Blow, Nocera and Collins

Mr. Blow looks at “The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin” and says the death of a teenager in Florida has raised several questions about race and the burden placed on black boys.  Mr. Blow may call it “curious,” I’d call it appalling and disgraceful.  Mr. Nocera, in “The Good, Bad and Ugly of Capitalism,” says Goldman Sachs displayed one side of capitalism this week that seemed to strike a chord with many. Starbucks is displaying a different side.  In “Politicians Swinging Stethoscopes” Ms. Collins has a question:  Could we all agree that it’s never a good combo when state lawmakers try to deal with the mysteries of human reproduction?  Well, apparently not until Republicans get their filthy paws out of women’s private parts.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“He said that Tray was gone.”

That’s how Sybrina Fulton, her voice full of ache, told me she found out that her 17-year-old son, Trayvon Martin, had died. In a wrenching telephone call, the boy’s father, who had taken him to visit a friend, told her that Trayvon had been gunned down in a gated townhouse community in Sanford, Fla., outside Orlando.

“He said, ‘Somebody shot Trayvon and killed him.’ And I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Fulton continued in disbelief. “I said ‘How do you know that’s Trayvon?’ And he said because they showed him a picture.”

That was Feb. 27, one day after Trayvon was shot. The father thought that he was missing, according to the family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, but the boy’s body had actually been taken to the medical examiner’s office and listed as a John Doe.

The father called the Missing Persons Unit. No luck. Then he called 911. The police asked the father to describe the boy, after which they sent officers to the house where the father was staying. There they showed him a picture of the boy with blood coming out of his mouth.

This is a nightmare scenario for any parent, and the events leading to Trayvon’s death offer little comfort — and pose many questions.

Trayvon had left the house he and his father were visiting to walk to the local 7-Eleven. On his way back, he caught the attention of George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain, who was in a sport-utility vehicle. Zimmerman called the police because the boy looked “real suspicious,” according to a 911 call released late Friday. The operator told Zimmerman that officers were being dispatched and not to pursue the boy.

Zimmerman apparently pursued him anyway, at some point getting out of his car and confronting the boy. Trayvon had a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Zimmerman had a 9 millimeter handgun.

The two allegedly engaged in a physical altercation. There was yelling, and then a gunshot.

When police arrived, Trayvon was face down in the grass with a fatal bullet wound to the chest. Zimmerman was standing with blood on his face and the back of his head and grass stains on his back, according to The Orlando Sentinel.

Trayvon’s lifeless body was taken away, tagged and held. Zimmerman was taken into custody, questioned and released. Zimmerman said he was the one yelling for help. He said that he acted in self-defense. The police say that they have found no evidence to dispute Zimmerman’s claim.

One other point: Trayvon is black. Zimmerman is not.

Trayvon was buried on March 3. Zimmerman is still free and has not been arrested or charged with a crime.

Yet the questions remain: Why did Zimmerman find Trayvon suspicious? Why did he pursue the boy when the 911 operator instructed him not to? Why did he get out of the car, and why did he take his gun when he did? How is it self-defense when you are the one in pursuit? Who initiated the altercation? Who cried for help? Did Trayvon’s body show evidence of a struggle? What moved Zimmerman to use lethal force?

This case has reignited a furor about vigilante justice, racial-profiling and equitable treatment under the law, and it has stirred the pot of racial strife.

As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home. This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them “suspicious.” That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss.

That is the burden of black boys in America and the people that love them: running the risk of being descended upon in the dark and caught in the cross-hairs of someone who crosses the line.

The racial sensitivity of this case is heavy. Trayvon’s parents have said their son was murdered. Crump, the family’s lawyer, told me, “You know, if Trayvon would have been the triggerman, it’s nothing Trayvon Martin could have said to keep police from arresting him Day 1, Hour 1.” Even the police chief recognizes this reality, even while disputing claims of racial bias in the investigation: “Our investigation is color blind and based on the facts and circumstances, not color. I know I can say that until I am blue in the face, but, as a white man in a uniform, I know it doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”

Zimmerman has not released a statement, but his father delivered a one-page letter to The Orlando Sentinel on Thursday. According to the newspaper, the statement said that Zimmerman is “Hispanic and grew up in a multiracial family.” The paper quotes the letter as reading, “He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever” and continues, “The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth.” And disclosures made since the shooting complicate people’s perception of fairness in the case.

