Our Holy Father said recently that “NATO has barked at Russia’s door” and “perhaps facilitated” Russia’s “reacting badly and unleashing the conflict in Ukraine.”
The Wall Street Journal took stern exception to this statement, in a staff editorial. The WSJ editors write:
Since the invasion, Francis has called for an end to the war and criticized the violence, but he hasn’t directly called out Russia for starting the conflict. Now that he finally speaks, he blames NATO for accepting members that want to avoid being invaded by Russia. What a terrible moral signal to send to dictators.
My eighth-grade social-studies class had an enterprising teacher. Very enterprising. My parents trusted him, and they trusted 12 1/2-year-old me. So I got to join a student group that traveled for eight days in the Soviet Union, in March 1983.
The Cold War was in its waning days, but no one knew it yet. The U.S.S.R. was the enemy; Russia was a strange and sinister nation of unintelligible commies. That is, until I learned: they have churches and subways and stuff, just like we do in Washington, D.C. They have poems and books. And their strange alphabet isn’t so different from ours, really.
As I remember, there were about twenty of us on the trip: ten or so eighth-graders, a bunch of high-school students who also tagged along, and our teacher and his wife as chaperones.
We flew on Pan Am from Washington, to New York, to Helsinki, Finland, to Moscow. After a few days in the grimy capital, we took a night train to Kiev, now commonly called Kyiv. (We gained an hour that night, I believe, crossing from GMT+3 backward to GMT+2.) After a couple days in ‘the Ukraine,’ as it was called then, a then-‘Soviet republic,’ we flew by Aeroflot to what was known as Leningrad, the city of St. Petersburg, in western Russia.
In Moscow we stayed at what we came to call “the Cocmock,” the Cosmos Hotel.
Cosmos rendered in the Cyrillic alphabet is Kocmoc. As I mentioned, our agile young minds made quick work of deciphering the Russian letters: the Moscow streets near Red Square were lined with pectopah‘s and кафе‘s–restaurants and cafes.
We couldn’t visit those establishments, though. We had to make our peace with borscht three times a day in hotel cafeterias.
But as American tourists we had two privileges. The first was the assistance of a full-time Soviet handler. The second was a genuine privilege: We got to visit the historic churches, which Soviet citizens were then prohibited from entering.
We stood in line and saw Lenin in his tomb. We toured the Kremlin, and saw the dusty yet splendid chapels inside it. We even had a trip out to see Catherine the Great’s summer palace–also forbidden to Soviet citizens at the time.
We interacted with our Russian and Ukrainian peers, on both sanctioned and ‘unofficial’ occasions. The sanctioned meetings involved friendly chess matches in the Soviet after-school youth clubs, called “Frontier Scout” troops (which were co-ed).
The unsanctioned occasions involved handing over a Sony Walkman for a few moments, so that some Russian middle-schoolers could listen to the coveted Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette tape.
For that offense, some of us were detained by Moscow police for an hour.
Believe it or not, we had one free afternoon in Moscow, and I decided to ride the subway by myself, to take a second look at Red Square. My parents let me ride the Washington subway by myself at that age, and the Moscow system seemed quite similar. (The escalators traveled twice as fast, though, which was fun.)
When I didn’t have the correct change for the return trip to the hotel, a Muscovite commuter handed me the necessary kopecks with a kind smile. Central Moscow reminded me a lot of Manhattan (which I had seen a couple years earlier). It was just that in Moscow the citizens had to wait in long lines to buy new underwear or a loaf of bread.
In addition to learning to love borscht, we travelers admired the ubiquitous statues and posters of Lenin and ‘the noble Soviet worker.’
The sun never came out while we were in Moscow–just clouds and cold. But Kiev greeted us with fresh greenness, its hills covered with lush old trees. The churches there were homier, made of wood, rather than stone.
Then on to Leningrad. Majestic, with its classical buildings lining the iridescent river. We toured the Hermitage gallery, housed in the czar’s old Winter Palace. I fell in love with oil paintings of Christ.
And I remember weeping quietly when we visited the mass graves at the cemetery for the WWII siege of the city. Tens of thousands, dead from starvation, buried together in grassy fields, each marked by only one stone, indicating the year of death. 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944.
…A decade later, I went with some friends to the famous Veselka’s Ukrainian cafe, on the lower-East side in New York. Ukraine was newly liberated from the Soviet grasp then, in the early 90’s. Ebullience in the air, over the sauteed pirogis.
The Ukrainian Catholic seminary in Washington was right up the street from the one I went to, and I became good friends with one of the seminarians there. I had the privilege of concelebrating some Ukrainian-Catholic Masses when I was a newly ordained priest.
Some crucial ecclesiastical-history facts we need to know:
In 1590, a re-union of some Byzantine churches with Rome occurred in Brest, in what is now Belarus. This union was interpreted politically by Russians and many Ukrainians as an incursion of Polish/western control. But from our point-of-view, as (hopefully) genuine Catholics, the Union of Brest had a supernatural significance which was altogether good (see John 17).
Soviet premier Joseph Stalin did cruel things to the Ukraine before and after WWII. He starved almost 4 million Ukrainians to death. And he forcibly removed the Ukrainian Catholic Church from communion with Rome.
Vladimir Putin has justified this latest act of violence against Ukraine by claiming that Ukraine is not a real, independent nation. The irony there is: If Ukraine is not a real, independent nation, then neither is Russia.
It is true that the histories of the two nations have been intertwined from the days of Saints Cyril and Methodius, 1200 years ago. And it is true that Ukraine was part of the Russian empire before the advent of communism.
But, if you go back 1,000 years, the Ukrainians actually have more reason to say that Russia is a renegade part of Ukraine, than Russia has to say that Ukraine is a renegade part of Russia. Russian culture is a daughter of Ukrainian culture, not the other way around.
So, yes: This latest Russian invasion of Ukraine is merely the newest chapter in a centuries’-long book. But that doesn’t make it any less horrible.
The exploitation of raw power by an isolated autocrat, to try to subjugate an imaginary ‘threat’–who was actually just doing his thing, in good conscience–that has a familiar ring to me, in my own recent personal life.
