All posts by Hannah Oh

Hannah Oh is a junior at Claremont McKenna College majoring in Philosophy and Public Affairs. She is from the sunny suburbs of San Diego, California and enjoys hiking, reading by the pool, and eating Chipotle. When she is not in class, she can be found dining at the Athenaeum or working at the Rose Institute.

CMC Students Feel Marginalized, Demand Resources and Resignations

Yesterday afternoon, a student demonstration took place at Claremont McKenna College (CMC), where students of marginalized identities demanded administrative officials accommodate their specialized needs on campus. Their demands include a permanent resource center; the immediate creation of two diversity positions for student affairs and faculty; and a general education requirement for ethnic, racial, and sexuality theory; along with over a dozen other demands listed in their original letter to President Hiram Chodosh sent earlier this year. The demonstration’s organizers include the CMCers of Color, the Brothers and Sisters Alliance (BSA), Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA), Asian Pacific American Mentors (APAM), and GenU.

At the demonstration, students vocalized their demands, emphasizing that they want everything done on their own terms. “We don’t want a center for free speech meant to educate white students,” one protestor asserted. “We want a center that supports marginalized students first and foremost.” When students demanded that President Chodosh commit to giving them a temporary and eventually permanent space on campus, he initially said that he could not commit to a temporary space, but is working on a permanent space at this time. But after about 5 minutes of students speaking out against him, President Chodosh said he would love to transform the Hub, CMC’s student food store and central lounge, to provide them with a temporary space. In a swift, executive decision, CMC Student Body President Will Su dedicated part of the student government office as a temporary space, ordering the administration to give these students a permanent space immediately.

“To the administration as a whole, we require greater diversity in our faculty and staff,” stated the protest leader. “The need for such programs to educate the student body is eminent [sic] by the numerous microaggressions felt by students of color.” Students of color called out racially-insensitive professors for making them feel unsafe. “We want mandatory and periodic racial sensitivity trainings for all professors,” one protestor stated. “How are students supposed to learn in the classroom when they don’t even feel safe? When their own professors, someone who is supposed to be a mentor to them, a teacher, doesn’t even respect their identities? We want more diverse course offerings for critical race theory, community engagement, and social justice issues.”

The Dean of Students, and specifically Dean Mary Spellman, faced the brunt of the complaints. In the past few days, an “offensive” email sent by Dean Spellman was widely circulated on Facebook and prompted calls for her resignation. In the email, Dean Spellman responded to an article that voiced concerns by a student of color, stating that she wants to better serve students “who don’t fit our CMC mold.” Her comment outraged several students of color, and the email was cited as another example of institutional racism at CMC. Since then, students have demanded that Dean Spellman resign from her position, with a few students on a hunger strike that won’t end until she does so. Dean Spellman apologized multiple times over email and at the demonstration for her “poorly worded” statement, but students still demand that she resign.

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One of the other main catalysts for the demonstration was a photo of four CMC students from Halloween, where two white students dressed in stereotypical Mexican clothing and were condemned for cultural appropriation. A student of color wrote the original post: “For anyone who ever tries to invalidate the experiences of POC [people of color] at the Claremont Colleges, here is a reminder of why we feel the way we do. Don’t tell me I’m overreacting, don’t tell me I’m being too sensitive. My voice will not be silenced.” The post was also widely circulated on Facebook over the weekend and prompted several other students of color to speak out. Students condemned CMC’s junior class president, who was in the photo holding the sign that said “Sorry” (dressed as a Justin Bieber back-up dancer), for being complicit in cultural appropriation and demanded her resignation.

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The junior class president resigned on November 10 in an email, apologizing for being a bystander in the situation. “I promise to speak up and act out when I witness offensive and harmful behaviors in our community,” she wrote. “I promise that I won’t let my fears get in the way of standing up for something that is right, and something that continues to be a necessary dialogue here at the Colleges. Most importantly, I promise to be more conscientious of what I say and do and truly think about the parties that can be affected.”