According to Crump, the father was told that one of the reasons Zimmerman wasn’t arrested was because he had a “squeaky clean” record. It wasn’t. According to the local news station WFTV, Zimmerman was arrested in 2005 for “battery on a law enforcement officer.”

Furthermore, ABC News reported on Tuesday that one of the responding officers “corrected a witness after she told him that she heard the teen cry for help.” And The Miami Herald published an article on Thursday that said three witnesses had heard the “desperate wail of a child, a gunshot, and then silence.”

WFTV also reported this week that the officer in charge of the scene when Trayvon was shot was also in charge of another controversial case. In 2010, a lieutenant’s son was videotaped attacking a black homeless man. The officer’s son also was not initially arrested in that case. He was later arrested when the television station broke the news.

Although we must wait to get the results from all the investigations into Trayvon’s killing, it is clear that it is a tragedy. If no wrongdoing of any sort is ascribed to the incident, it will be an even greater tragedy.

One of the witnesses was a 13-year-old black boy who recorded a video for The Orlando Sentinel recounting what he saw. The boy is wearing a striped polo shirt, holding a microphone, speaking low and deliberately and has the heavy look of worry and sadness in his eyes. He describes hearing screaming, seeing someone on the ground and hearing gunshots. The video ends with the boy saying, “I just think that sometimes people get stereotyped, and I fit into the stereotype as the person who got shot.”

And that is the burden of black boys, and this case can either ease or exacerbate it.

Here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Wednesday, Howard Schultz, the chairman and chief executive of Starbucks, will take the podium at his company’s annual meeting and talk about the importance of morality in business.

Yes, morality. I don’t know that he’ll use that exact word. But there can be little doubt that in recent years, especially, Schultz has been practicing a kind of moral capitalism. Profitability is important, he believes, but so is treating customers, employees and coffee growers fairly. Recently, Schultz has defined Starbucks’s mission even more broadly, creating programs that have nothing at all to do with selling coffee but are aimed at helping the country recover from the Great Recession.

In the speech, Schultz plans to make a direct link between Starbucks’s record profits and this larger societal role the company has embraced. He will make the case that companies that earn the country’s trust will ultimately be rewarded with a higher stock price. “The value of your company is driven by your company’s values,” he plans to say.

I bring up Schultz and Starbucks because this week we saw a different kind of American capitalism on display — the “rip your eyeballs out” capitalism of Goldman Sachs. In the corporate equivalent of the shot heard round the world, Greg Smith, a former Goldman executive, wrote an Op-Ed article in The Times as he was walking out the door in which he described a corporate culture that values only one thing: making as much money as possible, by whatever means necessary. According to Smith, Goldman views clients as pigeons to be plucked rather than customers to be valued. Goldman traders vie to see how much profit they can make at the expense of their clients, even if it means selling them products that are sure to “blow up” eventually. “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” Smith wrote.

In the wake of Smith’s article, plenty of people raced to Goldman’s defense. Michael Bloomberg, New York’s billionaire mayor, whose company sells Goldman expensive computer terminals, went to Goldman Sachs’s headquarters in a show of support. The editors of his eponymous firm published an editorial that mercilessly mocked Smith. They and others pointed out that Goldman clients are big boys who can take care of themselves. Even some clients agreed. “You better not turn your back on them,” one Goldman customer told The Financial Times. Yet, he added, “They are also highly competent.”

But there’s a reason Smith’s article has struck such a chord. It is the same reason that Goldman Sachs, despite having come through the financial crisis largely unscathed, has become the target of such astonishing venom, described as a vampire squid and the like. The reason is that the kind of amoral, eat-what-you-kill capitalism that Goldman represents is one that most Americans instinctively find repugnant. It confirms the suspicions many people have that Wall Street has become a place where sleazy practices are the norm, and where generating profits in ways that are detrimental to society is the ticket to a successful career and a multimillion-dollar bonus.

Goldman bundled terrible subprime mortgages that helped bring about the financial crisis. Smelling trouble, it unloaded its worst mortgage bonds by cramming them down the throats of its clients. It secretly allowed a short-seller, John Paulson, to pick some especially toxic mortgage bonds that were bundled and sold to Goldman clients — with Paulson profiting by taking the “short” side of the trade. Just recently, Goldman had to admit that one of its investment bankers had acted as a merger adviser to the El Paso Corporation while holding stock in Kinder Morgan, which was trying to acquire El Paso. It would be hard to imagine a more blatant conflict — yet no one at Goldman bothered to tell El Paso.

These practices may not be illegal, but can you really say they represent the values that we want to see on Wall Street or in our corporations? I can’t.