May God deliver us all. Let’s pray hard. The Ukrainians do not deserve the misery they face. And the Russian people, for that matter, don’t deserve their particular misery, either.
May the Lord show His mighty Hand, to bring peace.
[This is Part III of the series of posts about the Rodney-King beating that I am doing in honor of my father, on the fifteenth anniversary of his death. Click for: Part I and Part II.]
On March 3, 1991, three Los Angeles police officers–under the supervision of a fourth–beat Mr. Rodney King with batons and kicked him.
King never fully recovered from the injuries he suffered.
George Holliday made a video of the beating, as he stood on his apartment balcony across the street. His video became world-famous. Holliday, however, was not the only witness from that building.
Another resident saw what happened from his balcony, and he also had a video camera in his apartment. But he thought of the camera too late and only managed to capture the aftermath of the beating. Other residents of the building just watched with horror from their balconies.
They were all shaken and disgusted by what they saw. All of them.
Last month, in the prosecution’s closing argument in the Derek Chauvin case, attorney Steve Schleicher spoke to the jury, who had seen multiple videos of George Floyd being killed. Schleicher said: “Believe your eyes.”
In 1992, prosecutor Terry White used the same words in his closing argument before the jury in Simi Valley, California. They had seen Holliday’s video.
“Believe your eyes,” White told them.
In Minneapolis last month, the jurors did believe their eyes, and they convicted the criminal of the crime. Three decades ago, however, the jurors did not convict, and riots ensued.
Why didn’t the jury convict the officers that assaulted Mr. King? What had happened during that trial in Simi Valley?
The California Appeal Court ordered the trial moved out of Los Angeles County. The new judge, Stanley Weisberg, chose the brand-new east-county courthouse in neighboring Ventura County. The idea was to find jurors less involved in Los-Angeles politics, and thereby more capable of impartiality.
The court asked whether the defendants could have received a trial by an impartial jury within Los Angeles when it should have asked whether the defendants could have received a trial by an impartial jury anywhere in the state. By not thinking what “impartial” meant in a situation like the Rodney King case, the Court of Appeal simply replaced the demographics, values, and prejudices of Los Angeles County by those of another place, which turned out to be Ventura, just over the county line.
Moving the trial from Los Angeles County to Ventura County influenced the outcome: it favored the defense. In fact, the venue change influenced the outcome so decisively that many observers came to regard it as the crucial fact for understanding the not-guilty verdict.
The federal government put the officers on trial a second time the following year. Wasn’t that “double jeopardy?” Our U.S. Constitution prohibits re-trying someone for the same crime a second time.
The American Civil Liberties Union has traditionally opposed any possible instance of double jeopardy. But the Southern-California chapter of the ACLU supported the second, federal trial anyway, on the grounds that the Simi Valley jury was not a true jury, because of the wrongful change of venue. Therefore the first trial was not really “jeopardy” for the officers. So the federal trial did not involve double jeopardy.
An interesting argument.
But the actual facts of the trial tell a different, more-complicated story. The change of venue did not, in and of itself, determine the outcome.
For one thing, the Simi Valley courthouse actually sat closer to the scene of the crime than the courthouse in downtown L.A. The beating took place in the suburbs.
Historians and legal scholars have lamented the absence of black jurors on the Simi-Valley jury. But there was never any guarantee that any black jurors would wind up in the jury box in L.A. county, either.
And, according to multiple accounts: Most, if not all, of the Simi Valley jurors showed up on Day One of the trial thinking that the four police officers were guilty of assault.
The jurors arrived thinking that because they had seen the videotape, just like most Americans had.
The videotape shows, with very little ambiguity, that officers Powell, Wind, and Briseno assaulted King for no good reason, and they did it under Koon’s supervision.
Not only that. Other evidence supported the conclusion that the officers had committed a crime. This evidence had found its way to the general public, before the trial started.
Officer Powell had, in a conversation with another officer earlier that evening, referred to blacks as “gorillas.”
After the beating, he sent a text message to the same officer: “Oops… I haven’t beat anyone that bad in a long time.”
After the arrest, Powell and Wind took King to the hospital, where nurses treated him for his extensive injuries. With nurses listening, Powell talked to his victim about Dodgers’ Stadium, then referred to the game of ‘hardball’ that they had just played.
In other words, additional damning evidence supported the idea that George Holliday had captured on film an accurate depiction of what had occurred. A group of thugs in uniform, legally carrying the weapons they used, beat a defenseless man nearly to death.
Now, King had indeed evaded a legitimate traffic stop–because he had violated his parole by speeding on the highway, and he panicked.
The thugs took the opportunity that situation presented, and they beat up a defenseless person, on the pretext that he did not immediately obey their commands. (King likely did not hear their commands at all; one of the parked squad cars had its siren blaring, and a police helicopter circled overhead.)
The officers had no doubt in their minds that they could get away with it. They held all the cards, after all.
Then, however, KTLA put Holliday’s video on air. The officers now found that they had to concoct an explanation for what everyone had seen with their own eyes. They had to come up with an alternate storyline, one that would keep them out of jail.
In the initial episode, they had brazenly beaten their victim. Now they proceeded brazenly to pull off a magnificent deception, all in accord with correct judicial procedure.
Sergeant Stacy Koon took the stand first, as the defense began to make its case in the Simi Valley courthouse, a year after the beating had occurred.
As Koon testified, he studiously avoided using the word “he” to refer to King. He repeated “Rodney King” over and over.
At one point in his testimony, Koon referred to King as a “bear” with super-human “Hulk-like” strength.
Referring to the parts of the videotape in which King writhes around on the ground under the officers’ baton blows, Koon never said that King “bent” his leg, he always said that King “cocked” his leg, like a gun.
(Koon’s attorney went on to say, in closing argument, that Rodney King appeared to the officers like “something out of a monster movie.”)
Koon told the jury that the officers had concluded that King was high on the street drug PCP (a psychoactive drug that had been popular in big cities in the mid-1980s). Koon held firm to this, even though PCP was never found in King’s system. The sergeant insisted to the jury: what mattered was, we thought he was high on PCP; we thought he was “dusted.”
