Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

Oklahoma Should Halt Glossip Execution

Anti-Death Penalty Summit - Jan. 28, 2012 on Flickr The Commons

Rationality and any legal system in the world can conflict and contradict, and they often do, and that’s why we always need advocacy and agitation for clarity and equilibrium.

Take this nation’s myriad of current drug laws on a state-by-state basis, for example, which leads to some of the highest incarceration rates in the world. The war on drugs by most anyone’s rational estimation has failed, leaving a vast trail of broken lives and misery. Meanwhile, because of advocacy and rationality Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana.

People cling to legalities and rules often blindly because they’re afraid to admit to the ambiguity that underpins our very lives. Yet when it comes to the law, an important aspect of our lives, jurors can get it wrong, prosecutors and police can let a zealous thirst for a conviction cloud their judgment and judges can let it all unfold in a bizarre trajectory because they are paralyzed by “tough-on-crime” politics in a conservative state.

Perhaps, this is a long-winded manner in which to begin another discussion of the Richard Glossip case. The state of Oklahoma is scheduled to put Glossip to death by lethal injection Sept. 16. He was convicted in 1998 of first-degree murder in the death of his then boss Barry Van Treese at an Oklahoma City motel.

Let me stress this: It has never been alleged that Glossip actually killed anyone. This is the fact that defies rationality in this legal case yet it doesn’t get stated often enough. Glossip has never been accused of actually killing anyone in a physical sense.

While actress Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean, two anti-death penalty advocates, have rightly made impassioned pleas to save Glossip’s life, their focus has been on the presentation of new evidence that could actually exonerate Glossip.

But time is running out on Glossip, and those who could actually save his life have consistently shown an aversion to rationality and ambiguity in the larger frame of this legal case. Gov. Mary Fallin, for example, has continued to point out that not one but two juries have found Glossip guilty and given him the death penalty.

Said Fallin, in a recent statement, “Richard Glossip has been convicted of murder and sentenced to death by two juries. His conviction and death sentence have been reviewed and upheld by four courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States. His actions directly led to the brutal murder of a husband and a father of seven children. The state of Oklahoma is prepared to hold him accountable for his crimes and move forward with his scheduled execution.”

In other words, the law, whether applied rationally or not in this case, must take precedence, but rational people can only repeat, “Richard Glossip has never been accused of physically killing anyone.” He was accused of asking Justin Sneed to commit the murder for money, and, indeed, Sneed has admitted to killing Van Treese. For his testimony in the case, Sneed received life in prison rather than the death penalty. Any rational person would obviously argue that Sneed had a vested interest in giving such testimony.

Are there cases in which murder suspects should receive the ultimate sentence for ordering a killing? One might make this argument if such a suspect was a leader of a syndicated crime network or involved in terrorist activities, but those exceptions-and I’m against the death penalty in general-simply don’t apply in this case.

Rationality would dictate Glossip’s sentence be formally commuted to life in prison, and then if he has evidence exonerating himself, he can present it. Even if Glossip asked Sneed to kill Van Treese, Sneed had the option of backing out and informing the authorities.

The facts of the case, widely discussed in the media, are fairly straightforward. Glossip was a manager of a motel owned by Van Treese in 1997. It was alleged that Van Treese was going to confront Glossip on some financial matters related to the motel and consequently Glossip supposedly asked Sneed, a handyman at the motel, to kill Van Treese, which Sneed admitted he did by beating him with a baseball bat. Glossip has maintained his innocence in the case and has declined plea agreements that would have spared him the death penalty.

In the end, it pretty much comes down to the word of someone who admits beating a man to death and had a stark vested interest to implicate another person in the death to save his own life. Rationality, not the law, tells us that in this case it seems prudent to act cautiously and not kill Richard Glossip, who didn’t physically kill another person, who has never been accused of physically killing another person and who has maintained his innocence for 18 years.