The demonstration yesterday afternoon was preceded by a campus-wide letter that the groups sent out that morning. The letter explained the ways in which the administration has failed to address their concerns in the past. Students of marginalized identities described their campus experience with words like “misunderstood,” “intimidated,” “don’t belong,” “fragmented,” “excluded,” “daunting,” “conflicted,” “isolated,” and “scared.”

Students reported that professors “constantly mistake them for another student of color in class” which shows that “teachers characterize and distinguish them by their skin color and not by their personhood.” Additionally, students complained that CMC’s Crime and Public Policy course “does not offer readings with perspectives of people of color” and that the Civil War history simulation about the pros and cons of slavery is “extremely insensitive” and “hurtful.” CMC’s economics professors were targeted for having a “clear bias” against people from low-income backgrounds. Students reported that these professors used terms like “Welfare Queen” and had chastised poor people in their classes. They also criticized a new faculty member for “asking for examples of microaggressions,” which, to them, reflected “the lack of comprehensive training on racial sensitivity” among CMC’s faculty.

Students also complained about the Dean of Students. They stated that the Dean of Students’ First Year Guide and Resident Assistant training schedules included visits to the offices of Black Student Affairs and Chicano Latino Student Affairs, but not to the Asian American Resource Center. Apparently, the Deans’ exclusion of this visit “perpetuated the incorrect and problematic belief that Asian American students do not suffer from discrimination and racism and thus do not need resources.” Students then reported instances of when the Dean of Students dismissed complaints about LGBTQ-related offenses, accusing them of providing “inadequate resources” to change campus climate or support hurt students.

After listing over twenty complaints, the letter states, “We ask that the administration not get lost in the details of these events and in assigning guilt, but rather take responsibility as a whole for these actions and move forward with supporting students of marginalized identities.”

“For those administrators and professors who have not been involved in the efforts to create a resource center, you are not absolved of contributing to the discrimination and indifference that marginalized students have faced at CMC,” the letter continues. “Silence is oppression. We expect you to reflect on our proposals and implement swift and impactful changes to make your departments more inclusive, supportive, and accessible to students of marginalized identities.”

The letter ends, “To the department heads receiving this letter: if you stand in solidarity with us, please forward this to all the faculty in your department. We ask you to hold an emergency meeting to discuss how to better support marginalized students and to affirm our efforts and need for space.” This week, several classes have been cancelled, shortened, or used as discussion periods, and assignment deadlines have been extended.

Featured Organization: ISI Claremont Society

Last fall the issue of political diversity took center stage at the Claremont Colleges as a result of two separate events. The first was the release of a 40-year study that measured the political attitudes of students and faculty at the 5Cs. The study found that over 70 percent of CMC students, and over 90 percent of students at the other colleges surveyed, identify as Democrats – a rate far above that of the American voting population. Of the 532 Claremont Colleges tenured faculty, there are only 16 registered Republicans (half of which come from CMC). The survey highlighted the glaring lack of political diversity at each school, with little to no response from any of the 5C administrations.

Shortly thereafter, conservative pundit George Will was disinvited from Scripps College, where he was slated to give a speech as part of the Malott Public Affairs Program. The program typically brings in one conservative speaker a year, noting that  “a range of opinions about the world – especially opinions with which we may not agree, or think we do not agree – leads to a better educational experience.” Will was disinvited because of a column he wrote that shared his conservative view of the college sexual assault adjudication process.

The Malott Program’s failure to uphold its commitment to bring in speakers with opposing viewpoints, and the 5C administrations’ lack of effort to address these concerns, sparked the formation of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) Claremont Society. Through the ISI Claremont Society, students are able to access the ISI Speakers Bureau to bring in renowned conservative scholars to campus, connect with other ISI Society members, and attend national conferences and educational seminars.

The ISI Claremont Society’s inaugural event will feature Pete Peterson, the 2014 Republican candidate for California Secretary of State and interim director of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy. The event will be held on Tuesday, September 15 at 6pm in the Athenaeum Parents Dining Room. If you would like to attend, or if you would like to get involved in the ISI Claremont Society this year, please email claremontisi@gmail.com.


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Photo courtesy: Pete Peterson.

