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Long Story Short: Separate and not equal

8/27/18



illustration by JP Thimot

 

The price of innocence

On June 11, I got a traffic ticket in the town of Warsaw. I believe I was innocent (with an explanation), and the official record now reflects that.  Justice prevailed—for a price.

 

The details:

On the day in question, I turned onto Main Street—a four-lane road through town—and noticed a sheriff stopped in the left lane half a block ahead. Out of caution, I slowed down while considering what to do. Should I stop and rubberneck, or pass by slowly? I chose the latter. As I passed, I saw a pedestrian crossing in front of the sheriff’s car. I didn’t impede his progress, but it was too late to stop. There were pedestrian crossing lines, but the only traffic sign was a freestanding cone in the middle of the street, also blocked from view by the patrol car.

                      

Officer Daniel Hummel quickly caught up to me with lights flashing. I was relaxed when he asked me if I knew why he stopped me. “I imagine it was that pedestrian that was crossing,” I answered, certain that my unintentional error only merited a warning. Only an idiot would deliberately fail to give the right-of-way to a pedestrian while passing a stopped cop car. “I honestly didn’t see the man because your patrol car blocked my view,” I explained, “Crosswalks are a pet peeve of mine; there’s one at my place of work that drivers regularly ignore. I would never intentionally do that.” Officer Hummel asked why I thought he was stopped in the road. I replied that there are any number of reasons why police might do this—as I have witnessed often—and I listed a few. He said he would have had his lights on, and I said, “Oh, come on! You know police don’t always put their lights on to stop in the street. You must see this when you’re out driving.”

 

He went back to his car and came back with a summons.

 

“Really?” I asked with incredulous astonishment, “You honestly didn’t believe me?” I was almost laughing. (Being white, I can challenge a cop this way without fear of being shot.) “I know pedestrians have the right-of-way at ALL CROSSWALKS, even unmarked ones,” I added, dazzling Officer Hummel with my command of New York traffic law.

 

I feel compelled to mention here that I liked Hummel. He was polite and soothingly professional, and he conveyed an air of compassion, after giving me a ticket. As we chatted amiably, he told me about his daughter’s driving test, which she failed for the same violation. In another situation I could see the two of us laughing over a beer at how certain crosswalks in town are marked with bright yellow street signs, and others aren’t. “If they’re necessary, why doesn’t this crosswalk have one?,” I’d ask as he quaffed  another swig of beer, “Will there be a bake sale to buy another sign?” Officer Hummel would laugh suddenly, as beer ran from his nose.

 

Back on the mean streets of Warsaw, the sheriff gave me the straight dope. There was a way, if I was interested, that I could make the ticket go away.

 

The way

I found the Traffic Diversion Program on the Warsaw website. Here’s how it works:  you pay a $200 dollar “application fee”(wink, wink) and $9 dollars to get a copy of your driving abstract to determine eligibility. You mail it all in, and once you are accepted, and take a safe driving course within ninety days, your ticket is dismissed. I chose an online course from AARP, which turned out to be aimed at what I would call “end-of-life drivers.” I scanned through most of the videos, bypassing much of the material, and still got the questions right, which aren’t “graded” anyway.

 

The $200 dollar “get out of jail” fee felt like flat-out extortion, but at least my driving record would remain clean. I considered taking my case to court, but if I lost, the judge could level a higher fine than if I pleaded guilty. And the summons warned of a mandatory surcharge, plus there would be court fees. So, it comes down to, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

 

Court fees

“I have to pay a fee for exercising my American right to a trial?,” I asked my daughter-in-law, Stephanie Adams. Stephanie is an attorney, and it turns out, this is her pet peeve. “Want to reform the judicial system,” she asks rhetorically in response, “and end the unfair impact it has on the poor—particularly poor ethnic minorities?  End court fees.” 

 

If it came down to it, I could afford the traffic fine, court fees, insurance increase, and even a lawyer. I could also afford to purchase my innocence for $200 dollars. But what about those who are economically disadvantaged? Unpaid court costs accrue late fees. Your license can be suspended, and you can even end up in jail. “It’s unhealthy, ineffective, and unfair,” says Adams, “The effect of court fees crushes a poor person more than an affluent one charged with the same crime. It’s ridiculous that someone could multiply their legal problems through the inability to pay a fine, while a person with credit, money, or connections can more easily move on.”

 

Adams has another solution. “Instead,” she says, “everyone goes to jail, or does community service, or gets a public shaming when their conviction is found out, but no more incentivizing arrests by having the court system rely on fees.” Adams believes that if rich and poor alike had the same penalty, without court fees or other methods of buying themselves out of trouble, the scales of justice would be a bit more balanced.

 

The outcome 

“You are hereby notified that all the charges pending against you have been dismissed,” read the August 10 letter from the Warsaw Town Court. I will recover much of the cost of doing business with the legal system over three years through lower car insurance rates for completing the driving course.

 

Justice served piping hot daily.

 

 

Long stories even shorter

Not feeling the stock market high

On Thursday the Buffalo News reported that the stock market has hit record highs. Last Wednesday it closed at 25,822.29. When I first entered the market in 1979 it was at 3,435. Since then, the market has hit new record highs 22,387 times. That’s what the market does over time; it goes up. The current bull market—which as of Wednesday, is arguably the longest in history—has been going on for ten years, including all of President Obama’s term in office.