Manmade Earthquakes Continue To Shake It Up In Oklahoma

Wind Power on Flickr The Commons

There’s not much more startling than waking up to a 3.7-magnitude earthquake shaking and rattling your house, but that’s what happened to many of us Sunday morning in central Oklahoma, and it’s the “new normal” here.

No big deal, right? The epicenter of the earthquake that hit around 7:15 a.m. was about four miles east of Edmond.

Of course, The Oklahoman doesn’t want us to worry about it because the oil and gas industry, which scientists claim is causing all the earthquakes and damaging our homes and property through an element of the fracking process, is spending so much money to try to fix the problem. But the reality is that the quakes keep coming at stupendously bizarre record levels, and our state leaders, especially the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt have sold us out to the frackers.

The newspaper published what really shouldn’t be called a “story” on Aug. 23 explaining that disposal well operators have spent more than $35 million to try to stop the earthquakes. The story, written by Adam Wilmoth, is nothing more than a publicity release for the oil and gas industry, and the $35 million number is highly questionable. Here’s a paragraph from the story:

“The industry has done a really good job of cooperating and coordinating with the Corporation Commission,” Commissioner Dana Murphy said this month at the Tri-State Oil and Gas Convention in Woodward. “You’re talking about $150,000 to $250,000 or more for these companies not just to shut down their wells, but to plug them back.”

Good job? What about all the earthquakes that keep shaking things up here? A $100,000 difference in the range of money to “plug them back”? It’s completely not credible information. Do not believe anything “official” about this issue that emits from the mouths of an Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner these days. Do, however, read this story about campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry received by Murphy and other commissioners and Pruitt. Be sure to note, as I’ve pointed out in the past, that Fallin has received thousands upon thousands of dollars in campaign contribution from oil and gas interests in her political career as well.

I’ve written a version of the following paragraph countless number of times in the past few years.

In the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process, water laced with toxic chemicals is injected underground by high pressure to create fissures in rock formations that release fossil fuels. The wastewater is then injected by high pressure into what are called disposal or injection wells. Scientists have confirmed it’s the disposal well process that is causing Oklahoma’s staggering amount of earthquakes.

The state is on track to experience more than 800 earthquakes of 3.0-magnitude or higher this year, the most in the contiguous United States. Just a few years ago, the state only experienced two or three minor earthquakes a year. The fracking boom, which has already gone bust, has turned the central and north-central part of the state into a property owner’s and realtor’s nightmare.

The constant shaking has to be damaging homes and property. Meanwhile, people here live with the worry that one of those earthquakes is going to keep going and going and going and turn into a significant disaster that will destroy homes and maybe even kill and injure people. The scientists say it could happen. They even say it might not even matter if fracking or disposal wells were banned here. The damage has already been done. Read this about issuing a moratorium on disposal wells:

Such a ban would not only prohibit the operation of a legally permitted activity, but also shut down wells that are not linked to earthquakes. In fact, experts say shutting down injection could make the earthquakes worse, and even create larger environmental problems.

As Oklahoma’s state seismologist Dr. Austin Holland has observed, stopping injections could actually cause new earthquakes, adding that there is “a fair amount of modeling that shows that might be the case.” There are also many cases where earthquakes continue after injection ceases, according to Holland.

The only solution to this problem is political. We need political leaders who care about the vast majority of people who live here rather than one industry that donates a lot of money to campaigns and has a powerful political lobby. The oil and gas industry is going to be here until it has sucked out the last drop of oil or the last cubic foot of natural gas from the ground. The approach or approaches to stopping and limiting the manmade earthquakes may well be nuanced and complicated, but we’re not even going to get to that point with our current state leadership.

Here are seven things we CAN do:

(1) Do not trust the word of Fallin, Pruitt, any member of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission or The Oklahoman about the earthquake issue.

(2) Vote for local and statewide politicians that are concerned about earthquake damage to your home and other property.

(3) Be ready to join a class action lawsuit or lawsuits against disposal well operators and the oil and gas industry.. Standard & Poor’s, which rates credit risks, has already pointed out the possible numerous financial implications and dangers of Oklahoma’s earthquakes.