Editorial: Welcome to the Claremont Independent

Dear Class of 2019,

Congratulations! This week you have officially entered “The Bubble.” You now belong to one of the most intellectual, elite liberal arts institutions in the country—where reasoned discourse and thoughtful debate are not just encouraged, but actively kept alive by your many bright and vocal peers.

The Claremont Independent is the catalyst that drives our most lively, heated student discussions. We are the leading outlet for students whose views differ from—and often oppose—mainstream liberals and progressives. We also report campus news and, importantly, serve as a check to 5C administrations. As the only independently funded student publication, the Claremont Independent is in a unique position to criticize administrative decisions and policies, ranging anywhere from unnecessary free speech infringements under the guise of “political correctness” to blatantly biased curriculums that propagate liberal agendas.

We are a small but quickly growing organization with influence that extends beyond the Claremont Colleges. Last year, our stories consistently made national waves and were picked up by prominent news outlets, such as the National Review, Newsweek, and the Daily Caller. Over the summer, we received the Collegiate Network’s William F. Buckley Award for Outstanding Campus Reporting.

Traditionally, we have always been a right-leaning organization with the majority of our members subscribing to some variation of conservative ideology. At the heavily left-leaning Claremont Colleges, we provide students with the opposition needed to engage in critical thinking and intellectual debate—two key pillars of a traditional (and meaningful!) liberal arts education.

So welcome to the Claremont Independent, where you can find the most politically diverse set of opinions, thought-provoking arguments, and significant campus commentary at the 5Cs. We hope you enjoy these next four years with us.

Sincerely,

Hannah Oh

Editor-in-Chief

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Photography by Wes Edwards.

Dear CMC: Stop Treating Our Social Scene like a Case Competition

On August 30, the CMC administration and ASCMC announced their “new strategy of responsible moderation” that will be implemented this year. In this strategy, students are given tactical guidelines for how, when, and where to socialize on campus. Framed as a way to support a “healthy, inclusive, and respectful residential culture,” this new strategy is the heaviest set of rules and regulations enacted at CMC to control student behavior and social interactions.

First, I want to fully acknowledge the real and serious concerns that CMC is trying to address. No one disagrees with the administration’s basic premise: all students should feel safe and act responsibly when they go out. And there is no doubt that in these past few years, high-risk alcohol and drug consumption has been a problem that has put students at risk and caused harm to our community. However, the individuals that engage in such dangerous behavior constitute a small minority of us, and the latest policy changes are a classic example of administrative overreach that infringes on CMC’s most cherished freedoms.

There are a lot of things that make CMC special, but our vibrant and inclusive social scene is a point of pride that distinguishes us from every other college in the country. Unlike other schools, all of our parties are planned by our student government, rather than through an exclusive Greek system. From 6:01 to Pirate Party, everyone is invited and welcomed with open arms—no matter your class year, background, or whether or not you choose to drink. It is not just our high-caliber academics and engaging courses that make us a strong community; it is our unparalleled social scene that makes everyone feel included and comfortable to be themselves.

The administration’s new guidelines are highly inconsistent with CMC’s character in this respect. The guidelines are divided into two parts: formal and informal activities. If students are in groups of more than 15 people and alcohol is present, they must register with the Student Activities Office at least two business days in advance. The event is limited to 30 people and must comply with the “Guidelines for the Use of Alcohol at Formal Activities or Events.”

The “Informal Activity Guidelines” focus on the day-to-day activities of students, such as gatherings in dorm rooms and residential lounges. These “gatherings” are limited to 15 students who are allowed to drink alcohol, as long as they are not being disruptive. Students were told that if their informal gathering grows to 16 people, they must “reduce the number of people at the gathering to 15 or less or the gathering will be shut down.”

The problem with this policy, in particular, is that it promotes exclusivity. A gathering of 15 people or more could easily form by accident from students just hanging out in their dorm hall, friends inviting their friends, and others who walk by and feel welcomed to join. Instead of encouraging these students to intermix and mingle, the 15-person limit forces students to kick other students out of their gatherings and bar anyone new from coming in. In effect, these policies encourage negative, cliquey behavior—which is antithetical to CMC’s traditionally open culture.

