Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Music Seen: Gypsy Tailwind at Port City Music Hall

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Sometimes "studio magic" doesn't translate well to the stage — especially when 15 musicians perform in a single song. But other times, you wish such large live performances were being recorded for the next album.

Given their connections to crowded-live-act extraordinaire Rustic Overtones (including performances and arrangements by Dave Noyes and Ryan Zoidis), it's no wonder that Gypsy Tailwind's CD-release show falls into the latter category. On Saturday night, they started small(ish), with just five musicians on stage. Frontman Dan Connor sang and played guitar all night, but the double-length set didn't really get going until frontwoman Anna Lombard put down her guitar and focused on singing.

Gently mixing songs from their first record, Halo Sessions (2008) and the new one, Grace, as well as at least one as-yet unreleased tune, the band carefully managed the energy in the 600-person-plus crowd. Connor's smooth crooning, coupled with Lombard's grounded power, held sway — with the occasional guitar, keyboard, drum, and banjo solo — until late in the night, when the crowds started to rush the stage.

Or at least that's how it seemed. During a break in the set, eight music stands, five mikes, five audio-input lines, and five chairs were arranged on stage. What little space remained was soon filled with five string musicians (a cellist, and a pair each of violists and violinists, including sometimes-Rustic band member Angela Doxsey) and a five-piece horn section (with Noyes and Zoidis, there were two trombones, a trumpet, an alto sax, and a baritone sax), who almost immediately got rousing ovations from the crowd.

Arching over all of it, though, were Lombard's vocals, soaring to the heights of the city and never seeming to want to come down.

GT play the Boston Harbor Boat Cruise July 31 and Baystock Music Festival at the Maine State Pier August 8 | gypsytailwind.net

Jailed HIV-positive pregnant woman released - for now

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Quinta Layin Tuleh, the HIV-positive pregnant woman a federal judge in Bangor, Maine, ordered jailed until her baby was delivered, has been released on bail while her appeal of her sentence makes its way through the courts.

In May, Judge John Woodcock Jr. ruled that he would jail Tuleh — who pleaded guilty to possessing false immigration documents — for the rest of her pregnancy because he believed that, if she were in prison, she would be more likely to get medical treatment that would reduce the risk of her fetus contracting HIV. He told her that if she were either not pregnant or not HIV-positive, he would have sentenced her to the 114 days she had already spent in jail and let her go free.

The decision was so unusual that both Tuleh and federal prosecutors appealed the sentence for being too harsh. Fifteen state and national organizations (mainly advocates for women's issues, HIV-patients' rights, and reproductive rights) and medical experts filed a joint document supporting both the appeal and Tuleh's request for bail, saying medical care would be better outside of the prison system, and that keeping her locked up simply for being pregnant and HIV-positive was a dangerous precedent other courts have studiously avoided.

Last week, Woodcock agreed, though he is powerless to alter the sentence — the appeal process removes that option from his jurisdiction. Tuleh and the prosecution have asked the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to immediately overturn the sentence and return the case to Woodcock, with the expectation that, this time, he will sentence her to time served and release her immediately.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

White-supremacist code printed nationwide

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

Imagine you are a white supremacist who is getting on in years. You've spent your life writing, extolling the virtues of Nazism, and denouncing Jews and African-Americans. You even wrote a book (published only online) that claimed the Jewish holy book, the Torah, demands the slaughter of Christians, and used that spurious beginning to justify the slaughter of Jews instead. You know full well that it was part of Hitler's justification for the Holocaust.

As 2009 dawns, you are nearing 90 years old, and you have watched your fellow World War II veterans struggle and suffer their ways through slow, degenerative deaths. You have no desire to endure that. You see yourself as a warrior, even perhaps a holy warrior. So you hatch a plan that will bring you a warrior's death, and simultaneously make you a white-supremacist martyr. And you realize that your age gives the plot an incredible twist only those in the know will discover: it is the key to getting all the world's media to print "Heil Hitler" in your obituary. But time is short — your birthday is in July.
The Southern Poverty Law Center last week confirmed that it is investigating a theory similar to my own, which is described above, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, on June 10. In that incident, James von Brunn, a long-time white supremacist and neo-Nazi, allegedly shot and killed an African-American guard before being shot by other security staffers.
And while von Brunn survived to face federal criminal charges and may yet die slowly in federal prison, he did manage to get newspapers around the globe to print a white-supremacist code praising Adolf Hitler right next to his name. "James von Brunn, 88," was a phrase in almost every news story — indeed, it was a common piece of harmless information that would have been more noticeable if reporters had left it out. It is his age.
But white supremacists and those who monitor hate groups know it is also a numeric code meaning "Heil Hitler." The letter "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet, and hatemongers around the world have long used "88" to mean "HH," or "Heil Hitler," honoring the leading historical icon of hate and intolerance, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
Von Brunn himself knew and used this code often. Even before this year, he signed many of his Web postings "James von Brunn 88" — differing only by a comma from how newspapers and online news sites described him after he put his tragic plan into action.