(4) Show up at meetings or town halls about the issue. The Oklahoma Sierra Club is an excellent resource to use to find out about such meetings.

(5) Carefully document any damage to your property caused by an earthquake. Note the time and date and confirm it with the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Take photographs of the damage.

(6)  Join the growing movement to create more renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

(7) Know what you need to do during an earthquake. Many experts tell people to find cover under a table or something sturdy rather than run outside, which is a normal reaction.

Will Costello Stabbing Death Create Mental Health Awareness Here?

Image of Mark Costello

The recent stabbing death of Oklahoma Labor Commissioner and Republican Mark Costello seems at first as inconceivable as it is horrific.

But what’s very much conceivable and, in its own way, very much horrific, is the anti-health care agenda  promoted by Costello’s own political party, the GOP, here in Oklahoma and across much of the country.

These two points intersect because Costello’s son, Christian Costello, 26, has been arrested in his stabbing death, which occurred a few days ago at a Braum’s restaurant and store in northwest Oklahoma City. Christian Costello, according to media reports, suffered from severe mental illness, which included schizophrenia. Oklahoma has historically underfunded its mental health system, but that has been compounded lately by the Republican Party’s demonization of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which requires most health insurance plans to cover mental health treatment and Oklahoma’s obstinate refusal under a state government dominated by the GOP to expand Medicaid under the ACA.

In fact, here in Oklahoma, Attorney General Scott Pruitt has made his political career about suing the federal government over the legality of the ACA. He gets cheered on by many of his fellow Republicans and The Oklahoman editorial board, and the suffering continues.

We might assume that Costello, 59, was able to financially afford any possible treatment received by his son, but the problem is local access to quality care. The fewer dollars available overall for mental health treatment in any given jurisdiction or state will mean fewer quality options for patients. So, in the end, it really won’t matter how much money potential patients have unless they can seek treatment in a more enlightened state that realizes mental illness is a significant part of our culture that needs to be addressed quickly and efficiently whenever it surfaces. It’s good for the patient; it’s good for the entire society. When we treat mental illness, we lower criminal incarceration rates, for example.

I’m not suggesting, either, that there aren’t some great mental health providers here. The late Costello just four months ago gave a speech in which he apparently lauded local mental health advocates and, according to a media report, said this about mental illness, “And we must be understanding and understand that society cannot ignore this problem, and if it does so, it does so at its peril.”

Those are the truest of true words, but most of Costello’s fellow Republican leaders here seem to dismiss the notion of “society” in favor of “individual responsibility” even when it comes to people so incapacitated by mental illness they can’t afford medical care for their condition or they can’t get it because they don’t qualify for government assistance or they can’t find it because it doesn’t exist.

People might accuse me of politicizing Costello’s brutal killing too early, but it’s NEVER too early to talk about the failure of Oklahoma to address its mental health and drug addiction issues. My heart goes out to the Costello family, and I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually family members speak out more publicly and productively about the problem of mental illness in general. But nothing substantial is going to happen here in Oklahoma with the current prevailing GOP mindset about health care in general.

Many State Leaders Ignore Education Crisis

Teachers on Flickr The Commons

The Oklahoma teacher shortage crisis continues to worsen, and its impact on current students can’t be underestimated or presented in overly hyperbolic language.

State leaders, mostly Republican legislators and Gov. Mary Fallin, have failed to respond appropriately to the emergency by raising teachers’ salaries and enhancing their working conditions. In fact, Fallin and most of her fellow Republican leaders’ intention seems to be to do as much damage to our public schools as possible in order to privatize our basic educational system and turn taxpayer money over to private schools and companies.

Let’s be clear: All current public school students, even in the richest school districts, are affected by this leadership failure. It means fewer teachers and overcrowded classes. It means fewer programs. Overall, it tells the nation Oklahoma leaders care pretty much less if not the least of all about education than most states in the country.