Furthermore, these “informal gatherings” can only occur at designated times and spaces. They are permitted between 5:00 PM to midnight on Sunday through Thursday, and from noon to 1:00 AM on Friday and Saturday. They may only take place in residential areas, such as dorm halls, designated lounges, BBQ areas, and the Senior Apartments. (The Dean of Students created a map to clarify these parameters.) In these “designated areas,” you can carry an open, single use serving of alcohol. Outside of these areas, such as in North Quad and Parent’s Field, you can carry alcohol, but only “if you are headed somewhere.”

As for activity regulations, beer pong is permitted in six designated spaces (north side of Beckett, Green BBQ area, Wohlford BBQ area, Claremont Hall amphitheater, Apt. 681 BBQ area, and the Wagner BBQ area south of Kramer Walkway). Other drinking games, high frequency shots, loud music, and discourteous behavior that infringe on others’ right to use those spaces are violations. By designating the times, spaces, and activities for student interaction, the administration can more easily manage CMC’s social scene.

This comprehensive strategy sounds like the most optimal method to minimize CMC’s legal liabilities. CMC is now given full control over almost every aspect of how students interact in public spaces. The problem is that it hurts students more than it helps them by setting the most unnatural, unrealistic guidelines for students to follow.

These policies do little, if anything, to mitigate the high-risk alcohol and drug problems on campus that this strategy was intended to address. The administration has not shown any positive correlation between group sizes and levels of alcohol or drug consumption. The drinking problem is a cultural problem: if people want to drink, then they are going to drink, whether they are with 15, 30, or 100 people. These restrictive policies are more likely to encourage students to privately binge drink in their rooms and go out heavily intoxicated, so they can avoid breaking any new guidelines for carrying alcohol or drinking at unregistered events. Instead of cultivating an open, safe environment for students, or addressing the root cause of these problems, these guidelines incentivize students to engage in more dangerous behavior.

The worst part is that the administration and ASCMC are acting as if these new guidelines are actually in the best interest of students. How is it in our best interest to limit how many people we can interact with? How is it in our best interest to create exclusive guest lists? How is it in our best interest to be treated like walking liabilities, rather than human beings?

We do not need a “strategy” to interact with our friends. We are not just another component of what seems like CMC’s ongoing case competition to find various ways to minimize as much legal risk as possible for our institution. 

It is clear that we are never going to have the same open culture and social freedoms afforded to us in years past. I, along with many other students, have come to terms with that. But for the administration to say that it is trying to create a “healthy, inclusive, and respectful residential culture” through its new policy is naïve at best, and disingenuous at worst.

So cut to the chase, CMC. What are you actually trying to achieve through this policy? We want your honest answers, not your calculated strategies.

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Image Source: Flickr

Coming This Fall: Changes to RDS

Much like the distraught Prince Hamlet, nearly every CMC sophomore has hit an existential fork in the road: to RDS, or not to RDS? Okay, so perhaps that is overstating it, but the underlying sentiment is there. At one point or another, the thought of applying to the prestigious Robert Day Scholars (RDS) program has entered the minds of many CMC students, and the program has had an increasingly influential presence on campus. President Hiram Chodosh and Mr. Robert Day (CMC ’65) have recently discussed ways to improve the program, which resulted in the Chodosh administration’s introduction of a new “RDS Amendment” that will be discussed at the first CMC faculty meeting this fall.

On July 13, 2015, in a CMC faculty-wide email, President Chodosh and newly appointed Dean of Faculty Peter Uvin laid out the three goals of the RDS Amendment. First, the amendment will create an Administrative Director position to streamline the internal and external workings of the program. Michelle Chamberlain, the current RDS Director of External Relations, was temporarily appointed to this position for the summer. Second, the amendment refocuses the program’s attention to CMC and other Claremont College students by allowing the program to no longer recruit MA students from outside the Claremont Colleges.