 

But the News also reported that Buffalo has not benefited as much as the rest of the country from the long recovery since the great recession. It was basically a positive article if you take the Labor Department’s regional economist’s advice, and instead of comparing Buffalo to everyone else, compare today’s “Buffalo to [yesterday’s] Buffalo.” We’re doing better than we were, but we’re not experiencing that recovery high.

 

Political conundrum

Republican leaders are still trying to figure out a way to get Chris Collins' name off the ballot in November, without causing a “domino effect” that potentially ruins another candidate’s career, or loses a coveted seat somewhere else. It’s like one of those number slider puzzles, where each move to get someone into Collins’ Congressional seat, pushes another square out of alignment. Democrats will challenge any move the Republicans make in court, which could put any plan they come up with in check. "We're thinking: how does this disrupt the rest of the card game?" said John Pauer, the Republican chairman in Livingston County, in a Buffalo News article.

 

In case your keeping count, that’s four game-related metaphors in one paragraph. Politics is such a game.

 

Speaking of Collins

Chris Collins was the first congressman to endorse Donald Trump for president. Earlier this month, he was indicted for insider trading. Congressman Duncan Hunter of California was the second member of Congress to endorse Trump, and last week he was indicted for filing false campaign records. In case you’re wondering, former Senator Jeff Sessions, was the third member of Congress to endorse Trump.

 

No go for snow

The final numbers are in. A special State Climate Extremes Committee (SCEC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration created to review record weather events has determined, after a study of data from Erie’s winter of 2017-2018, that the city didn’t even come close to beating Buffalo’s winter of 77/78 record snowfall. The discrepancy occurred due to Erie’s “questionable measurement practices,” including—among other things—using a traffic cone to stabilize the measuring stick. The committee added the following statement to the report: “The SCEC would like to recognize the effort to accurately measure snowfall and snow depth made by an inexperienced observing team during extremely challenging conditions.” Lesson learned Erie: snow measurement is not for amateurs.

 

 

Refugees in Buffalo

There are people who think a decline in the number of refugees coming to the United States is a good thing. Are they crazy?

 

The details:

President Trump raised fears among some Americans that refugees will turn United States into a “migrant camp” or a “refugee holding facility.” He appears genuinely fearful of refugee populations, characterizing them as potential terrorists. I wish Trump could visit Buffalo (well actually, I don’t, but you know what I mean) and witness for himself the contribution refugees make to American cities—especially in the rustbelt. In recent years, a substantial refugee influx has stabilized Erie County’s population and beefed up its economy.

 

Trump has expressed the belief that “those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially.” Ninety-two percent of refugees are self-sufficient within 180 days of settling here. In areas where they have settled in Buffalo—specifically, the far West Side and Black Rock/Riverside—jobs have increased at a faster rate than other parts of Erie County. One only need look at the Grant/Ferry area to see how refugee-run businesses have injected economic life and neighborhood bustle into a struggling community. For a time, refugees were about the only ones willing to move into the West Side, reoccupying vacant houses and storefronts that had sometimes stood empty for years.

 

Refugees have a high rate of entrepreneurship—ten to fifteen percent higher than their US-born counterparts. There is a perception that refugees are a drain on the US economy. A 2012 Cleveland study found that the city “spent about 4.8 million dollars helping refugees establish themselves and become assimilated into American culture.” Sounds like a lot, until you reach the bottom line and learn that Cleveland netted a ten-fold return on that investment.

 

The decline

Last year the Trump administration drastically reduced the number of refugees allowed to settle in the US to less than half of what it was under President Obama. As a result, Buffalo has seen a dramatic decline in refugee settlers. Mayor Byron Brown hoped to see the first population increase in decades in the 2020 census, but he’s concerned the cuts may adversely impact Buffalo’s projected growth. A recent story in the Buffalo News spotlights the reduction’s impact on refugees already living here, many of whom are waiting for family members to arrive.

 

What is a refugee?

According to the Jericho Road Community Health Center, “A refugee is a person who fled their homeland, crossed an international border and cannot return home due to fear of persecution or death. This fear must be based on religious, political, race, nationality, or membership in a particular group.”

 

Some personal observations

I live on the edge of the west side refugee community, and I’ve witnessed firsthand the renewed vitality they bring to the city. Their diverse clothing and food traditions enliven our community with a rich  cultural infusion. I’ve met several refugees, including one burqa-wearing Muslim whom I now count among my friends. These new neighbors are open and sociable, grateful to live in a city where they are accepted and can thrive. And Buffalo has behaved as advertised; we have been a city of good neighbors.

 

This summer I attended the Burmese Water Festival on Grant Street, held on one of this summer’s hottest days, a couple months later than they do in Myanmar. Traditional dance, live music, and street food made for an enriching experience, and my four-year-old granddaughter quickly got into the playful spirit of soaking and being soaked. For the second year in a row, the water festival coincided with Taste of Diversity just down the road, offering visitors an opportunity to sample the sights, sounds, and flavors of many countries.

While writing this story, I took a break and headed over to the West Side Bazaar for an inexpensive Sudanese lunch. Then I went to Vineeta International Foods to grab some imported items that were once impossible to find in town. Wegmans on Amherst Street employs many refugees, and the manager there tells me he has found them to be excellent employees. So many striking names and distinctive accents greet customers, you might think you are in an international market.

 

Our refugee community enhances our lives. We need more refugees, not fewer.

 

Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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