The officers feared for their lives, Koon said. He then proceeded to regale the jurors with urban legends about PCP users. They can have a death grip. They can kill without remorse.
Then Koon told the jury that King attacked officer Laurence Powell.
(There was never any clear evidence of this.)
Rodney King had control of the situation, not us. If I hadn’t Tased him, I would have had to shoot him. If we hadn’t used our batons, we would have had to use our guns.
We were reacting appropriately, according to procedure, according to training. We had to subdue a dangerous ex-con. We had no choice.
Sergeant Koon took full responsibility for the actions of the subordinate officers, including the other three defendants. But Koon would not take responsibility for the beating captured on the the videotape.
Rodney King is responsible for what happened.
Koon did everything he could to project an air of professionalism. He emphasized his extensive experience and the wisdom he had gained over his years on the street. He explained the proper procedure for “escalation and de-escalation of force” in the course of making an arrest.
(Sergeant Koon went on to publish a book which argued that the LAPD’s prohibition of the “choke hold” caused the Rodney King beating.)
Koon got the jury to begin doubting their own eyes. As the jury forewoman, Dorothy Bailey, would later put it, in her memoir of the trial:
Sergeant Koon gave us a complete, detailed account of what happened. It was the first time that I had seriously considered the officers’ perceptions and their possible fears…
There’s no superhuman strength, because there’s no such thing as super-humans. Those exist in comic books.
–Steve Schleicher, talking about George Floyd in his closing argument last month, at the Derek Chauvin trial
[This is Part II of my series in honor of my dad, on the fifteenth anniversary of his death. Click HERE for Part I.]
During the midnight hour on Sunday, March 3, 1991, three Los Angeles patrol officers brutally beat a defenseless man. The three officers acted under the direction of a sergeant.
The officers’ names are: Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno. The sergeant was Stacey Koon. The defenseless man was Rodney Glenn King.
George Holliday made a video of the beating, from the balcony of his apartment across the street.
King had two passengers in the car with him. The police detained the passengers at the scene briefly, but then released them without taking them anywhere.
Holliday must have crossed the street and told the passengers–Rodney King’s friends–that he had videotaped the beating. One of the passengers told King’s brother, Paul, about the videotape.
The following day, both Paul King and George Holliday went to the police to report the unlawful beating. Paul King mentioned the videotape.
Both complaints were immediately filed as “requiring no further attention” by the LAPD. Holliday and Paul King knew they had been totally blown off.
So Holliday then took his videotape to KTLA, and within 36 hours the rest of America had seen the beating on the news.
For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). But a criminal forfeits that freedom and subjects him- or herself to compulsion. By lawful authority.
Rodney King had subjected himself to compulsion by lawful authority, in the midnight hour of Sunday, March 3.
A California Highway Patrol vehicle saw King’s Hyundai going 120 mph on the San Fernando Freeway. The officers tried to pull King over. He had a duty to obey, to stop on the shoulder. He did not do so. He led the officers, and other patrol cars that joined in pursuit, on an eight-mile chase.
By doing this, King apparently committed the crime of “felony evading.” (He was never charged for this, or any other crime.) When King finally pulled over, next to a park, the officers in pursuit identified the situation as a “high-risk stop.” Which means that they had the right, in the interest of their own safety, to order all the occupants of King’s car to get out with their hands up. King and his two friends had a duty to obey such an order.
At this point in the unfolding story, we reach the moment where we might question the way the officers tried to compel King and his passengers, under the color of lawful authority.
It apparently was the policy of both the California Highway Patrol and the LAPD, at “high-risk stops,” to order the motorist and passengers to lie down flat on the pavement, arms spread wide, face turned away from the approaching officer.
This was to allow for a relatively low-risk approach by the officer, to handcuff the motorist, and any passengers.
(Whether or not this policy of demanding a “prone position” has changed since 1991, I do not know.)
Granted, if you have led police officers on an eight-mile high-speed chase, I think we can say that you have forfeited your bodily freedom at least for the moment, and you must submit to handcuffing.
But ordering someone to lie down, prone on the asphalt, face turned away? Maybe that crosses a line out of the realm of officer safety and into the realm of undue humiliation?
Anyway, as a practical matter: At about 12:40am on March 3, 1991, Rodney King did not comply with the order to lie prone on the ground, and for good reason.
For one thing, King likely did not hear the order over the sound of the helicopter overhead. Secondly, he would have had trouble understanding the word “prone,” even if he did hear the order. Lastly, while he did get down on all fours, he did not appear able to lie the whole way down. Was it because he was too proud? Maybe. Was it because he was intoxicated and confused? Almost certainly.
King never made any violent action; he posed no threat. He never even directly evaded getting handcuffed. He was pretty clearly drunk and confused. And then suddenly he was in fear for his own life.
Officers Powell and Wind proceeded to beat King mercilessly with their metal batons. Officer Briseno kicked him. Sergeant Koon gave the orders.
As we mentioned, George Holliday captured it on tape. The overwhelming majority of the people who saw the tape in the ensuing days regarded the police officers’ actions as criminal.
According to two different polls, 90% of the residents of Los Angeles County saw Holliday’s videotape, and 92% of those who had seen it believed the officers had used excessive force. Eighty percent thought the officers had committed a crime.
The officers, in other words, put themselves into the position that Rodney King had put himself in, by speeding on the freeway and not pulling over. The officers made themselves subject to compulsion by lawful authority.
Lawful authority did not respond with violence this time, but with due process. An L.A.-County grand jury indicted the four officers for criminal assault.
Due process requires a fair trial. The long, hot summer of 1991 saw some stunning developments in the pre-trial business.
I don’t know who made the decision to try all four officers together. I don’t know if putting them on trial separately was ever even considered as an option.
The decision in Minneapolis last year to try Derek Chauvin separately from the other officers involved in George Floyd’s murder–that certainly seems like a wise decision, indeed.