The third change is perhaps the most consequential for students (at least, directly). The amendment permits the program to “admit Robert Day Scholars at any point in their CMC academic cycle” and creates more flexibility in “the design of the monetary level, the timing of the awards, and how they may be tied to the productivity of the scholars.” In an interview with The Claremont Independent, Michelle Chamberlain explained that right now the scholarship is given only in a scholar’s senior year. So even though scholars are selected as sophomores, they are not given their monetary award until two years later. Chamberlain suggested that the amendment could potentially create a distribution structure for how the scholarship is awarded over time. For instance, the award can be distributed in a scholar’s sophomore, junior, and senior years, and some of those distributions could be tied to something concrete, like starting an enterprise or funding a research opportunity. She emphasized, however, that everything is still in flux, and this is only one potential option for how to redesign the awards.

When asked why this third change in particular is being made, Chamberlain responded that the college is interested in making sure that the RDS program gives students the transformative experience that Mr. Day originally sought to provide. After donating $200 million––one of the largest single recorded gifts in liberal arts college history––to establish the RDS program in 2007, Mr. Day, the founder and former chairman of Trust Company of the West, said that he attributes much of his business success to his transformative CMC experience and that the program is his way of giving back.

The faculty committee created to work on the amendment has only met twice, and the RDS staff has only met once, so a lot more work needs to be done before any of these changes are finalized. For now, the administration has encouraged CMC professors to share their thoughts and suggestions for the amendment. Stay tuned for more updates this fall.

The Not-So-Grand Jury

Recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, have – quite literally – wreaked havoc across the nation. Two separate grand juries decided not to indict police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. Both decisions led to uproars and protests on several college campuses, including the Claremont Colleges.

On Wednesday, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) responded by introducing the Grand Jury Reform Act, H.R. 5830, which “prohibits the use of a secret grand jury process when determining whether a police officer should be prosecuted for wrongfully killing another person while in the line of duty.” The law would appoint special prosecutors to conduct probable cause hearings that are open to the public and require local law enforcement agencies to comply with the new process to receive federal funding.

The grand jury system isn’t perfect. In fact, there are deeply troubling concerns about its undemocratic process that, as Rep. Johnson points out, warrant a closer look. But is his reform an effective solution?

Why are grand juries problematic?

When the Framers included the grand jury indictment clause in the Fifth Amendment, they sought to provide a “check” on government by allowing ordinary citizens to curb ill-conceived indictments and prevent prosecutorial misconduct. In modern day proceedings, it has been argued that this constitutional “check” is either weak or largely absent.

According to the Cato Institute, government prosecutors now have complete control over the grand jury process: they decide what will be investigated, what charges will be included, what subpoenas will be issued, what evidence will be introduced, and what witnesses will testify and receive immunity. The defense counsel is barred and no judge is present to provide oversight. Ralph Rossum, professor of constitutional law at Claremont McKenna College (CMC), noted, “There is a famous line that ‘prosecutors can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.’ To the extent that that’s the case, it represents a failure in the grand jury system because that means ordinary citizens are being manipulated by the prosecutor.”

For those of us who fear big government, giving the government the immense power to essentially pick and choose who does or does not get indicted without any oversight sounds like our worst nightmare. And this is especially problematic in cases that involve law enforcement.

On the state level, our current system expects district attorneys to prosecute the same police officers who closely work with them on cases on a daily basis. Worse, district attorneys depend on these officers politically, since police union endorsements are critical for their re-election. Rossum points out, “The use of grand juries at the state level precedes police unions and the organized support of candidates for the district attorney’s office.” Given this modern political reality, it is unsurprising that grand juries indict police offers in only around 40 percent of cases, compared to having a near 100 percent indictment rate for all federal cases.

 

Hannah Graphic

 

Are preliminary hearings a better alternative?

America is one of few countries that require grand juries for federal capital crimes, but they are not required at the state level. Only about half of states choose to use them. Others opt to use preliminary hearings, which are adversarial (two sides argue before a judge) and open to the public, like normal court proceedings.

Rossum asserts that preliminary hearings are just as bad, if not worse, than grand juries. “In preliminary hearings, the defense typically chooses not to present anyway, since the burden of proof – probable cause – is so low. They expect probable cause will be found and don’t want to reveal their defense strategy, so the alternative to a grand jury doesn’t protect all that more.”