Power through peace: In exile, Burmese monks still carry the torch

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Now is a critical time for democracy's worldwide battle against totalitarianism. Rioters in Iran are disputing the outcome of a possibly stolen presidential election. North Korea has sentenced two American journalists to 12 years of hard labor for allegedly crossing the border into the closed country from China. And Burma's only living democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was recently allowed to leave her home after years of house arrest — but only because the country's ruling military junta decided she should be in prison instead.

That crisis comes into local focus with this week's showings of Anders Ƙstergaard's documentary Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country at SPACE Gallery. Comprised of footage filmed by undercover journalists risking their lives to share truth with the world, it chronicles the so-called "Saffron Revolution:" five weeks in 2007 when Burma was rocked by pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks. (See the review, "Pixel Revolt," by Christopher Gray, on this page.)

But what the movie doesn't show is as important. Accompanying the film, and holding discussion sessions after the screenings, will be three of the monks who led the Saffron Revolution, and who continue to demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other Burmese political prisoners. These monks have much more perspective to share than what's included in the 85-minute doc.

One of them, U Pyinya Zawta (who appears in the film making calls from Burma to Thailand using the pseudonym Ko Nyo), tells through a translator on the phone from his new home in western New York of the 10 years he spent in Burmese prisons — which didn't deter him from helping to lead the Saffron Revolution. (Wanted by the government, he has since escaped the country, and found political asylum in the US.)

While he pronounces himself "very pleased and satisfied with the work and the sacrifices" of the undercover videojournalists, he notes that the movie, and the VJs' work overall, necessarily "only shows a fraction of the reality that's taking place in Burma."

One major limitation: available light. "Much more severe and brutal human rights abuses took place when night falls and after the military curfew," he says. The military waits until after dark to surround temples and neighborhoods, disconnects what little electricity is still on, and storms in. In some incidents, he recalls, people were "almost beaten to death," and others were "buried alive."

The regime's repression is overt. U Pyinya Zawta's own temple, Maggin, in the center of the capital city of Rangoon, was closed completely, its head monk and another two leaders imprisoned, the young monks sent back to their home villages, and many other senior monks scattered into hiding and exile.

But the Burmese people still demand the military honor the 1990 election in which they chose Aung San Suu Kyi as prime minister; they continue to resist, even as the military steps up repression, hoping to prevent an uprising if — but more likely, when — they sentence Aung San Suu Kyi to more prison time.

The junta is hoping to prevent a different type uprising, at the same time: one from the international community. And this leads to U Pyinya Zawta's final twin pleas: He asks the military to "free Aung San Suu Kyi along with the National League for Democracy political prisoners," or "there will be no peace." And he says the United Nations, the US, and the world at large must put real pressure on the Burmese junta.

"They issue statement after statement condemning" the junta, he says of these international entities, but that is "dancing to the tune" of the dictatorship, because "these resolutions are all on paper." What is needed, instead, is for the world to "give them a deadline" with "clear and decisive consequences." Maybe something like what he, thousands of other monks, and the videojournalists would face if they were ever caught in Burma.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Under attack: Civil liberties' limits grow

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Recent decisions by President Barack Obama and Maine Governor John Baldacci have dampened progressive hopes that the Republican-inspired war on civil liberties might be winding down.

First up, OUR TELEPHONE CONVERSATIONS AND E-MAIL MESSAGES ARE NOT PRIVATE, AND MAY BE RECORDED AND GIVEN TO THE GOVERNMENT WITHOUT US EVER KNOWING. The Obama administration took a page from Dubya and argued that telecommunications companies should not have to disclose what, if any, information they gave the government in the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program.

It all began in 2006, when 21 Maine telephone customers asked the Maine Public Utilities Commission to investigate whether Verizon violated the state law requiring phone companies to protect customers' privacy rights.

When the warrantless wiretapping scandal broke, Verizon publicly rejected news reports that it had given the government information about customers' calls. The MPUC asked Verizon to affirm that statement under oath, but the request was blocked by the Bush administration's Justice Department, which insisted that any talk about warrantless wiretapping would inflict "exceptionally grave harm to national security."

