepidations about the true motives for why Rich has been dealt such penalties came about when he was cited for, “exercising on the second deck,” after having absent-mindedly paced the length of four cell-doors’-worth of distance along the jail’s upper level.  Before he could even realize that he had broken any rules, he had already been slapped with the written penalty.  A punishment that was similarly trivial in nature resulted when he was unexpectedly awakened at 5AM to serve a previously-unannounced shift in the jail’s kitchen and was issued another week’s worth of isolation due to, “not moving fast enough,” upon first waking.

Perhaps most outrageous of them all, however, is the citation he most recently received for poor hygiene in the form of wearing “smelly shoes.”  Because of the fact that only the jail is permitted to provide prisoners with their footwear, Rich has repeatedly begged the corrections officers to grant him a fresh pair, yet no initiative was ever taken on the part of the jail’s staff to grant him his conscientious requests.  Needless to say, he has since been granted new shoes by the jail, despite having received them too little, too late, and has again been forced to spend an entire week without any outside visitors, in addition to being issued yet another negative mark on his record of personal behavior.

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Cheshire County House of Corrections

Until December 12th-17th (the tentative dates of his release before his appeal trial begins sometime in January of 2014), the only thing that Rich can do right now is to try to bide his time and keep himself out of trouble as much as possible.  Hopefully this will be a possibility for him.  Despite finding himself in a scenario that is so unfairly rigged against him, the best he can hope for is that his record will continue to remain free of too many disciplinary issues and be released according to schedule.  Rich’s birthday is on December 5th, so any cards or messages (or other forms of contact) would be greatly appreciated to help ease the loneliness of spending his birthday in a cage.  Contact information detailing where to send cards and letters, as well as various other means of contact and donations, can be found listed below.  With the best of circumstances and some lucky factors, Rich will be released into the waiting arms of his friends, loved ones, and fellow activists sometime within the next month.

Rich is presently in immediate need of housing provisions for when he is released from jail, preferably within the region of Manchester, New Hampshire.  Anyone who might be able to provide a hero like Rich with a place to stay should reach out to him as soon as possible through one of the contact methods listed below.  Unfortunately, he will likely find himself on probation for up to three years, during which time any residence in which he stays may become subject to random searches by probation officers who seek to keep people like Rich in cages.  As a result, such a risk has made the process of arranging a personal sanctuary for himself to reside once he has been released rather difficult.  He will also be in desperate need of legally-verifiable employment, and any potential leads in that department would also be greatly appreciated at this time, especially given his unfortunate acquisition of felony charges.

Anyone wishing to contact him can find the information necessary for doing so below.  Rich and his friends, loved ones, fellow activists, and followers (including myself) thank you for any and all of your help and support during this difficult time.  Please wish him the best, and reach out to him in any ways that you can if you find the time.  He needs your support, and it’s lonely where he’s being held prisoner right now, so don’t hesitate to drop him a line.  Your gestures will be appreciated far more than you could ever realize, and there is never too much contact with the outside world for someone who is wrongly kept locked inside of a jail cell.

***Note:  Securus Technologies is offering a “holiday special” for at-home visits on their website (link below).  With Rich’s birthday coming up, this is an excellent opportunity to pay him a birthday visit!***

Rich Paul’s Contact/Donation Information:

  • Electronic Donations can be made at: http://www.gofundme.com/RichPaul
  • Letters and other additional donations can be sent via the MailToJail service at http://www.mailtojail.com
  • Personal checks may be made out to Rich Paul and mailed to: Wendy French, 73 Leverett Street, Keene, NH 03431
  • To write to him via traditional “snail-mail,” send addressed envelopes to: Rich Paul, c/o The C.C. H.o.C. , #825 Marlboro Road, Keene NH 03431
  • To schedule an in-person visit, please set up an “on-site video service” account with Securus Technologies at: http://www.securustech.net
  • Anyone who would like to visit, but is unable, and would instead prefer to call Rich can set up an “Advanced Connect” account with Securus Technologies at the website listed above.  Fees may vary.