He continues, “Ethically, you get more protection from a grand jury because what stands between you and an indictment is not two government employees – the prosecutor and the judge – but one government employee [the prosecutor] and a group of ordinary citizens.” To require preliminary hearings in lieu of grand juries would do little, if anything, to mitigate potential bias towards law enforcement.

Should we appoint special prosecutors?

The Grand Jury Reform Act seeks to reduce this potential bias by appointing special prosecutors to handle all police-related cases. Another way to guard against bias is to assign police misconduct cases to prosecutors in a special division within a larger prosecutor’s office. CMC government and ethics professor Joseph Bessette recounts his experience in the early 1980s at the State’s Attorney’s office in Cook County, Illinois – the second most populous county in the country, following Los Angeles. (What Illinois calls state’s attorneys most states call district attorneys.)

“In Chicago, we had 570 attorneys in the prosecutor’s office. They were divided up in all different kinds of ways: some were assigned to juvenile courts; some only did appeals; some only did felony court,” Bessette said. “We had a special division called the Public Integrity Unit with about 10 to 20 prosecutors. All they did was public corruption or police-related cases – they weren’t the same prosecutors that worked with police officers every day. They worked in a special division so that they would have freedom and fewer conflicts of interest.”

Bessette saw this division to be beneficial for both regular prosecutors and police officers, as well as the system as a whole. “Local cops and prosecutors had a camaraderie that would have been difficult to maintain if the same prosecutors were investigating and trying cops for misbehavior. Similarly, the prosecutors who did investigate and try cops didn’t have to worry about unsettling long-standing relationships with the police.”

“So you could have good relationships at that level. You wouldn’t have the same person working closely with a cop one day, and then indicting the cop’s buddy the next day.”

Despite these benefits, Bessette remains hesitant to reform the current system to require special prosecutors for all police-related cases. “There are concerns about special prosecutors that people should have as well,” he warned.

“At the federal level, we don’t have a very good record of special prosecutors. When the Ethics in Government Act was on the books between 1978 and 1999, independent counsels often took many years just to decide not to prosecute,” he observed. “Sometimes they ignored standard Department of Justice policies and occasionally issued stinging public reports about the subjects of their investigations even though they filed no formal charges. So I’m not automatically a fan of special prosecutors, though I have never studied their use in police misconduct cases.”

Rossum echoes Bessette’s reservations. “Typically, prosecutors have more crimes than they can possibly prosecute, so, with their prosecutorial discretion, they allocate their resources in a way that seems most efficient by only pursuing cases that are likely to result in a conviction.” The same restrictions do not apply, however, to special prosecutors.

Rossum refers to the Supreme Court case Morrison v. Olson (1988), looking specifically at Justice Scalia’s dissent. In the case, independent counsel Alexis Morrison was appointed to investigate government official Ted Olson.

“When the decision was made to focus on Ted Olson, Alexis Morrison had an unlimited amount of time and budget to go after him, which means that resources weren’t going to, let’s say, six or seven other cases,” Rossum said. “It distorts the allocation of scarce resources because the special prosecutor gets to work as long and as much and at whatever cost the special prosecutor wants. That puts whoever is the subject of that kind of investigation in a situation different from every other potential defendant. With special prosecutors, you put all of the state’s resources more concentratedly against a single individual.” In this respect, special prosecutors seem less accountable and more prone to misconduct than normal government prosecutors.

What happened in Ferguson and Staten Island?

In these cases, the prosecutors in the two jurisdictions did not think that there was a crime, and they were not actively trying to get the grand jury to return a bill of indictment.

“It seems that in the Ferguson case – to the best that I can tell – the prosecutor acted in an upright fashion. He let the grand jury see everything and let them decide what happened. I don’t know why, in principle, that would be a bad thing,” Bessette said.