The Obama administration kept up that argument, and on June 3 a federal judge in California agreed, despite the fact that we already know that — in addition to possible surveillance of terrorism suspects — publicly owned companies based in the United States helped the federal government spy on innocent citizens, as well as journalists, American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and international aid workers by monitoring their telephone calls.

And then, here in Maine, Governor John BALDACCI RELINQUISHED MAINE'S POSITION AS AN OPPONENT TO PRIVACY-INVADING FEDERAL RULES that do little to protect national security and mostly just inconvenience and intimidate people who want driver's licenses.

The so-called "REAL ID" law set out federal standards for state identification cards, saying they would prevent undocumented immigrants from getting official government ID. To force compliance, the Bush administration waved a hefty stick: If states didn't comply, their IDs would be considered invalid for federal purposes, like entering federal buildings or boarding commercial aircraft, even for domestic flights.

Maine was the first state whose legislature officially rejected REAL ID — back in 2007, saying it was an unfunded mandate from Washington that would endanger Mainers' privacy rights. A year later, under heavy pressure, Baldacci forced lawmakers to cave to the feds' demands, saying the potential inconvenience to Mainers was too great. He had, however, managed to hold out long enough to make it obvious Maine was being bullied by the Bushies.

But this year, with a new president seeking to revamp the REAL ID program, Maine lawmakers passed a bill that would have repealed most of the terms of last year's capitulation. On June 3, Baldacci stymied that effort to again be in a leading position, by vetoing it.

Fetal obligations: Federal judge: more rights for the unborn

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Following the tragic shooting in Kansas last month, pro-choice advocates have been dealt another disheartening setback: a federal judge in Bangor has recognized a new right of fetuses — to be protected from diseases carried by their mothers — that could become a key element in the nation’s ongoing abortion debate.

In May, Judge John Woodcock Jr., the chief federal judge in Maine, ordered an HIV-positive pregnant woman from Cameroon, who pleaded guilty to possessing false immigration documents, to remain in federal prison until after her expected delivery date in order to protect the child’s welfare. The judge said he worried that if Quinta Layin Tuleh was released or in the custody of immigration officials — who are seeking to deport her — she would not have access to medication that can prevent HIV transmission from a mother to her fetus.

“My obligation is to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant, and that public, it seems to me at this point, should likely include that child she’s carrying,” ruled Woodcock, a Bowdoin College and UMaine Law graduate who was appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush. “I don’t think the transfer of HIV to an unborn child is a crime technically under the law, but it is as direct and as likely as an ongoing assault.”

Woodcock went on to say that he has an “obligation to do what I can to protect that person, when that person is born, from permanent and ongoing harm.” Having admitted that he would have released Tuleh on time served if not for her medical conditions, he remanded her to federal prison for 238 more days.

This sets out an argument that, legal experts say, if taken to its logical conclusion, could be used by a court to protect a fetus from its mother. (At the moment, fetal rights are generally limited to protection from strangers acting without the consent of the mother — as when someone who assaults or murders a pregnant woman can be charged with two offenses: one for the attack on the mother, and one for the attack on the fetus.) It also contradicts a key element of current abortion rights: namely, that a mother is allowed to do what she wishes with a fetus, including abort it.

Maine activist groups are reeling, with some worrying that it could mark a dangerous precedent for so-called negligent mothers. “When are you allowed to lock up a pregnant woman?” asks Zachary Heiden, the legal director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. Can a pregnant woman convicted of a crime be sentenced to jail solely to ensure she takes prenatal vitamins, or stays away from junk food?

Women’s issues and reproductive-rights organizations, as well as those dealing with immigration questions, HIV status, and prisoner treatment, have also huddled to craft responses.

“It’s crazy that we live in a country where you have to be in prison to get health care,” says Ben Chin, the Maine People’s Alliance’s federal-issues organizer, who believes that if our immigration laws were reformed to allow people who are here to legalize their status, this issue would not even have come up. “She was here to work, she was contributing to the economy,” he says. Jailing her and sending her out of the country does neither her nor the country any good.

Peter Rice, legal director of the Augusta-based Disability Rights Center, notes that HIV-positive status is a disability under federal law, and says Tuleh “was imprisoned for her disability,” which is against the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (That law, however, does not specifically apply to federal judges handing down criminal sentences.)

Another curious wrinkle to this case: federal prosecutors objected to the sentence, and have appealed it to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which is expected to hear arguments by August. “I’ve never heard of a prosecutor appealing” when the judge’s sentence is longer than the government requested, says Heiden. Both his organization and the Disability Rights Center are considering supporting the appeal.