The circumstances in L.A. three decades ago were different. Sergeant Koon never personally laid a hand on Rodney King. He did, however, order his officers to beat the defenseless man mercilessly.
I would say that putting all four officers on trial together proved to be the first, and probably greatest, of the prosecution’s mistakes. That is, if it was their mistake. Perhaps it was simply a fait accompli, for legal reasons I don’t understand.
By putting the officers on trial together, the prosecutors wound-up having to contend with four different, highly skilled defense lawyers. The defense ultimately managed to dominate the trial. If the officers had been tried separately, maybe that wouldn’t have happened.
The Superior Court of Los Angeles County assigned the case of People v. Powell et al. to Judge Bernard Kamins. (In California, the trial courts are called “Superior” courts.)
The defense immediately petitioned to have the trial moved outside of Los Angeles, on the grounds that the officers could not get a fair trial there.
At that time, Los Angeles County had 6.5 million eligible jurors. For the officers to have received a fair trial in that county, the court would have had to find twelve among those 6.5 million who could listen impartially to testimony and review evidence, leaving a final conclusion about guilt or innocence until the end.
Jurors must presume criminal defendants to be innocent of the charges against them, then wait to see or hear proof, proof that overcomes every reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt.
California law stipulates that a criminal trial should occur in the county where the crime took place, unless a compelling reason calls for a “change of venue.”
The defense argued that the daily news coverage of the event had “contaminated” the objectivity of the L.A.-County jury pool.
Judge Kamins concluded that this was not a compelling reason to move. Because: the same could be said about the jury pool in every county in California.
They simply could not conduct the trial in a county where the potential jurors would show up for duty not having heard about the case. No such county existed. Therefore, this was no reason to change the venue.
…As spring turned into summer, Judge Kamins became ever more eager to move the trial forward.
I don’t presume to know the judge’s mind, but what little I know about the steps he took lead me to see him as a humble, practical man. He recognized that the best thing for everyone involved was to move the trial forward as expeditiously as possible. But the judge’s humble practicality got him into trouble.
The defense insisted on a change of venue and appealed over Judge Kamin’s head, to the California Court of Appeal.
Kamins had set June 19 as the day to begin the trial. On June 12, the Appeal Court put an “indefinite stay” on moving forward with jury selection, until the higher court had considered the defense petition for a change of venue.
Kamins tried to negotiate his way out of the impasse by putting a possible change of venue back on the table for discussion by the parties. The judge communicated informally, departing from the strict rules that govern court communications. It seems clear that Kamins did this in order to get the trial moving sooner rather than later. But his effort backfired completely.
The defense petitioned to have Judge Kamins removed, on the grounds that his off-the-cuff communications had given the impression that he was partial to the prosecution.
In high summer 1991, the California Court of Appeal made two decisions that deserve to go down in infamy.
On July 23, the Appeal court unilaterally ordered a change of venue. That particular Appeal Court decision is known as Powell v. Superior Court.
In this decision, the Court of Appeal granted that the “media saturation” argument did not suffice to compel a move. But the Court of Appeal introduced another consideration: the contamination of the L.A.-County jury pool by political allegiances to either the mayor or the police chief.
A “coup,” so to speak–put into motion by the police commission, and backed by the mayor–had tried to oust Chief Gates. The City Council protected the chief, and the “coup” failed.
Neither the mayor nor the chief were directly involved in People v. Powell et al.
All other political issues in L.A. paled in significance to the trial itself. The allegiance of the citizens was not really to either Mayor Bradley or to Chief Darryl Gates. If either of those two gentlemen had suddenly moved to Tahiti, it would not have had anywhere near the political impact that the ultimate verdict of this trial would have.
The Appeal Court’s stated goal was to prevent the “average person on the street” from thinking the trial unfair. So, on August 21, in Briseno v. Superior Court, they removed Kamins from the case.
Fall arrived, and the Appeal Court’s two interventions had delayed the trial by six months. Courtroom testimony didn’t actually begin until a year after the beating. And that testimony unfolded in front of a Ventura-County jury that had not one single black person on it.
Ironically enough, it was the Appeal Court itself that managed to make the average person on the street start to think that things were not right, not fair, not above-board. Something rotten in the state of Denmark, as Hamlet put it.
He grew up in Washington, D.C., a fifth-generation native of the city. He became a lawyer and dedicated his whole career to urban land-use law. That is: the orderly growth and prosperity of his city.
When my father was working as a young lawyer, not long before I was born, Washington, D.C. erupted in riots. After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, the city burned.
This had a big impact on our family life. Some of my earliest memories involve driving around the damaged neighborhoods, my father explaining to my brother and me what had happened.
By my late teens, I knew the streets of Washington better than any cabbie. My seminary classmates at Catholic University had a game: They would look at a map of town and randomly name an intersection. I would then describe all the buildings located there, from memory.
I could do it because of love. My dad taught me that love.
I was a young man myself when Los Angeles, California, burned at the end of April and the beginning of May, 1992. My dad was still with us then. He had not yet suffered the debilitating stroke that would render him an invalid for the last decade of his life.
The LA riots were more brutal than the riots of the 60’s. On tv sets all over the world, people saw senseless beatings take place live.
In our home, we were stupefied with deep, crushing sadness. I have never been as profoundly upset as I was during those four or five days. We hardly slept; we spent most of the nights watching the news. The devil was dancing on the face of the earth.
The innocent blood of the dead in the streets stained my young, idealistic dreams. My dad had taught me to cultivate hope for American urban life and peace among races. The things that he stood for, the things for which he had dedicated his whole life–they lay broken in front of our eyes, like a shattered window on the asphalt.
One week ago today, on the other hand, things went differently. Like the jurors in People v. Powell et al. in 1992, the jurors in State v. Chauvin had seen a video. (In fact, in Minnesota, they had seen several videos.)
This time, the jurors believed their own eyes. They had seen a murder committed on video, so they reasonably proceeded to convict the murderer of the crime.