“If the grand jury is given unfettered access to every witness, every police report, and all of the physical evidence, and you still can’t get 9 out of 12 jurors (the rule in St. Louis County) to agree that there is probable cause that a crime was committed, then why would you think that the same evidence would convince every member of a trial jury that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?” he asked. “It is considered unethical for a prosecutor to take a case to trial if he or she does not believe that a conviction is likely. Otherwise, the trial process can become a way for prosecutors to harass, and perhaps impoverish, defendants.”

Rossum added, “From what we know from the evidence, to actually bring Darren Wilson to trial and bankrupt him in the process would not be justice: there is no way a trial jury would have unanimously convicted him.”

For Ferguson, the prosecutor released all of the evidence online; whereas, for Staten Island, the prosecutor was only authorized to disclose a limited amount of information.

“I found the Staten Island case much more problematic, in part because the prosecutor has not been as forthcoming with the evidence,” Rossum said. “What I found impressive about Ferguson was that the prosecutor said ‘if the grand jury acted badly, let’s release all of the evidence and let ordinary citizens decide for themselves.’”

Bessette concurs that the Staten Island case is more suspicious. “There seems to be more questions raised in the Staten Island case about whether the prosecutor proceeded properly than in the other case. One reason for that is that apparently the prosecutor gave immunity to all of the police officers, except for Daniel Pantaleo. Now, that seems a bit odd.”

Prosecutors usually grant witnesses immunity in exchange for their testimony. But in the Staten Island case, the grand jury already had direct footage of the incident. During the incident, Daniel Pantaleo put his arm around Eric Garner’s neck and four other officers restrained him by compressing his chest and forcing him to lie face down on the sidewalk. While on the ground, Garner repeated “I can’t breathe” multiple times.

“It seems odd to grant immunity here,” said Bessette. “Why not have the grand jury look at all of the evidence for all of the officers – especially if sitting on top of [Garner] when he said he couldn’t breathe might have been more of a contributor to his death than the actual takedown?”

Without the full release of evidence, it is difficult to determine whether the prosecutor acted wrongly in the Staten Island case. But from what we do know, it’s hard not to be critical.

Should we reform the system?

With preliminary hearings as a mediocre alternative, and special prosecutors carrying their own set of issues, what should we do about the current system – if anything at all?

“I certainly don’t have enough evidence right now that shows that there is something wrong with the way it works,” Bessette said. “Do we have cases of prosecutors covering up for others? Do we have cases of prosecutors ‘indicting ham sandwiches’ – or the equivalent of indicting innocent people?”

“We don’t hear much about grand juries in the news, and that’s because there isn’t much controversy on a day-to-day basis. We’re hearing all about them because of these two famous cases,” he continued. “But I need to see more evidence. I don’t have any reason to believe that we have some sort of crisis in the grand jury system, especially since it isn’t used that often at the state level for typical crimes.”

Effective reform requires prudence and careful thought about a variety of constitutional, political, and practical questions. These questions do not, by any means, come with easy answers. Without conclusive evidence, the Grand Jury Reform Act is premature, but a national dialogue has started about grand juries that could – for better or for worse – change their future course.

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Image Source: Flickr

Out of the Jungle (Primary): Strickland vs. Knight

Steve Knight (R)
Steve Knight (R)

Thirty miles north of Claremont lies California’s 25th District, where two Republicans are running to replace Howard “Buck” McKeon in Congress. Four Republicans, two Democrats, one Libertarian, and one independent ran in the June primary, but due to California’s “Top Two” primary system, only the top two vote-getters, Steve Knight and Tony Strickland, secured spots on the November ballot. In exclusive interviews with the Claremont Independent, both candidates shared their opinions on the effectiveness of the top-two system.

Tony Strickland (R)
Tony Strickland (R)

California voters adopted the top-two primary via Proposition 14 in 2010. Proponents of Prop 14 wanted to get more moderate candidates on the ballot. By allowing voters and candidates to approach elections without regard to political parties, advocates argued, candidates would be elected based on ideology and issues, rather than partisanship.

When asked if the system had been successful in achieving its goal, both Knight and Strickland responded with a resounding “no.” Knight commented, “I don’t think you’re getting more moderate candidates on the ballot. Just in this district alone, you have two conservative Republicans running in a district that is almost 50/50 when it comes to registration of Republicans and Democrats.”