Paula Silsby, the US Attorney for Maine, declined to comment, saying it was an ongoing case. Judge Woodcock did not return calls seeking comment.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Keeping faith: Piers Paul Read looks inside the Church

Published in the Portland Phoenix

His publicist calls Piers Paul Read "the anti-Dan Brown." She's capitalizing on a buzz-worthy name, sure, but it's a fairly insightful description of a man whose latest book, The Death of a Pope, explores not the Brownish theme of the Catholic Church secretly at work in world affairs, but rather its inverse — how worldly factions seek to transform the traditionalist Church through its cloistered traditions.
Read is best known to a generation of readers as the author of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (J.B. Lippincott, 1974), about the high-mountain plane crash that killed several members of a Uruguayan rugby team; the survivors, strengthened by eating the flesh of their dead friends, made a nearly impossible trek to civilization and rescue.
"I had quite a sheltered upbringing," says the soft-spoken Englishman, who stopped through Maine last week for a reading in Augusta (but, oddly, not in Portland). As a young adult, he says he was "very revolutionary," promoting Marxism in Latin America, but came to doubt whether his socially disruptive efforts would really help people in need. That period in his life both was part of, and deepened, his quest to overcome insularity by inquiring deeply into the outcomes of efforts by those who claim to know the ultimate unknowable, God's will.
His understanding of that struggle lends a quiet weight to the smooth, quick readability of The Death of a Pope. Set in the days between John Paul II's death and the election of Benedict XVI, the book follows the forces swirling around the conclave of cardinals that selects a new pope, including conniving princes of the church, radical Catholic missionaries, and innocents who find themselves involved.
The end leaves much room for speculation about what comes next, but suggests an answer to the age-old question of whether salvation is earned by words, deeds, or faith alone.
The Death of a Pope | by Piers Paul Read | Ignatius Press | 225 pages | $21.95

Press Releases: Death knell

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Last week was a bittersweet week for the people who work at the Portland Press Herald and its sister publications. It is hard to fault them for the steps they took to try to preserve some semblance of the present, but we cannot avoid the fact that they have sounded the death knell both for the newspapers that employ them and the unions that represent them.

Which is not to say they had much choice. At a press conference announcing a contract agreement between the Portland Newspaper Guild and Richard Connor, the Bangor native who has been trying to buy the papers for the past year, guild president Tom Bell put a positive spin on things, calling the deal "a remarkable story." He is certainly right that without the agreement of his union and the several smaller ones involved with the company, the papers might well have closed altogether. But the price the unions are paying to avoid that fate is a cruel second-best.

Thanks to union concessions including a 10-percent wage cut to a new level that will be frozen for two years, a pension freeze, suspension of company 401(k) contributions, the papers are not closing. But they certainly will be changing significantly.

Even the unions themselves are speculating that more than 100 jobs will disappear (the unions hope they'll come through buyouts rather than outright layoffs, but that remains to be seen). What they are not saying, publicly at least, is that if that lowball number is real, union membership will shrink by 25 percent (the 500-employee company has just more than 400 union workers). And if more people's jobs go, the unions will be even smaller.

Collective power, already almost nil, will weaken further. Sure, those union members who keep their jobs get "sweat equity" in the form of 15 percent of any increase in the company's value. But there are no guarantees that the company will, in fact, gain value. And while the guild also gets three seats on the company's board of directors, that won't be a majority, and (depending on whether the board has seven or nine seats) may be an utterly powerless bloc.

In fact, in an ironic twist, the unions may end up in a position relative to Connor similar to where Knight-Ridder and now McClatchy have found themselves in dealing with the Blethen family: as minority owners who find out the results of important decisions only after they have been made.

It does remain, though, hard to blame the unions for trying. Many of those who voted for the new contract will lose their jobs — as will some who voted against it, presumably. But the people who remain will still be part of a union, and there is a principle they are upholding by attempting to defend the strength of numbers, even as they must realize the entity is a shadow of its former self.

Connor has been clearly in the driver's seat for some time now, and the unions' concessions only make him stronger. They have tacitly accepted his argument that union members have been overpaid and otherwise overcompensated in the past. Earning back any of the things they just gave up will be difficult, if not impossible: As an example, it will take at least eight years for any worker who survives the layoffs to return to his or her previous pay level — and that's true only if, after the two-year wage freeze, raises return to their previous 2-percent-per-year rate.

It will, then, be quite hard for the unions to counter any further claims Connor makes about what his company's financial needs are, and nigh impossible for them to effectively oppose anything he wants to try.