The Oklahoma State Schools Board Association recently released the grim results of a survey of school districts it conducted during the first two weeks of August. The districts represent 80 percent of the state’s public school population. A news release from the organization about the survey first notes that there are about 1,000 teaching vacancies in the state and that 600 teaching positions have been eliminated since last year.

Here are the “highlights” of the survey:

About 75% of school leaders say hiring teachers was more difficult this year compared to last year.

The shortages are widespread, regardless of the district’s size and location and the subject area.

About 60 percent of districts anticipate needing to seek emergency teaching certifications to fill vacancies.

Almost half of districts expect to increase class sizes.

About one-third of school leaders said their schools likely would offer fewer courses this school year.

Special education, elementary, high school science, high school math and middle school math are the most difficult teaching positions to fill.

School leaders are deeply worried that the overall quality of teaching applicants is having a detrimental impact on student achievement.

Many newly hired teachers need extensive support and training, which increases pressure on school leaders who have limited time and resources with which to provide support.

Oklahomans need to know these basic facts as well: (1) The state has cut public education more than any other state since the economic downturn in 2008. (2) It has the lowest per pupil spending average than all of its neighboring states and in the region. (3) It has ranked in the bottom five-sometimes as low as 49th-for average teacher salaries for years.

It’s a no-brainer that Oklahoma’s anti-education mentality, combined with the current Republican dominance of state government, lead to increased social problems, high incarceration rates and low college graduation rates here. These are issues that affect us all in one way or another.

Only a seismic shift in the political milieu here will change things, and, frankly, that seems difficult to imagine. Meanwhile, mediocrity only creates more mediocrity. It’s a cycle that spins out of control for now. Sure, the state has some high-achieving students and schools, but it needs more, along with a renewed commitment to students at risk.

Our state leaders seem intent on starving our schools of needed funding and obsessively pressing a high-stakes testing agenda so they can claim public education is failing here. This way they can try to break teacher unions and turn tax dollars over to private schools or companies. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. This is a GOP political agenda.  

Breaker One Nine: Lankford Sees Loopholes

Image of James Lankford

In their continuing campaign to positively mold the public image of the conservative extremist U.S. Sen. James Lankford, The Oklahoman editorial board over the weekend noted it was “praiseworthy” he had made public on his government website the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran.

The praise isn’t too much over the top, true, but, it should be mentioned anyone can find the same document in a lot of places, including on the White House site here. Lankford, of course, is against the proposed deal, which I will get to in a minute. The Oklahoman makes the argument, “The more public views are shaped by concrete information, the better.” Again, all true, but the document is widely available. A simple Google search takes anyone to ample places to find it. In fact, it’s now available through a link on Okie Funk. Where’s the praise for Okie Funk, which just published its 1,500th blog since 2004?

I’ve gone through the document, and, of course, I don’t view it like Lankford does. Here’s one of the opening statements: “Iran will modernise the Arak heavy water research reactor to support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotopes production for medical and industrial purposes.” Here’s another one: “Iran will not produce or test natural uranium pellets, fuel pins or fuel assemblies, which are specifically designed for the support of the originally designed Arak reactor . . .” Here’s another one: “For 15 years Iran will not, and does not intend to thereafter, develop, acquire or build facilities capable of separation of plutonium, uranium or neptunium from spent fuel or from fertile targets, other than for production of radio-isotopes for medical and peaceful industrial purposes.”

Obviously, the language here is quite technical. The crux of the agreement is that Iran will NOT develop a nuclear weapon and consequently sanctions against that country will then be ultimately lifted. Under the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency would be allowed access to monitor Iran’s nuclear activity. Here’s a New York Times guide on the agreement.

I find the agreement positive and historic, and a way to establish better relations with an important Middle East country. It’s a much better path than trying to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, as some political leaders would have it. I believe most Americans are growing tired of the human and financial cost of perpetual war. In the end, if Iran DOES violate the agreement it gives the U.S. and its allies more credibility to sanction the country or even attack it. What’s even more important to realize is that all bets are off if the U.S. believes it’s getting threatened by a nuclear attack by Iran or any country.