CA25March2014
In California’s new “jungle” primary system, the top two vote-getters move on to November

In CA-25, Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats, 37.61 percent to 36.51 percent. One out of every four voters is registered with a third party or with no party preference. Strickland and Knight finished the primary with 29.6 percent and 28.4 percent of the vote, respectively. Democrat Lee Rogers finished third with 22.2 percent. If Rogers won the 9.5 percent share of the vote garnered by the other Democratic candidate, Evan Thomas, Rogers would have gone on to run in the general election against Strickland or Knight. Even though the GOP vote was diluted between four candidates, enough vote-splitting occurred among Democrats and independents that it allowed two conservative Republicans to advance to the general election.

Strickland also pointed out problems the system has caused for voter turnout rates and political diversity. He said, “The system was designed to force candidates to appeal to both sides of the aisle, but in reality you end up with fewer ​voters. In this case, fewer Democrats will vote because their party’s​ candidate is not on the ballot. The top two system also denies a voice to minor party candidates who could normally use general elections to expose the electorate to new ideas.” After losing the primary, Democrat Lee Rogers endorsed Knight, displaying what seemed like a sign of success for the top-two system. However, he withdrew his endorsement in September and joined other Democratic leaders in abstaining from voting in the general election. In districts with same-party races, partisan politicians and voters who do not feel adequately represented have expressed that they will abstain from voting this Election Day.

California's 25th and 27th Congressional Districts
California’s 25th Congressional District is located just north of the 27th, Claremont’s district

Still, Knight and Strickland must try to gain as much support as possible from Democrats and independents to win the general election. Some have argued that, in this respect, the top-two system will work by forcing candidates to appeal to more moderate voters. However, while both candidates acknowledged the importance of reaching out to Democrats and independents, neither candidate said that their outreach strategy was largely affected by running against another Republican. Knight said, “One of the many ways that Tony and I are different is that Tony does not live in the district. He ran for Congress in his home district last term and lost, and then he went shopping for a new district. He hasn’t lived in this district for many, many years. I think voters would say that they want someone from their community, regardless of their party.” He also highlighted that he is a former U.S. Army soldier and that Strickland has never served in the military. Strickland has reached out to Democrats and independents by meeting with members of different political parties and listening to their concerns, but said he would employ the same strategy with or without the top-two system.

Andrew Sullivan: Obama’s ISIS “Fantasy”

Before Andrew Sullivan’s talk at the Athenaeum this evening, I had a chance to sit down with Sullivan, one of the nation’s most widely read bloggers, to discuss the current state of U.S. military affairs and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, otherwise known as ISIS.

An early advocate for America’s war on terror, Sullivan has previously been described as having “ultra-hawkish views” and militantly urged the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. He published a number of controversial articles and essays during this time, harshly targeting those on the Left for failing to back Bush’s war effort. Since then, Sullivan’s outlook on the war has changed, especially after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal that revealed the abuse and torture of detainees in U.S. custody. He later admitted that he was wrong about the war on terror and has regretted his brazen support for the invasions.

When asked about the recent emergence of ISIS, Sullivan’s response was highly critical. “I would have a problem with ISIS if it threatened to attack America,” he stated, “but it hasn’t.” Furthermore, he argues that ISIS is incapable of attacking the U.S. “They have no access to WMDs as far as what we know.”

Earlier this month, President Obama addressed the nation, outlining his strategy for countering the terrorist “threats” of ISIS. His plan includes launching airstrikes against ISIS and increasing the number of American forces in the region. Obama stated, “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region—including to the United States.”

“President Obama’s statement about terrorism and ISIS is a fantasy,” said Sullivan. “I fear that we are now being governed by fear itself, misreading and mischaracterizing things that we should be leaving alone.” Neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, have not intervened in the conflict. “It’s like welfare: they know we’re just going to do it for them, and no one is grateful. No matter how successful we are, we will still be hated,” he grimly noted. “We are a toxic force in the region. Everything we touch there turns to poison.”

Image Source: The White House