The prosecutors in State v. Chauvin had calmly and diligently made their case. They presented several credible eye-witnesses to the murder. They presented experts on the use of force by police. They testified that what Derek Chauvin had done was certainly wrong and criminal. The prosecutors presented medical experts who explained the cause of death; their testimony successfully removed any reasonable doubt that George Floyd died by homicide.
At the Chauvin trial, black witnesses and white witnesses spoke about Floyd as a human being. They spoke to a jury of Floyd’s peers, themselves willing to see Floyd as the human being that he was.
In other words, the prosecution in the Chauvin trial had a slam-dunk case, and they held the ball firmly in both hands and sprang towards the basket with the steady self-control of a well-trained athlete. They dunked the ball.
Chauvin is in jail, awaiting sentencing, and the world recognizes that justice has been done.
What happened thirty years ago was altogether different. I have reflected on this extensively, and I think I have identified one particular aspect of what happened in Los Angeles that we should try to understand now. This will take a few days, and a few posts, to get through, so bear with me as I try to lay out my thoughts.
Here comes Part I:
Cellphones existed in March of 1991, but they most certainly did not have cameras, and they were the size of a loaf of bread. The only person I knew with a cellphone then was my business-executive aunt. She kept the thing in her car, in a large leatherette pouch.
People did have camcorders in 1991. Portable hand-held video cameras that recorded on magnetic tapes.
Mr. George Holliday, who lived in the Monte Vista apartments on Foothill Boulevard, near the San Fernando Freeway, in Los Angeles, owned a new camcorder.
The sound of sirens and a helicopter awoke Holliday from his Saturday-night slumber at 12:45am on Sunday, March 3, 1991. He looked out his window and saw an arrest unfolding across the street. A large number of police officers had converged.
Holliday thought of his new video camera sitting by the tv in the living room, went to get it, and stepped out on his balcony to film what he saw. His 81-second videotape captured three LAPD officers–under the direction of a fourth–brutally beating a defenseless man.
There was no way to “upload” the video since a. it wasn’t digital and b. there was no internet to speak of at the time. Instead, Holliday took the tape to a local television station the following day. The station broadcast it on the evening news. By midnight Tuesday, every station in the Western world had broadcast the video.
People who saw the video spontaneously thought of the beating and scourging of the Lord Jesus by the Roman soldiers. In fact, when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, I wondered if he had staged the scourging scene to look like the Rodney King tape, because there are so many similarities in body movement by Jesus in the movie and King in the video.
In many communities, tv stations had to apologize for airing the Rodney King tape at times when children could have been watching. It caused nightmares. Watching the nine minutes of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd is sickening, but the brutality of the Rodney King beating is actually a great deal harder to endure, even though King did survive. That King survived was a miracle in and of itself, as was clear to everyone who watched Holliday’s video.
So, significant difference #1 between State v. Chauvin in 2021 and California v. Powell et al. in 1992:
In 1992, there was only one videotape. Over the course of the last month, the jury in Minnesota saw over twenty different videos, shot from different cameras. Over a dozen bystander cellphones, street security cameras, police body-cams.
When Rodney King got beaten, there was only the word of the people involved, the police reports which manifestly did not recount what had happened, and George Holliday’s video. (During the thirty hours between the incident and the public airing of the video, the officers did everything they could to cover up the beating.)
I don’t pretend to understand all the events that unfolded in the short-term aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year. I shared some thoughts at the time, but I don’t claim to have a comprehensive view.
On the other hand, I do have a pretty good understanding of what happened after the Holliday video became public in early March 1991.
The video presented compelling evidence of criminal police brutality. As a police-commission report put it, the following July: “All segments of society condemn the Rodney King beating.”
But the political situation in Los Angeles was far, far from stable. What was then known as “south-central” was a largely lawless world of gangland violence. The white police chief and black mayor were at odds. Chief Darryl Gates nonetheless acknowledged after seeing the Holliday tape that the officers should face prosecution for criminal assault with a deadly weapon.
Warren Christopher was a widely respected elder-statesman California lawyer. (He went on to become President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State.) He chaired a joint commission formed out of the two separate commissions that the feuding mayor and police chief formed. The joint commission became the “Christopher Commission.”
LAPD patrol cars in 1991 had a rudimentary form of text messaging called Mobile Digital Terminal communications, or MDTs. The Christopher Commission studied all the MDTs of the previous six months, as well as thousands of other records, and conducted interviews with hundreds of officers and citizens. The commission concluded:
There is a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repetitively use excessive force… Our computerized study of complaints filed in recent years shows a strong concentration of allegations against a problem group of officers. Graphic confirmation of improper attitudes and practices is provided by the brazen and extensive references to beatings in the MDTs. The problem is aggravated by racism…
The LAPD’s failure to analyze and act upon these revealing data evidences a significant breakdown in the management and leadership of the Department… The Department not only failed to deal with this problem group of officers but it often rewarded them with positive evaluations and promotions.
As Christopher put it, it was a “blunt” report. It clearly identified a serious problem of organizational racism. The report took for granted that the Rodney King beating involved a heinous crime.
Meanwhile, however, other wheels started turning in the exact opposite direction. The four charged officers began to mount their legal defense.
The officers would never acknowledge any personal wrongdoing. In the summer of ’91, the officers’ lawyers successfully impeached the impartiality of the first judge assigned to the case. He had refused a “change of venue” petition. The replacement judge then agreed to move the trial to a suburb. The criminal case would be tried in Simi Valley, Ventura County, a bedroom community for many LAPD officers. Meanwhile, all this legal wrangling consumed months of time.
In Simi Valley, the jury pool for the Rodney-King-beating trial consisted of predominantly white suburbanites. They finally reported for voir dire, to a brand-new county courthouse, in January 1992. The parking lot hadn’t even been fully paved. After the whittling down of candidates, the final jury panel did not include a single black person.
About a year ago, we Americans began to realize that the coronavirus would change our lives. On March 27, 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, with bipartisan unanimity. The president promptly signed it.
The CARES Act provided for–among other things–the Paycheck Protection Program. The federal government funded the PPP in order to help small businesses that needed cash in order to survive. The idea: Let’s keep small-business employees working and paid, even if revenue plummets.