Lankford, of course, doesn’t view the agreement in this way, and he went on the Senate floor to express his views. The speech, which you can find here, is fairly typical for a conservative hawk. Essentially, the argument is that the agreement doesn’t go far enough to reign in Iran’s nuclear program, and it contains loopholes that allow Iran to escape detection of building a nuclear weapon. It’s not difficult to suspect that Lankford’s main reason for opposition, however, is the general Republican policy to reject anything proposed by President Barack Obama as a political gambit.

But the one statement that really stands out in Lankford’s speech is this sentence:

My concerns are there are loopholes in this agreement big enough to drive a truck through, specifically this truck is the truck that is big enough to drive through.

I’ve tried to wrap my head around the syntax and structure of that sentence, especially beginning at the word “specifically.” Did Lankford have a photograph of a monster truck on a screen behind him as he uttered these words? To me, the phrase “this truck is the truck that is big enough to drive through” means driving through the truck, not the loopholes.

A minor point? Simply an awkward sentence? Perhaps. We can understand Lankford’s meaning in the context of the overall speech. But The Oklahoman editorial board continues to try to place an aura of “the wise sage” around Lankford, even though it has become clear he’s as much an ideologue and panderer as U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe. Just using a “truck” metaphor alone shows his opposition to the agreement goes beyond his concern for his argument.

He’s concerned about his truck-owning base of voters, too.

The Heat Is Closing In

Image of wind turbines

As our local television weather forecasters fall all over themselves about the recent unusually cool August weather, more grim news about the overall climate and global warming has emerged.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just recently reported that not only was July the hottest July worldwide since records have been kept starting in 1880 it also was the hottest month ever recorded as well.

The implications, according to writer Eric Holthaus in an article published on Slate, are enormous and extremely bleak. He calls it a “very big deal.” Here are two of his major points:

. . . global temperatures are currently approaching-if not already past-the maximum temperatures commonly observed over the past 11,000 years (i.e., the time period in which humans developed agriculture), and flirting with levels not seen in more than 100,000 years.

But this is the scary part:  The current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any point since humans first evolved millions of years ago. Since carbon dioxide emissions lead to warming, the fact that emissions are increasing means there’s much more warming yet to come. What’s more, carbon dioxide levels are increasing really quickly.

The immediate cause for the hot temperatures has been attributed to an extremely strong El Niño weather pattern this year, which could result in another record hot year in 2015 and also in 2016, according to Holthaus. The same weather pattern, however, will probably mean a cooler and wetter upcoming winter for Oklahoma. But it’s the large-scare (that’s intentional) picture here that’s important. Just because we might experience a couple of major snowstorms in Oklahoma this winter will NOT mitigate the terrifying possibilities of a planet devastated by global warming.

It also won’t matter how many snowballs Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe brings to the Senate floor this coming winter as proof global warming doesn’t exist. Global warming is happening. It’s getting recorded. Its effect on the planet is already visible. It should be clear by now to everyone that Inhofe’s crusade against climate science is incredibly damaging to the world.

Scientists have long noted that increasing amounts of carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels accelerate the greenhouse effect, which raises temperatures and leads to rising sea levels as the arctic ice cap melts. Rising sea levels have the very real potential to destroy coastal cities and also create more extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and flooding. It can also lead to the type of extended drought now experienced in California, which then leads to massive wildfires.

The important thing for Oklahomans to realize is that just because we’re experiencing moderate or colder weather doesn’t mean we won’t be affected by global warming. Massive population migrations, worldwide economic devastation, and food shortages because of drought in crucial farming areas throughout the world will affect everyone on the planet. We’re all connected.

By all means, Oklahomans should enjoy the cooler temperatures and be glad about our lower air conditioning bills this summer as we contend with our own manmade earthquake crisis, but the planet is still burning up, and our world leaders aren’t doing much to stop it.