And Goldman shouldn’t either. What has been amazing is that, despite three years of nonstop criticism — including Congressional hearings and settlements with the government — Goldman has not changed one iota. That is another reason Smith’s article resonated. It confirmed that suspicion as well. Goldman’s response to every controversy these past three years has been to bury them in a blizzard of public relations. And this has been its response to the Smith article, releasing, for instance, a companywide e-mail from Lloyd Blankfein, its chief executive, insisting that Goldman does, too, care about clients. Consistently, Goldman’s attitude has been: This, too, shall pass.

So far, though, it hasn’t. And maybe, just maybe, it won’t. Maybe the time has come for Blankfein to watch what Howard Schultz is doing at Starbucks. Sometimes, the best way to do well really is to do good.

What a novel concept in this day and age…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s take a look at sex and state legislatures.

Never a good combo. Lawmakers venture into murky waters when they attempt to deal with the mysteries of human reproduction. The results are generally short of scientific. Once, when I was covering the Connecticut House of Representatives, a bill introduced at the behest of professional musicians, “An Act Concerning Rhythm Machines,” was referred to the Public Health Committee under the assumption that it was about birth control.

That was a long time ago, but a definite high note. Normally when these matters come up in a state capitol, the result is not chuckles.

New Hampshire, for instance, seems to have developed a thing for linking sex and malignant disease. This week, the State House passed a bill that required that women who want to terminate a pregnancy be informed that abortions were linked to “an increased risk of breast cancer.”

As Terie Norelli, the minority leader, put it, the Legislature is attempting to make it a felony for a doctor “to not give a patient inaccurate information.”

And there’s more. One of the sponsors, Representative Jeanine Notter, recently asked a colleague whether he would be interested, “as a man,” to know that there was a study “that links the pill to prostate cancer.”

This was at a hearing on a bill to give employers a religious exemption from covering contraception in health care plans. The article Notter appeared to be referring to simply found that nations with high use of birth control pills among women also tended to have high rates of prostate cancer among men. Nobody claimed that this meant there was scientific evidence of a connection. You could also possibly discover that nations with the lowest per capita number of ferrets have a higher rate of prostate cancer.

Bringing the prostate into the fight was definitely a new wrinkle. But it’s getting very popular to try to legislate an abortion-breast cancer link. I suspect this is at least in part because politicians in some states are being forced to stretch to find new ways to torture women who want to end an unwanted pregnancy. It’s sort of like gun control — once your state already has guaranteed the right to wear concealed weapons into bars and churches, you’re going to have to start getting really creative to reaffirm a commitment to the Second Amendment.

Last year, South Dakota — which has a grand total of one abortion provider — instituted a 72-hour waiting period, plus a requirement that the woman undergo a lecture at one of the state’s anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers.

This law is tied up by litigation. While they’re waiting, the legislators have improved upon their work, requiring the doctor to ask his patient — who may have already traveled for hours, waited for three days and gone through the counseling center harangue — questions including what her religious background is and how she thinks her family might react to the decision to end the pregnancy.

“South Dakota has taken the I.R.S. audit model and applied it to women’s reproduction,” said Ted Miller of Naral Pro-Choice America.

But about this cancer business.

“Now we’re seeing why legislatures getting into the practice of medicine is dangerous,” said Barbara Bollier, a Republican state representative in Kansas, where a bill requiring doctors to warn abortion patients about the breast cancer connection is pending.

Bollier is a retired anesthesiologist, who also formerly taught bioethics. If you wanted to have a résumé guaranteed to drive you crazy in the Kansas State Legislature, she’s got it.

We had a very interesting discussion over the phone about good science — what makes a reliable study, and how an early suggestion of a possible connection between abortions and breast cancer was overtaken by larger, better studies that showed no evidence of a link whatsoever. All of this has been shared with the Kansas Legislature, to no effect whatsoever.

Bollier has her finger on the moral to all this. When faced with a choice between scientific evidence and their personal and political preferences, legislators are not going to go with the statistics. I have warm memories of the committee of the Texas House of Representatives that last year rejected a bill to require that public school sex education classes be “medically accurate.”

Let’s refrain from discussing how the people who are preparing to legislate medical science are often the very same ones who scream about government overreach when health experts propose taxing sugary beverages.

Just try to envision yourself in a doctor’s office for a consult. Then imagine you’re joined by a state legislator. How many of you think the situation has been improved? Can I see a show of hands?

Thought so.

 

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