The money would come in the form of a loan to cover two and one-half months of payroll. Uncle Sam would forgive the loan completely, if you used the money to pay employees, rent, utilities, or interest on a mortgage.
According to the Small Business Administration, tasked with administering the program, “small business” includes small non-profits.
Nearly each of the nation’s 17,000 parishes operates as its own non-profit… Under canon law, the assets of the parish are managed by the pastor and are not owned by the bishop.
The federal government agreed.
The finance office of our diocese guided our two parishes here in southwest Virginny through the application process. In a matter of weeks, both parishes had received the government funds. A total, as best I can recall, of about $40,000. (I no longer have access to the figures.)
Then, in a stunning turn of events, the CEO of that small non-profit 165 miles away unilaterally ordered the removal of the CEO of the two small non-profits in Rocky Mount and Martinsville. And the Richmond small non-profit CEO had all the locks re-keyed on the buildings owned by the small Rocky Mount and Martinsville non-profits.
A couple weeks ago, the Associated Press published the second of two comprehensive reports on Catholic use of PPP money. The Catholic Church in the United States holds at least $10 billion in cash or other immediately usable assets. Meanwhile, Catholic entities have received at least $3 billion of the federal aid money.
The report makes our Church look opportunistic and dishonest. (And that’s a nice way to put it.) So much so, in fact, that there likely will be a congressional investigation–and certainly should be, if there’s any justice for the American taxpayer.
Not that Catholic “small non-profit businesses” are the only institutions that seem to have abused the PPP. Far from it. But apparently we are the largest and most-egregious abuser of the program.
We have to ask, though: Do the Associated Press reports paint a fair picture? After all, we poor Catholics have suffered plenty of unfair press over the centuries here in the U.S. Non-Catholics tend to see our Church as some kind of monolith, while we on the inside know that it’s actually a large herd of cats.
To consider the fairness of the AP report, let’s break down the purpose of the PPP into it’s two parts. To fund the program, the federal government borrowed from our as-yet-unborn great-grandchildren in order to: save small businesses (1) from going under completely (2).
1. Is a Catholic parish a small non-profit?
As mentioned earlier, numerous Catholic writers have tried to explain away the Associated Press findings with this argument: It’s not one big company. The Catholic Church in the USA does not have one payroll. Even a diocese–its parishes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and charities: not one big company. They are each separate companies. Separate property, bank accounts, and employees to pay.
Problem is: That idea would come as a stunning surprise to the Catholic parishioners here in this little part of the world. They found themselves without a pastor, and locked out of their own buildings, all because of the unilateral decision of someone who–according to the “small non-profit” logic–has no direct connection with the two parishes. Only a relationship of “theological communion.” Somehow that “communion” managed to change the locks.
But that’s not the only example that gives the lie to the “small non-profit” logic. The bishop has unilateral hiring and firing authority over the vast majority of the CEOs of all the “small non-profits” in the diocese. He regularly compels the small non-profits to raise money and send it to him. The nursing homes of the diocese operate with a surplus of cash, and they provide a significant portion of the income necessary to run the operations at diocesan hq. In the middle of the last decade, the bishop compelled us priests and Catholic people to raise $100 million, a big portion of which has funded large diocesan endowments.
2. Did we need the federal aid money?
Last spring everyone trembled. In our parishes, we feared not being able to make payroll. At St. Joseph’s, that prospect became an imminent possibility. At St. Francis, the money we had in the bank could have held us for a year or two, before we totally ran out of money.
Under “normal” circumstances, that money in the bank at St. Francis should get used only for the specific purpose for which it was raised, just like the $140 million+ that the diocese and its associated foundation has.
The money in the bank at St. Francis should go to a building project. We had one planned and ready to move forward when the virus hit, as some of you dear readers remember. And the endowments the diocese has should be used for the specific purposes for which they were set up in the first place.
Should, that is, unless a catastrophic emergency occurs.
Our national treasury was already way empty. The USA already owed more money than any of us can really imagine in our little brains. But we faced a catastrophic emergency as a nation. Potential economic collapse threatened the survival of American small businesses. The US government took out another huge loan, with both political parties endorsing the move.
We Catholic “small non-profits” took $3 billion that small businesses in genuine danger could have had. We were never in real danger of going under. The Catholic Church in America has more than enough ready capital within its own institutions to support the parts of the Church that need it.
Our bishops have yet again brought us to the precipice of a crushing scandal. This time, though, it’s not too late to avoid the debilitating hit to the reputation of our Church.
Everyone panicked last spring. No one knew what the future would hold. It’s only with hindsight that we can see clearly: we wrongly padded our already-big Catholic bank accounts with money that should have gone elsewhere.
We can still give the money back. It’s not too late to do that.
Please, Excellencies. For once, let’s do what the average American will see as the right thing. Protect us rank-and-file Catholics from yet another faith-challenging embarrassment. Let’s give the $3 billion back to Uncle Sam.
Political Musings on the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade
Contemplating the events of the past month, or 10 years, or 48 years since Roe v. Wade, has led me to believe that we who believe in charity, Christ’s divine love, need to distance ourselves from a political mentality. I am not suggesting no longer running for office or abandoning political science or not voting. What I am suggesting is that people who profess a faith which holds that “God is Love” is both the foremost truth and the highest ideal remove themselves emotionally from, and no longer identify with, politics.
Since Roe v. Wade, and perhaps before, Catholics in America have watched and participated in an ideological political battle between two parties that has not helped us love our neighbor. We have poured mountains of time, emotional energy, millions and millions of dollars–and sometimes–ourselves, into trying to create political solutions to moral and philosophical problems that pre-date the 20th century. In practice we have forgotten that there are no temporal solutions and have fallen into the trap of identifying ourselves as supporters of one or the other political party or candidate because they seem to represent more of what we believe our faith asks of us. But there is a reason the Beatitudes make no mention of politics.
Setting aside the fact that neither party comes close to a platform that reflects the Church’s social teaching, we have allowed this errant self-identification to both cloud our overall ability to be charitable and to lull us into thinking we are being “good” Catholics by vehemently espousing particular political views and supporting candidates who have little interest in charity or the truth.