The answer is to develop more renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and drastically lower our carbon emissions.

Will State Leaders Listen Now On Earthquake Emergency?

Fracking In Karnes County on Flickr The Commons

A respected financial services company just recently stated the obvious: Oklahoma’s dramatic surge in the number of earthquakes it now experiences creates major financial risks for homeowners, mortgage companies, and, of course, the oil and gas industry.

A recently released analysis by Standard & Poor’s stated this as part of its overview:

The practice of fracking is clearly controversial. Environmentalists and local residents have raised a number of concerns, and many within and outside of the energy industry continue to study these issues. We believe increased earthquakes near fracking sites represent a risk that could harm investors across various sectors.

Those investors, according to the report, include ” . . . numerous types of businesses and individuals affected. Although this report focuses on credit risk only in mortgage lending, insurance and real estate, specifically, many other sectors are affected, such as transportation, infrastructure, and utilities.”

Read the word “individuals” in the above paragraph as “homeowners,” who are wondering if the growing number and intensity of the manmade earthquakes are steadily damaging their homes and decreasing their values. Also, who wants to buy a house in an area that gets rattled on a daily basis by earthquakes? Our property values here may well plummet in a downward spiral that could devastate the economy.

But at least the oil and gas industry is doing well, right? Well, no. Because of a “boom/drill, baby drill” mentality and just poor planning by industry experts, the nation faces a fossil-fuel glut right now because of the recent fracking boom, which has driven down prices and caused many companies here and elsewhere to lay off employees.

But it seems Earthquake Central, OK is getting the worst of it all.

Many of the earthquakes are occurring in central and central-north Oklahoma right now. The Oklahoma City area, the state’s most populated, is relatively close to the epicenter of many of the earthquakes. If a major earthquake in the 6.0 to 8.0 range struck near Edmond, for example, the resulting damage would be enormous, and, in all seriousness, would lead to a massive migration from the state. It could even be worse than the aftermath in New Orleans in 2005 of the hurricane Katrina.

Just a few years ago, Oklahoma experienced only one to two minor earthquakes a year. Then the recent fracking boom commenced with much media fanfare and spurred on by major state tax breaks, and the number of earthquakes started to rise. A 5.7-magnitude earthquake struck near Prague on November 5, 2011, and the temblors just kept coming.

Oklahoma could experience more than 800 earthquakes this year of 3.0-magnitude or higher, which is simply an incredible number in a place not designed for anything close to that much seismic activity. The state actually leads the contiguous United States right now in the number of earthquakes of that magnitude or higher.

In the fracking process, water laced with toxic chemicals is injected by high pressure into underground rock formations creating fissures that release fossil fuels. The wastewater is then injected by high pressure in other underground rock formations. Scientists have concluded it’s the wastewater disposal or injection well process that is triggering earthquakes along the state’s fault lines.

The analysis, which was reported on by StateImpact Oklahoma, clearly notes the risks to homeowners because of the earthquakes.

. . . we believe the potential for property damage from increased incidences of earthquakes may be a liability for the energy and insurance industries, lenders, property owners, and real estate investors. It’s unclear who will be liable in any given circumstance. However, future risks clearly exist.

I must note here that I’ve been essentially arguing for years what Standard & Poor’s has now formalized in financial jargon and legalese. This is not to toot my own horn. I bring it up only because the corporate media here, especially The Oklahoman, has been complicit with the oil and gas industry in preventing any real discussion of this serious issue. The clear lesson here: Do NOT trust the corporate media or, I should add, state leaders, such as Gov. Mary Fallin, who receive massive campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, especially on this issue.

Standard & Poor’s ends the analysis with this: “It can take a long time for subterranean pressures to build to a breaking point. So, too, for credit risks tied to earthquakes. In our view, however, the moment to prepare for such events has already arrived.”

It’s long past time to prepare.