In today’s climate, if we are going to properly foster the mentality Jesus actually asks of us, Catholics in general ought not identify as Democrat or Republican, at least not publicly (unless forced to do so to run for office). We should not find ourselves vociferously supporting deeply flawed candidates or their parties or using their catch-phrases. Stoking political passion both in ourselves or others is not Christian. On the contrary, it is at best a distraction from charity and, at worst, a fanning of the flames of irrationality. There is no search for truth or love in politics today.
We cannot and will not make the United States a Christian country, whatever that means in the 21st century. Half of the positions one side or the other supports are unchristian. Half of what most Christians do is unchristian. If we had poured all the political passion, rhetoric and fundraising into a zeal to actually accomplish face-to-face charitable works, the country would be more Christian than any political crusade could have made it.
We ought to refrain from digital political discourse as well. Conservative catholic and liberal catholic are terms we ought not to permit or identify with. Every Tweet or post that supports a candidate is only read by those who agree with the writer anyway. Who is that helping? Why place ourselves in a camp? Christians have done a disservice to what should be our cause by identifying politically and becoming cheerleaders for candidates. Doing so separates us. Our identity should be humble and struggling Christians and our communications should reflect that.
It is true that Roe v. Wade is a colossal evil in this country, but it is not the actual killing of a baby. It is a legal decision. Abortions happened before it was handed down and will happen if it is overturned. Would we all get along if it was overturned? Would we actually do anything concrete for mothers and others in trouble if it were overturned? Do we do anything for mothers and others in trouble now?
The effort to overturn Roe v. Wade was and is noble but part of the evil the decision has wrought is sucking Catholics into the vacuity and furor of present-day politics. We find ourselves expending our energy and talents on candidates and parties that do not foster authentic Christianity. For those who recognize abortion is a tremendous evil, it has forced us into painful decisions that we have let identify us politically, instead of as Christians making a hard choice as best we can.
A person striving to live a charitable and truth-filled life should only begrudgingly accept the fact that a vote has to be cast for someone, whether that someone is from one of the two popular parties or not. The same holds true for Christendom. In today’s America, most of the time, an authentic Christian ought to be holding his or her nose and grimacing when their vote is cast.
Had Catholics, Christians, and “all monotheists who believe in charity” spent all our blood, sweat and tears on charitable works instead of political endeavors, imagine! For 48 years, many Catholics have engaged in a political struggle that has maybe, just now, resulted in a Supreme Court that might overturn Roe v. Wade and return the decision on abortion to the states. Then what, another 48 years? The loss of the Christian culture requires a different solution.
Roe v. Wade serves as the most egregious example of how wrong our system can be. It reveals two points to consider. First, Christians are not going to change the world through politics. Secondly, Christians have allowed politics to drive us apart. Symbolically and practically, what we need are pro-life community centers next door to every abortion provider, staffed and funded by all the money currently being wasted on political and media endeavors supporting this or that, Republican or Democrat, candidate, or this or that “left- and right-” leaning Catholic publication which belittles the other side and trumpets the praises of deeply inadequate political figures.
The time has come for Catholics to fundamentally alter their approach to engaging the problems in the country. While continuing to be civically active, vote, and run for office, we must emotionally and rhetorically leave politics behind. If there is any great political insight to be taken from Scripture, it is that even the greatest empire the world has ever seen could not keep the religious “right and left” from killing Christ (Mark 12:13-17). Politics has become the algorithmic science of screaming as loud as one can to one’s own camp. There is no longer a redeeming reason to identify politically. The only way to keep our country beloved, or make it beloved again, is to focus on charity.
My newlywed parents lived on 4th Street, S.E., Washington, D.C., around the corner from the U.S. Capitol, in the 1960’s.
In those days, the park east of the capitol building still had a grove of elm trees at the western end of East Capitol Street. The trees were over a century old. They chopped down a couple dozen to build the underground Capitol Visitors Center in the mid-2000’s–supposedly enhancing security.
(Frederick Law Olmsted designed the U.S. Capitol park in 1874. He also designed Central Park in New York City.)
In the 1970’s, tourists entered the Capitol through the east door, at the top of the main steps. On weekend afternoons, you might have to wait in line for fifteen or twenty minutes. There was a single guard at the door.
Our family walked through those doors to see the beautiful building on occasional Sundays, after church. There is a Kirkwood in Statuary Hall, a native Marylander who became governor of Iowa during the Civil War. He is a distant kinsman of my father’s clan.
The painter who producedApotheosis of George Washington in the capitol dome died in 1880. His grave is in Glenwood Cemetery, off North Capitol Street. My dad lies buried about thirty feet away.
I lived in the 400 block of East Capitol Street as an undergraduate at the Catholic University of America, from 1992-1994. I had a movie poster on my wall, which had the same view of the Capitol that my roommate and I had, when we walked out our front door.
Every day I ran to the Lincoln Memorial and back, stopping to stretch in the Capitol park. In those pre-9/11 days, you could walk right up to the capitol building and lean on it to stretch your quads. There were no barricades. My friends and I had picnics under the elms on springtime Saturdays.
In the summer of 1993 I gave the tours on the Tourmobile that circulated around the mall. Sometimes I explained the history of the U.S. Capitol building and it’s expansion through the nineteenth century.
As a priest I was assigned twice to parishes on Capitol Hill. I lived within walking distance of the building from 2004-2006 and from 2009-2010. I did the same daily run down the mall, but it had grown a little longer, because you had to run around the security perimeter around the capitol that had been imposed after 9/11/2001.
President Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, gave his inaugural addresses from the east side of the capitol, facing the Atlantic Ocean. I remember listening to Jimmy Carter speak on the east side in January 1977. (I didn’t understand it; I hadn’t turned seven yet.) Ronald Reagan was the first president inaugurated on the west side, facing California, in 1981.
…I don’t think we should sacralize our political institutions. The invasion of the building today was not a “desecration.” Politics is not a sacred business. It is, by definition, worldly. The U.S. Capitol is not a temple.
What we can say is this: we have reached Act V of our own tragic American Macbeth. We deserve stability in our land. President Trump has become, in the words of General Jim Mattis, a “man without a country.”
May our children and grandchildren have picnics on the capitol lawn, with malice towards none and charity for all. May the good Lord help us keep peace for them to inherit.
This argument presumes that the right to life of the unborn child is the decisive issue for the voter. I will summarize the points covered in three magazine articles, which articulate the No and Yes responses to this question:
Is a Catholic morally obliged to vote for the Republican candidate?
The Supreme Court has had a majority of Republican-appointed Justices for the past fifty years. Both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (which upheld Roe and required that the government impose no ‘undue burden’ inhibiting the supposed right to an abortion) were decided by courts with large Republican-appointed majorities.
The abortion rate has declined steadily, with no significant difference between Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.
II. The Supreme Court is unlikely to overturn Roe, no matter who the justices are.
Republican George W. Bush appointed Catholic John Roberts to the court. Roberts immediately became Chief Justice when the previous chief died while Roberts’ nomination was pending, in 2005. This past June, Roberts endorsed the principle of stare decisis in abortion cases, in Medical Services v. Russo. (Stare decisis means precedent is decisive.)
III. Political power should not be the pro-life movement’s chief goal.
Cavenaugh writes: The one strategy for reducing abortions that has been proven to work runs through love, not power: support for women who may not feel able to carry a pregnancy to term. This requires not blind allegiance to a political party but the promotion of a culture of life. For years, some in the pro-life movement have struggled to change the perception that opposition to abortion is about control over women. Hitching the pro-life cause to a president who has bragged about sexually assaulting women can only turn people away. The taint of Mr. Trump could well do irreversible damage to the pro-life movement and to the church itself, especially among the younger demographic.
Abortion was not a campaign issue for the Republican presidents who appointed the majority in the Roe decision. Opposition to pro-life judges by Democratic Senators has led to the nomination of justices with no paper trail, like Roberts. Republican presidential administrations, with large Republican Senate majorities, will lead to the appointment of genuinely pro-life justices.
II. Stare decisis does indeed control Supreme Court decisions, but not forever.
When the public mind has clearly shifted, the Court overturns previous rulings, as with slavery, segregation, and homosexuality. The Roberts court upheld the partial-birth abortion ban in 2007, restricting access to abortion.
Horn writes: If Roe were overturned, Democrats would do everything in their power to reinstate it (whether by a future court case or a constitutional amendment). Pro-life Republicans would be able to rely on the votes of their pro-life constituents—to prevent a new Roe nationally and to enact legal prohibitions of abortion on the state level—just as Democrats have been able to rely on the continuing support of pro-abortion voters during the Roe era.
III. ‘Incremental’ pro-life laws, bans on public funding for abortion, and pro-life pregnancy centers do work in reducing abortions.
Biden and Harris support a transition from “pro-choice” to abortion as essential healthcare, which would exclude all conscientious objection to abortion.
St. Jerome labored in a cave in Bethlehem for decades, to translate the Holy Scriptures into the street language of his people, Latin. Meanwhile, he also wrote about disputed subjects of his day, sometimes intemperately.
We pilgrims who visited Bethlehem together in 2009 celebrated Holy Mass in St. Jerome’s cave. Also, we pilgrims who visited Rome together in 2006, or 2008, visited St. Jerome’s tomb: the high altar in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Jerome rests just above a relic of the manger.
St. Jerome died 1600 years ago yesterday. Our Holy Father wrote us an Apostolic Letter to mark the occasion. The pope notes how artists have depicted St. Jerome as a model of devotion to God and His Scriptures. My favorite painter, El Greco, did a number canvases of St. Jerome. Pope Francis singles out this painting by Caravaggio:
I think the greatest depiction of the saint sits on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic did statues of Our Lady for both ends of the exterior of the Shrine of Immaculate Conception in Washington. But I think we find the sculptor’s masterpiece in front of his country’s embassy: St. Jerome, reading (see above).
St. Therese of Lisieux died on the 1,477th anniversary of St. Jerome’s death. She discovered her vocation to follow the little way of love by studying the Scriptures. As she explained in her autobiography, she came to understand her life by reading I Corinthians 13.
Some readers wonder: Does the Word of God teach me for whom to vote in the U.S. presidential election of 2020? Won’t some courageous priest just tell me who to vote for? Doesn’t the evil of procured abortion make it perfectly clear for whom we must vote?
I wrote an essay in 2008, explaining why Roe v. Wade is so dreadfully wrong. You don’t need to read the Scriptures or study the magisterium of the Church, in order to know how wrong it is. You just need to look at a sonogram.
Religion comes into it like this: we have a Christian duty to stand up for the innocent children in the womb, the largest, most-heinously oppressed class of all time. We cannot shirk that duty.
Everyone must determine for him- or herself, according to his or her individual circumstances, how that duty binds. We can offer conclusive arguments that abortion involves unjustly taking an innocent life. We can offer only speculative arguments about how this or that vote, in this or that election, will affect the situation.
I believe that clergymen have a right to free speech, like everyone else, provided we respect the proper times and places to say what we have to say. When we “have the floor,” so to speak, at the Sacred Liturgy, we do not have the right to get into disputed questions of politics, when no one on the other side of the question gets a chance to offer counter-arguments.
Speaking for myself as a voter, I did not come away from Tuesday evening’s debate seeing a clearly good option. Same thing happened four years ago: bad options. I wrote another essay in 2008, about how we have to try and keep politics in perspective; politics, after all, is inherently messy business.
What I think we have to keep in mind, and pray hard about this year, is this: The election of 2020 will unfold like no other presidential election that any of us can remember. Neither candidate will concede the election to the victor on election night, because exit polling will not tell us who won. No one really knows exactly when, or how, the outcome of this election will become clear. Maybe it never will.
May the good Lord pour down patience, kindness, and mutual respect into our hearts. We will need every ounce of Christian virtue we have, so that each of us can do our part to keep the public peace.